Do you wish your monk had more options, weapons-wise? Xanathar’s Guide to Everything really did think of everything, including giving Monks weapons! The Path of the Kensei is an option for monks who want to swing swords or sling bows. By making your weapons an extension of your arms, you’re sure to strike true, and in a way far different from those utilizing the empty hand. Indeed, there are very few other ways to give Monks a ranged option! So, let’s devote ourselves to weapon perfection, and learn why the Kensei might be an option for you in our Kensei Monk 5E Guide.
Wield your Blade: Kensei Monk 5E
In the older systems, the Kensei Style mainly allowed monks to ignore their unarmed strike increases in favor of either ranged weapon mastery or boosting their early-game melee ability. In this system, that stays the same… But much less impressively.
5E’s Kensei is a defensive archetype that allows the monk to enter the ranged field without problem. By widening the monk’s options for using Monk weapons, the Kensei also hopes to increase the damage done… But somewhat fails to do so for reasons we’ll get into later. Finally, the Kensei is a potent option in campaigns with few magic items, or slow magic weapon progression.
Path of the Kensei
At level 3, the Kensei gets 4 distinct bonuses. Let’s get into each of them.
Kensei Weapons. Choose two types of weapons to be your kensei weapons: one melee weapon and one ranged weapon. Each of these weapons can be any simple or martial weapon that lacks the heavy and special properties. The longbow is also a valid choice. You gain proficiency with these weapons if you don’t already have it. Weapons of the chosen types are monk weapons for you.
This ability also scales; you get another weapon choice at level 6, 11, and 17.
To talk about this feature, we need to talk about the bonuses that Monk Weapons get. Monk weapons get Finesse, get their damage dice scaled to the same level as your Martial Arts dice, and can activate the bonus action of Martial Arts. Those are all huge buffs for a lot of martial weapons, and so we should look at weapons in that way.
Your ranged weapon is going to be a longbow. Bows have such good range compared to your other ranged options, and avoiding the Loading property is crucial past level 5. If you’re small, then Longbow isn’t reasonable. A Hand crossbow might be a slightly better option, though you’ll have to consider getting Crossbow Mastery as a feat. That’d suck for a monk, since you need those ability score increases to be a threat, but… You might not have better options, outside of thrown weapons.
Melee weapons are where things get interesting. You want to avoid finesse weapons unless you’re multiclassing. The only Finesse weapon to consider is the Whip, since it gives the monk a way of getting the Reach quality… But d4 is the same damage dice as your Unarmed. Consider picking this up in the late game, when you can boost it to d6-d10 right away.
So then you get to do the thing most monks can only dream of; covering resistances and weaknesses with your weapons. Pick up either a Longsword or a Morningstar. Both do different damage types than your unarmed attacks, and both deal a lot more damage than Martial Arts. If you want a bit of versatility, consider a Trident instead of a Morningstar. If you have a way to change your unarmed strike damage, the Warhammer works too. Use Versatile to your advantage, and club away the early game.
Agile Parry. If you make an unarmed strike as part of the Attack action on your turn and are holding a kensei weapon, you can use it to defend yourself if it is a melee weapon. You gain a +2 bonus to AC until the start of your next turn, while the weapon is in your hand and you aren’t incapacitated.
Okay, so this has a bunch of flavor. You’re melding weapons and unarmed combat, using your weapon to interpose between yourself and your enemy. But… Realistically? Unless you’re trying to deal as much damage as possible, you just turned your Kensei weapon into a shield. That’s fantastic for the monk’s AC, but you don’t get to swing your weapon until level 5, when you get Extra Attack.
In most cases, you’ll be using your weapon to make a single attack per round. Even at level 20. +2 AC is worth a lot more than rolling a d10 over a d4, after all. Though… Don’t be afraid to lash out with it if you think it’ll take the boss down more easily. +2 AC doesn’t mean much if you could end combat instead.
Kensei’s Shot. You can use a bonus action on your turn to make your ranged attacks with a kensei weapon more deadly. When you do so, any target you hit with a ranged attack using a kensei weapon takes an extra 1d4 damage of the weapon’s type. You retain this benefit until the end of the current turn.
Finally, a bonus action for a ranged monk! You’d be wasting Martial Art’s bonus action with a ranged attack anyways, so this allows the Monk to deal a tiny bit more damage while staying far away.
Does this keep up with other ranged options? Not really… The Ranger and Fighter’s fighting styles give such a huge bonus to attack rolls that 1d4 damage doesn’t make this a better alternative. It is reasonable, however, to choose this and the versatility of the Monk over a Ranger or Fighter. It’s at the very least competitive with other bow-slingers.
Way of the Brush. You gain proficiency with your choice of calligrapher’s supplies or painter’s supplies.
Choose whichever one that makes more sense in the moment, because this won’t come up. Theoretically, if your GM is creative, you might be able to use this to either forge handwriting, or paint the suspect’s picture for the guards… But that’s not really going to happen. Really fun flavor, but it’s all paint, no bite.
One with the Blade
Level 6 is another level where you get multiple benefits. Let’s race through them!
Magic Kensei Weapons. Your attacks with your kensei weapons count as magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage.
Fantastic. For low-magic campaigns, this allows you to zoom ahead of your fellow martials and take on nonmagical resistance easily. In any campaigns where you get magical weapons, this becomes a nice insurance policy, where any weapons you like can still be useful, even if you have one magic weapon in your pocket.
This alone makes this archetype a lot better in campaigns where GMs are stingy with magic items. Otherwise, it’s just nice, and lets you get all 5 of your Kensei weapons without worrying about nonmagical resistance.
Deft Strike. When you hit a target with a kensei weapon, you can spend 1 ki point to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target equal to your Martial Arts die. You can use this feature only once on each of your turns.
