We come now to the monk of Fourth Edition D&D, which as I have been hinting for a long time is a very unusual presentation of the class. In the source-role jargon of the edition, it is the only Psionic Striker class they released, but it has nothing in common with other Psionic-source classes – no psi pool, and their ki is not a class currency in any sense. And that’s just the beginning…

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

First off, my image choice for this article: I finally got around to seeing Doctor Strange, and the 4e monk does a way better than average job of representing the monk/wizard dichotomy of the movie’s characters. Since this is 4e, there’s a huge variety of powers, and if you really wanted to go all-in, just allow characters to play 4e monks but also pick up a smattering of wizard spells. As long as you’re creative in resolving the attribute dependency of each power, Doctor Strange turns out to be one of the best 4e-flavored movies ever filmed. (I loved the movie, and I loved 4e back when we played it, so I mean this as dual praise.)

The thing is, there’s nothing actually going on in the monk that defines it as psionic, other than the fact that it’s clearly not simply martial – the damage types and effects are too overtly supernatural for 4e’s approach to the martial source. Psionic Power goes in another direction with this, with some powers that barely fit the monk but are strongly psionic-themed. Let’s start with core features.

  • 12 + Con score hit points at 1st level, and 5 hit points per level thereafter. On par with the rogue and the ranger.
  • 7 + Con modifier healing surges, one better than the rogue and ranger (because they don’t expect you to have an even halfway decent score left over for Con).
  • Cloth armor proficiency, which is going to wind up working about the same as the avenger’s cloth armor proficiency – Dex is one of their main ability scores, and they have an additional feature to get their AC up to where it should be.
  • They can wield a very narrow selection of weapons, though there’s a sidebar that explains how barely relevant these are. Mostly they use ki focuses for everything, but they can treat any weapon they are proficient in as an implement.
    • In brief, the sidebar says that monks use weapons to benefit from some of their feat options, and to make ranged basic attacks. Monks have an unarmed melee basic attack option that is equivalent to a longsword, stat-wise.
    • Monk powers never use [W] (weapon damage, that is) in their damage expressions, so no matter what they’re using, it’s always a stat stick.
    • The monastic tradition introduced in Psionic Power ditches this and emphasizes weapon use heavily, though it still doesn’t base damage on the weapon’s damage die.
  • Monks gain a +1 to Fort, Ref, and Will defense, in keeping with “monks are good at all saves” from 3.x.
  • Monks get four trained skills, which is midrange in 4e.
  • Unarmored Defense grants a +2 bonus to AC when the monk wears cloth or no armor and does not use a shield.
  • Unarmed Combatant is the feature that grants monks their longsword hands. Their unarmed attacks cannot be enchanted, but they do gain the benefits of a ki focus item if they have one.
  • The two builds – Monastic Traditions – of the Player’s Handbook 3 are Centered Breath and Stone Fist, while Psionic Power tacks on the Iron Soul tradition.
    • Centered Breath is for contemplative ascetics. Its special features are a scaling bonus equal to your tier to Fortitude defense, which… seems to run exactly counter to stated theme, but whatever; it also grants the Centered Flurry of Blows power, which is a free action triggered when you hit with an attack. It tacks on extra damage and allows a little forced movement. As you gain levels, you hit more people with it and move them around. Centered FoB rewards a high Wisdom as a secondary attribute.
    • Stone Fist is for hardcore athletes and adrenaline junkies. So, obviously, it grants a scaling bonus to, um, Will defense. Sure. It also grants the Stone Fist Flurry of Blows power, which drops the forced movement of Centered FoB for a better damage kicker. Stone Fist FoB rewards high Strength as a secondary attribute.
    • I’m giving Centered Breath and Stone Fist some flak here, but what’s actually happening is that your defenses stay balanced and high even when your ability scores won’t directly support that. It’s just not well supported in any narrative way.
    • Iron Soul is for monks who do go in for weapons. It grants a +1 bonus to AC when you use a weapon that isn’t part of the unarmed group. The Iron Soul Flurry of Blows power has a minor damage kicker that rewards a high Con score, and splashes around some action denial – the target you hit with the triggering attack cannot shift, and at higher tiers, other adjacent enemies cannot make opportunity attacks until the end of your turn.
  • In general, monk attack and utility powers don’t have differing effects based on your monastic tradition, though a modest number of powers work differently if you are Iron Soul and using a particular weapon type. The result is that Iron Soul monks play a little more like fighters, selecting powers based on an anticipated weapon loadout.
  • As usual for 4e articles in the History of the Classes, I’m not covering each power in detail. There are a few notable trends, though:
    • Monk at-will and encounter attack powers have the Full Discipline keyword. This is the central weirdness of the 4e monk: “Full Discipline” means that it offers both an attack technique and a movement technique. The majority of your attack powers, then, are also utility powers – and you can burn through all of your encounter powers much, much faster than other classes do. It also means that these powers have a lot more moving parts and fine details to recall; if you’re like me, this kind of complexity is exactly what made 4e melt down into near unplayability at paragon tier (to say nothing of epic tier, which I never played.)
    • There are a ton of Three! Word! Attacks!, which you find throughout 4e, but it fits the ultra-wuxia monk wildly better than any other class in the edition. Many of these actually feel like in-character names, unlike anything outside of spellcasting classes. Also, Wind Walker is straight-up wire-fu as an at-will movement feature. (Gotta be 22nd level, though!)
    • Many monk feature names of 3.x show up as powers here, like Abundant Step, Leap of the Heavens, and Quivering Palm. Also, features like Internal Power are just renames of Wholeness of Body. Amusingly, Stunning Fist is a 29th-level power, rather than the core of the class as in 3.x.
    • While the 4e monastic traditions do not remotely presage the 5e monastic traditions, many of the powers and paragon paths do: Rising Dragon Fire and Three Winds Kick suggest the Elemental monk, there are all sorts of suggestions of the Open Hand monk, and the Radiant Soul clearly just becomes the Sun Soul. Looking back at it from a 5e perspective, it also suggests a beast-focused monastic tradition, and possibly more than one. Sure, it starts to sound very Kung Fu Panda and/or Karate Kid, but… cobras, hydras, cranes, and turtles all show up here, and it’s positively lousy with dragons. I wouldn’t mind seeing a Totemic or Serpent monastic tradition… who am I kidding, we all know I’m going to run out and write this as soon as I can.

