Friday, November 12, 2021

Random Roll: PHB, p. 32.

 A close reading of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks often reveals little details that are easy to overlook. In most cases, these details are rules-related, but one occasionally finds details that pertain to the implied setting of the game. I came across one of these just recently while re-reading the description of the monk class found in the Players Handbook.

There can be only a limited number of monks above 7th level (Superior Master). There are three 8th level (Master of Dragons) and but one of each higher level. When a player character monk gain sufficient experience points to qualify him or her for 8th level, the commensurate abilities attained are only temporary.

The above is, I think, well known and has been an aspect of the class since its first appearance in the pages of OD&D's Supplement II. Like the druid, the monk is a class that advances to higher levels only through the defeat of the current holder of that level in a trial by combat. I know that, even back in the early days, some players and referees disliked this aspect of the class, both because of its seeming unfairness – why don't other classes have to do this? – and because it introduced an additional layer of complexity to leveling up. For myself, I liked it precisely because it was unique; it gave the monk a bit of flavor to distinguish it further from other classes.

The next sentence of this section of the PHB also contains a bit of flavor, but one that I must have somehow overlooked, because I honestly cannot recall ever reading it before.

The monk must find and defeat in single combat, hand-to-hand, without weapons or magic items, one of the 8th level monks – the White, the Green, or the Red. 

For a moment, the colors baffled me. I quickly realized that they were connected to the fact that the title of 8th-level monks is "Master of Dragons," of which there are only three. Thus, it would seem that these monks consist of the Master of White Dragons, the Master of Green Dragons, and the Master of Red Dragons. How had I never seen this detail before? It's baffling to me and yet I have no recollection of ever having seen it, let alone making any use of it in all the years I played AD&D.

The detail makes a certain amount of sense, since, unlike levels above 8th, there are three 8th-level monks, so there ought to be some way to distinguish them. Of course, I soon find myself wondering: Why only three? Why not one for each color of dragon? Is there some special significance to the three dragon colors chosen? Why are they only evil dragons? Thinking about and potentially answering these questions are the stuff from which a fantasy setting is made. I have no idea if Gary Gygax intended there to be a logic behind the three Masters of Dragons or not, but I enjoy puzzling out matters like this regardless. I doubt I'm alone in this regard.

21 comments:

  1. I am not sure the colors are related to dragon types. I remember when I first read this, I assumed it meant that each monk alignment had a color assigned to it. White for good, green for neutral, and red for evil. When I finally bought the World of Greyhawk setting, the Scarlet Brotherhood (red evil monks) confirmed this in my mind.

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    1. That's a very interesting take on it. I'm almost convinced that you're on to something – except that I don't see any evidence of White or Green Brotherhoods in the Greyhawk setting. Or did I miss it somehow?

      Either way, I'm genuinely intrigued by your idea here.

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  2. I modified the rule that there were limited numbers of high-level monks only in each monk order, which is a reason for a PC or NPC to found their own order when they get to a high-enough level. Of course, like the "fastest gun in the West," founding one's own order meant that every other high-level monk would be gunning for you to prove your style inferior and their style superior...

    There were two original "founding" orders (and thus, styles) -- the Order of the Gold Dragon (Good), and Order of the Red Dragon (Evil), each claiming to be the original order (the Reds were the "splitters," but that was lost to history). New orders originally split off from these two, and sometimes new orders might develop independently, but none were ever as large as the Big Two.

    The rivalry between the Gold and the Red was legendary.

    I still use some variant of this arrangement in all my campaign settings.

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    1. One of my DMs did something similar, where one world might have many competing orders and splinter groups were constantly forming and falling apart. He replaced the dueling requirement with needing to train X number of students up to Y levels below you before you could advance yourself. IIRC both values diminished as the PC climbed higher, so eventually you needed just a single devout student to get to your level minus 1. Made keeping your hench-students alive important and led to conflict over particularly promising recruits, who were pretty rare due to stat requirements just to be a monk.

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  3. That's a lovely little detail. In the more-than-implied setting of 13th Age there is a set of powerful dragons called The Three. These ones are black, blue, and red, but I am reminded of them.

    There's no requirement in 13A for monks to defeat any dragon masters, but the next time I run it, I may combine the two ideas!

