I still remember the first time I encountered the Monk class in the AD&D Player's Handbook. I had no idea quite what to make of it. They were monastic 'aesthetics' (sic) who were able to make 'open hand attacks.' I immediately envisioned fat, jolly friars who bitch-slapped their foes into submission when they weren't busy decorating the monastery.
It took me a while to figure out that Monks were more like Bruce Lee than Friar Tuck and that 'open hand attacks' were really martial arts. Once I realized what Monks really were, they quickly became one of my favourite character classes.
I've had Monks on the brain quite a lot lately; I've been compiling my house-rules document for Swords & Wizardry and I've been struggling to decide whether to include the Monk class, or just leave it at the basic three classes plus the Thief. I'm determined to keep my rules as close as possible to the spirit of OD&D, and I've been spending a lot of time the last few days, studying Dave Arneson's Monk class from the Blackmoor Supplement. It seems simultaneously grossly overpowered and fragile to me, but I've never actually played it so it is difficult to tell. There is something about the tremendous abundance of abilities and special rules that seems at odds with the otherwise parsimonious classes of S&W; so I'm caught between a desire to pare the Monk down to its bare essentials, and a desire to be true to the original intent of the class. The whole thing is giving me such a headache that I'm tempted to drop it and just stick with four character classes. But, dammit, I love the Monk.
A lot of people don't, though. Judging by the vocal minority who post on forums, it seems that a lot of people object to the Monk as being inappropriate to any but Asian-themed campaigns. You might love Monks or hate 'em but the idea that they must be restricted to Asian cultures is just plain crazy-talk, and it is this that I really wish to discuss.
I recently posted an essay on the natural history of the martial arts on my other blog, Lore Deposits, in which I discussed the polyphyletic origins of martial arts. Rather than is often assumed, martial arts did not arise in a single location, say China, and spread across the world spawning a chain of ancestor-descendant daughter styles. It is more likely, instead, that a variety of martial arts styles arose independently of one another because, in a biomechanical sense, there is only one 'right' way of fighting without weapons, and I would argue that any culture with a strong martial heritage will develop and refine a system of unarmed combat that will resemble other styles that arose independently. For example western European knights practiced a form of unarmed combat that resembled Japanese jujutsu. The two arts were similar because they were developed to achieve the same goals: to fight an armoured opponent. As the two arts were refined to maximize effectiveness and efficiency they would grow even more similar.
So, we've established that any culture can develop an unarmed combat system. Where do Monks fit in? Monks engaged in the rigorous physical and mental discipline required of martial arts to develop their minds and bodies, which were considered to be inextricably linked. Strength of mind was related to strength of body and martial arts practice was an aid to meditation and spirituality. It also came in darned handy when you needed to defend the temple against marauders.
So, it is reasonable to assume that there could be monastic defenders in any fantasy culture that would be described by the Monk class. Unless your campaign is an historically accurate simulation of medieval Europe, there is no reason why Monks wouldn't fit in. In fact, the whole idea of Friar Tuck opening a can of high-kicking whup-ass on a band of Highwaymen doesn't seem so ludicrous any more. The ascetic virtues of the medieval European monastery would certainly be strengthened by a disciplined martial arts regimen for all its brethren. After all, you can't sit around illuminating manuscripts all day.
Welcome Back to the Labyrinth
"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."
"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."
"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"
"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"