Bard 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Guile and Panache
"That's rubbish," the fighter snorted, sharpening her blade. "I can swing a sword better than you, song-singer."
"I concur," the gnome wizard scowled. "Your knowledge of the arcane is impressive, but it lacks technique and finesse. I doubt you could even pass a first-year's exam at Blackstaff Tower."
"And what in the Nine Hells are you saying about picking locks," the rogue spat. "You can't just waltz up to a locked chest with a hairpin and expect to crack the damn thing like a mussel. Who the hell do you think you are?"
The bard smiled, the jewelry on his subtly pointed half-elven ears gleaming in the candlelight. "I'm a bard, darlings. Do you know the difference between youse and me? I've got style."
You are a bard, a performer whose words, songs, and dance are infused with magic. You may long for adventure and glory, and travel across the land in search of fame and fortune—or perhaps you are simply the old village storyteller, who relates stories of their adventures from decades past. You are also a member of Dungeons & Dragons’ most versatile class, since you have access to roguish skill expertise, stylish fighting techniques, and spells that would make a wizard jealous. This incredible versatility comes at the cost of extra complexity, so let this guide help you make the most of your bardic powers!
The most important thing about playing a character in Dungeons & Dragons is playing them in a way that’s fun for you and your fellow players. However, there are certain basics of how to effectively play a bard that every player should know. Just as Dungeon Masters should know the rules in order to break them with purpose, you should know the basic tactics of your class so you can have fun playing your character’s quirks while still supporting your party. This guide will cover the basics of playing a bard, walking you through the first 5 levels of your bardic career.
Quick Build Expanded: Building Your Bard
This isn’t a character optimization guide, but the first step in playing your class effectively is building it effectively. The Quick Start guidelines in the Player’s Handbook are a good start, but don’t go far enough for most new players. Here’s an expanded Quick Start guide. This guide assumes you’re using the D&D Beyond Character Builder, which includes helper text for new players.
- Under “Character Preferences,” turn off “Playtest Content” and “Show Unarmed Strike”
- Choose your Race. While any race can be a good bard, the most powerful bards tend to be from races that improve your Charisma score. Charisma is your most important ability score because it determines the power of your spells and your other bardic powers, and it also improves your Performance skill, a vital talent for any bard!
Half-elves make splendid bards, thanks to their natural +2 bonus to Charisma. They also fit the narrative of a bard perfectly; as outsiders to both human and elvish cultures, they are ideal travelers, flitting between towns and collecting stories.
Tieflings are excellent bards as well, again thanks to a natural +2 bonus Charisma. Plus, that devilish appearance is just perfect for a hardcore rocker.
Lightfoot halflings are also good bards, especially if you want to be a warrior in addition to a spellcasting performer. Their +2 bonus to Dexterity makes them nimble fighters, skilled at wielding rapiers and bows to support their party with more than just songs.
- Choose bard as your class (obviously).
- Choose skills that fit the character you want to play. Most bards should be proficient in the Performance skill, because it’s essential to the fantasy of their class. Even if you aren’t a musician or a dancer, your Charisma (Performance) checks could still represent acting talent or even oratory skill.
- Consider what role you want to fill in the party. Let’s take a closer look at this.
What Kind of Bard are You?
As a bard, your broad spell selection and skill bonuses make you a natural jack-of-all-trades, allowing you to fill just about any role in your party with ease. This versatility is your greatest strength, but it can also make you slightly unfocused. You may be able to fight like a fighter, be as skilled as a rogue, and cast spells like a wizard, but you’ll never have quite the raw power that any of these classes possess.
Consider what role you want to primarily fill in your adventuring party. A bard that focuses on Offense will use both swords and spells to destroy their enemies utterly, while empowering their allies to do the same. A bard that wants to Tank will use their Bardic Inspiration to improve their allies’ defenses while getting in your enemies’ faces in full armor. Finally, a bard that wants to primarily Support their allies will find that their class offers plenty of options for this playstyle, with dozens of spells and class features improving their ability to bolster their allies’ abilities.
Until you choose your Bard College (hereafter referred to as a subclass) at 3rd level, your role will be defined primarily by your spell selection. If you’re starting at 1st level, use these first three levels to figure out what kind of role you want to fill in the party. You don’t have to start the game knowing what you want to do, especially as a freewheeling bard.
