Saturday, January 17, 2009

REVIEW: A Tale of Two Monks

Or a monk and a martial artist anyway.

This review is the first time I've ever directly compared two similar products. As a rule, I don't like the notion of comparing and contrasting RPG products, because I think that even ostensibly similar products can have very different goals and intended audiences. I remember an article in an old issue of Dragon that was ostensibly a review of TSR's SF game, Star Frontiers. While the review was quite thorough, what I remember most about it was that the reviewer frequently compared it unfavorably to GDW's Traveller. Now, as everyone knows, I'm a Traveller geek and make no bones about that. I rank the original 1977 boxed set up there with OD&D in terms of being one of the greatest works of imagination ever produced by this hobby. That said, even at the time, I thought Star Frontiers deserved to be taken on its own merits and reviewed solely on that basis.

Consequently, this review isn't so much a comparison of Adventure Games Publishing's Martial Artist Class and Brave Halfling Publishing's Delving Deeper - Monk as a discussion of how two two different writers writing for two different games can draw on the same source material and spin it in different ways. One of the joys of the old school revival is watching how a wide variety of people take the same inspirations and present them in so many unique ways. What's even better is that, because old school games have such simple mechanics, it's very easy for me to buy a product intended for, say, OSRIC and adapt it to my Swords & Wizardry game. If anything about 2009 reminds me of 1979 it's this glorious smorgasbord of product offerings from which to swipe cool ideas and not have to worry about whether they'll "work" in my home game.

Let's start with AGP's Martial Artist Class. Written for Castles & Crusades and selling for $1.00, this 7-page PDF follows the same basic format of other recent electronic products by James Mishler. Although completely lacking in art, the product more than makes up for it by the density of its two-column text, which presents an alternative to C&C's monk class. Using Strength as its Prime (rather than Constitution, as the standard monk does), the martial artist is focused primarily on combat, both unarmed and armed. That's not to say that it's lacking in other class abilities, but it's clear that, as its name suggests, the martial artist is intended for players who want to play characters who've devoted themselves, bodily and spiritually, to becoming living weapons. In this respect, the martial artist is a broader archetype than the monk, since the class lends itself to a variety of character types that break the "militant ascetic" mold. Rounding out the PDF is a collection of descriptions of exotic and mundane weapons and how they might be used by martial artists.

Brave Halfling's Delving Deeper - Monk is also a 7-page PDF, written by Luke Fleeman and selling for $0.75. Of those seven pages, one is taken up by the cover, another by the Open Game License, and a third by a piece of short fiction. In addition, the product includes a couple of pieces of black and white line art by Brian Thomas. As a result, Delving Deeper - Monk isn't nearly as textually dense of Martial Artist Class, but that's to be expected in a PDF supporting Labyrinth Lord, which is far simpler mechanically than Castles & Crusades. The monk presented here is much closer in concept and presentation to the monk of OD&D/AD&D, being a more "generalist" class with abilities beyond those focused primarily on combat. The monk is thus the class for people who wish to play characters that cleave closely to "inscrutable mystic warrior" archetype -- equally adept at conversing with animals as kicking ass. The product also helpfully includes some advice on integrating monks into a campaign, either as PCs or NPCs.

I like both these products. They're both a terrific value and have the benefit of including lots of simple mechanics that can be lifted for use in almost any old school game. In addition, their differences highlight the fact that there's no "right" way to present anything in an old school game except what works for the referee and his players. Despite having already offered up my own version of the monk some months ago, I still found lots of food for thought in these two PDFs. Of the two, I give Deliving Deeper - Monk a slight edge, because it's closer to the monk of Blackmoor and thus closer to the kind of class I'd use in my own campaign. Mind you, the martial artist isn't intended to be a replacement for the monk class of C&C, nor does it occupy exactly the same mental space. It's closely related, to be sure, but there are subtle differences and, in some campaigns, the monk and the martial artist could reasonably exist side-by-side without any contradiction. I still prefer the monk for its closer connection to tradition, but I can easily imagine that others might feel the martial artist is a broader and thus "better" class.

Chacun à son goût.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms for one, 4½ out of 5 polearms for the other -- You decide.


  1. I've been pondering getting the Delving Deeper - Monk, as I am in the midst of printing out the OSRIC 2.0 PDF and assembling the pages to be put into a binder. I have a love for the monk class. I played a Monk in 3.5 edition and it kicked ass. Be nice to give that option as a class for OSRIC.

  2. There was a time when my campaign included simultaneously OD&Dish, AD&Dish and Arduinian takes on martial artists, bards,druids, paladins and rangers. Siembieda's Mechanoids trilogy of booklets also entered the mix, along with bits and pieces from whatever else happened to pass within reach of my tentacles.