Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How it Works: Tome of Battle

This is the unified “How it Works” section for all the Tome of Battle classes. That’s the Crusader, the Swordsage, and the Warblade.

Tome of Battle is, far and away, the best book WotC has ever released for 3.5, and the one that finally resolves some of the crushing legacy issues that have been haunting melee classes since the beginning, when Fighter was a punishment class for people who didn’t roll good enough stats to be anything else and the wargaming days when warriors were mooks only valuable en masse while casters were leader units with amazing powers.

ToB is, in simplest terms, a book of martial arts. Actual, involved combat techniques that advance with level rather than the same homogenized, “attack, full attack, charge, trip, grapple,” that every melee’r from the kobold mook to the 20th-level Barbarian uses with minimal variation at ridiculous cost.

The linear warrior, quadratic wizard issue- in which a warrior class’s power tends to rise at a constant rate, while a mage’s power increases at an increasing rate- is long established. This is a major problem, because it’s the very definition of unbalanced, other than in a narrow range where the two are comparable in power. Outside of that range, the game breaks; one is overpowered, the other under. In this case, the two are more of less balanced around levels 1-6 and then mages explode.

What’s more, the defined power scale that PCs are supposed to follow is exponential, not linear; characters are expected to double in power every two levels. If you’re expected to be able to take on a T-Rex (a CR8 encounter) at level 8, then you’re expected to be able to take on two T-Rexes (a CR10 encounter) at level 10. A traditional warrior’s linear progression just can’t keep up without really twinking out on an ubercharger or some such. They carry less and less of their share until they may as well not be there.

Tome of Battle comes to this situation and cuts the Gordian knot. It uses mechanics known to keep pace with the power scale- the spellcasting model- and revises them to represent martial combat techniques, actually adding nuance to melee combat beyond, “Find the right place to stand and then spam the one trick I’ve kitted myself out to actually be good at until the fight ends and repeat the process for the next 259 fights until we hit level 20.”

The crux of this system is maneuvers and stances, which have a corresponding level (comparable to spell level) and discipline (comparable to spell school). Just replace “shoot laser beams” with “roundhouse kick” and give the kick appropriate effects, and you’re half-way there.

Stances are exactly what it says on the tin. You take a fighting stance and get some manner of benefit for it. In practice, these are like ongoing buffs that you can switch between as a swift action. Some are fairly simple, like +1d6 melee damage paired with -2 AC or +2 to allies’ will saves. Some are more interesting, like having 5’ steps provoke AoOs or gaining a stacking +1 to hit and damage with each critical hit. Stances tend to be somewhat secondary, as there aren’t a whole lot of them, and even the Swordsage, the class that gets the most maneuvers and stances, only gets six of them by level twenty.

The real bread and butter are the maneuvers, which are various martial techniques. These are split up three ways; boosts, counters, and strikes. Boosts are generally swift actions, and they’re little perks, usually buffs. For example, with Lion’s Roar, after defeating a foe, you can spend a swift action to boost your allies’ morale and grant them +5 damage for the round. Counters are immediate actions that can be used to alter the flow of battle even when it’s not your turn. Shield Block, for example, can be used in response to an enemy attack to grant your shield bonus to an adjacent enemy, protecting them. Then, there are strikes, the most important of the three. These are attacks with some sort of special effect. It may be an attack with a large attack bonus but a penalty to defense, or an attack that smashes through DR, or an attack that strikes multiple targets, or an attack that denies the target attacks of opportunity for a round, or an attack that grants allies a bonus to hit the target for a round, or an attack that grants allies attacks of opportunity against the target, or any number of effects. These are usually a standard action, though some are full-round actions.

These maneuvers are usable at will, with a caveat. You can’t just spam the same maneuver over and over again like a traditional melee type spams their full attack. If you picture a big action scene, maneuvers are the flashy action moves, like the drop kick. Once you do a drop kick, you’re not just gonna do another drop kick and another drop kick; you’re in no position to do so. Thus, after using a maneuver, you have to refresh it somehow to do it again. How that refresh works varies by class.

