Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords has, unsurprisingly, nine schools of swordplay. These are shared among the three classes, so I’m giving each school a quick rundown here so that I can just reference back here for the disciplines themselves.
The nine schools are Desert Wind, Devoted Spirit, Diamond Mind, Iron Heart, Setting Sun, Shadow Hand, Stone Dragon, Tiger Claw, White Raven. Or as I tend to call them, fire sword, holy sword, sword smart, sword good, judo, shadow sword, hit hard, be angry, and lead good.
Every school has an associated skill which varies in importance from school to school, a list of associated weapons which are more an expression of the school’s aesthetic than they are actually important- you can use Iron Heart maneuvers and stances even if you’re not using an Iron Heart weapon- but they’re relevant for some feats and abilities, and they’re all only available to certain classes, so I’ll lead with that information. Also, since every school has one (and only one) ninth-level maneuver, I’ll talk about that for each school since… well, there’s only one per school.
Now, taking them from the beginning.
Desert Wind: Kill ‘em with fire.
Scimitar, light mace, light pick, falchion, spear
This is one of the three Swordsage exclusive schools and one of the three supernatural schools. It focuses mainly on enhancing your combat abilities with supernatural fire, and is considered the weakest school for one simple reason; everything and its mother is either highly resistant to or outright immune to fire. It’s the most commonly resisted energy type in the game. That doesn’t mean it’s useless, of course. A number of the fire-based maneuvers are quite useful for that extra bit of damage. It’s just not wise to invest too heavily into it.
The ultimate technique for Desert Wind is the Inferno Blast. It deals a flat 100 fire damage in a 60’ burst centered around you, reflex for half. The save DC is wisdom-based. This is an unimpressive capstone maneuver, and highlights a lot of what’s wrong with Desert Wind. Martial adepts really can’t afford to ramp up their save DCs, especially not wisdom-based ones, so everything and its mother is will make that save, and by the time you finally get it, not only is the damage unimpressive (if you’re a dedicated artillery mage and can’t deal at least a hundred damage a shot in an area, you’re doing something wrong), but anyone and everyone who wants immunity to fire can get it pretty easily. Also, it has nothing to do with martial ability, which at least most of the school is better at, with things like the ability to charge at someone and stab them while on fire.
Desert Wind does have some cool stances. Holocaust Cloak inflicts five points of fire damage on anyone who hits you with a melee attack, for example. However, for reasons I’ll get into when I get to Shadow Hand, most Swordsages will probably never use Desert Wind stances in a fight. Which is a bit sad.
As a houserule, I’d suggest allowing the energy type for this school to change to suit the character. Maybe let it deal cold damage or electric damage, or perhaps slashing damage for a character whose swordplay causes ye olde razor wind.
Devoted Spirit: Sword of the God(ess[es])(s)
Falchion, greatclub, longsword, maul
This is the sole Crusader-exclusive school, and it’s what really defines the class. This is one of the three supernatural disciplines, and incorporates a great deal of divine power. Stances and maneuvers from this school tend to revolve around healing, protecting allies, and smiting heathens (though mostly the first two). This school has two first-level stances; one heals two hit points to yourself or an ally any time you strike an enemy, and the other imposes a -4 penalty to hit on any opponent you threaten who tries to attack one of your allies (but not foes attacking you). At the next maneuver level, you can get shield block, which is an immediate action to grant an adjacent ally your shield bonus plus four to AC for a single attack, protecting them, which actually brings up an odd point. Devoted Spirit is a more defensive style, and appears to have sword-and-board very much in mind, but all but one of its favored weapons are two-handed. Granted, most Crusaders would probably just use the longsword anyways, but it’s still odd. I’d probably be open to houseruling in some additional weapons if it ever became relevant, like a warhammer or waraxe for a dwarven crusader.
And for the record, the healing maneuvers/stances only apply when you’re actually fighting an active threat, so you can’t just spam them against a tree to heal up to full after every fight. While they can significantly add to your longevity, none of the healing stances/maneuvers really heal enough to outpace the damage you and your party are liable to take in a serious encounter.
The ultimate technique for Devoted Spirit is the Strike of Righteous Vitality, and it’s probably one of the more useful ultimate attacks. It’s a single standard action attack and if it hits, you gain the benefits of a heal spell for either yourself or a nearby ally. At the level you get it, it’s not about to outpace damage, but it is a lot of healing. Though at that point, a single standard action attack is usually a joke.
