As I write this, my younger son has gone to his first day of preschool. Friends, this is an exciting day – the most important milestone of my life as a stay-at-home dad until my older son can safely handle a lawnmower. Sure, I said I’d be reviewing an adventure this week, but I changed my mind when faced with more writing time. Instead, I’m covering the Book of Nine Swords, which may be the most anticipated entry in the whole History of the Fighter, if the comments section up to this point is any measure.
Book of Nine Swords
This book describes itself as D&D inspired by wuxia and martial arts films. It’s not a new Oriental Adventures, though – instead, it’s aiming for a more stylized combat dynamic. It gets there by dividing the fighter into three classes, which draw on the titular nine fighting styles. These fighting styles package their content in maneuvers and stances. At least in format, these are all but indistinguishable from spells. If you’ve ever argued that everyone in 4e D&D fights like a spellcaster (because of the format of powers), well, that started here.
That’s the longer-term importance of this book, of course. If you’re looking for a missing link between 3.5e design and 4e, this is it. Up to this point, fighter-like classes rarely had any concept of a per-encounter or per-day attack option. Maneuvers are encounter powers, plain and simple, though there are also mechanics to recover some maneuvers during combat. That this goes on to inform the 5e Battle Master is, well, self-evident.
The nine fighting styles aren’t available to all three classes; nor are they distributed evenly. I don’t plan to cover each maneuver and stance in detail, because that would take many more articles, but I’ll say a few words about the styles as we go through them.
The first of the three new classes is the crusader, a non-spellcasting concept of a paladin or blackguard within the Bo9S framework. Maneuvers and zeal, basically. In playstyle, it’s a lot more like a different approach to the Iron Heroes armiger class.
- d10 HD.
- 4 + Int modifier skills; the skill list is sort of odd for a paladin-flavored class. They get Balance and Jump but not Climb or Swim? I’m not sure what story this is trying to tell.
- +1/1 BAB, like you’d expect.
- Good Fortitude, poor Reflex and Will saves.
- Proficiency in simple and martial weapons, armor up to heavy, and shields.
- They learn a modest number of maneuvers (starting with 5 and scaling up to 14); much fewer than swordsages, one more than warblades. They’re the only class to use Devoted Spirit style. Everyone gets Stone Dragon, and they share White Raven with warblades.
- They have an unusual style of readying maneuvers (which, in case this isn’t obvious, parallels preparing spells): they prepare 5 (which eventually scales up to 7), but can’t use all of them at the start of an encounter. Instead, they randomly select 2 (scaling up to 4) that they can use, and another maneuver becomes available from their prepared list at the end of each turn. Think of it as a weird deck-builder, I guess? They must discard their hand and redraw when their draw pile is empty.
- I’ll go into more detail on this later, but Devoted Spirit is the particularly zealous style, themed around all the things you’d expect a paladin to do. Stone Dragon is about strength, immovability, and crushing things to death. White Raven is the precursor of the 4e warlord.
- They also learn a few stances, starting with 1 and scaling up to 4.
- Steely Resolve is a major part of this class’s unique and weird mechanics. When they take damage, they store up to a certain amount (starting at 5, scaling up to 30) in a reserve pool. They empty that reserve pool and actually suffer stored damage at the end of their turn. In the meantime, this pool fuels their Furious Counterstrike feature. Conditions and special effects bypass this feature entirely.
- Furious Counterstrike grants a bonus to attack and damage rolls for every 5 points in their Steely Resolve pool. (1 point in your pool grants a +1, but you don’t get a +2 until you have 10 points stored.) Devoted Spirit style offers a lot of healing options, so a good bit of your gameplay involves taking a bunch of damage during your off-turn and hoping to heal it before your next end step. You’ll probably have a complicated relationship with Stone Dragon’s damage reduction options.
- Indomitable Soul parallels (and doesn’t stack with) a paladin’s Divine Grace feature – you add your Cha bonus to Will saves.
- Zealous Surge lets you reroll a saving throw, 1/day.
- Smite works exactly like a paladin’s Smite feature, but without any restrictions on the target’s moral fiber. You get one smite per day at 6th level, and a second at 18th
- This suggests a story where a whole order of paladins have been declaring people evil, heretical, or whatever because their smites work. Turns out they were just crusaders all along, when a single true paladin (presumably the PC) shows up…
- Die Hard is a bonus feat for you, granted at 10th It’s a good fit for their damage-absorbing playstyle.
