Last Updated on December 7, 2022
Minstrels, troubadours, and tellers of tall tales — bards use stories, music, and song to weave their magic. A bard is just as happy talking their way past a guard as they are leading a war chant or subtly sending an orc to sleep with a magically infused lullaby. They weave their arcane magic into their performances that shape the world around them.
A bard’s magic lets them empower their allies; charm, beguile, and disable their enemies; and unlock the secrets of the universe.
Bards are warriors, spellcasters, tricksters, charmers, repositories of hidden knowledge, and problem solvers.
They might be a contender for the most versatile class in Dungeons & Dragons 5e, as they thrive in both social situations and on the battlefield. A bard can focus on enhancing their fellow party members’ abilities with their Bardic Inspiration or draw their weapon and throw themselves into the fray.
Outside of combat, bards can be just as comfortable trading insults and honeyed words with an important NPC as they are poring over ancient scrolls and decoding coded texts. This combination of playstyles — support, damage dealer, face, utility spellcaster, controller, skill monkey, and librarian — make the bard able to fit into just about any party composition, complementing their companions’ strengths and compensating for their weaknesses.
While all bards are unified by their skill as performers, the art that a particular bard has trained in (and how they use their skills) varies greatly depending on the Bard College at which they begin. From glamorous enchanters to psionic assassins, there’s a playstyle to suit just about any character within the bard’s list of subclasses.
So, if you want to enchant your enemies and empower your allies, like the idea of taking the lead in tense negotiations, and are interested in playing one of the most adaptable (surprisingly easy) character classes in D&D 5e, you might want to consider a bard for your next campaign.
In this in-depth guide, we’re going to start by exploring some of the characteristics that make bards really shine, where this class fits within the context of an adventuring party, and some of the different ways you can roleplay a bard that go beyond being yet another “extrovert with a lute.”
Then, we’ll take you through the features, abilities, subclasses, skills, feats, and more — basically, everything you need to understand how bards work and how to go about building your own from first level. Lastly, we’ve taken a closer look at multiclassing bards (dipping into other classes to complement this class’s abilities) and put together some suggested quick-start builds to help you get a character up and running in no time.
You can jump to any of this guide’s sections using the contents table, or keep scrolling to get right into it.
Why Play a Bard?
Whenever I have a new player come to my table asking what kind of class they should play, I give them the same advice: you can’t go wrong with a bard. Potent spellcasting (including healing magic) and a versatile spell list plus bonuses to every skill (and double proficiency in your favorites), buffs for your allies, and a diverse array of interesting subclasses make bards one of the most versatile classes in D&D 5e.
Bards Are Versatile
There are very few situations you can throw a bard into where they don’t have some kind of solution they can bring to the table. Not only is the bard capable of turning their hand to most things and does pretty well (like spellcasting, combat, exploration, problem-solving, and even stealth) when it comes to social interaction, but you’re second to none.
Bards Are Great for Beginners
While bards can do a lot of different things (casting spells, dishing out bardic inspiration, etc.), the class as a whole is actually remarkably easy to play. There aren’t too many things to actively keep track of outside of your Bardic Inspiration dice and your spell slots — both of which you have plenty of.
If this is your first time at the D&D table, playing a bard is going to make you feel impactful and confident in a lot of different situations. Fighters are my other go-to recommendation for a first-time player for simplicity’s sake, but there are plenty of situations where a fighter can feel about as useful as a chocolate longsword or a wizard at the gym. As a bard, your mixture of combat, utility, and roleplaying abilities will let you feel like you’re always in a position to have an effect on the situation.
Couple that with how easy bards are to play, and you’re going to struggle to find a better starting class, but that doesn’t mean bards get boring — either at higher levels or in the hands of more experienced players.
Bards Scale Really Well
Firstly, playing a bard from 1st to 20th level is never going to be boring because you walk the line between a martial and a spellcasting class without having to really sacrifice either option. Bards are tough enough to feel impactful at lower levels after their spell slots run out. Then, at higher levels, when martial characters start to get boring or tail off in terms of effectiveness, bards’ spellcasting really comes into its own.
While some classes experience “dead levels” where nothing much happens or hit a great big slump after a while (looking at you, *cough* barbarians *cough*), bards stay interesting with every new level as they accumulate new abilities and spells.
Not only that, but a high-level bard isn’t all that far behind a sorcerer or a wizard in terms of raw spellcasting ability. This means the class provides a competent blend of martial and magical ability at low levels and a dominating spellcaster in higher-tier play.
The Bard’s Defining Features
The bard really shines in three key areas: supporting allies, social interactions, and versatility.
In addition to spells like Enhance Ability, Mass Cure Wounds, and Freedom of Movement, bards can also support their allies with a snatch of song or a few encouraging words. The Bardic Inspiration ability lets bards use a bonus action to give an extra die (they start out as d6s but become d8s, d10s, and eventually d12s) to an ally, which can be added to ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws, potentially turning a failed roll into a success.
Basically, a party with a bard in it succeeds more often, and even if the party has a rough time anyway, the bard’s Song of Rest allows them to regain even more hit points when they take a short rest between encounters.
Bards, more than just about any class (except maybe the barbarian), are walking manifestations of their primary ability score: Charisma. In addition to fueling their spellcasting and bardic inspiration, a bard’s Charisma also drives the (social) skills most associated with the class: Persuasion, Performance, Deception, and Intimidation.
Thanks to a high Charisma score and the bard’s Expertise ability (which lets them double their proficiency bonus when making certain skill checks, meaning a 20th-level bard with maxed out Charisma and Expertise in Persuasion adds +17 to their checks), they’re virtually never outshone in their areas of expertise. A spell list that’s also packed with enchantment and illusion magic like Gift of Gab, Calm Emotions, and Charm Person also doesn’t hurt.
