When it comes to underappreciated classes, the monk is way up there. sure, it doesn’t fit the classic D&D tropes most of our grew up on. Giant battle axes? Nope. Array of powerful spells? Nah. But the Monk does offer a variety of of interesting features bundled together with a cool system for unarmed combat. Sound intriguing? Learn more with our Monk 5E Guide!
Monk 5E Guide
Through every living body flows magical energy commonly referred to as “ki.” A monk studies this energy, eventually harnessing its power. While magical in nature, the masters of ki are not spellcasters. Instead, they channel this magic into enhancing their physical abilities into their own body – and the bodies of the foes. The end result is a highly-trained, physically talented warrior that can shift the flow of battle.
Monks come in many forms. Some live quiet lives away from society in monasteries. However, isolation is not the life all monks choose. Some monks choose the life of an adventurer. Often, they seek spiritual growth. Others merely seek to test their skills. Ultimately, the adventure for a monk is about a goal greater than treasure.
Unarmored Defense, Martial Arts
Ki, Unarmored Movement
Monastic Tradition, Deflect Missiles
Ability Score Improvement, Slow Fall
Extra Attack, Stunning Strike
Ki-Empowered Strikes, Monastic Tradition Feature
Evasion, Stillness of Mind
Ability Score Improvement
Unarmored Movement Improvement
Purity of Body
Monastic Tradition Feature
Ability Score Improvement
Tongue of the Sun and Moon
Ability Score Improvement
Monastic Tradition Feature
Ability Score Improvement
While there are a lot of customization options for monks, they generally serve as frontline fighters. It is an interesting class, but one that can be problematic with an inefficient build.
- Hit Dice: 1d8 per monk level
- HP at 1st Level: 8 + your Constitution modifier
- HP at Higher Levels: 1d8 (or 5) + your Constitution modifier per monk level after 1st
- Armor: None
- Weapons: Simple weapons, shortswords
- Tools: Choose one musical instrument or set of artisan’s tools
- Saving Throws: Strength, Dexterity
- Skills: Choose two from Acrobatics, Athletics, History, Insight, Religion, and Stealth.
If you opt not to use the starting gold by level method, you begin with a very small amount of equipment. Given the nature of the class, it should come as no surprise that you own far less than any other character. A Monk’s starting equipment includes:
- (a) a shortsword or (b) any simple weapon
- (a) a dungeoneer’s pack or (b) an explorer’s pack
- 10 darts
Unarmored Defense (Level 1)
Here is where we can see why no armor proficiency is needed for our monk. Starting at Level 1, your AC is 10 + your Dexterity modifier + your Wisdom modifier. This is only the case when you are not wearing armor or a shield. This means with 20 Dexterity and 20 Wisdom you have an AC of 20. Obtaining the AC of a full plate set of armor and a shield while shirtless is nothing to sneeze at.
Martial Arts (Level 1)
In addition to Unarmored Defense, Martial Arts is the other cornerstone of the Monk class. Martial arts gives you an array of important benefits including:
- Using dexterity instead of strength for attack and damage rolls
- Using a special damage roll that replaces your damage for unarmed strikes or monk weapons
- Getting an attack with a monk weapon or unarmed strike as a bonus action.
Great stuff here. You can play a frontline fighter without the need for high strength. You get multiple attacks, essentially giving you two-weapon fighting with needing any feats (or weapons, for that matter). It scales well, with unarmed strikes dealing more damage than most weapons at higher levels.
Ki (Level 2)
At Level 2, you gain access to the power of ki directly. This is another critical component of the class, and it comes with a lot of options. Like with other classes like the sorcerer, monks get a pool of points that can be spent on a variety of things. These are known as ki points. You gain more points as you level up. You regain all of your ki points after a long or short rest, just as long as you spend 30 minutes of that rest meditating. In some cases your ki feature requires a saving throw. These throws are calculated using:
There are three basic uses of ki points; your Monk will gain more at higher levels. They include:
- Flurry of Blows: After an attack, you can spend a ki point for two unarmed strikes as a bonus action. This may not be the best use of the points at low levels, but at higher levels it can provide huge bursts of offense.
- Patient Defense: Spend 1 ki point to make a dodge action as a bonus action. This is useful when at low HP.
