The Bladecraft Subsystem
Bladecraft is a subsystem for martial characters, designed to evoke the elaborate and complex dueling tactics used by famous swordsmen throughout history and literature. Examples from recent fiction include the Blademasters from Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time
series (which is the explicit inspiration for the thematics of Bladecraft), the swordsmen of Ironhall from Dave Duncan's King's Blades
series, and the Ademre Ketan from Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles
The core D&D mechanics for melee combat are built around combat feats, which produce relatively repetitive combat rounds for melee characters with few meaningful options. The Tome of Battle supplement worked to alleviate this problem by introducing Initiator mechanics, a martial analogue to Spellcasting comprised of discrete maneuvers with extraordinary effects, based around a core of combat. While the material described in the Book of Nine Swords is an interesting and well-designed subsystem, and opens up a wealth of new options for martial characters, many players disliked the "blade magic"/"wuxia" feeling of the system. It echoed too strongly of "spellcasting-for-fighters", and did little to improve the poor options for core classes, opting instead for replacement.
The Bladecraft system presented here, in contrast, is a direct amplification of the core classes. While Initiators can learn blade techniques just like any other martial characters, they rarely do so, since maneuvers and blade techniques compete for the limited resources in the action economy. Instead, the lowly Fighter is the consummate student of Bladecraft, and can still complement the blade techniques with combat feats which were its original strength.
Bladecraft is an expansion, not a replacement. It is accessible to every class: any character who wishes to participate in melee combat can learn blade techniques by investing skill points in the Bladecraft skill (detailed below). The tag sustem also provides a unique set of mechanics and options, turning each combat encounter from an endless stream of full attacks into an organic and fluid interplay between attacker and defender.Blade Techniques
The primary components of Bladecraft are known as "blade techniques". A blade technique is some useful bit of combat prowess, which can be used to attack, defend, or simply carry oneself in day-to-day life. Note that while the word "blade" is incorporated heavily into the description and mechanics of Bladecraft, it is not restricted to swords or other bladed weapons - with some exceptions (see the section on Tags, below) any melee weapon can be wielded when using blade techniques (though some weapons will be more effective for certain techniques than others).
While blade techniques bear some similarities to martial maneuvers and stances, the philosophical approach to battle between Initiators and masters of Bladecraft is quite different. An initiator sees each round of combat as a discrete unit, and has a number of specific actions that they can take in a given situation. While it is relatively easy to change between different sets of maneuvers, in a given encounter an initiator has access to only a small subset of the maneuvers they know.
In contrast, a student of bladecraft views combat as a continuous progression, flowing from one to the next in an unbroken chain. The blademaster has access to every blade technique they know at all times, but the available techniques in any given instant are determined by the techniques used earlier in the encounter.
While some techniques are particularly effective or ineffective against an opponent who is also using blade techniques, all are quite effective against "unskilled" opponents (i.e., those not trained in Bladecraft). Techniques come in three types:
- Forms, passive techniques which lead into others;
- Assaults, offensive techniques which involve attacking your opponent; and
- Parries, defensive techniques which counter an opponent's attacks and/or blade techniques.
Bladecraft in its entirety is as useful for defense as for offense. The skilled practitioner of Bladecraft will use a variety of Forms, Assaults, and Parries in combat, for to be predictable is to have a very short career as a Blademaster.Learning Techniques & Complexity
Each blade technique has a certain "complexity", which is a measure of how difficult it is to learn and execute. Technique complexity comes in four categories. Basic techniques are the easiest and simplest, and are the first techniques that any student of Bladecraft learns. Techniques of Moderate complexity are more difficult; learning a Moderate technique requires a Base Attack Bonus of +6, 9 ranks in Bladecraft, and knowlede of at least eight Basic techniques.
Advanced techniques are the product of hundreds of hours of effort and training, and are the mark of a Blademaster - casual students of Bladecraft almost never master even a single Advanced technique. Learning one require a Base Attack Bonus of +11, 14 ranks in Bladecraft, and knowledge of at least eight Moderate techniques.
The true pinnacles of Bladecraft spend years of dedication to their art, training against groups of lesser Blademasters, armies of students, and even horrifying beasts to develop and comprehend Expert techniques. Each Expert technique requires a Base Attack Bonus of +16 or higher, 19 ranks in Bladecraft, and knowledge of at least eight Advanced techniques to learn.
To learn blade techniques, a character must have proficiency in at least one martial weapon, and must have at least 1 rank in Bladecraft. A character who wishes to study Bladecraft can learn 4 blade techniques with Basic complexity when their Base Attack Bonus is at least +1, and may learn another technique at every level at which their Base Attack Bonus increases. Additional techniques may be acquired through feats, substitution levels, or by gaining levels in prestige classes; these means are all described in the relevant sections below.
