This Bard guide is strung together from many musicians across the internet.
Taking the best notes and chords from those that came before, the Encore guide below hopes to get that foot tapping into your Bardic future.
We also link to a full list of other great character optimisation guides for D&D.
- Class Features
- Bard Colleges – Sub Classes
- College of Glamour
- College of Lore
- College of Swords
- College of Valor
- College of Whispers
Always Play the Encore: The Core of the Bard
If the Bard is anything, it is versatile. A strong list of spells, combat skills and of course a huge number of skills to call upon.
While this class can do many things, its strengths lies in creativity. You’ll need to be creative with your spell casting decisions. Bards can buff their allies and decimate their enemies strength.
From this point forward, the common colour coding is being used:
Sky Blue = Top of the line choice. Bard optimisation starts here.
Blue = Very strong choice for Bards, but not amazing.
Black = Solid choice. There are better options, but this is more than serviceable
Purple = Not top tier. It may have niche use, but better options exist
Red = Mechanically weak. If you feel it fits your concept, go for it, but you will likely be less effective
Remember that this is an optimisation guide. We’re looking at what is strong or effective for your Bardic performance.
That said, if you have a fun idea for your character that isn’t based around ‘charop’, don’t be afraid to put fun ahead of numbers.
You know your game better than me, after all.
- Str: Unless you’re going for a STR based build, you can ignore this. There is likely someone else who will cover you for these skills. Valor Bards are more likely to go with strength over other Bard types.
- Dex: Do a backflip! After CHA this should be your next priority. Valor and Swords Bards may even make this a priority Any weapon based attacks, initiative and AC see a great boost from this, not to mention some great skills like Stealth and Acrobatics.
- Con: Another top tier stat. Hit points are just too important to let slide. If you want to stay unarmoured, it is doubly important.
- Int: Likely to be your dump stat. Arcana is nice if you’re the magicky one though.
- Wis: Seeing the enemy before they see you is important but beyond Perception, Wisdom isn’t too important for you. Not a dump stat, but not a priority either.
- Cha: Your casting stat. Spells and abilities will key of Charisma, don’t let this one go to waste.
Best Bard Races:
Anything with +Cha/Dex/Con is good, and any other defensive bonuses.
Variant Humans (Inspiring Leader), and Half-Elves are top options. Dragonborn work nice for the melee type. And Dwarves are a solid choice if you need to bear some of the brunt.
Player’s Handbook Races
- Dwarf: [+2 Con] A CON boost is nice for survivability, the other racial traits could be situational.
- Mountain Dwarf [+2 Str] I won’t fault you for going a STR Valor Bard build. some Dwarf features are OK.
- Hill Dwarf [+1 Wis] You’ll be struggling early without a boost to your spell casting or attacks.
- Duergar [+1 Str] Similar to the Mountain Dwarf, okay for Valor. Lore, Blades, Whispers should all be steering clear. [SCAG]
- Elf [+2 Dex] The Elf Bard shouldn’t be your first choice, not the worst with darkvision and sleep immunity, though Half-Elves can do most of this better for you. Here are the various Elf subraces:
- Wood Elf [+1 Wis] While the basic Elf package is OK, the Wood-specific features aren’t terribly helpful. It’s a slight improvement on the High Elf.
- Drow [+1 Cha] This covers a lot of bases, especially for the Whispers and Swords Bard. Boosted darkvision, Faerie Fire, Darkness etc.. Downside is sunlight sensitivity, though maybe you can wear a big fancy hat.
- High Elf [+1 Int] An extra cantrip seems nice but there are better ways to get one. The Int is wasted on you.
- Eladrin [+1 Int] Misty Step once per short rest puts this slightly better than the cantrip, not amazing though. [DMG]
- Halfling [+2 Dex] An increase in Dexterity like the Elf, but you also get the Lucky Racial feature.
- Stout Halfling [+1 Con] The boost to CON can be useful for a Valor or Sword Bard.
- Lightfoot Halflings[+1 Cha] DEX and CHA are perfect for your wheelhouse, combined with Lucky and you Bardic inspiration you’ll never be short (Pun intended) of dice to throw.
- Ghostwise Halflings [+1 Wis] Stick with the other two Halfling choices. [SCAG]
- Human [+1 to All scores], Rather boring for you. +1 to each stat doesn’t help someone who wants to specialise.
- Variant Human [+1 to Cha and Dex and a feat] If Human Variant is allowed, that’s a whole different story. That turns the Human into one of the best choices for a Bard, from one of the worst. Pick up Inspiring Leader, Actor or something else to kick off your Valor Bard.
- Dragonborn [+2 Str, +1 Cha] You get a boost to CHA, some thematic damage resistance, and a breath attack. Think about blowing fire through a set of bagpipes or a flute. If you’re going for that elusive STR Build, this is the race to pick. If you don’t, it’s still solid.
- Gnome [+2 Int] Similar to the Halfling, because of the small size but without the benefits of Lucky or the Dex Bonus.
- Forest Gnome [+1 Dex] The DEX is nice-ish but the investment into INT is wasted on you.
- Rock Gnome [+ 1 Con] If you want to play a small tough bard, rethink the halfling.
- Deep Gnome [ +1 Dex] Ah the…svirfneblin…Not sure what kind of music they play in Blingdenstone… maybe they don’t have bards. [SCAG]
- Half-Elf: [+2 Cha, and +1 to ???] Here are some of those good elf features along with a plus to CHA and one other. Many Bards of all strings will want to consider this one
- Half-Orc: The Valor Bard in you may want to grab the Half-Orc, The idea of a Half-Orc Baritone is tempting though.
- Tiefling [+1 Int and +2 Cha] It’s a +2 to CHA which is excellent, the INT part only helps your dump stat. Fire resist for free is nice though.
- Tiefling Variant [+1 Int and +2 Dex] An interesting option especially with winged. You’re giving up the Cha boost though. [SCAG]
Dungeon Master’s Guide Races:
- Aasimar: Charisma and resistance are great, but the spells are kind of crappy. [DMG]
- Eladrin: A fancy version of the Elf with a teleport ‘Misty Step’. [DMG]
Volo’s Guide to Monsters Races
- Aasimar [+1 Wis & +2 Cha] Obviously the CHA bonus here is excellent. The other stuff just adds icing on top. [VOLO]
- Firbolg: You’d be better suited as something else. Maybe a Valor Bard could look here.
