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DnD 5e - Bard Subclass Breakdown

Last Updated: May 18th, 2021

Disclaimer

RPGBOT uses 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.

The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials are released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.

RPGBOT is unofficial Fan Content permitted under the Fan Content Policy. Not approved/endorsed by Wizards. Portions of the materials used are property of Wizards of the Coast. ©Wizards of the Coast LLC.

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 you to specialize in one thing while remaining a jack of all trades.

Bard Subclasses - Bard Colleges

College of CreationTCoE

College of Creation gives the Bard access to some powerful new tools. Mote of Potential expands on Bardic Inspiration by adding unique rider effects, and the other subclass features grant the ability to create and animate objects. As the Bard gains levels, you can create larger and more valuable items, allowing you to produce tools to solve a variety of problems.

Because half of the College of Creation's class features are tied up in Performance of Creation, it's crucial that you and your DM are on the same page about how it works. The effect is less specific than spells like Creation or Fabricate, which can make it both unpredictable and abusable. Your DM might reasonably limit you to published items (Adventurer's league went that route), which dramatically handicaps the feature because the items published in the Player's Handbook and other sources are tools and items catered to adventurers but typically omit common items which might be useful in real-world scenarios (though some variety of artisans tools suffice in many cases). For example: 5e's published rules don't include stats for a plow, so if your DM limits you to the Player's Handbook and you need to help a farmer plow their field, you're out of luck.

  1. Mote of Potential: Add some rider effects to uses of Bardic Inspiration. All three work well in the right situations.
    • Ability Check: If you're using Bardic Inspiration on an Ability Check it's because you can't afford to fail. Rolling a 1 on that die hurts, so rerolling and using the better result is great insurance.
    • Attack Roll: The damage is fairly minor, but if you have an ally attacking into a crowd the total damage can add up quickly. Think of this like the Ranger's Hail of Thorns spell (except that you get to pick targets so you can't hurt allies) and use it wherever you would use Hail of Thorns.
    • Saving Throw: Using Bardic Inspiration on saving throws is one of the best ways to use it, and adding temporary hit points on top of that benefit is excellent because the target is either going to take damage from the effect (which the temporary hit points will mitigate) or something else nasty is going to happen to them and the temporary hit points will help protect them while they recover.
  2. Performance of Creation: This is a great way to solve problems that require large, bulky, or expensive items that you might not want to haul around with you all the time, as well as to get access to expensive single-use nonmagical items. You might create an anvil or a block of stone if you need something extremely heavy, a row boat to cross a stream, or a battering ram to break down a door. Limiting the item's size to medium is mildly annoying, but the size quickly increase to large at 6th level so most items in the Player's Handbook will be available within a few levels. The 20gp/level cost will cover most things in the player's handbook with the exception of some heavy armor (which can be very pricy). Your DM may also let you go beyond the player's handbook, allowing you to create things like walls to hide behind, bridges to span chasms, columns to prop up falling ceilings, or pieces of furniture to flip over in a fit of rage. Check with your DM to see what they'll allow.

    This notably doesn't require materials like the Fabricate spell, doesn't require any tool proficiencies, and doesn't specify how detailed or intricate the item can be. You may be able to create valuable items like poisons, blocks of gold, or jewelry, and you may be able to create complex, moving items like crossbows, wagons, or siege engines (cheap ones). You may even be able to produce items made of special materials like adamantine weapons. Check with your DM to see what they'll allow.

    You can use this once per day for free and can refresh it by spending a 2nd-level slot, but remember that you can only have one item at a time. You may want wait to use Performance of Creation that until you need it in order to avoid paying the spell slot cost to use it a second time, but on days when you're not adventuring definitely use it to create something small, portable, and useful like an expensive poison.

    The option to refresh Performance of Creation means that you can compare any given item you might create to the benefits of a second-level spell. For example: If you use this to create expensive disposable nommagic items like poisons, explosives, and things like alchemist's fire, compare the effects of that item to casting a spell like Shatter.

