Bards are often the swiss army knives of Fantasy TTRPGs. Want to be a melee fighter, rapier drawn, dashing up into combat? We have a Bard for that! Want to stay on the fringes of battle, dishing out spells both sarcastic and biting, while avoiding scrapes at all costs? We have a Bard for that! Do you want to mix it up, steel and spell both, while inspiring your allies? We have a Bard for that, too! The Bard class is one of extreme versatility, and so far, we’re just talking combat.
When it comes to roleplay, there’s even more directions to go in. Is your Bard a persuader with a silver tongue, ready to sell a bartender their bottles right back to them for double the price? Or do they intimidate, with a minor key at hand and a somber tale of regret, in order to get a set of assassins off their tail?
This class is versatility in a bottle. Depending on what your goal is as a player, the Bard can accomplish it and then some. Which begs the question: if Bards can do anything and be anything, then what are the things that make a Bard a capital-B Bard? If you can learn any spell from any class list, then what are THE spells that are essential for any Bard, regardless of the type you’re playing? We’re going to break it down, from cantrips to once-a-day arcane calamities.
Before we do, let’s agree on what a Bard is: an adventurer whose power usually comes from stories and performance, (note “usually”). How is entirely up to you; singing, dancing, dissing, rapping, rhyming, percussion, discussion, dictation, intimidation, Broadway tunes, jazz-and-blues, it’s up to you!
But what that means is that so much of your magic is about storytelling. About words and their power, charming and dazzling others through misdirection, beguiling blades out of the hands of enemies, and bolstering your friends with inspiration and knowledge. However else you play your Bard, those things tend to remain the same across the Bardic lineage.
The spells below all have to do with that sense of language and play, with magic that misleads and allows your Bard to maybe reveal new information, trip up enemies, and possibly maneuver that very tough encounter your DM had planned into a roleplaying moment . . . at least until the spell wears off.
Vicious Mockery (Combat/Roleplay)
So, why not Hideous Laughter? First, we love a cantrip in this house. Anything that can help turn the tide of a battle that doesn’t burn a spell slot? We’ll take it. Secondly, as we’ll see with the other spells on this list, Vicious Mockery is a perfect blend of roleplaying and functionality. Doing damage, imposing disadvantage on an attack, and playing up part of your Bard’s personality at the same time? That’s a beautiful combination. Especially when you get to play with how exactly they deliver this mockery. Dad jokes? Sarcastic sonnets? Disdainful commentary? I once watched a Bard-playing friend mock a Fire Giant to death over his mismatched outfit. Truly devastating.
If you want to mess with an opponent, show off how your Bard spits venom with the best of them, and still have a bonus action to grant inspiration, then Vicious Mockery is the one to roll with.
Charm Person (Social)
Another quintessential Bard spell, and most likely the one people think of first when it comes to your storyteller. While first level, Charm Person never loses it’s, well, charm. Every “How to Build Your Bard,” says to include this spell in your arcane arsenal and there’s a good reason why. In your early adventures, Charm Person is going to solve more problems than it’s going to create, (usually). I’m not a fan of “the person with the highest Charisma needs to be the face of the group” mentality, but I am someone that encourages smart play. And if you’re the only person who has Charm Person and that one city guard is getting suspicious, well, time to push the Bard to the front!
I also think the fun of Charm Person is not that it’s an auto-success, but in that it makes this one person YOUR friend for the duration. Again, it’s a chance to flex your roleplaying and scootch potential combat out of the way, at least for a little bit. And it can show your party, especially early on in the game, how your Bard cajoles or persuades others. Is it a gentle strum of a guitar or the high trill of a flute? Is it an ASMR-like whisper into someone’s ears? Is it just eye contact and a wink, verbal components be damned? Every chance you get to express what kind of character you’re playing while being helpful is narrative candy.
A bit more to-the-point than Charm Person, this second level spell plays into your charisma, your wordplay, and making friends a bit more directly. The benefit here is that just like making a genie’s wish, if you word your request carefully you could be in a much better position than using Charm Person. While the previous spell lasts for an hour, Suggestion can last up to 8 hours and doesn’t alarm the person after casting. If you fail, sure, you’ll probably be in hot water. But if you succeed, you gain an ally for 8 hours who is open to any reasonable request.
Could you tell someone to watch the dungeon door while you explore, and to sway passersby from coming in? Absolutely. Could you ask the major domo of the campaign’s villain to cease fighting you and tell no one you were ever here? Sure can!
It can take a little planning but if you use your silver tongue well, there are very few who won’t follow a little suggestion.
