JoshuaD’s New Bard Handbook
D&D 3.5

Handbook Version 48 – 2017/10/14

classic bard

About the Bard

This class is AWESOME. I think bard is one of the most balanced, dynamic, and fun classes to play in the game. I didn’t appreciate how many options and abilities were available to it until I dug into the various source books. Sure, you don’t have the raw power of the nuclear classes, but you can be in a party with other tier 2-5 classes and really shine. The bard can be adapted to a bunch of different play styles: caster, gish (sword-mage), arcane archer, face, crowd control, skill monkey, and healer. He can usually fill a number of those roles at the same time, and does so effectively.

I have played a lot of different characters, and the bard is by far the most fun I’ve had. Wizards and things like the DMM Cleric possess campaign shattering nuclear power, but where’s the fun in that? The DM is pissed at you, the other players are pissed at you, and the campaign ends early. The bard is what D&D should be: dynamic, rewards creative play, powerful without being over-powered, and his abilities are friendly to other PCs. I cannot recommend the class enough, especially for your next low- or mid-powered campaign.

Why I Wrote this Handbook

Dictum Mortuum wrote a really good handbook for the bard, but I felt it didn’t go deep enough, so I wrote this handbook to be a bit more comprehensive. That being said, the original handbook is great, and I recommend reading that one as well as this one to get multiple view points.

Other Resources and Thanks

Here are some of the resources that helped me build this handbook. They are all very good, I recommend that you read them as well:

In addition, each the following members of the Giant in the Playground Forums helped contribute to this handbook: Hiro Quester, Gabrosin, Troacctid, Red Fel, Telonius, ComaVision, eggynack, Saintheart, QuickLyRaiNbow, Theodred theOld, and Greg Campbell. Thanks guys!

Also, some people have commented here with some really nice observations. Additional thanks to Gold the Gnome Bard, Malcom Towner, William Wordsworth, Davide, Stuart, Aion Haruno, Xethik, and Toteca.

Color / Symbol Legend

Source Books Used

I used all of the official source books and also included some items from dragon magazines. The Dragon Magazines are a little more difficult to review comprehensively, so I included the peaks I could find, but may have missed some items. You should be warned that Dragon Magazine features are typically unbalanced and should be reviewed with a critical eye before being accepted into your campaign.

This Handbook’s Length

This handbook has gotten long. I don’t think you should try to read it straight through. Instead, use it as a reference.

I had a choice between only including the best or more stand-out items, or trying to be inclusive of all reasonably possible options. I chose to be inclusive. I think this will help more people and help people create diverse builds that I might not have considered.

A Note on Ability Evaluation and Character Optimization

When designing characters, people often focus on only level 20. I recommend doing more than that.

If your campaign is anything like the games I’ve ever played, you start at low levels, slowly progress through the mid levels, and, if you’re lucky, you get to play some teen levels before the game falls apart.

Even if you have a dedicated play group and make it all the way to level 20, the abilities you get at levels 1-5 are going to get a lot more play than the abilities you get at levels 15-20. Keep that in mind while designing your character. I recommend that you look at the build every four levels (or at specific key levels, depending on your class) and consider how you’d like the character at each of those level.

If you know you’re going to start playing at a high level and continue to play after reaching level 20, then of course this does not apply to you. But for most people, level 1-10 are much more important than levels 11-20. Make sure you keep that in mind while developing your character. Remember: the goal isn’t to optimize some theoretical mechanic; the goal is to optimize fun.

Party Roles

Class Features

Alternate Class Features

The bard has some really nice options for alternative class features.

Ability Scores

lady bard

Your choice in ability scores is going to depend a lot on what sort of bard you want to be. A caster/face/control bard doesn’t need strength or dex, where a melee or archer bard is going to want some.

A Bard generally wants a high charisma, a low wisdom, and a good balance between the other four abilities, depending on the direction you are going. Melee bards can skim on the charisma a little, if they want, to pick up some additional physical stats.

