Friday, February 24, 2017

The Monk

At last, the monk.

Each time I plunge into one of these sage abilities posts I feel self-conscious.  I'm know I'm writing about something that certainly applies to only my world, so that for the gentle reader these posts are merely academic.  Many have said some wonderful things, expressed their support, and I am grateful.  Yet this is still seems a voyage that I strike out upon alone.  I wrote many posts about the bard, struggling that out, with a lot of good advice and help from others.  Now I mean to do the same thing with the monk.

That is because I am even less clear about the structure underlying the monk than I was about the bard.  The monk is a functional mess.  It is a splatter mess of martial arts, religion, eastern mythology and game mechanics.  It is part cleric, part thief, part spellcaster, with an unclear agenda and a murky social status within the D&D game world.

For the most part, I've been able to ignore that.  Monks are hard to roll and are usually not taken when the rolls are sufficient.  Since the year 2000 my campaigns have included only three of them.  And only one is active right now.

So what is it?  What defines the monk?  Rather, how do we want to define it.  I'm just not sure.  I will interject here and say that the monk has always been my favorite character.  In terms of combat prowess, I think it holds its own.  But I'd like to give the class a motivation that doesn't depend upon any one culture's honor code or martial arts discipline.  Why?  Because that presses the monk into existing as a stereotype that has to fulfill a cliched game role.  I'd rather my players felt they could design their own monk, their way, without needing to be buddhists, ninjas or some other form of Oriental stock character.

Let's start with how the original player's handbook defined the class.  The monk wasn't allowed to gain strength benefits from the 15 or better strength the monk had to have, or armor class bonuses from the 15 or better minimum dexterity.  This was a way to limit the class.  The character started with a 10 AC that improved as levels were gained, so very slowly.  The character had 2d4 hit points, a little better than a cleric. We used to apply constitution benefits per hit die, so if the monk had a constitution of 15+1, the +1 was applied to each die 4.

The monk also got "open hand," which meant causing damage with the open palm, matching the kung fu martial art that was popular in the 1970s, the way of the open hand.  If the monk scored 5 or more higher on the attack die above what was needed to hit (against humanoid opponents), then the opponent was "stunned" for 1-6 rounds, effectively knocked unconscious.  As well, the monk got a +1/2 hit point bonus per level to damage caused with hand-to-hand weapons.

The monk also got a saving throw as a defense against missile weapons, had thieving abilities (except pick pockets), a very slight, steadily improving chance to not be surprised (-2%/level) and, starting with third level, a series of other abilities that included speak with animals, falling from various distances without taking damage, minor healing and, ultimately, the infamous "quivering palm" that would enable the monk to outright kill someone by touching them once reaching 13th level.

I remember the monk was pitifully weak back in the early 80s, something that had been noticed by others.  There was a Dragon magazine article about the monk that made some suggestions, some of which we adopted for my campaign at the time.  Specifically two: we raised the starting AC to 8, then had it progress at the same degree per level, just 2 better than the book stated; and we changed the hit dice to a d6, so the monk started with 2d6.  Those two changes smoothed out the character and made it work.

Yet here I am now, bent on restructuring the monk with sage abilities.

Part of the sage ability practice is to spread the original abilities of the class around to various fields and studies, then set it up that the character doesn't start with all of those.  Clerics, for example, don't necessarily start with the ability to turn undead.  Oh, every cleric gets a watered down version of the ability, but if you don't choose dweomercraft as a study, you can't turn the really big, dangerous things.  With the sage abilities I've defined, not all thieves have a special ability to sneak up on opponents and if you don't study backstabbing, you get a watered down version of that too.  If an assassin doesn't study murder, then its a watered down version of assassination.  And so on.

So what we want is a monk that doesn't necessarily have all the abilities that the monk character does in the original game.  In turn, IF the monk specializes in one of those abilities, then they will ultimately do it better than the book states.  The sage abilities do take away, but they also give more and more.  With high level, you more or less get lots and lots.

