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.