Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Written by: Richard Baker (Matthew Sernett, Frank Brunner)
Nine martial styles to turn the swing of a warrior’s blade into the stroke of an artist’s brush. Book of Nine Swords marked a major departure in the eyes of players from the traditional combat experience. That alone made it one of the most contentious Wizards of the Coast releases of the 3.5 era. Then, it was cited as an early example of how 4th edition would play out. What can a book that made up the middle ground of the edition wars bring to your 3.5 game?
When Tome of Battle – Book of Nine Swords was initially released, I expected a book that could flesh out my preferred role, the warrior. Any time I attempted to browse through it left me confused and uninspired. As time passed and a controversial reputation formed, my expectations changed. There had to be something more to this book for so many to sing its praises while seemingly as many ritualistically burned it.
At a Glance
Eric Polak’s cover epitomizes the Book of Nine Swords: An opportunity to demonstrate what this book is about is used to mediocre effect. The cover’s format is the profile window used mostly by the Complete series, and the character profiled is generic. Mostly, we see a warrior’s shoulder and back, which are mostly obscured by a plain black clock. He wields two blades, one of which ripples with electricity. The blue electricity and similarly shaded wrist guards are the only colours that stand out among the earth tones. As will be discussed, the book’s big sell is maneuvers that allow warriors to defy physics and dominate the battlefield. This character’s pose does not strike me as someone who is about to turn a tide of chaos or perform a bonesplitting strike. The electricity looks more like a shocking weapon property rather than a supernatural swing of the blade that captures a bolt of lightning. If I were to speculate on this character’s class, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a ranger. He is wielding two weapons, has a bow slung over his shoulder, and is wearing light armour with a leaf-motif. If he were an elf or a half-elf, maybe he is a forest-themed fighter. As a human, he has to be a ranger, or a rogue who just killed a ranger and is using his stuff. While there are options for the ranger in the Book of Nine Swords, there is no rang analogue among the three new base classes. This cover does not put the book’s best foot forward. I would speculate that the layers of nonspecific choices are the result of a missed art deadline and WotC had to use the template of another series’ cover and a piece of emergency art. Comparing this book to the Tome of Magic supports my theory. However, the character on the cover appears in virtually all chapter headers, often alongside a similarly dressed dwarf. Because of this cover, The Book of Nine Swords does not start well.
The interior art and layout are outside of the 3.5 style and colour pallet. Gray tones dominate, and shading is minimal in Kalman Andrasofszky’s many pieces, and Wayne England’s chapter headers are darker in tone with rawer characters. At the risk of sounding unable to accept something different, I feel the pieces that are more in line with the art in other 3.5 books do a better job demonstrating the maneuvers. Instead of presenting a new idea in a new style makes it harder to relate to than a new idea in a familiar style.
Bringing More to Melee
There comes a point where the best option for a warrior is to set up a full attack scenario and never leave it. The effectiveness of the tactic is undeniable but the dynamics of a mobile encounter with interactive battlefield elements is lost. Years into the game, rare was the option that trumped standing in one place and rolling as many D20s as possible. The Book of Nine Swords deals with his problem. Maneuvers are special actions a character can learn and then use once an encounter (or more with the Sudden Recovery feat) that open up new tricks for melee characters. Swift and immediate actions add variety to what a warrior can do in addition to a full attack, and other maneuvers effectively trade multiple attacks for extra damage and an effect, as well as the freedom to dedicate a move action to positioning. Boosts are quick bonuses or strategic actions, usually swift actions so they can be performed in conjunction with a full attack or a strike. Quicksilver Motion is a boost that lets you perform a move action (such as moving your speed, drinking a potion, etc) as a swift action. Cloak of Deception is a supernatural maneuver that as a swift action works like greater invisibility until the end of your turn. Counters are immediate actions that let you actively defend yourself or gain a measure of revenge when hit. Zephyr Dance adds a +4 dodge bonus to AC that can be used after an attack is successful to try to turn it into a miss. Moment of Perfect Mind allows you to make a Concentration check instead of a Will save. Strikes are attacks, used as standard actions or full round actions, that inflict additional damage and apply conditions or grant benefits. Death Mark is a supernatural maneuver that deals 6d6 fire damage to a creature you hit as well as an area of effect based on its size. Hamstring Attack deals 1d8 Dexterity damage and reduces a target’s speed. Stances are fighting styles that grant ongoing minor abilities or actions. Shifting Defense lets you make a 5 foot step as a free action whenever you are attacked, using up your attacks of opportunity in a round. Strength of Stone grants immunity to critical hits.
