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DnD 5e - The Bard Handbook

Last Updated: November 28th, 2019

Disclaimer

I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.

  • 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.

I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.

Introduction

The Bard is fantastically versatile. With access to every skill, expertise, full casting, and a decent set of proficiencies, the Bard can fill essentially every role in the party. The Lore Bard is more of the classic supportive Bard, with improved magical options and support abilities, while the Valor Bard is a decent front-line melee character who can bring their spellcasting and support capabilities into the heat of battle.

Strangely, the Bard's emphasis on the Performance skill from previous editions has wholly vanished. There is literally no reason to take the skill.

Bard Class Features

Hit Points: d8 is fantastic for a full casting class, but you're not going to survive rushing into melee all the time unless you go for Valor to boost your AC.

Saves: Dexterity is great for avoiding fireballs, but most spells which call for Reflex saves won't outright disable you, and Charisma saves are extremely rare.

Proficiencies: Light armor and a handful of weapons won't give you a ton of options, but it's enough to get by, and Bards rely mostly on their spells and special abilities. You do get three skills of your choice, which opens up a lot of really great options.

Spellcasting: The Bard is a full caster like a Cleric or Wizard, and casts spells based on their Charisma. Bards use a "spells known" mechanic similar to a Sorcerer, so your abilities are limited to the spells you know. You can replace one spell known every level, so don't worry if you choose a spell at low level and it doesn't remain useful as you gain levels.

Bardic Inspiration: It's tempting to throw this up before every fight, but since the duration is only 10 minutes and you only get a handful of uses per day, it's important to be conservative with them. When you know that your party needs a bit of help, like on a difficult save or on a crucial attack roll, give them an inspiration die. Since it can be used after rolling the d20, the inspiration die can be a fantastic option when you're a point or two short of a save DC or your enemy's AC. At fifth level the uses recharge on a Short Rest (see "Font of Inspiration"), so you can afford to be much less stingy, but you still don't want to burn through them too quickly.

Jack of All Trades: Ability checks include Initiative (which is a Dexterity check), all skill checks, and all checks involving the use of tools, vehicles, instruments, gaming sets, etc.

Song of Rest: A little of healing is always nice. The DM rules for balancing encounters suggest allowing no more than two short rests per day, so you'll apply this three times per day at most: two for the short rests and one for the long rest. Your allies need to regain hit points at the end of the rest, which means that they need to spend a hit die or use some other ability which specifically heals at the end of a rest.

Bard College: See "Subclasses - Bard Colleges", below.

Expertise: Expertise is always fantastic, and it's especially good because Bards get any three skills of their choice at first level.

Font of Inspiration: This allows you to use your Bardic Inspiration ability up to three times as often in a single day, assuming two short rests.

Countercharm: Very situational, and eats your action. Unless your enemy's abilities are almost entirely composed of fear and/or charm effects, this isn't terribly useful.

Magical Secrets: The Bard spell list is great, but excludes a lot of extremely potent options from other spellcasters spell lists.23

Superior Inspiration: Good motivation to use your last remaining use of Inspiration immediately before starting a fight.

Subclasses - Bard Colleges

College of GlamourXGtE

An interesting combination of abilities. College of Glamour is great for a bard looking to play a support role.

  • Mantle of Inspiration: Reposition your entire party and grant temporary hit points. You won't need to use this in every fight, but certainly don't hesitate to use it if you think it will be helpful.
  • Enthralling Performance: Similar to Charm Person with a 1-minute casting time, during which you need to somehow hold that target(s)'s attention and during which you can't be interrupted. Charm Person is a 1st-level spell and it will have the same DC, and creatures don't know that you attempted to affect them with a spell unless the spell explicitly says that they do, or if there is some visual effect (like a ball of fire).
  • Mantle of Majesty: There are a number of spells which charm a creature, including charm person. By charming a creature and using command to prevent the creature from using their turn (Drop and Grovel are great options), you can mostly paralyze a creature. Unfortunately, since you don't use a spell slot command is cast at its minimum spell level and will only affect one creature. This will work great to lock down strong single enemies, but in a fight against a group you probably don't want to use this.
  • Unbreakable Majesty: This is an amazing option both defensively and offensively. Make sure to buff your AC or look for other defensive options so that you won't get killed, but you should strongly consider drawing attacks specifically to force this effect on enemies. Disadvantage on saving throws against your spells in the following round means that a well-chosen save-or-suck spell can immediately take the creature out of the fight.

College of LorePHB

College of Lore is for magic and spellcasting-oriented Bards who don't plan to use weapons. The abilities are fantastic, and really play to the Bard's function as a Jack of All Trades, and to the Bards abilities as a Support.

  • Bonus Proficiencies: 3 more skills of your choice brings your class total up to 6. You also get Expertise at this level, so level 3 represents a considerable jump in skill.
  • Cutting Words: This excludes saving throws, so you can't force enemies to fail save-or-suck saves, but you can use it to protect allies from attacks which barely hit, or from things like the Shove action.
  • Additional Magical Secrets: Even more spells from a different class! This is especially nice because you get it four levels earlier than other Bards.
  • Peerless Skill: This has a lot of applications. Combined with Superior Inspiration you could take an inspiration die on every initiative check. You'll want to be careful about using this for skill checks, as that can eat up your uses per day very quickly, and won't be as useful as potentially saving the life of one of your allies.

College of SwordsXGtE

Thematically similar to College of Valor, College of Swords places more emphasis on offense than College of Valor, offering access to Fighting Style and some interesting options with Blade Flourish. Blade Flourish is the subclass's signature ability, and it's awful. It eats your Bardic Inspiration dice for pitifully weak abilities. If you want similar capabilities, consider a College of Valor Bard with the Martial Adept feat or a few levels of Battlemaster Fighter. This subclass might be viable in games that start at 14th level or above once Master's Flourish comes into play, but in a normal game I don't see this archetype being useful for anything except maybe a gimmicky option in Expertise builds.

  • Bonus Proficiencies: Medium armor is nice until you get to 18 or 20 Dexterity, but you don't get shields, so your AC won't be as good as a College of Valor Bard. Scimitars are useful if you plan to use two-weapon fighting, which becomes a viable idea thanks to Fighting Style. This class feature also allows you to use weapons in which you are proficient as a spellcasting focus. This is extremely useful when you need to cast spells in the middle of combat.
  • Fighting Style: An excellent improvement to your offensive abilities with weapons, but it largely locks you into melee combat.
    • Dueling: Bards are spellcasters first, and having a free hand to hold a spellcasting focus and to perform somatic components means that you don't need to constantly juggle one of your weapons. If you plan to use spells with material components, you'll need a free hand to use a spell component pouch or an instrument because you can't sheath a weapon and draw a spellcasting focus in one turn without wasting your action.
    • Two-Weapon Fighting: While this presents a considerable boost to your weapon damage output, but bards already have several abilities which consume their bonus action, including Bardic Inspiration and some spells.
  • Blade Flourish: Every flourish applies the Inspiration die roll as extra damage to the creature, but the damage feels like it was thrown on to make this feel more appealing, and I don't think it worked. The effects just aren't good enough to justify spending a Bardic Inspiration die.
    • Defensive Flourish: You never roll more than one die for your Bardic Inspiration, so it's entirely possible that you'll roll a 1. The 1-round duration means that you're spending one of your most scarce resources for an unpredictable, unreliable, and short-lived bonus to AC. If you're desperate for AC, take the Dodge action.
    • Slashing Flourish: It's nice that this applies damage to two creatures, but the damage just isn't good enough to justify spending Inspiration.
    • Mobile Flourish: I would just assume that you won't get more than the base 5 feet of pushing. Generally if an effect doesn't move you a full 5 feet it gets ignored because most people use combat grids.
  • Extra Attack: A considerable improvement to your damage output with weapons.
  • Master's Flourish: Blade Flourish is mostly fine, but is hugely limited by your tiny pool of Bardic Inspiration dice in a single day. Allowing you to use it every round, even with a smaller die, makes it a reliable and meaningful part of your actions in any given turn. Unfortunately, you've spent 13 levels limping along before Master's Flourish came along and made you useful.

College of ValorPHB

The warrior Bard will prefer the College of Valor. By improving the Bard's ability to wade into melee safely, the Bard can fill nearly every role in a party. If you're in a small party, this is an absolutely fantastic option. However, in a party of 4 or more the Valor Bard's lack of focus will make it hard for the Bard to truly shine.

