23 May 2014

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Discipline 30 - Shaman Part 1, Spells

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


The heart of what a spellcaster brings to any Group is their spells. They determine most of the play style and focus for a given Discipline, but also can represent a significant task to wade through and weighing the various options. The goal of this post is to analyze the spell selections in the first five Circles and give some idea of how those options may inform the emphasis of the Discipline, play style, as well the relative use of a particular spell. The reason this will only address the first five Circles is that you get to pick spells at those Circles - starting at Sixth Circle, you are on your own and it is largely in your GM's hands.

Depending on the Optional Rules used in your game, how you address picking up new spells will change. If spells can be purchased and do not cost Legend Points, there is little reason to not learn everything you can get your fingers on. If they do cost Legend Points, you may want to be more selective of what you include in your grimoire.

Since the boilerplate text is all out of the way, this particular look is going to be a little different. All of these spells have come from another discipline; there are functionally no unique Shaman spells (Dispel Shamanism Magic does not count). I'm going to include all of the text which can be found with the original discipline and probably some commentary on the way. Here's a warning: I'm not a fan of this discipline in execution.

First Circle

Air Armor: An excellent support spell for a considerable period of time. With no Threads, +3 Physical Armor for the combatants in your Group will always be a welcome addition.

Assuring Touch: No Threads, a decent duration (in rounds) and a small bonus to resist fear effects. By no means amazing, but this is an entirely reasonable spell by any stretch of the imagination.

Bone Dance: A powerful control spell that can effectively remove a single target from combat, or at least make them an easier target. If their are environmental dangers, such as a cliff or Death's Sea, then there is significantly added danger.

Catseyes: You can give anyone low-light vision for a few minutes. This can be remarkably useful in the right situation.

Crunch Climb: There are going to be a lot of these spells; small, but useful bonuses to a specific task. They are all useful to have around. This one is for climbing and a First Circle spell that has some longevity to it.

Earth Blend: You can blend in with your surroundings (assuming you are standing on earth or stone, which is a reasonable assumption), but you cannot move. With no Threads, it can be useful for evading pursuit, but it's biggest strength is probably in setting up an ambush.

Earth Darts: While this is a poor combat spell by any stretch of the imagination (1 Thread for WIL+6/Physical damage and poor range?), it is going to be the best damage spell you get until Third Circle. I sincerely hope you didn't want to be doing direct damage as an Elementalist.

Insect Repellent: See Dry and Wet above. (If there is no cost associated with learning this spell, it's neat in ways that probably are not going to be useful outside of that one time it was awesome to have.)

Moonglow: It creates light for a few minutes. Not bad, also not exciting at all.

Plant Talk: For a First Circle spell, this has the potential to be incredibly useful. Anything that can gather information is almost always going to be a winner in the long run. There is little reason to not take this spell.

Purify Earth: This spell is more about making friends and making the world better. It is worth taking if you find it.

Purify Water: Actually more practical than Purify Earth - this can potentially solve issues with not having access to clean water. You just have to have access to the water in the first place. It may be gross, but when desperate, you can always recycle.

Quicken Pace: Make your entire Group (with enough castings) move faster for a day. It's hard to argue with that.

This is a third Circle Wizard spell. Why was it dropped two Circles?

Resist Cold: Unless you know about it in advance and keep this in a Matrix (it has a duration only in minutes), this spell isn't going to be very practical. 

I find it amusing Resist Cold is present without Resist Fire. The answer is probably because Shaman get access to water spells, but not fire spells.

This Circle isn't bad. For combat, it's pretty disappointing. Really disappointing. Only the Illusionist ranks in at more disappointing. There are some good miscellaneous spells, but nothing really stands out. It is mostly the Elementalist list supplemented with selections from all of the other lists, which defines pretty much every Circle. The problem is there are no stand out spells here. Bone Dance can be amazing, but it can be difficult to pull off reliably as well (and that thread is a killer at First Circle), but the real Elementalist winning for First Circle, Heat Food, isn't present. This list is best defined by mediocrity.

Second Circle

Gadfly: One Thread and you can render a target Harried. This is particularly effective in encounters with small numbers of powerful opponents.

Gills: Breathe underwater? Yeah, this is going to be useful at some point.

