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I recently rolled a bard for a new game set in a low fantasy world. It's a halfling bard, with 17 CHA and 16 DEX and +0s or +1s elsewhere. In the party there is also a defensively minded Paladin, a gunship rogue with a crossbow, necromantic offensive warlock and a fighter inspired by 4e warlords.

The party lacks a bit in healing and utility spellcasting I would like to fill in that niche while still having a considerable presence in combat. To accomplish that I wanted to embrace a Spellsword approach.

I would like to be able to combine spellcasting (buffs and debuffs, preferably as cantrips or low level spells) with DEX-based combat opportunities. I know that College of Valor has some options, but it seems like a huge waste (I have high Dex and therefore prefer light armor, I will not use non-finessable martial weapons, and Extra Attack doesn't seem to fit well with eventual Battle Magic). I would like to have a "cast and slash" battlefield presence, but if I had opportunities to use my bonus action for added awesome I would consider it gladly.

Is it possible to optimize the character to accomplish those gameplay goals and if yes, how?

I am limited to PHB and I need a very good arguments to be allowed to multiclass. I briefly I mentioned possible MC into a Paladin and had a mixed response.

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Valor is the better option

"Cast and slash" in the same turn is basically impossible before Battle Magic, and far from powerful even then.
"Cast one turn, slash next" is possible, but suboptimal, as one of them would need Charisma, the other Dexterity, you would need different feats and magic items. You should pick one or the other, and focus on that.

If you want to be good with melee weapon attacks, you should go with Valor, unless you can get Extra Attack from 5 levels of Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger or Bladelock. You said multiclassinig might be impossible, so Valor is basically the only option for a fencer.

If you are fine with using spells instead of weapons, a Lore Bard might be viable. Unfortunately bard cantrips from PHB are mostly bad in combat.
Thunderclap from Elemental Evil is nice, especially if you can get more than one enemy with it, but it is unsuited for stealth missions.
Vicious Mockery's disadvantage becomes inefficient when most enemies get multiattack, and the damage is ridiculous even before that.

A Magic Initiate feat can fix that, or you can spend Additional Magical Secrects for getting a worthwile cantrip. I suggest Acid Splash if you expect more than one enemy to receive it, Shocking Grasp if not, and Thorn Whip if you use Additional Magical Secrets.

In the front line you will need AC. As you lack the Strength for Heavy Armor, not even multiclass will help you with it. The shield is your best friend. Valor gets it for free on level 3, but Lore needs to pay another feat, fortunately it increases Dex as well. Either way you get Expertise, if you put it on Athletics, you can provide near constant Advantage for you melee party members with Shield Master.

Comparing the two options on level 8:

Valor

level 4: +2 Dex
level 8: +2 Dex
AC: 19 (Studded, Shield, 20 Dex)
Attack: +8 (weapon)
Damage: 2x 1d8+5 (Rapier)
DPRvs16: 12.35 (19 x 0.65)
Casting: Cha 17, has to drop weapon for spells

Lore

level 4: Moderately Armored
level 8: +1 Dex, +1 Cha
AC: 18 (Studded, Shield, 18 Dex)
Attack: +7 (both with cantips and weapons)
Damage: 2d8 (Shocking Grasp)
DPRvs16: 5.6 (9 x 0.6)
Casting: Cha 18, right hand empty

So in combat prowess Valor is clearly superior, while only a tiny bit weaker as a caster (spell DC 14 vs DC 15). Even on level 17, Shocking Grasp will do only 18 damage, compared to 19 with a Rapier.

To sum it up, if you want to stay alive and relevant in the front line, Valor gives you the defense and the offense.

You don't need multiclassing

Starting as Fighter and then changing to Lore bard would be great, as it gave you heavy armor, but you lack the Strength for those.

A Valor bard does not really benefit from multiclassing (probably a few levels of Rogue for DPR).

Other options

If you do not want to be melee: Your party can get by with only two melee characters, and bards perform much better in the second line.

  1. Go Lore, get a good cantrip, meaning Eldritch Blast through multiclassing or the feat Magic Initiate, and you will be optimized enough.
  2. Go Valor with a Hand Crossbow, Crossbow Master and Sharpshooter. Huge amounts of damage, spells only for Advantage and utility.

