As promised in the comments of last week’s article, today I’m covering the monk class in 13th Age, which was released in the 13 True Ways expansion. As a general rule, no two classes in 13th Age have much in common with one another, in terms of structure or gameplay loop. (I’m not intimately familiar with all of the 13th Age classes, so I may be overlooking something here.) As much as anything, though, the monk looks like a tabletop version of the Swordmaster class from Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, thanks to its use of opening, flow, and finisher attacks.
This monk carries an exotic air largely through feature names. Three-Word Attacks are common, and they particularly emphasize poetic description, so we’re in deep wuxia territory here. (Note that “Three Word Attacks” may technically be four or more words long. Aren’t idioms and jargon great?) Anyway, let’s dig into the features. I’m going to assume that most readers don’t speak 13th Age (the Archmage Engine), so this will be a little heavier on explanation than usual.
- Monks get +2 to two of Strength, Dex, and Wisdom (as long as they haven’t boosted that stat with a racial adjustment); since this is more ability score boosting than some classes receive, it’s a nod to the monk’s multiple attribute dependency, I presume.
- Monks receive less in the way of starting gear than other classes, for what amount to obvious reasons.
- 13th Age characters can wear armor, but a monk would be surpassingly foolish to wear heavy armor, and there’s neither benefit nor penalty for wearing light armor. Pantsless Friday is now every day.
- For melee weapons, there’s a discussion of using tradition-appropriate weapons, but I’m not clear on how this fits in with the talents and forms. It may just not be listed in the 13th Age SRD or something. Damage dealt with any melee weapon is based on your JAB, PUNCH, or KICK damage, as appropriate to your attack.
- For ranged weapons, monks can use small and light/simple thrown weapons without penalty, but they take heavy penalties with crossbows or bows. There’s a Talent that fixes this, if you care about being an archer.
- Monk hit point totals suggest their role as a more durable striker and off-tank.
- Dex governs all of their attack rolls, while Strength modifies their melee damage and Dex their ranged damage.
- Monks receive ki points as a currency, starting with their Wisdom modifier and eventually increasing to 3 + Wisdom modifier. Ki points give single-attack boosts to many of their existing talents and forms. In addition to those effects, you can spend 1 ki point to alter the natural die result of any roll by +/- 1, except for a natural 1. (This is a pretty big deal for triggering effects in 13th Age.)
- I really love that the boosted ki point version of talents and forms always has a cool poetic name, like Opening the Death Gate as the ki-point version of Greeting Fist.
- Monks are never not “fighting with two weapons,” which is a beneficial state in 13th Age: they get to reroll any attack roll that is a natural 2.
- Monks can use magical bracers to boost their attacks. Since magical handwraps, amulets, or whatever have been introduced in various games to boost monk attacks since forever, going with magical bracers makes as much sense as anything.
- Monks have three inherent melee attack modes, which as I mentioned overwrite weapons. Probably the easiest way to think of these is actually in terms of fighting video games:
- JAB is the lowest-damage attack, and putatively “quick” because of how it factors into the fiction of talents and forms. It deals your character level in d6s of damage. It is particularly common in Openers.
- PUNCH steps up to your character level in d8s of damage. It’s your medium-damage, medium-speed attack – it shows up in tons of Flow attacks, and as your melee basic attack.
- KICK is the big hit that deals your character level in d10s of damage. Since it mostly shows up in finishers, you can think of it as the heavy-damage, slow attack that requires setup to land.
- Okay, so forms. Forms consist of Openings, Flows, and Finishers, each of which is has a different effect. (This means that documenting monk stuff takes up a lot of space and rules notation. Visually, it has a surprising amount in common with the 4e monk.) You can always go with an Opening, possibly ditching the flow or finisher attack of your current series. Once you use an Opener (it doesn’t have to hit), you can go to any Flow attack, and likewise once you use a Flow attack, your next attack can be any Finisher.
- Yeah, I know, you figured all that out as soon as you heard the terminology. Well, smart guy, you also get an AC bonus based on the step you just used: +1 for Opening, +2 for Flow, +3 for Finisher. That follows the Escalation die fairly well, except that your AC drops again on the 4th round.
- Some forms have internal mechanics that give you more incentive to stay within a form.
- Monks start with 3 adventurer talents, and eventually pick up one champion talent and one epic talent. Talents are functionally 13th Age’s class features – you’re always building your own variation of the class by choosing a subset of its broader list of talents. I’m going to break down all of the Talent options separately, below.
