Play Your Next 5E D&D Game as a College of Ghosts Bard
Hey all! One of the more interesting elements of fantasy, mythology, folklore and even history is death and how people interact with it. In fantasy roleplaying games like fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons this is often represented through necromancy and the dark arts accompanying this sort of magic. I feel there is much more to death as an element of 5E D&D. Whether it is what happens when our characters die or how our characters interact with the dead and undead, I am not a believer in the idea all such goings on are inherently evil. History is full of people who have or claim to have a special connection with dead spirits — speaking to them, communing with them and even calling upon them in times of need. We see this represented in subclasses like the Path of the Ancestral Guardian for barbarians and both Grave and Death domains for clerics.
Bard College of Ghosts for 5E D&D
I started thinking about the various funeral performers and ritual mourners I have seen and read about around the world as well as a manifestation of Death I made for a campaign called The Harpsman. This lead to working on a Bard College for 5E D&D with a connection to the dead progressing from communing with them through taking on the semblance of the dead to eventually being able to call upon them for favors, effectively summoning the undead to assist them. Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted dive into the recent Unearthed Arcana 2020 — Subclasses, Part 4, which includes a Bard College of Spirits and I thought this would be a perfect time to share my own take on the concept — Bard College of Ghosts.
“Thania stood in the downpour, waiting at the door to the manor. Inside she could see the low glow and flicker of candlelight and hear the murmur of the gathering as they spoke in quiet, conversational tones. The clatter of the latch and the squeal of ill maintained hinges announced her rescue for the rain and the chill of the night. As she peered through the drenched strands of the hair hanging before her sunken, shadowed eyes she was met by the forced smile of an elderly matron. Making her polite greetings and accepting welcome the haunting, black clad bard joined the room full of equally somber mourners. Eyes looked from the tables of food and the body lain out on a clothed table and settled on her.
Not a word was uttered to her as she approached the body, pulling a deep toned, lacquered harp from its oiled covering. There was a sense of unease among the gathered family, friends and more obscure kin as she walked from the foot of the outstretched body and strolled softly toward the head. A glance to the matron brought a nod of ascent and her fingers lifted to pluck a few notes before she paused to look upon the rest of the group. Breath was held by all as they waited, gauging what the death singer made of the body. With a few more notes a manicured brow arched behind wet forelocks and Thania leaned in, ear close to the lips of the aged man who lay still with the pallor of death.
“Tell me your secrets,” her drawn, thin lips whispered, the faint candle light glimmering off the dark color she wore upon them. Resoundingly, a collectively gasp came from the onlookers as the lips of the corpse creaked to motion and a dry, rasping whisper answered her.”
Dirges, sacred funerary songs and secret lyrics known only by those who have passed beyond the veil are the purview of these bards who have turned their ear to those beyond life. Considered a very fringe Bard College these bards stumble upon their powers through chance encounters, a haunting and even family curses or bloodlines. They often ply a trade as funeral performers or entertaining those with a penchant for death and the spirit world.
College of Ghosts bards talk to the dead, developing a kinship with the departed that makes them privy to lost knowledge and can call upon the dead for aid and favors. Much of this is done at the cost of their own well being, often placing themselves in an eerie periphery of social acceptance. As they grow in power they become able to call upon the dead for direct assistance and intervention on their behalf, though this is often done in the context of a deal between themselves and the dead who answer their call. They are not necromancers in the classic sense and do not force the dead into assisting them but rather having developed a relationship with death and the dead that makes them worthy of help.
When you choose this college at 3rd level, you gain proficiency with Intimidation and Religion. Your connection to the dead gives you an insight into the afterlife and the planes but it also leaves you haunted, often disturbing to others.
Speak with the Dead
At 3rd level, you gain the ability to whisper with the dead, conversing with them as if they were still among the living but doing so can be draining. As an action, you can cast speak with dead, without expending a spell slot. The spell fails if the corpse was the target of a speak with dead spell within the last 10 days. Once you use this ability, you cannot do so again until you complete a short or long rest.
