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DnD 5e - Bard Spell List Breakdown

Last Updated: March 11th, 2020

Disclaimer

I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.

  • Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
  • Green: Good options.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.

I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.

Introduction

The Bard's spell list borrows a lot from the Wizard and a few options from the Cleric, but with a distinct focus on support spells, illusions, and enchantments. While the Bard does get some healing options like Cure Wounds and Healing Word, they don't get the full range of non-hp healing options required to fully replace a cleric.

This article is a perpetual work-in-progress. Please check back periodically as I add assessments for more spells.

Bard Spells

This is not a comprehensive guide to every available spell, as that would be an exercise in madness. The following is a brief compilation of the most notable spells available to the class. Spells available via Magic Initiate are also excluded; for suggestions for Magic Initiate, see the "Feats" section, above.

Cantrips

  • FriendsPHB: This is hard to use. 1 minute is not a lot of time, and you generally need to put distance between yourself and the subject of the spell before they turn hostile. You could use this to intimidate a creature into fleeing, but in most cases you'll probably be using this quickly talk your way past a creature blocking your way like a guard at a gate. You generally won't need this; between high Charisma and a long list of skill proficiencies it's easy to cover all of the Face skills.
  • Minor IllusionsPHB: Not quite as broadly useful as Prestidigitation, but it allows for all sorts of interesting shenanigans.
  • PrestidigitationPHB: Whenever you want to do something small and magical that's not covered by another spell, it's usually covered by prestidigitation. This spell is exceptionally versatile. For suggestions on how to use Prestidigitation to its fullest, see my Practical Guide to Prestidigitation.
  • ThunderclapEEPC / XGtE: Damaging every creature within 5 feet of you is great if you're in melee facing numerous enemies. Even with Extra Attack you will deal more damage with this against three or more foes than you could with a weapon. See my article on Melee Cantrips vs. Extra Attack for a breakdown of the math comparing melee cantrip spells to normal martial attacks.
  • Vicious MockeryPHB: Easily the most iconic bard spell, Vicious Mockery is unique, flavorful, and mechanically fantastic. It is the only cantrip which deals psychic damage, and it adds a helpful debuff.

1st-Level Spells

  • Comprehend LanguagesPHB: You can't learn every language in 5e. It's simply not possible. Eventually you will want to replace this with Tongues, but Comprehend Languages does fine until then.
  • Cure WoundsPHB: More healing than Healing Word, but the action economy is considerably worse. Save this for when you need hit points and you're either out of hit dice or don't have time to rest.
  • Detect MagicPHB: Someone needs to have it in every party.
  • Dissonant WhispersPHB: Surprisingly good crowd control. This only requires verbal components, so you can use it while grappled to force the creature grappling you to run away. The damage isn't spectacular, but honestly you don't need it to be.
  • Faerie FirePHB: The lowest-level option to deal with invisible creatures, and Advantage on attacks against creatures which fail their save means that this remains a powerful support option well into high levels, especially against bug bulky enemies with high AC but poor Dexterity saves. Hopefully you won't run into any invisible creatures at 1st level, but but it's important to have some way to deal with invisibility just in case.
  • Feather FallPHB: You don't need to get this at 1st level, but eventually you'll want it. You may only use it a couple times in your character's whole career, but when you do it will save someone's life.
  • Healing WordPHB: More important than Cure Wounds, especially at low levels. As a bonus action you can heal an unconscious ally enough to get them back into the fight, and you still have your action for Vicious Mockery.
  • HeroismPHB: At low levels where your tank might only have 12 hp and enemies are only doing something like 5 damage per turn, this is a big enough buff to win a fight for you. At higher levels it will be less appealing due to the Concentration requirement, but it will always remain a solid use of a 1st-level spell. Compare it to Cure Wounds: Cure Wounds will heal at most 11 hp (1d8+Cha with a +3 Charisma modifier). If you have 16 Charisma and can keep Heroism running for four rounds you can prevent up to 12 damage and still have 6 levels to enjoy the spell. When you use higher-level spell slots Heroism continues to outpace Cure Wounds. At 2nd-level, Cure Wounds heals 2d8+Cha (maximum 19 with 16 Charisma), while Heroism can prevent 18 hit points of damage in just three rounds, then continue functioning for another 7 rounds. Remember the old adage: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
  • LongstriderPHB: Even with a hour-long duration, this isn't especially appealing. Movement in 5e is really easy, and you can use other options to get away from enemies or to get enemies away from you.
  • SleepPHB: At an average of 22.5 hp worth of creatures, you won't be able to affect many creatures while they're at full hit points, but you can wait to wear down their hit points before finishing them off with Sleep. Sleep notably doesn't require a saving throw, making it a powerful and reliable way to incapacitate with relatively few hit points even at high levels.
  • Tasha's Hideous LaughterPHB: Single-target save-or-suck. It won't work on unintelligent creatures, but otherwise you can easily compare this to Hold Monster. Both have the same duration, require Concentration, and allow Wisdom saving throws both to resist the initial effect and to end the effect at the end of the target's turn. Paralysis is a more lethal effect, but if you just need a creature to sit out of combat for a while they're functionally interchangeable.
  • :

