Sub-Class: Bard College of the Plague Doctor

Okay everyone, I need to start today off by saying that this sub-class challenge has been just that: a challenge. Some of these come out better than others and all of them need a little work. There is something that is beginning to trend with my thought process though. For the Hag Coven wizard (find it here if you haven’t read it) I was unable to really flesh out the entire build. The farthest I got for features was level 10 or so. This was because, as I was developing it, the ideas that I wanted to build upon were fleshing themselves out into a full class with its own different builds. I’m not sure if I am happy or sad to say it, but the plague doctor has turned out similarly. I say this as a fair warning, because part of me is considering taking a reprieve from new challenges to use this slot to build upon those designs working in my head. We will see. For now, let’s talk about the ideas I have generated thus far for our bard college.

Why Plague Doctor & Why Bard?

The first answer is pretty simple. It comes in two parts. First off, I was (at the time of the poll) playing a bit of Darkest Dungeon. If you haven’t played it, it is a turn-based RPG coupled with resource management in an unforgiving and Lovecraftian landscape. Honestly, I love the game but have not played much past my first good go. Once I lost my stand-by characters to some horrible luck and had no money to recover it was a downhill slope of deciding to either start over or waste time trying to recover. I decided to take my experience from the game and run with it, but one of those was the Plague Doctor character. She uses a combination of medicine, alchemy, and grenades to heal allies and poison foes. The move set and concept really hit home with me as having potential to be something awesome in the D&D world. The other reason I wanted to do plague doctor? The look and idea evoked by it are unique and interesting. So that brings us to bard. Why on earth would this fit the bard class? The short answer is that I had an idea to utilize the bardic inspiration mechanic as a resource for our good doctor.

Manipulating The Bard

Here is the thing that I discovered in working through this concept: bard doesn’t work. Okay that isn’t exactly true. It does work, and it does the job pretty well. My problem is that I can see a plague doctor being more robust than the bard would allow it to be. Additionally the plague doctor is much more of a re-skin than anything else. This article will cover how to play bard as a plague doctor. I don’t want to just shunt that aside for a future re-skin. Instead we will start there and then I will talk about some of my ideas for an individual class. To begin we are going to be using the Lore Bard build and we are going to take most of the features found in this build and the class in general and re-skin them to fit our mask wearing traveler.

The first thing we need to do is consider the plague doctors of the real world. They wore clothing that would, hopefully, help prevent the spread of disease to themselves as they treated plague victims. They also were, generally speaking, not the top physicians of the time. This makes sense as they were hired by governments and localities to treat the public in large numbers. That being said, they traveled a lot, going from one plague-ridden town to the next. They would likely be ostracized and quarantined because of their profession and closeness to disease. Finally they existed during a time when medical knowledge was preciously lacking. Miasma theory as abundant, figuring that vapors and gases transmitted the illnesses. Hence the fragrantly scented plague mask.

From Red Hook’s Darkest Dungeon game.

Putting this all together we can take bits and pieces to fit our D&D game. How ostracized the sight might make you is up to you, but the general feel of plague doctor is easily replicated. The features that relate to skills do not need to be changed. Plague doctors were doctors and they did train at what were the time’s medical schools. They also traveled and were likely loners. As such I, personally, find it probable they picked up extra skills and knowledge along the way. As for magic, well, it is a D&D world and a lot of people learn magic. The biggest thing I would suggest is, perhaps, removing some of the illusion spells and adding ones that better fit the theme if healing with a dash of necromancy.

From there we can look at three major skills that I saw potential for use in the plague doctor. The first is, of course, bardic inspiration. Rather than inspiring through words or music, what if the plague doctor used the burning of herbs and incense. This could be achieved through tossed ampules or the burning of a censer. It could even just be a bit more mystical in nature, wafting over to the chosen target. This concept is a simple re-skin to take the bard mechanic and make it work for something completely different. In fact, it is perfect for the other two skills we need to skin: cutting words and song of rest. Each of them can be skinned as the utilization of different vapors, especially given the plague doctor’s link to miasma theory.

And here is why my mind delved into new class territory. That was, frankly, a pretty easy build. There isn’t anything new. It really is just a re-skin and manipulation of spell options. If you didn’t know any better your descriptions would make this look like a whole new class, but upon inspection of the mechanics it is easily recognizable as a bard. So where do we go from here?

Why Not Bard?

You may be asking why I didn’t just flesh out a fresh bard college with a more unique set of features. There are a couple reasons. First off, I think there is benefit, versatility, and sense in using the lore bard. Cutting words as an option was a major reason for that. The other is that when I played with the need for cutting out more skill and spell features, I thought those too abundant in the base class. If I was going to really make the plague doctor shine on his own I would need more room and have less features derived from the base bard class. Sure, I could have done a new build that began at first level and manipulated those abilities, but let’s be honest. At that point, I might as well make my own class, especially with the ideas I have brewing. In regard to that, let’s get the run down.


First off I think we need to take the bardic inspiration and song of rest features from bard and hijack them. The concepts are great and we can tinker with them a bit to fit the plague doctor. Aside from making these vapors that infuse the party with health and inspiration, we can manipulate them by changing their usage in a couple ways. Do they get more frequent like a bard’s inspiration or perhaps could we go with a larger cloud, affecting more people with each use and keeping the usage low? I am inclined to say the latter. For song of rest, I feel that it needs some more tweaking, perhaps including other methods of medicine like bloodletting or leaches. Maybe the vapors grant some temp HP, but those who sacrifice a hit die may be cured of one disease or poison effect. Beyond that, I think the plague doctor still benefits from utilizing spells but perhaps in lesser number. The exact build might depend on what other features we give this class so let’s discuss those.

Thinking on the plague doctor from Darkest Dungeon and thinking about the warlock in 5th Edition I came to some interesting ideas. Why not use the outline of the warlock for some interesting designs and builds? The warlock must choose between dagger, chain, and tome. I can imagine different styles of plague doctors who are specialists in other ways. Injections, censers, and lobbed ampules full of gas. Each could have its benefits to the way you play. Stronger single target abilities, area effects, and ranged attacks are just my initial ideas. Additionally, I imagine different concentrations of study. Some might wish to heal, while others might want to bring plagues to evil creatures. At first I was tempted to continue to follow the warlock inspiration and have those be chosen ways, but I think there is a better method. The tools fit better into the Patron slot of warlock describing the special features of the plague doctor’s methodology. Where warlocks have invocations, I can see plague doctors having….”cutting edge” medicinal techniques. These would be a mix of abilities on par with invocations with some requiring a specific type of study. They could bolster your weak points or further enhance your strengths. Medical studies would work similarly to the way pacts work for warlocks in style, granting some specialization for the character. Specializations in anatomy or vaporous compounds granting more targeted and stronger effects or more widespread ones, respectively, for example.

There is plenty to work out here, to be sure. But honestly I am really excited at the potential. I see a dark, mystical healer or damage dealer. I really hope to work this one to fruition, and any insight or comments are welcome. What do you think of when you think plague doctor? What abilities might they have? What spells might be in their repertoire?

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