- In case the adventurer/champion/epic thing isn’t 100% clear, those are the game’s tiers. 13th Age is a 10-level game. Levels 1-4 are adventurer tier, 5-7 are champion tier, and 8-10 are epic tier.
- Monks start with 2 adventurer forms, and eventually build up to 2 adventurer, 2 champion, and 2 epic forms. I’ll get into the individual forms separately, below.
That’s the core of the class, without any of the optional content. The theme is still pretty light, and could easily be mistaken for a character in a 2-D fighting game (with ki points for some kind of turbo mode). There’s nothing wrong with that; perversely, it’s one of the more distinctive and compelling cores we’ve seen for the monk so far.
I’m going to stay fairly light in describing talents and forms, or at least I’ll try. Brevity is the soul of wit, but I was always better at the outward limbs and flourishes. (Digression: I may be an attendant lord, full of high sentence but a bit obtuse, but my ability to quote Prufrock radically improved my life for the better this one time, so don’t judge.)
Flurry lets you add a quick JAB attack once per round, once the escalation die has worked its way up. It’s part of the Seven Deadly Secrets family of talents (a family of… three); you can only use one talent of this family in any given battle.
Greeting Fist is another Seven Deadly Secrets talent. It gives you a pretty solid damage kicker to your first attack against each opponent in a battle. The more enemies there are in a fight, the more likely that Greeting Fist is a better idea than Flurry, but it’s not at all unreasonable to think about getting both.
Temple Weapon Master is the last of the Seven Deadly Secrets talents. When your natural attack roll with approved weapons is an even number and a miss, once per battle you can make it a hit instead. Its ki power element and its feat options don’t contribute to the theme as clearly as the first two talents, but an AC boost is always welcome… though its duration is likely to be brief unless you’re pushing hits completely off the table. (If this happens, the talent is super broken and should be banned. It doesn’t seem likely, though.) Overall I’m not so enthralled with this talent.
Diamond Focus collects a bunch of the classic monk resistances into one talent. It improves your saves, it lets you hang onto your form state (Flow or Finisher) for one round of not using any monk attack form. The main point of this is that you aren’t as fazed by stuns or other status effects. Its ki power, called Diamond Soul, lets you roll a new save against a whole bunch of negative conditions, and a feat option expands that list and reduces the save difficulty. This talent looks to me like it would be pretty high-priority for almost any monk.
Heaven’s Arrow gives you full-strength archery as part of your forms, and uses JAB, PUNCH, or KICK damage for those rather than WEAPON damage. This is great if you’re looking to play a Zen archer (who still spends most attacks in melee and only shoots something occasionally); otherwise you can skip it without regret.
Leaf on Wind covers slow falling and monk-as-speedster; with ki points it becomes overt wire-work. With feats it also brings an Evasion-like feature and still more wuxia wire-work. This almost rises to the level of “you’re not a monk without this,” but that’s only because I’m used to it – if you wanted to play a more sumo-like or brawny monk, it’s off-theme and there are better options. (That I can say something like that is one of the things I respect most about 13th Age, and would most like to see in a variant 5e or eventual 6e.)
Overworld Lineage, aka Phoenix-Touched lets you substitute Charisma for Wisdom in all monk features, and grants a modest self-heal while you’re staggered (bloodied) under certain circumstances. This is pretty cool, though I don’t know what the Overworld signifies in the 13th Age setting. This phoenix-themed monk is already calling my name more than the flawed 5e Way of the Four Elements monk.
Spinning Willow Style is Deflect Arrows, but also might work against close-quarters attacks; it halves damage rather than fully negating it. You don’t get to redirect any damage to an enemy until you pick up the Champion feat for it, and then only on a natural 18+ on the save. This is going to negate a lot of damage, I would think.
After this point, we get to Champion-tier Talents.
Disciple of the Hidden Flame gives you a splash of cleric, sorcerer, or wizard spellcasting, once per full heal-up (long rest). It’s not entirely unlike the spellcasting of the Way of the Four Elements, but adding in cleric as an option is a good reminder that monks are ordained too.
Improbable Stunt is an odd feature that amounts to a “Yes I Can!” card to hand the GM when you want to do something really sincerely over-the-top. It’s a deeply meta option, and since it has no internal guidance written, we can just say that this is good for some kinds of players and table dynamics, and miserable for others.
