16 October 2012

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Discipline 02 - The Windmaster

This is the second Anatomy of a Discipline in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.

Overview

The Windmaster is the windling adaptation of the Warrior Discipline. It has been changed to take advantage of their strengths (flight and agility) and minimize their disadvantages (strength and toughness). Windlings are not generally considered to be warlike, but this Discipline has been created by them for that very purpose. The niche within windling society that the Windmaster fills is similar to the Warrior, but it is a way of life unto its own.

Primarily found within the traditional home of windlings in Barsaive, Glenwood Deep. Its ways are practiced there among the various tribes in structured warfare. The fighting is bloodless and represents complex social interactions within these various communities. It would be easy to draw comparisons between their guerrilla warfare and sport franchises between cities. These rivalries rarely become serious affairs, because that goes against the nature of the windlings and the very serious undertones of what they are doing. The Windmasters are practicing their art to protect their homes.

Windlings' size has always been their greatest weakness and makes many perceive them as easy prey. Windmasters are the guardians of their communities; playing at their games to train for the day when they must employ their Talents for real. Towards this end, the Windmaster is much more focused than the Warrior in how it approaches conflict. They are not generalists, but extremely specialized. While a Warrior has boon companions, they can survive on their own easily. The Windmaster lives and dies by their allies in a way the Warrior never will. They are more reliant on their companions and, but also have more to offer them in support.

Given their distinct limitations and what they are fighting for (communities, homes and family), Windmasters do not have the same honorable compunctions as Warriors. Ambush, stealth. treachery, poison and subterfuge are just some of their tools. These tiny soldiers cannot afford to fight "fair" like larger Namegivers because they are already working from a disadvantage.

When making a Windmaster character, it is important to consider where they came from and who Initiated them into this Discipline. What are the traditions of their home and what weapons and tactics are popular there? Is there anything distinctive about those Windmasters; do they have a particular color, article of clothing, speach, or bearing? Think of the traditions that exist in old military units and sporting teams, what has this Windmaster brought with them? Such training was likely provided with the understanding that they would protect their community; why did this adept leave?

Discipline Violations

These are best employed not as a stick, but as a chance for the player to take a deeper look at what it means to follow their Discipline. The Windmaster is focused on the group, even more so than the Warrior. Unity is paramount to the effectiveness of any group, and any action which threatens that can be disastrous. Being naturally empathetic, windlings know the dangers that low morale or personal issues hold and will work to resolve these conflicts before engaging in any dangerous activities. Similarly, acting on their own out of personal vengeance or hatred will just get their allies killed as they come after the rogue Windmaster - it is better to gather your companions to your cause. Those that betray a Windmaster will know no forgiveness. The nature of the Windmaster means that planning is a necessity - reckless action will just result in unnecessary death, but at the same time doing nothing will quickly turn the tides against you. Even the pragmatic Windmaster must do what they can to make war as humane as possible, they cannot kill a defenseless foe; mercy should be granted by all sides.

Specialists

The only Windmaster specialist is known as the "Slasher". They learn the Close In (Kratas, City of Thieves, p. 224) Talent instead of Dive Attack at first Circle and Second Weapon and Momentum Attack trade places at seventh Circle (Second Weapon becomes a Discipline Talent, while Momentum Attack becomes a Talent Option). I don't care for this specialist for a number of reasons.

First, Dive Attack is a major advantage that Windmasters receive; no other Discipline has a damage boosting Talent (that Karma can be spent on, no less) until Journeyman, and generally towards the end even there. Damage is going to be the single largest problem any windling fighter faces, between small weapons and low strength. Close In makes it easier to score armor-defeating hits, but also denies the windling their advantage with swooping attacks. This tactic is relatively dangerous with little payoff.

Switching Momentum Attack and Second Weapon is less significant because you can still select the other as a Talent Option. That being said, it does lock you into a two-weapon fighting style. Momentum Attack is less likely to provide a second attack, but it uses the primary weapon. I prefer to use a single-handed weapon and a shield with windlings because the damage difference for that additional hand is minimal (+2 total compared to +6 for all other races). This means that the comparative benefits of a shield are excellent, whose bonuses remain unchanged regardless of size.