Easy to Insert
Integration is the biggest problem subsystems present. They insert a new set of rules into the game that core sourcebooks do not contend with an that the DM and potentially other players must learn. Book of Nine Swords is the mostly easily inserted 3.5 subsystem. Maneuvers are mostly accessible to the three new base classes, but the martial stance and martial study feats (both of which can be taken multiple times) are non-restrictive ways for non-martial adepts to gain access to maneuvers and stances, including higher level maneuvers and stances. A non-martial adept has an initiator level equal to half his character level, meaning the higher level a character is when he takes on of the feat, the higher level maneuver or stance he can learn. A fighter can spend his feats on a maneuver and stance or two, gaining tactical flexibility.
The three martial adept classes -the crusader, the swordsage, and the warblade- have more access to maneuvers, naturally, but not so much that they overwhelm an uninitiated DM. The crusader has access to three of the nine disciplines, only knows four stances and 14 maneuvers by 20th level, seven of which he can use in a round. The warblade has access to five of the nine disciplines, only knows four stances and 13 maneuvers by 20th level, seven of which he can use in a round. Essentially, even at near epic level, a DM does not have to worry about a deluge of bizarre rules overloading his game. If you are hesitant to allow the Book of Nine Swords into your game, a good compromise is to disallow access to counters, as they can be slightly more trouble than the other types of maneuvers and upset the flow of combat. The swords sage has access to six of the nine disciplines, knows six stances and 25 maneuvers by 20th level, twelve of which he can use in a round. Again, for the hesitant DM, this is the one class that can overwhelm you with new rules. Otherwise, what the maneuvers do is plainly written and, outside the desert wind and shadow sun disciplines, are extraordinary abilities.
An easily overlooked new use for Intimidate amplifies the skill’s usefulness in combat. A duel of wills is an opposed intimidate check with potential bonuses depending on who wins. Intimidate is already a common class skill for warrior classes and an appropriate one. The more uses for the skill, the more warrior are justified investing ranks in it and not dumping Charisma.
Intimidate is not the only skill of interest to martial adepts. Each discipline adds a skill to your class skill list, and many maneuvers use skills creatively. Not just physical skills either, like Tumble and the Desert Wind discipline or Balance and the Iron Heart disciple. The Diamond Mind discipline finds uses for Concentration, a skill normally reserved for casters.
Book of Nine Swords is overrun with options with that do not justify what they do. It is not for lack of flavour. I would say this book emphasizes flavour. However, flavour is meant to complement the rules and ground them in reality. Where does that 1d6 damage to a 30 ft radius come from? It was a fireball. Why can he move before and after his attack and I can’t? Because he learned to spring attack.
The maneuvers in the book of nine swords allow characters to perform actions that feats cannot contain. Comet Throw blows your target 10 backwards and deals 4d6 extra damage.
Some are explained but still difficult to comprehend. When you hit with the Stone Bones strike, you gain DR 5/adamantine for 1 round. The flavour talks about how you focus you energies and you attune your mind and body to be incredibly resilient, but there are still a lot of questions left unanswered and lines do not connect. The most common, as in stone bones, is how does the cause trigger the effect? How does hitting a target make you shrug off attacks? What is it about missing the target that leaves you vulnerable?
Stone Bones is just an example of a maneuver that could have been better explained. It is hardly the worst. That would be Crusader’s Strike, an extraordinary ability where divine energy surrounds your weapon, healing yourself and an ally within 10 feet when you successfully hit a target.
If this were temporary hit points, it would be reasonable. Temporary hit points represent a character ignoring wounds because he is inspired. His wounds are still there, he is still bleeding and full of arrows, but he can fight on. Crusader’s Strike does actual healing – wounds close, bleeding stops- without divine intervention (because it is an extraordinary ability) or dressing of a wound.
Vampiric touch is a popular core spell with a similar effect, but the spell’s name explains why the target is damaged and the caster healed. Crusader’s Strike could have been the name assigned to any of a thousand effects. Now not every option is as self-explanatory as vampiric touch so perhaps the description of the maneuver explains the cause better.
“Divine energy surround your weapon as you strike. This power washes over you as your weapon finds its mark, mending your wounds and giving you the strength to fight on.”
The flavour text contradicts the rules. It reads like the supernatural ability this should be, and does not address the most confusing part of the maneuver: how does it heal an ally within 10 feet?
The flavour in Book of Nine Swords fails to do its job, and this is a problem that stars with the title. What are the nine swords? Not really anything.
