DnD 5e - Monk Subclass Breakdown
Last Updated: July 26th, 2021
Your choice of subclass will offer a combination of powerful abilities which complement the core Monk features, adding new and exciting capabilities which make it easy to distinguish yourself from other monks.
RPGBOT uses the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
- : Good options.
- : 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.
The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials are released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.
RPGBOT is unofficial Fan Content permitted under the Fan Content Policy. Not approved/endorsed by Wizards. Portions of the materials used are property of Wizards of the Coast. ©Wizards of the Coast LLC.
Themed as a "plague doctor", the Way of Mercy has nearly nothing to do with plagues and only a tangential association with anything that I would consider a doctor. Rather, they use Ki to heal and harm creatures, and gain proficiency in the Medicine skill (which roughly amounts to know how to stop lethal bleeding and almost nothing else since Medicine in 5e is almost completely useless). Despite the dubious relationship between the theme and the mechanics, it's an excellent subclass.
Way or Mercy adds the ability to heal creatures (yourself or others) by spending Ki. While you lack the full range of healing capabilities available to spellcasters, the rate at which you can convert Ki into hit points is impressive, and Way of Mercy eventually gains the ability to remove status conditions and even raise the dead at very high levels. This allows the Monk to add Healer to their staple roles as a Scout and Striker, though you can't compete with classes like the Cleric.
Hand of Healing's action economy makes it easy to repeatedly heal yourself in combat, which can easily compensate for the Monk's relatively poor hit points and slowly-scaling AC, allowing you to serve as a Defender so long as your pool of Ki Points can keep you healed. Just remember that this healing comes at the cost of a point which you could spend on Flurry of Blows or Stunning Fist, and hit point restoration alone won't win a fight for you. The additional healing can offset the gap in maximum hp between the Monk and more durable martial characters like the fighter or the paladin, but don't pour every but of Ki into keep your hit points high or you'll find that you're on the losing side of a war of attrition.
Hand of Harm, the conceptual opposite of Hand of Healing, allows you to deal necrotic damage and poison enemies. It's nothing mind-blowing or game breaking, but it's a simple and efficient way to turn Ki into damage output and a tactical advantage thanks to the Poisoned condition. Better still, the additional damage die is multiplied on a critical hit, so you can use it with the same tactics that you might use Divine Smite or Eldritch Smite.
Way of Mercy's biggest challenge is managing your Ki Pool. Hand of Harm and Hand of Healing encourage you to use Ki quickly, which is exciting and often helpful, but can quickly cause you to run out of resources. Be cautious about spending Ki, especially at low levels.
You also get a neat mask as a class feature. It doesn't do anything. You don't need it to do anything and technically you don't even need to wear it. : Insight and Medicine are both Wisdom-based, which makes them good skills for the Monk. Medicine is borderline useless, unfortunately, as its sole written function is made obsolete by the Healer's Kit. Herbalism Kit does allow you to creaft Potions of Healing, though, which is nice.
Cure Wounds is normally a hard choice in combat because you're spending your Action to not damage your enemies when Healing Word is available, so the Action Economy makes it hard to justify. But, while you can use Hand of Healing as an Action, there's almost no reason to do so in combat.
Generally you'll use Hand of Healing during combat as part of a Flurry of Blows. When you do this, you spend the Ki Point to use Flurry of Blows, then you can decide to replace one of the unarmed strikes with Hand of Healing. As far as I can tell, you can make this decision at any point so you could make one attack and see the results before deciding if you want to make another attack or heal something.
Since you can move between attacks, I believe that you can also move between attacking and using Hand of Healing, so you could Attack, use Flurry of Blows to heal an an ally, then run over to an enemy and attack them some more.
In many ways, this is like Healing Word, and until your Ki Pool is fairly large, that's how you should consider Heand of Healing: a tiny amount of healing, but enough to bring a dying ally back into a fight. As you gain more levels you can afford to use this more often, and Physician's Touch allows you to quickly remove some problematic status conditions. : Your Martial Arts die plus your Wisdom modifier is roughly equivalent to a 1st-level Cure Wounds. That's not a ton of healing all at once, but you get a ton of Ki Points per short rest as you gain levels, and the action economy around this is fantastic. This is also a great way to expend your remaining Ki Points whenever you reach a Short Rest.
