Another Monday without a UA article, so another Thursday with a new History of the Classes article: to every cloud, its silver lining. (Just a few hours late; I have a pretty unforgiving head cold.) Today I’m tackling one of the most tangled steps in the monk’s development, otherwise known as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (First Edition). As a reader kindly pointed out in the comments of last week’s article, there are three monks in 1e: the Player’s Handbook, a variant in Dragon Magazine #53, and finally Oriental Adventures. In terms of development over time, keep in mind that the 1e PH came before Mentzer’s BECMI, and BECMI was the source text for the Rules Cyclopedia, so it’s logical that the Mystic in last week’s article shows more development than what you’ll see here.

Part One | Part Two


Player’s Handbook

The text starts by calling out how unusual the monk class is, though what it really should have said is “we couldn’t be bothered to edit for clarity” (apologies to Mike Carr, but “ascetic” and “aesthetic” are not the same thing). It is certainly the messiest of the classes in the book. Maybe the funniest thing about the text is that it calls out how weak the monk seems (seriously, a whole paragraph on how bad the class is), and insists that that is a false perception. Turns out, no one went for this argument, which is why there are two more versions to talk about today.

  • Incredibly steep ability score requirements: Str 15+, Dex 15+, Wis 15+, Con 11+. No way to gain an XP bonus from prime requisites.
    • It still breaks my brain that monks gain a scaling AC justified through “agility,” but can never gain an AC bonus from Dex. A 1st level monk with 15 Dex (the minimum to be a monk) has an AC of 10. A 1st level fighter with no armor and a 15 Dex has an AC of 9. We’ll call this “mechanics that fail to support theme.”
  • Monks are now required to be Lawful, but may be any flavor of Lawful.
  • d4s for Hit Dice, but you get two of them at 1st level for a marginal boost in survivability. At 17th level, you have 18d4 HD, and 17 x any Con bonus. It would be mighty hard to still have another 15+ score to use on Con if you’ve already satisfied your Strength, Dex, and Wisdom requirements.
  • Not that it’s easy for players to know what this means, but monks use the thief attack roll table.
  • They still get half their level as a damage bonus with weapons, though the text later calls out that this bonus doesn’t keep up with the scaling of their unarmed attack damage and attacks per round. Gygax also seems to suggest that DMs would track half-points of damage.
  • Monks can still stun or kill targets if they hit by a margin of 5 or more. The stun is now 1d6 rounds, which is more okay.
    • Then things go completely off the rails. Monks don’t get Strength bonuses on to-hit or damage rolls, even though they are required to have a high Strength score. A stunned creature might instead be instantly killed, with a percentile roll based on a nearly unreadable sentence, but which boils down to (target’s AC + (monk’s level – 7)).
  • Saving throws as thieves; also they deflect nonmagical missiles with a save vs. petrification, and gain what we’ll later come to call Evasion; at 9th level, this improves to what we’ll later come to call Improved Evasion. I assume everyone reading this knows what I mean?
  • Monks are still resistant to surprise, starting at 33.3…% (I’m not sure how Gygax thinks that third-of-a-percentage-point is going to get rolled), and decreasing thereafter, to 32% at 2nd level and 2% per level thereafter.
  • Monks still have thief-like skills at thief-like progression.
  • Monks can slow their fall (reducing damage taken) from high places if they are within a certain distance of a wall.
  • AC scales from 10 at 1st level to -3 at 17th If you’re not familiar with editions prior to 3.0, remember that AC starts at 10 and counts down (or 9 in OD&D).
  • Move speed scales from 15” (150 feet per 1-minute combat round… I think…) to 32”; it’s 1” per level except for the very last level, when you gain 2”.
  • Attacks per round with unarmed strikes scales from 1 up to 4, passing through 5/4, 3/2, and 5/2 along the way. If you’re unfamiliar with 1e and 2e, 5/4 means that on the fourth round of combat, you make two attacks rather than one. This is miserable to try to remember during play, especially if you’re playing late into the night.
  • Unarmed strike damage scales from 1d3 to 8d4. It’s not a particularly smooth progression, jumping all over the place in its dice expressions. Also I don’t own 8d4.
  • And a bunch of additional special abilities, spread out from 3rd level to 13th level:
    • Speak with animals
    • Resistance to ESP
    • Immunity to disease, haste, and slow
    • Feign death. It’s funny to me how tactical application of feigning death became a through-line of monks for years, even showing up in EverQuest. The legendary origins of the monk have nothing to do with suddenly feigning death in combat, and more to do with meditative practice, but… sure, whatever.
    • A self-heal, for 1d4+1, increasing by one point per level thereafter. This is laughably small, even in 1e’s much smaller hit point totals.
    • Speak with plants. What’s up, plants?
    • A scaling percentage chance to resist beguiling, charms, hypnosis, and suggestion spells.
    • Telepathic and mind blast attacks resolve as if the monk has 18 Int. It kinda kills me that there are different resistance mechanics for each different form of mental influence or attack.
    • Immunity to poison
    • Immunity to geas and quest spells
    • Quivering Palm, which requires you to have a pretty good idea of the target’s Hit Dice (not more than your own) and hit points (not more than double your own) and doesn’t work on undead or creatures that require magic weapons to hit (since monk attacks aren’t magic in 1e). Also I don’t know how the game determines if you successfully touch someone to initiate the quivering palm.
  • Yada yada followers, restricted ability to accumulate treasure, no wearing armor, narrow list of magic items usable.

