Wield the Literal Power of Music
Bards are the experts and the performers of the adventuring world, shredders of guitars and seducers of dragons, bards can be built into sly party faces, skill masters, and cornerstone party buffs. But building anything in pathfinder takes some serious work, and optimization can require a lot of digging and reading for just the right options. We’ve done the hard work for you, so grab your instrument and perfect your catchphrase as we go through everything you need to know.
What Are Bards?
The exact nature of a bard has been knocked back and forth a bit over the decades. The classical bard is usually a colorful vagabond with a lute but broadly you could create a mime, or a gambler, or a diplomat, and call them all correctly “bard”. We can hone bards down to experts and performers, a bard is knowledgeable, practiced, and in pathfinder they have the power to channel magical power through their performances. Mechanically, you can reshape your bard to fit practically any role, though the easiest fit is often the face of the party, party buffer, and the skill master. A bard can slyly talk the party out of a jam, inspire them to acts of heroism, and has the worldly knowhow to find the puzzle’s answer. Whatever performance you plan on giving with your new bard, you’ll need to start out with the bard’s basic features first.
Bard Class Features
Bards get a d8 for their hit die, which ain’t as bad as a wizard but you’re still not going to be tanky. If you plan on getting into the thick of combat, you’ll need to build appropriately.
Bards are the archetypal skill masters, with 6 + Int skill ranks to start and class features boosting it higher, you’re often going to have the best skill bonuses in the party without even trying.
Armor and Weapon Proficiencies
Bards get light armor, shields, simple weapons, and a smattering of thematic martial weapons. Bards have the potential loadout to get into combat but unless you tech for it hard you’re going to be a bit squishy. Plan on utilizing your spellcasting and performance rather than relying on your AC and damage output.
This grants you a bonus to ALL your knowledge skill checks equal to half your bard levels, and lets you make any knowledge check untrained. As a bard you’re a jack of all trades from the get-go and will almost always have the capacity to pass a needed skill check.
As a bard, your performances are more than mere entertainment and you get a long retinue of magical affects you can create through your instrument or even just your voice. Most bards can perform any of these bardic performance abilities, though some can only be done using visual performances, auditory performances, or both.
You start out with a number of performance rounds equal to 4 + your Charisma modifier. Then you pick up another 2 rounds each time you gain a bard level.
You can start any bardic performance as a standard action, though that gets reduced to a swift and finally a free action at higher levels.
You can only maintain one performance at a time, though you can maintain the effects for longer using the Lingering Performance feat which I highly recommend every bard take at their first opportunity, as it will essentially triple your performance rounds each day.
Think of each performance as a different tool on your belt, some are rather situational, some are your everyday workhorses, but you’ll gain access to all of them as you advance in level so it’s important to keep track of your capabilities:
In all my years playing pathfinder I think I’ve only seen countersong used once? It’s restrictive and extremely situational, but if you’re using keyboard, percussion, wind, string, or singing and your party is being hit with magical songs or other auditory magic (not spells with verbal components mind you) you can make a perform check and you and your allies can use the perform check result as their saving throw. Odds are, you’ll never end up using this 1st level performance, but in extremely rare situations it can be mildly useful.
Basically, the exact mirror of countersong and also gained at 1st level, distraction lets you use the other half of the performance options (act, comedy, dance, or oratory) to make a perform check in place of the saving throw against visual illusions, specifically “pattern” and “figment” illusions. Distraction comes up a bit more often than countersong but is still dubiously useful at best. Just remember you have it in your pocket if your party is getting plagued by illusionists.
Rarely used in combat, but potentially quite effective at avoiding combat. This performance lets you mechanically grab everyone’s attention (assuming they fail a save) while your party members can sneak around at their leisure. The next time you need some guards out of the way, consider putting on a show for them!
The default setting in any situation involving combat, this is the performance you’ll find yourself doing 90% of the time. Just play a tune for the party’s martial character and passively enhance their ability to dish out damage while using the rest of your actions to cast spells. It’s also important to note that the buff to attacks and damage is a competence bonus, which means it will stack with most other buffing spells and abilities.
You pick this up at 3rd level, and so long as you can spare the rounds of bardic performance, you’ll want to do this whenever a party member makes an important skill check. In exchange for that performance round you get to stack up a decent buff on whatever skill check they’re going for. Keep in mind that a rocking power ballad isn’t great for stealth, so there will be some situations where your DM will wag their finger at your performance.
