Radiant Performer by Alessandra Pisano

Last week, I wrapped up my barbarian subclass rankings. This week, it’s time for the bard. As a reminder, there are three main categories I will be looking at as I judge the power level of each subclass: combat strength, allowance for a range of powerful builds, and how it interacts with multiclassing. Since the bard has eight subclasses, this will be a two-part post, starting with the bottom four.

8. Whispers

Night’s Whisper by John Severin Brassell

The edgy rogue of bard subclasses, I remember having a generally positive impression of Whispers before writing this article. However, that impression has changed significantly. This subclass is a series of features that are either weak, a trap for inexperienced players, or both, resulting in something that is possibly worse than a bard with no subclass.

Level 3 – Psychic Blades

You gain the ability to make your weapon attacks magically toxic to a creature’s mind.

When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to deal an extra 2d6 psychic damage to that target. You can do so only once per round on your turn.

The psychic damage increases when you reach certain levels in this class, increasing to 3d6 at 5th level, 5d6 at 10th level, and 8d6 at 15th level.

This ability is a weaker version of a rogue’s Sneak Attack that requires a resource, is attached to a class that has fewer ways to ensure its attacks hit, and is weaker than other actions the class could be taking. If this damage were triggered as a bonus to handing out Inspiration, I could see its usefulness, but as is, most bards will be better off ignoring this option.

Level 3 – Words of Terror

You learn to infuse innocent-seeming words with an insidious magic that can inspire terror.

If you speak to a humanoid alone for at least 1 minute, you can attempt to seed paranoia in its mind. At the end of the conversation, the target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw against your spell save DC or be frightened of you or another creature of your choice. The target is frightened in this way for 1 hour, until it is attacked or damaged, or until it witnesses its allies being attacked or damaged.

If the target succeeds on its saving throw, the target has no hint that you tried to frighten it.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

This ability has two major issues. The first is how situational it is. It takes a minute of isolated conversation to trigger, isn’t guaranteed to work, and is dispelled in a myriad of ways. The second issue is that, even if it works, Words of Terror is weaker than the 2nd level Suggestion spell. I’m personally not a huge fan of spells like Suggestion, but if you want this kind of effect, you’ll be a lot more effective casting that than attempting to use this feature.

Level 6 – Mantle of Whispers

You gain the ability to adopt a humanoid’s persona. When a humanoid dies within 30 feet of you, you can magically capture its shadow using your reaction. You retain this shadow until you use it or you finish a long rest.

You can use the shadow as an action. When you do so, it vanishes, magically transforming into a disguise that appears on you. You now look like the dead person, but healthy and alive. This disguise lasts for 1 hour or until you end it as a bonus action.

While you’re in the disguise, you gain access to all information that the humanoid would freely share with a casual acquaintance. Such information includes general details on its background and personal life, but doesn’t include secrets. The information is enough that you can pass yourself off as the person by drawing on its memories.

Another creature can see through this disguise by succeeding on a Wisdom (Insight) check contested by your Charisma (Deception) check. You gain a +5 bonus to your check.

Once you capture a shadow with this feature, you can’t capture another one with it until you finish a short or long rest.

Cool flavor, bad ability. Much like Words of Terror, this feature has the problem that there is a low-level bard spell that does something very similar, namely Disguise Self. This ability is in some ways better than the 1st level spell, as it grants you some info on whoever’s face you’re using and gives you bonuses to maintaining your disguise. However, it is also more restrictive, as you can only take on the face of one person you killed since your last rest.

Level 14 – Shadow Lore

You gain the ability to weave dark magic into your words and tap into a creature’s deepest fears.

As an action, you magically whisper a phrase that only one creature of your choice within 30 feet of you can hear. The target must make a Wisdom saving throw against your spell save DC. It automatically succeeds if it doesn’t share a language with you or if it can’t hear you. On a successful saving throw, your whisper sounds like unintelligible mumbling and has no effect.

On a failed saving throw, the target is charmed by you for the next 8 hours or until you or your allies attack it, damage it, or force it to make a saving throw. It interprets the whispers as a description of its most mortifying secret. You gain no knowledge of this secret, but the target is convinced you know it.

