Pathfinder - The Bard Handbook
Last Updated: October 15, 2018
I support a limited subset of Pathfinder's rules content. If you would like help with Pathfinder player options not covered here, please email me and I am happy to provide additional assistance.
I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks. Also note that many colored items are also links to the Paizo SRD.
- 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.
The Bard is among the most versatile classes in the game, capable of filling nearly any role in the party, but the Bard's definitive abilities are focused on support and utility. Inspire Courage is among the most iconic and effective support effects in Pathfinder, but it is only of the Bard's numerous excellent abilities.
Bard Class Features
Hit Points: d8 hit points is difficult, especially in light armor and without the Rogue's absurd Dexterity.
Base Attack Bonus: 2/3 BAB is enough for the Bard to hold their own in combat.
Saves: Good Reflex and Will saves.
Proficiencies: Light armor and shields, and a small selection of martial weapons including the Longsword and Rapier. This gives the Bard enough options to get the job done, but the Bard's AC will generally be poor. For some reason the Bard gets proficiency with the Whip.
Skills: 6+ skill ranks, and a skill list as long as your arm. The Bard gets all Knowledge skills as class skills, and Bardic Knowledge adds a heft bonus to Knowledge checks, making the Bard one of the easiest Librarians in the game with only a few skill ranks.
Spells: Despite being only a 2/3 caster, the Bard's spells are fantastic. The Bard's spell are arcane, but include Cure spells, and have a lot of excellent options which are only available to the Bard.
Bardic Knowledge (Ex):
Bardic Performance: Fantastic and versatile, Bardic Performance is the Bard's primary option in combat. There are numerous feats which can enhance Bardic Performance, and any Bard who doesn't take Lingering Performance is doing themselves a huge disservice. As you grow in level you can perform as smaller actions, allowing you to quickly cycle songs and rely on Lingering Performance to keep their effects running without expending performance rounds. The biggest limitation on Bardic performance is that a bard cannot have more than one bardic performance in effect at one time.
- Countersong (Su): Very situational.
- Distraction (Su): More useful than Countersong, but still very situational.
- Fascinate (Su): A surprisingly useful way to distract enemies or defuse combat. This has saved my life a few times when my party was in bad shaped and got ambushed by enemies.
- Inspire Courage (Su): The Bard's bread and butter. Inspire Courage will make up the majority of your Bardic Performance uses, and will consume the majority of your performance rounds per day. It's important to note that Inspire Courage's bonuses to attack and damage are competence bonuses rather than morale bonuses, which means that they will stack with many spells like Bless,
- Inspire Competence (Su): Use this for every skill check (except Stealth obviously). The scaling bonus will always be useful, and can significantly improve your party's reliability.
- Suggestion (Sp): With an hours per level duration, Suggestion can be a great way to circumvent combat. Use Fascinate to calm enemies, then use Suggestion to politely Suggest that they go hang out somewhere out of the way for a few hours.
- Dirge of Doom (Su): Though it doesn't stack with other fear effects, this is a great way to debuff enemies before you allies drop save or suck effects. Note that Dirge of Doom doesn't allow a saving throw.
- Inspire Greatness (Su): This ability is fantastic. 2d10 temporary hit points are great, especially because the target(s) get to add their constitution modifier. There is no extra cost to start a new performance, so you can end then immediately restart this performance whenever the temporary hit points are consumed. By this level you can start a performance as move action, and it gets even easier when you hit level 13 and can start a performance as a Swift action. Note that the attack bonus is a competence bonus, so it won't stack with Inspire Courage's bonus to attacks.
- Soothing Performance (Su): The Mass Cure spells generally aren't great, but this only costs 4 Bardic Performance round for the equivalent of a 7th-level spell. At this level you have plenty of performance rounds to throw around, so you should be able to spare a few to patch up the party between fights.