- Goliath: A big strong Bard, again a Valor Bard makes sense here. Other Bards need not apply.
- Kenku: An interesting roleplay choice if you stick with the mimicry, but not much mechanically here for optimisation.
- Lizardfolk: Again a race that could really flip the script on the traditional ‘Charming’ Bard archetype, but not optimal sorry..
- Tabaxi: Great if you’re going for a Swords or whispers Bard and want the DEX boost and mobility.
- Triton: The Charismatic Bard of the ocean? Do you sing with Dolphins? A boost all your major stats, plus resistance and extra spells all combine for a great Valor Bard.
Volo’s Monstrous Races
- Bugbear: The long arms might mean you can play the Cello, but don’t bother being a Bard.
- Goblin: A small bard with a disengage can make the College of Swords very interesting with all it’s movement options.
- Hobgoblin: These red skinned goblins are better in a shield wall than an orchestra.
- Kobold: I’d love to see it played, but it will not be optimal in any way.
- Orc: Despite mentioning an ‘Orchestra’ before… stear clear of Orcs if you’re musically inclined.
- Yuan-Ti Pureblood: Lore wise an interesting choice for a charmer with no emotion. Bonuses to Charisma and always welcome resistances are good pick ups.
Elemental Evil Races
- Aarakocra: [+2 Dex] Fly above the battlefield and perform for the masses. No other real advantages.
- Genasi: [+2 Con] A con boost is nice, but you really want to lean into the CHA or DEX to make this work.
- Air Genasi: [+1 Dex] The small Dex boost along with levitate is nice. Would tie well into a woodwind or brass instrument too. Not much else there though.
- Earth Genasi: [+1 Str] Clearly you get Strength, maybe go for a Battle drum and Valor Bard here.
- Fire Genasi: [+1 Int] A tiefling can do most of this but better in a Bard’s case.
- Water Genasi: [+1 Wis] Look elsewhere.
- Changeling: CHA and DEX are already good stats for most Bards. The real power comes from the shape changing. Especially in a highly political campaign.
- Shifters: [+1 DEX] These shifters are more rough and ready physical races. A Valor or Swords Bards might find something of worth here.
- Beasthide Shifter: [+2 CON] The bonuses to AC, CON, and DEX make a decent Valor option.
- Longtooth Shifter: [+2 STR] A little STR and DEX can help a Valor Bard.
- Swiftstride: [+1DEX, +1 CHA] The CHA bonus is nice, being able to move 10ft as a reaction if enemies get close can be a great way to stay out of trouble.
- Wildhunt Shifter: [+2 WIS] WIS is your dump stat and you shouldn’t really need to track creatures by scent.
Minotaur: Needs more Cowbell? Charging into battle as a Valor Bard has a draw to it. Lore and Glamour Bards should avoid.
More to consider on Bard Races
Now that that’s said and done, here’s the thing about racial abilities: Later in the game, they won’t matter as much.
At 15th level, that +1 to your stat has less impact in overall performance.
At lower levels though, the difference is much more noticeable. 5e is flat out a harder game at low level than either 3.x or 4e were. It is less forgiving, and getting dropped is really, really easy.
Keep that in mind when looking at races. Some races might not have the “oomph” when it comes to doing to damage, but a lot of the survivability perks that they do have will come in really handy during those difficult low levels.
Bard Class Features
- Hit Dice: 1d8 per level isn’t the worst (Hello Wizards). You’re not going to be the front line like a Fighter or Barbarian though.
- Armor Proficiency: Light armour keeps you mobile and stealthy which is perfect for a DEX build. Valor Bards get Medium and Shields.
- Weapon Proficiency: Simple weapons, plus some martial swords and ranged weapons. You’ll likely stick with finese weapons or DEX based ranged.
- Saving Throws: DEX is a common enough save, expect to make it often enough. CHA is less common, but it’s common enough to be useful.
- Skills: You are the skill monkey… unless you have a Rogue, and then you deceive them into believing you’re the skill monkey. You’re also likely to be the party face so grab a CHA based skill you’ll enjoy (or all of them). Acrobatics or Stealth are useful and anything else that fits your theme.
- Tools: Musical instruments. So even if you don’t have Performance trained you could add your proficiency to a performance check with THAT instrument. Go on and make some early coin.
- Spellcasting: You’re no Wizard Harry! But you’ve got plenty of tricks up your sleeve. You’ve got a solid number of Spell Slots to keep up, and as many cantrips as a Druid. You can’t lean too hard into pure damage spells, your pool is shallow here. The focus of the Bard list has options in every school, and you should focus on trickery, buffs and debuffs. Plus, Ritual Casting.
- Bardic Inspiration: Here’s a dice pool to get things done. Excellent on its own though you’ll be seeing additions based on the subclass you choose. Increases the size of the die every five levels. All this, and you don’t even need a spell slot.
- Jack of All Trades (2nd Level): Even when you’re untrained you’re kinda trained.
- Song of Rest (2nd Level): Giving party members a pep talk to buff up their rest. Means you’ll be saving them some hit dice in the long run.
- Expertise (3rd Level): You didn’t NEED to be better at some skills, but you are. Good job!
- Ability Score Improvement (4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, 19th Level): Obviously good for obvious reasons.
- Font of Inspiration (5th Level): Get inspiration dice back more often! What’s not to love, this makes you better at that thing the party likes you to do.
- Countercharm (6th Level): It’s a decent buff at the cost of an action. Paladins get similar features that don’t cost actions, but this is a solid ability, too.
- Magical Secrets (10th, 14th, 18th Level): Learn any two spells you want. This feature is the primary reason why people claim that Bards are the best caster class.
- Superior Inspiration (20th Level): You will always have some Bardic Inspiration. You probably weren’t running out very often to begin with, but there you have it.
