It’s been, um, a little while now since the History of the Classes column covered character classes rather than social classes. Other than the Warlock, Part Zero, back in October, I haven’t covered classes since February of last year. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you’ve enjoyed all of the other things I’ve covered in the intervening time. Today, we’re starting in on the monk, which I can safely call another of the most controversial classes in D&D, and by far the most often banned of the “standard” core classes, according to statistics that I just made up (but based on conversations I see online).

Supplement II: Blackmoor

In 1975, TSR released Supplement II: Blackmoor, following on Supplement I: Greyhawk. Neither of these supplements have much to do with the settings listed in the titles; instead, the twin Demiurges of D&D each released a supplement with a bunch of rules from their own tables. It is, first and foremost, a reminder that D&D has always been a rules-hacking playground. The DM’s Guild page for this product has some great commentary, but nothing could beat Tim Kask’s Vituperative Insult Hour comments on Arneson’s failings as a cogent writer at the time.

All of us started somewhere. Lord knows I wouldn’t care to be held accountable for the game design work I created in my teens and early 20s.

Anyway, the monk. Prior to this point, all of the character classes are explicitly European-friendly; that’s the apple-cart that the monk upsets, and that’s the fundamental reason that it’s so often banned. Because how many “lone traveler from distant exotic lands” can you really have? (Answer: one per campaign should do it.) I don’t really want to get into the issues of race and monoculture that suffuse this 42-year-old conversation, because I’m not real likely to change anyone’s minds. I’ll simply say that D&D has a lot of awkward-fit classes, subclasses, races, and so on, and it’s always been hilariously bad as a history lesson, so maybe let’s just chill. On the other hand, monks have a more narrowly defined social role and origin than most classes, so I would like to see creative energy pumped into diversifying their story beyond “I went to a monastery or dojo and learned stuff, now I wander the world without significant material needs.”

To the one monk in my own campaign, this comment doesn’t apply to you. You did a top-flight job of working with me to create a graceful fit with the rest of the setting.

The original monk, then, is a variant within the cleric class that shares zero features with the cleric, except for saving throws.

  • Monks require Str 12+, Dex 15+, and Wis 15+. This is fairly prohibitive, but nowhere near as much so as other exclusive classes.
  • Interestingly, the original monk has no alignment restrictions, though they skew heavily toward lawful. It sort of feels like this is the only monk before 4e that actually watched movies about monks, to see that many of them have a trickster nature.
  • “Monks must treat treasure as do paladins.” This is a perfect example of awful information presentation, because it presumes you own Supplement I: Greyhawk just to use Supplement II: Blackmoor. It at least makes more sense for all monks to be ascetic than all paladins.
  • No armor, but with a scaling AC from class. The base AC of 9 at 1st level means that the overwhelming majority of monks don’t survive 1st level because…
  • d4s for Hit Dice, eventually capping at 16d4. Survivability looks like a major problem until the mid-levels, much like for magic-users. That comparison is going to get borne out.
  • Monks may use all weapons, oddly enough, and add half their level as a bonus to damage with weapons.
  • Or they can fight unarmed, doing very little (1d4) damage with one attack per round at 1st level, scaling up to 4d10 damage with each of four attacks per round at 16th Uh. Yeah, I’m sure using a weapon sounds like a viable alternative. Right. But also, you have terrible damage output to match your near-zero survivability at 1st level, so that’s good.
    • The rules explaining attacks per round and such are, with apologies to Tim Kask, total moon language. “…for example if a Grand Master (6th level) is fighting without weapon against an opponent whose dexterity is not of the highest or who is not magically aided the monk will attack twice for each attack his opponent is allowed.” I don’t know what Dexterity has to do with it! Is this explained somewhere else in the impenetrable annals of OD&D? Help me, internet!
  • If their unarmed strike hits by 5 or more, they either stun the opponent (75% of the time) for 3d4 turns (so 30-120 minutes… I think? I’m not super clear on OD&D timeframes), or kill them outright (25% of the time).
  • Also, their move speed scales with level, nearly tripling over the course of the progression.
  • Monks are hard to surprise, and OD&D’s bizarre mechanic where every creature has their own unique mechanic to resist or gain surprise is on full display.
  • Monks can open locks, remove traps, listen, climb, move silently/hide in shadows, and moving silently. This is not a typo on my part. “Move/ing silently” is listed twice, the first time pegged to Halfling thief progression, the second time pegged to thief progression.
  • At 4th level, monks can speak with animals.
  • At 8th level, monks can speak with plants. What’s up, plants?
  • At 5th level, monks can feign death, slipping into torpor for (1d6 x monk level) turns. (A turn is 10 minutes.)
  • At 6th level, monks gain resistance to ESP – unless I misunderstand, that resistance is functionally 90% + 1% per level above 6th.
  • At 7th level, monks gain what later editions call Wholeness of Body, a small 1/day self-heal. This scales slightly with level.
  • At 8th level, monks become immune to suggestion and hypnosis.
  • At 10th level, monks resolve telepathy used against them as if they have 18 Intelligence, and become immune to Quests and Geasa. (The text says Geases. I, however, know just enough Irish Gaelic to be dangerous. Thanks, years of LARPing!)
  • At 13th level, monks gain the terrible Quivering Palm, usable once per week. Once per week, the monk can instantly and with no die roll (apparently) necessary kill a creature that has as many hit dice as the monk or fewer. In theory, you could initiate the Quivering Palm, then wait a number of days up to your monk level before killing the creature. In practice, you probably just decide to kill whatever it is immediately.
  • Monks can dodge missile weapons (finally some actual, low-level survivability help!) with a successful save versus Death Ray or Poison (which I think was the cleric’s good save?), and can dodge “magic missiles of any sort” (guys, this is a really ambiguous phrase in D&D) with a successful save versus Staves & Spells.
  • Monks otherwise take no effect from any successful save (3.x jargon: Evasion/Mettle) and half damage from a failed save (Improved Evasion).
  • Monks have severe restrictions on the magic items they’re allowed to use, and cannot gain hirelings ever, except for short-term gigs. They gain followers at 6th level, with another laundry list of restrictions on who those followers can be.