  3. Animating Performance: Similar in many ways to summoning a creature for an hour. Your Dancing Item will have a decent number of hit points, and gets one attack that deals a reasonable amount of force damage. Since it's an object, it's not very smart but it's also immune to poison, psychic damage, and some mental status effects like charm. It's a decent combat pet, and it'll keep your Bonus Action busy every turn (though you can share that action with granting Bardic Inspiration).

    The expectation is that you'll cast this on something like a statue, but don't let that limit your choices. The item needs to be large or smaller, so you're allowing cast this on small things like a tankard or a necklace, as well as large things like a cart or even a carpet which might be large enough to carry you and your allies with the dancing item's 30-foot fly speed. At 18 Strength a large dancing item has a carrying capacity of 540 pounds, allowing it to comfortably accomodate 2 medium creatures and their equipment. This becomes even easier if you and your party are mostly small races like halflings, and since it's immune to exhaustian you can ride it as long as you'd like.

    You can use this once per day for free, but you can also refresh the effect by spending a spell slot of 3rd-level or higher, essentially making this equivalent to a third-level spell. Considering that the spell Fly is 3rd-level, has a duration of just 10 minutes, and requires Concentration, using your Dancing Item as a combination flying mount and combat pet is an extremely effective use of a spell slot.

  4. Creative Crescendo: Not quite as good as using Performance of Creation 5 times at once, but close. One item uses the typical size rules and the rest must be small or tiny, but small is as big as a 3-foot tall humanoid and that's plenty to work with. Most weapons could be considered small, and many extremely valuable items like jewels and jewelry are tiny. You could use the big item to make a small catapult and use the other items to make projectiles like urns full of alchemist's fire. You can use all 5 items (because you have 20 Charisma by this level) to make expensive poisons, then hand them off to your party's rogue. Get creative.

College of EloquenceMOoT / TCoE

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.

  1. 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 at 3 (which you also get at 3rd level) you're nearly incapable of failing Charisma (Deception) and Charisma (Persuasion) checks. With a +3 Charisma modifier and Expertise in one of the affected skills, your minimum roll at this level is already a 17, and will rapidly improve as you gain levels.
  2. 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, so this is already mathematically better than imposing Disadvantage, and it only gets more effective as you gain levels.
  3. 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. Between this and Font of Inspiration, you can afford to throw inspiration dice around like confetti.
  4. Universal Speech: A limited version of Tongues for one hour for free every day, and you can do it again by spending a spell slot. You may still want to learn Comprehend Languages so that you can understand other creatures, especially if your party has access to ritual spellcasting.
  5. 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

College of Glamour is great for a bard looking to play a support role, and to lean into Charm effects. Unfortunately, it's limited by the frustratingly small number of spells which actually make targets charmed (it's basically just Charm X and Dominate X) and by the completely mundane ability of other creatures to decide to ignore you despite how glamorous and amazing your are.

While College of Glamour is certainly a fine subclass, it's hard to find a place where it really shines. Mantle of Inspiration is their signature combat ability, but Tasha's College of Everything added Aid to the Bard's spell list, so bards already have a way to improve their parties hit points. Enthralling Performance is neat, but Charm Person mostly does the same thing. Mantle of Majesty is great for locking down a single target, but you need to make them Charmed which means that you need to cast a leveled spell anyway, so why not skip the complications and cast Tasha's Hideous Laughter or Dominate Person? Unbreakable Majesty is excellent, but Sancutary is a 1st-level spell and replicates half of the effect.

In summary: College of Glamour is fine and fun to play, but there's nothing here that's particularly unique.

  1. 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.

    The temporary hit points don't have a specified expiration, so they expire when you complete a long rest. If you use Mantle of Inspiration early in the day, the temporary hit points may last all day long. Once you get Font of Inspriation at 5th level, be sure to use Mantle of Inspiration before you take a Short Rest to squeeze some benefit out of any remaining Bardic Inspiration dice.

  2. 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, it will have the same save DC, and creatures don't know that you've targeted them with the spell so you can cast Charm Person even while being observed, and so long as the creature can't identify the spell and isn't naturally inclined to be hostile about you casting spells, you could try repeatedly until the target fails its save.

