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DnD 3.5 - The Bard Handbook

Disclaimer

I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which tend to be more consistent than 3.5 handbooks. Because so little of 3.5 is available on the SRD, I will attempt to tag items with a superscript indicating their book of origin. For help identifying sourcebook abbreviations, see my Sourcebook Abbreviations Guide.

  • Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances
  • Green: Good options.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.

It's important to note that I generally omit campaign-setting specific content. I am of the opinion that those options are intended to be limited to campaigns run in those settings, and as such they don't really apply to a generic campaign. Those options also tend to be wildly unbalanced and rarely recieve errata. I also omit the use of "Flaws" since they allow a massive increase in power with essentially no cost to the character.

Introduction

The bard is among the most versatile classes in 3.5. With great skills, deceptively good spellcasting, and decent combat abilities, the Bard can fill nearly any role in a party without depending entirely on spells to do so like the Wizard does. They make an excellent addition to a large party which has every role covered due to their effects as a force-multiplyer, but they also make a fantastic member of a small party due to their wide-ranging skillset.

A classic criticism of bards it that they are a "jack of all trades and a master of none." Well, the full line is "Jack of all trades, master of none, but often times better than a master of one", and I can think of few things to which that truism applies better than to the Bard.

The bard's biggest roles are as a Face, Librarian, Support, and Utility Caster, though they can fill nearly any role with a handful of clever build choices.

Bard Class Features

Hit Points: For a class which can jump into melee d6 hit points is difficult.

Base Attack Bonus: 2/3 BAB is enough to get by on.

Saves: Good Reflex and Will saves.

Proficiencies: You get all of the .

Skills: More skills than the rogue, but less skill ranks to spend on them. Basically anything that be done with skills can be done by the Bard.

Spells: Despite only being a 2/3 caster the Bard has one of the most interesting spell lists in the game. Bards are the only arcane casters with built-in access to healing spells, as well as a collection of spells unique to the Bard.

Bardic Knowledge: Even if you don't invest a single skill point in a Knowledge skill, you can still compete with any other Scholar in the party. 5 ranks in Knowledge (History) will give you an edge, too. If you do invest skill points in your actual skills, you essentially get to roll twice.

Bardic Music: The Bard's most iconic ability. Bardic Music does a lot, and it's extremely effective. At low levels you may need to be cautious about using your limited daily uses, but as you gain levels the potency and frequency of your music both increase dramatically.

  • Countersong (Su): Too situational, and only affects a tiny set of spells that no one uses.
  • Fascinate (Sp): This has saved my life at least twice. It won't work once you go into combat, but if you can surprise foes with it or start it before anyone rolls initiative you can get a handle on fights before they happen. At low levels the duration will be short, but it grows quickly. The fact that the DC is equal to your perform check is totally absurd since it's so easy to optimize skill checks.
  • Inspire Courage (Su): This is why most people play a bard. This bonus is the primary reason why bards act as a force multiplier. I've played several bards where the phrase "don't forget the +1" was my motto, and those bonuses often made the difference between overwhelming defeat and resounding victory.
  • Inspire Competence (Su): Aid Another is likely enough to cover the same use case most of the time, but this works at range and it's more fun.
  • Suggestion (Sp): This is far better than you could possibly get from the spell Suggestion. This costs nothing but time to use, it doesn't break Fascinate, and the DC scales with your level. In theory, you could keep trying until Fascinate's duration expires or you succeed.
  • Inspire Greatness (Su): By this level there are very few effects which work off of a number of hit dice (Circle of Death is the only one I can think of), but the temporary hit points are great. The competence bonuses are nice since they'll stack with Inspire Courage. Even the 5 round duration after you stop singing is great since it will allow you to switch to Inspire Courage. Add on Lingering Song and you get a full minute before you need to consider re-starting Inspire Greatness.
  • Song of Freedom (Sp): This can be great for removing a vaguely defined variety of effects, but if you have a cleric in the party your cleric will be considerably better equipped to handle these problems.
  • Inspire Heroics (Su): Morale bonuses to saves (with the exception of saves vs. fear) are uncommon, and dodge bonuses to AC always stack, so this is a great defensive option. Like Inspire Greatness the duration lingers after you stop singing, potentially allowing you to stack the effects with other songs. At this point you've got three combat buffs to choose from, and picking which to start with can often be the decision that determines the outcome of the fight. Choose carefully, and if you haven't done so already, find a way to start Inspire Courage as a swift action.
  • Mass Suggestion (Sp): By this level your perform checks are likely absurd, so the DC of Fascinate is nearly unbeatable. Sit your enemies down for a quick concert, then kindly suggest that they spend 1 hour per level sitting quietly and contemplating their own navels while you continue adventuring in peace.