Bardic Colleges: Bard Subclasses
College of Lore
The College of Lore is for bards truly devoted to story and song. In his quest for learning, the Lore Bard gains more skills, more magic, and some truly awesome abilities that make him an excellent support character. Arguably the greatest support caster in the game.
- Bonus Proficiencies (3rd level): At this point, you’re so skilled you’ll hardly need spells to accomplish anything.
- Cutting Words (3rd level): You can prevent a lot of damage with these. Lower the attack roll of your enemy if it was close to missing. Now, you buff your friends, and debuff your enemies, makes Bardic Inspiration much more versitile.
- Additional Magical Secrets (6th level): Who doesn’t like more spells?
- Peerless Skill (14th level): Never fail at anything ever again. Well, up to five times per short rest. Works on Initiative, Dispel Magic, Counterspell, and Telekinesis, too.
College of Valor
The College of Valor is for those skalds who sing songs of heroism on the front lines.
The Valor Bard is a competent melee combatant without losing much of their magical ability.
- Bonus Proficiencies (3rd level): Exactly what you need to become a strong melee combatant.
- Combat Inspiration (3rd level): Solid buffs to damage and AC.
- Extra Attack (6th level): Double your damage with more attacks.
- Battle Magic (14th level): This is where you really start to shine as a gish. Cast and slash, every turn.
College of Glamour: [XGE]
This is very much a support caster bard. Though your spell versatility isn’t as good as a Lore Bard, you still bring a lot to the table.
The Mantle of Majesty is really, really good, which makes this a decent option.
- Mantle of Inspiration (3rd level): A pretty good use of Bardic inspiration (temp HP for CHA number of allies and a reaction/move). Extra HP is always nice, though this could be redundant with things like Inspiring Leader. The move might be handy at the beginning of combat for melee characters to close quickly. Alternatively, this might be the “quick escape” ability should things go poorly, as the movement does not provoke opportunity attacks, so no disengage necessary.
- Enthralling performance (3rd level): This may depend on your DM a fair bit. Feeds into the idea of a charming fey-like quality to any performance you make though. Pretty circumstantial.
- Mantle of Majesty (6th level): This is really, really good. Command every round as a bonus action (for one minute) without spending a spell slot. A creature charmed by you automatically fails its saving throw (Enthralling performance looks a bit better now). This is once per long rest, and it’s going to be your big fight “go-to” ability. I mean, if you simply command “Grovel” every round, the fight is over. Note that you are “concentrating” to maintain this ability, so there is that limitation to consider.
- Unbreakable Majesty (14th level): A bonus action defense that targets would-be attacker’s CHA or they can’t attack you. Great way to stop enemies focusing you or potentially wasting their attacks. Lasts one minute (10 rounds) and doesn’t require concentration. If it does succeed against your Charisma saving throw it has disadvantage on your next spell. Not a bad trade.
College of Swords: [XGE]
The ‘Blades’, members of the College of Swords offers a Bard who can fight. You risk a lot having less defense than other fighting classes though.
- Bonus Proficiencies (3rd level): Medium armor and scimitar – no shield. Immediately, this gives me concerns about defense. Don’t get me wrong, happy to get medium armor, but with Half Plate, we’re looking at an AC of up to 17, no shield spell, no mirror images, and bard HP. If you are planning to live in melee, this is a concern.
- Fighting style (3rd level): No defensive options here. Dueling and Two Weapon Fighting. Without warcaster, Dueling is really the only option. With warcaster, two weapon fighting is probably the better offensive option, though it uses up your bonus action (keep in mind you will not be using your bonus action for Bardic Inspiration much with a blade, so this may not be a big deal)
Update: The College of Swords Bard can use their weapon as a focus for spells. Talk to your DM. Or just take the Warcaster feat. It’s a pretty good choice regardless.
- Blade Flourish (3rd level): 10 feet extra move when you take the attack action. Extra move is always nice. When you hit a creature you have 3 options for use of your Bardic Inspiration:Defensive flourish adds to AC for a round, which is very needed (but also limited).
Mobile flourish has some interesting tactical implications
Slashing Flourish is just an offense boost.
- Note all of these add the dice total to damage, which is a nice offensive boost no matter which you choose. Those Bardic Inspiration dice will not last long though. You are likely starting with 3, ending with 5. Still, by level 5 that’s coming back every short rest, which is pretty similar to the Superiority Dice of a Battlemaster.
- Also, like a Battlemaster, Blade flourish does not specify the attacks must be melee attacks, so pull out your bow and use Blade Flourish with it as well. With Mobile Flourish, you will feel like a Warlock with repelling blast!
- Extra Attack (6th level): Standard Gishy 6th level extra attack. This character can bring some hurt in one round, and maybe the next round. More I think about it though, this is a full caster, so running out of Bardic Inspiration dice isn’t that big a deal. Fight with sword/switch to spells. Again, the primary concern is defense.
- Master’s flourish (14th level): So basically, you get infinite use of Blade Flourish with a D6, but at 14th level with a full caster, are you really in extended melee engagement? You should probably be doing more casting than swinging your sword by this level I would think.
- Final Thoughts: If the intention was to create a Bard that could do damage in melee, mission accomplished. Blade Flourish + Extra attack is enough offense that although you may not be the best offensive powerhouse in the group, you can contribute effectively. The problem is defense. I think a lot of College of Swords Bards are going to end up face down in the dirt.
College of Whispers: [XGE]
This is you Bard “Secret Spy” type, it does quite well for the intrigue aspect and being different from a general rogue.
There’s a bit of a Rogue type feel here as well, and I note that Psychic Blades has similar mechanics to Sneak Attack. However, unlike a Rogue, you are getting the Bard spellcasting.
- Psychic Blades (3rd level): 2d6 (increasing) psychic damage with a weapon attack (does not specify melee). This immediately makes you think of sneak attack. For a straight Bard, I’m thinking a ranged weapon becomes your option when there is no spell to cast (your cantrip replacement). This eventually reaches 8d6, so it continues to outpace cantrips as you level up, though you might find that since you are likely raising Cha not Dex, and you are only doing this once per round, this is a backup option only for when you don’t need to cast a spell.
