After a hiatus of more than two months, welcome back to the History of the Monk Class. Last time, I covered 2e, which has an awkward and widely varied approach to the class. I think that for a lot of the D&D fanbase, if they didn’t start during 1e, 3e was their first time seeing the monk class (I mean, 3e was a lot of people’s first D&D experience… just like every other edition). Even if not, 3.0 presents the monk as a core class – core part of the fiction, really – much more than 1e did. My point is, I think this is the monk that shaped a lot of imaginations about the class.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

3.0

The meaningful change to monk theme, at least as compared to 1e, is an opening, blanket statement that “Dotted across the landscape are monasteries…” So even though human monks are going to get drawn as ambiguously ethnic, they are from the same lands as white human characters of other classes. These aren’t wanderers from afar, except possibly as transplants of a past generation. I… don’t actually hate that, it is FR canon for the people of Shou Lung, and it’s important to learn and remember that classical, medieval, and early modern Europe had way more contact with Africa, Asia, and ethnic groups from those places than legend and popular memory suggest. Thanks, conscription policy in late Imperial Rome! Thanks, Silk Road!

Anyway. The point is, this text bluntly changes the default D&D setting in a way that theoretically FR started supporting late in 2e, but has always struggled to get full fan buy-in on. But let’s get to those mechanics… because those are going to look really familiar.

