Tome of Battle PDF Review – Take D&D Melee to the Next Level

By Ken Wai Lau


Tome of Battle PDF

Not a big sword by anime standards, but it’ll do.
Artwork © by Maxa-art

Rarely does a book divide the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 community like The Tome of Battle. Many people say it’s the best book they ever bought. Others think that it is the work of the Antichrist and a boon for the ‘powergamers’ and the ‘munchkins’ of this world.

Another complaint is that the book is too ‘anime’, but that was really the whole point begin with. The book makes no apology for it and even goes as far as citing anime as one of it’s influences.

In short, it was written to challenge preconceived ideas of what Dungeons and Dragons is all about.

While I will make a lot of references to anime in this Tome of Battle review, you could certainly adapt it to Wuxia or cinematic combat in general.

I also make no apologies for saying The Tome of Battle is one of the best Dungeons and Dragons books I’ve ever read. It has it’s problems like any other book, but I have found the content of the book to be very rewarding.

Please note that this review is based on the PDF version of this book, hence the title.

戦いの書なんだ? (Tatakai No Sho Wa Nanda?)

Tome of Battle

At least the book doesn’t promote moeblob anime…
Artwork © by Luis

The Tome of Battle introduces a new form of combat that allows the practitioner to achieve feats of superhuman strength, ability and prowess in combat. Think Matrix or Final Fantasy: Advent Children and you’re pretty much there.

In game terms, the combat system is based on maneuvers and stances. This system shares some similarities to spells in that there are nine levels, nine different schools and may occasionally contain descriptors such as [Fire], [Good] or even [Teleport]. Each maneuver also has a duration, range, area, saving throw and target.

What sets it apart from the spell system is that most of the maneuvers are not magical and therefore generally do not interact with the magic system in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5.

The maneuvers need to be ‘readied‘ before they can be used, but you are not stuck with the same powers for the rest of the day as you can meditate at any time for 5 minutes to ready other maneuvers you know.

You do not ‘run out’ of maneuvers the same way you run out of spells, but each time you use a maneuver, it is ‘expended‘ until the end of the battle. The act of using a maneuver is known as ‘initiation‘.

You also know a certain number of maneuvers per level, depending on the character class you choose and upon reaching every even level from 4th onwards, you can swap out an existing maneuver for a maneuver of higher level. If your character is savvy enough, he can research and invent new maneuvers.

All maneuvers and stances belong to one of nine schools:

  1. Desert Wind – be as swift as the wind and harness the power of fire.
  2. Devoted Spirit –  channel the power of your god in order to fight for your faith.
  3. Diamond Mind – hone your mind to become far sharper than any blade.
  4. Iron Heart – the discipline of the weapon master, becoming one with your weapon.
  5. Setting Sun – turn your weakness into strength and the strength of foes into weakness.
  6. Shadow Hand – studied by elite assassins who draw upon the power of shadow.
  7. Stone Dragon – channel the fortitude and raw power of the earth.
  8. Tiger Claw – awaken your feral instincts and overwhelm your foes with ferocity unmatched.
  9. White Raven – the discipline of the supreme warlord.

Collectively, the maneuvers, stances and disciplines are all part of the same whole: The Sublime Way.

剣の弟子 (Ken No Deshi)

The Tome of Battle introduces three new classes:

  1. Crusader – devoted servant of a god who fights with zeal, fortified by the power of his faith.
  2. Swordsage – a martial artist who takes a scholastic approach to his art.
  3. Warblade – cocksure, sometimes arrogant, warrior who finds exaltation on the battlefield.

As well as these base classes, there are eight prestige classes that make use of the maneuver system in Tome of Battle:

  1. Bloodclaw Master – a warrior who is driven by his feral instincts.
  2. Bloodstorm Blade – a blade master specialising in thrown weapons.
  3. Deepstone Sentinel – a dwarven warrior who can manipulate the power of the earth.
  4. Eternal Blade – elite elven warrior who fights under the guidance of a spirit guide.
  5. Jade Phoenix Mage – a rare path combining magic and maneuvers into a seamless whole.
  6. Master of Nine – wandering master who seeks knowledge of the Ninefold Way.
  7. Ruby Knight Vindicator – warrior priest charged with eliminating enemies of Wee Jas.
  8. Shadow Sun Ninja – an ascetic who has found the balance between light and darkness.
Magic Knight

…Sorry, couldn’t resist…
Artwork © by Mariona

The umbrella term for all these classes is ‘martial adept‘ and each martial adept class gains an ‘initiator level‘ for every class level they possess (for instance, a level 12 Crusader will have an initiator level of 12).

