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DnD 5e - The Monk Handbook

Last Updated: January 10th, 2019

Disclaimer

I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.

  • Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances
  • Green: Good options.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.

I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.

Introduction

The Monk is the iconic martial-artist, popular among those who prefer to punch things rather than stabbing them or setting them on fire. Monks are excellent Defenders and Strikers, and typically fill a role in party as the Fighter-equivalent. However, the Way of Shadow Monk can instead fill the role of the party's Rogue-equivalent.

Monk Class Features

Hit Points: d8 hit points is hard for a front-line martial class like the Monk, so be sure to boost your AC and hit points wherever possible.

Saves: Strength saves aren't terribly common, but Dexterity saves are great for resisting damaging AOE effects. Eventually Monks pick up Diamong Body, giving them proficiency in all saves.

Proficiencies: No armor, no shields, and not a lot of weapons. You're expected to use "monk weapons", which are defined under the Martial Arts entry. Essentially you'll be using a 1d6 weapon with versatile until level 10, then you'll use your bare hands from then on. Monks get the typical 2 skills, and the Monk skill list includes a lot of mediocre options which depend on Abilities which Monks don't generally need.

Unarmored Defense: 20 Dexterity and 20 Wisdom is an eventual goal for every Monk. With both, you have 20 AC, which matches the AC of a character in full plate with a shield.

Martial Arts: Martial Arts is why you play a Monk. It removes the need for Strength, and gives you all the benefits of two-weapon fighting without the need for weapons, feats, or combat styles.

Ki: Some basic, but extremely potent uses for your Ki pool which every Monk will rely upon.

  • Flurry of Blows: At low levels this isn't a great option because you won't have a lot of Ki, but as you grow in level it will become less daunting. Keep in mind that Martial Arts already grants you a single extra attack as a Bonus Action, so you're only getting one attack for your Ki point.
  • Patient Defense: When your health is low this is a great fall-back option.
  • Step of the Wind: Similar to Cunning Action, but with a Ki cost.

Unarmored Movement: Some extra speed is nice for a class so strictly bound to melee, and the ability to run across water and up vertical surfaces really adds to the mystical feel of the Monk.

Monastic Tradition: See "Subclasses - Monastic Traditions", below.

Deflect Missiles: Situational, as it depends on the attack using a weapon attack, and most ranged effects are typically spells. However, when it comes up it's a cool defensive option, and the math is really solid. Even a high-level character does little more than the damage die plus their ability modifier in damage, so the 1d10+dex+level will be very reliable.

Slow Fall: Situational, but it'll save your life when it comes up.

Extra Attack: Three attacks with Martial Arts, or four with Flurry of Blows.

Stunning Strike: There's no limits on how many times you can do this, so against particularly tough opponents it's perfectly acceptable to spend ki on each of your attacks until you succeed.

Ki-Empowered Strikes: Especially important in games with no magic items. Many enemies have resistance to non-magical weapon attacks.

Evasion: Combined with high Dexterity and the Monk's Reflex saves, you should be able to reliably negate AOE effects.

Stillness of Mind: Situational, but a lot of enemies have Charm and/or Fear effects.

Purity of Body: Disease and Poison can both be debilitating, and become more common as you gain levels.

Tongue of the Sun and Moon: This would be more helpful if Monks were any good at talking to things.

Diamond Soul: Dramatically improves your survivability.

Timeless Body: Almost never matters in-game.

Empty Body: Invisibility is fantastic. Astral Projection is situational, but by this level a safe means to explore the outer planes is very welcome.

Perfect Self: Dramatically improves the Monk's sustainability throughout the day.