2nd-Level Spells

  • Blindness/DeafnessPHB: A 1-minute duration is usually longer than an encounter. Targeting big melee enemies seems like an obvious use, but the best targets for this are actually enemies who rely on spellcasting. Many spells simply don't function if the caster can't see the target, and the Constitution save is more effective against relatively frail enemies like spellcasters.
  • Cloud of DaggersPHB: It's hard to guarantee that this will deal damage unless you have a good way to keep an enemy in the area of effect. An ally who likes to grapple will work, but that's hard to guarantee, and it's an extra point of failure. The damage will roll reliably because it's spread over multiple small dice, but even then the damage won't be great unless you can hold a single target in the area for several rounds. If you want single-target damage, go for something with more damage up front. If you want area control, go for something with a bigger area.
  • Crown of MadnessPHB: This spell is borderline unusable. The creature must attack before it moves, so you may be able to make it attack an ally once immediately after the spell is cast, but it retains control over its movement so it's free to walk away from its allies. On top of that, you need to spend your own action to maintain the spell rather than simply concentrating, so you're eating your own turns for the remote chance that the target will wander up to another of its allies.
  • Heat MetalPHB: Against enemies in metal armor, this is absolutely horrific. The target doesn't get a save to resist the effect, so they're trapped taking the damage unless the spell ends or they can resist fire damage. Even with a 2nd-level spell slot, you can do a total of 20d8 damage with this. Triggering the damage again as a bonus action means that you can cast this early in a fight and slowly wear down the victim. Even the scaling is great; an extra d8 per spell slot level doesn't seem like much, but remember that you're getting up to 10 times that extra damage. Even at 20th level, against an enemy in metal armor I would consider Heat Metal as a 9th-level spell to be a go-to option. Admittedly this option is situational because it requires an enemy with metal equipment, but it's a situation that occurs frequently.
  • Hold PersonPHB: You can get most of the same benefits from Tasha's Hideous Laughter.
  • InvisibilityPHB: An essential scouting and infiltration tool, and as you get higher-level spell slots you can affect more of your party.
  • KnockPHB: The primary reason to have proficiency with Thieves' Tools is to handle locks. Knock doesn't require a check. It just works. Make aggressive eye contact with your party's rogue while you cast this just to rub it in.
  • Lesser RestorationPHB: Situational, but a situation that comes up often. If you don't have a cleric in the party you may be the only one with access to this spell, so you'll want to take it at some point.
  • Locate ObjectPHB: Too situational, and too easy to counter. Anyone with any knowledge of magic that's trying to hide something will wrap it in lead.
  • Phantasmal ForcePHB: Adventuring tends to involve running into a lot of things that aren't very smart. Beasts, ogres, etc. all have terrible Intelligence saves. This spell is a great counter to those creatures, and its flexible nature gives you a lot of room to really mess with the target. Unfortunately, it also requires that your DM be creative enough to simulate how a creature would respond to whatever nonsense you come up with. If your DM has trouble with illusions, this spell may not work out well for you.
  • PyrotechnicsEEPC / XGtE: Not always useful, but always an option. The amount of flame required to use the spell is unspecific, so as far as I can tell you can use something as small as a candle. Use Mage Hand to float a torch or something over to where you want the effect, then hit it with Pyrotechnics.
  • See InvisibilityPHB: With a 1-hour duration and no concentration requirement, See Invisibility is a great way to handle invisible creatures.
  • ShatterPHB: Decent AOE damage at range.
  • SilencePHB: Verbal components are extremely common in spells, including many that spellcasters frequently use to escape dangerous situations. If you can trap an enemy spellcaster in place (such as by having an ally grapple them) and drop Silence around them, they're usually trapped with no hope of escape.
  • SuggestionPHB: Flexible with a long duration, but it can be hard to spare 8 hours to concentrate on Suggestion while you're actively adventuring and the subject might be off somewhere not demanding your attention.
  • Warding WindEEPC / XGtE: A decent buff for melee bards. Making the area around you difficult terrain makes it hard for enemies to move toward or away from you, and disadvantage on ranged weapon attacks keeps enemies with ranged weapons from picking you off from afar while you're closing the distance.