In summary, this class turns pretty good if you can survive low levels, but you can’t pick up hirelings to help you – you need party members for that. This is what we might today call an “AP Carry” class (to borrow some League of Legends jargon), much like the wizard. They’re great at high level, but before about 4th level, they are actually worse than having no one at all – they soak up a share of XP and need healing, but contribute almost nothing to encounters. By any modern standard, this class is awful.

Let’s see how Dragon Magazine #53 addresses the matter.


Dragon Magazine #53

Two articles in this issue, as well as the Sage Advice column, tackle the problems of the monk head-on. The first is a hack of the class, while the second drills down into the implications of the Player’s Handbook version. It’s a fine reminder that what we do here in Tribality is mighty similar to the early years of Dragon Magazine. Philip Meyers’s rant on the crippling issues of the core monk are worth the price of admission.

In short, he gives them a bunch of psi-like abilities. This is the first appearance of the monk as positively connected to psionics. If you’ve been reading the History of the Classes since back when I covered psionics, you may recall that OD&D psionics were specifically barred to monks and druids, for no obvious reason.

Meyers proceeds to expand the monk to 21 levels, beefing it up in nearly every regard:

  • d6s for Hit Dice (still granting two at 1st level)
  • Much faster experience progression, and expansion to 21 levels. The XP total to be a 21st-level monk in the new progression falls in the middle of 16th level of the old progression. (Thus restoring the magic-user to its “rightful” place as the most grueling XP progression.)
  • Base AC at 1st level is 6 rather than 10
  • Move speed is curtailed slightly, but it’s such a huge speed that no one will notice.
  • 5/4 attacks per round are gone, replaced with a slightly better but far easier to run progression.
  • Unarmed attacks start at 1d4 damage and scale up to 6d6. Considering that this peak comes at 21st level rather than 17th, it’s arguably a net reduction in power.
  • There’s now a special ability at every level. Philip Meyers foresaw the rejection of dead levels by, what, 22 years? Here, I’ll list only new or significantly changed abilities. They’re greatly rearranged, in any case.
    • Body equilibrium and mind over body, both psionic abilities with duration limits rather than PP costs
    • Empathy, a psionic ability, 1/day
    • Invisibility, a psionic power, but with a duration limit rather than a PP cost
    • Molecular manipulation, a psionic power, but only usable against inanimate objects. (That’s fine, it’s an incredibly inefficient way to deal damage by the time you’re an 8th-level monk.)
    • Slowed aging – the first appearance of what would become Timeless Body
    • Body control, a psionic ability, but with a duration limit rather than a PP cost
    • Dimension door, a magic-user spell (the first appearance of what would become 3.x’s Abundant Step)
    • Mind bar, a psionic ability (or a warning of a low-hanging pipe)
    • Object reading, a psionic ability
    • Dimension walk, a psionic ability, 1/day.
    • Astral projection, a cleric spell, 1/week (the first appearance of the second half of 5e’s Empty Body feature)
    • “A premonition of death or serious harm occurs to the monk 1-4 turns before the harmful event, 90% of the time.” Man, this would be difficult to run at the table if emergent play caused the danger.
    • Tower of iron will or intellect fortress, both psionic abilities, 1/day.
    • Planeshift, a cleric spell, 2/day.

