Sunday, February 26, 2017

Monks Can Be Evil

Picking up the monk again.  I think I've been overlooking an important cultural perspective, that being Wuxia.  This is the centuries old tradition of martial arts warriors roaming the breadth and length of China, fighting evil, pursuing romance, overcoming horrible childhood tragedies and following the codes of loyalty, honor and duty.

I don't mean to say that those codes are something that should matter to the players.  I have been opposed to "appropriate behaviour" for a given class since it was first put in place for the paladin, thereafter becoming a major set piece of the corporate game forever after.  If you want to play a cavalier, a barbarian or whatever, you must behave according to these precepts that absolutely deny you any freedom of will or purpose.  It has always been nonsense, no matter how many people like the code.  Codes, even in the real world, can always be broken ~ and it never ends in losing our knowledge or our ability.

This is, in fact, a fundamental conflict in Wuxia: that the evil master in the story is just as capable, just as dangerous, as the honorable master.  In the stories, for the protagonist to win, there must always be some other thing that compromises the evil master: a minion of the evil master, a helper of the honorable master, circumstance . . . and most commonly someone sacrificing their lives in order to win.  Most often, the evil master is killed at the cost of the honorable master, producing a zero-sum gain that is treated as a bittersweet victory.  Yes, Li Mu Bai is dead, the romance is shattered, but the evil has been stopped.  Everyone else may now live in peace.

I have no interest in restraining any character in my world with such melodrama ~ if they want to pursue it, that's fine, I'll create that adventure and give it the nuance it needs.  But that has to be a player choice.  Wuxia likes to teach that the ambitious master must always be taught in the end that true satisfaction demands a quest of peace, love, family or the simple life, lived simply.  I have zero interest in that for D&D characters.  As monks wandering the world, having adventures, they should not be held back, but allowed to act as they will.

It is my role to give them their abilities, not to dictate how those abilities should be used.

This is why I hesitate to pursue things like the monk eschew attachment and gaining pleasure from the real world.  That is a trope. That is not the freedom to adventure.  The literature is full of proof that monks can be evil, that they can still be tremendously able yet interested in acquisition and power.  Just because the stories all insist that these people must die in the end doesn't mean role-play has to work that way.

Players should be free to be as evil ~ or as good ~ as they personally desire, without paying an penalty regarding their ability whatsoever.  The danger comes from combat against the other, not the player's agenda against moral-making rule systems.


  1. Interesting you should post this now, as I've recently been on a wuxia (and martial arts in general) kick for a few weeks. I agree with you 100% about not restricting players morally, and the fact remains that even if every evil monk in every wuxia film gets defeated by the heroic monks, that still leaves an untold number of less-prominent, but just as evil, martial artists still roaming the Martial World.

    Speaking of that, I just re-watched The Magic Blade, and it makes me think of something. The hero does want to defeat Mr. Yu, who rules the Martial World, but how long has Mr. Yu held that position? Ten years? More? It's obvious that Yu is "evil", but that hasn't stopped him from ruling everything until such time as a challenger contests his rank. (This is one reason I like having the hierarchy of opponents built-in to the rules; perhaps Mr. Yu started off as a Novice back in his day...)

  2. At the risk of sounding edition biased and saying anything good about the current WotC team, this is one thing I enjoy about what 5e has done. Their paladin class is no longer constrained by the traditional paladin code. There are options for how the paladin views the world, and it is the strength of their convictions that give them their supernatural powers.

    This allows for much greater complexity in the decision making process, while still requiring the player to make meaningful choices. It changes the question from "Is this lawful, good, and within a narrow band of acceptable choices" to "Is this truly an action in line with what I believe, and if it is not, does what I believe change?"

    I agree that this is not without difficulties still. If a player chooses to play a paladin, chooses a personal code that aligns well with the type of character they want to play, and then completely ignores that code, what should the DM do?

    It should not be the DM's job to force players to play their character in a certain way, but the source of that character's supernatural abilities is now being called into question.

    It is not that they lose their knowledge or natural ability, it is that their connection to what gave them abilities that have no correlation in the real world is severed.

    If a mage chooses not to study, does he still have the ability to cast spells? If a cleric ceases to pray, or acts at cross purposes with her deity, does she continue to be granted divine favour?

    To bring this back to the monk, the question is from whence does he derive his supernatural ability, or is it even supernatural? If the monk's abilities are merely a function of science and understanding the nature of reality, then unless the nature of reality is such that the eschewing of attachment and pleasure is what brings that power, no code of behavior is necessary. If on the other hand adherence to such a code is what brings the ability to act as a monk, then not following it would necessarily prevent a monk from functioning at her full capacity.

    Granted, at that point it seems like playing a monk would be as unappealing as playing a lawful stupid paladin.

  3. Joey,

    There's a lot there, but I'll try to get to the meat of it. In my game, the cleric praying or the mage studying to get spells are mechanical processes. They don't require no more behavior than a fighter putting on armor. So if clerics don't pray, correct, clerics does not get spells back.

    But my system is built in a way that the cleric CANNOT operate at cross-purposes to the deity. Whatever the cleric does, however the cleric acts, the cleric still believes in the god ~ and it is belief, not actions, that counts.

    Certainly, the cleric can act at crosspurposes to a given Church. But then, everyone can, and with the same results. If anyone started targeting Catholic priests, the Catholic Church would excommunicate the villain and then pursue elimination.

    Fighter, cleric, makes no difference. But the cleric wouldn't lose their spells, because all the god cares about is belief. And one cleric isn't likely to be able to kill enough believers to put the god in danger. Other clerics will catch up to the rogue cleric first.

    If the paladin ignores their code, so what? Does the game change? Are there now no challenges or obstacles? Is anyone hurt? Where's my motivation for punishing misbehaviour?

    Short of anything truly reprehensible, I don't care if the paladin kills a fictional character - any character - in game. As long as it is socially polite between players. I wrote recently that I'd let players run slaves out of Africa if they so chose. That goes for the paladins, the monks and the clerics too.

    I don't have alignment. I don't consider the clerical spells or the paladin abilities to be "divine favour." I consider all that to be Gygaxian horseshit, piled into the game out of the man's personal moral bias, built up from however the hell his parents treated him or corrupted him when he was a young boy.

    This is a game. Paladins do what they do because they are paladins.

  4. I do feel very much in the Alexis boat of:

    This is the abilities the class has, you chose them because this is how you intend to meet the ends.

    If there aren't obvious mechanical strict reasons why those abilities cant be used, there are really no limits outside that.

    It just pisses me off when a DM tells me a barbarian has to be a wild man from a tribe who wouldn't have hirelings because he's too chaotic.

    I think I am playing my character DM, you do you, I'll do me, or I'll take me to do me elsewhere.

    On the bright side, I don't think said DM would punish me for it, and I think he's persuadable, but yeah, alignment and class behavioral restrictions are generally a load of bull for me.

    Though I do know folks who feel opposite. That you pick the class for their behaviors and then just happen to get those abilities. They tend to be the ones that say their abilities suck every session though...


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