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DnD 5e - Bard Subclass Breakdown

Last Updated: June 5th, 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

Bard subclasses are a significant factor in determining your bard's role in the party. Your choice of subclass will emphasize different core aspects of class, allowing your specialize in one thing while remaining a jack of all trades.

Bard Subclasses - Bard Colleges

College of Eloquence

This may be the bard-est bard that ever did bard. While most bard colleges add some fun new mechanics or options to the Bard, College of Eloquence emphasizes the Bard's core features: namely Bardic Inspiration and the Bard's uncontested mastery of Charisma-based skills.

Nothing in the subclass is complicated or hard to manage, and in fact the insurance provided by Silver Tongue and by Unfailing Inspiration make this an excellent option for new players and for players with habitually poor rolls, but any player looking to enjoy a mechanically simple but profoundly effective bard will find everything that they need here.

  • Silver Tongue: It is difficult to find an ability which is so effective at making a key skill reliable. The Rogue's Reliable Talent feature provides the same benefit, but that's an 11th-level feature. Combined with access to Expertise (which you also get at 3rd level) you're nearly incapable of failing Charisma (Deception) and Charisma (Persuasion) checks.
  • Unsettling Words: Use this as a Bonus Action, then hit the target with a save-or-suck effect. Advantage/Disadvantage are worth a little more than +3/-3, and the average value of your d6 Bardic Inspiration die is 3.5, and increases as you gain levels.
  • Unfailing Inspiration: Bardic Inspiration is one of the Bard's core features, and while it's very powerful it's still limited by a small number of dice. This provides a powerful insurance policy, making it much easier to risk a die even if it's unlikely to make a roll succeed.
  • Universal Speech: A limited version of Tongues for one hour for free every day, and you can do it again by spending an spell slot. You may still want to learn Comprehend Languages so that you can understand other creatures.
  • Infectious Inspiration: Consider this alongside Unfailing Inspiration. If a creature adds a die and fails, they keep the die. If they pass, you spend your Reaction to pass the die to a different creature, and the process starts over. You get to do this a number of times equal to your Charisma modifier, so it's effectively 5 additional uses of Basic Inspiration per day, not counting the ones which fail but don't result in a lost die.

College of GlamourXGtE

An interesting combination of abilities. College of Glamour is great for a bard looking to play a support role.

  • Mantle of Inspiration: Reposition your entire party and grant temporary hit points. You won't need to use this in every fight, but certainly don't hesitate to use it if you think it will be helpful.
  • Enthralling Performance: Similar to Charm Person with a 1-minute casting time, during which you need to somehow hold that target(s)'s attention and during which you can't be interrupted. Charm Person is a 1st-level spell and it will have the same DC, and creatures don't know that you attempted to affect them with a spell unless the spell explicitly says that they do, or if there is some visual effect (like a ball of fire).
  • Mantle of Majesty: There are a number of spells which charm a creature, including Charm Person. By charming a creature and using Command to prevent the creature from using their turn (Drop and Grovel are great options), you can mostly paralyze a creature. Unfortunately, since you don't use a spell slot command is cast at its minimum spell level and will only affect one creature. This will work great to lock down strong single enemies, but in a fight against a group you probably don't want to use this.
  • Unbreakable Majesty: This is an amazing option both defensively and offensively. Make sure to buff your AC or look for other defensive options so that you won't get killed, but you should strongly consider drawing attacks specifically to force this effect on enemies. Disadvantage on saving throws against your spells in the following round means that a well-chosen save-or-suck spell can immediately take the creature out of the fight.

College of LorePHB

College of Lore is for magic and spellcasting-oriented Bards who don't plan to use weapons. The abilities are fantastic, and really play to the Bard's function as a Jack of All Trades, and to the Bards abilities as a Support.

  • Bonus Proficiencies: 3 more skills of your choice brings your class total up to 6. You also get Expertise at this level, so level 3 represents a considerable jump in skill.
  • Cutting Words: This excludes saving throws, so you can't force enemies to fail save-or-suck saves, but you can use it to protect allies from attacks which barely hit, or from things like the Shove action.
  • Additional Magical Secrets: Even more spells from a different class! This is especially nice because you get it four levels earlier than other Bards.
  • Peerless Skill: This has a lot of applications. Combined with Superior Inspiration you could take an inspiration die on every initiative check. You'll want to be careful about using this for skill checks, as that can eat up your uses per day very quickly, and won't be as useful as potentially saving the life of one of your allies.

College of SwordsXGtE

Thematically similar to College of Valor, College of Swords places more emphasis on offense than College of Valor, offering access to Fighting Style and some interesting options with Blade Flourish. Blade Flourish is the subclass's signature ability, and it's awful. It eats your Bardic Inspiration dice for pitifully weak abilities. If you want similar capabilities, consider a College of Valor Bard with the Martial Adept feat or a few levels of Battlemaster Fighter. This subclass might be viable in games that start at 14th level or above once Master's Flourish comes into play, but in a normal game I don't see this archetype being useful for anything except maybe a gimmicky option in Expertise builds.