- Frightening Tune (Sp): For one round of performance you can make every enemy in a fight run away. Even if this only affects a few of the enemies in a fight, you can do this as a Swift action and disable huge portions of encounters.
- Inspire Heroics (Su): +4 to AC and saves is pretty great, but you will only be able to affect two creatures at most.
- Mass Suggestion (Sp): A bit more powerful and versatile than Frightening Tune, but you can't use it as easily in combat.
- Deadly Performance (Su): Save or die as a full round action that costs only one performance round. You way want to start the round with Fascinate as a swift action to keep the target in place.
Cantrips: Cantrips are always amazing.
Versatile Performance (Ex): Versatile Performance allows the Bard to pick up additional skills while using their Perform modifier in place of their potentially lower modifier to the original skill. When selecting your Versatile Performance skills, be sure to avoid duplicates. The Bard gets their second Versatile Performance at level 6, but there is very little need for more than two, so no one would fault you for only taking two performance skills.
- Act (Bluff, Disguise): Disguise is very situational, and you can completely replace it with Disguise Self.
- Comedy (Bluff, Intimidate): Covers two essential social skills. Combines well with Oratory.
- Dance (Acrobatics, Fly): Acrobatics is very situational unless you plan to do a lot of Tumbling, and it's nearly impossible to justify more than one rank in Fly.
- Keyboard Instruments (Diplomacy, Intimidate): Covers two essential social skills. Combines well with Sing.
- Oratory (Diplomacy, Sense Motive): Covers two essential social skills, and Sense Motive is based on the Bard's relatively low Wisdom. Combines well with Comedy.
- Percussion (Handle Animal, Intimidate): Animals aren't really important to the Bard.
- Sing (Bluff, Sense Motive): Covers two essential social skills, and Sense Motive is based on the Bard's relatively low Wisdom. Combines well with Keyboard Instruments.
- String (Bluff, Diplomacy): Covers two essential social skills, but doesn't have a secondary choice which covers the other social skills.
- Wind (Diplomacy, Handle Animal): Animals aren't really important to the Bard.
Well-Versed (Ex): Very situational.
Lore Master (Ex): Makes the Bard perfectly reliable as a Librarian. With one rank in every Knowledge skill and Bardic Knowledge you can expect to consistently pass most Knowledge checks.
Jack-of-All-Trades (Ex): Be good at literally every skill.
Charisma is the Bard's most important ability for both .
Str: Good for melee or bow damage, but the Bard needs Dexterity to fix their poor AC, and they can't be good at every ability.
Dex: With light armor Dexterity is essential. Take Weapon Finesse if you plan to be in melee.
Con: Fortitude is the Bard's only bad save and with only d8 hit points the Bard really needs Constitution.
Int: More skill ranks are great for the Bard's huge skill list.
Wis: Only needed for Will saves, and the Bard gets good Will saves.
Cha: Essential for the Bard's spellcasting, social skills, and Perform.
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Bonuses to Charisma are fantastic, and a favored class bonus which offers additional performance rounds can go a long way to improve the Bard's support abilities.
Dwarf: The Charisma penalty hurts, and the Dwarf doesn't really offer anything useful for the Bard.
Elf: Despite lacking a bonus to Charisma, the Elf's bonuses to Dexterity and Intelligence can be very helpful for the Bard.
Gnome: The bonuses to Constitution and Charisma are both great for the Bard, and the Gnome's bonus to illusion spells is nice for the Bard's spell list. The Gnome favored class bonus grants some much-needed performance rounds.
Half-Elf: A flexible ability bonus is always helpful, and Skill Focus is great with Versatile Performance. The Half-Elf favored class bonus grants some much-needed performance rounds, and you can take the Human favored class bonus to learn additional spells..
Half-Orc: A very different feel from the Half-Elf but many of the same benefits. The Half-Orc favored class bonus grants some much-needed performance rounds, and you can take the Human favored class bonus to learn additional spells.