- Words of Terror (3rd level): Not something you’ll be using in combat. But if you can get someone alone at the fancy party long enough to fill them with paranoia you’re lauging. This holds the same 1 minute of conversation limitation. Pretty circumstantial, but OK.
- Mantle of Whispers (6th level): This is like disguise self with the difference being the creature needs to die near you and you get access to some information it knew. In the right kind of campaign this is excellent for infiltrating.
- Shadow Lore (14th level): For a 14th level spell…well it’s charm monster basically. Paired with a number of languages and you’re golden for most monster types. No concentration, but once per long rest.
Final Thoughts: College of Whispers is very much not the Bard you are looking for in most dungeon-crawling campaigns. It’s far more suited to a campaign with intrigue and maybe some good old politics. In those kind of campaigns, this is a great choice.
As you can tell, the Bard provides excellent options that diverge considerably, but provide excellent power and utility.
Best Bard Spells
You can dish out damage, but the real power of a Bard comes from thinking outside the box. Use your imagination and roleplay skills to get extra out of your setlist.
Some of these may rely on how lenient your Game Master is. So have that discussion with them when you’re in the picking stage.
You can use either a component pouch or a musical instrument as a focus.
Remember to take advantage of retraining spells if you need to. Upgrade Silent Image to Major Image, Cure Wounds to Mass Cure Wounds. But don’t be too hasty to trade up control spells like Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, since it’s just as effective on a storm giant as it is on a kobold chief (magic resist and legendary saves aside).
It’s also worth noting that many of the Bard’s best spells rely on Wisdom saves. It is advisable that you occasionally branch out, even picking somewhat inferior spells, in order to ensure that you can target multiple abilities. Otherwise, you might end up with great spells that are completely useless against your enemy.
The spells below wont cover other classes you can get access to through Magical Secrets. Just make sure one of your choices is Counterspell, and remember that Telekinesis benefits from Jack of All Trades and Peerless Skill.
Alternately check out our other 5E Class Guides to take a gander at the other classes.
- Blade Ward: With no way to cast this spell as a bonus action it is kind of a bad spell for bards to take as you have to give up your action to cast it. It may be remotely useful to help maintain a great concentration spell you care about. That said, a Valor Bard can get use out of this after hitting level 14, when they can cast and then attack as a bonus action.
- Dancing Lights: A Light spell for those who want a little more action. Requires concentration, isn’t as bright either if that’s a thing your DM tracks.
- Friends: Better for intimidation or goading someone into attacking you then actually doing anything friendly. Be careful about the very short time limit.
- Light: Useful spell, though others can often get it. Many races don’t need this as they can see fine in the dark. If you frequently find yourself in need of light, take this cantrip.
- Mage Hand: One could get creative with this spell. Good utility if you can think outside the box.
- Mending: Fix small non-magical things. Some great utility and story uses. You’ll know better than me if there these kind of things in your campaign.
- Message: Most of the time you can simply whisper, or use hand signals. Still could be pretty good for stealthy groups.
- Minor Illusion: A great spell that is limited only by your imagination. Has some interesting limitations but you’ll find fantastic ways to use this every session. Take it.
- Prestidigitation: Not my preference compared to Minor Illusion, however it’s some great flash and pomp. If that’s why you chose to be a Bard, get on it.
- Thunderclap (EE/XGtE): You have to be bloody close for this to work, and surrounded to be effective. Don’t be cheap and just use Thunderwave in that scenario.
- True Strike: You know what’s better than giving up an action to roll twice for an attack next turn? Rolling this turn, then rolling next turn. You roll the same number of times, but you have the chance to hit twice. Casting this spell is mathematically worse than not casting this spell.
- Vicious Mockery: The best bard cantrip in the game and probably one of the best cantrips full stop. Why have you not taken this if you are a bard? It deals very little damage, but the disadvantage is an excellent debuff, especially at lower levels. Plus, any spell that encourages you to come up with insults is a win.
1st Level Spells
- Animal Friendship: Heavily situational.
- Bane: More powerful than you think, less powerful than you hope. Inflicting disadvantage is arguably more powerful.
- Charm Person: Better than Friends, but possibly not good enough to contend with your other options. You might want to wait for Suggestion.
- Comprehend Languages: Obviously extremely situational.
- Cure Wounds: Healing is good. This provides healing that scales.
- Detect Magic: You may need it at times. I don’t know if you’ll need it enough to displace your other options.
- Disguise Self: Again, situational, but useful.
- Dissonant Whispers: Deal a little damage, and force your enemy to run away as their reaction. The real power of this comes when your allies surround the enemy and it triggers opportunity attacks.
(Note: Jeremy Crawford clarified this: https://twitter.com/jeremyecrawford/status/704469820901752838?lang=en )
“The movement in dissonant whispers can provoke opportunity attacks, since it uses your reaction (PH, 195).”
- Earth Tremor: This can help you escape a nasty situation, dealing some damage to boot.
- Faerie Fire: I like having advantage. And so will your allies, a great support buff.
- Feather Fall: Great to have if you’re falling/jumping off high places a lot. May not come up often though.
- Healing Word: Heal on a bonus action. You don’t heal as much as with Cure Wounds, but this is ranged and you still get to do your regular action. Valor Bards may want this over Cure Wounds so they can continue attacking.
- Heroism: The temp HP is extremely strong when you first get it, but that fades with time and levels.
- Identify: Having ritual spells around is certainly a good idea, and this one provides a decent benefit. Having the Wizard take it is an intelligent decision.
- Illusory Script: Again, situationally useful.
- Longstrider: The slight mobility granted is simply not worth expending any resources.
- Silent Image: A neat little illusion that’s suitably superior to Minor Illusion.
- Sleep: At first you can lay waste to entire encounters with this spell, but it becomes less impressive as time rolls by.
- Speak with Animals: Situational, if you could not tell.
- Tasha’s Hideous Laughter: It keeps your opponent from being able to do anything for a while, and provides advantage. Extremely abusable in social situations.
- Thunderwave: Deal okay damage and push your enemies away. Those are two things any caster can appreciate.
- Unseen Servant: Situational, but it can address so many situations.
2nd Level Spells
- Animal Messenger: You know this is situational.
