One D&DUnearthed Arcana

UA 2023 – Player’s Handbook 6 Playtest Breakdown, Part Four

Okay, we’re on to talking about Monks. As you undoubtedly know, this is the first draft of a new Monk we’ve seen in One D&D playtesting; other than the Artificer, which won’t be in the 2024 Player’s Handbook, it’s the only class still on its first round. Weird, Monks are usually better at Initiative than that!

PH Playtest 6: BardClericDruid, Monk


The 5e.14 Monk has always been a tough class for content design. On one hand, new moves for Monk subclasses are always competing with the incredible power and low cost of Stunning Strike. On the other, many kinds of magic items are of no use to Monks (though they’ve long been one of the few classes that make great use of spears), without having many new items that are clearly for them.

  • No change to Hit Die (d8), saves, skills, or tools. Monks no longer have Proficiency with shortswords, for whatever reason. It’s definitely not a power balance question, because for Monks the shortsword is mechanically just a handaxe you can’t throw and that lacks the Light property (d6 damage, Vex, Finesse gets you the same effects as Dextrous Attacks).
    • “Monk weapons” isn’t a rules term anymore – it’s just “Simple Weapons” instead. It means that multiclassing or spending feats to pick up more weapon proficiencies does nothing for you. You need a mechanic that specifically says “This weapon is a Simple Weapon for you” to build something like XGTE’s Kensei – we haven’t seen them recategorize weapons that way before now, but that’s the situation they’ve created.
  • Martial Arts works the same as in 5e.14 except that you can’t use your Martial Arts die for weapon damage anymore, only for Unarmed Strikes. There’s some concept that Weapon Mastery makes up for this, but… for a variety of reasons this mostly won’t play out. The die scaling is also different, as it is d6 to d12 rather than d4 to d10.
    • Quarterstaff and Spear have Flex as their Mastery. That’s one point of average damage at the lowest levels, and no help from 5th level on.
    • The Slow effect of Club and Javelin isn’t likely to be useful to Monks – its most common use case is when enemies are fleeing, and Monks have no trouble running down enemies.
    • Greatclub is a non-starter – you’re proficient, but it has the Two-Handed property, so you can’t use your Dex for attack rolls with it. (It’s not too soon to remove this restriction.)
    • The Nick effect of the Dagger, Light Hammer, and Sickle is a net damage increase, because it’s another attack per round – but that’s two attacks at d4 + Dex, for the class that already makes a huge number of attacks.
    • The Mace and the Handaxe, two of the least Monk-typical weapons, are some of the best options for Sap and Vex, respectively.
  • Unarmored Defense is unchanged: AC = 10 + Dex mod + Wis mod.
  • Weapon Mastery lets you pick two Simple Weapons an use their Weapon Mastery properties, and you can change out your two weapons on a Long Rest. It’s okay? The higher your Martial Arts die goes, the less this feature does for you, and that’s not really what one wants in core design features.
  • Martial Discipline at 2nd level renames Ki to Discipline, and gives you the three core moves: Flurry of Blows, Patient Defense, and Step of the Wind. Flurry of Blows and Patient Defense haven’t changed (good, they didn’t need it), and Step of the Wind changed Disengage or Dash to Disengage and It still doubles your jump distance for the turn as well.
  • Unarmored Movement at 2nd level is unchanged from 5e.14.
  • Deflect Missiles at 3rd level no longer requires that you have a free hand to deflect the missile, if you successfully reduce the damage to 0. For whatever reason, the “throw it back” damage option uses a Dex save, so that your attack ignores an enemy’s Armor Class. I have no idea what the narrative idea is here, as opposed to using an attack roll. The damage you deal has changed from the missile’s damage to two rolls of your Martial Arts die; this is probably a step down in damage until quite late in the game.
    • This feature now pushes Wisdom (for your save DC) as much as or more than Dex (damage reduction).
  • You gain subclass features at 3, 6, 11, and 17.
  • You gain Ability Score Improvements or feats at 4, 8, 12, 16, and 19.
  • Slow Fall at 4th level is unchanged.
  • Extra Attack at 5th level is as inevitable as death and taxes, and is unchanged.
