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DnD 5e - The Bard Handbook

Last Updated: March 17th, 2020

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.

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

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.

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

  • 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 capabailities, 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 and 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.23

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

Abilities

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.

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.

DragonbornPHB: 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.

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.

ElfPHB: 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.

  • DrowPHB: The bonus Charisma is nice, but Sunlight Sensitivity is difficult to handle in most games so typically the Eladrin is a safer bet.
  • EladrinMToF: Dexterity and Charisma is a perfect mix for bards, and Fey Step is an extremely powerful ability.
  • High ElfPHB: 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 ElfPHB: 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.

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

  • Deep (Svirfneblin)EEPC / SCAG: Nothing useful for the Bard.
  • ForestPHB: Dexterity helps since so many Bards are built to use Finesse weapons, and the free cantrip is nice.
  • RockPHB: 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-ElfPHB: +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-OrcPHB: Decent for a Strength-based Valor Bard. Intimidation for free is nice since the Bard is typically the party's Face.

HalflingPHB: Dexterity is helpful since Bards have light armor and typically use 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, but the Lightfoot Halfling just can't compete with other racial options which provide Charisma increases and other traits like skill proficiencies which directly complement the Bard's primary role in the party.
  • StoutPHB: A possibility if you want to play a durable melee bard, but Lightfoot is a better option because Charisma is so central to 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: Bad ability spread.

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.

  • AsmodeusPHB / MToF: Some interesting options, but they may not be as useful for a Bard as the spells offered by Devil's Tongue.
  • 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: 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 capabilities.

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. In addition, the Changeling's flexible ability increase can stack with their fixed +2 to Charisma, allowing the Changeling to start with 18 Charisma (the only race capable of doing so). This deviates from core race design concepts consistent across other races, but the difference appears to be intentional. Beyond their impossibly high Charisma, 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 body, 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: Bad ability spread.

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.

Races of Theros

CentaurMOoT: See above.

HumanMOoT: See above.

LeoninMOoT: Decent for a Strength-based valor bard, and the additional skill is nice, but a hard choice without a Charisma increase.

MinotaurMOoT: See above.

SatyrMOoT: Dexterity and Charisma work any bard build, and the additional skills help to expand your already excellent skill proficiencies.

TritonMOoT: See above.

Races of Wildemount

AarakocraEGtW: See above.

AasimarEGtW: See above.

BugbearEGtW: See above.

Dragonborn: Wildemount presents two new Dragonborn variants, each replacing the standard Dragonborn's ability score increases and damage resistance.

  • DraconbloodEGtW: Bad ability spread.
  • RaveniteEGtW: Bad ability spread.
  • StandardPHB: See above.

ElfEGtW: Wildemount elves share the core traits of core elves, but Wildemount adds two new elf subraces. See above for information on core elf traits.

  • Pallid Elf: The innate spellcasting is nice at low levels, and Incisive Sense is really interesting, but lacking a Charisma increase really hurts.
  • Sea Elf: See above.

FirbolgsEGtW: See above.

GenasiEGtW: See above.

GoblinEGtW: See above.

HalflingEGtW: Wildemount halflings share the core traits of core halflings, but Wildemount adds a new halflings subrace. See above for information on core halflings traits.

  • Lotusden: Nothing specifically useful to the bard. The innate spellcasting is neat, but not nearly enough and it will stop mattering after low levels, especially since the saves are Wisdom-based.

HobgoblinEGtW: See above.

GoliathEGtW: See above.

KenkuEGtW: See above.

OrcEGtW: See above, under "Races of Eberron". Wildemount uses the updated Orc racial traits rather than the original traits published in Volo's Guide to Monsters.

TabaxiEGtW: See above.

TortleEGtW: See above.

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 (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): 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): 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.

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.

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 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.
  • 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: 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 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.

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.

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)

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.