Varieties of martial arts
A martial arts ďschoolĒ is a body of knowledge that, at
the very least, defines a certain style of fighting. Some schools go further by
seeing the martial arts as defining an approach to life in general. The
constant practice rituals strengthen the body and the mind, while the quest to
perfect oneís art holds deeper philosophical truths. Of course, not all schools
are like this; many are purely practical.
A place where a school is taught is known as an academy or
a dojo. It is possible for an academy to teach many schools, if it is
sufficiently large; and it is possible for a school to be taught at many
academies, if it is sufficiently popular. In fact, the largest academies may
churn out dozens if not hundreds of students each year from many different
schools. Most will know only the basics of their art, but the best students
will command knowledge far beyond their peers. At the other end of the scale, a
school without an academy might have only a few wandering masters, who choose
carefully the students to whom they impart their knowledge. Such a school could
be even more famous (or infamous) than one that is taught at multiple
Mastering a School
A martial artist must be at least 6th character level
before she can gain the benefits of mastering a school, even if she manages to
meet the prerequisites beforehand. The benefits accrue once the character has
satisfied all the prerequisites, and spends at least six months training under
the guidance of a master. The training need not be continuous, but any
significant break requires the character to start over at the beginning. As a
rule, this should happen with any interruption longer than a month, or if more
than 50% of the characterís time is spent away from training; however, the DM
has final say on what counts as a significant break.
ďMasteryĒ of a school represents mastering the basic
techniques taught by the school. These are techniques that potentially anyone
can learn, if they complete the required training. At the DMís option, a school
may also contain more advanced learning, reserved for the most exceptional
individuals. Such knowledge would be represented by taking a martial arts
prestige class that expands on the abilities given here, culminating in
grand mastery of a school. You cannot become a grand master simply by
accumulating more martial artist levels (or levels in any other base class) or
by gaining feats. A prestige class is necessary because learning these secrets
takes much more dedication than mastering the basics: if you are to finish the
journey, you canít afford to stray off the path.
A martial artist doesnít have to have studied at an
academy, or attained mastery of a pre-existing school. Many martial artists
learn facets of different schools throughout their careers, mixing and matching
techniques to come up with a style thatís uniquely their own. In the right
circumstances, such a character may be even more dangerous than someone who is
technically a ďmasterĒ.
Creating a School
Here are some guidelines when creating new benefits for
mastering a school. Most of these have been said before in other contexts, but
they bear repeating.
- Donít duplicate the mastery benefits of existing schools. A new school
should have its own flavor as far as possible, although it can be similar to
- Donít duplicate existing prerequisites. Not only does this reduce the
distinctiveness of a school, it makes it easy for characters to accumulate
multiple freebies with little or no effort.
- Donít duplicate unique class abilities. If a character wants to rage or
sneak attack, the best way to do it is by multiclassing to barbarian or
rogue. As far as possible, you should avoid diluting the identities of the
various D&D classes.
- Make the requirements meaningful. If theyíre ones that most characters
would take, theyíre not really impediments to becoming a master ó remember
that mastery is something that only a dedicated character should be able to
achieve. Weapon Focus isnít a particularly onerous requirement for a martial
artist, for example, while Toughness might be.
- Donít make the requirements too obscure. If a school requires skill ranks
in Knowledge (local: Shady Vale), this means only characters from Shady Vale
(or are familiar with the area) could become masters. This may cause
difficulties later on, when characters from elsewhere want to master the
- Aim for a character level of 6th to 8th when someone will be able to
satisfy all the prerequisites. This is when the fighting classes get their
first iterative attack, and the martial artistís dodge bonus to AC increases
to +2. Itís a good break point for representing someone who has exceptional
skill at one style of combat, but isnít (yet) tremendously powerful.
- Not all schools have to be aimed at martial artists. The examples that
follow require feats that only martial artists can take, but you could also
create a school that requires Weapon Specialization or the rage ability. You
could even create a school that requires feats and abilities from two or more
classes, so a prospective master would have to multiclass.
- Feats as prerequisites slant the school toward martial artists and
fighters, even if the necessary feats arenít class-specific. This is because
these classes have the most bonus feats to spare. If you create a school
thatís meant for spellcasters, for example, the number of prerequisite feats
should be reduced to match.
- Itís better to have a powerful ability that can be used a limited number
of times per day, rather than a less-powerful ability that is always
functioning (such as a constant bonus to AC, attacks, or saves). Always-on
abilities are best represented as feats.
Existing Martial Arts Schools
Following are some schools that I've created. Feel free to pick them to
bits, use these in your campaign, fold, spindle or mutilate them into something
completely different, or whatever.
- The Iron Hand -- A school that concentrates
on speed and unarmed combat. It's an example of how the PHB monk might be
treated in terms of the martial artist class and feats.
- The Mountain Spirit -- An "internal"
school, concentrating on the use of ki and magic.
- Intuitive Archery -- Another introspective
school focusing on the art of the bow. It's how I think the Zen archer
concept should have been treated, instead of the eminently tepid Order
of the Bow Initiate that appeared in Sword and Fist.
- The Crimson Blade -- A more violent
swordfighting school that takes the concept of the "will to power" as a
- Ki Swordsmanship -- Flying
warriors, in the Crouching Tiger, Hero and Stormriders
style. It's a beefed-up blade dancer, essentially. Includes an example
- The Flashing Sword -- A style that's
meant to be less overtly Eastern in origin. Like the duelist from Sword &
Fist, but with a more supernatural bent.
- The Way of the Shadow -- A martial arts
style for those who lurk in the darkness.
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