Trumpet Blast by Steve Prescott

Four down, four more to go. Last time, I covered the bottom four bard subclasses, and today I finish the list. As a reminder, there are three main categories I will be looking at as I judge the power level of each these subclasses: combat strength, allowance for a range of powerful builds, and how it interacts with multiclassing.

4. Spirits

Ghost Warden by Ittoku

The newest and spookiest bard,* the College of Spirits is the first instance of a subclass based on a random mechanic being a mechanically strong choice.

Level 3 – Guiding Whispers

You can reach out to spirits to guide you and others. You learn the guidance cantrip, which doesn’t count against the number of bard cantrips you know. For you, it has a range of 60 feet when you cast it.

The Guidance spell is one of the best cantrips in the game, and not normally available to bards. Add in the increased range and you have a solid feature.

Level 3 – Spiritual Focus

You employ tools that aid you in channeling spirits, be they historical figures or fictional archetypes. You can use the following objects as a spellcasting focus for your bard spells: a candle, crystal ball, skull, spirit board, or tarokka deck.

Starting at 6th level, when you cast a bard spell that deals damage or restores hit points through the Spiritual Focus, roll a d6, and you gain a bonus to one damage or healing roll of the spell equal to the number rolled.

This feature has probably received the most coverage since Van Richten’s was released, and not in a good way. At first read, this ability seems pretty good, a flavor feature that upgrades to a small bonus for both damage and healing spells. However, the stipulation that the bonus only applies to spells cast through the focus means it can only be applied to spells with material components that don’t cost money, as that is the only time a focus can be used.

Below is every spell that this feature applies to RAW.*

  • Healing
    • Regenerate
  • Damage
    • Cloud of Daggers
    • Heat Metal
    • Phantasmal Force
    • Shatter
    • Dream
    • Feeblemind

This list is… not great. Heat Metal and Shatter are the only spells here that will see common use in an average campaign, and by level 6 they have lost much of their relative strength. With Magical Secrets, the bard can pick up more spells to fit this feature, but that is a major expenditure for a minor bonus. Thankfully, this feature is essentially a freebie at level 6, so its weakness isn’t too much of a loss.

Level 3 – Tales From Beyond

You reach out to spirits who tell their tales through you. While you are holding your Spiritual Focus, you can use a bonus action to expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration and roll on the Spirit Tales table using your Bardic Inspiration die to determine the tale the spirits direct you to tell. You retain the tale in mind until you bestow the tale’s effect or you finish a short or long rest.

You can use an action to choose one creature you can see within 30 feet of you (this can be you) to be the target of the tale’s effect. Once you do so, you can’t bestow the tale’s effect again until you roll it again.

You can retain only one of these tales in mind at a time, and rolling on the Spirit Tales table immediately ends the effect of the previous tale.

If the tale requires a saving throw, the DC equals your spell save DC.

Spirit Tales
Bardic Insp. Die Tale Told Through You
1 Tale of the Clever Animal. For the next 10 minutes, whenever the target makes an Intelligence, a Wisdom, or a Charisma check, the target can roll an extra die immediately after rolling the d20 and add the extra die’s number to the check. The extra die is the same type as your Bardic Inspiration die.
2 Tale of the Renowned Duelist. You make a melee spell attack against the target. On a hit, the target takes force damage equal to two rolls of your Bardic Inspiration die + your Charisma modifier.
3 Tale of the Beloved Friends. The target and another creature of its choice it can see within 5 feet of it gains temporary hit points equal to a roll of your Bardic Inspiration die + your Charisma modifier.
4 Tale of the Runaway. The target can immediately use its reaction to teleport up to 30 feet to an unoccupied space it can see. When the target teleports, it can choose a number of creatures it can see within 30 feet of it up to your Charisma modifier (minimum of 0) to immediately use the same reaction.
5 Tale of the Avenger. For 1 minute, any creature that hits the target with a melee attack takes force damage equal to a roll of your Bardic Inspiration die.
6 Tale of the Traveler. The target gains temporary hit points equal to a roll of your Bardic Inspiration die + your bard level. While it has these temporary hit points, the target’s walking speed increases by 10 feet and it gains a +1 bonus to its AC.
7 Tale of the Beguiler. The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or take psychic damage equal to two rolls of your Bardic Inspiration die, and the target is incapacitated until the end of its next turn.
8 Tale of the Phantom. The target becomes invisible until the end of its next turn or until it hits a creature with an attack. If the target hits a creature with an attack during this invisibility, the creature it hits takes necrotic damage equal to a roll of your Bardic Inspiration die and is frightened of the target until the end of the frightened creature’s next turn.
9 Tale of the Brute. Each creature of the target’s choice it can see within 30 feet of it must make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, a creature takes thunder damage equal to three rolls of your Bardic Inspiration die and is knocked prone. A creature that succeeds on its saving throw takes half as much damage and isn’t knocked prone.
10 Tale of the Dragon. The target spews fire from the mouth in a 30-foot cone. Each creature in that area must make a Dexterity saving throw, taking fire damage equal to four rolls of your Bardic Inspiration die on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
11 Tale of the Angel. The target regains hit points equal to two rolls of your Bardic Inspiration die + your Charisma modifier, and you end one condition from the following list affecting the target: blindeddeafenedparalyzedpetrified, or poisoned.
12 Tale of the Mind-Bender. You evoke an incomprehensible fable from an otherworldly being. The target must succeed on an Intelligence saving throw or take psychic damage equal to three rolls of your Bardic Inspiration die and be stunned until the end of its next turn.

