I’ve had my eye on Hagiologist’s series of monk subclasses for quite a while. They been posting one at a time over the last few months, but I didn’t want to do a review until they all dropped. Now that the entire series is available, I’m dive’n in!
Personally, I was very happy to see the monk class gain so much attention. I feel it is often a misunderstood class and as a result ends up being a missed opportunity. Many DM’s don’t know how to handle a monk. Their combat system works differently than the other classes, so working out opportunities for them to shine is likewise different. And frankly, I’ve never been happy with the items provided to the class. There just aren’t enough of them, and their power levels aren’t as varied as I’d like to see. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything helped that issue with a batch of magical tattoos, but it didn’t seem as monk-focused as I would’ve liked.
Colby Whittaker is the writer giving the monk its due. This is an interesting and fun class on its own. The plot hooks, lore, and storytelling opportunities provided by the monk are textured and immersive. There’s a whole martial arts movie industry full of intriguing campaign ideas homebrewers can adapt to their work. Whittaker’s 7-issue series provides a solid mechanical framework to help you develop a fun and interesting game for your monk PC.
Each book gives the DM and players the following:
- full subclass stats
- monk themed magic items
- 2 character/monster stat blocks
- 2 NPC back stories
- lore and locations
This series provides a total of 40 new monk items, seriously 40! This is the kind of attention that the monk class deserves. We can make one hell of a martial arts themed story with the help of Whittaker’s books.
I am melting down over the new monk items, so let’s examine those first. There are so many interesting weapons provided in this series. What impressed me the most was how their features expressed classic martial art themes. The new monk items introduced in these books look and feel like they would fit in an Asian fantasy movie.
An excellent example of items expressing the classical martial art fiction style is presented in Way of the Zen Archer. The description of the “Gloves of Throwing” starts with, “These simple gloves look like they were meant for daily labor, perhaps gardening or masonry.” Not everybody knows this about me, but I am a huge fan of the martial arts and martial arts movies. Whittaker nailed the themes and feel of Asian martial arts with that one sentence.
Many martial arts practiced and developed by monks required some kind of mundane camouflage. It was illegal for peasants to wield weapons or to be trained in skilled combat, so they developed styles that used farming tools. Some styles resembled a dance, which disguised their lethal applications. The “Gloves of Throwing” resembling a mundane item that any peasant might own brings this history and texture into our fantasy world.
From a purely mechanical standpoint, these items are also well-balanced and functional. We don’t have any game breakers here. If you pay attention to the rarity status of each of these items and understand the mechanics of distributing magical items through a D&D campaign, you’ll have no difficulty finding ways to provide interesting loot to your monk PC.
The monk items are really good, but frankly, they are overshadowed by a wholly new and original magic item category developed by Whittaker called “Techniques”. These items are depicted as scrolls a monk can read to learn a new martial arts technique. They are locked to particular subclasses, so the technique of one monastic tradition can’t be given to a monk of a different order. Generally, each technique provides new ways for a monk to employ Ki points in combat.
In a game, a monk might stumble across an ancient scroll bearing the seal of their temple while the party explores ancient ruins. Upon reading this mysterious scroll, they discover that it describes a lost technique. Given a little time to study, the monk could learn a new way to attack or defend.
Understanding how this works mechanically is a little tricky. Essentially, a monk can gain a new attack or ability by discovering treasure. Fundamentally, this really isn’t all that different than a wizard learning a new spell or a fighter finding a magic sword. Whittaker provides appropriate rarity levels for these scrolls, so a DM knows when and how to supply this item and keep the game balanced.
At first glance, this might surprise some readers. Essentially, these techniques appear to give class features akin to “Flurry of Blows”. However, if you actually look at the math, these things are exceptionally well-balanced. Whittaker’s “techniques” could have been written as an item. Their function and application affect gameplay similarly, but since they are a feature, techniques generally require Ki points to use. As a result, they have limits consistent with general game mechanics and provide a player with more tactical options without compromising the action economy.
The introduction of learnable techniques is truly a stroke of genius. This is the kind of thing that should have been in the original text. They just accomplish so much. First, they provide a DM with quality treasure. Second, they create a whole new mechanical structure for a class that doesn’t have access to many items. Monks just don’t use swords, shields, and magic items in the same way as the other classes. This brand-new order of monk-exclusive items fills a frustrating gap. Finally, monk techniques are just as thematically valuable as they are mechanically viable.
Wizards can find a spell book of an ancient and mysterious order. Fighters, warlocks, and even barbarians can acquire magic weapons and items unlocking their mechanical and cinematic potential. In the context of a story, D&D does not provide monks with a lot of opportunities for thematic development. The game design just leans more toward telling a European, Tolkien-esq mythology. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean the class just doesn’t get a lot of attention. These 7 books really go a long way in developing quality and thematically appropriate lore for the monk.
Within each book, Whittaker provides a new monastic tradition, heavy emphasis on tradition. This isn’t just a series of stat blocks. Each book describes how these traditions were developed, the temples where they are taught and practiced, and a couple of NPCs exemplifying the character of these traditions. If you have any interest in playing a martial art or Asian mythology-themed campaign, this monk series is a must-read.
