My buddy Stuart has a great gaming-oriented blog called Neitherworld Stories, where's he done some really good, crunchy D&D work lately. A while back he and I got into a conversation about monks. He working on splitting the monk into two separate classes, the serene Ascetic and the butt-kicking Martial Artist.
The idea is that if you want more punching but less Mr. Miyagi wisdom, you can take levels in just the Martial Artist. If you want someone who is seeking their own inner Buddha-self but not necessarily an ass-kicker, you go with the Ascetic. You multiclass the two together to get something like the standard monk. It's good work and you can follow the development yourself here. I'd seriously considering allowing Stuart's Martial Artist into my current campaign, but at the moment I don't really want to combine karate chops and vikings. Not yet.
As much as I like the stuff Stuart is doing, he and I disagree on a fundamental point about the monk. He wants the monk in general and his Martial Artist to be a useful replacement for the front line Fighter types. I think he's talking crazy talk.
Don't get me wrong. I like fisticuffs in my D&D. My last barbarian had Improved Unarmed Fighting even though that was a suboptimal feat choice for a sword-swinger. I've done the feat and class research needed to build a D&D emulation of Arn Anderson. And I'm always ready for more kung fu in practically any game. Heck, I just got done running a game where Count Dante was a PC and Count Dracula knew kung fu.
But D&D is a game with traditions. Sacred Cows is what the kids call 'em, especially when they want to ditch those traditions. And while monks have a long history of suckitude, I'm not suggesting that the gimpiness of the class is itself a landmark of D&D. Rather my point is that one of the traditions of the hobby is that Our Hero, the archetypal PC, is either a sword-wielder or a spell-thrower. And the sword-wielder is usually wearing armor of some sort. I think the visual record of the hobby wil back me up on this. Observe:
It took me all of two minutes to gather those examples. I'm sure I can find plenty of other images to support my contention here. Not that I am arguing against the exclusion of alternate class types in D&D. Rather my point is that the monk as unarmed, unarmored melee type shouldn't be as mechanically powerful as the armed and armored frontline fighters. To put these two classes on an even footing undermines a basic principle of the game. The people in armor with swords heroically hold back the monsters while the unarmored people blast away with spells. To put an equally competent kung fu guy in the mix raises a lot of questions. Why can't you, Mr. Fighter, kill ogres with your bare hands? Why do you need armor, when this hero over here can totally do without? How much of a hero are you if you need all that wargear to get by, when the little guy in pajamas can keep up with you?
I don't want to address those questions in my game. I want the monk to be a subpar choice, just like I want the bard to be a subpar choice. That way when someone takes a monk or bard, it means something. That deliberate decision to choose a subpar character class says a lot about what is going on inside the player's head. And I say all of this as a guy who has played both monks and bards over the years. I'd much rather have the crazy grab-bag of clunky abilities that come with both classes than any tightly focused, mechanically adept fighting machine. When I want that kind of character I can play a fighter or a warblade.
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