Alternate Class Features

  • Bardick KnackPHB2: Trading in Bardic Knowledge hurts, but what you get in exchange is fantastic. You can pick up the Jack of all Trades feat to essentially have all of your skills maxed out as cross-class skills, but if you can't spare a feat you can probably still spare one rank to put into every skill you plan to use.
  • Drow BardDotU: Poison Use doesn't really seem like something a bard needs, and you can get it from a feat.
  • Healing HymnCC: Healing hit points is really easy (see Wand of Lesser Vigor, below), and Fascinate is both amazing and required for Suggestion.
  • Hymn of FortificationCC: Similar to Protection from Evil, but with no numerical buffs. You don't give up much to get it, but I don't know that it's much better than Inspire Competence.
  • Inspire AweDrM: Take the Haunting Melody feat instead, and you can do the same thing better and without giving up Inspire Courage. Admittedly, Haunting Melody doesn't have the 20th-level fear effect, but I don't think that's enough of a difference to give up Inspire Courage.
  • LoresongDS: Losing Bardic Knowledge hurts, but activating this as an immediate action is a big deal. You could use this to turn near-misses into hits, allow allies to succeed on save-or-suck effects, or pass a crucial skill roll. All great options when the chips are down.
  • Mimicking SongDS: Countersong is garbage, and this is probably the best thing you can get in exchange.
  • Spellbreaker SongCM: Personally, I would rather just cast Silence.

Substitution Levels

  • Gnome BardRoS: 1st and 6th level are fantastic.
    • 1st level: The gnome cantrips are great, and Counter Feat is passable.
    • 3rd level: Situationa. You can get better trades for Inspire Competence..
    • 6th level: Excellent for fear stacking. If you don't want to give up Suggestion, pick up the Haunting Melody feat for essentially the same effect.
    • 11th level: Three spells known is nice, but by this level Color Spray is worthless, and touch of idiocy is only situationally useful.
  • Half-Elf BardRoD: You need to be a half-elf to even consider these options, and that's not a punishment I would wish on any player. The options aren't good enough to justify such a terrible race.
    • 1st level: Countersong is garbage, but I don't know that I've ever found a use for Calm Emotions unless I had a Frenzied Berzerker in the party.
    • 6th level: I like Suggestion much better than command, but you can use this in combat more easily.
    • 8th level: Too situational..

Unearthed Arcana

Content from Unearthed Arcana is generally considered optional variant rules. Many of these options are poorly balanced, so be sure to consult your DM before selecting any such options.