Races

No Level Adjustment

With Level Adjustment

These are generally only worth looking at if your DM will allow you to do a Level Adjustment buyoff. Otherwise, losing levels of class progression just can’t be justified. Usually, these are most useful to look at when you’re starting a campaign in the teen levels and don’t mind being a little behind the rest of your party for a while.

+1 Level Adjustment

+2 Level Adjustment

+3 Level Adjustment

+4 Level Adjustment

+10 Level Adjustment

Skills

A bard has a relatively high number of skill points per level, and has access to a wide range of skills. The bard’s best skills are the social skills, but he also has some other interesting things going on:

Skill Tricks

Skill tricks are a game feature from Complete Scoundrel. They let you spend 2 skill points to pick up “skill tricks”, which are effectively mini-feats. Due to the high number of skill points and many roles that a Bard can play in a party, skill tricks can be a nice resource for a bard. Typically, you want to choose skill tricks that suit your character. Two skill points aren’t a large investment, so if you’ll be able to get some use out of the trick, it’s generally worth taking. Here is a list and my opinions on each:

Prestige Classes and Multiclassing

An optimized bard is a multiclassed bard. There are a lot of options here, especially considering the different roles it might want to be. I’ve tried to make as large of a list as possible, but there are a lot of options out there, so I may have missed a few of the more obscure ideas.

Base Classes

There aren’t a ton of great base-class dips for a bard. That being said, there are a few worth considering, and there are others which aren’t bad and might be fun for flavor, or fit a particular character you’re trying to build.

Bard Specific PrC

These are going to tend to be the strongest prestige classes available, because they are designed to continue to improve or enhance your bardic musics.

dirgesinger

Combat Bards

Combat Bard

Spell Progression / Abilities (Not Bard Specific)

These are notable classes that continue spell progression and grant some abilities, but don’t progress your bard-specific abilities.

Racial Paragons

These classes are from Unearthed Arcana. These don’t prove to be a good option in the end, but it took me a lot of trying to fit them into builds to come to that conclusion. The +2 boost to a stat is a real big temptation, but it’s not worth losing bardic ability progression and a level of casting (or worse). That being said, maybe you have a build where they make sense, or you like the flavor, so I included them here.

Hybrid Classes

I don’t tend to think hybrid classes are a good idea from an optimization point of view, especially if you’re coming from the bard as a base class. You’ll see that reflected in the analysis below. That being said, the Apostle of Peace and Priest of Ur both have some serious potential.

Feats

If your DM will let you take a flaw (see: Unearthed Arcana) take one. If he’ll let you take two, take two. More feats more better.

General Feats

Pseudodragon Familiar

Familiar Feats

If you’re going to pick up a familiar (a strong idea) you should read Dictum Mortuum’s excellent Familiar’s Handbook.

Metamagic Feats

Spell Improvement Feats

Vow Feats

The vows are a really strong option for a bard. That being said, they are campaign warping due to their restrictions and power level. If you go this route, you should make sure your DM and other PCs know what they’re getting into. It can be good if everyone’s prepared, but if not, these options will probably ruin your campaign.

Vow Bard

Bardic Music Feats

Combat Feats

Multi-Class Specific Feats

Bloodline Feats

You can find these feats in DrM 311 and DrM 325, and also in the Dragon Compendium Volume I, page 91. All of the bloodline feats are very, very strong. They give six or nine spells to your list for one feat. Probably overpowered, but you should check with your DM. If he’ll allow it, great.

Draconic Aura Feats

(DrM 16) – Gain a draconic aura which activates as a swift action. Grants a +1 bonus to the noted thing for yourself and all allies within 30′. If you have the dragonblood subtype, this ability scales with level (+2 at 7th, +3 at 14th, and +4 at 20th), which makes it good (really, DMs, just let it scale regardless of dragonblood). Here are the options:

Hidden Talent Feat

(XPH 67) – Hidden talent is a feat from a sidebar in the expanded psionics handbook. The best choices are amazing, and even the bad choices are pretty good. It gives you one psionic power and two psionic “points”. Typically, that means you can use this power twice per day.

You use Charisma as the key ability modifer, which is good for saves, and you’re a level 1 manifester (which might be bad for PR).