The charmed creature obeys your commands for fear that you will reveal its secret. It won’t risk its life for you or fight for you, unless it was already inclined to do so. It grants you favors and gifts it would offer to a close friend.

When the effect ends, the creature has no understanding of why it held you in such fear.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest.

Part of me wonders if the idea bucket was running a bit dry the day Wizards designed this subclass, because this feature has the exact same problem the last two had: it’s easily duplicated by existing spells. Specifically Charm Person and Charm Monster, both available to all bards.

With a 3rd level trap feature and the rest offering little more than an additional use of spells already available to the bard, Whispers quietly takes eighth place.

7. Valor

Valorous Stance by Willian Murai

The first bard I ever saw played in 5E was a Valor bard, and it left me with the impression that the bard was still awful. I was completely wrong: the bard was fine; it was just this subclass that was awful. The College of Valor has to be the worst case of a “do nothing” subclass. Its only decent feature is done better through a feat, multiclassing, or another bard subclass.

Level 3 – Bonus Proficiencies

 You gain proficiency with medium armor, shields, and martial weapons.

Speaking of that decent feature, here it is. The upgrade from pure light armor to medium armor and shields is significant. It’s not enough to let the Valor bard survive on the frontline, but it gives them a bit more safety if anything manages to reach them in the backline.

However, the benefits of this feature can be replicated in so many cheaper ways than spending your entire subclass on it. The Moderately Armored feat can be taken as early as level 1, providing you with the same proficiencies and a stat bump. Multiclassing a single level of Hexblade grants you the same proficiencies, while a single level of cleric can grant the same plus heavy armor and not slowing your spell slot progress. Finally, the College of Swords exists, granting many of the same proficiencies. I’ve even written a full article on this comparison.

Level 3 – Combat Inspiration

You learn to inspire others in battle. A creature that has a Bardic Inspiration die from you can roll that die and add the number rolled to a weapon damage roll it just made. Alternatively, when an attack roll is made against the creature, it can use its reaction to roll the Bardic Inspiration die and add the number rolled to its AC against that attack, after seeing the roll but before knowing whether it hits or misses.

Many people I’ve seen defend this subclass point to this feature as a positive. After all, expanding what can be done with Inspiration has to be a good thing, right? I would argue that this feature offers actively bad options that do nothing but muddy how players can effectively use Bardic Inspiration.

In order to understand why I feel this way, let’s look at how Inspiration can be used by default. Since Combat Inspiration only involves combat options, we’ll narrow our focus to those.

Once within the next 10 minutes, the creature can roll the die and add the number rolled to one attack roll or saving throw it makes.

The important option here is the ability to apply Inspiration dice to a saving throw. Saving throws place more importance on a single dice roll than just about any other interaction in 5E. A monster or player can make many attacks per round, so making a small adjustment to one of those attacks or damage rolls is a minor change to the fight as a whole. However, failing the save against a dragon’s fear aura or a lich’s Hold Person can be the difference between a won and lost encounter. It’s almost always better to save your Inspiration for a saving throw, making the feature useless. Inexperienced players might even be tempted to spend their Inspiration on relatively unimportant attack or damage rolls, turning this feature into a trap.

Bardic Inspiration already has great uses in and out of combat. Combat Inspiration does nothing to supersede those good options.

Level 6 – Extra Attack

You can attack twice, instead of once, whenever you take the Attack action on your turn.

The Valor bard is poorly positioned to function as a martial option. In isolation, Extra Attack is great, but it’s at its worst in this subclass. If you want Extra Attack as a bard, pick College of Swords.

Level 14 – Battle Magic

You have mastered the art of weaving spellcasting and weapon use into a single harmonious act. When you use your action to cast a bard spell, you can make one weapon attack as a bonus action.

A feature that pulls the Valor bard in two opposing directions, this is a bad capstone. Given the required investments of attributes and feats, it’s almost impossible to be good at both casting and martial attacks. No matter which type of play you’re focused on, Battle Magic asks you to do a thing you’re bad at. Either the spellcaster bard uses their bonus action to make a bad weapon attack instead of handing out an Inspiration die, or the martial bard is burning their extra attack action to cast a spell they aren’t very effective with.

