Rating - 4: useful for any campaign (buy it)
Gaming book: Dungeons and Dragons, 3.5 Edition.
Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords introduces a new combat subsystem, akin to spellcaster levels for melee combat. Characters can learn martial maneuvers in a variety of disciplines, ranging from perfection of movement to strikes of fire and darkness.
Scaling for warriors has always been difficult. At the beginning of the game, fighters have great hit points and feat access, allowing them to deal good damage to single targets all day long; meanwhile, wizards get a few spells before resorting to crossbows, and they are frail men in dresses. Once levels hit two digits, fighters have great hit points and feat access, allowing them to deal about the same damage to a few targets all day long; meanwhile, wizards have a large number of powerful spells that deal massive damage to many targets, and they have protections to match. So fighters start out good and end fair, while wizards start out fair and end game-breaking. The major thing that keeps this from becoming ridiculous is that many campaigns do not make it to the later levels.
The problem is that feats do not scale. Except for Power Attack, few feats do anything different at level 20 than at level 5, so having eleven bonus feats is like hitting level 5 eleven times. Yes, you can use them all day, but the game is designed around four encounters a day, and many like the core Eberron adventures encourage you to use fewer, bigger encounters. The more you can choose how often and under what conditions you fight, the less important that "all day long" thing is.
Martial maneuvers cut the difference between the two. Unlike feats, they are not available for every attack in every combat, nor are they once per day. They are available once per encounter, with some ways to get them back (which mean that you could use the same one every other round all day, at a bit of cost). They are not as devastating as spells of the same level, but they do not face spell resistance and are more available.
Like spells, the maneuvers have levels. A first-level maneuver might allow you two attacks with a standard action. A ninth-level maneuver might add 100 damage or 2d6 constitution damage to a single strike. Other types of maneuvers include boosts (minor buffs) and counters (reactionary abilities).
The last addition consists of stances, those being always-on buffs of which you can have one at a time. Also leveled, they might give you scent or fire resistance or healing when you damage an enemy.
Activating a boost or stance is usually a swift action, and using a counter is an immediate action. The book makes extensive use of swift and immediate actions, moving the mechanic from an after-thought to a valuable and important resource. The addition of swift and immediate (vs. free) actions opened up good design space, and this is the first book Wizards of the Coast that has really run with it.
The book is slim at 158 pages, and almost everything in it is good. It might have benefited from having a little more room to sprawl with the new mechanic like Magic of Incarnum. It does not, however, do what I mocked Incarnum for: we do not have the martial ogre, the martial wizard, the martial iceman, the martial fireman, etc. Okay, we have a bit of that, but it does not feel like we are going through the paces like that.
As usual for gaming books, by chapter:
3 new base classes in 15 pages. The Crusader is the martial paladin, the Warblade is the martial Fighter, and the Swordsage is kind of gish-skirmisher (lightly armored, 6 skill points, exclusive access to the supernatural martial schools). They each fill the warrior role differently, and each has a different way of collecting and regaining maneuvers. I think the Warblade could use more openness in its flavor text; the mechanics of the class would work quite well under a variety of personality types, not just the one lists, and I tend to think of base classes as suites of skills rather than specific paths. The Crusader and Swordsage are more open-ended that way, to my liking. All three are good for a few levels or all the way to 20: good design.
10 pages of feats and skills. The new skills options are weak and little-used in the text. The feats extend the schools of martial arts in specific directions or help you use the book a little with an otherwise core fighter, rogue, etc. This includes nine tactical feats.
10 pages of detail on exactly how maneuvers, stances, and initiator levels work. Good depth, good explanations; the major rules questions have been of the form, "Did you guys really mean it this way?" The book lacks gaping rules holes, which is good.
50 pages of maneuvers. Here is the meat of the book, the way spell descriptions are the bulk of the PHB and items in the DMG. There are nine schools (hence the book's subtitle), and here are all the maneuvers for each. You have more options at lower levels, and higher-level abilities may require multiple lower-level maneuvers as prerequisites. Those that do not seem like design oversights.
8 prestige classes in 35 pages. The descriptions of the related organizations and how to incorporate and/or adapt the PrCs is one of the best that I have seen. Very good work. The classes are two-handed tiger-fighter, thrown weapons master, walking dwarf fortress, elf warrior of the ages, martial-mage, Master of Nine (all nine schools), stealthy martial cleric-warrior-assassin, and ninja of darkness and light. These are my short-hand descriptions, not their real names (except for Master of Nine). The PrCs are interesting, pretty well balanced, and appealing to a variety of interests.
15 pages of weapons of legacy. This is a good use for them: each of the nine schools has a sword associated with it (again, hence the subtitle). These are built as weapons of legacy that could very well be worth the penalties to use, though again, who wants a sword with a bigger to-hit penalty than bonus? Good use for that mechanic, too, even if it does not interest me. I would have liked for each to include a bit about Reshar and how the swords came together, or a recommendation for where each went. Some have it.
5 pages of magic items. A weak section with little of interest, although players will want Crowns of the White Ravens and variants, the items that give free access to maneuvers. Depending on specifics, those could range from nearly worthless to severely underpriced.
3 monsters in 10 pages. Despite being short, this is a very strong section. Part of that is having several pages for each monster, letting them be fleshed out. We have a martial rakshasa and two other martial outsiders. While I have never been terribly interested in the rakshasa, the reth dakala and the valkyrie are excellent. I cannot speak to how they play in-game, but their descriptions are exceedingly valuable in presenting their alien worldviews. You can only have so many variations on "this creature is bent on destruction." Instead, these two have specific motivations and perspectives. Reth dakala see themselves in a certain way and have a goal as a race. Valkyries have no ethical views; they have an aesthetic of battle that drives them. It would take some work to place yourself in either's (lack of) shoes, but they are more than motiveless malignancy. I never needed a race of cursed, half-embodied mercenary knights, but I find that I could have a use for them because they are well-crafted.
The book gives ways to incorporate items into the core or leave them at the fringe, adding an item or two with a reason why no one has mentioned them before. All this book needs is for a setting to plan for martial schools the way Eberron planned for psionics.
No, you do not need this book, but it would be a valuable addition with a number of options that players will use. The only thing more I could ask of this book is more pages of the same quality.
Character Optimization takes on maneuver synergy