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I am creating a bard for my first ever DnD session (3.5e) with my friends and I had a question about the subcategories in the Perform skill being able to stack or not. Like, if my bard has Perform String Instrument, Perform Sing, and Perform Storytelling and I go to make my check for a performance, can I roll all three of those modifiers for playing the instrument, my amazing singing voice, and the lyrics in the song conveying the tale? If so, a lot of the bard spells require a certain number in performance (3 for first level). If I put a single point into those three performances to play my music (using them in the manner as above), does that count as the 3 points needed to cast said spells?

I have never played DnD before and I can't find anything regarding this on the internet. I sent a message to the person who is suppose to be the DM of our campaign, but I figured I would post my question here as well.

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

The exact break down of Perform subskills is largely up to the table. Most players just pick one Perform skill and stick with it, because that saves skill points; the different subskills are just so you can pick exactly what you are doing. Some players pick more than one for a few reasons, which I’ll get to, but the short answer is, “the rules pretty much assume you’re only using one Perform subskill at a time, because the rules don’t really care that much about Perform.”

Perform isn’t actually that important

The uses of the skill are for making money and earning a name for yourself performing. However, most D&D characters are adventurers, who will have little opportunity to use Perform in such a fashion, and regardless, adventuring pays far better and is much more likely to result in power and influence (assuming you don’t die, of course).

Furthermore, bards don’t actually need to do well on their Perform checks to use Bardic Music. They need a minimum number of ranks (more on that in a bit), but once they have those it doesn’t matter how well they do on their actual check. And since Inspire Courage is by-far the most important Bardic Music effect, and only requires 3 ranks, depending on what you do with your career (i.e. maybe you multiclass or take a prestige class and don’t get the higher-level Bardic Music effects), you may not actually need more than that.

Thus, having ranks in Perform is almost more of a “backstory” tax – if you want to claim that you are an excellent performer, you need to spend the skill points backing that up. Since it’s a matter of who you are and what your backstory is like, the choice of Perform skill(s) is very much tied to your character and up to you. As such,

There is no canonical list of Perform subskills

The rules themselves occasionally reference Perform subskills – a magic harp that requires Perform (strings) perhaps, or a prestige class with ranks in Perform (dance) as a prerequisite. They can occasionally get very specific (there’s at least one book that has special rules for Perform (weapon drill), and a certain notorious third-party book includes rules for Perform (sexual act) – no, I am not joking). But for the most part, the rules don’t really care which Perform skill you have, and never lists any kind of canonical set.

Most tables1 are fine with you picking any kind of Perform you want to make up

Since there aren’t any official Perform skills, and it doesn’t really matter, most tables are fine with you defining your Perform skill however you want it, so long as you state what instrument(s) you use to perform it. A masterwork instrument provides a +2 bonus, but since you can only get the bonus once, it’s usually best to stick to a single instrument rather than have something like Perform (one man band) that requires a whole set, but you can if you want (and your table agrees; in my experience it’s not a problem).

A lot of players just pick Perform (sing) or Perform (dance) just so they can never be stripped of their ability to perform by the loss of an instrument (but see summon instrument for an easy fix to that). A masterwork tambourine (or similar) is sometimes used to get a +2 bonus on Perform (dance), and to qualify for the requirement that allies be able to hear your performance for Bardic Music, but talk to your DM about that before using it.

Having multiple Perform subskills is usually seen as a redundancy

Now, redundancy can be a good thing. For example, if you lose your instruments but someone lends you a flute, it would be nice if you have Perform (wind instrument) as well as Perform (strings). Plus, as I mentioned, sometimes magic items want a particular subskill, so if you want to use both a magic flute and a magic drum you need both Perform (wind instrument) and Perform (percussion instrument).

But unfortunately, the rules also see multiple Perform subskills as a redundancy. There are no rules, to my knowledge, for one person using multiple Perform subskills as a part of a single performance, even though that is a really common thing for musicians, e.g. Perform (guitar), Perform (sing), and Perform (dance) for your average frontman.

As a result, there’s not really a lot of reward for having more than one Perform skill unless you think you’re likely to find yourself required to use a particular instrument that isn’t your top choice. Most people pick just one for that reason.1

But if someone did take several Perform skills, personally, I would rule that the lower rolls were Aid Another (...Aid Yourself?) attempts on the highest roll, so you get a +2 bonus for every additional Perform subskill you integrate into the performance and roll at least a 10 on. Alternatively, you could be ruled as making three separate checks at once, thereby potentially multiplying your monetary reward as well as your chances to be noticed by important people. But the rules don’t specify either of these.

Bardic Music requirements

Bards must have at least one skill with the minimum number of ranks listed in Bardic Music effect in order to use it. So yes, you need at least one Perform subskill with 3 ranks in order to use Inspire Courage; having one rank in each of three Perform subskills will not be sufficient.

