If a bard is Performing and he's playing, say, the flute, can he attack during the Performance?

At first, I'd say "no"; how do you swing a sword while playing? But then in this thread I read:

Maintaining a bardic performance is a free action, and does not interfere with other activities (such as spell casting, moving, attacking, etc.).

How is that?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe he's got one of these? It's possible to "play" a number of multi-handed instruments with fewer (or no) hands, although sacrifices to quality would have to be made. In the case of a flute, period equivalent instruments would either look like a recorder (potentially playable by gripping with the lips), or have no keys (only open tone holes - hands could be switched). If I ever play a bard, I should pack a kazoo for these situations... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 5:05

6 Answers 6



Seriously, though, the bard knows how he does this even if we struggle to understand how it could be done. Lots of special abilities in a fantasy game are unexplainable. Nobody knows how to cast a fireball spell or turn undead either, and those remain an acceptable part of the system.

The real problem we have is when we read something like this...

Starting a bardic performance is a standard action, but it can be maintained each round as a free action. [...] A bardic performance cannot be disrupted, but it ends immediately if the bard is killed, paralyzed, stunned, knocked unconscious, or otherwise prevented from taking a free action to maintain it each round. A bard cannot have more than one bardic performance in effect at one time.

we actually have a frame of reference. Were supposed to imagine the bard rocking out on his guitar or singing "The Final Countdown" or tap dancing up a storm or miming being trapped in box or whatever while he's engaged in a life-or-death stabbing contest with a froghemoth? We read that and think, "No way. I know that's impossible."

But it's not for the Pathfinder bard. It's his way of life. It's how he survives in a world of monsters, wizards, and evil plants who want to eat him, turn him into a zombie, and make him fertilizer. That we don't understand how he can fight and maintain his magic performance in no way stops him from doing it because he's a magic dude in a magic world and this is what he does.

So, how does he do it? It really doesn't matter... in the same way it doesn't matter what the exact syllables are for fireball or exactly how much faith one needs to turn undead. He makes magic happen when he plays or sings or dances or mimes, and he can fight while simultaneously playing, singing, dancing, or miming. And that's hilarious, and it works.

By the Rules
The primary objection raised is that, in real life, musical instruments usually require, well, hands, and if a bard's hands are full he shouldn't be able to perform on that musical instrument. First, this is why most bards sing. But, moreover, Pathfinder doesn't mandate hands are necessary to employ any bardic performance; performances are audible or visual or both, but no mention's made of requiring hands. The skill Perform doesn't say instruments require none, one, or both hands. Even the entry for musical instruments in the equipment section is silent on whether instruments require none, one, or both hands. The game is so hesitant to get specific that musical instruments are almost completely abstracted; we're told the only difference between a hand bell and a pipe organ is that "larger instruments... are of course larger and more expensive." Really. Nothing else is said.

Thus requiring the bard's hand or hands to be occupied by his instrument while he employs a bardic performance is a house rule.

I imagine that a combat musician who plays guitar or something when fighting monsters probably keeps his instrument on a sling and strums it when he wants magic to happen or needs magic to continue, but spends the majority of his time swinging his sword.

Barring that, it's possible a Pathfinder musical instrument is designed to be played as a free action while wielding a magic rapier in one hand and carrying a flask of alchemist's fire in the other, and we--as folks who don't require this of our musical instruments as we're not spellcasting musicians who fight monsters with music--have no concept of what such an instrument even looks like, much less how one's actually played.