- Blindness/Deafness: An enemy that can’t see you is an enemy that won’t last very long.
- Calm Emotions: Don’t want to deal with the furious orcs? Worried that mob might grab its pitchforks? Need to fight off a Frightening Presence? Calm Emotions is here to help you out.
- Cloud of Daggers: Okay damage in a very small area. If you can keep a target from moving out of the area, it gets better
- Crown of Madness: As many have pointed out, the fact that the enemy attacks before you force it to move can lead to situations in which the enemy you cast it upon can’t actually attack another enemy. This reduces its effectiveness, though you can still force op attacks and prevent enemy actions.
- Detect Thoughts: It has situational uses, but can also be used to sweep for invisible enemies.
- Enhance Ability: It’s a solid buff, but it does not allow advantage on attacks or spell attacks.
- Enthrall: I just don’t see the point of it. I suppose you can distract a creature while your buddies sneak around, but they could just use Pass Without Trace. Its uses are extremely limited.
- Heat Metal: As a matter of fact, dealing damage every turn with no save allowed is extremely nice. The ability to incapacitate or disarm your opponent is gravy.
- Hold Person: Don’t want a big guy to get near you, hold him still!
- Invisibility: Always good.
- Knock: If no one has Thieves’ Tools, this can be useful.
- Lesser Restoration: Will be necessary a some point.
- Locate Animals or Plants: Obviously situational.
- Locate Object: Again, clearly situational. To the point where you shouldn’t have it without a spellbook.
- Magic Mouth: So very situational.
- Phantasmal Force: The uses of this spell are infinite, and the damage you could do with it is tremendous.
- Pyrotechnics: Provides solid debuffs that are definitely worth utilizing.
- See Invisibility: Somewhat situational, and Detect Thoughts and Faerie Fire can replicate its effects.
- Shatter: Scaling AOE attack that deals decent damage. Bards don’t actually have many of those.
- Silence: If you want to cripple another caster or sneak through a dangerous are, use this.
- Skywrite: Completely situational.
- Suggestion: The only limit is your imagination… in addition to the other limits specified in the PHB. It’s an extremely powerful charm.
- Warding Wind: Like with Unseen Servant, the sheer variety of situations in which this would be useful move it beyond situational abilities.
- Zone of Truth: Useful, but not necessary.
3rd Level Spells
- Bestow Curse:When I read the text for this spell, I feel like a trick is being played on me. You can choose from all those awesome debuffs or convince your DM of another one? Great!
- Clairvoyance: That’s a solid spying tool. Not necessarily one you’re ever going to use, but still solid.
- Dispel Magic: I think everyone finds themselves needing this occasionally. Benefits from Peerless Skill and Jack of All Trades
- Fear: It has the potential to completely change an encounter. Forcing your enemies to flee while giving your buddies op attacks is fun, but the conditions for saving from it make it downright abusable, and its an AOE to boot!
- Feign Death: Situational. Sometimes you’ll get some use out of this, but you usually will not.
- Glyph of Warding: If you have an hour to use it, you will frequently find it worthwhile. However, you will rarely have an hour to spare when exploring a dungeon.
- Hypnotic Pattern: Take away the actions of quite a lot of enemies. Very nice.
- Leomund’s Tiny Hut: Protect yourself from the elements, your enemies, and random encounters at night. A decent utility, though not particularly useful in combat.
- Major Image: Illusions have infinite uses, and this is a very big illusion.
- Nondetection: Completely situational. If the BBEG is a mage who has been scrying you, go for it.
- Plant Growth: The utility uses are entirely situational, but it also aids you in escaping pursuers and allows you to hold groups of enemies fairly still for AOE effects.
- Sending: You know what’s totally situational? This spell.
- Speak with Dead: And this spell.
- Speak with Plants: Also, this spell.
- Stinking Cloud: AOE that denies actions on a CON save? Not bad.
- Tongues: Playing Holy Spirit is very situational in its usefulness.
4th Level Spells
- Compulsion: Solid battlefield control that denies movement and can set up some nasty AOEs.
- Confusion: It interferes with enemy actions as an AOE, but it offers saves every turn and has a smaller radius. Plus the effects are unpredictable.
- Dimension Door: 500′ teleport with very few restrictions. Also potentially weaponizeable.
- Freedom of Movement: Provides decent bonuses, but maybe not worth the slot.
- Greater Invisibility: I know you like being the center of attention. But this is excellent.
- Hallucinatory Terrain: Good for occasionally tricking people.
- Locate Creature: Does what it does well, but you won’t necessarily need it.
- Polymorph: Huge amounts of fun. Better start looking at beast lists and CR levels.
5th Level Spells
- Animate Object: Great potential especially with an imagination. Animate some silverware and tell them to assassinate a king for 65 damage per turn. Or animate a cottage and ask the taxman if you really owe for property. This is one of those spells that’s more useful than it sounds.
- Awaken: A spell for those among us who, despite all evidence to the contrary, genuinely believe their pets have something interesting to say. It’s situational, but infinitely applicable.
- Dominate Person: This is arguably the most powerful enchantment up to this level, but it only lasts a minute, and the target can save multiple times.
- Dream: Situational, but its usefulness is wide-ranging. From simple communication, to intentionally harming or even assassinating a target, you can do quite a lot with this ability.
- Geas: An oath of sorts, Not a bird. You can force someone into service. Can break open the game in strange ways.
- Greater Restoration: You will need this at some point. Take it if no one else will.
- Hold Monster: Excellent ability that can stop your death in its tracks.
- Legend Lore: You could solve similar problems with a history check.
- Mass Cure Wounds: Not dying is nice, however you may want other options for damage prevention instead.
- Mislead: A lot of roleplay options and misdirection. Some downsides keep this Black.
- Modify Memory: Situational but many parties wish they could make people forget. Or use it on youself after that night with an ogre.
- Planar Binding: Potentially powerful, but celestials, fey, and fiends all tend to have excellent Charisma saves, which limits its use. Certain fiends are better targets for this than others, but those tend to be the weaker fiends.
- Raise Dead: Someone needs to take this. It can be you!