Halfling: The Halfling's Dexterity and Charisma bonuses are great for the Bard, and the Halfling's other abilities help the Bard serve as a Scout. Unfortunately the Halfling favored class bonus is pretty terrible.
Human: A bonus feat and a flexible ability bonus are both great for the Bard, and the Human's bonus skill ranks help fill out the Bard's skill list. The Human favored class bonus allows you to expand the Bard's very limited number of spells known. This extra versatility can make the Bard a very potent spellcaster.
- Acrobatics (Dex): Only useful if you plan to tumble.
- Appraise (Int): Too situational.
- Bluff (Cha): Essential for the party's Face, but it's easier to cover this with Versatile Performance.
- Climb (Str): Too situational.
- Diplomacy (Cha): Essential for the party's Face, but it's easier to cover this with Versatile Performance.
- Disguise (Cha): Too situational, and the Bard can cast Disguise Self.
- Escape Artist (Dex): Too situational.
- Intimidate (Cha): Essential for the party's Face, but it's easier to cover this with Versatile Performance.
- Knowledge (all) (Int): Bardic Knowledge adds a nice bonus, but it can't compete with actual skill ranks. Even one rank in each Knowledge skill will make the Bard a formidable Librarian.
- Linguistics (Int): The Bard can cast Tongues.
- Perception (Wis): The most rolled skill in the game.
- Perform (Cha): Pick two from the Versatile Performance list which cover all four social skills. Comedy and Oratory or Keyboard and Sing.
- Sense Motive (Wis): Essential for the party's Face, but it's easier to cover this with Versatile Performance, and Versatile performance won't make you use the Bard's relatively low Wisdom.
- Sleight of Hand (Dex): Too situational.
- Spellcraft (Int): Good for identifying spells and magic items.
- Stealth (Dex): Essential if you plan to be a Scout.
- Use Magic Device (Cha): The bard already has formidable magical abilities, but UMD can allow you to use a lot of interesting items, including scrolls and wands of spells not on the Bard spell list.
- Arcane Strike: A good way to spend your swift action to get a small attack bonus and a scaling damage boost, but it's not good enough that you need to make an effort to fit it into your build.
- Discordant Voice: This applies whenever you use Bardic Performance to create a Supernatural or Spell-Like effect. That is literally every Bardic Performance ability. 1d6 damage isn't a ton, but almost nothing resists sonic damage.
- Dodge: The Bard's AC is generally poor, and a +1 dodge bonus helps a bit.
- Murderer's Circle: Only useful if you use the performance combat rules.
- Extra Performance: You will get a better return by selecting a race which offers extra performance rounds as a favored class ability.
- Harmonic Sage: Lingering Performance is better.
- Intimidating Performance: Completely redundant with Versatile Performance.
- Leaf Singer: Situational, and not very useful.
- Lingering Performance: With a bit of planning this can effectively triple your performance rounds per day. Unfortunately this does not allow you to run multiple songs at once: "A bard cannot have more than one bardic performance in effect at one time."
- Master Combat Performer: Only useful if you use the performance combat rules.
- Mocking Dance: Only useful if you use the performance combat rules.
- Spellsong: The ability to concentrate on a spell as a move action offers some interesting options, but very few Bard spells require concentration.
- Stone Singer: Situational, and not very useful.
- War Singer: Situational, and not very useful.
- Dazzling Display: Only useful if you use the performance combat rules.
- Dramatic Display: Only useful if you use the performance combat rules.
- Hero's Display: Only useful if you use the performance combat rules.
- Masterful Display: Only useful if you use the performance combat rules.
- Performing Combatant: Only useful if you use the performance combat rules.
- Savage Display: Only useful if you use the performance combat rules.
- Light Crossbow: A good ranged option for Bards with poor Strength, but you'll need an extra feat to compete with the Longbow.
- Longbow: Likely your best option if you plan to fight at range.
