5E Balance of the College of Whispers Bard

jayoungr

Adventurer
I run a world-hopping campaign in which the PCs started at level 12 and are currently level 13. I have been intentionally miserly about giving out any magic weapons or armor to the PCs because I feel like I need to get the hang of challenging them at this level without additional magic items skewing the balance. And I told the players up front that I would not be giving out magic weapons or armor, and they seemed basically okay with this (although there was some grumbling). The in-campaign explanation is that they are going through portals into other worlds and they can't take magic with them, although they can bring magic back from the other places. I thought I might eventually dip a toe into giving them items by letting them use some equipment for the portions of the campaign that take place in their "home base" city, but I also feel like I don't yet reliably know how to design a proper challenge for them. The PCs have a lot of resources at their disposal just from being level 13.

(For context, the main reason I'm being so cautious is because I was pretty generous in letting the PCs buy magic weapons and armor in my Tyranny of Dragons campaign, and I felt like it really threw off the balance. I still remember the time when a level 12 battlemaster fighter with a dragon-slaying rapier reduced an adult green dragon to less than 25% of its HP in one attack action, thanks to Action Surge.)

However ... recently, the player of our College of Whispers bard came to me and asked if he could have an upgraded weapon because he feels like his character is lagging behind on damage dealing. His character is using a regular rapier, and he'd like her to have a "masterwork" non-magical rapier +1. I told him I'd consider it--non-magical masterwork +1 weapons is something I've considered in the past--but I also feel like if I give an upgraded weapon to one member of the party, I have to make that available to everyone in order to be fair, and the thought of the whole party having +1 weapons makes me worry! Not to mention that if they all have +1 weapons, that won't really close the gap for this PC.

The player did admit that he'd not selected the character's spells with an eye to maximum damage dealing. And I never even realized that the character has the Psychic Blades ability, which would let her deal an extra 5d6 on a target, because the player basically never uses it! He says that since Bardic Inspiration is a limited resource, he's always saving Psychic Blades for targets that really seem worthwhile, with the result that it doesn't get used much.

Anyway, my question is this: Has anyone here played at a table with a College of Whispers bard, and if so, do you feel they are underpowered when it comes to damage dealing? Or is my player's problem caused by a combination of low-damage spells and reluctance to use Psychic Blades?

Also, if you've ever played with a high-level CoW bard, how much of a difference does Shadow Lore (the level 14 class feature) make? This is the first class feature since level 3 that's usable in combat, so maybe that will smooth out the differences he's perceiving?
 

gyor

Adventurer
Tell him inspiration isn't that limited an ability, so just use it for pyschic blades when it would be fun.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
I have not played wit high level CoW bard, but as a class it's not one as focused on damage dealing thru melee as the others - valor or sword.

That said, an argument that hinges on a bard is dropping behind in melee when he has not chosen spells for offense, chose CoW and chooses not to use their assumed 5 per short rest "smite" is not one I would find compelling.

Before I would pony up any special gear above campaign norm, I would offer up some extra spell swaps through an in-game event or location. Let them adjust their choices to more emphasize offense before I let them focus their choices elsewhere and then ask me for a boost.

Personally, CoW has a lot of potential all over the place and the bard in general is quite potent.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Assuming this character has at least 16 Charisma, they should be able to utilize psychic blades about once every other encounter in a typical adventuring day. If they’ve taken any ASIs to Charisma, or if you run fewer than 6 encounters in a typical adventuring day, they can afford to use it even more often.

Players are often reluctant to spend limited resources. The key is to get them thinking of a resource not spent as a resource wasted. If you still have uses of Bardic Inspiration left when you take a long rest, you’re throwing those Inspiration dice away. It would have been infinitely better to have used them on a random mook than to have not used them at all.
 

Krachek

Explorer
Without opening any book,
College of whispers and damage dealing seem contradictory.
Adding a +1 weapon won’t change a lot the damage deal.
Maybe should consider play a real damage dealer.
 

Hawk Diesel

Explorer
A couple of things come up as I read over the OP.

1) Perhaps reflect on the way that you, as a DM run encounters and design challenges. If every encounter is a combat, then any player that is not optimized for combat will feel less useful. Try to design challenges with each character's strengths in mind to be able to better encourage sharing of the spotlight. A College of Whispers bard is all about subtlety and subterfuge. They learn secrets that give them advantages and use them when it hurts their enemies most, or at least gives them the best chance of success.

Any time a guard is giving the players problems with gstting past, or they are dealing with stingy merchants, or need something from the uppity noble, or convincing the bugbear chieftain to surrender, they should be using their Words of Terror ability. Yes, mechanically it causes the frightened condition. But this is not a combat ability and thus should not be treated like one. Have the guard see monsters in the shadows and go chase them, believing them to be a greater threat than the players, or the noble believe that his court is full of spies and that he needs the characters close by to protect him, or the bugbear chieftain see signs that his minions will turn on him to bargain for their own safety and begin attacking his own men.