  • Bardic Sage: This is what I like to see from alternate class features: A slightly different take on the class introducing some additional limitations in exchange for interesting new capabilities. This makes the Bard more MAD than it already is, so this can be difficult to play in many games. If you're going for a spellcasting-focused bard, this can be great. If you're going for more of a skill focus or combat focus you likely won't be able to invest enough in Intelligence to make this work.
    • Spellcasting: An extra spell known per spell level is very helpful for spontaneous casters, and some of the divination spell options are fantastic. However, you need Intelligence high enough to cast spells (including your other spells), so you'll need to get 16 Intelligence eventually.
    • Bardic Knowledge: A +2 bonus to your Bardic Knowledge checks further lessens your need for actualy Knowledge skills. If you add on the +2 bonus from 5 ranks in Knowledge (History) you can probably get away with totally forgoing real Knowledge skills.
    • Bardic Knowledge: This is annoying, but hardly debilitating. With Lingering song your songs will last 8 rounds after you stop singing instead of 10. Considering what you can get from the improved spellcasting I think it's worth it.
  • Divine Bard: This turns the Bard's only dump stat into a massive dependency for spellcasting, making the bard exceptionally MAD.
    • Spellcasting: The spells you get are mostly mediocre.
  • Savage Bard: Another fantastic alternate class feature, the Savage Bard trades some of the Bard's existing abilities for roughly equivalent abilities with a different flavor. In a wilderness-heavy campaign where classes like barbarian and ranger are important, the Savage Bard fits very well.
    • Alignment: Hardly important, and in my experience most bards are chaotic anyway.
    • Base Save Bonuses: Fortitude and Will saves are better than Reflex and Will saves.
    • Class Skills: Decipher Script and Speak Language are rarely useful, but Survival can be very helpful depending on your campaign. If you really need to learn a language, you can probably spare the 2 skill ranks to do so.
    • Illiteracy: A minor inconvenience.
    • Spellcasting: Some of the spells you give up are disappointing, but you get some good options in exchange.
  • Variant Bard: Gaining an animal companion is really cool, but the rest of the abilities you get are really situational. Giving up both Bardic Knowledge and all of the buffs provided by Bardic Music is really hard. If you want to build a bard focuses solely on spellcasting, this might be a good option since you can stop worrying about Perform, and turn your Bardic Music uses into fuel for your spells with Lyric Spell.

Abilities

Unfortunately, due to their broad skill set bards also suffer from a little bit of MAD. They're not monks, but it can be a problem. Where you choose to put your best ability scores will define the function of your bard, but there are surprisingly few bad choices.

The existence of the Crystal Echoblade and Slippers of Battledancing are crucial to note here. Those two items allow the Bard to largely ignore Strength and greatly reduce the need for Dexterity when fighting in melee. If those two items are available to you and you plan to do any melee combat, consider their presence very carefully when determining your ability scores.

Str: If you plan to fight at range with a crossbow or with spells, you can dump Strength. Otherwise, you may want decent strength for a melee weapon or just a little bit for bonus damage on a composite bow.

Dex: Bards only get light armor (medium with Battle Caster), so you'll want some Dexterity to boost your AC. If you go for ranged weapons or weapon finesse, you'll want a bit more.

Con: With only 1d6 hit points and poor Will saves you'll really need Constitution.

Int: Bards get too many skills, and 6+ skill ranks just isn't enough without some Intelligence to back it up.

Wis: Bards have good Will saves and very few skills tied to Wisdom, so this is your only true dump stat.

Cha: The Bard's most important abilities are powered by Charisma, including spells and Inspire Courage. However, since the Bard is a little bit MAD and you're not a full cast, you don't need to start with and 18 at level 1. It helps, but it's not required.

32 Point Buy 28 Point Buy 22 Point Buy 15 Point Buy Elite Array
  • Str: 8
  • Dex: 14
  • Con: 14
  • Int: 12
  • Wis: 8
  • Cha: 18
  • Str: 10
  • Dex: 14
  • Con: 14
  • Int: 12
  • Wis: 8
  • Cha: 16
  • Str: 8
  • Dex: 14
  • Con: 12
  • Int: 10
  • Wis: 8
  • Cha: 16
  • Str: 8
  • Dex: 12
  • Con: 11
  • Int: 10
  • Wis: 8
  • Cha: 14
  • Str: 10
  • Dex: 13
  • Con: 14
  • Int: 12
  • Wis: 8
  • Cha: 15

Races

Charisma bonuses are great, but not absolutely essential. Charisma penalties, however, are difficult to overcome.

Dwarf: The penalty to Charisma makes the dwarf difficult.

Elf: Nothing specifically helpful for the bard, but nothing that hurts you.

Gnome: Great for any non-melee bard.

Half-Elf: The worst race in the core rulebook. The substitution levels aren't enough to compensate for just how worthless half-elves are.

Half-Orc: Penalties to two crucial abilities.

Halfling: Nothing specifically helpful for the bard, but nothing that hurts you.

Human: A feat is always welcome, and the extra skill rank is really helpful since bards have so many skills to cover.

