D&D 5e Character Optimization – Monk
This week we have a character optimization for the Monk class by Yunru from the Wizards of the Coast community forums that was deleted. Lots of edits, formatting, additions and corrections.Character optimization guides:
Meditation, Mediation, Devastation: A Monk’s Guide
How does one Monk? A Monk is a fast, hit and run style character. They get in, they trash the place, and they get out. They are, without exception, the fastest class, and the only thing that could improve that is dipping two levels into Rogue for Cunning Action.
Sky Blue: Optimal choice, core on all builds minus a fringe build or two.
Blue: Solid pick, not exactly optimal but still a very good choice.
Black: Not bad, not great, there are better but you’re not hindering your character picking this.
Purple: Bad choice, maybe some awkward situations you’ll get use out of this, but otherwise you’re wasting valuable character growth.
Red: Nope. Just nope. There’s either something strictly better or it’s a downright awful pick.
Dexterity – AC, Initiative, Attacking and Damage, all of it can be done with Dexterity for you. Even if this isn’t you’re main stat, you’re going to want it quite high for the first two reasons.
Wisdom – Your ability to spot the hidden, the saving throws you inflict, and a large portion of your AC will all come from your Wisdom. That said, it’s not as essential as Dexterity, so if you’re stuck between which to boost, Dexterity first.
Constitution – You don’t want to get hit. Both your play style and your Hit Dice suggest you really don’t want to get hit. But more likely than not, you will get hit at some point. And have HP when you do is good.
Strength: Thanks to your Martial Arts, you can completely ignore Strength in most cases. If, however, you want to make a Grappling Monk, this will be your main stat.
Intelligence – Monks are wise, not book smart. But really, intelligence does nothing for you.
Charisma – All that time meditating hasn’t really helped your social skills much.
Dexterity and Wisdom are your two most important stats, normally in that order. That said, thanks to bounded accuracy it is possible to do well with any of the races.
Aarakocra – I rated a race gold. Yup. Aarakocra make such good Monks it feels dirty. Fly speed is just perfect for a Monk’s hit ‘n’ run play style and the stats are in all the right places.
Variant Human – As a Monk you’ll want stats more than you want feats. That said, having a feat can help. Variant Humans are awesome in that they’re the only race that can get a feat from the start. You have to default 30 feet speed and +1 to two stats (Dex and Wis, or Str and Wis). Currently you’re also the only race to be able to get +2 Wisdom out of the gate.
Hill Dwarf – Doesn’t boost your attack stat, but it’s a hefty bonus to Con (and thus your HP). Plus it boosts your Save DC stat and your AC. 25 speed isn’t really a problem, thanks to Unarmored Movement. Darkvision is always nice to have. Toughness is great.
Human – +1 All is surprising quite good here. Normally half of the +1s have very little effect, but with the Monk you could go 8/15/15/8/8/15 to get 16s in your Dex, Con and Wis.
Wood Elf – Good stats, good speed. Darkvision is good. Keen Senses is good. Fey Ancestry is really good. Superior Hiding, not so much – generally you want to use your action for other stuff.
Stout Halfling – +2 Dex is good, +1 Con not so much. Unarmed Movement counters your lower speed so it’s not as much of an issue as with other classes. Lucky lets you reroll a fumble, which is rare but useful. Better chances at not being Frightened (Brave) is good. Moving through opponent’s spaces could be useful, if you want to eat an OA. Personally I’d just go around them.
Half-Elf – You get an extra skill if you need it, Darkvision and Fey Ancestry. +2 Cha isn’t anything special, but at least you get two +1s to other stats.
High Elf – +2 Dex. Darkvision. Keen Senses. Fey Ancestry. That is what makes you good. Everything else can be disgarded.
Eldarin – As above, but Misty Step is awesome so a higher rating.
Lightfoot Halfling – Don’t. You’re not bad per say, but you’d be better as a Stout Halfling. Charisma does nothing for you, Naturally Stealth does little for you.
Forest Gnome – You can’t be controlled easily by magic, and you’ve Darkvision. unfortunately you’ve only got a +1 to a primary stat and 25 feet speed.
Mountain Dwarf – You’re locked into making a strength build with this race. You get two +2s so you can spread the love stat wise if you so wish. 25 speed doesn’t hurt (Unarmored Movement) and Darkvision is as nice as always.