Even better, the Mantle of Whispers is the perfect means of infiltration. You follow the target until they are alone, kill them, and now you have the benefit of disguise self, knowing much of what your assumed identity would know, and no possibility of them popping up unexpectedly. That ability opens so many doors that would be far more difficult in the social pillar of the game. And even the exploration pillar, since you could kill someone familiar of the area and suddenly know a great deal about the area, including important people, general knowledge of those people and customs or idioms, any traps or places/people to avoid, ect.

2) Why is the player so concerned with saving their resources? Bards at that level can get lots of inspiration, which can be used either to attack with their psychic blade or to support by granting it to other players. And Bardic inspiration is also useable outside of combat. Is their a player that doesn't have great balance that needs to cross a thin ledge to get to the other side or fall to their death? Bardic Inspration to give them courage and focus (and a bonus to their Acrobatics check). Fighter needs to grapple an enemy about to get away and call for help? Bardic Inspiration to remind them of the stakes and not miss (with a bonus to their Athletics check).

And this isn't even counting their non-college abilities. They provide extra healing when the party uses hit dice during a short rest, and their spells have great utility. Even when not combat focused, they offer great support. Faerie fire aids all the players. Charm person and suggestion make social pillars even easier. They can offer healing. They can control the battlefield and create distractions with their use of illusions.

This sounds like a player that:

1) Needs to learn how to really get the most out of the strengths and role of the bard in general and CoW in particular, including making the most out of the spells they've chosen.

2) The need to learn that the next enemy may be more difficult, but you'll never find out if you don't survive to get to them. Unless they have some advanced knowledge of what enemies/obstacles lay ahead and know that they'll need certain resources to deal with them, the player is better served liberally using their resources because otherwise they may not survive.

Hope this helps.
 

Cap'n Kobold

Adventurer
The player did admit that he'd not selected the character's spells with an eye to maximum damage dealing. And I never even realized that the character has the Psychic Blades ability, which would let her deal an extra 5d6 on a target, because the player basically never uses it! He says that since Bardic Inspiration is a limited resource, he's always saving Psychic Blades for targets that really seem worthwhile, with the result that it doesn't get used much.

Anyway, my question is this: Has anyone here played at a table with a College of Whispers bard, and if so, do you feel they are underpowered when it comes to damage dealing? Or is my player's problem caused by a combination of low-damage spells and reluctance to use Psychic Blades?

Also, if you've ever played with a high-level CoW bard, how much of a difference does Shadow Lore (the level 14 class feature) make? This is the first class feature since level 3 that's usable in combat, so maybe that will smooth out the differences he's perceiving?
Some things to bear in mind:
- The bard is not the best damage-dealer of the classes, and the Whispers bard is not the best damage dealer of the bard subclasses. If your player is comparing their performance using damage done as a measure, they are likely to come up short if the party has GMW fighters, Smite-happy paladins, or pyromaniac sorcerors etc.

- The bard is one of the best support classes however, and on hard fights that difference will make itself clear. On easy fights, where all that matters is how many monsters each character killed, they aren't going to show their strengths. On difficult or tactical fights, the Bard's ability to keep their own party in the fight and mess with the opposition makes them way more valuable than just another melee attack/round.

- The bard is also extremely effective in the social pillar so, unless your game is very combat-focused, will probably end up overshadowing many of the other characters for a reasonable part of the game.

That said: Assuming that your player's bard has hit Cha 20 by now, they have 5 inspiration dice every short rest. If they're also casting some spells in combat as well, they can probably use Psychic blades every time that they hit in a standard adventuring day. Psychic blades is also likely the most effective use for bardic inspiration in terms of damage.

Lastly, Shadow Lore will not make that much difference to the bard's effectiveness in combat. At best it might take one combatant out of the fight. The victim isn't generally going to fight alongside the bard, and might even be spurred to kill the bard if they think that they could do so quickly, before the bard could reveal their secret.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
People keep saying short rest. Y’all know Inspiration dice recover on a long rest, right? If your bards are using 5 Inspiration dice between short rests, they’re operating WAY more effectively than intended.
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
not after level 5. They recover on short rests at that point.
People keep saying short rest. Y’all know Inspiration dice recover on a long rest, right? If your bards are using 5 Inspiration dice between short rests, they’re operating WAY more effectively than intended.
 

Mort

Community Supporter
I have a college of swords bards in my campaign (currently 5th level) - a much more martial bard type than the college of whispers.