3rd-Level Spells

  • Bestow CursePHB: The effects are versatile enough that you can easily bring this into play in a variety of situations, and the scaling mechanism works well enough that this remains a viable option for higher-level spell slots. Use the third option against big tanky enemies with poor Wisdom, or use the first option against enemies that like to grapple. If you're ever uncertain, use the third option. Robbing a creature of their turn on a failed saving throw is debilitating, and can take creatures almost completely out of a fight.
  • CatnapXGtE: A Short Rest is typically one hour. In most campaigns, that will be fine most of the time unless the DM is deliberately creating a time crunch which prevents resting or otherwise sitting about wasting time. In those cases you might be able to squeeze in a Catnap, but more than likely the 10 minute duration will still be problematic.
  • ClairvoyancePHB: With a 1-mile range and the ability to place the sensor in place you can't see, this is a fantastic way to safely scout dangerous places. If you have enough time to sit around and cast the spell repeatedly you can scout whole structures from the outside by gradually learning about more interior locations through previous castings.
  • Enemies AboundXGtE: Astoundingly few enemies have good Intelligence saves, especially big scary melee monsters. Throw this on something tanky and horrifying that's there to protect squishy enemies from you and your friends, and watch it freak out and kill its buddies for you. The duration is only a minute, and obviously this only works in an encounter with multiple enemies, but that doesn't make the spell less awesome.
  • Glyph of WardingPHB: I'm really glad WotC was smart enough to add a 200gp consumable material component to this spell. If they hadn't, I would solve far too many problems by delivering scrolls with a Glyph of Warding to hostile NPCs.
  • Hypnotic PatternPHB: AOE save or suck.
  • Leomund's Tiny HutPHB: Tiny Hut is a great place to rest, and if you have time to set it up it's a great defensive position.
  • Major ImagePHB: If you don't like to use illusions frequently, consider picking this up later when you can cast 6th-level spells so that you can create permanent illusions.
  • SendingPHB: Not especially glamorous, but messaging over massive distances has a number of uses. Also, due to the wording of the spell, you can use it on creatures that don't understand your speech and they'll still understand your meaning, allowing you to use Sending in place of Tongues if you only need to convey brief messages.
  • Stinking CloudPHB: Constitution-based save or suck in an AOE. Hypnotic Pattern may be more reliable, but you can still attack the targets of Stinking Cloud without breaking the effect.
  • TonguesPHB: You are almost certainly your party's Face, and language can present a serious barrier. You may not want to pick this up when you first get access to 3rd-level spells, but consider picking it up later when using a 3rd-level spell on a utility option is less daunting.

