16 January 2013

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Discipline 12 - Beastmaster

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

Overview

Like most Disciplines, the Beastmaster is about self-discovery. It is through learning about themselves that they can begin to understand the world around them. By seeing the world clearly, they are able to understand the purity through which animals live. Once this understanding has been reached, the Beastmaster can once again look inward and peel back another layer on who they are and with this new discovery and sense of self, look outward once more and begin the process again.

All of this requires understanding, selflessness and a strong sense of self. Above all, however, is patience. Beastmasters must live in two worlds, that of Namegivers and that of animals. The rules of these two worlds are often inimical, as Namegiver society as diverged from the purity in which animals live. Animals experience life without a filter, it is raw, violent and beautiful. It does not feel guilt, anxiety, or self-conscious. There are lessons there, but a Beastmaster cannot ignore what they are: a Namegiver. They must balance these two worlds and live in both - they can deny their true nature no more than a tiger can give up its stripes.

The lessons of the animals, that the weak must often die, for they cannot take care of themselves and will be prey, that discretion is the better part of valor, indeed that valor and honor are entirely foreign concepts - there is only the dead and the fed. These lessons do not necessarily translate well to Namegivers. Though bringing lessons that societies value, such as compassion and defending the weak, to animals often have merit. At least in the eyes of many a Beastmaster that does not seek to ignore who they are.

Clearly the path of a Beastmaster is not an easy one and not one that Namegiver society finds it easy to deal with as a whole. Just because the ork woman from the bush says that the espagra is tame doesn't mean that anyone will believe her. The presence of their animal companions makes interaction with Namegiver society that much more difficult, but means that the Beastmaster will have to work that much harder to maintain them. There is little greater reward for most of this Discipline than having their animal companions win a place in Namegiver society, and have those same Namegivers win their companion's trust. To have each see the other in a new light, to spread that understanding, bit by bit. That is truly the Beastmaster's purpose.


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 primary violations for Beastmasters are around their treatment of animals, and specifically their animal companions. Mistreatment and sacrificing them, training and selling them to cruel masters, these are all certain ways to get into trouble, but also relatively uninteresting; what player is going to choose this Discipline and engage in that behavior?

More interesting areas to explore, to me at least, are how the Beastmaster relates with both animals and other Namegivers. They must live in both worlds and cannot deny who they are. How others treat animals around them and what they do about abuse, or even potential abuse, when they see it. These may cause some conflict and soul-searching as to how far the Beastmaster is willing to go. To what degree with they let others live as they will, versus protecting those that cannot protect themselves.

Talents

Initiate
Talent Options: Avoid Blow, Climbing, Sense Danger, Tracking, Wilderness Survival

First Circle
Discipline Talents: Animal Bond, Claw Shape, Creature Analysis, Karma Ritual, Unarmed Combat

Novice
Talent Options: Acrobatic Strike, Borrow Sense, Frighten Animals, Great Leap, Haggle, Silent Walk, Sprint

Second Circle
Discipline Talents: Dominate Beast, Durability (7/6)

Third Circle
Discipline Talent: Animal Training

Fourth Circle
Discipline Talent: Thread Weaving [Beast Weaving]

Journeyman
Talent Options: Animal Companion Durability (6/5), Blood Share, Call Animal Companion, Empathic Command, Lion Heart, Poison Resistance, Search, Tiger Spring

Fifth Circle
Discipline Talent: Heal Animal Companion

Sixth Circle
Discipline Talent: Animal Talk

Seventh Circle
Discipline Talent: Animal Possession

Eighth Circle
Discipline Talent: Frenzy

The Beastmaster certainly has some indications that it is a combat-oriented in its Discipline Talents, between Claw Shape, Durability (7/6), Frenzy and Unarmed Combat. However, the sad truth is this Discipline is not terribly combat capable on its own. Even though you can spend Karma on Claw Shape, your damage is always going to lag behind pretty much anyone with a weapon, between access to Forged Weapons and Thread Items. Particularly generous GMs may allow you to use an attached weapon in conjunction with Claw Shape, but I wouldn't count on it.

