Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Non-Problem of Making Monks Fit Your Setting

One of the biggest complaints I see from DMs regarding base classes is the monk. Not because they have a rule problem with them, per se, but rather because monks just don't feel right to them. Or, to paraphrase a lot of the arguments I see, "What is a wire-fu martial artist doing in my version of Lord of The Rings?"

Taking names and kicking ass would be my guess.
And sure, I get it. Some DMs would rather not have orange-clad, kung-fu monks spouting Eastern philosophy and inner peace in their non-Eastern settings. Even though, you know, people can travel all over the world, and a monk on a pilgrimage is kind of an ideal way to bring one of those PCs in from a foreign setting if that's what the player wants to do. But okay, you don't want any Eastern-style martial arts masters in your game.

Don't ban monks. Make Western martial arts masters, instead.

Give Your Monks A Makeover

I talked about this forever and a day ago in What's In A Name? How Character Class is Limiting Your Creativity, but the points made there need reiteration from time to time. So, power wash all of the flavor text away, and look at this class's skeleton. A monk, at its foundation, is a character who is a capable unarmed combatant, with the ability to achieve supernatural feats while wearing no armor, and who eventually becomes immune to disease, and the grip of aging.

Are you telling me you can't think of any way you can make that fit your local setting?

Start with the Brothers of Fire, and go from there.
- The Hammerhands: Warriors from the north, these men wade into battle with lightning in their eyes, and thunder in their fists. With bellowing war cries, they smash shields and break bones with their bare hands. They move with the speed and ferocity of the storm, leaving wreckage in their wakes.

- Burners: One part slam-music fight club and one part performance art, the Street-Corner Order of The Inferno both fascinates and terrifies. Called Burners by most, everything is frenetic energy and heat in their moshing war pits. Those who embrace the fire, though, can call on it to do the impossible. Heal over wounds with nary a scar, destroy diseases and poisons, and allow them to dance away from blows with the unpredictability of a flame's chaotic movements.

- Blackouts: The only thing scarier than an orc warrior with a sword in hand, is one who doesn't wear a sword at all. When the dwarven King Urdo The Overconfident moved on the Black Mountains to take them, he never expected what was waiting. Specially-trained orc commandos, called Blackouts, moved through the tunnels like ghosts, leaving dead sentries behind them without so much as a sound. It wasn't until one of these warriors infiltrated the king's own tent, and had a hand at his throat, that the King realized what a mistake he had made.

And that's just off the top of my head.

The Sky is The Limit, Here

There really is no limit to how you can spin monks. Whether they're adherents to a religious order, trained by a select branch of the military, half-mad punk rock cultists, or something else entirely, make a kind of monk that fits your game if you don't like the stereotype associated with the class. And, if you're still having trouble, take a look at the 5 Tips For Playing Better Monks post I put together a while back.

Because it's true that PCs need to fit your world. But if your players really want a monk, then why not expand your world and meet them halfway? Especially if you end up with stick-fighting Friar Tuck cracking skulls and butting heads while quoting bits of battlefield wisdom at his foes in between slugs of communion wine... because that sounds like a pretty awesome character to have at your table.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully it gave you all some ideas, and you're having fun following this rabbit hole down as far as it goes. For more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I chip in and make stuff with other talented gamers. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buy Me A Coffee. I really appreciate any help you can give, and it does make a big difference.


  1. Also of note: the Ancient Greeks had regular, consistent contact with China. Apples, silk, cinnamon, most non-yellow dyes like blue and purple, pipeweed (and the practice of smoking), chickens, and just about anything vaguely resembling flavor came from Asia. Images of the Buddha were created first by the Greeks. Asian contact in Europe was the single most important monetary concern in the middle ages - it wasn't just the Muslims taking the holy land that incensed the Europeans to make war, it was also blocking the trade routes to Asia.

  2. I think people are having a "that's were the mony is" (see John Dillinger if your courious). The rules read game balance implications of the class are not a problem. However the narrative implication of it being physically/metaphysically possible for such a thing to be effective is genre braking. As such this doesn't answer the objection.

    1. I think the whole objection of "this is genre breaking" is ridiculous when the class in question is a core part of the game. Fantasy is so wide and flexible that the only limits are the ones we put on it ourselves.

    2. the genre your braking is midevel feudalism. The power imbalance that maintains the system is inhareted warlordship by inhareted military power. And that is due to the supremacy of expensive arms and armer. when the causts and/or supremacy weaken the feudal systems is undermined (as the 18th and 19th centuries demonstrate). this means, if I want kings and ducks and barons and serfs as my political system (I do) and want systems and histories that are plausible for the physics derived from the rules (also something I want), the power-set of the monk class has tobe imposible or the political/economic logic of the setting falls apart.

    3. Perhaps I missed something then... but how is a monk being able to leap three times the height of a man less historically accurate than wizards throwing fireballs, or druids shapeshifting into bears?

      If you're playing a game that's meant to re-enact history as it was, then no, no one will have chi powers. However, there WILL be connections between Europe and Asia, as that's where the major trade routes had been since the days of ancient Greece, and they were a large reason for the crusades.

      My advice is not to get so hung up on the history of a world that is NOT Earth, has never been Earth, and thus has no obligation to look, feel, or act like Earth.

    4. I think magic breaks feudalism more than a guy who punches people hard

    5. Perhaps not, as magical training is likley exclusive and very expensive. Monk training could easily be storied as even more exclusive, making them very rare.
      If every farmer can be trained to be an unarmed, unarmoured war machine or wazard ether would break such a system. But heros are by definition exceptional so there shouldn't be an issue with them being special, like everyday monks are acrobats and street performers but a few take it to a level of mastery that borders on magic.

  3. I've always been a fan of pugilists - either a back room brawler (think a medieval version of the movie Snatch) or the "gentleman boxer", springing to action with fists raised & asking in a plummy accent if they will be using "Queensbury rules, old chap?". Either can work for a monk - depending on archetype - & given the abilities of other party members, there no reason why the more esoteric abilities have to be declared to be class-linked.

  4. The three part structure of Medieval Feudalism (peasants/priests/nobles) is as much a myth as Middle Earth, ignoring as it does the very existence of the merchant and artisan classes. In real history, there were Western monks proficient in lore, wrestling and brewing living out their lives in monasteries. Sure, they didn’t use Chi, but that hardly matters. They were there and theyhardly undermine the realities of Medieval life.

  5. When controversal race / class options are discussed, I tend to contemplate how *common* they are in the setting. Yes, it's quite feasible that an Easterner travelled thousands of miles to arrive here... but how common is that occurrence? Yes, maybe a human can mate with a dragon, but are their offspring so common that this adventuring party will have one, and the next party, and the one after that? If the answer is "no," then I don't consider these good candidates for "core" options. I try to respect how individual DM's rule these things for their own campaigns.

    All that said, this was a good read- especially for the Western reskinnings of the traditionally Eastern concept.


  6. The issue with the Monk class is that they are meant to represent a trope and archetype that to my knowledge wasn't present in the stories that formed the foundation of modern western fantasy.

    The trope of the quasi-mystical warrior that trained themselves to the point were their abilities boarded on and in some case crossed into the realm of the superhuman.

    That is is why people claim that Monks don't belong.

    1. And the point I'm making is that the DM can easily alter that flavor so the monkas in their games fit the setting. Just like how you can easily alter the flavor of any base class to be more organic in your game. Claiming that monks "just don't fit" is lazy DMing, pure and simple.