In case you’re not fed up with bard builds, here comes the third installment of Bardzilla. Today we’re talking about using the bard’s most unique class feature — bardic music — to its fullest potential.
From a flavor perspective, the bard’s ability to use music, poetics and rhetoric to sway the masses — and, in many cases, the tide of battle — is particularly attractive. From an optimization perspective, bardic music provides an excellent way to buff you and your allies, perhaps making the difference in combat.
When it comes to music optimization, Inspire Courage presents the most potential. While it may not be as good on its own as Inspire Greatness, Inspire Courage can be tinkered with in several ways. Dragonfire Inspiration (Dragon Magic), Song of the Heart (Eberron Campaign Setting) and — in case you missed it when I said it the first thousand times — Words of Creation (Book of Exalted Deeds) can all work to modify your Inspire Courage bonus.
A 20th level bard with these three feats adds 10d6 energy damage to his and his allies’ weapons. Not too bad. (For lower-level players, that’s 6d6 damage at 9th level.) However, music optimization has less to do with feat selection — though those three are incredibly helpful — and more to do with class levels.
Unless your DM is limiting you to core books (Player’s Handbook, Dungeonmaster’s Guide, Monster Manual), you should probably “prestige out” of bard before 10th level. In order to get the most out of your character, you’ll want to mix and match prestige classes, dipping in to pick up some of the better class features, then moving along to the next prestige for more goodies. (NOTE: Such dipping and wild variance can present roleplaying challenges, so be prepared to think this out before making your choices.)
With so many supplemental books and web enhancements and magazines out there, it can be tough to pick the right prestige class for your character. Because this article is more oriented toward optimization, I won’t discuss the characteristics that would lead a character to one prestige class or another. I will, however, give you a brief list of some of the best prestige classes for a bard:
Lyric Thaumaturge (Complete Mage) – This class advances casting, expands your spells known list AND progresses bardic music uses (but not bardic music known!), so this can be a good choice, especially for magic-oriented bards.
Sublime Chord (Complete Arcane) – Sublime Chord also advances casting, but not along the usual “as if you’d gained a level in an arcane caster class you already had” way. By taking levels in Sublime Chord, you can gain spells all the way up to Level 9. For extra fun, take a couple levels in Sublime Chord followed by levels in prestige classes that advance casting “as if you’d gained a level,” choosing Sublime Chord as your previous class to advance.
Virtuoso (Song and Silence) – Automatically gives you all of the (core) bardic music effects. You still can’t use them until you have enough Perform ranks, but this means you don’t have to worry about finding another way to advance your music knowledge so you can get to Inspire Greatness. The Virtuoso also “gains new spells per day and spells known as if she had gained a level in a spellcasting class she belonged to before adding the prestige class.”
Heartfire Fanner (Dragon Magazine #314) – Grant feats to your allies through the power of your songs. Also, you can pick an ally under the effects of your Inspire Courage to get a little extra oomph to attack and AC. Full casting and music progression. An excellent choice. I’d probably move on after the third level — once you get the Inspire Courage boost.
Heartwarder (Faiths and Pantheons) – Inherent bonus to Charisma, untyped bonus to Charisma-related checks and an Inspire Courage-like kiss. Unfortunately, this class does not advance bardic music, so be wary. Excellent for some social-oriented campaigns, considering the bonuses to everything you need as a party face.
Dread Pirate (Complete Adventurer) – There’s another version in Song and Silence, but it’s nowhere near as good, especially if you’re a bard. This prestige class offers an Inspire Courage-like ability, Rally the Crew, that stacks with Inspire Courage.
Seeker of the Song (Complete Arcane) – You gain bonuses to AC, bonuses to saves and/or Damage Reduction while singing. Pretty nifty, but for maximum optimization I’d suggest sticking around for two levels to pick up Combine Songs, which lets you use two bardic music effects at once. You’ll also be getting a 6d6 high-DC Reflex save-to-halve attack.
Swiftblade (here) – If you really like being fast, go for it. While this is probably the least optimum prestige class choice presented here, combining this with two levels of Seeker of the Song and taking the full progression of Swiftblade will allow you to do a lot of nasty things with that extra action haste grants you. Of course, if this was 3.0, you wouldn’t have to worry about taking nine levels in Swiftblade to get that extra action…
So, as you can see, there’s a lot of ways you can take this. No one choice is correct (except Words of Creation! That’s ALWAYS right!). If I were to make a fully optimized, music-focused bard through 20 levels, this is what its class progression and feat choices would look like:
Race: Silverbrow Human (Races of the Dragon)
Alignment: Chaotic Good or Neutral Good
Level 1: Bard. Feats: Dragonfire Inspiration (Dragon Magic), Nymph’s Kiss (Book of Exalted Deeds)
Level 2: Bard.
Level 3: Bard. Feat: Song of the Heart (Eberron Campaign Setting)
Level 4: Bard.
Level 5: Bard.
Level 6: Bard. Words of Creation (Book of Exalted Deeds)
Level 7: Bard.
Level 8: Bard.
Level 9: Virtuoso. Feat: Melodic Casting (Complete Mage). As a Virtuoso, you know all the bardic music effects you’ll need. As long as you keep pumping ranks into perform, you’ll be able to do pretty much everything a bard of the same level can do, plus much, much more.
Level 10: Virtuoso.
Level 11: Sublime Chord.
Level 12: Sublime Chord. Feat: Lingering Song (Complete Adventurer).
Level 13: Virtuoso. Don’t forget: choose to advance the casting of Sublime Chord. You have a wider spell selection and you can get Level 9 spells.
Level 14: Virtuoso.
Level 15: Virtuoso. Feat: Draconic Aura (Senses) (Dragon Magic). Initiative rolls win and lose battles at high levels, so granting you and your allies a big bonus is awesome. Also, it’s very important for a music-focused bard to act early in the initiative count to be most effective.
Level 16: Virtuoso.
Level 17: Virtuoso.
Level 18: Virtuoso. Feat: Doomspeak (Champions of Ruin). You’ll have to plan ahead to get the 8 ranks in Intimidate, but this is an incredible feat. Your enemy takes -10 to pretty much everything that matters.
Level 19: Virtuoso.
Level 20: Virtuoso.
And that’s how I’d build a bard out to master hearts and minds.
In case you caster bards are feeling left out, here’s a quick 20-level progression for you:
Race: Silverbrow Human
Alignment: Chaotic Good
Levels 1-6: Bard. Feats: Dodge, Mobility, Melodic Casting (Complete Mage), Versatile Spellcaster (Races of the Dragon)
Levels 7-8: Lyric Thaumaturge (Complete Mage).
Levels 9-10: Sublime Chord (Complete Arcane). Feat: Spell Focus (Enchantment).
Levels 11-20: Heartwarder (Faiths and Pantheons). Feats: Extend Spell, Lyric Spell (Complete Adventurer), Words of Creation (if you don’t know where to find this by now, I don’t even know what to say to you).
I’m sure there’s a case to be made that one or both of these builds should’ve included some Heartfire Fanner, but that’s the fun of the bard: so many flavors, so many flavors!
That’s all for now. Until next week, stay smart, stay safe and don’t not take Words of Creation.