Every time I take another look at the Valor subclass I am newly dismayed by how little it does for the bard; however, its armor proficiencies are enough to push it into seventh place.

6. Swords

I’m starting to see a pattern of martial bard subclasses being the weakest options. Nonetheless, I consider Swords significantly better than the last two entries on this list. It has the best features of the three and can be used for some powerful martial caster builds. However, the narrowness of the subclass’s application is still a major weakness.

Level 3 – Bonus Proficiencies

You gain proficiency with medium armor and the scimitar.

If you’re proficient with a simple or martial melee weapon, you can use it as a spellcasting focus for your bard spells.

The proficiencies are decent, although I’d recommend starting as a level 1 fighter if you plan to focus on being a martial bard. The fighter’s starting saves, proficiencies, and fighting style are almost a requirement for that kind of character. The weapon as spell focus feature is nice as a means of simplifying your casting while wielding weapons.

Level 3 – Fighting Style

You adopt a style of fighting as your specialty. Choose one of the following options. You can’t take a Fighting Style option more than once, even if something in the game lets you choose again.

Dueling. When you are wielding a melee weapon in one hand and no other weapons, you gain a +2 bonus to damage rolls with that weapon.
Two-Weapon Fighting. When you engage in two-weapon fighting, you can add your ability modifier to the damage of the second attack.

If this feature had the breadth of styles available to fighters, paladins, or rangers, it would be amazing for a martial bard. Unfortunately, the options available here are middling. Of these two, Dueling is probably the stronger option, especially if you manage to pick up a shield proficiency. This is why it’s so important to start with a level of fighter. That class gets fighting styles that are actually good.

Level 3 – Blade Flourish

You learn to perform impressive displays of martial prowess and speed.

Whenever you take the Attack action on your turn, your walking speed increases by 10 feet until the end of the turn, and if a weapon attack that you make as part of this action hits a creature, you can use one of the following Blade Flourish options of your choice. You can use only one Blade Flourish option per turn.

Defensive Flourish. You can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target you hit. The damage equals the number you roll on the Bardic Inspiration die. You also add the number rolled to your AC until the start of your next turn.

Mobile Flourish. You can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target you hit. The damage equals the number you roll on the Bardic Inspiration die. You can also push the target up to 5 feet away from you, plus a number of feet equal to the number you roll on that die. You can then immediately use your reaction to move up to your walking speed to an unoccupied space within 5 feet of the target.

Slashing Flourish. You can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target you hit and to any other creature of your choice that you can see within 5 feet of you. The damage equals the number you roll on the Bardic Inspiration die.

This is the first good alternative use of Inspiration dice we’ve seen on this list. Defensive Flourish is by far the strongest option, as it gives you bonus damage and an AC boost that lasts an entire round. On average, it’s weaker than the Shield spell until you hit level 10, but Inspiration dice are also generally less valuable than spell slots, so I think it’s an even trade.

Level 6 – Extra Attack

You can attack twice, instead of once, whenever you take the Attack action on your turn.

If you’re going for a martial bard, this is a must-have feature.

Level 14 – Master’s Flourish

Whenever you use a Blade Flourish option, you can roll a d6 and use it instead of expending a Bardic Inspiration die.

This is a great subclass capstone. Prior to this feature, every flourish we used was an Inspiration die we couldn’t hand out to another player. I don’t subscribe to the idea that bards who spend their Inspiration on their own features are “selfish,” but removing that dilemma entirely is a big boost.

For very specific builds, Swords is a great subclass. However, its general usage is still pretty limited. The subclass takes sixth place with a flourish.

5. Glamour

Lathril, Blade of the Elves by Caroline Gariba

The College of Glamour was the hardest entry to rank on this list, as it centers on open-ended, mind-altering abilities. I personally take a pretty strict view on abilities like these, locking their open-ended effects to what other spells or abilities of their level can do.