- Mettle is “Evasion but for Fortitude and Will saves.”
Other than being in favor of absorbing damage for their Furious Counterstrike feature, it’s hard to make definite statements about how a crusader (or any other Bo9S class) will work at the table, just as any two spellcasters of the same class might have nothing in common. At least with sorcerers and wizards you can probably guess that they’re good at dealing damage (even if they mostly do other stuff), but that’s not a given for any two crusaders. Their granted/withheld maneuvers would be an interesting mechanic for a whole game’s approach to combat (to characterize tactical openings). On the other hand, you’ve got to pick your maneuvers with an eye toward usefulness in almost all situations, or you could get stuck with a trash hand for awhile, and that maneuver will just keep coming back.
I never played or DMed for any Bo9S classes, so I don’t have firsthand evidence of how well this or any of these classes work. Steely Resolve looks annoying and fiddly – a common enough issue with 3.5 design, but especially showcased here. Other than that, it’s interesting to look at this and imagine a paladin constructed more like a Battle Master, perhaps blending Channel Divinity with Combat Superiority somehow.
I probably don’t need to explain, like at all, that this is a kensai concept. It’s a lightly-armored weapon-using martial artist – thematically a monk, but mechanically nothing like it at all. Enlightened stabbing, not your run-of-the-mill kind of swording! They’re also a fair approximation of high elf Swordmasters from Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, which I loved.
- d8 Hit Die. If you want to be sturdy enough to front-line it, you’ll need to look for substantial mitigation from your maneuvers.
- 6 + Int skill points, with a skill list suggesting physical and scholarly training. Part of what’s going on there is that each discipline has a key skill that they need to pour skill points on.
- +3/4 BAB. I’m going to have to call this a weird choice. I’ll never forgive 3.x for requiring +1 BAB for Weapon Finesse, and thus screwing over rogues, bards, and now swordsages. Light armor, no shield? You need to spike Dex and Wisdom (for a feature I’ll get to in a minute). Oh, but you either need Strength, or you need to wait until 3rd level to get Weapon Finesse (as the class expects you to do, yay, feat taxes). Multiple attribute dependency is awful here, but hey, at least it accurately resembles the monk!
- Poor Fortitude, good Reflex and Will saves.
- Proficiency in simple and martial melee weapons, and light armor.
- They learn a lot of maneuvers, starting at 6 and scaling to 25, and ready a lot of maneuvers, starting at 4 and scaling to 12. They also learn more stances than other Bo9S classes.
- They’re the only class to get Desert Wind, Setting Sun, and Shadow Hand access. They share Diamond Mind and Tiger Claw with warblades, and as noted, everyone gets Stone Dragon. Stone Dragon can let them tank, but otherwise we’re looking at dedicated strikers.
- They can reassign their readied maneuvers with 5 minutes of meditation. They refresh their maneuvers at the end of an encounter, or by spending one full-round action per maneuver (if for some reason they need to recover in-combat).
- Quick to Act grants them a small scaling bonus to initiative rolls.
- Discipline Focus is a recurring feature name that grants new stuff at 1st, 4th, 8th, 12th, and 16th For each appearance of it, you choose one of your disciplines and gain a thing appropriate to that discipline.
- At 1st level, it grants Weapon Focus in your chosen discipline’s weapons.
- At 4th level, you add Wisdom to your damage with that discipline’s strikes (one of its types of maneuvers).
- At 8th level, you add +2 to your saves while in your chosen discipline’s stances.
- At 12th level, you add Wisdom to your damage with a different discipline’s strikes.
- At 16th level, you add +2 to your saves while in a different discipline’s stances.
- Starting at 2nd level (1st level is a miserable hellscape for swordsage survivability), they can add their Wisdom bonus to AC while wearing light armor and not wielding a shield. Did I mention they’re monk-adjacent?
- Sense Magic at 7th level lets them detect and identify magic in weapons and armor. I’m glad to see them get something that isn’t just more combat bonuses.
- Evasion at 9th level does what it does.
- Improved Evasion at 17th level, again, does what it does. Seeing same-name-same-effect features show up across multiple classes is one of the things I sort of miss as an element of 3.x design, because it becomes easier to learn and grasp chunks of rules.
- Dual Boost at 20th level lets the swordsage use two boost maneuvers simultaneously. (“Boost” is one of the types of maneuvers.) You could think of it as Quicken Spell but for maneuvers. They can do this 3 times per day.