Skills

  • Appraise (Int): Worthless. Pay an NPC.
  • Balance (Dex): Too situational.
  • Bluff (Cha): Not as important as Diplomacy, but still crucial for a Face.
  • Climb (Str): Climbing is silly in a game where flight exists. At worst, buy a potion of Spider Climb for 50gp.
  • Concentration (Con): You won't be as dependent on spells as a Wizard, so you don't need to worry about Concentration too much. If you're stuck in melee, pull out a sword. If you're focusing on your spellcasting, pick up Melodic Casting so that you can use Perform instead.
  • Decipher Script (Int): Too situational.
  • Diplomacy (Cha): The Face's go-to skill.
  • Disguise (Cha): You can cast Disguise Self.
  • Escape Artist (Dex): Too situational.
  • Gather Information (Cha): A bit situational, but very useful for a face and often difficult to replace.
  • Hide (Dex): Stealth is great, but you can cast Invisibility.
  • Jump (Str): Jumping is silly in a game where flight exists.
  • Knowledge (Arcana) (Int): Identify constructs, dragons, and magical beats. Fairly few classes get access to this, so you need to step up here.
  • Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering) (Int): I've been playing for the better part of two decades and I've never rolled this skill once.
  • Knowledge (Dungeoneering) (Int): Identify aberrations and oozes. If you spend any time underground or in dungeons, this is worth maxing. Otherwise, spend one rank and ride your intelligence bonus.
  • Knowledge (Geography) (Int): Situational enough that Bardic Knowledge will cover it.
  • Knowledge (history) (Int): Get 5 ranks for the +2 to Bardic Knowledge, then abandon it forever.
  • Knowledge (Local) (Int): Definitely worth a rank, maybe more if you don't have a rogue putting ranks in this.
  • Knowledge (Nature) (Int): Identify animals. Unless you have a druid or ranger, you may be the only one in the party with this skill.
  • Knowledge (Nobility and Royalty) (Int): Situational enough that Bardic Knowledge will cover it.
  • Knowledge (Religion) (Int): Identify undead. More easily available than Knowledge (Arcana), but still very useful, especially since your cleric probably dumped intelligence.
  • Knowledge (The Planes) (Int): Identify outsiders. Outsiders are diverse and strange, and knowing stuff about them will help your survival greatly.
  • Listen (Wis): Bards don't get Spot, so this is your best perception skill.
  • Move Silently (Dex): Invisibility doesn't make you quiet.
  • Perform (Cha): The only character who ever needs this skill is the Bard (and a couple of prestige classes, but they don't count). Unfortunately, it's essentially a perpetual tax on your skills. The different versions are mostly interchangeable, though there are some exeptions due to items, feats, and prestige classes. If you plan to use two-handed weapons like bows or crossbows, consider a version which doesn't use your hands like dancing, oratory, or singing.
    • Act: Essentially the same as singing. Works with the Dragonsong feat, assuming you're not miming.
    • Comedy: Essentially the same as singing, but qualifies you for Divine Prankster. Works with the Dragonsong feat.
    • Dance: A great option for combat bards since it qualifies you for Slippers of Battledancing, Snowflake Wardance, and Dervish.
    • Keyboard instruments: Do you really want to carry around a harpsichord?
    • Oratory: Essentially the same as singing. Works with the Dragonsong feat.
    • Percussion instruments: Few masterwork or magical instruments, and no special benefits related to it.
    • Sing: The simplest option. Doesn't require your hands, and works with the Dragonsong feat.
    • String instruments: Includes many of the best masterwork and magical instruments.
    • Wind instruments: Few masterwork or magical instruments, and no special benefits related to it.
  • Sense Motive (Wis): With dumped Wisdom,
  • Sleight of Hand (Dex): Too situational.
  • Speak Language (None): You can cast Tongues. Maybe spend one or two ranks if you're going to be speaking one language that you don't know on a regular basis (Undercommon for Underdark campaigns, Draconic for campaigns with lots of dragons, etc.) but otherwise skip it.
  • Spellcraft (Int): Leave this for full casters, but consider picking up a rank or two.
  • Swim (Str): Too situational. Swimming should be handled with magic.
  • Tumble (Dex): Normally not very useful, but if you pick up Slippers of the Battledancer you're going to be moving around in melee quite a bit. Investing in tumble will allow you to do so without constantly drawing attacks of opportunity.
  • Use Magic Device (Cha): The best skill in the game, and almost no one does it better than you.

