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Inspired by this question: Can a multi-class spellcaster have one thing be two different focuses?

The PHB, on p54 says:

Spellcasting focus

You can use a musical instrument (found in chapter 5) as a spellcasting focus for your bard spells.

And yet on p53, the PHB in the introductory description of bards, gives examples of three bards:

Bard #1:

Humming as she traces her fingers over an ancient monument in a long-forgotten ruin, a half-elf in rugged leathers finds knowledge springing into her mind, conjured forth by the magic of her song—knowledge of the people who constructed the monument and the mythic saga it depicts.

Bard #2:

A stern human warrior bangs his sword rhythmically against his scale mail, setting the tempo for his war chant and exhorting his companions to bravery and heroism. The magic of his song fortifies and emboldens them.

Bard #3:

Laughing as she tunes her cittern, a gnome weaves her subtle magic over the assembled nobles, ensuring that her companions’ words will be well received.

In each example, the implication is that the bard is casting a spell, and the implication is that the action of the bard is central to the magic, and at least to my reading, that the voice, sword/mail, and instrument are spellcasting foci. Maybe it is meaningless fluff, or maybe the implication is that those are all spellcasting foci.

There are two parts to my question:

  • Is it reasonable to assume that RAW or at least RAI that the implication is that in the case of bards, they can use 1) their voice, 2) an improvised musical instrument, or 3) a bought musical instrument?

  • And if such an assumption isn't RAW/RAI, what are the implications to allowing it as a house rule?

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I see these examples (not just for the bard, but for all classes) as very good ways of showing how those classes exist in the world, what their roles are, and how they fit into the game from a narrative perspective.

That being said, the examples need not represent spellcasting at all. Not all spellcasting requires material components or a focus of some sort. In the examples provided, I can just as easily see those as representations of the bard's class features rather than the bard casting spells. I also don't know that the examples need to exactly match what can be done in game, for the same reason -- they're narrative examples, not gameplay examples. They might also be incomplete examples.

The first example is most likely a demonstration of the bard casting Legend Lore, which has V, S, and M components. The M components for this spell have a specific cost (250gp worth of incense and 4 ivory strips worth at least 50gp each), which means a bardic focus can't be used to cast it, so in this case, if she is casting Legend Lore (and it sounds like it, from the narrative description) there is no bardic focus.

The second and third examples seem to be narrative descriptions of various uses of the bardic class feature Bardic Inspiration which also doesn't require any sort of focus or musical instrument.

To address your specific concerns:

Is it reasonable to assume that RAW or at least RAI that the implication is that in the case of bards, they can use 1) their voice, 2) an improvised musical instrument, or 3) a bought musical instrument?

As far as RAW is concerned, you have one option: a musical instrument. I understand this is vague. The description in Chapter 5, Equipment (5e SRD) says:

Musical Instrument. Several of the most common types of musical instruments are shown on the table as examples. If you have proficiency with a given musical instrument, you can add your proficiency bonus to any ability checks you make to play music with the instrument. A bard can use a musical instrument as a spellcasting focus. Each type of musical instrument requires a separate proficiency.

The table in question is the Tools table, relevant section reproduced below:

\begin{array}{r|ccc} \text{Musical Instrument} & \text{Cost(gp)} & \text{Weight(lbs)}\\ \hline \text{Bagpipes} & 30 & 6 \\ \text{Drum} & 6 & 3 \\ \text{Dulcimer} & 25 & 10 \\ \text{Flute} & 2 & 1 \\ \text{Lute} & 35 & 2 \\ \text{Lyre} & 30 & 2 \\ \text{Horn} & 3 & 2 \\ \text{Panflute} & 12 & 2 \\ \text{Shawm} & 2 & 1 \\ \text{Viol} & 30 & 1 \\ \end{array}

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, of course, and your bard could use any musical instrument that exists in your world. However, the fact that playing a musical instrument has a specific entry in the rules says to me it's more than just banging on something and making noise. The fact the they require proficiency says to me that not just anyone can bang on a drum to make music. I also take it to mean that the bard requires proficiency in the instrument in order to use it as a bardic focus. This is not explicit but it stands to reason, since you need proficiency to 'use' a musical instrument, and a bard must use the instrument as a bardic focus -- this is the RAI part. I have a hard time believing that any designer intended to allow a bard to use a lute as a focus without being able to actually play the lute.

Taking all of this into consideration, I think it would be a stretch to allow a bard to bang on his armor, hum a few bars, or use some other type of improvised musical instrument, and without proficiency, use that as his bardic spellcasting focus.

  1. Voice -- No. And even if so, you'd have a hard time saying your verbal components if you're also humming out a few bars as your arcane focus.

  2. Improvised instrument -- No. You don't have proficiency in "banging on your armor."

  3. A purchased instrument -- Yes. No problem there; it's in the rules.

And if such an assumption isn't RAW/RAI, what are the implications to allowing it as a house rule?

