November 20, 2016

[Unearthing the Arcana] Bard: Bard Colleges

Unearthing the Arcana is a column for me to study the design and thought process of the latest Unearthed Arcana rules put out by Wizards of the Coast. This column aims for me to point out some observations I've made on the rules, imagine its impact at the table and raise discussions of how it would be used or played if it becomes official.

With the new Primal Paths for Barbarians in the last installment, the next class to have new class options would be the Bard.

The first thing that I noticed in these new colleges is that their design is quite different than the ones in the Player's Handbook. All of the college features do not give an immediate or simple bonus to a base class feature, but are abilities on their own. While it's an interesting way to create new bard colleges, it also makes it quite hard to make a comparison and evaluation of these new colleges without a benchmark to work with.

So let's take a look at the College of Glamour and College of Whispers.  

College of Glamour

I've always wanted to see a performance-based Bard College that lets the Bard play up their charms, so the Fey-trained College of Glamour looks like a good fit. Mantle of Inspiration looks to have some interesting combat and tactical application, although it works better for DMs who run with a combat grid, and there is the additional book keeping it incurs given how Temporary Hit Points work.

Part of my concerns with these new Bard Colleges is that they give features that are too on-its-own, that is hard to gauge its effectiveness and usefulness to a player and DM. Enthralling Performance shows that vague application. Taking at least 10 minutes to have any effect means it's practically not to be used in combat, and induces the Charmed condition with additional effects that relies on open interpretation by the DM and/or player. This isn't something that neither of the Bard Colleges from the Player's Handbook have, so it's usefulness depends on the campaign the DM is running.

Mantle of Majesty and Unbreakable Majesty seem a little under-powered to be able to cast 1st level Cleric spells at the level they are gained, and the additional benefits don't seem to add anything significant to its usability that can't be achieved with the College of Lore.

I can't say I'm all excited with the College of Glamour because it doesn't quite do the things that I was hoping it would do, and the unnecessary complexity of its abilities doesn't quite add up to the awe and fear aspects of the Fey. I'm more inclined to the more traditional design of the Bard Colleges in the Player's Handbook, with just a few skills proficiencies swapped around and a couple of features to boost a certain aspect that the College is aspiring towards. 

College of Whispers

If I found the College of Glamour to have some concerns, I would say the College of Whispers is even more so. While it could easily be said that its features are just changing the Charm effects of the College of Glamour to being Frightened, the implication of doing that may be dangerous if a DM is not prepared to handle a fearful situation. In many ways, I see this college as the anti-Bard, just as anti-Paladins, which while giving an 'evil' flavored Bard class, may not be especially welcomed by some DMs.

While Venomous Blades is a straightforward and interesting feature, I feel that Venomous Words has the same problems as I stated for Entralling Performance. The second tier of features Mantle of Whispers and Shadow Lore are to me interesting features when used in a espionage-based campaign, but only creates more complexity in other campaigns.

As always I find the underpinning problem with both features is that there just too many moving parts that are open for DM and player interpretation that is hard to find a common ground on how it should actually work on the table. For example, given how Shadow Lore is worded, it could actually mean the Bard could extort shopkeepers to getting discounted (or free) services, thanks to the duration and its ability to be granted favors and gifts. Again, whether this is broken or not is entirely up to how the DM wants to handle such situations.

I won't say that I dislike both these colleges, especially the flavor of them (which I actually like in concept), but I dislike a design that creates more potential problems for the DM to control than necessary to cater to a very specific play style. Given the expectations I had with the Bard class, I would have liked to see more of the heavily subjective features to be weaker, or have its limitations very clearly worded. That's usually a treacherous path to thread down, but I'm not in charge of the overall design philosophy of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. If I were in charge, I would have went for something that went along the lines in the Player's Handbook

So that's all I have to say about the Bard Colleges, and would definitely like to hear someone give a contrasting opinion or how they would handle features like Enthralling Performance and Venomous Words, which can help me to appreciate them better.

See you in the next Unearthing the Arcana that is coming soon that most likely would be a few more domains for clerics. 

Last Updated: 20/11/2016 

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