4e: The Misbegotten Identity of ‘Ki.’

The origin system in 4th edition D&D was one of the subtler bits of design tech they had. The basic idea was that if you made an overarching term to explain how a bunch of mechanics ‘felt’ you could then reference that term. If something worked one way because of how divine spellcasters worked, by making all the spellcasters that worked that way ‘divine’ you could tidy up feat payloads and make the game work a lot more fluidly.

This system got broke up into:

  • Martial, where you stab and bash and use weapons and armour and you get a bunch of mechanics based on movement, pushing and pulling things
  • Arcane, where you do wizard stuff, magic about thinking, and you get a bunch of mechanics based on making zones, summoning things and long-term effects
  • Divine, where you do cleric stuff, magic about getting an invisible friend to help you out, and you get a bunch of mechanics based on on healing, radiant damage, and ongoing rules-setting
  • Primal, where you do naturey stuff, connected to animals, plants and so on, and you get mechanics based on Just Having More Hitpoints.
  • Shadow, Sir Not Appearing In This Conversation
  • Psionic, where you get to do mind-warpy stuff, and the mechanics were linked with the power points mechanic*.

This, like the role system, was excellent for giving identity to unify mechanical identity, gave players a way to understand their characters, didn’t get in the way doing it, and I’ve written about it in the past. It’s great.

Wait, what’s that *?

What’s that about?

The Monk is the outlier in the psionic power source because unlike all the other psionic power source classes, they don’t get any power points. They get conventional Encounter attacks, and have instead, their own unique mechanic, Full Discipline techniques. It meant that every power had an attack power and a movement power, and you could use them separately or together, depending on the actions you wanted to spend on them, and in whatever order you wanted to use them. This mechanic was pretty interesting, and it meant that monk could sometimes have turns that burned a bunch of powers or you could instead have a much more measured, patient approach to how you use your powers.

The Monk is, however, psionic.

It benefits from psionic feats, including the feats that let you turn psionic power points into hit points, or that triggered when you ran out of power points, despite the fact you didn’t get any power points at all. In fact, the feat support available for the psionic classes either relies on something a monk can’t do, or rewards a monk with something it can’t use. This is, without a doubt, an odd thing, and it really is hard to escape the way that the monk is this remarkable outlier amongst other classes in their type. No matter how different an Invoker and a Paladin happen to be, they both have Channel Divinity and feats that alter Channel Divinity will alter the same ability for both characters.

The monk is an unfortunate victim of what I can, as a post-fact examiner, best understand as a sacrifice made in the development of 4th edition D&D, where a power source was conceived, and never completed; where a hole was filled with what was convenient, and the idea of the Full Discipline technique was the only relic of it.

We do have a sign of this, in the Player’s Handbook, page 54:

Other Power Sources: Additional power sources and techniques provide characters of different classes with power and abilities. These will appear in future Player’s Handbook volumes. For example, barbarians and druids draw on the primal forces of nature, monks harness the power of their soul energy (or ki) and psions call upon the mind to generate psionic powers. Future power sources include elemental, ki, primal, psionic, and shadow.

This means we have proof that, at least at one point, the monk was going to have a power source called ‘ki’ and that power source was going to be distinct from the psion’s psionic power source.

The narrative flows pretty easily; they were making Player’s Handbook 3, they wanted to introduce the Psionic classes, there was a hole for a striker, and the Monk fit in it. The developers could try and explicate Ki, and make feats to support it, or they could look down the barrel of the future before them, realise they had no real hope to make a Player’s Handbook 4 with a bunch of new classes in it to expand on Ki, and instead, bit the bullet and made the Monk Psionic. It’s not a good fit, it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t do anything, but it also accepts that the monk probably isn’t Martial, and it probably isn’t Arcane or Divine.

The idea of ‘ki’ as a power is of course, fraught. The term is an Anglicised Asian term, often used to refer to groupings of things in the Oriental Adventures heading, which has drawn a lot of very due criticism across multiple editions for its orientalism. Doing literally anything in this space, especially as a white guy, is going to draw questions, and if you do it in a space that’s easily decontextualised, you run the risk of being recruited into an ongoing conversation you’re neither equipped nor interested to become an expert on.

When I talked about it on twitter, a comparison was made with the idea of ‘mojo’ power sources, as if the idea of using a specific cultural group’s signifiers to make character options that are specifically related to that cultural group is itself inherently a racist act. This kind of backfired, to me, because if someone who knew American Black culture a lot better than me made a bunch of say, New Orleans character options united by a mechanical grouping based around Mojo, and then it gave them a good way to represent a bunch of characters that were otherwise underserved by the existing systems, then I’d be all for it and it sounds sick as hell. I’m firmly of the opinion that D&D doesn’t get better by removing cool tools that marginalised people like, and the solution to bad stuff is to replace it with good stuff.

What tends to be here is a conversation that runs something like ‘is a samurai meaningfully different to a fighter,’ which I imagine some people would say ‘no’ and some people would say ‘yes,’ and the people who say yes should have something interesting to build with and maybe people should make the tools without building on racism rather than say ‘the use of this particular word makes it a racism.’ Ironically, the big gap between Samurai and just any person who could win a fight, in Japan was, in fact, a matter of class.

Honestly, the Ki system, if it was tied to Total Discipline powers, could be pretty interesting. You’d have room to make a Defender, Leader, and Controller, each building on this idea of tying together movement and attack powers, and draw from a variety of different media representations to give players interesting tools.

We never got it, not officially. It’s just something we can detective up.

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