What Are Bards?
Typically, we think of bards as magical musicians, but that’s only a narrow wedge of what a bard can be. Bards are experts, performers, and craftsmen, worldly travelers who can win the day with a smile and a careful selection of words where bladed steel cannot. Mechanically, bards are extremely flexible as a class and can be worked into a variety of roles surrounding their “intended” role as a party buffer.
Some of the most iconic characters that would probably be bards in D&D include Orpheus of greek mythology, Scott Pilgrim and practically every character in that story, Kubo (of the Two Strings), and Dandelion (who you may know as Jaskier) from the Witcher.
Building a Better Bard
Bards can really be built into anything you want them to be, sneaking, tanking, healing, buffing, damage, it all depends on what you want to do with your character. To start with though, you’ll need to address your ability scores.
Bard Ability Scores
Charisma is your spell casting ability score for bards, and no matter what build (there’s probably some obscure build to prove me wrong here) you’ll want your Charisma to be high, if not your highest ability score. Next, you’ll need Dexterity, both for raising your AC to stay alive, but also for utilizing the ranged or finesse weapons that are typically a bard’s go-to.
Finally, you’ll want to choose between Constitution, and the remaining mental ability scores of Intelligence and Wisdom. As a bard, you’ll be gaining some major bonuses to your skill checks and having a higher Intelligence or Wisdom can push some of those key skills further. However, Constitution is useful for not dying.
If you’re going down a more combat oriented path with your bard, consider making your 3rd highest ability score Constitution. If you’re going down a more skill and utility-oriented path, consider making Intelligence or Wisdom your 3rd highest ability score.
Strength is the only ability score that usually isn’t useful for a bard, and it should typically be your dump stat.
You can choose any race but as a bard you’ll want particularly high Charisma and Dexterity scores and should consider races that gain bonuses to those scores. The following races are optimal choices for a bard character:
Changelings get +2 Cha and +1 to any stat, which you can put into Dex. If your DM allows them (they should only technically be an option in Eberron), changelings are one of the strongest options for utility/sneaky bards who want to get up to no good. Imitate guards and use your bardic persuasion powers to pull off the impersonation.
Elves get +2 Dex and selecting the Drow subrace snags us a +1 Cha bonus. Their Superior Darkvision and racial spell set are helpful but come with the potentially disastrous downside of Sunlight Sensitivity. Thankfully though, sunlight sensitivity is only an issue if you’re making attack rolls. Drow is an excellent racial option if you plan on playing your bard as a strictly party buffer or healer or rely on spells that utilize saving throws instead of attacks.
Base elves get +2 Dex and Eladrin gain a +1 to Cha. Where drow are ideal for “utility” bards, I consider Eladrin strong contenders for “combat” bards. The eladrin Fey Step ability acts like an improved free dimension door, which can be just the thing for getting yourself out of trouble if you find yourself outflanked.
Half-Elves have an innate +2 Cha bonus and two points you can place elsewhere, like Dex and whatever other 3rd ability score you’re working towards. Half-Elves also gain two free skills proficiencies of their choice, making them extremely flexible when building a utility bard.
Base halflings get +2 Dex and lightfeet pick up +1 Cha. The halfling Lucky ability is strong enough to justify the race selection on its own, but combined with the Naturally Stealthy ability of the lightfoot, they are strong contenders for the best option for “stealthy bards”.
Human (Base or Variant)
Base humans get +1 to each ability while variant humans get +1 to two ability scores and a feat. Bards can be built up into practically anything and the flexibility of humans insures that they’re the first step for a whole slew of specialist builds. Base human is probably the best option if you build for the “jack of all trades” option, giving you a better baseline for all your skills. While variant humans are often the first choice for many combat builds, as that feat is often the key component for a lot of unique combat builds.
Satyrs get +2 Cha and +1 Dex. Lore-wise they seem tailor made for bards, and that’s reinforced by their bonus to speed, and free proficiency in Persuasion and Performance. Somewhat region locked into Theros, but your DM may allow them in other settings.
Tabaxi get +2 Dex and +1 Cha. I really love these cats for combat bards due to their Feline Agility ability. You can duke it out on the front line and then get out of danger quick if you start getting focused down.
While the base tiefling gains a +2 Cha bonus and a +1 Int bonus, several of the tiefling variants swap out that Int bonus for Dex. Though, since the “anchor” is the Cha bonus, you can really tailor your tiefling to fit your build. Each variant also swaps in and out a different spell set. They’d all work, but I recommend the Galaysa version, as it picks up the Dex bonus, and gets invisibility, disguise self, and minor illusion as racial spells.
At third level your bard gets a “college”, this is a major choice that determines a lot of the fluff, flavor, combat style, and primary abilities your bard will have. Let’s go through each of them one by one:
College of Creation
Still in “unearthed arcana” and not quite “real” yet, and very wacky. This college turns your bardic inspirations into literal floating musical notes with additional effects, and at 6th level Animated Performance lets you turn an inanimate object into a dancing minion. The object does similar damage to a buffed up spiritual weapon, but as it’s an actual “creature” and a tough one to kill at that, it’s potential for board control is huge. Play this college if you want to be wacky or grant your allied rogues sneak attack with a dancing barrel.
