There is not a lot of customization available for most monk subclasses. The Player’s Handbook is actually the only place you need to go for the most unique subclass the Monk has to offer. The Way of the Four elements grants the monk class some spellcasting options. Similar to the monks of the Sun Soul, the monks of the Four Elements are essentially Warlocks, with a 30-minute rest requirement. Unlike the Sun Soul, you’ll be spending ki a heck of a lot more. The question then becomes… If the Sun Soul exists, why does the Four Elements monk – one that came out earlier – need to? Let’s read into it a bit more.
Planar Fisticuffs: Way of the Four Elements
The Four Elements monk offers something the Sun Soul doesn’t; customizability. There are so many more options to spend Ki on that you can really express yourself in a way Martials normally can’t. The problem then becomes… Why spend Ki on spells instead of Flurry of Blows? The only way to know is to see the options for ourselves.
Disciple of the Elements
This is the only ability that this Archetype gets. It’s split into two parts.
[At 3rd Level] You know the Elemental Attunement discipline and one other elemental discipline of your choice. You learn one additional elemental discipline of your choice at 6th, 11th, and 17th level.
Whenever you learn a new elemental discipline, you can also replace one elemental discipline that you already know with a different discipline.
Two important things to note here. One, this ability scales, but it’s all you get. That means the only thing this ability scales in is options and utility. That’s… Really good, if you’ve ever played a spellcaster in this system.
The other thing that you get is a limit on the amount of Ki you can use the heighten spells. For every ki point above the base level spell cost, you gain 1 more spell level. This maxes out as such;
|Monk Level||Ki Points|
Not really a good or a bad thing. Just something to keep in mind as you spend Ki.
Level 1 Disciplines
Your level 1 options are, to put it bluntly, subpar. You won’t want these for very long after level 1. They don’t scale well with Ki, certainly not compared to replacing them with disciplines you’ll learn later. Thank goodness it doesn’t specify that you must replace disciplines with ones of the same level!
Prestidigitation, with elemental flare!
Considering this is a completely free ability, there’s not much to say about it. You will be taking this, so if your GM lets you creatively use this to distract or help people, then you’ll be happy. Otherwise… It’s there. It doesn’t get in the way, nor does it cost any Ki. And most GMs let you replace it later on with other options. You really don’t lose with this.
Fangs of the Fire Snake
Here’s where things get spicy! Pardon the pun.
When you use the Attack action on your turn, you can spend 1 ki point to cause tendrils of flame to stretch out from your fists and feet. Your reach with your unarmed strikes increases by 10 feet for that action, as well as the rest of the turn. A hit with such an attack deals fire damage instead of bludgeoning damage, and if you spend 1 ki point when the attack hits, it also deals an extra 1d10 fire damage.
That’s… Really expensive.
First of all, Monks and Reach tend to not mix, so that’s actually not all bad, right? You can safely engage enemies that otherwise damage melee attackers, help with crowded-hallway scenarios, and become a threat from farther away. Plus, fire damage tends to be a really different damage type than bludgeoning, in terms of who resists it.
The extra fire damage is… Really costly. Spending 1 ki point for 1d10 damage is actually solid in the early game, since it doesn’t cost an action, but later on you’ll want to replace this with something else.
This isn’t bad, but you could do better.
Fist of the Four Thunders
2 ki Thunderwave.
A generally safe assumption is that a discipline costs 2 ki at level 1, so WotC puts 2 ki at a level 1 spell slot. A bit worse than a Warlock, but you can also use them on monk abilities so… Eh?
Thunderwave at 2 ki isn’t bad; Decent damage around a melee combatant with some good pushback. Unfortunately, as a monk, you’re going to have to chase them down again.
However, because it’s 1d8, every Ki point you put into it equals 1d8 more Area of Effect damage. That’s really solid! A good choice, especially if you’re going for some kind of “Air Monk” idea.
Fist of Unbroken Air
As an action, you can spend 2 ki points and choose a creature within 30 feet of you. That creature must make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, the creature takes 3d10 bludgeoning damage, plus an extra 1d10 bludgeoning damage for each additional ki point you spend, and you can push the creature up to 20 feet away from you and knock it prone. On a successful save, the creature takes half as much damage, and you don’t push it or knock it prone.