Here are the best options:

Shape Soulmeld Feat

(MoI 40) – A soulmeld is basically a persisent enchantment that you refresh each morning, that doesn’t use an item slot. Definitely cool. They typicaly give static benfeits or at-will abilities. This feat gives you one soul meld from any class. Here are the best options, rated:

Bind Vestige Feat

ToM (72) More coming soon.

Devotion Feats

Complete Champion has a bunch of “devotion” feats in it. Most of them are pretty good and some are absurd. That book is a little unbalanced, so check with your DM before assuming you can take these.

Martial Feats

There are two feats from “Tomb of Battle: Book of Nine Swords” that open up that magic / combat system to all classes. Since the magic system is pretty large, here’s a section dedicated to the two feats, reviewing each option available to you if you don’t have any pre-reqs met some other way. If you’ve dipped into those classes or met pre-reqs, you’ll have to check out the relevant handbooks; that’s outside the scope of this one.

Martial Stance (ToB p31)

Gain access to a single stance from Tome of Battle. Since this requires that you know one maneuver, I’ll review those stances that have 0 or 1 requirement.

Desert Wind
Devoted Spirit
Diamond Mind
Iron Heart
Setting Sun
Shadow Hand
Stone Dragon
White Raven Bard
Tiger Claw
White Raven (Builds into Song of the White Raven)
Martial Study (ToB p31)

Gain access to a single maneuver from Tome of Battle, and also gain a single skill as a class skill for all of your classes.

Here are the relevant rules:

Here are the options available if you take this feat without any other initiator classes (i.e. you meet no pre-requisites). The level indicated next to them is the minum character level you’ll need to pick up that maneuver via feat (again, assuming you don’t have any initiator levels from the classes from this book):


Desert Wind – Tumble
Devoted Spirit – Intimidate
Diamond Mind – Concentration
Iron Heart – Balance
Setting Sun – Sense Motive
Kung-Fu Bard
Shadow Hand – Hide
Stone Dragon – Balance
Tiger Claw – Jump
White Raven – Diplomacy (Builds into Song of the White Raven)

Spells

Spells are one of the bard’s strongest class features. However, a bard doesn’t get to know nearly as many as a sorcerer, so it’s important to make sure the spells you choose have a wide range of cases where they can be used. Breadth of applicability is key.

There are a lot of spells that are on the Bard’s list which are strong, but aren’t worth spending a precious “Spell Known” slot on, because use of the spell doesn’t come up enough. Scrolls and wands are a great option for these spells.

The bard’s spells are mostly buff and battlefield control, which is great. You can load up on the best versions of these, plus a little utility, and you’ll be in great shape. However, I do like trying to pick up at least one blaster spell. If you use the Lyric Thaumaturge or Sublime Chord prestige classes to get into wizard spells, you’ll have plenty of options (look at Wings of Flurry). If you are going straight bard casting, then the options are a little more limited. My favorite straight blaster spell is probably Cacophonic Burst, although it’s level 5.

Level 0 Spells

Spell Bard

Level 1 Spells

Level 2 Spells

Level 3 Spells

Level 4 Spells

Level 5 Spells

Level 6 Spells

Key Rules and Advice

Bardic Music Rules

Which Perform?

Pick a version of Perform that doesn’t require any hands and doesn’t require an instrument that can be taken away from you by bad guys. Things like voice, oratory, poetics, or whistling. It’s really that simple. Nothing stops you from whipping out a guitar and playing it for flavor if you want it.

Fear Escalation

Fear escalation is a viable option for a bard, and it is a strong ability. The one problem with fear escalation is that a lot of things are immune to fear. You can get past this by dipping into dread witch for 4 levels, but that makes a very particular bard.

There are four degrees of fear:

Fear Bard
  1. Shaken: –2 penalty on attack rolls, saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks.
  2. Frightened: The penalties of shaken, but it also tries to flee if at all possible.
  3. Panicked: Like frightened, except it drops everything it holds and runs in a random path away. Also, if it’s cornered, it cowers rather than fighting back.
  4. Cowering: Frozen in fear and can take no actions. A cowering character takes a –2 penalty to Armor Class and loses its Dexterity bonus (if any).