Finally, a bard for all the Wild Magic-loving players out there. Tales From Beyond is the first random feature in 5E I would consider strong; however, I am not the biggest fan of how it got that strength. Previous random tables in 5E, like the Wild Magic sorcerer and barbarian, have suffered from their random effects being immediate, leaving no time to plan how to best use them. Their results were also often weak, situational, or even detrimental. This meant that even if you put up with the randomness, the result you got was mechanically worse than reliable features other characters had.

Spirits bards get around this in two ways. The first is the ability to store the random effect until the bard chooses to use it. This means that even if the outcome is random, you still have a chance to wait until that random effect is useful. The second way the subclass avoids the normal problems of random tables, and the one I dislike, is by significantly pushing the power of these results past what other bard subclasses get out of their Inspiration dice.

Of the first six results, I consider four of them* massive improvements over what most bards are doing. That disparity continues as the Spirits bard gets larger Inspiration dice and unlocks more results. All but one of the expanded options are very good. If a subclasses offered a feature that consistently gave one of those results, I would consider it significantly overpowered.

However, these results aren’t reliable. The bad results, Renowned Duelist,* Avenger, and Dragon, do bring down the average power of the feature.* It’s also possible that the Spirits bard will repeatedly roll results that don’t help with the current situation they’re facing.

The outcome is a feature that’s mechanically solid but relies on its randomness to be balanced. 5E is a random enough game already, and introducing even more can result in large, unpredictable power swings at the table that are unpleasant to play through. It still feels bad to roll a poor result, and it’s little comfort to know that, statistically, you’ll get better results later. Likewise, if you consistently get overpowered results, your fellow PCs may feel overshadowed even if it balances out in the long run.

Level 6 – Spirit Session

Spirits provide you with supernatural insights. You can conduct an hour-long ritual channeling spirits (which can be done during a short or long rest) using your Spiritual Focus. You can conduct the ritual with a number of willing creatures equal to your proficiency bonus (including yourself). At the end of the ritual, you temporarily learn one spell of your choice from any class.

The spell you choose must be of a level equal to the number of creatures that conducted the ritual or less, the spell must be of a level you can cast, and it must be in the school of divination or necromancy. The chosen spell counts as a bard spell for you but doesn’t count against the number of bard spells you know.

Once you perform the ritual, you can’t do so again until you start a long rest, and you know the chosen spell until you start a long rest.

This is a feature with some really cool flavor and decent mechanics. Assuming you have the up to six creatures you need to get the most of this ability,* this is a limited Magical Secrets that can be changed out as needed. There are some decent spell options within the divination and necromancy schools like Revivify, Animate Dead, and Spirit Shroud. Overall I think this feature is, while good, weaker than the similar Lore bard feature.

Level 14 – Mystical Connection

You now have the ability to nudge the spirits of Tales from Beyond toward certain tales. Whenever you roll on the Spirit Tales table, you can roll the die twice and choose which of the two effects to bestow. If you roll the same number on both dice, you can ignore the number and choose any effect on the table.

Given how strong the Tales From Beyond table is, this feature is very good. Now you have a much better chance of getting the result that matches the situation you’re in.