Drow – Buffs a useful stat (Dexterity) and a useless stat (Charisma), but that’s not why you’re here. Average speed, but that’s not why you’re here. Superior Darkvision, which will be made redundant for why you’re here. Proficiency in Perception is never bad, as is being immune or resistant to stuff. Sunlight Sensitivity can be bad but ties into why you’re here: Drow Magic. Combined with two levels of Warlock and you can run the Darkness + Devil’s Sight combo.
Deep Gnome – See Forest Gnome above.
Tiefling – Hellish Resistance might be useful and you might be able to do something with the acquired Hellish Rebuke. Other than that it lacks synergy.
Aasimar – Wisdom good, Charisma bad. More situational than Tiefling due to more situation spell selection.
Half-Orc – Your stats and Relentless make you out to be a good grappler monk, allowing a 16/14/14/8/14/8 plus racial.
Dragonborn – Stats do nothing for you, and neither does your breath.
Rock Gnome – See Forest Gnome above, only worse because you don’t even get the +1 Dex.
Goliath – Barbarians, not Monks.
Skills & Backgrounds
- Sleight of Hand
- Animal Handling
- Folk Hero
- Guild Arisan
Unarmored Defense – You’re stuck with it and it scales slowly. Good news is the only class that can out-AC you by level 20 is the Barbarian. Well, assuming you maxed Wisdom and Dexterity. Unfortunately it doesn’t work with a shield, unlike the Barbarian’s.
Martial Arts – Now you’re talking. This is, without a doubt, the easiest way to get a bonus action attack with full modifiers, ever. Also all your Monk weapons (including your Unarmed Strikes) can run off of Dexterity.
Two very important things to note here: Both the damage die and the using of Dexterity are optional. You’ll want your Unarmed Strikes to use the Monk’s damage die for sure, but stick with a weapon until 5th level at the earliest (11th if you’re using a versatile weapon two-handed).
Ki – Ki, all you’re really good stuff revolves around Ki. You have to pace yourself, as it only regenerates when you rest (short or long), but when you do use it, it can be brutal. You also get your Ki Save DC defined here, it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be.
- Flurry of Blows – In most cases, if you’re going to spend Ki, it’s going to be here. Especially if you’re an Open Hand Monk.
- Patient Defense – It can be useful, namely because it lasts longer than Disengaging.
- Step of the Wind – Outclassed if you pick up Cunning Action, but otherwise being able to not provoke when you retreat is good.
Unarmored Movement – You’re a squishy striker, having enough speed to get in, do your job and get out is essential. Being able to water walk and go Matrix style is also cool.
Monastic Tradition – see below
Deflect Missiles – Reducing the ways you can effectively be attacked is good. Being able to redirect attacks is just icing on the cake.
Ability Score Improvement
Slow Fall – Or as I call it “Why Not Jump”. The amount of times you’ll be falling will vary quite massively, but it’s handy to have when you do.
Extra Attack – More attacks is good. Plain and simple.
Stunning Fist – But when combined with this, well. Stun on your first strike and your second (and possibly your Flurry) has advantage. It can’t attack you, can’t move and can’t make Strength or Dexterity saving throws.
Ki-Empowered Strikes – Not that you have a choice about it, but this is needed for keeping up late-game.
Evasion – This lets you make a Dexterity Saving Throw to allow you to avoid area attack’s damage. Combined with your speed and Deflect Missiles there’s no easy way to hit you if you’re not in melee range.
Stillness of Mind – Yet more ways to stop you being locked down. Charmed and Frightened are bad when you want to take someone out, spending an action to avoid that, while painful, is your best course of action while under either.
Purity of Body – Flat out immunity to Poison and Disease is nothing to sneeze at.
Tongue of the Sun and Moon – It’s use depends entirely on how much your DM uses other languages. That and in general most things speak Common.
Diamond Soul – Look closer. Do you see it? All saving throws. So that includes Death Saving Throws. Not that great since you want to avoid being in that situation in the first place, but helpful when you’ve no choice.
Timeless Body – Unless your campaigns last for a century or more, this is basically useless.
Empty Body – You may spend 4 Ki points and your action to become invisible for 1 minute. During this time you have resistance to all damage but force damage. This invisibility does not end upon attacking or taking another action. Additionally, you may spend 8 Ki points to cast Astral Projection. When you do so, you cannot take any other creatures with you. Having never had a need to cast this spell, it’s usefulness will vary between parties and campaigns. Usually the wizard is the one casting this, and 8 Ki points is a steep cost, but it’s good to have in a pinch if you ever need it.
Perfect Self – Varies by how much you spend your Ki points. If you manage to burn through all 20 before a short rest, this can tide you over. Just be sure to spend them all, as you don’t get any if you’ve 1-3 Ki Points remaining. Compared both to other classes and just to itself, monks got an incredibly weak ability for level 20.