Hunter's Sense: There is going to be some quest, at some point, when you are looking for a particular creature. You are going to want this spell for that. Otherwise, it is unlikely to come up.

Icy Surface: In contrast, this spell can create a nice control effect to make an escape, enact a trap, or simply pummel foes with attacks. Windlings and Archers love this spell to death.

Path Home: You will always be able to find your way back to camp, which can be useful when exploring strange (and often horrifying) new places. If you're going to the Servos and your GM is a little nasty, this may be good back-up to prevent getting too terribly lost.

Small Slayer: Only useful if you can get access to someone that you fully intend on assassinating in a moment of vulnerability and don't want to directly do the deed yourself. 

Vines: Probably the most useful spell at this Circle, particularly against single targets that are more threatening (getting the Harried is always a bonus).

Weather Cloak: There is nothing particularly special about this spell. It's not terrible, but also not terribly interesting.

Again, it is a similar story. There are some decent support spells here, but it's hard to get excited about the selection. As an aside, it's also interesting to note how generous I was in the past for some of these spells. Small Slayer is... not very good as written. 

Third Circle

Astral Sense: This marks an awkward first entry on this list because how this spell is going to function may differ heavily from game to game. It is very similar to the Astral Sight talent (which is a Second Circle discipline talent for Shaman, making this even more difficult to distinguish) with some subtle differences. The primary functional differences seem to be cost (this spell has no Strain), time (once cast, the spell lasts in minutes and is a Simple action to use) and information (the spell provides significantly less, but there will also be less interference). My suggestion is to talk with your GM about the functionality of this spell. Which is incredibly helpful, I know.

And this is a First Circle Wizard spell. Were Quicken Pace and Astral Sense switched?

Behind Eye: Useful if you can prepare for a fight and know that being Blindsided is going to be an issue. The 2 Threads make actually employing it once combat has begun a less tempting proposition. While there is nothing wrong here, there isn't a whole lot to recommend this niche spell.

Yet, here is a fire spell.

Catwalk: Another spell that helps with climbing. That is three for three, so far. This one also gives bonuses to resisting Knockdown. It might be good (however, the Thread requirement and duration make it of dubious value in combat), but it's hard to get excited about this spell.

Crunch Climb and Catwalk? Protip: When you're rifling through other discipline's spell lists, go for variety.

Death Trance: This is a spell infinitely more likely to be used by an NPC than a PC.

Dispel Shamanism Magic: Similar to Detect Elemetalism Magic above, but likely to see significantly more use. Definitely a useful spell to have in your arsenal, but not the must have for this Circle.

I'm leaving the reference to Detect Elementalism Magic as a note that Shaman do not get an equivalent Detect Shamanism Magic spell.

Fog of Fear: Very similar to Death's Head above, this has two Threads and affects everyone (including allies) in the area immediately. It is great for clearing the vicinity, but lacks that critical "control" element which makes these kind of control effects so useful. While it has its uses, there are significantly better options.

This is the only reference to Shaman being scary. They don't even get the Frighten talent. As a hint, in 4E, this spell won't actually do anything in the edition change.

Ice Mace and Chain: Here is the best damaging combat spell in the Elementalist's list. 0 Threads and WIL+5/Physical damage (which is actually pretty decent). The big selling point, however, is that a target struck is Harried unless one of the damage dice explodes. This is very good, since you either get a good damage roll, or inflict a status that the rest of your Group can take advantage of (there is no downside here). 

Mind Fog: Yeah, this spell is just fun. Seriously fun. It is worth taking and putting in an Enhanced Matrix when you get one of those. A million and one uses. Easily one of the best spells in the game.

Here is a strange pick for a Shaman. Also, this steps on the Illusionist schtick quite a bit and is really one of their signature spells in my mind.

Ork Stoke: Whoever created this spell is probably an enormous jerk. However, there can be some good uses for this spell if you want to make an ork ruin everything. Political themed games will probably get the most from this.

It's worth noting I detest this spell. The fact it was written at all is deeply troubling. A setting excuse could be given to explain why it is out there, but someone still had to think this was a good idea for it to exist in the first place. Why does a Shaman have this spell?

Plant Feast: Never worry about rations again as long as there is some flora alive in your area. This is worth taking, if nothing else than to remove the need for that bookkeeping ever again.