That’s actually really cool. And super not useful.
Unlike Thunder Wave, this shotgun blast isn’t an area of effect. 3d10 bludgeoning is probably worth spending 2 ki, especially this early on, but you can’t really take advantage of the prone state. Plus, if you choose to knock it back, now your ranged allies have disadvantage, and your melee allies have to waddle over to benefit from the grounded target.
The range is solid and the damage is great… But you have to plan around it a lot more than most other disciplines.
Rush of the Gale Spirits
2 ki for Gust of Wind.
This… Really doesn’t work well for you. Forcing enemies to stay away from a backline sounds like a good idea, but it also means you’ll have trouble moving back towards the backline. Plus, it only works in hallways, since the line emanates from yourself. It’ll probably be useful once or twice, but… Consider getting an Area of Effect option, and waiting for better defensive options later.
Shape of the Flowing River
If you’re looking for a solid utility option, then Shape Water is coming in hot!
As an action, you can spend 1 ki point to choose an area of ice or water no larger than 30 feet on a side within 120 feet of you. You can change water to ice within the area and vice versa, and you can reshape ice in the area in any manner you choose.
This shaping usually can change things by 15 ft carvings; up, down, creating trenches, etc.
In terms of the Shape spells, this really isn’t that bad. It’s pretty situational, requiring you to be near – or carry – a rather large amount of water. However, in those situations? You can totally change the fight. You can dig through floors, lower the water level to help your martial allies, create walkways, negate enemy’s bonuses… The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, you can’t trap or harm creatures within the water with it, but… For what it’s worth, this can be useful. If your GM ever says “let’s do a water campaign,” keep this subclass in mind.
Sweeping Cinder Strike
Burning Hands, 2 ki points.
While this looks like a decent option, I’d recommend looking elsewhere. 2d6 damage in a good cone is solid for you, and doesn’t have the pushback of Thunderwave. But, if you look at the Sun Soul, for two ki points they can shotgun a Burning Hands as a bonus action. While not strictly better than Sweeping Cinder Strike, a bonus action to cast a spell tends to be more useful than an action. It can scale much higher, too.
This is probably your second best option if you’re looking for general Area of Effect, and your best one if you have a few melee allies.
Remember Fist of Unbroken Air?
[2 ki, Action] A creature that you can see that is within 30 feet of you must make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, the creature takes 3d10 bludgeoning damage, plus an extra 1d10 bludgeoning damage for each additional ki point you spend, and you can either knock it prone or pull it up to 25 feet closer to you. On a successful save, the creature takes half as much damage, and you don’t pull it or knock it prone.
Yeah, neither do I.
In general, this is much better for you. It forces a creature into punching distance, and is much better for you and your melee allies. Even casters can get better use out of their spells, as long as they have a Touch-range ability. In general, this is a much better control and slightly better ranged option than Unbroken Air; the only downside is that more creatures have good Dexterity throws than Strength ones. Take this if you’re worried about ranged opponents, or you don’t want to take Flight abilities in the future.
To confirm: Yes, this is an Action. Errata’d.
Level 6 Disciplines
Only two options are restricted by the 6th level gap. One of them is amazing.
Clench of the North
And the amazing one was Hold Person, who would have thought?
For 3 ki, you take someone out of a fight. Hopefully. Or you can paralyze them and beat them like a speed bag. At level 6, you’re going to want this…
Gong of the Summit
Because the Gong isn’t as good. For 3 ki, you cast Shatter.
Thankfully, 5e’s economy allows for breaking weapons, so the downside of destroying weapons doesn’t really exist. However, this is 3d8 thunder damage in a smaller Area of Effect than Thunderwave… Why not just take Fist of the Four Thunders and just move into Area of Effect range? The range isn’t worth the Discipline slot.
Level 11 Disciplines
Level 11 isn’t all that bad, but there’s an obvious choice here. Once again.
Flames of the Phoenix
For 4 ki, you chuck a Fireball. Nice!
