The Monk is a class not known for its durability. Averaging at 17 AC and 8 base hitpoints in the early game, many early-game monks are afflicted with the terrible disease… Death. As such, the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide realizes that this disease must be cured… Somehow. Well, the Monks of Way of the Long Death are a group obsessed with passing on from the mortal coil. They research how it happens, and then use the concept of death to guide their martial arts style. Let’s see what they reaped from their research!
Kill them Someday: Way of the Long Death
The Way of the Long Death is described in the Adventurer’s Guide as “Deadly.” This is a lie. Long Death monks are the opposite of that. They are exceedingly durable, but rely solely on the core monk’s features to deal damage. You’ll be shocked to see your little, unarmored self survive every single hit thrown at you… But you’ll look at other subclasses with a jealous eye, as they deal more damage and have more utility.
Touch of Death
The first ability you get is dedicated to extra health.
Starting when you choose this tradition at 3rd level, your study of death allows you to extract vitality from another creature as it nears its demise. When you reduce a creature within 5 feet of you to 0 hit points, you gain temporary hit points equal to your Wisdom modifier + your monk level (minimum of 1 temporary hit point).
This is a solid amount of health regen. It’s actually pretty similar to the Fiend Warlock, where taking out an enemy grants you some health. It’ll let you tank quite a bit of damage. Unfortunately, your Wisdom modifier is not going to be as high as the Fiend’s Charisma, so you’ll be healing for a bit less.
Even so, you’ll likely be getting 5-6 temp HP per knockout at this level. That could completely negate hits, even at this point. And as you level up, you might get up to 25 HP per knockout. That’s quite significant! You’ll have so much damage reduction just from punching people.
The problem is that, early on, your Wisdom won’t be too high. That means that when you get this, this is a pretty minor heal. And it relies on you being the one that knocks out enemies. You’ll need to fish for kills until you get your temp HP up, and then you can hit whoever you’d want.
Healing in combat without spending actions is great. This ability is, therefore, pretty good. Even at low levels, or with low Wisdom.
Hour of Reaping
This is the utility that the subclasses get. Let’s see what it squeaks away with…
At 6th level, you gain the ability to unsettle or terrify those around you as an action, for your soul has been touched by the shadow of death. When you take this action, each creature within 30 feet of you that can see you must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be frightened of you until the end of your next turn.
That’s… Actually pretty awesome!
So Frightened is a pretty rough debuff to deal with. Most creatures suffer a bit with taking disadvantage against attack rolls during combat. Spellcasters have a bit of trouble landing rays, and all martial characters will shake their fist.
In addition, you become a monster against any melee character. If you tactically place yourself between the enemies and your caster line (30 ft away from them!), you can become a wall between your enemies and your less durable allies. Obviously, that’s heavily reliant on your enemies failing a Wisdom save… But against a horde of Fighters or Barbarians, you might be even more solid than a wall of ice. The distance you need to keep from your party is pretty large, but you’re a monk, so it won’t be hard to move ahead… Or maybe talk to your GM about letting your allies hide their faces behind their cloaks for when you do this. You don’t wanna spook your Barbarian with this!
The ability score effect from Frightened isn’t… Really important, but it lets you use this ability in out-of-combat situations to shut down social checks. And sometimes you’ll give disadvantage to a Rogue’s acrobatics check and watch them fall on their face in front of you. That’s just nice.
This ability has another crucial downside; It costs an action. Attack into Flurry of Blows is really good. Your action being spent on becoming a wall shuts down a few of your potent bonus actions. This is utility, through and through. Not a bad thing by any stretch, but make sure your party can take advantage of this.
Mastery of Death
I really hyped up the durability of this class, but I haven’t really sold it yet, have I? 25 HP every now and then isn’t much, right? Well… Let’s finally see why this is the tankiest monk – and maybe class – in the game.
Beginning at 11th level, you use your familiarity with death to escape its grasp. When you are reduced to 0 hit points, you can expend 1 ki point (no action required) to have 1 hit point instead.
Okay, so, this may not sound very impressive, since it does cost ki. You could have spent that ki point for two punches, after all! But… Let’s do some math.
Let’s say that, on average, at level 11, the average damage you take from a hit is 20. (That’s not even close to being based on any stats, but let’s just use it for our example.) That means that, if you have 1 health, every ki point you spend heals you for 20. That’s a total of 220 health if you spend all of your ki on this. By itself, that makes the Monk ridiculous.
And that’s a low estimate.
Now, let’s do a realistic level 11 situation. You’re at 10 health and a Wizard fires a Disintegrate at you. You get hit, and fail the save. The wizard rolls perfectly average on it, dealing 75 damage to you. You spend a ki. You reduce the damage by 66, dealing a total of 9 damage to you. From a level 6 spell. That you failed to save against. And you had no resistance to.