(Note that I’m using Offense, Tank, and Support as shorthand. The D&D rulebooks never refer to characters using these terms, but they’re an easy way to discuss the different roles characters serve in the party.)
Bards who choose the College of Swords (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything) at 3rd level are the supreme example of an Offense bard. This subclass’s features grant you armor and weapon proficiencies necessary to be a front-line fighter, and also grants you a handful of stylish Blade Flourishes that let you maneuver the battlefield to deal damage with ease. The College of Whispers (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything) is also a strong choice for offensive bards, thanks to their powerful Psychic Blades feature, though this subclass’s sinister flavor and subtle playstyle may make it a niche option for would-be assassins.
While your spell list doesn’t include the game’s best sheer damage-dealing spells (such as fireball), there are simply no other bardic colleges that measure up to the College of Swords in offensive ability. And not to get ahead of ourselves, but if you’re desperate to get your hands on some powerhouse damage spells, you can use your Magical Secrets feature to “cheat” your way into acquiring those spells if you’re willing to wait until 10th level.
Tanking seems like an odd choice of role for a bard, but it’s far from impossible! The bardic College of Valor is the best choice for bards seeking to tank hits for their party, as they gain proficiency in medium armor, shields, and martial weapons, and can use their Bardic Inspiration to help their allies avoid enemy attacks.
As a Tank bard, your primary objective is to make yourself as obvious and flashy a target as possible—your job is to take hits instead of your allies, after all. This isn’t explicitly stated in the game’s rules, but your entire class thematically revolves around being the center of attention at all times. Consider suggesting this house rule to your Dungeon Master, which all bards can use:
Aggravating Performance. You are a master at becoming the center of attention. As an action, you can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to taunt one creature that can hear you within 30 feet. Make a Charisma (Performance) check and roll a Bardic Inspiration die, adding the result to the total, contested by the target’s Wisdom (Insight) check. On a success, the creature has disadvantage on attack rolls against all creatures except for you until the end of its next turn.
The entire bard class is designed around supporting your allies, but the true master of support are bards who follow the College of Lore. Your Cutting Words feature makes you adept at aiding allies and your Additional Magical Secrets gives you a way to pick up even more spells from outside your class’s spell list, making you even more versatile than before!
The College of Glamour also fits the Support role, as it gives you more ways to heal your allies and otherwise get your party out of sticky situations through your immense charm and fey beauty.
Quick Build Expanded (Part 2)
- Place your highest ability score in Charisma. The best place to put your second highest ability score depends on what role you want to fill in your party, but you can just as easily place it wherever you want.
- If you want to fill the role of Offense in your party and focus on dealing damage, place your second highest ability score in Dexterity.
- If you want to fill the role of Tank in your party and focus on taking hits instead of your allies, place your second highest ability score in Constitution.
- If you want to fill the role of Support in your party and focus on using spells to buff your party, place your second highest ability score in Dexterity. This will improve your low Armor Class, making it harder for enemies to land hits on you.
- Choose any background that fits your character concept. This is a chance to be creative! How did you become a bard? Were you once a soldier that kept up their unit’s morale with songs? Or were you a sailor that recorded the history of every island they dropped anchor at?
- Finally, determine your equipment. For an easy selection, click on “EQUIPMENT” when promoted to “Choose EQUIPMENT or GOLD”. Your selection of equipment is easy, most of the choices are purely creative decisions on your part. What kind of instrument do you want to play? Do you carry the gear of an entertainer or a diplomat? The only real choice is what kind of weapon you want to use—but even then, most bards will want to carry a rapier. Choosing a simple weapon will let you pick a ranged weapon like a hand axe or a light crossbow, in case you want to be far from the fighting.
A Bard in Combat
Unless you are a member of the College of Valor or the College of Swords (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything), you will probably be using your spells most often in combat. As a “full spellcaster” (like a wizard or cleric, as opposed to a “half spellcaster” like a ranger or paladin), the bulk of your power comes in the form of spells. Bards need to learn spells from their spell list, but they can cast any spell they know at any time, as long as they have a spell slot to cast it with. Unlike wizards or clerics, a bard never has to prepare spells. You only know a certain number of spells, and you gain more as you level up. Look at the Spells Known column on the bard table to see how many spells you know at any given level.