And that’s the monk. The flowery level titles are in full effect here; I particularly like “Immaculate” at 4th level. They also have to punch their way to the top, from 6th all the way to 16th, and the rules call out the possibility that you are fighting another PC for the level (and, if you win, demoting that PC to your previous level, even stripping them of XP). Monks magically know (“treat as a Geas”) where to find their opponent. I cannot describe how glad I am that the whole “win a duel or you don’t get to level” thing is gone. A casual glance at the values for open-handed damage, attacks per round, and hit points suggests that you could boil the duels down to an initiative roll and pretty much call it good.

A lot of the long-term design trends that only 4e really breaks are in evidence here: unarmed attacks are as good as or better than armed ones (the damage bonus with weapons is a surprise, but a worthless one unless the weapon does multiple dice of damage), a scaling unarmored AC bonus, lots of attacks per round, lots of mental resistance or immunity, a self-heal, several unique agility-related features, and Quivering Palm. The wide range of thieving skills was unexpected, though we will see that later editions’ monks have superior skills to Karl Q. Fighterbro.

All told, and with an exception for 4e, this might be one of the least changed classes in the whole history of D&D, though 5e’s mechanics are cleaner, saner, and better balanced than these by any standard. The standouts, then, are the things that have gone away: opening locks, disarming traps, speaking with animals and plants, and the ultra-crit rules. The OD&D monk is a blend of ninja assassin (surprise advantages, stealth, weapon and unarmed murder powers) and enlightened soul; over the next several articles in this series, this stays the same, save for a lot of tinkering in how to present the “enlightened soul” part.


Rules Cyclopedia

But there’s another monk in OD&D: the Rules Cyclopedia Mystic. It’s pretty similar to the one above, so I’ll take this at high speed:

  • A better hit die (d6, woo!)
  • XP bonuses from high ability scores! This is stated unnecessarily confusingly; the short version is that mystics need Dex and Wisdom to qualify for the class, but get their XP boost from Strength. It’s weird.
  • Mystics must never break an oath. If they do so, they are kicked out of their order, stop gaining levels, and lose one level per year until they complete a “grand quest” to redeem their honor and standing. Harsh.
    • To my knowledge so far (I haven’t read the 1e or 2e monks recently enough to recall), this is an idea that falls away from D&D monks completely after this single appearance, but resurfaces in Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed, with the oathsworn class.
  • Mystics’ unarmed attacks now strike as silver or increasingly powerful magic weapons.
  • Mystics can use several fighter combat maneuvers.
  • Mystics can opt into an Acrobatics feature. If they do, they suffer a -20% hit to XP earned. There’s a baseline Acrobatics skill that I guess anyone can learn, and then all the extra stuff that mystics can do with it. The baseline is a pretty nebulous “yes you can acrobatics,” along with reducing falling damage by 10 ft. To this the mystic adds what I’ll translate as “ignore difficult terrain on a successful check” and “pass through an enemy’s space.”
    • Because just one resolution mechanic would be silly, the rules block offers two options. One of them is sensible (d20, roll under Dex), while the other looks like it was lifted from Chaosium’s BRP system. I dunno.
  • Thief abilities are still here; their success chances now make some sense.
  • The mystic gets a progression of special mystic abilities, all of which basically resemble things listed in the Supplement II version above. Things move around in level a bit, but the meaningful changes are that Speak with Plants gets dropped for Speak with Anyone, which is an early version of the Tongue of Sun and Moon feature we see in later editions; and Quivering Palm has been switched to Gentle Touch, letting you apply one effect to the target you touch, from a short list. Death is still on the list, along with charm, quest, cureall, or paralysis.
    • Also, it’s now once per day, rather than once per week, and the delayed-effect thing is gone. (It’ll be back.)
  • The scaling of AC is more powerful, while the scaling of damage is nerfed very slightly (3d12 at the top end, rather than 4d10). They still have four attacks per round.
  • The dueling-to-advance thing is still here, but doesn’t kick in until 10th level.

The mystic is a clear improvement over the monk in many areas of clarity and function, but it’s still incredibly hard to survive at the lowest levels and incredibly overpowered at the highest. It doesn’t significantly alter the themes of the monk, other than the punishment for oathbreaking, but it’s a little better at expressing those themes.

Next time in the History of the Monk: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, First Edition. Judging by what the Wikipedia page on the monk class says, we are in for quite a weird ride, as there are a lot of internal variations at stake here.

  • MTi

    Yay!!! HotC is back. I’d love to see this reach 5e, as in my current campaign there is a Monk PC.

    And your statistic is fairly accurate, in my homebrew setting Monks are really limited and I know many people that have banned them.

    • I certainly intend to continue until I’m done. 😉

      It will be a good while, though, as I anticipate many weeks going to Unearthed Arcana for as long as they’re posting every week. My schedule doesn’t make two articles per week a realistic possibility most of the time.

      Colin’s fan dancer monk (recently updated in his blog) is especially noteworthy for fitting the monk into less explicitly Asian cultures, and without making cloisters or monasteries part of the story.

    • Colin McLaughlin

      To be fair, it DID start as a joke…I just kept getting questions about it. I am glad, because I do like it.

    • Shane

      My group’s answer to the issue of “making the monk thematically fit” was to discard the Asian themes in favor of having them be luchador wrestlers. I was skeptical, but they had a lot of fun with it.

    • Colin McLaughlin

      Well now I just want to replay Guacamelee

  • Tim Baker

    It’s fun to see a new class break-down. I’m glad you included the Mystic.

  • Ex_Phase

    I’m running a homebrew Asian inspired campaign but it’s heavily inspired by history. So there’s a Buddha analogue of sorts that is the God of Light but he started out as a monk who would travel and spread his teachings. Now that he’s a god along with clerics of light and paladins, monks also follow his teachings.

    There is a silk road analogue called the serpent’s tail that used to run passed the Blasted Desert. And monks that follow Tantra (god of light) traveled to far off lands and spread his teachings, allowing for monks to exist elsewhere.

  • Monks have always been an odd fit in the quasi-Europeanish world of D&D but as long as DM and player were willing to work together, you could usually find some sort of solution. How much stranger than elf wizards and dwarven clerics is a human monk after all?

    • Elves, dwarves, wizards, and clerics all have roots in Europe and its legends, at least. It’s fantasy, you can make anything do or be anything you want, but let’s not pretend that the monk is a seamless fit if you’re trying to draw on European imagery and stories.

      It’s a pretty good start to emphasize that Imperial Rome knew about China and traded for their silk, and the Parthians had more direct contact with both, by acting as gatekeepers for that trade route. (I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t know here.)

  • Erik Filean

    “Ed Gruberman, you have failed to grasp Ti Kwan Leep. Approach me, that you might see….”