There are also four “optional” addenda:

  • Large creatures (“10 feet or more in height”) take half damage from unarmed strikes, as do creatures with an AC of 0 or lower.
  • Cut Open Locks and Remove Traps.
  • Dueling to advance doesn’t kick in until 12th level.
  • Unarmed attacks deal damage as +1 weapons at 10th level and +2 weapons at 18th level.

When fine-tuning a class’s balance, there are certain challenges that one faces. In this case, I think we can comfortably say that the revised monk is too much, but getting to where I think it should be wouldn’t take anything more than some judicious cutting of special abilities. I’d suggest, for starters, that dimension walk, astral projection, and planeshift amount to being a bit redundant, and monks would be better served to have one or two more unified features granting resistance to mental influence, rather than five that work in unconnected ways. Still, this vision of the monk will prove to be transformative and influential in 4e’s Player’s Handbook III, and if you look past balance issues, it is an enjoyable martial arts flick waiting to happen.

But we have one more 1e monk left to go…


Oriental Adventures

Fortunately for the length of this article and the patience of my readers, the OA monk is very close to a simple rephrasing of the PH monk. So what’s different?

  • At 1st level, monks get a once-per-day Improved Evasion, which can be declared even after the saving throw roll.
  • The Slow Fall feature gets rewritten for simplicity’s sake.
  • Damage scaling on unarmed strikes now works completely differently, as each monk practices a Martial Arts style. There’s a six-page section later in the book on how to construct a Martial Arts style. It looks pretty familiar if you ever read the Complete Ninja’s Handbook, which is to say that it’s a perplexing mess. Anyway, as you advance in level, you deal additional dice of damage based on the damage die of your style and principal method.
  • Dueling to advance definitely starts at 8th level and, contrary to Meyers’s model, applies to all alignments equally.
  • There are no specific references in the text to monks not gaining Dexterity bonuses to AC or Strength bonuses to attack and damage. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I’ll charitably assume those restrictions were consciously removed (because that’s how it should be).

Gygax clearly wasn’t setting out to “fix” anything wrong with the Player’s Handbook monk; rather, he had a more detailed Martial Arts system he wanted to implement, and needed to rewrite the monk so that it plugged into it. The other OA-specific subsystems – family background and Honor – specifically cut the monk out, as the monk has a boatload of restrictions going even beyond the usual list.

To touch lightly on the Martial Arts system, it breaks combat down into a totally different granularity than we’re used to seeing in 1e combat. There are tons of special attacks, many of them pseudo-mystical. The system not only cares about whether you’re kicking, using various locks, pushing, head-butting, striking at vitals, throwing, or using a weapon the style teaches – it also cares whether you’re kicking backward (ugh, facing rules), using the Iron Fist technique (which changes your base unarmed damage to d10… unless your style isn’t fist-based, in which case only one attack uses a d10. This is still better than the completely impenetrable 1e punching and grappling system, in the same way that a claw hammer to the brainpan is better than a sledgehammer to same, all other things being equal.

This brings us – I think – to the end of the 1e monk. If you’re reading this and have played a monk in 1e, I’d like to hear about it. Based on the challenges of qualifying in the first place, to say nothing of the hard road ahead once you started out in the class, I’m guessing it’s a vanishingly small number of folks, but if I’m wrong, that’s awesome too.