For the mathematically minded, you will notice that simply learning techniques at the base rate of 3 + BAB grants Advanced techniques at level 14, and never gives Expert techniques. True mastery of bladecraft requires a substantial investment of time, effort, and resources to achieve.
While anyone can become a student of Bladecraft regardless of age or experience, those who begin earlier in their career achieve greater heights than those who start later in life. A character who takes their first rank in Bladecraft when their Base Attack Bonus higher than +1 learns 4 Basic techniques, but does not retroactively learn techniques for previously-gained levels in which their Base Attack Bonus increased.
It is recommended that the first four techniques a student of Bladecraft learns include at least one Form, one Assault, and one Parry. However, the only absolute requirement is that one of the four must be a Form; otherwise, the student would not be able to use any other blade techniques, due to tag requirement(s) (see below for details).Blade Styles
Blade techniques of a given complexity are grouped by theme and methodology into collections called Blade Styles. Initially developed as a learning tool, Blade Styles help shape a combatant's decision-making process during a battle, allowing a student to focus on a group of synergistic techniques. However, while these are somewhat similar in concept to Martial Disciplines, there are no restrictions other than complexity on the Blade Styles from which a character can learn techniques.
Blademasters can and usually do switch seamlessly between styles with little difficulty as combat evolves around them. While an outsider might expect each Blade Style to be a self-contained unit, this could not be further from the truth. Blade Styles are a grouping of convenience, and allow Bladecraft teachers to present related concepts as a coherent curriculum. However, each style is not meant to be learned in isolation, but rather to be part of an elegant whole. The ultimate Blademaster knows every blade technique, rather than mastering a particular style to the exclusion of all else. A Blademaster who is not versatile, who cannot change tactics on a moment's notice, soon becomes a dead Blademaster.Bladecraft Tags
Every Blade technique (even a simple one) involves an intricate interplay of combat elements: the combatant's muscles, the weapon and how it is held, the direction and momentum of the body, limbs, and weapon, and how all of these relate to the same factors describing the opponent. Most of these interactions happen below the level of conscious thought, having been trained into a student's habits and instincts. Such training is the essence of Bladecraft: one must transform a slow decision-making process into a fast, evolving dance.
Most blade techniques can only be used when the combatant's combat elements satisfy certain conditions (for example, a powerful downward blow cannot be made when the tip of the combatant's sword is pointed at the opponent's ankle), and the process of using a technique changes the existing combat elements to some new configuration.
From a mechanics standpoint, these factors are encapsulated in a system called "tags". A tag is a description of some aspect of stance or action related to the use of a blade technique. Most techniques requires the user to have some number of tags ("required tags"), which are determined by the previous events in the encounter. Every technique also grants tags upon completion ("granted tags"), which reflect the type of actions (i.e., other techniques) that can follow organically, without disrupting the dance.
The only requirement for a known technique to be used is that the technique's required tags be currently granted to the combatant. Extra tags are never detrimental; however, some techniques have additional effects if the combatant has been granted specific tags beyond the required ones when using them. See the individual blade technique descriptions, below, for details. Note that tags are descriptive, not prescriptive - any specific requirements to use a technique, or specific mechanical effects of using a technique, are specified in the actual technique description.
Tags are divided into four types, based on what combat element they describe. A technique can require a maximum of one tag of each type; however, the number of total tags required or granted by the technique is determined by its complexity. Basic techniques require or grant a single tag, while Moderate, Advanced, and Expert techniques require or grant two, three, or four tags, respectively, at the same time. (Form techniques sometimes grant more or fewer tags; see the description of Forms below, and the individual technique descriptions, for details.)
Gesture tags ([Bash], [Slash], and [Thrust]) describe the type of action that a technique will involve.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Bash] tag involve slamming the edge or flat of your weapon against your opponent with as much force as possible, to knock aside a shield or blast through a parry.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Slash] tag swing the weapon in a wide arc, knocking aside a parry and often using the edge or point to cut deep gashes in an opponent.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Thrust] tag use the point of the weapon to focus power in a small area, relying on control and precision to find the weak points in the opponent's defense.
Hand tags ([Cleave], [Rend], and [Sheath]) refer to the way the combatant grips the weapon.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Cleave] tag are performed when wielding the weapon with two or more hands, for maximum power. A buckler can be used on the off-hand, subject to the normal rules for bucklers when wielding a weapon in two hands.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Rend] tag are performed when wielding two weapons, a double weapon, or a weapon and shield. Bucklers are too small to be used effectively with this tag.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Sheath] tag are performed by either drawing (if required) or sheathing (if granted) the weapon.
Motion tags ([Circle], [Spin], and [Stand]) designate how the combatant moves their entire body as part of the technique.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Circle] tag usually attack a single opponent from multiple directions, forcing the target to follow the combatant's movement and confounding their attempts to dodge and defend.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Spin] tag are used primarily against more than one opponent, allowing the combatant to attack or defend against enemies in multiple directions.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Stand] tag keep the combatant's feet planted, for maximum balance and power through their entire body.
