Bardzilla III: Increased Strength Through Jazzercise (Or, Optimizing Music)

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.

"Hah?! What's that?" "WORDS OF CREATION, FOO."

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)

"Wait, you think Words of Creation is good?!"

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.

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About Cards 'n' Dice

Cam is a senior journalism and English double major at St. Bonaventure University who was perfectly happy as a nerd strictly of the word variety until Connor persuaded him to try Magic: the Gathering. It was a slippery slope from there to D&D, Sunkist sodas and crack cocaine. My interests tend toward the technical aspects of these games, but we'll see where this blog goes. View all posts by Cards 'n' Dice

6 responses to “Bardzilla III: Increased Strength Through Jazzercise (Or, Optimizing Music)

  • Keld Denar

    Do note that Virtuoso was reprinted in Complete Adventurer (a 3.5 source, as opposed to Song and Silence’s 3.0 source). They changes bardic music a LOT from 3.0 to 3.5, including the whole “gives you ALL bardic music as long as you have the ranks in perform) thing. It also loses a caster level at 1st. In general, if you are playing 3.5, you often can’t use 3.0 sources, ESPECIALLY those that have been reprinted in more recent sources.

    Also, Words of Creation walks a funny line. On one side, its straight up too strong. Your DM will probably have a heart attack if you drop a +10 or greater IC, and DFI makes it REALLY REALLY REALLY hard to balance encounters. On the other side, it also imposes RP restrictions on the character. Don’t get me wrong, I like playing good heroic heroes, but losing feats because you forgot to hug 3 orphans today is crappy. [Exalted] status isn’t just being good. Its being Good+++. Those two reasons are reason enough for me, and a lot of people, not to take the feat.

    Also, you forgot about an item that increases IC. The Badge of Valor from the MIC can be activated as an immediate action 3/day and increases the strength of any running IC by +1. Also, the Vest of Legends from the DMG is the “Practiced Spellcaster” for bardic music, allowing you to make up 5 levels of lost music progression. Kinda pricy though, but worth it!

    • Gabe the Bard

      Personally, I think using a Badge of Valor with your next immediate action so you can combine it with Inspirational Boost is a bit cheesy. I mean, it may work RAW since it’s activation takes an immediate action, but that’s probably not how it was intended to be used. After all, the Badge does have that other ability which allows you to increase your saving throws against fear and charm effects.

      In higher level games, if your bard has a way to cast quickened spells or uses a lot of swift/immediate spells like Greater Mirror Image and Ruin Delver’s Fortune, your swift and immediate actions become much more important. I would rather cast Quickened Haste than Inspirational Boost on the first round.

      • Cards 'n' Dice

        Thanks for the feedback!

        When it comes to coupling the Badge with Boost, I advise checking with your DM ahead of time. Many will frown on such shenanigans, so you’d better let him know what’s coming — so he can prepare for it, if not ban it.

        P.S.: Mmm, Quickened Haste…

    • Cards 'n' Dice

      First off, thanks for commenting!

      Good catch on Virtuoso. I thought I might’ve seen it somewhere else, but I couldn’t quite remember where.

      While the lost caster level and incomplete music list in the update is an unfortunate hit, I still like using the build I’ve posted, of course with a boost from Vest of Legends.

      While the Exalted mechanic can provide roleplaying challenges, I aim to provide optimization choices for bards. I hope players willing to use such powerful abilities are willing to step up their game RP-wise. Besides, if you plan on playing a bard, I feel you should probably be ready for an RP-intensive character as it is. Bard is a great class for flavor.

      • T.G. Oskar

        Well…considering that Bard 9/Virtuoso 1/Sublime Chord 2/Virtuoso 8 is the bread-and-butter Sublime Chord build…it’s definitely a solid build, after all, and it’s mostly a caster build. Usually, the idea is to stock up on utility spells and play the Bard as a Sorcerer with a much larger spell list (adding 4th-9th Sorcerer/Wizard spells to your Bard spells for purposes of wands/scrolls/staffs), which means using spells that have lots of uses. For example: Disintegrate is awesome as an utility spell, since it does much more than attack (such as…say, disintegrate walls and the like). And of course, use stuff like Polymorph, Shapechange, Gate and the like.

        Hadn’t heard much of Heartfire Fanner, though. Nor of Heartwarder. I know I’ve seen them (related to Sune?) but never paid much attention to them.

        On the other hand, it’s a shame that so little of Lyric Thaumaturge is used. Granted, it’s a bit hard to enter early, but 5 levels could do quite a lot (and all 10 levels do even more). It seems like such a natural entry for a Sublime Chord build, but unfortunately you don’t get 3rd-4th level extra slots and added spells unless you invest on 6 levels. Sonic Might is lovely, though, if used correctly, but it usually implies getting the highest possible sonic spell to make it worthwhile. Maybe Energy Substitution (sonic)…wait, that’s not available. Otherwise, it would have been pretty interesting, since sonic spells are quite effective given that they are one of the least-resisted spells (aside from acid spells).

