Thursday, November 12, 2015

Prepping for the Monk

Well, we got the druid knocked out (if you missed it, here's Part 1 and Part 2), which means it's time to move on to that other cleric subclass, the monk.


I have only ever created one monk character (other than a sect of itinerant halfling monks for a short-lived D20 campaign...that's another story). Or maybe two. Hmmm...I know that I had one, for sure, that had the name "Soft Treader" (which makes me wince as I write the words). I also had one for whom I did a number of "character sketches," generally depicting an individual with a cloak and hood that obscured the character's face (like one of those Assassin's Creed dudes), armed with a variety of monk-eligible weapons (crossbows, daggers, quarterstaffs). Were these two characters the same? I honestly can't remember. Neither one was played more than once. Neither became major NPCs in our old AD&D campaign (of the late '80s), which is what often happened with unplayed PCs. Yeah, aside from the wince-worthy name and the illustrations of the other, I really can't any accomplishments of this (either?) character.

And as far as I can recall, I've never ever seen a monk in ANY D&D game before or since. Zero. That's even including a brief stint with 1E Oriental Adventures.

According to wikipedia, the monk class/concept was created by Brian "Buckshot" Blume, inspired by the Destroyer series of novels. Not familiar with those? Have  any of you children of the 80s seen Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (starring no less than Fred "Timerider" Ward)? Well, that's the movie based on the books, and due to its disappointing receipts at the box-office, it never morphed into the film franchise it was intended to become. ANYway...

The inspiration for the monk.
The monk first appears in Supplement II (Blackmoor) for OD&D which mentions not Brian Blume even one time. Blackmoor states it's written by Dave Arneson ("with special thanks to Gary Gygax, Tim Kask, Rob Kuntz, and Steve Marsh for suggestions and ideas") and so I've simply assumed the subclass was an "Arneson Original" regardless of what Gygax says in his preface to Oriental Adventures (as far as I can tell, Blume never had contact with Arneson, unless they met at GenCon in Wisconsin). On the other hand, I could find no reference of any kind to "monks" in Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign (from Judge's Guild), and the "character list" therein (page 51) includes only the following:

Fighting-Man, Clerical, Magic-User, Ranger, Paladin, Assassin, Merchant, Sage

[and, no, there are no write-ups for "merchants" and "sages"]

The assassin definitely appears to be an Arneson creation; based on its inclusion in Supplement II, the stuff in the FFC, and his well-known love of pulp, I think it was probably inspired by the assassin caste of the Jon Norman Gor books. Of course, assassins are the next subclass of this series...

By 1975 (when Blackmoor was released) there were plenty more besides the Destroyer books to inspire a martial arts monk. Bruce Lee had finished the entirety of his film career (and died) by 1973, kicking off a Hong Kong action craze in the U.S. The popular television show Kung Fu ended its three season run in April of 1975 (combining martial arts and western tropes, I can see Blume being a fan...he did co-design Boot Hill). If the class had been written up during the '80s, it probably would have incorporated multiple ninja elements...mercifully, we missed that.

Originally (and this is different from every subsequent version of the class, with the exception of its "mention" in Holmes), the monk was a subclass of cleric. This is fairly important because, as a subclass, it is presumed the character has the same abilities of a cleric except when contradicted in the text. For example, Supplement II is explicit that the monk has no magical abilities (spell-casting) like a cleric; however, it does not say the monk cannot turn undead if Lawful (there is no alignment restrictions for monks in Blackmoor). It says monks may have no permanent followers and must treat treasure "as does paladins;" it does not say they don't receive divine aid to help construct their "modest stronghold" when the time comes to do so,

It makes sense for clerics to be a subclass of cleric, given their Blackmoor description of "Members of an Order [who] seek both physical and mental superiority in a religious atmosphere." As I wrote the other day, an individual in a pseudo-historic/ancient environment would have spent many years training in their expected profession (rather than attending elementary and secondary school), and the monks training would have been in a religious capacity supplemented by martial arts. At least ones similar to the Shao Lin temple-style monk.