At 6th level you get to use your rounds of performance to cast suggestion so long as your target is already fascinated. This represents the natural progression of your fascinate performance, and they should be used together. Start by fascinating the guard, then use suggestion to tell them to bum off for an hour of drinks.
Dirge of Doom
At 8th level you get to use your song to inflict the shaken condition, which doesn’t sound great at first until you realize it doesn’t allow for a saving throw. Unavoidable shaken across multiple enemies is a huge debuff that can really swing a fight, especially against mobs of weaker enemies.
At 9th level you get this upgraded version of inspire courage that comes along with some sweet temporary hit points. There’s nothing stopping you from ending the last performance and starting a new one the next turn either, so you can re-up those temporary hit points every round if they keep getting removed.
At 12 level you gain the ability to turn 4 rounds of performance into a mass cure serious wounds spell. Mass cure serious wounds is a tad weak when it comes to 7th level spells, but at the cost of 4 performance rounds it’s a steal. Play your party a soothing tune if you have the chance to take a minute and heal between combats.
At 14 level you gain the ability to completely negate enemies by making them run away scared. It allows for a saving throw unlike the lower equivalent dirge of doom, but if even a few enemies fail and take the frightened condition it’ll be worth it. You can potentially cancel out entire combats just by being the scariest musician in the room.
At 15 level you get an even more impressive version of inspire courage that grants +4 bonuses to saving throws and AC. However, unless you find yourself alone or with only one ally, I’d recommend buffing more of your allies with inspire greatness or even inspire courage rather than granting a single ally a bigger buff. It has its uses, but typically while the party is at full strength, you’ll get more utility out of the earlier options.
All the way up at 18th level you finally learn how to clear a room. Just like your earlier suggestion ability but with more targets, this will let you potentially bypass all sorts of encounters.
Most 20th level capstone abilities are ridiculous and this one is no different. At the cost of your performance rounds you can constantly force save or die effects with your masterful performances. Few campaigns ever reach 20th level, but if you reach this capstone the ability can be a knockout for even the most powerful bosses.
Gained at 2nd level, versatile performance lets you use your perform skill in place of a skill check for different skills depending on what type of performer you are. Since your perform should be extremely high, this essentially lets you ignore a couple skill checks when spending your skill ranks. You also get to pick another performance style at 6th level and then every 4 levels afterwards, so with a bit of planning you can really make the best use of your skill ranks.
Here’s an easy reference list of the 9 performance types and their associated skills:
- Act. Bluff, Disguise
- Comedy. Bluff, Intimidate
- Dance. Acrobatics, Fly
- Keyboard Instruments. Diplomacy, Intimidate
- Oratory. Diplomacy, Sense Motive
- Percussion. Handle Animal, Intimidate
- Sing. Bluff, Sense Motive
- String. Bluff, Diplomacy
- Wind. Diplomacy, Handle Animal
Optimally, you’ll want to choose performance styles that don’t overlap on these associated skills, and the skills that don’t already use your Charisma should have the higher priority. Personally, I like to select sing first, followed by keyboard instruments, as they don’t overlap and sense motive is a very valuable skill to get.
I feel like WotC really expected musical duels to be more common because just like countersong, this will really only come up if you fight enemy bards. If you do, you’ll pick up a hefty +4 bonus on saves against their effects, but then again, they’ll be getting the same bonus against you. Situational to the extreme but try to remember it if your DM ever sets up a literal battle of the bands.
This 5th level feature lets you take a 10 on knowledge checks and lets you take a 20 once a day so long as you have at least a single rank in each knowledge skill (which should be easy). This means you’ll be able to reliably pass every knowledge check, and you can push right through any research-based stumbling block the DM puts in your way.
Jack of All Trades
At 10th level bards pick up the ability to use any skill, even if they aren’t trained. As a bard, you’ve likely already saturated the skills you care about with skill ranks, but if there are any gaps in your capabilities this will patch those right up and truly make you viable with any skill.
Bard Ability Scores
Bards are what’s known as a SAD class (single ability dependent). While the other ability scores aren’t useless to you, all of your class features rely on a single ability, Charisma. Both your spellcasting and your bardic performances use Charisma and you’re going to want that score as high as you can possibly get it.
Beyond Charisma, it comes down to what sort of bard you want to create, and your second score is usually a choice between Dexterity and Constitution. Some builds of bard will want to dive into combat and give a few solid jabs with a rapier, if that sounds like you then Dexterity should be your next highest score. For everybody else, more hit points mean better survivability, and Constitution should be your next highest.
