A few weeks ago I came up with a concept for a bard subclass that turns some of the traditional notions of what a bard is on it’s head. While most bards traditionally rely on musical instruments to ply their craft, not all colleges need to be beholden to this mechanic.
The College of the Unheard is a bardic tradition that caters to characters who do not have their full capacity for hearing. Whether hard of hearing or deaf, members of this college are unfazed. Rather, they harness their capabilities to communicate and cast spells in unique fashion.
Bards of this college call themselves The Unheard because their invisible disability often goes unconsidered by others. Yet, anyone who underestimates The Unheard will quickly learn the folly of their ways, as these bards are equally capable as their peers and boast incredible talent.
I worked to build out mechanical effects that would bring life to the theme. The first and most obvious was to build a mechanic around non-verbal communication: sign language. I also built mechanics around advantages that a hard of hearing character might have, by borrowing from the Silence spell. I rounded out the class with features that improve other aspects of the Bard’s awareness. Finally, as a capstone, I gave the subclass immunity to the deafened condition, as a nod to the bard overcoming any limitation they may have experienced from being hard of hearing.
Refining the Concept
Any time you venture into a disabled theme, it’s important to be sensitive to the subject matter. I sought out members of the community to proofread and review the class concepts and language to ensure I was handling the subject matter properly. This proved to be a smart idea as I was enlightened to make some changes to the class before making it final.
Specifically, I had borrowed a mechanic from the Linguist feat for higher levels, which allows the player to read the lips of a speaking creature they can see, if they know the language. While I knew that lip reading was not a skill that most hard of hearing folks possess, I surmised that it would be acceptable as a higher level ability for a more skilled member of the College of the Unheard. I was enlightened to the fact that I should not make this connection, since it’s often wrongly presumed to be accurate, and I did not want to reinforce any false notions.
So, I replaced the mechanic with one that suggests hard of hearing characters are more attuned to the body language and gestures of others, granting them advantage on Wisdom (Insight) checks. This had the added benefit of avoiding mechanical overlap, making the Linguist feat a viable option for any player that wants the feat for their College of the Unheard Bard.
Many thanks to the members of the DOTS RPG project who reviewed the subclass for sensitivity concerns, and taught me some important lessons along the way.
Beyond bringing awareness to the cause of deaf and hard of hearing people, I wanted to donate the proceeds of the project to a charitable cause that helped them. Initially, I had researched some charities to donate the proceeds. I knew some local groups, but I wanted something with a little broader appeal to the audience who would be donating.
I reached out to Wizards of the Coast on Twitter, I called their corporate phone number, and I even bugged them during a recent Dragon+ stream to see if they had an accessibility partner who could be the beneficiary of the proceeds. Thankfully, Bart Carroll recognized my message and told me to get in contact with him.
In the meantime, I learned that the DOTS RPG project had started an ASL in RPGs initiative, which provides RPG support for deaf and hard of hearing members of the RPG community to experience roleplaying games. They do some really cool stuff, like coming up with new signs for D&D concepts, like spells, monsters, and mechanical concepts. As it turns out, the DOTS Guild was featured in the December 2018 issue of Dragon+, and in the most recent September 2019 edition of Dragon+, they also did a Behind the Screen article on ASL in RPGs.
I signed up for the DOTS Guild and reached out to them to see if they wanted to be the beneficiary of the proceeds. Indeed they did, and they were happy to review the content for a final sensitivity pass! Not only that, they taught me how to create a simplified PDF that would be accessible for visually impaired players that use screen readers. They are an invaluable resource for creators who want to make their assets more accessible.
College of the Unheard
Without further ado, I present to you the College of the Unheard Bard subclass:
You can pick up the College of the Unheard on the DM’s Guild by clicking the image above. All proceeds go to benefit DOTS RPG Project for their group working on ASL for RPG. DOTS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization focused on improving accessibility in gaming. They seek to empower the visually impaired, hard of hearing, and individuals with other disabilities to run, play, and experience the magic of TTRPGs with complete independence.
To volunteer or donate, go to the DOTSrpg website.