Frenzy happens to be one of the very best multi-attack Talents available and Beastmasters get it as a Journeyman Discipline Talent. This can be a pretty big deal, but against moderately armored foes it may be a lot of nothing. Defensively they have even more issues. Beyond their above average Durability, there is not much here. They don't even have a great deal of options to spend Strain with. In all, it is something of a disappointing package.

Indeed, the bulk of their Discipline is focused around animal companions, more-or-less as advertised. In theory this can be awesome; Earthdawn is populated with an astounding variety of creatures that would make bad ass pets. Who doesn't want a skeorx to snuggle up with at night, or a dancing brithan? Simply traveling and finding and training new companions is full of adventure hooks in and of itself. As long as you don't mind the occasional (to constant) pokemon references.

There are a few downsides to this, however. The first is pretty obvious: these beloved pets will not really improve with you. While you can turn them into familiars, you have to spend your Legend Points to improve them, meaning that you will be falling behind simply to take advantage of what your Discipline is supposed to be doing. While you can keep gaining new companions, there are some practical limitations to traveling around with a savage menagerie. So your pets are meant to help you out in combat, but they won't be very good at that for terribly long and are in constant danger of dying. While you can use them for scouting purposes, that is a lot of investment in Talents to accomplish that in a fairly roundabout fashion.

While the Discipline has a number of charisma Discipline Talents, they have virtually no options for interaction outside of animals. This could be a significant problem for some players looking at charisma-focused adepts.

Mechanically it is a difficult place to be as all of these critters can also give the Beastmaster a significant number of actions in combat. Anyone who spent time with a druid in 3.X D&D may know this feeling well. To not take advantage of this is to ignore the vast majority of their Discipline. Before taking this Discipline, I would recommend that you talk with your GM and the rest of the Group to see if it would a good fit and how you would potentially overcome some of the weaknesses. If you are going to be happy with this Discipline regardless of any of these issues, then more power to you. I've simply had a number that had buyer's remorse that reached a zenith around Journeyman and trying to find the right mix of House Rules became onerous for everyone involved.

Reading over this, I realize that it sounds like I am very down on this Discipline, which is not quite true. Though I'm not changing what I've written. The Beastmaster requires better communication with the GM because much of what they can do will be in the GM's hands. If you and your GM don't agree on how the Beastmaster should play out, then I strongly suggest you find something else. Otherwise, there will likely only be frustrations and recriminations down that road.

