11 November 2014

Earthdawn 4E: Anatomy of a Discipline 12 - Swordmaster

This is the twelfth 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.

Looking at where the Swordmaster was in the previous edition and where it is now in Earthdawn Fourth Edition (ED4), it hasn't changed much. This is likely due to the discipline always having a clear direction on what it is supposed to be. ED4 development took this and refined it, looking at how the mechanics supported their various themes.

Their two strengths have been combat and social abilities. While not a Troubadour, a Swordmaster with the right talent selections makes a great face for any group; they get access to the social talents you are going to want. Even by focusing almost entirely on social talents, they are still a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield.

Most of their changes during development were to their combat talent options. Previously, their only way to improve damage was through Surprise Strike and Conceal Object. This didn't have a "Swordmaster" feel - this is the discipline which can face a talent crisis for sneaking around. Simply removing them doesn't solve the larger issue of damage (which is their biggest combat weakness). Spot Armor Flaw fits the bill perfectly: it improves damage, though a lower amount for a longer time, relies on something other than brute strength, and goes with their combat theme of precision. The fact it has a duration makes it excellent for extended duels - this reduces the overall Strain burden.

These adepts have always been seen as a light fighter, but never actually behaved that way. There was little specific benefit from getting a high initiative. To support the idea of a light, fast combatant, Cobra Strike was added to their talent options. This talent also goes with their building precision theme.

Anyone looking to play a character effective at both combat and social encounters should look no further than the Swordmaster. There is a reason I have never run a game without at least one in the group: they are simply fun and get to be involved in a lot. Their general philosophy also lends itself to getting into trouble, rather than executing a perfectly detailed plan. Expect your group's Scout to glare at you quite a bit.


First Circle
  • Avoid Blow
  • Maneuver
  • Melee Weapons
  • Taunt
  • Weapon Weaving
  • Durability 7
Second Circle
  • First Impression
Third Circle
  • Riposte
  • Karma: Interaction tests
Fourth Circle
  • Heartening Laugh

Fifth Circle
  • Second Weapon
  • Size Up: 2 Strain, make a Weapon Weaving test against a Namegiver's Mystic Defense. If successful, ask one question about one of the target's traits (like Creature Analysis).
  • Karma: Melee weapon damage tests.
Sixth Circle
  • Disarm
Seventh Circle
  • Resist Taunt
Eighth Circle
  • Second Attack
Despite being a social and combat discipline, Swordmasters skew heavily towards combat. With Durability 7, it makes sense - they are expected to hold their own at all times. They have the basic abilities to contribute in social situations, First Impression and karma on Interaction tests, with the ability to easily take the mantle of a primary social character, or provide as backup based on the needs of the group.

As a melee combatant, Swordmasters are duelists - they are at their best when facing a single opponent, preferably wielding a weapon (though probably not for long). They are not powerful, being the only combat discipline (one with Durability 7) without a discipline damage boosting talent. What they do have is a lot of different tricks which can change the tempo of a conflict. Riposte and Disarm are two excellent talents for this, the former allowing for an off-turn attack, while the latter can do anything from delaying an opponent to effectively removing them from the fight.

Mechanically, they have good defenses and excellent accuracy. Avoid Blow and Riposte provide two active defenses, with Maneuver and Acrobatic Defense or Anticipate Blow (both talent options) improving Physical Defense. Maneuver also serves to improve a Attack test, and when combined with the right talent options (Anticipate Blow and Cobra Strike) they can push the bonus to a single attack above an Archer.

Most combat disciplines tend towards a low Social Defense, which makes Taunt an effective tact in general against them. There are a number of debuffs which prey on this very fact, though the Swordmaster is somewhat unique in their ability to ignore them and protect their allies. Their naturally high Social Defense and discipline improvements are the first line of defense, followed by Resist Taunt, then Heartening Laugh for a group buff. 

Their fighting style tends to favor patience, for the most part. Their stacking bonuses can be frightening when the opportunity presents itself and both Taunt and Spot Armor Flaw have a multi-round duration. This is particularly true against opponents who favor sheer aggression, such as a Sky Raider. Since they are unlikely to ever land a decisive blow, it is important to control the tempo of a flight and rely on their multiple attacks. Against a larger number of opponents, they can start to flounder somewhat. To mitigate this, it is best to isolate a single, strong opponent if at all possible. Even if you cannot take them on your own, the Swordmaster has the defensive abilities to occupy the target while their allies eliminate the other threats, thus allowing the group to focus on the major remaining threat.

Flourish was the previous Journeyman ability and it was on the chopping block for a variety of reasons. The replacement ability, Size Up, builds on the idea Swordmasters are the premier duelists of Barsaive. It functions similarly to Creature Analysis, however it is weaker in pretty much every way except a very important one: there is no other ability which allows for such a usage on other Namegivers (which includes dragons).
  • Acrobatic Defense - One of the two defense boosters you will probably want. This one works best if you are going to be the primary combatant for the group and taking on multiple opponents, or don't intend to take both Tiger Spring and Cobra Strike
  • Anticipate Blow - The other of the two defense boosters, which also improves offense. Part of the requirements for this are a good initiative, so this will appeal more to dedicated combat characters.
  • Danger Sense - It is undeniably helpful to mitigate surprise rounds as much as possible. If you are playing the role of a bodyguard, this may be key. Particularly since you don't get Awareness.
  • Distract - With the impressive array of active defenses and Physical Defense boosts, this can be incredibly effective.
  • Impressive Display - A perfect fit for nearly any Swordmaster. This lets you leverage your Melee Weapons prowess into a social bonus. The investment requirement is also minimal.
  • Speak Language - If you are the primary social character in the group or have an extra talent option, this is worth considering. If you are fulfilling any major combat duties regularly, there will probably be better options.
  • Tiger Spring - Vital for any combat specialists, or Swordmasters investing in Anticipate Blow. This is effectively a requirement to get the most out of Cobra Strike.
  • Unarmed Combat - T'skrang will want this for their tail combat, other Swordmasters are likely to find something else.
  • Winning Smile - Excellent support for the swashbuckler archetype and a good social boosting talent. It provides a rare bonus to Interaction tests and is worth noting it no longer has gender requirements associated with its usage. They were simply awkward even with the very best wording and didn't make them game appreciably better. There are still racial modifiers, however.
  • Wound Balance - Combat specialists will almost certainly want this talent. Other adepts may give this a pass. Since it has low investment requirements, it can still be a winner for anyone who has an open talent option.
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.

