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. Subclasses like College of Lore are more of the classic supportive Bard, with improved magical options and support abilities, while College of Swords and College of Valor can serve as front-line melee characters 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 mechanical reason to take the skill.

After reading this handbook, I encourage you to read our Bard Races Breakdown, Bard Subclasses Breakdown, and Bard Spells Breakdown.

Table of Contents

Disclaimer

RPGBOT uses 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. Nearly never useful.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances. Useful sometimes.
  • Green: Good options. Useful often.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character. Useful very frequently.

We will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, in handbooks for official content because we can’t assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. We also won’t cover Unearthed Arcana content because it’s not finalized, and we can’t guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.

The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials are released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.

RPGBOT is unofficial Fan Content permitted under the Fan Content Policy. Not approved/endorsed by Wizards. Portions of the materials used are property of Wizards of the Coast. ©Wizards of the Coast LLC.

Bard Class Features

Optional Class Features are detailed below under Optional 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.

For help selecting spells, see my Bard Spell List Breakdown.

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: Jack of All Trades may be one of the most easily-overlooked class features in the game. The obvious function is that it adds to all of your skill checks where you’re not already proficient, but it also applies to a dizzying long list of other ability checks and I keep finding more examples. I couldn’t squish them all into a paragraph of text, so here’s a bulleted list of all of documented examples I’ve found where Jack of All Trades applies:

  • Initiative
  • Counterspell
  • Dispel Magic
  • Listed examples of Constitution checks:
    • Hold your breath
    • March or labor for hours without rest
    • Go without sleep
    • Survive without food or water
    • Quaff an entire stein of ale in one go
  • Intelligence check to escape the Maze spell

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: Bard subclasses are briefly summarized below. See my Bard Subclasses Breakdown for help selecting your subclass.

  • College of Creation: Use the song of creation to sing objects to life or create them out of thing air, and add powerful additional benefits to Bardic Inspiration.
  • College of Eloquence: The best bard that ever did bard, College of Eloquence reinforces and expands upon the Bard’s core class features. While it doesn’t add anything truly new to the class, it does make the Bard’s core features considerably better.
  • College of Glamour: A combination of support and Charm effects, College of Glamour makes a great support caster but doesn’t add any directly offensive capabilities.
  • College of Lore: Double down on the Bard’s core features, adding more Expertise, more Magical Secrets, and new support options.
  • College of Swords: Focused on new martial capabilities, College of Swords allows you to perform Flourishes which work similarly to the Battlemaster Fighter’s Maneuvers.
  • College of Valor: Add some martial capabilities to the Bard, including medium armor, shields, martial weapons, and Extra Attack.
  • College of Whispers: Adept at disguises and deception, College of Whispers is great in a campaign with a lot of intrigue, but not a lot of dungeon crawling.

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. Keep in mind that these spells still use your normal number of bard spells known, so you select these spells instead of bard spells, not in addition to your bard spells known. College of Lore’s Extra Magical Secrets feature is an exception, as it does give you two additional spells known.

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

Optional Class Features

Introduced in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, Optional Class Features offer ways to add additional features or replace existing ones. These rules are optional, and you should not assume that your DM will allow these features without consulting them first.

Assessments and suggestions for specific Optional Class Features are presented here, but for more information on handling Optional Class Features in general, see my Practical Guide to Optional Class Features.

Additional Bard Spells (Addition): Everything added by this optional feature makes sense on the Bard’s spell list. None of it changes the bard’s tactics or their party role in any significant way, but it does add some new options for players to explore.

I recommend allowing the expanded spell list on all bards. The additions allow the bard to fill the niche between cleric-equivalents and wizard-equivalents slightly better, but don’t actually make the class any more powerful. Remember: bards still have a fixed number of spells known, and this doesn’t change that. On top of that, if any of these spells were exceptionally powerful for the bard, they would already be available via Magical Secrets.