Feats

  • Arcane AccompanimentPHB2: Lingering Song is strictly better.
  • Arcane StrikeCW: Powerful, but you only get six levels of spells. If you plan to largely ignore your spellcasting for whatever reason this can be a good way to burn your spell slots.
  • Battle CasterCAr: Bards do fine in light armor most of the time. Mithral Breast Blate is plenty of AC for many Bards who want to invest a bit more in AC, but if you're going to be on the front lines consider Battle Caster to get access to medium armor without hindering your spells. Mithral Full Plate is expensive, but it's also a hefty AC bonus. Unless you're willing to spend the gold on Mithral Full Plate you'll probably get more benefit from a wand of Mage Armor or Greater Mage Armor than from this feat.
  • Battle DancerPHB2: The bonus is a morale bonus, so it won't stack with Inspire Courage. Odd, since Inspire Courage is the option which makes the most sense to combine with this.
  • Dragonfire InspirationDM: If your party doesn't have any trouble hitting things, this is a massive damage boost. Pick up Draconic Heritage, and you can change the damage type to something silly like sonic or force.
  • DragonsongDr: If you rely on Fascinate, Suggestion, or another offensive mind-affecting Bardic Music ability like Inspire Awe or Haunting Melody, this can be very useful.
  • Extra MusicCAd: You'll get plenty of uses as you gain levels, but if you have something like Lyric Song which eats your daily uses you may want to pick this up a few times.
  • Force of PersonalityCAd: Bards get good Will saves, but since Wisdom is a dump stat you may still have issues. This only applies to mind-affecting effects, but considering how few Will save effects which aren't mind-affecting that's probably fine.
  • GoadCAd: One of very few "aggro" mechanics in 3.5. Activating this as a move action is really weird, but it means that you can use your standard action to cast spells or use Bardic Music. However, the bard is in no way a tank, so be very cautious about uverusing this.
  • Jack of All TradesCAd: Combined with Bardick Knack, this makes you good at everything for which there is a skill.
  • Knowledge DevotionCC: If ever there was a reason to invest in actual ranks in Knowledge skills, this is it. The feat specifically calls for a Knowledge skill check, so I don't think Bardic Knowledge applies. Since you likely won't have Intelligence as high as a Duskblade or other intelligence-based user, you won't do quite as well with this, but at mid-levels and up this can provide a significant bonus to attacks and damage for any combat bard.
  • Lingering SongCAd: If you plan to use Bardic Music in combat, this is an absolute must. Continuing to sing severeley limits your ability to cast spells, use magic items, or start other songs. Getting a full minute for free after you stop singing will cover the duration of most combats, negating the need for many other options like Melodic Casting or a masterwork Lute.
  • Metamagic SongRoS: Bards focused heavily on spellcasting (generally those going into Bard spellcasting prestige classes) can make excellent use of this.
  • Martial StudyToB: Many maneuvers could be useful for the Bard. If you choose a maneuver from Devoted Spirit, you get Intimidate as a class skill. If you choose White Raven, you can then pick up Martial Stance to later take White Raven Song without takinga class dip into Crusader or Warblade.
    • Martial StanceToB: You want to get a White Raven stance so that you can get White Raven Dance. There are several to choose from, but which one to take depends heavily on how your party fights.
      • White Raven SongToB: Activating Inspire Courage as a swift action means that you can start up a second song the same turn or do some actual fighting.
  • Melodic CastingCM: Using Perform in place of Concentration will save you a ton of skill ranks if you're worried about Concentration. The ability to cast spells and use some magic items while also using Bardic Music seems exciting, but once you pick up Lingering Song it becomes much less important since you get several rounds of your song in which you can do whatever you want. You can also cast Undersong in order to use Perform in place of Concentration, though the 10 minutes/level duration may be a problem.
  • Nymph's KissBoED: The flat skill bonus applies to many of the Bard's most important skills, and a free skill rank at every level is fantastic. If you take this, take it at first level to maximize the benefit.
  • Obscure LoreCAd: A huge bonus to Bardic Knowledge, further reducing your need for actual knowledge skills if you want to save skill ranks.
  • Obtain FamiliarCAr: Familiars are fantastic. If you focus on skill use, strongly consider this. For help with Familiars, see my Practical Guide to Familiars.
  • Snowflake WardanceFrB: If this stacks with Slippers of Battledancing, this is amazing. You get to add your Charisma on top of your strength/dexterity bonus, and your slippers allow you to add Charisma in place of strength/dexterity. RAW I think it works, but as a DM I would probably disallow it because it's absurdly strong.
  • SubsonicsCAd: Great when you're silenced or if you're trying to be sneaky. You can use Fascinate, and possibly even Suggestion without revealing your location.
  • Versatile PerformerCAd: If you need more than one version of perform you're probably doing something wrong.
  • Words of CreationBoED: I, and many of the people I play with, prohibit Words of Creation. It's absurdly powerful and the nonlethal damage you take to use it is easily mitigated. The ability to double your Inspire Courage bonus is already enough that this feat is too powerful to see actual use. There's also some debate about wether this doubling occurs before or after adding bonuses like Badge of Valor.