While I think this subclass is pretty powerful, I don’t care for its use of overpowered features only kept in check by randomness. Combined with the possible design oversight in Spiritual Focus, we have a subclass that fails to capture the bardic… spirit. Fourth place.

3. Creation

Song of Creation by Noah Bradley

Pulling ahead of Spirits by a hair, we have the College of Creation, one of the subclasses added in Tasha’s. I awarded this subclasses the higher rank due to its capstone feature and the space it opens for players to be creative.

Level 3 – Mote of Potential

Whenever you give a creature a Bardic Inspiration die, you can utter a note from the Song of Creation to create a Tiny mote of potential, which orbits within 5 feet of that creature. The mote is intangible and invulnerable, and it lasts until the Bardic Inspiration die is lost. The mote looks like a musical note, a star, a flower, or another symbol of art or life that you choose.

When the creature uses the Bardic Inspiration die, the mote provides an additional effect based on whether the die benefits an ability check, an attack roll, or a saving throw, as detailed below:

  • Ability Check. When the creature rolls the Bardic Inspiration die to add it to an ability check, the creature can roll the Bardic Inspiration die again and choose which roll to use, as the mote pops and emits colorful, harmless sparks for a moment.
  • Attack Roll. Immediately after the creature rolls the Bardic Inspiration die to add it to an attack roll against a target, the mote thunderously shatters. The target and each creature of your choice that you can see within 5 feet of it must succeed on a Constitution saving throw against your spell save DC or take thunder damage equal to the number rolled on the Bardic Inspiration die.
  • Saving Throw. Immediately after the creature rolls the Bardic Inspiration die and adds it to a saving throw, the mote vanishes with the sound of soft music, causing the creature to gain temporary hit points equal to the number rolled on the Bardic Inspiration die plus your Charisma modifier (minimum of 1 temporary hit point).

This is a decent rider to the Creation bard’s Inspiration. “Advantage” on the Inspiration dice helps increase the feature’s reliability out of combat, and a chunk of free temporary HP in combat is also good. As I mentioned earlier, I do not recommend using Inspiration dice on attack rolls, and the small area attack granted by this feature is the weakest option available.

The one issue I have with this feature is that the person with the Inspiration dice must use these features when using the dice. Most of the time this won’t be an issue, but I can envision some edge cases where you wouldn’t want these effects to trigger, especially if your GM rules that the visual and auditory effects the motes make are something that could be noticed.* This isn’t super likely to be a problem, but simply changing this feature to being a “may” effect would remove the possibility entirely.

Level 3 – Performance of Creation

As an action, you can channel the magic of the Song of Creation to create one nonmagical item of your choice in an unoccupied space within 10 feet of you. The item must appear on a surface or in a liquid that can support it. The gp value of the item can’t be more than 20 times your bard level, and the item must be Medium or smaller. The item glimmers softly, and a creature can faintly hear music when touching it. The created item disappears after a number of hours equal to your proficiency bonus. For examples of items you can create, see the equipment chapter of the Player’s Handbook.

Once you create an item with this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest, unless you expend a spell slot of 2nd level or higher to use this feature again. You can have only one item created by this feature at a time; if you use this action and already have an item from this feature, the first one immediately vanishes.

The size of the item you can create with this feature increases by one size category when you reach 6th level (Large) and 14th level (Huge).

This feature is interesting in how its power changes over time. At levels 3-13, I’d consider it a very weak option due to the strict gold limitation. At level 3, you’re limited to what most classes can get as starting equipment. When you hit 13, you’re still capped at a 260 gold value. There are some okay poisons at that gold cost, but nothing you’d really want at level 13. However, the subclass’s level 14 ability sees that gold restriction lifted, greatly increasing the power of this feature.

Level 6 – Animating Performance

As an action, you can target a Large or smaller nonmagical item you can see within 30 feet of you and animate it. The animate item uses the Dancing Item stat block, which uses your proficiency bonus (PB). The item is friendly to you and your companions and obeys your commands. It lives for 1 hour, until it is reduced to 0 hit points, or until you die.

In combat, the item shares your initiative count, but it takes its turn immediately after yours. It can move and use its reaction on its own, but the only action it takes on its turn is the Dodge action, unless you take a bonus action on your turn to command it to take another action. That action can be one in its stat block or some other action. If you are incapacitated, the item can take any action of its choice, not just Dodge.