Each of the three base classes can ‘recover’ an expended maneuver during battle and the method of recovery varies depending on the class.

The beauty of this system is that it is open to any class in Dungeons and Dragons. Even if you are not a martial adept, you can still learn martial maneuvers and stances by spending feats to do so. This would allow you to take one of the prestige classes without having to start the campaign as a crusader, swordsage or warblade.

The biggest drawback with this is that you can only learn at most three maneuvers and you are only half as effective as a true martial adept of the same level. You are also unable to recover maneuvers during combat, therefore you would need to manage your resources more carefully.

レガシーの兵器 (Regashī No Heiki)

The history of each martial discipline is tied to a single legendary weapon of great power previously wielded by a grandmaster of the Sublime Way. They are known as the Nine Swords and they play a pivotal roe in the back story of the Temple of the Nine Swords and it’s eventual fall. This event scatters the martial adepts all over the world.

These weapons make use of the Weapons of Legacy rules, therefore if you want to know more about this particular category of magic item, it might be worth purchasing the book. It isn’t needed however, as the Tome of Battle gives you more than enough information to begin using the Nine Swords in your campaign.

Aside from the Nine Swords, the Tome of Battle introduces new magic items into the game:

Martial Scripts are similar to spell scrolls except it allows you to initiate a maneuver rather than cast spells. They can be identified by a knowledgeable student of the Sublime Way. They can also be created by spending wealth and experience points as normal, but you must also have the relevant feat – which is included in this book.

As well as Martial Scripts, the book introduces two new weapon qualities. One grants extraordinary finesse and accuracy when using maneuvers from disciplines keyed to the weapon and the second allows a character to effectively use weapons they are not normally proficient with.

And lastly, the book introduces a wondrous item which bestows upon the wearer knowledge of a single martial maneuver of a discipline that the wondrous item is keyed to. While only one wondrous item is written about in detail, the book also suggests variations of the same item that can be worn on other parts of the body.

善 (Zen)

Tome of Battle

So free you’re almost flying…
Artwork © by Mariona
Parchment background © by Heiko Oertel

Some good things about the book:

  • Anime style combat.
  • Encourages a very dynamic approach to combat.
  • More tactical options for melee classes.
  • Makes melee combat far more enjoyable.
  • Rule of cool.
  • Something for everyone – all classes can dabble with this.
  • Elegant mechanics.
  • Aesthetically pleasing page design.
  • Likely to appeal more to a newer generation of players.

If ever you wanted to emulate the thrilling, high octane combat sequences of your favourite anime or wuxia movie, now you can.

Not only are martial adepts more powerful than the core melee classes, they are also more versatile, carry more skill points, have incredible mobility and are far more interesting to play than your ordinary fighter.

Depending on your character build, you no longer need to worry about provoking attacks of opportunity, so you can buzz around the battlefield rather than remain rooted to one spot as fighters normally are.

I’ve found the best way to play a Tome of Battle class is to try and picture yourself in a combat sequence in an anime, video game or Wuxia movie and move your character accordingly. For example, leap upon a branch and propel yourself off it to attack using the Swooping Dragon Strike.

In short, the tactical options presented in this book allows you to express yourself in combat as you please. It’s melee freedom – that’s probably the best way to sum it up.

That said, there’s no reason why a fighter has be treated like the kid that no one wants to play with. The feat options presented allows the fighter to spend his fighter bonus feats to learn something of the Sublime Way. On top of that, he can also qualify for the prestige classes that are presented in this book, further increasing his maneuver repertoire and combat options.

This is possible for not only the fighters, but every Dungeons and Dragons character under the sun. Some prestige classes will even advance spellcasting progression on top of their own martial maneuver progressions.

The book presents many new feats that are tied to a specific discipline and the Sublime Way in general. Taking a discipline specific feat opens the door to tactical feat options.

As for the book itself, the page design is different to most other D&D 3.5 supplement books out there and the design and art has it’s own distinctive flavour, character and style – which is not anime I might add. The PDF version is bookmarked so it’s easy to quickly find whatever you are looking for and the layout is pretty much as you would expect from any D&D 3.5 supplement.

