Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be several, or even many, columns that focus on playing a bard in the Dungeons & Dragons game. You've likely read, or heard it said, bards make some of the best solo-style characters in D&D. They're second best at just about everything: They fight respectably, cast spells from a decent spell list, perform some roguelike trickery, and even chime in with a valuable piece of obscure information once in a while. This makes for a well-rounded character with few exploitable weaknesses, but there's a drawback to that, as well.
Being second best at everything makes you first best at nothing. In a party with a skull-cracking fighter, a fireball-throwing wizard, and the greatest pickpocketing rogue in three counties, finding your place in the party can be a little intimidating. Don't let this distress you. There's quite a few ways a bard can make his or her unique abilities felt.
At the end of the day, it's all about beatin' up on the bad guys, isn't it? As a beginning bard, you'll be happy to hear some good news and not so thrilled at the bad news. The bard base attack bonus progression isn't bad; it's on par with the other half-casters. However, you are tied with the rogue for the smallest Hit Die in that group (d6) and you won't see a sneak attack in your future to make up for this lack of hit points. You also have one, and only one, weapon proficiency beyond simple weapons. Unless you have a cool story reason for choosing the whip, your weapon choice rapidly narrows down to the composite longbow or the rapier. As much as I like the rapier, it's one of those up-close weapons, and you'll recall the thing I mentioned about the Hit Die earlier.
For my money, archery is the way to go, and the reasons are simple. First, you're only two feats away from a second attack by taking Point Blank Shot and Rapid Shot, and thus you can have that second attack even before the pure fighters, regardless of your race. Rapid Shot gives both of your attacks a -2 penalty, but Point Blank Shot mitigates this somewhat by granting a +1 bonus if the target is within 30 feet. Combine that with the bardic music inspire courage ability, which grants a +1 morale bonus on attack rolls, among other things, and a singing bard can make two ranged attacks at targets within 30 feet at no penalty to hit. Even more importantly, being an archer keeps you off the front lines, which is where those d10 and d12 HD fighters and barbarians (respectively) get paid to stand. In addition, magic bows are exceptionally potent since they transfer their magic and additional damage bonuses onto the arrows they fire.
Many people often overlook the benefits of bardic music. The reason it's overlooked is pretty obvious: the phrase "once per day per level." That's a pretty rough restriction at 1st level, but the benefits of making good use of your bardic music ability more than make up for the frustration of not getting to use it all that often.
A 1st level, the bard has the capacity for three different bardic music effects: inspire courage, countersong, and fascinate. Of these three, inspire courage is the clear leader in pure usefulness. It grants a +1 bonus on both attack and damage rolls, in addition to a +2 bonus against fear and charm effects. That's a +1 on attack and damage rolls -- for everyone in the party AND for a minimum of 5 rounds -- at 1st level. Not too shabby. Countersong does exactly what it sounds like it does, and when you can perform your music only once or twice per day, it doesn't see a lot of use. You should, however, keep it in mind for later levels since you never know when it will save your party from a sound burst or something similar. Fascinate is a great little ability in the right circumstances. Successfully fascinating a creature applies a -4 penalty on the creature's Spot and Listen checks for as long as its attention remains focused on you. You should have a lot of uses for this ability, but perhaps the best part of it is that it encourages a bit of teamwork within the party. Sing a little song for the noble of ill-repute while the rogue checks her baggage for stolen items and if any are found, the paladin can have a little talk with her.
My very favorite aspect of playing a bard is the opportunity for roleplaying that it provides. While any character can be fun to roleplay, bards have the advantage of a few built in hooks that can be pretty entertaining. For my favorite, I refer you back to the beginning of this column: Bards make great solo characters. Sure, he's in a party now, but a bard has been around the block a few times and can take care of himself. Your character might exhibit this in many ways. Maybe he's got a story for every occasion: "Wow, that's a lot of orcs out there. Reminds me of this one time near the Silver Marches -- orcs as far as the eye could see. Big orcs, too, not like these guys. You should'a seen it." Or maybe he couches all of his advice in a story of his glorious past: "'Bout three years ago I freed this small village down south from the clutches of some evil bandits. These bandits set their camp up very much like our enemies here have. Here's what worked for me when I attacked those bandits." Or maybe he just likes to remind everyone that he's multitalented: "Well, maybe if someone had spent more time learning the tales of her people instead simply swinging a sword around like a lunatic every day, then someone wouldn't need my help to get out of this mess, eh?"
Next time we'll hit on a few more roleplaying ideas and look at the bard's ability and skill selection.
About the Author
Erik Olsen is a recently retired ninja assassin and now runs a small bed and breakfast specializing in service so prompt and subtle that guests often remark that they never even noticed their drinks being refilled or beds turned down.
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