So vicious mockery is, to my understanding, the bard insulting a target, and the target taking psychic damage, and gaining disadvantage.

The flavor, as I understand it, is that they're so insulted it actually hurts.

Which lead me to wonder - could a bard get a vicious mockery off, and the target not know they've been attacked?

Of course, the target knows they've been viciously insulted, and assuming they fail their Wisdom check, are mad at the bard and would probably like to murder said bard. But, if they're all in a bar, and the target wants to attack the bard (attempting to murder him in broad daylight), it seems reasonable that other people would want to stop said murder - after all, it is just a bard insulting someone, and bards do that all the time - it doesn't quite rise to the level of trying to knock his lights out. (Although most of the patrons of said bar are probably fairly understanding of his position...)

To look at a slightly different situation, if a wizard cast fireball on a patron, the entire bar would be up in arms attempting to lynch said wizard. Would there be a similar effect on a bard mocking someone?

So I guess my question boils down to: Do other people recognize vicious mockery as an actual attack, or do they simply think it's a devastating insult?


4 Answers 4


Debatable: but it's still insulting

The general rules for spellcasting suggest that when a spell has a verbal component, this may be more than any common speech you must make to cast the spell. As an example, Jeremy Crawford indicated that for the spell Suggestion to work:

Verbal components are mystic words (PH, 203). The spell's suggestion is a separate, intelligible utterance.

But Vicious Mockery is an unusual case. Not only are its only components Verbal, its description also states:

You unleash a string of insults laced with subtle enchantments at a creature you can see within range. (PHB, p. 285. Bold added)

The word "subtle" in particular may indicate that you can cast this spell without anyone noticing its magical nature. Such an attempt may require an Arcana check on the part of onlookers/the target, or may succeed or fail automatically at the discretion of the DM. (See Xanathar's Guide to Everything p. 85 for an optional rule that applies).

Them's Fighting Words

Whether or not you are known to be literally using your words to fight an opponent, you could definitely be seen as issuing them a challenge by literally viciously mocking them.

Is your society one where duels are legal? Where besmirching a man's honor is a legal defense for retaliation? If so, your perceived insults may give as much provocation as an actual attack.

And even if insults are not legally considered provocation, beware social norms. If you assume that after you have brutally insulted a person in a bar, everyone in the bar will leap to your defense if the insulted person proceeded to attack you (or that the insulted party will simply sit there and accept your perfectly legal insults), you may be disappointed in your strategy's results.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh I imagine there's lots of room for a DM to play with - guy's going to attack you, but what do the other people think? Do they notice the magic (Arcana check)? Is this a seedier bar, where they want to see a fight? Is this a society that frowns (or smiles?) on violence? So much room for fun - just wanted to make sure there was room, unlike the 'wizard casts fireball' example \$\endgroup\$
    – Selkie
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 19:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Don't forget the, "catch-em later in a back-alley" approach. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 19:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note to self: never play the Dozens with a bard \$\endgroup\$
    – Morgen
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 4:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ I mean, it's worth noting that this would more fall under a "Passive" than it would an outright "Check". Something along the lines of "Passive Perception" to see if they hear anything unusual followed by "Passive Arcana" (10+Int(Arcana)) to see if they recognize anything as being obviously enchanted or just "Passive Arcana" to see if they have reason to suspect it may have been a spell. An Arcana Check would really only be prompted if the person already has the reason to suspect the Vicious Mockery was a spell and not just an amazingly well put-together string of insults. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 21:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SoraTamashii A DM could certainly call for a passive check at any time. But in the PHB (p. 175) it's indicated that Passive Checks are used to "represent the average result for a task done repeatedly... or used when the DM wants to secretly determine whether the characters succeed." No other distinction between the purpose of "active" and "passive" checks is given. Going by this criteria, A DM would have to decide whether the patrons were "repeatedly" assessing whether or not the bard's actions were magical (or if they thought about it once, and stuck with their conclusion). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 19:32

Everyone knows that bardic tongues get vicious.