Way of the Open Hand
In my opinion, the strongest of the monastic traditions. It contains the only save-or-die in the game and consumes the least Ki.
Open Hand Technique – (Level 3) So that 1 Ki, 2 attack Flurry of Blows? Just got even better. You can tag any one of these three on the end of each attack Flurry gives you at no cost.
- It must succeed on a DEX saving throw or be knocked prone.
- It must succeed on a STR saving throw or be pushed up to 15 feet away from you.
- It cannot take reactions until the end of your next turn.
Wholeness of Body – (Level 6) For when you are hit, having healing in your pocket never hurt.
Tranquility – (Level 11) Sanctuary just isn’t that good. Can have situational uses though. But it’s a level 1 spell at level 11. Meh.
Quivering Palm – (Level 17)Meet the only Save-or-Die left. It costs you your action to invoke (but not to set up), and lasts at least 17 days so you can use it for RP purposes too. Only works on one creature at a time, but it doesn’t say it doesn’t work multiple times on one creature. Although the action cost of invoking all those would make it situation that you’d have more than one in effect.
Way of Shadow
As you might expect, the Way of Shadow focuses on stealth, making them more the assassination type. I rate them less favorably than Open Hand because the advantages Open Hand gives you are unique, whereas Shadow merely enhances stuff they could already do. The best Way of Shadow Monks will want to multiclass Rogue at some point past 6.
Shadow Arts – (Level 3) Most of these are situational useful, but the Ki cost is kind of a buzzkill. You’re better with the Warlock’s Devil’s Sight + Darkness combo.
Shadow Step – (Level 6) The best maneuverability you can get. There are very few ways to teleport, let alone at-will, so to be able to get it at-will with the cost of only a bonus action? Even better if you dip two levels into Warlock for the Devil’s Sight + Darkness combo.
Cloak of Shadows – (Level 11) A lesser Empty Body, but seven levels earlier and doesn’t require Ki. Breaks too easy for my taste, especially given the action cost. Better if you have a way of making a bonus action attack that doesn’t require your main action to be used to attack, as then you can bonus action attack while invisible and re-invisible with your action.
Opportunist – (Level 17) Stand next to a creature, if it’s hit, you can hit it with your reaction. Better if you’ve Sneak Attack. But you’ll need to be in the middle of combat for this to happen, and 1 attack from a monk isn’t a large bonus since Monks rely on multiple attacks and hit-run tactics.
Way of the Four Elements
A magic monk. Seems like all the non-magic classes have this option for creating a spellcaster. This allows for a lot of versatility in the monastic tradition, and requires a lot of Ki-budgeting for the player to track.
Elemental Attunement You can use your action to briefly control elemental forces nearby, causing one of the following effects –
- Create a harmless sensory effect related to earth, air, water or fire, such as a shower of sparks, a puff of wind, a spray of light mist, or a gentle rumbling of stone.
- Instantaneously light or snuff a candle, torch, small campfire, or lantern.
- Chill or warm up to 1 pound of nonliving material for up to 1 hour.
- Cause earth, water, fire, or mist that can fit within a 1 foot cube to shape itself into a crude form you designate for 1 minute.
The usefulness of this discipline is limited to your imagination. If you can’t think of interesting and useful ways to mildly manipulate elements then it serves little purpose. But to someone who has a great imagination, this is fantastic utility.
Fangs of the Fire Snake When you use the attack action on your turn, you can spend 1 Ki point to cause tendrils of flame to stretch out from your fists and feet. Your reach with unarmed strikes increases by 10 feet for that action, as well as the rest of the turn. These attacks do fire damage instead of bludgeoning damage, and you may spend 1 Ki point when such an attack hits to deal an extra 1d10 fire damage. This is my favorite discipline, I would honestly take this at level 3 or 6 because it’s such a huge damage spike, and the Ki you have to sink into it you get back every short rest.
Water Whip: You can Spend 2 Ki points as a bonus action to choose a creature within 30 feet of you to make a DEX saving throw. On a failed save that creature takes 3d10 bludgeoning damage plus an extra 1d10 for each additional Ki point spent. That creature is either knocked prone or pulled 25 feet closer to you. On a successful save the creature only takes half damage and is not pulled or knocked prone. I find this to be better than fist of unbroken air simply because it targets DEX and not STR, and because it is used as a bonus action instead of a normal action. So you may whip someone, pull them next to you, and then proceed to punch them a couple of times. It makes better use of your action economy, which is 5e is everything.