Though he does ok, he can't keep up with the damage of the BM fighter in the group - but he doesn't have to.

As a full caster he adds a lot more than just damage. He can buff (heroism - though less used now), de-buff (bane - a remarkably underrated spell) and now with access to hypnotic pattern, takes battlefield control to a whole other level (earlier levels he would use sleep, very, very effective at lower levels). He has access to other spells, but those are the ones that come to mind.

Though, thinking about it, he also uses heat metal - that allows pretty good damage dealing (plus other benefits) right there.

Frankly, if he had all that and was keeping up in the weapon damage dealing department, the class would be way overpowered.

edit: and I didn't even mention the ability to grant inspiration dice. The bard has a lot going on outside of dealing weapon damage.
 
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jayoungr

Adventurer
If every encounter is a combat, then any player that is not optimized for combat will feel less useful.
I don't think this is the problem. The player actually mentioned during this conversation that he's really looking forward to the next adventure, which I've already hinted is going to be a heist. Still, it's always a good thing to bear in mind.

Have the guard see monsters in the shadows and go chase them, believing them to be a greater threat than the players, or the noble believe that his court is full of spies and that he needs the characters close by to protect him, or the bugbear chieftain see signs that his minions will turn on him to bargain for their own safety and begin attacking his own men.
I like these ideas. Steals for future use.

2) Why is the player so concerned with saving their resources? Bards at that level can get lots of inspiration, which can be used either to attack with their psychic blade or to support by granting it to other players.
Not sure. We have another player who tends to blow his entire set of resources early and run out by the end of a session, and the bard player did mention that he didn't want to be like "that other guy," but still, four "smites" per short rest seems pretty good to me. (I just double-checked, and the PC has CHA 18.)

not after level 5. They recover on short rests at that point.
I wonder whether the player has missed that detail. I should ask him.
 
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Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
I play a high level bard. I can be the MVP of a combat scene often. I am abysmal compared to the rest of the party with dealing damage.

Seriously, you're playing a full caster who also has a bunch of other abilities. If they really want to focus on weapon damage,t hey should have picked one of the weapon-focused subclasses.

Collect of swords, coincidentally, is powered by the same bardic inspirations. At 12th I'm going to assume a 20 CHR, so that's five uses per short rest. That's not just "save for emergencies" numbers. If he's leaving those on the table too often because he's saving them, that's not a rules problem. That's 25d6 more damage per short rest.

The bard spell is fantastic - for playing a bard. Damage dealing is not the top of their list. Sure, Animate Object or Polymorph can do damage, but the combat-oriented parts of the spell list are focused much more around crowd control and debuffs.

EDIT: Just saw your comment about 18 CHR. My first thought is that it was unusual for your prime ability to be less than 20 after three ASIs. So many things trigger off of it, including spell attack and DCs. But it's intentional, as well as the rapier usage, which makes me wonder: does the player really want to play a shadows bard? Would they have been happier with a different class that let them be social and spooky?
 
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5ekyu

Adventurer
Some things to bear in mind:
- The bard is not the best damage-dealer of the classes, and the Whispers bard is not the best damage dealer of the bard subclasses. If your player is comparing their performance using damage done as a measure, they are likely to come up short if the party has GMW fighters, Smite-happy paladins, or pyromaniac sorcerors etc.

- The bard is one of the best support classes however, and on hard fights that difference will make itself clear. On easy fights, where all that matters is how many monsters each character killed, they aren't going to show their strengths. On difficult or tactical fights, the Bard's ability to keep their own party in the fight and mess with the opposition makes them way more valuable than just another melee attack/round.

- The bard is also extremely effective in the social pillar so, unless your game is very combat-focused, will probably end up overshadowing many of the other characters for a reasonable part of the game.

That said: Assuming that your player's bard has hit Cha 20 by now, they have 5 inspiration dice every short rest. If they're also casting some spells in combat as well, they can probably use Psychic blades every time that they hit in a standard adventuring day. Psychic blades is also likely the most effective use for bardic inspiration in terms of damage.

Lastly, Shadow Lore will not make that much difference to the bard's effectiveness in combat. At best it might take one combatant out of the fight. The victim isn't generally going to fight alongside the bard, and might even be spurred to kill the bard if they think that they could do so quickly, before the bard could reveal their secret.
Yup.

My group of players has valor bard, lore bard, barbarian, ranger and druid. Current level is 8th with 9th only a few sessions away.

The high damage dealers are the latter three but the first two pretty much are the ones that really drive the outcomes of the big fights. Last major fight the early hypnotic pattern and late confusion were key to the victory and of vourse the inspirations kept the hitters up and striking in the meantime.

If those bards also matched the striking output... that would be be good overall.
 

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