A Guide to the Dervish Dancer Bard (Pathfinder)
Bards in Pathfinder are not, generally speaking, very capable in melee. Their class abilities are far more concentrated on party support than damage dealing (though a bard specialized in archery can do quite well, thanks to their inspire courage bonuses and the normal archery damage train). Paizo’s released a few archetypes to play a more combat-focused bard, though, and the latest of these is the dervish (Ultimate Combat 33). If you’ve ever wanted to play Haer’dalis from Baldur’s Gate II or someone like him, the dervish archetype is for you.
About the Dervish
The dervish is decidedly less concerned about supporting his party than a typical bard—her battle dances (the dervish’s variant on bardic performance) only affect herself, even though she still gets a number of the standard bard buffs (like inspire courage and inspire greatness). In exchange for being selfish cads, dervishes gain a few unique performances, increased speed, and—most importantly—the highly coveted ability to both move and take a full attack action in the same round.
Dervishes are currently one of three classes that can do this (the others being barbarians with the greater beast totem rage power, granting them pounce—or, in a sense, summoners whose eidolons have the pounce evolution). If you’ve always overlooked bards, the dervish is definitely worth a close look, so let’s get into that now.
Dervishes trade their rapier and whip proficiencies for proficiency with the kurkri and scimitar, largely for purposes of flavor, though this does allow them to take the Dervish Dance feat from the Inner Sea World Guide (which grants the ability to use Dexterity for both attack and damage rolls when using a scimitar in one hand with nothing in the other). Given that it’s thematically appropriate for the character, and it reduces dependence on multiple abilities, this is a good choice for any dervish.
As previously mentioned, dervishes have battle dance instead of bardic performance. For the most part, battle dance works just like its counterpart, with the most significant difference being that a battle dance only benefits the dervish, granting nothing to her party members. With that one exception in mind, dervishes still gain inspire courage, inspire greatness, and inspire heroics as battle dances. The rest of the battle dances are unique to the dervish and replace the bardic performances that dervishes don’t get.
Rain of Blows
Rain of blows, gained at 6th level, grants the dervish the effective bonuses of the haste spell (except for the speed increase). The best part, though, is that the bonus to attack rolls, Armor Class, and Reflex saves normally granted by haste all increase as the dervish gains levels. At 18th level, the dervish is looking at a +5 bonus to these.
As you might expect, rain of blows doesn’t stack with the haste spell. This particular battle dance replaces the suggestion and mass suggestion bardic performances. Once you have haste or a party member that can cast it on your (which is preferred), you'll prefer inspire courage to rain of blows, but rain of blows is still pretty good.
The dervish then gains razor’s kiss (instead of dirge of doom) at 8th level, granting any weapon attacks she makes the benefit of the Improved Critical feat. This is fairly minor overall, though it does allow the dervish access to Improved Critical before she would otherwise be able to take the feat. You won’t want to use this over inspire courage or rain of blows.
Leaf on the Wind
The dervish’s last unique dance, leaf on the wind, comes in at 14th level, replacing frightening performance. This is the perfect battle dance for holding your ground against tough odds, as it grants you a +6 dodge bonus to Armor Class and Reflex saves, and it also allows you to heal one point of damage per bard level.
The downside is that this powerful ability requires a standard action to maintain each round (rather than the normal free action), but by 14th level, you can switch battle dances as a swift action, so you can quickly get yourself a burst of healing if the going gets tough, and come back strong when you’re patched up with your offensive dances.
That’s it for all of the battle dances, but the dervish still has some other abilities to look at. The first is the fleet ability, which replaces bardic knowledge and lore master. As expected, fleet increases the dervish’s movement speed by 10 feet at first level, and an additional 5 feet every four levels after that (all the way up to +30 feet at 19th level). These speed bonuses are pretty crucial to the dervish’s signature ability, dance of fury (which comes in at 12th level, and we’ll get to in just a moment).
At 2nd level, the dervish gains a bonus equal to one-half her level on Perform (dance) checks, and more importantly, she can use her bonus on that skill in place of her Acrobatics bonus for the appropriate checks. While this isn’t a huge ability, it means the dervish needs one less skill, which is always a welcome thing.
At 12th level, the dervish gains the long-awaited dance of fury. While performing a battle dance, she can combine a full-attack with a single move action, taking the attacks while she moves, though she has to move 5 feet between each attack. This movement does provoke attacks of opportunity, but the dervish’s high Perform (dance) skill should be more than enough to avoid most of them. Fighters everywhere will look on this ability with envy, as the best they can muster (via the mobile fighter archetype) means they have to lose their first and highest attack roll).
Keep in mind that you can take part of your move to reach an opponent, make your first attack, and then take 5 ft. steps around them (so long as they aren’t surrounded) to make all of your attacks against a single target. You should have more than enough movement speed in a round to accomplish this, thanks to the bonuses you get from the fleet ability. Dance of fury replaces soothing performance.
Last, but not least, the dervish gains a unique 20th-level ability called battle fury (which replaces deadly performance). In a nutshell, while performing a battle dance, the dervish can take a move action and make one attack at every opponent she comes in reach of during her movement, up to a maximum of attacks equal to her character level (which, barring future epic rules, will be 20 attacks).
Like most capstone abilities, this is bound to see limited use, and you unfortunately can’t make all 20 attacks against the same opponent. Should your dervish ever come up against an army of low-level orcs, though, she should be able to make short work of them.
So we’ve broken the archetype down into its (many) parts. Here’s a sample build that focuses on using a single scimitar and the Dervish Dance feat mentioned above.
Human Bard (Dervish)5
Ability Scores (15 Point Buy): Str 13, Dex 15, Con 12 Int 10, Wis 8, Cha 16
1 Arcane Strike, Weapon Finesse
3 Dervish Dance
5 Power Attack
The dervish may not get the full benefits of Power Attack, but with arcane strike and inspire courage, she’s going to be looking at comparable damage numbers in the long run. She won’t out-smash the titan mauler, but when you consider she’s got spellcasting to back her up and more skills to work with outside of combat, that’s okay.
You can opt out of Dervish Dance if you like and focus solely on Strength, but your Armor Class and initiative will suffer a bit, so I still recommend that you go for the feat. Two-Weapon Fighting is also a viable option, as the dervish has access to enough sources of bonus damage to make it worthwhile, though it’s a lot more feat intensive.
Make sure to pick up the dance of a hundred cuts (4th level)and dance of a thousand cuts (6th level)spells from Ultimate Magic at your first opportunity, no matter what you do, as the bonuses to attack and damage can really add up (dance of a thousand cuts even gives you haste, saving you from having to cast two spells). They really complement the dervish’s focus.
That’s the curtain call for the dervish. I hope you found the overview helpful, and that the sample build gave you some ideas to get started.