Swordmasters have had what are probably the two most popular specialists since First Edition: bladesman and gallant. The bladesman is a combat specialist, while the gallant is a social character. Along with the ubiquitous "jack-of-all-trades", a character who wants only to get the most utility from every talent selection, these are the three character builds I will be putting together.

As combat specialists, Bladesman will want one of Acrobatic Strike or Anticipate Blow, and Distract, Tiger Spring, and Wound Balance. The selection between Acrobatic Strike and Anticipate Blow depends on the role you will be fulfilling in your group. If there is already a Warrior who is more than willing to wade into the violence, Anticipate Blow is going to help with single targets. If you are going to be regularly occupying multiple targets, Acrobatic Strike will have less of a Strain cost. The suggested order is mostly the same as they read, but with Distract moved to Fourth Circle.

Gallants, on the other hand, will want Impressive Display and Winning Smile. After this, it gets somewhat tricky. One of Acrobatic Defense/Anticipate Blow is likely in order, though which depends on whether or not you want Distract or Tiger Spring. You are still going to be competent in combat, but are not going to be quite as tough as bladesmen.

A jack-of-all-trades will want Anticipate Blow, Impressive Display, Tiger Spring, and either Distract or Winning Smile, depending if they want to lean more towards combat or social. This is going to take advantage of many of the Swordmaster's strengths and allow them to contribute meaningfully in two different areas.
  • Cobra Strike - Did you take Tiger Spring at the previous tier? If so, you will almost certainly want this talent to go with it. This will make you even faster and provide bonuses to your next Attack test.
  • Engaging Banter - This will primarily be of interest to social characters, and particularly those who get up to shenanigans with their group.
  • Etiquette - If you are the face of your group, you will want this talent.
  • Gliding Stride - This talent can bring some wuxia to your character and open up a world of mobility both in and out of combat. It is also simply fun.
  • Graceful Exit - Normally retreating isn't something PCs are prone to do. This talent makes it a more viable tactic by providing protection during your strategic withdrawal and allows you to bring all of your companions with you.
  • Lasting Impression - Another key talent for social characters. This one benefits from recurring characters and operating from a few locations, rather than being strictly nomads like the A-Team. Only you actually kill things instead of just hosing down all of the non-fleshy things in the area.
  • Lion Heart - This is not only your go to talent for resisting various control effects, it is the only talent Swordmasters get access to for resisting control effects. Combat specialists are likely to appreciate this the most, but the low investment requirements mean virtually everyone should at least consider this talent.
  • Spot Armor Flaw - The only damage boosting talent Swordmasters gain access, which makes it get a second look on that basis alone. It isn't likely to provide a big boost, but it will last for multiple rounds and improve all of your attacks, which can be a thing if you are making three a round.
  • Sprint - For those looking to improve their mobility and it combines with Gliding Stride for extra airborne combat.
  • Swift Kick - If you have Tiger Spring and Cobra Strike, this may be worth considering. If you don't, the requirements mean it likely isn't going to be worth taking. If you are evaluating this talent, there are two important things to remember. The first is this is best used when attacking to knockdown your opponent - the damage isn't likely to do much against anyone wearing armor, but a downed opponent is always good. Second, don't use this as your first attack. Otherwise, all of the bonuses you have stacked from Anticipate Blow, Cobra Strike, and Maneuver will be wasted. This is best when used to give your follow up attacks a bonus since they won't benefit from the other bonuses.
Going back to the three builds, bladesmen will want Cobra Strike, Lion Heart, Spot Armor Flaw, and Swift Kick. Cobra Strike and Spot Armor Flaw are key offensive abilities and Lion Heart provides some important defense against control effects. This especially important if you plan on tying up an opponent for a while, as the control abilities start to kick in after a couple of rounds. Swift Kick provides more control and adds to your additional attacks, but isn't going to work well against opponents with Wound Balance. It can be switched out for either Gliding Stride or Sprint for improved mobility.

A gallant will want Etiquette, Lasting Impression, and Spot Armor Flaw. The first two are key social talents for a character dedicated to the role and Spot Armor Flaw gives a good offensive punch. The fourth talent can be nearly anything, though if you took Tiger Spring previously, Cobra Strike is the logical choice. If not, depending on the character and the game, Engaging Banter, Gliding Stride, Graceful Exit, and Lion Heart are all worth considering for various reasons. Sprint and Swift Kick aren't likely to be as helpful as the other talent options.

The jack-of-all-trades should look at Cobra Strike, Gliding Stride, Spot Armor Flaw, and either Sprint or Lion Heart. Lion Heart is the more defensive choice, some would call it practical, but Gliding Stride and Sprint are just awesome. It provides mobility which few other disciplines can match and allows access to virtually the entire conflict. Particularly hard to read opponents who like to fly above the battlefield.

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

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