The core of the swordsage class doesn’t say a whole lot about playstyle or party role expectations. That’s not really surprising – the 3.x wizard doesn’t tell us anything about playstyle or party role. All of that is stored in the maneuvers or spell list, and there’s just not much to see in the core. They don’t make party leaders, since they can’t use Devoted Spirit or White Raven. They have tons of ways to be strikers, and while they may not be as great of tanks as crusaders or warblades, they can get there.
I’m not going to have a clear picture on whether or not I like what swordsages are doing for a couple more chapters. There’s no getting around the first two levels of gameplay just being terrible, since you’re supposed to go big on Dex and Wisdom, but… no Weapon Finesse until 3rd. I remember a lot of 3.x rogues being nigh-unplayable until 3rd or 4th level, too… and turning nigh-unplayable again once everything was immune to Sneak Attack at mid-high level. But I digress.
This class is the fighter or barbarian angle on using maneuvers. The flavor text talks up a big war-and-glory game and a lot of physical perfection, but the mechanics don’t speak to that at all. Instead, the mechanics show us a different fighter/barbarian blend (no rage, but Uncanny Dodge). Since I find the default flavor tedious, I’m happy with this arrangement.
- d12 Hit Dice.
- 4 + Int skill points, with some weird choices in the skill list. Ride isn’t in-class. Diplomacy is. I have no idea what story this is trying to tell.
- +1/1 BAB.
- Good Fortitude, poor Reflex and Will saves.
- Proficient in simple and martial melee weapons, up to medium armor, and shields but not tower shields. Medium armor isn’t as terrible in 3.x as it is in 5e (where it’s a consolation prize at best), but still, buying Heavy Armor Proficiency at some point might be a good idea.
- They learn fewer maneuvers than the crusader or swordsage, starting with 3 and scaling to 13, but they use their maneuvers with less restriction than the crusader and recover them more easily than the swordsage. It costs them a swift action and one round of making a standard melee attack or doing nothing in order to recover all of their readied maneuvers, so they’ll have a lot of non-maneuver rounds over the course of play. They can also reassign all of their readied maneuvers with 5 minutes of weapon drills, similar to the swordsage.
- Warblades draw on five disciplines. They share Diamond Mind and Tiger Claw with swordsages, they share White Raven with crusaders, everyone gets Stone Dragon, and Iron Heart is unique to warblades.
- They learn up to 4 stances. It’s weird that they’d learn fewer stances than swordsages, given their 20th-level Stance Mastery feature, but I’ll get to that.
- Battle Clarity at 1st level patches their poor Reflex save by letting them add their Int bonus to Reflex saves. They start out with Reflex saves potentially as good as someone who does get good Reflex saves, but get worse over time because they aren’t pouring ability score improvements into Intelligence. This seems like a waste.
- Weapon Aptitude lets them buy feats that have fighter levels as a prereq, as though they were fighters two levels lower. You can also reassign the weapon you’ve chosen for Weapon Focus, Weapon Specialization, and so on, with 1 hour of work once per day.
- The first part of this feature obviously doesn’t do anything until 3rd level, or in a more practical sense 6th
- The second part of this feature should have been a standard part of the fighter.
- Uncanny Dodge at 2nd
- Battle Ardor lets you add your Int bonus to crit confirmation rolls. Literally no one misses crit confirmation rolls. At least it’s nominally paying you for a strong Intelligence score again.
- Bonus feats at 5th, 9th, 13th, and 17th. Many of the bonus feat options are new in Bo9S.
- Improved Uncanny Dodge at 6th
- Battle Cunning at 7th level lets you add your Int bonus to damage against flanked or flat-footed foes.
- Battle Skill (oh look, they brought out the thesaurus!) at 11th level lets you add your Int bonus when you defend against an enemy’s bull rush, disarm, feint, overrun, sunder, or trip attempt. I love modest, rarely-appearing, easy-to-forget bonuses. Game design!
- Battle Mastery at 15th level lets you add your Int bonus to attack and damage rolls for opportunity attacks.
- Stance Mastery lets you run two stances simultaneously. It’s 20th level, so sure.
I am no fan of the Battle (whatever) features here. They’re fiddly bonuses to reward you for having a third or fourth good ability score; if you’re using the standard array, that’s probably starting at 12 or 13, so a +1 bonus. I don’t think they rise to the level of creating a narrative – they all sort of amount to “a fighter that is good at fighting.” There’s nothing wrong with this class, except that 3.5 needs you to feel great about improving the math of things that only come up every once in awhile.
