D&D PHB: Bards & Clerics

Ok, picking up again today with the bard. Like the Gnome, this is another one of those concepts that’s taken a lot of different forms over different editions and stories. It’s been contentious since first edition, so it’s always curious to see which way this jumps. Inspirational? Celtic? Jack of all Trades? Illusionist-y?

They seem to have gone the flexible path, which is a mixed bag. It’s not bad, but by definition, it’s a little bit uninteresting in it’s lack of clear edges. It looks very similar to the 3e bard with a slightly different skill focus. The spell list looks to be a similar mix of wizard and cleric to 3e, and the abilities surrounding music are familiar in concept, if clever in execution.

Bards use the sorcerous model of N spells known, casting a number of spell slots per level. Spell knowledge seems to be intrinsic rather than via a spellbook, and (quite reasonably) bard’s can use a musical instrument as a spellcasting focus[1]. They can cast ritual magic, which is definitely a plus.

The bard gets 3 skill proficiencies, which is higher than the average 2, but lower than the rogue’s 4. The bard can choose any skill, so there’s flexibility there, but it’s not really enough to say “this is the skill guy”, especially since the bard gets proficiency in no tools, but 3 musical instruments.[2]

The trick that offsets this is a class-defining feature acquired at second level (presumably so it’s not total multiclass bait) called Jack of All Trades which lets bards add half their proficiency bonus to any check they’re not already getting a proficiency for. That’s very broad, but not crazily potent, so I’m curious to see it in action.

That said, the real signature move of the bard is, as it has been in some past incarnations, bardic inspiration, the buff offered to allies. The way it works now is that you can inspire a nearby ally (with music or words) and, effectively, hand them a d6. Any time in the next 10 minutes, they can roll that d6 and add it to a check, even after the roll is made (though before the GM declares the outcome), which uses up the inspiration. A character can only have one inspiration at a time, and the size of the die gets bigger as you level. You can do this a number of times per long rest equal to your charisma modifier (per short rest after level 5).

When I was reading this, I was struck by the idea that if I were playing a bard, I would probably want to buy several really gorgeous d6s – a number equal to my number of uses of inspiration – and physically hand them to people when I use the ability. Because that seemed like the bardic thing to do. However, as I read on and discovered that the die got bigger and that there were other things those inspirations could be used for, that’s when I realized I’d probably want some kind of token (which is in turn where the realization that Campaign Coins were going to rock this hit)

There’s some other fun stuff. Bardic music enhances healing over a short rest, they get enhanced proficiency bonuses with some skills, and can sing countercharms. What’s curious is that the bardic subclass is the college, a very promising choice of term, since it suggests setting elements (organizations of bards and so on). This is kind of given a nod (colleges are loose associations) but the colleges given are a bit generic in that regard. The College of Lore give you more skills and the ability to burn a bardic inspiration to taunt. The college of valor lets you fight better, and lets others use bardic inspiration to increase damage or defense. Curiously, there’s no spellcasting college, but I’m sure that’ll show up in a future supplement.

I am not sure anyone who loves bards is going to be too excited or too disappointed as is. They look solid and fun, and I suspect that with a few more college options, they’ll be able to hit the right notes.

As an aside, this is now the second class, it’s time to look a bit at subclass design. Bardic colleges grant signature abilities at selection (level 3) then extra abilities at 6 and 14. The barbarian’s primal paths grant signature abilities at selection (level 3) and further enhancements at levels 6, 10 and 14. That is a curious discrepancy, so I’m curious to look at other classes through this lens. For context, it’s worth noting that the bard core class gives some great abilities (Expertise, Magical Secrets AND the inspiration die gets bigger) at level 10, while the barbarian gets only the path ability.

Anyway, putting a pin in that, we move on to the cleric, the class I was most curious about. The cleric has never had the conceptual uncertainty that the Bard has been subject to, but implementation has always been the issue. How do you balance healing responsibilities against the desire to do other fun things? And how do you balance spellcasting in such a way that it’s enjoyable but doesn’t break if it gets tuned by specific deities?