Since the damage is "extra damage" added to the attack, the extra damage die is multiplied, much like Divine Smite or Sneak Attack, so the most effective time to use Hand of Harm is when you scroe a critical hit.
However, this only works after you hit with an unarmed strike so if you're using a weapon (spears are my go-to, and I recommend them for nearly every monk) there's an incentive to fight unarmed even if your Martial Arts die would deal less damage than a weapon. Of course, Flurry of Blows and Martial Arts' Bonus Action attack only allow unarmed strikes, so there's always going to be some portion of your attacks where you can apply this.
Physician's tough later improves Hand of Harm to add the Poisoned condition, making it an amazing way to briefly debuff martial enemies without a save. : One ki point to automatically deal as much damage as an unarmed strike is more efficient than spending a Ki Point to perform a Flurry of Blows which has a chance to miss. This is also necrotic damage, which is much less-commonly resisted than bludgeoning damage (or whatever type your weapon deals).
Hand of Harm adds the ability to make the target Poisoned with no save. Poisoned is an absolutely fantastic debuff against most enemies (though spellcasters who don't rely on attack rolls can largely ignore it). If you hit an enemy with an unarmed strike, you can activate Hand of Harm to deal bonus damage and make the target poisoned, then while they're as Disadvantage on Ability Checks due to being Poisoned you can Shove them prone and/or grapple them, then make any remaining attacks at Advantage. If they're grappled, they'll have a hard time escaping (Disadvantage thanks to Poisoned), so you're likely to keep them on the ground until your next turn when you can drop a full Flurry of Blows on them at Advantage and if they don't die you can always hit them with Hand of Harm again to keep them Poisoned. : Hand of Healing adds the effect of Lesser Restoration and can also remove the Stunned condition. If this was an either/or it would be fantastic, but you get to both remove conditions and heal the target.
The wording around how Hand of Healing works here is somewhat clumsy. It specifies that you can use Hand of Healing with Flurry of Blows and replace both attacks without spending Ki. You could already replace one, but the text is trying to say that you can now replace both attacks, but you still don't need to spend additional Ki to do so.
Using Hand of Healing twice during a Flurry of Blows doubles your ability to output healing. Weirdly, this also means that rather than spending an Action to use Hand of Healing outside of combat it's more efficient to punch the air or attack the darkness, the follow with a Flurry of Blows and punch yourself and your party until everyone feels better. You get twice as much healing per Ki Point by doing this. : This dramatically reduces the rate at which you spend Ki to activate Hand of Harm and Hand of Healing. You still need to spend 1 Ki Point to use Flurry of Blows, but after that you can use Hand of Harm/Healing for free. You could heal twice in one turn, heal once and attack (and hopefully use Hand of Harm), or attack once to see what happens, then decide to either heal or attempt another attack.
The fact that this only takes an Action is pretty astounding. It's similar to Revivify, but lacks an expensive cost. You could absolutely use this in combat, and in many cases that's a good idea. This doesn't have the specific text around how mortal wounds or missing limbs are handled, but I assume it works like Raise Dead in most respects. The target notably doesn't need to be willing to return to life, either.
The one serious limitation on this is that you can only use it once per Long Rest. But with a 24-hour window in which you can use this, if you need to raise two people you can raise one, take a long rest, and raise the other and still have a ton of time to mess around before you get anywhere near the 24-hour timer. Of course, if you have three dead allies you'll want to go find a cleric. : Have a dead party member? Take a Short Rest to get your Ki Points back if you need to, then punch them back to life. You only need 5 Ki Points to use this and you get 17 per Short or Long Rest at this level so if someone goes down you likely still have a bunch to spend.
Way of Shadow offers some near-magical capabilities which allow te monk to do stuff far more impressive than just punching stuff really fast. While the flavor is a lot of fun, and some of the mechanics are flashy and exciting, the Monk lacks built-in capabilities 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.
While it's mechanically exciting, Ki-efficient, and objectively very cool, Way of Shadow has very little that helps you defeat enemies or overcome other challenges like traps or locked doors. It's also dependent on you being able to see in the dark, which either requires a race with Darkvision or that you spend Ki Points to cast the spell Darkvision. Even then, you can't see through your own magical darkness.
If it's possible, get Fighting Style (Blindfighting) or the Devil's Sight invocation so that you can use magical darkness to get easy Advantage in combat.