Fist of Four Thunders: You can spend 2 Ki points to cast thunderwave. Not awful to have, but I would take this only with a distinct lack of AoE in your party. Unlike a pure caster, you’re much more likely to be in the middle of the fight, and can be in better position to use this. Swap this out at level 11 for something with better scaling though.
Shape the Flowing River: As an action, you may spend 1 Ki point to choose an area of ice or water no larger than 30 feet on a side (meaning that the length or width cannot be individually over 30 feet, but may each be up to 30 feet, so you may select an area of 18 squares, 6 long and 6 wide, on a normal 5 foot grid) within 120 feet of you. You can change water to ice and vice versa, and may reshape ice in any manner you choose. You may raise or lower the elevation of the ice by as much as half the largest dimension. For example, if you have a 30 foot square, you may raise or lower it by up to 15 feet. You cannot shape the ice to trap or injure a creature in the area. This ability is entirely dependent on how much water you will be around. Pirate or sailor campaign? Perfect! Desert campaign? Less than perfect! Talk to your DM about the usefulness of this ability before taking it.
Fist of Unbroken Air: As an action, you can spend 2 Ki points to choose a creature within 30 feet of you, that creature makes a STR saving throw. If the creature fails, it takes 3d10 bludgeoning damage, plus an extra 1d10 for each additional Ki point you spend, and is pushed back up to 20 feet away from you and it is knocked prone. On a successful save the creature only takes half damage and is not pushed or proned. I would rate this better, if water whip wasn’t almost strictly better than it. The fact that this takes an action where water whip takes a bonus action is already a huge argument against it, not to mention it targets STR, which is usually baddies stat of choice.
Sweeping Cinder Strike: You may spend 2 Ki points to cast burning hands. If you are really lacking in an offensive caster and AoE, I would still take fist of four thunders over this, it scales better and has some knockback effects tacked with it.
Rush of the Gale Spirits: You can spend 2 Ki points to cast gust of wind. Again an underwhelming spell to imitate, if for whatever reason you do take it drop it by level 6 or 11.
Clench of the North Wind (6th level required): You can spend 3 Ki points to cast hold person. If the target didn’t get a save every turn I’d consider this more, but it’s just not enough bang for your buck.
Gong of the Summit (6th level required): You may spend 3 Ki points to cast shatter. 3 Ki points for a weak, purely damaging spell is not what we’re looking for here, we have better uses for our Ki and actions.
Eternal Mountain Defense (11th level required): You can spend 5 Ki points to cast stoneskin, targeting yourself. Resistance to slashing piercing and bludgeoning damage is nice, especially because it lasts an hour. However depending on the magical items your enemies have, this spell may find itself less useful than you want. Choose accordingly. NOTE: The RAW designates that the maximum Ki points able to be spent on a spell is 4 at level 11, and 5 at level 13. You should talk to your DM about this discrepancy, as technically you are unable to cast this at the level you obtain it. Once I get a definitive answer for this I will update this section.
Mist Stance (11th level required): You can spend 4 Ki points to cast gaseous form, targeting yourself. Not bad utility at all, good for slipping through cracks in walls and being stealthy in dungeons. Lasts for 1 hour, which is great value for a spell like this.
Ride the Wind (11th level required): You may spend 4 Ki points to cast fly, targeting yourself. In 5e you can’t count on your wizard/sorcerer to buff the party constantly, so it’s perfectly viable for a secondary spellcaster like yourself to have a couple utility spells up their sleeves, both to give the primary caster a little breathing room with their spells, and to be slightly more self reliant. Spells like this fit great with a magic monks theme and role, primary attackers and secondary spellcasters.
Flames of the Phoenix (11th level required): You may spend 4 Ki points to cast fireball. At level 11, a 3rd level spell is somewhat underwhelming. 8d6 with an extra 1d6 for every extra Ki point is simply too much an investment with not enough returns.
River of Hungry Flame (17th level required): You can spend 5 Ki points to cast wall of fire. Not bad, but it’s a huge Ki investment for a level 4 spell. Thinking of creative uses for this spell is key,
Breath of Winter (17th level required): You may spend 6 Ki points to cast cone of cold. A 5th level spell isn’t something to sneeze at, even at level 17. If your party lacks AoE effects or a pure caster, this isn’t a bad pickup at all.
Wave of Rolling Earth (17th level required): You can spend 6 Ki points to cast wall of stone. Again, creative use of this spell is key, otherwise you’re just making a boring old wall.