- Scrying: Depends ont he campaign. Great flavour though you could probably find a witch in a swamp to accomplish the same thing.
- Seeming: A decent way to stealth your way through hostile territory. Also good for turning guards against one of your enemies.
- Teleportation Circle: A decent way to skip travel time for the whole party.
6th Level Spells
- Eyebite: Solid debuffs on multiple targets for ten rounds for a single slot. Not bad. Still, a lot of these effects can be replicated by lower level spells.
- Find the Path: Extremely situational.
- Guards and Wards: If you have a home base of your own, you will want this spell. Most players will not want this spell.
- Mass Suggestion: Suggestion is a quality spell. This is that en mass. You’re Charming crowds now.
- Otto’s Irresistible Dance: Start a dance battle, yell, “Stop! Hammer Time” Plus the effect is excellent.
- Programmed Illusion: Situational, but like all illusions a little creativity can make it very useful.
- True Seeing: It’s a festival of benefits for the price of one spell.
7th Level Spells
- Etherealness: Excellent scouting spell, plus an automatic “Eff your prison.”
- Forcecage: Possibly broken, but no save is necessary, and it can completely remove someone from a fight.
- <Mirage Arcane: A tactile illusion limited only by your imagination and the “no creatures” clause.
- Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion: A fancy hidey-hole. Not quite useless, and very fun.
- Mordenkainen’s Sword: Summon with an action, and deal bonus action damage for the remainder of its duration. The damage is poor for the level, but it’s on your bonus action
- Project Image: If you need another you hanging around, this works out.
- Regenerate: Excellent healing over a long duration with no concentration.
- Resurrection: In case no one had Raise Dead when the Wizard died.
- Symbol: Upgrades Glyph, but has a massive cost. You won’t be using it often if you take it, and there’s a lot of competition for these slots.
- Teleport: This is simply a great teleportation spell.
8th Level Spells
- Dominate Monster: Like Dominate Person, but works against any creature.
- Feeblemind: A little twisted, but you can completely destroy an enemy’s ability to function as a person, almost permanently.
- Glibness: You’d think this would be solid, but you’ll find uses for it. If you’re expecting to fight casters, it’s an enormous boost to your Counterspell.
- Mind Blank: Great buff if you need it.
- Power Word Stun: Stunning is incredibly powerful in 5E. This guarantees you’ll prevent at least a single round of actions.
9th Level Spells
- Foresight: Holy balls this is great!
- Power Word Heal: You should have other healing options and your limited choices for Level 9 make other options better.
- Power Word Kill: Not terrible but you have much better options.
- True Polymorph: And now you’re a dragon.
You get to pick three from the following. Your background will give you even more skill proficiency, which are not restricted to this list. Your race may also give you more chances to pick skill proficiencies, again not limited to this list.
In any case, barring the presence of a Rogue and characters with questionable feat choices, you are the skill monkey of the group. Also, don’t forget that Expertise can make picking even a skill attached to your “dump stats” worthwhile.
Don’t be afraid to use your skill choices to customize your character a bit. Even mechanically weaker skills can still offer a good benefit to the party as a whole.
- Acrobatics (DEX): You’ll be using this a lot. Resisting grapples and shoves. Balancing on things and maybe even running along rooftops. Some DMs will let you use this as a substitute for many Athletics checks, too. Pretty damn important for all Bards.
- Animal Handling (WIS): The only trick you want to teach an animal is, “Play dead”.
- Arcana (INT): Knowing what kind of magic item this is could be useful, especially if you don’t have a party wizard.
- Athletics (STR): You’re looking at this for climbing if you’re keen on doing some second story work. If you must choose, however, Acrobatics is a higher priority (and your DM may even let you use Acrobatics on some climbing-related checks, depending).
- Deception (CHA): A great skill for social interactions and all kinds of skill checks. You’ll be using this all the time to tell lies, pass yourself off in a disguise convincingly, hide your intentions, give false reassurances, fast-talk people, con merchants, gamble effectively … just so many possibilities.
- History (INT): Books are the keys to knowledge… but that’s why you have can speak to someone smarter than you to do the heavy reading.
- Insight (WIS): Work out if someone is trying to deceive you. You’ll want to know if people are falling for your tricks… and that they aren’t giving you a taste of your own medicine. If someone else in the party, with better WIS, has this skill then it’s not nearly as urgent for you.
- Intimidation (CHA): Be the rough and ready Bard coercing people into giving you the information you ask for. A lot of gruff types like Fighters and Paladins take this so you can go for persuasion and play Good-Bard, Bad-Cop
- Investigation (INT): Looking at crime scenes and acting like a detective. Used to look around rooms, search for clues and possible secrets, interpret forensic evidence. Perception may let you spot a trap but Investigation will give you more information about it. It may also be used to deduce how a trap can be dismantled, before you go poking around on it with your Thieves’ Tools.
- Medicine (WIS): You’re not expected to be great at this unless you’re the designated healer of the party. Leave this to Druids and Clerics if you can.
- Nature (INT): You’re less likely to commune with nature, you’re better suited to more civilized pursuits.
- Perception (WIS): When the DM calls for a Perception check, a low number is never good. Used to detect hidden enemies and traps, bust someone trying to use Sleight of Hand, among many other things. If there was ever a mandatory skill for everyone, it’s this.
- Performance (CHA): You’re the Bard, you damn well be able to perform the best. Make some money, provide a distraction.
- Persuasion (CHA): This is if you want to play ‘Good cop’ when the Barbarian plays ‘Bad Cop’. You’ll probably want to lean on Deception more for your social interactions but it depends on how you play, this one typically reflects more honest intentions. Someone in the party definitely needs this as the “party face.” Most likely it’ll be you.
- Religion (INT): Unless it’s part of your backstory there’s better stuff to focus on..
- Sleight of Hand (DEX): Yes this includes pickpocketing people but it can be so much more. Drop the magical equivilent of a hand grenade into the pocket of your enemy, slip some false evidence on someone, canceal a weapon on your person when entering the kings court, or maybe even lace a drink with some poison.
- Stealth (DEX): You’re not quite a Rogue, but you can still play in the shadows.
