Friday, June 3, 2022

D&D Class Breakdown: Monk

For new players, it can be hard to choose your first class. For veteran players, it can be hard to choose a class and not fall into stereotypes everyone's seen a thousand times. So now I'm going to deconstruct the 5E Player's Handbook classes (Sorry Artificer, you'll come later) and talk about what works, what doesn't, and some interesting ways to play the classes. 

I won't be going into game mechanics as much as I'll be going into roleplay. 

Let's talk about monks!

...This is going to get ugly...

What is a Monk? 
The word monk is itself problematic. Used to describe the monastic traditions of various Asian cultures, monks represent the belief of reaching a state of enlightenment by tempering and perfecting one's own body. The English word is derived from the secluded Christian monks that were the closest word that described the people met in exploration and trade. 

Word etymology aside, the real problematic issues with the monks are that they continue the tradition of mythicizing non-European cultures and their spiritual beliefs. The monk itself in D&D is not just a martial artist, but a martial artist able to gain supernatural abilities through the perfection of their body, even obtaining the ability to become an outsider type in version 3.5. When a culture is perceived as mystic it can be just as problematic as any other form of racism because it misrepresents the people who identify with that culture. 

The traditions the monk is based off of are alive in well throughout the world, so Dungeons and Dragons players need to walk a fine line when incorporating the monk into the game... Which they don't always do...

In the Game
Since most D&D games take place in western medieval fantasy settings, the monk is an odd man out in society. Usually a story will say that the monks come from a mysterious distant land. 

Sound familiar? 

The exoticism of the monk in most games continues to perpetuate the structural racism that comes with the concept of the monk. Because the monk is supposed to be from a foreign land they usually only manifest in the player characters who play them. Rarely will an NPC be a monk unless it's a direct tie to the player's monk. 

So I've been talking a lot of trash about the monk, but let me be clear: I don't think Dungeons and Dragons is racist, nor do I think people who play monks are racist. I think that the monk is part of a bigger problem the game and most western fiction: coding non-western cultures into fiction to use their cultural traditions and beliefs to create exotic others. The reason I'm picking on the monk so much is (A) this is the series I chose to do and (B) with the freeform of Dungeons and Dragons we can use the monk but do better than rip off centuries of cultural appropriation. 

Breaking the Trope

For an example of the monk class done well I'd like to circle the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise and then go get a cheeseburger, but let me expound on it. Pretty much every bender and fighter person in Avatar is a monk, the difference between them and the problematic monk is thus:  

A: The monks are not tied to one tradition, they are in fact a blending of multiple cultures and beliefs with a lot of homebrewed fiction to create their world. 

B: Except for the avatar, monks in this world are not exotic. They are so commonplace that nearly everyone knows somebody who can bend the elements or has trained in martial arts. 

So how do we break the trope in the campaign? Usually I address the player's creation choices but here I'm going to have to talk to the dungeon masters out there to alter their worlds. 

An Order 
If you want monks in your world, write an organization that specially trains and utilizes monks that is commonplace, even if it is secret or rumor. Make them part of the lore for the land the characters find themselves in, and not a far-off concept in a vague direction. Good starts are organizations like the Foot Clan from Ninja Turtles  and the Black Widows from the MCU. 

Specially Trained Heroes
If you can't fit organizations into your game world, try smaller groups, those who train in a specific way for a specific purpose. The best example here is Batman, who is a master in multiple martial arts to the point where he basically has his own way of fighting. He teaches his Robins the same style, a multi-form combat in capes, and thus in their way they perfect their own martial art style. This removes cultural appropriation from your campaign and adds ripping off Batman to the list of copyright crimes a dungeon master commits on a daily basis. 

A Fleshed Out Land
If you insist on the far-off land option, then flesh out said land. Write the culture, beliefs, the people and the practices of these people. Pick a specific Asian culture and understand its martial arts practices and use it as inspiration. Let the characters be able to visit the land and meet other people like their monk. Keep in mind with this my earlier warning about exotiocising another's culture for the feeling of other. 

Oops All Monks
Consider when describing your world sprinkling monks into the populace more. Make them as relatively common as fighters and sorcerers, this will make the monk less of an exotic oddity and more of just part of the world they exist in. Think about peppering your encounters with monks, either from the books or making your own. This can also give your players an extra challenge in their next fight. 

Famous Monks

Avatar Aang (Avatar the Last Airbender)
Like I said, everyone in ATLA is a monk, unless their a rando monk or Sokka the fighter. Aang gets top billing just for being the first one we get to meet. He also embodies the monk's goal to gain spiritual enlightenment through physical perfection. 

Batman (DC Comics)
Technically Batman is a fighter/rogue/ranger/monk but we'll focus on his monk part. Studying martial arts has given him multiple unusual abilities he uses to fight crime, including holding his breath for an extra long time and meditating for 20 minutes instead of sleeping. This of course extends to his army of prodogies, especially Nightwing who can do a quadrouple jump. 

Master Splinter (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
A martial arts master, Splinter is a dangerous foe despite his advanced age and being a giant rat. He has focused his mind and his body to be the perfect weapon, but he chooses a path of peace whenever he can. I'd put the Turtles here too, but when I was a kid I always wanted to be Splinter so here's a shout out to my favorite rat. 

Oogway (Kung Fu Panda)
While martial arts is one thing, the key is body perfection to extrordinary ability, like how Master Oogway was able to find his way to ascending to another plane. He was also able to defeat a powerful enemy with just a few touches of his claws, hardly even breaking a sweat like he was programming a microwave. 


Check out the other D&D Classes as well: BarbarianBardClericDruid, Fighter

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