Before I discuss how martial arts fits into Dungeons & Dragons, I first need to define the term. In general, martial arts can refer to any type of combat technique, including sword-fighting and archery. In common usage, the term refers to unarmed combat techniques, such as karate, judo, or kung fu. If weapons are involved, they are employed in conjunction with unarmed techniques, and the weapons may be unusual.
At first glance, martial arts appear to be completely out of place in D&D. This is because they originated primarily in Asia, while D&D is very much a reflection of medieval Europe (or some idealized version of it). In fact, the first set of rules for the Monk character class appeared in the Blackmoor supplement in 1975, only one year after the publication of the original rules. The class was subtitled “Order of the Monastic Martial Arts”, and it was described as a sub-class of Cleric.
I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the popular TV show Kung Fu was airing at this time, especially when you consider that the main character is shown training at the Shaolin Monastery. That, coupled with the growing popularity of Chinese kung fu movies and martial arts in general, is probably what led to the creation of the Monk character class.
When I started my current D&D campaign in the fall of 1979, one of my players elected to role-play a monk. He named her “Grace à Pas”, which I changed to “Grasapa” in the books. The name is a pun on “grasshopper”, which is what Caine, the main character of the Kung Fu TV show, was frequently called by his master. Despite being incredibly weak at first, Grasapa ended up being one of the long-surviving player characters.
Xlee, a Monk I created for some one-off adventures, was introduced as Grasapa’s instructor and a recurring NPC. He has yet to appear directly in the books, but Grasapa now runs Xlee’s Martial Arts Academy in the Witch’s City. That became an important element of the first book. Audrey enrolls there, and Grasapa becomes her instructor.
It’s worth mentioning that while in graduate school I enrolled in a nearby school that primarily taught Shaolin kung fu. (But it’s just a coincidence that it happened to be the same martial art as the TV show.) In the books, Audrey studies Shorinken, which is actually the Japanese word for Shaolin kung fu. My point is that I draw upon my own experiences and knowledge when writing about Audrey’s training or her use of unarmed combat when adventuring.
In conclusion, martial arts may seem out of place in D&D, but it’s been around almost from the very beginning. And it has always played an important role in my D&D campaign.
In Part 10, I will discuss some miscellaneous issues that I haven’t touched on yet.