Here are a few notes on how to play them effectively at first level.
What is the Bard best at?
The bard is the best at inspiring other characters to perform well. They also are good with a range of weapons, can cast spells, and choose to be good with any skill in the game.
Every other class is restricted as to what skills they can choose. The bards have no such restriction. As such, you can tailor them to play how you want.
The most effective bards tend to concentrate on Charisma-based skills, as Charisma also helps their spellcasting.
What should the Bard do in combat?
Bards typically use a combination of spells and weapons, normally while staying back out of melee.
The best weapons to use are the Rapier and the Shortbow. A first-level bard has a poor Armour Class (typically 13) and should stay out of melee combat as much as possible, about 40-50 feet away if you can manage it.
When you’re fighting one big foe, such as an ogre, the cantrip vicious mockery is very useful. It allows you to distract the enemy in addition to damaging it, giving your allies a better chance of dodging its attacks. When you’re fighting numerous enemies, such as goblins or kobolds, you’re best using your bow, or a dagger or rapier if you must engage in melee. Against smaller creatures, doing more damage is better.
Twice per rest, the bard can grant inspiration to another character. This takes a bonus action, so you can do this as well as attacking or casting a spell. The inspiration allows the character to roll another d6 after they’ve seen their initial roll and add it to the result. It has obvious applications in combat and is best used on the characters who do the most damage, but you may prefer to use it out of combat.
What spells should the Bard know?
First-level bards know two cantrips. One of these should be vicious mockery, as it’s the only attacking bard cantrip in the PHB. I recommend the following spells for the second cantrip: light, mage hand, mending or prestidigitation.
The bard also knows four first-level spells. One of these should be healing word, which allows you to restore an unconscious character in the middle of combat. As it’s a range spell that can be cast as a bonus action, you can also attack in addition to aiding your friend.
My suggestions for the other spells you know are:
- Charm Person – allows you to talk your way past annoying officials or guards, or potentially remove a combatant from a battle (although it has less chance of working once combat has begun).
- Cure Wounds – gives you greater healing potential; best used after combat
- Detect Magic – a good utility spell that helps you past magical traps and tricks, as well as identifying which items are magic and you should loot
- Faerie Fire – used on a group of enemies, it outlines them in light, so they can’t hide or benefit from invisibility, and you and your allies have advantage to hit them
- Sleep – can very quickly win a fight against kobolds or goblins, or a bigger foe if it’s already wounded.
- Thunderwave – the premiere area-of-effect spell for bards. It deals a good amount of damage in a 15-foot-by-15-foot square. The disadvantage is that you must stand at one edge of the square, so you normally enter melee to use it. Be careful to avoid your allies with the blast!
That said, first-level bards will often end up using their spells for healing, unless a challenge requires another spell to overcome it. Healing your friends so everyone survives? Good plan!
What skills should the Bard take?
First-level bards know three skills, in addition to the two skills they gain from their background and any racial skills. They can choose any skill on the list.
Typically, bards tend to be best with Charisma-based skills, and then have either Wisdom, Dexterity or Intelligence-based skills as a second speciality.
- Persuasion, Deception or Intimidation (Charisma) – does your Bard attempt to tell the truth and get others to follow you? Then Persuasion is your best bet. If you prefer being on the shady side of life, and twist people to your whim, then you should take Deception. If, however, you prefer to threaten people into doing what you want, you take Intimidation. Some bards take two of these, few take all three – there are other skills to take
- Insight (Wisdom) – a good complement to any of the above skills, Insight lets you know if you’ve been successful at deceiving someone and learn if they’re trying to deceive you. Or if they’re just trying to avoid telling you something. Often a very useful skill.
- Medicine (Wisdom) – for a Wisdom-based bard, this allows you to save people who are dying, or tell how someone died; that last is useful more often than you’d think!
- Perception (Wisdom) – spotting traps and lurking enemies is very useful to help you survive
- Arcana, Religion, Nature (Intelligence) – all three of these skills help you know information to help you solve puzzles. Their use can be very DM-dependent, however, so consult with your Dungeon Master before taking them as to how he or she wishes to use them.
- Investigation (Intelligence) – A very good skills for finding clues or the way to open secret doors or disarm traps.
- Stealth (Dexterity) – You’ll often want to avoid your enemies, so it’s worth being proficient in Stealth.
Oh, and if you’re Dexterity-based, find a way to gain the Thieves’ Tool proficiency; typically, you can gain this proficiency from your background.
What race should I be?
Half-Elves, Tieflings, Humans, Lightfoot Halflings, Drow and Dragonborn all make good bards, each with a different focus to their abilities. The Dragonborn make good College of Valor bards with a Strength focus instead of Dexterity, Tieflings tend to be good in Intelligence and Charisma and know esoteric information, while Half-Elves often can get good Wisdom and Intelligence scores. Other races also work as bards, with different focuses to the abilities.
What abilities are most important?
You want your Charisma to be high. Your Dexterity will typically be your second-highest ability score.
Constitution should not be ignored, as it affects your hit points. The choice between Wisdom and Intelligence depends on the skills you wish to be good at.
Strength is often the Bard’s worst ability score, but bards who plan to take the College of Valour can benefit from a better Strength. It’s an unusual build and takes a few levels to be effective.
Should I talk to other characters we meet in our travels?
If you’re unsure of how to role-play – I certainly was when I began playing the game – try telling your DM what you’d like to get out of the negotiation. “I want the guards to let us in.” “I want the innkeeper to tell me who took his best room last night”. If you can, give an idea of how you do it. “I flatter his looks.” “I slip him a few coins”. “I tell her she’ll get in trouble with the law if she doesn’t help me!” Even if you don’t act out the situation, this will give the DM enough of an idea of how the interaction might proceed.
Jack of All Trades?
At second level, you gain half your proficiency bonus on all ability checks in which you are not proficient. This includes Initiative checks! At this point, your choice of ability scores becomes quite relevant when using skills, because even if you’re not proficient, you’re better than the average character.
You also gain Song of Rest at second level, so your allies heal more when they take a short rest. And you gain more spells as well!
At third level, you must choose which Bardic College you join. Both College of Lore and College of Valour are very good; they just depend on what path your bard is taking. If you want to be a more skill-based bard, choose the College of Lore. If you want to be a more battle-orientated bard, choose the College of Valour.
You also gain expertise in two skills, doubling your proficiency bonus with both. Choose skills that you use all the time. By this stage, you should have an idea of what they are.