Have you ever wanted to play a Valor Bard, but wanted things to be a bit more… Selfish? Xanathar’s Guide to Everything introduced a new spin on the Martial-flavored Bard with the College of Swords. These bards – which call themselves ‘blades’ – are known for their weapon prowess, and are known for their ability to juggle knives or do mock combats. You might be using your performance as a front for an underground fighting ring, assassination business, or a vigilante persona. Sometimes, after you get caught, you have no choice but to become a bodyguard or – heaven forbid – an adventurer… Oh well! Let’s see what the College of Swords has to offer an adventuring troupe.
Face My Blade: College of Swords 5E
Mechanically, the College of Swords offers a more offensively minded Valor Bard. You gain a Fighting Style, which is absolutely amazing for you… But you also don’t gain as clever uses for your Inspiration dice. Your future abilities are also extremely distant from your support origins, putting you at-odds with the rest of the Bard’s kit. However, you get so many damage options that you become a viable frontline contender.
Unlike the Valor bard, your proficiencies are significantly more limited… But they have a nice twist.
When you join the College of Swords at 3rd level, you gain proficiency with medium armor and the scimitar.
If you’re proficient with a simple or martial melee weapon, you can use it as a spellcasting focus for your bard spells.
Medium armor isn’t awful for you, but it puts you in a weird spot. Your only potent strength weapon is the Longsword – a fantastic weapon, but leaves you without many options. Medium armor means that your AC requires at least +2 Dexterity to max out. At that point, you may want to consider maxing out your Dexterity and just using a Rapier, or getting the Heavily Armored feat.
Scimitar proficiency gives you a valid slashing weapon if you plan on two-weapon fighting, but there’s a caveat; Shortsword does the same thing. You’re not getting too much out of your Scimitar, though you could be a little more effective against creatures without Slashing resistance. Not bad, but doesn’t give you as many options as it may appear.
The spellcasting focus clause is actually really good. Not having to drop your weapon to cast a spell makes your magic more viable, especially if you’re planning on two-weapon fighting. It’s a nice way to keep the flow of combat without needing a free hand, or dropping scimitars left and right.
Fighting styles are the core feature of most martial classes. By getting a fighting style, you get a huge buff to damage. You get two options;
Dueling. When you are wielding a melee weapon in one hand and no other weapons, you gain a +2 bonus to damage rolls with that weapon.
This is, obviously, quite nice. +2 bonus to damage means that you can have a valid alternative to cantrips as long as your Dexterity keeps up with your Charisma. It makes melee a really valid option, although it loses a little bit of the bonus proficiencies’ flavor. Just a smidge, though.
Your Rapier will benefit quite a bit from this, or your Longsword if you plan on raising your Strength. If you end up either multiclassing into a Fighter – or getting Shield proficiency from another source – shields work with this ability. If you’re one of the few frontline warriors in your party, that might become a valid consideration.
Two-Weapon Fighting. When you engage in two-weapon fighting, you can add your ability modifier to the damage of the second attack.
This seems to be why Scimitars were added to the class. This makes two-weapon fighting at all viable, which is nice. It’s also a significant damage buff, but only to a single attack per round. Still, in the late game, you gain up to a +5 on that one attack, more than the +2 on two attacks that Dueling offers. That’s not bad at all! You’ll have to use a weapon with lower attack dice, but it’s still quite strong.
The issue, however, is that you’re spending your Bonus Action. For most Bards, losing a Bonus Action is heresy. Your Bonus Action is better spent on giving Bardic Inspiration, casting Healing Word, or any other spell you get from Magical Secrets. In the cast that you plan on spending your Inspirations to use Blade Flourish, then Two-Weapon Fighting becomes much more viable. However, keep in mind that picking people off the ground with Healing Word might be more important than hitting people for 1d6+Dexterity.
The final level 3 ability is Blade Flourish. You are now the fanciest swordsman alive. Whenever you Attack, you increase your walking speed by 10 feet; already a good way to dash around the battlefield if you can try to hit. In addition, whenever you do hit, you can spend a Bardic Inspiration for one of 3 effects.