  • Bonus Proficiencies: Medium armor and a shield will significantly improve your AC. With 14 ore more Dexterity, a breastplate, and a shield, you're looking at a respectable 18 AC, enough to match a fighter in full plate. Half-plate will get you more AC, but you might prefer to avoid the Stealth Disadvantage. If you eventually get to 18 Dexterity, consider switching back to light armor. You also get access to all martial weapons, but you're probably going to want to stick to a Rapier, and all Bards get proficiency with rapiers.
  • Combat Inspiration: The ability to add the inspiration die to damage is very wasteful. You'll have much better results using it to prevent attacks. This isn't quite as good as the Coolege of Lore's Cutting Words ability, but it allows your allies to make the decision to use the die themselves, which is a nice mental load off of your shoulders.
  • Extra Attack: Most of the time you'll still want to stick to spells, but with a decent Dexterity your weapon attacks may outpace your Cantrips in terms of reliable damage for a while.
  • Battle Magic: An excellent use of your Bonus Action since Bards don't have a lot of ways to use them. If you pick up Magic Initiate, and take Booming Blade and/or Green-Flame Blade, you can still manage to make two weapon attacks in a single turn.

College of WhispersXGtE

I wouldn't consider College of Whispers for a normal adventuring campaign, but if your game is heavy on roleplaying and light on traditional things like dungeon crawling, College of Whispers offers some potentially useful options.

  • Psychic Blades: Notably, this works with ranged weapons, so you're not forced to go swing a rapier. However, the damage is pitiful compared to how useful a Bardic Inspiration die is.
  • Words of Terror: I'm having trouble thinking of a way to use this with any frequency.
  • Mantle of Whispers: Situational, but it's notably better than options like disguise self due to your ability to glean mundane information about the person you're impersonating. I can't think of how many times a disguise has been foiled by something as simple as the assumed identities associates attempting to make small-talk.
  • Shadow Lore: Once per day you get a somewhat diminished version of Dominate Monster with a 8-hour duration. Charm bosses and force them to give you their treasure. Charm NPCs and force them to reveal plot secrets. Get creative. Unfortunately you need to share a language with the target, so be sure to cast Tongues beforehand.

Abilities

Te bard is heavily reliant on Charisma, but with a bit of Dexterity and Constitution the Bard can survive an occasional dip into melee combat.

Str: Dump stat. Even in melee, the Bard can rely solely on Dexterity

Dex: In light armor and with no shields, the Bard needs Dexterity to boost their poor AC. It also helps when you must occasionally resort to using weapons.

Con: Everyone needs hit points, and things which target Constitution saves tend to be nasty.

Int: Several interesting skills rely on Intelligence, but if you don't take any of those then its worthless..

Wis: Good for important saves and a handful of skills.

Cha: The Bard runs on Charisma. Get as much as you can, as early as you can. Even if you're splitting your time between using weapons and relying on your other bard abilities, too many of the Bard's abilities are tied to your Charisma modifier to let it fall behind.

Point Buy Standard Array
  • Str: 8
  • Dex: 15
  • Con: 13
  • Int: 12
  • Wis: 8
  • Cha: 15
  • Str: 8
  • Dex: 14
  • Con: 13
  • Int: 12
  • Wis: 10
  • Cha: 15

Races

Charisma is crucial. Other abilities are nice, and can inform your build choices, but generally you just want to max Charisma. College of Valor Bards can be built very similarly to a Fighter, so races which work as a Fighter will work reasonably well as a Valor Bard, but won't excel with the Bard's spellcasting and special abilities.

AarakocraEEPC: Flight is great, but nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

AasimarVGTM: Bonus charisma is excellent, and any of the subraces work well for a valor bard.

  • Fallen: Excellent for an offense-focused valor bard.
  • Protector: Bards have little use for Wisdom.
  • Scourge: Tempting for a defensive valor bard, but you'll want to pick up something like Sentinel to keep enemies inside the area of effect.

BugbearVGTM: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

Dwarf: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

  • DuergarSCAG: Decent for a Valor Bard, but even then no better than any other race.
  • HillPHB: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.
  • MountainPHB: Decent for a Valor Bard, but even then no better than any other race.

Dragonborn: Great for a Valor Bard if you want to be Strength-based, but I would probably pick up heavy armor proficiency unless you can manage 14 Dexterity without detracting from other ability scores. The Dragon Hide racial feat is tempting for bards seeking to dive into melee, but you'll be better off in real armor since Dragonborn typically build around Strength-based weapons.

Elf: Dexterity helps since so many Bards are built to use Finesse weapons, and Perception is always nice to have despite the Bard's lack of emphasis on Wisdom. Most of the subraces don't work well for the Bard, but Eladrin are a fantastic option.

  • Drow: The bonus Charisma is nice, but Sunlight Sensitivity is difficult to handle in most games.
  • EladrinMToF: Dexterity and Charisma is a perfect mix for bards, and Fey Step is an extremely powerful ability.
  • High Elf: The Cantrip is tempting, but the bonus to Intelligence is totally wasted.
  • Sea ElfMToF: Nothing particularly useful for the Bard.
  • Shadar-KaiMToF: Nothing particularly useful for the Bard.
  • Wood Elf: Nothing particularly useful for the Bard.

FirbolgVGTM: Everything works except the ability increases.

GenasiEEPC: Nothing useful for the Bard.

  • Air: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.
  • Earth: Nothing useful for the Bard.
  • Fire: Nothing useful for the Bard.
  • Water: Nothing useful for the Bard.

Gith: Nothing particularly useful for the Bard.

  • GithyankiMToF: Strength is nice, and the additional proficiencies will close the armor gap between Valor bards and other bards, but to make use of the Strength you'll probably be going College of Valor anyway.
  • GithzeraiMToF: Nothing particularly useful for the Bard.

Gnome: Bards don't do a lot with Intelligence.

  • Deep (Svirfneblin)EEPC / SCAG: Nothing useful for the Bard.
  • Forest: Dexterity helps since so many Bards are built to use Finesse weapons, and the free cantrip is nice.
  • Rock: Nothing particularly useful for the Bard.

GoblinVGTM: Excellent for a Dexterity-based valor bard who is filling in as the party's rogue. Nimble Escape duplicates most of Cunning Action, which gives you one less reason to take a class dip.

GoliathVGTM/EEPC: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

Half-Elf: +2 Charisma, and two free skills. Even ignoring the other racial abilities, this is already the best option. The Prodigy racial feat offers even more proficiencies and Expertise in another skill, which is wonderful if you're handling the majority of your party's skill checks.

  • AquaticSCAG: Only if you're in an aquatic campaign.
  • DrowSCAG: The free spells are nice, but Bards can already cast those spells, and the additional spellcasting can't compete with extra skill choices on a class which is so dependent on skills.
  • High/Moon/SunSCAG: A Wizard cantrip can be a tempting damaging option since the Bard's best damage cantrip only deals d4's of damage. Lore bards should consider options like Ray of Frost for the slow effect and damage, and valor bards should consider melee options like Green Flame Blade for the improved melee damage output.
  • Keen SensesSCAG: The sidebar describing half-elf variants specifices that you can take Keen Senses in place of Skill Versatility, or a trait based on your elf parentage. Keen Senses give you a single fixed skill, and you're giving up proficiency in any two skills. It should be immediately apparent that this is a terrible trade.
  • WoodSCAG: The bard doesn't get a lot of benefit from these options. Mask of the Wild is tempting for a stealthy Bard, but not enough to justify sacrificing two skill choices.
  • VanillaPHB: Two skill choices are crucial on such a highly-skilled character.

Half-Orc: Decent for a Valor Bard. Intimidation for free is nice since the Bard is typically the party's Face.

Halfling: Dexterity is helpful since Bards have light armor and tend toward Finesse weapons, and Lucky is always good to have. The Bountiful Luck racial feat is a fantastic way to support your allies and fits well with the Bard's role in the party.

  • GhostwiseSCAG: Nothing helpful for the Bard.
  • LightfootPHB: A bit of Charisma is great, and Naturally Stealthy works well for a sneaky Bard.
  • StoutPHB: Nothing useful for the Bard.

HobgoblinVGTM: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

Human: Versatile and fantastic at everything.

  • Vanilla: Since Bards get access to every skill, decent scores in every ability can improve your function as a Jack of All Trades.
  • Variant: Feats are always excellent. Magic Initiate will get you access to good cantrips like Green-Flame Blade for the Valor Bard, and Eldritch Blast for the Lore Bard. If you choose Bard for the feat, the bonus spell known will improve your versatility with your leveled spells, but if you lean toward better cantrips from other classes you'll need to stick to a utility option for the 1st-level spell. Bards are already fantastic at skills, and get a ton of them, but one more never hurts.

