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In a current combat encounter, a bard character is unable to move out of the area of effect of a Silence spell. Silence is very clear on a complete lack of sound:

For the duration, no sound can be created within or pass through a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on a point you choose within range. Any creature or object entirely inside the sphere is immune to thunder damage, and creatures are deafened while entirely inside it. Casting a spell that includes a verbal component is impossible there.

The bard is attempting to use the class feature Cutting Words:

Also at 3rd level, you learn how to use your wit to distract, confuse, and otherwise sap the confidence and competence of others.

Since the name of the feature includes "words" I initially thought it couldn't be used but the description does not specify that the words are spoken verbally. I decided that mimes can be witty without sound and allowed it under suitable soundless (witty) entertainment requirements.

Looking at it again, however, I see that the description is very closely related to Bardic Inspiration:

you can use your reaction to expend one of your uses of Bardic Inspiration, rolling a Bardic Inspiration die

And Bardic Inspiration seems to require sound (while a mime may have distracting wit, I'm skeptical on how inspiring it can be):

You can inspire others through stirring words or music.

Is there a RAW interpretation that Cutting Words is pretty much the opposite of Bardic Inspiration and should be treated the same? Or is this an un-ruled judgement call?

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3 Answers 3

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Using Cutting Words needs the bard to be able to produce sounds.

The description of Cutting Words reports (emphasis mine):

When a creature that you can see within 60 feet of you makes an attack roll, an ability check, or a damage roll, you can use your reaction to expend one of your uses of Bardic Inspiration, rolling a Bardic Inspiration die and subtracting the number rolled from the creature’s roll.

By the description, you are using a Bardic Inspiration die, which requires to be able to produce sound:

You can inspire others through stirring words or music.

Moreover, at the end of the feature description one can read (emphasis mine):

The creature is immune if it can’t hear you or if it’s immune to being charmed.

Hence, the bard needs to speak words, and the feature does not work with mimes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Although not the question, since you cite the 'immune if it can't hear you' text, it might be worth pointing out that cutting words is ineffective if the bard, target, or both are in the silence effect. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jun 17, 2023 at 19:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ The conclusion is correct because of the "creature is immune if it can’t hear you" phrasing. But the first part of the answer is faulty reasoning. Other bard subclasses have ways to expend bardic inspiration dice that don't involve sound, they're just a generalized resource. e.g. Swords bard "Slashing Flourish. You can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target..." Or Whispers: "ability to make your weapon attacks magically toxic to a creature's mind." The narrative explanation for these doesn't appear to involve speech or sound. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2023 at 20:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Feathercrown: Yup, I used alternate uses of wild shape as an example in the answer I posted after writing that comment and seeing both existing answers encouraged faulty reasoning based on the basic way to use inspiration. I don't think any barbarian subclasses can expend a rage for anything except entering a rage, though. A Zealot might want to do that while already raging to refresh Fanatical Focus (reroll a save once/rage), but that's still just bonus action rage. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2023 at 21:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Eddymage: Yes, for Cutting Words in particular, the way it works in the narrative is pretty similar to how regular inspiration works. (Except as a reaction during the thing you're debuffing, instead of ahead of time. And that you can inspire creatures that are immune to charm and that you can't see.) But we had to reach that conclusion by looking at Cutting Words itself for clues, not by looking at things the rules say about basic Bardic Inspiration. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2023 at 22:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes Excellent answer btw, it's more accurate than the accepted one. I see why the "wait 24hrs" convention exists now. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 18, 2023 at 0:43
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Target needs to hear you, but not because of how giving inspiration normally works.

Some bard subclasses do have ways to expend bardic inspiration dice that don't narratively involve sound and whose rules don't mention sound or hearing1. They're a generalized resource for bards, like how some druid subclasses can "expend a use of wild shape" to do completely different things like summon wildfire spirit. So the basic way of expending them (inspiring an ally) doesn't have to work the same way as other ways of spending them.

In practice, the older Bard subclasses (published in the PHB: Lore and Valor) do only use their inspiration dice by doing audible things, but that was a conclusion reached by checking on their available uses, not an assumption I made to figure out how their uses worked.