  • Mikey Kromhout

    One thing to note is that I believe that since con bonus to HP was done by hit dice that monks gain more than most from having high con (16xcon bonus is not bad though it sadly is limited to +2). Of course getting that and the other ability scores really hurts. I am also unsure whether this version of the monk is the same as the one in the 1e AD&D book though it sounds the same. I assume you are also going to do the Oriental adventures one from 1e because that one is slightly different from the normal 1e version. I would also point out that in a Dragon Magazine from the 1e AD&D times they made a “fixed” monk that they thought was better that I found in a random magazine I got from a store. The most interesting part about it is that it connects the monk with psionics which is a prelude of sorts to monk prcs in 3e and of course the 4e monk (which despite its flaws is really fun to play).

    As for the mystic in the Rules Cyclopedia it also gets its extra attacks with melee and thrown weapons (not ranged weapons though that was the case for the fighter too so not so bad). Also unlike the fighter they do not need to hit with a 2+ in order to get them (nice). In a game with weapon mastery a monk would probably be better off using a weapon if they can get a high level of mastery with it (also remember the optional rule for bonus damage for getting really high rolls against bad AC) or at the very least it is one of the very few ways of improving their AC from its base (think using the staff at grand mastery that is a nice bonus to AC AND you get to deflect attacks too). I think it is strange that we do not have a weapon mastery for mystic attacks (there is for pummeling but that gets weird fast). They also get resistance which is essentially evasion (I think it is interesting that all versions of the monk except the 2e BG2 monk/cleric monks all get at least access to if not automatic acquisition of a version of evasion).

    • OD&D is endlessly perplexing to me, and I’m never sure which edition within OD&D uses which rules – I don’t have copies of all of them for cross-referencing. I HAD thought that extra hit points from a high Con was a later innovation than 1975, but I might be talking out my ass. (Seriously, please educate me on this point, with citations if feasible.)

      I absolutely plan to cover the 1e PHB and 1e OA. I hope to track down that issue of Dragon, either in my own sadly disorganized collection, or online.

      I think I mentioned it back when I covered psionics, more than a year ago, but Eldritch Wizardry lays down the law that monks (and druids) can NEVER have psionic potential. There’s no suggestion of why this should be so, but based on a casual comparison of the monk and druid to the other classes mentioned in Eldritch Wizardry, I’m going to say “some vague idea of game balance.” (I’m sure that’s not it.)

      Thank you very much for the additional detail on RC – much like other OD&Ds, it is dense and byzantine in its presentation. to my eyes. I do remember that the weapon mastery rules were surprisingly compelling.

    • Mikey Kromhout

      I am on vacation now but when I get home I will look for my issue of Dragon and see if it says what issue it is from (I believe mine is a compilation issue taking the “best of the best” from a number of previous issues but I would assume it would cite the original issue somewhere). If I do it in time I will respond here and let you know.

      I forgot you were doing a pre-1e version of the monk I am not sure if the con bonus to HP applies here or not though I am fairly certain it does in 1e.

      Funny that they say monks have no psionic potential and then in Dragon Mag make a monk that has psionic influences (but as far as I recall no overt psionic powers as we know them).

      I wonder if you are going to do the monk from Baldurs Gate 2? It is not a book but it was licensed by TSR (later WotC). It gets weirder because it is a strange combo of the 1e and 3e monks. They clearly designed it to work as the 3e monk but used parts of the 1e monk to fill out the blanks. It is the closest we get to the “traditional” D&D monk in 2e I believe compared to the fighting monk kit in “The Complete Priest’s Handbook” or the later Monk class that was also a modified priest class.

    • I would appreciate the information. =)

      There’s no question that the 1e monk gets bonus hit points from Con, yeah. =) I’ll cover this in more detail when I write the article, but having a 16 to throw into Con along with all of the monk’s other bullshit stat requirements is… probably a good sign that the player is cheating.

      Yeah, I find the anti-psionic monk bizarre. Looking forward in class evolution, 4e goes back to the ki = psionics well, but 4e’s presentation is unpersuasive; the monk’s “psionics” feel nothing at all like what the other psionic classes are doing.

      I will try to remember to fold in some discussion of BG2 when I get to 2e. Thanks to UA articles keeping me busy, that’s probably a couple of months off, so if I forget, remind me in the comments and I’ll add it in. =)

  • crimfan

    I could see ways of making the monk less quasi-kung fu. Examples:

    -Hasan-i-Sabah type assassins were very much part of Crusader lore and the shadowdancer monk fits that well. If you have a campaign more built on the Mediterranean world that would fit nicely.

    -Making a monk run with Charisma and Dexterity instead of Wisdom might be pretty cool for, say, an elf martial dancer. (I never could figure out why bladesingers were wizards and not sorcerers from 3.X on.)