Defensive Flourish. You can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target you hit. The damage equals the number you roll on the Bardic Inspiration die. You also add the number rolled to your AC until the start of your next turn.
This is the most likely candidate for your Flourishes. And… Maybe an iffy use of your Bardic Inspiration. You immediately spend your Inspiration to deal 1d6 damage and add the same 1d6 to your AC. As you level up, this does increase in power – d8 at 5, d10 at 10, d12 at 15 – but none of these are particularly powerful on an attack. Compare this to Sneak Attack; once per round, you can burst someone for d6s equal to half your level. That’s a once-per-round effect I can get behind!
So, instead of raw damage, you’re wanting to increase your AC. A variable increase to AC is rather… Daunting. You could increase it by 6 and become nearly invincible, or you could increase it by 1 and feel sad. It’s so random. Even if you increase it by max, you don’t exactly have ways to force enemies to attack you. On the bright side, if you roll lucky on the d12 in the lategame, you could have the highest AC possible. So… That’s nice! Maybe.
In most cases, it’s just not worth it. Your Bardic Inspiration could have instead saved an attack roll on someone who barely missed, or protected an ally from Hold Person. This saves your bonus action, but burns something quite important.
Slashing Flourish. You can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target you hit and to any other creature of your choice that you can see within 5 feet of you. The damage equals the number you roll on the Bardic Inspiration die.
The damage aspect of this was explained above, so now you want to cleave, and hit someone else. For 1d6 damage. And it spends a resource you could have used to buff the attack roll or saving throw of someone near you.
Please don’t use this option.
Mobile Flourish. You can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target you hit. The damage equals the number you roll on the Bardic Inspiration die. You can also push the target up to 5 feet away from you, plus a number of feet equal to the number you roll on that die. You can then immediately use your reaction to move up to your walking speed to an unoccupied space within 5 feet of the target.
Okay… So the damage is, once again, not amazing. You want a bit of combat control after all, yeah? Push them away from you – potentially 10-15 ft on a good roll – and then you can follow up. That’s great! It’s like a Shove maneuver that deals extra damage, and you don’t need to do any contested checks.
There’s one problem… Actually two.
The first is, you could simply take Martial Adept with Pushing Attack. That guarantees an up to 15 ft push. And you don’t spend Bardic Inspiration on it.
The second is… You’re a bard. You have 9 spell levels of combat control in your pocket. You don’t need this when you could instead cast Command and force them to spend one of their actions sprinting away.
This is yet another waste of Bardic Inspiration.
Funnily enough, none of these abilities specify that you need to be in melee combat. So, if you really want to shoot someone, push them 5 ft, and then ZOOM towards them with Mobile Flourish, then you’ve technically got the rules to back you up! Talk to your GM about that, though; it’s probably not gonna fly in-game.
You also really, really want to be melee.
The only valid option here is Defensive Flourish. And it’s not… Awful. You could probably benefit from saving someone else’s attack roll a little more, but… If you’re worried about your own skin, this will probably do more to defend you than the Dodge action. Unless your attack roll is bad.
At least the 10 extra movement speed is nice… If you can get away from your enemy.
I’m sure you’ve seen this feature before!
Starting at 6th level, you can attack twice, instead of once, whenever you take the Attack action on your turn.
This is a super basic ability, but it turns you into a valid melee combatant. Combine this with Fighting Style and you’ll now probably out damage your cantrips.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Since you have less of a reason to spam your cantrips, you’ll probably find Vicious Mockery or Thunderclap to be a waste of time. Consider using Vicious Mockery instead of a bow, since you don’t get quite as many bonuses to your ranged attacks compared to melee. Vicious Mockery’s disadvantage on attack rolls are particularly effective against casters who throw out rays. Thunderclap still does better damage against mobs of enemies trying to overwhelm you in melee, but it is vastly outpaced in single-target scenarios… As it should be.