College of Glamour
This is the true diva bard. Charm, beguile, and otherwise strut your stuff to victory. You gain a bunch of charm and command effects all based around your beauty alongside a really nice party buff using your bardic inspiration. Glamour is an extremely good choice for a “face” bard or a manipulative femme fatale.
College of Lore
With a TON of free skill proficiencies, and a couple free spells from any class, the college of lore is the go-to option for utility bards. Your other major feature Cutting Words can turn potentially devastating hits into misses, making your whole party far more survivable if used well.
College of Spirits
Basically, the bard of telling scary stories, this college is still in “unearthed arcana” but it’s a ton of fun and I hope it becomes “real” soon. You get a random “story” ability by spending bardic inspirations. These story abilities are very strong, but many are situational, so you trade the power for the unpredictability. You also gain a d6 whenever you deal damage with a spell or heal with a spell, making it one of the most promising choices for a healing bard.
College of Swords
Battle bard, pure and simple. Rather than waste your bardic inspirations on those other chumps, you can use them to directly damage your enemies with showy sword flourishes. Pick this one up if you want a healthy dose of fighter in your bard.
College of Valor
This college is the OG battle bard option, but it’s sadly a lot less viable after “college of swords” came around. You can make a few arguments in its favor, but generally the college of swords does everything that valor tries to do, only better. I can’t recommend this college, take a stroll over to the college of swords if you want to get into melee as a bard.
College of Whispers
Rogue by way of bard with a little bit of psionics sprinkled on top (yes really). Use your bardic powers to stab your enemies with psychic damage, drive them insane, then magically transform and impersonate your marks. A good pick for any bard that wants to get up to some dark mischief.
Bards are incredibly flexible, and you can shape them into whatever you need them to be. However, they usually fall into 3 general categories: Party Buff, Combat, or Utility.
Party Buff Bards
These tips focus on how you can use your friends to protect you and make them beefier. Bards lead from the rear, but lead, nonetheless. Not a tank, like your fighter or Paladin, maybe, but the bard can certainly boost the group HP and help keep the whole party alive and fighting longer. Take the Inspiring Leader feat (given you’ve met the Charisma prerequisite) and buff the whole party’s hit points, including your own. Headed into that ominous room that you’re sure is a boss fight, or perhaps a particularly difficult horde of undead?
Take 10 minutes to offer encouragement (and HP) to the whole group before bashing baddies. Hold Person or Hold Monster work great to incapacitate a foe to keep them out of the fight a while. Help keep the party in control of the fight and keep your enemies at bay by removing one from combat completely. If an enemy would otherwise approach and decimate one of your teammates, a well-timed hold could completely change the course of the battle.
If you want to dive into combat, select the college of swords and prioritize combat spells for your spell selection. The college of swords lets you utilize your bardic performances to substantially increase your damage output and defensive capabilities. You’ll be primed for hit and run tactics, always taking chunks out of the enemy without getting hit yourself. In reality you’ll function quite a bit like a “battle master” fighter, taking control of the combat with your mobility and combat prowess.
Speaking of combat prowess, Magical Secrets (open at 10th level) broadens the bard’s available spell options beyond the simple buffs and debuffs you may be used to up to this point. The bard’s strengths won’t be in some of the heavy-hitting damage spells like a Wizard might use. But a spell-like Heroism offers an extra combat boost for your tank or primary DPS ally to keep them in the fight longer (and hopefully keep the attention off of you).
A bard’s best powers are proxies, controlling enemies and uplifting allies. If your party comes across a fight they’d rather avoid altogether, however, or if you’d rather come back later to deal with a combat scenario - use Sleep or Calm Emotions. Even in situations where not all creatures would be affected by Sleep, this spell can still take one or two creatures out of the fight and make combat more manageable. Calm Emotions can open the party up to dialogue or other non-combat scenario options - provided someone can communicate with your would-be attackers.
The bard personally shines in many non-combat situations. If you’re using a College of Lore build, remember to offer to do skill checks in as many situations as possible for the party. Skill checks offer the DM chances to flesh out stories and the world-building aspects of the campaign. They also give your party additional insights into your quest or at least the immediate area and NPCs.
Don’t forget that your Jack of All Trades passive applies to Dispel Magic, Counterspell, Initiative, and Telekinesis ability checks - so use these skills as needed to undo harmful effects on party members or to attempt to pull that lever from across the room. Invisibility, Jump, or Knock are all situationally useful utility spells to broaden any bard’s abilities - by broadening those of the whole party. Make your healer or glass cannon invisible to give them a chance to get into position before a fight.
Give your rogue jump and allow them to easily traverse rough or impassable terrain and find a way to help the party across. No thieves’ tools handy? Use knock to open a simple door or chest in the dungeon and keep the action moving.