To decide if a use of inspiration dice can work in silence, look for:

  1. Rules text that explicitly says no (or yes).
  2. Narrative flavour that definitely implies sound or words are involved. (If it makes sense and there's no rule against it, a player may come up with alternate flavour for their bard, different from some other bards.)

For Cutting Words, the last sentence of its rules paragraph is crystal clear:

The creature is immune if it can't hear you or if it's immune to being charmed.

So you can't be in Silence, and they can't be in Silence or Deafened. And there can't be a barrier to sound between you, or something like gale force winds or skydiving that drown out verbal communication.

If not for that, we could also infer from the name ("Cutting words") that it involves language. Unless the bard and the target were using sign language, or the bard was holding up a sign with written words, "words" implies spoken language. So a sensible DM ruling would be that a bard must be heard to weave their distracting magic. Other rulings would be possible, especially if a player had a plausible explanation involving gestures. But in this case there is explicit rules text saying that hearing is required, so DMs don't have to infer that from the narrative flavour.


Footnote 1: Uses of bardic dice that don't necessarily involve sound

  • (Xanathar's) Swords bard - blade flourishes. The plain English meaning of that is twirling your sword in your hand artistically, no implication of spoken language or sound. e.g. "Slashing Flourish. You can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target..." (Also, at 14th level, you can use a d6 on any flourish instead of expending an inspiration die.)

  • (Xanathar's) Whispers bard - Psychic Blades: "ability to make your weapon attacks magically toxic to a creature's mind." / When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to deal an extra 2d6 psychic damage...

    The narrative explanation for this doesn't appear to involve speech or sound. Remember that the narrative flavour of a Whispers bard is that they hide in plain sight, often masquerading as members of another bard college. If they had to speak damaging words aloud to make that psychic damage happen, they'd reveal themselves.

By contrast, (Tasha's) College of Eloquence doesn't explicitly say the target must hear you for "Unsettling Words", but that's heavily implied.

You can spin words laced with magic that unsettle a creature and cause it to doubt itself. As a bonus action, you can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration and choose one creature you can see within 60 feet of you. Roll the Bardic Inspiration die. The creature must subtract the number rolled from the next saving throw it makes before the start of your next turn.

Without explicit rules text about hearing, this leaves the door open to sign language if the target understands. It does say "words", though, so doing it with rude gestures would be a significant reflavouring if your party often uses Silence.

Another case where sound appears to be required is (Xanathar's) College of Glamour: Mantle of Inspiration

When you join the College of Glamour at 3rd level, you gain the ability to weave a song of fey magic that imbues your allies with vigor and speed.

As a bonus action, you can expend one use of your Bardic Inspiration to grant yourself a wondrous appearance. When you do so, choose a number of creatures you can see and that can see you within 60 feet of you, ...

The 2nd paragraph only mentions appearance, but the first paragraph says it's a song. If some of your allies are silenced/deaf but you the bard aren't, you could weave the song and transform your appearance, it would be up to the DM whether allies that could see but not hear you would get the temp HP and the movement reaction.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ RE: ("Cutting words") that it involves language." -- the actual "language" involved involved certain hand gestures, involving a particular finger, universally understood with a specific meaning. ;) \$\endgroup\$ Jun 18, 2023 at 3:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DanielWiddis: Sure, but everyone can do that. Only a bard can magically imbue the gesture with power to disrupt someone who already thinks so little of you and your insults that they might be trying to kill you. And for that, RAW it requires them to hear you, as well as for the bard to see them (but not vice versa, so gestures aren't always an option. But sure, if they can see you, then the bard can include gestures.) \$\endgroup\$ Jun 18, 2023 at 3:20
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Cutting Words are a use of Bardic Inspiration

They are not only closely linked, as you cite:

When a creature that you can see within 60 feet of you makes an attack roll, an ability check, or a damage roll, you can use your reaction to expend one of your uses of Bardic Inspiration, rolling a Bardic Inspiration die and subtracting the number rolled from the creature’s roll.

You are spending one of your uses of bardic inspiration to create the effect, that is cutting words is a new use of bardic inspiration. Therefore, they require stirring words or music, and will not work in silence.

Feature names are not rules functional, but they can help you to interpret the intent behind the rule, and here they suggest the same reading.

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