26 January 2022

Earthdawn 4E: Musing 07 — Creating Paths

This is the seventh Musing, 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.

Be warned, "Musings" posts feature a lot of me wandering off-topic and semi-related thoughts. There's a lot more insight on the design — how things came to be, directions I want to explore, etc. — but you have to work for it. This one is exceptionally long.

This is the third and final part of the planned series to provide thoughts and guidelines on creating player-facing material for your home games. As always, it’s your game and you can and should do as you like. This is to guide you through some of the process I go through when designing this material.

Paths

I discussed a little the origins and purpose of Paths in the first part of the series on designing Discipline variants. And I’m going to do it again, so buckle up.

Paths were introduced in Fourth Edition to fill a few different roles. Among them is a way to introduce new Discipline-like content for Namegivers, specific cultures, organizations, etc. in the setting without the need to make new Disciplines. Constantly introducing more Disciplines makes the setting feel cluttered and as the number increases, finding someone to train an adept becomes increasingly unlikely. There’s also a psychological aspect where a player in an existing game may look at a new Discipline which is so shiny and wish they were playing that instead of this dumb, old Discipline. I write this even as I produce new Disciplines in this very space. Given I have little interest in Namegiver-specific Disciplines from previous editions, but they are part of the lore and existing groups, those also needed a place to call home. As a smaller investment, this structure also allows for organizations to have something unique without the need for a full Discipline, opening up the concept of mystery cults to be unique and draw players deeper into the setting. There were other reasons as well, but these are the primary considerations.

The biggest drive behind how Paths are set up is to get players and their characters engaged with the setting. Most of the requirements for entry aren’t mechanical and give gamemasters the tools to decide what role they want various Paths to play. Gaining entrance shouldn’t be a simple matter of meeting some basic requirements, but interacting with the Path. Learning about it and earning a place within it. Some are much easier to join than others, but this should be a significant achievement and defining moment for a character. A reason the comparison to prestige classes from D&D 3.X is irksome is because they’re just mechanical add-ons with similar requirements. There’s no setting engagement, no roleplaying entry requirements; just a different level. It’s a comparison that entirely misses the point. Prestige classes may have been intended to fill this role, but they never did.

Enough of preaching about Paths and onto designing them.

A significant difficulty in designing a Path comes in comparative lack of structure around them. Disciplines have some flexibility in the “type” and how they assign Defenses increases and bonuses, but follow a clear pattern within that. Paths are more nebulous by design because they need to fill a variety of different needs. Because of this inherent flexibility, explaining all the variations is going to be tedious. Especially for me. To keep things simpler, I’m going to focus on designing “standard” Paths, rather than outliers like Journeyman (unique structure), Outcast (different social structure and entrance requirements), and Tail Dancer (multiple different flavors). However, I’ll indulge a brief discussion of those differences.

Journeyman has the most unique structure with five ranks at Master costs instead of Journeyman, but the talent access progression is much faster and there are no ability increases. The progression is short (a minor Path) because stretching it out to 10 ranks would be redundant. Since the premise is already having Versatility, giving access to even more talents of choice makes the Versatility angle pointless as the talents through the Path are better. That many choices makes the pickings slim and the character may struggle to want anything, simply advancing to get closer to Morphism, or access to higher tier talents. This is also why it gives early access to Journeyman talents and a Warden talent as the capstone, which will probably be Morphism, but I don’t want to make assumptions for anyone. The reason there aren’t any Defense bonuses like other minor Paths and the costs are so high goes into their talent structure. It’s very efficient and allows for nearly unlimited choice. No other Paths have that freedom of choice or easy access to higher tier talents. Thus the downsides of increased cost and lack of other benefits.

Outcast’s different social structure compared to other Paths reflects its different place in the setting. It’s not an organization, but a shared sense of belonging based on a very specific experience. Since characters can start having undergone the Rite of Severance, there needs to be a method through which they can join once they meet the basic requirements. Keep in mind, this is an option — not all outcasts are Outcasts; entry into the Path isn’t automatic, it’s voluntary based on the outcast’s understanding of their place and honor. That shared sense of honor is what creates the Path’s pattern and also maintains compliance with the Path’s requirements — the Outcast couldn’t join without that strong sense of honor compelling them to follow. This Path isn’t appropriate for other cultures as it’s very specific to the Crystal Raider tribes. Even those with a similar and strict sense of honor would have a different Path to reflect it if appropriate. Just copying it directly robs Outcast of what makes it unique. Don’t do that; reskinning isn’t always a good plan.

Tail Dancer has multiple sub-Paths within it, each offering a different take on the Path, while still very much being a part of it. Part of this was to reflect the different schools introduced to the Discipline in Third Edition, but also to show a different way to put a Path together and give gamemasters a less intensive way of making a Path their own. Instead of doing all five or ten ranks, creating the organization, and fitting it into the setting, they just need to do a few talents and knacks and the rest is already complete. There are four different ways for it to go; I created Shivoavara for Fourth Edition as a way for the Tail Dancer to “flow with the river,” focusing their abilities on movement. I won’t lie, creating four distinctly different expressions isn’t easy. This Path was a lot of work, particularly how the talents and knacks fit with each other and how each sub-Path needs to feel distinct.

Before diving into the mechanics, it’s important to have a clear idea of what the Path is about. Since the Path exists as a distinct group with motivations and goals, this is significantly more important and thorough than a Discipline, which is most important as an individual perspective. What is the organization like? Is it loosely affiliated like Horror Stalker or structured like Scholar? Are they a public group like Purifier where the adept goes to them or secretive like Windmaster where they contact potential candidates? What is their role in the setting — what do they do? What about their gatherings? These are example questions to consider and aren't exhaustive by any means, only a place to start.

Some specific aspects to consider for fleshing the Path out:
  • What are the most/least common Disciplines among the followers?
  • What Passions are most/least frequently honored? How are questors received?
    • Secretive Paths almost never accept questors because of their divided loyalties. It’s difficult enough to be able to practice a Discipline and have devotion to be a questor, but Paths can demand even more from a follower. For other Paths, the required mindset may not be compatible with being a questor (e.g. Horror Stalker).
  • Can a follower of this Path also follow other Paths?
    • This is similar to the question about questors, though some Paths may have specific issues with other Paths. The oaths required for a Path can mean it’s incompatible with anything else, such as Messengers. Alternatively, does the Path make you unwelcome elsewhere? Horror Stalkers are regarded as bad luck (at best) because what their presence implies, and their monomaniacal nature means they may be willing to do terrible things as long as it furthers their ends.
  • What is the initiation process?
    • This includes both applying/being selected and the process for becoming a follower of the Path. If it’s a public Path, what is the application process like? If secretive, how are followers selected? What is required of a prospective follower and what is the initiation ritual?
  • What is required for advancement?
    • The first part is how a follower shows they’re ready to be considered for advancement, followed by what kind of ordeals they’re asked to perform.
  • How does following the Path affect the adept’s Karma ritual?
  • What modifications does the Path make to the adept’s half-magic?
    • Keep in mind, this only affects the half-magic of the Discipline they join the Path through. This is determined by which Thread Weaving talent they use. Usually their highest if there’s more than one, but it’s at the adept’s discretion.
Once you have a clear idea of the Path as an entity within the setting, you can move to designing it.

Here is a list of the required design decisions:
  • Path requirements
  • Minor or major
  • Defense increases
  • Bonuses (major Paths only)
  • Talent options
  • Knacks
First, what are the mechanical requirements (if any)? If it’s traditionally associated with a particular culture, an associated lore may be appropriate. Particular talents required for the purpose of the Path are common. For example, Melee Weapons for Windmaster. Part of these are to present a gate for characters who casually want to learn the secrets for reasons entirely unrelated to what the Path is about and only because of the cool powers. Windmasters aren’t interested in spellcasters who cannot fight because that’s what they do. It’s not that spellcasters aren’t useful in combat, they’re just not useful for how they fight together. In contrast, Tail Dancer doesn’t have Unarmed Combat because it’s not very common and is something they can teach a prospective and suitable candidate. Mechanically, it’s not a common talent and excludes some Disciplines who should be able to follow the Path. While they do have Melee Weapons because that’s their style and Beastmasters aren’t going to be well received by the War College. They’re ill suited for the institution, which should be anathema to them as well. Any talent or skill requirement should be rank 5.

If a specific feature is actually necessary (e.g. gahad for Fire Eater) or contains closely held secrets, it may specify a Namegiver. Since these requirements should be inviolate, consider leeway if there’s a good story for a different Namegiver joining and just leave it at them being serious enough about the culture and the journey. Their road is going to be more difficult, but that makes the story of earning it more rewarding. This is why Brother of Stone and Woodsman are open, since it’s possible for others to join. While windlings would never give up the secrets of Windmaster, even if you could fly. Different attitudes toward their secrets.

