I have already written about 1e monks (here) and I am very fond of them. I have played 3 monks: Ti-Gun (who once solo-killed a t-rex with his +3 hand-axe) who is 13th level, Xing-chao, who is 5th, and Tamsen, who is still 3rd. I recently rolled up another (3d6 in order) so I will play him, too, someday.
Now, monks are rare. If you roll 3d6 in order (as Gary intended) you get monk stats about 1 in every 2,500 rolls. Of course, that means 1 in 2.500 potential player characters. If you look at the 1e DMG you'll see that only 1 in 100 potential henchmen is a monk, implying that only 1 out of every 100,000 NPCs is an adventuring monk (which I also talk about, indirectly, here). I calculate that my main 1e setting (which has a monk's holding, which I will talk about later) has about 7-8 wandering NPC monks.
But how can monks do the things they do? Get a better armor class, do a lot of damage with their bare hands, do more damage, eventually a LOT more damage, with weapons, etc?
While the story goes that the monk was originally based of the main character in the Destroyer series I am sure we can all agree it has as much to do with the Hong Kong movie explosion of the 1970's.
BTW, if you get a chance to read the Destroyer series, take it - they are hilarious.So let's look at some martial arts movies and see if we can figure out just the heck they are doing.
The most often question I have heard over the years is - why does their armor class keep getting so much better? I mean, my thief is dodging attacks, too!.
let's look at the first method - dodging. here is a scene from the Jackie Chan classic, Drunken Master;
The monk/martial artist is doing a lot more than 'just dodging'; he is acting in unpredictable ways to confuse his foes. With simple props and more technique he can also face weapons, as seen in this glip for the Kid with the Golden Arm (skip to about 2:15):
Another great example of 'monk improved armor class vs. weapons' is in this clip from Iron Claws:
Or the initial part of this scene from Executioner of Shaolin
In these cases the monk is able to evade and defeat men using weapons.
The second part of that clip from Executioners shows the other method monks have of improving their armor class - they just shrug off weapon attacks! An even better example is in this clip from Five Deadly Venoms;
Right at about 1:00 the monk in yellow (using Toad style) simply ignores a sword strike - the blade does him no harm. In this scene from Crippled avengers another master of the Iron Shirt (i.e., weapon-proof skin) demonstrates both the ability to shrug off attacks and the weaknesses:
Back to Five Deadly Venoms we see that once the master of the toad style's vital point is hit he is no longer able to shrug off damage:
A common trope in the films is a master of a style like toad, iron shirt, etc. who has vital points/vulnerable points where he can be hurt - this is an obvious 'hook' for explaining an improved armor class.
In creased movement is both one of the most underestimated abilities of a monk and one that seems to bother people who talk to me. There is the example from movies like House of Flying Daggers:
And the ultimate expression is easily Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon:
But the master of 'realistic' moving very fast through heavy terrain and battles is Jackie Chan as you will see in the next few clips:
Perhaps a lot of the speed is simply overcoming/ignoring things that would stop or slow down others, plus pure speed, plus leaping. Lots of leaping:
Which also covers the 'falling from a height' ability, too!
How about more damage from hand-to-hand attacks? Well, it could be just 'more force:
Or it could be accuracy and hitting vital points:
And this also applies to the extra damage with virtually any weapons - a combination of accuracy:
And accuracy/hitting vital points:
That last clip, where a monk uses a stick (club/jo stick) to defeat a sword master, is a ton of fun.
The extra damage from hand-to-hand could be based on multiple hits (a 'flurry of blows') delivered as a single attack:
And this works with weapon attacks, too:
In a future post I will be covering special abilities, surprise, etc.
Of course, the question I get from people as often as 'how do monks do what they do' is 'why, why, are there Oriental monks in my European fantasy game?!'
Let's talk about that.
First, there are plenty of things tossed into the TFRPG that is 1e/the OSR; halflings are from a set of fantasy novels from the 20th Century, for example, so while they have ample connection to 'European-themed fantasy fiction' they have no connection at all to Medieval Europe.
We also have to consider that even during the Medieval Period Europeans liked to be entertained about foreign lands: one of the characters in the tales of Charlemagne's Paladins is a Muslim convert to Catholicism who brings an exotic viewpoint to the tales.
"They aren't historical" is something I read recently.
You want to know what else isn't historical?
Druids. Yes, druids.
Walk with me a minute:
Everything we know about the druids we have second hand through Greek and Roman sources with a smattering of other reports here and there. All we know is that they were a social class of people that included philosophers, legal scholars, and people that had something to do with religious practice. Druids are first mentioned about 500 B.C., first described about 50 B.C. and vanish from history by, oh, 300 A.D. The only ritual described is something we get from Pliny who heard it from... somebody, we aren't sure who... and who wrote it as a footnote when describing mistletoe.
That's it. No written records, no confirmed artifacts, images, or anything. Nada. Zilch. Everything you "know" about druids is almost certainly derived from at best Medieval entertainment like The Cattle Raid of Cooley which is a bit of fiction from 1,000 years after the druids ended. The only other real sources of modern ideas of druids are from 18th Century eccentrics and the Order of Druids, which has nothing to do with history and a great deal to do with being an offshoot of a lodge of Freemasons.
So - we have no idea what real druids were like and they all vanished long, long before the appearance of Charlemagne and the development of chansons, Romantic literature, etc. Slapping a druid into a vaguely 11th-16th Century Europe themed game is on par with dropping a Mercury space capsule into the same thing, temporally.
But I am not aware of anyone dropping druids from their 1e game because they don't belong there.
What druids do very well is act as 'something exotic' in the game; a peek into an older world. Monks, to me, are much the same. The world is big (trust me, it is bigger than you think) why not have an Oriental monk visit from a distant land?
Another plaint is "they aren't realistic". No, they aren't. Neither is a guy casting Fireball nor a raid by orcs looking for halfling slaves.
Lastly, the great thing about the over-the-top, unrealistic martial arts stuff is that its genre, now called wuxia, is both cool and old. Stories about wandering martial artists with damn-near superhero level skills fighting evil are as old and integral to China as knights in armor, etc., are to Europe. The movies I love so much are based on many years of books and novels in the same general vein, just like westerns and books like Ivanhoe. I love being able to tap into that and add it to my game.