- Survival (WIS): Survival sounds like you’ll be going outdoors. This kind of work should be left to Rangers and Druids.
Pick whatever you like based on what skills you want or whatever other criteria you like.
Your background generally gives you 2 skills, maybe a language or two, maybe a tool or two, a special perk, and a small amount of goods/gold.
They can help flesh out your character a bit, offer some mechanical help, and help you better define where your Bard is coming from.
Keep in mind that if a background gives you a skill you already had from your class or race, you get to pick any other skill to replace it (including a non-class skill).
The Criminal and Urchin back grounds however let you gain proficiency in thieves tools so pick them up if your Bard is the Rogue replacement in the party.
Acolyte: [insight/religion] An atypical choice that may make for an interesting backstory. Religion as a skill isn’t the greatest, but Insight is decent. The extra languages can be useful, though it is not a traditional Bard specialty. The perk is fun and flavourful, though possibly campaign/DM specific.
Charlatan: [deception/sleight of hand] Deception, Sleight of Hand, Disguise Kit, Forgery Kit. Terrific skills, fitting tool proficiencies, plus you have an alter-ego, you can pretend to be any other background on this list. You could potentially even forge any documents or papers you need. A great example is a fake arrest warrants for your worst enemies, or steamy correspondance from someone you need humiliated.
Criminal: [deception/stealth] Stealth and Thieves Tools are very solid mechanical choices, especially if you’re the replacement Rogue in the party. Work with your DM to get your criminal contact that you can send messages and requests to from just about anywhere. The Spy variant is basically just a label to make this background’s pretty attributes legit.
Entertainer: [acrobatics/performance] Acrobatics, Performance, Disguise Kit, Musical Instrument (one). Skills line up nicely for you and it’s rather thematic for a Bard. The free lodging and modest or comfortable lifestyle is nice. The Gladiator variant is pretty meaningless for you, though.
Folk Hero: [animal handling/survival] Animal Handling, Survival, Artisan’s Tools (one), Vehicles (Land). Two bad skills, although at least having safe houses among commoners is nice?
Guild Artisan: [insight/persuasion] Insight, Persuasion, Artisan’s Tools (one), one language.Two solid skills, plus a feature that gets you free lodging and food and the chance at some real political clout or connections. The Merchant variant lets you replace Artisan’s Tools with Navigator’s Tools and start with a mule and cart, while still getting the sexy benefits of guild membership, probably better since you’re an adventurer on the move.
Hermit: [medicine/religion] Medicine, Religion, Herbalism Kit, one language. Yeah, um, moving on.
Noble: [history/persuasion] History, Persuasion, Gaming Set (one), one language. Persuasion good, History bad. At least you have some political clout and connections, though. The Knight variant replaces those connections with retainers, who are probably more trouble than they’re worth.
Outlander: [athletics/survival] Athletics, Survival, Musical Instrument (one), one language. Marginal skills at best, although the guaranteed success on foraging is good if you’re stuck in the wilderness somewhere.
Sage: [arcana/history] Arcana, History, two languages. There’s nothing for you here.
Sailor: [athletics/perception] Athletics, Perception, Navigator’s Tools, Vehicles (Water). One good skill and one OK one. Free passage on a ship is nice, but the Pirate variant‘s Bad Reputation and ability to get away with misdemeanors and petty crimes left and right is probably more fitting for many Bards … not to mention incredibly fun. Arr!
Soldier: [athletics/intimidation] Athletics, Intimidation. Two decent skills, land vehicle proficiency could potentially be useful, lackluster tool and equipment. Choose Officer or Scout and go bully the local town’s guard with your rank.
Urchin: Sleight of Hand, Stealth, Disguise Kit, Thieves’ Tools (free pick). Terrific skills and tool proficiencies. (Plus a pet mouse!) The faster intra-city travel feature is pretty weak, though, keeping this background a full step below the likes of Charlatan and Criminal/Spy.
City Watch: [Athletics/Insight] two languages. The city watch may be the last place you’d expect to find a Bard, but this ain’t bad at all. You can pretty much spot out any watch outpost and criminal den anywhere. And you could become a corrupt watchman and get in good with the criminal element. The Investigator variant is actually quite nice, replacing Athletics with the overall more useful Investigation.
Clan Crafter: [History/Insight] Artisan’s Tools (one), Dwarvish language. Ooh, you get to be friends with Dwarves. How about … no.
Cloistered Scholar: [History, another knowledge skill] two languages. Next.
Courtier: [Insight/Persuasion] two languages. Alright, now we’re talking. Two solid skills and an intimate knowledge of an area’s politics and government connections no matter where you go? Yeah, there’s just a few opportunities there.
Faction Agent: [Insight, one faction-specific skill] two languages. Being an agent of one of the Realms’ most powerful organizations kind of speaks for itself. Being either with the Harpers (Investigation) or, especially, their mortal foes the Zhentarim (Deception) gets you another good skill, too.
Far Traveler: [Insight/Perception] Musical Instrument (one), one language. One good skill and one necessary one, and the opportunity for more connections with some powerful people. Very good.
Inheritor: [Survival/Arcana] Gaming Set OR Musical Instrument, one language. Eh, one good skill and one marginal skill, and the feature amounts to little more than an intriguing story hook. You can do better.
Knight of the Order: [Persuasion/Arcana] (or other weak choices), Gaming Set OR Musical Instrument, one language. Interesting note: The knight order descriptions do not mention which skill they’re attached to, so pick Arcana. Attachment to a powerful knight order, and the free shelter and succor that comes with it, make this a solid pick, if not a little dissonant for Bards.
Mercenary Veteran: [Athletics/Persuasion] Gaming Set (one), Vehicles (Land). Decent skill set, and a guaranteed comfortable lifestyle as a mercenary. OK, I guess.
Urban Bounty Hunter: [Two of Deception, Insight, Persuasion, and Stealth] two of Gaming Set, Musical Instrument or Thieves’ Tools (pick this and get a free choice of tools, haha). All Bard-appropriate skills and tools, and plenty of opportunities for connections from the local gangs and thieves’ guilds to members of high society. Doesn’t get much better.
