Today I’m moving on to monastic traditions and paladin oaths in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. There are a mere five subclasses this time, so we’ll get through 18 of 31 subclasses. Let’s see what we’ve got going on here. As a reminder, I’m avoiding describing features as I go, because this article is in no way intended as a replacement for owning a copy of the text. Where this makes the breakdown harder to read, you have my apologies.
The flavor text for monks is specifically wrong for the subclasses of XGTE, but it’s also generally wrong for all kinds of monks: “They… typically eschew weapons.” Guys. Guys. You went way out of your way in 5e to make it so that using a weapon was never a bad idea and often a really good one. (I’m specifically pleased that one of the monks in my game was pretty happy about getting a magic spear and a magic dagger, when no one else in the party especially cared about them.) Why would you even print this? Even more so with Kensei art on the facing page, and all three monks visibly carrying a weapon?
Anyway, the three backstory elements are monasteries, monastic icons, and masters. The monasteries are cool and memorable, rejecting specifically Asian flavor for outright High Fantasy. Since this needs to fit into all sorts of low-to-high-fantasy games, I think this is good guidance. They’re also evocative story seeds, and those are never useless. The monastic icons do less for me; that one monastery’s hail Hydra slogan is not a good look. No story about monks is complete without the monk’s teacher, and I can imagine Pat Morita, Martin Kove, or Dustin Hoffman voicing these characters. These are another solid group of story seeds.
Way of the Drunken Master
I did my whole bit on why I don’t really love Drunken Masters back when this was in UA, so in brief I’ll just say that it takes a super specific player to make this subclass not-silly. If you’re running a silly campaign, more power to you. To put it mildly, that’s never been my deal. Anyway, some mechanics:
- Performance seems like a sort of odd addition here, but I’m on record as liking monk-as-dancer as a variant, less-specifically-Asian angle on monks. The craft tools are more explicitly on-message here, but highlight the question of whether the Drunken Masters are actually drunk or just move like they are.
- Drunken Technique folds most of Step of the Wind into your use of Flurry of Blows. The monk is already a pretty superior skirmisher, but this gooses it a bit further. Drunken Masters get skirmisher play without sacrificing damage output. A later feature really puts their Flurry through the roof, but we’ll come to it.
- Tipsy Sway is two options in one.
- A kip-up is pretty small potatoes, but super-corner-case stuff feels great when it pays off. It’s also a nice bit of visual in connection with Drunken Technique – when you Flurry, your speed increases by more than the speed cost of Leap to Your Feet, so you’re a whirlwind of harm even as you’re coming up from the ground.
- Redirect Attack is my one hot-button feature in the whole deal, because “stop hittin’ yerself” is such a danger when it comes to undermining tone. The math, or absence thereof, is weird. A miss against you (no matter than attack bonus) is a hit against another creature (no matter its AC). I don’t recommend this for real, but your blind barbarian buddy can gleefully take the -5 penalty from Great Weapon Master, hoping to miss you, and you can spend ki to make it hit your high-AC adjacent enemy.
- Drunkard’s Luck lets you dump ki to negate disadvantage on every kind of roll you can have disadvantage on. The price adds up fast if you’re using this a lot, though, so save it for clutch situations.
- Intoxicated Frenzy is the other big boost to Flurry of Blows – adding a pile of additional attacks, as long as you have enough enemies to attack. That free Disengage is going to look real good when your job is to be threatened by up to five enemies at a time. Never ever end your turn so surrounded! Thanks to the realities of positioning, it’ll be rare that even a Cavalier can mark all of those targets.
I have to admit, these mechanics look fun as hell to me. It pushes tactical positioning in a great way. Maybe I’ll play it, and just get the DM to let me drink sake the whole time.
Way of the Kensei
Boy, this was a tough one in the UA playtesting. They went through some versions that just flat did not work. Let’s see what came of that.
- Path of the Kensei does a ton of different things. It has to partially complement and partially replace the core monk’s Martial Arts feature, so that’s not a surprise.
- Kensei Weapons covers the definitive feature of the Kensei: expanding the list of available weapons. You pick up a lot of options, while still locking out polearms, two-handed weapons, whips, and nets. There are a lot of different reasons going into each of these exclusions, but making sure Great Weapon Master never gets paired with Dex is a substantial piece of it. You wind up with a decent spread of weapons.
- Agile Parry gives you the AC of a shield when you switch up an attack of your Attack action for unarmed rather than the weapon that first feature let you use. The opportunity cost of this shifts sharply as your Martial Arts die catches up to your chosen weapon’s damage die. As you advance, this puts you into some more complicated decision points.
