Pathfinder Class Analysis 6: Monk

Paizo's Iconic Monk
Paizo’s Iconic Monk

Core Concept: Of the 11 core classes, the monk is the only one which I honestly wish was not part of the game. Which is funny, because in terms of the mechanics, it actually gets a lot of things right which the other classes get wrong. But mechanics aren’t everything. Flavor and style are also important, and in that respect my tastes lean towards the pretentious. Ninjas riding robotic sharks with laser eyes sounds “awesome” in a silly way, but it’s not the kind of thing I enjoy investing my time with. For me, fantasy is the most fun when it’s somewhat grounded, and stylistically consistent.

In every respect, Pathfinder and D&D are stylistically linked to medieval Europe. Every respect, that is, except where the monk class is involved. When weapons or coins are shown in the art, they’re always shown in a western style; save for monk weapons. There are no non-european armor styles present in the core rulebook. No other class which does not descend from a European archetype. Hells, even the word “monk” refers primarily to members of western religious orders, not to highly disciplined martial artists.

The influences of other cultures begin to appear more prominently in supplemental materials. The Bestiary 3 is filled with monsters inspired by Asian mythologies. But that in itself goes towards my point: Paizo filled two bestiaries before they got around to Asia for inspiration.

If the game were multicultural from the start, that would be another thing. If the core rulebook’s classes and equipment and art and magic pulled from cultures all over the world, then I wouldn’t mind the monk so much. Of course, I don’t want to ruin anybody’s good time. D&D originated as a silly game which had no pretentious about how serious it was. And while I think many people feel as I do about the importance of a consistent tone, that’s no reason that others can’t enjoy the monk. But you probably won’t find them in any game I run.

Now, most of the time, I analyze a class’s abilities based on my personal vision of how the class should work. But since I don’t think this class should exist at all, I can’t really do that. Instead I’ll judge each ability by what I think most people want from a monk class. As I mentioned above, I think the class’s mechanics are some of the best in the game. I really have nothing to say about many of these abilities, because they’re good just how they are.

Hopefully the hate-fueled preamble will make up for any blandness in the analysis itself.

(For the record, my hatred of the monk class is actually what originally inspired me to start the Pathfinder Class Analysis series).

AC Bonus: Monks add their wisdom bonus to their armor class because wisdom represents situational awareness, and monks can block swords and arrows with their arms, legs, or by twisting their body to avoid harm. This is a great, elegant mechanic.

Flurry of Blows: A few different monk abilities call for the monk to use their level in place of their base attack bonus. Perhaps I am missing the point, but this seems really confusing for no good reason. Why not simply give the monk a higher base attack bonus? Or let them use the base attack bonus they’ve been given? This is doubly confusing when combined with the fact that the monk receives bonuses and penalties to these abilities on top of having a different base attack bonus.

At level 1, the Monk’s base attack bonus is 0. But when using flurry of blows, they should treat their base attack bonus as though it was equal to their level, so for the purposes of this attack, their BAB is 1. However, the attack is made at a -1/-1 penalty, which negates the improved BAB. Why do I need to do that much math just to find out nothing is different!?

Flurry of blows is a sensible way to represent monk fighting style, but the actual mechanic needs to be simplified dramatically. How about something like “The monk can make a number of attacks per round equal to 1/3 their level, plus 1.”

Bam. Class improved.

Unarmed Strike: This is good and appropriate and I have no problems with it, save those I will address when discussing the Ki pool.

Bonus Feat: I haven’t counted, but off the top of my head I think the Monk has more class abilities than any other class in the game. Was it necessary to add bonus feats on top of that? The reason the fighter class has bonus feats is because fighters are intended as a kind of ‘blank slate’ class, where the players fill in their own fighting style. The monk is quite the opposite; the style has been thoroughly defined already. 

Stunning Fist: Part of the fantasy monk schtick are secret punches which can freeze a person in place or make them sick. Stunning fist serves this role well.

Evasion / Improved Evasion: I don’t think I realized just how many classes have these two class abilities before I started this series. It fits here as well as it fits on the rogue or the barbarian. I have no complaints about its inclusion as a monk ability.

Fast Movement: As mentioned in the analysis of the barbarian class, I would actually like to see more movement speed bonuses and penalties in the game. I think it’s one of the most interesting considerations of tactical, grid-based combat. Yet it very rarely comes up after a player selects their race. I’ve never run a game for a high level monk, but I’ve always been a little curious to see how a player would use a movment rate of 90ft per round.

Maneuver Training: Like flurry of blows, this mechanic calls for the monk to use their level in place of their BAB. Like flurry of blows, I ask: why?