5e seems to have decided to address this by doubling down on the gods, and I am TOTALLY good with that. Yes, clerics have baked in spellcasting (pray for N spells, cast N spell slots) which has seen numerous improvements, not the least of which being somewhat more awesome cantrips.

The idea of channeling divinity has also found a new form, though the concept remains the same. Available from second level, the cleric can raise his holy symbol and project the power of her divinity for some effect. The cleric can do those N times per short rest, so this is the Cleric’s currency move. It has a default effect (turning undead) and something based on the cleric’s divine domain (their subclass).

I want to get to the domain, but I want to pause here to call out how they handle this incarnation of turning undead -it’s delightfully simple. Every undead within 30 feet who can see or hear you (yes, every one) makes a wisdom save or runs for it. Turning lasts a minute, and a turned undead can only dash, dodge, and try to escape things that are keeping it from getting away. If the cleric is 5th level and up he can also potentially destroy lesser undead who fail their save – there’s a little chart for it.

I admit, I dig this implementation if only because it is easy to implement. No number crunching or tallying effects, no elaborate subsystem, just normal saves and easily adjudicated effects.

It’s also worth noting that clerics also get an ability at level 10 called “Divine Intervention”, and it’s kind of what it sounds like. The GM pleas to her god and rolls some percentage dice, and if the roll is less than or equal to your level, then the deity intervenes (the meaning of which is up to the GM) and you can’t ask for an intervention for another week. This is kind of delightful, and I can already see it as the basis for many fun war stories.

Oh, and as a bonus? At level 20, it always succeeds. Ponder that.

Ok, so those are the things that all clerics can do, but that is not the interesting part. See everything else that the Cleric class can do is a function of which divine domain (subclass) the cleric picks at first level. This means, among other things, that the range of style and variety among clerics has the potential to be crazily broad[3]

This also means that the domains are potent. Each one is effectively three quarters of a class by itself, so they have a bunch of moves. To contrast with the previous subclasses, the Cleric chooses and gets (big) signature abilities at level 1, and then gets further enhancements at levels 2, 6, 8 and 17. Basically, the subclass defines the class, and for Clerics, that works very well.

We got to see the life domain in the basic rules, and now we have the knowledge, light, nature, tempest, trickery and war domains as well (sadly, no travel). They all expand the cleric’s known spells and grant an array of abilities.

Knowledge gives you extra skills and languages[4], lets you use any tool (if you have time enough to study it), read and influence thoughts, cast spells more potently and eventually read objects and places.

Life, as we’ve seen, get to wear heavy armor and heal a lot. a LOT.

Light lets you throw around flares of light to distract enemies (you can do this a limited number of times, so it introduces a second currency, which I do not dig) and basically blast things with sunlight a lot. Basically, this is 5e’s laser cleric, for better or worse.

Nature gives you a druid cantrip and some outdoorsy skills, heavy armor, the ability to charm animals and plants[5], a passive protection against elemental damage (for you and your party), infuse your weapon with elemental energy and ultimately make your plant an animal minions more potent.

Tempest gets you heavy armor and martial weapons, and has a damage dealign reaction ability (which, like light, has its own annoying currency), you can do extra damage with thunder and lighting, infuse your weapon with lightning and eventually even fly a little. Tempest is weird because for all that, you don’t get lightning bolt as a domain spell for what I can only assume are reasons of tradition (doubly annoying since light gets fireball). Definitely has the means for a good smashy cleric.

Trickery has some predictable stuff – boost stealth, turn invisible and such. it also gets the ability to poison a weapon, which is mechanically identical to the thunder or elemental infusions of the other deities[6] The most interesting (and probably awesome or painful) ability is to send forth an illusionary duplicate which you can use as the origin point of your spells, or to grant you a flanking/distraction bonus in combat. At 17th level you can create 4 of them. This is an ability I can see working very well on a grid, but I’m not sure if it’s going to be rough to adjudicate.