- Step of the Wind: Spend a point to disengage or dash, as well as doubling your jump distance.
Unarmored Movement (Level 2 – Level 18)
At level two you become far more mobile you are without armor. Your footspeed increases by 10 feet, and increases as you level. At level nine you can run up vertical surfaces or walk on liquids without falling. Useful in some cases, but cool in every situation. At level 10 this increases to a bonus of 20 feet. At Level 14, the bonus increases to 25. It reaches 30 feet at level 18.
Monastic Tradition (Level 3)
At level three, your monk will select a subclass known as a monastic tradition. We discuss these in-depth below.
Deflect Missiles (Level 3)
Deflect Missiles isn’t always useful, as it only applies to ranged weapon attacks. However, it provides for a very cool visual if nothing else. This feature allows you to catch or deflect ranged weapons. You reduce the damage from these attacks by 1d10 plus your dexterity modifier plus your monk level. If you reduce the damage to zero, you catch the missile. You can then spend a ki point to throw it back as part of the same reaction.
This missile is treated as a monk weapon for damage purposes, and you have proficiency with it regardless of the type of missile. The short range is 20 feet and the long range is 60.
Slow Fall (Level 4)
While not always useful, Slow Fall can be a lifesaver in a pinch. You can use it as a reaction to reduce fall damage equal to five times your monk level.
Extra Attack (Level 5)
At level five you get at least three attacks per turn. You can boost these attacks further with flurry of blows. Your unarmed strike damage also increases at Level 5, which makes this potent.
Stunning Strike (Level 5)
Level five is also where you begin to harness the ki to impact your opponent’s state. With this feature, you can spend a ki point when you succeed with a melee weapon attack. If the target fails a constitution saving throw they are stunned until the end of your next turn. This does not work with unarmed strikes, unfortunately. This ability is not capped, meaning in major fights you can use it repeatedly. This can be exceptionally powerful when fighting a single enemy.
Ki-Empowered Strikes (Level 6)
Another level, another boost to your unarmed strikes. In this case, your unarmed strikes are magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance or immunity to nonmagical attacks.
Evasion (Level 7)
Evasion is another highlight of the Monk class. It greatly improves the outcome when you are required to make a dexterity saving throw to avoid damage. In cases where a failed throw makes you take full damage and a successful save gives you half damage, you will instead face half damage or no damage respectively. As dexterity should always be your top priority, your monk could avoid a lot of AOE damage.
Stillness of Mind (Level 7)
Stillness of Mind allows you to end a charmed or frightened effect with your action each turn. There are a lot of monsters that have charmed or fear effects, which makes this useful in the right situation.
Purity of Body (Level 10)
With this feature, you are immune to disease or poison. Given how common poison is, this useful.
Tongue of the Sun and Moon (Level 13)
It’s not terrible. For the sake of translation you can understand all spoken languages. What’s more, any creature that understands a language can understand your spoken words. This is of limited value for many monks given that charisma is the most common dump stat, though.
Diamond Soul (Level 14)
This comes in handy constantly. With Diamond Soul, you gain proficiency at all saving throws. What’s more, when you fail a saving throw you can spend a ki point to reroll. You must take the result of the second roll, however. This substantially improves your survivability.
Timeless Body (Level 15)
Definitely the low point of the class, especially since it is your Level 15 feature. You no longer need food and water, which can come in handy in situational adventures. You also do not suffer the frailty of old age and cannot be aged magically. While this fits the theme of a monk perfectly, it will effectively have zero effect in most campaigns. What a waste.
Empty Body (Level 18)
With the cost of four ki points, you can become invisible for 1 minute. During that time you are resistant to all damage but force damage.
Alternatively, you can spend 8 ki points to cast Astral Projection. This allows you to travel the outer planes freely. Both of these options are interesting but the ki point cost is high.
Perfect Self (Level 20)
Perfect Self dramatically improves every aspect of a monk. Each time you roll for initiative and have no ki points remaining, you regain 4 ki points. This can extend a monk’s ability to survive or even further add to the number of attacks they can make.
Traditions – Monk Subclasses
With most classes, the class features are the base but the subclass features are what really make a character sing. With the monk, I’m not so sure that is the case. There are seven subclasses – called monastery traditions – in total, but most of them come up short in what they were going for. In my view, the strength of the monk lies in its class features.