Magical Inspiration (Addition): Unless you’re using this right before a rest which will restore your Bardic Inspiration, this is a terrible waste of a Bardic inspiration die. Also, the name of this feature is terrible. Nothing about the phrase “Magical Inspiration” reminds me that it’s related to healing.

I recommend allowing Magical Inspiration on all bards because it’s not nearly as effective as most other uses of Bardic Inspiration.

Bardic Versatility (Addition): Retrain Expertise or a cantrip. Fantastic if you need it or if your party composition changes and you want to adjust your capabilities to reflect your altered role in the party.

I recommend allowing Bardic Versatility on all bards. You can’t get anything which you couldn’t already have, so it doesn’t make your character more powerful. Hopefully it will make your character more satisfying to play.

Ability Scores

The bard is heavily reliant on Charisma, but with a bit of Dexterity and Constitution the Bard can survive an occasional dip into melee combat. Most bards will start from roughly the same set of ability scores, but may differentiate themselves by increasing different abilities depending on your subclass and your role in the party. Most bards will still maximize Charisma first, but some may go for Dexterity for martial builds.

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 BuyStandard 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

Bard Races

Charisma is crucial, but you don’t strictly need anything else. Additional skills can be nice so you’re not strictly locked into Face skills, and innate spellcasting can expand your limited pool of spells known.

For a classic bard feel, the Half-Elf and the Tiefling are great choices. For a powerful martial bard, the High Elf’s ability to learn Booming Blade is perhaps the Bard’s best option for weapon attacks. For a powerful support build, the Fairy’s flight and innate spellcasting are hard to beat.

For help selecting a race, see our Bard Races Breakdown.

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, but if you’re built for melee you need either this or Acrobatics to get out of grapples if you don’t have magical options for it like Misty Step.
  • Animal Handling (Wis): 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): This skill is useless. Medicine is best done magically.
  • Nature (Int): Good knowledge skill, but not as crucial as Arcana or Religion.
  • Perception (Wis): The most rolled skill in the game.
  • Performance (Cha): 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. If you do take it, you can use it during Downtime to support a Wealthy lifestyle, allowing you to live in luxury while your adventuring buddies are crowding into rooms at the local inn trying to get by on whatever loot they found.
  • 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.

Bard Backgrounds

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.

If you’re having trouble deciding, here are some suggestions:

  • 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.

Bard 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 feats which I think work especially well for the class or which might be tempting but poor choices.

  • 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 the Bard has numerous options to use their Bonus Action which will frequently mean that you’re not using your Bonus Action to attack.
  • 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.
  • Eldritch AdeptTCoE: Options like Devil’s Sight and Fiendish Vigor are easy go-to options, but I’m not sure if they’re worth a feat.
  • Elemental AdeptPHB: Bards don’t have a big list of offensive spells like a Sorcerer or Wizard, and the bard spells which do deal direct damage frequently deal psychic or thunder damage, neither of which qualify for Elemental Adept.
  • Fey TouchedTCoE: Misty Step is a fantastic spell that’s not on the Bard’s spell list, so getting it once per day and the ability to cast it again using your spell slots is a huge benefit. The additional 1st-level spell known is great, too. While bards already get access to most of the allowed spells, Fey Touched still gets you access to excellent spells like Bless, Hex, and Heroism.

    For more advice on Fey Touched, see my Spellcasting Feats Breakdown.

  • Fighting InitiateTCoE: For College of Valor and College of Swords, this may help to improve your martial capabilities. But over-investment in martial weapons can be difficult for a class that’s still primarily a spellcaster.
  • Gift of the Chromatic DragonFToD: Chromatic Infusion should be shared with your allies. Reactive Resistance is basically Absorb Elements, which is great since bards can’t learn it short of Magical Secrets.
  • Gift of the Metallic DragonFToD: Protective Wings is a good substitute for Shield, which might tempt you to build a melee bard. As nice as Protective Wings is, it’s not enough to make bards useful with a weapon.
  • GunnerTCoE: A pistol and a shield looks like a good combination for the Valor Bard, but this doesn’t require the Ammunition property so the best scenario is to upgrade from a bow to a musket. At that point, Fighting Style (Archery) is likely a better choice.
  • GrapplerPHB: Just a terrible feat in general. You don’t need it to grapple successfully.
  • 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.

