Breaking Class Sterotypes: the Monk

Since the original post was deleted in the relevant sub, I re-upped it here.

I’ve been seeing quite a few posts of late on /r/Pathfinder_RPG in which the OP completely misrepresents a class. Common statements made include:

  • “I don’t want to play a cleric because I don’t want to be stuck healing everyone and not fight.”
  • “My DM isn’t allowing monks in my game because there’s no Asian setting in his world.”
  • “I don’t want to play the bard because they’re lame/I don’t want to play a singer/they’re faggy(I’m paraphrasing – for the record, this is other people’s opinions, not mine. I like bards, and have no problems with “Broadway Personalities”).

In response to statements like these, I’m writing a short series of articles to help dispel some of these stereotypes and myths. This is the first of an as-yet undefined number.

The Monk

AD&D First Edition

The main reasons that people have the misconception that the monk is an “Asian” class (whatever THAT means) is chiefly due to a few reasons: its second iteration in First Edition, the Third (and a half) Edition iterations, it’s current Pathfinder iconic, Sajan, anime monks like Goku, Krillin, and Dhalsim (Street Fighter), and the wave of kung fu, ninja, and other asian exploitation fad movies from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The monk was introduced all the way back in AD&D 1e. It was billed as being “the hardest to qualify for, and perhaps the most deadly.” To qualify for it, one had to have Str 15, Dex 15, Con 11, and Wis 15 (one had to qualify for your classes before you could take them – it was a strange time).

Quoting from the Players’ Handbook:

“Monks are ascetics who practice rigorous mental and physical training and discipline in order to become superior. Therefore they must always be lawful in alignment, although they can be evil, good, or neutral with respect to their approach to lawfulness. A monk who for any reason loses this lawful alignment loses all monk abilities and must begin again as a first level character (the old ways were harsh AF).”

The rest of the class description deal with their number of attacks, the weapons they can use and their abilities, none of which will be relevant to this article.

As you can see, nowhere does it say that they are of Asian origin; while the class is undoubtedly inspired by various Eastern Asian real-world monks, the flavor is left entirely to the player.

Until Oriental Adventures, that is.

Oriental Adventures09-oriental-adventures

Oriental Adventures was an AD&D supplement which provided material for running a campaign in an Asian-flavored setting, complete with mythology and classes but also included updated mechanics. By this time the monk was fully Asianized. The changes in mechanics served the community well, but the die was cast and monks were fated forever to be “Asian”.

Third Edition and Fifth Edition

Second edition skipped the monk as a core class for whatever reason, but it was reintroduced as a kit (sort of an archetype) for clerics. It wasn’t reintroduced as a class until the Third Edition Oriental Adventures sourcebook was released. Obviously, with a name like “Oriental Adventures” you weren’t going to see a Friar Tuck type monk emerge. While archetypes had been introduced in 2nd edition, none of the monk archetypes were of anything other than Asian in flavor, and the overall mechanics of archetypes didn’t mature until 3e. Even so, there scipoumweren’t any monk archtypes which broke the Asian mold.

I’m not familiar with 5e, so I won’t try to speak about that system.

The Problem with Monks

Monks still suffer from this typecasting today. Many, many people hear “monk” and they instantly think of the Bruce Lee type (martial artist and weapon master archtypes), the Pai Mei (qinggong sensei) type, or the Mr. Miyagi (lotus sensei) type, possibly Jackie Chan’s drunken master. People hear “monk” and they think of this guy. Or this guy. Maybe even this guy.

If that’s the case, then you’re only getting half the story.

“Monks” aren’t solely Asian

Many non-Asian countries and cultures have a history of unarmed combat: Russia (Krav Maga), Iceland (Gilma, developed by the Vikings), England (Bartitsu), France (Savete), Aboriginal Americans (Okichitaw and others), Brazil (Capoiera), the Ancient Greeks and Romans (Pankration and Greco-Roman Wrestling), and Germany (Ringen). Asia doesn’t have a monopoly on unarmed fighting techniques; they’re simply the most visible right now.