The second design decision is if the Path is minor (5 ranks, Journeyman cost) or major (10 ranks, Master cost). I don’t have a clear distinction to give you regarding if a Path should be minor or major. Things to consider are:
  • How much history is behind the Path?
    • If this is a major cultural touchstone or has been around for a long time, a major Path may be more appropriate than minor.
  • How dedicated are the followers?
    • Particularly fervent followers are more likely to build out the Path. Contrast Horror Stalkers and Scholars.
  • How accessible do you want the Path to be?
    • The minor Path talent is much cheaper to advance than a major Path talent and the initiation and ordeals are (generally) less intense than their major counterparts. This means it’s easier for a character to advance and become a significant factor within the Path. They’re more likely to see everything it has to offer.
  • How much power do you want the Path to offer?
    • Opposing accessibility is power — major Paths are more expensive and arduous, but have more to offer. They have more Journeyman talents and give access to Warden talents. As well, they provide more Defense increases and offer bonuses. There’s a lot more room in there for custom talents if those are suitable for their purpose. A catch here is this also means more work for the designer.
This should help you reach the right answer. You may find your mind changing when you start considering talents and knacks. If access to Warden talents is critical, a major Path may be necessary. If it isn’t, a minor Path may be a better fit. Bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Defense increases are fairly simple, though not quite as simple as for a Discipline. Minor Paths get two, one each at ranks 2 and 4. They can be the same or different. Whatever is appropriate for the Path. For example, Purifier receives +1 to Mystic Defense at both, while Scholar receives +1 to Social Defense and +1 to Mystic Defense respectively.

Major Paths receive Defense increases at ranks 2, 4, 7, and 9. Generally, no Defense should be increased more than +2. Windmasters get +3, but they are an exception and are playing against their strengths and into their weaknesses. This gets them an exemption here. Most major Paths receive +2 to two Defenses, though Messengers get increases to all of them (+2 to Social Defense) because they’re required to be versatile in their approaches.

Bonuses are received only by major Paths at ranks 8 and 10, +1 at each rank. These come from the same choices as Disciplines (Initiative, Mystic Armor, and Recovery Tests). They can improve the same or two different traits.

Why this structure and why include these benefits at all? The thread cost. Requiring a thread tied to the Path’s pattern is important from a setting and system perspective. It gives the adept a connection to the pattern and demonstrates where this power is coming from. This also provides enough of a cost to discourage trying to take as many Paths as possible as this reduces the potential number of thread items. That reduction also means there should be some benefit to offset the costs of raising the talent which otherwise wouldn’t do anything beyond giving access to spend more Legend Points on stuff. This is useful and increases a character’s power, but it can also cause them to lag behind in otherwise difficult to improve Defenses and traits. Thus, Paths provide some small bonuses commensurate with their costs — the Master tier costs for a major Path can be quite daunting as the rank increases, but the benefits also scale up.

Talent options have two different structures, depending on the type of Path. Minor Paths have eight Novice talent options and two Journeyman talent options; double the number of talents for the number of associated ranks they can be selected. Major Paths don’t follow the same trend. They have ten Novice talent options, six Journeyman talent options, and four Warden talent options. Warden holds true, but two talent options were shifted down from Journeyman to Novice.

I originally planned to have the same scheme for major Paths, which would be eight, eight, and four. However, I found more Novice talents applicable across the board than Journeyman talents. This makes sense since many of those are foundational talents, providing basic competency, while Journeyman talents often build on that competency. Given the broader range of potential abilities for a Path compared to a Discipline, where there’s much more control over the abilities a character has access to before getting to Journeyman, it’s important to ensure a wider base to choose from. Rather than push Novice talents up the rank 5+ tier, I increased the number of talents in the rank 1+ tier. This was also explicitly to prevent surcharging Novice talents like happens with Disciplines and talents pushed up a tier. Since the cost of the talent option from a Path doesn’t increase based on when you learn it (me correcting mistakes from the past), there isn’t a penalty of sorts for having more rank 1+ choices and may encourage learning them rather than feeling pressured to choose a rank 5+ choice. I maintained the 2 × rank number of Warden talents as something of a reward for advancing that far. That Master tier cost for the Path talent is expensive.

Choosing talent options here is similar to choosing them for a Discipline, but there are some additional considerations. Ensure they fit the theme of the Path and support what the Path is about. In addition to that as I indicated above, consider characters following the Path may not have some of the basic competencies the Path requires as their Discipline didn’t provide access. For example, Woodsman offers Wilderness Survival. It’s an entirely appropriate Path for many different Disciplines, but not all have access to that talent and it’s something all Woodsmen should be able to learn.

Were I to go back and do it again, I would strongly consider having “required” talents where their talent rank must improve as they advance. This is to ensure members of the Path have certain core competencies even if they didn’t have access to it when they initiated. Also, if someone is “cheating” their way into a Path, the Path starts to shape them into a suitable follower as they advance and the Path becomes more than just a way to pick up some talents and knacks. For characters dedicated to following the Path, it’s not a big deal and that would be assumed anyway.

Rank 1+ talents are Novice talents, rank 5+ are Journeyman, and rank 9+ are Warden. The earliest a talent shows up in a Discipline list indicates the tier of the talent. If a new talent is core to the functioning of the Path, such as Fires of Gahad, ensure it’s available as a rank 1+ selection. Some minor Paths have a higher tier talent dropped down a tier because of how appropriate it is to the Path. They’re never directly combat talents and this is important. The two examples of this are Lion Heart for Fire Eater and Cold Purify for Purifier.

While most Paths have custom talents, this isn’t a necessity. Messenger is a major Path and doesn’t have a new talent because 1) if it’s recognized as an unknown talent, that could give them away and 2) it simply wasn’t necessary for them. When designing a new talent for a Path — or Discipline for that matter — be careful it’s not something existing Disciplines should have access to. If it feels like that’s the case, reimagining the ability as a knack is probably the better solution.

Knacks are the last and most nebulous topic for Paths, which tend to have a lot of them. But that’s me and doesn’t have to be you. The most notable and unique type of knack Paths have is Karma knacks. These give Paths additional ways to spend Karma in addition to their Discipline Karma abilities (unless noted otherwise), usually with a Strain cost and possibly a frequency limitation. They’re learned through the Path talent and reinforce the key themes of the Path, and how they do what they do. There’s dozens of examples of these. The goal in writing them isn’t to necessarily have parity in power and “usefulness” — be more aware of making them too powerful or useful, which are generally the same — but to show what the Path specializes in.

For example, Windmaster receives the following Karma knacks:
  • Rank 1: Shyera-tis — Initiative [1 Strain]
  • Rank 2: Annoying Little… — Distract and Taunt [0 Strain]
  • Rank 3: Windmaster’s Advantage — Attack or Damage against a Blindsided or Surprised opponent. [1 Strain, limited]
  • Rank 4: Never Alone — Attack or Damage when an ally is adjacent. [1 Strain, limited]
  • Rank 5: Death From Above — Attack or Damage on Dive Attack or Swooping Attack. [1 Strain]
  • Rank 6: Windmaster Training — Test against a target with lower Initiative. Must be a Simple action, cannot be an Attack or Spellcasting test. [1 Strain, limited]
  • Rank 7: Windmaster Technique — Attack or Damage against a target with lower Initiative. [1 Strain, limited]
  • Rank 8: Windmaster’s Resilience — Recovery test [1 Strain, limited]
  • Rank 9: Windmaster’s Dance — Attack or Damage through Air Dance. [1 Strain]
  • Rank 10: Maz-Shyera-tis — Initiative [1 Strain]
I picked Windmaster because there’s a lot of knacks and a lot of nuance among them as they’re often similar. The reason there are so many Karma knacks is because windlings have a lot of Karma. This was a conscious decision to play to that strength as a Namegiver. Just as Outcast has a custom talent to increase their access to Karma because trolls don’t have a lot of Karma. The emphasis on combat reflects both the Path and to give windling adepts playing against their strengths a comparative boost. Windling Archers, Beastmasters, Cavalrymen (Cavaliers), and spellcasters don’t need a boost because windlings bring plenty of advantages to those Disciplines already.

The first thing to note are the two Initiative knacks at either end of the list. This reinforces they’re about going first. Those two knacks are separated in this way because how powerful it can get with easy access to more Initiative increases. Their large Karma pool and other knacks which allow them to spend their Initiative successes means the second increase is that much more powerful, thus making it the capstone even though it’s also the entry point.