- Longsword: The easiest option, but requires more Strength than the Bard usually has to be truly effective. You can use Slashing Grace with the longsword to make it a bit more effective.
- Rapier: Weapon Finesse makes the rapier viable at level 1, though your damage will be poor. Even if you're Strength-based it's probably your best bet for the critical threat range.
- Whip: The whip is a very interesting option, but it's completely useless without Whip Mastery, and you will probably want to pick up Weapon Finesse and Slashing Grace to get some decent damage.
- Studded Leather: Starting Armor
- Heavy Shield: More AC than a buckler, but you may need to go without a weapon while you cast spells, and you may need to drop it to use a musical instrument.
- Chain Shirt: A mithral shirt will last your whole career.
- Buckler: A cheap and easy bonus to AC, and it won't prevent your hand for instruments of weapons.
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This section won't address every spell on your spell list, but it will point out some especially notable options. For a complete list of spells, see the SRD Spell Index.
- Compel Hostility: With a handful of exceptions, bards aren't tanks, so this isn't a fantastic option. However, you can use it each round and force a new Will save, which might be a helpful way to take some attention off of a party member who's running low on hit points. Even at higher levels when your save DC is lagging, you might still be able to succeed a few times against large bulky creatures like giants which tend to have poor Will saves.
- Cure Light Wounds: A great way to spend your spell slots at the end of the day, and a great way to complement whatever other healing resources are available to your party.
- Ear-piercing Scream: Most of the Bard's spells target Will saves, so a save-or-suck that targets Fortitude saves can be a huge asset against enemy spellcasters. The damage isn't great, but you're here for the Stun effect, not for the damage.
- Grease: Stunningly good area control at any level. A DC 10 Acrobatics check doesn't sound like much, but very few monsters have ranks in Acrobatics, so a straight Dexterity check has a high chance of failure even for high-CR monsters.
- Sleep: At 1st and 2nd level, Sleep is your go-to save-or-suck spell. You'll be able to keep up with full casters at this level, too, which is really helpful since you'll likely be too weak to be a major threat with a weapon.
- Timely Inspiration: The bonus isn't huge, even at high levels, but it's enough that at high levels you can turn a narrow miss into a hit at the cost of a 1st-level spell. I wouldn't rush to grab this at low levels, but at higher levels you might retrain another 1st-level spell (like Sleep) to get this instead.
- Blistering Invective: Turn Intimidate into an AOE debuff, and possibly set enemies on fire.
- Cure Moderate Wounds: Use Cure Light in emergencies, and use Path of Glory to recover hit points during down time.
- Gallant Inspiration: Timely Inspiration with a 2d4 bonus instead of the fixed, scaling bonus. Until you hit 15th level this will always provide a bonus at least as high, and at an average of +5 this could make a big difference. However, it feels deeply frustrating to add 2d4, roll poorly, and still fail after burning a spell slot.
- Glitterdust: Great at any level, this is one of the most effective ways to counter invisible creatures.
- Heroism: Somewhat redundant with Inspire Courage, but at 10 minutes/level duration this may still be useful. If your party doesn't have a lot of martial characters, use this to buff whoever wants it and use Bardic Music to do something other than Inspire Courage. This provides a Morale bonus, so Courageous weapons can improve the bonus.
- Invisibility: Too useful to forgo.
- Mirror Image: One of the best and most reliable ways to use magic in place of a decent AC.
- Path of Glory: A great way to heal the party, but don't both using it in combat. Even if you have more than four party members, remember that you can all squeeze into the four squares created at the beginning of the spell so that everyone gets as much healing as possible. This is dramatically more efficient than Cure Moderate Wounds.
- Silence: Cast it on the fighter stomping around in full plate, and you've suddenly got a sneaky party.
- Sound Burst: AOE stun, but it's rare that you'll face clustered enemies with poor Fortitude saves so Ear-piercing Scream fills the same function.
- Tongues: You're almost certainly the Face in your party, and this can almost entirely replace the Linguistics skill.
