18 July 2014

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Discipline 30 - Shaman Part 2, Talents

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


An introduction: As with the first part of this entry, this is going to read differently than the other entries in the series. There are a number of reasons for this. One is when this is being written in relation to the bigger picture. Quite simply, things have changed. With 4E coming out, this is less of an advice column of sorts, and more of a retrospective. This will become more relevant in a moment. The final entry has taken so long to be written (10 months) because I don't like this discipline. There are a many reasons for this. Many, many reasons. From themes, to consistency, and in on to mechanics, it is nothing but problems. So, this becomes in part a review, but also a look to see what is wrong with the end goal of maybe, possibly, fixing the problems. Be warned, this discipline makes me frustrated and grumpy. If you are a big fan of the Shaman as written, you may want to stop here.

The Shaman is a spellcaster focused primarily on nature and their "tribal" community. Except for the Shamans who choose to spend their time not with a community. Which makes the big focus on being tribal leaders and bearers of wisdom somewhat irrelevant (much like the Leadership talent you'll be picking up at Eighth Circle). I like to call the Shamans which spend their time away from their home, wandering the land "player characters".

Socially (for those who reside within a tribe), they fill a very similar role to the Weaponsmith for cultures that don't have agriculture and domesticated animals. They are spiritual leaders, but also tend to fall into the role of a community organizer. Sometimes they a put in charge during times of war (which doesn't necessarily make sense - if you have adepts kicking around, why not pick a Warrior, they might be pretty good at the whole "war" thing). 

While their magical purview is very similar to the Elementalist, it differs in that they do not see the world as a collection of discrete elements, but as the whole of those combinations. Which is all fine and good, except the system pretty much supports the former over the latter. Except for the spirits added in the Shaman section just for the Shaman.

It is pretty sparse here with actual text, but unfortunately there isn't much to say. These guys really don't (officially) have a lot going on here. There is a lot to be frustrated about because the concept could have some legs, but it simply wasn't developed. This is a knee-jerk exposition of a Shaman based entirely around conceptions of the word, rather than trying to find an interesting niche for them to possess and clearly giving room for them to exist side-by-side with other spellcasters (even disciplines) within the same tribe. Honestly, I think the fact they have been relegated to only "tribal" is a significant part of the problem. This makes them entirely a cultural discipline, which does no favors. By this I mean they are tied to a cultural concept, rather than a more broadly applicable archetypal concept.

For example, it is fairly simple to take the discipline of an Elementalist and transport them to nearly any setting. Though this is somewhat cheating since it is such a broad concept. Significantly more specific is an Air Sailor. While the Name is specific, the concepts it deals with are less so: travel, combat, teamwork. The only piece which needs adaptation is how they travel.

When creating a Shaman, the primary external character element should be their tribe. Developing the tribe, customs, location, themes, images, important people, family, etc. All of these can help in developing the character. Extending beyond that, the Shaman's relationship with their tribe. Why did they leave? What are the looking for? What drives them?

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 key elements to a Shaman are about balance and respecting nature. The only official ways to go wrong with this discipline are through favoring civilization over nature and by harming nature. So much for balance between civilization and nature?

Beyond those, their should probably be some considerations for how a Shaman interacts with their tribe and others from similar cultural backgrounds. This sense of community could easily extend to their group and any small towns and villages they visit. Particularly those which live closely with the natural world.


Talent Options: Creature Analysis, Silent Walk, Speak Language, Spell Fetish, Tracking

First Circle
Discipline Talents: Create Fetish, Karma Ritual, Spellcasting, Spell Fetish, Thread Weaving [Shamanism], Wilderness Survival

Talent Options: Arcane Mutterings, Borrow Sense, Dominate Beast, First Impression, Heartening Laugh, Spell Fetish (2)

Second Circle
Discipline Talents: Durability (4/3), Astral Sight

Third Circle
Discipline Talent: Spirit Talk

Fourth Circle
Discipline Talent: Spirit Hold

Talent Options: Cold Purify, Empathic Sense, Enhanced Fetish (2), Fire Heal, Steel Thought, True Sight, Willforce