Their high Initiative also reflects key themes of the Path. First is the air elemental theme, spelled out clearly in the name. Next is the idea if they aren’t moving, striking, and escaping before their enemies can react, they’re at a serious disadvantage. This goes into their role in windling society and the disadvantages they go through being melee characters.

They have a variety of different ways to improve their Attack and Damage based on the circumstances. Each emphasizes the different ways Windmasters fight. First it’s unfair, then together, next hit and run, and finally by being the fastest. This is also a very rough order of how broadly accessible the benefit is. The easier it is to pull off, the higher the rank. That may not be true for all groups — for example, some find blindsiding opponents trivially easy if there’s an ally who regularly uses Distract. However, there’s a decent chance the character is the Windmaster.

Rank 1 and 6 benefit more support talents. The first is very specific and furthers a preferred fighting style — supporting allies (best to never be alone) and harassing your opponent. The second is more broad and can benefit talents like Anticipate Blow and double up on the previous talents. It’s still about combat, but encourages using other talents as well, while still emphasizing their speed.

Rank 8 sees a benefit for Recovery tests. Given how they have a Toughness penalty and are expected to be in the thick of it, they may very well need this.

A specific knack from Tail Dancer to call out is Tail Rush. For whatever reason, there are a lot of questions about why this knack exists with a limitation that makes it inapplicable to so many characters. Usually meaning their character. It’s simple: not every Discipline has access to a Damage-related Karma ability and they can follow this Path as well. This is like talent selection and allowing for those possibilities within the appropriate context of the Path. There are specific limitations because the intent isn’t to give adepts who already have that capability more, nor replace the more broadly applicable Fifth Circle damage-related Discipline abilities, but to give something to put those adepts more on par with their peers. Windmasters, for example, don’t need something similar because they already have a huge variety of ways to spend Karma on damage. Simply, if this does nothing for you, this isn’t for you.

That’s the overview on designing a Path. Now, let’s go through an example of creating a Path. Much like with the example Discipline, this isn’t going to be complete. In no small part because that’s a lot of work. Specifically writing all the knacks. A lot of work. But, you get what you pay for.

Example

I’m going to design a minor Path, the Society of Delvers, for this example; or more simply, Delvers. I have a clear idea of who they are and what they’re about, so that makes this first part easy. There’s not much to explain as I do a basic write-up. This isn’t going to have as much detail and polish as I might otherwise, since this is just a draft and specifically incomplete.

They’re accused by some of being little more than grave robbers, which doesn’t stick very well because that’s part of the basic role of adepts in Barsaive. Though Delvers may be inclined toward more actual grave robbing than just kaers full of death. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, they work hard to put on airs of academic pursuit and archeology. They don’t seek out ruins just for the treasures inside, but also to learn the stories contained and about the cultures.

After enough time, this actually became true. Delvers are part time allies and part time rivals with Scholars, sharing goals while seeking to one up each other. There are more than a few who follow both Paths, though there are also those from both Paths who mock them and treat them as pariahs for their “lesser” association.

While Scholars are very much an academic society, Delvers are more of a gentleman’s club (though all genders are welcome). They like to gather, tell stories, drink, share exploits, drink, share what they’ve learned, and drink. The more experienced members, often retired, frequently use their largesse to fund expeditions for newer members and the lavish parties they enjoy.

There’s a strange mixture of collaboration and rivalry within the Society, sharing clues and collaborating on locating lost kaers and hidden ruins, while also jealously guarding such things from rivals. What clique you belong to can be important as the fortunes of the various members rise and fall. One thing that brings even the bitterest of rivals together is the death of a peer. No matter how deep the grudge, all followers who can attend such a gathering and it’s not uncommon for amends to be made in earnest. This can also serve as the catalyst to realign alliances and cliques as former rivals become allies and vice-versa.

Despite all this, the camaraderie is real and any follower will come to the aid of a Delver in need. “Crying wolf” or similar behavior is poor form and unbecoming of a Delver. Any members taking advantage of their fellows in this way, particularly a dangerous fashion, will find themselves severed from the Path in short order. The bonds between them are taken seriously as their work is dangerous indeed.

Disciplines

The membership of the society of Delvers is diverse and there isn’t a sense of any Discipline being more common than another. And they benefit from this diversity by having many different skills to call upon for their explorations. However, there are certainly Disciplines less common among the followers. Beastmasters and Cavalrymen are counted as the rarest Disciplines in the Path. The delves themselves are the biggest problem for Cavalrymen, who often find the ruins not amenable to their mounts. While Beastmasters are all too often uninterested in everything the Society has to offer. It’s simply not for them as a whole.

Passions and Questors

As may be expected for the scholarly sorts, even drunken scholars, Mynbruje is a popular Passion for followers to honor. However, many different Namegivers are drawn to the Delvers for many different reasons and thus the Passions are well represented within the Path. Except for Mad Passions, as may be expected. Questors are also welcomed, though quite rare given their drives don’t often align with the goals of the Society.

Other Paths

Much like Scholars, Delvers have no problem with multiple memberships. Except for Horror Stalkers — their interest in delving is for all the wrong reasons. That being said, the Society and all its members make it a point of maintaining friendly relations with all Horror Stalkers they encounter and either enlist their aid for delves which will benefit from their particular monomaniacal focus, or provide them with information relevant to their interests as Delvers come across it. While tragic, it isn’t unheard of for followers who return as the only survivor from a horrifying expedition gone wrong to leave the Society and take up the mantle of a Horror Stalker. They’re mourned as though dead and officially retired, but not severed from the Society, who stays in contact with their fellow. Theirs is a dangerous business and it’s best not to go alone. This goes for both Paths.

Initiation

Joining the Society of Delvers can be accomplished through two methods, though both require the support of a sponsor. The most common is seeking out a follower to sponsor the prospective adept. In this case, the supplicant needs to make their case and earn the sponsor’s support. The second is through a Delver finding and actively recruiting an adept. This is clearly the easiest for the candidate since they don’t have to impress anyone. Regardless of the method, the sponsor introduces the adept to a council of Peers, which is how rank 5 Delvers are referred. They interview the sponsor and the candidates, deciding if they’re “Society material.”

It’s not just a question of ability, but also attitude. Maintaining their camaraderie and the nature of the Society is of the utmost importance. Even terribly capable adepts have been turned away because they wouldn’t fit in or could potentially go too far. Thankfully, most sponsors weed out these adepts before this point. Another aspect which cannot be understated is the clout of the sponsor can directly affect a candidate’s success. This is particularly true for any sponsors who are also Peers. Since this influence is always earned rather than bestowed through some other means, it’s rarely squandered in the pursuit of something else.

If a candidate gains approval, they must accompany a delve with at least one Delver present. This is typically their sponsor and some are known to come out of retirement solely for this purpose. The sponsor may join their candidate’s group or the candidate may be part of a Delver expedition. If the candidate is contentious for some reason, at least two Delvers accompany them; one for and one against their admittance. This ensures a more complete understanding of the candidate, though both Delvers usually come to an agreement by the end of the endeavor and after their true nature is seen through adversity.

Ordeals and Advancement

Much like initiation, a follower advances through a sponsor. By this time they’ve made connections within the Society and should have allies higher rank than themselves. Since a Delver would never support the advancement of a fellow who didn’t earn it — this undermines the Society as a whole — this is serious business for all involved. Delvers are judged by what they’ve presented to the Society during their gatherings and their adventures. A good tale and good drink are also appreciated. Each member contributes in their own way, but all are expected to contribute to all aspects. Research and study of the locations they explore, along with discovering those locations, and exploring them are all crucial to advancement within the Society. Contributing to only one or two will never see the Delver advance to the higher ranks, let alone becoming a Peer. These are also the ordeals Delvers must go through to earn their increased status.

Karma Ritual

The Path’s influence on Karma rituals tends to be subtle and usually develops over time. The most common expression is of discovery and always looking towards the unknown. For example, a Nethermancer’s discussions with spirits may become exclusively about lost cultures, kaers, and ruins, discussing them and seeking more about them. A Troubadour’s performance may change in a similar fashion, becoming solely tales of exploration and discovery.

Half-Magic

The adept can also use their half-magic to find other Delvers and know the history of the Society of Delvers. Additionally, they can use Perception or Charisma-based half-magic to always find the best or the most reasonably priced equipment in their area. They can also use Charisma-based half-magic to find rumors of ruins and lost kaers (this doesn’t provide useful information).

Path Requirements

Knowledge is important to this Path, so some knowledge skill should be required. Which is a little more vague than I want. It needs to be a regional or cultural history or lore skill; Barsaive History, Scourge History, Elf Lore — these are all appropriate choices. It has to show an interest in exploration beyond just the murder and treasure.

Defense Increases

As a minor Path, they only receive two. Despite the social nature of the Path, what they’re about is dangerous. They’re getting +1 Physical Defense at rank 2 and +1 Mystic Defense at rank 4.

Talent Options

Like designing a Discipline, I’m making a list of every Novice and Journeyman talent that could be appropriate here. After that comes the cuts. These talents need to focus on finding and exploring ruins. They only get eight Novice talents and two Journeyman talents.

Novice:
  1. Awareness
  2. Climbing
  3. Danger Sense
  4. Disarm Trap
  5. Item History
  6. Navigation
  7. Read and Write Language
  8. Research
  9. Stealthy Stride
  10. Steel Thought
  11. Wilderness Survival
Journeyman:
  1. Evidence Analysis
  2. Iron Constitution
  3. Safe Path
  4. True Sight
This is a solid list of talents and cuts aren’t going to be easy. I need to cut three Novice talents and two Journeyman talents.

Novice:
  • Navigation — Since this is about delving and not generically exploring, this talent can go. The assumption being someone in the group can get them there and back. Just doesn’t have to be the Delver.
  • Stealthy Stride — This was a hard cut as it fits very well. But the other talents fit better. Skulking around may be important, but the other abilities are more so.
  • Wilderness Survival — This is in the same category as Navigation and probably the same person.
Journeyman:
  • Iron Constitution — Another hard cut, but less appropriate than the remaining two talents.
  • Safe Path — Like Navigation and Wilderness Survival before it. Also, I personally don’t like this talent and wish I had done something more interesting in its place. It’s the opposite of interesting and in many senses literally does nothing.
I’m not creating a custom talent here because I don’t think it’s necessary for what they do, there are plenty of great choices without plugging any gaps, and I don’t want to get bogged down in that process. Also, I already made a custom talent in this series.

Knacks

Typically, this is where I look at all the talents options and see different ways they can be used and/or enhanced for the purposes of the Path. Along with this are if there are up to four spells (Messenger is an exception) appropriate to them which can be learned as part of a Patterncraft knack and looking at the spell lists for suitable spells to have improved versions for the Path.

However, that is a lot of work. So, I’m going to pass on that. There’s a plethora of example knacks across two books and this blog. I will work on example Karma knacks since those are more specific to a Path.

First, let’s identify some key areas around what the Path does. They find kaers and ruins, explore those ruins, and may engage with Horrorspawn they encounter there. I prefer to have at least one Karma knack every other rank, and these three accomplish that. If I were doing a complete write-up, I would definitely spend more time on this and refine these knacks further.

Next comes actually writing them up:

Truth to the Rumors [Karma]
Talent: Delver
Requirements: ???
Restrictions: None
Strain: 0
The adept may spend a Karma point on an Action test to discover information about a potential lost kaer, ruins, or similar. The Action test must be directly related to obtaining the information.

This is a little vague and I may need to tighten it up. It currently doesn’t cost Strain despite the broad nature because it’s intended as more of a downtime action rather than an active scene style of action. Which means tracking Strain isn’t critical to what’s happening. If this proves useful in the latter type of scene, it may need to be curtailed to Research or Charisma-based Action tests or have a Strain cost added.

The requirements are unfilled for now. I like to write all of the knacks up, then arrange them in an order that creates a sense of progression for the Path. Higher rank knacks are more broadly useful, more powerful, and/or less related to the core of the Path. If a knack here naturally builds on a previous knack, it should be included as a requirement. Since the associated talent is Delver, there’s generally no need for restrictions.

Delvers Gonna Delve [Karma]
Talent: Delver
Requirements: ???
Restrictions: None
Strain: 1
The adept may spend a Karma point on an Action test to explore a lost kaer or ruins. This cannot be used in combat.

Another broadly applicable knack that may need to be dialed back. This has a Strain cost because it’s intended for use in an action scene and just how many uses it could have. Potentially too many. I feel I don’t need to explain the specific restriction on combat. Despite the danger of what they do, that’s not their thing. Yet.

I Do Worse to My Liver for Fun [Karma]
Talent: Delver
Requirements: ???
Restrictions: None
Strain: 0
The adept may spend a Karma point on a disease or poison Resistance test.

I didn’t include this in the list above because it’s not specifically in theme, though could be loosely related to exploring as they do. However, it’s a way to cheat in a talent I had to cut which could work: Iron Constitution. If I don’t like the idea of this stacking with Iron Constitution, potentially making those dangers trivial, I can add the text “This knack cannot be used with attribute replacement effects.” This shuts the door on that.

I also included this as an example of something which might be cut with further effort or assigning it to a rank based not necessarily on its power, but how distantly related it is to the primary themes of the Path.

Delve Into Darkness [Karma]
Talent: Delver
Requirements: ???
Restrictions: None
Strain: 1
The adept may spend a Karma point on an Action test against a Horrorspawn. This can be used once per round.

I identified this initially, but it’s a weak connection to the theme. However, it’s not entirely out of place either. It’s broadly applicable since not all characters engage in the same way and this is a broad Path in those terms. Because of how broad it is and not core to what they’re about, this gets a strict limitation. If it was really thematic to Delvers, it might get a “rank times per round” limitation instead.

Looking at these, it’s a good order for them. Typically there’s a lot more shuffling, but I was thinking about them in ascending order already. Time to assign requirements:
  • Truth to the Rumors: Rank 1 — This is a great foundational knack and everything starts at the beginning. I think there should generally be a Karma knack at rank 1 to get things started with showing what the Path is about.
  • Delvers Gonna Delve: Rank 3 — A weaker version might be rank 2 instead, but this is a good place for this as written. If there were a fifth knack, this may be shuffled down and restricted more as well.
  • I Do Worse to My Liver for Fun: Rank 4 — This is for being only adjacent to the key purpose of the Path. This is also a pretty tempting ability for any adept as written, so pushing it further back is a carrot to keep advancing.
  • Delve Into Darkness: Rank 5 — Also adjacent to the key purpose, broadly useful, and tempting for any adept since it affects Horrorspawn and pretty much anything they want to do. Except directly damage. Because of that, I’m also putting Truth to the Rumors and Delvers Gonna Delve as requirements. This isn’t expensive or anything, just forces people to take tools they might otherwise ignore.
With that, this article and draft example Path are complete. Hopefully you have a better understanding of the various processes and thoughts going into designing a new Path.

19 January 2022

Earthdawn 4E: Musing 06 — Creating Disciplines

This is the sixth Musing, 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.


Be warned, "Musings" posts feature a lot of me wandering off-topic and semi-related thoughts. There's a lot more insight on the design — how things came to be, directions I want to explore, etc. — but you have to work for it. This one is exceptionally long.

This is the second in what I plan to be a three-part series to provide thoughts and guidelines on creating player-facing material for your home games. As always, it’s your game and you can and should do as you like. This is to guide you through some of the process I go through when designing this material.

Disciplines

Disciplines are the foundations of characters in Earthdawn. While this is true for all class-based fantasy adventuring games, they have a special place in Earthdawn and this creates special considerations when designing them. The introduction of Paths in Earthdawn Fourth Edition reduces their burden in terms of setting heavy lifting, while also creating additional scrutiny. The goal is to discuss Discipline design considerations to help homebrewers with their efforts.

Before diving in, there’s a recurring question regarding providing tools to design a variety of things (Disciplines, knacks, Paths, spells, etc.) at home: when will they be published? The short answer is: never. Not a popular answer. However, there are good reasons for it. While those tools were available in the past and increased the perception of accessibility for homebrewing, they contributed significantly to the decreased quality of material produced while giving it the perception of balance because it followed the guidelines. No tools and guidelines are perfect. I can provide the knowledge, but not the wisdom. Which is to say, being given a tool doesn’t inform how to use it appropriately.

In contrast, if you learn how to build these things from using the numerous examples provided, the sincere hope the user earns the wisdom as they gain the knowledge. Of course, there’s no guarantee of this, but this is my good faith effort to do what I can. With this preamble, let’s get to what you’re here for.

I started the series with variants and I’m working in increasing difficulty or complexity. As discussed previously, variants involve moving talents around within a set of guidelines so it’s still recognizable as the original Discipline. This is building one from the ground up. I’ve covered this process in some detail in previous posts, but I’m going to do it with additional guidance and a title that makes it very clear what’s going on.

This process assumes you already have a clear concept of what you want and the themes. Those pieces are required before you dive into this process. Getting into the details may help clarify and refine the core elements of the Discipline, it is likely to remove many extraneous pieces as you continue to cut it down, somewhat like a carver or sculptor shaping their medium to reveal what’s within.

Creating a Discipline is deceptively simple, but has more clarity to the structure in Fourth Edition once you look at the details. There are three broad categories informally called: Combat, Specialist, and Spellcaster. There aren’t official titles, so if you have a different term, that’s fine. They’re noted primarily by their Durability at 7, 5, and 3 respectively. “Specialist” Disciplines (Durability 5) also receive a free talent and an additional Karma ability at First Circle, “Spellcaster” Disciplines (Durability 3) receive two free Standard Matrix talents outside of the talent structure — these don’t count against talent options — and one of them is upgraded to an Enhanced Matrix at Fifth Circle. “Combat” Disciplines (Durability 7) get Durability 7. Sometimes quantity is its own kind of quality.

A brief discussion regarding Specialist Disciplines. The two benefits they receive shouldn’t be specifically combat-related. A combat-adjacent free talent is okay, such as Call Missile and Danger Sense, but not directly combat talents. As well, the free talent shouldn’t be something characters are going to want to improve at each Circle. The talent is something every adept of the Discipline should have, but not something like Awareness. Some of my side-project Disciplines experimented with unique talents here; I’m not certain if that’s the right plan. But also why they’re experiments. My suggestion is to wait until you have your talent list cut down and the choice may be obvious.

The ability to improve the free talent and get the Legend Points back is a kludge and not something I’m a fan of, but it’s there. Were I to do it again, I would describe the free talent as “You gain a free rank in the talent if it’s below your Circle in the Discipline when you advance in Circle.” This removes all ambiguity and edge cases.

Why is that? I don’t like the concept of refunding Legend Points as it starts making keeping detailed bookkeeping a necessity and I like keeping copious notes, including all Legend Point expenditures. However, I don’t want to force that onto other groups. Which is very real if it’s printed in the rules — even optional ones. This is really an unnecessary layer of complexity and a conceit of mechanics rather than setting. Much like converting skills into talents. Fine if you want it at your table, but it’s not appropriate for how the two are portrayed in the setting.

The Karma ability should showcase what the Discipline is about. Importantly, in a generally non-combat way. Being perfectly honest, I don’t think all of these Karma abilities in the Player’s Guide are right. There’s definitely room for improvement in some cases, while others are perfect. I discussed this in the Discipline variants post with regard to Air Sailor v. Venturer (that last “r” is important to me). Thief is probably the biggest issue — I wanted it to show another aspect of the Discipline without just doubling down on what it already does. Without hyperbole, I think I agonized over it for weeks before accepting I wasn’t going to get anything better in time and needed to move on. Those spells weren’t going to redesign themselves.

To continue, this Karma ability may be one of the most difficult pieces to design. I know it often is for me — how do you encapsulate the Discipline in a single, short ability? Try your best and maybe get some feedback. I’m not great about that last part for personal projects, but part of the idea is to put them out there and get feedback after seeing them in play.

Another note is Combat v. Specialist Disciplines. Keep the latter in your mind even if you think the former is the right answer. Going through the talent culling process and getting to those last, most difficult cuts may change your mind about what is the right answer. In many ways, Specialist is the most interesting category to play with because of how it can come together. Combat is the easiest because there’s less work in general. Unless you’re doing a Spellcaster that doesn’t require a new spell list. Basically nothing is more work than writing spells. Seriously.

Regardless of the type of Discipline you choose, there are some considerations for all Disciplines beyond talents:
  • Artisan skills
  • Bonuses
  • Defense progression
  • Discipline abilities
  • Half-magic
  • Important attributes
  • Karma abilities
  • Karma Ritual
I’m not tackling these in alphabetical order, I just like to make lists in that order.

What kind of art is a good fit for the Discipline? This is the central question. Artisan skills should be simple and these are suggestions, not requirements in my mind. Most adepts should be picking one of these because tradition is powerful, but something else is probably fine. I’m only wary when it gets into skills I don’t think should be artisan skills, but tradition is powerful and I didn’t change it. That’s on me.

Half-magic is complicated in part because different groups have differing interpretations of how much it should be able to do. The good news is you’re just writing this for your group, so you have a much better handle on what is appropriate to include here. My perspective is this is intended to fill in the gaps for the concept of the Discipline and what talents exist. It’s not intended to wholly replace skills, but can encroach a bit. For example, it’s reasonable to think a Beastmaster can use half-magic to approximate Physician on one of their animal companions. However, this is a limited replacement. I chose to make half-magic just the character’s Circle for simplicity, but I think this was a mistake in retrospect as it does too much to make it simply better than similar skills and talents. Going back to half-Circle opens up better options without making it strictly better than skills.

Important attributes are best handled after Discipline progression. Total up the attributes required for Discipline talents and also talent options, but halve the latter. This should give a rough approximation of what attributes show up most often. Also apply a sanity check to ensure it all makes sense. It gives you a chance to assess if this spread is right for the intentions of the Discipline. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the result not quite matching the goal, but some adjustment may be appropriate depending on the distance between those two poles.

The example Karma ritual shows one way the Discipline connects with their magic. It should be fairly iconic and ideally something that can be accomplished in any setting. Some of us recall the old arguments over the example Air Sailor Karma ritual. Not everyone believes these are examples. Since this Discipline is ostensibly for your game, it’s not something to necessarily agonize over. The further you intend for it to travel from your group, the more many of these concerns come to the fore about how other people will interpret what’s written here.

Now we get into the engine room of Discipline design.

There are two different options for Defense progression, the balanced and standard progressions. Most Disciplines use the standard progression, but currently two use a balanced progression (Gauntlet and Swordmaster) to show how they’re balanced between two aspects. This can give more nuance to characters and how they’re presented. Or it could just be looked over and mostly ignored.

Standard progression assigns each Defense (Physical, Mystic, and Social) a priority from 1 to 3. While a balanced progression has the total benefits from priorities 1 and 2 equal, but one receives the bonuses first. Below are when Defense increases are received for each progression.

Standard Progression:
  • Second Circle: Defense [1] +1
  • Fourth Circle: Defense [2] +1
  • Sixth Circle: Defense [1] +2
  • Eighth Circle: Defense [1] +3
  • Tenth Circle: Defense [2] +2
  • Eleventh Circle: Defense [3] +1
  • Twelfth Circle: Defense [1] +4
  • Thirteenth Circle: Defense [2] +3
  • Fourteenth Circle: Defense [1] +5
  • Fifthteenth Circle: Defense [3] +2
Balanced Progression:
  • Second Circle: Defense [1] +1
  • Fourth Circle: Defense [2] +1
  • Sixth Circle: Defense [1] +2
  • Eighth Circle: Defense [2] +2
  • Tenth Circle: Defense [1] +3
  • Eleventh Circle: Defense [3] +1
  • Twelfth Circle: Defense [2] +3
  • Thirteenth Circle: Defense [1] +4
  • Fourteenth Circle: Defense [2] +4
  • Fifthteenth Circle: Defense [3] +2
Assigning bonuses is a similar process to Defenses in that you give each of the potential bonuses (Initiative, Mystic Armor, and Recovery Tests) a priority from 1 to 3. I don’t recall making a Discipline with a balanced progression, but it isn’t complicated to do so. A hypothetical balanced progression still needs priorities to give the overall order, but the final bonus is +2 for each. Below are when bonus increases are received for each progression.

Standard Progression:
  • Seventh Circle: Bonus [1] +1
  • Tenth Circle: Bonus [2] +1
  • Twelfth Circle: Bonus [1] +2
  • Thirteenth Circle: Bonus [3] +1
  • Fourteenth Circle: Bonus [2] +2
  • Fifteenth Circle: Bonus [1] +3

Balanced Progression:

  • Seventh Circle: Bonus [1] +1
  • Tenth Circle: Bonus [2] +1
  • Twelfth Circle: Bonus [3] +1
  • Thirteenth Circle: Bonus [1] +2
  • Fourteenth Circle: Bonus [2] +2
  • Fifteenth Circle: Bonus [3] +2
Next are Karma abilities. These are generally straightforward at lower Circles, but can become increasingly complicated at higher Circles. This is because the lower Circle abilities are providing basic competencies up through Ninth Circle. After that, it’s more about refining the concept of the Discipline and what it’s about. Here’s a list of the “basic” Karma abilities:
  • Initiative tests
  • Interaction tests
  • Recovery tests — every Discipline eventually gets this ability at Ninth Circle if they didn’t receive it previously.
Karma abilities are gained at the following progression with any special notes for the particular Circle. The Specialist Karma ability was discussed ad nauseum previously and won’t be covered here.
  • Third Circle
  • Fifth Circle: This ability should be core to how the Discipline functions and is often combat-related.
    • A damage ability with some requirement is very common here. Don’t worry about absolute parity, the goal is to capture the flavor of the Discipline, not make it better. See the various damage abilities across the Disciplines.
    • It enhances spellcasting in some fashion for Spellcasters, but be wary of making it too combat-specific for them since that’s not their specialty. This should be applicable to non-combat situations as well. Because of that versatility, it should have less absolute power for spellcasters.
  • Ninth Circle: If the Disciplines doesn’t have it already, this should be for Recovery tests.
  • Eleventh Circle: Generally a more specific ability that is more niche and gives the ability to spend Karma on something new, but carries a requirement appropriate to the Discipline. It explores a constant theme, but perhaps one that isn’t as front-and-center as other themes.
  • Thirteenth Circle: This is only +1 Karma Step, but every Discipline gets it.
The last thing before we get to talents are Discipline abilities. These are gained at each new tier (Fifth, Ninth, and Thirteenth Circles) and should be unique to each Discipline. In one instance, Sky Raider Journeyman, it explicitly doesn’t need to be unique since they gain an additional benefit if they gain that ability again. As expected, they increase in power at each tier and build on the primary themes of the Discipline. Being perfectly honest, these can be very difficult to get just right. Like many things, I would do some of them differently if I could go back and do them again with what I know now. I tried to create general patterns in the benefits provided at each tier to give homebrewers a place to start and an outline for their creations.

Now we’re at the main event in terms of what you need to do: talents. These are the core of a Discipline and define what they do in the most explicit way. Their structure is clear and consistent: five Discipline talents at First Circle and one Discipline talent each following Circle. There are 2n+2 talent options at each tier where n is the number of Circles in the tier. This means 10 talent options at Novice, Journeyman, and Warden, and 8 at Master. The number of talent options at each tier isn’t arbitrary, but the math getting you there is a little.

I picked these numbers because they provide strict limitations and I feel those limitations give rise to better character and definition. It requires thinking carefully about what should belong and making difficult choices. Adding even two more talent options per tier changes how the various Disciplines feel. There are a few innovations I would include — some I wanted at the time and others I designed later — such as creating the category of “weapon talents” as a single option to open up some of the Combat and Specialist Disciplines a bit more, rather than just having so many options taken up with weapon talents. This wouldn’t be true for all Disciplines, as some should have their weapon options limited for various reasons.

Ideally, talent options should provide two or three different directions for a Discipline to be developed outside of its primary focus. An extremely focused Discipline like Warrior defines how it enacts violence as the “different direction.” This is really an exception rather than the rule.

When looking at which talents to include, be careful of making it just a “greatest hits” collection. Which is, don’t just load up a Discipline with all the most powerful talents, taking what is perceived as the “best” in each category. Including Air Dance when there’s no air elemental theme to be seen. This was a very common issue with the Discipline design guidelines from the days of yore and a big reason never to include “official” instructions on how to do it. As I mentioned before, it gives a false sense of competency. I don’t have to look far into the Earthdawn Journal before I wince. That’s not a judgment on people who played and enjoyed them, but every time I hear a comparison of the Gauntlet to the Mystic Warrior, I frown deeply.

A particular note: Everyone gets Second Chance as a Master talent option. It’s never a Discipline talent, always an option.

Talents are informally restricted to various tiers and usually shouldn’t show up before one of the existing Disciplines gains access to it. For example, Air Dance shouldn’t be showing up before Third Circle, when Warriors get access to it. In fact, it really shouldn’t be showing up before Journeyman. Other talents are somewhat unique to their Discipline. For example, don’t spread Claw Frenzy anywhere else. It was a mistake.

Something I can’t teach well, but only note is to consider how talents interact with each other and the themes of the Discipline. If the Discipline isn’t intended to go early and doesn’t receive an Initiative improving talent, they may not get anything out of Acrobatic Defense and Anticipate Blow. Maneuver can still provide some value between the Attack bonus and knacks, but be prepared for people endlessly talking about it. These considerations are a lot more important if you start delving into the realm of custom talents and knacks. Evaluating potential interactions is important when establishing limitations to how the talent functions.

With all this done, let’s do an example. This isn’t going to be a “real” Discipline I’m posting, this is just an example of how to put everything into practice.

Example

I’m going to make the Sentinel Discipline. The premise is a Combat Discipline who focuses on using a body shield to protect themselves and their allies. They’re going to need some detection abilities to spot trouble and social talents to comport themselves when duty requires. I see them having earth, fire, and wood as potential elemental themes, but I’m not committed to this yet.

This concept could easily work as a Path, a society dedicated to protecting people and/or causes. The details on how it functions needs to be worked out, but that’s something for another week.

Artisan Skills

Going through my list, what kind of art is important to them? I feel rune carving on the face of their shield could be relevant and I also like the idea of tattoos as an expression of their service. Half-magic is difficult here and I don’t have a solid idea of everything these adepts are about, so I’m going to revisit the rest of this later.

Defense and Bonus Progression

Next, Defense progression. This Discipline is using the standard progression with Physical (1), Mystic (2), and Social (3). Their bonus progression is Recovery Tests (1), Mystic Armor (2), and Initiative (3). While I may want social abilities for them, they aren’t as likely to be lethal if they land compared to Physical or Mystic attacks.

Talents

Now I’m going to make a list of all the talents which I think could apply and arrange them by tier. This gives me an idea of the cuts I need to make. Remembering the number of talents you need to choose per tier: Novice (18), Journeyman (14), Warden (14), and Master (11).

Novice:
  1. Acrobatic Defense
  2. Air Speaking
  3. Anticipate Blow
  4. Avoid Blow
  5. Awareness
  6. Battle Shout
  7. Conversation
  8. Danger Sense
  9. Distract
  10. Empathic Sense
  11. Etiquette
  12. Fireblood
  13. First Impression
  14. Guardian’s Service
  15. Heartening Laugh
  16. Maneuver
  17. Melee Weapons
  18. Mystic Pursuit
  19. Shield Bash
  20. Speak Language
  21. Steel Thought
  22. Tactics
  23. Thread Weaving
  24. Tiger Spring
  25. Unarmed Combat
  26. Wood Skin
  27. Wound Balance
Journeyman:
  1. Astral Sight — This is generally a Journeyman talent for non-Spellcasting Disciplines.
  2. Battle Bellow
  3. Blood Share
  4. Cold Purify
  5. Crushing Blow
  6. Disarm
  7. Earth Skin
  8. Fire Heal — I prefer to keep this as a Journeyman talent unless exceptionally appropriate. It also falls in the “greatest hits” category.
  9. Graceful Exit
  10. Inspire Others
  11. Iron Constitution
  12. Lasting Impression
  13. Leadership
  14. Life Check
  15. Lifesight
  16. Lion Heart
  17. Momentum Attack
  18. Power Mask
  19. Resist Taunt
  20. Second Attack
  21. Spot Armor Flaw
  22. Steely Stare
  23. Temper Flesh
Warden:
  1. Burning Vigor
  2. Champion Challenge
  3. Chilling Strike
  4. Critical Hit
  5. Defensive Posture
  6. Eagle Eye
  7. Echolocation
  8. Ethereal Weapon
  9. Lion Spirit
  10. Rally
  11. Relentless Recovery
  12. Resist Pain
  13. Safe Thought
  14. Spirit Strike
  15. Storm Shield
  16. Thought Link
  17. Unflinching Fortitude
  18. Vine Armor
  19. Vital Strike
Master:
  1. Aura Armor
  2. Multi-Strike
  3. Second Chance
  4. Soul Aegis
  5. Stone Skin
  6. Vicious Wound
  7. Vital Ward
That’s way too many talents! Which is typically how this goes. Now comes the process of pruning the talents that don’t fit. Master tier is the only one with less than its allotment of talents (11). This is also typical and a lot of talents from Warden get pushed up to Master.

Let’s start with Novice and make some easy cuts:
  • Acrobatic Defense — A defensive talent, but not a good fit for the general concept.
  • Air Speaking — I like the idea of giving them secure communication, but this doesn’t feel like the right fit.
  • Battle Shout — Applying penalties is great, but this feels too overtly aggressive for a primarily defensive Discipline.
  • First Impression — There are other social talents more appropriate for a steady character like this.
Moving to easy cuts for Journeyman:
  • Battle Bellow — Same fate as Battle Shout even as it has group support built in, which I like.
  • Cold Purify — The battlefield medic role isn’t inappropriate, but cuts are necessary and this is an easy one.
  • Inspire Others — I like to limit access to this talent and I think this Discipline has other things to do.
  • Lasting Impression — Social, but it fits best for Disciplines with a traveling feel to them.
  • Leadership — This Discipline probably isn’t going to be the type to command soldiers.
  • Power Mask — It’s a fun idea to slip under the radar, but cuts are needed and this isn’t a great fit.
Here’s Warden’s easy cuts:
  • Chilling Strike — Not the right fit.
  • Critical Hit — Too much focus on offense.
  • Ethereal Weapon — I don’t see the mystic themes enough to support this, nor the focus on using a weapon.
  • Spirit Strike — Same as Ethereal Weapon.
  • Vital Strike — They need their Recovery Tests for healing if they’re going to protect their allies as intended.
Finally Master:
  • Multi-Strike — I don’t think they need this particularly.
  • Vicious Wound — Not a great fit.
Where does this leave us now?

Novice:
  1. Anticipate Blow
  2. Avoid Blow
  3. Awareness
  4. Conversation
  5. Danger Sense
  6. Distract
  7. Empathic Sense
  8. Etiquette
  9. Fireblood
  10. Guardian’s Service
  11. Heartening Laugh
  12. Maneuver
  13. Melee Weapons
  14. Mystic Pursuit
  15. Shield Bash
  16. Speak Language
  17. Steel Thought
  18. Tactics
  19. Thread Weaving
  20. Tiger Spring
  21. Unarmed Combat
  22. Wood Skin
  23. Wound Balance
Journeyman:
  1. Astral Sight
  2. Blood Share
  3. Crushing Blow
  4. Disarm
  5. Earth Skin
  6. Fire Heal
  7. Graceful Exit
  8. Iron Constitution
  9. Life Check
  10. Lifesight
  11. Lion Heart
  12. Momentum Attack
  13. Resist Taunt
  14. Second Attack
  15. Spot Armor Flaw
  16. Steely Stare
  17. Temper Flesh
Warden:
  1. Burning Vigor
  2. Champion Challenge
  3. Defensive Posture
  4. Eagle Eye
  5. Echolocation
  6. Lion Spirit
  7. Rally
  8. Relentless Recovery
  9. Resist Pain
  10. Safe Thought
  11. Storm Shield
  12. Thought Link
  13. Unflinching Fortitude
  14. Vine Armor
Master:
  1. Aura Armor
  2. Second Chance
  3. Soul Aegis
  4. Stone Skin
  5. Vital Ward
We’re looking good at Warden and Master, but Novice and Journeyman still have too many. Again, very normal and why many lower tier talents get pushed up — they’re a good fit as a whole, but there are better fits earlier. Also, there are at least two more talents that need to be cut since the total is two over. And I want to create at least one new talent for them — they should have some Master capstone since I cut Multi-Strike and the remaining talents don’t feel significant enough — which is at least three talents to cut.

Let’s look at moving some of the Warden talents to Master, since it needs more to be filled out and inevitably things will be pushed to Warden.
  • Champion Challenge — I solid thematic fit, but perhaps something they’re better suited for later.
  • Eagle Eye — Perception at a distance is less conceptually important for this Discipline and could be cut overall.
  • Echolocation — A better fit than Eagle Eye on the whole, so it’s unlikely to be cut, but it could be pushed back.
  • Safe Thought — Another good, thematic talent around protection, but could be available later due to the lack of a mental or mystic theme.
  • Thought Link — It’s a difficult move, but this is in a similar situation to Safe Thought and can be moved to Master.
This cleared up space in Warden for Journeyman moves; though cuts still need to be made.
  • Astral Sight — I like it, but I’m kicking it back further. It may end up cut entirely, but not yet.
  • Crushing Blow — This could be moved, but I’m going to sit on it here for now.
  • Disarm — This is getting cut. It’s a decent fit and made it through the first round, but this Discipline doesn’t have the right feel for it.
  • Lifesight — An appropriate talent, but it could be pushed back to make space.
  • Momentum Attack — Another good candidate to be moved back a tier.
  • Resist Taunt — Appropriate for the Discipline, but a better fit for Warden.
Now onto Novice:
  • Empathic Sense — Generally better as a Journeyman talent anyway.
  • Maneuver — This is probably going to the chopping block at the end of the day.
  • Mystic Pursuit — Better suited for Journeyman here.
  • Speak Language — Cut.
  • Steel Thought — More appropriate at Journeyman.
  • Tactics — Another good candidate to be pushed back a tier.
Let’s evaluate how things look now:

Novice:
  1. Anticipate Blow
  2. Avoid Blow
  3. Awareness
  4. Conversation
  5. Danger Sense
  6. Distract
  7. Etiquette
  8. Fireblood
  9. Guardian’s Service
  10. Heartening Laugh
  11. Maneuver
  12. Melee Weapons
  13. Shield Bash
  14. Thread Weaving
  15. Tiger Spring
  16. Unarmed Combat
  17. Wood Skin
  18. Wound Balance
Journeyman:
  1. Blood Share
  2. Crushing Blow
  3. Earth Skin
  4. Empathic Sense
  5. Fire Heal
  6. Graceful Exit
  7. Iron Constitution
  8. Life Check
  9. Lion Heart
  10. Mystic Pursuit
  11. Second Attack
  12. Spot Armor Flaw
  13. Steel Thought
  14. Steely Stare
  15. Tactics
  16. Temper Flesh
Warden:
  1. Astral Sight
  2. Burning Vigor
  3. Defensive Posture
  4. Lifesight
  5. Lion Spirit
  6. Momentum Attack
  7. Rally
  8. Relentless Recovery
  9. Resist Pain
  10. Resist Taunt
  11. Storm Shield
  12. Unflinching Fortitude
  13. Vine Armor
Master:
  1. <<Capstone>>
  2. Aura Armor
  3. Champion Challenge
  4. Eagle Eye
  5. Echolocation
  6. Safe Thought
  7. Second Chance
  8. Soul Aegis
  9. Stone Skin
  10. Thought Link
  11. Vital Ward
Things are looking pretty good. Warden needs another talent and Journeyman has too many. This Discipline is going to be shield-focused and likely wear some heavy armor. Which means low Initiative — and I put the Initiative bonus at priority 3. However, they really need to have at least a decent Initiative to do their thing. To that end, I want to give them a Journeyman Initiative replacement, but those currently in existence don’t fit. Which means a custom talent and I need to cull three talents from Journeyman.

Journeyman:
  • Crushing Blow — You’re getting moved to Warden to emphasize this isn’t a damage dealing Discipline.
  • Graceful Exit — Not an easy cut, but we’re beyond easy cuts. This Discipline is less about running away and more about a last stand allowing their allies to escape.
  • Mystic Pursuit — Like other mystic talents, this one simply doesn’t fit when push comes to shove.
This closes out our talents. Next step is assigning Discipline talents. Before that, an aside about Discipline talents and the talent “tree” structure.

There’s a decent chance you’ve read this from me before, or read parts of it. We’ve seen three different, official methods for Discipline advancement. First and Second Edition had a tree where two or three talents were available at each Circle (except First) and you had to pick one. Classic used this as the default and introduced the talent option system as an optional rule. Third and Fourth Editions use the talent options system with “Using All Talents to Advance” as an optional rule, which retrofits the advancement table for First Edition onto the talent option system. This is likely the most popular system in Fourth Edition, but it creates some weird results.

Ultimately, I think all three of these options are various degrees of not great for different reasons. The 1E system creates the illusion of choice from beginning to end, and some of the choices are terrible. A random example: Sixth Circle, do you want Disguise or Missile Weapons? You have to take one. Next Circle (Seventh) is Detect Weapon and/or Throwing Weapons. Did it get mentioned Throwing Weapons is a Discipline talent that shows up so very late? This scheme is awful and I do not understand the logic behind how it’s arranged. However, it does have choices. Not necessarily good ones, but it does have them.

The talent option system of 3E and 4E has required talents, which may rub some players the wrong way. I put a lot of effort into the Discipline talents of 4E to ensure they’re good choices and should fit the Discipline regardless of the direction. However, nothing is perfect. Using All Talents to Advance largely fixes this, but can also produce characters who don’t really look like their Discipline, but are the product of using the Discipline to create some specific build. It also means some talents are unintentionally gated because they’re Discipline talents from a higher Circle. So a less appropriate talent is available earlier because of the Discipline talent structure. Some talents are deliberately gated because of intentional advancement, but this system doesn’t discriminate between them.

Which brings us to the hybrid, “alternate advancement” system I proposed as an alternate rule. I like it because it takes the best of all worlds, providing a structure that requires talents core to the concept of the Discipline, while giving considerable freedom in what talents the character takes as Discipline talents to advance. It allows for deliberate gating, but removes unintentional gating. Since talents chosen for Discipline talents (rather than those required) have to be a new talent, it also reduces the ease of multiple Disciplines. I’m not actively discouraging the practice, but I think it should be a little more difficult and encourage more breadth rather than allowing characters to really focus. This has the knock-on effect of making Versatility more useful as a low-cost option for doing the same thing. Assuming you’re just after some talents.

There are other changes I want to the structure, but these are deeper cuts and really require a new edition to implement. The end result would be toward more clarity of “Discipline identity,” but also more freedom to explore within those boundaries.

With that exceptionally long digression out of the way, let’s proceed. I’m going to collect the most appropriate talents from each tier, then divide them up by Circle.

Novice [8]:
  1. Anticipate Blow
  2. Avoid Blow
  3. Awareness
  4. Danger Sense
  5. Guardian’s Service
  6. Melee Weapons
  7. Thread Weaving
  8. Wound Balance
Shield Bash and Tiger Spring are also good choices here, but the above are better and there are only eight spots.

Journeyman [4]:
  1. <<Custom Talent>>
  2. Life Check
  3. Second Attack
  4. Temper Flesh
There are plenty of good choices here and Second Attack isn’t the most appropriate. However, it needs to be gated, so it appears on the list. Steel Thought might be better than Temper Flesh, but I wanted Steel Thought to be available early and Temper Flesh to be gated slightly. This is betraying the weaknesses inherent in the system.

Warden [4]:
  1. Defensive Posture
  2. Rally
  3. Relentless Recovery
  4. Unflinching Fortitude
The focus for many Disciplines at Warden are more generic options since so many of the talents build on earlier talents. For example, Storm Shield and Vine Armor require Wood Skin and Shield Bash respectively. However, there’s no guarantee an adept took either of those, so they cannot be Discipline talents. This causes the curious effect where a Discipline with one as a Discipline talent (e.g. Warrior and Vine Armor) learns it at a later point and with Using All Talents to Advance, it means they can even use that talent to advance. Effectively making it a Discipline talent.

Master [3]:
  1. <<Capstone>>
  2. Aura Armor
  3. Soul Aegis
Next is assigning these to discrete Circles. The first concern is deliberate gating which can be for power reasons (e.g. Second Attack) or to keep access more on par with established Disciplines. With talent options, this doesn’t always work out. After that, I prefer to alternate talent types as appropriate to give a little variety in advancement. Along with this comes a sense of building complexity and competency. Lead characters through what it means to be an adept of the Discipline and put the complexity at an incline and avoid frontloading it.

First Circle Discipline Talents: Avoid Blow, Awareness, Danger Sense, Melee Weapons, Thread Weaving (Sentinel Weaving)
Second Circle Discipline Talent: Anticipate Blow
Third Circle Discipline Talent: Wound Balance
Fourth Circle Discipline Talent: Guardian’s Service

Fifth Circle Discipline Talent: <<Custom talent>>
Sixth Circle Discipline Talent: Temper Flesh
Seventh Circle Discipline Talent: Life Check
Eighth Circle Discipline Talent: Second Attack

Ninth Circle Discipline Talent: Defensive Posture
Tenth Circle Discipline Talent: Rally
Elevent Circle Discipline Talent: Unflinching Fortitude
Twelfth Circle Discipline Talent: Relentless Recovery

Thirteenth Circle Discipline Talent: Aura Armor
Fourteenth Circle Discipline Talent: Soul Aegis
Fifteenth Circle Discipline Talent: <<Capstone>>

There’s two talents to write and three Discipline abilities to create. I’m not going to do all of this and create a finished Discipline because this is only intended as a demonstration and otherwise people would try to use it. Which really isn’t what I’m going for here.

The first talent is an Initiative replacement talent to enable Anticipate Blow, but I want it to be defensive in nature. Here’s a first draft:

Protector’s Reflexes
Step: Rank+DEX
Action: Free
Strain: 2
Skill Use: No
Keywords: Defensive. Exclusive. Karma. Replacement.
The adept is preternaturally aware of the unfolding conflict and uses that knowledge to evade rather than press the attack. This calmness and mental state allows them to overcome hindrances when properly harnessed. The adept substitutes their Protector’s Reflexes Step for their Dexterity Step when making their Initiative test, suffering penalties as normal, as well as applying any other bonuses to Initiative (e.g. Discipline bonuses). This result is compared against Difficulty 10 and the adept gains +1 Physical Defense per success until the end of the round against opponents with a lower Initiative.

If the adept is in the Defensive Stance, they don’t suffer Initiative penalties from their armor or shield. Successes on Initiative can only be spent on the talent and its knacks.

This builds on the idea of being a defense-oriented Discipline, using heavy armor and a shield, while also going fast to control or react to the battlefield more readily. Testing is required to know if the effects are too good, or not good enough.

Important Attributes

At this point, let’s go back and figure out the important attributes. Below is an occurrence count for each attribute in the Discipline talents:
  • Dexterity: 6
  • Strength: 1
  • Toughness: 2
  • Perception: 3
  • Willpower: 3
  • Charisma: 1
Here is a similar count for talent options:
  • Dexterity: 4
  • Strength: 3
  • Toughness: 5
  • Perception: 6
  • Willpower: 5
  • Charisma: 8
We don’t know the capstone talent — and we won’t — so this will have to be good enough. Applying the math I suggested earlier gets us this:
  • Dexterity: 8 (6+2)
  • Strength: 2.5 (1+1.5)
  • Toughness: 4.5 (2+2.5)
  • Perception: 6 (3+3)
  • Willpower: 5.5 (3+2.5)
  • Charisma: 5 (1+4)
This is a fairly balanced distribution, which is good and means a variety of different approaches and Namegivers can be successful. While the talent options change things, they don’t change the frontrunners from the Discipline talent count, which is good. The important attributes are: Dexterity, Perception, and Willpower.

Discipline Ability

Next, I’m going to put together a draft of a potential Journeyman Discipline ability.

Sentinel Stance: As a Free action for 1 Strain, the adept may adopt the Sentinel Stance — a variation of the Defensive Stance. Sentinel Stance appears different for each adept based on their training and personality, but always appears purely defensive. Perhaps the adept moves loosely as though flowing with water, or takes a rigid position and appears forged from steel. They make a Sentinel Weaving (10) Action test. Each success reduces the penalties from Defensive Stance by 1 until the end of the round. This ability must be used when Defensive Stance is announced.

This ability further develops the idea Sentinels spend their time in Defensive Stance, working with their custom talent. The ability gets better over time, roughly reducing the penalty by 1 each tier. Or the adept can spend Karma to get a little more out of it. It could be too powerful, but that requires actual testing rather than white room guessing to figure out.

I’m leaving the capstone talent and other two Discipline abilities unwritten for the aforementioned reasons of having this be deliberately incomplete. Also, it’s very long.

Karma Abilities

With things coming together, I’m going to do a first draft on Karma abilities. These can see a lot of revision to get them just right. Given how different this Discipline is, this could be difficult.

Third Circle Karma Ability: Recovery tests
Fifth Circle Karma Ability: Once per round, any test when in Defensive Stance
Ninth Circle Karma Ability: Once per round, any test when adjacent to an ally in combat
Eleventh Circle Karma Ability: Once per round, any test performed by an adjacent ally

This list clearly shows what they’re about, but it’s also fairly limited and the back half requires them to be around their allies. Which doesn’t support the concept of them standing alone against the tide. It’s a decent place to start, but it needs more work. One option is to build out how many times they can spend while in the Defensive Stance. This furthers that angle, but it’s not terribly interesting and doesn’t say anything new about them.

Karma Ritual

A difficulty here is this Discipline isn’t action based. It’s defensive and reactive. Which means there isn’t as natural a way to close out the Karma ritual as other Disciplines. However, there are numerous ways to approach this.

The adept stands stoically, feeling their feet planted to the ground. They hear, see, and smell everything around them. Their senses extend through their feet into the ground so they can feel everything around them. Each movement is tracked as a potential threat and the adept assesses them, slowly working through the area. Once they are completely aware of their surroundings and all potential threats after 30 minutes, the ritual is complete and this supernal awareness leaves with it.

Half-Magic

Finally coming back to half-magic, I have a better idea of what this Discipline is about.

Sentinels use half-magic when caring for and repairing their weapons and armor, and knowledge of various military, mercenary, and bandit companies. They also use half-magic to perform basic first aid, such as staunching bleeding. This doesn’t heal damage, but prevents things from getting worse.

Hopefully this gives a better understanding of the various processes and thoughts that go into designing a new Discipline. If it doesn't, I'm at a loss as to what will.