: Minor Illusion is great for distractions. Shadow Arts is Way of Shadow's only Ki-consuming ability, which is exciting because you can do so much by spending so little.
If you want to abuse magical darkness, strongly consider taking the Fighting Initiate feat to get Fighting Style (Blindfighting). This will allow you to fight normally in melee when you can't see, but most of your enemies will make attacks at Disadvantage and won't be able to target you with many spells and special abilities. : Darkvision doesn't allow you to see inside Darkness, so be cautious about using this during combat. However, it can be nice to escape, to confuse your enemies, and to teleport into when you need to escape.
- : With an 8-hour duration, you can afford to have this running all the time. If you don't have Darkvision from your race, this is absolutely essential.
- : If you're sneaking, there is no reason to skip casting this. The bonus is just too good.
- : While Silence isn't mobile like Darkness, it's still very useful. Most spells include Verbal Components, so disallowing sound 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.
- : Darkvision doesn't allow you to see inside Darkness, so be cautious about using this during combat. However, it can be nice to escape, to confuse your enemies, and to teleport into when you need to escape.
- : 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. Advantage on one attack helps a bit, but it doesn't make up the damage output lost by a third attack, so you want to avoid using this if regular movement would suffice.
- : Invisibility is great, especially considering this costs nothing to use. Spend as much time as possible invisible..
- : Free attacks are always nice. Be sure to encourage your allies to attack the same targets that you're fighting in order to capitalize on this.
Way of the Astral Self allows the Monk to activate a 10-minute combat buff which I can best describe as a "punch ghost". That doesn't quite do it justice, and the official term is "astral self", but "punch ghost" accurately encapsulates the idea that the visual representation of the effect is a ghostly representation of your monk's ki, and the primary function of this ghost is to punch. Therefore: punch ghost.
Mechanically, Way of the Astral Self allows the Monk to emphasize Wisdom more heavily without sacrificing the martial aspects of the class. It also solves some specific pain points which most monks face: grappling, reach, and darkness. The class features are mechanically simple and there's nearly no new tracking or micro-management to be done, so the whole subclass is very simple to play, which is welcome considering that the core features of the Monk are somewhat complex.
There are some shortcomings in the subclass, however. Since Arms of the Astral Self is expected to be at the core of your combat tactics, you give up the damage boost from using a weapon until your Martial Arts die scales a bit. This is a fairly minor loss, and getting Reach in exchange is certainly worth the cost. Despite the emphasis on Wisdom to fuel your Astral Self abilities, you still need high Dexterity for your AC.
The whole of the subclass is entirely dependent on spending Ki Points to turn on the subclass features (though obviously Way of the Astral Self is not alone in this regard), and while the features all last a very generous 10 minutes once activated, you need to be careful about spending Ki because if you're out of points you're back to being a basic, Dexterity-based monk.
The "Forms of your Astral Self" sidebar in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything encourages you to put some thought into the appearance of your monk's astral self, and I want to encourage players to follow that advice. Deciding how your astral self appears is almost as important a detail as what your character looks like. Try to think of something reflective of your character that's more interesting than "my guy, but blue, translucent, and spooky".
When and where to activate Arms of the Astral Self is an important choice. When you activate it, you get an AOE damage effect against targets of your choice within 10 feet. The damage is roughly equivalent to one unarmed strike (double your martial arts die is roughly equal to one die plus your modifier), and with a 10-foot radius you should be able to hit several foes if you move between them.
It may be worthwhile to spend your Action to Disengage so that you can move without provoking Opportunity Attacks so that you can position yourself in the middle of a group of enemies. But there's a risk/reward consideration here: your AC and hit points need to be able to hold up to being surrounded by enemies and since you're using your Bonus Action to activate Arms of the Astral Self you can't also use it for Patient Defense. You might also try spending your Action to Dodge since Disadvantage on attacks against you will apply to both Opportunity Attacks against you and any other attacks made against you until the start of your next turn.
Once active, Arms of the Astral Self provides several benefits which should be discussed individually.
Using Wisdom in place of Strength for Athletics checks helps with grapples, both ones that you start and ones that are forced upon you. You can always use Dexterity (Acrobatics) to escape a grapple (typically the best way for the Monk to do so), but this reduces the need for Acrobatics. Making Athletics viable in combat means that you can use the Grapple+Shove combo to force enemies prone and hold them there without investing Strength.