Path of the Perfect Warrior steps up all of your damage dice by one size. With ki points, you also gain a pseudo-Wholeness of Body.
After this point, we get to Epic-tier Talents. Epic-tier talents have no ki point options, because they’re already pretty crazy.
Abundant Step is an in-combat teleport. The escalation die has to be 1+, which I assume is a rulesy way to say “only in-combat, you can’t use this to skip non-combat challenges.”
Champion of Three Worlds grants what 5e would call advantage when you make an attack roll for a finishing attack. With an epic-tier feat, you also gain that once per battle for flow attacks.
Procession of the Sun and Moon lets you possibly turn a quick rest into a full heal-up. This is just as big a deal as if sometimes in 5e you could take a short rest and gain the benefits of a long rest instead. You can only use this once per level, and you and each ally have to pass a hard saving throw to gain the benefit, so it’s a pretty constrained kind of excess.
Within these fourteen talents, we see just about everything we’ve come to closely identify with the monk class thus far in this series. This is the part where the designers mostly cover their bases, though they introduce some interesting ideas with Phoenix-Touched and Disciple of the Hidden Flame. Other Talents are so straightforward in function that they’re useful, but don’t carry much in the way of theme.
Much as 4e’s attack powers are driven by formalized language and layout that conceals as much theme as its holds, the same is true of the monk’s forms in 13th Age (and other classes’ attacks as well, while we’re on the subject).
Claws of the Panther starts with a “pop free” (you can move without provoking opportunity attacks), offers splash damage to enemies other than your main target sometimes as a flow attack, and targets two opponents in its finisher. That sounds like a good workhorse form to me. Also, the forms have a lot of disengage/pop free options, as a reminder that the monk is a skirmisher and resistant to stickiness mechanics.
Dance of the Mantis starts with moving to the target, escalates to an attack that deals extra damage to Large targets and sometimes offers a disengage, and ends with either a very accurate KICK attack, or if you’re super lucky and miss with a natural even number, you expand your crit range until the end of the battle.
Dutiful Guardian is here to give you some off-tanking options, letting an ally pop free of an enemy. It escalates to improving your defenses or giving you free movement, and ends with a KICK that might also let you rally (use your Second Wind, in 4e parlance) for free. Kinda surprised there’s no ki option here, but whatever. This is great for getting allies out of a jam and surviving the consequences.
Original Venom was totally Peter Parker before it was Eddie Brock. In this case, though, it’s all about attacks that include ongoing damage, but risk damaging you if you blow it. Since the finisher of this form require that the target is suffering ongoing damage and the opener only applies ongoing damage if the target is staggered, you really need to plan to hit with that flow attack. The finisher is super rude, at least, piling on more negative conditions on top of the ongoing damage. Also, it makes me really happy that this form lets you pick up a feat to resist poison. This form gets top marks for theme, that’s for sure.
Three Cunning Tricksters looks like a particularly stripped-down form, though its feat-improved form gives you a ki power option to transfer negative effects or ongoing damage to an enemy engaged with you. I think the point of this form is its finisher’s Natural Even Hit option – some of the time, its sets you up to JAB opponents who attack you. Also, gotta say, I’m surprised and almost disappointed that the finisher is not called Monkey Steals the Peach.
Way of the Metallic Dragon is a rare case of a form that opens with PUNCH damage – it just requires you to be engaged with two enemies, so relatively high-risk. It escalates to a PUNCH that either deals ongoing cold damage, or lets an ally pop free… the enemy just has to have more hit points than you do. Its finisher lets you PUNCH one opponent and KICK another. So, sure. It’s a high-risk, high-reward form, and I can respect that. Its feat ki power requires that you last-hit a non-mook opponent with your finisher, which in my experience is rules-code for “good luck triggering that, dude.”
After this point, we get to Champion-tier Forms.
Heaven’s Thunder ignores armor (targeting Physical Defense instead), and sets up a thunder-based damage shield around you. That’s amazing all by itself. It escalates to a flow attack that can purge negative effects on you (grants a new save), and if your successful roll is even, you add a bonus to that saving throw. On a hit, its finisher either randomly targets an opponent with ongoing thunder damage, or it improves your crit range until the end of the battle. I would write a monastic tradition to bring some of the theme here into 5e, though it would have nothing to do with these mechanics as such. When boosted with feats, this just becomes more outstanding.
