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?"

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Monks, Made to Order

Damon Raush, Initiate of the Order of the Sickle Claw, stood before the Council of the High Masters.  The Grandmaster, Arden Corr, looked at Damon's mentor, Master Geran, "Is he ready to take the tests?"

"He has trained long and hard, Grandmaster," Master Geran replied, "and shows much potential.  He has mastered the basic skills, been loyal and faithful, and has embraced our ways and exemplified the spirit of our order.  I believe he is now ready to truly join our ranks and learn the deeper mysteries of the Sickle Claw."

And what of you, Damon," the Grandmaster asked, "do you concur with Master Geran's assessment?"

"I am honoured, Grandmaster, by Master Geran's confidence in me," Damon replied, "I have learned much under his guidance, and have served this order faithfully and remained true to its precepts.  While I still have much to learn, I am ready to face the tests, and to take my place as an adept of the Sickle Claw."

"We shall see," answered the Grand Master, "let the testing begin."

Continuing my recent preoccupation with the Monk class, this week I want to discuss the oft-neglected but important facet of the Monk: the monastic order.  Although monastic orders are usually glossed over, serving no purpose other than a means of dishing out quests and tithing characters of their treasure, a properly fleshed out order should have a unique philosophy, purpose, and even fighting style that will serve to customize Monk characters with rich detail, provide numerous adventure hooks, and enrich the flavour of  a campaign setting.

As I have argued here, and here unarmed fighting styles are probably polyphyletic in origin and are not solely artifacts of Asian culture.  In this article I would like to discuss the notion that a Shaolin Temple-style monastic defender is similarly cosmopolitan in its scope, and therefore, the Monk class is appropriate to nearly any fantasy campaign - not just Asian themed ones.  Off the top of my head, the Bloodguard, from Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant spring to mind as a literary example of a non-Asian Monk in a fantasy setting.

Since the concept of the Shaolin monk is familiar to most of us (if you're anything like me you spent plenty of time as a child trying to snatch pebbles from your friends' hands), let's start with an examination of the training and testing practices of the Shaolin temple, which we can use as a model of creating customized monastic orders.

The Shaolin Temple was a Buddhist monastery founded in China during the 5th century A.D.  Shaolin monks who wished to become full members of the temple were required to undergo a series of tests.  No monk was required to take these tests, and many never did.  A monk was allowed to take the test when his superior decided he was ready for the challenge.  Failure was not uncommon, and many monks were forced to repeat the test several times before passing it, and some were even injured or killed in the process.  There were three parts to the traditional Shaolin initiation trials: first, the candidate was orally examined on his understanding of Shaolin principles and Buddhist philosophy; next was a demonstration of the monk's fighting technique, control, and spirit, in which he was required to fight either several monks at once or several in quick succession.  In the final test, the monk had to enter a dark maze filled with dummies and traps that laughed spring-loaded attacks at the candidate.  The monk had to make it through this gauntlet only to find the exit blocked by a large cauldron filled with burning coals.  the only way out was to lift the cauldron and carry it out of the maze, which subsequently branded the monk with the symbols of the tiger and the dragon - proof of the monk's membership in the Shaolin order.

Monastic orders can be created using the template system I devised for customizing character class specialties.  Special abilities and fighting styles unique to an order can be created and then applied to the base Monk class.  The Monk character can be considered an initiate of the order to which he is affiliated.  Prior to reaching 3rd level, the Monk is not considered to be a full member of the order and this time should be used to prove himself worthy of induction into its ranks.  Upon gaining enough experience points to reach 3rd level, the Monk may petition to undertake the trials and graduate from Initiate to Brother of the order and gain the benefits of the order's template.  It should not be mandatory for a Monk to undertake the test.  If he should choose not to he can still progress as a Monk without the benefit of the template bonuses.

The following two monastic orders are examples of how orders can be created using the template system to create culturally diverse orders with distinctive fighting styles, philosophies, and missions.  The Order of the Sickle Claw was created for a sword & sorcery campaign set seventy million years in Earth's past, while the Order of Cheiron can fit into any campaign using a Greek pantheon.  These to atypical monastic orders demonstrate how Monks can be customized to fill many diverse roles in a variety of settings and need not be confined to the stereotypical role of the meditative Asian ascetic.

Order of the Sickle Claw
The temple of the Sickle Claw, located in the hills of southern Cenomania, is home to an order of warrior diplomats whose fighting style is based upon the hunting tactics of the predatory dromaeosaurid dinosaurs from the forests of Campania.  Highly regarded as negotiators, the Order of the Sickle Claw has established embassies in every major city, and its monks serve in royal courts throughout the continent, serving as advisers and bodyguards.  The central tenet of the order's philosophy is that to understand oneself is to understand others, and they believe that conflict should, whenever possible, be resolved through reason and diplomacy.  The counterpoint to this philosophy is that one must recognize when violence is unavoidable and respond with sudden, lethal force to end the conflict quickly with minimal collateral damage.

Base Class: Monk
Abilities: Diplomatic Immunity; Katari; Jumping Kick; Sudden Strike
Prerequisites: Wisdom 12+; Successful completion of trial
Experience Cost: 250 xp
Restrictions: None

Diplomatic Immunity: When performing duties on behalf of the order, the Monk is granted diplomatic immunity status and is accorded consular privileges.