悪 (Waru)

Tome of Battle

Yup, Wizards can join the fun too…
Character Design © by HitomiBoy
Artwork illustrated by Maxa-art

And now, the not so good:

  • Anime style combat.
  • Lack of complete official errata.
  • Only three new monsters in the bestiary.
  • Renders all but the most optimised fighters obsolete.

So when was the last time you saw Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings soar over a cave troll and lop his head off in a single strike? What about Gimli sending a worg flying 20 feet with a powerful swing of his axe? Or perhaps Legolas operating with movements that cannot be perceived with the naked eye?

It just doesn’t happen – not in Middle Earth where D&D takes it’s inspiration from. Nor in any medieval fantasy setting with knights and castles outside of Japan. In this sense, the Tome of Battle does break the spirit of what Dungeons and Dragons is normally about for most hardcore players, so not everyone will like this book.

Some maneuvers can break a game, depending on how you interpret the descriptions so the book could have done with a complete official errata. The only official errata I found appears to refer to a completely different book and it seems like it hasn’t been corrected since.

As written, any abuse of the rules could be taken up to eleven, allowing you to dispel bad weather with a third level maneuver or slay a Balor in one blow at level 15 (though you’re also likely to die in the process).

If you plan to use this book, it might be a good idea to replace all the core D&D warrior classes with martial adepts and focus on an anime/wuxia centric campaign. If you must use the core melee classes at all, use them as NPCs, cohorts, rank and file, etc.

Lastly, I think more could have been done with the bestiary. With only three monsters included, it’s a pretty poor showing considering I can think of at least one other magic supplement that contains a wider range and variety of monsters. Not that there’s anything wrong with using monsters from the core books or anywhere else, but having more monsters with ties to the Sublime Way would be more consistent with the theme of a campaign built around the Tome of Battle.

お前は剣道をマスターする力を持ってるか? (Omae Wa Kendō o Masutā Suru Chikara o Motteruka?)

Tome of Battle

“Is the Tome of Battle anime enough for *ME*? Now THAT is the real question…”
Artwork © by Maxa-art

So to conclude, while the Tome of Battle is an awesome book that adds many interesting combat options, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Any player who enjoyed his dominance and power over ‘mundane’ classes with his cleric/wizard character are known to be less than impressed with this book – so much so that many churches purged their own crusader orders, according to the history of the Sublime Way.

Joking aside, your acceptance of the Tome of Battle really depends on how open minded you are to books introducing completely new mechanics that are radically different to everything else out there, not to mention how tolerant you are to anime or wuxia.

But for the rest of you who crave a more dynamic approach to melee combat, then this book will be just what the doctor ordered.

For me, Dungeons and Dragons is about legendary heroes who save the world, looking totally awesome while they’re at it. So buy the book and bask in the awesome – until you roll a natural one…

You can purchase the Tome of Battle PDF by clicking here. Alternatively, you can buy the hardcover version from Amazon.

The Tome of Battle PDF

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  1. Moosey March 16, 2014 10:12 am  Reply

    I like the Tome of Battle classes and they do indeed make melee combat more interesting. It also helps melee catch up with spellcasters – just a little bit.

    • Ken Wai Lau March 28, 2014 5:44 pm  Reply

      Depending on how you build your character and which maneuvers you select, I find it easy to blitz a spellcasting enemy. Initiative is key, I’ve found.

  2. Shywolf April 2, 2014 6:17 am  Reply

    I’m not sure about the images used in this post. Yes, Tome of Battle is anime inspire, but that’s not the only influence in this book.

    In fact, I feel that Tome of Battle has it’s own distinctive flavor and feel which isn’t anime in the slightest. I can’t describe to you what it is except say that where magic makes the game seem more fantastic and fairy tale like, maneuvers makes things more hardcore. It’s more extreme form of combat and it just rule of cool in a nutshell.

    I also agree with you the Tome of Battle is one of the best DnD 3.5 books out there.

    • Ken Wai Lau April 3, 2014 6:25 pm  Reply

      The images were simply intended as a light-hearted jab at detractors who snub the book because ‘it’s too anime’. But I agree that it doesn’t have to be the only representation of the Tome of Battle.

      I think I know what you mean. It feels like a completely different setting, doesn’t it?

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