Diamond Mind: The Disciplined Discipline
Rapier, shortspear, katana, trident
Diamond Mind is the first school for which its signature skill is actually important. Extremely important. If you take any significant number of Diamond Mind maneuvers, you’re going to need full ranks in Concentration. This is the school of extreme focus and precision, of mind over body and mind over sword.
The most known are probably the three maneuvers that let you replace a save with a Concentration check (though it’s rarely worth taking more than one; they hog readied maneuvers otherwise, and really aren't all that useful in boosting your strong saves). There’s one that lets you make a Concentration check to treat the target as flat-footed against your single standard action attack, a Concentration check versus the target’s AC to resolve a single standard action attack as a touch attack, a Concentration check versus the target’s AC to deal double damage (and before anyone cries broken, do note that you’re forgoing iterative attacks and need to make both a Concentration check and a normal attack roll, both against the target’s full AC), a standard action attack that uses your Concentration check instead of damage (far less impressive than it sounds, actually).
Not every Diamond Mind maneuver requires Concentration, but a ton of the better ones do.
The ultimate technique for Diamond Mind is called Time Stands Still. No, it is not supernatural time manipulation; it’s just fast, precise swordmastery. It allows you to make two consecutive full attacks instead of just one, which can of course be quite deadly, especially if you set it up right. As a technique that amounts to your capstone should be.
Iron Heart: For the swordiest of sworders.
Bastard sword, dwarven waraxe, longsword, two-bladed sword
This is the sole Warblade-exclusive school, and it’s about… swording good. It’s a fairly generic but well-rounded school with both offensive and defensive techniques. Iron Heart maneuvers tend to be more accurate and target multiple foes, but can also damage enemy weapons, allow rerolls, provide a small amount of healing, and parry/counter enemy attacks.
The unifying theme here is very much an aesthetic, that of the tough, determined swordsman tearing through hordes through skill with the blade and heroic resolve, carving your way to a clear leader, taking him on in a duel and ending it with a big, decisive blow (like, say, the aptly named Finishing Move which deals a big pile of extra damage if the target’s at half health).
The ultimate technique for Iron Heart is a thematically appropriate boss-slaying strike. A fitting capstone, but the Strike of Perfect Clarity is a single standard action melee attack that deals +100 damage. It sounds impressive at first, but it’s actually not all that great considering it’s only available from levels 17 to 20. At that point, it’s entirely reasonable to have 30+ strength and a +10-equivalent sword or close to it, among other perks, such that you deal 10d6+20 damage or better on a hit. You have full iterative attacks, so with haste (which you’d likely have at the most crucial moments, at least), that means five attacks that deal an average of 55 damage each, two of which are at your highest base attack bonus, and that’s being fairly conservative. Still, it’s a nice visual raising your sword overhead, giving your battle cry and bringing down that one telling blow.
Setting Sun: It’s judo.
Short sword, quarterstaff, nunchaku, unarmed strike
This is the second of the three Swordsage-specific disciplines, but this time, it’s not supernatural. Setting Sun can best be compared to judo; it is the least direct discipline with a great many throws to rearrange the battlefield as well as a lot of countermeasures to defend yourself with, plus some tactical mobility effects. For example, one of the first-level Setting Sun maneuvers is Counter Charge. If an enemy charges at you, you can make an opposed strength or dexterity check (your choice) and if you win, the enemy’s charge fails as you either evade the charge and they keep going or you forcibly redirect them. If you’re larger than the charging foe, you can get a bonus to the strength check, and if you’re smaller, you can get a bonus to the dexterity check.
For the throws, the standard format goes something like this; you move, make a trip attempt against your enemy with a bonus from the maneuver and if you succeed, they fall prone and you can move them ten feet or so with your throw and (for the higher-level versions) they may take some damage. There can be additional effects. For example, Comet Throw lets you throw your target at another enemy, who has to save against some damage or they also fall prone.
Some of the higher-level maneuvers even let you redirect an attack meant for you towards another target.
The ultimate technique for Setting Sun, the Tornado Throw, basically allows you to move up to twice your speed and make a throw as described above against pretty much everyone you come across, which can really rearrange the field to your advantage. As expected from this school, it’s the least direct ultimate technique, but if used well, it can be very effective.
Shadow Hand: With a name like that, you should be able to guess.