Lastly, even in situations the bard isn’t explicitly well suited to, features like Jack of All Trades, which lets you add half your proficiency bonus, rounded down, to all checks using a skill where you’re not proficient, you’re not totally unprepared.
Also, the unique features granted by the various Bard Colleges mean that this class can easily stretch itself to fill any holes in the party’s competencies. Missing some frontline damage? Try the College of Swords or Valor. Need a character who brings some capacity for stealth, manipulation, and subterfuge to the party? Try the College of Whispers.
Or, if you want to really double down on the things that make the bard great, pushing yourself into more of a specialist role, you can go down the path of the College of Eloquence or the College of Lore.
The Bard’s Limitations
As with all classes, there are a few areas in which the bard falls short. There’s a lack of AoE damage and the inherent squishiness of being a d8 Hit Die character who has better things to worry about than a high Constitution score. However, the bard’s major issue is the fact they’re both dependent on their allies to seal the deal, and the more allies they have in the party, the less impactful they become.
Firstly, although the bard is a competent enough spellcaster, their spell list doesn’t measure up to the sorcerer, wizard, or warlock in terms of ability to deal damage, especially to multiple enemies at once.
There are definitely some powerful high-level bard spells out there, but unless you make some interesting choices for your Magical Secrets spells, you’re going to miss out on the really wild stuff that full casters (stuff like Meteor Swarm and Wish) and clerics (calling down an actual god to solve their problems) get to do.
You still get some really powerful stuff, like Power Word Kill (blow the BBEG’s head off if they have fewer than 100 hp), True Polymorph (turn the BBEG into a mouse), and Psychic Scream (turn the BBEG and nine of their friends into headless corpses), but you’re largely lacking in ways to make multiple enemies hurt at once.
Secondly, bards lack proficiency in medium and heavy armor and shields. This, paired with their mediocre Hit Dice, means that they tend to suffer from survivability issues — especially if you’re planning on playing a Valor or Swords bard, as you won’t unlock their bonus proficiencies until 3rd level. Whatever subclass of bard you intend to play, however, doesn’t change the fact that levels 1-2 are basically a survival horror game.
Lastly, we get into the real reason I see people getting frustrated with the bard. However, it’s not a particularly obvious problem, and unless you know what to look for, it’s easy to direct your frustrations onto another part of the class. “Bards don’t do enough damage,” “I can’t heal like a Cleric,” and “I’m not having an impact.”
Especially in more traditional dungeon crawl-focused campaigns, bards are two things.
- Reliant on other characters to buff up so that they can deal damage, tank enemy attacks, and take advantage of the bard’s latest use of Hypnotic Pattern.
- Jacks of all trades and (with the exception of Charisma-based skills) second tier to other, more specialized classes.
That means that if a bard has to fend for themselves in anything but social situations, they’re going to struggle to feel particularly effective. Bards need to be part of a party to really shine. But, if that party gets too big — and the number of specialists starts to mean that all the bases like single target damage, AoE, healing, etc. are kind of covered — then what’s the bard there for except Persuasion checks?
It’s tricky to pin down exactly what the tipping point is, but I’ve seen parties go from three adventurers to five, which made the bard go from looking like an absolute rockstar to a complete waste of space. Your mileage will vary, depending on the kind of campaign you’re in and the composition of the overall party (not to mention the experience levels of the players), but it’s frustrating that the biggest problem with a bard tends to be external and the result of factors beyond your control. You can usually fix this issue by choosing to focus on a particular element of the class — something that grabbing a subclass like the College of Lore is especially good for.
The Bard’s Role Within a Party
Bards can be a lot of things to a lot of different parties, especially if those parties are small. In a small adventuring group, the bard can comfortably wear a lot of hats. They can deal out respectable amounts of damage and invest in healing spells or battlefield control magic, or they can grab a subclass that gives them medium armor proficiency and a bigger sword and go mix it up at melee range.
Their Jack of All Trades trait means they can take a crack at pretty much any skill-based roll, and their Expertise feature means they’re going to be the best in the party (assuming there’s not a rogue hanging around) at something.
There are also basically no other classes that shine quite so brightly in the role of the Face — the person who stands in front of the bouncer and convinces her that “why, yes, these four murderous psychopaths in plate armor were absolutely invited to the ball,” or just smooth things over in the wake of the rogue’s latest crime spree.
Still, if you want to dial back your charm a little, that’s also totally fine if there’s another Charisma-based character in the party like a warlock or a paladin. You can trade in your pop-star smile for corpse paint, black leather, and a pet crow that knows all your most embarrassing secrets.
So, unless you have something specific in mind that factors into your backstory or character concept, the best way to find your niche within a party as a bard is to look at the party and see what they’re missing. Whether they need a martial frontliner, a battlefield controller, a spellcaster, a healer, a skill monkey, a face, or just about anything else, a bard can happily fill one (or usually more) of those roles.
How To Roleplay a Bard
Playing a bard is a great excuse to stretch your roleplaying legs. Because of their high Charisma scores and the chance to gain Expertise in Persuasion, Deception, and Performance, bards often end up as the party front-person in most social situations. This role is known as the Face.
It means that bard players often get more agency than their mute, scowling barbarian and the stammering wizard behind them to dictate the course of a scene. Until the axes come out, of course.
That doesn’t mean you have free reign to walk all over your allies; your skills of Persuasion are to be used on monsters and NPCs only, not your allies. But, more than any other class, the bard gets to shake up social encounters, forge alliances, trade loaded parables, and generally lie their ass off when necessary.
Maybe you enjoyed Seasons One through Four of Game of Thrones before the show started its long, slow, and then suddenly very quick decline into a steaming pile of fiery dragon turds. If you want a chance to tell cryptic stories about your childhood, make grandiose statements about the nature of power, and convince everyone that you know their most embarrassing secret just by the way you raise an eyebrow, the bard is the class to do it with.
