Friday, March 5, 2021

Way of the River: Tai Chi in 5e

The Way of the River monk can be described as a very ‘reactive’ monk. Characters that follow this way often see the world as a flow of energy that can be directed to suit the monk’s needs. Therefore, one does not ever need to take action; they only need to take ‘reactions’! In this article, I’d like to discuss how this monk came to be, both from a flavorful and mechanical standpoint. 

As I’ve established in previous articles, my homebrew generally starts from flavor rather than mechanics. This archetype was no different. One day, as I was trying to think about different character concepts that could require homebrew to be actualized in DnD 5e, I realized something; there was no reliable way to build a ‘Tai Chi master’. For those unfamiliar, Tai Chi is a martial art that puts an emphasis on the redirection of the opponent’s energy against them. It’s mostly meant for physical improvement rather than combat, but it’s still fun to think about it being used in a fantastical martial sense, so leave me alone.


See, I'm not the first!

My father was a practitioner of it and would talk to me about it with great enthusiasm when I was a child. As such I’ve always had a certain fondness for the art, and thus felt it necessary to represent it within DnD through homebrew. 

Once I had this idea, I immediately decided that this archetype should give players many options to spend their reaction on. After all, I could not think of a better way to represent a martial art dedicated to responding to and directing the actions of opponents within the mechanical confines of DnD than usage of the reaction mechanic. With that core concept in mind, I got to work considering what usages of a reaction would feel accurate, fun, and balanced on this Tai Chi inspired monk.

I decided this monk should be able to use their reaction to damage opponents in some way. After all, many monk archetypes offer the monk some type of damage buff and this seemed like a flavorfully appropriate means of doing so. So we made the decision to allow this monk to make unarmed strikes against a creature that has missed an attack roll within 5 feet of the monk. Mechanically, this provides the potential for additional damage while disabling it from being universally usable. An extra unarmed strike every turn would have been a bit too strong; now, it is contingent on the opposing creature in question making a mistake, as well as being within 5 feet of the ever vigilant monk. This adds a layer of strategy within the combat between the DM running the creature and the player and allows for more features to go into the archetype while remaining balanced.

As I was thinking about interesting additional ways for this archetype to use its reaction, I came up with the idea for it to be able to shove creatures. Liking the balance and flavor of this monk’s reactions proccing off of a creature within 5 feet of it missing an attack roll, I choose to make this reaction proc off the same condition. This additional reaction felt appropriate for 2 reasons. Flavorfully, much of Tai Chi involves throwing and displacing your opponent using the energy behind their poorly formed attacks. Mechanically, this does something important, which is that it offers a genuinely interesting alternative option to the previously described reaction. When designing a class or archetype in DnD, it is very important to consider the options you’re giving them, and how said options relate to each other. Are any of the options obviously and frequently superior to any of the others? Is this happening when multiple options are competing for the same resource? If so, you have a problem. After all, why do something if you can do something better for the same cost? And why have a row of shiny new toys if you can only play with one of them?

I ran into this problem early on in development. I got a little caught up in the idea of this Monk having lots of options for its reaction that I overloaded it. It had too many options and couldn’t use them in a very satisfying way, considering it would only be limited to one per round. This version of the River Monk had a lot to do, but only had one additional contribution per round when compared to other monks, leading to a bad playfeel.

It was at this point that a member of the team recommended something; this archetype could be an off-tank. To briefly define what that term means, at least as I conceive it, an off-tank is a character build that in part makes it more difficult for their allies to be targeted by enemies, be it through imposing disadvantage on enemies or forcing them to fight the off-tank, while also having tools outside of being a tank, providing them with versatility while disallowing them from being a fully reliable tank. DnD is quite lacking in tank builds, and for good reason. Tanks in many games are hard to balance while also making them enjoyable and engaging to play. But this member of the Gel Cubicles team pointed out that there was a tank build that did not currently exist in DnD; a dodge tank. In other words, a character who has survivability and provides protection for their team through their capacity to dodge and misdirect attacks, rather than through being sturdy and imposing themselves like most tanks. The connection was immediately clear; this archetype clearly had the flavor to be a dodge tank, and had the room mechanically to do so without being too strong. 

This was a fix for the problem I previously described. By taking away some of the archetype’s more superfluous reaction options, and replacing them with flavorfully fitting options for its action, the monk can do more and feel more distinct. So we started to lean into this mechanical conceit for the archetype. Reactive Combatant entered its current form as a result; it now offers 2 options for the monk’s reaction, which I feel is a good middle ground between versatility and usability. 

Bending Palms soon came to fruition immediately after. It’s a straightforward means of allowing the monk to tank through the Dodge action; not only are they now harder to hit, but they have the means to make it harder to hit nearby allies through said dodging, as a proper tank should. I also really like the flavor of this; a monk that takes a defensive stance to redirect the flow of combat around them. We also decided to allow monks to punch as a bonus action after dodging; unless a player was willing to spend a ki point to dodge as a bonus action, this monk would have to sacrifice all of their attacks to use their tanking ability. This seemed not only ineffective but also unenjoyable and one-note, so we decided to remedy it. 

Reflexive Defense is a nice and simple ability. I like archetypes that repurpose existing class features, and that’s exactly what this feature does, repurposing Deflect Missiles to function as a tanking ability. It also lets players use Deflect Missiles more, so that’s a win-win. That feature is already really cool. Beyond this, we decided to reward players who lean into the archetype’s reactive playstyle with a bump the reaction unarmed strikes damage to help the archetype keep some amount of pace with the other monk archetypes’ damage.

So monk archetype level 11 features are...strange. They range from decent to mediocre to downright irrelevant. This isn’t all that surprising, considering levels 11-15 can tend to be a bit awkward and underwhelming across the classes. So we decided this feature shouldn’t be too crazy; Flow of Combat felt like a nice little addition. It should be proccing frequently, assuming the player is using this archetype’s features strategically, and it allows the monk to better position themselves, which is critical for this flavor of monk.

Perpetual Motion was ripped off from Cavalier’s capstone. I mean, come on. Half the mechanical conceit of this archetype was basically that it has a lot to do with its reaction. So giving it more reactions just felt like an excellent capstone to tie everything together. It lets a smart player flow across the battlefield, constantly reacting to what the enemy is doing and manipulating the rhythm of combat.

And after some fine tuning and playtesting, Way of the River Monk is in a spot I am currently quite happy with! I feel as though this monk did 3 things everyone on Gel Cubicles wants an archetype to do; it offers a different way to conceptualize and play monk, it fills a niche absent in the game prior to its existence, and it allows for the adaptation of a type of character (a Tai Chi master) that would have otherwise been difficult to adapt to DnD. It makes me excited to think about a player who rolls up to the table with a pacifistic monk who doesn’t need to throw out a single punch to still feel like an impactful monk! I hope you feel just as excited, but if you're waiting on some more punch-centric content, don't fret; all you pugilists will love our next release this Monday, the Way of the Brawler!

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