Non East Asian Versions of Monks and Martial Arts
So, there is an idea out there that monks have no place in a western European inspired campaign setting. Settings like Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk owe a lot to western European history, legends, and literature for their basis, and monks are not part of those traditions, or so the argument goes. This came to mind while looking at the Midgard setting and noticing they had many character options for the range of character classes, but not for monks. I asked about this and was directed to this blog post about monk weapons characteristics, which is awesome, but was also told there was not a lot of places for monks in Midgard to be from. That feels like something I can counter. Note: I love the Midgard setting and I am not offering criticism here. I am writing this because I feel this is a common sentiment that maybe should be countered.
To begin, lets look at the Monk in D&D.
The Monk was originally introduced in the Blackmoore supplement and was written up by Brian Blume. According to a later preface in Oreinetal Adventures, written by Gary Gygax, Blume was a fan of Remo Williams the Destroyer and that was what inspired the Monk class. There is an excellent breakdown over on Tribality about the history and iterations of the class. A few things to get straight. First, The Destroyer is filled with some racist stereotypes about Asians. It was written in the 70’s and 80’s and was inspired by the pulps of the 30’s, so that is not surprising, but it should be acknowledged. Two, it was written and released in a time of western popular culture becoming aware of Asian martial arts traditions. Shows like Kung Fu, and the films of the Shaw Brothers or Bruce Lee brought the stylized version of Asian martial arts to the public consciousness. These factors played into how the Monk is represented in D&D. The assumption is that the Monk is using unarmed combat and the tradition used as the cultural touch stone is Chinese or Japanese martial arts as presented in those movies. It is assumed there is not such traditions in the west, or it is at least “weaker” or less cool. This is based on some misconceptions and I hope to clear that up some.
There is no martial arts tradition in the west?
This is false, but understandable. The term martial arts is defined as “any of several arts of combat and self-defense (such as karate and judo) that are widely practiced as sport.” Most practitioners of the martial arts might bristle at the sport part of that definition but that is a solid basis to begin with, but using that most of the forms of combat in D&D would fall into that definition. There are long sword competitions on at least 3 continents based on the fighting style of medieval knights. Archery was used in war, but has been a sport in the Olympics since the beginning. Wrestling, boxing and fencing can all be covered by this definitions. Our perception of martial arts is “like karate or kung fu.” The notion that those arts are purely open hand is a myth and that is demonstrated even in the pop culture source material but it still persists. That myth is embedded in our expectations of Monks in D&D, but even there they are not purely open hand. Let’s look at some examples from places other than East Asia, that meet the definition and come closer to our perceptions of what martial should be.
One of the oldest unarmed combat forms known is Pankration. It was practiced in ancient Greece as a sport, but in much the same way Wu Shu is practiced today. The champions of the form were considered unbeatable. They used a combinations of punches, kicks, and wrestling moves in battle. The combination looks a good deal like modern Jujitsu, actually. One champion went to serve in Alexander the Great’s army. He was challenged by one of Alexander’s greatest soldiers, and the soldier fought with all of his usual gear, sword, shield, and spear. The Pankration champion fought with just a club, basically a long stick. He defeated the soldier in short order. That sounds like a Monk to me. Pankration was adopted into Roman sports and continued for some time.
The middle ages also had some martial traditions. Of course, we all know the stories of sword wielding knights, and the vikings with their axes, but there was a wider range of martial arts practiced. Kampfringen was a German form of Wrestling we can find manuals describing. It was a fighting system designed as a martial art to win unarmed fights, even against armed opponents. There were forms concentrating on specific weapons like a staff, or complex systems which combined not only the weapon but kicks, grabs, punches, and a range of open hand techniques. The style of combat you see in movies is largely based on stage combat, and not inspired by how the real weapons were used. We lost the original arts due to lack of use and only know them today do to some diligent scholarship and finding the original training manuals written in the middle ages. I found a good video which demonstrates more of the techniques found in those manuals.
As time went on, the martial arts fell to the wayside as the introduction of gunpowder and machined weaponry changed the nature of war. By the late Renaissance, the focus of martial arts in the west fell to swordsmanship. The masters were largely city dwelling cosmopolitans with Italy really dominating, but most European regions had specific styles. The open hand form may have continued during this time period but we have few written records to describe them. Boxing came into ready practice in the 18th century in England a few other places. As time went on, the martial traditions became more formalized sports. Fencing is no longer a fighting art, but a separate sporting endeavor. Modern day archery rarely has any relation to how things were done on the battlefield. Greco-Roman Wrestling is very formalized and truly harmful techniques are discouraged. Boxing is still very much of great value in a fight, but it has some regimented rules which again limits it to mostly a sport. These days, most western martial arts are just Asian forms brought over, but that doesn’t mean those traditions didn’t exist, but were just forgotten.