  • d8s for Hit Dice; I still think this looks a little stingy for someone intended to be in melee 100% of the time, with typically modest AC until high levels.
  • Monks must be lawful, and lose all ability to advance as monks if they change alignment. Also they have a pointless multiclassing restriction: once you have any monk levels and take a level in any other class, you can never again gain a monk level. This intersects particularly strangely with prestige classes, unless there’s a special exception that I’ve forgotten – once you get on the monk-directed PrC train, you’re on the lookout for more monk-directed PrCs.
  • 4 skill points per level, and a large list of class skills. Concentration is one of those, because meditation, but the game does not introduce any ways they might use it consistently. This is called a “build trap,” and it is one of the worst things about 3.x design – the text misleads players as to what is a good idea.
  • Base attack bonus progression of +3/4, the mid-range. At base, this would lead to three attacks per round, starting at 15th level, buuuut monks also have a separate progression for gaining additional attacks if they are attacking unarmed, gaining a new attack when their bonus rolls above a multiple of 3 rather than 5. This gives them an overwhelming incentive to use unarmed attacks or a kama, nunchaku, or siangham rather than weapon attacks, since at 18th level they gain their fifth iterative attack.
    • Note that this is far less than the monk’s full list of proficient weapons, and thus represents a bunch of ways to give the monk treasure that they won’t use.
    • This BAB also means that the monk cannot buy Weapon Finesse (unarmed strike) until 3rd level, so either needs a good Strength score, or needs to expect a hard road for those first two levels.
  • Monks have the best save progression in every saving throw. This is a huge deal in 3.x’s late-game save-or-die dynamic.
  • No armor or shields, of course, but they add their Wisdom bonus to AC as well as Dex. They also receive an AC bonus at 5th level, starting at +1, that eventually scales up to +4.
    • I mentioned that thing about needing Strength? And Dex, and Wisdom… oh, and Con, because everyone needs Con but especially low-armor front-liners? Yeah, the monk is the poster child for multiple attribute dependency. There may not be ability score prereqs to enter the class anymore, but let’s not mess around. There might as well be.
  • Unarmed damage starts at d6 and scales up to d20; Small monks have a different, lower-damage progression.
  • The monk can also make a flurry of blows, taking a -2 penalty to all attacks until the beginning of their next turn in exchange for making one extra attack.
  • At 3rd level, monks gain a bonus to Speed while unarmored and unencumbered, starting at +10 and scaling up to +60. Once again, Small monks have a different, lesser Speed boost.
    • Notably, this speedster class wants to get into position and stay there, so that they can make full-round attacks (that is, get their huge number of iterative attacks), rather than getting just one attack. They also have no special way to disengage and avoid attacks of opportunity. This re-read is making me appreciate 5e monk design a lot, is what I’m saying.
    • At a certain point, this bonus speed is literally supernatural, and can be taken away by things that block supernatural abilities.
  • From first level, the monk can make a stunning attack once per level per day; if the attack hits and the target fails a Fort save, it is stunned for 1 round. Many creature types cannot be stunned, of course, because action denial is insanely good.
  • Monks get evasion at 1st I assume that better than 95% of my readers understand that that means “when I pass a Reflex save, I take no damage rather than half damage,” but for that potential 5% of you, I have described it.
  • At 2nd level, monks get Deflect Arrows as a bonus feat. In principle, a character of any class could pick up this feat by also buying Improved Unarmed Strike; in practice that never happens, because characters of other classes mostly don’t have a free hand and good Reflex saves and a feat slot to waste on Improved Unarmed Strike. So this feat exists chiefly to store the information of a monk class feature.
  • At 3rd level, Still Mind grants a +2 bonus to saves against Enchantment spells and effects.
  • At 4th level, Slow Fall reduces falling damage as long as the monk is within arm’s reach of a wall, gradually scaling from ignoring the first 20 feet of falling damage to ignoring all of the falling damage. All of it.
  • At 5th level, Purity of Body grants immunity to disease, except for magical disease.
  • At 6th level, the monk gain Improved Trip as a bonus feat. This opens the door to prone-locking, since standing up provokes attacks of opportunity that you can just use to knock the person back down.
  • At 7th level, Wholeness of Body lets the monk self-heal for a relatively piddling 2 hit points per level each day.
  • Also at 7th level, Leap of the Clouds changes a fairly subtle point of the jump-height rules for the monk. This rule would be more generous for dwarves, gnomes, and halflings than Medium monks, since their lesser height was already a stricter cap, but the Medium monks’ greater boost to Speed is a dominating advantage here.
  • At 9th level, Improved Evasion means that failed Reflex saves still reduce damage by half.
  • At 10th level, Ki Strike lets the monk ignore increasing amounts of a monster’s damage reduction, as if the monk’s unarmed strikes are magic weapons of increasing bonus.
  • At 11th level, Diamond Body grants the monk immunity to poison.
  • At 12th level, Abundant Step grants the monk a 1/day dimension door.
  • At 13th level, Diamond Soul grants spell resistance equal to 10 + the monk’s level. 3.x Spell Resistance is an additional layer of checks, ignored if SR is not present, that can cause a hostile spell to fail. Some spells intrinsically ignore Spell Resistance, for a variety of reasons. On top of already having the best saves and Improved Evasion and Still Mind – a ton of ways to resist incoming spell effects – the monk also gets this.
  • At 15th level, Quivering Palm is usable once per week. It requires a successful melee attack that deals damage. If the target has fewer levels or HD than the monk, the monk can will the target to die anytime later, up to 1 day per level of the monk; then the target dies if they fail a Fort save.
  • At 17th level, Timeless Body ends the negative effects of aging, except that the monk still dies of old age at some point.
  • Also at 17th level, Tongue of the Sun and Moon lets the monk speak with any living creature. (Sentience, interestingly, is not required; it also makes me wonder at the exact boundary on creature when it comes to living things.)
  • At 19th level, Empty Body grants the monk etherealness for 1 round per level per day.
  • At 20th level, Perfect Self turns the monk into type: outsider (subtype: extraplanar humanoid), conveying immunity to effects that cannot target outsiders (such as charm person). Further, the monk ignores the first 20 points of damage of each bludgeoning/piercing/slashing attack, unless the weapon is +1 or better. Some spells now negatively affect the monk that did not before, such as protection from law.
    • Against the things a player faces at 20th level, DR 20/+1 does not do a lot of good in 3.0. It serves a largely symbolic or flashy-display kind of purpose – “hey look what I can do” rather than meaningfully changing most High-level 3.x combat is a series of paradigm shifts even from mid-level encounters.

Holy geez is that a lot of features. This is basically a progression from “martial artist” to “untouchable by almost any form of harm” and “ignores every kind of boundary, from walls to language to time.” In this it looks only slightly changed from some of its precursors. The monk has some of the flashiest superheroics of the whole edition specifically because it flows seamlessly from the character. It meshes poorly, though, with the only-move-when-you-gotta dynamic of the 3.x action economy. Its first few levels are not great, because while it ends up untouchable, it starts off very fragile indeed. Also, a lot of monk-directed prestige classes in 3.0 are raw deals that halt the progression you care most about – that precious unarmed strike damage.

