Friday, March 12, 2021

Archetype Design 101: Way of the Brawler and the Power of Playfeel

I’ve often heard that monks feel “out of place” as a criticism levied against them in DnD. To some extent, I understand the sentiment. As most people understand or play DnD, it is a Medieval Western-European fantasy RPG. Now, I would respond by saying that such flavor isn’t really built into the DnD system and is more the result of social and cultural expectation that has built around the game, but my opinions don’t change others’ lack of imagination. Even with Eurocentric viewpoints aside, if I’m being honest, WotC does seem to almost deliberately pigeonhole monks into the flavor of a kung fu master in a way that doesn’t burden more flavorfully open-ended classes like fighter, rogue, or hell - even cleric. A fighter can manifest as a European knight or a Japanese samurai, a rogue as a deceitful thief or a Holmes-inspired investigator, and even a cleric can worship many different gods in many different ways. It seems that every time I look at a monk, however, I see a robed, bald-headed figure approximating the image of a Buddhist monk.

I don’t think monks need to feel this way. It certainly isn’t necessitated in any of the rules surrounding the class. I feel like this is less a problem inherent to the class’s design, and more a problem of representation. It’s not that we can’t make more setting-agnostic monks, it's that we often choose not to. At its core, a monk is an unarmed fighter who is disciplined in the art of manipulating the body. Immediately, I can think of many incarnations that this description could take: a circus acrobat, a ki-manipulating doctor, a crocodile-wrestler, or even, yes, a boxer. Enter the Way of the Brawler monk.

The Way of Brawler is perhaps the most obvious setting-agnostic representation of a monk. Take away the temples, mysticism, and eastern sentiment, and what are you left with? A guy who punches stuff. Mind you, he doesn’t just punch stuff. He punches it several times, and very hard. Thus, I knew that I wanted the Way of the Brawler to be a good-old-fashioned, simple, rough-and-tumble bruiser to really build contrast with how we generally see monks presented. This design impetus, combined with my casual enthusiasm for the sport, helped to shape the Way of the Brawler into something that I think is remarkable in its striking mundanity.

The Features - Capturing Inspiration in Mechanics

Beyond the simplification of the monk’s flavor, I really like Way of the Brawler for the way that it uses its features to build playfeel. That is, the features of the subclass allow you to express the essence of the archetype through your character and in-game play. At early levels, the Brawler uses 5e mechanics to capture the general rhythm and feel of a boxer. At later levels, the Brawler expands that flavor to ensure that it successfully keeps up with super-barbarians and wizards casting the wish spell. Let’s take a look at the Way of the Brawler features to understand what they bring to playfeel.

At third level, Gumption is a simple but useful ability that helps the subclass function as intended, allowing you to substitute your Wisdom modifier in for Athletics checks to help you lift, jump, and grapple. Feel like the bruiser you’re meant to embody without having to actually put precious ability score points into Strength. Beyond that, however, we have The Ol’ One-Two. For the uninitiated, the most basic ‘combo’ in fistocuffs consists of a quick ‘jab’ with the nondominant hand followed by a more powerful ‘cross’ from the dominant hand. Boxing stance necessitates that your dominant hand be kept slightly farther back than your nondominant , so as to allow for you to put more weight behind your more powerful ‘cross’ with your body. Basically, the idea is that you use your weaker hand for quick punches to break down your opponent’s defenses and your stronger hand for a slower, but much more powerful blow once your foe is open. The Ol’ One-Two captures this rhythm, as your first unarmed strike (the jab) marks a target, giving you advantage on the next unarmed strike against them (a more powerful cross). Thus, we capture the feel of a boxer’s most essential tools in the play of the subclass itself.

One, two, buckle my shoe...

The traditional boxing moveset is rounded out at sixth level with the more tactical Cross-Counter. Remember - simple doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, mean less effective or less well-rounded. Anyhoo, the Cross-Counter represents a ‘slip’, essentially a dodge in boxing, combined with a powerful counterpunch with your dominant hand, the cross. So, Cross-Counter allows you to impose disadvantage on an attack as a reaction and follow up with a counterattack of your own. These classic boxing moves really tie together the lower levels of the subclass and provide a strong flavor and playfeel. This foundation allows us to have a little more fun as we get into the more ludicrous upper levels and the suspension of disbelief begins to crumble.

The best defense truly is a good offense.

Ok, so Haymaker at eleventh isn’t that off kilter. Really, it just represents the Brawler’s incredible force. Really the only strange thing about it is the force damage, but I wanted to give the generally middling power of this subclass a slight buff as well as hint at the magical bullshit to come. But I digress. A ‘haymaker’ is an extremely powerful but relatively sluggish punch thrown with the strong hand, or back hand. Thus, when you throw one, you usually don’t throw it out blindly, as it can be much more easily reacted to. This real-world punch is represented in the Brawler's mechanics in two ways. First and foremost, it is a rider off of the Monk’s Stunning Strike, as the two naturally fit together in flavor; one is a concussive strike to a creature, and the other is a powerful knockout punch generally thrown to the head. Secondly, it can only be used against a marked creature. That is, in order to use it, you have to first connect with the Brawler’s ‘jab’ - you can't throw it blindly, just as an experienced boxer would wait for an opening.

This is actually a hook. It’s like a haymaker but practical.

Finally, we have the beautiful, the glorious, the utterly absurd, Thunderous Fists. I struggled for quite a while to decide what exactly to give the Way of the Brawler as a capstone. It isn't a particularly powerful subclass to begin with, so many of the capstones that stuck with a more traditional boxing style ultimately felt very underwhelming. So, instead, I threw reality to the wayside. After all, others at this level are casting 9th-level magic, so why not let our boxer have a bit of fun? Enter the Thunderous Fists. Now, you can spend ki to literally punch the air so hard that you create a sonic boom (aka you cast thunderwave). You have an area-of-effect ability as a monk now. You’re welcome. Flavor as a kamehameha if you want. F*%# Sun Soul. Also, you can cast knock with your fists. Because really, no door or lock should be standing in this brute’s way. Also, I think it's funny.

This is a real thing that exists, right?

What I like about this capstone is that it feels like an appropriate capstone to give to the Brawler relative to other abilities at this level in 5e. It makes sense in a sort of dumb, action-movie kind of way, and its simple enough to not feel out of place taken with the other subclass features. Still, someone reading the ability for the first time may very well do a double-take. It’s eye-catching and flashy, but still grounded in the design and flavor of the subclass.

The Names - Capturing Flavor through Titles

I think that this subclass is a truly effective break from typical monk flavor because it captures a unique aesthetic while inarguably fitting the broader monk archetype. It helps too that its inspiration, that of a streetfighter or a boxer, is captured through the names of the features themselves. It would be easy to call “The Ol’ One-Two” something much less inspired, like “Precision Combo”. I think names like the latter do your archetype a disservice, however. Capturing a player’s imagination happens more than just when they read the archetype description - they will arguably be more concerned with the mechanical abilities they gain anyhow! So, why not integrate flavor into the features as heavily as you can? “Haymaker” could just as easily have been called “Powerful Punch”, but the latter is just bland. It’s like white bread. It may be more accessible to the uninitiated, but for dorks like myself who obsess over homebrew, it really does nothin’ for me. Just remember - a player reads the feature every time they use it, so name it with purpose!

-Trent the Sewerman

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