KenkuVGTM: Excellent if you want more skills, but without a Charisma bonus you'll likely be shoehorned into college of valor or college of swords. Unless you're dead set on being a kenku, the Tabaxi is a better option.

KoboldVGTM: Kobolds are fine, but their traits don't offer anything specifically useful for the bard.

LocathahLR: The only useful parts are the Dexterity increse and the free skills.

LizardfolkVGTM: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

OrcVGTM: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

TabaxiVGTM: Good ability increases, two free skills, and some other fun traits. Perfect for a bard of any kind.

Tiefling: Not quite as good as the Half-Elf, but the bonus Charisma is still great, and the Tiefling's other racial abilities are a lot of fun. The Infernal Constitution racial feat is really tempting for a melee bard, as it gives you three damage resistances and makes you able to withstand a great deal of damage. With so many Tiefling subraces to choose from, you have a ton of room to really customize your character.

  • AsmodeusMToF: A solid choice.
  • BaalzebulMToF: A useful option if you plan to depend almost entirely on spellcasting and hope to avoid drawing fire.
  • DispaterMToF: The same ability spread as the Asmoedus Tiefling (the generic version), but the spells center more on trickiness and utility.
  • FiernaMToF: A good option for a Face. You can get these spells from the Bard spell list, but they're still useful.
  • GlasyaMToF: The same ability spread as the Asmoedus Tiefling (the generic version), but the spells center more on illusions. You can get these spells from the Bard spell list, but they're still useful.
  • LevistusMToF: Despite the lack of Strength or Dexterity, this is a tempting option for a Valor Bard.
  • MammonMToF: The leveled spells are useful utility options that aren't on the Bard spell list.
  • MephistophelesMToF: Burning hands is nice at low levels but will stop mattering by mid levels. Flame Blade is great for a Valor Bard, but the ability score spread doesn't fit well.
  • ZarielMToF: A fine option for Valor Bards, but you still need Dexterity to fill out your AC in medium armor. The smite spells are fun damage boosts while you're swinging a weapon.
  • Variant: FeralSCAG: The Vanilla ability scores are better for the Bard.
  • Variant: Devil's TongueSCAG: The bonus spells are from the Bard spell list, and you absolutely need to have Vicious Mockery, so this will save you some spells known.
  • Variant: HellfireSCAG: Essentially the same as Vanilla, but a better option for Lore Bards because you don't need to be hit first to use the burning hands.
  • Variant: VanillaPHB: Some interesting utility options, but they may not be as useful for a Bard as the spells offered by Devil's Tongue.
  • Variant: WingedSCAG: Flight is always great, especially if you're not a Valor Bard.

TortleTP: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

TritonVGTM: Fantastic ability increases for a valor bard, plus some innate spellcasting and some other stuff.

VerdanAcInc: Constitution and Charisma is a perfect combination for a Charisma-based spellcaster, and getting Persuasion for free is great. You'll almost certainly be your party's Face, and the Verdan's Telepathic Insight can go a long way to address language barriers despite its limited capabilit.

Yuan-Ti PurebloodVGTM: The intentillegnce bonus won't see much use, but the rest of the pureblood's racial traits make it extremely powerful.

Setting-specific races are address below. Not every setting allows every race, and while most races presented in the core rules and in content for the Forgotten Realms can be used in other settings, races specific to settings like Ravnica aren't typically allowed in other settings. Talk to your DM about what races are allowed in your game.

Races of Eberron

BugbearERLW: See above.

ChangelingERLW: Charisma and a free increase work for any bard build, and you get two skills of your choice and one more language than most races. However, the Half-Elf can match or outdo most of that. Where the Changeling shines is their Shapechanger ability, which is similar to Disguise Self at will. In a game that involves a lot of social interaction or intrigue, this could be a significant asset. But if you're spending most of your time crawling around in dungeons it's little more than a party trick. Also keep in mind that while it changes your physical traits, it does not change your clothing like Disguise Self does, so you may need to combine this with a more mundane disguise in some circumstances.

GoblinERLW: See above.

HobgoblinERLW: See above.

OrcERLW: See above.

KalashtarERLW: The Charisma increase is great, but nothing else here is especially exciting. It's a neat theme with a couple fun things, and the emphasis on mental stuff fits the Bard well since bard's damaging spells are often psychic damage, but it still feels like there isn't enough here to make it a truly spectacular option.

ShifterERLW: Darkvision is always a good base, but only one subrace works for the Bard.

  • Beasthide: Bad ability spread.
  • Longtooth: Bad ability spread.
  • Swiftstride: Dexterity and Charisma increases are perfect for the bard, and an extra skill proficiency never hurts. The Swiftstride shifting feature allows you to easily circle around or move away from enemies, making it much easier for you to remain in advantageous positions in combat.
  • Wildhunt: Bad ability spread.

WarforgedERLW: Constitution and a free increase means that you can get the crucial Charisma increase, but even with the extra AC you'll lag in combat if you choose to rely on weapons. I expect that most warforged bards will stick to spellcasting, but if you're fine lagging offensively a college of valor bard can match full plate AC, which makes you a more viable Defender.

Dragonmarks

While the design intent for Dragonmarks was that they would offer some innate spellcasting for everyone, every dragonmark includes an expanded spell list which is arguably a more significant benefit than most of the provided racial traits. Because the expanded spell options are such an important part of the dragonmarks, if you're not playing a spellcaster you're giving up a huge part of your racial traits, which makes it exceptionally difficult to justify playing a dragonmark character who can't cast spells.

Dragonmarked DwarfERLW: Dragonmark traits replace your subrace.

  • Mark of Warding: Bad ability spread.

Dragonmarked ElfERLW: Dragonmark traits replace your subrace.

  • Mark of Shadow: A Charisma increase on top of the Elf's Dexterity increase, plys bonuses to Charisma (Performance) and Dexterity (Stealth), plus a free cantrip which you likely would have wanted to learn, plus expanded skill options including several which aren't on the Bard's spell list. For a bard who is even occasionally stealthy this is a truly spectacular option.

Dragonmarked GnomeERLW: Dragonmark traits replace your subrace.

  • Mark of Scribing: The ability scores line up, but nearly everything in Mark of Scribing is devoted to sending messages at a distance or translation. That's a useful trick, but you only need so many options to solve that problem, and most of the spells are on the Bard's spell list already.

Dragonmarked Half-ElfERLW: Dragonmark traits replace some of your normal racial traits, as described in the entry for each Dragonmark.

  • Mark of Detection: The flexible ability increase can go into Charisma, and if you focus heavily on investigating, gathering information, and being alert for danger, this can make an interesting bard. The new spells include a bunch of useful divination, which further improves your ability to detect and identify trouble.
  • Mark of Storm: The ability scores match what I recommend for the standard Half-elf (though you lose the second flexible increase), and you get quite a bit in exchange for losing Skill Versatility. A free cantrip (albeit a bad one), gust of wind once per day, and the only dragonmark spells that is already on the Bard's spell list is Feather Fall, so you get several interesting new options, including two spells to conjure creatures.

Dragonmarked Half-OrcERLW: Dragonmark traits replace ALL of your racial traits.

  • Mark of Finding: Bad ability spread.

Dragonmarked HalflingERLW: Dragonmark traits replace your subrace.

  • Mark of Healing: Bad ability spread.
  • Mark of Hospitality: A Charisma increase, a bonus to Charisma (Persuasion), some free innate spells including Prestidigitation, and a whole bunch of great new spells including a mix of Sleep, buffs, and utility options to address food and resting.

Dragonmarked HumanERLW: Dragonmark traits replace ALL of your racial traits.

  • Mark of Finding: See Mark of Finding under Dragonmarked Half-Orc, above. Mechanically, the final racial traits are identical.
  • Mark of Handling: If you put the flexible ability increase into Charisma, this could work, but too much of this is tied to beasts. If your DM will let you tame beasts and unintelligent monstrosities beyond what your class features provide this could be interesting, but that's a big assumption to make about your DM.
  • Mark of Making: Intelligence isn't especially helpful, but the flexible ability increase can go into Charisma, and there is still some good here. Casting Magic Weapon will offset your relatively low Dexterity if you choose to use a weapon, or you can use many of the dragonmark's traits and new spells to buff allies who are using weapons.
  • Mark of Passage: Dexterity and a free ability increase are great, more speed never hurts, and the ability to cast Misty Step is great whether or not you like to fight in melee. All 6 of the spells up to 3rd level are not on the Bard's spell list.
  • Mark of Sentinel: Bad ability spread.