Puddle Deep: The requirement of a puddle limits the usefulness of this spell. The Effect Test is also rough until you get Willforce. This really works best when setting a trap rather than on the fly, since you can create your own puddle.

Soothe the Savage Beast: A good spell, and certainly worth learning if the opportunity presents itself. The most fun comes from an Extraordinary Result, so make sure to spend Karma on the Spellcasting Test.

Sunlight: Natural sunlight is created emanating from the Elementalist. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of anything in Earthdawn that is negatively impacted by sunlight. 

Thrive: If you are patient, you can do some pretty impressive things with this spell. Not terribly powerful, but it can be fun and potentially earn some goodwill through your travels.

Water Wings: If you have a windling in your Group, they will appreciate not having to worry about their wings getting wet again. If you don't, maybe you will meet one?

Winds of Deflection: Similar to Throne of Air, though with a worse duration and one less Thread (also a slightly worse Effect Step). It doesn't cost Strain, however. With an Enhanced Matrix, this is really quite useful to have around since it can be thrown up immediately.

This is the best Circle for the Shaman by far. There are a lot of solid spells to choose from, but this Circle also lacks for direction more than the others (there may be a connection here). The nature and spirit themes are by far the most tenuous. They do get the best Elementalist damage spell here, Ice Mace and Chain. 

Fourth Circle

Air Blast: Another example of the control an Elementalist can bring to combat. This presents a difficult Knockdown Test and can grant some significant advantages to the rest of your Group if deployed before melee combat begins.

Blizzard Sphere: More an area denial spell more than an overtly offensive spell. If you can trap opponents inside, it is brutal, but with 2 Threads a little on the time consuming side. Not a bad selection, but definitely better used to deny a small piece territory on the battlefield than create an elaborate trap to deal a bunch of damage.

Buoyancy: Another spell that grants a small bonus to a specific task. This time, it's swimming. With a Thread, it's hard to cast this at a moment's notice, though the duration is in hours, which is a nice change for these spells. Decent, though nothing to be excited over.

Circle of Well Being: A healing effect for Illusionists. Probably the most fiddly, but definitely worth taking.

This is the first healing spell this Circle.

Conceal Tracks: An anti-tracking spell. It's pretty specific in application, but you never know when it might come in handy.

Dust Devil: The strong indication is that this spell will affect your Group (except for you), making it of dubious use (two Threads is an awful lot for something like that). If you can convince your GM that it only affects those that you want it to, then you should probably take this spell.

Falcon's Cloak: Somewhere between useful and dangerous is this spell. You are a bird and can cast spells, but only those that don't require speaking or moving. That may be a more limited list than you think (or a larger list than you think - where I'm going with this is I don't actually know what you're thinking). 

Fatal Food: Most useful for NPCs, there is still some value in intrigue games where the PCs are not terribly nice people. 


Friend or Foe: This peculiar spell is most useful when you want to stop everyone involved from fighting, unless they don't care much who they are killing, so long as they are killing. The narrow application of this spell makes it unlikely to see any use.

Another pick I don't fully comprehend the reasoning.

Great Sticky Vines: If you find yourself with a need to incapacitate your foes, then this is a superb option. Possibly one of the best available.

First Vines, and now Great Sticky Vines!

Hair Frenzy: Much better than Dust Devil: no Threads and it Harries a single target. While it isn't going to be your first pick for the Circle, try and get this one eventually.

Another pick which is a strange one. 

Karmic Connection: It's hard to really get the most out of this spell since it has a Thread (and also hard to justify using a precious Enhanced Matrix early on). That being said, the Karma cost isn't that high (5 points) and it can be a game changer in combat. This can bring a heavy hitter from the brink back into the swing of things in a big way.

Here is the second. This is also the only Karma related spell they get. In the middle of all the healing spells, they needed this one too, opening a theme which is never touched again. I can only assume the theme is: Give Shaman all of the Fourth Circle healing spells. EVERY ONE!

Last Chance: Let's face it, this is the best spell this Circle, if not one of the best spells period. You are going to want this, and you are going to use this.

And the third.

Lighten Load: A utility spell that could be pretty useful in the right circumstances and worth picking up if the opportunity arises. 

