wtf, monk?

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.

17 Responses to “wtf, monk?”

  1. October 24, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    The stringent ethics of D&D blogging forces me to mention that the Chinese calligraphy at the top of the post is, in fact, from a different poem by Jia Dao.

  2. 2 John
    October 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    I’ve played a monk. We never had any problem with the class as written. At low levels you’re basically a thief, with most of the same abilities and the same inability to stand up for yourself in combat. At the mid levels – I think I got up to level 5 – you can also do double duty as a sort of supplementary fighter. You can’t carry a battle by yourself, but with a couple of proper fighter-types holding the line you can flit about at the edges of the fight whacking people. It’s the movement speed that’s key, it’s what makes the class viable. Your main concern is how fragile you are; it only takes a couple hits to put you out of action; the high movement rate allows you to maneuvre effectively in combat, and to get your butt out of there when things don’t go according to plan (which they usually don’t).

  3. October 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I think this is pretty awesome. I am running an AD&D Oriental Adventures game right now and I am tempted to throw some of these guys into the mix, I figure just move them up a Hit Die type and they’ll be fine.

  4. 4 Scott LeMien
    October 24, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I’ve played a level 10 monk, cause I cheat like crazy. Lawful Evil. Also, I used the monk article from Best of Dragon Volume 3, that you no longer have –but, more importantly–who cares??? You left gold in this post, but your giant brain fails to discover it. I scrape teh surface and find the name for my next monster character: Elmo Leatherface! WIN!!!!!

    Also, I will let your monk get cut to bloody chunks of gore anytime if you dare play my Runequest combat adaptation for B/X, just let me do a few fixes first.

  5. October 24, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    That’s interesting! How does AD&D 1e handle “attacks of opportunity” type situations where you’re disengaging from melee? B/X and BECMI, the versions I know best, have this thing where you’ve gotta say you’re withdrawing prior to rolling initiative, and then if you disengage at anything faster than half-speed the guy gets bonuses to swipe at you. 1e is such an organizational disaster that I have no clue how it handles that situation, but if it’s anything similar then the Monk’s fast movement rate really only helps the engage.

    @Will Dowie
    Thanks, let me know how it works out. I’ve been meaning to do an Oriental Adventures one-shot for some time now. It’s one of those books I had as a kid, and really wanted to see what it was like, and never got the chance. As noted here, some of the rules in that book are either really crazy, really awesome, or both.

  6. 6 Scott LeMien
    October 24, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    By not making dexterity or constitution prime requisites, you disable the possibility of a point swap for those stats, which may be important for their survival.

  7. October 24, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    some time ago James Maliszewski said that for years he saw the monk as a Friar Tuck figure – to pull it in that direction I’d remove blades, go up to d8 hp and remove the super-speed. Thief skills I’d leave in, along with a “trustworthiness” mod for reaction rolls, kinda like credit rating in CoC.

    …looks interesting as is, too.

  8. October 24, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    A while back, Talysman wrote about how it is useful to think about classes as strategies for solving problems in addition to character archetypes. I think this is a really good approach, because it gets to the heart of why the large proliferation of classes can seem a bit superfluous sometimes. My answer to “how does the monk solve problems?” is that the monk solves problems by avoidance (dodging), redirection (using the opponent’s own power against them), and self-mastery (acrobatics, ability to jump higher and fall farther, mental fortitude).

    I think this creates a very specific niche that no other class fills, and fits the source material of Chinese wuxia and martial arts heroes very well. And it doesn’t result in the grab-bag of spell-like abilities that the AD&D monk has.

    I agree with your assessment of all the various incarnations of the monk class in earlier editions, with one difference. I really like the Blackmoor monk’s ability to dodge missiles with a saving throw. In my monk musings, I extend that ability to a general dodge rather than giving a special AC bonus.

    You can find my take here and here. This is not a finished class yet, but I am pretty happy with what I have so far.

    Regarding the name, I like the Chinese, but unless you use other Chinese names in your setting, it will likely feel out of place. I haven’t come up with a solution to the name problem that I like yet, but one idea that might work relatively well is to name the class after an in-game organization. Even in the real world, “monk” doesn’t really mean martial artist, but Shaolin monk does. Grognardia also has a post about this.

  9. 9 John
    October 24, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    @James: I just looked it up in the DMG, and the official ruling is that the opponent gets an automatic free attack “calculated as if it were a rear attack upon a stunned opponent”, which I think means +4 to hit with no shield or dexterity bonuses, after which you can move away at up to full speed, at which point “the melee is ended and the situation becomes one of encounter avoidance” unless they can move faster than you and choose to pursue.