    For more advice on Magic Initiate, see my Spellcasting Feats Breakdown.

  • 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 inconvenience, but it won’t make or break you, and the extra +1 to AC isn’t enough to make this a decent feat.
  • Metamagic AdeptTCoE: Excellent on any spellcaster. For advice on Metamagic Adept, see my Sorcerer Metamagic Breakdown.
  • 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: Proficiency in Constitution saves really helps with Concentration, not to mention how common Consitution saves are. If you care primarily about Concentration it’s easy to compare this to War Caster. Advantage works out to a little more than +3, so once your Proficiency Bonus hits +4 Resilient becomes the more effective option of the two.
  • Ritual CasterPHB: Bards can already cast ritual spells, but they’re strictly limited by the fact that they permanently learn spells. Low-level spells, even if they’re rituals, might need to be replaced to make space for higher-level spells. Ritual Caster ensures that those options, as well as options from other classes, are always on the table.
  • 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.
  • Shadow TouchedTCoE: This is a good feat, but there are frustratingly few spell options and most of them are already available to the Bard. Inflict Wounds may be and effective single-target damage option when you get dragged into melee, but I don’t think it’s worth the feat.

    For more advice on Shadow Touched, see my Spellcasting Feats Breakdown.

  • 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.
  • Skill ExpertTCoE: More skills and more expertise are always welcome, and with the +1 ability increase it’s easy to fit this into most builds.
  • SkilledPHB: More skills is always good.
  • SkulkerPHB: This only matters if you have Sneak Attack.
  • Spell SniperPHB: Bards don’t have enough offensive spells which require attack rolls to justify this. You can pick up Eldritch Blast to give yourself and offensive cantrip, but the benefits of Vicious Mockery are hard to give up for something as paltry as damage.

    For more advice on Spell Sniper, see my Spellcasting Feats Breakdown.

  • Tavern BrawlerPHB: Bards typically don’t have the Strength to make grappling viable.
  • TelekineticTCoE: It may be difficult to juggle your Bonus Action between this and awarding Bardic Inspiration.
  • TelepathicTCoE: Unlike many sources of telepathy, including those offered by some races, this telepathy still uses languages, so the benefits are minimally appealing even for a Face. You do get to increase your Charisma, which reduces the cost of the feat, but the benefits are still dubious.
  • 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: Melee Bards can get a lot of use out of this. If you pick up Booming Blade from Magic Initiate or Magical Secrets, you can use it with your opportunity attacks to nearly guarantee the bonus damage when enemies attempt to move away from you. This also grants Advantage on Concentration, but if that’s all that you care about I recommend Resilient instead.
  • Weapon MasterPHB: You get all of the weapon proficiencies that you need to function.

Bard 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.

Bard 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.

Multiclassing

This section briefly details some obvious and enticing multiclass options, but doesn’t fully explore the broad range of multiclassing combinations. For more on multiclassing, see my Practical Guide to 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.

Bard Magic Items

Common Magic Items

  • Instrument of IllusionsXGtE: Very cool, but mostly useless since the effect is obviously illusionary.
  • Masquerade TattooTCoE: Disguise Self once per day. Basically a cheaper Hat of Disguises. You won’t be able to change your disguise, but it’s still fantastically useful for a Common item.
  • Moon-Touched SwordXGtE: Helpful if you insist on using weapons, but if you can’t get a better magic weapon and you’re facing an enemy who resists non-magic weapon damage, consider casting spells.
  • Ruby of the War MageXGtE: This reduces the need to juggle weapons and material components when casting spells. Unfortunately you still need a free hand to cast spells which have Somatic components but don’t require material components, so you still need a free hand for Absorb Elements and Shield.