Alternatively, you can play a bard as the ultimate cheerleader — the jovial, supportive, easygoing party member who always seems to make new friends on a night out and is the first one to buoy the party’s spirits with a joke or a rousing speech. Or you can be a gothic teller of horrifying tales, with a pet skull and a raven that won’t leave you alone.
Probably the most fun decision you have to make when creating a bard is figuring out what form your performances take. Essentially, you get to pick what kind of bard you want to be.
You can be a traditional minstrel, singing songs and strumming a lute or lyre. Or you could be a dancer, who weaves movement and breath to call forth magic from the weave. You could be a storyteller, a comedian, a herald, an actor, a card magician, or any other type of art that involves sound and gesture. I even ran a campaign for a bard player once who was a lawyer and hid their spells (both written and spoken) inside long contracts or bouts of legalese.
Whatever kind of bard you want to be, just remember that it might be your knowledge of ancient secrets that lets you cast spells, but it’s the force of your personality and your commitment to your performance that gives them power. This is the case whether you’re commanding troops on a battlefield or an audience’s attention at an open mic night.
The Bard’s Class Features
Now, let’s look at the class features that define the bard in more detail. In this section, we’ll present the defining elements of the bard as well as some of our own thoughts (in italics) on their effectiveness.
Black Citadel’s Ranking and Tier System
In our ongoing series of 5e class guides, we use the following color-rating scheme:
Red – C Tier. Red options can sometimes be situationally useful and might make for an interesting narrative choice but are largely less effective than other tiers.
Green – B Tier. A solid choice but nothing that is absolutely critical for a build, or it can be very good but only situationally.
Blue – A Tier. An excellent choice. Widely regarded as powerful in some way, useful, highly effective.
Purple – S Tier. The best of the best. Objectively powerful or transformative in some way. No choice in D&D is essential, but these options are definitely worth considering when you create your characters.
The Bard Table
The very basics of any class are the hit dice, proficiencies, and equipment that they start off with. Before we jump into the actual features of the class, let’s take a brief look at what we’re working with here.
- Hit Dice: 1d8 per bard level
- Hit Points at 1st Level: 8 + your Constitution modifier
- Hit Points at Higher Levels: 1d8 (or 5) + your Constitution modifier per bard level after 1st
The main issue with bards who want to mix it up in melee combat is a distinct shortage of hit points, which puts you in the same survivability neighborhood as rogues and monks but without the added survivability-centric abilities. This is why bards need friends to stand between them and the monsters.
- Armor: Light armor
- Weapons: Simple weapons, hand crossbows, longswords, rapiers, shortswords
- Tools: Three musical instruments of your choice
- Saving Throws: Dexterity, Charisma
- Skills: Choose any three
Your lack of ability to wear medium and heavy armor (not to mention carry a shield) is a serious setback. With an AC that’s tied directly to your Dexterity score, you’re at risk of making your character more multi-ability dependent (MAD).
However, the bard’s rapier proficiency saves the day somewhat. Being able to completely ignore Strength for melee combat really gives this class a lot of breathing room.
A smattering of musical instruments is nice for roleplaying purposes, but I’ve never seen a bard not be able to play an instrument they find or even just have an instrument to hand, so it’s not likely to come up all that often.
Dexterity is the game’s most common saving throw, so proficiency is really nice, and while a Charisma saving throw isn’t quite as common as Wisdom (or as good for maintaining concentration as Constitution), it can be useful when avoiding some truly nasty enchantment spells.
Lastly, three skills from the whole list are better than every other class. You’re well on your way to becoming a consummate skill monkey.
You start with the following equipment in addition to the equipment granted by your background:
- (a) a rapier, (b) a longsword, or (c) any simple weapon
- (a) a diplomat’s pack or (b) an entertainer’s pack
- (a) a lute or (b) any other musical instrument
- Leather armor and a dagger
Getting to choose between a longsword and a rapier is great, depending on whether you want to push for a Dexterity or Strength-based build.
It’s a shame you don’t also get a ranged weapon, but a shortbow or even a hand crossbow shouldn’t be too hard to lay your hands on later.
If you really, really don’t want to mix it up in melee, grab a shortbow, and use a dagger as your backup weapon — although the vicious mockery and thunderclap cantrips are going to be just as good as sources of damage.
When picking a starting equipment pack, you should probably grab whatever feels most useful in your upcoming campaign — or is well suited to your backstory. In a vacuum, while there are some expensive and rare bits of equipment like ink, perfume, and oil flasks in the diplomat’s pack, the entertainer’s pack comes with a disguise kit, which is probably going to come in handy more often.
Bard Class Features
Bards get a good array of features throughout their whole adventuring career; this class has very few boring levels. Also, there are very few bard abilities that don’t feel impactful, which is rare in a character class.
However, bards do remain rather weak before they hit level 3, as this represents a huge power spike for the class when they gain access to a Bard College and Expertise.
The additional armor proficiencies that picking up a subclass like the College of Valor or College of swords provides or the extra protection from a Lore bard’s Cutting Words means that 3rd level usually means a significant spike in survivability for bards. For other subclasses, like the College of Creation or the College of Glamour, hitting 3rd level can mean a noticeable survivability spike for everyone else in the party as well.
Let’s break down the core features of the bard (organized by the level that a character first gets access to them; many of these features have additional ranks at later levels) and see what makes this class tick.
Spellcasting (1st Level)
Bards weave their magic within the melodies and harmonies of songs, unraveling and reshaping reality around them. Spellcasting is at the heart of the bard class, and bards have access to a wealth of magical effects from their large, diverse spell list.
You can read our full guide to spellcasting here.
