As perhaps the most basic subclass in the Player’s Handbook, the Way of the Open Hand is a good choice for those just starting to get into monks. Dedicating themselves to simple mastery of unarmed combat, the Way of the Open Hand is your typical monk; dedicated and holy, humble but deadly. With simple breathing techniques, basic exercises, and a mastery of an energy source older than time, the Way of the Open Hand brings humanoids from all over the world under the roof of their dojo. So why would your character want to be part of this order? Let’s dig deep and find out!
Teach them Humility: Way of the Open Hand Monk
The Way of the Open Hand is one of the most versatile monk subclasses available. At different levels, the tradition gets it all – utility, healing, defense, and damage. Unfortunately, the healing and defense aspects of this order are both incredibly situational and not very substantial. It more than makes up for that, however, with access to great options to augment your Flurry of Blows, and one of the few true “death effects” in the game. These two great options are, sadly, on the opposite ends of the build, but you’ll find the Open Hand to be useful at all stages of gameplay.
Open Hand Technique
Starting off with an absolute crushing blow! Your level 3 ability augments your Flurry of Blows with your choice between 3 options.
- It must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or be knocked prone.
- It must make a Strength saving throw. If it fails, you can push it up to 15 feet away from you.
- It can’t take reactions until the end of your next turn.
Off to a great start!
The first ability is incredibly substantial. The Shove combat maneuver is based off of your Strength; as a Monk, you probably don’t want any of that. This gives you a way to get the prone condition without magic or magical items… And as a reminder, an enemy being prone is a really good thing for a monk! You can land the first punch, force a Dexterity save, and then punch them again while they’re on their butt. In addition, if you have any melee-ranged allies, they’ll be super thankful for the free advantage. Do time this correctly, however; ranged attacks take disadvantage, and you’ll probably not make many Ranger friends if you mistime this.
The second ability is alright. Usually just situational. As a Monk, you kind of like it when creatures are right next to you, easily in punching range. Pushing them 15 ft away guaranteed is a nice option… But you’ll rarely take it. Not unless pushing it 15 ft shoves them directly into the hands of your Barbarian… Or off a cliff, whatever works.
The reaction restriction is actually extremely powerful against casters. Land this against a Cleric? Their counterspelling has just been turned off. Land this against a Wizard? It’ll be hard for them to Shield now! Against martials, you can turn off an enemy monk’s ability to catch projectiles, a Fighter’s Opportunity Attack, or even a Berserker’s Retaliation. Depending on who you stop with this ability, the fight can become significantly easier.
In most situations, you’ll likely attempt to knock the enemy prone, and then stop their reactions. Against casters who you don’t have trouble hitting, consider turning off their Reaction first to prevent counterspelling. If you hear your GM groan, you’ve made the right decision!
Wholeness of Body
Remember when I said this archetype has healing, but is pretty bad at it? Well…
At 6th level, you gain the ability to heal yourself. As an action, you can regain hit points equal to three times your monk level. You must finish a long rest before you can use this feature again.
Okay, so let’s talk about this.
At level 6, spending an action to heal for 18 isn’t exactly… Incredible. It’s not bad – Cure Wounds heals for 3d8+4 (17.5) at this point without Life Cleric boosting, so you’re about on track. And hey, at least it doesn’t cost ki or anything like that! Wholeness of Body used to cost ki in past editions… Though it also didn’t have a long rest limitation.
Now… Like I say in most of my monk guides, the Action is reserved for Attacks. That’s all the Monk cares about. Attack actions unlock so much of the Monk’s very important kit – especially now, with your Flurry of Blows being able to knock people over or prevent actions. Losing access to Martial Art’s bonus action and Flurry of Blows just to heal yourself for 18 isn’t exactly significant. Don’t use this in combat; you benefit so much more from punching a dude 4 times.
In between combats? That’s where this ability becomes useful. You heal a pretty solid chunk for this, enough that the Healer can save a spell slot. That’s pretty great! That means your casters have to spend less resources keeping you alive in dungeons.
And obviously, if you need to spend an action to heal and cleanse a debuff – or something like that – then use this. However, even if you have 2 health against an ogre, you’re probably going to want to just punch and Flurry, restrict their reactions, and back up for a moment.
Monks in real life are well-known for their vows of peace. In Dungeons & Dragons, that’s usually not the case… But Wizards of the Coast decided to nod at reality for a moment.
Beginning at 11th level, you can enter a special meditation that surrounds you with an aura of peace. At the end of a long rest, you gain the effect of a Sanctuary spell that lasts until the start of your next long rest (the spell can end early as normal). The saving throw DC for the spell equals 8 + your Wisdom modifier + your proficiency bonus.
So, uh… Not exactly amazing.
Sanctuary isn’t a bad spell. It’s not. It can prevent so much damage over the course of a fight if the person behind the Sanctuary is clever with their actions. However… This just doesn’t do much work for a Monk. Without decent Charisma, your ability to solve problems without using your fists is not exactly significant. This Sanctuary will most likely be popped on your turn during the first combat of the day, and during that time you probably won’t use it; you’re a Dex character, your initiative is crazy.