Uthgardt Tribe Member: [Athletics/Survival] Musical Instrument OR Artisan’s Tools (one). Meh skills, and something similar to the Outlander’s foraging, with hospitality from your tribe or powerful allies. Probably better than Outlander, but not by much.
Waterdhavian Noble: [History/Persuasion] Gaming Set (one) OR Musical Instrument (one), one language. One wasted, skill, and some renown in Waterdeep and the North that lets you live a comfortable lifestyle on credit. Eh.
You’re probably best off taking a +2 Cha over a feat if you already have an even number in that stat. If it’s an odd number a feat that provides +1 can help bump it up to even and give a perk.
- Alert: Going first means you can disable enemies before they act, or get some buffs on allies before they charge in.
- Athlete: You don’t run, you strut and that’s more likely to be performance.
- Actor: Mostly for the +1 CHA, but also a great synergy with being the performer. Opens up amazing options for Charisma based skill checks.
- Charger: Charging in may be useful for a Valor bard. Often you have other options though.
- Crossbow Expert: Great if the idea you have involves crossbows, adds some damage.
- Defensive Duelist: Great for any melee build, and archers will find it useful when combat gets tight, too.
- Dual Wielder: Most bards need a free hand to cast, though if you go with the College of Swords then it’s much more useful.
- Dungeon Delver: Great if your DM is a bit trap-happy.
- Durable: It’s okay. Nothing special, but it’s a good half-feat bonus.
- Elemental Adept: You can snag some blasting spells from other classes and make great use out of this, though maybe not as much use as some other casters could.
- Grappler: Not all that great for a caster, unless you’re going for a Valor Bard wrestler.
- Great Weapon Master: If you need a big ol weapon for your Valor Bard then this is excellent.
- Healer: As a support your party may look to you for this. Slightly better than inspiring leader, the money cost is tiny long term.
- Heavily Armored: There are better ways to get Heavy Armour if you really want it. Consider starting (or multiclassing) as a Life Cleric or Paladinfor the armor proficiency.
- Heavy Armor Master: This is the only reason to get Heavily Armoured, but only for Valor Bards, and the benefits aren’t worth sacrificing two Ability increases.
- Inspiring Leader: A nice combo with Song of Rest. Helps the adventuring day last a little longer. Starts off powerful and scales okay.
- Keen Mind: The INT isn’t useful but depending on the campaign this can be worth it. Maybe ask the Wizard to take this.
- Lightly Armored: You don’t need this.
- Linguist: The other odd bump for Int, but still likely your dump stat.
- Lucky: A good all around bonus.
- Mage Slayer: Even valor bards tend to stay back. Better for grapple bards.
- Magic Initiate: Not bad for some more magic power, though you have plenty of ways to grab spells.
- Martial Adept: Very situational, maybe useful if you multiclass as a Battle Master.
- Medium Armor Master: If you happen to be at 16 Dex you get +2 AC.
- Mobile: Solid mobility boost if you’re the scout for the party.
- Moderately Armored: You already have the benefit if you’re a Valor Bard, but Lore Bards might want it. +4 AC for a Lore Bard.
- Mounted Combatant: If you’re mounted a lot (Find Steed) this is not bad.
- Observant: Someone should have this, the insight is useful for a ‘Face’ and Passive Perception can keep you alive.
- Polearm Master: If a Polearm is your weapon of choice, you already know you want this.
- Resilient: For a single feat point, you gain a save proficiency. That’s awesome.
- Ritual Caster: You’re already a ritual caster, there are some Wizard spells that could be nice to have though.
- Savage Attacker: Even a Valor Bard struggles to make the best use of this.
- Sentinel: Not good for a Bard. You don’t want to be a target. Moves up to Blue if you’re a Valor Bard and have Polearm Master, though consider being a Fighter.
- Sharpshooter: Adds some damage for Valor Bards. Good for anyone with ranged options.
- Shield Master: A key feat for the grapple bard. Blue for other bards who want a bit more defense.
- Skilled: This is weaker for you because you already have ‘Jack of All Trades’
- Skulker: While you can be a great scout, you don’t have any way to get a damage bonus. Better with sharpshooter.
- Spell Sniper: Okay for a Lore Bard… but not really built for you.
- Tavern Brawler: An alternative for the shield master for grapple bards. If you have an odd Str/Con. Otherwise shield master is better.
- Tough: Not bad, but you’re probably better off taking the +2 Con if that’s a concern.
- War Caster: For Valor Bards so they can cast “S” spells with their hands full, or insult people who run away from dissonant whispers, and add to their concentration checks. Blue for Lore Bards who still like concentration.
- Weapon Master: You don’t need this, Valor has you covered.
Here, I want to make just a quick look at some options, along with the concept of a “dip” to grab some goodies from another class.
I’m going to leave some of the finer points of multiclassing up to the individual though, especially anything that takes away from the character being majority Bard.
While there is a colour grade in this section remember that other options may fall into your character concept side of things than true optimisation.
Barbarian : Being unable to cast makes this a bit poor for a caster. Though we discovered you can use finesse weapons while raging when we wrote our Barbarian Guide.
Cleric: Depending on the domain you could get some nice bonuses. Life Cleric is great if you’re the main healer. Being based on WIS hurts you depending on spell choice.
Druid: Similar problems to Cleric but more so. WIS isn’t where you should be looking.
Fighter: A Fighting Style, More Attacks, Second Wind, Action Surges. Valor Bards will like these things. Good potential for College of Blades too. We go into more detail in our Fighter Guide.
Monk: Nothing for you here.
Paladin: CHA being the spellcasting ability makes this an excellent match. Valor can consider a smite or too. Read more in our Paladin Guide.
Ranger: Maybe… but I think you’d be better off taking a level in Fighter and thematically calling it a Ranger.
Rogue: Sneak attack is solid, the extra skills are nice too. We have a 5E Rogue guide available if you want to learn more.
Sorcerer: If you want more magic at your fingertips, Sorcerer is an excellent option.
Warlock: You’ve been eyeing off Eldritch blast anyway, so why not make a light pact with something otherwordly.
Wizard: INT isn’t your strong suit. You can get some Wizard spells other ways.