War grants heavy armor and martial weapons (no shock) and a limited number (there’s that secondary currency again) of extra attacks. It also grants attack bonuses (to you and allies), an infused weapon and eventually damage resistance. While mechanically uninteresting, it’s all very solid fighty stuff, which seems apt.

When I first looked over the Life domain, my impression was that if every cleric domain was this cool and interesting, then it would knock my socks off. Now that I’ve seen them, I think I still have at least a little bit of sock left, but they are mostly knocked.

If my passive aggressive asides were not making it clear, I’m not super-excited by the abilities that can be used +WIS times per long rest. The cleric is already tracking channels and spells, so one more thing just seems unnecessary. This is a small gripe, but it bugs me.

I’m also not sure what I think about the level 8 ability, which is basically the same across all domains, with small tweaks and one distinction. If you are a spell-casting kind of domain (knowledge or light) then you get to add your wisdom modifier to cantrip damage (because, presumably, that is your primary attack). For other domains, you get the divine strike ability, which adds damage dice of some type to your weapon attack. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but I’m not sure it requires strict consistency, since it feels like a mismatch with, say, trickery.

So, with the exception of knowledge, none of the domains excited me the way that life had, but they’re still pretty good. I look forward to seeing more domains in the future, but the less formulaic, the better.

All right, break there. We’ll pick up tomorrow with the druid.


  1. I breezed past that initially because it made a vague sort of sense, and I sort of assumed that meant that you could theoretically get a Lute +1 that gives +1 to spellcasting rolls and DCs and stuff, because it’s the focus, right? And that might be true, but I realized that was an assumption and that, in fact, I had no idea what a Spellcasting Focus meant, mechanically speaking. It was not in the index (at least not usefully) and the entry directed me to the equipment chapter, which directed me to the spellcasting chapter, which is big, with no further direction. I ended up cracking open the basic rules pdf and running a search on the text to find the answer, and it is this: When a spell requires a non-consumable material component, the caster needs to either have a component pouch or a spellcasting focus.  ↩
  2. And may I ask, what the hell? What game would be hurt if bards could just use all musical instruments the way that fighters can use all weapons? This seems basically designed to screw Bards down the line when they hit level 7 and find the Enchanted Bagpipes of Olaf but oh, did you not study the bagpipes? Suck it, bardo!  ↩
  3. I am reasonably sure an all-cleric party (with different backgrounds) could work decently well).  ↩
  4. Which inspired me to go check – the Bard has no particular facility with languages. That’s odd. I guess that could be the basis of a college of diplomats.  ↩
  5. Basically works like a turn, except they become friendly rather than run. That one minute limit is still in effect, though.  ↩
  6. If you feel I mention that because it’s kind of a half-assed inclusion, you would be correct.  ↩

9 thoughts on “D&D PHB: Bards & Clerics

  1. Jason Pitre

    I am very much looking forward to seeing if we eventually see pantheon books emerge as WOTC or third-party products. Theology, history and custom domains as the see of mechanically-diverse settings. Potentially using the dieties as anchors, 13th Age style.

    Crap, now I’m just anxious to see the license.

    Reply
  2. Tim Gray

    Interesting stuff, thanks.

    The cleric sounds like a particularly ripe area for plug-in expansion material. Perhaps for an enterprising person with knowledge of mythology… And perhaps one of the larger levers for changing the feel of a setting?

    Reply
  3. David

    Downtime – Training (p187) and the Tool list (p154) – Musical instruments are tools (as are gaming sets and “Vehicles – land/water” which also looks like it might be mounts, probably not but I’m likely to houserule the saddles as a “vehicle” so that you aren’t screwed sans Animal Handling)

    In any case, anyone… *ANYONE* can learn to use a tool for the mere expenditure of 1gp a day for 250 days – and thus get their Proficiency bonus with it. Or for the same time and money you can learn a new language. Or “Your DM might allow additional training options”…

    No real limit on the number of instruments for Bards. 🙂

    D.