Dagger, short sword, sai, siangham, unarmed strike, spiked chain
And now, the third Swordsage-only school, and the last of the three supernatural schools. Picture an assassin with shadowy magic. That’s this school. It has stealthy techniques, your supernatural movement forms (including short-range teleportation), a few ways to deal ability damage, a couple flavors of “throttle the enemy with dark magic,” temporary invisibility, status effects, miss chance. Lots of fun and sneaky stuff, but it does tend to rely heavily on save-or effects that are utterly unimpressive if the foe succeeds, and Tome of Battle classes are usually very bad at those since they need to boost combat stats instead of things like Wisdom or Charisma that the saves tend to be based on, rendering some of the maneuvers pretty much useless, which is always unfortunate. The school could have done well with dexterity-based save DCs rather than wisdom-based.
Shadow Hand stances are… well, it really doesn’t matter. Most Swordsages are probably going to spend all their time in them regardless of what they do for one simple reason. Shadow Blade. This is a feat that lets you apply dexterity to damage while using a Shadow Hand weapon if you’re in a Shadow Hand stance. This feat is one of the few ways to make a real finesse-based combatant work, or at least one that isn’t rendered useless by the first zombie, construct, plant, ooze, elemental, or critter who just happens to be immune to critical hits. And, since Swordsages tend to need a lot of stats to be rather high, a lot of them end up going the finesse route to alleviate that stress. It’s not that Shadow Hand stances are bad or uninteresting, and this really isn’t a problem with the school itself- quite the contrary, finesse combatants really needed the love- but it does mean Shadow Hand stances tend to get old after a while. Particularly since about half of them tend to be movement modes that you’re not likely to use in combat, that brings it down to about three combat stances that most Swordsages will spend almost all their time in.
The ultimate technique for Shadow Hand is the Five-Shadow Creeping Ice Enervation Strike. Stupid name, mediocre effect. It’s a single standard action melee attack (which, as always, means it needs to be pretty impressive to compare to a full attack) that deals an additional 15d6 damage (average of 52.5, which isn’t stellar at this point) and it has a special effect, which fortitude mostly negates (and due to the save issue stated above, the enemy will probably succeed). The effect is chosen at random, but can be 2d6 dexterity damage and the enemy’s speed is reduced to 0 for 1d6 rounds (nice, but many monsters at that point wouldn’t be hindered by it), 2d6 strength damage and a -6 penalty to attack rolls and Concentration checks (not bad against a melee foe, admittedly, but a melee foe is all but guaranteed to make the save), or 2d6 damage to all physical stats (which is quite nice, but again, the enemy will save). One of the big problems here is that in the level 17+ range, so many creatures are immune to ability damage that this move is oftentimes fairly useless, save for the unimpressive (for the level) damage bonus. I’d say this school is competing with Desert Wind for worst ultimate technique.
Stone Dragon: For when you just need to hit someone really hard in the face.
Greatsword, greataxe, heavy mace, unarmed strike
This is the one school that everybody gets (despite seeming a bit odd for Swordsages), and it’s rather straightforward. It’s all about standing firm and taking the other guy down with brute force. And to that end, I really like the weapon selection for this one; a big, sharp sword, a heavy, brutal axe, a really big stick… or just punch the other guy in the face.
A lot of the Stone Dragon moves amount to, “I hit that putz really hard,” but by and large, the effects aren’t simply, “Normal damage plus Xd6.” They’re actually still interesting, like hitting your foes so hard and in such a way that they’re staggered and immobilized for a round, or you fracture their bones through brute force granting anyone who threatens a crit against them a big bonus to confirmation rolls, or one of the signatures of the school, bypassing hardness/damage reduction. Also, the save DCs against Stone Dragon maneuvers are strength-based, so you’re going to have more reasonable save DCs for your maneuvers than Shadow Hand is liable to get.
There are other moves as well, such as a stance that grants you a constrict ability, significantly increasing your damage in a grapple, or temporarily give you damage reduction, or give you bonuses to/against things like bull rush or overrun (though not to the point of making bull rush/overrun actually, y’know, useful).
The ultimate technique for Stone Dragon is the Mountain Tombstone Strike. It’s a standard action attack that inflicts 2d6 constitution damage if it hits, no save. Now, this does sound impressive at first, but so did Strike of Perfect Clarity. On average, this maneuver deals 7 constitution damage, which is effectively on par with dealing 3.5 damage per hit die the enemy has, so unless the target has well over 30 HD (which is rare even at level 20), you’re worse off than Strike of Perfect Clarity where the extra damage just doesn’t compare to a full attack. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that by the time you get it, a great many enemies are outright immune to ability damage, which comes together to make the move useful in an all-too-slim array of circumstances.
