Bards are often depicted as ne'er-do-wells and charlatans who prefer not to meet challenges head on. A character who fits that stereotype can be fun, but a bard also can function as a person of deep knowledge and wide experience, a folk hero, a slumming aristocrat, or a general handyman.
The Pros and Cons of a Bard
A bard most often exercises his true strength through others. He also has abilities and spells that provide information, or that serve some other utilitarian function.
When you chose a bard, you gain access to a substantial array of magical abilities, most of which influence other creatures. Below are several assets you have going for you when you play a bard.
Good Skill Points: With 6 skill points per level, a bard with a decent Intelligence score can buy plenty of skill ranks.
Good Skill Selection: The bard has a substantial list of class skills. Most of them (such as Bluff, Diplomacy, and Sense Motive) involve character interaction, but bards also have access to stealth skills (such as Hide and Move Silently), informational skills (such as Decipher Script and Gather Information), and movement skills (such as Balance, Climb, and Jump).
Good Reflex and Will Saves: A bard uses the best save progression in the game for Reflex and Will saves (see Table 3-1 in the Player's Handbook). His natural grace helps him avoid most effects that could deal damage or entrap him, such as area spells, entanglement, and many traps. The fact that the bard also uses the best progression for Will saves allows him to withstand assaults on his mind or spirit.
Bardic Music: A bard's music (or poetry) literally makes magic. With it, he can counter most sound-based effects, inspire his allies, and even bend others to his will. To get the most out of his bardic music abilities, however, he has to keep buying ranks of Perform throughout his career.
Bardic Knowledge: A bard has at least a slight chance to know something about almost anything.
Spells: A bard has access to spells that heal allies, stymie enemies, or provide other useful effects. Bard spells generally aren't flashy, but they can be quite effective when used with forethought and skill. And a bard doesn't have to carry spellbooks; he can choose a personal repertoire of spells that he can cast anytime. He does have a daily limit on the number of spells of each level he can cast, but he can freely cast any spell he knows until he reaches that limit. So he doesn't have to guess ahead of time which spells to prepare -- if he needs to cast a particular spell several times in the same day, he can do so.
As with characters of other classes, the bard's many advantages come at a price. Here are a few of the disadvantages you should keep in mind if you're considering a bard character.
Poor Fortitude Saving Throws: Bards have the worst progression for Fortitude saves in the game (see Table 3-1 in the Player's Handbook). Thus, they aren't so great at shrugging off effects that attack their bodies.
Fairly Low Hit Points: The bard's 6-sided Hit Dice give him only a moderate number of hit points. But even though he can't take much physical punishment, he does need to enter combat occasionally because his spells don't pack much offensive punch.
Fairly Low Armor Class: The fact that a bard has proficiency with only light armor and shields other than tower shields leaves him with only a mediocre Armor Class. The combination of modest hit points and middling Armor Class usually means that a bard can afford to fight a little, but he doesn't have much staying power in a pitched battle. To make matters worse, donning medium or heavy armor may cause his arcane spells to fail. A bard can improve his defenses in various ways, but all of them deplete his resources.
Limited Spell Choices: Once a bard chooses spells, his repertoire remains more or less fixed, except for new additions as he attains higher levels. He has a limited ability to change his repertoire, but for the most part, he is stuck with whatever spells he has chosen.
Playing a Classy Bard
Great bards usually use the following techniques, so if you're playing one, try to build your strategy around these concepts.