    Where Enthralling Performance shines is when you need to charm a group. Enthralling Performance can affect up to 5 creatures once you hit 20 Charisma, which would cost a 5th-level spell slot to replicate with Charm Person. The effect goes a bit beyond the basic effects of Charmed, too, so you can easily turn your new fans toward various non-violent purposes like using them to force your way into a fancy party, to ward off local law enforcement, or to improve your reputation by having the crowd tell random strangers how great you are. However, since Enthralling Performance recharges on a Short or Long Rest, you generally can't exceed a 5-person crowd size (though magical options like Catnap to take a 10-minute short rest may make it possible).

    The problem with Enthralling Performance is finding a suitable crowd who already likes you enough to listen to your for a full minute in a place where you can put them to a useful purpose without restorting to violence. This might be very easy dependening on the nature of your campaign, but in most DnD campaigns you'll spend long periods isolated from polite society (there are very few taverns in dungeons) or in locales with sparse populations of friendly humanoids. In campaigns which frequently involve large cities, this could be much more useful, but if you try to solve every problem by inciting a mob of your fans, your DM might have the guards run you out of town. Look for opportunities to use this, but don't abuse it.

  3. Mantle of Majesty: 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 for Mantle of Majesty, 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.

    The auto-failure effect with Command is also weird since Mantle of Majesty doesn't charm things, so you need to do that part on your own with a different effect, such as Charm Person.

    It's also important to note that Mantle of Majesty still causes you to cast a leveled spell, so on turns where you're casting Command as a Bonus Action you're unable to cast any other spells except cantrips. Again: fine for big single foes, but dangerous in encounters with multiple enemies.

  4. 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 if a creature passes the save, 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 takes one look at the bard's nominal ability to use weapons and decides rightly to disregard those capabilities in favor of more skills, more magical secrets, and the ability to trash talk enemies with Cutting Words. The abilities are fantastic and really play to the Bard's function as a Jack of All Trades, and while it's only two more spells, Additional Magical Secrets allows the Bard to fill in for basically any other spellcaster that you might have in the party so your party never needs to worry about you choosing to play a bard instead of a cleric or a wizard.

  1. Bonus Proficiencies: 3 more skills of your choice brings your class's total number of skill proficiencies up to 6 (not including those from your background and possibly from your race). You also get Expertise at this level, so level 3 represents a considerable jump in your capabilities with skills.
  2. 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 your could use it to hinder enemies' ability checks, such as the opposed ability check to avoid being Grappled or Shoved by an ally.
  3. Additional Magical Secrets: Even more spells from a different class! This is especially nice because you get it four levels earlier than other Bards. At this level you have access to powerful spells which come online at third level like Fireball and Revivify, allowing you to tailor your spell list to fill what capabilities your party might need.
  4. Peerless Skill: This has a lot of applications. Combined with Superior Inspiration you could take an inspiration die on every initiative check (yes, those are ability checks, and yes you also get to add Jack of All Trades). You'll want to be careful about using this for skill checks on days where you expect to do a lot of fighting, 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 SpiritsVRGtR

College of Spirits is built around Tales From Beyond, which allows the Bard to generate a randomly-selected magical effect from a list. This provides a fun but unpredictable mechanic which can be either wildly effective or barely impactful depending on the situation and the Tale drawn. This unpredictability helps to balance some of the more powerful options which amount to save-or-suck effects at the cost of a Bardic Inspiration die.

Managing Tales From Beyond and Spirit Session introduce some new bookkeeping to the Bard, which was already a complex class to begin with. I don't recommend this for new players or players who already find spellcasters to be a challenge, but veteran players comfortable with managing their character's resources won't fine College of Spirits any more complex than playing a wizard.

Unfortunately, while there's a lot to like about College of Spirits, its unpredictability makes it difficult to use to great effect, and Spiritual Focus (which is intended to make your core spellcasting effective enough to carry you when Tales From Beyond isn't helping) is almost non-functional due to the Bard's limited spell list. This appears to be due to the feature assuming that the bonus would apply more broadly, but the RAW rules for how focuses are used limit the spell's benefits to a vanishingly small number of bard spells.