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Fair point, though that seems like all the more reason to not be skimpy on the number they know to start with.

      Reply
  4. Robert

    One thing that I didn’t notice at first is that Bards are now, in effect, a primary spellcasting class. They have broken free of the Lvl 1-5 kid’s table and are sitting at the big table with the wizard and his ilk, Lvl 1-9. That’s interesting.

    Obviously these aren’t the most potent spells in the world, but it’s still kind of a big change. It means that the Bard’s other (rather underwhelming) abilities should be judged in comparison to the Cleric or Druid, not, say, the Ranger or the Paladin. By that standard, they stack up a lot better than I thought they did.

    When I discerned this, I took a closer look at the multiclass rules, and found that they implicitly acknowledge this change: Bards join Druids, Clerics, Wizards, and Sorcerers in having their FULL levels added to determine the number of spell slots.

    This suggests Bard might make a good starting class for an aspiring caster. Let’s say, for example, that you’re looking for a fresh take on a Fighter/Wizard. You might take Bard 3 and then switch to Sorcerer (probably not Wizard, naturally, since your best stat will be Charisma.)

    At third level, you take College of Valor, which nets you martial weapons, medium armor (if you have a Dex of at least 14, half-plate is only a hair less protective than plate!), and shields. You then cross over to Sorcerer with the same spell slots a straight Sorcerer would have, just waiting a few more levels to get access to the next level of spells. Instant Fighter/Wizard type, but sacrificing very little magical punch to get there.

    A few levels of Bard would also bring with them a number of minor, but useful abilities, including Jack of All Trades, Expertise, Song of Rest, and Inspiration. All non-overlapping and nicely complementary to a(nother) primary spellcaster’s role.

    Jack of All Trades and Expertise, of course, are tied to the proficiency bonus, so you lose none of their effectiveness by leaving the Bard class shortly thereafter.

    To go another way with it, take the College of Lore, and now, at 3rd level, you have six(!) skills, entirely of your own choosing, making your primary spellcaster into a Skills Monster as well. Perfect for that Sherlock Holmes/Doctor Who/Gandalf archetype who can think there way through most challenges but still drop a house on you in a tight spot.

    I’ll have to think about how these amped up magical abilities work from a storytelling perspective. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense for the guy playing his lute for coins in the bar to study hard, fight a few monsters, and then one day he’s breaking out Power Word: Kill.

    On the other hand, there’s a rich fictional tradition of “entertainers” and diplomats who are not at all what they seem. Perhaps a powerful magical order (whose spells revolve around magic and illusion, and whose class abilities make them natural spies) is hiding in plain sight as some sort of guild or government department? Are Bards the equivalent of Butcher’s Cursors? Are they an urban take on Tolkien’s Rangers? Are they the freaking Bene Gesserit?

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Indeed, I overlooked that a well until I got to the spell lists and had a “holy crap!” moment.

      That said, the spell lists were also kind of fascinating in regards to issues like this one – they put a LOT of thought into the spell lists, and a lot of the balancing elements of the classes can be found in their spells. Very noticeable with the Bard and Ranger, but it’s also where the real potency of the Wizard is revealed.

      Reply
      1. Robert

        Yes, the spell lists are a work of art.

        I just recently noticed, for example, that the Paladin’s ability to summon a celestial mount has returned, via the find steed spell, which becomes available at 9th level (unless you’re a Bard, in which case you can get it at 6th level . . . I really underestimated Bards at the outset.)

        Reply
  5. Rob Dorgan

    It seems the benefit of Cutting Words it assuming that the DM is rolling their dice in the open. Otherwise, what is the point of saying you can use the Bardic Inspiration after the creature makes its roll but before the DM determines success or failure. If the DM is rolling their dice behind a screen, unless you are waiting for some telltale sign, what is the point of waiting until after they roll if you have no idea what they rolled?

    Reply

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