If you can multiclass, change your race and ability scores: 1 level of Fighter, continue in Lore bard. Swap Dexterity and Strength. In heavy armor AC costs money, not attributes, and you will always have more money than Ability Score Improvements. Second Wind is great at low levels. Fighting Styles are good too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I know 3.5e has an Animated enhancement, which when put on a shield enables the character to use two-handed weapons (or one-handed weapons and spells for that matter) while the shield sort of "levitates" around the character. Has that been removed in 5e? Could it be homebrewed? I honestly know nothing about 5e, so apologies in advance for any stupid remarks I make. \$\endgroup\$ – Joninean Feb 12 '16 at 10:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ The feat War Caster will allow you to cast while holding a weapon and shield, lightening the load for a melee/shield bearing character as well. Also grants advantage on holding on to those sweet, sweet Concentration buffs. \$\endgroup\$ – Eladri Feb 12 '16 at 16:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Eladri, adding to the load for a melee/shield Bard. You need High Dex for AC and attacking, high Cha for spellcasting, AND a feat. It is good indeed, but just too expensive. \$\endgroup\$ – András Feb 12 '16 at 20:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Animated Shield (DMG 151) is that as a magic item. \$\endgroup\$ – HadesHerald Nov 29 '16 at 17:42
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Do you have access to "Xanathar's Guide To Everything"? If so, you should also consider the College of Swords, which is another weapon-based bard college option. It offers the ability to use a melee weapon you are proficient in as a bardic spell casting focus, which works well for bards who want to use melee weapons in one or both of their hands.

However, keep in mind it does not offer the same "Battle Magic" feature as the College of Valor does, which means you will likely be casting and slashing on different turns.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hello, we generally want answers to be backed up by expertise, which means either rules or experience; we do not solely generate ideas. So it would be great if you answered how the College of Swords Bard fills the niche that OP wants it to fill - by showcasing rules or your past experience with a character that you have played in that style. \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jun 15 at 12:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Jun 15 at 12:59
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My answer to what spells you should take for Crowd Control is definitely sleep. When you cast a spell that isn't a cantrip you generally want to end the encounter within a round for the first 3 levels. sleep does this in cases where you are against a single tough enemy or a horde of tiny pests.

cantrips-wise you want vicious mockery and then one of the following:

true strike: if you are throwing daggers at people this is the best option otherwise ignore this; Minor Illusion: best cantrip hands down if your DM is willing to work with you on it, otherwise it is the worst possible cantrip and a waste of time; mending: if the rogue is strapped for cash this will be a godsend in repairing crossbow bolts and just generally a good after battle and RP spell; light: if the Paladin doesn't have it then you should definitely take it.

hopefully this helps and may ye tell many a fair story of ye fair travels.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hello, we generally want answers to be backed up by expertise, which means either rules or experience; we do not solely generate ideas. Why do you think that these are the correct options? \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jun 15 at 12:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @akixkisu this user hasn't been online in 3.5 years :) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jun 16 at 1:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu If a comment isn't going to do anything because of inactivity, a post notice won't either. Also, you can flag those messages with just "please add the citation needed notice" -- you don't need to copy+paste the post notice text into the flag message. That actually makes things harder for us because we have to read a whole paragraph instead of six words. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jun 16 at 15:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu No, it's just that your comment was sufficient. I stepped in to explain why it was sufficient because you were explaining that a post notice would be absolutely necessary as a next step, as if it may do something that the comment wouldn't for correcting the situation, which it would not. Now, part of what's going on here is we do not have a post notice for this situation -- our "citation needed" notice makes sense in objective answers where a book or fact can be cited. The wording makes less sense for subjective answers and the comment you left is better suited on its own. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jun 16 at 20:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I also recognise and agree with the fact we don't vote down often enough. Here, I don't have strong feelings and my energy for RPG.SE today is mostly on moderation (and I don't have much of it available today). I don't want to spend it parsing the question and this answer and assessing whether this is a sound answer or not in a system I don't play heavily. The site can get by without me doing that. I read the endorsement sentence as telling me I'm obligated to do all of that, but I simply can't operate on that bassi. There's a lot I don't vote on for the same reasons. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jun 16 at 20:11
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You'll want to go College of Valor and take Spiritual Weapon as one of your magical secrets. This will allow you to heal with your main action and still attack with a bonus action each round. You can use higher level slots to deal higher damage as well.

Another good spell to take is Flaming Sphere as it allows you to damage at least one creature each round and sometimes more and like Spiritual Weapon it scales with spell slot level.

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    \$\begingroup\$ re: True Strike. Note that True Strike is really terrible most of the time. You don't get advantage until next turn. Here is the text at the end of the spell: On your next turn, you gain advantage on your first attack roll against the target, provided that this spell hasn’t ended. \$\endgroup\$ – Nick Brown Feb 6 '18 at 19:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ What is your argument that you provide for the OP to make multiclassing eligible? A lot of these points do not engage with OP's constraints, are redundant and don't add anything to the table. The Bard is a Halfling and stating all the benefits for Mountain Dwarves is not helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jun 15 at 13:02

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