Subclasses - Monastic Traditions

  • Way of the Drunken MasterXGtE: Despite the name, Way of the Drunken Master has no mechanics related to drinking. If you want your character to pantomime drinking while being totally sober, that is within the rules. Beyond that minor weirdness, the subclass is fantastic. It caters well to hit-and-run tactics which help to keep the monk alive and out of range of direct attacks. However, the only directly offensive option it offers is Intoxicating Frenzy at 17th level. If you think you'll do enough damage based solely on core Monk features, but are worried about staying alive, the Drunken Master is an excellent option.
    • Bonus Proficiencies: Two proficiencies, but neither of them are especially useful.
    • Drunken Technique: Combine Flurry of Blows and Disengage for just one Ki point. Excellent for hit-and-run tactics which monks often need to rely on because their AC is poor and they have few hit points.
    • Tipsy Sway:
      • Leap to Your Feet: With the Monk's speed bonus you can typically afford to spend the movement and still move around as much as you need. However, movement is an important part of the Drunken Master's play style, and tripping you could be a good way to inhibit your movements without this ability.
      • Redirect Attack: If you're fighting multiple enemies, it's possible that one of their attacks will do more damage than one of yours. If that's the case, spending a Ki point here will do more than spending that Kit point on Flurry of Blows.
    • Drunkard's Luck: Disadvantage on a saving throw can kill you. If it's your life on the line, 2 Ki points is a low price to pay.
    • Intoxicated Frenzy: Remember that Drunken Technique allows you to Disengage as part of Flurry of Blows, so you can use your ridiculous speed (+35 ft. above your race's base speed at this level) to run around the entire encounter and hit everything once with your Flurry of Blows bonus attacks, plus your two regular attacks.
  • Way of the Four ElementsPHB: Highly customizable, and many of the options are absolutely fantastic. Monks have issues with flight, crowds, and enemies resistant to weapon damage, and way of the Four Elements fixes all of those problems. However, there are only a handful of good options at any given tier, which negates much of the customizability aspect, and the abilities consume your Ki very quickly, competing with core monk options like Flurry of Blows. Also, because some of the abilities allow you to cast a spell you're vulnerable to counterspelling and issues like resistance or immunity to spells.
      1. Elemental Attunement: This is mostly flavor and minor trickery. But hey, it's free!
      2. Fangs of the Fire Snake: Really only helpful if you need fire damage or can't stand adjacent to your target. Spending ki for 1d10 damage is a horrible investment beyond very low level.
      3. Fist of the Four Thunders: Knocking enemies away from you doesn't help you much, but it's and AOE with decent damage and scales reasonably well.
      4. Fist of Unbroken Air: Decent range and damage, but since it takes your Action you won't be able to capitalize on knocking the target prone.
      5. Rush of the Gale Spirits: Very situational.
      6. Shape of the Flowing River: Situational, since you can only use it effectivelywhere you have a large amount of water. However, if you have a lake or something handy you can completely reshape the battlefield.
      7. Sweeping Cinder Strike: A good AOE with solid damage and good scaling.
      8. Water Whip: Similar to Fist of Unbroken Air, but it brings enemies into punching distance.
      1. Clench of the North: Paralysis is an off button for a single enemy. Turn them off, then go punch them a whole bunch.
      2. Gong of the Summit: Situational, but much more useful in an edition where destroying enemies' gear isn't a financially devastating life choice.
      1. Eternal Mountain Defense: 1 hour duration for a fantastic defensive option, and you get to omit the material component.
      2. Flames of the Phoenix: Great damage at long range, but it doesn't scale well.
      3. Mist Stance: Good escape and infiltration option.
      4. Ride the Wind: Flight is a defining part of high-level combat. If you're stuck on the ground, you're missing half of the fighting.
      1. Breath of Winter: Just slightly more damage than Flames of the Phoenix, but without the appeal of fantastic range.
      2. River of Hungry Flame: Fantastic area control. Keep enemies from running away.
      3. Wave of Rolling Earth: The name doesn't quite make sense, but Wall of Stone is fantastic.
  • Way of the Long DeathSCAG: Exceptionally tanky, Way of the Long Death makes the Monk very difficult to kill, but lacks useful offensive or utility options.
    • Touch of Death: If you can bring this into play even once or twice a day, it's potentially a huge boost to your hit points. When combats start, look for weak enemies to pick off before engaging enemies who are going to eat through your hit points.
    • Hour of Reaping: Great when you're outnumbered, or when your party outnumbers a foe with poor Wisdom saves. Send your enemies running while your party kills them for you.
    • Mastery of Death: As long as you have Ki, you have hit points.
    • Touch of the Long Death: Very expensive for how much damage you deal. Punching things won't be as fast, but it's cheaper and much more reliable. Save this for single enemies right before you rest.
  • Way of the Open HandPHB: The "vanilla" option for the Monk. Open Hand offers some excellent, well-rounded options that really help to squeeze the most utility out of the Monk's core abilities.
    • Open Hand Technique: This dramatically improves the benefits of spending one of your few Ki points to get an extra attack. Since Monks typically dump Strength (which makes Shove a bad option), the knockdown effect is your best bet for making enemies prone.
    • Wholeness of Body: A great option to use between fights, or when you're so critically low on hit points that walking into combat would be suicidal. In-combat healing is rarely a good idea, so try to avoid it as much as you can.
    • Tranquility: Considering that Monks lack any social skills, a peaceful approach is rarely the best way for Monks to approach problems.
    • Quivering Palm: Kill things every other round for 3 Ki.
  • Way of the KenseiXGtE: The biggest draw of the Kensei is that it opens up some martial weapons to the Kensei. While that offers a minor damage boost and access to reach via whips, the wording of Agile Parry (maybe accidentally) invalidates the Kensei's most notable feature. A smart Kensei will typically forgo one weapon attack in order to benefit from Agile Parry's AC bonus. That means that your weapon is most meaningful from levels 6 through 10, but even then it's average boost of 1 damage per round over what a spear would offer. At higher levels where your AC will generally be better after several Ability Score Increases, the damage difference between your martial weapons and the normal Monk damage die isn't enough to matter, so the AC from Agile Parry is typically more useful. If you use magic items in your game, the Kensei may be salvageable if you can find a sufficiently appealing magic weapon, but that may be a big assumption to make in many campaigns.