Katari: Monks of the Sickle Claw are adept with their signature weapons: a matched set of katari; punching daggers constructed from the sickle claws of the Velociraptor they slew in their trial, with a handle set perpendicular to the claw and held so that the claw protrudes from between the middle fingers.  The Monk is considered to be making an unarmed attack when attacking with his katari, and deals damage accordingly.

Jumping Kick: The order's fighting style emphasizes the leaping attack made by dromaeosaurs.  The Monk executes a jumping kick by charging his opponent.  If the attack is successful it deals damage as normal and knocks the opponent back five feet.  Only man-sized creatures are knocked back by such attacks.

Sudden Strike: When combat is unavoidable, Monks of the Sickle Claw strike without warning.  When the Monk initiates combat, the opponent must make a successful Wisdom save or be surprised for one round.

The Trial
The first test of the trial to become a Brother of the Sickle Claw is the Test of Self.  The candidate must navigate a maze in which he is confronted by sudden challenges, some of which are threats, while others are not.  Fore example, from out of the darkness a spear might be launched at the Monk, or it may be a fragile vase.  An attacker may drop suddenly from the ceiling, or an innocent child may fall from above.  In all cases the Initiate has only a fraction of a second to assess the situation and respond accordingly.  The purpose of the Test of Self is to determine the Monk's understanding of the order's principle tenet and gauge his ability to control his emotions and react appropriately and instantly to any situation.

The second test is the the Test of Many, in which the candidate mus fight one hundred consecutive opponents in two-minute matches.  If the candidate takes a break for any reason he must start over.  The purpose of this test is to measure the candidate's endurance, willpower, and fighting spirit.  If playing this test out, I recommend resolving it by a series of Constitution and Charisma checks rather than actually staging one hundred fights.

The final test is the Test of One.  Here, the candidate must slay, in single combat, a captive Velociraptor in an enclosed section of the forest.  The Initiate enters the enclosure unarmed, knowing only that the raptor is somewhere within.  The purpose of this trial is to test the candidate's understanding of the ways of the raptor, upon which the order's fighting style is based.

A candidate who fails any part of the test must, if they survive, undergo a period of further training before attempting the trials again.  Successful candidates are accepted as Brothers, full-fledged members of the Order of the Sickle Claw.  They are presented with the uniform and signature weapons of the oreder: a leather vest and bracers made from the hide of the raptor they slew, and a matched pair of sickle bladed katari made form the beast's retractable killing claws.

The Brotherhood of Cheiron
The Brotherhood of Cheiron is a sect of monks devoted to the healing arts.  They combine their chi powers with a scholarly study of medicine and anatomy to become talented healers with a skill that borders on the miraculous.  The philosophy of the Brothers of Cheiron teaches that society, as a whole, is analogous to the body of an individual, and just as they must sometimes amputate a gangrenous limb to save the body, so too must they expunge society's infections before they can corrupt the whole.  To this end they apply their exhaustive knowledge of anatomy to their fighting arts to create a style that is as efficient and deadly as their healing skills are effective.

Base Class: Monk
Abilities: Cause Paralysis (6th level); Heal Other; Physician; Remove Paralysis; Cause Paralysis (8th level)
Prerequisites: Wisdom 12+
Experience Cost: 250 xp
Restrictions: None

Cause Paralysis: Once per day the Monk may attempt to paralyze a victim by making a successful melee attack.  If the victim fails a Constitution save he is paralyzed as if touched by a ghoul.

Heal Other: The Monk can use his Heal Self ability on another person simply by laying his hands upon him and concentrating to focus his chi.

Physician: The Monk is considered to be a physician for the purposes of caring for the sick and injured and may hasten their recovery time.

Remove Paralysis: By applying pressure to the proper nerve groups, the Monk may remove paralysis in another, including spell effects and ghoul touch.

The following level titles replace the standard Monk level titles:
1st level: Novice
2nd level: Initiate
3rd level: Sanator ("healer")
4th level: Medicus ("physician")
5th level: Klinikos ("attending physician")
8th level: Cheirourgos ("surgeon")
10th level: Paion ("physician to the gods")
16th level: Asklepios (God of Medicine)

The Brotherhood of Cheiron maintains Missions in most major cities, and they serve two functions: to provide medical care to the sick and injured, and to serve as repositories of knowledge and centres of medical and anatomical research.  Monks of the Brotherhood get extensive practice in the dissection of cadavers to map the muscular and nervous systems of the body, and patients must agree to donate their bodies for research should they succumb to their ailments.

The eldest Paion in the Brotherhood ascends to the leadership of the order and is given the  honourific title, Asklepios, in recognition of the God of Medicine.  The Asklepios directs the activities of the order and oversees the training of newly initiated Sanators.

The Test
A candidate petitioning for entry into the Brotherhood of Cheiron must undergo an oral examination by a board of Paions, which tests their knowledge of the signs and symptoms of all known diseases, and the recommended treatments.  If successful, the candidate must then demonstrate a practical knowledge of anatomy by performing a dissection of a cadaver, identifying all muscles, bones and nerve groups.  The final stage of the examination is the presentation of a thesis, in which the candidate makes an oral presentation to the assembled Brothers, detailing the results of a research project chosen by the candidate and approved by his supervising Paion.

These are just a couple of possible ways that Monastic templates can be applied to customize Monk characters and they demonstrate a wide range of possible roles that the Monk class can fill in any type of campaign.  It ain't all rice paper and pebbles, baby!


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