Fireball is the defining Area of Effect for Dungeons & Dragons. That is, when a Wizard casts it. When you cast it, you’re chucking an 8d6 area of effect at level 11. Wizards have been doing that since level 5… And you can only boost it to 10d6. That’s not amazing… But if you took Sweeping Cinder Strike, this is a worthy replacement. And still is your best Area of Effect option to date.
4 ki for a get-out-of-jail card isn’t bad. And Gaseous Form happens to be one of the best cards in the game!
If you’re the primary scout, then this spell is definitely for you! Gaseous Form lets you sneak into so many situations, and escape so many more, that you’ll find your scouting efficiency skyrockets. If your group lacks a rogue and you want to try your hand at it, give Mist Stance a shot.
Ride the Wind
4 ki for Fly.
We have a winner! Flight defines late-game combat in nearly every edition. If you don’t have a way to fly by level 11, please consider taking this. You’ll find a lot of encounters go much better when you can actually deal with all the enemies on a battlefield.
Level 17 Disciplines
Level 17 offers some honestly great options. This is the most contested level for your abilities, so consider swapping one of your old ones for one at this level.
Breath of Winter
6 ki for Cone of Cold.
8d8 (36) damage in a 60 ft cone is massive, letting you smash an entire room like an ice sculpture. The only problem is that you’re kind of competing with an ability you got last level… Flames of the Phoenix at 6 ki deals 10d6 (35) damage. And is much easier to control. And targets Dexterity, something that really beefy targets tend not to have. When one or the other will be useful matters from campaign to campaign, and both are really solid options. But try not to have both.
Eternal Mountain Defense
Stoneskin for 5 ki, and no material components? Sign me up!
Despite how late-game this is, Stoneskin still gives you Resistance against the most common damage types. You’ll still encounter nonmagical weapons in most encounters that you fight, since magic weapons are so hard to come by. If you’re in a low-magic setting, this is a definite pick. Otherwise… This still might be a definite pick.
This was also errata’d; this is level 17, not 11. Foiled again!
River of Hungry Flame
5 ki points for Wall of Fire doesn’t sound amazing… But it really is.
Wall of Fire pulls double-duty as a decent area of effect and also a really potent defensive spell. 5d8 (22.5) damage isn’t anything to sneeze at, and the spell’s options for Area of Effect lets you weave it as needed. It then proceeds to stay standing for up to a minute, during which your allied casters have relative safety from enemies who aren’t willing to take another 5d8. Replace Fireball with this… And probably don’t have Breath of Winter on the same Discipline list.
Wave of Rolling Earth
Wall of Stone, at 6 ki points? Dang!
This spell is an incredibly versatile, primarily defensive, spell. You can cover your escape, keep an opponent from escaping, entrap a particularly dangerous foe until they can beat through a massive pile of stone… The only limit is your creativity. Consider taking this in the magical campaigns where Stoneskin isn’t as useful, or if you just want a consistently easy way to use your Ki points.
Best Races for the Four Elements Monk
The Four Elements monk might be the only one with more effort put into the Wisdom side of things. You have a lot of abilities that have saving throws attached to them, after all. Even so, you have no damaging cantrips without multiclassing, so you’ll want Dexterity so you have consistent damage. After that, get Wisdom as high as you can. You can live with 12-14 Constitution if your AC and spells protect you.
Unleashed upon us in the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemont comes the Pallid Elf subrace. The normal abilities of the Elf are particularly good for monks; offering ways to ignore sleep, Darkvision, anti-charm, and free Perception proficiency. However, these strange, pale elves also gain advantage to Insight, and unique utility in Sleep and Invisibility (self) as their levels increase. A really good choice for the utility-heavy Four Elements Monk… If a bit of a flavor fail.
Conclusion – Our Take on the Four Elements Monk
This monk subclass is in the rough position of WotC trying to give a martial class magic without actually giving them magic. Your options are limited, and you gain the weaknesses of the caster – Silence, anti-magic, counterspelling – without the ridiculous scaling. However, when combined with the core monk abilities, you have a neat switch-fighter with the ability to deal with Area of Effect encounters without losing too much fisticuff training. A rather good choice, if you’re worried about swarms of enemies.