At last, after a month of covering a few other topics, we come to the conclusion of the History of the Monk, with its 5th Edition iteration. (Assuming someone doesn’t suggest another version that I really want to cover. My readers are a crafty lot.) Up to this point, edition over edition, we’ve seen a few substantial outliers like 2e and 4e, and some structural variants like 13th Age, but few classes stay as true to both a central concept and implementation as the monk has.
In this edition, the monk has been restored to its place as a core class in the (first) Player’s Handbook, as in 1e and 3e. The flavor text suggests that monasteries are a common, if secluded, feature of just about any D&D setting, so monks aren’t really all that exotic. At the same time, ki is still an essential part of the class, representing a magical force that flows through all living things. The change, then, is to assert that monks aren’t exotic.
- d8 Hit Dice, which in 5e means they’re on par with bards, clerics, rogues, and warlocks – all characters that may see front-line duty but still prefer to have some cover from sturdier characters.
- No armor proficiency. Shock of shocks.
- Proficiency in all simple weapons, and in shortswords.
- 5e doesn’t have a boatload of Asian weaponry – no nunchucks, kama, sai, or siangham here. I am a huge fan of this change, for some sort of obscure reasons. In 3.x, random magic weapon generation – or magic items directed by a published adventure – could result in a bunch of monk weapons that would be of no interest to non-monk characters. Oh, sure, you could just change them to something else, but you could instead just set monks up to use the same spread of weapons as most everyone else. In general, it’s better to have more party members at least potentially interested in any given piece of loot. There aren’t many items everyone is interested in, of course, but try to avoid items no one is interested in, especially if they’re disinterested before you even get to the identify step.
- Proficiency in one type of artisan’s tools or one musical instrument. This is a nice note for presenting monastic labor.
- Proficiency in Strength and Dexterity saves, strongly emphasizing their athletic side.
- At 14th level, Diamond Soul kind of renders this moot, but that’s all right. They also rack up an array of other defenses to mitigate the saving throw proficiencies they don’t have before that point. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
- Two skill proficiencies from a short list; I would argue that a lot more skills belong on this list, and a third proficiency wouldn’t be out of line.
- Unarmored Defense lets them set their AC to (10 + Dex mod + Wis mod) as long as they are doing the no-armor, no-shield thing that you’d expect.
- Martial Arts is the definitive monk feature, and the exact wording of its multiple moving parts is a huge deal. I talked about this in the UA breakdowns of the kensei drafts (part one, part two), but let’s dive into this again.
- First off, you can replace Strength modifiers with Dex modifiers for everything that qualifies as an unarmed strike and everything that qualifies as a monk weapon. Those two categories sometimes get expanded with various features. The monk’s multiple attribute dependency is bad enough – letting them not worry to much about Strength, other than Athletics checks and Str saves, makes a difference.
- You can replace the damage die of your unarmed strike or monk weapon with a scaling die value (starts at d4, and rises to a d10 by 17th level).
- When you use the Attack action (not “make an attack” – again, precise wording and case is everything here), you can make one unarmed strike as a bonus action. Though it’s similar to two-weapon fighting, it automatically includes the ability score adjustment to damage. Also, the bonus action economy means that Flurry of Blows is a direct upgrade of this feature.
- The flavor text of the feature suggests how to model nunchaku, kamas, and so on in 5e.
- As with a lot of 5e classes, you don’t get all of the monk’s essential function at 1st level – you wait until 2nd to get ki points. These are a per-short-rest currency, and you start with three ways to spend them:
- Flurry of Blows turns your one unarmed strike as a bonus action into two unarmed strikes, for 1 ki point. This is absolutely huge.
- Patient Defense lets you spend 1 ki point to Dodge as a bonus action. It also potentially lets you try your hand at evade tanking – but at 1 ki per round, this is more of a way to survive bad positioning than a way of life. (Since you’re doing this instead of other bonus action options.)
- Step of the Wind lets you Disengage or Dash as a bonus action, and doubles your jump distance, for 1 ki.
- Striker/defender/skirmisher? Yeah, these three features are a manifesto on the class’s gameplay. They also mean that the monk has a super-tight action economy, much like the rogue. I have a hard time believing Mearls’s claim that he could cover all of these bases gracefully without resorting to bonus actions. What he’s suggested about the phrasing of such features seems like it would necessarily be kludgier and more limiting. Save the bonus action, y’all.