4th-Level Spells

  • Charm MonsterXGtE: A great nonlethal way to deal with enemies. It doesn't require that the target be able to understand you, but otherwise has the same complications which Charm Person does: the target is only friendly toward you, and when the spell ends they know that they were charmed.
  • CompulsionPHB: This is technically situational, but if you can get a group of enemies to all run one direction and bunch up against a wall or something, they're very easy to hit with a big AOE. You can't run them into something like a Wall of Fire, unfortunately.
  • ConfusionPHB: I've hated Confusion since 3rd edition. It's unpredictable, unreliable, and makes combat take twice as long as it would normally. It's great that it's an AOE, and you might be able to make creatures attack their allies, but there are too many points of failure for it to be a reliable option.
  • Dimension DoorPHB: Misty Step isn't on the Bard's spell list for whatever reason, and having a way to teleport out of a terrible situation (like ropes or a grapple) is extremely useful.
  • Freedom of MovementPHB: Nice, but situational. If you need to get yourself out of restraints or a grapple, cast Dimension Door.
  • Greater InvisibilityPHB: Invisibility in 5e is really good, and running around for a full minute being almost impossible to target is a huge advantage.
  • PolymorphPHB: Fantastic and versatile, but also very complicated. See my Practical Guide to Polymorph for detailed advice on how to get the most out of Polymorph.

5th-Level Spells

  • Animate ObjectsPHB: Provided that there is sufficient fodder for the spell, this can work in a variety of encounters. Tiny and Huge are notably the most lethal options, so generally you'll be animating one big thing or a bunch of tiny things. Suitable objects should be easy to find: even random debris should suffice. However, the duration is short is the animated objects are frail and don't get stronger as you gain levels, so you may want to retrain this after enjoying it for a few levels.
  • Dominate PersonPHB: If you don't face many humanoid enemies, this may not be worthwhile. But if you do, dominating an enemy and turning it into a temporary ally is very effective.
  • GeasPHB: This is too situational to spend a spell known. It's great for spellcasters like Clerics and Wizards, but it's usable too rarely to waste scant resources learning it in hopes that it will be useful someday.
  • Greater RestorationPHB: If you don't have a Cleric in the party, you need this.
  • Hold MonsterPHB:
  • Mass Cure WoundsPHB: You shouldn't need this. It doesn't do enough healing to justify the spell slot, so the best use case is to cast it when you have more than one ally at 0 hit points. If you reach that point, things have gone very seriously wrong. Healing Word is a much more efficient way to get people conscious, and considering how little healing you're getting out of Mass Cure Wounds your allies will probably go down again anyway if anything looks at them funny.
  • MisleadPHB: Situational. Not a great option in combat, but out of combat this provides a passably safe way to scout an area or to trick other creatures.
  • Raise DeadPHB: This is an odd thing to find on the Bard spell list. Death is part of the game, so eventually you'll need this, but it's no fun to spend one of your limited spells known on a spell you might cast once or twice ever.
  • Skill EmpowermentXGtE: Expertise for everyone! You won't be throwing this on the Fighter for them to shove or grapple everything they meet (you have better combat buffs), but you can put this on a character before sneaking, before an important social situation, before investigating something important, or basically any other time that there's an important skill check to be made and you have time to buff yourselves beforehand.
  • Synaptic StaticXGtE: Start with fireball. Shave 30 feet off the range, change the damage type to psychic, and change the saving throw to Intelligence. Very few creatures are good at intelligence saves, so expect most creatures to fail the save. The 8d6 damage feels underwhelming at this spell level, but subtracting a d6 from from attack rolls and ability checks for a full minute is a significant debuff. This is a good option to start a fight with a large number of martial enemies because they'll be impacted most by debuff and most martial enemies have poor Intelligence saves.

6th-Level Spells

  • EyebitePHB: A fantastic use of a spell slot: spend one spell slot, and every round for a minute you get to pick a creature and put it to sleep.
  • Mass SuggestionPHB: Tell a potential fight to go take a pleasant stroll somewhere far away.
  • Otto's Irresistible DancePHB: Hillarious, but Hold Monster is more effective, works on the same save, and has the same duration.
  • Programmed IllusionPHB: Situational, but really abusable. It's permament and resets on its own, so you can do all sorts of hillarious things with it to mess with other creatures. The 25gp material component is nothing by this level, so you can throw up programmed illusions all over the place for a pittance. As far as I can tell, you can cast the spell with otherlapping areas, so you could cast it three times to make the illusions trigger each other and have a perpetual illusion running. Unfortunately, the spell's language restricts what you can depict to "an object, a creature, or some other visible phenomenon", so you probably couldn't create a room of illusory guards. Still, you could have a permanent illusory bard playing a 15-minute loop of songs.
  • True SeeingPHB: Situational, but largely unbeatable in situations where it applies.