Strength, Wisdom, and Intelligence can all be considered dump stats for bards. However, as the skill master of the party you may want to get at least a positive Intelligence for more skill ranks and better bonuses to those critical knowledge skills.
Finally, if you’re looking longingly at Strength and are wanting to play your lute with massive pecs then I recommend taking a look at the skald class instead. The skald blends bard and barbarian together and will do the strong bard concept better than base bard can provide.
Best Bard Feats
Feats are one of the many ways that pathfinder lets you customize your character and really tailor make them work for your specific build and strategy. Any number of feats could work well for a specific style, but the following feats are generally useful and powerful for most bards:
You’ll only be able to pick this up past 10th level, but it’ll function as a major force multiplier for your entire party and requires very little. You just need to select oratory or sing as one of your performance options. With this feat, your weapons and your allies’ weapons (so long as they stay within 30 feet of you) suddenly become sonic and get to stack 1d6 sonic damage on top of whatever else they’re doing. This can add up FAST and practically nothing resists sonic damage.
Not terribly exciting but it only requires a Dexterity of 13 and flatly boosts your AC by 1. Bards tend to be on the squishy side and unless you’ve got your eye on something else this is a solid default place to spend a feat.
I’ve mentioned this feat before, but I consider it a prerequisite and encourage every player to select this as their very first feat. With this, you can inspire courage for a single round and then immediately stop. The feat then lets that buff last for an additional 2 rounds, meaning for the same exact duration of inspire courage that would normally cost you 3 rounds of performance, you only spent 1. This feat basically triples your bardic performance rounds and allows you to spend them a lot more freely. Do your bard a favor and pick this up.
A bit more situational, but I still value this feat highly. Spellsong does two things, it lets you hide spells within your performances, and it lets you concentrate on additional spells at once if you spend your bardic performance on it.
The first ability I find the most useful as you can cast a charm effect or an illusion during a performance without anybody realizing you’re casting a spell. It’s almost like silent spell in that regard but works more for social situations rather than stealth situations.
The second ability is technically quite powerful, until you realize that most bard spells don’t utilize concentration. I find that this part is best used if you’re going for a debuff bard, as some of their better options are concentration spells like crown of madness, silence, and suggestion.
Bards are arcane unprepared or “spontaneous casters”, which means so long as you have the spell slot and know the spell you can cast it. The tradeoff is that you learn far fewer spells than a prepared caster does, but you won’t be caught wanting if you end up needing all your slots for healing or need them all for utility spells.
Bards start out knowing 4 cantrips and 2 1st level spells, then learn new spells as they level up.
Since you know so comparatively few spells, you’ll want to take care selecting which new spells to learn each level.
You also gain a number of spells per day, based on your bard level.
Going through every spell level by level available to bards is far beyond our scope, but we CAN point out some of the key early spells you’ll likely want to pick up.
- Detect Magic. If you know a party member already is taking this cantrip then you can skip it, but it’s essential that at least somebody in the party can cast this cantrip. Missing out on this spell means potentially missing key puzzle solutions, missing out on magic item pickups, or even missing out on whole side adventures.
- Ghost Sound. This cantrip is the magical equivalent of pointing and going “what’s that behind you?” but it can be surprisingly effective, especially at lower levels. Using ghost sound to get a guard or enemy to go investigate exactly where you need them to be has been the start of countless good ambushes.
- Prestidigitation. This is your little “be magically creative” spell that will always have a good use if you can come up with one. It gives you free reign to make minor magical effects and should always be on the top of your cantrip choices.
- Read Magic. As the party skill master to begin with, you’re likely going to be the one turned to for deciphering things and researching. You’ll strictly need this for dealing with magic scrolls, and it’ll help you get around all sorts of little obstacles your DM throws your way.
1st Level Spells
- Charm Person. Sometimes fascination isn’t enough, and you really need to convince a guard that they didn’t see you come by. Charm person is the classic early level enchantment that will be your bread and butter if you’re playing the sly manipulator and want to creatively bypass obstacles.
- Cure Light Wounds. Most parties shouldn’t rely on a bard for all their healing, but you can make for a great secondary healer. Keep your allies buffed up with your bardic performances and then patch them up with your spell slots.
- Ear-piercing Scream. Almost every bardic effect uses a Will saving throw, having this in your pocket as a solid Fortitude based save can really come in handy if you’re facing down opponents with good Will. It does a little bit of damage, but you’re mainly hoping they fail the save and become dazed, basically skipping their turn.
