The Player’s Handbook offers three monk subclasses for any starting player to get accustomed to. One of them is the slyest and darkest of all; the Shadow Monk. As monks go, the Shadow Monk turns the rather up-front style of the monk and turns it into an underhanded, sneaky one. Your hand-to-hand combat is now called “assassination,” and you’ve gained some abilities that help you get to combat unscathed. Let’s check out how the Monk can benefit from a less frontline-oriented playstyle. Learn about this option with our Shadow Monk 5E Guide.
Enter the Darkness: Shadow Monk 5E
The Way of the Shadow is a stealthy monk that prefers the move into combat while completely obscured. Followers of this tradition take some advice from the Rogue class, rather than the Fighter or Ranger ones. Unfortunately, unlike the Rogue class, the Way of the Shadow gets neither additional benefits from attacking from stealth, nor additional skill ranks to be more equivalent to a rogue.
What the Way of the Shadow does handle well is getting the monk into the fight without taking damage. The Shadow’s utility is all in movement and concealment; they have a lot of ways to avoid getting seen, and a lot of utility in the forms of spell-like Ki casting.
At level 3, you start your journey to becoming a utility master.
Starting when you choose this tradition at 3rd level, you can use your ki to duplicate the effects of certain spells. As an action, you can spend 2 ki points to cast Darkness, Darkvision, Pass without Trace, or Silence, without providing material components. Additionally, you gain the Minor Illusion cantrip if you don’t already know it.
So this gives you 5 total spells, one of them becoming a cantrip. Let’s quickly touch on them all.
The cantrip, Minor Illusion, is a cute one. If you are inventive, you could make this cantrip work to its limit; use illusory footsteps to distract a guard, or scare a guard with a lion’s roar. You do have to keep in mind that the image must be a 5-foot cube, but that covers a lot of objects… And some races. Though making a Halfling silently run around might be easy to disbelieve.
Darkness is a great spell for most parties. Since Darkvision can’t see through it, you can just toss it on archers in the backline and force a retreat… Or maybe they’ll run right into you. Alternatively, you can put it on yourself to gain some concealment before sneaking around, though you might have trouble seeing for a bit. If you manage to stumble on an artifact that lets you see in magical darkness, then this spell becomes incredibly good; you could put it on your backpack and sneak around without a care in the world. Normally, though, it’s better to just conceal enemies and force them to move.
Darkvision is an essentially permanent buff, which is good. It lets you more easily sneak, since you won’t need a torch to see things. If your character doesn’t have Darkvision, then using 2 ki to see in the dark is usually worth it. Obviously, it’d be easier to just have natural darkvision, so you don’t have to spend your ki points on this… But, if you don’t, then this spell is a sneaky class’s good friend.
Pass without Trace is a +10 bonus to stealth. +10. Cast this – you’re a monk, Concentration isn’t that important to you.
Silence is slightly less situational than Darkvision. You can toss this on the enemy’s backline and watch them scramble to run out of it. Use this to isolate the casters and chase after them. Unfortunately, they can normally just leave the spell zone and then cast, but… That might be harder to do if you place this spell just right.
Overall, all of these spells have uses that make them valuable. Spending ki on these, in the right situations, is very much worth losing potential Flurry of Blows.
Have you ever worried that the monk just doesn’t have enough movement options? Say no more!
At 6th level, you gain the ability to step from one shadow into another. When you are in dim light or darkness, as a bonus action you can teleport up to 60 feet to an unoccupied space you can see that is also in dim light or darkness. You then have advantage on the first melee attack you make before the end of the turn.
Bonus action. 60 feet teleport. Gives advantage on an attack. The number of good words in this paragraph is absolutely insane.
The limitation is that it needs to be dim light or darkness. That’s not difficult to do; most areas have cover of some kind, and unless the sun is directly above your head, there’ll be shadows somewhere. It’s a situational teleport, but you can use the Darkness spell to force darkness on places, so it’s not as situational as it seems. Besides, most dungeons have darkness everywhere you could (or I guess, can’t) see. This will not be difficult to proc.
Now, the bonus action teleport is obviously insane. Adding 60 feet to your movement is absolutely fantastic, and if a Monk can’t get to the enemy with another 60 feet, then the enemy is in another dungeon entirely. For a melee class, this is great!
One small problem is that advantage on the first melee attack is actually not amazing. Monks do damage through 1,000 cuts; the average monk turn has between 3-4 melee attacks. The advantage on one attack is someone insubstantial, though helpful if you need the teleport to get places. While this ability is useful, use it for the bonus action teleport, instead of the advantage.
Also, you’re gonna ask your GM about light and where shadows are from this point on. There is no avoiding this; your GM simply has to prepare.
Cloak of Shadows
Did you scratch your head like I did when Shadow Arts didn’t let you cast Invisibility? Well, there was a reason.
