Choosing your character class is one of the most important early decisions you make as a player. It affects your pool of abilities, how you perform on skill checks, and generally how you interact with the game. When choosing your class, you should take into consideration how that class plays into your preferred playstyle. In this article, I wanted to write up a quick article discussing bards: their strengths and weaknesses, how their spellcasting works and some of the best ways a new player can build a bard to be the best bard they can be.
Every caster has a role to play, and for the most part, bards fall into the support role. They have a lot of features to help your allies and deter enemies, and this is reflected in their spell list as well. Bards get bardic inspiration, which allows you to use a bonus action to give a d6 to an ally. They can use that d6 anytime in the next 10 minutes to roll it and add it to an attack roll, ability check, or saving throw. Give it to the fighter so they can pass a save against Hold Person, or to the wizard so they don’t miss when firing off their high-level big daddy spells. Bards are also built to be very skill-oriented, with several proficiencies and expertise, and the jack of all trades ability to add a little bit to everything, even if they aren’t proficient. In short, bards are good at everything… except for combat. Their job is to empower their allies and make the party run like a well-oiled machine. They get several chances to shine both on their own and by reveling in the success of their allies, and this makes them extremely fun to play.
Bards have a few rules they should follow. Never get into melee. If you find yourself in melee, things probably went very wrong. If possible, don’t take damage at all. Run away and leave your friends behind. Hide around corners. Your job is not to be in the fight, it’s to support the ones who are. If you find yourself in melee, dodge action is your friend. Wait for your allies to come rescue you, throw them a bardic inspiration, and then disengage and get of melee. Finally, remember that your spells should focus more on controlling the terms of the fight. Bane, Faerie Fire, Heroism, Healing Word… anything that aids your allies and hinders the enemy is a good option. Direct damage is fine, but you only get 2 castings at level 1. Make them count! Long term spells that make an impact are the way to go! And don’t forget your bardic inspiration, which can help allies turn near misses into hits, and give your fighters a better chance at resisting enemy spells.
So let’s get started on tips for building a level 1 bard:
- Ability Scores: In order, you need Charisma, then Constitution, then Dexterity. You may be thinking “But Kenny! I need high armor class!” and you would be right. But bards should generally be staying out of the thick of things. It is more important that you buff your charisma, as it is your primary casting ability, and your constitution, which helps you maintain concentration on your spells while also giving you enough hit points to get hit once or twice. Dexterity only comes into play when you get into melee… which you should absolutely NOT be doing!
- Equipment: You get light armor, so leather to start with. Upgrade to studded leather ASAP, it’s cheap and you can find it at most stores, and it’s another point of Armor Class. Your melee weapon doesn’t matter because you won’t be using it. In fact, ignore a melee weapon entirely and grab a light crossbow for those times when an enemy is outside of Vicious Mockery range.
- Cantrips: You get 2 to start with! Cantrips are free-to-use spells, and you never run out of them. Bards only have one damage-dealing cantrip, Vicious Mockery, so that should always be one of the two you choose, because you always want a damage option. It also gives disadvantage to the enemy you hit with it, making it even better as a support spell that happens to also do a bit of damage. The other can be whichever you want, but know that you are stuck with your cantrips forever. You do not get to change them out like other spells.
Bards have an unusually useful selection of cantrips, so instead of giving you advice on which cantrips to take, let me take the easier route of showing which ones are garbage. Blade Ward? Utterly useless. You will never use this often enough to justify taking it. Friends? You get advantage on ONE persuasion check, and then the other guy hates you. That’s awful, skip it every time and take Charm Person. True Strike? Worst cantrip in the game. Literally the worst. Never take this. Every single other cantrip on the bard list that I haven’t mentioned is useful in some form or fashion. Read up, decide what flavor of utility you want, and go wild. If you can’t decide, it’s ok, you get another cantrip at level 4, which isn’t that far away.
- Spells: Bard spells work like this: You learn a certain number of spells. You have only those spells. Each time you level up (as a bard, not multiclassing) you are able to swap out ONE spell for a different spell.
This can help you out a lot more than you might think. Yes, you might choose a spell that ends up being useless. But also, you can choose a spell that is useful early on, like Disguise Self, and then swap it out later for something better, like Seeming.
So, at level 1, how do you pick spells? Well, again, no pressure – in like 2 levels you’ll have had the chance to swap out everything you picked that didn’t work out for you. You get 4 spells to start with. Your first choice in spells needs to be ones that you can cast and get a lot of mileage out of. The early levels don’t give you a ton of spell slots to work with, so you can only cast a few times. Concentration spells are your friend here, as are long-lasting spells. Things to avoid are one-off damage spells, as you are playing a supporting role, and spells that are situationally useful spells like Silent Image or Longstrider, as you don’t want to waste your slots on anything frivolous at level 1. Remember: your job isn’t to kill the enemy, it’s to make it easier for your angry barbarian to kill them.
Therefore, I present the following list of level 1 bard spells for you to consider:
–Charm Person: lasts for 1 hour, and basically easy-modes a social encounter. Just make sure you won’t need to talk to that person again because they’ll hate you after the spell wears off. 5/5 stars.
–Healing Word: heals 1d4 + Charisma mod to one ally within 60 feet as a bonus action. This has two things going for it that Cure Wounds doesn’t. First, it’s ranged, not touch, so you don’t have to go Leeroy Jenkins into melee to save your dying friend who was probably a lot tougher than you and still got KO’ed. Second, it’s a bonus action, letting you use your action for something else. Like dodging, since your tank is down and you might be staring down the thing that did them in. As I discussed in my introduction to combat guide, you always want ways to maximize your action economy, and this is a good spell to have as your bonus action. Absolutely one of the best options. 5/5 stars.
–Detect Magic: Somebody should always have this spell going in case of magical traps, and because it is a ritual spell, it can be done for free by taking ten minutes to cast it as a ritual. You can also cast it normally if time is an issue. Really, the wizard or cleric should be the ones doing this, as they can swap out spells and you can’t, but maybe your party doesn’t have a wizard or cleric for some reason, I don’t know your life. 3/5 stars.
–Bane: Words fail to describe how much I love this spell on any caster. 1d4 off of any enemy attack rolls has saved lives so many lives, and it’s a charisma saving throw, which almost everybody is terrible at until much higher levels. Cast it on the enemies doing the most damage in combat, and let your own bruisers to the rest. 5/5 stars.
–Faerie Fire: Slightly inferior to Bane because it is a Dex save, not a Cha save, making it much easier for a lot of enemies to resist it. You can also accidentally catch your allies with it. However, it is a fantastic spell that negates invisibility, which is absolutely a life saver when it comes up. 4/5 stars.
–Disguise Self: Make yourself look like someone else. The bread and butter spell for when you want to do something shady in a social encounter, and absolutely fantastic as a level 1 choice. 4/5 stars.
–Feather Fall: The honorable mention of this list, it is either entirely useless, or the best decision you’ve ever made. Usually not my level 1 choice, but it’s worth considering. 2/5 stars.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive, of course, just some friendly tips on how to build a good level 1 bard that will get the most mileage out of the limited resources you have starting out. Once you get higher in level and have more spell slots to burn, its ok to start looking at things like Thunderwave to give yourself damage options, or some of the less universally useful utility spells.
I hope this was helpful for you! Bard is a super fun class to play, and if you play them right, they are absolutely irreplaceable members of your party.
Kenny, Dungeon Master Extraordinaire