It would entirely reasonable to figure that Vicious Mockery could be done without obvious spellcasting, but by the same token, in a world where that was the case, it would be a known thing that (some) bards could literally insult people to death. (If you give bards the ability to insult people to death, at least some of them will use it from time to time, and that story will spread.) In a world like that, the sharp edge of a bard's tongue would be seen as a deadly weapon just like any other, and their cutting words would be treated accordingly.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A follow up question would be - how do you know the person doing the insulting is a bard? I mean, there's the obvious "IM A BARD" dress, but no instrument, normal clothes? How can the average person tell? \$\endgroup\$
    – Selkie
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Selkie well, if they pull off an insult vicious enough to actually inflict psychic damage, people may begin to suspect. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 20:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Completely reasonable. My next trick is going to be faking psychic damage next time I'm insulted, and claim the person is a bard trying to murder me >:D. \$\endgroup\$
    – Selkie
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 20:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Selkie and what a fantastic roleplaying opportunity that will be. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 21:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Personally, considering this, I'd now rather treat Vicious Mockery's damage as not being able to bring a character below 1 HP. The idea of being insulted to death is ridiculous and not in a good way, at least not if you look at the impact that would have on the world. If the internet taught us anything, people would become Bards just to do that. Imagine trolls with Vicious Mockery. Some already push people to kill themselves, but the ability to just do it themselves? It'd be a dangerous thing for the public to know is possible. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 21:35


Vicious mockery has a verbal component. Verbal components are described as:

...the chanting of mystic words. 

So before the insult, a bard chants mystic words that lace the insult with magic. These verbal components would be apparent to the onlookers. Whether or not they identify them as a spell and specifically as an attack spell is dependent on who the onlookers are and how commonplace magic us in the world.

Some advice on how to handle this can be found in Xanthar's Guide to Everything, though it is an optional rule so it will largely depend on the GM:

Sometimes a character wants to identify a spell that someone else is casting or that was already cast. To do so, a character can use their reaction to identify a spell as it's being cast, or they can use an action on their turn to identify a spell by its effect after it is cast.

If the character perceived the casting, the spell's effect, or both, the character can make an Intelligence (Arcana) check with the reaction or action. The DC equals 15 + the spell's level. If the spell is cast as a class spell and the character is a member of that class, the check is made with advantage.

I've also often seen ruled that a character who can also cast the spell automatically succeeds on the Intelligence (Arcana) check.


Most likely, the patrons would. The target certainly would. A spell can be perceived when it uses any of a verbal, somatic, or material component. Observers do not necessarily know what spell it is, but they do see that a spell is being cast. The patrons of the bar would easily recognize that the bard is using some sort of magic while he is yelling at the target. Seeing the target wince in pain at the same time is easy enough to put 2 and 2 together to realize what happened - the bard yelled and cast some sort of magic and the target was hurt somehow by it.

But what about the act of casting a spell? Is it possible for someone to perceive that a spell is being cast in their presence? To be perceptible, the casting of a spell must involve a verbal, somatic, or material component.

Xanathar's p. 85.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that damage is not always painful. A reduction in hit points can be a reduction in a characters "mental durability,... will to live, and luck." (PHB, p. 196, Hit Points) . Not all of these things are attached to nerve endings. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 18:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Gandalfmeansme the idea of a bard insulting someone who gets more and more depressed until they lose their will to live entirely is both hilarious and terrifying. \$\endgroup\$
    – mbrig
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 21:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mrbrig: Its also a thing in real life. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 9:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ This a fair prediction of a likely result, but the Xanathar's quote seems out of place. "Is it possible" does not mean something will necessarily be the result. The quote is only about a necessary qualification to be perceptible. This spell explicitly says that the actual verbal magical component is "subtle", implying low perceptibility. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 19:47

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