When you use your Bardic Inspiration feature, you can command the item as part of the same bonus action you use for Bardic Inspiration.

Once you animate an item with this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest, unless you expend a spell slot of 3rd level or higher to use this feature again. You can have only one item animated by this feature at a time; if you use this action and already have a dancing item from this feature, the first one immediately becomes inanimate.

A bardic version of the cleric’s Spiritual Weapon spell that can be activated while handing out inspiration dice, this is a good boost to what many bard are already doing. Depending on the item you animate and GM ruling,* this ability could also serve as a mount for the bard, granting them a flying speed.

Level 14 – Creative Crescendo

When you use your Performance of Creation feature, you can create more than one item at once. The number of items equals your Charisma modifier (minimum of two items). If you create an item that would exceed that number, you choose which of the previously created items disappears. Only one of these items can be of the maximum size you can create; the rest must be Small or Tiny.

You are no longer limited by gp value when creating items with Performance of Creation.

Finally, our garbage level 3 ability can become the powerhouse it was meant to be. The Creation bard can now make three items of any gold cost, one of which can be up to Huge in size, while the other two are limited to Small or Tiny.

A quick look at the mundane items available in 5E brings up a few interesting options. Purple Worm Poison is a hard-to-acquire, expensive poison that adds 12d6 to an attack with a DC 19 constitution save. Normally, paying 2000 gold to deal extra damage for one attack isn’t a great deal, but when you can produce three doses at a time for free, it becomes a lot more appealing.

Torpor is another great poison, albeit this time an ingested one. If the target fails the DC 15 save, they are incapacitated for 4d6 hours with no repeated saves. Both these poisons could be used just to improve the bard’s combat performance, but in combination with a true martial character, their effect could be even better.*

Whether you’re making poison or some other silly combination of items, this capstone unlocks a player’s creativity, earning this subclass third place.

2. Eloquence

Niambi, Esteemed Speaker by Eric Deschamps

The best description I’ve come up with for this subclass is the “bardiest bard.” Many of these features feel like they would make great additions to the base class, if you ignore how imbalanced that would be.

Level 3 – Silver Tongue

You are a master at saying the right thing at the right time. When you make a Charisma (Persuasion) or Charisma (Deception) check, you can treat a d20 roll of 9 or lower as a 10.

This feature is so strong that I’m not even mad it does nothing in combat. Persuasion and Deception are two very common skill checks, as players enjoy lying to or trying to convince every NPC they talk to. Pairing this feature with expertise means that at level 3, most Eloquence bards have a minimum roll of 17 for both these skills. This will let you breeze through most social interactions the GM will throw at you.

Level 3 – Unsettling Words

You can spin words laced with magic that unsettle a creature and cause it to doubt itself. As a bonus action, you can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration and choose one creature you can see within 60 feet of you. Roll the Bardic Inspiration die. The creature must subtract the number rolled from the next saving throw it makes before the start of your next turn.

Remember what I said in part one about saving throws being the single most impactful rolls in 5E? That’s just as true for monsters as it is for players. Now, instead of just helping your party make key saving throws, you can make sure monsters fail theirs. Another great part of this feature is that you can either use your Inspiration to set up a friend for success or use it yourself, where most uses of Inspiration are limited to only helping allies.

Level 6 – Unfailing Inspiration

Your inspiring words are so persuasive that others feel driven to succeed. When a creature adds one of your Bardic Inspiration dice to its ability check, attack roll, or saving throw and the roll fails, the creature can keep the Bardic Inspiration die.

This feature is simple and powerful. Now, if a player needs to roll max on an Inspiration die to make a save, they can try to do so without “wasting” the die on a fail. This is one of two Inspiration efficiency features the Eloquence bard gets, and it is great.

Level 6 – Universal Speech

You have gained the ability to make your speech intelligible to any creature. As an action, choose one or more creatures within 60 feet of you, up to a number equal to your Charisma modifier (minimum of one creature). The chosen creatures can magically understand you, regardless of the language you speak, for 1 hour.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest, unless you expend a spell slot to use it again.

This is easily the worst Eloquence feature. Bards already have access to the Tongues spell, rendering this ability mostly redundant. There is a minor synergy between this feature and Comprehend Languages that allows the Eloquence bard to have two-way communication at the cost of a 1st level slot and this ability instead of Tongues’ 3rd level slot. However, this minor spell slot efficiency doesn’t do enough to elevate the feature above subpar.