My first problem is this.  How to take the small pile of monk abilities that existed previously, divide them up logically, then add more abilities that aren't described.  Remember, we're not talking about random chance skills, like in 3e and later editions.  We're talking the monk can absolutely do these things, with no fail possible.  Those are more difficult abilities to come up with, because we don't want to break the game.

I have a mess of ideas on that front.  What I don't have is the organization.  I can imagine fields called the path of the stick (combat), the path of the reed (defense) or the path of enlightenment (meditation) or the path of knowledge (clarity) . . . but these seem trite.  Combat and defense are easy, but meditation and clarity are difficult if we don't want to drift into religion and telling players what to think.

I've spent a bunch of time reading Buddhist texts lately and I am convinced that the earlier steps of Buddhism form a rational philosophy, but the later steps of Buddhism proceed to go right up its own ass.  I can see more clearly why there is a discrepancy about whether or not Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. It is a philosophy . . . in the beginning.  But if you manage to convince yourself, the available option to start taking things totally on faith are right there waiting for you ~ making it no different than any other religion you must accept on faith.  It is all very disappointing after a degree . . . particularly as Buddhism has its blind, fundamental pundits just as Christianity or Islam does.

I had hoped for a path there for developing the monk, as I had stumbled across some very interesting things when I wrote my mantraism post last year.  Unfortunately, no.

So now I don't have a rational structure for the monk, not yet.  I'd like four clear, easy to define categories (fields) that would each offer a meaningful option to a player who chose to take a monk character.  Fighting, yes, with either an offensive or defensive option, along with a more religious (practical) set of skills, the meditation path, and finally a set of challenge-the-reality of the universe options, such as being able to fall without taking damage, a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  If I can get these fields sorted, I'm sure I can conceive of the abilities that should fit within them.


Sofia Viktorova Koleva said...

I won't lie, I've been waiting for this and the forthcoming monk posts since you embarked on the sage abilities. The class has always held an allure for me for all of the reasons you describe above. It's a bit of an oddball, kitchen-sink class and very much of its time (mid-70's). Also, I think I must have been reading Hesse's Siddhartha, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance around the same time I was heavily playing D&D as a teen. ;-)

I think relying on the structure of Buddhism and an underlying basis for the class is a good start. One of the things most forms of Buddhism stress is denial as a sort of path to enlightenment. The buddhist must eschew attachment to and pleasure from the material world just as the monk class must eschew the strength and dexterity bonuses, armor, certain weapons, etc... I wonder if you pull that threat further, if there's something gamble there.

Sofia Viktorova Koleva said...

"pull that thread further" not threat.

Sofia Viktorova Koleva said...

Can you make asceticism gameable? If the bard's role is to add to the world through his art, the cleric's role to profess and abide by a doctrine and the wizard's role to learn, practice and develop certain pre-determined forumlae, all in exchange for power, could the monk's role then be to deny and strip away all of that artifice for similar power? Does the monk achieve some fundamental understanding of the underlying truths of the universe unavailable to other classes? Is the monk's ability to warp reality only a reflection of her gaining a fundamental understanding of and mastery over that reality?

Ant Wu said...

Within the Fighting, Religion, Meditation, and Challenge-the-Reality fields, I wonder if there is room for herbalist abilities, whether to alleviate disease, stave off hunger, or some sort of revitalization via a tonic, tea, or cocoa.

While monks should not outshine the Ranger's Wilderland field or the Druid's knowledge of Animal/Plant Life, herbalism is something that unites monastic traditions everywhere, from East to West.

I'm not as sure if this holds true, but some nod to etiquette may also be useful, though turning etiquette into a surefire success may be wrong-headed and thus unsuitable for your needs.

Beyond this I have 0 useful thoughts to offer, and will simply be watching.

Tim said...

