This new packet is a sanity-destroying beast with a huge number of reversions and new changes, so I’m going to get right to it. Seventy-seven pages.
Most of the boilerplate text of previous documents is trimmed out here, presumably for the same reason.
The broad change to understand going in is that every class getting subclass features at the same levels has been reverted: now all classes get their first subclass feature(s) at 3rd level, then follow their previous progression. This is a worst-of-both approach, to me. In 5e.14 (an experimental notation for the 2014 version), I liked having some classes get subclass features at 1st level, where narrative demanded, and very much disliked the odd long wait that some classes had between features (looking at you, 9th-level rogue subclass feature).
The previous iteration of this UA tried everyone getting subclass features at 3/6/10/14, which required certain narrative contortions but solved the long-gap problem and opened the door to subclasses serving multiple classes. Now we have narrative contortions and long gaps. Wrong conclusion from negative feedback, y’all.
Also, you remember how in earlier UA packets, classes got an Epic Boon at 20th level, or an Epic Boon and Ability Score Adjustment that could go above 20? Yeah, that’s gone. Each class’s old capstone ability (often a currency fixer) has moved down to 18th level, and a new capstone shows up at 20th level. Odd choice, to me.
The changes to the Bard are quite substantial, in line with how controversial the previous version was.
- Bardic Inspiration is once again given as a bonus action rather than a reaction, so you can inspire people for things that aren’t narratively perceptible as actions: Deception, Stealth, Sleight of Hand, saving throws against things with no visible signature. Characters aren’t inspired only after the fact.
- Also, and at least as important, the character who receives the inspiration doesn’t expend it until they fail a d20 Test, so we’ve gotten away from the very odd declaration moment of 5e.14 – where you see the d20 result but don’t get to know whether it’s a success or failure yet.
- The healing aspect of Bardic Inspiration is gone, as it encouraged hoarding mentality.
- You also have an hour, rather than 10 minutes, to spend the die. This matters only in rare cases, but at low levels, when the dice only come back on a long rest, you’ll be grateful for it.
- I’d like to see dice come back a little more often than per-long-rest at 1st level, because it’s such a core element of the class, and waiting until 5th level for Font of Inspiration is a lot. It works that way to put a brake on multiclass dipping for Bardic Inspiration, so maybe we could go with per-long-rest + refresh 1 on a short rest?
- Spellcasting is also greatly changed. Instead of getting half of the Arcane spell list and a grab-bag of healing spells, you can now choose your spell list – Arcane, Divine, or Primal – and get all of that list. But only that list, until 10th It makes Arcane a tough pick before 10th level, because for the last 23 years of D&D, bards have been healers (and before that, bards mostly didn’t get played). You also get Vicious Mockery, no matter which list you choose.
- You can reassign one spell per level, in addition to any new spells you learn. This is a change from having the full Arcane list for spell prep each day. I personally like the Wizard getting to change up their spell prep list each day (and being the only Arcane class to do so) as a unique thing, and I was concerned about how the Wizard would feel if the Bard had that much freedom to select spells – but by the time the UA Wizard dropped, it looked like they’d already backed off of every class changing up their spell selection every long rest, so we never really found out how the Wizard could have worked in that dynamic.
- Also, in the first UA Bard, you had to prepare your spells according to your number of spell slots in that level. That’s gone and we’re back to you choosing to assign your spells across all the levels you have access to. (Buuut they’re still called “Prepared Spells,” which is a change in wording that creates no improvement in clarity.)
- Expertise at 2nd level still applies to two of your proficient skills. They’ve tweaked the wording on the “default” recommendation; I like the new wording better.
- Jack of All Trades at 2nd level is back to what it was in 5e.14. No issue there. It no longer applies to initiative rolls, though, because of a change in wording (“that uses a skill proficiency you lack”: initiative checks don’t use any skill proficiency).
- Bard subclass progression is back to 3/6/14. This is the single ugliest casualty of going back to 5e.14 subclass progression: Bard subclasses keep you waiting from 6th to 14th, and have to tell their story in fewer features (or double up at 6th).
- Ability Score Improvement or a Feat at 4, 8, 12, 16, 19. Like y’do.