Bards that rely on their spells—Support bards, generally—you’ll be spending most of your time in the back lines, supporting your allies from afar. This is fine; a Support player doesn’t want to be hit by enemy attacks at all, if possible. If you’re a Tank or Offense-focused bard, however, you may very well be in the thick of melee at all times. Beware of using spells that require concentration when you’re in the middle of a fight. If you’re taking a lot of hits, it will be hard to maintain concentration, since every time you take a hit, you have to make a successful Constitution saving throw in order to hold onto the spell you’re concentrating on.
Finally, these suggested spell lists are a starting point for bards who don’t know what spells or feats are powerful or useful. You can and should tailor these suggestions to fit your personal preferences and to overcome the specific challenges you are facing in your own campaign.
At 1st level, you gain your Bardic Inspiration, your core class feature. The standard form of Bardic Inspiration is very Support-focused, but your subclass at 3rd level may give you alternate ways of using this feature.
At 2nd level, you gain the Jack of All Trades feature. This is a passive buff to all your non-proficient ability checks, which is an absolutely massive boost to your utility. You also gain the Song of Rest feature, which is a passive support boost that gives a little extra healing to your allies during a short rest.
At 3rd level, you gain Expertise in two skills or tool proficiencies of your choice, which doubles your proficiency bonus when making ability checks with those skills. Which skills you choose to gain Expertise in are up to you, but you can’t go wrong choosing Performance and Stealth.
At 4th level, you should use your Ability Score Improvement to increase your Charisma or Dexterity score by +2. Your choice, depending on whether or not you want your spells or weapons to be more powerful. Offense or Tank bards should consider taking the War Caster feat, which makes it easier to concentrate on spells while in combat.
At 5th level, your Bardic Inspiration die grows from a d6 to a d8, and your Font of Inspiration causes you to regain all uses of Bardic Inspiration after a short rest as well! This is a huge boon, especially since it allows you to use the Bardic Inspiration features granted to you by your subclass more frequently, too.
Bard spells don’t always impress in terms of raw damage, but your utility spells will make it easy for you to close the gap and skewer up your foes with your trusty rapier. Be careful, though. Until 3rd level, you won’t gain proficiency in medium armor (College of Swords only), so you’ll be a very flimsy fighter until you gain some better armor.
At 1st level, learn two cantrips, one of which should be vicious mockery. It’s a bard classic, and one of the funniest spells in the game if you’re adept at insulting people. Your friends will love this one, too.
Also at 1st level, learn four 1st-level spells. These spells should be a mix of pure offense and defense, to help keep you alive if the battle gets tough. These spells could be: dissonant whispers, earth tremor, Tasha’s hideous laughter, and thunderwave.
At 2nd level, you learn one new 1st-level spell. This spell should be some form of utility to help you in situations you can’t fight your way out of. Charm person and disguise self are both classic choices when diplomacy or subterfuge are needed, and silent image could help you pull off some wild tricks, with the right set-up.
At 3rd level, you get to choose your subclass! Choose College of Swords if you want to be a flashy, Errol Flynn-like swashbuckler, or College of Whispers if you want to be a shadowy spy and assassin.
Bards of the College of Swords gain proficiency with medium armor and the scimitar, improving your Armor Class and giving you a nice weapon to dual wield, if you’re into that. You also gain a Fighting Style (Two-Weapon Fighting is probably the best choice, since you don’t gain proficiency with shields), and the impressive Blade Flourish feature. This versatile feature can be used to deal major damage, protect yourself, or maneuver about the battlefield. Use it wisely, and always keep at least one Bardic Inspiration dice in reserve in case you need to make a quick getaway.
Bards of the College of Whispers gain the ability to transform Bardic Inspiration dice into damage dice through their Psychic Blades, creating the potential for you to deal major damage against high-value targets. You also gain the Words of Terror feature, an out-of-combat trait that lets you terrify a creature by spending 1 minute talking to it. Use this feature to create chaos or scare off town guards!
At 4th level, you learn a new cantrip of your choice and a new spell! This spell should be a defensive 2nd-level spell like hold person or a debuff spell like blindness/deafness. Both of these spells make it easier for you to tackle a single enemy and take them down quickly.
At 5th level, you learn a new spell and gain access to 3rd-level spells! There aren’t any good offensive 3rd-level bard spells, so learn another offensive 1st or 2nd-level spell or your choice, or pick a debuff spell of 3rd level, like hypnotic pattern or stinking cloud.
Bards interested in tanking need two major things: a way to keep themselves alive and a way to make enemies attack them instead of their allies.