For example, if someone tries to use Suggestion to end an entire encounter with a creative command, I would limit its effectiveness to somewhere around a 2nd level control spell like Hold Person. If your GM allows for more liberal interpretations of these abilities, this subclass will be stronger.

Level 3 – Mantle of Inspiration

You gain the ability to weave a song of fey magic that imbues your allies with vigor and speed.

As a bonus action, you can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to grant yourself a wondrous appearance. When you do so, choose a number of creatures you can see and that can see you within 60 feet of you, up to a number equal to your Charisma modifier (minimum of one). Each of them gains 5 temporary hit points. When a creature gains these temporary hit points, it can immediately use its reaction to move up to its speed, without provoking opportunity attacks.

The number of temporary hit points increases when you reach certain levels in this class, increasing to 8 at 5th level, 11 at 10th level, and 14 at 15th level.

If your party doesn’t already have a renewable source of temporary hit points, this feature is quite good. If they do, its power dips significantly. Tasha’s has greatly increased the availability of temporary HP, though, so keep that in mind when picking this subclass.

Level 3 – Enthralling Performance

You can charge your performance with seductive, fey magic.

If you perform for at least 1 minute, you can attempt to inspire wonder in your audience by singing, reciting a poem, or dancing. At the end of the performance, choose a number of humanoids within 60 feet of you who watched and listened to all of it, up to a number equal to your Charisma modifier (minimum of one). Each target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw against your spell save DC or be charmed by you. While charmed in this way, the target idolizes you, it speaks glowingly of you to anyone who talks to it, and it hinders anyone who opposes you, although it avoids violence unless it was already inclined to fight on your behalf. This effect ends on a target after 1 hour, if it takes any damage, if you attack it, or if it witnesses you attacking or damaging any of its allies.

If a target succeeds on its saving throw, the target has no hint that you tried to charm it.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

A situational ability similar to Whispers’ Words of Terror. This one is made slightly better due to the synergy that later Glamour abilities have against charmed targets.

Level 6 – Mantle of Majesty

You gain the ability to cloak yourself in a fey magic that makes others want to serve you. As a bonus action, you cast command, without expending a spell slot, and you take on an appearance of unearthly beauty for 1 minute or until your concentration ends (as if you were concentrating on a spell). During this time, you can cast command as a bonus action on each of your turns, without expending a spell slot.

Any creature charmed by you automatically fails its saving throw against the command you cast with this feature.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest.

This ability is a great way to efficiently impact long fights without expending too many resources. Paired with a solid main action cantrip like Eldritch Blast, a Glamour bard can spend their bonus action forcing enemies to go prone or drop their weapons.* If you are able to charm a group of opponents beforehand, this feature gets even better, as they no longer even get the chance to save against its effect.

The ability does requires concentration, so don’t expect to combine its effect with something like Hypnotic Pattern.

Level 14 – Unbreakable Majesty

Your appearance permanently gains an otherworldly aspect that makes you look more lovely and fierce.

In addition, as a bonus action, you can assume a magically majestic presence for 1 minute or until you are incapacitated. For the duration, whenever any creature tries to attack you for the first time on a turn, the attacker must make a Charisma saving throw against your spell save DC. On a failed save, it can’t attack you on this turn, and it must choose a new target for its attack or the attack is wasted. On a successful save, it can attack you on this turn, but it has disadvantage on any saving throw it makes against your spells on your next turn.

Once you assume this majestic presence, you can’t do so again until you finish a short or long rest.

This feature is a significantly stronger version of the Sanctuary spell, in that it continues to function even if you take aggressive actions. You even get a consolation prize if someone manages to hit you, although you’d rather not get hit in the first place. Given the Glamour bard’s role as a squishy caster, you’ll hopefully be out of harm’s way where you won’t need this feature, but it’s nice to have when someone tries to jump you.

As I mentioned, Glamour’s power will vary wildly depending on how your GM rules its various mind-influencing abilities. For me, however, it only manages to charm its way into fifth place.

That wraps up the first four bard subclasses. Tune in next time for the class’s better half, including a brand-new subclass from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.

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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