 

3.5

There are no thematic changes to see here, and I’m only listing the things that change mechanically in this list.

  • Instead of getting Stunning Fist, the monk gets a bonus feat slot that can go to either Stunning Fist or Improved Grapple.
  • Flurry of blows is integrated directly into the superior iterative attack progression, but it’s weird. The penalty eventually goes away entirely and becomes two extra attacks at the highest attack bonus. (So +15/+15/+15/+10/+5 rather than +15/+12/+9/+6/+3). This does a much better job of not making the last two attacks of the monk’s turn frustrating and kind of boring because they always miss. The list of weapons you can use as part of a flurry got expanded, but still doesn’t just include all of the melee weapons monks are proficient in.
    • Why would you bother granting melee proficiency and then not let monks use it in the way you primarily intend them to attack?
  • The unarmed damage progression got reworked to flatten out the super-swingy d12 and d20; the progression now ends on 2d10. The news is a little better for Small and dwarven monks, who end on 2d8 rather than 2d6.
  • Evasion backs off to 2nd level.
  • Instead of getting Deflect Arrows, the monk gets a bonus feat slot that can go to either Deflect Arrows or Combat Reflexes.
  • Damage reduction keywords work a bit differently in 3.5 than in 3.0, so ki strike shows up at 4th level rather than 10th, gradually granting magic, lawful, and adamantine damage qualities. If you don’t speak 3.5-ese, the first is good, the second is sometimes useful, and the third is quite often indispensable.
  • Instead of getting Improved Trip, the monk gets a bonus feat slot that can go to either Improved Trip or Improved Disarm.
  • The Slow Fall progression gets tweaked – slow falling an infinite distance gets pushed back to 20th level.
  • Perfect Self now grants DR 10/magic rather than DR 10/+1. Also they now have a special exception letting monks be brought back from the dead as if they were still humanoids, rather than as outsiders (which is much harder).

And that’s pretty much the ballgame. There are, frankly, enough prestige classes for the monk in 3.5 that I can’t begin to tackle all of them. This iteration is a bit of course correction through playtesting, rather than anything meaningful, also opening the door to some new minor variations.

 

Pathfinder

This is already a fairly long article, but let’s see if I can get the two Pathfinder monks in as well, because they are still mostly close to the 3.x baseline. I’m starting with the Original Recipe PF monk, and I’ll handle Extra Crispy below.

  • The AC bonus scales to +5 rather than +4, and applies to Combat Maneuver Defense as well.
  • Flurry of Blows works still differently. Instead of your normal Base Attack Bonus, you resolve Flurry of Blows as if you have +1/1 BAB for your monk levels. At 20th level, the attack progression is +18/+18/+13/+13/+8/+8/+3. (Seven attacks in a round as a standard thing is probably not ideal for keeping combat moving.)
  • The monk now gets more bonus feats, chosen from longer lists. The bonus feats come at 1st, 2nd, 6th, 10th, 14th, and 18th To be fair, PF has so vast a library of feats that players need a bunch of bonus feats just to scratch the surface.
  • Stunning Fist does come automatically at 1st level. You also gain the ability to apply conditions other than stunned, usually desirable because of their longer durations – though at 20th level we’re talking about one use of Stunning Fist paralyzing the target for 1d6+1 rounds. There are probably more options here than anyone really needs, but this is PF and “too many options” is not a concept with merit here.
    • Also, if you are multiclassed, you gain one additional use of Stunning Fist for every four levels you have of non-monk classes.
  • At 3rd level, monks use their monk level rather than their actual BAB to calculate their Combat Maneuver Bonus. This is an important part of being a “real” front-liner, I believe.
  • At 4th level, in addition to ki strikes that penetrate various kinds of damage reduction (and adding cold iron and silver to those types at 7th level), monks gain a daily ki pool of half their monk level + their Wisdom modifier. They can spend this to make an extra attack (which, at higher levels, just looks so unnecessary), increase their Speed for a round, or add a +4 dodge bonus to AC for a round. They have to have 1 point left in their ki pools to make ki They gain additional ki pool expenditures later.
  • Leap of the Clouds is gone, replaced with High Jump at 5th level; it does a lot more stuff to improve jumps, including letting the monk spend 1 ki to add +20 to an Acrobatics check to jump.
  • Quivering Palm changes to 1/day rather than 1/week.
  • Perfect Self now grants DR 10/chaotic rather than 10/magic. Sure, that’s a better expression of “creature of cosmic Order.”