  • Stunning Strike, also at 5th level, is greatly changed from its 5e.14 version. Now you can only attempt it 1/turn, and it lasts until the start of your next turn, rather than the end of your next turn. It’s still potentially a lot of lockdown, but a single Monk can’t burn through all of a boss’s Legendary Resistances in their first turn with stuns anymore. Stunning Strike has been one of the most defining Monk features in 5e and 3.x before it, so any change to its power makes a huge difference for Monks.
  • Empowered Strikes at 6th level lets the Monk’s Unarmed Strikes deal Force damage or their normal damage, at your preference. This is their alternative to explaining that your attacks ignore damage resistance and immunity to nonmagical weapons. I continue to think that the amount of design work they’re doing to avoid the Magic Weapons trait for monsters and similar for PCs has more knock-on effects to mechanics and narrative than the previous model.
  • Evasion at 7th level is changed only by the addition of Incapacitated turning off this feature – a logical gap slammed shut. No problem here.
  • Heightened Metabolism at 7th level lets you take a Short Rest in 1 minute (thus resetting all those lovely Discipline points) once per Long Rest. I am very happy with this feature, and something like this within the first 10 levels of play would have gone a long way to helping Warlock Pact Magic.
  • Acrobatic Movement at 9th level is the new name of Unarmed Movement Improvement. It still lets you run on improbable surfaces – vertical surfaces and liquids – though you fall, or fall in, if you’re not supported at the end of your turn.
  • Self-Restoration at 10th level combines Stillness of Mind, Purity of Body, and Timeless Body. You can clear Charmed, Frightened, or Poisoned as a Bonus Action (down from an action), and you don’t take levels of Exhaustion from lack of food or drink. Since Exhaustion is the only consequence of lacking food and drink, this has the effect of “you no longer need food or drink” from Timeless Body.
    • In a sidebar, they explain that disease is not a firmly defined rules element and hasn’t been in all of 5e. I suppose I’m surprised that their play was to cut it rather than define it, but okay. 4e remains the one edition to do something really interesting with diseases, though the 1e DMG has a… daunting… collection of parasites and other disorders.
  • Deflect Energy at 13th level expands Deflect Missiles to damage types other than Bludgeoning, Piercing, or Slashing. I’m not sure how often we’ll see NPCs throw ranged spell attacks at this level.
  • Disciplined Survivor at 14th level is the new name for Diamond Soul. It’s still proficiency in all saving throws and a 1-ki reroll to any failed save.
  • Perfect Discipline at 15th level is the old Perfect Self, down from 20th It’s still your currency fixer – regain 4 Discipline when you have none at the time you roll initiative.
  • Superior Defense at 18th level is connected in only the very barest ways to its predecessor, Empty Body. Instead of invisibility with resistance to all damage, a power with offensive, defensive, and infiltration applications, it now grants 1 minute of resistance to all damage except Force damage, for 3 Discipline and a Bonus Action. The astral projection option for 8 is also gone, but that was never great because of how astral projection is written.
    • It isn’t that I don’t like this power. It’s that Deflect Energy, Disciplined Survivor, and arguably Self-Restoration are all defensive powers of broad or narrow application, and this is just more defense. An offensive, infiltration, or multi-tool kind of feature would be more exciting here. (I’ll grant that subclasses generally lean into offensive features as their top-end offerings.)
    • “Resistance to all damage except Force damage” runs into the same problem I had with Barbarians: you’re going along in a climactic, high-level storyline. You’re using your defensive features, the Fighter uses their defensive features, and you get to the boss that relies heavily on Force damage. The Fighter still has their defensive features that don’t rely on damage resistance, but you suddenly lose yours.
  • Defy Death at 20th level lets you spend 4 + 2 per use Discipline points to stand back up after getting dropped, and you gain 4d12 hit points. The scaling cost resets on a Short or Long Rest.
    • This is fine, but it’s another defensive feature, and it’s not clear whether this does anything at all to help you survive effects that instantly kill you at 0 hit points.