Fifth Circle
Discipline Talent: Summon [Nature Spirits]

Sixth Circle
Discipline Talent: Blood Share

Seventh Circle
Discipline Talent: Leadership

Eighth Circle
Discipline Talent: Safe Path

It is worth specifically calling out how these magicians work differently from the other four: spell fetishes. Instead of having a spell matrix, they create physical objects to contain their spells. Instead of Read and Write Magic, they use Create Fetish. Mechanically, there isn't a lot of difference, ignoring the fact a spell fetish can be attacked directly with physical attacks. There can be (and have been) arguments regarding how these are fundamentally different from spell matrix objects. The only good answer seems to be: because the mechanics say so.

Beyond the spellcasting talents, the Shaman's discipline talents involve spirts and a tribal lifestyle. The latter terminology isn't perfect, but it fits. Astral Sight, Spirit Hold, Spirit Talk, and Summon are all in support of their connection to the spirit world. Blood Share, Leadership, Safe Path, and Wilderness Survival are for their tribal role.

As an aside, I personally find the pushing of their tribal themes to be a little heavy handed and unnecessary. If other spellcasting disciplines exist alongside Shamans in the same tribe, why do they function differently and in what seems like a purposefully backwards fashion? I have serious and fundamental problems with this discipline and many stem from a feeling of laziness when putting it together. It doesn't have a good identity of its own, existing somewhere between an Elementalist and a Nethermancer (leaning much more strongly to the former), but at no point does the Shaman ever manage to be its own thing. How does this discipline fulfill a role which the other two cannot? There is room for something along these very broad lines, but this is not it.

Also, Leadership is not a good discipline talent in general. For this discipline, it also means the "kook who lives alone in the wilderness and is horribly antisocial" is also a phenomenal leader and may have to waste a bunch of Legend Points every Circle. Some players may enjoy it, but it shouldn't be for everyone.

The theme of "tribal lifestyle" stretches into their talent options. By which I mean it is the only theme explored. Besides additional spell fetishes, they pretty much get talents for either surviving in the wilderness or being social leaders.

