3e: Monk Attacks

Have you ever encountered something where a system is evident but the language for discussing it isn’t?

Cast your mind back to the days of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. No, not 3.5, the one that forms the basis for Pathfinder that people generally claim is ‘the good one’ before 4th edition (the best edition) came along. 3rd edition, the edition before 3.5, which is what it definitely was, was notable for being ‘the things people like about 3.5 D&D, but all quite a bit more shit.’

an icon of a fist punching

Know what was really bad in 3rd edition? Well, a lot of things, including Paladins, Rangers, Fighters, Barbarians, Bards, Half-Orcs, Half-Elves, Halflings and all but two melee weapons, but, in particular for this conversation, one class that was quite bad was the monk.

I won’t relitigate the whole story of how 3rd edition was a bad place to be a person whose primary job was punching things in the face. If you want to know more about that, I’ve written about it elsewhere, but just as an example, haste was a really stupidly powerful spell that made every melee character struggle to keep up. But if we cut off the top of the graph where all the spellcasters that are good (like the wizard, druid, and cleric) live, and focus just on the 3.0 Loser Brigade that do melee damage, even then in that space, the monk had some problems.

The way the monk worked is that the monk, limiting itself to melee attacks made with its fist or its collection of ‘exotic’ monk weapons, would get to attack more often, at lower accuracy. At level 1, instead of swinging a 2d6 greatsword, you could make two 1d6 attacks at -2, for… well, less likely to deal 2d6. But okay, you may think, the trade-off isn’t good at level 1, but what if the monk gets better, faster, than the fighter does?

Well, let’s assume that’s the case, and before we move on to talk about how badly that is implemented, that idea is a really bad one for the actual game. If a level 1 wizard, level 1 fighter, and level 1 monk all approach roughly equal threats knowing that some of them are just plain out worse at dealing with things, then you’ve got a balance problem. Being unfairly bad at level 1 doesn’t make being unfairly strong at level 16 okay, and vice versa. The notion that power ‘scales up’ in this non-linear way is one of the poisons 3e has had in it, because you run into a problem so obvious that it’s got a TVtropes page.

No I’m not going to link to it.

an icon showing a figure doing a high punch

But here’s where things get really weird, when we talk about iterative attacks. Except I’m not sure the game rules call them ‘iterative’ – that’s game language that cropped up for sad dorks online. The way the rules worked is that you have a stat, universal for all characters, called a base attack bonus. When your base attack bonus passed a 5 threshold, you got another attack at -5, at the end, if you ever did a full attack. That means when your base attack bonus was 6, you could make two attacks, one at +6, one at +1.

Monks got a different version of this; they got to iterate their attacks when their Base Attack Bonus crossed the number 4. Since they got the medium Base Attack Bonus (which improves at a rate of three points every four levels), that meant that they got their second attack at level 6, just like a fighter, their third at level 10, one level before the fighter, their fourth at level 14, two levels before the fighter, and their fifth at level 18. Fighters never got a fifth attack (I know, I know, you in the back, you’re very clever, leave it for now). At level 18, the monk could be attacking for 6d20, whenever they make a full attack, with their flurry, and that sounds pretty cool!

And we’re going to set aside the gap between magical powers and weapon enchantments and things like bleeding weapons that monks can’t use and all that jazz, but the important thing here is this is all due to the way that the monk adds its base attack bonus. The rules, once you know that iterative attacks work by adding base attack bonus, are evident. Monks get their extra attacks at +4, so, hey, maybe you could push the monk to get more attacks, faster, if you mix monk levels with fighter levels? What does that do?

an icon of a bo staff

It does nothing.

Don’t get me wrong, there were some vague attempts to work on it – there was in the 3e book Sword and Fist, where a monk prestige class said some things about adding and it counting, and monk levels count, but the whole thing was written in a very confusing way. And like, the rules didn’t have a good formal way to say: Monks gain extra attacks for every 4 points of base attack bonus. Or A monk’s unarmed attack iterates at +4.

It was a weird thing where the game rules clearly had this complex rules operation, but also the game had no in-language way to refer to it. Like, the game doesn’t refer to as ‘points of base attack bonus’ or even ‘when your base attack bonus exceeds.’ It’s just something the game only represented on tables. And that means that it was very easy to work out how the rules worked, but the game rules then had a very hard time explaining how the rules worked to players. The way it wound up wording things for Monk Prestige Class is that monk prestige class levels stacked with monk class levels for determining bonus attacks, but not actually base attack bonus. So you had to always make sure you were taking levels in 4s, which was awkward and untidy.

Monks were helped quite a bit in the next edition, 3.5, where they had a smoother damage curve and more abilities and they were just a little bit less hooped by damage resistance and the like in general. It was a much needed improvement necessary to keep Monks as about as shitty as Barbarians and Fighters, and well away from being actually strong.