Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dark Sun Bards: College of Shadows

I kicked around a bunch of ideas for this, and it needs some iteration, but here's my starting point.

The bards of Athas are culturally distinct from those of other settings, undergoing a few different incarnations throughout Dark Sun's publishing history. In AD&D, Athasian bards were a rogue-type class with some thief skills, the ability to influence reactions, and a facility with poisons of all kinds. They lacked spell ability of any kind, which in 5th Edition would have a major impact on the balance of the class.

The 4th Edition concept was embodied more by a character theme, the Athasian Minstrel, than by the bard class itself (which, as an Arcane Leader, was subject to preserving/defiling rules from that edition if they used a power of the Arcane source). Still, it provides some additional material to work with for concepts.

I think the Athasian bard benefits from having a mixture of talents, specifically the magic up its sleeve, to help it achieve its goals. I will be working with the idea that Athasian bards of the College of Shadows train their rare students in the art of magic-use, with a leaning toward preserver magic to better keep their cover. I'll cover my idea for preserver/defiler magic in a later entry.

Let's begin.

College of Shadows

The bards of Athas are no common minstrels plucking the strings of lyres within the courts of sorcerer-kings. Students of the College of Shadows are expert infiltrators, spies, and assassins, whose facility with poisons and disguises as well as a slippery mind for escaping the probing thoughts of telepaths make them much-desired agents for templars and merchant princes.

Bonus Proficiencies

Upon choosing this archetype, the bard gains proficiency with the disguise kit and the poisoner's kit.

Subtle Magic

Starting at 3rd level, the bard gains the ability to expend uses of Bardic Inspiration in order to cast their spells without verbal or somatic components. The bard must use a bonus action before casting the spell in question, and the Inspiration must be expended immediately in this manner or it is lost.

Strange Brew

When the bard achieves 6th level, they double their proficiency bonus when using a poisoner's kit to extract or create poisons, and cannot suffer the effects of poison if they fail their check by 5 or more. Additionally, they may make a skill check with their poisoner's kit to change the delivery method of any poison in their inventory (with the options of contact, ingested, inhaled, or injury), with a DC equal to the saving throw of the poison's effect. This takes 1 hour of time and can be performed during a short rest.

Furthermore, saving throws made against poisons used by the bard are made at disadvantage.

Poisonous Mind

A bard of the College of Shadows that reaches 14th level is so accustomed to deceit that their very thoughts are a whorl of lies and misdirection. They gain advantage on saving throws against enchantment effects that attempt to beguile them or subvert them against their allies; for example, charm person would qualify, but hold person would not.

Further, any unwelcome attempt to make contact with their minds, either through spells such as detect thoughts, the telepathic communication of a Great Old One pact warlock, or the powers of a Conquering Mind mystic, force the engaging entity to make a Wisdom saving throw. The DC for this saving throw is equal to the bard's spellcasting saving throws (8 + proficiency bonus + Charisma modifier). Failure inflicts the poisoned condition upon the attacker, but does not otherwise cease the effects of the ability being used.

My idea for the class is an expert infiltrator that doesn't double up on what the Assassin Rogue archetype can do, and has some more creative uses for their Bardic Inspiration. I did not want to strip out their spellcasting entirely, since at that point you're just playing a bad rogue. Instead, I believe Subtle Magic still allows them to practice their craft in secret if it comes down to it.

Strange Brew may be too much of an odd ability for Dungeon Masters who don't allow players ready access to poisons, and it may be too powerful in campaigns that do allow them.

Poisonous Mind was tricky. I combed various bard resources from throughout the D&D line and couldn't find anything I really liked that fit the bill of the Athasian bard, but I did want something that punished intruding telepaths attempting to read their mind. Actually having it be the poisoned condition may be a little strange, but it's definitely a bear trap for the too-curious mind readers.

The penultimate Athasian bard would probably be a half-elf of the College of Shadows, with the Actor Entertainer background for maximum bullshittery. Frequenting the courtyards of templars and wealthy merchant-princes, this minstrel would be welcomed for their news from outlying territories, their facility with diplomacy, and their eager palms ready to receive ceramic pieces in exchange for snipping off loose ends.


  1. A friend of mine pointed out how the Dark Sun bard may very well be better-represented by simply using the Assassin Rogue archetype, if you wanted to go with the classic interpretation of the class. After all, they never really DID have magic, and its inclusion may be considered dissonant.

    Further, multiple points of feedback led me to reconsider the general usefulness of poison. It's expensive, becomes a resource you constantly have to maintain to use a class feature, and you run into creatures outright immune to it more often than not.

    Ultimately, I think this was a fun thought exercise, but I was probably in the wrong here. The College of Shadows experiment was interesting, but more readily represented by existing concepts.

  2. I've been pondering a similar concept, the more underhanded kind of bard, though not explicitly Athasian. As pointed out, there's a lot of problematic stuff around poison in 5e, so I added the following ability to a feat I wrote sometime back: "Whenever you would deal poison damage, you may instead deal only half damage, but change the damage type to psychic (neurotoxins) or acid (caustic compounds)."

    That seems to me like it wouldn't be too far afield for the College of Shadows or the concept I was working on. I'm sure there are things immune to all three, but the class feature doesn't have to fix the problem for 100% of cases. (Encounter design can carry a lot of the weight of keeping the poisoner fun to play too.)