    • Path of the Kensei: These are the fundamental abilities which will define how your Kensei functions. Abilities granted at higher levels generally build on top of these abilities.
      • Kensei Weapons: This opens up a lot of possibilities for monks. With only simple weapons and short swords, the monk's best weapon is a spear. Opening up most martial weapons means access to weapon properties that are normally out of the Monk's reach. I'll address some interesting possibilities, but I won't list every martial weapon because that would take a ton of space without offering anything useful, but I'll cover good options and options which look good but aren't. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of actually good options, so expect every Kensei to end up using the same set of weapons.
        • Melee
          • Battleaxe / Longsword / Warhammer: Nice and simple, you go straight to maximum monk Damage at 1d10. I suggest making one of these your first weapon choice, and picking up one of a different damage type at 6th or 11th level.
          • Trident: Numerically identical to spears.
          • Rapier: You get to treat your chosen weapons as monk weapons, so you get to use them with Dexterity regardless of the Finesse property. Unless you're multiclassing into Rogue there is no reason to select rapier.
          • Whip: Literally the only way for the Monk to get reach. Whips are handicapped by a poor damage die, but you get to ignore that. At high levels this will become a gradually better option as the damage begins to approach and eventually match longswords.
        • Ranged
          • Longbow: The only option without the Loading property, so it's the clear winner unless you want to take Crossbow Mastery and fight in melee range with arranged weapon. You could do that and it would be really fun, but Monks desperately need Ability Score Increases.
      • Agile Parry: The precise wording of this ability is critical. You need to make an unarmed strike as part of the Attack action. So the Bonus Action attack(s) from Martial Arts or Flurry of Blows don't count. Until you get Extra Attack you'll need to forgo your weapon, and once you get Extra Attack you'll need to make just one attack with your weapon. While that's an annoying reduction to your damage output for the turn, a +2 bonus to AC is excellent for a class notorious for having low AC due to its need to spread its ability scores so thin. Unfortunately that means that a smart Kensei will frequently make at most 1 attack per turn with their weapon. At low levels you need the AC, and at high levels the additional damage from your weapon won't be a big enough difference to make your weapon appealing.
      • Kensei's Shot: Not a ton of damage, but it makes ranged attacks competitive with your melee attacks. Normally monks fighting at range totally sacrifice the potential damage from their Bonus Actions.
      • Way of the Brush: One proficiency in a tool which will probably never get used.
    • One with the Blade: Two mostly independent benefits.
      • Magic Kensei Weapons: Normally the Monk needs to rely solely on their unarmed strikes to overcome damage resistance to non-magical attacks. This allows you to continue using your favorite weapons without issue.
      • Deft Strike: It's rare that this will do more damage than spending that Ki point to perform a Flurry of Blows, but if you're having a lot of trouble hitting you might need damage wherever you can get it.
    • Sharpen the Blade: Extremely tempting, but that's a lot of Ki to spend on one (possibly 2) attacks per turn. The additional attacks from Flurry of Blows will likely be more useful.
    • Unerring Accuracy: You're going to be making one weapon attack per turn, so you might as well make it reliable.
  • Way of ShadowPHB: Way of Shadow takes the Monk, a Fighter-equivalent, and makes them into a Rogue-equivalent. While the flavor is a lot of fun, and some of the mechanics are glashy and exciting, the Monk lacks built-in abilities to capitalize on stealth and surprise, so you may often feel like you are emerging from the shadows to gently tickle an opponent where a Rogue would be emerging to deal a massive pile of Sneak Attack damage.
    • Shadow Arts: Minor Illusion is great for distractions. Shadow Arts is Way of Shadow's only Ki-consuming ability.
      • Darkness: Darkvision doesn't allow you to see inside Darkness, so you don't want to use this during combat. However, it can be nice to escape, to confuse your enemies, and to teleport into when you need to escape.
      • Darkvision: With an 8-hour duration, you can afford to have this running all the time.
      • Pass Without Trace: If you're sneaking, there is no reason to skip casting this. The bonus is just too good.
      • Silence: While Silence isn't mobile like Darkness, it's considerably more useful. Most spells include Verbal Components, so disallowing them can often cripple a spellcaster. It also helps when you need to silently kill a foe. Drop silence, Shadow Step to them, grapple them, and punch them until they fall over. Repeat as necessary until the local population is sufficiently reduced.
    • Shadow Step: Teleportation is great, and Advantage is great, but Monks get by on a large number of low-damage attacks, so Advantage on one attack isn't particularly useful. Giving up your Bonus Action also means less attacks that round.
    • Cloak of Shadows: Invisibility is great, especially considering this costs nothing to use. You can Shadow Step into a fight, attack, then teleport away and turn invisible the next round.
    • Opportunist: Free attacks are always nice.
  • Way of the Sun SoulSCAG: The Sun Soul Monk tries to bridge the gap between the Monk's melee capacity and the ranged capacity of a blaster of some sort. The abilities are very sustainable since most of them don't require Ki to use, but without spending Ki their damage is pitiful, so you will frequently find yourself burning through your Ki pool early, then resorting to punching things. I think Way of the Four Elements (possibly with Magic Initiate for Eldritch Blast) does essentially the same thing to much greater effect.
    • Radiant Sun Bolt: Finally a meaningful ranged option for the Monk! The damage die is admittedly small, but if you spend a Ki point to make the two extra shots you can keep pace with most real spellcasters. The damage is Radiant, which means that it will be very difficult for enemies to resist. Also note that since this is a spell attack made when you use the Attack action, it is affected by the Extra Attacks ability, so you get a second ray when you pick up Extra Attack.
    • Searing Arc Strike: A great option when you're facing crowds of enemies, but it can be hard to line up when you're already in melee.
    • Searing Sunburst: The base damage isn't great, but it scales reasonably well. Unfortunately because the base damage is so low, you need to spend a ton of Ki to do anything serious.
    • Sun Shield: A nice deterrent.

