Beyond Monks: The Art of the Fight

Review of "Beyond Monks: The Art of the Fight" Martial Arts seem to be a tricky thing to really include in standard D&D. While the monks unarmed attacks and flurry of blows represent all the martial arts, with some tripping and grappling thrown in for good measure, it doesn’t really capture the ‘feel’ of a wuxia inspired movie. On the other hand, players may wish to play an unarmed warrior without all the ‘spiritual’ trappings of the monk. The standard rules don’t really allow for that. An ‘unarmed fighter’ even with all the unarmed feats, will never deal more than 1d4 base damage (and that includes Improved Natural Attack). Beyond Monks: The Art of the Fight, attempts to redress these issues with the core rules. To that end, the book begins with a brand new core class: the martial artist. The martial artist is a full BAB progression class that gets increased unarmed damage, flurry of blows, and an AC bonus like the monk. He loses all the ‘spiritual’ abilities, and gains ‘surge’, extra damage for a ‘finishing move’, and a collection of ‘martial secrets’ and bonus feats. These special abilities are worth looking at in a little more detail, because as a design choice, they’re repeated throughout the book. Surge is similar to a barbarian’s rage, but the martial artist instead gains bonuses to speed, dexterity, and a bonus to attack rolls. The ‘finishing move’ allows a monk to deal extra dice of damage (like sneak attack) by accepting a penalty to armor class (no Dex or Dodge bonus). While a little cumbersome, it seems to reflect the spirit of a finishing move pretty well – leaving yourself open to an attack as you unleash your most devastating attack. There is no requirement that the finishing move be used to ‘finish’ an opponent. The martial artist can gain this bonus damage whenever he is willing to accept a lower armor class. The martial secrets are most similar to feats. Examples include +3 skill points (to be spent on Int, Wis, or Cha based skills), gaining Toughness as a bonus feat plus an additional 4 hit points, or getting the rogue’s uncanny dodge ability. Chapter 1 then moves on to detail 13 additional prestige classes, many of them designed to work particularly well with the martial artist. That said, most of them work fairly well for monks as well, since they progress in monk (or martial artist’s) unarmed damage, AC bonus, and flurry of blows. Notably, there is one psionic prestige class included. Additionally, each prestige class also includes a full description of one NPC with levels in that class. Chapter 2 presents feats, stances, and style mastery feats. While chapter one covers approximately 40 pages, feats cover only 15. I found this chapter particularly disappointing. Many of the feats offer no real benefit. For example ‘Dazing Strike’ forces your opponent to make a DC 15 Fortitude save or be dazed for 1 round, if you take at least a -8 penalty using power attack. Assuming a marial artist, you could take this penalty beginning at 8th level, for a monk, 12th. At those levels the DC of the save is easily passable, and considering most characters will have stunning fist (with a higher DC and a better effect) it doesn’t really offer much incentive to take this, even as a ‘backup’ attack. While the book recognizes that there is no difference between kicks and punches, several feats assume that there is. For example, ‘boxing’ and kickboxing’ offer the exact same benefit, but one applies only to kicks and the other to punches. Both grant a +2 bonus to attack rolls, but it causes your unarmed attacks to provoke an attack of opportunity, even if you have Improved Unarmed Strike. Perhaps the worst feat is ‘Superior Style’. It grants you attacks of opportunity against any opponent that attacks you with an unarmed strike, even if they have Improved Unarmed Strike. In a campaign that features lots of martial artists, this feat would be a ‘must have’. In general, I disagree with feats that negate an opponent’s feat. It creates an infinite chain where you could have an ‘Improved Superior Style’, and then a ‘Vastly Improved Superior Style’. The idea of a feat of yours negating a feat of someone else’s is deeply flawed. That said, there are a few feats that are at least interesting, and may be appropriate for most campaigns. ‘Reversal’ allows you to make a grapple check when you would otherwise be pinned, and if you succeed, your opponent is pinned instead. That actually seems to fit the ‘cinematic combat’ concept the book promises, and opens up some interesting combat situations. Stances are feats that offer both an advantage and a disadvantage when using them. I’m not fond of these. For example, Tiger Stance grants a +1 to attack and damage when you use it, but you lose your Dex and Dodge bonuses to AC. Those type of mechanics are found throughout the book. I could see taking this feat if you’re constantly using a finishing move, but the extra +1 damage isn’t that impressive when you’re already getting +4d6. Many of the feats and abilities in this book will require ‘on the fly math’. For example, some feats allow you to ignore your opponent’s armor/natural armor bonuses to AC. As the DM, you’ll have to recalculate the AC each time. The feat does not allow the attack to be made as a touch attack (which is already written on the character sheet) adding extra complication for little benefit. Finally, the book presents ‘style mastery’ feats. The idea is that some feats are pretty crappy, but they’re important to define a particular style, so if you take all of the feats in a style, you get a free bonus feat that ups the power a little bit. While interesting, again, I’m not sure if the ‘automatic bonus feat’ mechanic is a good idea. There’s no real reason not to offer similar ‘style mastery feats’ for the ‘power attack’ weapon style, except that this is an attempt to make characters that choose unarmed attacks as their primary attack form a little more ‘competitive’ with characters with big weapons and full armor. Chapter 3 provides some ‘archetypes’ that can be built with the martial artist and another base class. Ranger/Martial Artist, Rogue/Martial Artist, and Fighter/Martial Artist are all explored, with suggestions on how to min/max the build. There are suggestions for how to optimize the monk class, which is definitely worthwhile, particularly if your DM chooses not to allow any of the ‘optional rules’ in the book. Finally, Chapter 4 is a hodge-podge of new rules. It includes ideas for encouraging using improvised weapons in the game and the drinking rules from Tournaments, Taverns and Fairs, which is a source book that I do recommend. These rules are presented in part to present the ‘Drunken Master’, another prestige class, but listed separately because it uses so many optional rules (including the rules on drinking and getting drunk). There are also suggestions for optional rules governing what the incredible speed of a monk could make possible. Strangely, some of the feats in the book presented similar options, but the feat requirements all list ‘monk’s unarmored speed bonus +50 ft.’ (or another number) as a requirement for taking the feat, rather than ‘base land speed 80 feet’. A DM should determine whether to allow the feats or to make the high speed rules ‘default options’. Finally, a new race and some magic items appropriate to the genre are detailed. Regarding the book in general, I found that the book failed to deliver on the promise, but there are some gems mixed in. For a martial arts focused game, this book does provide a number of options that are worth considering; particularly, the suggestions for making some feats ‘automatic’ for every PC and major NPC in the game. While it does impact the power level, it could make for more exciting and cinematic games.

Beyond Monks, The Art of the Fight
Author: James Gar Publisher: Goodman Games
Publish Date: 2003 ISBN: 0-9726241-9-8
Pages: 96 Rating:
Retail Price: $20.00