Relax: Another solid healing ability, this increases the effectiveness of Recovery Tests and reduces the time required to use them. One more good spell for this Circle.

Finally, number four. That is right, Shaman get four healing spells at Fourth Circle. This is rather ridiculous, actually.

Root Trap: Similar to Great Stick Vines, though with no Threads, worse range and a worse Effect Step. It also requires a nearby tree. In all, it isn't quite as good (mostly because of the requirement of a tree nearby). No Threads can be awfully tempting at times.

Thorny Retreat: So... this spell. It seems like a great idea. It can come in handy and I wouldn't be surprised if there are stories of how this spell saved someone's bacon. In general, I would consider those the exception rather than the rule. To make it work: You need to either be at peace with raw casting or have it in a Spell Matrix. This means you have to be planning a "hasty" retreat at all times. From my experience, not how most Earthdawn Groups roll. Then you need to Weave a Thread. This is cutting down on the running time. When encountered, anyone trying to get through will most likely fail the Test, but there isn't a guarantee on this one. Particularly considering how frequent the ability to spend Karma on a dexterity-only test is available. Also, the damage it does is utterly laughable; to be fair, stopping pursuit is the main goal here. End result: it's hard to make this spell work for you and there are a lot of good spells.

Uneven Ground: The use of this spell is going to depend entirely on how your GM wants to interpret it. The Effect lists it as "enemy character", while the description says "any character". The latter reading makes more sense from the context, but... you never know. If it is the former, this is pretty amazing and well worth having. If they latter, you should just pass on it. There are better things to do with your actions.

This Circle is a little strange. First off: So. Many. Healing. Spells. Followed by that, it's a collection of strange spells from across the various disciplines which showcase how much of an afterthought the Shaman spell list actually is. There is no concept of what mechanics should be prevalent, how to emphasize their themes, what are they missing, what can be built on, etc. It is just a bunch of spells which vaguely (and I really do mean vaguely) seem like they would fit.

Fifth Circle

Bond of Silence: Tragically, the duration is rather short, but that may be all the time you need to make use of this spell. At the same time, it has three Threads, so it's not exactly perfect to use on a target that is running away from you.

I'm uncertain how this fits into the overall themes. While it hasn't been mentioned every time, this is something of a recurring theme for me while reading this list, "What is this even doing here?"

Ironwood: While not incredibly useful for improving armor and weapons (it seems), it is great for impromptu fortifications. Odds are good that will be useful at some point. 

Nutritious Earth: This isn't likely to be a game changer (though could be very important to any Questors of Jaspree or Garlen), but it has some fun flavor and can likely earn some serious good will from Namegivers around Barsaive. I like this spell a lot, but you will probably know if it will be useful for you or not. Also, consider using it with Thrive.

Resist Poison: Always good to have up when exploring the wilderness or kaers. Additional protection against poison with a duration in hours is always welcome to an adept.

Sanctuary: This is a pretty serious "buy some time" spell. It will seal off and reinforce and entire building for minutes. Three Threads is steep, however.

So it seals off a building. When the description of a Shaman is rather tribal in nature.

Spiritual Guidance: Fun, but be prepared for a trip. It is also worth noting that not all GM's like to be put on the spot and may respond best when this is used in-between games.

Wither Limb: This is a very powerful spell and approaching permanently debilitating if it causes a Wound (which is rather likely given the WIL+8 Effect Test). When any side starts to deploy this spell, things have gotten ugly and were probably already personal. If they weren't before, they are now. Don't expect this to end well.

This is one of those definitive Nethermancer spells which doesn't make me very happy to see here. I'm also uncertain what it is doing other than filling in space and adding some power to the otherwise unimpressive list. This Circle is pretty sad. It's worth noting Shaman have the measure, but not the countermeasure for Wither Limb.

My primary complaints for the Shaman spell lists are it is pretty dull and haphazard. It seems most like someone went down the spell lists and picked all of the spells which vaguely fit, then shoved some more in to fill it out. Much of it just seems like an afterthought, from the spell list to the spell fetish idea. Really, if they deserve to be a discipline, they deserve better than this. If this is all they will ever get, I would rather see them tucked away in a closet than continuing to not really fit in with the other disciplines.