By 11th level, you have learned to become one with the shadows. When you are in an area of dim light or darkness, you can use your action to become invisible. You remain invisible until you make an attack, cast a spell, or are in an area of bright light.
Once again with the dim light or darkness clause… For good reason.
Congratulations! You’ve unlocked Invisibility as a permanent spell effect. As long as you stay away from torches, you get to stay invisible for as long as you want. That means when you go to sleep in your tent, you’re actually an empty bed. Your stealth bonus goes from the +10 from Pass without Trace, to Invisibility… +10.
Okay, okay, I’m hyping it up a little too much. Unlike Shadow Step, this ability’s weakness to Bright Light is much more substantial. You can’t be in bright light at any point if you need to keep your Invisibility up. And refreshing it as an Action, rather than a bonus, is really rough. Similar to Shadow Step, the advantage you get for the one unarmed strike coming out of Invisibility is a little bit weak for Monks.
The only real benefits you get from this are scouting-based. That’s still absolutely crazy; you trounce any familiar’s ability to escape from bad situations with ease! And during fights, you could theoretically shadow step in, punch a dude, escape into the shadows and turn invisible, and then repeat. You’d be unhittable! A verifiable assassin!
But, the weakness to torches, somewhat lackluster combat bonus, and expensive action requirements make this a little less useful than Shadow Step in most cases. Still, this is a great reason to get this class, and you’ve got tons of out-of-combat power in this little package.
At 17th level, you can exploit a creature’s momentary distraction when it is hit by an attack. Whenever a creature within 5 feet of you is hit by an attack made by a creature other than you, you can use your reaction to make a melee attack against that creature.
Finally! You know, I always knew that the Monk had too few attacks per round. I was just waiting for the opportunity to get a fifth!
In all seriousness, this is a great use of your reaction. Dealing damage is crucial in the late game, since defeating enemies quickly tends to be difficult. Adding an extra attack to the enemy’s health bar might be enough to K.O. them.
The trigger for the attack isn’t quite as handy as “Immediately after your attack action” or… “Immediately after your attack action,” like for Flurry or Martial Arts. But, it doesn’t take too much for a Ranger to shoot the enemy, or a Warlock to Eldritch Blast them. And then they get to add an entire punch to it.
In the case of boss fights, you’re guaranteed to proc this ability all the time. You won’t be disappointed by this ability in action, even if it’s not as flashy as the other Subclass capstones.
Best Races for the Shadow Monk
The Shadow Monk, similar to all monks, find Dexterity to be an absolutely essential tool. Hilariously, despite all of the spells that they gain access to, the only spell that is based on Ki DC is Minor Illusion. And, well, you probably don’t care too much if the person uses their Investigation check against Minor Illusion. Even so, if only to boost up your scouting potential and AC, consider making Wisdom your second-best attribute, and then your Constitution.
This Volo’s Guide to Monsters race gets the boosts you want; +2 Dexterity, +1 Wisdom. Perfect for hitting hard, running away, and having alright AC for if you get hit. Considering you get a total of 3 skills from Monk and Background, getting 2 more skills would be a rather good thing for a scout. Mimicry can be quite funny, allowing you to eavesdrop on conversations and then repeat them verbatim to important NPCs. You might want to use your Background on either Perception or Thieves Tools, depending on the character you want to become.
Poking their heads into the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion are the Genasi. While these creatures don’t have Dexterity, boosting Constitution and Wisdom now means you won’t have to spend ability score increases on them later. In addition, you gain resistance to Acid, a super common damage type, and amphibious, allowing you to sneak through water without worrying about your breath. Finally, the Call to the Wave feature offers good utility options for this utility-heave subclass. Really good options for any player looking for something new.
Shifter (Swiftstride, Wildhunt)
Eberron: Rising from the Last War is a book full of absolutely fantastic races. On of them being the shifters, were-people who use their ability to shapeshift to save their skins. Their natural darkvision, ability to become more durable as a Swift action, and Perception proficiency is important for your playstyle. Swiftstriders are, obviously, faster and get more dexterity than the average shifter. Wildhunts, on the other hand, are great trackers with huge boosts to Wisdom. Either of these options could work great for a Shadow Monk, though the Darkvision might step on Shadow Arts’s toes.
Conclusion – Our Take on the Shadow Monk 5E
The Shadow Monk is actually really versatile for a monk subclass. Taking some features from past editions’ Shadow Dancer, this subclass is incredibly mobile, has neat utility, and finishes off with okay damage. It’s not the best, and in some campaigns, you’ll be struggling to find uses for their environmentally-situational abilities. But, in traditional settings that traverse underground as often as above, this is one of the best Monk archetypes you could find. Give it a try, especially if your GM has magical-darkness-piercing goggles lying about.
Or if you’re willing to multiclass 2 levels into Warlock for the Devil’s Sight invocation. Either or.