The inclusion of detailed Martial Arts rules just highlights to me that the monk class is little more than an agile fighter with a heaping helping of legends, heightened with exoticism. If we viewed every other fighter as able to do the amazing things that one legend said one fighter could do one time, it would be quite a different class – and I think that’s the standard that gave rise to the monk as we see it.

Many thanks to the contributing readers who helped me find the material for this article, and an extra thanks to Geoffrey Fortier for giving me the near-mint copy of Oriental Adventures that he received from someone else dumping their collection!

  • Despite its myriad flaws, the OA martial arts system was fun to play around with and it certainly made the monk viable at low levels. It also allow for some wacky character building for other classes with martial arts.

    • Fair enough! I have never seen it in the wild, as it were. The Complete Ninja’s Handbook in 2e was my first encounter with it, and (less experienced as I was at processing rulebook text way back then) I knew that it sounded neat but I didn’t really get how to use it.

      I should really tally up all of my gaming books and figure out which ones have successfully influenced even one word spoken during the course of a session. (To say nothing of all the books that I have for game systems I’ve never run or played.) I think I’d find that fewer than 10% of my D&D collection meets that standard.

  • Gritpipe

    I “played” a 1e monk as my first character but he was a DMPC who I Gandalfed in and out of the story and I was 10yo so didn’t have a very clear grasp of the rules. I think we used 1-2 on a d6 for the 33.3% surprise resistance (but maybe that’s just what I’d do now). Also, I hadn’t come across eastern monks at all up to that point so I was really confused at why Friar Tuck and Cadfael would be going around punching people to death.

    • Using 1d6 to cover 33.3% surprise is literally borrowing a rule from OD&D, but also highlights how every class and monster winds up with a one-off mechanic for surprise and resisting surprise. Goes a long way, I think, to explaining why 3.x and later literally just say, “Hell with it, a creature is surprised if the DM says it is.”

      You know, there were two Robin Hood tellings that I got invested in as a kid. I’ve since outgrown Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (though watching Alan Rickman masticate scenery will never get old), while Disney’s Robin Hood stands tall as a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (in light of its shoestring budget). Mike McShane’s Friar Tuck? Yeah, I can believe he might punch people to death. Not too sure about the rest of the class features, though…

  • Marandahir

    If we allowed Fighters to do whatever mystical stuff one legend said they did one time, then we’d have the Book of Nine Swords.

    Or to a lesser extent, 4e Fighters. And 5e Battle Masters to an even lesser extent. Clearly attempts to rein in with each edition while still giving a nod to that wondrous late 3.5e book.

    • That’s basically true, though I think the 9S classes were more carving out new niches and defining new ideas than going back to more mythic sources. That’s an impression rather than something I could point to in detail (the Book of Nine Swords released so late in 3.5 that I had stopped buying new books), but I don’t expect to see a lot of this kind of material showing up:

      As I think I’ve talked about in more than one article, I’d like to see a deep hack of the fighter that moved Combat Superiority from subclass to core, and emphasized thematic variation by which Maneuvers you could choose from. I don’t dislike the Champion or the Eldritch Knight, but the fighter winds up thematically… dry, because it’s presenting variations in gameplay rather than theme. If that deep hack was the opportunity to bring forward a lot more 9S material, then so much the better.

    • crimfan

      One thing I really do like about the Champion is that it gives the player who just wants to roll dice and kick ass without a lot of resource management a perfectly viable character build with which to do that. There are few fiddly bits to the Champion, Berzerker, or the Thief. The Warlock as a spellcaster is a bit too much of an Eldritch Blast spammer, but that’s a character type that also should exist for the player who just wants to do that. This was one of the big issues with pre-Essentials 4E, where everybody became a “spellcaster” with the same basic structure of At Wills, Encounters, and Dailies.