There's no way to know what the Pathfinder bard's doing during that free action to maintain his song because the whole event takes place in a fantasy world where magic exists. The only thing we know for sure is that the bard does, in fact, do it that way because the rules tell us he does.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Some non-central bits of this answer are going to annoy people who cares about associated mechanics, hence these comments. In addition, just because the world is fantastic doesn't mean we don't expect things to respect our suspension of disbelief. We have buy-in to magic; that doesn't mean we have buy-in to any random nonsense. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 0:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Bardic performances are magic, and the rules of magic bardic performances are offensive because of how music occurs in real life. I get that. But the question asks how the bardic performance is maintained--asking for a explanation of how nonsense occurs. I'm pretty sure the well doesn't get any deeper than It's magic. The question's not asking for house rules to make the nonsense more palatable. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 1:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ What I don't get is that you do explain it plausibly (miming, dancing, singing, etc. while in a fight) and then say that this doesn't make sense, so *wavey hands* magic! Huh? There's no need to introduce "we don't know, it doesn't matter how, that's just them screwy rules for ya! and anyway: magic-world-fallacy!" into the answer... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 4:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Playing an instrument with no hands still makes no sense. The magic isn't that the Bard can play an instrument with no hands (it may be RAW, it's still an RPG); the magic is what his performances do to people. Good thing he doesn't actually need any instrument for that; any Performance skill works, and he doesn't even have to be trained in it. \$\endgroup\$
    – mcv
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 10:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Fair enough. Edited to be more inclusive. The original assumed instrumental music as part of the discussion given the question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 15:42

In a sense, I agree with "Hey I Can Chan". It works basically because the rules say it works.

But as comments point out, that is not very mentally satisifying. So, I know how it works mechanically, but how I can I envision it? I suspend my disbelief easily for a fireball, because that is an accepted trope and I have a pretty decent idea of how to envision it, even if I know it won't work in real life. I really don't know how to envision someone wielding a rapier and playing a flute at the same time.

So, to address how to envision it, I would say it depends on the bard and his performance skill, but here are a couple of possibilities.

-- He doesn't actually keep performing literally, but does "maintain" the performance. He starts his own brand of magic through his performance. Perhaps he begins by playing his flute, but then he puts it away to brandish his rapier, but his presence continues the magic. Once started, it has inertia and continues until something stops it, whether that something is the bards own decision, a new performance, or the bard dying. In short, he maintains it by being himself once he has got it started actively.

-- He uses something he could realistically do while in combat I use realistically loosely. When I spar, I'm hard pressed to talk during sparring and that isn't nearly as intense as a fight to the death. But its pretty easy to imagine someone singing, or using oratory, or even dancing while actually fighting.

-- The magic literally maintains it. This is similar to the first one, but more exotic. So, you could imagine the bard starting the performance, and then his magic literally continuing the performance for him as he maintains it by his will. Imagine the bard taking out his flute, and playing for several seconds. But then, as the enemies close in dramatically, he shoves his flute in his belt and brandishes his sword. But the music doesn't stop...instead the tune he was playing continues on in the background, now powered by his will for it to continue while he dashing defends himself like Errol Flynn with a rapier and even some witty reparte! His perfomance now becomes the background music for the fight, only the characters themselves actually hear it and draw inspiration.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That last idea rocks! I'd even add a variant where the flute floats on its own, allowing the bard to keep playing while doing other things... or simply plays itself through magic will while "dancing" around the bard. \$\endgroup\$
    – leokhorn
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 19:34

The bard can freely attack while performing as long as the methods of attack and performance do not conflict. Description of the ability refers to the skill with the following text included:

You are skilled at one form of entertainment, from singing to acting to playing an instrument.

The game does not go too deep into details about one-handed, two-handed and zero-handed musical instruments, but the game does not go too deep into details about many things, and this should not prevent the DM from filling them as required.

So, you can freely sing and swing a greatsword, or dance and swing a greatsword, or play a violin and kick butt (as an unarmed strike), but to play a violin and swing a greatsword at the same time, you must have no less than four hands.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @NetHacker One answer has come from a "the rules as written is the alpha and omega" perspective, and another has come from the "where the rules are silent, whatever is fictional plausible is how it works" perspective. (This is a major split in the RPG community.) Which answer resonates with you will entirely depend on what perspective you personally use to approach roleplaying games. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 4:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is it about the fiction or is it about the rules? Later editions of D&D focus increasingly on rules over fiction, and the "rules" answer fits perfectly into that development. But it's their focus on fiction that sets RPGs apart from boardgames, which is exactly why questions like these exist and matter. But as I point out in my answer, it is possible to make fiction and RAW match without crippling the Bard. I'd suggest that as the way to go. (But it's an RPG; in the end everything is just opinion. Do what works for you.) \$\endgroup\$
    – mcv
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 12:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I like to think of the split as between, "What stories can I tell using this system?" versus "What stories can I tell despite this system?" \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 15:34

Yeah, swinging a sword while playing a flute or a lute makes no sense. I'm not going to make any excuses for that, but it's hardly the only aspect about Pathfinder that makes little sense. There is, however, a totally legal and sensible way to interpret this in a sensible manner:

  • Bardic Performances don't require any specific Performance skill to work; any will do (except for countersong and distraction, but even those are fairly flexible).
  • A Bard can use any Performance skill untrained.
  • For most bardic performances (except countersong and distraction again), how good your Performance skill is doesn't matter a bit.
  • Sing, Oratory and Comedy don't require any hands.