Because it’s PF, there are a vast array of alternate feature options, racial variant options, and so on from Paizo and third-party publishers; if you squint, they all wind up looking like 2e kits or 5e subclasses. There’s no significant venture outside the general conceptual space of the monk going on here, just a lot of different ways of touching on either unarmed combat or Asian myth, legend, and martial arts traditions. Mechanically, this is pretty cogent, and the ki pool here looks a lot like DNA that’s going to feed back into 5e. (Obviously, I can’t say who came up with what or why.)

 

Unchained Monk

And now for the Extra Crispy. As we all know, the PF RPG Core Rulebook came out in 2009, and by 2015 some things were looking a little long in the tooth. Barbarians, monks, rogues, and summoners received a new “Unchained” variant, intended to streamline gameplay and make it all more manageable. Let’s see what became of this.

  • d10 Hit Dice. Well, that sounds frontline to me, and much closer to being suited to the meat-shield role.
  • Will is knocked down to a poor save. That’s weird, not really sure what they’re signifying there.
  • The actual BAB is +1/1 – there isn’t a secondary BAB progression in the class chart. To be honest, there was probably never a good reason not to do this.
  • Flurry of Blows grants one additional attack at the highest attack bonus from 1st level, and a second from 11th Spending 1 ki can still add one more attack to this.
  • A lot of later features that were default got ripped out and filed under a feature called Ki Power. At 4th level and alternating levels thereafter, you get to pick one item from a pretty huge list. It’s monk a la carte. Dim sum? Anyway. There are a lot of options here, and a lot of them fall under “flavorful but am I really going to need that often enough?” like High Jump and Feather Balance. There are also level prereqs and ki power prereq chains, because of course there are; the lesson is plan your build carefully.
  • At 5th level, Style Strike lets the monk specify one of his Flurry of Blows attacks as a Style Strike, chosen from another list of options. If that attack hits, the monk gains a special effect, from a +4 dodge bonus to AC for 1 round, to a shattering punch that ignores Damage Reduction and hardness. At 15th level, the monk can use two different style strikes in the same flurry. The monk learns new style strikes at 5th, 9th, 13th, and 17th level, so 4 out of a list of 10.
    • This is a cool feature, though probably bad for slowing down play, in that it re-emphasizes raw physicality in the monk’s martial arts – something that all of the other monk class iterations of 3.x and PF have dropped, shading more toward the itemizing the mystical features. (Some of it worked its way back in through feats that I haven’t discussed, admittedly.)
  • Improved Evasion, Tongue of the Sun and Moon, and Timeless Body remain unchanged.
  • Flawless Mind grants 5e-like advantage on Will saves, and grants fresh saving throws on long-duration Will-targeted effects once per hour. Of course, spellcasters may have pushed success almost off the table, since Will is no longer a strong save and I suspect it’s possible for enemy spell DCs to go mighty high, but this is still pretty solid.
  • Perfect Self now also grants a ki-restoring meditative state that is a lot like a 5e-style short rest, except that it will take 2-3 hours to replenish your ki if you spent down to nothing.

As I’ve suggested in the bullet points, this is a more explicitly physical monk, while also offering a wider variety of mystical features. It is not unlike building a fighter mostly around things described like called shots. The Style Strikes are more visually specific (for better or worse; the more you specify, the more you risk an immersion break) than, say, a Battle Master’s maneuvers in 5e. Fine-grained customization is Pathfinder’s stock in trade, and the unchained monk is a superior packaging of those choices to the original PF iteration. Overall, even the unchained monk clearly still has a very strong connection back to its 1e kin.

Next time in the History of the Monk, we’ll get into the incredible weirdness of the 4e monk, to which I have so frequently alluded in this column.