All it would take to raise College of Spirits to green is allowing them to use their Spiritual Focus on any bard spell, and therefore apply the bonus d6 to any damage/healing spell. I think that was the RAI, but WotC has a nasty habit of forgetting how painful the rules for spellcasting foci are.

  1. Guiding Whispers: Guidance is really good even with the limitation of Touch range. With this, you can help your allies from a safe distance, such as by shouting encouragement to a rogue while they disarm traps or sneak behind your enemies. Verbal components need to be spoken clearly and aloud, so "whispers" may be a misnomer, but we don't have an official ruling on just how loud verbal components need to be (Jeremy Crawford says it's up to the DM), so maybe whispering is fine.
  2. Spiritual Focus: At this level you get the ability to use some extra objects as spellcasting foci. This notably includes crystal balls and skulls, neither of which are options for wizards, so you can rub it in the faces of any diviners or necromancers you come across. Mechanically it has almost no effect, though you may accomplish some shenanigans by using the skulls of tiny creatures like mice so that you can hide your focus easily.
  3. Tales from Beyond: College of Spirits signature feature. This is really fun, but it's unpredictable, and unpredictability in class features makes me nervous. You generally don't want to use this in combat because you could spend your Bonus Action to draw something that's not helpful. Instead, you're more likely to use this after a Short Rest and hang onto your Tale until you can use it or it expires.

    Since this costs an inspiration die and expires when you take a Short or Long Rest, it's costly at levels 3 and 4, but it gets much much more manageable at level 5 when you pick up Font of Inspiration. Even then, some of the effects may not be worth the inspiration die to get them.

    Because you roll a Bardic Inspiration die to get your tale, your options are limited by the size of your die. The higher-numbered options are generally better, so there's new stuff to look forward to as you gain levels. Of course, this also means that you're less likely to roll your favorites as your die size grows, but fortunately Mystical Connection will provide some help once you hit level 14.

    1. Clever Animal: Situational. You're most likely to use this in social situations, but it mights also be useful for Dispel Magic and Counterspell. If you can get this running before a social situation the benefits are absolutely massive.
    2. Renowned Duelist: Decent single-target damage, but it's not much better than just casting a cantrip, especially once you add the damage bonus from Spiritual Focus at level 6. Weirdly, this works at range but still calls for a melee spell attack. That usually doesn't matter, but sometimes there are things which affect melee and ranged attacks differently, like Tale of the Avenger.
    3. Beloved Friends: Nearly always useful. The temporary hit points don't have a specified expiration time, so they last until you rest. If you roll this, use it early when it's easy hit two targets and consider getting another Tale.
    4. Runaway: Reposition your entire party. Escape grapples, bindings, and dangerous positions. You do need to be able to see the destination, but that's still enough to solve a lot of problems.
    5. Avenger: Throw this on your party's Defender. It only works for melee attacks, unfortunately, but the damage from this can add up very quickly.
    6. Traveler: Trade the second target from Beloved Friends for a +1 AC bonus and some extra speed. Given the choice between the two and no other information I would likely take Beloved Friends, but in situations where enemies are making large numbers of attacks a +1 AC bonus can make a big difference.
    7. Beguiler: Rob a single target of their turn. I'd be excited about this even if it didn't deal damage.
    8. Phantom: Being invisible will likely give your target Advantage on their attack, which is always welcome, and may allow them to avoid things like Opportunity Attacks. Your best bet is to put this on a rogue, but even if your party doesn't include a rogue the extra damage and Advantage are welcome for any character who relies on attacks. Making the target of the attack Frightened without a save is great, too.
    9. Brute: Turn an ally into the center of a fireball. The AOE is big, the damage type is good, and your target can pick which creatures take damage. This can't match the spell Fireball, but three Bardic Inspiration dice is still a decent pile of damage for the cost to get this. If you have melee allies acting soon after you in initiative, knocking foes Prone will also provide Advantage on their attacks.
    10. Dragon: The damage is slightly higher than Tale of the Brute, but the AOE is much smaller, doesn't omit your allies, doesn't provide a status condition, and does a much worse damage type.
    11. Angel: Lesser Restoration plus a bit of healing. Not always required, but always handy.
    12. Mind-Bender: Literally just Beguiler but better (unless the target is immune to being Stunned).
  4. Spirit Session: Similar in many ways to Magical Secrets, but considerably more complicated and with some additional limitations in exchnage for the ability to change the spell daily. Because this only teaches you the spell temporarily, it's great for odd, situational spells that you typically can't justify learning permanently. However, the limitation to divination and necromancy spells does limit your options condirably.