Level 14 – Infectious Inspiration

When you successfully inspire someone, the power of your eloquence can now spread to someone else. When a creature within 60 feet of you adds one of your Bardic Inspiration dice to its ability check, attack roll, or saving throw and the roll succeeds, you can use your reaction to encourage a different creature (other than yourself) that can hear you within 60 feet of you, giving it a Bardic Inspiration die without expending any of your Bardic Inspiration uses.

You can use this reaction a number of times equal to your Charisma modifier (minimum of once), and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

The second Inspiration efficiency feature I mentioned, this ability is also great. This ability grants you up to five more uses of your Inspiration dice that requires a reaction instead of a bonus action to hand out. Given how good the Eloquence Inspiration dice are, this ensures that your party will have Inspiration available for most important roles.

Eloquence is the bard subclass I recommend for people who don’t know what Additional Magical Secrets they’d take as Lore bard. Eloquence is a great support option that makes you better at almost everything many bard builds are trying to do. Second place goes to Eloquence.

1. Lore

Lorehold Apprentice by Manuel Castañón

Speaking of Lore, we come to first place. This makes two for the three classes I’ve covered so far* that find their strongest subclasses in the Player’s Handbook. Like its barbarian counterpart, Lore is a subclass that draws most of its power from a single feature. Thankfully, Lore’s other features, while not amazing, are significantly better than the garbage Totem Warriors get.

Level 3 – Bonus Proficiencies

You gain proficiency with three skills of your choice.

Skill proficiencies are always nice to have, and this feature gives you three more to play with. This upgrades the bard from one of the better skill classes to the unmatched monarch of all things skill-related. Not a super powerful feature, but still quite useful.

Level 3 – Cutting Words

You learn how to use your wit to distract, confuse, and otherwise sap the confidence and competence of others. When a creature that you can see within 60 feet of you makes an attack roll, an ability check, or a damage roll, you can use your reaction to expend one of your uses of Bardic Inspiration, rolling a Bardic Inspiration die and subtracting the number rolled from the creature’s roll. You can choose to use this feature after the creature makes its roll, but before the DM determines whether the attack roll or ability check succeeds or fails, or before the creature deals its damage. The creature is immune if it can’t hear you or if it’s immune to being charmed.

This feature is another case of generally being worse than what Inspiration dice can already be used for, namely saving throws. There are cases where this can be quite good, such as a grappler build ensuring that their target loses the contested check, but most of the time I’d say Inspiration dice are better spent by your party members to resist powerful spell effects.

Level 6 – Additional Magical Secrets

You learn two spells of your choice from any class. A spell you choose must be of a level you can cast, as shown on the Bard table, or a cantrip. The chosen spells count as bard spells for you but don’t count against the number of bard spells you know.

Here we have the feature that still maintains the Lore’s subclass dominance. The ability to pick up two additional spells of up to 3rd level is incredibly powerful and can define entire builds. You have powerhouse spells like Spirit Guardians, Haste, Fireball, and Spirit Shroud. There are also lower-level spells like Find Steed or Spike Growth that some builds can’t do without. Magical Secrets’ ability to break the normal balancing of class spell lists is what makes the bard so powerful in 5E, and being able to do that four levels earlier than any other bard is a huge boost.

Level 14 – Peerless Skill

Starting at 14th level, when you make an ability check, you can expend one use of Bardic Inspiration. Roll a Bardic Inspiration die and add the number rolled to your ability check. You can choose to do so after you roll the die for the ability check, but before the DM tells you whether you succeed or fail.

Now back to the subpar features. This ability is fine for helping you succeed on a clutch skill check, but as I mentioned before, you probably want to save your Inspiration dice to help your party members make saving throws.

Despite most of its features being average to weak, the flexibility of the Lore bard’s Additional Magical Secrets cannot be ignored. It was the most powerful subclass in 2014, and it retains that title in 2021.

I’m happy to see how far the bard has come since its days of being the joke class back in D&D 3.5. The base class is strong enough that even the weakest subclass can be used to make a powerful character. Many builds I’ve played use bard for the majority of their levels, and I have never been disappointed by what the class can do. Check in next week as tackle the cleric and its fourteen subclasses.

I have also created a tier list for those of you that are interested.

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

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