- Kensei’s Shot lets you spend a bonus action for a damage kicker on ranged attacks. It’s basically permission to hang back and shoot stuff instead of jumping into melee to Flurry. Any addition to the monk’s bonus action economy is rough – they’ve got a lot going on – but this is probably fine. I mean, peak relative benefit is at 5th level, when you’re dealing up to 2d8 + 2d4 + twice your Dex bonus. A bit more if a caster buddy does you a solid and picks up haste.
- Way of the Brush adds a tool proficiency, functioning on basically the same theory as the Battle Master’s Student of War.
- One with the Blade is another pair of features.
- Magic Kensei Weapons does exactly what it sounds like from the name.
- Deft Strike lets you spend ki for a scaling damage kicker. Nothing stopping you from combining this with Flurry of Blows, except that you’re burning through ki even faster. (The 6th-level monk in my game is good evidence that you can and will run dry of ki at this level.) Cost-to-cost, this only competes with Flurry of Blows in that a bird in the hand (a hit you score with your Attack action) is worth two in the bush (your second follow-up unarmed attacks that, if it hit, would be adding your Dex bonus again). It’s a great idea if you land a crit, so don’t spend your last ki point on anything else if you can help it.
- Sharpen the Blade lets you convert ki to attack and damage bonus. This is a good return on investment in long fights – we’re talking about, at best, 2-6 points of damage per round – but those are also the fights where you need ki the most.
- The benefit picks up a lot here if you expect to receive haste, or if you build for making an attack as a reaction basically every round (Sentinel springs to mind). If you have a choice, chase magic weapons that don’t have a bonus to attack and damage.
- Unerring Accuracy is, well, an accuracy kicker. It’s straightforward and you’ll never be sorry to have it. It doesn’t define a playstyle or really change anything else the way the Drunken Master’s Intoxicated Frenzy does.
The Kensei’s gameplay is about making difficult predictions about the best use of ki points, and how many you’ll need before you rest again. All monks have some of that going on, but (much like Four Elements monks) you pay out a lot without having additional ways to recover. There aren’t a lot of instant fight-changers, though – not like the Four Elements’ cone of cold, fireball, and so on. The Kensei does look like it’ll be fun to play, and its mechanics reflect theme well, but good-to-ideal play is uncommonly convoluted.
Way of the Sun Soul
This is a reprint from Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, so I’ll just link my commentary on it. Everything I had to say about it then still applies.
The initial paladin flavor text in this section, on one level, doesn’t have a lot to say – every paladin is unique is not much help. At the same time, no class gets treated as though there is but one way to play it as much as paladins do. They’re calling out the stereotype as a way to push people past it, and I appreciate that.
The three distinguishing features are Personal Goals, Symbols, Nemesises (uh, nemesee… nemeses), and Temptations. The Nemeses are the obvious story hook, but all of these are reasonably good character notes. Temptations are viable Flaws, by any estimation.
Oath of Conquest
The Oath of Conquest is about as classic a (non-Batman) Dark Knight archetype as one could want. It’s a great honorable villain, but really pay attention to what you’re getting into and talk it out with the table before making this your PC. I mean, that’s always the advice, but most implementations of this Oath are probably serious douchebags. I know players who could make it great for everyone at the table, but then I am blessed with uncommonly excellent friends.
- The Oath of Conquest spells heavily signal ties to Hell and raw control. They express theme more than a primary playstyle, but they’re fine. Fear is the super important one.
- Hell Knights gain two Channel Divinity options.
- Conquering Presence is an AoE frightening effect. In addition to being very potent, it’s also a hook for a later feature.
- Guided Strike is the same as the War cleric feature. There’s no War God’s Blessing accompanying it to benefit allies, though, because the Hell Knight looks out for number one and that’s it. I probably don’t need to tell you to pair this with Great Weapon Master.
- Aura of Conquest is the playstyle-defining piece of this subclass. It is super important that you have as many creatures as possible frightened of you all the time, because this aura only works on things that are frightened of you. A snare and passive damage… I mean, this aura can kill enemies by itself, if they can’t pass a Wis save to break the frightened condition. The expanded radius at 18th level is no joke either.
- Scornful Rebuke is a small amount of reflected damage whenever you get hit with an attack. The big deal here is that it doesn’t cost a reaction, so it really is whenever you get hit with an attack. Under the right circumstances, you could be kicking out a lot of damage. (This subclass thus greatly benefits from encounters with larger numbers of weaker creatures.)
- Invincible Conqueror is their 20th-level transformation. It’s an absolutely amazing head-on combat buff. Damage resistance in combination with Scornful Rebuke is great, and I don’t need to explain how great Extra Attack and an improved crit range are, especially for paladins. Sure, it’s 20th-level play and you expect to be hell on wheels. I’m just saying, this hits that mark with some room to spare.