- ETA: As everyone and their brother now knows, I got this wrong in my first draft – ki points are a per-short-rest currency. Mea culpa! It makes the high costs of Four Elements disciplines less of a problem, but it does even better things for Open Hand and Shadows, for obvious reasons. It waters down the importance of Perfect Self somewhat. Also, Open Hand’s Quivering Palm miiiight be a staple of your diet rather than a sometimes food.
- Unarmored Movement grants speed bonuses while you’re not armored, starting at +10 ft and scaling to +30 ft. Thanks to Step of the Wind, though, the numbers don’t need to scale as high as they did in 3.x. At 9th level, this feature improves further, allowing you to run on liquids and vertical surfaces, as long as you end your turn on something solid.
- Movement options that only operate on your turn are sort of a mixed bag to me. On one hand, hey, cool new movement options that have some kind of limiter, that’s basically good. On the other, it really hangs a lampshade on the fact that there’s no such thing as continuous action – every action is interrupted by your turn ending.
- At 3rd level, you choose your Monastic Tradition. I’ll cover these in detail below, as usual.
- Deflect Missiles is a reaction that reduces the damage of ranged weapon attacks, and lets you catch the missile if you reduce damage to 0. Further, if you spend 1 ki, you can hurl the projectile back. No bow? No problem.
- Ability Score Improvements at 4, 8, 12, 16, and 19.
- Slow Fall reduces the falling damage you take by 5 points per monk level, as a reaction.
- Extra Attack at 5th level. You might reasonably make 2, 3, or 4 attacks in a round, depending on your ki availability and what you need to do with your bonus action.
- Stunning Strike lets you add a one-round stun to an attack that has already hit for 1 ki point. The target gets a Con save, of course.
- Ki-Empowered Strikes lets your unarmed strikes count as magic. No surprise here.
- Evasion does what Evasion does. It is exactly like the rogue feature.
- Stillness of Mind declines to grant monks immunity to charmed or frightened per se, but you can use your action to center your thoughts and end one such effect. Obviously, if the effect is getting spammed, you’re not making any headway in the fight unless you can start passing saving throws. I’m kinda surprised there’s not a ki spend option here, but whatevah, this implementation is fine. It still won’t save you from a dominate, since your New Friend gets to choose your action for you.
- Purity of Body grants immunity to disease and poison at 10th level. Feh.
- Tongue of the Sun and Moon lets you speak to anyone and understand them in return. It doesn’t do anything with written communication, but it amuses me to wonder what this would do for someone sounding out writing in a language they don’t really know (e.g., me reading Spanish aloud).
- Diamond Soul, as mentioned grants proficiency in all six saving throws. Further, when you do fail a save, you can spend 1 ki point to reroll and take the new result. This adds up to a ton of resistance to any kind of save-based effect.
- Timeless Body solves for aging, eating, and drinking, though you can still die of old age despite having no senescence.
- Empty Body at 18th level gives you two new ways to spend buckets of ki. 5e doesn’t really want monks passing through walls as etherealness granted (I’m guessing), so for 4 ki you become invisible and resistant to all damage except force damage. Also, you can spend 8 ki to astrally project yourself without material components. I’m not sure how often a self-only astral projection is useful even in very high-level play, but the option doesn’t cost anything.
- Perfect Self is the monk’s currency replenisher – if you’re out of ki when you roll initiative, you regain 4. Not enough to dominate a fight, but enough to get by for a short time.
Just about all of the feature names and all of the feature themes are familiar from earlier iterations, but the majority of the mechanical implementations have been tweaked. I like the great majority of what I see here. I like what I’ve seen so far out of the class in actual play. They get to a large number of attacks faster than any other class, though the fighter’s Action Surge passes them by at 11th level. It’s a worthy striker and off-tank, just based on the core of the class. Let’s see what goes on in the subclasses.
Way of the Open Hand
This is the traditional monk, picking back up most of the features that are missing compared to 3.x.
- Open Hand Technique attaches one of three effects as a rider to your Flurry of Blows strikes, so this feature does nothing if you’re not spending ki and your bonus actions on Flurry of Blows. On the other hand, it’s crazy good.
- Knock an opponent prone if it fails a Dex save.
- Push an opponent 15 feet if it fails a Str save. (Unlike a lot of push effects, this has no size limit. “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not.”
- Deny your target its reaction until the end of your next turn. If no one else is around, this and the push option are as good as or better than Disengaging as a bonus action, for the same ki cost, and you deal damage. You’ve just got to be sure you can land that hit.
- Wholeness of Body is the traditional monk self-heal, this time pegged at 3 hit points per monk level per long rest.