When it comes to the Initiate talent options, there is a tragedy to be had: there is only one answer, but there are a number of okay choices. Specifically, spell matrix is the answer. You may see something else here you like, but it is almost certainly going to want.
  • Creature Analysis - This is thematic to their nature themes, so it has that going for it. However, since they don't do Mystic damage, it is highly likely you will find something more appealing, like additional fetishes. Which is one of the few times that particular sentence will be written.
  • Silent Walk - Everyone likes to be part of the black op, even if they don't have much to contribute.
  • Speak Language - They have the dubious distinction of the only magician without Read and Write Language to go with this. Savages, amirite? It's not like they are portrayed as the keepers of their tribe's history and knowledge, or anything. And as such may have interest in what other cultures have to say (or even, write, as such things tend to be done) those topics.
  • Spell Fetish - This one. You are going to want this one here. You might be okay with just two for a long time, but you are going to need at least two fetishes and it's a long time to Fifth Circle. Yeah, I know, the fetish thing is just as weird to write as it is to read.
  • Tracking - If no one else in the group has this, it is probably the best non-fetish talent in which to invest. 
Novice tier is when all spellcasters have the most latitude with their Talent Options. Not much, just some:
  • Arcane Mutterings - This is a curious Talent and can be used in support of your comrades by being "the creepy guy" during social interactions, or by weirding out someone bothering you enough to get them to leave. Outside of that, it's pretty useless and will cost a Karma.
  • Borrow Sense - This can be a fun talent, but it tends to work best with a character who has pets in the first place. While it can be combined with Dominate Beast, this is an unreliable combination. It may not be unexpected for some of your companions (and other players) to frown on using this against unwilling targets. There is a reason Hollywood avoids hurting animals unless the character is being portrayed as a monster.
  • Dominate Beast - Beyond the fetishes (there it is again), this is one of the two best choices. It is thematic and can be pretty useful in certain circumstances. Depending on your view of this talent in general, this may paint a broader picture as to some of the problems with this discipline.
  • First Impression - Outside of those things-you-stick-spells-in-which-are-not-matrices (hah!), this is my first choice. It is always good to have a character who can make with the talking, or even a back-up if the group already has one.
  • Heartening Laugh - For the price, this probably isn't worth it.
  • Spell Fetish (2) - While you may not want both of these, you will probably want one. Each of these gives you another option, and that is powerful.
Fifth Circle, when you first get to Journeyman, is going to have the most agonizing choice you may ever have to make - especially when looking at Talent Options. Which do you get first, Enhanced Matrix or Willforce? Beyond that, there are some other okay talent options here, but one rises above the rest.
  • Cold Purify - [Ed note: As an aside, it's just weird to have to remember what the 3E versions of some talents do, as opposed to the 4E version] To put this in perspective, you get four talent options at this tier. One is Willforce, two are enhanced not-matrices, and the fourth is yours to do with as you please. Just to be clear, this talent is pretty limited in application (only useful against poisons). So, don't take this one unless you already have Empathic Sense and Fire Heal.
  • Empathic Sense - This is my second choice for this tier, besides the obligatory talents. It supports First Impression (my favorite from the previous tier) and general group cohesion. Since this is part of their theme, it is a good pick.
  • Enhanced Fetish (2) - Odds are reasonable you will want both of these. After all, you want to cast a couple Shaman spells which has a thread without spending a turn Weaving. I don't know what those spells are, but they probably exist.
  • Fire Heal - So this is the talent you want. After those other three. Eighth Circle, pick this one up. Assuming you don't already have it. This gives you additional Recovery Tests, and potentially a whole bunch of them. I hear they are pretty useful.
  • Steel Thought - Yes, I know it is iconoclastic to dislike active defenses like Avoid Blow, but if you cannot spend Karma, it is a pretty narrow band where they are better than just your straight-up Spell Defense for a magician. Getting there requires a lot of investment and dedicated investment throughout the life of the character. Instead, you can get Fire Heal.
  • True Sight - Unless you deal with a lot of Illusionists (which is a sign your GM may not like you much), there isn't anything to see here.
  • Willforce - Take this. It supercharges your spells and is arguably the most powerful Talent in the game for its sheer versatility (barring Versatility, of course). The biggest dilemma is do you get Willforce or Enhanced Matrix first? Willforce pretty much always wins.

If I had to use only one word to describe the Shaman spell list, and it couldn't be negative, it would be "naturey-ish". It is the only real theme running through what is otherwise a very, um, "eclectic" selection. Since they don't have a true list of their own (boo!), they draw from all of the other disciplines lists. All of them. Mostly Elementalist and Nethermancer, but it does not take long to find Illusionist and Wizard spells. If the spell is vaguely related to nature, it was probably stuck on their list. Or a Fourth Circle healing spell.

They have an interesting selection of non-combat spells, but of particular note is their combat spells. Which is even worse than an Elementalist. They do get Ice Mace and Chain, so that is something.


Elves, humans and windlings tend to bring the most (mechanically) to a Shaman (as well as my house-ruled dwarfs). Elves have a bonus to Perception and Willpower, by far and away the two most important attributes. Humans have Versatility; they can be good at anything. Windlings get a bonus to Perception, increased physical defense, flight, and their penalties to strength and size are pretty much meaningless.

What the other Namegivers have to offer isn't of much use to a Shaman. Dwarfs get a bonus to Strength. Orks get the same, but also a penalty to Willpower. The benefits that both obsidimen and trolls get (increased size, Strength) are of little use to a Shaman, and each get a penalty to Perception. T'skrang don't have any penalties, but their bonuses aren't extremely helpful and a Shaman has no real need for Tail Combat.

While these can be effective Shaman (these differences start to become less meaningful as you advance in Circle), it is important to be well informed about your decision. This pretty much goes for everything.


Equipment for spellcasters is of minimal concern compared to all other Disciplines. On the plus side, there are no restrictions on what armor you can wear - an espagra scale cloak on top of other armor is always in style.