Tiger Claw: I have fury!
Kukri, kama, claw, handaxe, greataxe, unarmed strike
Tiger Claw is the school of savage fury, which has you jumping around and ripping peoples’ heads off. This is the school for the more primal, barbaric techniques. It’s also the only school that gives any real, direct love for dual-wielding, but not much, sadly. A number of Tiger Claw maneuvers are the most damaging attack of their level.
The signature technique for Tiger Claw are the various jumping strikes, where you leap up into the air and come down on them to inflict pain. These tend to require Jump checks made against either a fixed DC or the target’s AC, and if you fail the check, the maneuver fails outright.
The school also has quite a few save-or effects, but the DCs are strength-based, so they’re a little more reasonable. One that really secures this school’s brutality in my eyes is Fountain of Blood. Basically, if you kill someone (or multiple people), you can spend an immediate action to turn it into a grisly display that forces enemies to save or be shaken. Not very good, admittedly, but certainly stylish.
Also, Tiger Claw has a maneuver called Girallon Windmill Flesh Rip. That secures Tiger Claw’s status as awesome. What’s Girallon Windmill Flesh Rip do? With a name like that, it doesn’t matter. (But for the record, it adds a rend attack onto the end of a full attack that deals additional damage based on the number of times you’ve managed to hit the target in the course of a round, to a maximum of 20d6 in the unlikely event that you manage eight hits in one round.)
The ultimate technique for Tiger Claw is… actually rather disappointing. Feral Death Blow. Make a Jump check against the target’s AC, then a single attack. Save or die. On a failed save, you still do normal damage plus 20d6 (70 on average), but death effects are just obsolete at this point; so many enemies are immune to them, and even with strength-based DCs, not a lot’s gonna stand a reasonable chance of failing their save at that level. Oh, and anything immune to critical hits is also immune to the death effect, in case there weren’t already enough enemies that are immune to it already. Also, it takes a full-round action to pull off, so it doesn’t even give the mobility benefits of Strike of Perfect Clarity or Mountain Tombstone. It’s the only literal save-or-die in Tome of Battle, and the book would be better off without it. But most of the rest of Tiger Claw is of far greater quality.
White Raven: Go forth, mine minions!
Longsword, battleaxe, warhammer, greatsword, halberd
Finally, there’s White Raven. What the Marshal wishes it could be. This is the school of commanders and generals, centering on teamwork and supporting your allies. This, of course, means that depending on what kind of allies you have behind you, this school’s power can range from nigh useless to the most powerful school of all.
One of the first White Raven maneuvers, for example, is Leading the Attack. It is… a completely ordinary standard action attack. However, if it hits, all allies get a +4 bonus to attack rolls against whoever you just hit. If you have a lot of party members making attack rolls, that’s great. If you don’t, well, it’s not so great.
White Raven techniques can grant allies extra accuracy and damage, prevent foes from making attacks of opportunity, render targets flat-footed for your allies, allow your allies to move around on your turn, rearranging the battlefield, or even (at higher levels) grant allies an extra attack.
The ultimate technique for White Raven, War Master’s Charge, is like much of the school; it can be either the most powerful of them all or one of the worst depending on what kind of support you have behind you. When you use it, you charge an enemy, dealing an extra fifty damage. Also, every ally within thirty feet can charge your target (assuming all the standard caveats for a charge), dealing an extra 25 damage. Also, you all share your +2 AB bonus for charging, meaning if you have four people charging (yourself included), you all get +8 to hit. If two or more of you hit, the target is stunned for a round. Note that limits in party structure mean you’re probably going to have two or three people (yourself included) in this charge in fairly decent circumstances, and even under excellent circumstances with huge amounts of backup, limits in geometry tend to make it rare to get more than four or five people charging, and that’s assuming you can get them into position in the first place. I point this out because more than once I’ve seen folks arguing that you can use Warmaster’s Charge to get a couple dozen peasants charging a balor to kill the thing, therefore Tome of Battle is the broken, ignoring the fact that getting a couple dozen peasants in charging range of a balor without getting incinerated is a task unto itself and if you've managed it, you've already earned the win, but I digress. War Master’s Charge. My candidate for best-made ultimate technique in Tome of Battle.