There are some things to like in the Beastmaster's Initiate Talent Options and there may be some decisions taking place regarding what will be dropped:
  • Avoid Blow - If you've read a few of these, you will know I'm not a fan of this Talent as anything other than a Discipline Talent. That still hasn't changed. If it is selected, it will need to be improved every Circle.
  • Climbing - While neat, there isn't much to recommend this as a Talent over a skill, particularly with more attractive options available.
  • Sense Danger - This is always a useful Talent for at least one character to have and doesn't necessarily require constant improvement, but it will certainly help (particularly since the characters you will want to use it against the most are also likely to have the highest Spell Defense).
  • Tracking - Generally very in theme for Beastmasters and a popular choice. The Talent also has some advantages over the skill. Another Talent that someone should probably have, though there isn't a lot of benefit for more than one character to have it.
  • Wilderness Survival - Given that this is already provided by Half-Magic, it will take serious dedication to make this selection worth it. Though the Talent is better than the skill, the skill is free.
Novice is where the hard choices regarding Talent Options begin for most Beastmasters:
  • Acrobatic Strike - I generally prefer this Talent over Avoid Blow for a Talent Option and they tend to work against each other if you are tempted by both. With Acrobatic Strike active, the already potentially difficult Avoid Blow Test will become that much more difficult to succeed at because the threshold for it to work has just increased, and you cannot spend Karma on it. This Talent will require continual improvement and a good initiative, so keep that in mind.
  • Borrow Sense - It isn't uncommon for a Beastmaster to be a scout for their Group and this Talent certainly supports that. It helps to have a variety of animal companions to pick and choose from for this.
  • Frighten Animals - It costs a Karma and may rely heavily on GM discretion as to when it will work (what is an animal precisely). If you encounter considerable animals, cavalry, or scorchers, this is going to be extremely effective. Otherwise, if may be useful, it may not and it is hard to predict.
  • Great Leap - One of my favorite Talents. It gives additional mobility, which is always good, strongly reinforces a lot of what the Beastmaster is about, and moves you in the direction of Down Strike (if your GM approves of combining that with Claw Shape).
  • Haggle - Beyond tending towards a good charisma, this is just a strange choice for most Beastmasters. If someone else has this Talent, I would pass. Otherwise, I can only guess you will know if this Talent is right for you.
  • Silent Walk - I don't think I've ever seen a Beastmaster that doesn't eventually get this Talent, and with good reason - it plays to a lot of their strengths and is very in theme for the Discipline.
  • Sprint - There is a Karma cost, but it can fit with the Beastmaster themes very well and provide additional mobility. A plus is that it requires minimal investment to be useful, a downside is that it costs a Karma (in 3ER, this is less of an issue, but Beastmasters tend to go through a lot of Karma).
Journeyman Beastmasters are going to find a lot of good Talent Options at this tier:
  • Animal Companion Durability (6/5) - If you have an animal companion that frequently accompanies you into combat, you are going to want this. Otherwise, probably not.
  • Blood Share - Not cheap at the cost of a Karma, similar to the Cavalryman, this may be a very important Talent for any Beastmaster with animal companions that engage in combat. Though with Heal Animal Companion as a Discipline Talent this may be somewhat redundant. The exception to this is transferring damage from the adept to the animal companion, which is something I have never actually seen in practice, believe it or not.
  • Call Animal Companion - Most Beastmasters are going to want this, unless you have animal companions just because they are cute and fuzzy and never really leave your side.
  • Empathic Command - Much like other Talents of this tier, this is a pretty good selection. There just happen to be a lot of good Talent Options.
  • Lion Heart - A generally good Talent that requires little investment and may often be useful.
  • Poison Resistance - Unless poison is a common feature in your game, this is likely to be the only easy decision in this tier. I know that I just do not use poison very often and players tend to load up on a lot of anti-poison healing aids once they have one bad encounter.
  • Search - As Beastmasters tend to do the scouting, this Talent is very useful for them. It's simply another difficult choice to make.
  • Tiger Spring - If you have Acrobatic Strike, you are going to want this. Otherwise, you may be able to find a Talent that you need in this tier.
Races

There are a number of different races that can bring different benefits to the table for this Discipline. The decreased toughness of elves is compensated for to a certain extend, and the dexterity, perception and charisma increases can work well. Versatility and improved Karma for humans opens up a number of options to address some of the deficiencies (whether combat or socially) of the Discipline, as well as better Karma to throw at Claw Shape and Unarmed Combat (hoping for those armor defeating hits). Orks bring some pain with a bonus Step to strength and better Karma, in addition to using gahad to their advantage. Though they have penalties to both of the "important" attributes, their Karma should make up for that. A t'skrang's tail attack will see support from Unarmed Combat as a Discipline Talent, but won't benefit from Claw Shape (it's specific to hands). Beyond that, they don't have much to offer, but there is no real downside. The surprise winner out of this is the windling; normally their size is a significant downside to a combat character, but it is barely relevant here (only the strength penalty having an effect). They will be more reliant on animal companions overall, but can plausibly have access to better pets with their improved charisma and Karma.

Dwarfs may find the charisma penalties rough and have nothing mechanically to recommend them over orks. Obsidimen and trolls are particularly left out by the Beastmaster with charisma penalties and no benefit from their increased size (which is generally good for 2 more damage Steps). Their poor Karma may be a problem as well for a Discipline that relies on it to the extent of the Beastmaster.

Equipment

Unless you have Acrobatic Strike, initiative isn't particularly important to a Beastmaster. Which means that, while counter-intuitive, heavy armor is an excellent way to make up for their defensive deficiencies. In fact, a shield as completely compatible with Claw Shape, though creates something of a bizarre aesthetic.

Weapons are an interesting question and entirely based around if your GM allows you to use attached weapons in conjunction with Claw Shape. The majority will probably say "no", in which case weapons are probably for show, though elves seem to be partial to Warrior's Scarves regardless.