12 January 2022

Earthdawn 4E: Musing 05 — Creating Discipline Variants

This is the fifth 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 is the first 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.

Discipline Variants

I introduced this concept in The Adept’s Journey: Mystic Paths with Boatman, turning them from what was a semi-racial Discipline into an Air Sailor variant. There’s a few reasons behind this decision. The first is eliminating racial Disciplines. Quite frankly, I dislike them immensely and they perpetuate the idea everything needs a Discipline. Whatever the concept is, the answer is a new Discipline.

Part of it is also I don’t like locking some concepts behind “race,” which begets this weird racial essentialism. And humans can still learn the talents unless the special text “this talent cannot be learned through Versatility” which was rife in Cathay. As the designer, I get it. However, it’s also a cop out without a reason for it to be limited in this fashion. These are problems which can be solved within the context of the setting and it makes perfect sense. It also feels much less like Versatility is being singled out for reasons.

Leaving that Paths-related digression, introducing a new Discipline is a big deal to me in the context of the official material. My personal work is a different story and very much me conducting experiments and research intended to eventually come back to official material in some way. It’s a big deal because I’m committed to supporting that Discipline throughout the run of 4E. If we revisit an Adept’s Way-style book, it will have all 17 Disciplines represented within. It doesn’t take long for this commitment to be cumbersome, but I don’t want to leave someone who is playing a new Discipline in the cold when it comes to new material. This is also why I have no interest in regional Disciplines when venturing throughout the Empire.

Which brings us back to Discipline variants, which are represented in different regions as the way that Discipline is practiced in the area. The core concepts of Air Sailor are still applicable when on a riverboat — it’s about being on a boat and traveling with your fellow crew. Some of the details need to change to adapt to the new theme, but it’s still quite recognizable. Soon to be introduced in Vasgothia, Marauder is a Sky Raider variant which is true to core concepts of aggression, strength, and power. It just trades the skies for the Deep Forest or Caralkspur Mountains.

What’s key here is the variant is still thematically linked to the original Discipline. In the cases of Air Sailor and Sky Raider, I think of them as core Discipline concepts with Air Sailor and Sky Raider as two expressions. This is because most Disciplines represent fairly big tent concepts with a lot of space underneath. Those two are quite specific — but bring a lot of flavor with that specificity. It just gives more opportunities for variants.

Looking at other Disciplines for variants is more complicated because of how broad they are already. This concept immediately brings Discipline specializations from previous editions to mind, but there’s some deliberate reasons I specifically didn’t use that terminology. The biggest is they aren’t the same and I want to put space between those easy comparisons with what they’re called. These shouldn’t be a more specialized version of an existing Discipline. The talent option structure in Fourth Edition along with the Using All Talents to Advance optional rule basically do everything specializations did. A big part of them was switching out the Discipline talents which changed what you could spend Karma on. This is no longer a concern. I also redesigned the talent structure with the original specializations in mind found in The Adept’s Way to account for the different directions, making them accessible out of the box. I didn’t pay the same favor to the specializations found in Kratas: City of Thieves because they’re silly at best. Far too many are just dumb, to put it kindly.

To summarize where we’re at right now, Discipline variants should have the same core theme of the original Discipline, but some crucial difference that makes the original Discipline not work correctly. This shouldn’t be a case of just talent access based on what already exists, there should be a fundamental inability. The Karma abilities and Discipline abilities should stay the same. A name change or slight modification to fit better are fine, but getting into wholesale changes means you’re looking more into a homebrew Discipline or Path. Changing those is a fundamentally different Discipline in this scheme.

If Using All Talents to Advance isn’t being used and someone wants to switch things around in a way that would be otherwise possible with the optional rule (i.e. they’re not trying to get higher Circle or tier talents earlier), work with them to make an easy variant that makes sense with their description of it.