The good side of this class is that it’s stylish, flashy in ways that suit its fiction, and as far as I can tell, pretty good at its job. The down side is that it is 4e at Peak Complexity. Many of the powers offer inspiration for 5e monk features – not 1:1, maybe, but interesting ideas. Overall, I like what I see here (despite its complexity), I wouldn’t mind seeing ki focus items show up in 5e in some form, and I sort of miss Cloth as a viable, scaling armor group beneath leather. (I’m well aware that bounded accuracy makes this a non-starter, don’t worry.)

What we don’t see in 4e is any clear suggestion that monks come from an Asian-inspired culture; at most, the philosophy is more in line with Asian teaching than Greek and Roman philosophy. Because they aren’t locked into some of the more mystical (and often ribbon-ish) high-end features like Timeless Body and Perfect Self, it’s much easier to treat these monks as semi-magical brawlers, dancers with strange and secret powers, or the like. The features they do receive may inspire an alternate collection of those high-end features, if the 5e monk doesn’t fit your setting very well.

Now I turn this to you, O my cherished readers: are there other presentations of the monk in tabletop gaming that you would like to see in the next article in this series? When I write the article for 5e, that’s (usually) the end of the series for a particular class, but since this is only the fifth article on the monk so far, I’m happy to push that back by a few weeks. (Safely assume that I don’t have a copy of whatever you’re suggesting.) Whatcha got?

Also, as usual, if you played a 4e monk, feel free to share your war stories about that character here.

  • Manos Ti

    Thanks for that Brandes, once again.

    I’ve never played a Monk before, I’ve been in the same party as a player with one (back in the 3.5 days) and I’ve DMed for a 5e Monk (who died sadly last week). So, I’m waiting for the 5e Monk article to kick in so I’ll share my experience with the guy.

    Also, since you’ve asked, I’m pretty sure there are some homebrewed/third party Monastic Traditions (aka Subclasses of the 5e Monk) in the world wide web, you can do some brakedowns/reviews of these if you like. I’ll browse my digital library and see if I have anything to share.

  • Jimmy Deuce

    You bring up the idea of a totemic kind of monk subclass, which is an interesting twist on the concept that 3.5 also sort of paid tribute to with the Fist of the Forest prestige class. However, it made me wonder if there might be enough conceptual depth in some of the iconic styles more directly from the source material – crane style, tiger style, mantis etc. – to build an entire 5e subclass around just one style. Way of the Crane could be a defensively-oriented subclass with a tricksy or evasive twist to defending your allies, perhaps. I vaguely remember a friend mentioning a toad style to me, whose practitioners would systematically ingest poisons and antidotes to turn their own bodily fluids toxic, which definitely has the potential for a themed subclass.

    • There’s room for that level of individuation if the DM plans to showcase multiple monastic traditions in-depth in the campaign.

      As a thought experiment on what that would look like, it would take next to nothing to break the Totemic barbarian into a multitude of subclasses if that’s what you want. This would trade one subclass having a lot of internal variation for several with stronger story roles – which would be a great idea if you’re running a campaign in FR’s Savage North that heavily features the Uthgardt tribes.