Talents

Initiate
Talent Options: Acrobatic Strike, Silent Walk, Sprint, Unarmed Combat, Wood Skin

First Circle
Discipline Talents: Air Dance, Avoid Blow, Dive Attack, Karma Ritual, Melee Weapons

Novice
Talent Options: Distract, Durability (9/7), Fireblood, Surprise Strike, Swift Kick, Taunt, Throwing Weapons, Wind Dance

Second Circle
Discipline Talent: Anticipate Blow

Third Circle
Discipline Talent: Buzz

Fourth Circle
Discipline Talent: Thread Weaving [Wind Weaving]

Journeyman
Talent Options: Disarm, Earth Skin, Lion Heart, Resist Taunt, Second Weapon, Tactics, Tiger Spring, Wound Balance

Fifth Circle
Discipline Talent: Spot Armor Flaw

Sixth Circle
Discipline Talent: Life Check

Seventh Circle
Discipline Talent: Momentum Attack

Eighth Circle
Discipline Talent: Second Attack

The Windmaster skill set is similar to what the Warrior brings to the table, with a number of Talents at the same Circle (Anticipate Blow, Life Check and Second Attack), or with positions slightly swapped (Air Dance and Wood Skin). While the Warrior is a very straight forward Discipline, the Windmaster is subtle and requires a fair amount of understanding to get the most out of it.

What is important to understand is that despite having excellent Durability, the Windmaster does not have much staying power. Most of their Talents cost Strain and it will quickly add up, particularly in conjunction with their (typically) low toughness score. Also, don't forget about the windling Karma resources; the Windmaster has a lot of effective ways to spend it and windlings have a lot of Karma in general.

With Air Dance as a Discipline Talent and Tiger Spring showing up as a Talent Option, going first and often will be a boon to any Windmaster. Keep in mind that performing swooping attacks (which cost Strain) prevent you from taking additional attacks through Air Dance. It can be a difficult decision, but will often come down to the opponent's initiative: if you are scoring an Excellent success on a regular basis, the additional attack is generally better, but if you are usually just beating them, then protect yourself with a swooping attack.

Buzz deserves some special attention. This is a complex Talent whose application may be non-intuitive initially. It is similar in practice Maneuver, though the benefits apply to all of the Windmaster's companions: you replace your physical defense with the Buzz Result and if you can avoid all attacks from that opponent, the target receives a penalty to all defenses equal to your Buzz rank. Against single, powerful opponents this is an amazing force multiplier for the group, particularly when used in conjunction with Anticipate Blow and other Windmaster tricks. It allows for armor defeating hits to be scored that much easier by everyone, including spellcasters, and every attack will land that much easier and effectively. Against more numerous opponents, it is not so useful, but it will really shine against a Horror.

Anticipate Blow is powerful when combined with Buzz, but unless you have access to a Talent that grants instant vertical movement (like Great Leap), the offensive portion cannot be combined with Dive Attack. Read Anatomy of a Warrior for more discussion on this Talent. Momentum Attack is based around trying to get as many attacks as possible, which the Windmaster will need, particularly which Dive Attack can be applied to. Spot Armor Flaw is effectively another damage boost for this Discipline, allowing them to defeat armor that much easier. The offensive upside to a smartly played Windmaster is incredible, though they can easily become a glass cannon.

Here is my general analysis of Talent Options for Windmasters:

Initiate Talent Options are almost always a mixed bag, generally a few options that are improvements over innate Half-Magic, or are somewhat redundant with Discipline Talents. In this, Windmasters aren't that different, but they do better than most:

  • Acrobatic Strike - Same as the Warrior; redundant with Anticipate Blow and this Talent must be continually improved to remain useful.
  • Silent Walk - This is one of my favorite options for Windmasters. It allows them to capitalize on their size and ability to fly, in addition to lending some power to any recon action.
  • Sprint - Not normally a Talent that sees much use because of the Karma cost, but windlings can get more mileage than most. Between their high speed, flight and large Karma Pool, this can be a solid selection to get out of trouble, or prevent escape.
  • Unarmed Combat - Not something I would recommend for a windling.
  • Wood Skin - Similar to Sprint, the Karma cost tends to make this less attractive, but Windmasters can always use additional Strain and they have the Karma. The Wood Wings Knack also allows them to act more freely around water.
Novice Talent Options are something of a mixed bag for Windmasters, though there are still interesting options to be had depending on what your goals are:
  • Distract - While slightly different than Buzz, it is generally less useful. The upside is that it is generally easier to pull off, requiring a successful test against social defense. You will never directly see the benefits, which is rough since a Windmaster can generally pull their own weight in combat.
  • Fireblood - A solid Talent for nearly anyone that requires minimal investment, but makes Recovery Tests significantly more powerful and provides much needed in-combat healing. Windmasters have the advantage of being able to remove themselves from the majority of combat to use this Talent. The downside is that Woodskin and Firebloood both use the same resource (Recovery Tests) with generally the same effect. They are just different enough in application that having both isn't a necessarily a bad idea.
  • Surprise Strike - A must for any Slasher specialists, though it can be difficult to get this bonus in general, particularly in comparison to Dive Attack. Surprise Strike and Dive Attack do not stack.
  • Swift Kick - If combined with nailboots and Dive Attack, this isn't a bad option. It will require continual investment to remain useful.
  • Taunt - One of the most common debuffs out there, and one of the best. It never hurts to have more characters with Taunt.
  • Throwing Weapons - The speed of a windling makes this less useful, even if they have less of a damage trade-off than most. Sprint seems like a more versatile selection (with less long-term investment required) overall.
  • Wind Dance - A cute, but ultimately useless Talent unless the game is extremely windling-centric.
Journeyman Talent Options have a number of excellent options for Windmasters, which can easily mean a number of hard choices:
  • Disarm - Depending on who typical opponents are in combat, this can be an extremely powerful Talent. If you are fighting adepts, it can deprive an opponent of their primary method of attack (and potentially defense), however against creatures and Horrors it is pretty useless. It will need constant improvement, so adjust the value accordingly.
  • Earth Skin - As Circles increase, I have always wanted more spell defense. Especially against Horrors. This is a persistent bonus that can last effectively the entire day; there is minimal investment required, but continual improvement is worth it. The cost is steep: Karma and a Recovery Test, but worth it.
  • Lion Heart - Low investment and cost, for a solid benefit (increased resistance to fear). This is a solid pick.
  • Resist Taunt - Social attacks will become more dangerous starting at Journeyman, but the inability to spend Karma on this defense (along with the continual need for improvement) means that it may not come through when you absolutely need it.
  • Second Weapon - A good option for windlings, since their size means two weapons is generally better than a two-handed weapon. It also bypasses the initiative penalty that shields tend to bring, but the relative armor bonus for a windling with a shield cannot be understated. This will require improvement every Circle to remain useful.
  • Tactics - Expensive at this tier and granted through Half-Magic. Unless it is intrinsic to the character concept, there are better options.
  • Tiger Spring - A must to capitalize full on Air Dance and most make the initiative penalties of heavier armor moot.
  • Wound Balance - Most Disciplines gain access to this Talent earlier, but it is of particular use for windlings. Their low strength combined with tendency to be above the ground make them particularly vulnerable to getting knocked down.
Equipment selection has been discussed throughout the sections above, but I will reiterate my thoughts here. The book suggests two-handed weapons, but I find these to be inefficient compared to weapon and shield, or two-weapon (starting in Journeyman). The reason is the damage boost from a two-handed weapon is only +2 overall, while a shield will provide at least that much armor and when Threaded can have no initiative penalties. Granted, there is a Legend Point and opportunity cost to that Thread, but it will be worth it.

Two-weapon is a significantly more offensive character that will be spending more Strain to take advantage of the additional attack, while having less armor to mitigate it. Effectively this is double-dipping from a resource that may already be strained. Additionally, attacking with a second weapon may not be appropriate every round, though using a shield will pretty much always be useful; or force an opponent into "Going Inside Your Shield", but you are controlling the tempo of the conflict at that point.

Initiative penalties from shields and heavier armor can be dealt with by both initiative boosting Talents the Windmaster has access to, though most Windmasters wear light armor to take advantage of the potential second attack afforded through Air Dance. Smoothed Armor (Forge Armor Knack) will be every Windmaster's best friend.

All of this falls by the wayside to a strong concept, of course. In the grand scheme of things, the bonuses that this discusses are relatively insignificant.