    If you want to simplify this you can just do the ritual after a Long Rest to learn the same spell every day (Revivify and Summon Undead are good examples), but at that point just play College of Lore. This is great for things like Lesser Restoration or Raise Dead, but don't forget that the spell level is capped at your Proficiency Bonus.

    You're required to include some "willing creatures" in the Spirit Session, but there's no restriction on what those creatures are, what else they're doing, their positions, etc. so it's entirely possible that having 5 tamed birds in a cage nearby (or a bag of rats) will suffice. I think you're intended to use your party members, but if the requirement is just friendly humanoids you could easily find some commoners to hang out with you for an hour.

  5. Spiritual Focus: The actually impactful part of Spiritual Focus comes online at 6th level. Bards don't have as many options for spells which restore hit points or deal direct damage as classes like the Cleric and the Wizard, which is a huge problem for College of Spirits. The d6 is added to one damage/healing roll of a spell, so AOE spells (Shatter) and some multi-target spells are great ways to capitalize on the extra effect, but again, the Bard's options here are pitifully small. This works with cantrips in theory, but there are none that qualify.

    The problem is easy to overlook (I did it on my initial read): Spiritual Focus's bonus only works for spells which are cast through the focus, which means that it only applies to spells with inexpensive material components that aren't consumed by the spell. RAW you can't choose to use a focus when it's not needed, so for most spells Spiritual Focus simply doesn't apply (see the Sage Advice on Spellcasting Rules). Spells like Shatter work, but spells like Cure Wounds and Healing Word don't since they don't have inexpensive material components and therefore can't be cast through a focus.

    The rules around spellcasting foci are a mess, so discuss how your DM wants to handle this. RAI I think you're intended to be able to use this bonus whenever you cast a spell with your focus in hand, but RAW the limitations make this difficult to use. With the RAW restrictions, there are no bard cantrips which qualify, the only healing spell on the Bard's spell list that qualifies is Regenerate, and just five damage spells on the Bard's spell list qualify, and the only one that synergizes well with the damage bonus is Shatter. You can fix this somewhat with Magical Secrets at high levels by picking up something like Fireball, but that's too little, too late.

  6. Mystical Connection: By this level you're rolling a d10 for inspiration, and you get d12 at levek 15, so Tales From Beyond is totally unpredictable. Mystic Connection does a lot to address that, but keeps enough unpredictability to keep Tales From Beyond so much fun.

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 and a small damage boost. 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 effective in games that start at 14th level or above once Master's Flourish comes into play, but in a normal game (most games start between levels 1 and 4) I don't see this archetype being useful for anything except maybe a gimmicky option in Expertise builds.

If you plan to play College of Swords, the best advice I can offer is to take a level in Hexblade Warlock. That will get you proficiency with shields, access to weapon cantrips like Booming Blade, and the ability to use Charisma for attack and damage so that you can use medium armor and focus on Charisma rather than trying to split your ability score increases between Dexterity and Charisma.

While I don't think the mechanics of College of Swords hold up, I think that the concept is exciting and there are some good ideas here. The biggest problem with the subclass is that Blade Flourish shares a resource pool with Bardic Inspiration, and Bardic Inspiration is too useful to spend on flourishes most of the time. As a quick fix: starting at level 3, when the bard scores a critical hit with a weapon attack, they gain one temporary inspiration die which they can only use on a flourish. They may not have more than one such die at a time (to prevent the "bag of rats" trick). They may not be enough, so experiment with some other options.