Still Mind: This is a filler ability. It’s fiddly and small, and only complicates an already cluttered character sheet. It could be removed, and nothing would be lost.

Ki Pool: I don’t really like tracking “power points” in tabletop RPGs. I don’t like tracking spells that way. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never liked any of the psionic stuff produced for D&D 3.x. It tends to make things more messy, rather than any simpler. Plus, most of the stuff Ki is used for seems silly to me. It can be used to make unarmed strikes magical and law aligned. Why isn’t that simply a default built into the character as it levels up? It can be used for a temporary boost of speed, but the monk already receives huge speed boosts. It can be used to gain a dodge bonus to AC, but isn’t that what the monk’s wisdom bonus to AC is for?

Aside from the basic stuff, the monk later gains a few abilities which use Ki points, but I don’t see why those couldn’t simply have daily uses like most class abilities have. I suppose, given the many abilities the monk has, that it might actually be easier to track points than it would be to track the daily uses of a half dozen class abilities. But meh.

I’m somewhat undecided on whether Ki is good or bad. But I’m not a huge fan of it, either way.

Slow Fall: This allows the player to do a cool thing, rather than simply allowing the player to try a cool thing. It’s a method of game design that I approve of.

High Jump: Instead of a bonus to acrobatics checks made to high jump,  think this ability would be much more interesting if it simply allowed monks to jump straight up a number of feet equal to their level. So at level 5 when the ability is acquired, monks can leap 5ft straight up into the air.

Granted, since that’s an acrobatics check of 20, it’s not actually that impressive in Pathfinder. But I hold that’s the fault of the skills system for making high jumps too easy in the first place.

Purity of Body / Diamond Body: As the monk gains greater control of their body, they gain perfect resistance against ailments of the body. Cool cool cool. There’s really only so many ways that I can say an ability is good!

Wholeness of Body: Aside from my stated issues with Ki, I have no problem with the monk being able to heal themselves a small amount. It fits within the ‘mastery of body’ trope.

Abundant Step: While I find this kind of weird and out of place, I don’t neccesarily have a problem with monks gaining access to dimensional door. I imagine it’s meant to combine the idea of moving fast, with the idea of monks having spiritual power.

Diamond Soul: I’d actually like to see spell resistance show up more often in the game, so this ability works for me. Particularly since it fits in with the idea that monks are perfect masters of their own body.

Quivering Palm: “The Death Touch!” is a cliche as old as martial arts fantasy. While I think the concept is kinda schlocky, you can’t really make a fantasy monk class without including it. Particularly when most Pathfinder classes have some kind of instant death ability, though usually they get it at level 20, not level 15.

Timeless Body: As the monk’s supernatural control of the body grows, it is only logical that they would begin to slow the effect that time has on them. This fits particularly well with the classic trope of the super old martial arts master who can beat the crap out of anyone.

Tongue of the Sun and Moon: Presumably, based on the description, this ability allows the character to speak with anyone, regardless of what language they speak, or whether they can speak language at all. I don’t really see what this has to do with monks, but I also have no real problem with it. It’s an interesting ability which will have minimal impact on the game since it doesn’t show up until level 17.

Empty Body: Again, this ability works decently well for the monk. The ability to enter into an ethereal state for a short while is in keeping with the idea that the monk gains a supernatural control over their own body.

Perfect Self: This is a respectable capstone ability. The central idea of a monk’s training is perfection of the body, so to perfect one’s body to the point of being considered a lawful outsider is pretty cool.

Ex-Monks: Is it just me, or is it strange that there are a half dozen variants for evil paladins, but no such variant for chaotic monk? That seems like a huge oversight to me. A monk who breaks the law and loses the respect of their peers could become a Chaos Monk, with an entirely different philosophy and set of mystical abilities.

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10 thoughts on “Pathfinder Class Analysis 6: Monk”

  1. During the short time we played 3rd Edition, I routinely used my monk to hold-off enemies until the rest of the party was a safe distance away, then I simply used my enhanced movement to outrun whatever was threatening us. Enhanced movement and a high initiative also served me well against spellcasters and ranged attackers:

    block arrows + (improved)evasion + enhanced movement + high initiative = field control

    Oh, and don’t forget the Spring Attack feat (allows you to move before AND after your attack action).