Neat! I'm curious to know more about how you want to define the monk, once you're more sure. It sounds right now like you'd take from those Oriental aspects, but as you say you're wanting to avoid stepping into one honour code or martial arts discipline. Given that you want the players to "design their own monk," do you think maybe you'd pepper in bits of multiple codes or disciplines across fields and studies so that players can take from each "path"? Or would that just lead us back to the earlier "splatter mess" problem?
Or would the solution then be to go for more general fields and studies that we find evidence of across monastic cultures?

Thinking about a cleric or a fighter, right now your sage abilities provide a lot of flexibility. The cleric could focus on turning and controlling undead or, say, politics processes or even soliciting. For fighters, they can choose to focus on mounts and training animals, or training soldiers and hirelings, or pure athleticism. None of these necessarily pigeonholes the class into a particular "form" or "cultural conception" of this idea (the closest would be what kind of animals a fighter trains).

I suppose the difference for the monk is due to the very disparate ideas that have been lumped into the class since its incarnation. The only thing that really connects monks around the world, AFAIK, is religious asceticism, but that's a hell of a lot of wiggle room. Just reading about the wacky misadventures of Catholic monks in medieval Europe (I believe one of the Odo's - maybe of Tournai? - wrote some very entertaining reports), people had a hard time living up to the many models of monastic life. Just within Catholicism there was that continual process of "monastic rule created, ecclesiastical revolution occurs, monks slack off, repeat" with so many different groups formed.

I would feel that paladins, clerics and druids all provide good starting points for this sort of effort, but I can't expect the class to get rebuilt without a good Smolenskian watershed moment to change the paradigm. Looking forward to that.

P.S. Perhaps too exclusively European, but brewing as a monastic study?

Embla Strand said...

I have always felt that the asceticism ascribed to the monk is a little misplaced - it is a direct steal from Buddhism but doesn't really track with other monastic traditions (Most "monks" in the medieval era were nobles who gave the church some money to become monks and thus go to heaven faster after death).

However, "mindfulness" strikes me as an appropriate way to group many of the monk's abilities together. Mindfulness encompasses both a supreme understanding of the self (providing increased willpower and resistance to external effects) and heightened awareness of the surrounding environment (noticing more than others, being more difficult to surprise, etc.).

The martial arts components are clearly drawn from pulp martial arts films, but these films are drawing on qi gong and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Qi gong is the practice of manipulating qi in the body, a life-energy produced through "good living" (it sort of corresponds with the Force, prana, and ki). There is a whole series of skills and abilities that allow the practitioner of qi gong to perform superhuman feats (qing gong is a technique that enables the user to leap high in the air, there's another technique for becoming immune to pain for a short while, etc.). While the philosophy of qi gong is decidedly Chinese, the energy can be felt and used by people who have little to no experience with qi gong or martial arts in general - so a person devoted to mindfulness and the unification of mind and body could discover it independently.

So, I guess a suggestion for three of the four fields are as follows: Body (fighting skill, body conditioning, physical abilities), Mind (worldly knowledge, qi gong-derived practices), and Harmony (meditation- and mindfulness-related benefits).

Giordanisti said...

This post is a bit off-topic, but I do want let you know, Alexis, that your rules are having a very direct effect at least on me. After a few years' time taken off from D&D, I'm running a new campaign again with seven of my friends, most of whom have never played before, and I decided to just play your system, using the Wiki, as closely as possible. It works wonderfully. The combat system is engaging and tense, your spell rewrites are clear and useful, and the sage abilities are giving my players a great feel for their characters. Actually, I have one player who insisted on being a bard, which I went into with a lot of trepidation simce the sage abilities haven't been created for the bard yet, and I gobble up every post on the bard hoping to fill in those holes.

Anyway, a personal thank you for putting all of your work online. My finances are finally becoming more stable after a while of being next to broke, and I'll be making a donation soon to pay off a little of the debt I owe from getting an excellent ruleset for free.

