James Raggi describes the game role of the halfling as:
Halflings can hide like nobody’s business. And these guys almost never miss a saving throw (regardless of category).
So, mechanically, the halfling class is hard to hit, agile, and sneaky. The first two fit a martial artist pretty well. Monks in AD&D (according to the 1E PHB) have the following abilities:
- AC bonus (by 13th level, they have a natural AC of 0)
- Increased movement (for combat mobility)
- Increasing number of unarmed attacks per turn
- Can do deadly damage with open hand attacks (by 13th level, 3d4 + 1)
- Some thief abilities
- Able to fall greater distances without taking damage
- Speak with animals as druid
- Mask the mind from ESP
- Immune to diseases
- Immune to haste and slow spells
- Feign death
- Limited self-healing
- Speak with plants as druid
- Greater defence against charm, hypnosis, suggestion, geas, and quest
- Psionic mental blast attack
- Poison immunity
- Quivering palm super death attack
Like many of the AD&D classes, this laundry list of abilities is a bit overwhelming. The abilities further down only show up gradually as a monk progresses (I had actually forgotten how absurd that list of abilities gets as the monk progresses; to be fair, the AD&D monk also forgoes many benefits that other classes have, such as STR and DEX combat bonuses, can’t wear armor, etc). The mystic in the Rules Cyclopedia is more or less a basic D&D take on the monk class, and has similar abilities. There is also an interesting take on the monk in the first issue of NOD, which makes the monk a subclass of fighter and allows the monk to make a saving throw to deflect arrows and other missiles. [Oct 20, 2011 edit: I just learned that the idea to give monks a saving throw against missile attacks comes from the original Supplement II: Blackmoor.]
Of these abilities, I think the saving throw to knock missiles out of the air is perhaps the most evocative. It is also a great use of saving throw mechanic, which I think is often (poorly) overloaded to perform actions that are more properly skills or abilities. Also, if deflection requires an open hand, it also incentivizes unarmed fighting without resorting to unrealistic restrictions which can be problematic for suspension of disbelief (tangent: this is one of the reasons I love how Weird Fantasy Role-Playing has no armor or weapon restrictions while maintaining class distinctiveness).
Martial artists are also supposed to be hard to hit in general, continually parrying, dodging, and blocking. Both of the old TSR classes represent this as decreasing natural AC. This is not horrible, as dexterity can do the same thing, but it does work against the traditional notion of AC as the class of armor worn. So what if we do away with the AC bonus, and instead give the monk a saving throw against being hit by any attack that they could reasonably dodge or block? Of course, they would only be able to use their saving throw if they were unarmored and have free movement. This, combined with the impressive halfling save progression, would lead to a very viable and interesting class.
A good save is only a defensive and reactive ability though. And, in some sense, if you are being attacked directly when playing a class not designed for direct fighting, you are already in a bad place. So being hard to hit is all well and good, but to be really fun to play the class will have to have some proactive abilities as well. I also like the idea of being able to scale walls acrobatically (think how the characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon kick their way up walls and roofs, particularly in the ninja chase scene). Maybe this ability is the inverse of being able to fall greater distances without taking damage.
So, a partial list of abilities:
- Save against being hit
- More damage than normal when fighting unarmed
- Fall greater distances without taking damage
- Scale walls and obstacles acrobatically
Perhaps something having to do with grappling and restraining would be another good ability candidate.
I feel like this is a good base, but I’m still missing the most important part of the class: a good name. Monk and mystic really don’t fit very well. Monk has too many cultural connotations (I want this class to be able to represent any kind of martial artist character, not just Shaolin monks) and mystic just doesn’t seem to fit at all.Other related discussion:
- B/X Blackrazor has a post about the class issues raised by halflings.
- Strange Magic: OSR monk class
- The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms: Thinking About Monks
- The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms: The Monk: Thief or Fighter?
- Grognardia: Grognard’s Grimoire: S&W Monk
- Dragon #53, September 1981 (credit to Grognardia: Cheating Methods for drawing my attention to this)
- The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms: Four Monks
It is interesting to me that people seemed to have connected the monk to just about every class other than halfling.