    • Drow

      …for some reason, that made me start thinking of Incarnum, or at least the incarnum classes and some of the things they could do. Probably because of the Totemist class name, although they could pretty easily be built up as absurd unarmed combatants, and draw supernatural powers like that toad poison idea.
      I wonder where incarnum would fall under in a History of the Classes? Other than as a pure pipe dream, that is.

    • Well, if sha’ir can get their own multi-article series, it’s not impossible that I’d pursue some niche one-offs of various editions.

      Did you have extensive experience with the Incarnum classes? I read them in the aisle of Barnes & Noble a few (dozen) times and found them very hard to connect with, so I never went any deeper with them. If you have a perspective there that you’d like to share, please do so.

    • Syd Andrews

      I fell in love with the Incarnum system in 3.5! I got to play one of the classes (I forget the name) at GenCon in a one-off. I didn’t get a chance to play one after that (as I typically run the game). But, in this vein, I’d love to see a run on the “one-off” classes. I really enjoyed the Tome of Magic stuff in 3.5 as well.

    • Drow

      Oh, wow. I was mostly joking. Sadly, I only have theorycraft experience, no personal playtime as one. I did almost play an Incarnate in a game I’m currently in, but backed out because didn’t want to inflict a completely new magic system on my DM (in retrospect a stupid reason; he’s tremendously freeform, and probably would have enjoyed it).

      I primarily read the Incarnum materials quite a bit and had pretty much the opposite reaction (to the mechanics, at least; left me a little cold flavorwise, barring the Totemist). The mechanics were presented obtusely, but ultimately were pretty simple, boiled down – the soulmelds are essentially just glorified magic items with three use states: shaped, powered, bound. That combined with the essentia system (the ability to reroute power on the fly), the relative gear-independence, and the lack of level limits governing what soulmelds you could use (level simply determined how powerful they would be) hit my exact complexity addiction and my love of spontaneity. Of the other classes I’ve read, only the Binder (and possibly the Factotum) have something like the modularity of incarnum, since they can also to an extent define their party roles day-to-day. And the incarnate classes are nearly SAD, since soulmelds are Con-based.

      Granted, I can’t really guess how they’d work in practice, since the three base class chassis felt a little more inconsistent. If my current warmage dies, I’ll have to try an incarnate.

    • Jimmy Deuce

      Bit late to the party here, but I remember playing around with incarnum in some depth, maybe even actually playing a character or two, but never for a significant length of time. It always felt very neat but strangely tacked on, both rules- and flavor-wise, like it really wanted to be its own thing in a separate RPG and setting where it’s the main kind of magic. It gives me a very Brandon Sanderson vibe, I guess.

  • John Nunn

    I will, of course, never discourage looking over the 13th Age version of a class between looking at the 4e and 5e versions. Monk was in 13 True Ways; let me know if you don’t have access to it.

    • Oh hey, it’s in the 13th Age SRD! Neat, it wasn’t there the last time I looked. So sure, I’ll definitely cover that.

    • Tim Baker

      Not surprisingly, I was going to suggest the 13th Age monk as well. I’m glad you’re planning to cover it!

  • Shane

    I can’t remember if there is or not, but if there’s a monk(ish) class in ACKS, I think that’d be worth looking over, particularly as compared to Basic D&D’s mystic.

  • Colin McLaughlin

    Well, 4e is a great way to stage a game that’s a surreal martial arts film or anime, that’s for sure.

    • Wyvern

      I never cared much for 4e (though I didn’t hate it with the burning passion of a thousand suns like some people did), but I ran across a fanmade set of rules for bender classes from the Avatar series which I thought were a brilliant idea. I’d even go so far as to say that there’s probably no media property that 4e is better suited for. The part I thought was particularly inspired was that it mapped the four types of benders to 4e’s roles: firebenders are strikers, airbenders are controllers, earthbenders are defenders and waterbenders are leaders.

  • Syd Andrews

    I recall when the 4E Monk was first printed in Dragon Magazine. It was a preview of the upcoming Psionic Power Source. And everyone in my group went crazy for it. I even played one in a pick-up event at GenCon that summer.

    And as much as I love 4E, I do admit that (as you pointed out) the Monk class is only one of the most-complex classes, mechanically. Also, I’m still not certain why it was put into the Psionic Power Source. Although, I will say that in the early days of 4E, I seem to recall that many more power sources were planned to be developed, one of which was Ki. I don’t know exactly what happened within WotC, but that Power Source list was trimmed WAY back to include the 5.2 Power Sources (Shadow being the 0.2 of a Power Source with only 1 class being solely Shadow Power).

    As far as how it played, I only played one for single session. And I got killed in the 2nd encounter (out of 4). But, I did run a campaign where one of the players played a Monk from level 6 to level 12. As a Striker, it functioned fairly well. However, it definitely felt a bit more like a Striker/Controller as opposed to a plain Striker. Maybe this was a result of the monastic tradition chosen (which I don’t recall at the moment). The damage output was significant, but (interestingly enough), the Vampire class character (notoriously known as the worst Striker class in 4E) definitely out-paced the Monk in single target damage.