One important thing to understand is, maneuvers and stances aren’t nearly as powerful as spellcasting. We’re not talking about full casters with warrior skeletons. In fact, in terms of raw power, maneuvers are generally less powerful than the traditional full attack. By and large, they build power outward rather than upward, broadening the melee classes’ horizons while staying true to what it means to be a warrior, particularly in the context of a fantasy world.

More importantly, it breaks the mold of, “Get into position and spam full attacks until something dies,” for every fight forever. Rather, it mixes things up, introduces new effects, forces diversity. Because most maneuvers are standard actions, you’re free to move around without worrying about losing the full attack. Instead of repeating minor variations of the exact same thing, characters gain new techniques every level.

And it adds more desperately needed zots. Consider a single-classed Barbarian. Let’s say this Barbarian is going the path of a front-line two-hander. There’s not a whole lot of differentiation between this Barbarian and any other Barbarian. Things like starting with 16 strength instead of 18 or 20 don’t particularly affect how you operate. Whether you’re a dwarf or an orc, you’re still standing there, raging and full attacking, just with different to-hit values and hit point totals. Skills are rather tertiary. Really, all you have to differentiate yourself from every other Barbarian in the world and do anything different are 1-7 feats, depending on level, many of which will be identical (Extra Rage, Power Attack). That’s it. And if you want to do something other than stand there raging and full attacking, that’s liable to cost several feats. If you want to Spring Attack, that’s three feats. If you want Whirlwind Attack, you’re giving up most of your feats just to eventually do that, and it doesn’t even kick in until level twelve or so. There’s a severe lack of mechanical diversity.

Compare that to, say, a Sorcerer. You can put three enchantment-specialized halfling Sorcerers side by side and they can still function very differently by virtue of their other, fully-functional spells, as well as slightly differing selections within the enchantment school. Deep Slumber and Confusion are very different spells, and if one Sorcerer takes some summoning spells, those spells are not diminished for the effort.

Similarly, Tome of Battle’s maneuver system lets melee characters use diverse and interesting effects by default, with meaningful diversity from level one without requiring six to twelve levels’ worth of feats to get there.

And then, we get to multiclassing. The highest level of maneuver you can use is based on your initiator level. Unlike with casters, this is your initiating level (say, Warblade) plus half of any other levels you may have. Maneuvers known still key off of class level exclusively, but you have a 4th-level Fighter who then takes one level of Warblade, you can learn second-level maneuvers. This makes a structure where you can go all the way to level 20 as a single-classed initiator or multiclass extensively, and either way, you’re not shooting yourself in the foot. This is as opposed to most traditional classes where full casters pretty much never multiclass at all, except for full-casting PrCs, because almost nothing is ever worth losing caster levels over and you’d be shooting yourself in the foot for the effort, while melee classes tend to multiclass extensively because most of them have too many dead or useless levels past the lower levels to justify taking them to level 20 or even level 5. This model could have been a good addition to a better-designed spellcasting system.

This leads into one of the big objections to Tome of Battle classes, in that they replace normal melee classes. Regarding replacement, this both is and is not true for one simple reason. Most conventional melee classes have so few class features that they’re forced to multiclass extensively. Not doing so is often as suicidal as a mage multiclassing extensively at the loss of caster levels. Many conventional melee types take as few levels in base classes as possible, instead escaping to a prestige class that gets actual class features as soon as possible. The last two thirds of most melee classes are already obsolete. Tome of Battle doesn’t change this. In fact, due to the way multiclassing works with Tome of Battle, it can even make more levels in the old melee classes worthwhile.

My biggest problem with Tome of Battle, however, is a lack of material. It gives melee classes all these zots to spend, but there’s not a whole lot to spend them on to the point where a lot of stuff begins to overlap. The PHB has over a hundred pages of wall-to-wall spells. The Expanded Psionics Handbook has about eighty pages, and it’s a bit light. Tome of Battle has less than fifty pages of maneuvers. It could do well with an entire additional supplement, or even the kind of treatment Pact Magic got in Secrets of Pact Magic. It’s really a shame Tome of Battle was just a 150-page lightweight.

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