What about other non-East Asian, and non-European forms?
Much of the knowledge we have of martial arts is based on living traditions and written records. Some traditions have been erased through conquest, disease and other factors, but there are still some other traditions to be found. Dambe is an open hand style found in west Africa and may have origins tracing back to ancient Egypt. Nguni Stick Fighting in South Africa has a long tradition and predates the colonial period, though the origins are unclear. Capoeira is a tradition practiced by slaves in Brazil and probably ties to the martial art called Engolo found in Angola. It is very distinctive as it involves dance movements and long spinning kicks and leg sweeps. It is one of the most impressive martial arts to seem practiced, and its grace is deceptive. In practice, it can be deadly. There are over a dozen known African fighting traditions and probably many more that were just never documented.
Here is an example of Capoeira
India (yes I know India is in Asia, but it is not often thought of in regards to monks in D&D as it is not one of the better known for martial arts) also has a very long traditions of martial arts that may predate most of the Chinese or Japanese ones. There are Veda’s dating back 3000 years describing Indian martial arts. Many of these forms use weapons, swords, staves, small shields and the like, but there are open hand forms as well. There is a long list of these arts and I can’t do them all justice but I will include a link to a video with an overview of one such art. Note: Wizards of the Coast release an article for an Indian based setting for oriental adventures back in 3.5 edition days.
Polynesian peoples also had martial arts. In Hawaiian history you have Kapu Kuialua, which called on Mana which really sounds a good deal like Chi. The Maoria had Taiaha which not only taught techniques of fighting, but also tell the story of their culture. These techniques often unique to an individual tribe or family so they vary depending on where you are. I can go on, but I lack the resources to do the subject justice.
My point here is almost every culture has a martial arts tradition which you can pull Monk archetypes from. We know more about the East Asian models for this for a variety of reasons. The Boxer Rebellion, the post war experiences of westerners in Japan and China, and the seeming exotic and mysterious nature of those martial arts all influenced its place in public perception. The other places often forgot or lost records of their own martial traditions, or were less known to the westerners who were writing D&D, but they definitely exist and make for a richer tapestry of inspiration. It is okay to use those other traditions.
Maybe instead of a monastic order, your monk learned his technique from his family? Or they learned it from the warrior academy started by the king to make the perfect body guards? MAybe an underclass or oppressed minority created their secret art to fight their oppressors? The formalized techniques and a rigorous discipline are common, and in most monk builds the open hand component is important, but doesn’t have to be exclusive. Even the Monk as presented in D&D isn’t exclusively open hand.
What about Chi?
So, the term Chi is used to represent the powerful internal energies inside the monk allowing them to do those stupendous feats. The term can mean the same thing if you call it Focus or Prana or Mana. It is a stand in term. The idea behind it is the same even if the culture calls it something different. I mean, other versions of Monks just treated it as psychic power. Either way, what you call it is not that important.
A few more thoughts..
First, look at the different monk builds and see which ones fit the themes better. The Kensei absolutely seeks to master a long sword be they from a German style culture or one based on Thailand. The Way of Four Element fits fine into the mystical traditions of India as it does in any other history. The individual names may sound different but the artful mastery of the weapon or the style is the point. Anytime the focus rises to an internal or spiritual practice, then you can use it as the model for your Monks
You could have your Kensei be from the City of Khorsburg, the City of Light has a small but devoted order of warriors who master the Way of the Sun Soul in the service of their god Khor.
Or from a small mercenary Unit in Zoebeck who was started by a master wishing to test his skills, and the skills of his student, against the best the world had to throw at him.
Or you can be from a small cult called the Gungnir, found in the Northlands that revere Wotan, and sacrifice an eye to learn the secret wisdom of his spear.
Or a follower of Thoth Amon who found a lost tome on the secret to mastering the The Way of Four Elements.
I did spot other possibilities in the setting for a different kind of Monk, but that is a subject for another post. I hope this post broadened your mind on the notion of Monks and other martial arts traditions you can call on. There is a whole lot more out there than people realize.
I’m surprised you forgot about Glima. To me this Scandinavian wrestling style is an obviously good “non-eastern” choice.
It is not so much that I forgot it but did not mention it for the sake of time. There are dozens of equally obscure and European martial arts with a range of history behind them and each could be the subject of a blog by themselves.I was shooting for a broad survey so I only touched the high points. Thanks for the feedback!