Bounded Accuracy lessens the blow a lot, but in the end you’re still a dual-prime class. And with only 5 stat bumps/feats (less if you MC), feats are going to be very rare if you want to max both stats. That said, I’m only going to list feats worth taking.
Mobile – If you’re looking to fill that last ABI, or just aren’t as worried about maxing both stats, Mobile is a great choice. Each enemy you target in melee can’t attack you once you retreat. Better than Disengage in that things that can counter Disengage can’t counter this, and it’s more action economy efficient.
Alert – With your ability at crowd control, going first is good. Even better considering if your party is Surprised you can still probably outspeed and stun the enemy. Doesn’t come with a stat boost though.
Lucky – Another one for the “spare space” pile, this lets you add a d20 to the dice your rolling for attack rolls, ability checks or saving throws (so everything), 3/long rest. The really cool bit? You pick which of the dice you use. This is more specific than (Dis)Advantage rules, so if you’ve either it’s a case of “Roll 3, take highest.” Your DM might rule you can pick either the Lucky die, or the result of your roll with (Dis)Advantage, in which case it’s not as powerful, but still powerful.
Magic Initiate – This is an interesting one. It lets you pick up Shillelagh, allowing you to use Wisdom for your main attacks, basically replacing Dexterity with Wisdom for the position of “Main Stat”. Dex is still important though because your bonus action attacks all use Unarmed Strike.
Observant – A +5 to Passive Perception and Lip Reading isn’t normally worth all that much, but if you’ve an odd score in one of Wisdom or Dex, patch it up with this.
Resilient (Wisdom) – Alternatively patch it up with this. Wisdom Saving Throws are normally for controller effects too. Redundant once you reach level 14 though (although the +1 doesn’t hurt).
Skulker – Lets you hide easier and misses don’t break Hidden. Can be important for stealth Monks.
Before immediately jumping on these: Multiclassing more than 1 level will cost you an ABI unless you go for a full four levels, in which case you lose Monk features. That said, the ratings do take that into account.
Wizard 2 – Divination Portent. Yes. Just, yes. Twice a day you can make an enemy suck, or ensure success for yourself, depending on what you roll. Now pair that with Quivering Palm and if you’ve a low roll you’ve an insta-kill, Legendary Saves asides.
Warlock 2 – If you go Warlock, go for the Fiend Patron for TempHP on a kill. You’re here for the Devil’s Sight Invocation, which combos nicely with Darkness. If your not a Shadow Monk don’t do this.
Rogue 2 – Sure if you’re maxing both stats this costs you your free ABI, but it’s worth it. At level 1 you get Expertise and Sneak Attack, which is nice. What you’re here for though is Cunning Action, which is a Ki-free Unarmored Movement, sans-speed increase. Or maybe your more into using Empty Body to sneak around, in which case you’re here for bonus action hiding. Either way it’s good stuff.
Ranger Hunter 3 – Hunter’s Mark adds a d6 to your weapon attacks vs one target. Hex is better but I digress, that’s not the main draw, just a tasty morsel. The Hunter Archetype is why you’re here. More specifically Hunter’s Prey. Colossus Slayer adds 1d8 to one of your attacks, Giant Killer can be a very useful out-of-turn Stunning Strike, and Horde Breaker means even more damage (and crowd control when combined with Stunning Strike).
Warlock 3 – Still here? Very well, but this is as far as you should go. Devil’s Sight + Darkness as above, but you don’t gain the extra mobility if you’re not a Shadow Monk. Shadow Monks who take this do so to reduce their dependence on Ki for Darkness.
Fighter X – If you’re going more than 5 levels into a class, Fighter is worth it just for the bonus ABIs. Then again, if you’re going that far, you’re probably another class MCing Monk. (Fighter 11/Monk 6/Warlock 3 comes to mind: Darkness + Devil’s Sight + 3 Attacks + Shadow Teleportation)
Rogue 3+ – Really this is if you want to play a Rogue that’s fast, can stun with their hands and can teleport in shadows. Only recommended for Shadow Monks. You pick up more Sneak Attack dice, Assassinate, Uncanny Dodge, and Reliable Talent. Not bad compared to what your path would get you. Remember: Sneak Attack only works on finesse weapons, which your Unarmed Strike isn’t.
Warlock 7 – This is a stretch, but if you take the Archfey as your patron you can cast Greater Invisibility (presumably on yourself) twice per rest. Given that the DMG recommends six encounters and two short rests, that should be enough.
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Also check out my Monk build here: