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Pathfinder - Character Optimization - The Unchained Monk Handbook

Disclaimer

I will use content from the core rules, but will intentionally omit any content not published on the official Pathfinder SRD due to the unmanageable volume of non-SRD content, and the wildly varying quality of non-SRD content. If you would like me to write handbooks for specific content not published on the official SRD, please email me and I will consider it on a case-by-case basis. I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks. Also note that many colored items are also links to the Paizo SRD.

Temporary Note: Pathfinder Unchained and Occult Adventures were both recently added to the SRD. I'm excited to explore them, and I am actively working on adding their contents to my collection of handbooks. I appreciate your patience while I make these changes.

Introduction

Oh, thank whatever pantheon of gods your setting uses. Someone finally fixed the Monk. Since 3.0, the Monk has been the laughingstock of classes. No amount of splat books, errata, archetypes, or alternate class features could make the Monk work. Monks have always faces two problems.

First, they are difficult to play. The Monks biggest class features were incompatible. The class was a front-line class with garbage AC and no hit points. Monks needed high scores in every ability score. Second, Monks couldn't do anything. Their best trick was to punch things, and basically every martial class in the game could do that better. Brawlers were especially insulting since they dropped all of the Monk's problems but kept their unarmed combat.

The Unchained Monk dramatically improves the Monk's customizability, versatility, and utilility. A whole host of new options allow Monks to function as a Defender in addition to their existing abilities as a Striker, bringing them at least up to the level of a Fighter.

This guide is for the Unchained Monk. For the vanilla Monk, see my Monk Handbook.

What's New?

The Unchained Monk is the most significantly changed Unchained class. It drops all of the lingering nastiness that monks retained from 3.5 and finally makes the monk simple to build without relying on 2+ archetypes to get a functional vanilla monk.

Unchained Monk Class Features

Hit Points: Finally! The Monk has normal hit points for a martial character.

Base Attack Bonus: The Monk's primary offensive option, Flurry of Blows, pretended that the Monk had full BAB. Not actually giving Monks full BAB was an absurd and complicated aspect of the class which had no discernable positive effect on the game.

Saves: Good Fortitude and Reflex saves. Vanilla Monks also get good Will saves, so this is a minor setback, but Monks need Wisdom anyway so your Will save should be fine.

Proficiencies: Monks get a really bizzarre collection of exotic weapons, but many of them provide bonuses to combat maneuvers, and the ability to use Flurry of Blows with monk weapons allows you to get the same number of attacks as a TWF build, but with the damage output of a two-handed build.

Skills: No change here. Monks still have garbage skills, which makes it very difficult for them to fill non-combat roles in the party.

AC Bonus (Ex): The Monk AC bonus helps to offset the monk's lack of armor. The scaling is fairly negligible, but it still feels good to have. However, your AC will still be awful without additional items and AC imrpovements.

Flurry of Blows (Ex): This is the Monk's iconic attack. It follows the same progression as a fighter maximizing the two-weapon fighting feats, but you have no "off-hand" attacks. You don't even need free hands. You can use your feet if your hands are full. You can also alternate freely between weapons and unarmed strikes, and you can substitute disarm, sunder, and trip combat maneuvers for unarmed attacks.

Unarmed Strike: This is why you generally play a monk: because you want to hit things with your bare hands/feet/etc. The damage dice starts off fairly small, but when you hit d8 at level 4, it begins to outpace whatever weapons you might be two-weapon fighting with. At level 12, your fists are greatswords. You can also deal nonlethal damage without penalty, which is situationally useful. It's important to note that your unarmed strike damage is heavily size-based, so you want to do everything you can to increase your effective size. Get enlarged and throw Impact on an Amulet of Mighty Fists. It's also interesting to note that the damage progression stops at 20th-level, so items like a Monks Belt stop being useful at high levels unless you multiclass.

Brawler/Monk Unarmed Strike Damage by Size and Level
Level Small Medium Large Huge Gargantuan Colossal
1st-3rd 1d4 1d6 1d8 2d6 3d6 4d6
4th-7th 1d6 1d8 2d6 3d6 4d6 6d6
8th-11th 1d8 1d10 2d8 3d8 4d8 6d8
12th-15th 1d10 2d6 3d6 4d6 6d6 8d8
16th-19th 2d6 2d8 3d8 4d8 6d8 8d8
20th 2d8 2d10 4d8 6d8 8d8 12d8
This table is taken from the 3.5 rules. They should be the same in Pathfinder, but Pathfinder doesn't provide official rules for monks smaller than small or larger than large. Check with your GM before using this table.

Bonus Feats: With the addition of the Advanced Player's Guide and Ultimate Combat, the Monk has a lot of great bonus feat options. And the best part: "A monk need not have any of the prerequisites normally required for these feats to select them." This is especially great for the high level style feats, since many of the prerequisites are fairly awful.

Stunning First (Ex): Another iconic Monk ability, stunning fist gets better as you advance. A stunned creature drops everything held (free disarm!), can't take actions, takes a -2 penalty to AC, and loses its Dexterity bonus to AC (if any). This makes the rest of your iterative attacks much better, and prevents the target from taking attacks of opportunity when you make Combat Maneuver attempts in place of your iterative attacks. At higher levels you can instead make the target fatigued (-2 to CMD due to reduced str and dex), sickened (-2 to saves so you can more reliably apply other affects), staggered (only one action per turn), permanently blinded or deafened (permanently flat-footed or permanently bad at casting spells), and finally paralyzed (lol). The only issue is that it's a fortitude save, which is typically high for monsters.

Evasion (Ex): Always fantastic, Evasion works well with your reasoanbly high dexterity and strong saves.

Fast Movement (Ex): Extra speed lets you get into position to stop moving sooner. Past round 1, hope that you won't need this much speed.