Hypnotic Pattern (Combat/Utility)
A combat spell, finally! Sort of. Okay, fine, maybe not. But it does help in combat!
This is the first major visual spell we’ve come across and while it doesn’t do any damage, if done well, you’ve got a 30 foot space to capture the minds and hearts (okay fine, hypnotize) many enemies all at once. At this level, your spell save DC should be robust and Wisdom is not the highest stat for your run of the mill goons.
Having this spell ready to bust out is essential to the Bard’s toolkit. Remember, the people affected by this become incapacitated. That means they can do nothing but become lost in the pattern before them, be they shapes, colors, vibrations, old movies, however you express your magic. That gives people a chance to heal up, disengage, get in position, or just straight up get the hell out of dodge.
You can make a fighting Bard or you can make a supporting Bard, but at their heart, a Bard helps control the battlefield. Hypnotic Pattern makes it so that if you can’t cajole or threaten your way out of a tough situation, you’re prepared to take control when blades are drawn.
There is no worse feeling in a roleplaying game then when you can’t communicate. Especially if the person on the other end doesn’t speak any language your party knows, has leveled a massive spear at you, and you’re six seconds away from being skewered. Tongues, like many spells on this list, is a way to level the playing field. The ability to speak and be understood by any being that speaks any language can be a godsend, especially if it lets you escape combat or a tough scenario. And while other classes can learn Tongues, giving the person who most likely has a +10 to Persuasion at this point in your adventure the ability to be understood and advocate for the party is incredible.
To be heard and understood on any level is always a deeply heartfelt experience, and often the beings we think of as monstrous or malicious maybe just haven’t been heard yet. Being a Bard doesn’t mean just telling your own stories, it means helping to tell the stories of others, too. Tongues can help you do that.
Legend Lore (Utility)
Get in, we’re going to speed-dial God and ask a question about the universe.
I love Legend Lore for a few different reasons. As a player, I love having the chance to say, “I know how to find out exactly what we need, right now.” As a Game Master, I love being surprised; it never matters if I’ve got the lore or not for a certain item, location, person, it always comes as a surprise and I lean into it. And in-game, for a Bard especially, I love that it is the ultimate purpose of a Bard made manifest through a spell: to learn of, and to tell, a story.
Clerics cast this and may learn from their god. Wizards cast this and may plumb the depths of the universe. But when Bards cast this, I see them sidle across the bar, buy the universe a drink, and say, “C’mon, it’s just me. You can trust me. If you tell me the story, I promise I’ll get it right.” It is literally asking the universe to reveal something precious and unknown, of legendary importance the spell specifies, and being trusted with that information.
This is a quintessential Bard spell to me. Like the others on this list, it has panache and style, it emphasizes roleplay/story over conflict, it can help control a situation spiraling into chaos, and it embraces storytelling over all else.
The highest-level spell on this list, Glibness is the magical equivalent of strapping a charm-based nuke onto your Bard and trotting them into practically any situation with an overwhelming ability to either defuse or inflame whatever it is you’ve gotten yourself into. And with the ability to cast this exactly once a day, when you could use your eighth level spell to do a considerable amount of anything else, you’d best be ready to talk for your life.
Casting this gives you a single hour of turning anything you say into the truth. Literally. Any magic that is used to determine if you’re telling the truth doesn’t fail; it literally tells the person casting it that you are, indeed, speaking the truth. In a way, whenever you trick a Cleric who’s casting Zone of Truth, you basically punked their god into believing you. Now, if that isn’t what level 8 spells are for, then I quit.
But the real meat and potatoes of this spell is that it makes any Charisma based skills bulletproof against even the keenest of eyes and sharpest of minds. Turning anything you roll on the die into a 15 at this level? Most Bard builds will have Expertise in at least ONE out of the four Charisma based skill checks. The quick math on that is at a presumed +5 for Charisma and +10 for your Expertise, you’re already rolling +15 to at least one Charisma check. Which means Glibness, combined with one of those, means that you’ll be rolling a bare minimum of 30. THIRTY.
To all the DMs out there with a Bard who can cast Glibness, I salute you. Goodbye to your encounters when a Glib Persuasion check will make a friend of any angel and any Glib Intimidation will make that high-ranking fiend think twice about incinerating the Bard and their party.
Now, natural 20s happen, and it may be possible to see through the powerful words of a Bard with Glibness. But I encourage all DMs and GMs to roll with the dice, cheer on your Bard’s monologue, and celebrate the big spells. They can be a high for you as much as for the player!