The Misinterpretation of the term “Martial Art”

Martial art means “art of fighting”, not “tiny screaming asians in robes”. This is the very definition of “stereotype”. Long before Bruce Lee burst on the scene, boxing (a martial art) was extremely popular in North America. “Fisticuffs, the Manly Art of Boxing” was extremely popular in England. Martial artists include wrestlers (yes, even the WWE kind), practitioners of Tai Chi, boxers, fencers, swordsmen, archers, crossbowmen, and wielders of quarterstaves. In addition to tiny screaming Asian men. If you recall, the fighting classes of PF are called “martial” classes. They practice the martial arts. Modern soldiers are also martial artists, as they learn the art of war.

Global Monastic Traditions

Monasticism isn’t new, nor is it solely relegated to Asia.

The fact of the matter is that European and Middle Eastern countries and cultures also have their monks. Stop me if you have never heard of Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men. One of whom was Friar Tuck, a Franciscan monk complete with quarterstaff, tankard of ale, brown robes, and tonsure. Friar Tuck is the very embodiment of a Drunken Master Sensei who has taken a Vow of Poverty and the Improvised Weapon Mastery feat, as he also uses his tankard in combat. Friar Carl, from Van Helsing. Fray Felipe from Zorro. The Monk from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Frere Jacques of the eponymous children’s song, Frere Jacques (Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dorme vous? Dorme vous?). I realize that most of these examples don’t fall under most people’s idea of a master of battle, but the more pacifistic of them would likely be Monks of the Lotus Sensei, using words and guidance rather than actively engaging in combat, or else have entirely mediocre stat arrays.

Stepping outside of Europe and into Asia Minor:

Jainism is a pacifist religion which originated in India and has a strong monastic tradition. In fact, monasticism is both encouraged and respected. The most extreme Jain will go about life naked, possessionless, and penniless, and will go far out of his way to avoid causing the death of any creature, almost to the point of paralysis for fear of treading on an ant. when moving about.

You know the guys in orange robes who pester you at the airport? Hare Krishna monks. Again, pacifists.

Manichaeism is a Persian (Iraqi) religion founded in the 3rd century BC. It was divided into two types of followers, the auditors, and the elect. The elect lived apart from the auditors to concentrate on reducing the material influences of the world. They did this through strict celibacy, poverty, teaching, and preaching. Therefore, the elect were probably at least partially monastic.

And lastly, Scientology has monks and nuns. Ask your DM about playing a Scientologist monk today!

A Different Point of View

“Monk” doesn’t mean “actually a monk”. Like everything else in Pathfinder, the label for the class represents a set of abilities, skills, and proficiencies which are collectively called “Monk”. Your class does not define your character, it’s just your class’ skills and abilities. It’s not necessary to take it literally, although you can.

“Monk” could mean “simple farmer who has used farm implements his whole life and meditates while milking his cows, developing his focus, and practice-fighting with his brothers, and other family members”.

It could mean “young boy who lives at the edge of a forest with his family and discovers that if he focuses his concentration to a fine point he has an incredible talent for unerringly putting arrows onto a target”.

It could mean “A woman who, after many years of being abused by the men in her small village, practices hard and discovers a core of power within her which allows her to perform incredible feats and defend not only herself but others who are less fortunate, but only if she maintains her strict, daily regimen and constant focus, which requires her to eschew most creature comforts”.

Shaolin monks are but one example of this type of lifestyle from one specific corner of the world, and the most visible example of monk in common culture. It could even be argued that farmers are a variety of monk: they often live simple lives that adhere rigidly to a fixed routine and undergo constant physical training, endure great mental stress, are often materially poor, are familiar with a wide variety of simple weapons, and could even be said to possess a Ki pool as they also often spend a great deal of time in isolation and concentrating their focus and energy.

Non-Asian Monks in Popular Culture

Hawkeye from Avengers is a Zen Archer Monk.5195357-hawkcw

Does this guy look Asian to you?

Chuck from Chuck is a monk. Jedi are monks. Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, and Agent Smith are monks. Bane is a Tretori monk (or possibly a Brawler). Spock is a monk. The Tick is a monk.


I hope that you, Dear Reader, have gained some insight as to the nature of monasticism and asceticism and learned that “monk” doesn’t have to mean “screaming tiny Asian guy”, but can refer to anyone who lives modestly in accordance to a code and adheres to a monastic lifestyle, eschewing many creature comforts in an attempt to better themselves.

Let me know in the comments which class you’d like me tackle next: Bard or Cleric.

Happy Gaming!