Finally, Position tags ([High], [Low], and[ Middle]) indicate the starting (for required tags) or ending (for granted tags) position of the weapon, with respect to the wielder, the target, or both.
Using Blade Techniques in Combat
- Techniques which require or grant the [High] tag tend to focus on attacking with or defending against overhand blows, or strikes against the shoulder, head, face, or neck.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Middle] tag initiate or defend against attacks to the chest, abdomen, arms, wrists, or hands.
- Techniques which require or grant the [Low] tag attack or defend the waist, groin, legs, or feet, or originate from a crouching or kneeling position.
For a student or master of Bladecraft, combat is a far more complex beast than a common soldier. Attack, defense, stance, and movement all flow from one to the next, reacting to circumstance and optimizing advantage. While this can be complicated for someone new to Bladecraft to track and utilize, the graduated nature of technique complexity is designed to acclimate a combatant to the system slowly. Note: it is recommended that players new to Bladecraft begin at relatively low level, with Basic techniques, to get used to the system.
Unless otherwise specified, blade techniques are extraordinary abilities, which do not require particular concentration or patience to use (e.g., a barbarian can use blade techniques while raging). However, techniques cannot be used while a combatant is helpless or unconscious.
A student of Bladecraft generally enters a Form at the beginning of the day. Whenever you enter a Form (as a swift action), you remain in that Form until you choose to leave it (even once the encounter ends), or change to a new Form. Changing Forms requires a swift action, and you can change into any Form you know at any time. Each Form grants some benefit, as well as one or more tags. The granted tags determine which of the techniques you know are available to you at any given moment, by identifying Assaults and Parries with the required tags that you have been granted. Whenever you enter a new Form, you lose all previously granted tags and benefits in favor of those granted by the new Form.
When you use an Assault or Parry, all tags you had been granted by your current Form, or the previous techniques you had used, are replaced by a new set of tags granted by that technique, possibly with some overlap from the previous set. These new tags determine the techniques you can use after, and so forth. However, you retain the benefits of your most recent Form until changing to a new Form (or until you no longer qualify for that Form, as detailed in the individual Form descriptions below). If you haven't used any techniques since the end of your last turn, you return to your most recent Form at the end of your turn, replacing any existing tags with the tags granted by that Form.
While traveling, Durendal has been in Cat Crossing the Courtyard (a Basic Form from Wax style), carrying a shield on his arm. When his party is ambushed by an ogre, he begins the encounter in that Form, and so is granted the [Sheath] tag. His party is surprised, but during the surprise round, Durendal uses Unfolding the Fan (a Basic Assault from Wax style) to attack the ogre, and loses the [Sheath] tag, replaced by the granted tag of Unfolding the Fan, [Thrust]. When the ogre tries to attack him, Durendal uses The Falcon Stoops (a Basic Parry from Wood style) to damage the ogre, and replaces the [Thrust] tag with [Rend].Bladecraft Resources
On Durendal's turn during the first full round, he has the [Rend] tag, and so uses The Serpent Strikes (a Basic Assault from Wood style), keeping the [Rend] tag and knocking the ogre out. The threat seems to be past, but he is wary, and switches to The Bear Sleeps in Winter (a Basic Form from Cloud style), losing [Rend] and gaining [Stand].
When the ogre's companions, a pair of wolves enraged by the loss of their protector, leap from the trees and surprise the party, Durendal uses Skipping Stones on the Shore (a Basic Parry from Cloud style) to raise his AC against the wolf that attacks him. He exchanges [Stand] for [Slash], and when it's his turn again, he uses Parting the Silk (a Basic Assault from Wax style) against his aggressor, losing [Slash] and gaining [Low]. If the combat continues, he could use Low Wind Rising to change his Form; or, if the wolves seemed likely to flee, he could make a Bladecraft check when using Parting the Silk to retain the [Slash] tag, so that he could use Twisting Weasel against the retreating animal.
What follows is a variety of material which can be used to incorporate the Bladecraft subsystem into your D&D world. The next post contains a description of the Bladecraft skill, a few skill tricks, and a set of feats for students of Bladecraft. This is followed by a post containing a sortable table of all 128 techniques in the 16 core Blade Styles, and then four posts describing the styles and their associated techniques in detail.
The next posts contain substitution levels for many published classes which integrate Bladecraft into their existing mechanics, rules for combining published prestige classes with Bladecraft, and several new prestige classes exclusively for practitioners of Bladecraft. These are followed by a post including some equipment, magic items, spells, powers, and other materials which any student of Bladecraft may find useful. Finally, we end with a post containing connections between Bladecraft and other works of homebrew content.