      Bo9S was awesome, one of the most thematically cool books WotC ever
      released. They managed to lose much of the feel and story when they brought the
      mechanics explored in it forward to 4E though.

    • It’s definitely true that the Champion is the stripped-down experience that they promised would be mechanically equal to the more involved experience, back during the earliest D&D Next promotion.

      The Berserker makes fewer choices during advancement than a Totem Warrior, but the Totem Warrior doesn’t have some additional class currency to manage, and the trap of the Exhaustion condition makes me think that the Totem Warrior is simpler gameplay than the Berserker. The Berserker has to choose the right fight to go all-in, and if they choose wrong, they might have a bad problem for the rest of the day.

      What I’ve seen of a Thief and an Assassin played in parallel (no Arcane Tricksters in my group, though) is that neither is appreciably more complicated to play than the other in the 1-5 level band. The Thief needs to squeeze everything they can out of their bonus action (Cunning Action, Fast Hands, two-weapon fighting, whatever), while the Assassin just needs to make something SUPER DEAD in their first action, because once they lose that edge, they’re plain ol’ rogues. My PCs haven’t gotten anywhere near 9th level yet, to see how the more advanced features work.

      My issues with the warlock are a matter of record; the short version is that I think there’s a tension between having a class be about EB spam and a class that someone who doesn’t like EB spam would take for its interesting core story.

      I really wish Bo9S had come out about a year earlier in the 3.5 dev cycle than it did – it released just as I was ramping down my interest and willingness to purchase 3.5 material, and focusing on building a heavily homebrewed campaign. I like treating fighters as being as distinct, unique, and trained as spellcasters. I’ll have to look into getting a copy of Bo9S when I do my full History of the Fighter series.

    • crimfan

      Barbarians: Yeah I could see the Bear Totem being easier to run. The Exhaustion thing seems to be something the Berzerker’s player in our game here avoids so I haven’t seen it show up. The Bear Totem becomes pretty tanky at high levels, which can be kind of challenging for a newer player, though one might question running very high level characters for a noob.

      Rogues: Rogues pretty much play the same at low and high levels, so what you’ve seen is what they stay like.

      Warlocks: Yeah I’ve read your description and I’ve played one to high level (with some rogue MC levels). The warlock needs some work on WotC’s point so that it’s not just EB spam. I don’t mind that there is a magic class that’s like that, just that the warlock is pretty hard to turn from being anything but that. The way it is now warlock is one of the classes you mostly want to leave, unless you want to be an EB spammer.

      Definitely take a look at B9S in your review. It was a highly influential book and clearly a testbed for 4E, but I think they made some decisions that stripped out a lot of what was cool about B9S that made it lose its flavor.

  • Wyvern

    Was maxing out at 17th level normal for a 1e class?

    • It wasn’t ABnormal. Some classes – assassin, druid, monk, maybe others – had odd and arbitrary level caps, while other classes could expand upward without limit. The rhyme-and-reason of it has to do with whether the class has a hard-coded high-level story with advancement duels or not.

    • crimfan

      Many 1E classes had strange maximum levels or topped out in various ways.

      It didn’t really matter all that much, in reality, because those really high levels rarely happened.

    • …to say nothing of the much-derided (by me, anyway) level limits for demihuman characters.

    • crimfan

      Yeah, and all the class limits too. They were trying to maintain a “human” centric world, but rather than making the human an attractive option they put a bunch of draconian and arbitrary limits on other characters. The multiclassing and dual classing rules were whack, too.

      In our heavily house ruled 2E we dumped all those and made classes that were hybrids (similar to the OD&D elf) that didn’t get the full benefit of either class and advanced slower (typically were about a level behind). It worked nicely. Pure class characters were usually much better at their one class but the multis had some very nice flexibility and every race could multi or advance fully in all classes. The most common race played? Human.

    • All I want out of the human race in D&D is for it to not be The Generic One or the Most Adaptable One. It drives me nuts that human is treated as tofu – nothing more than absorbing the flavor of whatever class and background it’s paired with.