- Tranquility gives you a free sanctuary at the end of a long rest. I’m not sure if monks are getting a ton of use out of this, but in principle, letting monks pass alone and peacefully through the valley of the shadow of death is a great image. It just might not be terribly practical.
- Quivering Palm is their top-end feature. For 3 ki, declared after a successful unarmed strike, you can seriously injure or kill them at any later time, up to a number of days equal to your monk level. It costs another action to end the vibrations. On a failed Con save, boom, they’re at 0 hit points. On a success, a mere 10d10 necrotic damage. You can only have one creature on the hook at a time, but anything that can force top-end bosses to burn legendary resistance is a pretty good idea. Save-or-die is vanishingly rare in 5e, and this is a key example.
So like I said, ultra-orthodox, but eminently respectable. The worst I can say is that Open Hand Technique and Quivering Palm might be too good, but if so, it’s not a big problem.
Way of Shadow
Want to play a ninja? Want to see the other piece of my argument that 3.x shadowdancers were supposed to be monk-friendly? This is the place to be. (The flavor text calls out that “shadowdancer” is an in-world name for monks of this subclass.)
- Shadow Arts lets you burn ki for thematically relevant spell effects. Each casting of darkness, pass without trace, or silence is 2 ki. It also teaches you the minor illusion cantrip. This feature adds a lot of combat and non-combat options, and I think this list of options tells the story of slightly-magical ninjas quite well.
- Shadow Step is your short-range shadow-to-shadow teleport, and it further grants advantage on the first melee attack you make after the teleport (before the end of your turn). This is the definitive Shadowdancer feature, and I am a fan.
- Cloak of Shadows lets you spend your action, in any area of dim or no light, to become invisible. In theory, you can stay in position and invisible for ages – until you attack, cast a spell, or find yourself in an area of bright light. Because it costs an action, this is much more an exploration and spying feature than a combat option. As with the first two features of this subclass, it’s a stylish and worthwhile option. The worst I can say of it is that by the time you get it, enemies able to perceive invisible creatures are getting more common, and if you’re using this as it seems to be intended, you’re likely to be alone and super screwed. You’re relying on the DM not to go out of their way to screw you over here.
- Opportunist lets you make an attack as a reaction whenever an adjacent enemy gets hit by someone other than you. It’s the only damage-increasing option in the whole subclass, but it’s solid. The monk doesn’t rely super heavily on reactions, so one extra option doesn’t lock out too many others.
So yeah, I really like what goes on here. They trade the combat-heavy options of Open Hand for some great combat-avoidance and espionage features. If you finagle your way into thieves’ tools proficiency (maybe with a Background, feat, or the Training downtime activity), this is a great alternative to having a rogue – or a great partner-in-crime.
Way of the Four Elements
This subclass combines the various elemental benders from Avatar with tattooed monks. In principle, this is cool stuff, but the broad consensus is that it’s woefully underperforming because it just costs too much ki to use their cool powers. There are fan rebuilds of this subclass online that may be worth tracking down if you like the concept but find that it doesn’t stick the landing.
- Disciple of the Elements sets you up to burn ki for limited spellcasting. You start with Elemental Attunement and one additional discipline, and over the course of the class you gain three more disciplines. You can also spend additional ki to cast spells as if with higher-level slots. You have a ki point cap per spell that scales somewhat with level.
- Elemental Disciplines don’t necessarily need detailed breakdown, except to say again that most options are a little over-costed. Just reading them on the page, this is not immediately obvious. The thing is, you get to use your defining features (edited) a lot less in each short rest cycle than other monk subclasses, and then you have nothing left for Flurry of Blows or the rest of your core features. Some of the disciplines are features not otherwise attested as spells, and one is an add-on to your Attack action.
Since I’m not offering deeper numerical analysis here, you’ll kind of have to take my word for it (or the word of the rest of the internet in aggregate) that the Way of the Four Elements is flashy, but not up to snuff. Probably the easiest fix is to work out some form of ki regen outside of long rests. Even 1-2 points of ki regen when you roll initiative for the first time in an encounter might do the trick, but I haven’t studied deeply enough to find the issues with that.
Way of the Long Death
If you want to be a morbid death monk, if you just can’t get your gother-than-thou fix any other way, the Long Death is here for you. Don’t worry, your monk features still work in fishnets.