Bard Spell Chart
At 1st level, bards can choose two cantrips from the bard spell list. Bards learn an additional cantrip at 4th and 11th level. Cantrips are small, simple workings of magic that a spellcaster has cast so many times that they have committed it completely to memory. There is no limit on the number of times a cantrip can be cast in between character rests, and cantrips that deal damage increase in potency as the character casting them levels up.
Preparing and Casting Spells
Bards memorize spells rather than prepare them (like arcane tricksters and eldritch knights), meaning they can know a number of spells determined by their bard level. Bards start at 1st level with four spells known (in addition to their cantrips) and gain new spells as they level up, reaching 20th level with a total of 22 spells memorized.
Also, when bards level up, they can choose to replace one of the bard spells they have memorized with another spell from the bard spell list.
Bards — along with other full-caster classes, like the cleric, wizard, and sorcerer — unlock 9th-level spells when they reach 17th level, meaning they can go toe-to-toe with some of the other big-ticket spellcasting classes.
This reliance on memorizing a small list of spells (as opposed to druids and clerics, who can re-spec their prepared spells each day) is probably the biggest limitation on the bard’s spellcasting. It means you have less leeway to take a spell that is interesting but suboptimal or has a relatively niche application.
Still, you’re going to be throwing out spells like a full caster on top of all your other bardic abilities, which is nothing to sniff at.
Bards cast spells using spell slots, which are recovered after a long rest. You can read our full guide to the best bard spells and cantrips here.
Charisma is the bard’s spellcasting ability as they draw their magic from the passion and skill of their performances.
- Bard Spell save DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Charisma modifier
- Bard Spell attack modifier = your proficiency bonus + your Charisma modifier
Being able to double dip your socially focused skill modifier and your spellcasting is great. A high Charisma score also powers your Bardic Inspiration, which is efficient.
Bards can cast any spell with the ritual tag as a ritual. Casting a spell adds 10 minutes to the spell’s casting time but removes the requirement to expend a spell slot when casting it.
Bards have a decent array of utility and information-gathering ritual spells like Silence, Comprehend Languages, and Magic Mouth, so being able to cast them without burning spell slots is pretty great. However, your list of known spells is a much more precious resource than spell slots.
Spellcasting Focus: Bards can use a musical instrument as a spellcasting focus when casting bard spells instead of a rod, staff, wand, or other focus.
Bardic Inspiration (1st Level)
Starting at 1st level, you can use a bonus action to magically inspire your allies. This allows you to give one of your bardic inspiration dice (a d6) to a creature within 60 feet of you who can hear you. During the next 10 minutes, the creature can then elect to expend that bardic inspiration die by rolling it and adding the result to any attack roll, ability check, or saving throw of their choice.
A character cannot have more than one bardic inspiration die at a time, and a bard can only inspire other creatures, not themselves.
Bards can use this feature a number of times per long rest equal to their Charisma modifier (a minimum of once), and the size of the inspiration die increases at certain bard levels (noted in the bard table). Your Bardic Inspiration die becomes a d8 at 5th level, a d10 at 10th level, and a d12 at 15th level.
The other core element of the class is one of the game’s best support abilities. Bardic Inspiration (especially at higher levels) can turn a missed attack into a much-needed hit, ensure a character makes their saving throw, or any number of other defeats into victories.
A bard’s presence makes the whole party more successful more often, which is why they’re one of the most effective classes in the game. Also, a bard’s subclass typically lets them add extra effects to their bardic inspiration or use them in different ways, further empowering the class.
Jack of All Trades (2nd Level)
Bards are repositories of knowledge, obscure trivia, and half-overheard tips and tricks. This means that no matter the situation, they probably know a little bit of relevant information or have picked up the odd skill that gives them a slight edge over the average adventurer.
Starting at 2nd level, bards get to add half their proficiency bonus (rounded down) to any check where the proficiency bonus doesn’t already apply.
For example, a 9th-level bard making a Wisdom (Survival) check who isn’t proficient in that skill would get to add +2 (half of the bard’s +4 proficiency bonus) to the roll in addition to any bonus from their Wisdom Ability Score modifier.
This isn’t going to be super impactful all of the time, but you’re effectively giving yourself at least a 5% higher chance of success every time you make a skill check, which definitely adds up over the course of a long campaign.
Also, checks where your proficiency bonus doesn’t apply most obviously refer to ability checks. However, there are a whole heap of other d20 rolls where this has an effect as well. Basically, anything that’s not an attack roll or a saving throw gets a nice little boost.
Some examples include Initiative rolls, casting Dispel Magic, Constitution checks (holding your breath, traveling without incurring exhaustion, staying away, etc.), and so on.
Song of Rest (2nd Level)
Your campfire stories and soothing songs help your allies rest and recover from adventuring more quickly. During a short rest, if you or any creatures expend Hit Dice to regain hit points, your song of rest allows them to regain an additional 1d6 hit points.
Your Song of Rest becomes more effective at higher levels, increasing to 1d8 at 9th level, 1d10 at 13th level, and 1d12 at 17th level.
Just like your Bardic Inspiration and Jack of All Trades, this is the kind of ability that kind of subtly builds to huge benefits over time.
Bard College (3rd Level)
Your subclass determines some of the direction for your character’s abilities and playstyle, granting you features at 3rd, 6th, and 14th level.
You can scroll down for our overview of the different Bard Colleges, what they do, and which ones we think are best.
Expertise (3rd Level)
At 3rd level, you gain some hyper-focused expertise in two of your chosen skills. Pick two of your skill proficiencies. When you make an ability check that uses one of those skills, your proficiency bonus is doubled for that check.
At 10th level, choose two more skills to benefit from your Expertise.
For example, a 3rd-level bard (+2 proficiency bonus) with 18 (+4) Charisma has Expertise in Persuasion, meaning that instead of +6, their bonus when making Charisma (Persuasion) checks increases to +8. At 9th level (+4 proficiency bonus), the total bonus increases to +12.
