28 October 2014

Earthdawn 4E: Anatomy of a Discipline 08 - Beastmaster

This is the eighth 4E Anatomy of a Discipline, an ongoing series about Earthdawn Fourth Edition. Introduction and Index.

Everything contained here is the work of a fan and not associated with FASA Games.

The discipline which changed the most during Earthdawn Fourth Edition (ED4) development was the Beastmaster. While the themes have always been clear and appealing - a savage warrior who commands wild animals - the mechanics have always struggled. There are a few reasons for this problem.


First, the Beastmaster discipline has traditionally been chasing multiple themes at the same time. The end result has been them doing a number of different things poorly and nothing particularly well. This was the easiest fix, though also the source of the most significant changes to the discipline. Their primary theme has been focused to being a savage warrior. They are not just a part of nature, they are the master of nature. The outgrowth of this is they finally earn their primary combatant Durability 7. While they may not be as combat focused as many of their peers, they can perform at a high level and have the tools to focus even more if so desired.

Second, the mechanics to around animal companions have traditionally been sub-par, to say the least. How they were supposed to function hasn't be clear. Their effectiveness in combat, or lack thereof, is directly related to how recently you bonded with them; the panther which has been with you since First Circle is more of a liability than an ally once you are a Journeyman. Even what tasks they can perform is in question. To be perfectly honest, this situation hasn't been entirely resolved. However, significant strides have been taken and tools have been presented to help resolve it.

The final point I'm going to touch on is the general difficulty with animal companions in general. Getting the balance on them just right is difficult even in a controlled environment. With the diverse nature of Earthdawn and how each game and group is unique, it becomes quite the challenge. At the heart of this of this is the effectiveness of animal companions. If they are too effective, then they take away from the rest of the adepts and it turns into the Beastmaster show and her Deadly Circus. If they are ineffectual, then they are dead weight at best or a liability at worst. Their out of combat utility is largely left to each individual game to sort out, but as a combat discipline it has always been assumed animal companions should be offering combat support.

This goes back to the first point: the simplest solution to the dilemma facing the Beastmaster was to move all of the animal companion talents from discipline talents to talent options. This allows the discipline to focus on two themes and do both of them well. It also means players who want to play this kind of character aren't saddled with talents they may have no interest in or a GM doesn't want to introduce to their game.

There is also a silver lining to the new paradigm. It has opened up the design space for some interesting new directions to explore.

Novice

First Circle
  • Avoid Blow
  • Beast Weaving
  • Claw Shape
  • Unarmed Combat
  • Wilderness Survival
Abilities
  • Durability 7
Second Circle
  • Awareness
Third Circle
  • Dominate Beast
Abilities
  • Karma: Recovery Tests
Fourth Circle
  • Great Leap
Journeyman

Fifth Circle
  • Blood Share
Abilities
  • Cat's Grace: Automatically succeed on tests to maintain balance (not including Knockdown) and may stand up as a simple action with no cost or test.
  • Karma: Damage tests with unarmed attacks, including when using Claw Shape
Sixth Circle
  • Animal Talk
Seventh Circle
  • Down Strike
Eighth Circle
  • Claw Frenzy
The Beastmaster is supporting two different themes through their discipline talents: combat and wilderness. These themes are often complimentary; such as using Blood Share to either provide or receive healing as needed, Great Leap for mobility in and out of combat (also for use with Down Strike), and it is always good to have a combat character with Awareness. Animal Talk, Dominate Beast, and Wilderness Survival are all useful talents which provide more options in a wilderness setting. Animal Talk and Dominate Beast are useful in all settings - the former can be amazing for gathering information and the latter either in conjunction with Animal Talk, or on its own to bypass guard animals.

Without any talent options in the equation, the Beastmaster doesn't have a specific combat theme. Between Claw Shape and Down Strike they have good damage, Claw Frenzy gives them arguably the best-in-class for multiple attacks, Avoid Blow is a generically good defensive talent, Great Leap provides mobility, and Blood Share allows them to either take advantage of their better resilience to heal allies, or to heal faster from serious damage by distributing it among those who have suffered significantly less.

Claw Shape and Down Strike deserve a little attention for how they interact with the rest of the mechanics. By Seventh Circle, a Beastmaster using both will be able to spend three karma (!) on a damage test; one from Claw Shape, one from Down Strike, and one from their Fifth Circle karma ability. This seems quite powerful - which it is - however there are also costs associated with this capability. The biggest cost is Claw Shape itself.

During the development of ED4, the bonus to Claw Shape was restored (Rank + STR +3) to make it a comparable choice to an actual weapon, rather than forcing Beastmasters to spend skill points on a weapon skill as a crutch for early Circles. While this can equal, or even exceed, a broad sword at First Circle, the advantage begins to wane quickly. Weapons can be improved with Forge Weapon, while Claw Shape only through Legend Points and it is a discipline talent. The ultimate cost of Claw Shape is one of opportunity - they are using a talent to keep up with a weapon instead. There are a couple of benefits to balance this situation. One is they can never be disarmed and the other is the additional karma on damage, which can be used (on average) to push them to just under the damage for a two-handed sword.