- Font of Inspiration at 5th level both refreshes your Bardic Inspiration dice on a short rest, as I mentioned, and lets you burn spell slots to refresh Bardic Inspiration dice, once per turn. That’s… potentially a better use of low-level spell slots than spellcasting, especially when you get into hard-counter uses of Bardic Inspiration like Cutting Words or Combat Inspiration (Defense).
- I’m mentally comparing this use of a 1st-level spell slot to Silvery Barbs. This feature can’t do anything about a critical hit, but other than that, it’s more effective at turning a hit to a miss than SB, because you (usually) only expend the currency when you have a reasonably good chance of success. Hmm.
- Countercharm is back, at 7th level – and it’s useful, which is unprecedented in D&D. Now it’s a Reaction that grants not only a new save after you or your friend has failed to resist a Charmed or Frightened effect, but also grants advantage on that saving throw.
- It can’t affect the whole party anymore, but it also doesn’t take your action in advance of the effect happening or require that you keep using an action to sustain it.
- Expertise at 9th level grants Expertise in two more proficient skills.
- Magical Secrets at 10th level lets you treat Arcane, Divine, and Primal as all being your spell list. Uh. That’s maybe too much? But it goes to show how far the design has to go to fit the Bard into the Arcane/Divine/Primal system, when 3.x and 5e.14 give them an oddball spell list that isn’t quite like anything else.
- The thing is, I love the idea of three different kinds of Bard: a more Arcane mind controller, a more Divine healer/buffer (Divine attack spells seem kinda weird, though), and a more Primal nature-and-healing one. It’s just that the Arcane one still needs healing to fit into a party’s reasonable expectation that a Bard would be able to do that.
- So basically at 10th level you can start reconstructing a classic Bard spell list.
- Superior Inspiration at 18th level restores two Bardic Inspiration dice when you roll initiative and have none remaining. By this point, hardly necessary – you definitely have enough spell slots to burn a few on more Bardic Inspiration.
- Words of Creation at 20th level is the new Bard capstone. You learn Power Word Heal and Power Word Kill, and when you cast either, you can target a second creature within 10 feet of the first. They’re not underlined here to signal that they’ve been rewritten, but both spells have in fact been rewritten for this packet. Anyway, this is a pretty cool capstone feature – I think it takes some meaningful chutzpah in design to take two iconic 9th-level spells and write a feature that makes both of them a lot better.
Overall, I think this Bard improves in a lot of ways. It’s easy to see how this class lets you feel cool and powerful. On the other hand, the way their spell list choices work makes things awfully awkward below 10th level, followed by “oh fine do whatever you want” at 10th and above. I want to like that freedom in theme, but I mainly see that it will lead to player conflicts around “we expected you to be a healer!/I’m not that kind of bard!”
Song of Rest is gone, and that makes me sad. I would like more classes and builds to have ways to do more with Short Rests.
Now for some subclasses. We have three returning champions (Glamour, Lore, Valor) and one newcomer: the College of Dance. I love that American English has decided that the British spelling of “glamor” is a connotatively different word. More like the College of Extraneous U’s, amirite?
College of Dance
No matter how the mechanics turn out, I think this is destined to be popular with the fanbase. Its theme is “what if Monk, but actually Bard? Mard? Bonk?”
- Dazzling Footwork does three things for you; that’s normal for something that offers a major playstyle shift to the base class.
- Unarmored Defense works like the Monk’s feature of the same name, but it’s +Cha rather than +Wis, while you’re unarmored and not wearing a shield.
- Agile Strikes lets you make an Unarmed Strike when you expend a Bardic Inspiration die, when you’re using an action, bonus action, or reaction. (But not for Tandem Footwork, your 6th-level feature, because that isn’t any kind of action.) This is pseudo-Flurry of Blows.
- Bardic Damage (in my head this is “Rockette High Kicks”) lets you roll your Bardic Inspiration die for your Unarmed Strike damage, and use Dex as your attack stat for them. So it’s Martial Arts. (From what I understand, most Bards are more into Marital Arts, IYKWIMAITYD.)
- Inspiring Movement, also at 3rd level, lets you move up to half your Speed, then apply your Bardic Inspiration die roll result x 5 feet as a speed one ally can move. The trigger for this is an enemy ending its turn within 5 feet of your ally, so they close with your ally, get that round of attacks, then you get to rearrange the battlefield – you can close and kick (you will not convince me that this isn’t a flying kick), thanks to Agile Strikes, and then your buddy gets away clean, with no opportunity attacks.