Font of Inspiration (5th Level)
Instead of after a long rest, you now regain all of your expended Bardic Inspiration dice when you finish a short or long rest.
Depending on how often you take short rests throughout an adventuring day, Font of Inspiration effectively doubles or even triples how many uses of bardic inspiration you have.
This means that, unless you know you have an especially long encounter coming up before your next opportunity to rest, you can pretty much stop worrying about having to conserve your Bardic Inspiration.
Countercharm (6th Level)
You gain the ability to disrupt magical effects that influence the minds of you and your allies. You can use your action to grant yourself and any friendly creatures within 30 feet of you advantage on saving throws against being frightened or charmed.
Your countercharm performance lasts until the end of your next turn. A creature must be able to hear you to gain this benefit. The performance ends early if you are incapacitated or silenced or if you voluntarily end it, which doesn’t require an action.
Using a whole action to do what the paladin’s level-6 aura does automatically all the time is pretty suboptimal. It could still be situationally powerful, but unless you’re up against enemies that revolve around fear and charm attacks, you’re probably going to have better things to do with your turn.
Magical Secrets (10th Level)
Your experience and exploration of other magical disciplines has allowed you to expand your magical repertoire.
Magical Secrets lets you learn two new spells from any class’s spell list, including the bard. The spells you learn count as bard spells when you cast them, and they must be of a level you can cast as shown on the Bard table or a cantrip. They are included in the number of spells you know.
At 14th and 18th levels, you learn two additional spells from any spell list.
I cannot stress how much versatility this brings to the bard class. You can pick up some seriously powerful spells from all over the Player’s Handbook.
You can read our full guide to picking out the best bard magical secret spells here.
Superior Inspiration (20th Level)
If you ever roll for initiative and have no uses of Bardic Inspiration left, Superior Inspiration lets you automatically regain one use.
It’s a nice motivator to burn through all your uses of bardic inspiration before a fight and is yet another way to ensure this ability is virtually never off cooldown.
Variant Bard Features
In addition to the features above, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything have introduced some additional, optional features to the bard class.
Additional Bard Spells (1st Level)
The following spells from the Player’s Handbook, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything are added to the bard spell list.
All the spells added here make sense for the bard’s core concept and help the bard better fulfill the class’s role within the party as a support, healer, and versatile utility spellcaster. However, bards are already limited in the number of spells they can memorize; this just adds even more analysis paralysis.
If any of the options were particularly special, they’d be a candidate for magical secrets anyway.
Magical Inspiration (2nd Level)
When you give a Bardic Inspiration die to a creature, instead of adding it to a d20 roll, the creature can instead add it to the total amount of hit points healed from a spell they cast. This discards the die as if it had been used as normal.
This is nowhere near as impactful as applying Bardic Inspiration to a d20 roll. However, if your Bardic Inspiration die is about to expire and someone in the party needs healing, this isn’t a bad way to ensure it doesn’t go to waste.
Bardic Versatility (4th Level)
When you reach a level that grants the option to take an Ability Score Improvement or Feat, you can refocus your spellcasting abilities and skills as your training moves to the next level.
You can choose to either replace one of the skills you chose for the Expertise feature with one of your other skill proficiencies that isn’t benefiting from Expertise or replace a cantrip with another cantrip from the bard spell list.
This isn’t particularly flashy, but it’s hugely impactful if your party composition changes or you just find yourself with buyer’s remorse after a decision regarding your build.
Creating a Bard, Step-by-Step
In this section, we’re going to break down some of the decisions you’ll need to make when building a new bard character from the ground up, including how to distribute your ability scores, which race to choose, and how backgrounds, skill proficiencies, and feats can factor into your build.
As always, when we offer up advice for how to build a character here at Black Citadel, anything we’re suggesting is going to focus on giving your character the most mechanical advantages possible. Your own character is affected by so much more than these concerns: your backstory and personal preferences can (and should) also inform your decisions when building a new PC.
Our advice is just here to help (and hopefully inspire) you to get the most out of the build you think is interesting and gets you excited for the next campaign.
For a list of the Bard Colleges and quick-start builds that work off of the advice in this section, please scroll down.
Regardless of how you generate your character’s ability scores (point buy, standard array, roll-4-drop-1, etc.), all bards are going to want to prioritize a strong score in Charisma — the ability that fuels their socially focused skills, Bardic Inspiration, and Spellcasting.
After that, Dexterity (for AC and finesse/ranged weapon attacks and damage as well as Stealth checks) and Constitution (concentration saving throws and more hit points) are both solid choices. You can more or less arrange the remaining three ability scores however you like.
If you’re going for a build that favors Strength over Dexterity for weapon attacks, then you’re going to want a higher score. Otherwise, this is your dump stat.
Wisdom and Intelligence both have some great skills attached to them (Perception and Arcana, respectively). As a bard, it’s important that you have some good candidates for your Expertise and many skill proficiencies (especially if you’re going with the College of Lore at 3rd level).
As long as your Charisma is high and (if you’re playing a more combat-centric bard subclass) you have points in your relevant weapon-related ability, you can more or less do whatever feels right to your backstory.
In general, this is how I like to prioritize a bard’s ability scores.
Tier II: Constitution, Dexterity
Somewhat Useful: Intelligence, WIsdom
Essentially Pointless: Strength
Bards are found in every culture and plane throughout the multiverse. From satyr storytellers and revelers to hobgoblin war chanters, any culture with art and history needs people to remember them and pass them along to the next generation.
Picking your character race can be a great way to flesh out a bard’s backstory, as well as gain some useful mechanical abilities and traits.
This guide is being written in a post-Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse landscape. As such, it very much looks like innate ability-score bonuses are on the way out for playable races. They still exist as “legacy” content and are still official for the core races, but they’re going to be gone soon.