  • Bonus Proficiencies: Medium armor is nice until you get to 18 or 20 Dexterity, but you don't get shields, so your AC won't be as good as a College of Valor Bard. Scimitars are useful if you plan to use two-weapon fighting, which becomes a viable idea thanks to Fighting Style. This class feature also allows you to use weapons in which you are proficient as a spellcasting focus. This is extremely useful when you need to cast spells in the middle of combat.
  • Fighting Style: An excellent improvement to your offensive abilities with weapons, but it largely locks you into melee combat.
    • Dueling: Bards are spellcasters first, and having a free hand to hold a spellcasting focus and to perform somatic components means that you don't need to constantly juggle one of your weapons. If you plan to use spells with material components, you'll need a free hand to use a spell component pouch or an instrument because you can't sheath a weapon and draw a spellcasting focus in one turn without wasting your action.
    • Two-Weapon Fighting: While this presents a considerable boost to your weapon damage output, but bards already have several abilities which consume their bonus action, including Bardic Inspiration and some spells.
  • Blade Flourish: Every flourish applies the Inspiration die roll as extra damage to the creature, but the damage feels like it was thrown on to make this feel more appealing, and I don't think it worked. The effects just aren't good enough to justify spending a Bardic Inspiration die.
    • Defensive Flourish: You never roll more than one die for your Bardic Inspiration, so it's entirely possible that you'll roll a 1. The 1-round duration means that you're spending one of your most scarce resources for an unpredictable, unreliable, and short-lived bonus to AC. If you're desperate for AC, take the Dodge action.
    • Slashing Flourish: It's nice that this applies damage to two creatures, but the damage just isn't good enough to justify spending Inspiration.
    • Mobile Flourish: I would just assume that you won't get more than the base 5 feet of pushing. Generally if an effect doesn't move you a full 5 feet it gets ignored because most people use combat grids.
  • Extra Attack: A considerable improvement to your damage output with weapons.
  • Master's Flourish: Blade Flourish is mostly fine, but is hugely limited by your tiny pool of Bardic Inspiration dice in a single day. Allowing you to use it every round, even with a smaller die, makes it a reliable and meaningful part of your actions in any given turn. Unfortunately, you've spent 13 levels limping along before Master's Flourish came along and made you useful.

College of ValorPHB

The warrior Bard will prefer the College of Valor. By improving the Bard's ability to wade into melee safely, the Bard can fill nearly every role in a party. If you're in a small party, this is an absolutely fantastic option. However, in a party of 4 or more the Valor Bard's lack of focus will make it hard for the Bard to truly shine.

  • Bonus Proficiencies: Medium armor and a shield will significantly improve your AC. With 14 ore more Dexterity, a breastplate, and a shield, you're looking at a respectable 18 AC, enough to match a fighter in full plate. Half-plate will get you more AC, but you might prefer to avoid the Stealth Disadvantage. If you eventually get to 18 Dexterity, consider switching back to light armor. You also get access to all martial weapons, but you're probably going to want to stick to a Rapier, and all Bards get proficiency with rapiers.
  • Combat Inspiration: The ability to add the inspiration die to damage is very wasteful. You'll have much better results using it to prevent attacks. This isn't quite as good as the Coolege of Lore's Cutting Words ability, but it allows your allies to make the decision to use the die themselves, which is a nice mental load off of your shoulders.
  • Extra Attack: Most of the time you'll still want to stick to spells, but with a decent Dexterity your weapon attacks may outpace your Cantrips in terms of reliable damage for a while.
  • Battle Magic: An excellent use of your Bonus Action since Bards don't have a lot of ways to use them. If you pick up Magic Initiate, and take Booming Blade and/or Green-Flame Blade, you can still manage to make two weapon attacks in a single turn.

College of WhispersXGtE

I wouldn't consider College of Whispers for a normal adventuring campaign, but if your game is heavy on roleplaying and light on traditional things like dungeon crawling, College of Whispers offers some potentially useful options.

  • Psychic Blades: Notably, this works with ranged weapons so you're not forced to go swing a rapier. However, the damage is pitiful compared to how useful a Bardic Inspiration die is.
  • Words of Terror: I'm having trouble thinking of a way to use this with any frequency.
  • Mantle of Whispers: Situational, but it's notably better than options like Disguise Self due to your ability to glean mundane information about the person you're impersonating. I can't think of how many times a disguise has been foiled by something as simple as the assumed identities associates attempting to make small-talk.
  • Shadow Lore: Once per day you get a somewhat diminished version of Dominate Monster with a 8-hour duration. Charm bosses and force them to give you their treasure. Charm NPCs and force them to reveal plot secrets. Get creative. Unfortunately, you need to share a language with the target, so be sure to cast Tongues beforehand.