[contrast this with the chivalrous knight ("paladin") whose training is in combat, riding, and warfare and only supplemented by religious tutelage in the churchy virtues]

A class has a focus...a subclass has a divergence from the "usual" training, but retains the focus.

However, beginning with 1st Edition PHB, the monk became its own class.

And I can see the (very sensible) reasoning of doing so. Despite a religious upbringing, the monk has almost nothing in common with the cleric. It wears no armor. Its weapons (at least in Blackmoor) were completely unrestricted. It has no spells. It has no followers. It possesses a variety of unusual powers learned as the character advances upwards. It has a level limit. It has restrictions on advancement beyond a particular level of experience. It uses D4s for hit points for God's sake, while clerics use D6s!

[this last may actually have been a typo, by the way. Supplement II lists the assassin (subclass of thief) using 6-sided dice and the monk (subclass of cleric) using 4-sided dice, whereas the ACTUAL variation (first presented in Supplement I) gave clerics the D6 and thieves the D4. It is conceivable that the editor of Supplement II missed the fact that the thief subclass should share the same HP progress as its parent class, and the cleric subclass share the larger die type. Things were a little "amateur hour" back in those days, as one can tell from reading the original books]

There are so many differences between the parent class and the subclass that it makes sense mechanically to divorce the two from each other, even when there's a thematic connection. Yes, you read that makes sense to keep 'em the same and it makes sense to separate them. Both options make sense based on the mess we have here (thematic parallels with perpendicular mechanics). How to reconcile this?

Probably by throwing one of the two things away. And since Holmes has already designated the monk as a subclass of cleric (and we're doing this exercise in "Holmesian" fashion) I think we're going to need to keep the THEME of the class ("religious order") and chuck the mechanical kitchen sink of thing. In other words: overhaul the hell out of it.

Here comes the "flurry."
Sorry, monk-lovers. I know that in the early days of the hobby it was all about "including what feels fun" and whatnot, but over here we try to hold ourselves to a slightly higher standard. I've got few sacred cows about D&D, and that holds doubly true for a class that's been such a non-entity in thirty years of play. Plus, the monk class as written is brutally stupid (sorry, Brian). A 6th level monk strikes twice/round for D12 damage and (on a roll 5+ over the target number) has a 75% chance of stunning the guy 30-120 minutes and a 25% chance of outright killing 'em? And at maximum level (a lofty 16) the character strikes 4 times per round for 4D10 damage?! That's an average of 88 damage per round (well, presuming the character hits)...what fighter with a magic sword can hope to match that? The PHB nerfs this a little...but not much.

[as a quick example, fighters in the PHB receives their highest attack rate...2 per 13th level, achieved at 1,750,0001xp. An AD&D monk achieves 14th level with the same XP total. At 14th level, the monk has a natural AC of -1, receives three attacks per round, and strikes for 5D4 damage: average of 38 points of damage if they hit with every attack. If the fighter had a halberd and 18/00 strength, they'd still only be looking at an average damage output of 23 points per round (more if the weapon was magical, but certainly not over 30)]

And here's the thing, folks: I like the idea of the monk. Some people might be surprised to hear that, given the general feeling that "Eastern and Western fantasy shouldn't be mixed;" that the martial arts monk is out-of-place in the pseudo-Camelot style D&D campaign. And maybe I was that way, too, once upon a time (I can't remember if I was). However, that was before I was introduced to the Scarlet Brotherhood. Once I got a whiff of that particular concept, I could see half a dozen ways to fit monkish orders into a fantasy least one with a pulpy, sword-&-sorcery vibe to it (which is how I like my game).

SO...since this post is getting long (and its my third post of the day; my poor readers! Their eyes are melting!), I'm going to sign off for the moment. Next entry will be reviewing the monk-ish character's abilities line-by-line to see what can stay and what definitely needs to go-go-go.

Is it still cultural appropriation once
 it's already been appropriated?


  1. I played a monk in Pathfinder. It was fun to use the strange superpowers like slow falling or immunity to poison, but they weakened the class' combat abilities too much and things got complicated very quickly.