Bardic Music Feats

This list includes feats which specifically include the [Bardic Music] tag in the original feat text, or which use a daily usaged of Bardic Music. The distinction is a bit arbitrary, but I've made the same separation for metamagic feats so this seemed reasonable.

  • Chant of FortitudeCAd: Garbage.
  • Chant of the Long RoadCS: Try teleportation.
  • Chord of DistractionCS: Are you kidding? three uses of Bardic Music, and it only works against one attack. A single use of Bardic Music for a full round of flat-footed would still be mediocre. This is just insulting.
  • DoomspeakCoR: Another broken feat from Champions of Ruin to put next to Craven. Despite the short duration, the penalties are crippling. A -10 penalty to saves is enough that even the weakest save-or-suck spells are terrifying, and the DC scaling is double what it should be.
  • Epic of the Lost KingCS: If you take Snowflake Wardance and tend to have combats lasting longer than your wardance, this might be useful occasionally. Otherwise it's worthless.
  • Haunting MelodyHoH: Unfairly good. The duration is good, the save DC scales with your level.
  • Ice HarmonicsFrB: I'm not sure why this is even a feat. This is ridiculously situational.
  • Inspire SpellpowerRoS: I can't think of a single case where doing this is more useful than doing almost anything else.
  • Ironskin Chant: One round of the effect is far too weak for a whole use of Bardic Music.
  • Lyric SpellCAd: Spellcasting-focused bards will get a lot of mileage out of this. Consider picking up Extra Music to get additional spells.
  • Sound of SilenceCS: Absolutely not worth two uses of Bardic Music. Instead, you can pick up Lyric Spell and learn to cast Silence. That gives you the same effect at the same rate of Bardic Music consumption, plus the silence lasts longer and affects an AOE.
  • Warning ShoutCS: If your party is getting hit with enough AOEs to justify this, they need to look into getting permanent evasion.

Weapons

  • Light Crossbow: Small bard? Want to dump Strength? Either way, a light crossbow is a good option.
  • Longsword: The biggest damage die the bard can get, but remember that the importance of damage dice diminishes greatly as your other damage bonuses scale.
  • Rapier: The generic bard's best melee weapon since it works with weapon finesse and has an 18-20 crit range.
  • Shortbow: If you're going for ranged weaponry the light crossbow will make your bard less MAD, but if you can keep your Strength at 12 or more without too many issues, a shortbow can be more powerful than a light crossbow.
  • Whip: An interesting weapon with a lot of fun applications, but the majority of bards won't be able to use it any better than a longsword.

Armor

Armor is presented in the order in which you should acquire it, rather than alphabetical order.

  • Studded Leather: Starting gear
  • Mithral Buckler: Normal shields still apply an ACP penalty to the bard. The most cost effective shield available to you is a mithral buckler. It's cheap, it's easy to enhance, and you still have a free hand for spells or instruments.
  • Mithral Shirt: The best option for bards who plan to use Dexterity. It's unlikely that you'll invest enough in your Dexterity to hit the +10 bonus required to make Thistledown Padded Armor better than a mithral shirt unless you go into epic levels.
  • Mithral Breastplate: For bards looking to invest less in Dexterity than those in chain shirts, the mithral breastplate provides a little more AC on its own than a mithral shirt.
  • Mithral Full Plate: If you pick up Battle Caster, Mithral Full Plate is one of the best AC bonuses in the game, despite its considerable cost. You shouldn't feel obligated to fill out the +3 max dex bonus since you're likely more focused on Strength, but it certainly doesn't hurt.
  • Mage Armor/Greater Mage Armor: Almost no one is better at Use Magic Device than the Bard. Pick up wands of Mage Armor and you can easily match or outdo the benefits of real armor, often at a fraction of the cost.