    • crimfan

      Well the class limits did enforce that to a substantial degree: They got to play paladins and monks, for instance, which nobody else could do.

      But IMO the way to make humans not be RP tofu is to give them strong and interesting cultures. In many respects that’s what fantasy races are, so it makes sense to have humans work the same way.

    • Yeah, I remember the passage in the 2e DMG explaining why it would ruin game balance to allow elf paladins (“because then you’d have all the power of an elf and all the power of a paladin”), but for some reason they never considered giving humans any kind of mechanical features. Whatever its flaws, 3.0 exploded so much cruft that it is easily the most important new edition release in D&D’s history.

      Strong and interesting cultures are great! I am in favor of them. Strong and interesting cultures that have the same mechanical impact on a human as being an elf has on an elf… now we’re talking. 3e FR at least seemed to recognize the problem and tried to do something about it with its cultural feats (since of course humans had an extra feat to throw around). I’m sorry to see that there’s nothing like that in 5e (to my knowledge).

    • crimfan

      “…all the power of an elf and all the power of a paladin.” LOL.

      Yeah, I don’t think either were really knocking down houses. I don’t much care for class and level limits.

      In my old 3.X campaign I did a lot of customizing and made humans distinct by them being able to use Action Points much better than other races, which had different benefits. Humans were good at being able to come through in the clutch. It worked very well.

      5E doesnt’ really have a mechanism per se but the Variant Human (aka the one everyone takes) having an extra feat and skill can be, if the DM sets things up right, pretty good and backgrounds also help. Cubicle 7’s Adventures in Middle Earth (AIME) has several different human cultures with mechanically distinct abilities.

    • “At their best when the chips are down” is a pretty solid element of a racial description. I like it. =)

      I would argue that the base and variant humans are both equally awful for making humans anything other than The Generic Ones. An extra feat doesn’t tell me anything about humans except that they are good at being good at things. I agree that they’re mechanically badass! I just think they’re presented as a tabula rasa.

      I am a huge fan of AIME’s human cultures, and the way the humans are as different from one another as they are from the elves is exactly what I want out of racial features.

    • crimfan

      Human as written certainly doesn’t do much to provide a theme, but if the DM or the player makes the bonus feat and skill be linked to origin that makes things more like AIME’s human culture.

      I really still think that having human characters have full access to Action Points and then other races have other benefits worked well. They were “gestalt class” characters, with the “gestalt” class being from a certain list really had a good feel. The action economy takes care of a lot of the fact that an elf (gestalt bard) nominally had more things they could do, they still needed to choose what to do and when. The fact that humans had a nice pool of Action Points meant that, while their on paper abilities were weaker, they had a lot of control over their destiny because they could choose when to boost. Was it bulletproof or did it just work for the group I had at the time? I’m not sure. But it worked well and we tried a lot of different characters.

    • I’mma go out on a limb and say that no one who picks Variant Human does it so they can take a flavorful culture-defining feat. They do it because a feat like Sentinel, Shield Master, Great Weapon Master, or Sharpshooter makes those first few levels a whole lot easier. You may have had a different experience of players-in-general than I’ve had, of course.

      In my campaign, humans are hot-tempered (advantage on Initiative), difficult to control (reroll failed Wis save, 1/short rest), and depending on culture, either obsessed with guns and trigger-happy (proficiency in all firearms, bonus damage vs enemies that have not yet acted) or dedicated to craftsmanship (various benefits to crafting downtimes).

    • crimfan

      Being precocious is a flavor, too.

      With setup those nice combat feats could be flavorful if, for instance, acquiring those require training in particular fighting schools, which might be in human lands.

  • crimfan

    2/6 =.33333… was the standard surprise chance, easily resolved using a D6. Gygax, in a surprising show of generosity, comped you that extra .03333. You lucky dog, you should be grateful!

    I’m sure I played a monk back in the day but at some point a friend homebrewed one that actually worked pretty well so we ended up using that. He also homebrewed a bard that did not suck at all.