7th-Level Spells

  • EtherealnessPHB: A profoundly effective scouting/escape option. Unless you're fighting ethereal enemies, you're untouchable. You can see and hear into the material plane (albeit at limited distance), allowing you to spy on other creatures in person without their knowledge. The only problem is that the spell lasts 8 hours and you can't dismiss it, so you may need to cast Dispel Magic on yourself to end the effect.
  • ForcecagePHB: An absolutely amazing way to isolate either your party or your enemies. The duration is long enough to take a short rest, and there's no save for enemies to resist it. Have an ally drop an AOE damage over time spell like Hunger of Hadar, then drop a Force Cage on top of it and you're playing a magical game of "Will it Blend?".
  • Mirage ArcanePHB: This is a difficult spell. The affectable area is huge, the distance is Sight (go climb a mountain on a clear day), and the effects of the illusion are tangible enough that you can physically interact with them, including picking up sticks or stones. But it's unclear how far that goes: Can you burn the illusory wood to keep yourself warm? Can you smooth over difficult terrain in the same way that you can make smooth terrain difficult? Could you place stairs in the side of a clear cliff face? How far up and down does the effect stretch? The closest we have is these two tweets which indicate that you have a lot of leeway, and that the effects are real enough that a creature could drown in illusory water, brun in illusory lava, and climb illusory trees. Your DM will be the abiter of exactly what you can get away with, but the spell itself is a wildly versatile toolbox.
  • Mordenkainen's Magnificent MansionPHB: In the real world, learning to cast this spell would mean that you could comfortably retire. Each day you would walk out of the mansion, cast the spell again to recreate the house for 24 hours, then you would return to your invisibile extraplanar abode to enjoy another 24 hours of abundant food, comfort, and nearly-invisible servants. The size of the mansion amounts to 5000 square feet, which is plenty to accomodate a part of adventurers and a sizeable retinue. The suggested 100 banquet guests would each have 50 square feet (a 5x10 area) of space to themselves, but a cleverly layed out mansion could easily turn that space into a large common area for feasting and a collection of small rooms with bunk beds for sleeping off a magical 9-course meal. However, in purely mechanical terms this is a spell that the Bard can't afford to learn. There are many less costly options for solving the same problems, and you're strictly limited in the number of spells which you can learn.
  • Mordenkainen's SwordPHB: This is an objectively bad spell. Compare it to Bigby's Hand, and it's pretty clear. Bigby's Hand isn't on the Bard spell list unfortunately, but that's what Magical Secrets is for.
  • Project ImagePHB: Mislead with a longer duration and better range. The language used to describe the copy's capabilities is nearly identical. The extra range makes it a bit more versatile, but it's still fairly situational.
  • RegeneratePHB: Too situational to select as a spellcaster with a limited number of spells known. DnD doesn't have injury rules which lead to limb removal except in very specific circumstances, so it's not like characters are losing fingers and toes despite spending potentially years being sliced and diced by all manny of oponents.
  • ResurrectionPHB: If you learned Raise Dead you might replace it with Resurrection, but I don't think Resurrection is a meaningful improvement over Raise Dead.
  • SymbolPHB: While many of the effects are wonderful, the inability to move the symbol and the high casting cost are prohibitive.
  • TeleportPHB: With a 10-foot range and up to 8 targets you can easily teleport your entire party, and without the need to hold hands and form a circle you can often rescue the whole party in the midst of combat without too much trouble. However, Teleport has a complicated mechanic related to how familiar you are with the target destination and there's often a possibility of mishap. Be sure to borrow a souvenire from new places so that you can easily return if necessary without the risk of a mishap.