There are some glaring holes the basic monk has, however. It’s hard to punch something that can fly, for instance. Additionally, you are going to struggle if you are fighting something that is only hurt by non-weapon damage. Many of these subclasses make an effort to address these flaws, but few do it adequately. That said, there is some fun to be had with some of these options. We will review them each alphabetically.
Way of the Drunken Master
There is a general consensus that Way of the Drunken Master is the best of the seven traditions. Using the unpredictable movements common with drunkards, this subclass is about using misdirection to hit and run.
- Bonus Proficiencies (Level 3). You become proficient at Performance and with brewer’s supplies. Neither are particularly useful.
- Drunken Technique (Level 3). When you use flurry of blows you gain a walking speed boost of 10 feet until the end of the turn. You can also use the Disengage action at the end of the flurry. This is a lot of value for one ki point.
- Tipsy Sway (Level 6). Your unusual swaying movement lets you stand from prone by using only 5 feet of movement versus half of your turn’s movement. More importantly, you can spend a ki point when a melee attack misses you to redirect it to another creature other than the attacker. The attack automatically hits, but the target cannot be the attacker himself.
- Drunkard’s Luck (Level 11). You can spend to ki points to cancel disadvantage on an attack, ability check, or saving throw.
- Intoxicated Frenzy (Level 17). This allows you to make up to five flurry of blows attacks in a turn, so long as each attack is against a different creature. At level 17 your speed gets a +35 bonus and you can disengage, which means you can cartwheel around the battlefield doing damage.
Way of the Four Elements
Remember the problems monks have with flyers and magical creatures? Way of the Four Elements attempts to address those by giving the monk access to spellcasting. It’s debatable of the end result does much to address these concerns, though. While spells are nice, they eat up ki that could be used on the more powerful monk effects. A well-built character could still have some strong options when traditional monk stuff doesn’t work.
At level three, you obtain the Elemental Attument discipline and an additional elemental discipline of your choice. At levels 6, 11, and 17 you gain additional disciplines. Some of these disciplines allow your monk to cast spells without the components. You can also raise the level of a spell by spending ki points. Some strong options include:
- Sweeping Cinder Strike (Level 3): Strong AOE fire spell
- Clinch of the North Wind (Level 6): You can cast hold person for three ki points. Powerful but expensive.
- Ride the Wind (Level 11): You can cast fly on yourself with 4 ki points.
- Eternal Mountain Defense (Level 17): 5 ki points lets you cast Stoneskin on yourself.
Way of the Kensei
Straight out of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is the Way of the Kensei. This subclass was designed to fill some holes in the monk class by opening up some weapon options.
- Path of the Kensei (Level 3): Path of the Kensei contains a lot of benefits. You can choose one melee and one ranged weapon as your kensei weapons. They can be martial weapons as long as they are not heavy. You gain proficiency with them and they act as monk’s weapons. You also get Agile Parry, which gives you +2 to AC if you make an unarmed strike while holding a kensei weapon. Kensei’s shot gives you a 1d4 bonus to damage on ranged attacks, while Way of the Brush gives you proficiency in painter or calligrapher’s supplies.
- One with the Blade (Level 6): Your kensei weapon attacks are magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance or immunity, and you can spend 1 ki point to do additional damage with a kensei weapon attack.
- Sharpen the Blade (Level 11): You can spend up to 3 ki points to grant a kensei weapon a +1 to attack and damage rolls per dice. This lasts one minute.
- Unerring Accuracy (Level 17): Once per turn, you can reroll an attack roll when you miss using a monk weapon.
Way of the Long Death
While Way of the Long Death does little to address some of the challenges with fighting at range monks deal with, it does give a valuable tank boost to a fairly squishy frontline fighter. The class is well-balanced, and mixes in a useful crowd control ability and a huge damage dealing option at level 17. Good stuff right here.
- Touch of Death (Level 3): Reducing a creature within 5 feet to 0 hit points gives you temporary HP worth your wisdom modifier plus monk level. This can add serious survivability facing a crowd.
- Hour of Reaping (level 6): Your connection with the power of death lets you use an action to cause fear in any creature within 30 feet that fails a wisdom saving throw.