Ki Pool (Su): Damage reduction is the biggest problem for builds which rely on large numbers of attacks with relatively low damage. Ki Pool lets you treat your attacks as magic, silver, cold iron, lawful, and finally adamantine. While very few things have DR/lawful, the others are excellent and cover a broad spectrum of enemies. At low levels, you may need to carry weapons to handle DR silver and DR cold iron, but Ki Pool will handle things at higher levels so long as you have a point in your Ki Pool. You can spend points from your ki pool as a swift to get an extra attack, boost your speed, or boost your AC. When things get serious, these boosts can make or break your monk.

Ki Power: Ki Powers are the Unchained Monk's talent equivalent, and they open up some really fun and exciting options for customizing your Monk.

Still Mind (Ex): Your saves are already great, but a bonus against enchantments and compulsions can save you from some really awful effects. This is especially helpful since the Unchained Monk has low Will saves.

Purity of Body (Ex): Immunity to diseases is nice, but rarely useful. With the exception of Contagion spell, you typically have enough time to have someone cast Remove Disease before disease becomes a problem.

Style Strike: Style Strikes add some versatility and utility to the Monk's Flurry of Blows, allowing you to add some helpful bonus effects to one or two of your attacks every time you flurry. You get 5 choices over time, which is perfect because 5 of the options are worthwhile. If you use the Enforcer feat, Elbow Smash becomes a good 6th option, and if you skip Improved Trip for whatever reason Leg Sweep becomes a good 7th.

Improved Evasion (Ex): Always amazing and reliable.

Tongue of the Sun and Moon (Ex): You can talk to anything, but you're not particularly good at it with no Diplomacy and lousy charisma.

Timeless Body (Ex): Stay young and pretty until you die of old age. Leave a pretty corpse.

Flawless Mind: A reroll on Will saves will absolutely compensate for the Unchained Monk's low Will saves.

Perfect Self: Suddenly you can't use Enlarge Person. The DR is cute, and you become immune to things like Dominate Person, but things which require you to be a humanoid have generally been abandoned for several levels. I would argue that this ability actually makes you worse since you can't benefit from Enlarge Person.

Abilities

Monks are primarily a striker, and their damage comes from their Strength, so Strength needs to be their biggest ability.

Str: As a melee character, strength is the monk's most important ability. It contributes to your melee attacks and damage, shuriken damage, and combat maneuvers.

Dex: Crucial for the monk's relatively low AC, and contributes to several monk skills. Reflex saves are also a good point to focus on since you get Evasion.

Con: Monks are combat characters with d8 hit points, so Constitution is crucial. Fortitude saves are also important for combat characters.

Int: Dump to 8. Intelligence doesn't help Monks much, but the extra ability points are rarely worth the loss of a second skill point.

Wis: A lot of the Monk's iconic abilities depend on Wisdom. However, these abilities are still secondary to the Monk's primary function of hitting things and dealing damage.

Cha: Dump to 7. Completely useless on a Monk.

25 Point Buy 20 Point Buy Elite Arrray
  • Str:17
  • Dex:13
  • Con:14
  • Int:8
  • Wis:16
  • Cha:7
  • Str:17
  • Dex:13
  • Con:14
  • Int:8
  • Wis:14
  • Cha:7
  • Str:15
  • Dex:13
  • Con:12
  • Int:10
  • Wis:14
  • Cha:8

Races

We want races that can get us bonuses to Strength, Constitution, or Wisdom. Extra vision abilities are always nice. Because the Monk's damage output depends so heavily on their damage die size, being small is a serious problem.

Traits

Skills

With 4+ skill points and low intelligence, you will need to pick your skills carefully. Fortuantely, many Monk skills can function with only one rank.

Feats

For the most part, the Unchained Monk's feats look just like those for a standard Monk. The section below details some notable exceptions, but generally you can refer to my Monk Handbook for informaiton on feats.

General Feats

Weapons

While you will most likely be fighting unarmed, monk weapons offer you a lot of really fantastic options, including bonuses to combat maneuvers. Monks who aren't specialized with weapons should still carry a couple to bypass DR and for bonuses on CMB checks. Monks can bypass lawful, adamantine, and magic DR with Ki Strike, so be sure to carry Cold Iron and Silver weapons.

Monks can use a single weapon for flurry of blows, which removes the need for double weapons or two-weapon fighting. This also increases the importance of damage enhancements on your weapon because you get a large number of low-damage attacks. If you plan to use weapons, be sure to pick up some damage enhancements.

I recommend carrying a sansetsukon as your primary weapon due to the high damage and critical threat range, but be prepared to drop it once you get Ki Strike if you need to bypass DR/magic, or abandon it completely once you can get enhancement bonuses on your fists reliably. The sansetsukon can also be used to disarm, but when you stop using it as your primary weapon replace it with something lighter like a double-chicken saber (for the slashing damage). Also carry a double-chained kama for tripping and for reach. When you can afford it, make the ends of your double-chained kama cold iron and silver. Piercing damage isn't as important, but carry a Lungchuan Tamo or two just to be safe.

Armor

Monks can't use armor, so I recommend getting someone in your party tyo cast Mage Armor on you. With hours/level duration even a low level wizard can cover you for the full adventuring day. If your pet Wizard is stingy with his spell slots, drop 1000 gold pieces to buy him a Pearl of Power 1 so you can both share Mage Armor from one slot. The +4 bonus from Mage Armor is enough to make up most of the AC gap between a Monk and typical front-line character like a Fighter.

Magic Items

Weapons

Rings

Wands

Wondrous Items

Permanent Spells

Permanent Spells

Multi-Classing and Prestige Classes

Monks benefit very little from multiclassing, but other classes can benefit greatly from a dip into Monk for one or two levels.