Disciplines and Maneuvers
I’m skipping a lot of this book’s content, but this is the only other part that seriously informs fighter class design. I want to briefly characterize the nine disciplines. There’s every reason to see them as a potential nine character concepts, even if Bo9S doesn’t spin them that way. The Venn diagram of which classes can use what is fairly involved, but each maneuver includes every class that can use it and its maneuver level (a 1-9 scale just like spells).
One of the big things here is that maneuvers play with the action economy in intricate ways. For example, a lot of maneuvers are full-round actions to use, and include movement and one attack (with a lot of extra effects) as part of what it does. The point here is that the iterative attack model (where you lose all but one attack if you move that turn) looks awfully stale by the time this book is in the works, and they’re reaching toward the minor/move/standard economy of 4e.
- Desert Wind is a fire-themed speedster and AoE damage-dealer. Trailing fire behind them is a big part of their visual aesthetic. (Remember, they’re modeling wuxia here – strong visual aesthetics are king.)
- Devoted Spirit is about zeal, paladins/blackguards, healing, auras, and smiting your foes. Charge attacks are a big deal here, as is healing yourself or others through righteous asskicking. At the top end, this includes a heal for yourself or an ally within 10 feet.
- Diamond Mind reads like it’s a psychic warrior, with lots of mental effects coming from weapon strikes. I have to admit that the different jewel-toned nightmare blade maneuvers sound awesome as hell, never mind what they do.
- Iron Heart wants to be the least magical of the disciplines, the most purely about weapon-based beatdowns. It has the most in common with the Martial power source classes of 4e. It’s basically fine; it helps that there aren’t several other disciplines or classes trying to say the same thing in a slightly different way. (I felt this was a major issue for martial classes in 4e.)
- Setting Sun is the aikido of disciplines, waiting for an opponent to attack and turning the attack against them. It also goes deep on throwing your enemies around.
- Shadow Hand is, unsurprisingly, the stealth and assassin-themed one. Wuxia ninjas, big time. If you want to play a sinister swordsage with creepy shadow powers, Shadow Hand is here for you. Some of the maneuver names (five shadow creeping-ice enervation strike) might go a bit more over-the-top than other disciplines. There’s a ton of sympathy with the original 4e assassin, and there are probably still some ideas left to mine for a 5e rogue or fighter subclass.
- Stone Dragon has come up a lot already, but it’s a straightforward big-damage, big-mitigation discipline. It’s all about strength and hardness, resulting in solid tanking potential.
- Tiger Claw is a beast-themed striker discipline. It should play about like a feral animal, maybe one played for several years now by a Mr. Hugh Jackman. (And Jean Valjean is Stone Dragon, probably – monstrously strong, literally the worst thief in the history of crime).
- White Raven is so warlord-based that “White Raven” shows up in some 4e warlord attack powers. My only problem with it – as with the actual 4e warlord – is just how many power names are technically synonyms of one another, leaving them semantically null. The flavor text passage (here and in 4e) are painfully samey.
I love the themes here, and I’d love to see more of these carried forward (with renaming and reworking for tonal consistency) into 5e. Some time back in Harbinger, I experimented with an expanded list of maneuvers for Battle Master fighters and Martial Adepts to pick from, and I wouldn’t be sorry to see WotC or a DM’s Guild writer do much the same with Bo9S disciplines.
The rest of Bo9S isn’t especially salient to the History of the Fighter, but I have to admit that several of the prestige classes sound rad. I’m not slowing down long enough to figure out if they’re good – I’m over a decade out of touch with serious 3.x theorycrafting anyway. I would have loved to have seen a D&D setting that revolved around disciplines and the stories of these prestige classes. Considering how much WotC’s 5e content strategy draws on older D&D lore, I guess it’s not out of the question that a new setting might do just that someday.
In so many ways, this book aims at the same target as Arcana Evolved’s ritual warriors and all of Iron Heroes’ classes. It hits the mark better than either – the maneuvers are more evocative and meaningful than the ritual warrior’s rites, while the gameplay loop is more manageable than most IH classes. Next time in the History of the Fighter, I’ll cover 4e. Don’t worry, Pathfinder and 13th Age will still get full coverage in some later article.