Now this, this is interesting. 1 ki for guaranteed 1d6 (at this point!) is pretty pitiful compared to Flurry of Blows. However, all the other ways that you can spend Ki are defensive – if you count Stunning Strike as defensive. This gives you a way to spend Ki without needing to roll attack rolls, which is nice in some situations. And you still have your bonus action.
It also gives you a way to offensively spend ki on ranged attacks. At level 20, you can spend 1 ki point, and deal 2d10+1d4 (without modifiers – just class features) with your bow. That’s actually quite a large attack for a Monk! Since you can’t Flurry of Bows, this at least gives you something to do while you’re in the backlines.
Sharpen the Blade
This archetype has a weird obsession with ensuring the Monk doesn’t fall behind in low-magic campaigns. And that’s probably a good thing!
At 11th level, you gain the ability to augment your weapons further with your ki. As a bonus action, you can expend up to 3 ki points to grant one kensei weapon you touch a bonus to attack and damage rolls when you attack with it. The bonus equals the number of ki points you spent. This bonus lasts for 1 minute or until you use this feature again. This feature has no effect on a magic weapon that already has a bonus to attack and damage rolls.
3 ki for a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls is fairly good. But for a moment, we should talk about Ki economy.
For the melee build, this is +3 to attack and damage rolls for one, maybe two, attack rolls over 10 turns. A 15% chance to hit, with a boost to damage, is quite nice… But is it worth more than Flurry of Blows? I’d tend to say yes, especially if you plan on forfeiting the boon of Agile Parry for strict damage, but it’s certainly something to think about. And by now, you have 11 Ki points; reducing your total ki to 8 for flurry of blows is probably just fine.
For the ranged build, that +3 to attack rolls is literally crucial. Your accuracy isn’t amazing, unless you’ve multiclassed into Fighter, so 15% chance to hit can be a lifesaver. You’re also guaranteed to make 2 attacks every round, since you usually don’t need Agile Parry. This is a much better use of your Ki points than Deft Strike, since accuracy is so important. And hey, the bonus damage is good too! Great, even!
In any case, this makes your low-magic campaign immensely easier to handle. You don’t just pretend to have magic weapons – you can just get them.
Until now, you actually didn’t have much reason to use your Kensei weapons, especially in melee. All the benefits for Kensei weapons was either also given to unarmed combat, or cost ki points. Now, finally… Something just for the Kensei weapons!
At 17th level, your mastery of weapons grants you extraordinary accuracy. If you miss with an attack roll using a monk weapon on your turn, you can reroll it. You can use this feature only once on each of your turns.
And it only applies once per turn.
Okay, that’s not to be unappreciative; getting pseudo-advantage on attack rolls with your Kensei weapon is important. It doesn’t get any of the benefits of advantage, sadly, but you at least get an additional chance to land a hit.
For the melee build, the once-per turn clause doesn’t matter at all. To gain the benefits of Agile Parry, you’d only swing once per turn anyways. That’s only one chance to miss, right?
And the ranged build still benefits from an extra chance to hit. If, for example, you hit the first bow shot, and then miss the second, then Unerring Accuracy still procs.
In either case, there’s no downside to this ability. You can still benefit from advantage, and it applies to a fairly important aspect of the Kensei’s kit.
Best Races for the Kensei Monk
The Kensei monk, similar to other monks, are huge fans of Dexterity. Focus on that, and then boost up your Constitution and Wisdom to help your survivability. If you’re going for a ranged build, you’ll probably want more Wisdom than Constitution.
Have you ever wanted to try to play a Monk that doesn’t care about Wisdom? With the Lizardfolk from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, you can replace Unarmed Defense with Natural Armor and just focus on Dexterity and Constitution. Your Dexterity will be lacking until you get some score increases, but you’ll benefit from being able to focus on it; two stats are easier to boost than three!
In addition, you’ve got a Piercing Damage unarmed attack, and thus can choose Warhammer as a Kensei weapon early on. And finally, you even get the opportunity to heal a little bit with Hungry Jaws! If your GM lets you use this race, you’ll be a beast at every point of the game.
Fresh from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, Ghostwise Halflings are spooky fellas with boosts to Wisdom. Add that to the Halfling’s boost to Dexterity, factor in Lucky, Nimble, and Brave, and you’ve got yourself a competent frontline warrior! The Monk eventually negates the low speed of the Halfling’s short legs, so melee combat is much easier. Do remember that Halflings can’t use Longbows very effectively; you might want to choose Blowgun or Hand Crossbow instead.
Out of all the races in the player’s handbook, the Human is the one I like talking about the least. In the case of the Kensai, however, Humans offer a few options for interesting builds. Using the Variant’s Bonus Feat, Crossbow Mastery becomes an extremely fun build for the Monk, giving you a “Flurry of Bows” bonus action. You could also use the bonus feat to be healthier with Tough… Especially if you plan on taking Wisdom instead of Constitution with your other Variant boost.
Conclusion – Our Take on the Kensei Monk 5E
The Kensei Monk is in a weird spot. In older editions, the Kensei meant a monk who completely replaced unarmed attacks with weapons. Now, you meld weapons and unarmed attacks together, normally only swinging your dedicated weapon only once a round. While interesting in flavor, it leaves the monk subclass in a rough spot. And so much of it is focused on making Kensei weapons magical, that it loses the utility that other subclasses have. For a ranged build, the Kensei is actually pretty great. For a melee build… The only thing that changes is Agile Parry and a single non-unarmed Attack roll. Consider it, especially if you want to use a bow, but otherwise be mindful of other subclasses.
Want more monk? Check out the whole story with our Monk 5E Guide.