- Mastery of Death (Level 11): You can spend 1 ki point when reduced to zero hit points to have 1 HP instead.
- Touch of the Long Death (Level 17): You can spend between 1 and 10 ki points to deal necrotic damage. If the target fails a constitution saving throw you deal 2d10 damage per ki point. The damage is halved with a successful saving throw. Absolutely nasty damage against a single target.
Way of the Open Hand
Way of the Open Hand does not have the flavor of Long Death or Drunken Masters, but it is a great class. Essentially, this operates as a standard monk on steroids. However, Quivering Palm is one of the most interesting features in the game, in my opinion.
- Open Hand Technique (Level 3): When you land flurry of blows, you can choose to knock the target prone if the fail a dexterity save, push them 15 feet away from you if they fail a strength save, or prevent them from taking reactions until the end of your next turn. All useful buffs that don’t require additional ki points.
- Wholeness of Body (Level 6): Once per long rest, you regain HP equal to three times your monk level as an action.
- Tranquility (Level 11): You gain the effect of Sanctuary at the end of a long rest. This requires attackers targeting you to succeed a wisdom saving throw or target someone else.
- Quivering Palm (Level 17): Straight out of Kill Bill, you can spend three ki points to set up lethal vibrations in a target’s body when you land an unarmed attacked. After a number of days equal to your monk level or at your discretion, the target must make a constitution saving throw or reduce their HP to 0. A successful save deals 10d10 necrotic damage. A monk can turn this off without it dealing any damage at any time.
Way of the Shadow
Way of the Shadow is one of the weaker subclasses available. It aims to be a Rogue-like monk, but it comes up short in matching the strength of a pure member of either class. Stealth is nice, but missing out on sneak attack damage makes it seem mostly wasted.
- Shadow Arts (Level 3): You can spend 2 ki points to cast Darkness, Darkvision, Pass Without Trace, or Silence. You can also use the Minor Illusion cantrip.
- Shadow Step (Level 6): You can teleport from one shadow to another within 60 feet. You also get advantage on your first melee attack after you teleport. Unfortunately, this only works in dim light or darkness.
- Cloak of Shadows (Level 11): You gain invisibility, but again only in dim light or darkness. You maintain invisibility until you enter bright light, make an attack, or cast a spell.
- Opportunist (Level 17): The highlight of the subclass, Opportunist gives you a free reaction attack to any creature within 5 feet of you that is hit by an attack from someone other than yourself.
Way of the Sun Soul
Flavorwise, Way of the Sun Soul is cool. It gives your monk the ability to blast Dragonball Z style energy attacks at range, which in theory should address some issues with the class. Unfortuntely, these blasts are underpowered unless you spend a lot of ki. While ranged attacks are useful, most of the time there are more efficient options than this.
- Radiant Sun Bolt (Level 3): A ranged attack action that doesn’t cost any ki sounds perfect, right? Unfortunately, this only does 1d4 radiant damage at lower levels. You can use ki points to use this more than once, at least.
- Searing Arc Strike (Level 6): You can cast Burning Hands as a bonus action after you take an attack action. This costs 2 ki points, and you can increase the level of the spell additional levels by spending 1 ki point each time. Point expenditure is capped at half the number of your monk level.
- Searing Sunburst (Level 11): You create an exploding orb of light that deals 2d6 radiant damage to any creature within 20 feet of the orb that fails a constitution throw. You can spend up to three ki points upping the damage by 2d6 per point. This is a little underpowered unless you spend the full three ki points.
- Sun Shield (Level 17): You can use a bonus action to emit bright light for a 30-foot radius and dim light for another 30. You can deal radiant damage as a reaction in the amount of 5 plus your wisdom modifier to any creature that hits you with a melee attack while the light shines.
Fleshing Out Your Monk
Roleplaying as a monk will come down to however you design your character. However, there are a few aspects of all monks that can play an important role in how you develop your character.
Arguably the biggest factor in your character’s background will be the monastery they trained at. This training will guide much of your character’s nature. If your monastery was very combat-centric, your motivation for adventuring might be to prove yourself. If the monastery was more altruistic, you could be a reluctant traveler seeking something to bring back to your people. While your backstory does not have to be entirely dependent on your monastery, it usually makes sense for it to play a major role.