Races of Ravnica

CentaurGGTR: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

GoblinGGTR: See above.

LoxodonGGTR: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

MinotaurGGTR: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

Simic HybridGGTR: The flexible ability increase will almost certainly go into Charisma, but that means that you won't have an increase to put elsewhere, so you'll likely want to stick to College of Lore. Simic Hybrid is in no way a bad choice, but there are numerous choices which are better.

VedalkenGGTR: Nothing specifically useful for the Bard.

Skills

Bards have no pre-defined skill list, and can select their class skill] proficiencies from any skill in the game. This means that you're free to focus on whatever group of skills best complement your party's existing skillset.

  • Acrobatics (Dex): Too situational.
  • Animal Handling (Cha): Bards are not Druids.
  • Athletics (Str): Tripping enemies is pretty great, but most Bards lean more toward Dexterity than Strength.
  • Arcana (Int): One of the most important Knowledge skills.
  • Deception (Cha): Helpful for a Face.
  • History (Int): The least important and most situational knowledge skill.
  • Insight (Wis): Helpful for a Face.
  • Intimidation (Cha): Important for any Face.
  • Investigation (Int): Very important, but you really only need one person in the party to have it.
  • Medicine (Wis): Medicine is best done magically.
  • Nature (Cha): Good knowledge skill, but not as crucial as Arcana or Religion.
  • Perception (Wis): The most rolled skill in the game.
  • Performance (Cha): So this is really weird. In 5e Bards don't actually need Performance, so you can completely skip it. 3.0 was my first RPG, and Bards are indelibly fused to the Perform skill in my mind, so I'm having a little bit of a mental freak-out as I write this.
  • Persuasion (Cha): The king of Face skills.
  • Religion (Int): One of the most important Knowledge skills.
  • Sleight of Hand (Dex): Too situational.
  • Stealth (Dex): Essential if your party lacks a dedicated Scout.
  • Survival (Wis): Too situational.

Background

This section does not address every published background, as doing so would result in an ever-growing list of options which don't cater to the class. Instead, this section will cover the options which I think work especially well for the class, or which might be tempting but poor choices. Racial feats are discussed in the Races section, above.

Bards typically want skills which will help them as a Face, a Librarian, or a Scout, and fortunately there are lots of options. Bonus languages are always helpful for a Face, but remember that you will get access to Comprehend Languages and Tongues. If your party lacks a rogue, it may also be helpful to get proficiency with Thieves' Tools.

  • AcolytePHB: Decent skills for a Bard, and the bonus languages are nice until you can handle languages magically.
  • CharlatanPHB: Good for a stealthy Bard, and plays to a similar skillset to the Actor feat.
  • Cloistered ScholarSCAG: Two knowledge skills. With no bonus Face skills the languages won't be super helpful. Plays very well to the Lore Bard concept.
  • CourtierSCAG: Two Face skills, and two languages with which to use them.
  • CriminalPHB: Fantastic if you are replacing a Rogue in your party.
  • EntertainerPHB: Conceptually perfect for the Bard, but in actuality it's completely useless.
  • Faction AgentSCAG: Customizable to a degree, and plays well to the Bard's strengths.
  • Far TravelerSCAG: Two Face skills, a language, and a great theme for a Bard. Since Bards don't need any more instruments, Courtier is technically better, but Far Traveler has a great theme for the Bard.
  • Guild ArtisanPHB: Great skills for a Face, but artisan's tools are largely useless.
  • InheritorSCAG: Great, except that Survival is largely useless.
  • Knight of the OrderSCAG: Two great skills for the Bard, an insturment, and a language. Since Bards don't need any more instruments, Courtier is technically better
  • Mercenary VeteranSCAG: Passable skills for the Valor Bard, but not great.
  • NoblePHB: Decent skills for a Bard, but gaming sets aren't particularly useful, and only one bonus language.
  • SagePHB: Two great knowledge skills. With no bonus Face skills the languages won't be super helpful. Plays very well to the Lore Bard concept.
  • Urban Bounty HunterSCAG: Fantastically customizable, and a great set of options for the Bard.
  • UrchinPHB: Fantastic if you are replacing a Rogue in your party.
  • Waterdavian NobleSCAG: Two Bard skills, a language, and a great theme for a Bard. Since Bards don't need any more instruments, Courtier is technically better.

Feats

This section does not address every published feat, as doing so would result in an ever-growing list of options which don't cater to the class. Instead, this section will cover the backgrounds recommended in the "Quick Build" section of the class description, as well as other backgrounds which I think work especially well for the class, or which might be tempting but poor choices. The possibility of custom backgrounds also means that it is literally impossible for me to provide comprehensive analysis of every potential background in existence.

  • AlertPHB: Going first is nice for getting buffs set up, but you're not as dependant on it as a Rogue or a Controller.
  • ActorPHB: In a highly social game, this opens up some interesting options and allows you to further capitalize on your excellent Charisma.
  • ChargerPHB: If you're at a distance which requires this, you should fall back on your spells instead.
  • Crossbow ExpertPHB: Valor Bards get Extra Attacks, but even then this doesn't get a lot of mileage.
  • Defensive DuelistPHB: Valor Bards typically rely on Dexterity and Finesse weapons, and this can be a nice way to boost your AC. However, it quickly falls apart if you are outnumbered.
  • Dual WielderPHB: Two-weapon fighting isn't really in the Bard's skillset. Valor Bards need a shield to boost their lousy AC, and Lore bards don't use weapons enough.
  • Dungeon DelverPHB: If you are your party's skill monkey, and the game involves lots of dungeons, this can be very helpful.
  • DurablePHB: Bards can heal magically, so hit dice are less crucial than they are for characters who can't.
  • Elemental AdeptPHB: Bards don't have a big list of offensive spells like a Sorcerer or Wizard.
  • GrapplerPHB: This feat is questionably good at the best of times, and you really need to be Strength-oriented to make it work.
  • Great Weapon MasterPHB: Valor Bards really need to use a shield, and probably won't have the Strength to make a two-handed weapon viable.
  • HealerPHB: Bards can heal magically.
  • Heavily ArmoredPHB: A strength-based Valor Bard can make use of this, but you won't be able to take this until 4th level so levels 1-3 are going to be very dangerous.
  • Heavy Armor MasterPHB: You need Heavily Armored to take this, and if you're tanking enough that you feel like you need this than you should probably be playing a different class.
  • Inspiring LeaderPHB: This provides a big pool of temporary hit points which can dramatically reduce your party's need for healing during combat.
  • Keen MindPHB: I would allow Intelligence checks to do any of these things.
  • LinguistPHB: Use magic.
  • LuckyPHB: Good on anyone.
  • Mage SlayerPHB: Too situational.
  • Magic InitiatePHB: Two cantrips from other classes opens up some great options. Lore Bards may want Eldritch Blast, while Valor Bards may want Booming Blade and/or Green-Flame Blade. Shillelagh is tempting for valor bards, but you'll probably want enough Dexterity that it's not a significant advantage. Consider selecting Bard if you want to expand your list of spells known, but the cantrips may be more useful than knowing one more 1st-level spell.
  • Martial AdeptPHB: Not useful enough with only one superiority die.
  • Medium Armor MasterPHB: Very few Valor Bards will care enough to require this. Disadvantage on Stealth is a big invonvenience, but it won't make or break you, and the extra +1 to AC isn't enough to make this a decent feat.
  • MobilePHB: Valor Bards don't get any special advantages for moving around during combat, so this doesn't get you anything useful.
  • Moderately ArmoredPHB: Valor Bards get medium armor already, and Lore Bards shouldn't need it.
  • Mounted CombatPHB: It's hard to play a mounted character without a special mount ability of some kind.
  • ObservantPHB: Very helpful, but Bards don't have enough Intelligence or Wisdom to be especiall
  • Polearm MasterPHB: Martial Bards are typically Dexterity-based, and there are no Dexterity-based polearms.
  • ResilientPHB: If you were going to be good at a save, your class would have given it to you.
  • Ritual CasterPHB: Bards can already do this on their own.
  • Savage AttackerPHB: This is a bad feat. The largest damage die (d12), yields an average of 2 extra damage per turn.
  • SentinelPHB: Important if you are the party's only front-line character, but you really shouldn't be.
  • SharpshooterPHB: Bards don't do a lot with ranged weapons. Use spells instead.
  • Shield MasterPHB: The primary usage is shoving creatures with your shield, which is fun, but only works if you use your Action to attack instead of doing something cool like casting a spell and using Battle Magic.
  • SkilledPHB: More skills is always good.
  • SkulkerPHB: This only matters if you have Sneak Attack.
  • Spell SniperPHB: Bards don't have enough offensive spells whcih require attack rolls to justify this.
  • Tavern BrawlerPHB: Bards typically don't have the Strength to make grappling viable.
  • ToughPHB: This goes quite a way to address the Bard's low hit dice, but remember that you can heal yourself if your hit points become a problem.
  • War CasterPHB: Valor Bards will get a lot of use out of this. If you pick up Booming Blade from Magic Initiate, you can use it with your opportunity attacks to nearly gurantee the bonus damage when enemies attempt to move away from you.
  • Weapon MasterPHB: You get all of the weapon proficiencies that you need to function.

