Monday, February 27, 2017

Martial Artists and Monks     

You wouldn't expect, looking at how the monk character class is portrayed in recent editions, that it was one of the original classes, but it was!  A lot of original D&D players may not necessarily remember the monk, until you mention the Master of Flowers, and then you might hear: "oh yeah!  That class that nobody actually played!"  Master of Flowers was the designation for the highest level of monk.  But monks were woefully poor choices as an early D&D class.  Some might argue that monks have never really been a popular class, in all of their incarnations.  Some monks were clerical spell casters, some were martial artists, some were sort of fantasy superheroes, but monks have had a hard time finding a place in D&D.

Part of this, of course, is due to D&D's default "European" setting.  Player characters are assumed to be from a feudal kingdom, generally one with at least one huge trade metropolis, medieval style guilds, and soldiers armed with metal armor and weapons as far as the eye can see.  The economics of such societies is often woefully inadequate, especially with adventurers coming out of the dungeon with thousands of gold pieces upon which they never seem to pay any taxes.  But the flavor is European.

Non-European settings are often treated by D&D as places where adventures may happen, but the adventurers themselves are not local.  This theme has extended throughout the history of D&D, so that since classic adventures such as the Desert of Desolation up to more modern adventures such as the Mummy's Mask, the heroes are always assumed to be European-style folks traveling to a distant land of mystery.  Moreover, the stereotypes and tropes used to represent non-European settings are often problematically racist.

Oriental Adventures

Yes, the name is terrible, and I make no apologies for it.  Oriental Adventures was fantasy Asia from an entirely Western perspective.  As far as I know, no Asian writers of any sort had credits in the book.  This book was Asian culture as viewed through the lens of martial arts movies.  And the monk class has the same general origin.

Oriental Adventures was dropped after Third Edition, and this was probably a good idea.  It probably should have been dropped earlier, in favor of a more authentic setting.  But I suspect that it had nothing to do with a desire for authenticity, and had more to do with a shift in what Western popular culture thought about Asia.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Asian fantasy adventures (as seen by the West) were based on Hong Kong movies, Japanese video games, and samurai/ninja in comic books.  The basic tropes were established:  a secret order of monks in the mountains who teach mystical martial arts, a loyal samurai who has lost honor and must wander as a ronin, massive numbers of ninja who melt out of the shadows and attack without mercy.  But in the 1990s, these were entirely supplanted by a new genre: anime.  Well, the Japanese video games weren't supplanted, they just quickly followed along with the anime trend.

Monks were drawn from Chinese historical martial arts movies, and Western books that were inspired by the same.  And the stories told in many of those movies fit in nicely with the medieval era swords and sorcery of early D&D.  But anime was another thing entirely.  Yes, there were sometimes martial arts, but the context was generally very far from standard Western fantasy.  It was a further bridge, and it was one that the creators of D&D did not want to cross.  So the monk remained the same, and continues to be a strange niche class: only remaining in the D&D setting due to having always been there.

Does D&D Have to Be Western?

What Oriental Adventures attempted to prove was that the archetypes of fighters and wizards, clerics and rogues, could transcend a Western setting.  Other settings did the same for the Middle East (Al-Qadim) and Africa (Nyambe) among others, all written (however well-meaningly) by Westerners.  But what I think these settings ended up proving was that D&D was not flexible enough to translate to a non-Western setting, at least not the way it was being written.  Because in order to accommodate these new settings, they required new, specific rules at every level.

Let's suppose that our story goal is to be able to tell stories in a non-Western culture.  Of the classes as they are written now, some will be perfectly adequate to the task (the fighter) and some will not (the druid).  The component rules can help a lot with that.  Instead of making up a new character class, we can tweak an existing one to fit better within our new campaign world.  If Armored Fighters simply aren't a feature, we can remove that component and replace it with something more fitting.  The system can be setting agnostic.  But the components, perhaps, should not be.  In the same way that Heritage can be designed around a culture specific to the campaign world, and Domain Components can be designed around a specific religion, a component can also bring a particular setting to life.

In the case of the monk, it seems clear that this Setting Component has to do with the use of ki as the source of some of the monk's abilities.  We already know that the monk has the Agile component.  We can see the likelihood of a Martial Artist component to encompass Flurry of Blows and increased damage with Unarmed Combat.  The religious avocation that the monk is named for is a tertiary component at best.  So that leaves the ki powers as a likely secondary component that is specific to a campaign world.  It can be taken by the monk or other classes for a campaign set in the world where ki powers are a thing.  It can also be swapped out for something else to make the monk class fit better in a setting where ki powers are not a thing.

Next post:  More on ki powers and setting components!

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