Monasteries in the Forgotten Realms
If your campaign is set in the Forgotten Realms, there are dozens of monastic orders to choose from. Most monasteries are small, with as few as a dozen members in total. Others boast hundreds of members spread across the map. Some of the most interesting options include:
- Broken Ones (Good): A large but informal group of monks without any central hierarchy, these followers of Ilmater right wrongs and punish the cruel.
- Hin Fist (Unaligned): An order of halflings founded in Luiren, this group will occaisionally allow gnomes or dwarves to join.
- Old Order (Unaligned): One of the oldest monasteries, this group were once worshippers of a deity that is either long dead or never existed. This is of little concern to the Old Order, who care more for living by the creed of the god. This order is large and spread out across the world, but there are no large monasteries located in Faerun.
- Shining Hand (Unaligned): The most powerful sect of monks based in Amn, this monastery has been the target the government due to their dabbling in the arcane. The Shining Hand worships Azuth and largely operates in the shadows.
- Dark Moon (Evil): A large sect, Dark Moon operate their monestaries in public in lands ruled by evil. In areas with unaligned or good rulers, they operate in the shadows. This mostly-human monastic order worships Shar.
Some monasteries, like the Order of the Sun Soul in the Forgotten Realms, has ties to a specific god. in fact, some orders are as devoted as clerics are to their deities. However, others have no religious ties whatsoever. This another thing to consider when fleshing out your character and the monastery they call home.
Your Martial Art
Unarmed combat in 5E is not particularly fleshed out, and you can play through without having a specific form of martial art in mind for your character. While this form of combat is entirely for flavor under the rules as written, many monasteries adopt their own style of combat. This can be an important aspect of your character’s identify, if you wish.
Monk 5E Optimization Tips
Regardless of your monastic tradition, you will generally build your Monk the same way. That said, optimization is more important for some subclasses than for others. Below we will give you some important pointers when building your monk character.
The central point of selecting abilities for a monk is remembering that strength is not vital despite your role as a frontline fighter. Unlike other classes, however, you have two abilities that will be ideally maxed out, and two more that need a fair amount of attention.
- Strength. Because you use dexterity for all of your attacks, your strength goes unused when you are on offense. That doesn’t mean it is a dump stat however, as you need enough strength to fight off grappling attempts. This is generally your fourth-highest priority.
- Dexterity. Your bread and butter. Max your dexterity out regardless of the type of monk you have in mind. It is far and away your top priority; get it to 20 as soon as possible.
- Constitution. The third most important stat is constitution. 1d8 hit points per level is a little soft for a melee combat character, so it is vital to get your AC as high as possible.
- Intelligence. Not a priority. You will only use it for saving throws or maybe knowledge skills.
- Wisdom. Your second priority. While dexterity rules your attacks, wisdom powers up many of your other features. You want this at 20 as soon as you max dexterity.
- Charisma. Dump stat. Someone else should be the face of your party.
Best Races for Monk in 5E
Many people really sweat finding the perfect race for their Monk. While that’s fine, it is important to remember that the ability bonuses that come with each race matter less and less as you level up. While some races are better than others, you can make any of them work with the Monk class if you really want to. That said, we have covered some of the best and worst fits below.
- Aarakocra. A boost to dexterity and wisdom is nice. the ability to fly address one of the monk’s greatest weaknesses, however, making this race a perfect monk.
- Firbolg. A boost to wisdom is nice, and the innate spellcasting addresses some of the weaknesses of the class.
- Human. Versatility means they can do anything, and there are plenty of feats that can make a monk really shine.
- Kobold. No, really. A bonus to dexterity is wonderful and pack tactics make your high volume of attacks really work.
- Water Genasi. Resistance to fire is never a bad thing, plus you get a bonus to wisdom. The innate spellcasting is also strong.
- Elf. The ability bonuses are strong.
- Halfling. Dexterity bonus is nice, and luck always comes in handy.
- Kenku. Most of the unique traits don’t do much for a monk, but you can’t ask for better than +2 dexterity and +1 wisdom.
- Tabaxi. Not as good as Kenku, but still decent.
- Tortle. The natural armor could make for an interesting character build.