Iron Crusader’s opener requires that one of your allies has dropped to 0 hit points or below, so you may want to open with something else most of the time. It doesn’t offer any particularly impressive effects, either. It escalates to a total Cobra Kai move, called No Mercy, that grants a hefty attack bonus if the target is staggered. Its finisher gains a bonus if the target is taking ongoing damage (so about Original Venom…), but the reason you’re here is the finisher’s Natural Even Hit effect – it grants resist damage 16+, which might mean you get giant piles of mitigation going on.
Rising Phoenix opens with fire damage, and fire damage as a consolation prize on a miss. It escalates to a free disengage that grants you flight if you successfully disengage from everyone (yay, wire-work and possibly getting to bail on a fight where you’re totally screwed!). Its finisher is here to save your bacon, either healing you or purging negative effects on a hit; the feats just crank that up even more.
Three Evil Dragons is as opportunistic as Way of the Metallic Dragon is altruistic. It finds a lot of ways to toss around extra damage or get-out-of-jail-free cards, especially against vulnerable targets. A finisher that grants d6 extra fire damage for each point on the escalation die is just amazing, as far as I can tell.
Tiger in Storm is a fierce, risky, in-your-face style that is all about pouncing on solitary enemies and throwing damage everywhere. The visual communicated by these mechanics is the strongest of any of the forms I’ve seen yet. I might go as far as to say that this is the elemental brawler than the Way of the Four Elements sometimes wishes it was, when it cries itself to sleep at night.
After this point, we get to Epic-tier forms.
Death’s Quivering Shadow is the first creepy-death-ninja feature we’ve really seen, so it is probably a hard left turn for the theme of any PC that picks it up. It escalates to Stunning Fist (yes really) and ends on Ghostwalk of the Fallen King (Empty Body, but incorporeality, and only on a Natural Even Hit). Its feat ki power is the monkey we’re here to see – Quivering Palm. In 13th Age, Quivering Palm lets you establish a bond with the target so that you can pay ki to PUNCH them at any range.
Feathered Serpent is all about getting you out of a tight spot. It opens with a Wisdom-based JAB against all engaged enemies, escalates to a pop free or wire-work move, and ends with horrible murderous poison on a Natural Even Hit; the finisher is sadly quite forgettable on an odd hit, so save your ki points for that.
Flagrant Blossoms has an opener that lets you skip straight to a finisher if you last-hit a non-mook with it. It escalates to a chance to roll an icon relationship die – so a 50% chance to roll for a 33% chance of an unspecified benefit. That lacks a certain something from a “good bet” standpoint. (You can, of course, use ki to help it along to being a natural even hit, but… there are more guaranteed benefits to spend ki on.) Its finisher is interesting – a Wisdom-based KICK against Mental Defense, so we’re talking a fully psychic asskicking that either buffs and ally or debuffs your target. The feat-boosted version is great too, letting an ally recover and roll a fresh set of saves.
Spiral Path is some deep cosmic stuff. Its opener splashes around force damage. That escalates to a chance to increase the escalation die, which is sure to be a big deal. For its finisher, you KICK a target, teleport, and PUNCH another target. Don’t mess it up, though; if you miss with the first attack of the finisher, you burn yourself out of using Spiral Path attacks for the rest of this battle. Its feat option lets you spoof a monk talent you don’t possess for one battle. All in all, this is pretty crazy, but interesting and evocative.
And that’s it for the 13th Age monk. This is a highly compelling vision of the monk. It covers a lot of thematic ground, and as a result every monk PC can’t help but draw on a lot of different influences. Many of the forms and some of the talents could easily be the seed of a whole new 5e monastic tradition, and since that’s the kind of thing I spend a lot of time doing (and selling in handy-dandy three-subclass PDFs through Tribality Publishing… damn, I’m subtle!), I am a huge fan of this.
Ultimately, what this does differently than other monk writeups is that it suggests that monks pick something artistically or cosmically significant and use that as the keystone, or maybe the lens if that metaphor serves you better, of their quest for enlightenment. You can squint and view 5e’s subclasses that way, but the explicit search for enlightenment is minimized in 5e, and there’s nowhere near as much exotic, poetic naming going on. Most designers who want to work on monks and monk-like classes should at least examine what goes on here and think about how to make their mechanics paint a picture as well as this does. It does feel a lot more Asian, at least in a Hong Kong cinema kind of way, but the possible recombinations of talents opens the way to a lot of non-standard interpretations of what goes on with the monk