DnD 3.5 - Practical Guide to Martial Maneuvers
Tome of Battle introduced Martial Maneuvers, a new mechanic which works similar to spells, and introduced a whole new dynamic for martial combat. This guide is intended as a supplement to the contents of Tome of Battle, so be sure to read Chapter 3: Blade Magic before reading this guide.
For class-specific information, see my handbooks for the Crusader, Swordsage, and Warblade. This guide is intended to be largely class-agnostic, especially because the Martial Stance and Martial Study feats allow non-initiator classes to take advantage of Martial Maneuvers.
Blade Meditation: Assuming that you're using a favored weapon of your discipline, this amounts to +1 to damage, +2 to a skill, and +1 to the DC's of your chosen discipline. If you're particularly devoted to one discipline, this can be an excellent option. However, don't take this unless you're an initiator class; non-initiators won't get enough benefit from Martial Study alone.
Martial Study: An extremely versatile feat, Martial Study opens up maneuvers to non-initiators, and allows initiator classes to access maneuvers from disciplines to which they normally do not have access. Initiators use their class's normal recycle mechanic, so maneuvers gained from Martial Study work just like maneuvers gained as part of their class progression. Note that this feat does not require you to be of an appropriate Initiator level to take a maneuver, but higher level maneuvers usually require that you have one or more maneuvers from the same discipline, so you can't pick up 9th-level maneuvers with your 1st-level Fighter. Because you don't get to retrain this maneuver, be sure to pick something which will remain useful for your whole career.
Martial Stance: Martial stances are fantastic, and many non-initiators can pick up one stance and spend the rest of their lives putting it to good use. Much like Martial Study, this allows Initiators to take stances from disciplines normally not available to them, offering lots of exciting new options. Like maneuvers, high level stances require that you have one or more maneuvers from the same discipline, so you may need to take Martial Study more than once to gain access to a stance.
Additional feats which are specific to a Discipline will be discussed below.
Understanding the action economy is a crucial part of capitalizing on combat maneuvers. Each turn includes a Standard, Move, and Swift Action. You may take an Immediate action between turns, but you do not get a Swift Action on your following turn. Using a Full-Round Action consumes both your Move and Standard Actions, but does not consume your Swift Action.
The majority of Strike maneuvers are Standard actions. Many other maneuvers are other type of actions, which can allow you to use multiple maneuvers in the same turn. Switching stances also consumes a Swift action.
You generally want to do as much as possible within the limited span of your turn, so it is often a good idea to have a mix of options which take up all of your actions. Remember that you can make a Full Attack and still use a Swift Action, so it is often a good idea to have several Swift Actions which you can use while swinging weapons around. If you like to switch stances often, it may be wise not to pick up a lot of Swift/Immediate Action maneuvers because you can't use them in the same round.
Desert Wind is all about dealing fire damage. Some of the maneuvers expect you to move around, either by charging or tumbling, but many of them work best when you stand still and make a Full Attack to capitalize on the damage boosts. Because many of the maneuvers work when you move, they can be good options for ScoutsCAd.
Skill: Tumble makes sense for the Desert Wind school. Moving around will expose you to attacks of opportunity, so you need Tumble to avoid them.
Weapons: The scimitar and falchion are both great options, but critical hits typically don't multiply energy damage so they won't help much with the
Desert Fire: The damage bonus is fairly trivial, but it might be useful for Scouts and for highly mobile builds. Consider complementary feats like Sprint AttackPHB, Flyby AttackPHB, or Travel DevotionCC.
Desert Wind Dodge: A tiny bit of damage and tiny bit of AC. You can do much better for the cost of a feat, but if you have an open feat slot this works in the same situations as Desert Fire.
Martial Study / Stance Options
Crusader-exclusive (with the exception of Martial Study), the Devoted Spirit schools has excellent Defender, Healer, and Utility options. Devoted Spirit offers several Stances and Maneuvers with the rare ability to make in-combat healing viable without significantly cutting into your damage output. Devoted Spirit includes some of the best Defender stances available, including Iron Guard's Glare and Thicket of Blades, both of which are fantastic go-to options for non-Initiator Defender builds.
Skill: Intimidate doesn't really appear to do anything for the Devoted Spirit Discipline.
Weapons: The Longsword and Falchion are your go-to options.
Devoted Bulwark: You can find much better sources of AC.
Divine Spirit: A decent option Paladins, but the healing isn't particularly good.
Diamond Mind has a lot of crazy stuff in it. Some of the maneuvers allow you to use Concentration for damage, in place of saving throws, or in place of attack rolls. Concentration is pretty easy to boost with items and feats, which can make this Discipline extremely effective. The theme of the Discipline is speed and time manipulation, and a handful of the Maneuvers allow you to alter your initiative score or make additional counters in a single round. As a whole, the school is good for Strikers, but has several excellent options to improve your durability.
