23 October 2012

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Discipline 03 - The Swordmaster

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


The Swordmaster is probably the single most popular Discipline in Earthdawn. I have never run in a campaign that did not include at least one (my current game has two). What isn't to like about them? They are flashy, useful in combat, flashy, useful in social situations, flashy, and a perfect fit for t'skrang (who are very flashy). The downside is that they are mechanically complex, requiring patience and timing to get the most out of, and are focused on tying up one foe rather than dealing with hordes of mooks. This strange dichotomy can be at odds with what many players are looking for in the Swordmaster.

Swordmasters are equal parts social and combat Discipline (barring Specialists) and are truly at home in both arenas. To be successful as a Swordmaster, you must engage in both. As a Discipline, they are rather obsessed with rankings, formal or informal, and competition in general. Tournaments are common affairs and no Swordmaster can resist the chance to show off their techniques and brag talk about their exploits. Many other Disciplines will look down on this, but it is through this process that they engage with their fellow adepts and their Discipline. Those that are successful will attract successful students and the notice of powerful mentors, while those that are unsuccessful will find their careers stagnant. In this way, the Swordmaster is always evolving to remain competitive.

While it is easy to find a Novice instructor that will train you, once you become a Journeyman, you will have to convince them it is worth their time. You will have to prove that you are worthy of their tutelage, which means that your philosophies should be similar to theirs, or at least intrigue them (so that they can show you the folly of your ways). For a Discipline that is somewhat individualistic, this means that you cannot stray too far out of the box. After all, someone had to Initiate you, which means their teachings and philosophy became and intrinsic part of who you are, as will the lessons of all the future instructors that train you. What this means is that a Swordmaster is still an archetype, in essence, and you cannot stray too far from that archetype before you are no longer portraying it.

When making a Swordmaster, your weapon is an important consideration. To a Swordmaster it is more than just a tool, it is an extension of their Discipline and who they are. It should reflect something about them. There is an optional rule regarding the "soul sword", the weapon which perfectly matches their inner self. As with all Disciplines, the particular philosophy the Swordmaster subscribes to will be important. It is a Discipline about adventure, excitement and romance - living life to the fullest and leaving something behind to let everyone that follows know you were there. Towards this end, the relationships that a Swordmaster establishes will be important to them. Who Initiated you and how is your perspective different than theirs? What was their personal style and how have you adapted it? What were their rivalries; which will you carry on and which will haunt you? What is your trademark that everyone will come to know you by? These are some things to consider when making a Swordmaster.

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. Swordmasters are incapable of ever doing anything the easy way. The shortest point is also the least interesting point - there is nothing notable about the man that walked to Throal on the safe merchant road, but if they traversed troll-capped peaks and stole aboard a drakkar to get there, now we're talking. This means they should always choose flair over plain and complicated over simple. They exist to make everyone's lives more difficult and more exciting. Their plans should always be overly ambitious, fraught with opportunity to go horribly wrong, but just as likely to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Like most of the combat Disciplines, the Swordmaster has something of a code of conduct that helps to prevent them from immediately descending to the lowest common denominator in a conflict. They are as incapable of missing an opportunity for a flourish or insult as they are of cold blooded murder. There is no art or beauty in a knife in the back, and everyone deserves a chance to fight back (it will never be fair, however, not against you). No conflict should ever be boring; that is the gravest insult - they are dying for your art, give them one last, masterful performance to send them off to Death's kingdom.

In many ways, their Discipline Violations are a different nature than most others. They tend to be less introspective than most, but that does not prevent from taking an opportunity to do so. Show the consequences of this carefree attitude and how it can affect others. Swordmasters are adrenaline addicts and they, quite literally, cannot help it - it is who they are. It is all fun and games until someone gets seriously hurt. Earthdawn is a setting of high fantasy and high action, but also of Horror and harsh realities. No other Discipline has the opportunities to have those realities crash down on them quite like the Swordmaster. Be warned, use this sparingly or it will deform the character.


There are three Swordmaster specialists, Bladesman, Gallant and Slasher, and what should be considered a sub-specialist, the optional two-handed Swordmaster. The Bladesman focuses on combat, while the Gallant emphasizes the social aspects of the Discipline, while the Slasher becomes something more brutal.