Uncommon Magic Items

  • Cloak of ProtectionDMG: Good on any character, but it requires Attunement and it’s not very interesting.
  • Eyes of the EagleDMG: Between this and possibly Expertise, it’s basically impossible for anything to sneak up on you without using magic. If you’re proficienct with shields, a Sentinel Shield may be a better choice.
  • Hat of DisguiseDMG: Great for social situations, but usually you can get by with mundane disguises or with a lower-rarity option like a Masquerade Tattoo.
  • Instrument of the BardsDMG: Three options are available at this rarity, with more at higher rarities, but . Each instrument allows you to cast seven or eight (four of them are shared across all of the instruments, including Fly and Invisibility) spells once per day each using your Charisma as normal for your bard spells. Many of these spells are from outside of the Bard’s spell list, providing some exciting new options in addition to saving you a bunch of spell slots. All of the instruments are good at this rarity, especially since the four spells shared across each type of instrument are so useful. The last paragraph of the Instrument of the Bards entry is easy to overlook, but it’s exciting: If you play the instrument while casting a spell which causes the target to become Charmed (Charm Person, Dominate Person, etc.) and which requires either somatic or material components, the targets suffer Disadvantage on their save. The list of applicable spells is small, but it’s still exciting.
  • Pearl of PowerDMG: Useful on any spellcaster.
  • Rhythm-Maker’s DrumTCoE: +1 to your attacks and spell DC’s. The ability to regain one use of Bardic Inspiration per day is nice, but once you get Font of Inspiration at level 5 it feels really minor. Instrument of the Bards is more interesting and will be more useful if you focus your spells on support and utility, but Rhythm-Maker’s drum’s bonus to spell attacks and save DC’s is better if you’re focusing on offense.
  • Sentinel ShieldDMG: Advantage on Initiative rolls is really nice so you can get a buff or and are control effect running before everyone else starts moving. Bards get to add half of their Proficiency Bonus thanks to Jack of All Trades, so between that and a Sentinel Shield you’re going to go first very frequently. Unfortunately not all bards are proficient with shields.
  • Shield, +1DMG: +1 AC, no attunement. Nothing fancy, but very effective. If you’re proficient, you definitely want one.
  • Slippers of Spider ClimbingDMG: The next-best thing to flight. Walking up a wall has all the benefits of flying out of reach, making this an excellent option for ranged builds.
  • Stone of Good LuckDMG: Excellent on literally any character, but if you just want better defense a Cloak of Protection may be more effective. Stone of Good Luck shines if you’re heavily reliant on skills and ability checks.
  • Wand of DetectionDMG: This saves you the trouble of learning Detect Magic, which is a tragically disappointing way to spend one of your limited spells known.
  • Wand of the War MageDMG: Bard spells nearly never rely on spell attacks.
  • Weapon, +1DMG: Helpful for College of Swords and College of Valor.
  • Winged BootsDMG: Excellent on its own, but Winged Boots are more limited in use than a broom of flying, and they require Attunement.