Weapons

  • Crossbow, Hand: Light Crossbow does more damage and has better range.
  • Crossbow, Light: Bards don't get Extra Attack, so the light crossbow if your best ranged weapon option. Of course, Bards can cast spells which will deal considerably more damage.
  • longsword: Rapier has the same damage, and is a Finesse weapon.
  • Rapier: The Bard's best melee weapon option.
  • shortsword: Rapier deals more damage, and Bards don't get anything from two-weapon fighting.

Armor

  • Leather: Starting gear.
  • Studded Leather: Most Bards will live in Studded Leather.
  • Half Plate: The Valor Bard's best armor. May double as a percussion instrument.
  • Shield: Valor Bards will want as much AC as they can get, so a shield is an obvious choice. Unfortunately, it can cause issues when you're trying to cast spells and use Battle Magic at the same time.

Bard Spells

This is not a comprehensive guide to every available spell, as that would be an exercise in madness. The following is a brief compilation of the most notable spells available to the class. Spells available via Magic Initiate are also excluded; for suggestions for Magic Initiate, see the "Feats" section, above.

Cantrips

  • FriendsPHB: This is hard to use. 1 minute is not a lot of time, and you generally need to put distance between yourself and the subject of the spell before they turn hostile. You could use this to intimidate a creature into fleeing, but in most cases you'll probably be using this quickly talk your way past a creature blocking your way like a guard at a gate. You generally won't need this; between high Charisma and a long list of skill proficiencies it's easy to cover all of the Face skills.
  • Minor IllusionsPHB: Not quite as broadly useful as Prestidigitation, but it allows for all sorts of interesting shenanigans.
  • PrestidigitationPHB: Too useful to forgo.
  • ThunderclapEEPC / XGtE: Damaging every creature within 5 feet of you is great if you're in melee facing numerous enemies. Even with Extra Attack you will deal more damage with this against three or more foes than you could with a weapon. See my article on Melee Cantrips vs. Extra Attack for a breakdown of the math comparing melee cantrip spells to normal martial attacks.
  • Vicious MockeryPHB: Easily the most iconic bard spell, Vicious Mockery is unique, flavorful, and mechanically fantastic. It is the only cantrip which deals psychic damage, and it adds a helpful debuff.

1st-Level Spells

  • Comprehend LanguagesPHB: You can't learn every language in 5e. It's simply not possible. Eventually you will want to replace this with Tongues, but Comprehend Languages does fine until then.
  • Cure WoundsPHB: More healing than Healing Word, but the action economy is considerably worse. Save this for when you need hit points and you're either out of hit dice or don't have time to rest.
  • Detect MagicPHB: Someone needs to have it in every party.
  • Dissonant WhispersPHB: Surprisingly good crowd control. This only requires verbal components, so you can use it while grappled to force the creature grappling you to run away. The damage isn't spectacular, but honestly you don't need it to be.
  • Faerie FirePHB: The lowest-level option to deal with invisible creatures. Hopefully you won't run into any at 1st level, but but it's important to have some way to deal with invisibility just in case.
  • Feather FallPHB: You don't need to get this at 1st level, but eventually you'll want it. You may only use it a couple times in your character's whole career, but when you do it will save someone's life.
  • Healing WordPHB: More important than Cure Wounds, especially at low levels. As a bonus action you can heal an unconscious ally enough to get them back into the fight, and you still have your action for Vicious Mockery.
  • HeroismPHB: At low levels where your tank might only have 12 hp and enemies are only doing something like 5 damage per turn, this is a big enough buff to win a fight for you. At higher levels it will be less appealing due to the Concentration requirement, but it will always remain a solid use of a 1st-level spell. Compare it to Cure Wounds: Cure Wounds will heal at most 11 hp (1d8+Cha with a +3 Charisma modifier). If you have 16 Charisma and can keep Heroism running for four rounds you can prevent up to 12 damage and still have 6 levels to enjoy the spell. When you use higher-level spell slots Heroism continues to outpace Cure Wounds. At 2nd-level, Cure Wounds heals 2d8+Cha (maximum 19 with 16 Charisma), while Heroism can prevent 18 hit points of damage in just three rounds, then continue functioning for another 7 rounds. Remember the old adage: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
  • LongstriderPHB: Even with a hour-long duration, this isn't especially appealing. Movement in 5e is really easy, and you can use other options to get away from enemies or to get enemies away from you.
  • SleepPHB: At an average of 22.5 hp worth of creatures, you won't be able to affect many creatures while they're at full hit points, but you can wait to wear down their hit points before finishing them off with Sleep. Sleep notably doesn't require a saving throw, making it a powerful and reliable way to incapacitate with relatively few hit points even at high levels.
  • Tasha's Hideous LaughterPHB: Single-target save-or-suck. It won't work on unintelligent creatures, but otherwise you can easily compare this to Hold Monster. Both have the same duration, require Concentration, and allow Wisdom saving throws both to resist the initial effect and to end the effect at the end of the target's turn. Paralysis is a more lethal effect, but if you just need a creature to sit out of combat for a while they're functionally interchangeable.
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2nd-Level Spells

  • Blindness/DeafnessPHB: A 1-minute duration is usually longer than an encounter. Targeting big melee enemies seems like an obvious use, but the best targets for this are actually enemies who rely on spellcasting. Many spells simply don't function if the caster can't see the target, and the Constitution save is more effective against relatively frail enemies like spellcasters.
  • Cloud of DaggersPHB: It's hard to guarantee that this will deal damage unless you have a good way to keep an enemy in the area of effect. An ally who likes to grapple will work, but that's hard to guarantee, and it's an extra point of failure. The damage will roll reliably because it's spread over multiple small dice, but even then the damage won't be great unless you can hold a single target in the area for several rounds. If you want single-target damage, go for something with more damage up front. If you want area control, go for something with a bigger area.
  • Crown of MadnessPHB: This spell is borderline unusable. The creature must attack before it moves, so you may be able to make it attack an ally once immediately after the spell is cast, but it retains control over its movement so it's free to walk away from its allies. On top of that, you need to spend your own action to maintain the spell rather than simply concentrating, so you're eating your own turns for the remote chance that the target will wander up to another of its allies.
  • Heat MetalPHB: Against enemies in metal armor, this is absolutely horrific. The target doesn't get a save to resist the effect, so they're trapped taking the damage unless the spell ends or they can resist fire damage. Even with a 2nd-level spell slot, you can do a total of 20d8 damage with this. Triggering the damage again as a bonus action means that you can cast this early in a fight and slowly wear down the victim. Even the scaling is great; an extra d8 per spell slot level doesn't seem like much, but remember that you're getting up to 10 times that extra damage. Even at 20th level, against an enemy in metal armor I would consider Heat Metal as a 9th-level spell to be a go-to option. Admittedly this option is situational because it requires an enemy with metal equipment, but it's a situation that occurs frequently.
  • Hold PersonPHB: You can get most of the same benefits from Tasha's Hideous Laughter.
  • InvisibilityPHB: An essential scouting and infiltration tool, and as you get higher-level spell slots you can affect more of your party.
  • KnockPHB: The primary reason to have proficiency with Thieves' Tools is to handle lock. Knock doesn't require a check. It just works. Make aggressive eye contact with your party's rogue while you cast this just to rub it in.
  • Lesser RestorationPHB: Situational, but a situation that comes up often. If you don't have a cleric in the party you may be the only one with access to this spell, so you'll want to take it at some point.
  • Locate ObjectPHB: Too situational, and too easy to counter. Anyone with any knowledge of magic that's trying to hide something will wrap it in lead.
  • Phantasmal ForcePHB: Adventuring tends to involve running into a lot of things that aren't very smart. Beasts, ogres, etc. all have terrible Intelligence saves. This spell is a great counter to those creatures, and its flexible nature gives you a lot of room to really mess with the target. Unfortunately, it also requires that your DM be creative enough to simulate how a creature would respond to whatever nonsense you come up with. If your DM has trouble with illusions, this spell may not work out well for you.
  • PyrotechnicsEEPC / XGtE: Not always useful, but always an option. The amount of flame required to use the spell is unspecific, so as far as I can tell you can use something as small as a candle. Use Mage Hand to float a torch or something over to where you want the effect, then hit it with Pyrotechnics.
  • See InvisibilityPHB: With a 1-hour duration and no concentration requirement, See Invisibility is a great way to handle invisible creatures.
  • ShatterPHB: Decent AOE damage at range.
  • SilencePHB: Verbal components are extremely common in spells, including many that spellcasters frequently use to escape dangerous situations. If you can trap an enemy spellcaster in place (such as by having an ally grapple them) and drop Silence around them, they're usually trapped with no hope of escape.
  • SuggestionPHB: Flexible with a long duration, but it can be hard to spare 8 hours to concentrate on Suggestion while you're actively adventuring and the subject might be off somewhere not demanding your attention.
  • Warding WindEEPC / XGtE: A decent buff for melee bards. Making the area around you difficult terrain makes it hard for enemies to move toward or away from you, and disadvantage on ranged weapon attacks keeps enemies with ranged weapons from picking you off from afar while you're closing the distance.