You can escalate through the first three fear states. For example, if a creature is currently shaken and you target it with a spell that makes a creature shaken, that creature becomes frightened (one level of escalation).

Similarly, if you successfully target a creature that is shaken with a frighten effect, then the creature becomes panicked (two levels of escalation).

However, you cannot escalate from panicked to cowering in this way. Instead, to get a panicked creature to cower, you have to corner the creature (block off all of its routes of escape). If you do that, it will become cowered, ready to be put out of its misery or taken prisoner.

The bard has a lot of strong options to esclate through fear. I’ll put some example builds in the builds section.

Casting in Secret

A lot of the bard’s spells are social based. Sometimes, you’ll have started a social interaction and realize you want to cast a spell, but the suspicious guards probably won’t stand there patiently as you move your hands around in a strange way to cast glibness. Instead, they’ll probably recognize that you’re casting a spell and arrest you before you can go any further.

In order to address there, the game creators gave us a few options for casting in secret:

Sleight of Hand Skill (RoS 133)
Conceal Spellcasting Skill Trick (CS 85)
Subsonics Feat (CA 112)
Silent Spell Feat (PHB 100)
Echew Materials Feat (PHB 94)
Disguise Spell Feat (CA 108)

Using Prestidigitation

Prestidigitation Bard

This really is a great spell. No, it’s not going to solve your campaign singlehandedly, but it’s super fun and has a million applications.

Before we go into the various uses, you should note that one casting lasts an hour, and you can do any number of individual presitigations (of any type) any number of times during that hour. That is great.

To get started, the PHB gives these uses:

Song and Silence (page 80) talks about a few additional uses:

The most important part though, is these aren’t enumerated uses. They are examples of a general principle, and you’re free to make up additional ones as long as they follow the limitations:

The applications are literally endless. This little unassuming spell is one of the most fun spells in the game. Here are some examples of uses from games I’ve played:

Speak Languages Rank Limit

Speak langauges is worded uniquely. Unlike every other skill, putting points into Speak Languages doesn’t give you ranks. Instead, you get to choose a new language that you speak.

This makes it very unclear whether it is subject to the normal LEVEL + 3 rank limit, or whether you can learn as many languages as you’d like.

As a DM I allow players to purchase as many languages as they’d like. Speak langauges is never used as skill check (you never roll a D20 and add your number of languages to it), so this seems like the best interpretation.

Many of the bard’s abilities are langauge based, so I tend to like this skill and putting a lot of points into it.

You can read a little discussion about this here.

Float Bard

Using Silent Image

Using Alter Self

Using Diplomacy

You can pump diplomacy to ridiculous heights. If you want to make a absurdly broken diplomancer, look at the half-elf alt-class features for soothing voice (to enable diplomacy in combat), pump up the number of languages you speak, and search this document for all instances of “diplomacy” and select those options. Next, get glibness and pump bluff. If you do that (and use the core diplomacy rules) you’ll be absurd in any situation that words could possibly solve.

I don’t recommend doing this, because it will piss of your DM and co-players, but it definitely exists as an idea.

Tempering Diplomacy

If you want to temper diplomacy a bit and make it sane, you can try the following things:

Maintaining Inspire Courage

There’s no mechanical limitation on the length of inspire courage. Rather than activating it during the first round of combat, you can activate it when you enter a cave, and maintain it throughout the adventure, especially if you have melodic casting feat.

Your party will lose any stealth, so the rogue might look at you sideways, but aside from that, there are very few things you need to do while adventuring that you can’t do while singing or talking.

Is Dragonfire Inspiration Good? (How good?)

Another way to ask this question is: “When is 2.5 damage worth more than 5% to hit?” and the answer is “most of the time”.

As a rough estimate, on average, Dragonfire Inspiration tends to be worth about 0.5 to 1.5 damage, per attack, per level of inspire courage. Another way to think of this is being worth approximately the same as a +1 to inspire courage.

