Last time we left off with some ideas for roleplaying the beginning bard, but we have some more to cover on that topic, so let's jump right in and continue!
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While it may not be mentioned on your equipment list, every bard character has, stuffed into a pocket somewhere, a little note that reads: "Welcome in taverns everywhere." For many bards, this note takes the form of a lute or other favorite instrument, but the form isn't important. What IS important is that bards and taverns go together like all-night gaming sessions and Mountain Dew (or other favorite caffeinated beverage). The life of your average inhabitant of the Dungeons & Dragons universe is rough, and when she wants to unwind after a hard day of doing whatever it is she does, she heads to the local tavern and hopes that maybe, just maybe, a traveling minstrel, a teller of tales, a musician of incredible skill with stories of heroic adventures and far off lands and deeds great and small awaits her. The day a new bard comes to town is a big deal, so why not have some fun with it.
In many D&D towns, the local inn or tavern is a social hub, so your bard should make a habit of dropping by as soon as the he enters town to let the owner of the establishment know he will be back later to perform. The first time a bard does this might not mean much, but if you're lucky enough to have your bard return to the same town several times, maybe he will start to draw a crowd. Once word of your arrival has spread, make the best use of your bard's performance time. If your party has an agenda that you can help along, go with that, but even if you have no big group goals, there's still a lot you can do with your bard. Sing the praises of your fellow adventurers -- they love that. In the sad event an adventurer in your party met with an unfortunate end in your recent travels, the bard can tell rousing tales of the fallen member's bravery and the dramatic story of her heroic death. This keeps the memories of old characters alive, and it's likely the player will appreciate it, as well. Your bard can also sneak in a few less benevolent acts, too. If you don't think the half-orc barbarian is pulling his weight, maybe a few choruses of "Song of the Yellow Orc" will motivate him.
The other thing you can have your bard do in the local tavern, in addition to performing, is to listen. This is where bardic knowledge comes in.
A lifetime spent swapping stories with people in taverns and the few chance encounters with other traveling performers leaves a bard with a lot of information floating around in his head. With all of that information, there's always a chance some of it may actually be useful. A bard can make a Bardic Knowledge check, adding his level and Intelligence modifier, to determine if he knows some information about a topic. The DC for the check varies between 10 and 30, depending on the obscurity of the knowledge you're looking for. It's a very simple mechanic and has the potential to reveal some interesting facts. It also serves as a great way for a DM to introduce subplots or to drop an important clue to help a party that's struggling with something. The difficulty I find in using this ability is that if the knowledge is obscure enough for your bard to need to roll for it, you often don't know that you need to ask for it. Here's how I get around that: When something interesting comes into conversation -- an event, location, important person, whatever -- I'll ask the DM if my character has heard any mention of that thing in any songs or stories he has heard over the years. If the DM looks uncertain or is thinking about it, I offer to roll bardic knowledge as an indicator. Most DMs are fine with that as a solution, although it's not exactly what the system intended.
At first glance, the ability selection for a bard is pretty simple, and the first glance is pretty accurate. Charisma is obviously huge since all things related to spells are attached to it. The level of spells the bard can cast, the number of spells he knows, the number of spells he can cast per day, and the DC to resist those spells are all linked to Charisma. In every case that I can think of, Charisma is going to be your starting bard's highest ability and, as the game goes on, Charisma-increasing items are up near the top of every bard's Christmas list.
Close behind Charisma in importance is Dexterity. Just as Charisma links to spell-related things, Dexterity can relate to all those combat-related things. The Dexterity modifier adds directly to AC, which is reason enough to get as much as you can, but in addition to that huge benefit, Dexterity is also the key ability used to hit in ranged combat, which you'll be using all the time if you took my advice last month and had your bard focus on archery. Even if you don't have your bard go the archery route, the best close-combat weapon on your bard's proficiency list is the rapier, and the rapier has the distinction of being the largest weapon that your bard can use with the Weapon Finesse feat. The Weapon Finesse feat allows you to use your bard's Dexterity modifier, instead of your bard's Strength modifier, to determine if your bard hits in melee combat. There are two downsides to this: The first is your bard will still be using his Strength modifier for damage with a melee weapon, and the second is that you can't give a 1st-level bard Weapon Finesse since it requires a base attack bonus of +1 and a bard won't get that until 2nd level.
Next up on the useful abilities list are Intelligence and Constitution. Intelligence is good to have because it helps increase the small number of skill points your bard gets per level (4 + Intelligence modifier). Constitution helps with the bard's small Hit Die (d6). I rate Intelligence higher than Constitution because I plan to be in the back shooting arrows and because the bard skill selection is pretty wide, and I know of several skills that I want to build ranks in.
Bringing up the rear are Strength and Wisdom. Ranged weapon damage isn't increased by a high Strength the way melee damage is, and Wisdom is . . . well, it's the stat that gets tanked so you can have a high Charisma and Dexterity.
Skills are so much a matter of personal taste and vary so widely based on the individual campaign that I'll mention only a few of the universal skill choices that I think are important. First of all, take a look at Perform since that's the skill bardic music is based on, then pick Gather Information for its obvious information-gathering abilities. From there you may want to add a few ranks in Use Magic Device, not because I've found it to be overly useful but because bard is the only class other than rogue that can buy it at all. After adding ranks in those key three skills, I like to choose a group of skills associated with whatever high ability scores I have that I'd like to focus on and go with those. These are either the Charisma-based skills of Bluff, Diplomacy, and Disguise, or the Dexterity-based skills of Hide, Move Silently, and Tumble. In the unlikely event you find yourself with extra skill points after purchasing ranks in these skills, the different Knowledge skills are great places to put some ranks.
Like my bard character, I enjoy a good epic poem, but even by those standards, this article is beginning to run a little long. Next time we'll get away from this low-level stuff and focus on spells: from starting spell selection to spell progression up through the levels.
About the Author
Erik Olsen is an amateur theoretical physicist struggling to understand 10-dimensional superstring theory despite his complete lack of knowledge of the fundamental mathematics the theory is based on. He hopes to establish his own version of superstring theory based not so much on the math as on the fact that it sounds cool.