3rd-Level Spells

  • Bestow CursePHB: The effects are versatile enough that you can easily bring this into play in a variety of situations, and the scaling mechanism works well enough that this remains a viable option for higher-level spell slots. Use the third option against big tanky enemies with poor Wisdom, or use the first option against enemies that like to grapple.
  • CatnapXGtE: A Short Rest is typically one hour. In most campaigns, that will be fine most of the time unless the DM is deliberately creating a time crunch which prevents resting or otherwise sitting about wasting time. In those cases you might be able to squeeze in a Catnap, but more than likely the 10 minute duration will still be problematic.
  • ClairvoyancePHB: With a 1-mile range and the ability to place the sensor in place you can't see, this is a fantastic way to safely scout dangerous places. If you have enough time to sit around and cast the spell repeatedly you can scout whole structures from the outside by gradually learning about more interior locations through previous castings.
  • Enemies AboundXGtE: Astoundingly few enemies have good Intelligence saves, especially big scary melee monsters. Throw this on something tanky and horrifying that's there to protect squishy enemies from you and your friends, and watch it freak out and kill its buddies for you. The duration is only a minute, and obviously this only works in an encounter with multiple enemies, but that doesn't make the spell less awesome.
  • Glyph of WardingPHB: I'm really glad WotC was smart enough to add a 200gp consumable material component to this spell. If they hadn't, I would solve far too many problems by delivering scrolls with a Glyph of Warding to hostile NPCs.
  • Hypnotic PatternPHB: AOE save or suck.
  • Leomund's Tiny HutPHB: Tiny Hut is a great place to rest, and if you have time to set it up it's a great defensive position.
  • Major ImagePHB: If you don't like to use illusions frequently, consider picking this up later when you can cast 6th-level spells so that you can create permanent illusions.
  • SendingPHB: Not especially glamorous, but messaging over massive distances has a number of uses. Also, due to the wording of the spell, you can use it on creatures that don't understand your speech and they'll still understand your meaning, allowing you to use Sending in place of Tongues if you only need to convey brief messages.
  • Stinking CloudPHB: Constitution-based save or suck in an AOE. Hypnotic Pattern may be more reliable, but you can still attack the targets of Stinking Cloud without breaking the effect.
  • TonguesPHB: You are almost certainly your party's Face, and language can present a serious barrier. You may not want to pick this up when you first get access to 3rd-level spells, but consider picking it up later when using a 3rd-level spell on a utility option is less daunting.

4th-Level Spells

  • Charm MonsterXGtE: A great nonlethal way to deal with enemies. It doesn't require that the target be able to understand you, but otherwise has the same complications which Charm Person does: the target is only friendly toward you, and when the spell ends they know that they were charmed.
  • CompulsionPHB: This is technically situational, but if you can get a group of enemies to all run one direction and bunch up against a wall or something, they're very easy to hit with a big AOE. You can't run them into something like a Wall of Fire, unfortunately.
  • ConfusionPHB: I've hated Confusion since 3rd edition. It's unpredictable, unreliable, and makes combat take twice as long as it would normally. It's great that it's an AOE, and you might be able to make creatures attack their allies, but there are too many points of failure for it to be a reliable option.
  • Dimension DoorPHB: Misty Step isn't on the Bard's spell list for whatever reason, and having a way to teleport out of a terrible situation (like ropes or a grapple) is extremely useful.
  • Freedom of MovementPHB: Nice, but situational. If you need to get yourself out of restraints or a grapple, cast Dimension Door.
  • Greater InvisibilityPHB: Invisibility in 5e is really good, and running around for a full minute being almost impossible to target is a huge advantage.
  • PolymorphPHB: Fantastic and versatile, but also very complicated. See my Practical Guide to Polymorph for detailed advice on how to get the most out of Polymorph.
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5th-Level Spells

  • Animate ObjectsPHB: Provided that there is sufficient fodder for the spell, this can work in a variety of encounters. Tiny and Huge are notably the most lethal options, so generally you'll be animating one big thing or a bunch of tiny things. Suitable objects should be easy to find: even random debris should suffice. However, the duration is short is the animated objects are frail and don't get stronger as you gain levels, so you may want to retrain this after enjoying it for a few levels.
  • Dominate PersonPHB: If you don't face many humanoid enemies, this may not be worthwhile. But if you do, dominating an enemy and turning it into a temporary ally is very effective.
  • GeasPHB: This is too situational to spend a spell known. It's great for spellcasters like Clerics and Wizards, but it's usable too rarely to waste scant resources learning it in hopes that it will be useful someday.
  • Greater RestorationPHB: If you don't have a Cleric in the party, you need this.
  • Hold MonsterPHB:
  • Mass Cure WoundsPHB: You shouldn't need this. It doesn't do enough healing to justify the spell slot, so the best use case is to cast it when you have more than one ally at 0 hit points. If you reach that point, things have gone very seriously wrong. Healing Word is a much more efficient way to get people conscious, and considering how little healing you're getting out of Mass Cure Wounds your allies will probably go down again anyway if anything looks at them funny.
  • MisleadPHB: Situational. Not a great option in combat, but out of combat this provides a passably safe way to scout an area or to trick other creatures.
  • Raise DeadPHB: This is an odd thing to find on the Bard spell list. Death is part of the game, so eventually you'll need this, but it's no fun to spend one of your limited spells known on a spell you might cast once or twice ever.
  • Skill EmpowermentXGtE: Expertise for everyone! You won't be throwing this on the Fighter for them to shove or grapple everything they meet (you have better combat buffs), but you can put this on a character before sneaking, before an important social situation, before investigating something important, or basically any other time that there's an important skill check to be made and you have time to buff yourselves beforehand.
  • Synaptic StaticXGtE: Good AOE damage on a save that's usually really low, and it applies a good debuff to those affected.

6th-Level Spells

  • EyebitePHB: A fantastic use of a spell slot: spend one spell slot, and every round for a minute you get to pick a creature and put it to sleep.
  • Mass SuggestionPHB: Tell a potential fight to go take a pleasant stroll somewhere far away.
  • Otto's Irresistible DancePHB: Hillarious, but Hold Monster is more effective, works on the same save, and has the same duration.
  • Programmed IllusionPHB: Situational, but really abusable. It's permament and resets on its own, so you can do all sorts of hillarious things with it to mess with other creatures. The 25gp material component is nothing by this level, so you can throw up programmed illusions all over the place for a pittance. As far as I can tell, you can cast the spell with otherlapping areas, so you could cast it three times to make the illusions trigger each other and have a perpetual illusion running. Unfortunately, the spell's language restricts what you can depict to "an object, a creature, or some other visible phenomenon", so you probably couldn't create a room of illusory guards. Still, you could have a permanent illusory bard playing a 15-minute loop of songs.
  • True SeeingPHB: Situational, but largely unbeatable in situations where it applies.