Overall, the monk is okay – neither better nor worse than okay. Offensive output dropping off in tiers 3 and 4, compared to other weapon-using classes, is one of the main criticisms I’ve heard of the 5e.14 Monk, so I’m surprised there’s not more visible improvement there – and in fact it feels like the game wants you using weapons (the thing you can improve with loot) less.

I’ll grant, though, that as you get into the highest levels of play, survivability is something you’ve got to keep piling on more features to solve.

Warrior of Shadow

All of the Monk subclasses are now “Warrior of” rather than “Way of.” I didn’t object much to the 5e.14 version, except that they didn’t have a solution to their own magical darkness, Cloak of Shadows is underwhelming for an 11th-level feature, and you have to wait until 17th level to get a clear damage-increasing feature (though the advantage from Shadow Step is very good… other than its action economy). Okay, I apparently had several problems with it.

  • Shadow Arts no longer gives you silence or pass without trace. You gain or increase Darkvision of your own and can see through your own magical Darkness, but you can’t grant darkvision to others anymore. The cost to cast Darkness has dropped from 2 ki to 1 Discipline, and you can move your Darkness at the start of each of your turns. Finally, you can still cast Minor Illusion.
    • You’re now better at combat, since you can use Darkness more aggressively, though I’ve watched characters with similar features accidentally cause lots of problems for teammates. You’re much weaker on infiltration and other “content-skip” functions. Losing Pass Without Trace is especially rough, since that lets you bring less-stealthy teammates along for the ride.
  • Shadow Step at 6th level lets you teleport from one area of Dim Light or Darkness to another that is within 60 feet, and gain advantage on your next attack, as a Bonus Action. This is an amazing skirmisher feature, but it has two significant problems.
    • The image of this feature is so much weaker without at least shortswords as a weapon option. The fantasy of this whole subclass is playing a monk who is a magic ninja.
    • You’ve got to really need to move to sacrifice a Bonus Action. Unlike Step of the Wind, you’re not paying Discipline for this, but you’re also not getting your bonus Unarmed Strike, or two from Flurry of Blows. Getting advantage on your next attack is nice, but in the balance using this feature this may reduce your average damage.
    • I do think this feature is good enough to be the core of a Monk 6/Rogue X build.
  • Improved Shadow Step at 11th level replaces Cloak of Shadows, and lets you spend 1 Discipline to Shadow Step without the Shadow part: that is, you can teleport in brightest day or darkest night. (Thanks to all that Darkvision, no evil shall escape your sight.) You also get to make one Unarmed Strike as part of your teleport. (Beware my power…)
    • It’s interesting, at least to me, how Shadow Step and Improved Shadow Step design their mobility, cost, and free attack around what Step of the Wind gives you. SotW’s 1 Discipline for Dash (with all your extra Monk speed) and Disengage mean that the teleport needs to either be free (Shadow Step), get you somewhere you can’t otherwise Dash to (Acrobatic Movement covers enough ground that it needs to be hazardous terrain or open air), or pay you with an attack with advantage (since you’re not getting your Martial Arts attack).
  • Cloak of Shadows at 17th level replaces Opportunist and changes your approach to combat into a hit-and-run loop that makes it quite difficult for ordinary enemies (however many ordinary enemies you face at 17th level) to do anything about you at all. The Monk spends 3 Discipline to be cloaked in darkness, which lasts 1 minute or until they’re Incapacitated or end their turn in Bright Light.
    • During that time you are invisible, you get to use Flurry of Blows for free, and you’re incorporeal (you move through creatures and objects as Difficult Terrain).
    • As a result, this is an offensive and defensive power with short-term infiltration applications. It looks like it’d be a lot of fun to use – enough so that waiting until 17th level feels like a shame. I hope we might also see some NPCs with tricks like this, because a skirmisher boss who can threaten a whole team is a classic style in movies and video games, and also because it would force PCs to care about lighting areas.

My first thought, upon seeing this, is that a lot of what it delivers is more in like with the fantasy of the Assassin than the Assassin subclass is, not counting the Unarmed Strikes. It offers a very different set of combat decisions than just about any other class or subclass I’ve seen. The worst I can say of it is that I miss the infiltration and content-skip focus that the previous version offered, but these features do something for you more of the time. Making it easy to use Darkness is going to absolutely wreck a lot of enemies’ turns, as they can’t target their spells or actions without sight. Even more than other Monks, the Sentinel feat just ruins enemy turns, over and over. At best those enemies have disadvantage on their attack rolls and grant advantage when they’re attacked. (Not counting the fairly small number of enemies with Devil’s Sight, blindsight, or similar.)

Warrior of the Four Elements

Let’s see if this can escape the mantle of Four Elements Total Landscaping – famously one of the worst subclasses written for 5e.14.