I will ponder the monk for a little bit. It's an interesting problem.

Alexis Smolensk said...


You're the first person ever to say that to me. Thank you.

Please take this sincerely: let me know what holes you need filled and I'll try to fill them. Remember that I need those holes filled as well, so it is in my own self-interest as much as yours. Plus, knowing someone else is counting on me tends to be a terrific motivator for me.

I have many afternoons or evenings when I am simply disinterested in doing anything fruitful ~ and such times disappoint me later, when I realize I could have used that time for something. I am a show-and-tell sort of fellow; the more feedback I get, the more urging, the more productive I am. It is just how I am built.

Tim said...

Dani, while I feel the "celebrities" like Simeon Stylites or Francis of Assisi would object to not being considered "real" ascetics, you've definitely hit a more promising trail with mindfulness, since demanding "virtuous" or "ascetic" lifestyles won't necessarily jibe with the rule of providing abilities without moralizing them.

Nonetheless, it would be interesting if monks could fast, self-flagellate or expend some resource "purifying" themselves in order to activate more powerful abilities. While the rest of the party is desperate for grub or a soft bed, the monk could be feeling quite euphoric out in the wet, cold wild. Fasting in particular is associated with pretty much every monastic tradition - again, the rich Christians or their oblate children were not always known for being very good at that sort of thing, but theoretically these were the folks who prayed on behalf of the bad Christians (once the abbey received a nice coffer of jewels, of course).

Another thought: would monks provide another opportunity for a new mechanic or set of rules, as you added for the bard's experience-giving talents, Alexis?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Only if I think of it, Tim.

I'll remind you that while monks do fast, they don't adventure while doing so. It weakens the body. True, there can be a non-weakening fasting option, but that is bound to come at high level.

However, we can kitchen sink monk abilities all day long ~ that's fairly easy, since we can steal from about 2,000 film resources that all desire to give some special imaginative ability to the monk. The bigger issue is how does it hang together.

Is a monk religious? Flagellation was a self-punishment for sin, not a path to enlightenment (though it sometimes was, as pain is an hallucinogenic in sufficient amounts).

How do we define "purifying"? Purifying from what? Buddhism uses purifying as a blanket term for "not wanting things" ~ but that is a really lousy formula for a game that rewards acquisition, powering up and status building.

This is an issue. Pure Buddhism is anathema to the fundamentals of role-playing GAMES. Therefore, it doesn't work as a format. I need a different format, one that allows accumulation AND enlightenment.

Frankly, I'm not a Buddhist, despite the name of the blog. The paths of seeing, enlightenment and no more learning can be tossed in the dustbin, for all I care. But I do want some frame upon which I can hang a monk that is wise, powerful and in some manner still ambitious for SOMETHING.

Ozymandias said...

I must echo Giordanisti by saying, officially, "Thank you" for the hard work and effort. I'm just now getting back into my civilian life and I've been looking at setting up my first game in... well, must be about a decade now, or close to it. To that end, my approach has been to cobble together the things I like about your rules with the things I like about other rules. Just the other day, I copied the list of sage skills (by class) into a table so I could organize them and identify the gaps (I use a couple classes that you don't so I have need for addressing the difference).

Regarding your dilemma, my solution was to steal from the other warrior classes and create a unique field for the monk, "Aesthetics." I can see from this discussion, however, that it may not work to go that direction.

Mastery of Body
Mastery of Mind
Mastery of Spirit

You've given the druid three fields with more studies in each field than the other classes get. What if the monk operated the same way? Or what if the monk could also use the jack-of-trades study from the assassin/thief?

Another thought - Animal Training: Doesn't seem to jive with the monk's educated, enlightened, martial background, but I could see a monk training "unconventional" pets, like monkeys or squirrels, which then leads me to consider allowing the training of beasts or monsters...

Overall, just spit-balling ideas. Whether it helps or not, I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with (and what I can steal ... I mean, borrow from you).