5e Supplement Review: Bard-Core Brawlers

The party’s musically gifted bard challenges the tavern’s in-house band to a musical showdown. Both sides square-off and roll some performance checks. The DM and bard describe the scene and it’s a fun time, resulting in a free night of drinks and lodging for the party.

Except, the rest of the party didn’t do anything. Sure, maybe the rogue messes with the opposing band or the boisterous barbarian heckles the band to throw them off, but that’s it. They’re side characters. The spotlight isn’t shared equally.

What if, instead, the whole party pulled out their instruments and challenged the in-house band? A battle of the bands erupts in the quaint tavern in the village square. Everyone gets involved and defeats the rival band together!

Doesn’t that second option sound nice? Absolutely.

Does ironing out the mechanics of that sound like a lot of work? Definitely.

Thankfully, Leon Barillaro has us covered with a fully fleshed-out musical combat system in Bard-Core Brawlers that includes everyone, not just the party’s bard or musically gifted members.

It’s an ingenious, yet easy to pick up, system that makes for a change-of-pace in a game that’s so focused on dungeon crawling and slaying monsters.

a green dragonborn shreds staring down a red tiefling. Both are shredding their guitars, locked in musical combat
The cover art is perfect. It sets the stage for the whole supplement and starts things off with a bang! Credit: Leon Barillaro & Aly Hüber (cover artist)

Tight Formatting and Editing

Revising and adapting 5e’s combat rules is no easy task. Yet, what’s more difficult is describing the various tweaks and new mechanics in an accessible way.

With that being said, I had no issue reading and understanding the various mechanics for musical combat. Sadie Lowry’s expert editing made reading-through Bard-Core Brawlers a breeze.

The word content was concise and to the point, yet still jam-packed with information.

Couple this with the fantastic layout by Willy Abeel and you have a flavorful, fun read. There’s plenty of style and flavor bursting out of the pages of this supplement, yet none of it interferes with the subject matter.

The PDF is also fully bookmarked making it super easy to navigate the 21-page supplement. Seriously, Leon and the team thought of everything to make reading Bard-Core Brawlers an easy and enjoyable experience.

Phenomenal Artwork

For starters, the cover art by Aly Hüber coupled with Willy’s logo makes for one hell of a cover. Seeing a tiefling and dragonborn duke it out with their guitars, shredding power chords in front of a hyped-up crowd sets the tone of this supplement perfectly.

Yet the amazing artwork doesn’t stop after you turn the cover page.

You’re constantly bombarded by some of the best character art I’ve seen on the DMs Guild, courtesy of Leonardo BóiaThere’s a wide variety of NPCs that make up the various bands in the supplement’s adventure, The Larksbury Music Festival, and Leonardo captures them all perfectly.

a bluegrass-inspired goblin with their guitar
Scruggs of The Banderhobb Boys. Credit: Leon Barillaro & Leonardo Bóia.

A Complete, Creative Overhaul of 5e Combat

Musical combat plays the same as typical 5e combat. There’s an initiative order and everyone makes attacks or casts spells on the opposition to subdue the enemy. However, there are a few key differences.

Rather than leveraging physical attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution), musical combat utilizes the mental attributes (Wisdom, Intelligence, Charisma).

Wisdom, alongside a creature’s character level and hit die, is used to determine MP or morale points which function as the band’s health in musical combat. Yep, you read that right. The band shares a pool of MP meaning that once their MP drops to 0 the entire group is done for.

I love this change as it makes the band feel like a cohesive group. One person can’t carry the band because once you’re out of MP, you’re done.

Charisma is used for attacks and damage rolls using musical instruments. Unlike regular attacks, however, attacks made with instruments are called “riffs” and instead of dealing a traditional damage type, they inflict “riff damage” which targets the band’s MP.

Intelligence determines a character’s Resolve Class (RC) which is the AC equivalent for musical combat.

One difference between AC and RC is that a creature’s RC increases by 1 each time they are hit with a riff. A creature’s RC resets to its original value at the end of the creature’s turn, but it does help to dissuade a band from ganging up on one person from a rival band.

All in all, there are a lot of changes, but musical combat still feels true to the spirit of the standard 5e combat system.

Think of the Martials!

One of the major concerns I had for musical combat was that it was going to be bard-centric. While surely they have a natural aptitude to excel in this space, the inclusion of both Wisdom and Intelligence in musical combat opened up the doors to any caster class.

Or more accurately, anyone that utilizes at least one of those abilities and has the incentive to throw some ASIs at them.

However, a combat-focused martial character that chose to dump those three stats is at an enormous disadvantage in musical combat. Right?

Wrong!

The instruments in Bard-Core Brawlers all have weapon properties. Two of these properties, Heavy and Finesse allow the wielder to make rift attacks with Strength or Dexterity respectively, instead of Charisma.

If a character chooses to do so, they’ll also add their Strength or Dexterity to their rift damage instead of their Charisma.