8th-Level Spells

  • Dominate MonsterPHB: Arguably the best save-or-suck spell in the game. You can do a lot with perfect control over a creature for such a long period of time. Using the target as a thrall in combat is obviously tempting, but the target gets to repeat their saving throw every time that they take damage, so be very cautious if you choose to do so.
  • FeeblemindPHB: Wisdom-based and Charisma-based casters are extremely vulnerable to Feeblemind. Even creatures who cast spells as a supplement to their other abilities can be seriously inhibited by suddenly being less intelligent than many animals. Beyond limited spellcasting, I've always found this spell difficult to manage for other enemies. 1 Intelligence and 1 Charisma is obviously very poor, but what is the victim capable of? If they're a cleric, can they still cast spells? What are they smart enough to do in combat? There's a lot of room for the DM to interpret how this works, and while that could be fun it also makes the spell's effect totally dependent on the DM.
  • GlibnessPHB: Charisma checks include skills like Persuasion, but they also include thing like the ability checks for Counterspell and Dispel Magic. Throw this up before going into a fight with an enemy spellcaster and enjoy countering everything that they cast with minimal effort.
  • Mind BlankPHB: Situational, but hillarious if you have a Berserker Barbarian in the party.
  • Power Word StunPHB: Gambling on a creature's current hit point total is hard, especially since you get so few spell slots at this level, but if you can time this to hit a wounded enemy (or an enemy with a low hit point maximum like many spellcasters) it can take them out of the encounter long enough for you to win largely unopposed.

9th-Level Spells

  • ForesightPHB: This is, without a doubt, the best buff in the game. With an 8-hour duration you can throw it on the lucky recipient and watch them laugh their way through nearly any challenge for a full day worth of adventuring.
  • Mass PolymorphXGtE: You sacrifice the absolute power of True Polymorph for the ability to affect up to 10 creatures. The rules for handling creatures with no CR (your party) are written to make this really unappealing compared to True Polymorph. Compared to turning one ally into a CR 17+ dragon, turning up to 10 of your allies into Tyranosauruses (Tyranosaurs? Tyranosauri?) simply isn't as effective, even if the phrase "I turn us and our horses into tyranosauruses" is one of the coolect things I can think to say during a game. Tragically, the targets assume the beast's mental statistics, so turning your party of adventurers into toothy lizards may actually make them weaker.

    You can use the spell offensively and the targets don't get saving throws beyond the first, so turn your enemies into slugs or something and pitch them into the plane of fire or somewhere equally unpleasant.

  • Power Word HealPHB: Full healing and removing a bunch of status conditions in one spell is really tempting, but preventing all of that damage and all of those conditions wtih Foresight will work much better.
  • Power Word KillPHB: 100 hit points is a very low cap, but it's hard to argue with how effective it is to outright slay a creature with no rolls involved. As an example, a 20th-level wizard with 12 Constitution will have 102 hit points (6+19*4+20), so basically nothing which is scary at this level will be immediately vulnerable, but if your allies can deal a bunch of damage quickly you may be able to use this in round 1 of a fight.
  • Psychic ScreamXGtE: Intelligence saving throws tend to be poor, and this affects up to 10 creatures. The damage is decent, but it is absolutely not the primary appeal of the spell. It's the fact that you can make creatures' heads explode. Or if that's not appealing it's the ongoing Stun effect which again targets those low Intelligence saves. The stun has no limit on its duration, so creatures are stunned until they get a lucky roll, leaving your plenty of time to deal with them and their allies.
  • True PolymorphPHB: Powerful, versatile, and it lasts an hour. This is a spell that really rewards thorough knowledge of 5e's monsters, so go sit down with the Monster Manual etc. and do some reading. You'll want a go-to combat form at CR 17, 18, 19, and 20 for when you need to turn yourself or an ally into a monster, but you should also look for a good CR 9 in case you need to polymorph an object into a pet. Remember that the spell becomes permanent if you keep it running for an hour, so you can also use this to permanently turn yourself or someone else into a monster or a dragon or something. You'll lose all of your Warlock stuff because you assume the creature's statistics, but honestly a CR 20 dragon is much more powerful anyway. The spells final option allows you to turn a creature into an object with no save. Turn them into a flower pot, then either drop them from high enough to deal maximum fall damage (the extra damage carries over to their regular hit points when they revert), throw them into a demiplane, plane shift them somewhere unpleasant, or dispose of them in some other permanent and irrevocable fashion.