Abilities

The Monk is all about Dexterity, but if you allow yourself you can easily do a heavily MAD build.

Str: Monks get good Strength saves, which reduces the need for Strength, but a little bit of Strength will help stretch the effectiveness of that proficiency. Athletics is also a nice option if you want to Shove enemies prone.

Dex: Dexterity rules the Monk.

Con: With only 1d8 hit points, Constitution is very important for the Monk.

Int: Generally dump, unless you really need to use knowledge skills.

Wis: Wisdom fuels Monk's AC and many of their abilities.

Cha: Dump.

Point Buy Standard Array
  • Str: 8
  • Dex: 15
  • Con: 14
  • Int: 10
  • Wis: 15
  • Cha: 8
  • Str: 12
  • Dex: 15
  • Con: 14
  • Int: 10
  • Wis: 13
  • Cha: 8

Races

Dexterity bonuses are priority 1. Wisdom bonuses are nice too, and bonuses to Constitution are very helpful.

AarakocraEEPC: Dexterity, Wisdom, and flight. Basically the perfect Monk.

AasimarVGTM: Nothing good for the Monk.

  • Fallen: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • Protector: The small Wisdom bonus is not enough to make this worthwhile.
  • Scourge: Nothing good for the Monk.

BugbearVGTM: Reach is hard for monks to get, but reach and a small Dexterity increase are the only things that the bugbear has to offer that specifically cater to the Monk. Surprise attack is a nice damage boost, especially at low levels, but it's no better for the Monk than for any other class.

Dwarf: The Constitution bonus is nice, but many of the Dwarf's abilities are either useless or redundant for the Monk. The Dwarven Fortitude racial feat has a neat side-effect: you can use Ki to Dodge as a bonus action, which still allows you to spend a hit die to heal.

  • DuergarSCAG: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • HillPHB: A bit of Wisdom and the bonus hit points do quite a bit to improve the Monk's durability.
  • MountainPHB: Nothing good for the Monk.

DragonbornPHB: Nothing good for the Monk.

ElfPHB: Good ability bonus, and Perception helps to capitalize on the Monk's excellent Wisdom. The Elven Accuracy facial feat is tempting, but monks survive on making numerous attacks rather than putting a bunch of effort behind a single attack.

  • Drow: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • EladrinMToF: Bad ability spread.
  • High Elf: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • Sea ElfMToF: Constitution is nice, and the Monk's move speed bonus will also increase your swim speed.
  • Shadar-KaiMToF: Dexterity and Constitution is a good combination for the Monk, and teleportation is great, but the Wood Elf is still a better choice.
  • Wood Elf: Wisdom, access to bows, bonus speed, and Mask of the Wild is very helpful for Shadow Monks during the day.

FirbolgVGTM: A Wisdom increase, and some innate spellcasting which can complement your Monk abilities fairly well.

GenasiEEPC: Bonus Constitution goes a long way to help the Monk's durability.

  • Air: A bit of Dexterity is always nice.
  • Earth: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • Fire: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • Water: A bit of Wisdom, resistance to a common energy type, and some cool spells.

Gith:

  • GithyankiMToF: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • GithzeraiMToF: The Wisdom is nice, but that's really the only piece that matters much for the Monk.

Gnome: Nothing good for the Monk.

  • Deep (Svirfneblin)EEPC / SCAG: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • ForestPHB: A bit of Dexterity isn't enough.
  • RockPHB: Nothing good for the Monk.

GoblinVGTM: Fantastic ability increases and abnormally fast for a small character. Nimble Escape will conflict with Martial Arts, but it offers helpful options which normally cost the monk Ki to access as a bonus action.

GoliathVGTM/EEPC: Nothing good for the Monk.

Half-Elf: The half-elf's abilities don't do much for the Monk which the variant Human couldn't do better.

  • AquaticSCAG: Only if you're in an aquatic campaign.
  • DrowSCAG: The magical options are tempting on a mostly non-magical class, but a full Drow is a better choice.
  • High/Moon/SunSCAG: Monks don't have a good way to make use of Wizard cantrips.
  • Keen SensesSCAG: The sidebar describing half-elf variants specifies that you can take Keen Senses in place of Skill Versatility, or a trait based on your elf parentage. Keen Senses give you a single fixed skill, and you're giving up proficiency in any two skills. It should be immediately apparent that this is a terrible trade.
  • WoodSCAG: None of the abilities are useful for a Monk.
  • VanillaPHB: Monks don't do a lot with skills, so two extra skill choices won't help you much.

Half-OrcPHB: Nothing good for the Monk.

HalflingPHB: Good Dexterity, and Lucky is fantastic when you make as many attack rolls as a Monk does.

  • GhostwiseSCAG: Ghostwise isn't an especially interesting choice for a monk, but the ability score increases are perfect.
  • LightfootPHB Naturally Stealthy is tempting, but the Charisma bonus is totally wasted unless you put in some effort to build Face skills into your character.
  • StoutPHB The Constitution bonus is nice, but Stout Resilience is redundant for the Monk.

HobgoblinVGTM: The Constitution bonus and Saving Face are the only things that the monk can use, and Saving Face is less useful for a class which is all about making lots of attacks.

HumanPHB: Versatile and fantastic at everything.

  • Vanilla: Monks have at least minor features which depend on every ability, so if anyone was going to use the vanilla Human, it's the Monk.
  • Variant: You still get crucial bonuses to your Dexterity and Cosntitution or Wisdom, and you can get an awesome feat at level 1. Depending on your Monastic Tradition, some feats can be very helpful.

KenkuVGTM: Fantastic ability increases for a Monk, and the bonus skill proficiencies really help you to serve as a Rogue equivalent. Be sure to pick up Theives' Tools proficiency with your Background.

KoboldVGTM: A Dexterity increase and Pack Tactics make the kobold an excellent monk option. Monks rely on making numerous attacks, and Advantage on all of them will make you considerably more effective.

LizardfolkVGTM: Despite the lack of a Dexterity increase, lizardfolk could make very functional Monks. Natural armor allows you to defer increasing your Wisdom score while you focus on your Dexterity, and the Constitution increase and Hungry Jaws will make you abnormally durable. Bite also has the added benefit of making your unarmed strikes deal abnormally high damage at very low levels, though it won't match the damage dealt by a spear or a quarterstaff used two-handed.

LocathahLR: +1 Dexterity is helpful, but Strength is useless for the Monk and the Locathah's Natural Armor isn't good enough to reduce your reliance on Wisdom.

OrcVGTM: Nothing good for the Monk.

TabaxiVGTM: Perfectly passable, but Kenku get most of the same benefits and slightly better ability increases.

Tiefling: Vanilla Tieflings aren't great as Monks simply due to their ability scores, but look at Feral. Darkvision and Fire resistance are both great, and the bonus spells can be very helpful, especially Hellish Rebuke.

  • AsmodeusMToF: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • BaalzebulMToF: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • DispaterMToF: Feral is better.
  • FiernaMToF: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • GlasyaMToF: Potentially an interesting combination with Shadow Hand Monk, but Feral is probably still better.
  • LevistusMToF: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • MammonMToF: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • MephistophelesMToF: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • ZarielMToF: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • Variant: FeralSCAG: The Intelligence is wasted on a Monk, but the Dexterity is nice.
  • Variant: Devil's TongueSCAG: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • Variant: HellfireSCAG: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • Variant: VanillaPHB: Nothing good for the Monk.
  • Variant: WingedSCAG: Nothing good for the Monk except flight.

TortleTP: Monks are nearly always built on Dexterity and Wisdom, but tortles may be the only race with the ability to overlook Dexterity on a Monk. A monk with 20 Dexterity and 20 Wisdom will eventually beat the Tortle's natural armor, but at low levels before you've picked up ability score increases tortles have an advantage.

TritonVGTM: Nothing good for the Monk.

Yuan-Ti PurebloodVGTM: Nothing good for the Monk.

Setting-specific races are address below. Not every setting allows every race, and while most races presented in the core rules and in content for the Forgotten Realms can be used in other settings, races specific to settings like Ravnica aren't typically allowed in other settings. Talk to your DM about what races are allowed in your game.

Races of Ravnica

CentaurGGTR: Strength is borderline useless for the Monk, and Charge is redundant with Martial Arts.

GoblinGGTR: See above.

LoxodonGGTR: Constitution and Wisdom is helpful for a Monk, but you'll lag offensively until you pick up some Ability Score Increases to boost your Dexterity.

MinotaurGGTR: Terrible ability scores for the Monk.

Simic HybridGGTR: Fantastic and versatile, and Animal Enhancement can provide useful options to fill gaps in the Monk's skillset.

VedalkenGGTR: A Wisdom increase and Tireless Dispassion are the only interesting parts of the Vedalken.

