Jia Dao, “The Swordsman” (9th C. CE)
For ten years I have been polishing this sword;
Its frosty edge has never been put to the test.
Now I am holding it and showing it to you, sir:
Is there anyone suffering from injustice?
(Trans. by Dr. James J.Y. Liu.)
As a sideline to the “Escape from the Elder Brain” thing I’m working on, I’ve been mucking around with 1e Monks lately. (Monks are good for jailbreak scenarios because they don’t require much equipment.)
Has anybody played a TSR-era Monk? What in the world are they like in play?
Just looking at the rules, the Monk is a strange, strange class. Absurdly high stat requirements, but the stats don’t give you any benefits. An absolutely brutal XP curve. A big passel o’ Thief abilities, including Open Locks and Find Traps (because of all the lockpicking Bruce Lee did, I guess). Their martial arts abilities constantly upgrade their Armor Class, Attack Rate, and Damage–and confer an instant-stun or instant-kill attack that involves treating descending Armor Class as a percentage. And they can run around at super-speed. And, pretty much every level, they get weird random stuff like speak with animals or feign death.
This is not so much a class as something the dog sicked up. Everyone always moans about how a quintessentially Asian class doesn’t really belong in Tolkien-manque fantasy (or maybe says everything belongs everywhere, Elmo-meets-Leatherface style), but I think that argument overlooks the fact that the Monk class is simply an abominable design. It’s ugly in Supplement II: Blackmoor, it’s ugly in AD&D, it’s ugly in Oriental Adventures (where the Monk mess gets folded into a build-it-yourself martial arts mess) and in Master’s Set/Rules Cyclopedia.
Around 100,000 XP, the range I’ve been looking at, a 1e Monk probably does damage equivalent to a Fighter (hitting less often but occasionally getting lucky with a devastating attack), coupled with the AC of a Thief and the Hit Points of a Wizard. That’s odd, but viable–but to get there you need to slog through the levels where you’ve got the AC of a Magic-User, the 85% failure rate of the Thief, and combat abilities that mainly require melee. I refuse to believe anyone ever played a Monk to 17th level, where they are engines of destruction.
Is there a way to clean this up? I know several people have tried. Here’s what I see as a niche for the Monk: it’s an acrobatic ninja type class straight out of wuxia films, so you’ve got a bit of the Thief’s stealth with the Fighter’s general ass-kickery, but all mixed into a huge heaping helping of wire-fu. Because Enlightenment = Compassion = Power = Humility = Enlightenment, the Monk has some mystical abilities as well, but I don’t want to get too crazy here. If I can implement this using some of the class-design constraints of B/X, so much the better.
Yeah, going with Chinese for the class name, which may be a mistake. But Yóuxiá (pronounced: “yo? sha?”) has a more secular connotation than “Monk,” approximately equal to our knight-errant or wandering hero, and arguably you could fold in Ninja-type rogues in there too. If you want to call it a Monk in the privacy of your own home, that’s fine.
- Ability Requirements: None. Unlike the designers behind the Blackmoor Monk and its progeny, I believe in creating a class that people can qualify for without cheating. I thought about requiring 9 Dexterity, but none of the other human classes in B/X impose ability requirements. But the way this is written, you’re going to want very high stats, especially Dexterity and Constitution, just to survive. So there’s “multiple attribute dependency” built in here already, as in the original class.
- Prime Requisite: Wisdom. In the source fiction, the best of these characters tend to be very philosophical, and thematically that outlook is the source of their power. Placing Wisdom as PR gives players an incentive to play that type of character. It also contributes to the “multiple attribute dependency.”
- Weapons: Dagger, Short Bow, Staff, Long Sword, Spear, Mace, Hand Axe. I could see an argument for “All” here, but these seem to be the weapons that feature most prominently in the wuxia movies I’ve seen. You could probably change it to “All” without too much trouble.
- Armor: None, no shield. I think we all agree that these guys are not encumbered. The lack of armor makes Dexterity and Constitution extremely important to survival.
- Hit Dice: d4, to a maximum of 9d4 +2 per level. I could see an argument for d6, but the 1e Monk in has d4 like a Magic-User, and fulfills many of the same functions as the Thief which gets d4 HD in B/X (where all classes have HD one step lower than in 1e or 2e). This feels cruel, but helps keep the XP curve down. Note that while the 1e Monk rolls d4 for HD each level, eventually getting 18d4, this seems really cheesy and I’m avoiding it.
- Attacks and Saves: as Cleric. Medium attack progression (same as a Thief), but pretty good saves. I thought about going with Halfling attacks and saves, but figured that it would be better to err on the side of caution. The best argument for Halfling (i.e., Fighter) attack progression is that in 1e, the Monk gets to attack many times per round, but that is probably an example of how the abstract nature of D&D combat doesn’t really model the moment-by-moment theatrics of a martial arts battle–presumably a swordsman too makes many attacks in a 60 second round of combat. But let’s just bracket the Halfling attacks & saves for later playtesting.
- Special Abilities…
- Unarmed Damage: 1d4. Youxia can inflict serious harm with their hands and feet. (But getting stabbed still hurts worse.) If an Youxia inflicts minimum damage, this is treated as a special strike, depending on level:
- Trip or Disarm at level 1. Save versus Wands, or be tripped or disarmed, likely losing next action.
- Sweeping Strike at level 5. All adjacent enemies take 3d4 damage, save vs. Breath for half.
- Nerve Strike at level 9. Save versus Paralysis, or be stunned for 2d4 turns. CLW ends.
- Quivering Palm at level 13. Save vs. Poison, or lose 4 HP every round. Neutralize poison or cure disease ends.
- Climb Walls, Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, Detect Noise as Thief. These guys do a lot of sneaking around. The Detect Noise is probably unnecessary, but helps the Ninja aspect of the class do spy stuff.
- Special Movement. The Youxia can zip around the battle field, from level 1 onward.
- Split-Move. Youxia may move, attack, and move again.
- Charge. Youxia may inflict double damage when charging, like a Fighter.
- Dodge. Youxia get a +2 to Armor Class in any round in which they move.
- Retreat. Youxia can retreat from melee without announcing it before rolling initiative, and don’t provoke “attacks of opportunity” when moving around the battlefield.
- Use Cleric Scrolls at 10th level, 90% accuracy. To give them a mystical side.
- XP Curve: Cleric. I could see an argument for the Thief curve, since these guys are merely unarmored lunatics running around punching people for d4 damage. But let’s stick with the Cleric curve for now since the Youxia has the Cleric’s save progression and Wisdom as Prime Req, and it’s simply easier to reference.
But you know? I’m wondering if this is really an improvement.