- Yuan-Ti Pureblood
Best Available Backgrounds
While the tool kit options don’t mean much for a monk, there are plenty of backgrounds that provide valuable skills. Dexterity and Wisdom are two of the most valuable thanks to stealth, perception, and insight. Below are a few of the options that could be right for your monk.
- Far Traveler. A great fit flavor-wise, and you get insight and perception.
- Hermit. Not only does this fit flavor-wise, but the herbalism kit lets you brew potions.
- Urban Bounty Hunter. Maybe a stretch with your backstory, but you can get stealth and insight on top of choosing two from gaming sets, thieves tools, or a musical instrument.
- Urchin. Sleight of hand and stealth are a great combo for a monk. Disguise kits and thieve’s tools could come in handy too.
There are countless feats in 5E, and many of them are beneficial across the board. That said, most of them come with the tradeoff of losing an attribute point. Given you really want your monk to max out on dexterity and wisdom, feats might not be in the cards. However, we have discussed some of the best options below if you go in that direction.
- Durable. If you are sweating your AC or HP, this isn’t a bad option.
- Lucky. Monks make a lot of attack rolls. The lucky feat can really come in handy with all those rolling dice.
- Observant. A favorite of mine! You gain a wisdom point to a maximum of 20, which is always good. You can also read the lips of any character you can see speaking if you know their language. Finally, the +5 to passive perception is excellent.
- Tough. This can provide a nice HP boost but is really only valuable if you take it at higher levels.
So many of the other classes are either a weird ability fit or have overlapping abilities that multiclassing your monk isn’t always wise. There are some great high-level options for monks too, meaning multiple levels of another class will cause you to miss out on them. That said, there are a few options that are great for a single dip.
Good Multiclassing Options for a Monk
This is a basic rundown of your multiclassing options. You can get more information with our multiclassing 5E guide.
A single level of cleric gives you five spells and allows you to choose a domain. At level two, you get another level 1 spell, a channel divinity, and a domain feature. These are a lot of powerful options. You could become a pseudo-healer with the life domain or deal with ranged threats as an Arcana cleric. Not a lot of reasons to take more than two levels, however.
Taking a dip in another martial class seems redundant, but multiclassing into fighter makes a lot of sense. If you take one level, you should probably take two however. This especially good with Way of the Kensei.
First, the dueling fighting style +2 damage when fighting with a weapon and a free hand. Great weapon fighting is also a good option. Second wind at level one is also great for a monk, giving you a much needed HP boost once per short rest.
At level two, you get Action Surge. Getting a second action is great anyway, but using it in conjunction with Flurry of Blows is incredible. While I would stick with two levels, a third level of fighter gets you all the benefits that come with a martial archetype.
Ranger is another sneaky good option for a monk mulitclass. However, you need to take at least 2 levels to be worth it. At level two you get fighting style, which we discussed above. You also get spellcasting, with wisdom as your spellcasting ability. This is a good fit, and ranger has some useful options. Hunter’s Mark alone makes it a nice fit. Whether giving up two levels of monk is worth or not is up to you.
Way of the Shadow’s biggest downfall is that it is an underpowered rogue wannabe. Taking a dip into rogue suddenly makes that subclass pretty strong. While the out of combat options might not mean much to you, sneak attack suddenly makes Shadow Step and Cloak of Shadows very powerful. You also get a few extra proficiencies. One level is generally all that is needed unless you really want the roguish archetype and the second sneak attack damage d6 that comes at level 3.
- Artificer. Not worth giving up a level of monk.
- Barbarian. The AC bonuses between the two classes do no stack, making this a bad choice.
- Bard. Bad stat spread.
- Druid. Like a cleric, but worse.
- Paladin. Bad stat spread.
- Sorcerer. Like a cleric, but worse.
- Warlock. Warlock isn’t a great option. Seriously, go cleric.
- Wizard. Bad stat spread.
Wrapping up our Monk 5E Guide
To sum it up, the monk is a fun class but it could use a little love. If you can find a way to address flying monsters, fighting at range, and dealing with enemies that are resistant to weapon damage, you can take on almost anything. All in all, the monk is underappreciated.
Did we miss anything with our Monk 5E guide? If so, let us know in the comment section!