The new method, as put forward in the custom lineage rules from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and the new exotic races (also known as lineages) in Monsters of the Multiverse, is thus when determining your character’s ability scores:
- Increase one score by 2 and increase a different score by 1 or increase three different scores by 1.
- You can’t raise any of your scores above 20
As such, we’re going to be looking less at ability scores as a reason to pick a particular race, as the new method for generating ability scores is the same for everyone. Instead, we’re going to be focusing on races for reasons other than their Ability Score bonuses and assuming that whichever one you pick for your bard, you put your +2 into Charisma and a +1 into Dexterity or Constitution (or put +1 into all three).
If you are using legacy racial bonuses, pick anything with a Charisma bonus that also helps with Constitution or Dexterity.
If you want to play one of the remaining official options (aka, the “classic” fantasy races from the Player’s Handbook), good options include a Half-Elf (+2 CHA , +1 ANY, +1 ANY), Drow (+1 CHA, +2 DEX; Sunlight Sensitivity is kind of an issue), or Lightfoot Halfling (+1 CHA, +2 DEX, Lucky is amazing).
Let’s look at some of the other top-tier options for bards from throughout the multiverse.
Hailing from the elemental plane of air, these humanoids are descended from powerful air elementals and djinn. In addition to being able to hold their breath forever, Air Genasi get resistance to lightning damage and — most importantly — some useful innate spellcasting.
Their Mingle With the Wind trait gives them the Shocking Grasp cantrip at 1st level, Feather Fall from 3rd level, and Levitate from 5th. Also, you can cast these spells once per long rest or with a spell slot, meaning they’re a great way to expand the bard’s limited pool of memorized spells. You can also choose between Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma as your spellcasting-ability modifier at character creation.
Larger than pixies and sprites but smaller than just about everyone else, Fairies are one of the archetypal fey races with innate spellcasting and the power of flight.
Their natural powers of flight (while wearing light armor no less) and innate spellcasting (Druidcraft, Faerie Fire, and Enlarge/Reduce) make them great candidates for a bard — especially one belonging to the College of Glamour, which focuses on harnessing the powers of fey enchantment.
Meditative, disciplined, and monastic, Githzerai are powerful psionics users — one half of a species split tragically in two and now locked in an endless war with itself. Although they might not fit the traditional mold for the outgoing, boisterous bard, Githzerai could make an interesting roleplaying challenge for a bard player in a Spelljammer or Planescape-inspired campaign.
They’re especially adept at guarding their own minds against outside interference, and their innate spellcasting broadens the bard’s repertoire with an invisible version of the Mage Hand cantrip, Shield, and Detect Thoughts. You also get resistance to psychic damage and advantage on saving throws against being Charmed.
D&D’s resident race of accursed crow men has gone through some recent changes thanks to Monsters of the Multiverse. Although Kenku are no longer robbed of creativity by the anger of a wrathful god and doomed to only speak through the talent of mimicry, these folk have retained some of their gift for replicating the things they’ve seen and heard.
Kenku get advantage on checks (something your Jack of All Trades also helps with) to forge, for copywriting, or for craftwork. They also get proficiency in two additional skills (if you’re playing a Lore Bard, that’s a total of eight skills at 3rd level). Then, you can give yourself advantage on any skill you’re proficient in a number of times per long rest equal to your proficiency bonus. Combined with Advantage, this is basically an auto-success button.
Humans are adaptable, and while they’re not quite the top-tier choice they were pre-Monsters of the Multiverse, the +1 to two stats and free Feat (which you can use to get +1 on another stat if you pick right, although for the bard, Magic Initiate or Inspiring Leader are probably the best choices) shouldn’t be dismissed in a hurry.
Skills (and Expertise) and Languages
Any race you choose is going to be able to speak Common and one other language. Beyond that, you should choose languages that fit with your background and the campaign you’re playing in.
This is something you can always come to your dungeon master with during your Session Zero. Asking, “What languages might it be useful for my character to realistically know?” is a great character-creation question.
Skills are a huge part of the bard class — perhaps more than any other. Being able to pick three options from the entire list at 1st level is better than any other class, and depending on your race, background, and subclass (the College of Lore gives you another three), you can pretty much lock down the entire list.
Therefore, you don’t actually have to be all that discerning when it comes to Skill proficiencies, although picking early options that synergize with what you want to be doing as a bard is obviously helpful. You should also look at the rest of your party. Even with just a couple of fellow PCs, you should be able to comfortably fill in pretty much all of the important skill gaps left behind.
Let’s take a look at the skills (grouped by Ability Score).
Athletics: Unless you’re playing a Strength-based bard, this isn’t worth the time of day. Unless you are the only non-wizard in the party, there’s going to be someone who does this better than you.
Acrobatics: A much better choice than Athletics and a good way to handle getting out of trouble in a tough situation.
Sleight of Hand: If there’s a rogue in the party, don’t bother. Otherwise, it can’t hurt having lighter fingers than the average bear.
Stealth: This is how you evade detection, get the drop on enemies, and lose your pursuers if you get caught. Choose this as an Expertise option, and you’ll be ginning your party’s rogue a run for their money.
Arcana: It’s always great to have someone in the party who can look at a glowing orb and be, like, pretty sure if it’s cursed or not.
History: Unless you really hate your dungeon master’s lore dumps, this is probably the best skill for remembering a useful fact. This is the sort of stuff that the more cerebral types of bard were made for.
Investigation: A more intentional way to pick up new information than Perception, and you may just be the best candidate in your party for it.
Nature: I’ve found the usefulness of this skill varies from DM to DM, but there’s usually a better option, and unless your bard’s character concept is a folk singer, there’s probably a better skill out there for you.
Religion: The least useful of the four “knowing stuff” skills (the other three being History, Nature, and Arcana). It’s going to come up less frequently, and most DMs just allow for a history roll in its place.