    • Conflating the monk and assassin into, well, ninjas of whatever derivation is certainly a viable way to go, though the more you bring it into Eurocentric settings, the more it starts to supplant the thief.

      Funny enough, around the time I wrote this article, Colin released his revision of his fan dancer monk, and we had exactly this conversation; I think he settled on making them a Wis/Cha blend rather than Dex/Cha, for various reasons.

      You make a good point about the bladesinger; I assume the logic is roughly:
      1. In 2e, we wanted to support sun elves as mages, so Int bonus.
      2. In 3e, we wanted to change ability score adjustments for race as little as possible.
      3. Sun elves should be good at bladesinging, so bladesinging should privilege Int.
      4. Bladesinging is wizardry rather than sorcery.

      (I’m not checking my books right now, so could be wrong about any of this.) A superficial look at elf racial lore in myth and D&D strongly suggests that a Cha bonus is in order, but Cha was so nearly useless for so many editions that Gygax and TSR never saw it that way.

    • crimfan

      I’ll have to look at the fan dancer.

      The reason I thought of the Hasan-i-Sabah type assassin for the monk is the fact that it was thought of as being mystical, which the monk definitely is, compared to the rogue, who’s not really so. The rogue is highly skilled, the monk is doing things that are impossible. Both might exist in the same organization, or you can use the mystical vs. martial as a tension in the campaign, say having two rival groups of assassins, one being the shadowdancers and the other the rogue assassin. Having two rival cultures, one organized in a mystical fashion and having a lot of casters and the other in a martial one with non-caster classes might be very cool more broadly.

      A very Western European centered campaign… yeah, I don’t think they fit too well, but if you have a Marco Polo type campaign, Crusades, Byzantine Empire, or Medieval Russia, etc., things are much more cosmopolitan and mystic warriors like that start fitting much better. They’re still exotic but not totally out of place. All that said, even in Matter of France and Matter of Britain, there are still some exotic characters floating around, such as Sir Palamedes the Saracen Knight. One might want to get rid of unarmed combat and replace it with weapons that just happen to scale in damage with level the way unarmed combat does and otherwise do some editing.

      I’m pretty sure you’re right about the progression. It’s as I remember it. There weren’t Charisma casters before 3E.

    • crimfan

      Apropos my mystical-vs.-non, a good breakdown might be:

      More martial classes: Fighters, rogues, wizards, clerics, paladins

      More mystical classes: Barbarians, bards, druids, sorcerers, monks, warlocks

      Or something like that, anyway.

      I think Scarred Lands back in the 3E days had something like this with different races having been on the side of the gods vs. the titans.

    • Fan dancer:

      I dig what you’re saying on the Hasan-i-Sabah, though the mystical/martial distinction plays weirdly to me – to butcher Clarke’s quote, any sufficiently refined training and athletic ability looks like magic. Hence wuxia, and so on. Having said that, within D&D’s context, what you’re describing is awesome and would be fun in a campaign.

      Transplants-from-afar are always an option, but that sets up the monk as a solitaire and outsider. Working the monk into local society is what I’m chasing here, because the story of the exotic transplant is all played out for me. Your mileage most certainly may vary!

    • crimfan

      Exotic outsider is played out, though in a more cosmopolitan campaign set in a port or great city such as a pseudo-Constantinople, you can have communities or enclaves that are outsiders who dwell long term in a city, which softens the blow. I’ve been in Chinatown in NYC a lot recently and was very much reminded of how such enclaves certainly exist today. During Spring Festival (aka Lunar New Year) there’s a lot of martial arts demonstrations in the street with dragons and drums. (I was hoping rivals would throw down with each other, but alas….) The community speaks Chinese to each other (or code switches). Signs are in Chinese. I was at a funeral that was conducted mostly in Chinese.

      Mystical vs. martial is something I’d want to play out in terms of something very integrated in the campaign. For instance, the martial classes may intentionally renounce more mystical forms of magic, and could be connected to some particular gods or to a race, such as humans vs others. For instance, the wizard may be a way to get around the renunciation of “natural” magic based on Charisma casting. Where the monk fits in that isn’t so great, but you could also have a Wisdom, Charisma, and Intelligence three-way conflict, such as natural magic (Charisma) vs. divine (Wisdom) vs. scholarly or technical magic (Intelligence), and then organize things accordingly.