    1. @ Kelvin:

      As things often do in D20.
      ; )

  2. I was thinking about the damage output you mention the monk having. I don't have my pdf's right now, as I'm on the phone, but do think that a d4 for hp might poll the other way on the bad ass scale. The monk might get better ac as levels go by, but to start with they aren't that well off in that department. And to advance after a particular level (grand master of summer, flowers, etc ) the monk need to defeat a monk of the level they wish to ASCENT to - if the current holder of that level is of a different alignment (66% chance) the fight is to the death. This is based on memory as well on your text, so I might be slightly off. I'll check it when I can.

    As for hd (if we want to try to bullshit it*grin*):
    An assassin are more combat oriented then the thief, so d6.
    A monk spend almost all the time out of combat-training meditating, where as the Cleric pray for 15 minutes maybe 3 times a day. So lower hd.
    I need to thing that one over :D I'm on my way to work.

    1. @ Janich:

      Yeah, especially after stewing on my last post ("Monk Dissection") I'm feeling you on the D4-damage-ain't-good-enough-thing. I can only take one character class of the "suck at first, powerful later" variety (i.e. the magic-user).

      I'm not sure I'm going to go with the "fight your way up the ladder" thing. This is D&D, not Kickboxer 2.

  3. When I was planning to use 1E straight, RAW with some additions, I wanted to find a way to incorporate some of the weirder character classes like Monks. My solution was to give religions in the game a fighter and magician pairing, and making Monks and Illusionists as proponents of a world-denying religion. The idea was that their concept of the world was as an illusion being played out for illusions reflecting other illusions, and so they found ways to manipulate the illusion for their own purposes. (The other pairings were the obvious Cleric/Paladin and Druid/Ranger pairs, and then those who weren't very interested in the gods or ultimate reality or whatever were Fighters and Magic-Users.)

    1. @ Faol:

      That's not a bad idea/concept, though I think monks and illusionists are actually diametrically opposed to each other when it comes to a philosophy on "reality."

    2. One thing that I think the Monk is missing, by the way, is the amazing leaps and the light step that lets them stand (and fight!) on a bent bamboo stalk. I also like the climbing walls ability.

    3. @ Faol:

      Yeah. For me? Not so much.

  4. What's hilarious is that, for me, Remo Williams was what made me interested in the monk class in the first place :D That and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.

    I think the baby that often gets thrown out with the bathwater here is that there are plenty of Christian religious orders that do the whole "monk" thing. With that in mind, if I were doing this, I'd turn the monk into an "exalted cleric" -- spells, immunities, comb the Book of Exalted Deeds for some special-ability-type ideas, and ditch the "martial arts" aspect altogether. Maybe a "lore" ability of some kind since they're learned men. All this in exchange for lower HP, no armor, staff or club only, vows of poverty and temperance...

    1. RE: The Christian Monk Thang

      It's a little tougher to justify for your ordinary D&D adventure campaigns (vows of poverty combined with vows of non-violence...what are you doing in a dungeon?!). My "mystic" class in The Complete B/X Adventurer (and inspired by the version found in Bard Games original Compleat Spellcaster) is as close an approximation as I could do. But it takes a very different temperament (or someone really interested in challenging play) to make it work.

    2. On the other hand, though, it was in monasteries in Europe that swordfighting was studied before the rise of specialized fighting schools. There was a monastery in the northern part of Ireland (I want to say the Monastery of Donegal, but I am very unsure of that) that was renowned for producing expert swordsmen. In the earliest extant European fencing manual, Tower Ms. I.33 (dating to the late 13th or early 14th century), there are three characters depicted to demonstrate different techniques, the "Student", "Walburga", and the "Priest". The last is dressed in monastic-style robes.

    3. @ Faol:

      Probably one of my past lives.
      ; )

  5. What are you doing in the dungeon? Why, seeking lost knowledge and wealth for your order, of course. (I don't know, why do people go to dungeons in the first place?)

    That being said, your take on the monk is very tidy and I'd probably give it a roll. Feel like it needs a couple thief tricks to really finish it off, but the combat maneuver system you came up with is very nice.

    @faol -- I'm intrigued and I want to know more about this monastery. If you happen to come across the definitive name of the place please let me know.

    1. It's the Priory of Dungiven. You can find the reference in this article.