For Bladesmen, the Acrobatic Strike Talent becomes a 1st Circle Discipline Talent, while Taunt becomes an Initiate Talent Option. Physical defense bonuses are gained at Circles where social defense bonuses would normally be gained, and vice versa. Between Acrobatic Strike and a good physical defense (which Acrobatic Strike will only improve), the obvious strength of the Bladesman is that they have significantly more defense in combat. The downside is that their single target potential is diminished (effective loss of Taunt), and they will not be quite the social character they were previously.Indeed, the entire demeanor of the Bladesman is more somber (though this may not be saying much) and dedicated to their weapon. The Troubadour is always a thematically popular Discipline combination for Swordmaster, but there is perhaps too much overlap between the Disciplines to make the cost worth it; the Bladesman, however, makes an excellent compliment to Troubadour and allows the Swordmaster to explore some interesting territory by combining the two ethos.

The Gallant exchanges First Impression and Maneuver, making the former a 1st Circle Discipline Talent and the latter an Initiate Talent Option. This happens for Winning Smile and Heartening Laugh, and Lasting Impression and Disarm as well: each Talent Option becoming the Discipline Talent at the associated Circle (2 and 6) and the Discipline Talent becoming a Talent Option for the appropriate tier (Novice and Journeyman). The Gallant Swordmaster goes the other direction from the Bladesman, becoming a hybrid combat and social adept. For most Groups this is a very useful character, bringing both strong combat and social options with reduced combat complexity. Their combat options are significantly reduced, as is their emphasis on a single opponent.

A Slasher replaces Maneuver with Close-In as a 1st Circle Discipline Talent, while Maneuver becomes a Novice Talent Option and Winning Smile is removed. The 7th Circle ability to spend Karma on all melee damage rolls is replaced with one to spend Karma on any melee or thrown damage roll with weapons smaller than the one-handed size limit. The Slasher is an interesting take on the Swordmaster; they use small weapons and delight in a brutal and personal fighting style. The change in Discipline Talents makes them more aggressive and less patient; they get a pay off for Close In immediately, though it is over all lesser. I was not a fan of Close In for Windmasters, but I think this is a good option for a Swordmaster, particularly a windling (though the loss of a social Talent is more keenly felt by them). Swordmasters only have access to one Talent that boosts damage, Surprise Strike, which is best used in conjunction with Conceal Object. Given Swordmaster's limited damage potential, especially windlings, there can be rewards for exploring this option.

Two-handed Swordmasters are an optional rule for any Swordmaster that uses larger weapons. The Talents Second Weapon and Lion Heart switch positions. This option is fairly uncommon and frowned upon by many Swordmasters as they feel it shows a weakness in technique to place so much emphasis on a large and flashy weapon.


Talent Options: Acrobatic Strike, Avoid Blow, First Impression, Speak Language, Wound Balance

First Circle
Discipline Talents: Karma Ritual, Maneuver, Melee Weapons, Parry, Taunt

Talent Options: Anticipate Blow, Detect Weapon, Haggle, Sprint, Throwing Weapons, Unarmed Combat, Winning Smile

Second Circle
Discipline Talent: Durability (7/6), Heartening Laugh

Third Circle
Discipline Talent: Riposte

Fourth Circle
Discipline Talent: Thread Weaving [Weapon Weaving]

Talent Options: Conceal Object, Etiquette, Graceful Exit, Lasting Impression, Lion Heart, Surprise Strike, Swift Kick, Tiger Spring

Fifth Circle
Discipline Talent: Second Weapon

Sixth Circle
Discipline Talent: Disarm

Seventh Circle
Discipline Talent: Resist Taunt

Eighth Circle
Discipline Talent: Second Attack

On the whole, the Swordmaster is a patient and defensive combatant. They are focused on engaging a single, powerful opponent and setting themselves up for a powerful offensive. Maneuver forms the backbone of the patient offense, with Taunt as a debuff whose use cannot be understated. Second Weapon and Second Attack provide the additional offense, but cannot capitalize on the opening created by Manevuer (it only affects the first attack), while Parry and Riposte are the active defenses to ensure the opening happens. Riposte is at its most useful when used against a mook to effectively gain an additional attack. Never forget to spend Karma with your active defenses (Parry and Riposte); if you are being hit, the odds are good you will need to roll well to avoid the attack and managing damage will always be a thing for the under armored Swordmaster.