Skills

  • Acrobatics (Dex): Situational.
  • Athletics (Str): Monks don't need a lot of Strength, so they rarely have good enough Strength to back up Athletics. However, if you have a little bit you can make excellent use of both Grapple and Shove.
  • History (Int): Situationally useful depending on the style of your campaign.
  • Insight (Wis): The closest thing you get to a Face skill.
  • Religion (Int): One of the best knowledge skills, but Monks don't need Intelligence so you probably won't be good with it.
  • Stealth (Dex): With such a high dependence on Dexterity, Stealth is an obvious option.

Background

This section does not address every published background, as doing so would result in an ever-growing list of options which don't cater to the class. Instead, this section will cover the options which I think work especially well for the class, or which might be tempting but poor choices. Racial feats are discussed in the Races section, above.

Monks have high enough Dexterity that with the right skills they can function as Scouts, and with high Wisdom they're also good at Insight and Perception. With no Intelligence or Charisma, stay far away from Face skills and Knowledge skills, and Languages are basically worthless.

  • CriminalPHB: Stealth and Thieve's tools are great for a sneaky Monk.
  • Faction AgentSCAG: A good way to pick up both Insight and Perception, but the rest is useless.
  • Far TravelerSCAG: A good way to pick up both Insight and Perception, but the rest is useless.
  • HermitPHB: Medicine will help capitalize on your Wisdom, and the Herbalism Kit allows you make magical potions.
  • Urban Bounty HunterSCAG: For a Roguish Monk, Criminal and Urchin are both better choices.
  • UrchinPHB: Your best bet for a Rogue-like Monk.

Feats

This section does not address every published feat, as doing so would result in an ever-growing list of options which don't cater to the class. Instead, this section will cover the backgrounds recommended in the "Quick Build" section of the class description, as well as other backgrounds which I think work especially well for the class, or which might be tempting but poor choices. The possibility of custom backgrounds also means that it is literally impossible for me to provide comprehensive analysis of every potential background in existence.

  • AlertPHB: Going first isn't terribly important for anyone but Rogues.
  • AthletePHB: Awful.
  • ChargerPHB: With the Monk's Unarmored Speed, charging is considerably less helpful. Monks depend on multiple small attacks rather than single large ones, so a round in which you charge is a largely wasted round.
  • Defensive DuelistPHB: Works with a short sword, but Monks get a lot of options which use their reaciton already.
  • Dungeon DelverPHB: Monks get neighter Investigation nor Perception.
  • DurablePHB: This can go a long way to improve your survivability.
  • Elemental AdeptPHB: None of the Monastic traditions focus on dealing elemental damage. Four Elements is the closest, but you need to be able to use all of the elements to find enough useful ability choices from those available.
  • GrapplerPHB: if you have Athletics and can use it reliably, you can use Athletics to Shove your enemy prone and get Advantage without the use of a feat.
  • HealerPHB: Buy healing potions.
  • Keen MindPHB: Awful.
  • LinguistPHB: Use magic.
  • LuckyPHB: Good on anyone.
  • Mage SlayerPHB: Too situational.
  • Magic InitiatePHB: Monks need to be using the Attack action so that they can use Martial Arts and/or Flurry of Blows.
  • Martial AdeptPHB: Not useful enough with only one superiority die.
  • MobilePHB: A fine feat, but redundant with core Monk abilities. You already get a ton of increased movement speed. If you need to avoid opportunity attacks, spend a Ki point to disengange. If you're worried about difficult terrain, taking Dash with your already enhanced movement speed should give you so much movement that any difficult terrain shouldn't be a problem except in the most exceptional cases.
  • Mounted CombatPHB: It's hard to play a mounted character without a special mount ability of some kind.
  • ObservantPHB: You have enough Wisdom to back up Perception.
  • Polearm MasterPHB: Quarterstaffs and spears (spear was added in the 2018 errata) are the only polearms a Monk can use, and half of the feat's effect is redundant with Martial Arts because they both use your bonus action.
  • ResilientPHB: Monks get Diamong Soul.
  • Ritual CasterPHB: Monks don't get a lot from rituals. Leave this to your allies.
  • Savage AttackerPHB: This is a bad feat. The largest damage die (d12), yields an average of 2 extra damage per turn.
  • SentinelPHB: Great for keeping enemies from escaping you. Shadow Monks might find this especially useful for killing enemies inside the area of Silence.
  • SkilledPHB: Monks aren't great at skills. If you want to be a skill-monkey, start with a level of Rogue before switching into Monk.
  • SkulkerPHB: Sniping is for Rogues.
  • Spell SniperPHB: Sun Soul Monks might briefly consider this, but this is a terrible choice. Sun Soul Monks get exactly one ray effect, and punching things is the better choice most of the time. Leave this for Warlocks.
  • Tavern BrawlerPHB: You can use Grapple in place of a weapon attack, so you can probably use Martial Arts to grapple as a Bonus Action and get the same effect.
  • ToughPHB: Monks really need help with hit points, so this is very tempting.
  • Weapon MasterPHB: You get all of the weapon proficiencies that you need to function, and remember that Martial Arts only works with the weapons with which Monks are already proficient.

