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I was looking at Valor bards and saw they get shield proficiency later. It seems to cater to the person wanting to play a more melee-oriented bard, but I see one major problem and want to see if perhaps I'm misinterpreting:

To cast any spell with a Material component, my understanding is that you need a free hand to interact with said material (or your arcane focus). For Paladins/Clerics, that's not normally an issue since they can use their shield (assuming it has an emblem on it), and other spellcasters can generally use a Staff as a focus (which can double as a melee weapon). Generally, this is in conjunction with the War Caster feat so as not to worry about Somatic components.

The Bard, however, can only use his instrument as a spellcasting focus. This means if he has a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, he's kind of screwed even with the War Caster feat since that does not help with Material component requirements.

Is this a correct interpretation of the rules? And if so, how do people generally overcome that problem as a sword-and-board Bard?

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You are interpreting the rules correctly, but a bard of valor can cope with the restrictions.

We had a bard of valor in a campaign I DM’d for, and we stuck to the rules, which you described accurately. The bard was able to cope with these restrictions, although it required a little more “power gaming” than some players might enjoy.

Verbal-only Spells

Spells with just a Verbal component, such a Healing Word got special consideration. Healing Word is a good fit for a front-line healer. Casting Dissonant Whispers while within melee reach was another go-to tactic, letting the bard and his companions make opportunity attacks.

And the signature bardic cantrip, Vicious Mockery, gave our bard the ability to attack at range, while keeping his melee weapon and shield equipped.

Spell components are relevant

As you mention, War Caster is a great feat for a bard of valor, and our bard eventually attained that. At that point, Verbal-Somatic spells joined the list of spells that deserved extra consideration.

Juggling Sword, Board, and Focus

If the bard wanted to cast an attack spell with a material component in combat, he could drop or sheathe his sword (as a free object interaction) and to access his arcane focus.

The bard typically sheathed his sword for VS spells, or dropped it for spells with material components. If he dropped it, he would draw a spare weapon next round. (Dropping the sword became a less attractive option, though, after the bard acquired a magic sword.)

If an opponent provoked an opportunity attack while the bard had no weapon in hand, the bard still had the option to kick as an Unarmed Strike (see PH 195) and shield bash as an improvised weapon.

In some situations, such as fighting a spell caster with weak melee attacks, the bard would drop his shield and keep his sword ready for opportunity attacks. (But note that “doffing” a shield requires an action.)

I want to stress, though, that the juggling described above was not a constant thing. If a spell is cast before engaging in melee, for example, not having a weapon drawn was no issue.

A fine point about whether an arcane focus needs to be “interacted” with

To use a material component, “a spellcaster must have a hand free to access a spell’s material components — or to hold a spellcasting focus” (PH 203). But unlike “drawing or sheathing a sword,” (PH 190) accessing a material component is not explicitly mentioned as something that requires your interaction “with one object or feature of the environment for free.” (PH 190)

Whether the rules require your free object interaction to cast spells with a material component is beyond the scope of the question, but for our purposes, just find out how your DM will rule. If they rule that holding your focus does not require your free object interaction, then you probably won’t ever need to drop your weapon or shield.

Other Bard Powers

A bard often has a fair deal of Bardic Inspiration to hand out in combat, which does not require a free hand. While these aren’t spells, they are part of a bard’s action economy and their pool of limited-use resources.

Non-Combat Spells

One final point, many bard spells are non-combat spells, or have a long enough duration that they can be cast ahead of combat (e.g., Enhance Ability).

Complexity, not Disadvantage

A bard of valor may require a little more power-gaming, in terms of character build and tactics, than some character builds. But sword-and-board Rangers face similar constraints. These constraints don’t make bad character builds.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Id' like to point out that RAW, stowing shield takes an action, not an item interaction, and that your "free item interaction" is only free insofar as it is part of an action. You can draw your sword or focus as a free item interaction that is part of your attack. You don't get a second free item interaction to stow your shield, which explicitly takes an action. As a house rule, we let a character drop an item for no action economy cost, but that's not RAW, either. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Sep 3 '17 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you have a reference for dropping, I'd appreciate it. We have just been house ruling it as common sense that merely opening your hand shouldn't impact your actions. The penalty of course, is that you have no control over what happens to the dropped object. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Sep 3 '17 at 16:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @keithcurtis, edited and added a link about dropping stuff. rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/70237/is-dropping-a-weapon-free . Funny, you reminded me I used to rule that “holding” your spell focus required your one free object interaction, but I don’t anymore. Maybe I’m just becoming an old softy. Thanks again for the review. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Sep 3 '17 at 16:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ I can't help but picture a bard with an harmonica holder, a la Bob the Minstrel Dylan... Would it do the trick? \$\endgroup\$ – Meta4ic Sep 3 '17 at 16:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimGrant Good edit, but keep in mind that the PHB still doesn't allow you to just drop a shield. The action is listed as "doffing" the shield, not stowing. I interpret that to mean that it's more complicated than just opening your hand. I take it to mean that the designers consider a shield to be a thing worn, instead of carried.You can certainly rule it differently. You'll notice in the answer you link, I made a comment that I run my table with a totally free weapon drop, though the rules do not explicitly allow it. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Sep 3 '17 at 22:54
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No, there is no exception for the bard.

If the spell has somatic and/or material components, he will need to either have his instrument on his hands or one free hand and a component pouch.

And most musical instruments require two hands to operate (i.e. lute).

A college of valor bard will have use their spells when not in sword-and-board mode.

There are musical instruments that can be operated one handed. The classical one is the trumpet or a horn. This can alleviate the need for hands. But still, to cast a spell he would need to sheathe his weapon, draw the instrument and play/cast. It is very helpful to have both focus and component pouch in any circumstance to have more casting options.

With a bit of planning, this can be alleviated somehow:

  • Round 1: the bard uses attack action, drawing a weapon.

  • Round 2: the bard uses again attack action, but sheathes the weapon at the end of the turn.

  • Round 3: the bard casts a spell from his component pouch. He draws his weapon at the end of the turn.

  • Round 4: Same as round 2. or not.

Also, all melee casters have this problem of casting and using hands. Another way to alleviate this is to select spells that only have verbal components, and adapt the tactics around it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "And most musical instruments require two hands to operate" - but nowhere does it say that a bard actually has to play the instrument to use it as a focus. \$\endgroup\$ – Eumenedies Sep 3 '17 at 13:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Eumenedies this has been discussed before it doesn't say, but bards need music to weave magic. So... \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Sep 3 '17 at 22:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mindwin The two upvoted answers to the question you linked both indicate that it is not RAW required to play the instrument. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Sep 4 '17 at 16:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Besides this answer being contrary to RAW, it also implies that a player's flavor decision for their character--in this case instrument choice--should have mechanical impact. \$\endgroup\$ – stwlam Mar 16 '18 at 9:53
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Everything here is correct. The only things I'd like to add are:

  1. War Caster would also allow the bard to cast some spells as opportunity attacks on the turns that he or she has sheathed his or her weapon.

  2. Per the Bard's SPELLCASTING ABILITY section of the Player's Handbook: "Charisma is your spellcasting ability for your bard spells. Your magic comes from the heart and soul you pour into the performance of your music or oration."

The bard does not have to play the instrument. Simply holding it and singing is enough to cast with it. Or they can use a component belt and not have to hold anything.

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