Not too much of a problem here. It's a cool narrative device. Spellcasting foci aren't required ("you can use a [thing] as a spellcasting focus" in every mention of foci in the class rules). It doesn't really affect the bard's ability to cast his spells whether he has a focus or not -- there's always the option of a component pouch -- and not all spells require foci. All in all if you want to allow it there's no real problem; in the end it doesn't make much of a difference.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 29 '19 at 4:45
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I also wanted to know the answer to this, but specifically for the College of Valor feature, Battle Magic. The feature allows you to make a weapon attack as a bonus action when you cast a bard spell. The bard would literally have to play his instrument with both hands, draw his weapon and attack, then sheath it again so he can cast again on his next turn. Over and over again. That just doesn't seem right.

I feel like there are some reasons why you wouldn't: First, in the spellcasting rules on page 79, it states that they only need a free hand to hold the spellcasting focus. Nothing explicitly saying you need to activate it in some way (such as playing it). The instrument being used as a spellcasting focus doesn't mean that they have to play it. It's simply the object the bard chooses to focus his magical energy into just like a wand or totem. You actually don't even have to be proficient with the instrument you're holding. Although, it wouldn't make much sense from a RP POV if you were just carrying around an instrument you didn't know how to play. But, in terms of RAW, it's not necessary.

Second, the bard's spellcasting focus is the only one across any class that would require two hands. There's only one instrument in the PHB that only requires one hand to play (a horn). Every other class which has a focus can easily hold it in one hand (staff, totem, amulet, etc.) while keeping the off hand free to use a weapon or shield (or both for clerics). In terms of game balance, it just doesn't make sense. Especially for a class specifically designed to use weapons and cast spells.

So I believe that the RAW means you don't have to play the instrument. Just have it (any instrument, even one you aren't proficient for) in your hand just like any other spellcasting focus. The proficiency in playing the instrument is basically flavor/fluff/RP for bards as well as a profession using the performance skill for extra coin in between/during adventures.

My solution would be to take proficiency in flutes and keep it in your belt for quick access (a lot like a wand) for mechanics purposes and use the other 2 proficiencies for whatever instruments you actually want your bard to be able to play for RP reasons.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Point is for valor bard, your not casting spells as often as the other bards do and probably not as many one shot spells. Your probably focusing on class features or longer spells to buff your party. Odds are your starting combat with a buff of sorts. Then picking up your rapier to pick off some of the weaker targets in your spare time. The focus is only required upon initial casting of the spell, it is not explicitly required to maintain concentration. \$\endgroup\$ – Spoo Apr 13 '18 at 17:14
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A spellcasting focus for a bard is a musical instrument as found on page 154 of the PHB.

Note that a spellcasting focus can be used in place of material components that don't have a cost. Not all spells have a material component so as per the three bard examples you've quoted, the bard isn't using their voice or an improvised musical instrument (banging sword against armour) as a spellcasting focus, they're just using their voice or performing gestures for the Verbal and Somatic components of a spell. They could also use a component pouch or just provide the specific components for the spell and not need a focus in the first place.

An improvised musical instrument could be feasible at the DM's discretion but I would say it would have to be akin to an actual musical instrument. An upside down bucket or jar might work as a drum but banging on a shield does not a musical instrument make for the purpose of a spellcasting focus. Otherwise banging on anything would work and there'd be little reason to have a section on musical instruments in the PHB.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ OP took out the bullet point about multi-focus, so I think your last para. can go. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Mar 17 '16 at 17:09
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I want to put this out there immediately, but you probably already guessed it... You should ask the DM, at the end of the day it is likely his/her call.

That being said, I do not see anything in the rules actually saying you cannot do this. In fact you even provided some decent examples of situations where it is entirely possible. The magic is really what is driving the effects of the spell, and the "noise" is the medium that spreads it. As far as I am concerned, clapping your hands and stomping your feet could be enough to constitute that requirement of making noise. There is a list provided on page 154 of the PHB, but it states that this is only the common ones - presumably any musical instrument can be used, since this is not considered to be an all inclusive list.

For clarity on the Bard itself, the wording for where they get their power is actually quite interesting. I highly recommend reading the entire introduction for Bards in the PHB (Page 51), here is a quote from the text...

In the worlds of D&D, words and music are not just vibrations of air, but vocalizations with power all their own. The Bard is a master of song, speech, and the magic they contain... those 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.

I would say that the bard itself is not necessarily magical - just using sound to harness the background magic created from the original Words of Creation. As per any other implications, I would say there really is not many. A bard who can sing a beautiful song to inspire followers would likely be considered the spell focus. Playing a flute during combat, the flute would be the spell focus. I expect the only mechanical issues you might have is if your instrument is destroyed - but Bard's are given three instruments at creation so I don't expect this is an issue.

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