Magic Items

Weapons

  • Bow of SongsMIC (Unique): A fun concept, but it will eat through your daily uses of Bardic Music very quickly without much payoff.
  • Crystal EchobladeMIC (Unique): At less than the cost of a +2 weapon, this is the best sword a bard could ever hope for. Make sure that your DM will allow you to enchant if further, but even if you can't this is pretty great.
  • HarmonizingMIC (+1): Fantastic at any level. You need to "hold" the weapon, but your DM may allow you to put this on a gauntlet. You might be able to hold your own hand when you start singing, or maybe you can just make a fist with an empty gauntleted hand. Either way, this is great, and it appears to stack with Lingering Song. That means that you can start Inspire Courage, pass it off your weapon, and get a full 2 minutes of the effect. However, if you start a new song the harmonizing ends, so you'll need to track what your weapon is singing.
  • Stunning SurgeMIC (+1): Similar to Sudden Stunning but considerably more balanced. Still fantastic, despite being more costly and less powerful than Sudden Stunning. Sudden Stunning is just that amazingly, unfairly good.
  • Sudden StunningDMG2 (+2000gp): This is unfairly good, especially at such a pitifull low cost. I don't allow it in my games. If your DM won't let you use this, consider Stunning Surge instead.

Armor/Shields

  • CommanderMIC (+1200gp): A cheap bonus to Diplomacy and a constant bonus to your allies will saves. As long as your party isn't trying to be stealthy, this is fantastic.
  • MobilityMIC (+1): Only works on light armor, but if you're wearing Slippers of Battledancing this will get you Mobility without wasting a feat on Dodge. If you plan to go for Spring Attack, don't waste gold on this. If you're using maneuvers Spring Attack won't work with them so this is a good idea. In either case, you could also use Tumble as a replacement and wholly avoid attacks of opportunity.

Wands

  • Mage ArmorDMG: It's rare for a bard to have enough Dexterity that armor stops making sense, but if you ever get to the point that you're outgrowing the +6 maximum dexterity bonus of your Mithral Shirt you should switch to relying on wands of Mage Armor. Upgrade to an eternal wand of Greater Mage Armor when you can afford it.
  • Vigor, LesserSpC: The most cost-efficient healing source in the game. Not every divine class can cast it, so even if you have a traditional healer in the class you may prefer to UMD this when you're healing after a fight.