This Extra Attack is exactly why you want to go Dueling. Your bonus damage will be increased significantly by every attack action, and your one-handed weapon will have larger dice than a light weapon. Meanwhile, your Bonus Actions will not scale as well, since you still only get one swing. While this ability isn’t wasted by Two-Weapon Fighting, it certainly doesn’t feel as good with it.
It took a while, but… You’re finally in the clear! At long last, this class is solid!
Starting at 14th level, whenever you use a Blade Flourish option, you can roll a d6 and use it instead of expending a Bardic Inspiration die.
If, for some reason, the campaign starts at level 14, this subclass becomes so much better.
This makes Blade Flourish significantly more appealing. While your dice is smaller, you get to deal d6 extra damage once per round with weapon attacks, and you either add that to your AC, deal that to another enemy, or get a free Shove. When you’re not spending a resource to do that, then suddenly boosting your AC by only 1 feels just fine.
In fact, Defensive Flourish becomes really good with this ability, and you should make it a goal to land an attack roll every round. You’d get a huge boost to your survivability for free, and a passable boost to damage. You’d almost be like a Paladin, but with somewhat random AC. And slightly lower boosts to damage rolls… And not starting with shield proficiency… Huh. At least you have 9th level spell slots?
However, this does have one problem; why would you ever spend resources on Blade Flourish again? A d6 averages to 3.5; a d12 averages to 6.5. You’d be spending a pretty good resource to increase your possible damage and AC by 3. That’s just not good enough.
Save your Inspirations for buffing the attack rolls or saves of your allies. This ability makes Blade Flourish into just a small boost to an attack on every turn… Which is so much better than it used to be.
Best Race for the College of Swords
The College of Swords wants about as much Dexterity as they want Charisma. These Bards are unique, in that you could use Strength instead of Dexterity if wanted. Those builds should consider a dip into Heavy Armor proficiency. Considering your new role is on the frontline, you might want enough Constitution to not get thrown through a wall when a stiff breeze comes through.
What a boring – but flexible – choice. The default-Dan of the Player’s Handbook, Humans should be taken for the Variant ability. Two ability scores are perfect for Strength/Dexterity and Charisma. You have a myriad of feats to choose from; Consider taking Moderately Armored to gain proficiency in shields, Tough to gain some extra health, or Martial Adept to gain extra combat maneuvers to control the battle with. Great Weapon Master is valid but risky, if you want to try to just drop someone. Unfortunately, since you don’t start with proficiency in Medium Armor, you can’t get Heavy Armor proficiency from your Human Feat (unless your GM is really nice and lets you replace it later). You’ll get mileage out of human, and you’ll get some weird but fun builds out of being creative.
These ferocious felines can be found in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. The stats are in your favor; +2 Dexterity is perfect for dueling, and a +1 Charisma great for spellcasting. Darkvision is always nice, but Feline Agility is extremely helpful for moving into melee. Cat’s Talent will round out your skill list by adding 2 must-haves to it. Overall, fantastic race option if you’re looking for some extra utility. You’ll be the cat’s meow.
Alternatively, the Goblin makes use of this class in another way. A boost to Dex and Constitution is perfect for you. Darkvision is good in general, Fury of the Small is a nice boost to damage on short rests… But Nimble Escape is something else. Nimble Escape lets you spend your bonus action to escape from an encounter. This’ll let you use your 10 ft of movement speed from Blade Flourish much more easily, since you’ll have a way to Disengage without spending an action. Really cool choice! Though… Not sure who let a Goblin into this college.
Conclusion – Our Take on the Swords Bard
Blades are… Rough. They have a difficult early game, since Blade Flourish is just not that good of a use of Bardic Inspiration. If you are wise with your Inspiration – maybe using it only if you’re worried about yourself – then level 14 will be a major boon. If you’re looking for a different flavor on Valor, and perhaps want to make your party members regret saying “use your inspiration already,” then this is a great pick.