At 1st level, learn two cantrips, one of which should be vicious mockery. It’s a bard classic, and one of the funniest spells in the game if you’re adept at insulting people. Your friends will love this one, too. It has extra utility for Tanks, since it imposes disadvantage on the next attack roll that creature makes, which helps keep you and your allies safe.
Also at 1st level, learn four 1st-level spells. These spells should be a mix of defense and utility, allowing you to control the battlefield and keep yourself alive when doing so. These spells could be: bane, cure wounds (which you should use on yourself if you need to!), earth tremor, and Tasha’s hideous laughter.
At 2nd level, you learn one new 1st-level spell. This spell should be some form of utility to help you in situations you can’t fight your way out of. Charm person and disguise self are both classic choices when diplomacy or subterfuge are needed, and silent image could help you pull off some wild tricks, with the right set-up. If you need more offensive power, however, dissonant whispers is a powerful choice.
At 3rd level, you get to choose your subclass! The only subclass that allows bards to tank effectively is the College of Valor. When you join the College of Valor, you gain proficiency in medium armor, shields, and martial weapons. Your Armor Class could easily improve by +4 this level!
Your Combat Inspiration feature allows your allies to use your Bardic Inspiration to improve either their damage or avoid hits. If you’re trying to tank for your allies, encourage them to use it to avoid hits unless they desperately need a few extra points of damage.
At 5th level, you learn a new spell and gain access to 3rd-level spells! These spells are incredibly powerful, and reaching 5th level marks a major increase in your effectiveness as a tank. Learn a 3rd-level debuff spell, like enemies abound or hypnotic pattern.
The quintessential bard role, Support bards use their powers to bolster their allies instead of—or sometimes in addition to—fighting themselves. You will almost always stay on the back lines, using cantrips or ranged weapons to contribute to the fight.
At 1st level, learn two cantrips, one of which should be vicious mockery. It’s a bard classic, and one of the funniest spells in the game if you’re adept at insulting people. Your friends will love this one, too.
Also at 1st level, learn four 1st-level spells. These spells should be a mix of offense, utility, support, and defense, to account for every eventuality. These spells could be: dissonant whispers, charm person, faerie fire, and healing word.
At 2nd level, you learn one new 1st-level spell. This spell should be some form of utility to help you in situations you can’t fight your way out of. Charm person and disguise self are both classic choices when diplomacy or subterfuge are needed, and silent image could help you pull off some wild tricks, with the right set-up. If you need more potent healing, heroism or cure wounds are also good picks.
At 3rd level, you get to choose your subclass! Your best pick for a jack-of-all-trades bard to join the College of Lore, while the best diplomats come from the College of Glamour.
Joining the College of Lore instantly gives you three additional skill proficiencies, and it also gives you the Cutting Words feature. This lets you spend Bardic Inspiration to make it harder for creatures to hit or damage you or your allies, as a sort of “proactive healing.”
When you join the College of Glamour, you gain the Mantle of Inspiration and Enthralling Performance features. Your Mantle of Inspiration lets you use your Bardic Inspiration to grant your allies temporary hit points as well as the ability to instantly move, potentially getting them out of a sticky situation. Your Enthralling Performance gives you the ability to beguile large crowds outside of combat, holding them rapt with your beauty.
At 5th level, you learn a new spell and gain access to 3rd-level spells! These spells are incredibly powerful, and marks a major step up in your ability to support your party. Learn a 3rd-level support spell, like dispel magic, or a utility spell like tongues.
Making your Bard your Own
Bards excel in their ability to fill thematic holes in a party. If no one wants to play a cleric, a bard can support the party. If no one wants to play a fighter, a bard can step onto the front lines. But in a party where every major niche is already filled, bards are exceptionally suited to serving as general support and an expert jack-of-all-trades. No matter how you like to play D&D, odds are you’ll be able to play the way you want to as a bard. Even if you don’t have the perfect answer, your Bardic Inspiration will let you live vicariously through other peoples’ successes.
Most importantly, though, no two bards are alike. Not in terms of mechanical build, and certainly not in terms of character or personality. Bards tend to get a bad rap for being stylish lechers, but the bard class has enough narrative leeway to let you play anything from a young scribe to an old storyteller, or from a chaste historian to a strung-out rock star. When you play a bard, you can never go wrong by walking to the beat of your own drum.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in a five-room apartment/dungeon in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his two fuzzy showstoppers, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.