Between Disarm and their 5th Circle ability, Flourish, Swordmasters can deal with nearly any opponent in one-on-one melee combat and have the capability to control the tempo of the fight and make certain it occurs on their terms. The Swordmaster, despite what the Discipline seems, is a very deliberate fighter. They don't have the raw damage and toughness of the Sky Raider or Warrior. They have to rely on a big bag of complicated tricks. At most Circles you get one new trick and that is a good chance to figure out how it works in your overall strategy.

The Initiate Talent Options for Swordmasters have some very good selections:
  • Acrobatic Strike - This is a good selection for most Disciplines if they are willing to continually improve it and have a good initiative. I'm of the opinion that Anticipate Blow is a better option for Swordmasters.
  • Avoid Blow - Largely redundant with Parry.
  • First Impression - One of the biggest strengths of the Swordmaster is how it brings excellent access to social Talents.
  • Speak Language - Low investment requirements and can be crucial to the plot, particularly in the hands of a social character like the Swordmaster. That being said, there are so many good options, check to see how important this will be for you to have. The skill is more-or-less just as good.
  • Wound Balance - Swordmasters tend to have low strength, low toughness and low armor meaning that taking Wounds and getting knocked down from that should always be a concern. The required investment is minimal and there can be considerable payoff.
Luckily (?) the choices from Novice aren't nearly as difficult in Initiate, which means you can revisit the Initiate Talent Options that were not previously selected:
  • Anticipate Blow - This Talent will add to the Swordmaster's complexity (see Warrior for a thorough discussion), but also has synergy with their patient fighting style. It does require continual improvement and a good initiative.
  • Detect Weapon - With so many other options, unless this is for a concept, I would give it a pass and leave it to a more paranoid Discipline - there is bound to be one.
  • Haggle - Somewhat similar to Detect Weapon, only replace paranoid with greedy/bean counting.
  • Sprint - At the cost of a Karma, this can get expensive, though the investment requirements are low.
  • Throwing Weapons - Normally a pass, though the Slasher Specialist can get significant benefits from this Talent.
  • Unarmed Combat - Similar to Throwing Weapons, except for t'skrang who can use tail combat.
  • Winning Smile - Another good social Talent for use with those attracted to the Swordmaster.
Journeyman holds a number of good choices and by now there may be some hard choices on what gets left behind:
  • Conceal Object - Not easy to pull off, as most Swordmasters will be using weapons at the limit of their one-handed size limit at this point. It does combine with their only native way to improve damage, Surprise Strike.
  • Etiquette - Yet another good social Talent. If you are playing a highly social Swordmaster, you will want all of these social Talents.
  • Graceful Exit - I don't think I have ever seen anyone ever use this Talent. Perhaps if it let the entire Group escape, but only the character using it. That being said, it could be a life saver.
  • Lasting Impression - With access to both Etiquette and Lasting Impression, the question becomes "which to get first?" It isn't easy to answer and depends on how things have been going. Etiquette will help establish a relationship, particularly in new situations, while Lasting Impression will help retain a relationship. It depends on which if the two has been proving more difficult.
  • Lion Heart - Low investment and always useful, though it does not stack with Resist Taunt.
  • Surprise Strike - Truly useful for the Slasher Specialist in combination with Conceal Object. Otherwise very difficult to use consistently.
  • Swift Kick - This requires constant investment and a higher initiative with a low damage pay off. Against an opponent that has been out maneuvered, however, this can be very useful. T'skrang deserve a special mention here: their tail can be used instead for Swift Kick.
  • Tiger Spring - The only initiative booster that Swordmasters gain access. This is often considered a must, and will aid in the usage of Talent Options that require a higher initiative (Acrobatic Strike, Anticipate Blow and Swift Kick).

