I haven’t done one of these in a while, so it’s time to get back to my basics. With the Core Four and the Druid accomplished, let’s take a look at everyone’s least-favorite class: the Bard.
Bards had a brief appearance in The Strategic Review magazine, but didn’t enter the game full-time until first edition AD&D. There, they had to meet an inane amount of criteria—five levels of fighting-man, then dual-classing to thief, then dual-classing again to druid before ninth level, and then they could take levels in Bard—making Bards something like the first prestige class. All this dual-classing made them inherently powerful, keeping their thief and fighter abilities, along with druidic spells (and the ability to cast those without needing to be neutral).
Second Edition AD&D brought them down to a sub-class of thief, but again, one of the most powerful classes in the game: they could use most (if not all) weapons, had some thieving skills, had spellcasting as if they were a mage three levels below their Bard level, and could wear decent armor (as long as they didn’t want to cast spells). They also acquired Bardic Lore, which was a simplified identify spell, and had Bardic Music, which was mostly low stat buffs. Second Ed bards were capable second-line fighters, had potent spellcasting, and Bardic abilities that were pretty slick. It was a powerful class, though not as brutal as in first edition.
Third Edition started the grand tradition of watering down the Bard into a true jack of all trades (compare the 3.0 Bard with the AD&D classes the game designers advised DMs not to allow). Bards were average in everything, had a slow-progression spell list that was very short but combined aspects of clerics and wizards. 3.5 expanded the Bard’s impressive skill list, and gave it the ability to cast spells in light armor, something nobody else can do. Their Bardic music, which gave sliding-scale stat-buffs and condition removal, now improved as the Bard’s level went up.
Pathfinder keeps the Bard mostly intact from 3.5. Their bardic performances saw sliding-scale increases per level (again), and they became much more versatile in their skills-use… though those mostly applied to Perform skills.
Fourth Edition, on the other hand, put them as an arcane caster in the Leader and Controller roles. Leader is a shoe-in—Bards have always been about making others better via their performance—and Controller takes the class back to its AD&D roots, having a potent and versatile spell list. To keep their jack-of-all-trades nature intact, they can take multiclass feats from anybody; additionally they can cast spells related to their performance abilities.
Originally, Bards needed Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma, related to their thieving, casting, and singing respectively. Nowadays, Bardic spellcasting, performance, and most skill abilities are based on their Charisma, though Dex and Int are still for boosting skills.
Role within the party
The Bard is an odd duck to pin down. Their wide range of skills makes them an obvious choice for skill monkey, though one slightly less flexible than a Rogue. Their Bardic Music works as a capable buff across all levels, thanks to its gradual improvements; Pathfinder makes this feature even more useful. In general, the Bard is the character who can do things others can’t, and works in a support role until their services are needed.
Firstly? They can cast spells in light armor! Other arcane classes need to take feats before they can do that. They have a huge selection of skills, plus average hit die and two good saves. Bardic Music can buff, counterspell, and even confuse/fascinate groups of enemies. Their spell list combines solid spells from both the cleric and wizard spell lists. They are arcane casters who can heal, have a number of solid class abilities like bardic knowledge and performance, and make excellent faces or skill-monkeys. Did I mention casting spells not just in armor, but with a shield?
Jacks of all trades are masters of none. Their spell progression is slow, they don’t get the flashy high-level spells, and as a spontaneous caster their spell picks are locked in place to a greater or lesser extent: meaning their low-level spells will be pretty useless after a while. The average Bard is not a good combat class because of their low health, AC, and damage output. Also: since the Bard’s whole shtick is related to noise and music, they’re affected even more by silence since it negates any of their singing/countersong abilities.
The Bard is very versatile, but not very competitive: it can do anything another class can do, but cannot surpass any one class without severe optimization, and even then, they’ll be further behind the other classes whose job Bards can do. They have great buffs, but they have different applications from what Clerics get, and don’t have all the high-damage spells and save-or-sucks Wizards can pick from. They’re terrible damage-dealers compared to Rogues and Fighters, leaving them around on par with Clerics, only the Cleric can trudge around in splint with a tower shield.
There’s still a use for the Bard, especially with its stacking buffs and Performance tricks, but in 3.5 and Pathfinder, it’s often considered a dead class because of its diminished impact: a Bard can’t hope to leave their mark on a game unless it’s heavy on roleplaying and singing competitions. That isn’t exactly correct, but it’s a lot of baggage the class needs to overcome.