- Touch of Death is a last-hit effect, granting a pile of temporary hit points when you reduce an adjacent creature to 0 hit points. I’ve recently become skeptical of last-hit effects on principle, because there’s so much room for teammates to accidentally deny you use of your powers, and this is no exception. Fix this by making it cost a reaction when a creature within 5 feet of you that you have injured is reduced to 0 hit points, no matter who deals the last hit.
- Hour of Reaping imposes the frightened condition in a 30-ft radius until the end of your next turn, if creatures fail a Wis save. This costs your action, but otherwise you can use it as often as you like. This affects allies. Fix this by changing it to “creatures of your choice,” or at least granting allies advantage on their saves. If you’re actually isolated enough in a fight that a 30-ft radius doesn’t include any allies… then you’re probably still getting swarmed to death by the enemies that pass their saves.
- Mastery of Death lets you burn 1 ki whenever you would be reduced to 0 hit points to have 1 hit point instead. You could stay at 1 hit point for a long time this way, but it’ll get expensive in a hurry. I mean, if someone otherwise pitched an unlimited “spend 1 ki to reduce an attack’s damage to 0, does not cost any kind of action,” then I’d probably say they were crazy, but when you don’t use it until you’re obliged to keep using it… well… it looks a little different.
- Touch of the Long Death lets you turn ki into necrotic damage, at 1 point per 2d10, up to 20d10; the creature takes half damage on a successful Con save. This sounds okay if you’re looking at it out of context, but compare it to Quivering Palm, and it looks like a bad joke. QP takes one more action, which is not insignificant, but 3 ki for 100% of their hp or 10d10 versus 10 ki for 20d10/10d10 should be sufficient argument.
I think that death monks are a perfectly fine theme, but this implementation is just not good. There’s a lot of theorycraft that goes on with this subclass, but once you get to realistic use in the course of play, it doesn’t stand up. Do yourself a solid and play an Open Hand monk who wears a lot of eyeliner.
Way of the Sun Soul
This subclass gets some flak for being the Dragon Ball Z monk, but I’ve come around to being a big fan of subclasses that make D&D more appealing to people who started their geekdom in another IP. (As you know if you read my Tidal or Winter Kin sorcerous origins, which are Disney as all hell and proud of it.) Anyway, this is the radiant energy answer to Long Death’s necro-monk and Four Elements’, er, four elements.
- Radiant Sun Bolt lets you make ranged radiant attacks using your unarmed strike damage, as part of an Attack action. You can spend ki to “flurry” with this. Sage Advice confirms that Extra Attack applies to this feature.
- Searing Arc Strike lets you spend 2 ki to cast burning hands, or more ki to cast as a higher-level spell, exactly like Sweeping Cinder Strike… but as a bonus action following up an Attack action. Wow, does that sound a lot better. Also your ki spend cap to boost the spell level for this is a lot more generous than the Four Elements monk, for some reason. Better. In. Every. Way.
- Searing Sunburst lets you cast a 2d6 ball of radiant damage, 20-ft radius, for free, or you can boost it by 2d6 per point of ki you spend, up to 3. Also, it’s a Con save rather than a Dex save. This is exactly like Flames of the Phoenix, but 1 ki cheaper and with diminished versions. Oh, and radiant resistance or immunity are a damn sight rarer than fire resistance or immunity. Better. In. Every. Way.
- Sun Shield gives you an always-on (well, you can turn it off) light source and damage shield. Whenever anyone hits you with a melee attack, you can spend your reaction to deal 5 damage + your Wisdom modifier to them, which is thoroughly competitive with fire shield’s 2d8. (Doesn’t grant fire/cold resistance, of course.) This would be solid, but… reaction.
It’s hard not to read the Way of the Sun Soul as course-correction for regrets related to the Four Elements monk. The central question is whether it goes far enough. The other unusual thing here is that it’s a monk that wants to change it up between ranged and melee, since Searing Arc Strike is only really worth doing if you’re within melee range or one square further of a bunch of dudes. I haven’t seen it in use, but I think there’s a fair argument that it still falls short.
Overall, I would say that the monk has finally gotten somewhere in shedding its exoticism, finding itself as something more purely fantastical. The very existence of subclasses carries a lot of water there, emphasizing various possible faces of the monk in a setting. I also think this is the most successful mechanical interpretation, though 13th Age still gets top marks for being a totally different approach.
I’ll also take this opportunity to plug two of my own creations, the Way of the Silver Chain and the Way of Lost Souls. The first takes the monk’s astral projection and moves it to the center of the class (and supports the hell out of githzerai in the meantime), while the second puts another spin on the ki that flows through all living… and previously-living… things.
Thank you for your patience with my corrections.