Animal Handling: Never as useful as people think it’s going to be as (officially) it has no bearing (gettit?!) on your ability to tame or interact with wild animals. This is strictly horse whisperer and not Chris Pratt’s character from the stupid new Jurassic World movies.
Insight: A great way to intuit more information out of a scene or (as I mostly see it used) a magical lie detector.
Medicine: Hands down the most useless skill in the game. You have healing spells. It’ll be fine.
Perception: Hands down the best skill in the game. This is how you unlock new information from the DM, see the enemies coming, spot a secret door, and generally gather the clues you need to succeed.
Survival: Could be a useful pick-up for the purpose of tracking or wilderness exploration if there’s no druid, ranger, or other exploration-focused character in the party. Also, I heard a case recently for Survival alternately being used for “street smarts,” which I really love and feels right for a bard.
Deception: Okay, basically all the Charisma-based skills are how you leverage your Expertise and insanely high score to make your DM’s life a living hell. “Thieves, officer? Matching our descriptions exactly, you say? Can’t be right. You see, we all have mustaches, and the fellows who robbed the castle didn’t. Yes, thank you, officer. No need to apologize. Best of luck on the search.”
Intimidation: Probably the least “bard-ey” of the four Charisma skills and the one that another character is most likely to have.
Performance: Any time you want to set up in front of a crowd and be a bard, this is what you’re going to be rolling.
Persuasion: The other skill which — when your bonuses start to hit the 10+ area — seems to turn players into low-level reality warpers.
Character backgrounds are both a great way to help flesh out your character’s personal history and serve as your primary source of extra skills, tool proficiencies, and languages.
Each background also has its own special feature – something which I maintain is a highly underused aspect of D&D.
Take the Criminal’s natural ability to draw upon a network of contacts for information, leads, and jobs or the fact that the Sage’s Researcher feature means that even if they can’t recall a piece of lore, they know exactly where to go to get it.
Background features are a fantastic way to make your character feel competent within the world in which they live as well as help the DM flesh out that world and draw players deeper into its lore. On a bard, they’re also a great way to get even more skills, not to mention some useful (and usually unique) starting gear.
You can make just about any background work, especially for a bard, but here are a few (thematic and mechanically interesting) options.
Courtier: Proficiency in the Insight and Persuasion skills as well as two extra languages is great if you’re going to be traveling far and wide serving as the face of your party. You also have an ear for gossip and a knack for figuring out how bureaucracies and court hierarchies are arranged.
Criminal: Deception and Stealth proficiency are an absolutely great start, and while a gaming set isn’t anything special, proficiency in thieves’ tools is. You also gain access to a network of contacts in the criminal underground.
Entertainer: The Entertainer is thematically a perfect fit for the bard, but the actual benefits aren’t top tier. Performance proficiency is good, but acrobatics is fine. A disguise kit proficiency is good, but an additional instrument is unnecessary, and your ability to find steady work as a musician is kind of a bard’s whole deal anyway.
Feats are an optional rule in D&D 5e that allow you to gain a special bonus or ability instead of taking an Ability Score Increase. These bonuses can range from new spells to increased toughness and even a photographic memory.
You can read our guide to the seven best feats for bards here. Personally, my three favorite options for bard feats include…
Expand your bard’s face skills even further with this feat that combines numerical advantages with some great roleplaying boons for a bard. The Actor feat gives you a useful +1 bonus to your Charisma, which is perfect for bards — especially Variant Human ones who could use a bit of a stat boost at 1st level.
You also get advantage on Performance or Deception skill checks to impersonate other creatures or pass yourself off as another person. Lastly, it allows you to mimic any sound or voice that they hear.
Literally never a bad feat on any character — and one of my favorite things to have in your back pocket at lower levels — the Lucky feat lets you reroll three d20 rolls per day. These can be your own ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws, or they can be someone else’s. It’s an immensely powerful way to tip the odds of success in your favor and helps make up for the fact you can’t use Bardic Inspiration on yourself.
Learn an extra two cantrips from any spell list (it’s like getting Magical Secrets early) as well as a 1st-level spell. Not only is Magic Initiate a great way to expand the bard’s limited spell pool, but the class lacks a serious damage cantrip. Seriously, kit out your next bard with Eldritch Blast. You’ll thank me.
Multiclassing can be an effective way of adding even more versatility to a character, accentuating its strengths or compensating for its weaknesses.
It’s also another useful tool if taking a particular class from 1st to 20th level doesn’t line up with a character concept you have in mind.
You can check out our guide to multiclassing bards here, but we’ve also rounded up a few of our favorite options below that keep two key points in mind:
- Ability Score Synergy: Bards already have two (maybe three) very important ability scores, so picking a multiclass option that brings that number up to four is probably not a great idea. Pick multiclass pairings that emphasize Charisma, Dexterity, and Constitution.
- Complement and Compensate: The golden rule of multiclassing: pick something that makes your base class better at what they already do (or at least doesn’t make them worse at it) or (preferably and) helps make up for any glaring issues they might have.
Here are our three favorite picks for a bard multiclass build.
For the ultimate skill-monkey build with Expertise in pretty much everything, the rogue is a great way to complement an especially sneaky or deceptive bard. The College of Lore and College of Whispers are great shouts here and pair well with just about any rogue — although something versatile like the Arcane Trickster or the Thief are great options.
If you’re looking for the closest thematic fit, however, I personally love the Phantom rogue (who learns new skills and does spooky stuff by harnessing the power of ghosts) and the College of Spirits bard (which uses random spooky stories to do crazy stuff with bardic inspiration and, you guessed it, ghosts).
Medium armor and martial-weapons proficiency, the option to use Charisma for weapon attacks and damage, and the eldritch blast cantrip. This is another Charisma-based class, so there are no additional ability scores to invest in, and a bard and Hexblade can advance alongside one another with very little friction.