The end result is a combat discipline which is a solid choice in a number of different circumstances and will almost always have a viable option. In contrast with Warriors who are quickly out of their depth when not in combat, or Swordmasters who may at times struggle with weaponless opponents. Talent option selections will allow Beastmaster to further define their capabilities, specializing in animal companion, combat, or wilderness talents.
  • Acrobatic Defense - If you want to specialize further in combat, this is the first stop for talent options.
  • Animal Bond - Similar to Acrobatic Defense, if your goal is animal companions, this is the core talent.
  • Animal Training - For animal companions, this is either the second or the third talent to take.
  • Borrow Sense - Only Beastmasters with animal companions are likely to get much out of this talent. It is best for adepts who want to get the most out of their Awareness.
  • Climbing - While this may be thematic and good for any Beastmaster, those without animal companions and who are performing reconnaissance for their group will find this to be the most useful. Adepts with animal companions should them do most of the climbing.
  • Creature Analysis - This is thematic for every Beastmaster, but animal companion Beastmasters will get the most use from it when looking for new friends.
  • Danger Sense - Combat-oriented Beastmasters will want to consider this to maintain momentum during an ambush. 
  • Enhance Animal Companion - The partner with Animal Training for second or third animal companion talent.
  • Stealthy Stride - This talent is always a popular option and goes well with the existing Beastmaster abilities, particularly Awareness allowing them to gather intelligence for their group or bring some more muscle on the black op.
  • Tracking - Adepts who don't have animal companions will want to consider this talent, particularly if no one else in the group has it. While it isn't likely to come up often, the odds are good it will come up enough and be important enough when it does for this to be useful. Those on the animal path should have a companion for this task.
Outside of actually playing and figuring out which talents will best fit your character, play style, and the campaign you are a part, there are a few different generic "builds" which can help show off themes and different decisions.

The "traditional" Beastmaster with animal companions will want Animal Bond, Animal Training, and Enhance Animal Companion in their first three Circles. By Fourth Circle, there should be a good enough grasp on the campaign and group to decide between Borrow Sense and Creature Analysis. If you are one of the primary scouts, Borrow Sense will be valuable. However, if you want to focus further on getting the most out of animal companions, Creature Analysis can be a useful tool for determining acquisitions.

For those Beastmasters who are not interested in animal companions, there five talent options at the top of the list for consideration: Acrobatic Defense, Climbing, Danger Sense, Stealthy Stride, and Tracking. Being realistic for a moment, as a combat adept, you will want Acrobatic Defense and as a player character, you will want Stealthy Stride. With this in mind, the decision is between two of Climbing, Danger Sense, and Tracking. Looking at the rest of your group should give you a good idea of what will get you the most use. 
  • Animal Companion Durability - Animal companion Beastmasters will want this right away.
  • Animal Possession - On the surface, this seems like adepts with animal companions get the most use from this talent. Since they should have a ready supply of animals, this is likely to be true. However, the best uses of this talent tend to be when taking an animal which already belongs in the surroundings and using it as the spy. Even if you aren't your group's scout, this can be a versatile tool.
  • Battle Bellow - This talent is good for every Beastmaster - it improves your allies and hinders your opponents. Those with animal companions who fight alongside will gain additional benefit since it affects them as well.
  • Cobra Strike - If you don't have animal companions, this is a good place to start Journeyman. It adds speed and accuracy to the Beastmaster's repertoire. If you want to maximize the effectiveness and cost, this talent will be an investment.
  • Call Animal Companion - Easily the second pick for adepts with animal companions.
  • Iron Constitution - If poison and disease are problems in your game, this is going to be a must. Otherwise, there are a lot of other talents which are likely to be more tempting. The passive nature means this is good even with a low investment, however.
  • Lion Heart - This talent provides resistance to a lot of different magical effects and should be a strong contender. Depending on your game, this may even be a must have talent.
  • Sprint - Combined with Great Leap makes this Beastmaster very mobile. If you are a scout, this will help when you are inevitably discovered. Combat specialists may consider this for the ability to quickly engage and access the support characters behind the front lines.
  • Swift Kick - If you have Cobra Strike and Tiger Spring, this can be a useful tool. The importance of those two talents is to ensure you will have a viable target each round with a lower initiative. It is best used not for damage, but to knock opponents down.
  • Tiger Spring - Do you have Cobra Strike? If not, get it first then take this next. While the cost is less (1 Strain v. 2 Strain), it doesn't have any additional effects and doesn't grant the ability to spend karma. However, if you have Cobra Strike, this is going to help you get the most out of the talent and allow you to start competing with Swordmasters and Warriors for initiative.
Beastmasters focused on their animal companions will most likely want Animal Companion Durability, Battle Bellow, Call Animal Companion, and Lion Heart for their talent options. Animal Possession is something of a dark horse candidate for the place of Lion Heart, but the general defensive value of Lion Heart (along with the low investment requirement) makes it a solid choice to round out. As well, by this point your animal companions will likely be competent enough on their own to not need your direct guidance when gathering information. Particularly with Animal Talk.

Combat specialists should strongly consider Cobra Strike and Tiger Spring as their first two because of how they expand their offensive capabilities. From there it becomes tricky and should involve looking at the role they play during combat as to which of the four talents to choose: Battle Bellow, Lion Heart, Sprint, or Swift Kick. For general value, Battle Bellow and Lion Heart are going to be the best choices. However, Sprint and Swift Kick can wreak terrible havoc on opponents who prefer to avoid close combat - they tend to have lower strength and no Wound Balance, which makes Swift Kick devastating. Compared to Warriors where it is pretty useless. The importance of disrupting opposing spells early cannot be understated if you do not have Lion Heart. Knocking on their door in a direct manner is immediately going to draw attention and Lion Heart is the only defense against control spells.

Adepts filling the role of a scout will likely want Animal Possession, Cobra Strike, Lion Heart, and Sprint. You won't get the most out of Cobra Strike like the more combat-oriented character, but there will almost certainly be other characters to fill the role - it will still lend some important abilities. Lion Heart can be switched for Tiger Spring to be more aggressive, but will leave quite a bit of vulnerability to control spells.

For a discussion over the general themes of the Beastmaster and how they can function in game, see the Third Edition Anatomy of Beastmaster. Example characters: ork and t'skrang.