So if you imagine your awesome lute player to sing, shout inspiring things or crack jokes in combat, it all works. He just uses the lute for the opening chords, and then his voice alone is enough to carry it the rest of the way. His singing and oratory can even be untrained; it matters not. The guy is just that inspiring.

His magic doesn't make him play a lute with no hands; it makes him inspire you with his voice even when he's not actually such a great singer.


First, to answer your question of "what are they talking about in that thread", They're talking about casting spells, casting spells doesn't require you to have both hands free, you can easily play the flute for a free action, take one hand off and take it out of your mouth (a free action), cast a spell with one hand, and then put your hand back on the flute. Also, several perform skills require no instrument, you can absolutely use Comedy or sing for Bardic Performance and attack during the same turn.

If you're using a perform skill which requires an instrument, the common interpretation is that to maintain you need to have your instrument out at some point when you can take a free action. Yes, this is an interpretation, there are no specific rules about it one way or the other.

There are two possible arguments as to why you wouldn't have to.

The first is that since the perform skill doesn't say you need hands to play the flute, you can play the flute without hands. This is like saying you can read in darkness because Linguistics doesn't say it requires light, or eyes, or that you can heal somebody on the other side of the room because first aid doesn't say it requires you to be able to touch the subject. Many abilities not directly related to common combat actions don't have a full specification of their requirements, it's how the rules text works. Saying "No, you can't read your book in the dark" or "playing a double base sized harp as a fairy will give you penalties" isn't a "House rule" just because it isn't in the rule books.

The second is that Bardic Song is magic, and doesn't have to work like actually playing the instrument. Okay, sure, if there was a rule that said that, that would be a fine arguement, but there isn't, it just says "A bard is trained to use the Perform skill to create magical effects on those around him...". If it's using the perform skill, it works like the (non-magical) perform skill, except where specified, and "does not use hands" isn't specified. The only possible arguement is that "using the perform skill" doesn't actually require performing, simply using the skill, but that's a pretty big stretch.

Yes, the rules aren't explicit about it, they don't say you can't, but they also don't say you can. Ultimately, it is a GM ruling, however here are a couple of links of common interpretations.

The primary (only) Pathfinder Bard optimization handbook I can find assumes most instruments require hands to use, and the multiple links I've seen to it don't point this out as being incorrect. http://www.d20pfsrd.com/extras/community-creations/treatmonks-lab/test2

Here is a thread on the Paizo boards where the OP assumes you need to use both hands to play an instrument, but not to sing, and the Paizo "Lead Designer" comes in and doesn't correct him. (I don't really follow Pathfinder writers so I'm not sure who it is) http://paizo.com/threads/rzs2iw4g?Bard-why-use-an-instrument


Yes, they can

Using Bardic Performance in Pathfinder does not require any hands, at all.

This has been confirmed by the developers quite a few times, even though this topic keeps poping up again once in a while. But most notoriously, James Jacobs (Creative Director at Paizo) has confirmed this directly:

Bardic performance does NOT require you to use a Perform skill that you have ranks in. It doesn't even need a Perform skill at all. Not only is Perform usable untrained, but the bardic performance ability does not require you to make Perform checks of any kind except for a few specific TYPES of bardic performance, such as countersong or distraction.

This means that when you inspire courage, you're not necessarily doing so by playing the flute or banging drums. It's more likely that you're singing or bragging or taunting or dancing or otherwise just showboating to raise your allies' morale. If you WANT to say that your bardic performance is from a particularly rousing violin solo, that's fine... but once it's started you don't have to keep playing the violin if you want to put the violin down and fight or spellcast or whatever because the actual Perform (strings) skill doesn't ever enter the picture.


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