7th-Level Spells

  • EtherealnessPHB: A profoundly effective scouting/escape option. Unless you're fighting ethereal enemies, you're untouchable. You can see and hear into the material plane (albeit at limited distance), allowing you to spy on other creatures in person without their knowledge.
  • ForcecagePHB: An absolutely amazing way to isolate either your party or your enemies. The duration is long enough to take a short rest, and there's no save for enemies to resist it. Have an ally drop an AOE damage over time spell like Hunger of Hadar, then drop a Force Cage on top of it and you're playing a magical game of "Will it Blend?".
  • Mirage ArcanePHB: This is a difficult spell. The affectable area is huge, the distance is Sight (go climb a mountain on a clear day), and the effects of the illusion are tangible enough that you can physically interact with them, including picking up sticks or stones. But it's unclear how far that goes: Can you burn the illusory wood to keep yourself warm? Can you smooth over difficult terrain in the same way that you can make smooth terrain difficult? Could you place stairs in the side of a clear cliff face? How far up and down does the effect stretch? The closest we have is these two tweets which indicate that you have a lot of leeway, and that the effects are real enough that a creature could drown in illusory water, brun in illusory lava, and climb illusory trees. Your DM will be the abiter of exactly what you can get away with, but the spell itself is a wildly versatile toolbox.
  • Mordenkainen's Magnificent MansionPHB: In the real world, learning to cast this spell would mean that you could comfortably retire. Each day you would walk out of the mansion, cast the spell again to recreate the house for 24 hours, then you would return to your invisibile extraplanar abode to enjoy another 24 hours of abundant food, comfort, and nearly-invisible servants. The size of the mansion amounts to 5000 square feet, which is plenty to accomodate a part of adventurers and a sizeable retinue. The suggested 100 banquet guests would each have 50 square feet (a 5x10 area) of space to themselves, but a cleverly layed out mansion could easily turn that space into a large common area for feasting and a collection of small rooms with bunk beds for sleeping off a magical 9-course meal. However, in purely mechanical terms this is a spell that the Bard can't afford to learn. There are many less costly options for solving the same problems, and you're strictly limited in the number of spells which you can learn.
  • Mordenkainen's SwordPHB: This is an objectively bad spell. Compare it to Bigby's Hand, and it's pretty clear. Bigby's Hand isn't on the Bard spell list unfortunately, but that's what Magical Secrets is for.
  • Project ImagePHB: Mislead with a longer duration and better range. The language used to describe the copy's capabilities is nearly identical. The extra range makes it a bit more versatile, but it's still fairly situational.
  • RegeneratePHB: Too situational to select as a spellcaster with a limited number of spells known. DnD doesn't have injury rules which lead to limb removal except in very specific circumstances, so it's not like characters are losing fingers and toes despite spending potentially years being sliced and diced by all manny of oponents.
  • ResurrectionPHB: If you learned Raise Dead you might replace it with Resurrection, but I don't think Resurrection is a meaningful improvement over Raise Dead.
  • SymbolPHB: While many of the effects are wonderful, the inability to move the symbol and the high casting cost are prohibitive.
  • TeleportPHB: Every party needs a way to get around magically, and teleport is one of the better options.

8th-Level Spells

  • Dominate MonsterPHB: Arguably the best save-or-suck spell in the game.
  • FeeblemindPHB: Wisdom-based and Charisma-based casters are extremely vulnerable to Feeblemind. Even creatures who cast spells as a supplement to their other abilities can be seriously inhibited by suddenly being less intelligent than many animals.
  • GlibnessPHB: Charisma checks include skills like Persuasion, but they also include thing like the ability checks for Counterspell and Dispel Magic. Throw this up before going into a fight with an enemy spellcaster and enjoy countering everything that they cast with minimal effort.
  • Mind BlankPHB: Situational, but hillarious if you have a Berserker Barbarian in the party.
  • Power Word StunPHB: Gambling on a creature's current hit point total is hard, especially since you get so few spell slots at this level, but if you can time this to hit a wounded enemy it can take them out of the encounter long enough for you to win largely unopposed.

9th-Level Spells

  • ForesightPHB: This is, without a doubt, the best buff in the game. With an 8-hour duration you can throw it on the lucky recipient and watch them laugh their way through nearly any challenge for a full day worth of adventuring.
  • Mass PolymorphXGtE: You sacrifice the absolute power of True Polymorph for the ability to affect up to 10 creatures. The rules for handling creatures with no CR (your party) are written to make this really unappealing compared to True Polymorph. Compared to turning one ally into a CR 17+ dragon, turning up to 10 of your allies into Tyranosauruses (Tyranosaurs? Tyranosauri?) simply isn't as effective, even if the phrase "I turn us and our horses into tyranosauruses" is one of the coolect things I can think to say during a game. You can use the spell offensively and the targets don't get additional saving throws, so turn your enemies into slugs or something and pitch them into the plane of fire or somewhere equally unpleasant.
  • Power Word HealPHB: Full healing and removing a bunch of status conditions in one spell is really tempting, but preventing all of that damage and all of those conditions wtih Foresight will work much better.
  • Power Word KillPHB: 100 hit points is a very low cap, but it's hard to argue with how effective it is to outright slay a creature with no rolls involved. As an example, a 20th-level wizard with 12 Constitution will have 102 hit points (6+19*4+20), so basically nothing which is scary at this level will be immediately vulnerable, but if your allies can deal a bunch of damage quickly you may be able to use this in round 1 of a fight.
  • Psychic ScreamXGtE: Intelligence saving throws tend to be poor, and this affects up to 10 creatures. The damage is decent, but it is absolutely not the primary appeal of the spell. It's the fact that you can make creatures' heads explode. Or if that's not appealing it's the ongoing Stun effect which again targets those low Intelligence saves. The stun has no limit on its duration, so creatures are stunned until they get a lucky roll, leaving your plenty of time to deal with them and their allies.
  • True PolymorphPHB: Powerful, versatile, and it lasts an hour. This is a spell that really rewards thorough knowledge of 5e's monsters, so go sit down with the Monster Manual etc. and do some reading. You'll want a go-to combat form at CR 17, 18, 19, and 20 for when you need to turn yourself or an ally into a monster, but you should also look for a good CR 9 in case you need to polymorph an object into a pet. Remember that the spell becomes permanent if you keep it running for an hour, so you can also use this to permanently turn yourself or someone else into a monster or a dragon or something. You'll lose all of your Warlock stuff because you assume the creature's statistics, but honestly a CR 20 dragon is much more powerful anyway. The spells final option allows you to turn a creature into an object with no save. Turn them into a flower pot, then either drop them from high enough to deal maximum fall damage (the extra damage carries over to their regular hit points when they revert), throw them into a demiplane, plane shift them somewhere unpleasant, or dispose of them in some other permanent and irrevocable fashion.

Multiclassing

  • Fighter: Can't decide between Lore and Valor? Take a level of Fighter on a Lore Bard, and you get all of the Valor Bard's free proficiencies. Fighting Style is nice, too.
  • Paladin: A tempting alternative to the Fighter, depending on how many levels you intend to spend multiclassing. If you're only going one level, Fighter will get you better stuff. If you're going for two levels, you'll get access to the Paladin's 1st-level spells, including several smite spells, and Divine Smite. Divine Smite is a tempting option for a full spellcaster like the Bard.
  • Rogue: The ultimate skill build combination. One free skill (limited to the Rogue list, unfortunately), thieves' tools, and Expertise in in two skills. Bards don't actually need anything that the Rogue provides unless you're serving as your party's Rogue-replacement, but if you really need to cover a ton of skills, Rogue is a fantastic choice for a 1-level dip.
  • Sorcerer: Much of the same appeal as the Wizard, but since the Sorcerer is also Charisma-based you don't need to invest in Intelligence. You'll still face issues with access to high-level spells, but at least you won't be MAD.
  • Warlock: A single level of Hexblade gets you medium armor, shields, and you can use your Charisma with a weapon so you don't need any more than 14 Dexterity and you don't need to spend a magical secret to learn Shillelagh.
  • Wizard: Gets you access to some Wizard cantrips, but long-term multiclassing for full casters doesn't work well because you get such limited access to powerful high-level spells. Wizard also imposes a dependence on Intelligence, making the Bard very MAD. Magic Initiate and Magical Secrets will get you everything you really need.

Example Build - Half-Elf Bard (College of Lore)

I'm running out of impolite things to say when I cast Vicious Mockery.

This section does not address every published background, as doing so would result in an ever-growing list of options which don't cater to the class. Instead, this section will cover the options which I think work especially well for the class, or which might be tempting but poor choices. Racial feats are discussed in the Races section, above.