But is this completely useless? Not really. If you get ambushed and are surprised, then Sanctuary might prevent you from taking a hit or two, or redirect a rather devastating spell from your frail, d8 hit dice body. In addition, during the first combat, you’ll actually benefit from a low initiative roll with an extra line of defense versus attack rolls or spells thrown your way. And if the combat ends before you get the chance to punch, then sweet! You get to bring the Sanctuary to the next fight.
A creative Monk can use their Sanctuary to turn intrigue situations to their advantage. Perhaps a drunken patron can’t bring themselves to hurt you, and you attempt a Persuasion check to avoid a fight. Some GMs might boost your Persuasion check, or lower the DC, because the drunkard had already failed against your Sanctuary. Word it right, and you might be surprised.
Usually, though? This won’t come into play. It’s nice, but you’d rather see something more substantial at this point in the game.
Oh hey, talk about “something substantial.”
At 17th level, you gain the ability to set up lethal vibrations in someone’s body. When you hit a creature with an unarmed strike, you can spend 3 ki points to start these imperceptible vibrations, which last for a number of days equal to your monk level. The vibrations are harmless unless you use your action to end them. To do so, you and the target must be on the same plane of existence. When you use this action, the creature must make a Constitution saving throw. If it fails, it is reduced to 0 hit points. If it succeeds, it takes 10d10 necrotic damage.
Omitted here is the fact that you can only set these up in one creature at a time, and you can end it harmlessly without spending any actions.
What. The. Hell.
Quivering Palm has been a late-game Monk ability for a few editions now. This might be one of the latest a Monk has had access to this devastating ability, but it’s well worth the wait!
There are two negative aspects of this ability. The first is that it targets Constitution. In a lot of cases, the highest save that a creature has is Constitution. And a lot of enemies will at least have decent Con. You should be quite prepared for this ability to fail often.
The other negative part is that it takes a turn to set up, and then an action to send them out. It’s not like other death effects, where their life is instantly over. You need to dedicate at least two actions – and 3 ki – to kill someone.
And now that the pessimism is over… What a powerhouse! Make a save or die every. Other. Turn. And at level 18, you can do this 6 times per 30 minute rest! That’s crazy! While the setup time is unfortunate, it’s also based on you landing an unarmed strike… Which is kinda just what Monks do. And Constitution might be one of the best saves in the game, but if they save, they still take 10d10. That means, at worst, you’re spending 3 ki for 10d10. That’s a great trade!
And at best, you’re spending 3 ki to end someone’s life. That ends most fights.
This ability also has far-reaching social aspects. If you want to be intimidating, telling someone that the vibrations they feel are tied to their heart, which you can now stop at any moment… If your GM doesn’t give you advantage on Intimidate for that, I don’t think they’ll give advantage on anything.
In the cases that they do, you can now have an extremely effective leash for a 17-20 day period, where you can end your new ally’s life as long as they’re on the same plane as you. That’s not exactly easy to escape from. And as long as they know anything about monks, their own bodies, or even have an inkling of a hunch, they’ll be at least concerned about your abilities.
Best Races for the Open Hand Monk
The Way of the Open Hand has 3 out of 4 abilities that are based on Wisdom. That’s quite a bit, but you’re also super reliant on your Dexterity to land attack rolls and deal damage. Boost your Dexterity first so you can deal damage, land Flurry of Blows, and set up your Quivering Palm. Then consider grabbing Wisdom to make Quivering Palm, Open Hand Technique, Tranquility, and your AC better. Constitution is always nice, but definitely 3rd place for you.
Okay, well, this might be a long shot, but this Elemental Evil Player’s Companion race is easily the best for Monks. Flight is hard to come by, so getting it early on is hugely important. Talons give you some damage coverage for your unarmed attacks, letting you get past Resistance to Bludgeoning. Finally, the boosts to Dexterity and Wisdom are perfect for your goals in this subclass. If your GM lets you get flight, then this is the race for you… But do be careful of combats with a lot of ranged enemies. You might get shot out of the air!
The Genasi are a particularly potent race from the Elemental Evil’s Player’s Companion and one you should really check out. The huge boost to Constitution is generally good, allowing you to focus on your other scores. Air Genasi gain a bonus to Dexterity, can hold their breath forever, and can even cast Levitate. Levitate is no replacement for Flight, but early on you can make it work out very well for you. You’ll need to invest a fair amount into Dexterity and Wisdom for it to work, but you’ll get some mileage from this race.
Every now and then, you’ll want to make a Variant Human. They can put their bonuses into Dexterity and Wisdom – the only two things that you really need – and you can get a strong feat. That might end up being Tough, Sentinel, Lucky, Observant… Anything you can dream of, really. Do remember that you have Open Hand Technique, so you don’t really need Grappler or anything like that.
Conclusion – Our Take on the Open Hand Monk
The Open Hand monk is showmanship of the rather strange place that most Monks end up being in. It combines combat control, defense, utility, and hardcore damage in a really basic way. This subclass spikes at level 3 and 17, but you won’t feel extremely strong until the literal end of the game. Even so, as a player’s introduction to Monk… You could do worse than this monk archetype. If you’re looking for one of the most basic interpretations of the monk, the Open Hand is easily the best.