Badass Bard

The math behind this question is complex and depends on five factors:

While dragonfire inspiration does tend to net more damage, here are some exceptions and things to think about:

Bottom line is this. If you understand the math, you can decide to use this when it makes sense, and use inspire courage otherwise. If you can do that, you’ll get a pretty solid boost to damage on average. I’ve created an excel spreadsheet which will help you simulate certain situations, so you can get a feel for the numbers.

Link: http://joshuad.net/new-bard-handbook-files/dragonfire-inspiration-calculator.xlsx


Does Dragonfire Inspiration stack with Inspire Courage?

If I was DM, I would rule no. My reading of the rules suggest that you cannot stack these two effects, but some people disagree. This isn’t 100% clear because the section I depend on for my ruling is specifically talking about spells, and inspire courage is not a spell. Here is that section:

(Rule Compendium 137) – “The same spell can sometimes produce varying effects if applied to the same recipient more than once. Usually the last spell in the series trumps the others. one of the previous spells are actually removed or dispelled, but their effects become irrelevant while the final spell in the series lasts”.

The fact that it’s the same ability providing the effect makes me believe that it does not stack.

In addtion, the way Dragonfire Inspiration is worded suggests this interpration. They easily could have said “You gain a new bardic music ability that….” instead, they say “When you use your bardic music to inspire courage…” We can’t stack two Inspire Courages, so I don’t think it makes sense that we can stack a dragonfire-inspired courage and a regular inspire courage.

Talk to your DM and find out what she thinks. If it doesn’t stack, this feat is still strong. If this does stack, this feat is bonkers good, effectively giving you an additional, better copy of your best bardic music.

Example Builds

The bard is a hybrid mage / fighter, with a focus on group buffs. That’s how it’s designed, and you have to do a lot of work to get away from that. All of the builds below are that, but they emphasize either the fighter or the mage aspect more, as indicated.

Caster Builds

Regal Bard

So the nice thing about these builds is that you can be a gish levels 1-10, and then pivot to being more of a sorcerer levels 11-20. At level 20, you’re weaker than a sorcerer. But at levels 1-8, you’re doing a lot more. In my opinion, this translates to a lot more fun with only a small cost at the end of the game. I like these builds a lot.

The best feats in this build are Melodic Casting, Chaos Music, Nymph’s Kiss, Extra Spell, Lyric Spell, Extra Music, and the familiar feats.

This build tends to be skill-point intensive, because you have a lot of pre-reqs, so pick your skills carefully.

Debuffer

Melee Builds

Archer Builds

To build an archer bard, just take the archery feats (and knowledge devotion, if you can). Bards don’t need their feats for anything, so you’re free to dedicate them to new vectors. Archery is as fine as any other. If you multi-class into something that gives a higher BAB that helps, of course.

Core Only Builds

In core only, if you want to build a bard, Bard 20 is the best choice, and it’s not close. The class is really well designed, progresses well, and there are no core dips or prestige classes I can really recommend. (I mean, Bard 1 / Wizard 19 is technicaly “better”… but you know what I mean.)

That being said, if you’re really looking to multi-class, you can look at a single level dip of cleric.

Other than that, I don’t think any core dips make sense mechanically. Flavor-wise, there are plenty of options, of course, but mechanically just go Bard 20 and smile.


Items

There are a lot of viable items in this game. I won’t be able to do a complete list, but I will try to cover the high points of bard-specific items, and items that are especially good for bards.

Pro-tip: the most powerful item you’ll probably be able to find in the game is the one your DM invents for you. A little gentle encouragement can go a long way here. In my experience, DMs love inventing magical items, and their sense of ownership tends to cause them to make it a powerful one.

General Use Items

healer bard

Masterwork Instruments

All masterwork instruments give a +2 bonus to perform. In addition, the following instruments give the additional benefits as outlined below. You should carry almost all of these on you, once you have the carry capacity (or a heward’s handy haversack). The cost is so low.

Magical Instruments

All magical instruments are masterwork. I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that any magical Lyre instrument also gets the benefits listed above in mundane instruments, but you’ll have to convince your DM.

bard and bloody violin bow

Weapons

Harp Sword

Weapon Enhancements

Armor

Armor Enhancements

Wondrous Items


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