    Overall, I’m a bit disappointed that the Psionic Power Source never got a “proper Striker” that used the Power Points and such, like the other Psionic classes. The Monk definitely feels a “step apart” from the rest of its power-kin. But for a player who likes a lot of fiddly bits and moving parts, the Monk definitely provides that. And with the treatment in Psionic Power, there are plenty of options to really let that class go nuts!

    • One does sort of feel that not going for Soulknife as a, or the, Psi Striker is money left on the table.

      It’s not at all surprising that the monk felt like a Striker/Controller – I don’t need to tell you that every class had a secondary role paired with its primary (with some room for player choice on what that secondary role would be). The monk’s FoB damage kicker scales poorly for single-target damage, but wants you to forget that you’re not a tank and splash that damage on as many people as possible, because it scales respectably on its number of secondary targets. Of course, whenever you ask someone to play like a tank but without tanky mitigation or hit points, you get what you get (dead monks, some percentage of the time).

      If I had to guess, I would say that the reason the Power Source list got pruned in the lifespan of the edition was that they just weren’t seeing the fan engagement and sales numbers that would have supported a more aggressive expansion. On the other hand, 4e still has a LOT of classes and content for the amount of time it was the edition of record. I would not be at all sad to see Runepriests come back around, for example, and I would bet there’s still widespread fan interest in any way of supporting Warlords, Avengers, and Invokers in 5e.

    • Cuix

      Every time there’s a Reddit discussion on “which class do you want to see”, I cannot help but think of those last three you mentioned. Sure, they maybe could work as archetypes, but 5E just doesn’t have as much fiddly combat meat, so there’s less room for those really flavorful mechanical expressions.

      (also my kingdom for swarm druids but that’s a separate matter)

    • Avengers got their article series already. Warlords (and Marshals before them) will get a short series, because it’s one of my favorite archetypes. I can fight AND play support? That’s totally my deal. Invokers… well, they’ll get their deep dive when I do 4e clerics. I have Opinions there.

      Swarm druid never spoke to me as an archetype, but no hate if it’s your thing. =)

    • Cuix

      Oh, I meant in terms of classes I want to see in 5E, not in these history series.

    • Syd Andrews

      As for the Power Source issue, my guess would be that the original imagining of the 4E Monk was to be the Ki Power source. But by the time they got to publishing it, the plan had changed and so it was shoehorned into Psionic. And honestly, of the 5.2 power sources, Psionic does fit the best (maybe Divine comes in close second).

      And most classes had two secondary roles listed, depending upon how you built it. I liked this in concept, but it was confusing to new players who were still trying to get their head around the idea of a Power Source/Role combination (as opposed to the historical Class choice). But in my limited experience of having a Monk at my table, it seemed that having a “primary” Striker along with the Monk as a “secondary” Striker worked well. In fact, that group didn’t have a Controller until much later in the campaign when a 5th player joined up. It was an interesting and quite effective group (once the Leader stopped trying to be a “tertiary” Striker and started doing Leader stuff).

  • Sporelord0179

    I played a Doppelganger monk in 4E. (God bless lenient DM letting me shape change into steel, turning my hands into actual weapons and basically letting me be the wuxia version of the thing).

    I found that the complexity of the monk actually made it simpler to play. I didn’t need to juggle a move, minor and action, my attack action was also my move or my minor. For example, there was a lower level daily monk power that let you shift up to your speed and make a melee attack against everyone you moved past. That was a very complex power that actually meant I didn’t have to worry about opportunity attacks or picking my targets.

    Although, I played heroic and not for too long soooooo take my opinions with a grain of salt. Or 10,000.

  • Cuix

    Loved the 4E monk, but it was definitely too fiddly to really dig into the way I could dig into the PHB1/2 material. Like you mentioned, though, it REALLY nailed the wuxia fiction, and I feel like it did a better job of that than any edition before or since.

    If you’re really gonna let us ask for non-D&D monk mentions, could you maybe possibly pretty please touch on the Shadowrun Adept, particularly 5th Edition? And maybe the martial arts as presented in its Run & Gun supplement? If you’re much familiar with that system, I mean. I’d also be keen on hearing your thoughts re: the D&D 5E Pugilist homebrew that everyone loves so much (personally, I find its flavor a bit on the nose, and it’s rather feature-dense, but it seems balanced and fun). Or, hell, touching on 3.5 monk prestige classes would be just dandy.

    • Oof, I am way out of the loop on Shadowrun. It’s one of those barely-excusable holes in my gaming experience. I’m not going to make any promises on that one.

      I will tackle the Pugilist hack, though, and sure, we can do a tour of monk PrCs and paragon paths.