You can point to my recent Air Sailor variant, Venturer, as an example where I changed their First Circle Karma ability as an example of how I broke this rule. There’s two reasons for that. One, there was no way to turn it into an equivalent of being on a boat. Two, I like it a lot more than the Air Sailor Karma ability and would retroactively change it to be the Venturer ability if I could. It’s a better fit for what the Discipline is about once you remove the air sailing trappings and look at how it functions. It makes it less of a vocation and more thematic, representing their role within the group. Also, it removes that weird situation that bothered me when I first looked at it and thought, “Why are Air Sailors on their airship the best alchemists?” But it wasn’t worth worrying about and I didn’t have a better answer at the time.

Half-magic, the example Karma ritual, and suggested artisan skills should absolutely change to reflect the variant. These three are expressions of what it’s about and the half-magic shouldn’t be exactly the same. Similar — probably. But not exactly the same. Since the Karma ritual is only an example, I always encourage writing new examples, particularly when how the variant relates to their Discipline changes. Also to discourage people who see these not as example Karma rituals, but as the set-in-stone Karma ritual, just like the essays presented in The Adept’s Way are the only interpretations of a given Discipline. These are example perspectives and anyone who says otherwise is objectively wrong. The two types of Thief presented are just the two types according to that Thief.

When I talk about themes for a Discipline, I typically mean not only what they do, but how they do it. This is to make them more than just the most efficient collection of abilities to do what they’re about. It gives a crucial feel to how they do things and holes in what they can do. While this is mostly relevant to designing a Discipline, it’s relevant here because there might be some alterations to those themes. For example, Boatman loses access to Air Dance because they don’t have an air theme anymore, being replaced by a water theme (which Air Sailors lack). Sailors arguably have both air and water themes, but I played more into the air theme because without it, they’re dead in the water. Which is merely the medium on which they operate.

With that, let’s look at designing an example variant to showcase how this works. A Warrior variant for people who want to play a more social, leader-oriented Warrior in favor of a dedicated combatant. I’m specifically picking this because it’s not something I want to formally put out there — this can largely be achieved through talent options — but something someone might want and it is actively less combat-oriented than the typical Warrior. Which is a low bar. The lowest bar.

Looking at the basics — important attributes, Karma ritual, artisan skills, and half-magic — I don’t see anything that needs to change. A formal write-up would get a different example Karma ritual that doesn’t rely on Air Dance and is focused on seeing the battle play out in their mind, then engaging in that. Everything else is perfectly fine.

Now comes the part where we start looking at the guts of the Discipline (talents) and seeing what we want to add, move, and remove. Distract and Tactics stand out from the Novice talent options as more appropriate to this variant than normal and I want an additional social option. First Impression isn’t a good fit — the theme is wrong. However, Conversation suits the more deliberative style of a Warrior. Etiquette could also stand to be earlier here. Which means cuts.

Looking at Novice talent options, Fireblood and Missile Weapons are the easiest to remove, followed by Acrobatic Defense. I’m hesitant to pull Missile Weapons since it limits their options considerably, but it’s on the table right now. Air Dance is going to be moved from Novice to Journeyman. Honestly, this should be a Journeyman tier talent and I agonized over that. Even putting it to Third Circle as it’s traditionally been available at First Circle was quite the move at the time, fearing alienating the fanbase. Waterfall Slam could follow suit, but it generally plays well as a support talent for the rest of the group to capitalize on, so that’s staying. Maybe getting moved to Journeyman tier. We’ll see.

Journeyman talent options have two easy talents to cut: Second Weapon and Swift Kick. They don’t support the concept as well as others and additions require removals. Leadership needs to be a Discipline talent and the best candidate for demotion is Temper Flesh; it’s less iconic and thematic than Earth Skin. One option is a direct replacement of Temper Flesh, making Leadership the Sixth Circle Discipline talent. The other is bumping Earth Skin to Sixth Circle and making Leadership the Fifth Circle Discipline talent. Since I want to generally reduce the number of changes, I’m doing the first. But the second clearly crossed my mind and you may have a different opinion on how to do this at your table. Which is great — you do you.

I’d like to find space for Diplomacy and Empathic Sense somewhere. Either Air Speaking or Thought Link would also be nice to fit in. Heartening Laugh, Inspire Others, and/or Resist Taunt may be good, but I don’t think I’m going to find the space for them. Also, I don’t want to make it too easy to get access to Inspire Others, as that’s limited to specific Disciplines right now. And a Warrior (even a slightly less fighty one) may have other things to do with their action.

I’m focusing on Novice and Journeyman because that’s where most of the action is with variants. How Warden and Master talent lists are put together is generally less flexible and the talents worth focusing on are at the lower tiers in terms of establishing a different feel for the Discipline.

Here’s a summary of what we’re currently looking at [with a note on lowest tier]:

  • Add:

    • Air Speaking [Novice] (?)

    • Conversation [Novice]

    • Diplomacy [Journeyman] (?)

    • Empathic Sense [Journeyman] (?)

    • Heartening Laugh [Novice] (?)

    • Inspire Others [Journeyman] (?)

    • Resist Taunt [Journeyman] (?)

    • Thought Link [Warden] (?)

  • Move:

    • Air Dance (Novice to Journeyman)

    • Distract (Novice; talent option to Discipline talent?)

    • Etiquette (Journeyman to Novice)

    • Leadership (Journeyman; talent option to Discipline talent)

    • Tactics (Novice; talent option to Discipline talent?)

    • Temper Flesh (Journeyman; Discipline talent to talent option)

  • Remove:

    • Fireblood [Novice]

    • Missile Weapons [Novice]

    • Second Weapon [Journeyman]

    • Swift Kick [Journeyman]

We identified up to seven Novice and Journeyman talents to potentially add and four to potentially remove. That sounds about right. First the easy cuts: Heartening Laugh and Inspire Others. Diplomacy can potentially be pushed to Warden if it needs to stick around at all. I prefer Air Speaking to Thought Link because it builds on the Warrior’s elemental theme. If I want Distract and Tactics as Discipline talents, I need to kick Waterfall Slam to Journeyman. I’m passing on that because Distract isn’t key to the variant concept and it’s not something every group will capitalize on or want.

Here’s how Novice is shaping up:

  • Novice Talent Options: Acrobatic Defense, Air Speaking, Anticipate Blow, Conversation, Danger Sense, Distract, Etiquette, Maneuver, Shield Bash, Unarmed Combat

  • Third Circle Discipline Talent: Tactics

Journeyman looks like this now:

  • Journeyman Talent Options: Air Dance, Diplomacy, Disarm, Empathic Sense, Life Check, Lion Heart, Momentum Attack, Spot Armor Flaw, Steely Stare, Temper Flesh

  • Sixth Circle Discipline Talent: Leadership

I want to fit Resist Taunt in there and Warden is a good place for it. A direct replacement at Warden isn’t going to work, but Vital Strike is the easiest shift here, taking it to Master. I also see Rally and want that as a Discipline talent, which means a little more shuffling. Making Unflinching Fortitude a talent option is probably the best route after weighing options.

Something to consider when shifting talents around is how this affects access to a talent. For example, I could have shifted Unflinching Fortitude and Chilling Strike back one Circle, making Vine Armor a talent option. This means Vine Armor becomes available to the variant as a talent option at Ninth Circle and if Using All Talents to Advance is in effect, it could be effectively the Discipline talent at Ninth Circle. Keep this in mind when designing variants of your own. This is also why Warden and Master tiers are trickier to work with.

At Master tier, Fluid Movement is probably the best option for Vital Strike to replace. While it does support the elemental theme, this variant has a whole new social thing going on and they only need to overcome one of Warrior’s weaknesses.

Warden now:

  • Warden Talent Options: Burning Vigor, Critical Hit, Defensive Posture, Iron Constitution, Lion Spirit, Resist Pain, Resist Taunt, Steel Thought, Storm Shield, Unflinching Fortitude

  • Tenth Circle Discipline Talent: Rally

And finally, Master:

  • Master Talent Options: Champion Challenge, Ethereal Weapon, Second Chance, Soul Aegis, Spirit Strike, Vicious Wound, Vital Strike, Vital Ward

Hopefully this provides some insight on how to make variants of your own.

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