Presence of the Grave
At 6th level, a haunting presence follows you everywhere you go. This may manifest physically such as pale skin, clouded eyes or even the scent of grave or it may manifest as an eerie feeling or haunting whispers that surround you. As a bonus action, you can assume a magically terrifying presence for 1 minute or until you are incapacitated. For the duration, whenever any creature tries to attack you for the first time on a turn, the attacker must make a Wisdom saving throw against your spell save DC. On a failed save, it can’t attack you on this turn, and it must choose a new target for its attack or the attack is wasted. On a successful save, it can attack you on this turn, but it has disadvantage on any saving throw it makes against your spells on your next turn.
Once you use this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a short or long rest.
Dance of the Dead
Starting at 14th level your relationship with the departed has grown such that it allows you to call upon them for aid. As an action, you can cast *summon undead spirit as a 7th level spell without expending a spell slot. Once you use this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest or until you expend a spell slot of 5th level or higher to use this feature. You can have only one spirit summoned by this feature at a time; if you use this action and already have a spirit from this feature, the first one immediately vanishes.
*Summon undead spirit is a spell included with Unearthed Arcana 2020 — Spells and Magic Tattoos. You can find it along with 10 other new spells including spirit shroud that would fit this Bard College of Spirits perfectly too. The spell can also be found at D&D Beyond but, since it is Unearthed Arcana it may not be available there forever. Protip: Use the homebrew tools at DDB to create a new spell and use summon undead spirit as the template. Don’t change anything, and now you’ll have it as part of your collection. For your convenience here is summon undead spirit as it originally appeared in Unearthed Arcana.
Summon Undead Spirit
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 90 feet
Components: V, S, M (a gilded humanoid skull worth at least 300 gp)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour
You call forth a restless spirit from beyond the grave. The spirit manifests physically in an unoccupied space that you can see within range. This corporeal form uses the Undead Spirit stat block below. When you cast the spell, choose the creature’s form: Ghostly, Putrid, or Skeletal. The creature physically resembles a humanoid with the chosen form, which also determines some of the traits in its stat block. The creature disappears when it drops to 0 hit points or when the spell ends.
The creature is friendly to you and your companions for the spell’s duration. In combat, the creature shares your initiative count, but it takes its turn immediately after yours. It obeys verbal commands that you issue to it (no action required by you). If you don’t issue any, it defends itself but otherwise takes no action.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the creature assumes the higher level for that casting wherever it uses the spell’s level in its stat block.
Medium undead, neutral evil
Armor Class 11 + the level of the spell (natural armor)
Hit Points equal the undead’s Constitution modifier + your spellcasting ability modifier + ten times the spell’s level
Speed 30 ft., fly 40 ft. (Ghostly only; hover)
- STR: 12 (+1)
- DEX: 16 (+3)
- CON: 15 (+2)
- INT: 4 (−4)
- WIS: 10 (+0)
- CHA: 9 (−1)
Damage Immunities necrotic, poison
Condition Immunities exhaustion, frightened, paralyzed, poisoned
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 10
Languages Common, understands the languages you speak
Incorporeal Movement (Ghostly Only). The undead can become incorporeal while moving and pass through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. If it ends its turn inside an object, it is shunted to the nearest unoccupied space and takes 1d10 force damage for every 5 feet traveled.
Festering Aura (Putrid Only). Any creature, other than you, that starts its turn within 5 feet of the undead must succeed on a Constitution saving throw against your spell save DC or be poisoned until the start of its next turn.
Multiattack. The spirit makes a number of attacks equal to half this spell’s level (rounded down).
Deathly Touch (Ghostly Only). Melee Weapon Attack: +3 + the spell’s level to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 1d8 + 3 + the spell’s level necrotic damage, and the creature must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw against your spell save DC or be frightened of the undead until the end of the target’s next turn.
Grave Bolt (Skeletal Only). Ranged Spell Attack: +3 + the spell’s level to hit, range 150 ft., one target. Hit: 2d8 + 3 + the spell’s level necrotic damage.
Rotting Claw (Putrid Only). Melee Weapon Attack: +3 + the spell’s level to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 1d6 + 3 + the spell’s level slashing damage. If the target is poisoned, it must succeed on a Constitution saving throw against your spell save DC or be paralyzed until the end of its next turn.