- Dispel Magic: Every party needs someone who can cast Dispel Magic, and since it's not DC-dependent the Bard is just as good as everyone else.
- Gaseous Form: A great way to safely sneak in or out of somewhere and to look around without drawing attention.
- Good Hope: +2 morale bonus to basically every d20 roll and to damage rolls. Inspire Courage will usually do the job fine, but you can combine the two (with the some minor overlap) for more bonuses.
- Haste: One of the best buffs in the game for martial characters.
- Invisibility Sphere: Combined with silence, you can make your entire party basically undetectable.
- Jester's Jaunt: Teleporting an ally a short distance is a great way to get them out of a grapple or a bad location, but this spell isn't listed Harmless, so RAW your allies still need to make a Will save even if you're using it to help them. This spell is written to be used offensively rather than to directly affect allies, but your GM might be generous enough to allow your allies to voluntarily fail the save.
- Mad Monkeys: Comical and amusing, but situational.
- Phantom Steed: A solid option for long-distance travel if teleportation isn't available, and once your mount can fly it becomes a useful asset in combat, too.
- Purging Finale: Removing many of these conditions typically requires much higher-level spells. Once you can activate Bardic Music as a swift action, you can start them immediately end a song to help allies recover from problematic status conditions. You could even use this to help mounts march indefinitely. I'm not entirely certain, but removing status conditions like cowering and exchausted should also remove lesser version of those conditions like shaken and fatigured. Check with your GM.
- Remove Curse: Situational. Save this for clerics and NPC spellcasters.
- Reviving Finale: 2d6 hit points is not enough for a 3rd-level spell slot. Cast Path of Glory or something instead.
- See Invisibility: Fantastic, but Glitterdust is usually sufficient.
- Tiny Hut: Primarily intended as a safe place to rest, but the Tiny Hut can also serve as a fox hole for ranged allies like archer rogues and spellcasters who function best at range and don't want to be easy to attack.
- Break Enchantment: An essential way to remove debuffs and permanent status conditions.
- Dance of a Hundred Cuts: A fantastic buff for melee bards, but if you skip attacking in a given turn you need to remember to move or the spell ends.
- Dimension Door: No somatic components means that you can easily use this to get out of an enemy creature's reach without needing to cast defensively.
- Echolocation: Blindsense is great, and 10 minutes/level duration will last a long time.
- Freedom of Movement: Situational, but essential if you're facing lots of enemies that like to grapple.
- Heroic Finale: Give up your own standard action to give one to someone else. The action economy isn't great, but sometimes you need an ally to do something you can't do on your own.
- Invisibility, Greater: A great way to help rogues and other squishy allies who don't want to be attacked.
- Path of Glory, Greater: 5 hit points per ally per round is pretty good, and even at rounds/level duration you can easily get your whole party to full hit points with one spell.
- Phantom Steed, Communal: Just cast Phantom Steed more times.
- Primal Scream: Situational.
- Secure Shelter: A more pleasant place to rest than a Tiny Hut, but it lacks the ability to serve as a fox hole during combat.
- Shadow Conjuration: Fantastic and versatile.
- Shadow Step: Dimension Door has a longer range and doesn't require somatic components.
- Virtuoso Performance: This is too costly to use frequently, but it could work in major fights where planning to rest afterward.
- Bard's Escape: This is less of an escape, and more of a rapid repositioning. It's not a bad spell, but it's poorly described and it's very situational.
- Cloak of Dreams: Save-or-suck on every enemy within 5 feet of you every round for rounds/level. If you're in melee against multiple foes this is an absolutely devastating spell.
- Dispel Magic, Greater: Just as essential as Dispel Magic, and the maximum bonus is higher.