Weapons

Monk weapons deal their base damage or your Martial Arts damage, whichever is greater, which makes weapons a very good choice for Monks. The best base damage you can get from a Monk weapon is 1d8 (with Versatile), which will match your Martial Arts damage until level 17. Monks use Dexterity with any Monk weapon, so the biggest differences between weapons are damage type and possibly a range increment. Martial Arts doesn't specify that it only applies to melee attacks or weapons, so you can use Dexterity with things like Javelins to apply your Martial Arts damage to thrown weapons.

  • Dart: Javelins are strictly better.
  • Javelin: Similar to the spear. No Versatile so the damage isn't as good, but much better range.
  • Handaxe: The Monk's best source of slashing damage, and it can be thrown. However, since it won't do as much damage as a spear, stick to your spear or quarterstaff unless your foe is specifically weaker to slashing damage than piercing or bludgeoning damage. For flavor, call it a kama.
  • Quarterstaff: Versatile allows the quarterstaff to match the Monk's unarmed damage until 17th-level, but since it's the same damage type as unarmed strikes, and can't be thrown, it's not as good as the spear. Still, 2nd-place is pretty good. For flavor, call it a bo staff or a three-sectioned staff.
  • Short Sword: Short swords are a trap. See Javelin or Spear.
  • Spear: The Monk's gold standard. You can get 1d8 damage with Versatile, which is the absolute best a Monk can get until their unarmed strikes hit 1d10 at 17th-level. Plus, it deals piercing damage and you can throw it!
  • Unarmed: You're going to use Unarmed Strikes no matter what since Martial Arts' and Flurry of Blows' extra attacks both require you to use unarmed strikes. Since weapon damage will exceed your unarmed damage until level 17, you only want to use your unarmed strikes for these bonus attacks.

Armor

Monks need armor even less than Wizards.

Multiclassing

  • Barbarian: Barbarians also get Unarmored Defense, but since both set your AC instead of providing a bonus, they don't work together. According to Sage Advice, you use whichever you get first. For some Monks, using Constitution for AC could be a great way to cut down MAD, but generally you want Wisdom for other Monk abilities so a Barbarian dip is a waste of a level.
  • Rogue: Shadow Monks get quite a bit from a Rogue dip. A single level, especially if its your first level, allows the Shadow Monk to very easily play the party's Rogue-equivalent.

Example Build - Human Monk (Open Hand)

Spear is the best monk weapon. Change my mind.

This is a "Staple Build". This build is simple, and relies on options from the SRD and the Basic Rules wherever possible. If you need a functional build with nothing fancy or complicated, this is a great place to start.

The Open Hand Monk is a solid striker with a nice mix of melee capabilities.

Abilities

We will assume the point buy abilities suggested above.

Base Increased
Str 9 10
Dex 15 16
Con 13 14
Int 11 12
Wis 15 16
Cha 8 9

Race

Human is by far the simplest race. The base human is a tempting option for classes which rely on multiple abilities, and no class is more reliant on multiple ability scores than the Monk. So: This will be the only staple build where we employ the human.

Skills and Tools

We'll take Insight and Stealth. Insight will help us be useful in social situations, and Stealth helps us to serve as a scout. If you get a redundant proficiency from your background, get Perception to capitalize on your Wisdom. You might also consider getting Athletics proficiency so that you can be better at grappling.

Background

None of the backgrounds included in the Basic Rules work especially well for the Monk, unfortunately. Criminal is probably our best option. Deception isn't a great skill for a Monk, but Stealth and Thieves' Tools lets us stand in for a Rogue very nicely. Acolyte is passable, but with poor Charisma I don't know what we would do with two languages.

Feats

Monks are one of the few martial classes where feats aren't a universally good idea. The Monk needs three high ability scores, so other than Variant Human there isn't usually a good time to take a feat. Once you have maxed out your Dexterity and Wisdom, it may be more beneficial to take Tough than a Constitution increase, but if you stick to increasing your ability scores you'll do just fine.

Levels

Level Feat(s) and Features Notes and Tactics
1
  • Unarmored Defense
  • Martial Arts

For your starting gear, take a simple weapon (a spear, specifically), either pack, and 10 darts. That's not a lot of gear, and weirdly doesn't include clothing. Unless your background comes with clothes, you may start without pants or shoes.

The Monk is really solid at 1st level. Unarmored Defense with the ability scores we selected gives you and AC of 16, matching a fighter in heavy armor. Martial Arts gives you two attacks per turn, and with a spear in hand your damage output is very solid.

It's important to understand how useful a spear is, especially at this level. You can use it two-handed and perform unarmed strikes by kicking people or something, so you get one attack that deals 1d8+3 and your extra Martial Arts attack deals 1d4+3.