Confusing Terminology and Organization
A hurdle that must be overcome designing a subsystem for a game so far after its release and as supported as 3.5 D&D was by Book of Nine Swords’ 2006 release is finding establishing the vernacular out of language that does not already apply to other rules. Consider the edition’s first subsystem, psionics. Psionics does not have spells, it has powers. You don’t cast powers, you manifest them. These important key words ease reference and distinguish the subsystem from the core rules.
The way in which Book of Nine Swords manages this hurdle could best be described as “flat on its face”. Spells are to maneuvers as magic is to nothing. There is no single word that describes what this book is all about. The good-idea-poor-execution reference in the introduction emphasizes how poorly organized the terminology is:
“Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords describes a system of special combat “spells” know as the Sublime Way, the Nine Disciplines, or blade magic. Here are some of the salient terms and facts you will need to be familiar with as you peruse this book.”
Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of nine swords. At best, Sublime Way is a good nickname for this system, but not explicit enough to be its name. It would be like calling making the Dazzling Arts. Blade magic is a misnomer as maneuvers are mostly extraordinary abilities. The etymology of Sublime Way and blade magic are never explored or defined. The Nine Disciplines is in so much as it is consistent with the number of disciplines in the book. It would be like calling magic the Eight Schools and leave it at that. Martial Power is also occasionally used outside the reference index and might be the most accurate of the names used. It is a major problem conveying a concept when that concept has no name.
The nine disciplines are named, but with an adjective-noun formula that make them feel arbitrary (mentioning that each discipline has different regional names does not help firm the idea that these are the best names). When you talk about schools of magic, they all have single word names that directly describe the theme tying the spells of that school together. Evocation. Illusion. Necromancy. Without knowing anything about the discipline, what types of maneuvers would you expect from the diamond mind? What about stone dragon? Which discipline would you expect to generate fire, desert wind or setting sun? Most of the names offer only hints to what makes that discipline unique, and there is no sense that any conceivable maneuver could only fall into one of these disciplines and only one. Given that only one of the energies is accounted for (fire, in the desert wind discipline and not the setting sun), there is at least room for acid, cold, electricity (as the cover indicates) and sonic disciplines, or that a discipline could have been devoted to energy in all its forms.
One of the more consistent key words is maneuvers. Without a doubt, when you are using Sublime Way/blade magic/Nine Disciplines/martial power, you are initiating manuvers. Maneuvers are made up of boost, counters, strikes, and stances. Sort of. Whether stances are a type of maneuver or another aspect of martial powers goes back and forth. The reference index lists them as maneuvers but defines them separately. The new core classes have maneuvers known and stances known. A non-martial adept class gaining access to martial power can select boosts, counters, or strikes with the martial study feat but stances with the martial stance feat. Yet instead of listing maneuvers alphabetically followed by stances listed alphabetically, maneuvers and stances are mixed together and listed by discipline. It would be a bit like if spells and magic items were listed together. Think of how much more tedious character creation becomes if you have to read past all the Necklace of Fireballs on your way to finding the description of Neutralize Poison.
Weapons of Legacy is not a good book. Even still, it seems like a good idea on the surface to stat out the titular Nine Swords as weapons of legacy, magic items of such renown they improve as their owner increases in level. Unfortunately, the Nine Swords that supposedly tie the Book of Nine Swords together are a weak in concept and superfluous in execution. Each of the nine disciplines has a set of associated weapons, including non-swords. Outside of the 20 pages dedicated to nine swords of legacy, there really is little mention of the significance of the title.
Each class and prestige class receives the long form entry of the time, including a sample encounter, is also a niche use of the space. Cutting some of that material in favour of alternate class features, another base class, or more maneuvers and feats would have been nothing but space better spent.
It isn’t hard to see how this book polarizes fans. I have never sung the praises of a book so highly and then crucified its shortcomings so severely. BOOK OF Nine Swords feels like it should have been about fantasy martial arts. An early sidebar indicates that may have been what it was going for, as does the repeated use of the word ki without any connection to the monk class. If that was the book’s intention, not including a martial adept monk analogue base class was unfortunate but not surprising. This is a book full of poor thematic choices, with flavour that makes good mechanics seem bad.
Book of Nine Swords’ influence on 4th edition is evident, but that is not all together bad. One of my biggest complaints about 4E is how every class (pre-Essentials) followed a strict mechanical formula and implemented a management of limited resources. I shy away from classes that limit my use of abilities per day, so there was never much of a chance I would convert, but I did ponder if the mechanics behind all 4E classes could make one interesting 3.5 class. Book of Nine Swords shows that yes, 3.5 is that flexible.
The inevitable 4E comparisons aside, ultimately Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords is a solid list of options if you can wade through the mess that is its presentation.
Date Released: June 2011
Date Reviewed: August 2006