    But I don’t think I’ve ever used that rule myself. IIRC we did something similar to what you describe (probably it was a B/X rule that my DM ported over). Remember that at 4th level and above, a monk can outdistance an armoured man even when moving at half speed.

  10. 10 Gabe
    October 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    The Castles and Crusades Monk is quite viable but he uses a d12 and the stun mechanic is somewhat easier to handle as it can only beused once (?) per day. Charles Rice did a fair but uninspiring Brawler class in OSRIC Unearthed. Then there’s a copletely cinematic Martial Artist in the 2E AD&D supplement from Mayfair, Blood and Steel.

    As for your class, I don’t know. It seems like a high level Yóuxiá would not be all that much help against an equal level foe. I imagine many foes would make the saving throw leaving you with a piddly d4 unless you pack a weapon. Then with a D4 hit die and lousy AC you’re like a big glass barn (if you packed more wallop you’d be a glass cannon).

    If you have access to it, check out the old Hero Games product, The Complete Martial Artist. It has a nice table in the back detailing pluses and minuses for martial arts maneuvers and can be converted to games using a 20 sided die. The aforementioned OSRIC Unearthed also has a list of maneuvers.

  11. October 24, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    I think that analysis is exactly right. The good news is that you’re triggering your special status effects 1 time out of every 4 hits, but the fact that there’s a save involved limits things. Interestingly, with a very few exceptions most “Expert” monsters have saves in the F7-9 range, so they’re blowing their saves about 40-50% of the time. I’d suspect that they’re going to be subject to the Youxia’s status effects about 10% of all hits. Many of these monsters have an AC of around 4, so a Youxia won’t have a ~50% chance to hit until Level 9 or so. So status effects would only occur against “Expert” monsters around 1 round in 20.

    That’s much too weak, so probably the Halfling attack progression is more suitable so that they hit more often (even then it’s not much of an improvement). Maybe the save operates at a penalty equal to the Youxia’s revised attack bonus (i.e., -1 penalty to saves at levels 1-3, -3 penalty at levels 4-6, and so on), but that’s looking inelegant too…

    I’ll take a look at the examples you cited.

  12. 12 witness
    October 24, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    I’ve been planning an OD&D game for a while now, and I’ve decided if someone wants to play a Monk I’ll let their Fighting-man roll d6 damage unarmed, with a -1 to hit, and any time they kill an armed opponent while they have no weapons or armor it forces an immediate morale check for their opponents

    Everything else can just be adjudicated on the fly.

  13. 13 Charlatan
    October 24, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    I know you’ve put your attention elsewhere, but we should talk sometime about the way some of these combat maneuvers are handled in ACKS- You could play something approaching your class with the right mix of proficiencies and special moves.

  14. 14 Bargle
    October 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    The monk is described in blackmoor as a cleric that mixes the abilities of the fighting-man and thief (as opposed to the cleric that mixes the abilities of the fighting man an mu)

    Monks xp curve is actually really good, when you understand that name level is rhe goal–they can build their castle and attract followers at 50,000xp! (in blackmoor).

    People have so turned d&d into a 1:1 skirmish wargame that they forget that leveling can be accomplished with no combat, gold is the only requirement. It’s about making cool characters, not balanced pokemon/street-fighter robots to fight battles with.

    The blackmoor cleric is genius, the gygax version looses a lot of the rational.

  15. October 25, 2011 at 5:38 am

    @Bargle, I’d love to read a blog post comparing Blackmoor to OD&D sometime. I know almost nothing about it, but it sounds interesting.

    @James, your new fighting technique is unstoppable! You’ve really captured the feel of the monk without any of its fiddly weirdness, though you’re missing level titles! My only beef is with “youxia”. I’m sure it’s a lot more accurate (and probably Mandarin), but “wuxia” is the more familiar term (and can be spelled without resorting to high ascii characters).

    Think I’m wrong, eh? Let’s kung fu!

  16. October 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks, but I do agree with Gabe that this thing needs a lot more work. What I’d really like to be able to do is mimic the whole “blending” aesthetic of the soft martial arts, like aikido, within D&D, while also permitting crazy flips and running on walls and that kind of thing. I like Brendan’s comment that a “the monk solves problems by avoidance (dodging), redirection (using the opponent’s own power against them), and self-mastery (acrobatics, ability to jump higher and fall farther, mental fortitude).”

    The problem is that in order to do something unusual with the D&D combat mechanics, you very likely have to invent new mechanics or a fugly-ass chart that disrupts the beautiful simplicity of B/X.

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