Divine Soul Sorcerer
For an even more supportive bard — one who emphasizes spellcasting buffs and healing — the Divine Soul sorcerer is a great way to access some divine spellcasting, not to mention metamagic.
Bards choose their subclass — known as a Bardic College — at 3rd level, and this represents a significant power spike for the class. It’s worth noting that while some classes (like the warlock or artificer) are pretty much entirely defined by their subclass, others (like the wizard) are less impacted by this choice.
The bard falls into the latter camp. While the impact of a Bard College’s three traits (at 3rd, 6th, and 14th level) are significant, most of them simply alter or add to the bard’s core abilities, like Bardic Inspiration.
Therefore (with the glaring exception of the College of Spirits), most bard subclasses are actually pretty similar to one another. This is especially true of a few subclasses that more or less duplicate another — like the relationship between the Colleges of Swords and Valor or Eloquence and Lore). That being said, they’re still different enough to make picking a subclass a meaningful choice.
College of Creation
An interesting bardic college that taps into the music of creation itself. This subclass lets you create inanimate objects out of thin air and add powerful benefits to your bardic inspiration, depending on the kind of rolls they’re applied to.
At higher levels, bards in this college can bring inanimate objects to life and create bigger and bigger items from nothing but music and flashes of magical power.
College of Eloquence
The bard subclass that doubles down on wit, intelligence, and always getting the last (usually magically-infused) word. The College of Eloquence is probably the most mechanically powerful bardic subclass that doubles down on everything that makes the base class effective in the first place: Charisma-based skills and better, more reliable Bardic Inspiration. Simple, elegant, eloquent.
College of Glamour
A more support-caster-focused bardic subclass that draws on the magic of the feywild to empower allies. Sadly, benefits like movement buffs and temporary hit points sometimes don’t feel as impactful as other subclasses with recourse to actually dealing damage.
College of Lore
The other truly top-tier bard subclass. Just as the College of Eloquence doubles down on Bardic Inspiration, the College of Lore emphasizes the bard’s nature as a skill monkey. You get extra skill proficiencies, Magical Secrets a whole four levels early, and the ability to actually use bardic inspiration on yourself.
College of Spirits
From Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, the College of Spirits bard is certainly the black sheep of the class. It relies on random Bardic Inspiration effects (which makes this feel closer to a wild magic bard than anything else) that can be highly impactful or deeply underwhelming. Thematically, it’s amazing. Mechanically, it’s … dead on arrival.
College of Swords
A bard subclass that focuses fully on offense, specifically in melee. New weapon proficiencies, a fighting style, and flourishes (which are similar to the Battle Master fighter’s maneuvers) let you push, damage, and block enemies. The benefits from the maneuvers aren’t amazing, however.
College of Valor
Very similar to the College of Swords but with more of a focus on survivability, the College of Valor gets extra weapon, armor, and shield proficiencies as well as some combat-focused inspiration your allies can apply to damage and an extra attack at 6th level.
While there are definitely strong gish (martial/spellcasting characters) builds out there, the Valor Bard is probably the most self-sufficient bard, and for a new player in a smaller party, this is the subclass I’d recommend.
College of Whispers
The psionic power-using, conniving assassin bard is easily the worst subclass at playing well with other party members. However, if you want a slightly different flavor of bard that is going to make you the uncontested champion of a campaign filled with mystery and intrigue, look no further.
You get psychic blade attacks that deal great damage and a way to frighten your enemies, charm them, and assume their appearance. However, in a more traditional hack-and-slash dungeon-crawling campaign, the Whispers bard starts feeling rather useless rather quickly.
Bard Quickstart Guides
Now that we’ve broken down the bard’s defining features, abilities, and subclasses, we’re going to give you some quick-start builds that you can use to get different bard builds up and running.
Tough, percussive, booming — a bard who forms the heart of the ensemble, supporting their friends but not afraid to take center stage if need be.
- Class/Subclass: Bard, College of Valor
- Race: Variant Human
- Skills: Intimidation, Perception
- Background: Criminal (Deception, Stealth)
- Feats: Magic Initiate, Lucky, Tough, Resilient
- Cantrips: Blade Ward, Thunderclap,
- 1st level: Cure Wounds, Silvery Barbs, Sleep, Thunderwave
A bard who exists to make their allies look good, do their best, and, more importantly, make it out of the dungeon alive.
- Class/Subclass: Bard, College of Valor 14/Sorcerer, Divine Soul 6
- Race: Fairy
- Skills: Arcana, Persuasion, Perception
- Background: Entertainer (Acrobatics, Performance)
- Feats: Fey Touched, Actor, Inspiring Leader
- Cantrips: Message, Prestidigitation
- 1st level: Charm Person, Cure Wounds, Detect Magic, Healing Word
The one who remembers the lyrics, with screaming pipes that define the band’s sound.
- Class/Subclass: Bard, College of Lore
- Race: Githzerai
- Skills: Performance, Perception, Stealth
- Background: Sage (Arcana, History)
- Feats: Actor, Observant, Magic Initiate
- Cantrips:Dancing Lights, Vicious Mockery
- 1st level: Comprehend Languages, Detect Magic, Disguise Self, Dissonant Whispers
Searing, fiery licks that let everyone know this bard is the real frontman of the group.
- Class/Subclass: Bard, College of Eloquence 14/Rogue, Arcane Trickster 6
- Race: Kenku (any two skills)
- Skills: History, Perception, Persuasion
- Background: Criminal, (Deception, Stealth)
- Feats: Actor, Observant, Magic Initiate
- Cantrips: Mage Hand, Thunderclap
- 1st level: Charm Person, Dissonant Whispers, Hideous Laughter, Thunderwave
- About Author
- Latest Posts
I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.