Wondrous Items

  • Anstruth HarpMIC: All of the spells are activated as a swift action, but their very situational so this isn't really worth the price.
  • Canaith MandolinMIC: The spells activate as a swift action, and they're reasonably useful.
  • Charm of CountersongMIC: Despite costing nearly nothing, you'll probably never find this useful enough to actually put it on.
  • Chime of Harmonic AgonyMIC: The damage doesn't scale nearly enough to waste a standard action on this.
  • Circlet of PersuasionDMG: Easy to overlook, the Circlet of Persuasion is inexpensive and adds to all of the Bard's most important skills, including Diplomacy, Perform, and Use Magic Device. The bonus is Competence, so it won't stack with a lot of other buffs, but since you're usually the one providing Competence bonuses to skills with Inspire Competence this may be the only way for you to get competence bonuses.
  • Clie LyreMIC: Song of Freedom invalidates one spell, and you can learn the other two. Not worth the cost.
  • Cloak of CharismaDMG: Your most important item. Get one early, and upgrade it often.
  • Cloak of ResistanceDMG: Vest of Resistance is identical and takes up a much less useful slot.
  • Doss LuteMIC: Mirror Image is the only spell which isn't extremely situational, and you probably want to learn to cast Mirror Image on your own.
  • Dove's HarpMIC: A bit pricy, but free fast healing goes a long way. I always have trouble spening hold on healing since wands of lesser vigor are so efficient, but the bigger your party is the better this gets, so in large, high-level parties this may become your go-to healing source.
  • Fochlucan BandoreMIC: Cheap enough that by mid levels its basically nothing, but the spells are all cantrips that you might have trouble finding use for.
  • Mac-Fuirmidh CithernMIC: The only useful spell is Mage Armor, which you should get from a wand.
  • Ollamh HarpMIC: Good spells, but very expensive. You'll likely find scrolls to be a better fit.
  • Slippers of BattledancingDMG2: A great option for most combat bards. The ability to use your Charisma for attack and damage means that you can dump Strength and don't need to invest heavily in Dexterity. The effect is persistent, but requires you to move 10 feet as part of a move action. So, unlike Skirmish-users you won't be able to get away with movement and a full attack unless you go into Dervish. Technically, that even disallows charging. Instead, consider boosting your damage output with martial maneuvers which often activate as a standard action if you're in melee. Also note that the item requires to use light or one-handed weapons, but does not require you to use a single or to use the weapon one-handed so two-weapon fighting, using a longsword two-handed, and using thrown weapons all work.
  • Vest of LegendsDMG2: The skill bonuses won't stack with Circlet of Persuasion and don't apply to nearly as many skills, but the bonuses are little bit bigger. However, even if you also picked up Circlet of Persuasion, the increase to your most important Bardic Music abilities is well worth the cost.
  • Vest of ResistanceMIC: Same cost as a cloak, and takes up the largely useless "torso" slot. Of course, you can cast Greater Resistance and Superior Resistance with hours/level duration, so you can probably skip a permanent resistance bonus altogether.

Permanent Spells

  • Reduce PersonPHB: For spellcasting-focused or archery bards, Reduce Person is a potent defensive option. Everyonme else can skip it.

Multiclassing and Prestige Classes

  • CrusaderToB: One level gets you quite a bit. White Raven stances open up the White Raven Song feat, and Strike maneuvers work really well with Slippers of Battledancing. A second level gets you Indomitable Soul, which isn't quite as good as Divine Grace but still provides a hefty bonus to your Will saves. The way that crusaders refresh their maneuvers is especially useful for bards with Slippers of Battledancing because it always ensures that you have a maneuver to use unless you have maneuvers that activate on a Swift action, in which cause you may be able to run down your maneuvers and go without a Strike for a turn or two. During those rare turns, consider refreshing your Bardic Music or casting a spell. Also note that your "initiator level" includes half of your bard levels, so if you wait a little while to pick up a level in Crusader you can get higher level maneuvers and stances than you could otherwise.
  • DervishCW: A bit of a weird idea, but I can see potential for a combat-focused bard going into Dervish. Slippers of Battledancing cater to this idea exceptionally well.
  • PaladinPHB: Without the variant paladins presented in Unearthed Arcana, this is a hard combination. You need to go from whatever your alignment is as a Bard, then switch into Paladin for at least one level before you can take Devoted Performer. Still, there's a bit to be gained from a level or two in paladin, especially Divine Grace. Smite Evil is fun, but with only one use per day from a class dip you won't get much out of it unless you spend feats on Extra Smiting. You paladin levels also don't advance Inspire Courage or your other musical abilities, so the best you can do is an even split between bard and paladin, which is a mediocre combination no matter how you do it. Instead, consider the Crusader. If your DM allows you to use the alternate paladin alignments, the paladin of freedom is an easier class dip since it won't require you to change alignments and spend a feat.
  • RoguePHB: 8+ skill ranks, a huge skill list, trapfinding, and sneak attack. A second levels gets you Evasion, which is always nice to have.
  • ScoutCAd: I've never seen scouts mentioned on another bard handbook, and I think that's a mistake. A single level of scout gets you Trapfinding, similar skills to the Bard's, and a little bit of Skirmish damage. I probably wouldn't for more than one level despite all of the goodies the Scouts gets at any given level.
  • WarbladeToB: Warblades grant similar maneuvers to crusaders and also open up White Raven Song, but their emphasis on Intelligence synergizes less with Bards than the Crusader does. Their mechanism for recharging maneuvers is a little bit less helpful than the Crusaders, too.