Skill: Concentration is almost exclusively a caster skill, which might make Diamond Mind an appealing option for Initiator Gish builds.
Weapons: Rapier all the way.
Skill Focus (Concentration): Depending on your choice of Maneuvers, this could be a fantastic option.
Unnerving Mind: I don't find the Duel of Wills mechanic particularly useful, and I certainly wouldn't spend a feat on it.
Iron Heart is a Striker discipline with a particular affinity for fighting multiple opponents. A few options are particularly dangerous against single foes, like Finish Move and Strike of Clarity, both of which do absurd amounts of damage.
Skill: Iron Heart makes no use of Balance.
Weapons: The longsword is your best bet. You can use a bastard sword or dwarven waraxe two-handed without proficiency, but there's little reason to do so.
Ironheart Aura: Giving your allies bonuses to saves is nice, but White Raven is much better at defending adjacent allies.
Setting Sun is a weird Discipline. Most of the maneuvers are defensive, with the exception of the maneuvers which allow you to throw people.
Skill: Sense Motive is only used for Baffling Defense, so you can ignore it.
Weapons: Setting sun's weapons strongly resemble Monk special weapons.
Falling Sun Attack: For unarmed initiators this is very tempting. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of good options from the Setting Sun discipline, and almost none of them will benefit from the DC boost.
Shadow hand is the most Rogue-like of the 9 Disciplines. Shadow hand includes a lot of strikes and stances which provide piles of extra damage, including Sneak Attack and a few options for dealing Constitution damage. However, many Shadow Hand strikes with scary effects allow saving throws, so you will want to pick up Blade Meditation to boost your DC's.
Skill: Hide doesn't actually do anything for your maneuvers, but it makes sense for the theme of the Discipline.
Weapons: No rapiers, which is a shame, but daggers, short swords, and spiked chains are all great options.
Shadow Blade: An absolute must for finesse builds. Note that this is in addition to Strength, not in place of it, so characters with lots of both will be particularly deadly.
Shadow Trickster: I could see someone using an Initiator class to build into Arcane Trickster or something similar, but even in that case I don't think this feat would be very useful. The +2 Sneak Attack damage is tempting at first glance, but not very good.
Before you even look at Stone Dragon, remember that Stone Dragon Maneuvers can only be initiated when you are in contact with the ground. This is a huge limitation at high levels when you generally want to be flying. Stone Dragon is largely dedicated to absorbing huge amounts of damage, which is a pretty cool trick, but Stone Dragon provides very few options to draw your enemies attention, which leaves Stone Dragon enthusiasts in the classic tank dilemma: If no one can hurt me, why should they take the time to try?
Skill: Balance does nothing for Stone Dragon.
Weapons: Some decent two-handed options, and unarmed strike if you want to build an unarmed initiator.
Stone Power: A pretty fantastic way to get temporary hit points every round.
Tiger claw includes a lot of fantastic options for TWF builds, and some very scary maneuvers which can deal huge amounts of damage. With no defensive options, Tiger Claw is great for Strikers.
Skill: Several Tiger Claw maneuvers depend on Jump checks to function, so be sure to max it. And hey, since you already have Jump you may want to consider Leap AttackCW.
Weapons: The inclusion of claw and unarmed strike as options make this a go-to option for natural weapon users and unarmed initiators. Everyone else will probably go for an axe.
Tiger Blooded: Push enemies a measly 5 feet.
White Raven has to aspects: charging, and coordinating allies who also depend on weapon attacks. Much like the Bard, White Raven users will be more effective if there are more allies to benefit from their supportive abilities. White Raven also includes White Raven Tactics, which you can use to allow allies to act twice in the same round if their initiative roll is higher than yours.
Skill: Diplomacy doesn't do anything useful for White Raven, but it's a great option to have anyway.
Weapons: I hope you like swords, because the longsword and greatsword are your best options. Fortunately, the only thing which depends on using a White Raven weapon is White Raven Defense, which is terrible. Because no White Raven Maneuvers call for saving throws, even Blade Meditation isn't a worthile option.
Song of the White Raven: Inspire Courage is the Bard's best ability, and you get it at first level. For a feat and a singe level you can get a whole lot out of the Bard. Activating Inspire Courage as a swift action means that you can easily do it before every fight, making you and your allies that much more effective. With a bit of optimization (spells and items mostly) you can boost your Inspire Courage bonus quite a bit, making this a profoundly good investment even at low levels before Inspire Courage starts to improve.
White Raven Defense: AC bonuses are always nice, but you won't spend a lot of time in combat standing adjacent to allies.