        I think that there should be a fourth installment speaking of which Bard PrCs NOT to take. I’d heartily support that, and offer Dirgesinger to the fray; as explained somewhere else, it sacrifices 3/5ths of the bardic experience (spellcasting, 6+Int skills, good skill selection including UMD) for 2/5ths of a selection that simply doesn’t compare (3/4ths BAB which would have worked better with Warchanter and the songs which are a tad disappointing). Seeker of the Song would have been similar in that regard if it weren’t because of Subvocalizing, and Warchanter is actually nice if you manage to focus quite a bit on the warrior side, but it’s a double-edge sword (you sacrifice the good buffing spells for rage, intimidate, and better BAB options; arguably the latter would be decent if played correctly with a bunch of hirelings or low BAB characters, but that isn’t enough to save it).

        Aside from that, pretty interesting. Thinking of a similar guide for Paladins? Don’t tell me you got some issues with them (it’d break my heart to hear so).

  • Keld Denar

    There is no shananigans with the badge and Inspirational Boost stacking. On your turn, you cast the spell (swift), start your IC (standard), and then dance in a circle (move). Then you end your turn. Once it’s no longer your turn, any immediate actions you take draw from the swift action of your NEXT turn. So…immediately after your turn, activate your Badge of Valor. Sure, you can’t cast a swift action spell in the next round of combat, but its totally worth it from about 1-10. Once Sublime Chord kicks in, you’ll have more important things to do than putting up IC…like telling the laws of physics to sit down and shut up. Its still an option, but you now have 4th and 5th level spells drawing your attention. Its certainly less “overpowered” than Words of Creation is simply because of the action cost.

    Thats the glory of Sublime Chord. At low-mid levels, Inspire Courage is AMAZING. It simply is. Its THE best Bard song printed, and the most heavily supported with suppliments. Halfway optimized IC makes hard combats managable, and moderate combats trivial. It does start losing its appeal when foes start getting much harder though. Instead of throwing up IC first, you spend your round casting a Solid Fog to mire 2 foes for 2 rounds, or Otto’s the 60′ tall giant, or do any number of things that high level spellcasters do. The glorious thing is, when IC stops being the best thing in the world, Sublime Chord magically transmutes you into a Sorcerer-1 and you are relevant again. Its almost like rerolling as a 10th Sorcerer when you get to level 11, except with more skill points and some decent class abilities.

    Regarding your response to Words of Creation…I hate mechanics determining my RP. If you want to play an evangelist bard who always says “gesundheit” when someone sneezes, its fine. If you want to be a rakish scoundrel who’s out to rig the deck, fix the dice, and extend his own reputation because it means his glass and bed will never be empty, then the [Exalted] lifestyle isn’t for you. Remember, [Exalted] isn’t just good, its Good+++, and comes with a clause that the DM can take it away at ANY time if you fail to live up to the standard. That strikes me as less manditory than your quote of: “That’s all for now. Until next week, stay smart, stay safe and don’t not take Words of Creation.”

    Also, your guide completely fails to mention the oft cited Mindbender (CArcane) dip. Telepathy 100′ radius is incredibly useful. On top of opening up the Mindsight (Lords of Madness) feat to ensure that you are NEVER surprised by intelligent invisible foes again, you can theoretically “perform” in your allies heads (since they can “hear” you in their head, the only requirement to be affected by BM) which negates the fact that BM is a huge neon sign that says “Adventures here!”. Then there’s making a quick knowledge check, casting Glibness, and manifesting in some stupid humanoid’s head as the voice of his god, which can lead to all kinds of shananigans. 1 level gives you 2 good saves (fort/will), +1 spellcasting, and the above mentioned Telepathy 100′. Thats worth being set back one level of BM to me.

    One last thing. Your sample build advocates taking Melodic Casting at 9th. It should be taken at 1st for nearly any build. This does 2 things. First of all, it negates the need to stop singing at low levels when your songs/day are extremely limited. You can sometimes stretch a song out for 2 or more encounters. Sure, you can’t speak (unless you can rhyme everything you want to say), but you can still cast spells and activate wands and items to handle any between combat healing or activities your group might require of you. Secondly, this negates the need to dump a lot of points into Concentration at any level. There is almost nothing you’ll need Concentration for as a Bard that Melodic Casting doesn’t give you for Perform. This frees up 1 skill point per level to spend on something that you’ll actually find useful…like a Knowledge skill or those pesky prereqs for Sublime Chord (Profession: Astronomy WTF?). Its more efficient across the board, but especially at low levels like the 4-8 range when you have some really game changing 2nd and 3rd level spells like Glitterdust, Haste, and Fear.

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