  1. 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.
  2. Fighting Style: An improvement to your offensive abilities with weapons, but it largely locks you into using melee or thrown weapons. Without a shield, fighting in melee is hard for a class with d8 hit dice, and unlike the Rogue you don't have Uncanny Dodge to mitigate damage when your AC doesn't hold up.
    • Dueling: Bards are spellcasters first, and having a free hand to perform somatic components means that you don't need to constantly juggle one of your weapons to cast a spell which requires Somatic Components but not Material Components. Remember: you can use a hand holding a Focus to perform somatic components only if the spell requires a material component without a listed price.
    • Two-Weapon Fighting: While this presents a considerable boost to your weapon damage output, bards already have several abilities which consume their bonus action, including Bardic Inspiration and some spells, so in many turns you'll need to give up your additional attack in order to do something more important.
  3. 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.

    It's not totally clear how the extra damage here works on a critical hit. Normally you can tell if an effect like Divine Smite or Hex is multiplied because it adds "extra damage" equal to some number of dice. Blade Flourish adds the number rolled on your inspiration die, so it's technically a static numerical bonus like your ability modifier, even though you roll for the damage. I haven't found an answer on this one from Jeremy Crawford, so the RAI is unclear. As a DM, I would allow the damage to be multiplied, but again: I'm not sure if that's the intent.

    • 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 powerful limited resources for an unpredictable, unreliable, and short-lived bonus to AC. The average value is pretty good, but gambling with your defenses like this is risky. If you're desperate for AC, take the Dodge action. If you want lasting defenses, cast a spell.
    • Slashing Flourish: It's nice that this applies damage to any number of qualifying creatures, but the damage isn't very good, so you only want to use this when you're going to hit numerous targets. Of course, casting Thunderclap will have similar effects and may deal considerably more damage without consuming a limited resource.
    • Mobile Flourish: I would just assume that you won't get more than the base 5 feet of pushing since the average roll of your inspiration die won't exceed 5 feet until level 10, and even then your odds are only slightly better than 50%. Generally if an effect doesn't move you a full 5 feet it gets ignored because most people use combat grids. The 5 feet is still enough to break grapples or get out of an enemy's reach in most cases, but you could also Shove or use a spell to solve the same problem.
  4. Extra Attack: A considerable improvement to your damage output with weapons. If you insist on using weapons instead of spells, this is crucial.

    Unfortunately, you don't have a big damage boost like most martial classes do (Sneak Attack, Improved Divine Smite, etc.), so if you can get a weapon cantrip like Booming Blade it will be considerably more effective to use Booming Blade instead of making two attacks. Even with the damage bonus from Dueling, Booming Blade can still do more damage if the secondary damage triggers (see my article on Melee Cantrips vs. Extra Attack.

  5. Master's Flourish: Blade Flourish is mostly fine, but is hugely limited by your tiny pool of Bardic Inspiration dice. Allowing you to use it every round, even with a smaller die, makes it a reliable and meaningful part of your tactics in any turn where you're not primarily casting spells. This is especially nice with two-weapon fighting because you get three attacks with which to apply a flourish. Unfortunately, you've spent 13 levels limping along before Master's Flourish came along and made you useful.

College of ValorPHB

A martially-minded Bard may prefer 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 exciting option. However, in a party of 4 or more the Valor Bard's lack of focus will make it hard for the College of Valor Bard to truly shine.

When DnD 5e was just the core rules, College of Valor allowed the bard to toe the line between sorcerer-like spellcasting and fighter-like martial capabilities. However, newer, similar options like the Bladesigner Wizard, the Hexblade Warlock, and the Artificer have all left College of Valor far behind them in effectiveness. It remains a simple, approachable bard option that's both effective and appealing for newer players, but it's not going to impress you mechanically.