The various traditions possess distinct and well-defined styles and themes. For instance, “The Way of the Iron Body” obviously describes a fighting style focused on defense. Some of the class features reduce the damage taken by an attack or impose debuffs on attackers. “Reverberate”, a 6th level ability, allows a monk to not only reduce damage taken from a successful attack but also reflect that damage back to the attacker in the form of thunder damage. Thematically, these features define clear and consistent characteristics for each monastic tradition. You get a sense of what it would be like to visit these temples and the people training there.
We also get a pair of NPCs, a master and an apprentice. These characters define the tradition and the culture of the temple. In the way of the Falling Star we are introduced to Hale, a halfling apprentice whose “bookish disposition” led her to intellectual pursuits. This tradition develops a spiritual connection with cosmic forces, and though Hale is a skilled martial artist, her passion lies in physics and astronomy.
When I read about this character, I could immediately visualize her and the Temple of the Falling Star. This isn’t just a training facility. It’s an order of people developing spiritual insights and philosophies through martial arts. Hale feels like a character out of a Chinese martial arts movie. Thematically, these characters embody the nature of their monastic tradition and provide an immersive texture for the DM. They really bring this world to life.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the artwork. Art found within a TTRPG book is an enigmatic feature to discuss. Strictly speaking, you don’t generally need the art found within the pages of the rulebook to play the game, but who on earth would buy a system with no art? Why is it so important to have quality artists on your team? I believe Whittaker’s monk series demonstrates the answer to these questions.
In my experience, there is something of a parallel relationship between the quality of art and the contents of the book. This is not, by any means, a hard rule. I have read solid games with little art or art provided by “amateur artists” that possessed outstanding content. Quality graphics can be expensive, so some writers opt to do it themselves even though they lack artistic proficiency. However, I also know that writers who are dedicated and invested in their craft will go the extra mile in perfecting their work. They will track down solid artists because they know their book will be better for it. This monk series is an example of that paralleling relationship.
Whittaker found several quality artists to work on the series with him, and as a result, you get a better feel for the themes behind each monastic tradition. The Way of the Flowing River and The Way of the Falling Stars impress a sense of cosmic awe. Inversely, The Way of the Iron Body and The Way of the Nascent Giant are grounded and infused with unshakable strength. When you read the features of these subclasses or the descriptions of the NPCs, you find these themes clearly defined. But when you see the art paired with this text, you feel the intention. The experience becomes immersive.
For a role-playing game, the deeper sense of expression offered by quality art is critical. Not only for the DM, but also for the players. When writing a character’s back story, it helps to have a feel for who they are, for their voice. The artists Whittaker found do an excellent job of expressing the spirit of each monastic tradition. Again, this is an excellent example of quality art paired with quality content.
Should I buy these books?
If there is any interest whatsoever in the monk class, yes. You should absolutely pick up this series. Each book costs $2.99 on DriveThruRPG, so you can pick them up one at a time or all at once. 7 new subclasses, 40 items, NPCs, and an immersive, detailed martial arts-themed world that you can buy one piece at a time, this is not a bad deal.
Of course, if you have no interest in a monk whatsoever, then a 7 issue series all about monks probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you’re a DM with a player whose thinking about running a monk, these books will offer a lot. You can develop an immersive world for your players to dive into. And if you enjoy martial arts movies at all, you will appreciate this series.
Whittaker’s also going to be releasing a monk-themed campaign at some point in the future. I’m looking forward to picking that up as soon as it comes out. Having a world centered around these temples and traditions sounds like a lot of fun.
I’m a huge fan of martial arts movies. I enjoy the classics from the 60s and 70s as much as I do the modern CGI-supported films today. Whittaker’s monks feel as though they leaped out of a Chinese cinema. After reading the entire series, I really feel as though I have everything I need to make an Asian mythology themed campaign. Are these temples feuding, do they have to come together to fight a great evil, and are they trying to throw off the yoke of oppression? Any of these classic Chinese cinematic story hooks fit with the world Whittaker crafted.
I would love to play or run an entire campaign centered around these subclasses. The universe defined by these monastic traditions really drew me in. Each temple was so distinct. Not only can I visualize the locations and people practicing these martial arts, but I developed a sense of their personalities and culture. I almost felt as though I could go to these temples and speak to the monks. This series is an excellent example of good writing.
I greatly enjoyed reading Whittaker’s expansion, so, of course, it has my recommendation. If you’re looking to build upon your world’s mythology with martial arts, these books provide a number of effective mechanical and creative writing tools.
If you’ve read this series or are interested in developing a martial arts-themed campaign, leave a comment and tell me about it. I would very much like to hear your thoughts.
Until next time, keep practicing your wushu, enlightenment awaits.
If you’re interested in picking up one of Colby Whittaker’s books, you can do so at the Dungeon Masters Guild. A link to the entire series is provided below.