This was a simple, yet elegant design choice that won me over completely. It would’ve been easy to forget about the combat-centric martial characters, but this mechanic ensures that they can excel in musical combat even if they dumped WIS/INT/CHA.

Work the Crowd!

One of the perks of concerts is having a live audience to play for. Great bands constantly include the audience in various ways to hype up the event and add another layer of fun to their performance.

The favor mechanic is how bands can use the audience to help them out during musical combat. The band has a pool of favor that they can expend in various ways. For example, they can crowd surf to gain some free movement or ask the audience to sing along to restore some of the band’s MP.

Bands with a following often start combat with some favor as they’ll have plenty of fans in the crowd. However, any band can play to the crowd, or do something cool on stage to earn some to use in a pinch.

It’s sort of like inspiration combined with lair actions. It’s a fun and unique mechanic that sets musical combat apart from typical 5e combat.

a punk rock, red tiefling throws a fiery sign of the horns at the crowd, ready to jam out on her bass
Pandemonium, the bassist for Trifling. Credit: Leon Barillaro & Leonardo Bóia.

Plus, an Adventure: The Larksbury Music Festival

The mechanics alone are worth the price of admission, but Leon ties everything together in this supplement with a battle of the bands-style adventure for 5th-level characters.

The party is summoned to Larksbury by their friend Mick Nesbitt who has already signed them up to play in the town’s Battle of the Bands. Perhaps the party is an established band already, or perhaps not. Mick doesn’t care either way and just wants to win the prize, an all-expenses-paid musical tour of the Sword Coast.

Yet winning the Battle of the Bands is no easy feat. The party is going to have to shred and smash their way through three well-established bands if they want to win the prize!

Three Distinct Bands

To win the Battle of the Bands, the party must defeat all three challengers. If the party is defeated at any point in the competition, they’re done for.

The first challenge is a bluegrass band, The Bandherhobb Boys. This goblin duo loves to rile up and taunt their opponents on-stage, but they’re stand-up lads once their set is over.

Trifling, a girl punk powerhouse group of tieflings is the second band in the competition and my personal favorite of the bunch. Each member has a different set of skills in musical combat, all of which when combined make for a powerful group of foes.

The band works in tandem, leveraging each other’s strengths to debuff, demoralize, and demolish the competition.

GGROGG is the third and final group the party must defeat to win their prize. This power-metal group is brutal and desperate to claim victory this year after a crushing defeat the previous year.

The adventure has plenty of ways to showcase how musical combat can differ from encounter to encounter which is cool. NPC bands may have some unique favor moves to bust out in combat, or they may use spells and abilities in creative ways to give the party some ideas for their next musical combat.

Plus, there are tons of role-playing opportunities littered throughout the adventure. Various NPCs from the bands will seek out the party before or after their sets and as with any music festival, there are plenty of parties to attend!

DM Prep Tips

One inclusion in this adventure that I adore is the DM tips. Each band has a paragraph or two in their respective section that gives the DM ideas as to how to play them in musical combat.

I also appreciated that the Banderhobb Boy was a generic statblock. Since there are two of them, scaling the encounter for larger groups is necessary. One of their tips was to throw in a third member that plays the fiddle and uses the generic statblock, just like Scruggs and Flatt.

I love when a module gives DMs a sense of direction for an encounter. These tips were a fantastic addition!

a white dragonborn covered with scars and tattoos looks menacingly at the crowd
Olut, the drummer for GGROGG. Credit: Leon Barillaro & Leonardo Bóia.

What Happens Next?

If the party manages to defeat all three bands in the Battle of the Bands then they’re free to set off on their all-expenses-paid, 10-stop, musical tour of the Sword Coast with their buddy Mick.

It’s a fitting end for a one-shot since it works as-is, but it’s also a solid plot hook to kick off a campaign and keep the ball rolling. After all, there’s plenty to do for a (literal) band of adventurers traveling along the Sword Coast.

I also love that the adventure has an option for failing. If you’re defeated, you’re done for, but you can pick up some gigs at the local bar and practice to hopefully win it all next year.

It’s a fun adventure that’s the perfect length for a quick one-shot or change-of-pace side quest in the middle of a campaign. Plus, any location or lore changes can easily be slotted in to fit a setting outside of the Forgotten Realms.

Final Thoughts on Bard-Core Brawlers

Bard-Core Brawlers is a unique revamp of the traditional 5e combat system. Leon’s careful planning and ingenious design have taken what I thought would be a bard-centric supplement and made a universal musical combat system that any character can thrive in.

For just under $5, Bard-Core Brawlers is a fantastic supplement to shake things up at the table. It’s got all the mechanics needed to create your own battle of the bands-style one-shot or side quest, or if you’d rather, Leon has you covered with a ready-to-use adventure included.

It’s weird, it’s funky, it’s fresh… it’s a hit!

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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