Some races fit the iconic mold of the Swordmaster more easily than others, namely the elf, t'skrang and windling. Humans lend themselves to any Discipline handily and can easily mitigate and weaknesses and capitalize on any strengths through Versatility - Swordmaster with Air Dance, Great Leap and Down Strike? Run! Others may have a slightly more difficult time of it, though ork and troll Swordmasters are well served by the Bladesman Specialist, and the Obsidiman as curious success there as well. Their natural armor combined with fernweave grants excellent protection with no initiative penalties and their strength and toughness make up for other areas Swordmasters traditionally have deficiencies.

T'skrang and windlings deserve their own section, though for different reasons. A t'skrang has the ability to capitalize on a number of the Talents available to Swordmasters in ways that other races cannot through their tail - it can be used for Second Weapon and Swift Kick, which can open up some interesting offensive avenues. Windlings have issues because of their size. The limitations on the weapons and reduced damage means that they will always be fighting an uphill battle on actually hurting anyone. This means a windlings Swordmaster will have to squeeze ever bonus to hit they can get in hopes of achieving an armor-defeating hit (through Maneuver or Close In), or go the direction of emphasizing the social aspects of the Discipline through the Gallant Specialist and work more as a support character in combat.

The importance of choosing the right weapon was already discussed above; a weapon right at the one-handed size limit is pretty typical. It is worth mentioning that despite the name, Swordmasters do not have to use swords, those just happen to be the most common selection. Worth special mention here are the t'skrang flowing blades. They are (perhaps tragically) better than any other size 3 weapon, particularly for Swordmasters. You grant a penalty (Harried) to your opponent if you successfully use Maneuver them while wielding a flowing blade.

Most Swordmasters choose light armor to minimize initiative penalties, often sporting a light shield during Novice until they gain the Second Weapon Talent. An interesting thing about Swordmasters is that there is no Discipline Talent which requires them to wear light armor and only three Talents Options which actively benefit from it. Thought uncommon, there is little reason for a Swordmaster to not wear crystal plate and be the shiniest thing ever.

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


  1. A short tip:

    If your GM allows it, Swift Kick could be a great way of delivering Combat Option attacks, like Attacking to Knockout, or Called Shot (to sensitive or embarrassing areas).
    Also, if you aim to subdue an enemy by Attacking to Stun, and the enemy in question doesn't quite return the favour, a bonus attack can be a real boon, even if the damage is low. With the optional "minimum Step damage Good attack result" rule it could be more useful for high-strength characters (orks, or dwarfs).

    Also, when you get a low Maneuver result, you can benefit a lot from the Giving Ground combat option, and if you REALLY want to avoid getting hit, and trust your dice, combining it with Defensive Combat is the way to go. Especially since you won't be attacking that round, and by the next one, the penalty will be gone.

    1. That's good advice; there are a number of ways to prevent getting hit while setting up Maneuver and it is pretty important to pull it off (otherwise your turn is wasted). Though it will not take that long for your Maneuver result to surpass your physical defense, particularly if you spend Karma on it.

      This is from memory, but the Defensive Combat option largely seems like a wash when combined with Maneuver. It will boost your physical defense, but reduce your Maneuver result by the same. It will improve your Spell Defense, but any active defenses you attempt during that time, such as Parry or Riposte, or even Acrobatic Strike or Anticipate Blow to further boost your physical defense, will have a -3 penalty to them.

      I really like Swift Kick as pretty much any additional action is a good thing. Swordmasters can have a rough time capitalizing on it compared to Warriors (particularly when they get Crushing Blow). Unfortunately, the minimum weapon damage option will not help with Swift Kick (or most any unarmed combat; exceptions for elves with warrior scarves, t'srkang's tail combat and windling nail boots), nor will it benefit from high strength. It uses only the base damage step of the weapon.

    2. But if you have a high Maneuver rank and decent Dexterity, and add some karma dice to the flavor (for both Maneuver and Riposte/Parry tests, if needed), you could also boost your Spell Defense this way. You need to avoid getting hit, and a simple spell or magic ability can ruin your plan.

      As for the Minimum Damage, we always used the total damage step (Strength+Weapon) as the minimum. It worked well, (especially against our characters at times) and there was no whining after an epic 40+ attack roll with measly single-digit damage. Using only the weapon damage step seems a bit harsh, especially for those who favour smaller weapons.