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I've noticed that it explicitly states in some spells, such as Dissonant whispers which has a verbal component only, that it can only be heard by the target

The caster would whisper a cacophonous sound that only the target could hear

However I have wondered if a Bard can subtly cast any spell in their repertoire against any person without a high enough knowledge in Arcana or personal knowledge of the caster.

Considering the following is true...

A bard can fulfil the V, S & M components of a spell by simply playing their instrument.

  • M, instrument as spellcasting focus
  • S, movement of playing the instrument
  • V, sound of the instrument or accompanied song

So the conditions for spells here are an everyday action and the resulting effect is often physic, or mental not necessarily visible to others.

A good example would be Hideous Laughter (VSM). If my Bard were to play this and a target was to fall over laughing, I don't think it would be obvious a spell was involved.

This is very different to a Mage Kamehamehaing a fireball at someone.

To be perceptible, the casting of a spell must involve a verbal, somatic, or material component.

Most bards aren't magic.

True bards are not common in the world. Not every minstrel singing in a tavern or jester cavorting in a royal court is a bard.

It seems to be implied their magic is subtle by nature.

Bards say that the multiverse was spoken into existence, that the words of the gods gave it shape, and that echoes of these primordial Words of Creation still resound throughout the cosmos. The music of bards is an attempt to snatch and harness those echoes, subtly woven into their spells and powers.

This question has been asked for Vicious Mockery Can a bard cast Vicious Mockery without passersby thinking it's an attack? but not in a more general context, plus the answers there seem very subjective.

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I don't see any reason to think that it's impossible, though I wouldn't think that it's something that can be taken for granted.

The structure of the question seems to make the best answer an unequivocal yes. It can be done, if only because there's nothing in the rules that obviously prevents it from being possible. Perhaps especially for a performer like a Bard.

But a couple of points to consider when trying to put this into play in the game:

  • People can definitely notice unusual effects. Hideous Laughter produces a decidedly unusual effect-- most people do not find most jokes, stories, or songs so funny that they are totally incapacitated for a minute. If that happened to you in real life, I'd bet you'd be more likely to think that you were drugged than that the performance was totally amazing.
  • Complications can come up. Using the Hideous Laughter spell as an example, the effects of the spell suddenly breaking (due to a successful Wisdom save) will probably be a lot more noticeable than the spell coming into effect. This dull story was riotously funny two seconds ago, but suddenly it isn't, and just in time for the punch line. And there's no clear reason why that would be the case...
  • Since most bards aren't Bards, in the class level sense, most of the performances that people see obviously won't produce any magical effects. Hearing a song performed a dozen times, with no odd effects, and then hearing it one more time with incredible effects might arouse suspicion, at least.
  • People in most D&D settings are aware of magic, if not necessarily familiar with it. A seemingly supernatural effect is less likely to be written off as mundane in that context. If you know magic exists, it becomes a more plausible explanation for uncommon effects. Recall that, in the real world, plenty of people have been executed for "performing magic", even though magic isn't a thing and so there was nothing to notice.
  • People in most D&D settings may be aware of the diversity of magic that exists, and so not be misled by a different and more subtle method of delivery. If you live in a city that has professional wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, clerics, and paladins, you may be more ready to believe that someone is working an unfamiliar type of magic, rather than just assume that happenings are mundane.
  • Jobs are a thing, no matter how you want to represent that in your game. There's no reason a Bard couldn't also have a couple of levels in Sorcerer, or that a mundane bard couldn't also be a Wizard. That you're holding a lute wouldn't stop people from believing that you might have magical skills, whether they understand Bardic magic or not.
  • If you are already known or suspected to be using magic, audiences may be less likely to miss your magical enhancements to performances. A bard might be able to pull it off, but that doesn't mean that Negligible, the world-famous Magical Musician, can do so.
  • At a meta-level, DMs have a lot of incentive to frustrate secret spellcasting like this. If it happens in unimportant situations, like performing at an inn in exchange for free lodging, then it probably doesn't matter. If it's used in plot-relevant events, secret spellcasting can easily elide challenges, which is most directly balanced by adding risk of failure.
  • Using spellcasting in this way more or less copies the Sorcerer class feature Subtle Spell, and it's a common guideline in D&D that creativity should not allow a PC to duplicate the effects of a feat or class feature they specifically have not taken. This is particularly true if any players at the table have levels in Sorcerer.
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    \$\begingroup\$ You may also want to consider that there is a specific mechanic for this: Sorcerer's Subtle spell. Allowing another class to do this at zero cost is a consideration a table needs to understand. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 22 at 17:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I did put in a line to that effect on my final bullet point, but it may be worth emphasizing in a bullet of its own. You are right that it is an important consideration, and probably shouldn't be buried under "DM incentives". \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Jan 22 at 17:58

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