While this build is conceptually simple, it's complicated due to the Bard's high number of decision points. Between a long list of skill proficiencies, Expertise, and Magical Secrets, there's a lot of room for customization. This can make the Bard difficult for new players to approach, but players who can manage the complexities will find that their character is uniquely tailored to their tastes and a capable contributor to the party in any situation.

Abilities

We will assume the 25-point buy abilities suggested above, but the other suggested abilities can also use this build without any problems.

Base Increased
Str 8 8
Dex 15 16
Con 13 14
Int 12 12
Wis 8 10
Cha 15 17

Race

Half-Elf. Half-Elf is a safe, solid bet for any bard. We'll put the two flexible ability score increases into Dexterity and Constitution.

Skills and Tools

Between the Half-elf racial traits and the Bard skills, we get our choice of any five skills. 5th edition has 18 skills, so we obviously can't get everything, but fortunately we'll get two more from our background and three more at 3rd level when we get College of Lore's Bonus Proficiencies. That's a total of 10 skill proficiencies, which is a lot to decide. At 1st level you only need to pick 5, but remember that you'll get two from your Background, and intentionally selecting redundant proficiencies doesn't help you because you can already pick any skill.

I recommend tailoring your skills to your role in the party:

Role Face Librarian Scout
Skills
  • Deception
  • Insight
  • Intimidation
  • Perception
  • Performance
  • Nature
  • Perception
  • Performance
  • Persuasion
  • Religion
  • Acrobatics
  • Insight
  • Perception
  • Performance
  • Sleight of Hand

Bards also get proficiency in three musical instruments. Bard use instruments as a magic focus for spellcasting, so generally you want something portable like a flute, a lute, or a hand-held harp, but which specific instrument you pick has little or no mechanical impact.

Background

If your party lacks a scout (someone with proficiency in Stealth and Thieves' Tools), select the Criminal background. This gets you Thieves' Tools proficiency and some helpful skills.

If your party lacks a librarian (a wizard, etc.), select the Sage background. Two knowledge skills goes a long way, and with your other open skill proficiencies you've got plenty of room to pick up other skills.

If your party lacks a Face, there is no one more capable of filling that role than you. Select the Noble background.

Levels

Level Feat(s) and Features Notes and Tactics
1
  • Spellcasting
  • Bardic Inspiration (d6)
  • Cantrips Known:
    • Prestidigitation
    • Vicious Mockery
  • Spells Known:
    • Detect Magic
    • Healing Word
    • Heroism
    • Sleep

Even at first level, you're extremely effective. 7 skill proficiencies, a robust and well-rounded list of spells, and you're good enough with weapons that you can fall back on a bow or a rapier if you absolutely need to.

Try to find yourself a shield as soon as possible. With leather armor and 16 Dexterity your AC is just 14, and with 10 hit points that's not a lot of protection. You can use a shield in one hand and a musical instrument in the other so that you can boost your AC and still cast spells. Vicious Mockery won't do nearly as much damage as a weapon, but the debuff may prevent large amounts of damage to your party.

2
  • Jack of All Trades
  • Song of Rest (d6)

2nd level increases your utility. Jack of All Trades gives you a bonus to all ability checks, including Initiative check and the rest of the skills which you haven't managed to pick up.

Song of Rest provides a small, but meaningful boost to your party's healing resources. At low levels, 1d6 may be the difference between life and death. Of course, allies need to spend hit dice to heal themselves in order to get the bonus die, but even at 2nd level you can manage that twice in a day. You just need to convince your allies that they need to save their second hit die for a second rest even if it means finishing your first short rest at less than full hit points.

3
  • Bard College (College of Lore)
  • Bonus Proficiencies
  • Cutting Words
  • Expertise

This is a fun level. Pick three more skills, then pick two skills in which to gain Expertise. I recommend Perception and two of the role-based skills I recommended above.

Cutting Words introduces a new usage for Bardic Inspiration. You're still limited to three uses per day at this level, so you need to be really conservative. I recommend keeping at least one use of Bardic Inspiration in reserve specifically for use with Cutting Words so you can turn save yourself or an ally at the last possible second.

3rd level also brings 2nd-level spells, which opens up a whole new pile of options. If you find that you're not using one of your 1st-level spells you can retrain it into a 2nd-level spell, but remember that you only have two 2nd-level spell slots so you may not get a lot of mileage out of two 2nd-level spells known.

4
  • Ability Score Improvement (Charisma 17 -> 19)
  • New Cantrips Known:
    • Dancing Lights

4th level is a little bit dry, but a Charisma increase does a lot for the Bard. Your weapon attacks are going to start lagging because you're a point behind the attack vs. AC curve, but 55% chance of hitting is still decent, and a weapon may be more useful than Vicious Mockery in some cases.

5
  • Bardic Inspiration (d8)
  • Font of Inspiration

5th level is as good for the Bard as it is for anyone else. Your Bardic Inspiration die improves, and with Font of Inspiration you've got much more freedom to spend inspiration dice.

Cantrip damage increases at 5th level, so Vicious Mockery now deals 2d4 damage (avg. 5). Weapon attacks will deal slightly more damage, but I think the added utility of Vicious Mockery is still better.

6
  • Countercharm
  • Additional Magical Secrets

Countercharm is situational, but there are many effects which are based on the Charmed condition that go well beyond charming a creature.

Additional Magical Secrets is a confusing name because you get it four levels earlier than Magical Secrets. Choosing spells can be very difficult because the options are so numerous. Choose spells which complement the makeup of your party. For example: if your party lacks a blaster, consider fireball. If you need a go-to ranged damage option that's more lethal than Vicious Mockey, consider Eldritch Blast, Firebolt, or Toll the Dead.

7

Nothing new at this level except 4th-level spells.

8
  • Ability Score Improvement (Charisma 19 -> 20, Dex 16 -> 17)

We're still one point behind the attack vs. AC curve with our weapon attacks, but by this level you've got enough spells that making a weapon attack should be an occasional exception.

With our Charisma maximized at 20, you now have 5 Bardic Inspiration dice to throw around, and you get them back on a short rest.

9
  • Song of Rest (d8)

Increasing the die size of Song of Rest does basically nothing. The difference between 1d6 and 1d8 is an average of 1 hit point.

10
  • Bardic Inspiration (d10)
  • Expertise
  • Magical Secrets
  • New Cantrips Known:
    • Any

Bardic Inspiration continues to improve, and now that you have 5 dice to use, every tiny improvement goes a long way.

Two more Expertise choices is great, and by this level you should have a good idea of what skills are being used frequenty in your campaign.

11

11th level brings 6th-level spells, and it's the last level at which you learn at least one new spell every level.

12
  • Ability Score Improvement (Constitution 14 -> 16)

At this point you're free to do what you like with your Ability Score Increases. More Dexterity means more AC, and more Constitution means more hit points. If you're ready to go beyond the SRD, consider a feat.

13
  • Song of Rest (d10)

More Song of Rest, and 7th-level spells.

14
  • Peerless Skill
  • Magical Secrets

Peerless skill allows you to benefit from your own Bardic Inspiration, though only on ability checks. That's great for social situations, but I still wish we could use Bardic Inspiration for our own saving throws.

More Magical Secrets at this level is great. With access to 7th-level spells, you have a massive list of options, and since spellcasters get so few spells known at high levels you can really diversify your skillset.

15
  • Bardic Inspiration (d12)

Bardic Inspiration maxes out at d12, and you get 8th-level spells.

16
  • Ability Score Improvement (Constitution 16 -> 18)

Another chance to boost your ability scores or get a feat.

17
  • Song of Rest (d12)

At this level the tiny amount of extra healing provided by Song of Rest will frequently feel pointless. But you also get 9th-level spells at this level, which is pretty great.

Cantrips also get their final damage increase at this level.

18
  • Magical Secrets

At this level you learn two bard spells and two new Magic Secrets for a total of 4 new spells. You have access to every spell list in the game, and with access to 9th-level spells you can select literally any spell in the game. That makes the decision very difficult. I don't have a great answer for you yet, but go looking at the Spells sections of all of my other class guides for anything that looks good.

19
  • Ability Score Improvement (Constitution 18 -> 20)

20
  • Superior Inspiration

One use of Bardic Inspiration may not seem like much, but when it comes up you'll be glad to have it. It also significantly reduces the need to hang on to one die to get an ally out of a bad situation since you'll get one die at the beginning of every fight.