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  • Shane

    The issue of the monk being a “you got orientalism in my Occidentalism!” class is one that’s long plagued D&D. In point of fact, it’s largely been an issue of the game struggling between wanting to emulate a specific style of fantasty genre while at the same time positioning itself as a catch-all of fantasy gaming. The earliest incarnations of D&D were very much an attempt a combination of pulps and fantasy epics, with a few extras thrown in from various world myths, religions, and historical elements. As the game’s editions marched on the borders kept expanding, trying to be a modular “toolkit” as much as a cohesive end-product unto itself.

    Personally, I never found flavor issues unto themselves to be too big of an issue, since in theory you can change flavor text, but as with so many things the reality is more complicated. Regardless of how you flavor them (or even remove the name), the monk class is very clearly geared towards “unarmed and unarmored warriors with mystical powers,” and it’s hard to look for inspiration for that that doesn’t play into ideas of martial arts (let alone wuxia). To be fair, there are examples out there – no one thinks of Hercules as wearing plate mail or using a sword – but they’re not very intuitive.

    With regards to mechanics, I always found the strict abilities of 3.X/Pathfinder monks to be rather unpalatable. Martial arts, particularly with mystical powers, is typically presented as being individualistic, or at least presented as following distinct “styles” or “schools.” Having monks be so similar due to set class abilities really clamped down on that much too hard, and feats didn’t provide enough mechanical “oomph” to make up for it. It was only with the Unchained monk that the class really seemed to get away from that.

    • In principle, I would be fine with a class that was largely a la carte after a certain point, as long as you aren’t choosing between, say, Timeless Body and bigger punchy fighty.

      In addition to the mystic martial artist that we’ve seen throughout the class’s history, I would be fine with brawler (with or without cestus/punch dagger weapons), dancer, and holy fool as central expressions of the monk. I could also be okay with dumping the monk and reworking fighter to absorb it as a fairly dense archetype. (The obvious problem: fighters don’t pick archetypes until 3rd level, and this leaves fighter-based monks with no supporting features for the first two levels. No thanks… but the premise permits taking the fighter class back down to studs.)

      Of the 3.x/PF monks, I agree that Unchained is the most interesting, totally aside from also having the best math. =)

    • Unexpected Dave

      I’ve never really understood the obsession some people have with limiting the “base” D&D flavor to Eurocentrism. Apart from Tolkien (and those directly inspired by him) most fantasy stories take a fairly multicultural approach to humankind.

    • Unexpected Dave

      D&D has long struggled with how to balance itself between a “catch-all” fantasy environment and one with a specific flavor. In the late 80s and 90s, it was content to take a modular approach. The default setting was fairly vanilla, but they presented a dozen or more different settings with more races and mechanics (or less, in the case of the historical campaign settings) as well as optional rulebooks which could provide material for any campaign setting. The problem with that approach in 2e was that the optional material, including optional races in the campaign settings, were full of power-creep. DMs ended up being dissuaded from allowing more flavor, because that flavor was opening a Pandora’s Box of over-powered PCs. (And the text in books such as The Complete Book of Humanoids explicitly calls out that DMs should shut the door on players who are only interested in the power-gaming side of things.)

      Now, D&D’s default setting is a lot more “kitchen-sink”. Fifth Edition’s version of the Realms is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate any official content they release. Consequently, most of the official content they release is balanced enough for organized play. A DM is rarely compelled to shut the door on a given race or subclass due to power-creep alone. That also makes it harder for a DM to say “no” to something like a Tiefling or a Long Death Monk unless there are very specific story reasons why they shouldn’t exist at all in the DM’s world. As long as the designers continue to avoid the temptation of too much power-creep (which, again, even Wizards has been somewhat guilty of in 5e’s player supplements) then the “kitchen-sink” approach works fine.

  • Drow

    Yay! I admit, I was starting to dislike triceratopses.

    Huh, I totally never realized that monks couldn’t Flurry with all their weapons in 3.x. Probably because my eyes glossed over that they’re proficient in daggers, handaxes, and javelins, so I just assumed “special monk weapons” meant everything they were proficient with, anyway. It almost feels characteristic, since Monks already had a lot of specialized things going for them that didn’t necessarily interact well with each other.