  • Elemental Attunement gives you the Elementalism cantrip, which is Prestidigitation but for elemental casters. You can also spend 1 Discipline to take on a 1-minute stance related to one of the elements; it also ends if you’re Incapacitated. It lets you change your unarmed damage type to Acid, Cold, Fire, or Lightning, and on a hit you push them 10 feet (if they fail a Strength save), and extends your reach by 10 feet.
    • Yep, that feels like basic Bending in Avatar.
  • Environmental Burst at 6th level lets you spend 2 Discipline as an action to deal 20-ft AoE damage (all targets, not enemies-only) with one of the four energy types, dealing three Martial Arts dice worth of damage; you can also make one Unarmed Strike as a Bonus Action.
    • YOU are Blastpuncher, the Punching Blaster.
    • This is good if your enemies have clustered to your convenience. Considering that you’ve just received Extra Attack, though, it’s not for use against fewer than three opponents – you’re just burning through Discipline too fast.
  • Stride of the Elements at 11th level gives you a Fly and Swim speed equal to your Speed for 10 minutes after you spend 1 Discipline on Step of the Wind.
    • I’m not sure how much more mobility you can even ask for, at bargain prices.
  • Elemental Epitome at 17th level improves your Elemental Attunement stance with resistance to one of the four damage types, which you can change at the start of your turn; Empowered Strikes, an additional Martial Arts die of elemental damage 1/turn; and Destructive Stride, a trail of elemental energy that starts when you use Step of the Wind and hurts enemies you come within 5 feet of until the end of your turn. It also increases your Speed by 20 feet. Since they can only take this damage once per turn, there need to be a lot of enemies to make this feature great.
    • The fact that the damage dealt is the same as your damage resistance means that you’re either benefiting from Damage Resistance or Destructive Stride against dragons and elementals, and maybe less than that for fiends. Humanoids are the main creature type that deal a lot of damage types they aren’t inherently resistant or immune to.
    • Waiting until 17th level for one flavor of damage resistance is a surprise, and not in a good way.

This is better than 5e.14, but in correcting Discipline costs, they also made all of the elements work the same way. The good thing about the previous version is that it made the elements different and leaned into unique functionality – this definitely doesn’t do that. It’s also closely comparable to the Ascendant Dragon subclass in Fizban’s. The most outstanding difference is that this offers massive reach and a knockback, while Ascendant Dragon has an expensive aura that benefits allies and frightens or damages enemies, as well as a lot of other functionality.

I don’t care quite enough about Stride of the Elements, and I’d love to see a Monk that didn’t have to play selfishly. It makes sense to me that the ninja one would play selfishly (that is, they lose the buffs they could cast on others). That feels less appropriate for Four Elements.

Warrior of the Hand

The Hand is no longer Open for Business.

I’m semi-seriously thinking about writing a Warrior of the (Clenched) Foot. You probably think this is too specialized, but their main thing is fighting terrapins, rats, and other Beasts.

  • Open Hand Technique still gives you three attack add-ons: Addle is the new name for reaction denial, and it requires a failed Con save. Push is still a 15-ft knockback on a failed Strength save. Topple knocks the target prone on a failed Dex save. The Con save for Addle is the only meaningful change.
  • Wholeness of Body at 6th level was previously more or less overwritten by Quickened Healing, the optional Monk feature in Tasha’s. In 5e.14, you spend an action to heal for monk level x3, 1/long rest; TCOE gives all monks an action to spend 2 ki and heal for (Martial Arts die + PB). The new Wholeness of Body is a Bonus Action to spend 1 Discipline and regain (Martial Arts die + Wis), up to Wis modifier times per Long Rest.
    • It’s a lot more healing at low to mid levels, a lot easier to use, and only loses out to Second Wind if your party is high-level or takes a more than 4-5 Short Rests.
  • Fleet Step at 11th level lets you use Step of the Wind for only the Bonus Action cost – no Discipline cost.
    • Much like Shadow Step/Improved Shadow Step and Stride of the Elements, this offers incredible mobility and skirmishing power. If you want to kite an enemy all over the field, any of these three features does it very well. Doing so slows down your damage output, but if you’re dealing damage and the enemy is so busy chasing you that they’re dealing none, that’s a pretty good deal, right?
  • Quivering Palm at 17th level no longer drops an enemy to 0 hit points on a failed Con save – instead, it deals its 10d12 + Monk level Force (?) damage, or half that on a successful save. It’s less damage on both a failed save and a success, though the dice expression is larger and adding your Monk level helps. It’s a step down, but… okay. It’s probably still fine, because something in the vicinity of 82-85 average damage is enough to annoy the heck out of anyone.

Open Hand and Mercy are the two subclasses I’ve seen at the table the most extensively, though still only below 10th level. I’m reasonably happy with what Warrior of the Hand offers, and as the sidebar says… no one is going to miss Tranquility. The change to Wholeness of Body is the only thing that even affects what I’ve seen players do.

Of these three subclasses, then, Shadow has moved up somewhat in my estimation, but I’d like it to offer more. Four Elephants also went up in my estimation, if only because there was no room to go down, but it doesn’t yet spark joy. Hand was great before and is great now.

Next time: Paladins!