- There aren’t many rescue features like this – Bait and Switch in Battle Master comes to mind, though its range is much shorter. I imagine a lot of Barbarians and Monks, in particular, would really like something like this.
- Leading Evasion at 6th level not only gives you Evasion, an absolutely amazing defensive feature, but it also makes you “radiate” Evasion within a 5-ft radius. This inverts the usual wisdom about clustering for the Fireball – it’s now better to group up than spread out. If the Dance bard is in the middle, they could cover up to 8 allies. This is, in short, unbelievably powerful.
- Tandem Footwork is also at 6th level – if there are fewer feature levels, sometimes you double up. You can spend a Bardic Inspiration die to boost initiative rolls for a number of creatures equal to your Charisma modifier. Reasonably handy, generally low impact, but incredibly powerful for the small number of characters who absolutely must go first. (Assassins, that is.)
- As a side note, I think winning initiative is a bit underappreciated. It’s hard to guess the value of having more control over battlefield positioning, thanks to how opportunity attacks work.
- Irresistible Dance at 14th level gives you one free use of Otto’s Irresistible Dance per long rest, you always have it prepared, and you can cast it again by expending 4 uses of Bardic Inspiration.
- The way that big, chunky expenditure of Bardic Inspiration works intersects (deliberately) poorly with Font of Inspiration’s requirement that you have no uses of Bardic Inspiration left. To take advantage of Font of Inspiration here, you need to go into battle with 4 unspent uses, cast OID, then start spending 1st-level spell slots and bonus actions to inspire your allies. If you got used to inspiring allies before combat, you can jam yourself up here.
Overall, the College of Dance looks very powerful. You certainly don’t have every tool in the Monk’s arsenal, but you do have that Bard spell list and feature set. Agile Strikes and Inspiring Movement are going to be huge – just get used to listening for that reaction trigger. (And hey, it’s a Bard who might not spend most of their reactions on Silvery Barbs!)
College of Glamour
There’s a Glamour bard in my long-running campaign, and he’s shown me that Mantle of Inspiration is fantastically dominating for exerting battlefield control. Once the rest of the party has engaged the enemies in a big midfield scrum (so late in the first round or at the beginning of the second round), he uses MoI to let all of the PCs clear out of the fight, then drops Hypnotic Pattern now that all of the NPCs are grouped up. From there, the PCs can move back in and focus fire on individuals at their leisure.
- Enthralling Performance has been renamed Beguiling Magic. It was previously “super-Perform,” applying a mass charmed effect that made people into your adoring audience; now it pays you for casting Enchantment or Illusion spells by letting you charm or frighten an additional creature within 60 feet.
- You learn Charm Person and Mirror Image, as a way for the game to make sure you have an Enchantment and an Illusion ready to go. There are very few Enchantment or Illusion spells in the Divine or Primal lists.
- The currency management for this looks stingy. You get one free use per long rest; additional uses come out of your Bardic Inspirations. Which means this feature doesn’t completely kick in until you get Font of Inspiration at 5th, and that uses of Mantle of Inspiration pull from the same pool.
- All that said, I like this more than I liked Enthralling Performance.
- Mantle of Inspiration went from 5 temp hit points + your party gets to move up to their Speed as a reaction… to double the roll of your Bardic Inspiration die in temp hit points, plus the same move as before. I’ll concede that it was weird to spend a Bardic Inspiration die without rolling it, but… man, this feature did not need to get stronger.
- That said, my point above about getting stingy with currency applies – putting more emphasis on spending Bardic Inspiration is an indirect nerf.
- Mantle of Majesty at 6th level gives you, essentially, a stance in which you can cast Command as a Bonus Action without expending a spell slot for 1 minute. Creatures you have Charmed automatically fail their save. That’s how it works in Tasha’s Texas Chili Cook-off; in this version, you also gain Command as permanently prepared, and instead of this feature being 1/Long Rest, now you can also refresh it by expending a 3rd-level spell slot. Seems fine.
- Unbreakable Majesty at 14th level was previously a Sanctuary-like effect. Failing the save forced the creature to choose a different target for that attack and all of its turn, and succeeding the save imposed disadvantage on its attack. Now, it doesn’t roll its save until it has landed a hit, and if it fails that save, the attack misses instead – but it can keep attacking you, if it has Multiattack or the like. This is a very significant power reduction, but probably needed, because a Sanctuary that doesn’t constrain your actions and reasserts itself on every individual turn is a lot.