If you plan to play College of Valor, the best advice I can offer is to take a level in Hexblade Warlock. That will get you access to weapon cantrips like Booming Blade and the ability to use Charisma for attack and damage so that you can use medium armor and focus on Charisma rather than trying to split your ability score increases between Dexterity and Charisma. But at that point, you get all the same proficiencies as College of Valor and a cantrip that makes Extra Attack unnecessary, so at that point you can pick literally any other bard subclass and be a more effective version of College of Valor. All that you give up is Battle Magic, and as nice as it is, it's not worth 14 levels to get it.

  1. 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 (without a shield). Half-plate will get you more AC, but you might prefer to avoid Disadvantage on Stealth checks. 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.
  2. Combat Inspiration: The ability to add the inspiration die to damage is wasteful (unless it gets used on a critical hit, in which case it's multiplied since it's "extra damage" rather than an additional source of damage). You'll have much better results using inspiration to prevent attacks. This isn't quite as good as the College 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.
  3. Extra Attack: A considerable improvement to your damage output with weapons. If you insist on using weapons instead of spells, this is crucial.

    Unfortunately, you don't have a damage boost like most martial classes do (Sneak Attack, Improved Divine Smite, etc.), so if you can get a weapon cantrip like Booming Blade it will be considerably more effective to use Booming Blade instead of making two attacks. Booming Blade can still do more damage if the secondary damage triggers (see my article on Melee Cantrips vs. Extra Attack.

  4. Battle Magic: An excellent use of your Bonus Action, but your Bonus Action is also used for Bardic Inspiration, so there will frequently be turns where you can't use Battle Magic. If you learn Booming Blade and/or Green-Flame Blade, you can still manage to make two weapon attacks in a single turn, similar to the Bladesigner or the Eldritch Knight once they get War Magic.

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 common things like dungeon crawling and heavy on things like political intrigue, College of Whispers offers some useful options.

Psychic Blades is the College of Whispers' only combat feature, which should scream to you "hey, this isn't a bard built for combat!" I really cannot emphasize this enough: If you take a College of Whispers bard on a dungeon crawl, they're going to have to scate by on their core class features. And, while the Bard is still a full spellcaster and has great options like Bardic Inspiration, marching from fight to fight for days on end is not a situation where the College of Whispers Bard is comfortable or effective. This is a bard built to be a spy, a courtier, an ambassador, or some similar role.

If you want to bring College of Whispers into a more conventional game where intrigue is generally rare and combat is generally common, consider reworking Psychic Blades so that the Bard isn't forced to split their attention between Dexterity and Charisma. Try this totally untested homebrew fix: Psychic Blades is a spell attack made using a weapon in hand as an Action, but deals damage equal to the Psychic Blades damage plus your Charisma modifier. That gives College of Whispers a decently reliable attack option with noteworthy damage output, but still has a cost to use so they can't rely on it to the exclusion of spellcasting.

  1. 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. You can decide to use this after rolling a critical hit so that you can double the damage dice (similar to effects like Divine Smite or Hunter's Mark), but College of Whispers never gets Extra Attack so you're gambling on a single attack each turn with a 5% chance to crit when you should be casting spells instead. You could explore two-weapon fighting for another chance to hit and potentially deliver Psychic Blades, but that's a lot to commit for a chance to deal a little bit of damage.

    The issue isn't that Psychic Blades is bad. In a vaccuum, it's decent damage of a good damage type. The issue is that it costs a precious resource to do nothing but damage, and while damage is great, you can deal damage with your spells, but you don't replicate Bardic Inspiration with spells. And if you want direct single-target damage you can find more reliably and more damaging options on your spell list without the need to invest in making weapon attacks reliable.

  2. Words of Terror: I'm having trouble thinking of a way to use this with any frequency. It's very difficult to meet the requirements of the feature without a ton of effort to bring it to bear against a suitable humanoid. And even if you manage to make it work, it's rarely more impactful than the spell Fear.
  3. 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 identity's associates attempting to make small-talk. You could also combine this with Words of Terror to infiltrate somewhere in disguise and get someone talking long enough to make them Frightened before your party jumps out of a closet or something.
  4. Shadow Lore: Once per day you get a somewhat diminished version of Dominate Monster with an 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.