In one of our three D&D campaigns, my husband Ryan plays a tabaxi lore bard named Mew’n McGregor. Yes, really. Ryan spends hours before sessions writing songs to inspire his fellow adventurers. Mew’n is charming at times, creepy at others. We like to laugh at how he casts his enchantment spells by eerily rubbing a pair of spoons together. He’s arrogant, he loves the spotlight, and Ryan enjoys playing up these moments for our friends in real time; he’s witty and generates insults and witticisms effortlessly on the spot. Mew’n is often the face of the party, a role many bards are tailored to fill.
When I played a bard, I was not nearly as charming or witty. I’m bad at smooth talk and spinning yarns is a skill I’m still building. So, what’s an awkward bard supposed to do?
One option: be weird instead.
Enter the Bardic College of Caterwauling, a subclass for D&D 5E written by Jessica Marcrum and available on the dmsguild. If you purchased Uncaged Volume 1, which I reviewed back in March, you’ll recognize her as the author of the eccentric, roleplay-heavy one-shot called “A Family Reunion.” I wasn’t surprised to see another delightfully eccentric product from this imaginative creator.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, to “caterwaul” is to make the shrill howling, wailing sound of a cat. The College of Caterwauling trains its students to harness the power of ancient vocal arts developed by tabaxi master bards; can you see where this is going? Though I haven’t had the chance to play this subclass, I did sit down with my husband, our resident tabaxi bard, to read and discuss it.
The Caterwauler has the potential to make a certain type of player happy. This isn’t for bards who want to be charming and loquacious; this is for my fellow weirdo cat lovers out there. Caterwauler magic comes in the form of unsettling cat yowls and wails. Any aspiring bard, not just tabaxi, can join this college and learn the “feline arts.” And I would argue that any player, even those like me who can’t improvise a joke to save their lives, can manage to impersonate the tabaxi’s “traditional nocturnal melodies” every now and then at the table. While I wouldn’t choose this subclass for an ongoing campaign, it would be fun to play in a light-hearted one-shot.
In its structure, the College of Caterwauling is clearly modeled after the College of Glamour, coolest of the unofficial bardic subclasses in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. As a result, there are a few places where the wording seems a bit off and could be adjusted to better fit the subclass. More importantly, sticking so closely to the pre-existing structure seems to have led to a somewhat imbalanced set of features, with some feeling too limiting and others overpowered.
At 3rd level, the Caterwauler gets two features. Gift of Claws is similar to the Glamour’s Mantle of Inspiration, but isn’t quite as powerful. By spending inspiration, the Caterwauler can grant a cascading group of allies a special attack: the use of cat claws! The flavor is interesting, but the damage output is low. Many of the players at my table – ranged archers, dex-based spellcasters, etc. – would struggle to use the cat claws, no matter how cool the aesthetic is. And it is cool, enough so that I’ve come up with an idea to use this in my campaign (see below). Distracting Yowl is equally flavorful and could be very effective in non-combat situations. I like that this feature has an increased potency against tabaxi targets; little details like that are very fun to play with at the table. All that said, at 3rd level, College of Lore bards get Cutting Words, which would be hard for me to give up for these features.
At 6th level comes Mighty Roar, which is more powerful than the Intimidating Presence given to 10th level berserker barbarians! As a bonus action, the bard can let out an earth-shaking, terrifying roar. Given it has an area of effect (rather than one target only) and no limits on uses, it feels overpowered. After all, it could incapacitate a small group of CR 5 hill giants! With the Kitty feature at 14th level, the bard gains “the ability to become stupefyingly adorable” to all who see them, potentially stripping their enemies of language, spellcasting, and intelligence/wisdom for a brief but debilitating moment. Kitty’s effects are dark and hilarious, which is a good overall description of this subclass. Bards are meant to be annoying, and what’s more annoying than a wailing, yowling cat? This subclass, though limiting and niche, evokes that feeling every cat parent gets when our kitty wails outside the bedroom door for an hour only to come in and snuggle up next to us…so, annoyance mixed with affection?
My favorite thing about The College of Caterwauling is that it includes not only a PC subclass but also two NPC stat blocks. For me, this is where the product shines. I begin to wonder, what do most tabaxi think of this college? Perhaps they’re criticized for being too traditional or “wild” in their ways, for being too cat-like and not humanoid enough, for not adopting more mainstream methods, etc. That could be interesting. Or even better: what if a large group of creepy assassins led by a tabaxi Caterwauler jumped out from the shadows to attack the PCs? The cat claws may not deal much damage, but if there were enough combatants, it could be terrifying. Now, doesn’t that sound weird and awesome? PCs interested in this college can even meet and train with a fully statted Professor of Caterwauling.
Unique take on bards – fun flavor and offers an alternative roleplaying spin
Cute and weird, like our feline friends
Will bring a sense of humor to the table, especially for cat-lovers
Good value – contains a subclass and two NPCs
Potentially imbalanced – some features seem inappropriately powered
Possibly less efficient in combat overall than other bardic subclasses
You may have to listen to your friends yowling and whining all night
The College of Caterwauling seems a bit imbalanced mechanically and while it won’t be for everyone, it could suit the right kind of bard: someone who wants to play something silly; who wants to be weird instead of charming; someone with strong feelings about felines. The artwork in this product is mostly just okay, though there are a few nice images included. Cleaning up the graphics and rewording a few phrases would make this a more polished product. Beyond taking this for a mid-tier one-off spin (by all means, that sounds fun), the value of this product is in NPC/world applications, rather than a subclass for an ongoing campaign. I wouldn’t play this as a PC, but as a DM, I’m very much looking forward to introducing some weird-ass Caterwauler assassins.