Rare Magic Items

  • Amulet of HealthDMG: Setting your Constitution to 19 means that you don’t need to put Ability Score Increases into it unless you’re really certain that you want 20 Constitution. Less ASI’s into Constitution means more room for feats. Combining this with Resilient (Constitution) or War Caster can do a lot to make Concentration easier.
  • Armor of ResistanceDMG: Excellent, but unpredictable in most games since you can’t perfectly predict what sort of damage you’ll face. Fire and poison are safe choices.
  • Armor, +1DMG: +1 AC, no attunement. Nothing fancy, but very effective.
  • Barrier Tattoo (Rare)TCoE: All the AC of medium armor without bothering to get proficiency. If you’re not going to increase Dexterity to 20 to max out light armor, this can be a great AC boost. But depending on your Dexterity score, +2 studded leather may be more effective.
  • Cloak of DisplacementDMG: Among the best defensive items in the game. Taking damage from any source (spells, etc.) suppresses the effect temporarily, so make a point to kill anything that can damage you without an attack roll.
  • Elven ChainDMG: One less AC than Barrier Tattoo (Rare), but it doesn’t require attunement, so in a game with abundant magic items Elven Chain may be a better choice.
  • Instrument of the BardsDMG: Two options are available at this rarity, and while they are still good, they’re not as impressive as lower-rarity options because all varieties of the Instrument of the Bards share the same four common spells.
  • Reveler’s ConcertinaTCoE: +2 to your bard spell DC’s, but notably not to spell attacks (though I can’t think of a single bard spell which makes spell attacks), and a 6th-level save-or-suck spell once per day. Almost certainly better than the Rhythm-Maker’s Drum, but not by so much that you’ll lament the difference.
  • Rhythm-Maker’s DrumTCoE: +2 to your attacks and spell DC’s. See Rhythm-Maker’s Drum under Uncommon Magic Items for more, but also consider the Reveler’s Concertina.
  • Ring of ProtectionDMG: Cloak of Protection is lower rarity and has the same effect.
  • Ring of ResistanceDMG: A fine item in a vaccuum, but a Ring of Spell Storing full of Absorb Elements will be much more effective.
  • Ring of Spell StoringDMG: Fill it with Absorb Elements and Shield and recharge it whenever possible, and this is a spectacular defensive asset.
  • Shield, +2DMG: +2 AC, no attunement. Nothing fancy, but very effective. If you’re proficient, you definitely want one.
  • Weapon, +2DMG: Helpful for College of Swords and College of Valor.

Very Rare Magic Items

  • Animated ShieldDMG: Tempting for anyone not fighting with a one-handed weapon, but a Cloak of Protection is two rarities lower, works persistently, and arguably provides a better numeric bonus.
  • Armor, +2DMG: +2 AC, no attunement. Nothing fancy, but very effective.
  • Barrier Tattoo (Very Rare)TCoE: The fixed AC matches full plate, so you don’t need to worry about Dexterity to boost your AC and you don’t even suffer Disadvantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks.
  • Instrument of the BardsDMG: Only one option at this level, and it offers some powerful druid spells.
  • Manual of Bodily HealthDMG: Permanent Constitution bonus and raises your cap by 2. Unless you’re using a magic item that fixes your Constitution as a specific score, this is excellent.
  • Rhythm-Maker’s DrumTCoE: +3 to your attacks and spell DC’s. See Rhythm-Maker’s Drum under Uncommon Magic Items for more.
  • Shield, +3DMG: +3 AC, no attunement. Nothing fancy, but very effective. If you’re proficient, you definitely want one.
  • Tome of Leadership and InfluenceDMG: Permanent Charisma bonus and raises your cap by 2.
  • Weapon, +3DMG: Helpful for College of Swords and College of Valor.

Legendary Magic Items

  • Cloak of InvisibilityDMG: Invisibility is extremely powerful in 5e. Note that this is just the invisible condition, not the spell spell Invisibility, so you can still attack or whatever while invisible.
  • Instrument of the BardsDMG: Only one option at this level, and the spells are fine but unimpressive. The highest-level spell is Control Weather, and you could get that on the Anstruth Harp which is one rarity lower.
  • Ioun Stone (Mastery)DMG: Proficiency Bonuses apply to a lot of things and a +1 bonus goes a long way. Attacks, saves, skills, etc. all benefit. Unfortunately, Jack of All Trades gets rounded down as normal, so your new +7 Proficiency Bonus won’t mack Jack of All Trades any better.
  • Ring of Spell TurningDMG: Given the choice, I would much rather haqve a Mantle of Spell Resistance simply because the Ring of Spell Turning doesn’t provide any protection against area effect spells. Otherwise, this is a really fun item, and if it provided Advantage on saves against area of effect spells it would shoot straight up to blue.
  • Ring of Three WishesDMG: Use your 18th-level Magical Secrets to learn Wish, and give this to someone in your party who can’t cast spells so that they can use it to give everyone permanent damage resistance.