2
  • Ki
  • Unarmored Movement

After spending a level being a martial artist, we now get Ki and we start to really feel like a monk. Flurry of Blows will probably eat most of your Ki Points, but don't blow through it too quickly. You only have 2 points, and while they recharge on a short rest, you probably can't afford to use them every round.

3
  • Monastic Tradition: Way of the Open Hand
  • Open Hand Technique
  • Deflect Missiles

Open Hand Technique offers some fun tactical options. Pushing enemies 15 feet away is an easy way to escape a grapple, and preventing an enemy from taking reactions means that you rarely need to take the Disengage action.

The option to knock enemies prone is the most tempting option, but remember that Flurry of Blows takes place after you complete your Attack action, so you probably won't benefit from knocking the target prone unless you're already grappling it to prevent it from standing.

4
  • Ability Score Improvement (Dexterity 16 -> 18)
  • Slow Fall

With up to three attacks per turn, a Dexterity increase gets a lot of mileage. Monks are notably the only class which gets a new class feature at 4th level, which is neat but doesn't really change anything.

5
  • Extra Attack
  • Stunning Strike

Extra Attack brings you to 3 attacks nearly every turn, and with 5 Ki points to spend between short rests you can afford to perform a Flurry of Blows frequently. Extra Attack also means that you get to use the better damage die from your spar more frequently, but your unarmed strike damage also increases to 1d6 at this level so the damage gap is shrinking.

Stunning Strike introduces another costly way to turn your Ki into better attacks. Stunning a creature robs them of their turn, and they fail Strength and Dexterity saving throws, and you get Advantage on attacks against them. If you can stun an enemy on your first attack, they're at Disadvantage when you follow up with Flurry of Blows to hit them with Open Hand Technique and knock them prone or push them away. Unfortunately they can still move, so they can stand on their own turn even if they don't take any actions.

6
  • Ki-Empowered Strikes
  • Wholeness of Body

By this level enemies with resistance to weapon damage from non-magical attacks are increasingly common, and since unarmed strikes aren't a weapon they can't benefit from spells like Magic Weapon.

Wholeness of Body isn't terribly exciting, but it's a big pule of healing as an action so you can use it in combat in a pinch. If you're in a really rough spot, use Wholeness of Body and spend a Ki Point to Dodge as a bonus action.

7
  • Evasion
  • Stillness of Mind

As a front-line melee character you're going to be targeted by AOE damage effects. Evasion helps to mitigate the damage, which is great since you don't have the Fighter's d10 hit points.

Stillness of Mind is better than you might except. A huge number of effects make a creature charmed, including many that don't seem like charm effects, and this allows you to easily escape those effects.

8
  • Ability Score Improvement (Dexterity 18 -> 20)

Maximizing your Dexterity brings your AC to 18, matching a fighter in full plate armor, and with up to four attacks per turn your damage output is considerably higher.

9
  • Unarmored Movement Improvement

The improved version of Unarmored Movement allows you to move up vertical surfaces like walls, and across the surface of water. You want to end your turn on solid ground, but between the Monk's increased speed, Step of the Wind, and Dash, you can run 135 ft. straight up a wall in one turn.

10
  • Purity of Body

Poison is really common, and immunity to it helps to stretch your d8 hit points.

11
  • Tranquility

Tranquility gives you the option of being a pacifist. The save DC won't match a spellcaster's, but it should be good enough to protect you sometimes. Keep in mind that once you attack you're done playing a pacifist for the day.

12
  • Ability Score Improvement (Wisdom 16 -> 18)

Improve your DCs and your AC.

13
  • Tongue of the Sun and Moon

The ability to speak with everything is neat, but with dumped Charisma I don't know how much good it will do.

14
  • Diamond Soul

Between Diamond Soul, Evasion, Still Mind, and good ability scores, you're exceptionally difficult to hurt. Enemies' best bet is to attack you, but with 19 AC you're reasonably hard to hit. You have 14 Ki points at this level, so don't hesitate to use Diamond Soul to re-roll a saving throw.

15
  • Timeless Body

Timeless Body doesn't matter much, but there are a handful of effects that can kill you by magically aging you.

16
  • Ability Score Improvement (Wisdom 18 -> 20)

With maximized Wisdom, your AC now sits at 20, matching a character in full plate with a shield.

17
  • Quivering Palm

Quivering Palm is a save-or-die effect, plain and simple. 3 Ki points is a lot, but it's well worth the cost. Even if the target succeeds on the save, it's still an average of 55 damage, which is enough to be a serious problem for a creature that has already taken a lot of damage.

18
  • Empty Body

Remember that this is invisible as the condition, no as the invisibility spell. You're free to attack as much as you like, generally doing so with Advantage since enemies usually won't be able to see you.

19
  • Ability Score Improvement (Constitution 14 -> 16)

At this level a Constitution increase comes with a big pile of extra hit points.

20
  • Perfect Self

At this level you have 20 Ki Points, so you're probably spending a Ki Point every turn. Perfect Self helps if you get surprised by an encounter before you've had a chance to rest and recharge.