Let’s talk about the negatives. You can get chipped out by this effect if there’s a pile of small damage rolls being thrown at you. This ability is much less impressive when you defend yourself against 1d4+1, compared to a Disintegrate. And if you need to stop 10 1d4+1 hits, you drain your ki pool, fast. On the other hand… It’s probably better that you defend yourself than fall unconscious.
This ki point also does not stop effects like Flesh to Stone or effects that kill you without setting your health to 0… But those are actually few and far between. Most death effects just deal damage, and then make it difficult to revive afterwards, or negate the chance for death saves.
At level 20, you get 20 of this effect. On every short rest. Holy crap. This is an absolutely crazy ability that turns you into a human fortress. Use it well, and you’ll solo bosses. Use it poorly, and you’ll still be insanely hard to put down.
Touch of the Long Death
And finally, the “deadly” martial arts of the fighting style comes into play!
Starting at 17th level, your touch can channel the energy of death into a creature. As an action, you touch one creature within 5 feet of you, and you expend 1 to 10 ki points. The target must make a Constitution saving throw, and it takes 2d10 necrotic damage per ki point spent on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
Obviously, they were trying to replicate a death effect, a la Finger of Death, but using ki points instead. Absolutely fantastic flavor… And there are some uses for this! Against an enemy with high AC, but perhaps low Constitution (like a Dexterity-based Rogue, or a fellow Monk), you could theoretically deal more damage with this ability than with Flurry of Blows. The option is here!
And that’s the only upside.
This ability steps on a lot of Monk’s favorite toes. Using your Action for something other than Attack negates a lot of your potential Bonus Action abilities… Importantly, Flurry of Blows. You even lose the Martial Arts bonus action. That’s a lot of damage lost, all just to spend ki to do necrotic damage.
And, in terms of ki efficiency… This just doesn’t have it. Right now, your Flurry of Blows gives you a Bonus Action for 2 attack rolls with your unarmed strikes. Those deal around 1d10+5 – at level 20, just from class features and expected dexterity – meaning you could potentially deal 2d10+10 as a Bonus Action for 1 ki point. That’s significantly more than how much you get for 1 ki point with this ability, and you don’t even spend your Action on Flurry.
And that’s not even mentioning the Way of the Open Hand’s Quivering Palm, which lets you do 10d10 damage for 3 ki… On a failed save. And just kills them on a successful roll.
On the plus side, if you need to kill something on that round, spending 10 ki for 20d10 is actually one of the more explosive burst options the Monk can possibly get access to. An expensive one, but if a boss is weak to necrotic, then you can get some mileage from this.
And do remember, you get your Ki pool to max on every 30-minute rest. Having this option is fantastic, but… Consider using Flurry of Blows or saving your Ki for Mastery of Death instead.
Best Races for the Long Death Monk
The Long Death Monk, like all Monks, require Dexterity to be most effective. However, Wisdom boosts up your Touch of Death, and makes Hour of Reaping and Touch of the Long Death more effective. You still want Constitution to take hits, but your Wisdom will boost your ability to take hits, defend yourself, and protect against mental effects… And considering you can’t spend a Ki point to negate Dominate Person, you might want that Wisdom Save high.
This Volo’s Guide to Monsters has it all. Dexterity, Wisdom, delicious flavor – a crow being obsessed with death. That alone would make a perfect pick. But that’s not even close to all! You also get 2 bonus skills from a list of good options, some utility in forgery, and mimicry… Though your Mimicry will likely not be overly influential. Just by base stats, you get a lot of mileage from this racial pick.
Looking for something out of the Player’s Handbook to make things nice and easy for your GM? Wood Elves are a great choice for you! Dexterity and Wisdom are in style, and elves get awesome bonuses with Darkvision, anti-Charm and sleep, and trance; awesome flavor, and great utility. The movement speed increase is fantastic, and you can hide much more easily while in forested areas. The Longbow proficiency is also great for you. The only problem is the flavor…
You’re old, you’ve seen a lot of people die. See? Easy.
Okay, okay. Let me explain.
This race from Eberron: Rising from the Last War is an incredibly versatile one. The huge boost in Constitution means you don’t need to put much into Con to be tanky. You can put the rest into Dexterity and Wisdom (your Versatile should probably be in Dexterity). You get some extremely good buffs from Constructed Resilience and Integrated Protection to keep ready for fights and alive during them. Specialized Design is yet another great part of the race, letting the monk get more out-of-combat usefulness and Thief’s Tools. The problem is that your Save DCs will probably be low for a long time, but against enemies with low Will, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Overall, you’d be sacrificing some of your utility skills for some amazing defenses using this monk archetype. And the flavor of a robot that’s interested in what death actually is.
Conclusion – Our Take on the Long Death Monk
The Long Death Monk is the best way to keep a monk alive at level 3 and 11. While other subclasses, like the Drunken Master, prefer skirmisher strategies to bring you to safety, this one doesn’t care about any damage. Just eat it all and keep on punching! Awesome flavor, really fun design, and incredibly powerful… Though the damage is lacking. This is a must-try for anyone looking for a potent frontline monk.