- Frozen Note: Hit Dice are a hard metric to predict because they don't map to CR on a one-to-one basis. Creatures have an average number of hit dice 1-2 higher than their CR at any given CR, so unless you're facing a large number of considerably weak creatures you should expect enemies to still get a save. Still, I can't think of many ways that a bard can easily lock down an entire encounter with a single spell/
- Shadow Evocation: Fantastic and versatile.
- Shadow Walk: Neat, but Teleportation is faster and other spellcasters can cast Teleport by this level.
- Shadowbard: Much better than Virtuoso Performance. This lets you stack two songs (or three if you use both spells) without eating any of your Bardic Music rounds.
- Stunning Finale: Stunning an enemy is great, but by this level your save DCs are lagging far enough behind full casters that you may have trouble getting enemies to fail their saving throws.
- Brilliant Inspiration: 5e-style Advantage on every attack roll, ability check, and skill check (no saving throws, sadly). You actually want to avoid natural 20's, which is weird, but until that happens this can give your ally a dramatic boost in effectiveness.
- Dance of a Thousand Cuts: Combines the effects of two of the best buffs a melee bard could possibly hope for.
- Getaway: This is what Bard's Escape should do. You need to pre-cast this, but you can easily do it before you go on an adventure or at the entrance of a dungeon to make sure you have somewhere safe to go when your party needs to bail.
- Heroe's Feast: A solid all-day buff, and starting the day with some temporary hit points can do a lot to keep you alive.
- Magnifying Chime: A decent AOE damage spell, but it takes time to ramp up. Your best bet is to cast the spell, have an ally throw the affected object into a room, close the door, then start the scaling damage and hope that whatever is on the other side of the door dies before the door vibrated apart.
- Overwhelming Presence: Frozen Note is better and the DC will only be 1 lower, though Overwhelming Presence's range is much larger.
- Sonic Form: Novel, and the sonic damage touch attack is passable, but the defensive benefits won't matter much at this level because so many enemies will have magic attacks.
- Allying (+1): Even if you're built for weapon combat, you're still going to spend a lot of turns in combat casting spells or using other special abilities. In these cases, pass your weapon's enhancement bonus off to a friend. I wouldn't pick this up unless you're planning to get at least a +2 enhancement bonus because the effect won't be great enough to justify the cost.
- Courageous (+1): Bards have a lot of great options to get morale bonuses, so a +1 Courageous weapon can do a lot for a bard.
- Celestial Armor (22,400 gp): Unless you have heavy armor proficiency and a Dexterity modifier of at most +5, Celestial Armor is the best armor in the game if all you need from your armor is AC. For more, check out my Practical Guide to Celestial Armor.
- Clawhand Shield (8,158 gp): This is a weird item. It's a bit more expensive than your typical +2 shield, so it may not be worth the cost compared to a mithral buckler. However, it allows you to perform somatic components with the hand holding the shield, which means that you can hold a weapon in your other hand without issue, and because it has no armor check penalty or arcane spell failure anyone can use it without issue. The ability to automatically damage enemies while in a grapple is a helpful deterrent for small or physical weak characters, but ion't go looking for excuses to use it.
It's difficult to recommend specific staffs without knowing your individual character, so instead I want to make a general endorsement of the concept of magic staffs in Pathfinder. If you are a 3.5 native, go read Pathfinder's rules for staffs because they have improved dramatically.
Staffs are a reliable, rechargeable source of extra spellcasting that can give spellcasters easy and reliable access to spells from their spell list which they might not want to learn, or which they might like to use so frequently that they can't prepare the spell enough times in a given day. On days when you're not adventuring (traveling, resting, etc.) you can easily recharge any staff even if you can only cast one of the spells which the staff contains.
- Cloak of Resistance: Too crucial to forego.
- Circlet of Persuasion: +3 bonus to all Charisma-based skills at 4,500gp is amazing. For a conventional Face character it's a fantastic item, but because bards use Versatile Performance for most of their skills you can easily apply this bonus to all of your skill checks.
- Headband of Alluring Charisma: Essential.