Mechanically, the Conquest paladin relies much too heavily on enemies not being immune to the frightened condition. I haven’t combed the Monster Manual to check, but I think that’s a problem at mid-to-high levels. A lot of my own subclasses have hung on the charmed or frightened conditions, so I know a lot about writing workarounds to the immunity issues there. Conquest doesn’t try to do that, so just keep that in mind – whether you’re the player or the DM.
When Conquest gets its mechanics up and running, it should be a holy terror, but that has action cost, CD cost (so you only get one “all in” fight per short rest until you can cast fear), and saving throw potential. Make sure your teammates are on board with helping your tactical war machine get rolling.
Oath of Redemption
Rounding out this article’s set of subclasses, we have the redeemers. Historical Note: These are basically the opposite of the American political organization by that name. For good or ill, we’re taught little enough history – even in the part of the country in which the Redeemers were salient – that the word isn’t poisoned by association. Anyway, the concept here is simple: struggle to hold the purest possible moral stance, of nonviolence* and protection.
*Nonviolence means a lot of different things, depending on the context. The Oath tenets here permit violence as a last resort. What constitutes last and how much you can push your party members on that makes this a difficult Oath to play, and one you want to talk to the players and DM about in depth before choosing.
- The Oath of Redemption spells are all about controller play. They’re saving-throw-intensive, so you should think about prioritizing Cha over Str. Cha (Persuasion) is also going to be a big part of your approach, so it pays off in more than one way. If you don’t spike Cha, though, you still have good options at most levels.
- Your two Channel Divinity options:
- Emissary of Peace is grants a further boost to Cha (Persuasion). It’s better than Expertise for most of the 20-level span, and in a lot of situations you’ll get to take a short rest and recover after the social interaction scene where you use it. On the other hand, if you use it as part of avoiding a fight and fail, there goes your CD use. I… kinda think this subclass should get bumped up to two CD uses per short rest.
- Rebuke the Violent is damage-reflecting reaction, with a saving throw for half damage. When this works against a big hit (it’s got to be an attack, so don’t save it for the dragon’s breath weapon), it can be devastating.
- Aura of the Guardian lets you take damage in place of other nearby creatures. As long as you or another party member have healing ready to go, this is fine. It gets a lot better once you pick up your 15th-level feature. You’re only transferring one instance of damage per round, of course, and it means you’re not using Rebuke the Violent.
- What this feature highlights for me is that redeemers are a really good second paladin in a party. Not a lot of parties have two paladins! But there’s great grist for a single-class campaign when you add this Oath into the mix of the Oaths found in the Player’s Handbook.
- Protective Spirit is a passive, end-of-turn self-heal when you are bloodied. (Everyone knows what bloodied means, yeah? Good.) It says a lot about the rest of this subclass that it’s totally okay to hand out a free, actionless healing effect that is about half as good per round as a fighter’s Second Wind. On the other hand, you’re waiting until 15th level for the feature that really gets the whole Oath working right. I mean, it’s playable before this, but super expensive on keeping you healed, since taking as much damage for other party members as possible is literally your deal.
- This Oath and feature are also an interesting data point in my ongoing contention that XGTE is a huge boost to the healing metagame. Stick this Oath in a healing spirit zone for double the fun, I guess? (We’re probably more than a month out from talking about XGTE’s spells, but make sure you track down Jeremy Crawford’s fix for healing spirit.)
- Emissary of Redemption is – unlike most 20th-level paladin subclass features – not a temporary transformation, but a set of new passive abilities that turn off on a creature-by-creature basis if you act against the creature with an attack, spell, or the like. It’s… sort of like a warding bond with involuntary targets?
- Anyway, this redefines your approach to combat, because you go from not wanting to get hit (so you have the hit points to use your Aura) to getting into the center of fights (so you can reflect as much damage as possible). I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to flip a playstyle at 20th level, because most campaigns don’t play that far and when they do, you get only a tiny number of adventures with that feature. If WotC showed that they planned to support and encourage high-level, post-20 play a lot more (yes, I know about the epic boons in the DMG), I’d see this differently.
This is where I point out that it’s weird for XGTE’s subclasses that expand spell lists not to use any spells from XGTE itself – thinking here of life transference. I wonder why they did it that way, other than the UA articles not really “talking to” each other the way the text collected in one cover can. I don’t know if I would want to play the Oath of Redemption myself; I love support and healing, but this round-by-round gameplay feels awkward to me.
The thing is, no matter what these features look like, most of your actions are eventually going to be hitting something with a weapon, even if you don’t declare a kill at 0 hit points. This would work a lot better as a cleric Domain, where you’ve got the spell slots and Channel Divinities to support doing something other than fighting. Oh, sure, you could use your action to Dodge every round, but that’s why I’m not sure about playing this.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of the Xanathar’s Guide Breakdown. Next time, I’ll try to cover the ranger and the rogue. Thanks for coming with me on this deep dive.