  2. Oh, and in the very first Final Fantasy (which is heavily based off D&D), the monk had a lower accuracy than the fighter, but made twice the number of attacks if unarmed. So while a fighter at 20th level has +20/+15/+10/+5 attacks, a 20th level monk has +15/+15/+10/+10/+5/+5 attacks. (In the original game, Monks started as the worst class (right behind thieves), but become the real heavy hitters in the mid- to late-game))

  3. I know I am not the target for these. I am an old school player. I like and dislike the monk. In 3.5 and Pathfinder, the monk became to cartoony for me. Heck, even the 1E and 2E variants were a little uber for my tastes.
    I have had or played monks in all of the systems and they can work, or they can just be silly. It really depends on the way the player and GM work on the backstory and why the monk is there. But then, that is just my opinion.

  4. I know what you’re saying about monks being all Asian in a medieval Europe setting, so when someone in my group wants to play one I tend to point out a number of stylistic differences that I homerule in. Not the point of these columns, but establishing ‘monks’ as sort of a Little John/Friar Tuck mentality over what one player described as “Jackie Chan crossed with Bruce Lee in Chuck Norris’ body!”. Ahem.

    As far as ki goes, a lot of what you were saying about powers being part of the core build used to be true of 3.5e, where monks would eventually wind up with magic lawful adamantine ki strikes, y’know, just ’cause they were monks and PUNCHES!

    The movement really works out well later on in a campaign. With wizards having instant translocation spells and fighters and rogues having access to magic items that boost movement etc., having a monk who simply -can- go that fast if they want to is pretty awesome. Spring Attack among other feats makes it cool as can be as the monk whips by at obscene speeds, drop kicks someone in the mouth and continues sprinting on to high jump into a tree (though in my mental image he simply runs up the tree) and continue running along the branches.

  5. “bonuses and penalties to these abilities on top of having a different base attack bonus.”
    “nothing is different!?”
    Unless I’m reading what you’re trying to say wrong, or I’ve played wrong, I assumed that the numbers from the ‘flurry of blows attack bonus’ column was the end of the equation, not an additional modifier, since it’s simply treating level as BAB and adding -2 for multiple attacks as per Two-Weapon Fighting rules for the benefit of attacking twice as much. So for first level It’d just be 1-2=-1 and that value twice, so, -1/-1.

    If you did want to have full BAB for the monk all the time, it would be simply -2 to make twice as many attacks as part of a full-attack action, which is easier to grasp quickly.

    It seems quite difficult to use the traditional European idea of monks without turning to the idea of clerics and sages. When I try to think of chaotic monks the Avatar series keeps coming to mind. I think, at least, that there could be neutral, druid-like monks and as pathfinder says, people like ‘self-taught brawlers’.

    I admit that’s a bit jumbled, I typed the thing on my phone before it reset and I had to type it again.

  6. Pathfinder is multicultural. The default setting mixes a lot of different cultures to the point where they detail all of the different ethnicities of humans.I think it mixes the cultures more organically than other settings. In Pathfinder, each culture comes from a different nation. As adventurers, you expect to partner up with people from different parts of the world. Other D&D campaigns tend to make a single culture frankensteined out of real-world cultures. If you have a foreign party member, either they’re stereotypical Japanese or they come from another dimension.

    i do agree the CRB does not illustrate this well aside from the african paladin.

    The whole point of the BAB was not to make them as powerful as Fighters. That in order to make use of their full potential, they have to full attack. Admittedly, this is a bit odd as the monk is a class that encourages staying in one place and fighting rather than being a skirmisher. Logically, one would think the monk should be a very mobile fighter.

  7. There are two problems with your premise about not including monks that I found right off the bat. For one, that Medieval monks had no tradition of any sort of martial arts in their repertoire. That’s very false, in fact the European monks of the 11-14/15 century had a very rich history in teaching nobles and other monks martial arts. They had a History Channel special on it one time I was watching and they even showed different manuscripts that you can find online where they show monks teaching it. Then there’s the premise that somehow even during Medieval europe that the west was cut off from the East somehow. While it’s true for many industries it might have been so, but silk was still huge, along with probably a few products here and there. The crusades probably put a big hamper on it, but it didn’t just stop somehow during the middle ages.

  8. So your whole thing is, “I dislike monks because racist.”
    … You realize a lot of the stuff you pointed out is either Roman, Nordic, or Northern Asian, which all are FAR from Eastern Europe? Also, during the crusades, many orders of monks that held land were VERY MUCH SO trained in combat.

    I couldn’t even read through the rest of your post. Your pretentiousness is pretty bad, kid.
    In a world of Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Orcs, Minotaurs, and the like…you have a problem with the Monk? Holy fuckin’ white christmas baby Jesus, man…

    1. You needed to resort to calling me ‘kid’ to emphasize how superior you think you are, so I’d say we’re pretty level with each other when it comes to pretentiousness.

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