- Grease. A lot of enemies are surprisingly bad at acrobatics and this spell can turn a hostile mob into a comedy act. It loses a lot of its effectiveness at later levels but in the early game this can be a hilarious solution to a lot of problems.
- Saving Finale. While you’re buffing somebody with your performance, you can use this spell to end the performance and instantly let them reroll a failed saving throw. At only a 1st level spell slot, this can potentially save a character’s life and is really worth having as a backup plan at the ready.
- Sleep. It loses effectiveness hard in later levels, but it can cleanly win out a lot of early level conflicts. Simply play your enemies a lullaby and leave them behind or make sure they never wake up.
- Silent Image. As useful as you can think of, and potentially more convincing when combined with the efforts of your allies. Scare away goblins or trick guards into thinking you’ve already escaped your cell. You’ll eventually abandon this spell for later and better illusions, but in the early game this spell is king.
2nd Level Spells
- Allegro. This spell is like a personal haste spell along with an emergency Dexterity save reroll, except you can only use it while maintaining a bardic performance (which you should always be doing in combat anyway). Best used for combat-minded bards who are trying to get a hit in themselves, but generally powerful for any build.
- Blistering Invective. With a single spell you can burn all your enemies in a 30-foot radius, catch them on fire for ongoing fire damage, and “demoralize” them which is basically the shaken condition. All that and even if they save they still suffer the demoralizing debuff. While not strictly the highest damage potential, I consider this to be the most effective 2nd level combat spell available to bards.
- Cacophonous Call. A pure save or suck spell, but if your target fails their save they’ll likely be completely useless the rest of the combat. Cacophonous call inflicts the nauseated condition for a number of rounds per caster level, which is rarely inflicted at this low of a spell level. Nauseated creatures can’t do anything on their turn other than move, so a creature that fails this save is just OFF for the near future.
- Glitterdust. It’s around this level that a lot of adventures like to throw out invisible enemies, and this spell is the cleanest early counter to invisible foes. Spray them with magic glitter and you’ll be able to spot that invisible jerk a mile away.
- Invisibility. Or you could be the invisible jerk yourself! Bards get up to shenanigans almost as often as rogues do, and invisibility is just too useful to ignore. Pop it whenever you really need to disappear.
- Mirror Image. Bards aren’t tanks, but this spell will give you the best chance of surviving incoming attacks despite your low AC. If you’re wanting to spend your spells on buffing yourself for combat, this is probably your best bet at 2nd level.
- Path of Glory. You create an area that heals you and your allies by 1 point a round, which doesn’t sound amazing but as an out of combat party heal it’s statistically far better than your other primary healing option, cure moderate wounds. Assuming you have 4 party members, a 5th level bard casting this will heal a total of 20 hit points exactly, as opposed to cure moderate’s average of 14, with the possibility to heal far less. Take this as your out of combat healing, especially if you’ve got more than 4 party members.
- Silence. A classically versatile spell with two primary uses, nerfing the enemy spellcaster and making sure the guards don’t hear anything. If you’re nerfing a spellcaster with it, make sure to target something they’re wearing rather than the enemy themselves so that they can’t make a save to resist it. When stealthing, try it either as an emergency button when you realize you’ve alerted a guard, or put it on the paladin so his armor will stop clanking.
- Tongues. As a bard you will undoubtedly be acting as the party face and talking to a lot of NPCs, potentially ones who speak different languages. Tongues lets you overcome any language barrier with the power of magic, and you can leave that linguistics skill in the dust. And as an unprepared caster you don’t have to worry about wasting a slot on this spell everyday, you can just have it at the ready.
3rd Level Spells
- Dispel Magic. Just like detect magic, having at least somebody in the group that can dispel magic greatly improves the capability of the whole party. If you’ve already got a wizard in the group touting these then you can give it a pass, but make sure to snag it at the earliest opportunity if the party is missing it.
- Haste. Probably the single strongest 3rd level buff spell across all spell lists, haste ramps your party’s capabilities up and greatly improves your whole group’s damage output, resilience, and mobility. Simply put, if you want a 3rd level buff spell, this is the one to pick.
- Invisibility Sphere. Like invisibility but for the whole party (so long as they stay close to you). This is the go-to option for sneaking the whole group anywhere and can get you out of all sorts of jams. Combine this with the silence spell and your whole party will be practically undetectable.
- Purging Finale. You won’t actually end up using this often but having it at the ready can completely nerf certain enemies and strategies. Purging finale lets you use your bardic performance to cure a long list of nasty conditions and lifting paralyzed or stunned off an ally can make or break a combat.
Last updated: January 27, 2019
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