Note that none of the Bardic Music effects actually involve rolling a Perform check; you probably will for the sake of determining how nice it sounds, but even if you do terribly the magic still works.2 As a result, strange as it may sound, Perform isn’t actually that important to the bard, beyond having the requisite ranks. Using Perform as a skill is very rarely critical; you can earn much more fame and fortune adventuring in most games than you can Performing, and probably will unless the entire table wants to do a theater game (and even then, I’d argue that D&D is very much the wrong system to use for that).


1 In my experience. Most of the games I’ve played in have challenged the PCs quite stringently, and therefore required reasonably careful choices made in allocating character resources, including skill points. Other tables may find it more common to “waste” lots of skill points on “redundant” Perform skill ranks.

2 I once played a game with a Cha 5 orc bard3 who regularly rolled negatives on his Perform checks despite the requisite 3 ranks, thanks to a couple of Perform-weakening flaws; he managed to get like a −4 modifier or something. We had great fun with his singing being terrible and all of our characters trying to get him to stop singing.

3 Yes I did just put a footnote in my footnote, nyah! Anyway, the orc wasn’t actually a “bard” per se, but rather a homebrew class that got Bardic Music like bards do. I mention this because a Cha 5 bard would be a really terrible choice, considering how nice the spellcasting they get is.

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Each of those is a separate skill, and a skill's bonus applies only to when you roll that skill check. Bonuses from one skill never stack with another.

(Tangent: The intuition that related skills should help each other has some, but very limited, support in the rules: rules for "synergy" mean that having a decent skill in something related will give you a bonus on a check. What skills synergise with which others is pretty limited though, and Performance doesn't synergise with itself. (Subject to the DM expanding this of course, but I haven't really seen that done much.))

No matter where bonuses come from though, they don't count as having ranks—and ranks in a single skill are what requirements look for. Since each type of Performance specialisation counts as a separate skill, you have to have 3 ranks in one of them in order to qualify for a requirement that lists 3 ranks of Perform.

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So whenever I roll a performance check, I only roll one performance modifier that I have put points in, instead of all that I have put points in, even though I'm using multiple subgenres for said song? – ZodiacDragons Jan 30 '14 at 22:16
Skill synergy doesn't actually come into play here, since Perform does not have a synergy with itself (not a bad idea to ask your DM for one, but if that's the idea you should mention he should ask the DM for one). Also, I think you should expand a bit on the ranks thing, I don't think you make it clear that you need 3 ranks in one skill and 1 rank in three skills won't do it. – KRyan Jan 30 '14 at 22:20
@KRyan Yeah, I didn't make that clear. I was speaking to the intuition that related skills should help, but the actual synergies are pretty slim (or up to DM expansion). – SevenSidedDie Jan 30 '14 at 22:25

KRyan is mostly on spot with his answer, but there are nonetheless some instances where having a high perform rank is useful, and this ties in nicely with the answer to your question.

First of all, let's say the right way to combine different (really, it's two) kinds of perform checks is the Versatile Performer feat. While bards might be already feat-starved, this feat does exactly what you're thinking: it allows you to combine two Perform routines into one, while getting a +2 to your roll because of the added flair.
On top of it, the feat helps you spend less skill points by letting you fake ranks in one Perform subskill for each Int bonus you have. Let's say you have 5 ranks in Perform (singing), well, now you can fake those ranks in Perform (dance), Perform (string instruments) and Perform (oratory).

This only works for skill rolls. Items or prestige classes who need you to have let's say 3 ranks in Perform (string instruments) still need three real ranks.

Versatile Performer has no added bonus for doing more than two performs at a time, so I'd dismiss KRyan's Aid Yourself option as too powerful. Too powerful, because high Perform rolls can be used as if they were Diplomacy checks to influence (I'm struggling to find in which manual this option is provided) and sometimes it's used to conceal spellcasting (thanks to the Disguise Spell feat from Complete Adventurer) or to stop people in their tracks (the Fascinate class feature of the bard has your check as the DC of a save. And you can totally get a DC of 100 by level 20 if you go Perform (singing) with a chocker of eloquence.)

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Here is a common houserule at my table: Perform is one skill, but you pick one kind of performance and you halve your ranks in the skill for any other kind of performance. If you want multiple kinds of jaw-dropping performance modifier, you need to buy multiple sets of the Perform skill, but if you want to be a fantastic violinist but able to sing, play keyboard, stage-act, to a decent degree in the same way most creative artistic people can, you can with just a single maxed out Perform skill.

This helps Bards be as skilled at performance as the typical skilled member of a traveling troupe was back in the day, while still allowing specialization, or even a performance virtuoso who is incredibly skilled in multiple areas of music or performance (multiple maxed out perform skills).

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