    Almost want to ask you about Swordsages (since the unarmed variant can so readily take the place of a monk), but that’s probably for History of the Fighter, eh? Can’t wait for the 4e Monk article, though. Player’s Handbook 3 and Psionic Power are the only 4e books I own, and Monks were the closest thing that made me want to play the edition (no that I wouldn’t have, if I’d ever had the opportunity).

    • The weapons that they leave out are frequently nonsensical, and it just emphasizes for me how very preferable the 5e model for monks is there.

      I’m saving basically all of the Nine Swords content for the History of the Fighter, no matter which class they most play like. I figure that book alone will be a few articles of analysis, because it is such a stepping stone for D&D’s whole conception of fighters and even the dynamic of combat.

      Thanks for reading, and supporting the column!

    • crimfan

      I loved Bo9S. It was incredibly evocative and the characters were really fun to play. You could build a nastier character stat-wise other ways but for cool factor it was really hard to beat the Bo9S. Pity it came out so late in the 3.X cycle. I played a few characters with it but not long enough to really get the fun part.

    • As I’ve probably mentioned in previous discussions, I was completely out of the buying-new-content part of the 3.x audience when Bo9S came out. I was running a vaguely 3.5e-related game with wildly hacked classes and races, and the mechanics that WotC had otherwise been releasing in the year-or-so prior were interesting, but not enough so to spur me to purchase. In hindsight, of course, there’s no question that they were testing out the fundamentals of 4e.

    • crimfan

      They were but IMO 4E managed to strip all the flavor from the Bo9S material. Bo9S was this funky little cafe with some really interesting concepts on the burger. 4E is the McDonald’s version.

  • Mikey Kromhout

    One thing to remember about magic resistance by RAW that kind of sucks in 3e is that many buffs are affected by magic resistance and so if you want to actually be affected by it you technically have to use a standard action (I think it was a standard action) to lower your MR to let the spell through with no problems. This is a rule often glossed over or house ruled away but it is another way that 3e rules get in its own way.

    Another fun example is the classic “monk is not proficient with their own unarmed strikes”. Unarmed strike is listed as a simple weapon and since monks are not prof with all simple weapons they may not be proficient with their own unarmed strikes. I tend to argue that unarmed attacks are a variant natural attack and I believe in the monster manual I recall it says that creatures are automatically prof with their own natural attacks so that is how I try to get around that but it is a bit convoluted.

  • Sporelord0179

    I finally understand how much of a dumpster fire the 3.X monk is.
    Being a 4E/5E baby, I never understood Monk hate until now.

    • Personally I’m struck by how little changed the 3.0 monk is from previous editions – how almost every one of its features is prefigured elsewhere.

      It’s… almost impossible for me to really imagine your perspective, coming at this without having experienced it when it was the current D&D. I think one would have to say, especially of 3.0, that it was an edition of incongruities and bizarre excesses (f’rex, haste was too good by a country mile), and everything that did work was the result of judicious DMing and players that didn’t push things to their breaking points. It was still possible to have a ton of fun with the monk (I mean, I assume – I never played one, and in all of 3.x only had two of low-ish levels in games I was running), but you had to be ready to look past moments of dissatisfying outcomes.

      Ultimately I would say that with every edition, from Gygax’s first releases to 5e, the designers have gone with the best idea they had at the time, based on as much playtesting as they could squeeze in. It’s often hard to understand how the thing they settled on was “the best idea.” As a professional designer, though, I’ll tell you for SURE that there are always reasons for things, most of which never become obvious to the public.

  • Cuix

    If any RPG gives me the slightest room to play an unarmed-and-unarmored non-mage, I will take it in an instant. Always wanted the monk to be better than it is in 3.5. My current DM is “errata-ing” (homebrewing) that they get full BAB (because their feat/MAD taxes are already bad enough), and even then swordsage just looks so much better. They get wicked cool prestige classes, at least.

    • Just in case you’re looking for another useful variant, grafting the PF Unchained Monk back into 3.5 should work with almost no difficulty – one selling point of which is that it’s written with +1/1 BAB already.

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