The College of Glamour looks like it should still be a lot of fun. My player never used Enthralling Performance, but he’ll get a lot of mileage out of Beguiling Magic. He multiclassed into Warlock for a mix of story and mechanics reasons at 7th level, and the changes to Unbreakable Majesty wouldn’t change that decision.
College of Lore
I also have a Lore bard in my game now. (You have to understand that it’s an open-roster game – there are more than twenty “active” players.) I’m also PCing a game with a Lore bard, so I’ve gotten to see Cutting Words just wreck enemy plans. As a reminder, this is the subclass we saw a draft of a few packets ago.
- Bonus Proficiencies is back to being any three skills of your choice, rather than defaulting toward lore-based skills and only becoming wild-card options if you already have those skills.
- Now think how much more useful this would be if it were easy to have a good Int as a bard. Looking at you, Divine Order feature.
- Cutting Words now once again lets you reduce damage, not just ability checks or attack rolls. In comparison to 5e.14, you don’t have to declare you’re using it until the target’s roll has definitely succeeded – the odd timing step of “after the roll but before success or failure is declared” was doing no one any favors, DMs least of all.
- Cunning Inspiration is gone at 6th level – the thing that let allies roll the Bardic Inspiration die twice and take the better result. Instead, you get Magical Discoveries, two additional prepared spells from any of the main three spell lists. This feature is great at 6th level, but only nice-to-have at 10th and later. That seems… not great.
- Improved Cutting Words at 10th that turned your Cutting Words die into also a splash of psychic damage (about equal to one weapon strike) is gone.
- Peerless Skill at 14th level lets you bardically inspire yourself (you’ll go blind) for ability checks, now without the messy timing I described above. You don’t declare until you have definitely failed the roll, and you don’t expend the die if the result is still a failure. It’s nice to have, and much more fun if your DM leans hard on ability checks even in the late game.
Lore remains an understated badass, because Cutting Words is that amazing. It adds debuffing to the incredible buffing abilities of bards. In comparison to Glamour and Dance, it could probably use a little more flash if they want it to be more popular, because a lot of people fail to appreciate Lore.
College of Valor
If you guessed there’s also a Valor bard in my game, congratulations! The Valor bard’s player also has a Fey Wanderer ranger that is his main character. Since he hasn’t played his bard as much, I haven’t seen Valor do its thing as often. I think its fundamental problem is that you have to wait until 14th level to combine martial and spellcasting styles. This text is very little changed from 5e.14.
- Combat Inspiration is, once again, correcting the messy timing of the Defense option in the 5e.14 text. The Offense option is unchanged except for its presentation.
- Martial Training still gives you proficiency in Martial Weapons, Medium Armor, and Shields. It now also lets you use your weapon as a spellcasting focus. I think most groups don’t manage spellcasting foci closely enough for this to change Valor bard gameplay, so this is more about bringing the technical rules into alignment with what feels right.
- Extra Attack at 6th level is unchanged, and does exactly what you think.
- Battle Magic at 14th level is reworded but unchanged in function: cast a spell with a 1-action casting time, make a weapon attack as a bonus action.
This makes me really regret the elimination of 10th-level features from this bard. One more feature would go a long way toward making this feel exciting. This is far less active and flashy than the College of Dance – it feels like it wasn’t even designed in the same paradigm.
That brings me to the end of my first article on this UA packet. The Bard is still a mix of good changes and bad, but the core mechanic of Bardic Inspiration isn’t a complete mess anymore. Bardic spellcasting went from one problem to a completely different problem, and there aren’t any convenient solutions. Convenient solutions went out the door when they committed to hard barriers between spell lists that didn’t align with the Bard’s tropes and spells.
The older subclasses feel older in their design. They’ve been updated, but only a little. I don’t mind if Lore stays as-is, but Valor needs more. A full additional feature at 6th – or just fixing the whole class design and giving them a feature at 10th as they should have done in 2014 – would solve this. (Actually they should move Battle Magic down to 10th, and give them something fully new at 14th.)
All right, folks, I’ll be back soon with the Cleric and its subclasses: Life, Light, Trickery, and War.