    For more help with Wish, see my Practical Guide to Wish.

  • Scarab of ProtectionDMG: An upgrade from the Mantle of Spell Resistance, the Scarab of Protection adds a limited benefit against necromancy and undead creatures, and doesn’t take up your cloak slot, leaving you free to take items like a Cloak of Protection or Cloak of Invisibility instead.

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

Amalae the Half-Elf College of Lore Bard

The half-elf’s nimble fingers race deftly across the strings of the lute, plucking out a simple yet pleasant tune that crescendos into a flurry of chords. They move as they play, their lithe form striking a dynamic pose even in their leather armor. Their high, lilting voice joins the chorus, emerging from the lute’s melody like a blooming flower, lifting and harmonizing. A strange glimmer surrounds the half-elf as they play, flowing outward from the vibrating lute strings until it encompasses the entirety of the stage, and then the surrounding audience.

— Boxed text provided by dScryb (affiliate link)

  1.  

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.

 BaseIncreased
Str88
Dex1516
Con1314
Int1212
Wis88
Cha1517

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:

RoleFaceLibrarianScout
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

LevelFeat(s) and FeaturesNotes 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.

With leather armor and 16 Dexterity your AC is just 14, and with 10 hit points you’re very frail, so stay at range and rely on Vicious Mockery. 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)
  • New Spells Known:
    • Dissonant Whispers

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
  • New Spells Known:
    • Invisibility

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
  • New Spells Known:
    • Enhance Ability

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
  • New Spells Known:
    • Hypnotic Pattern

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
    • Fireball
    • Haste
  • New Spells Known:
    • Tongues

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 Mockery, consider Eldritch Blast, Firebolt, or Toll the Dead. If your party has strong martial characters, consider Haste. If your party lacks a better healer like a cleric or druid, consider Mass Healing Word.

7
  • New Spells Known:
    • Polymorph

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

8
  • Ability Score Improvement (Charisma 19 -> 20, Dex 16 -> 17)
  • New Spells Known:
    • Greater Invisibility

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)
  • New Spells Known:
    • Hold Monster

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 (2 more)
  • Magical Secrets
    • Telekinesis
    • Wall of Force
  • 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 frequently in your campaign.


At this level we get our first round of regular Magical Secrets. Remember that these spells count against your regular spells known, so you do only learn two new spells at this level, and mostly likely you want both to be from outside of the Bard’s spell list. If you do want to learn spells from the Bard’s spell list, consider retraining a lower-level spell.
11
  • New Spells Known:
    • Eyebite

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)
  • New Spells Known:
    • Forcecage

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

14
  • Peerless Skill
  • Magical Secrets
    • Heal (Yes, this is a 6th-level spell)
    • Reverse Gravity

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 should really diversify your options. Remember that these still count against your usual number of spells known, so if you want to learn spells from the Bard spell list you should consider retraining a known spell rather than spending one of your Magical Secrets.

15
  • Bardic Inspiration (d12)
  • New Spells Known:
    • Dominate Monster

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)
  • New Spells Known:
    • True Polymorph

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
    • Mass Heal
    • (maybe. Power Word Kill is also good)
    • Wish

The final round of Magical Secrets. 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.


When selecting your spells at this level, remember that you only ever get one 9th-level spell slot. It’s very easy to want to know a whole bunch of 9th-level spells, but the spell slot limitation makes that hard to justify. You probably want to know 3 9th-level spells at the absolute most, but if you only know 2 that is probably plenty (especially since one of them will be Wish).
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.