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    1. Complicating matters, the Three are the Three only because two of the original five are missing and have been for literal Ages. The Wizard King (who went on to become the Lich King when he decided mortality was for lesser people, and is definitely not Vecna at all) killed the White before the cycle even started, and no replacement has appeared to date. An Elf Queen (who probably isn't the same one active in the 13th Age but who knows for sure?) has trapped the Green in an enchanted slumber in the best fairy tale fashion.

      It would be very easy to imagine an order of (say) White Dragon Monks bent on elevating one of their number not only to dragonhhod but to the status of the White itself, or a Green Dragon Order that quests after their dreaming pseudo-Icon, or obeys their hazy directives - or secretly serve the Icon that calls itself the Elf Queen but is actually the disguised Green playing a long con.

      Or get all end-of-the-Age with it and have a Chromatic Brotherhood who aim to restore the two missing colors then forcibly combine the Five into Tiamat herself, throwing the existing Iconic structure onto the pyre in doing so.

      And that's not even getting into the metallics, the Great Gold Dragon icon, and weirdos like the Purple Dragon, who might very well encourage a bunch of loons to form a Brethren of the Violet Fist to laud her magnificence. :)

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  4. What an excellent and unusual find in the original 1e rulebooks. If Gary were alive today it would be a really good question to ask him.

    I'm now intrigued on the advancement beyond 8th and whether any other 'stories' lie there. I'll check OA and see if there's any trials to advance there too.



    I wonder if anyone has ever had a party with two or more monks in it? What would happen at 8th lvl?

    Don't druids have this too?

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    1. I was in a D&D Spelljammer group that had three monks of relevant levels in it. IIRC the GM handwaved the dueling requirements on the basis that each world had its own hierarchy of monks, sometimes more than one, and monk who didn't want to fight could just leave to play hermit master on an asteroid or other unclaimed bit of territory. He stuck high-level monks with a requirement to take on and train students in their style instead of fighting each other, which did lead to some actual conflicts over promising candidates for training, who were pretty rare.

      Druids have a very similar leveling restriction mechanic, which also seemed to be house-ruled out of recognition by every GM I ever ran into.

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  5. The above ideas are all very interesting, but the origin of the three colors of dragons among monks is more prosaic. There are three types of dragons in the game of Mahjong - Red, Green, and White. The game was still popular in Lake Geneva back in the 80s.

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    1. The connection doesn't stop there - the other honours tiles in Mahjong are the 4 winds, and the bonus tiles are the 4 seasons and 4 different flowers - matching the Monk level titles exactly (though the Flowers are all combined into 1 level)

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    2. Holy smokes - that is amazing. In hindsight it is perfectly obvious.

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    3. Embarrassing, since I used to play a lot of Mahjong back in my college days. Like not twigging to a chess piece reference.

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    4. Interesting that the original version of the monk (in Blackmoor) only had one "grand master of dragons"...and no colors listed. Being based on The Destroyer novels...which I haven't read...I wonder if this idea is present in the books. And if so, perhaps the authors (Murphy and Sapir) were ALSO mahjong fans?

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  6. is this the same Monk class that does something like 36D6 palm slaps at top level? because if so, then yeah, you need special leveling rules....

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  7. It's no mystery at all if you play mahjongg. :D

    NB, for what it's worth, only the red and green dragon tiles in mahjongg feature a Chinese character or an image of a dragon on them. The white dragon tile is blank, and for that reason it's known to American and British mahjongg players by the slang term "soap." Use this knowledge in your AD&D campaigns as you will. ^_^

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    1. White-dragon style would thus involve methods for preventing the monk from bending over . . . .

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  8. I think the combat required for going past 7th level as a monk is beyond hard core. Monks already require more xp to go up in level than do any other character class. (Only paladins even come close.) THEN, on top of that, monks take huge hits to their xp if they lose a ritual combat or if they even do not IMMEDIATELY proceed to the place of ritual combat. Crazy stuff.

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    1. They might also just die in the process, too. Monks don't have the highest HP in the world and their unarmed attacks at those levels hit hard.

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  9. I always wanted to run a game where most, if not all, the characters were monks. Totally Shaw Brothers the game up.

    It would be compelling to see what happens when the players approach the limited levels. Would they turn on each other? Compete honorably for the titles?

    A campaign like this would even have built-in arch-villains, as an evil monk would no doubt be keeping an eye on the up-and-coming potential rivals, possibly working to play them off each other or send assassins to eliminate rapidly advancing would-be successors.

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