The second benefit allows you to make unarmed strikes. Like I said above: "punch ghost". While this isn't flashy, it's arguably the primary reason for this ability to exist. You can't use weapons with your astral arms, unfortunately, so using your arms during your Attack action will mean slightly less damage than other monks until your Martial Arts die scales.
The third benefit adds reach for your unarmed strikes. Reach is a huge benefit for the monk because you can fight from outside the reach of many enemies then use your high movement speed to move out of range of their movement. It also helps with targeting multiple foes who might not be conveniently adjacent to you. However, this only applies to your Unarmed Strikes, so you can't use this reach to Grapple or Shove.
The final benefit allows you to use Wisdom in place of Strength/Dexterity for your Unarmed Strikes and makes them deal Force damage so you're no longer crippled by resistance/immunity to bludgeoning damage. If you forgo weapons, raising Wisdom to 20 before switching to Dexterity can be a great idea for the Way of the Astral Self Monk. This also helps to capitalize on Stunning Strike because the DC is Wisdom-based. However, when you run out of Ki and can't summon your astral arms, you're going to be in trouble. Manage your Ki very carefully and try to keep a point in reserve in case you're surprised by combat before your next rest. : The subclass's signature feature, managing Arms of the Astral Self is the core of Way of the Astral Self's combat tactics. Turning this on puts you into your preferred combat mode, and while it does consume a precious Ki Point the 10-minute duration can easily carry you through one or two combats if you're quick. The ability is complex despite a fairly small amount of rules text, so bear with me through the following pile of text.
: Situational by design, Visage of the Astral Self costs a Ki Point to activate and can be used separately or in conjunction with Arms of the Astral Self. You won't need this in every combat, but when you need it you can turn it on without cutting into your action economy any further than you would by activating Arms of the Astral Self.
- : Darkvision by any means is great, and though the 10-minute duration won't match permanent Darkvision or the Darkvision spell, neither of those allow you see in magical darkness and neither allow you to see 120 ft. (Superior Darkvision gives 120 ft. range but it's not a common racial trait). This alone is the most likely reason to activate Visage of the Astral Self.
- : Time to take your magical punch ghost into a social situation? Here you go. Insight is likely the only contribution you'll be making to conversations since nearly every monk dumps Charisma. Monks are too MAD to invest any serious resources outside of Dex/Con/Wis.
- : Roughly mimics the effects of Message for whispering and Thaumaturgy for shouting. Neat, but not very impactful.
: One good defensive option and one good offensive option. You need to summon both your arms and your visage, so you'll need to adjust to spending two Ki Points each time you get ready for combat, but the benefits are frequently worth the expense.
- : Danage if these types comes up all the time, and the list of affected damage types includes thunder, which is a rarity. The damage reduction won't match Resistance in most cases, but the amount of damage you prevent will add up quickly. For comparison: The average damage you'll prevent (1d10+Wis) will exceed the amount of hit points you gain when you gain a level (1d8+Con) unless your Constitution is really high compared to your Wisdom, and retaining a level's worth of hit points at the cost of Reaction is a great trade. Plus, if you need this once in an encounter you're going to need it several times.
- : A small damage boost, but it will add up reliably, and after applying twice (once on each of your turns, so two turns worth of attacks) it will offset the action cost of activating Arms of the Astral Self instead of using Martial Arts for one turn.
This also stacks with Haste, so if you have somone in your party who can cast Haste on you, you can get up to 6 attacks per turn with Flurry of Blows and enjoy an AC of 24 (+5 Dex, +5 Wis, +2 Awakened Astral Self, +2 Haste) without magic items. : This is expensive, but remember that it's 5 Ki Points instead of the 2 which you've become accustomed to spending normally thanks to Body of the Astral Self. The effects are excellent, providing both the additional attack and the AC bonus provided by Haste, which are the most important parts of the spell in most cases. With a 10-minute duration and your Ki Points recharging on a Short Rest you could use your Ki for this and literally nothing else and do very well in combat.
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 very interesting. It caters well to hit-and-run tactics which help to keep the monk alive and out of range of direct attacks, encouraging you to focus on the Monk's role as a Striker.
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 may be a good option.
The biggest problem with Way of the Drunken Master is that it can't do much that the Monk couldn't already do. You're still just running around and punching things, and the subclass doesn't offer any new options for solving problems, you're just sligthly better at using what Martial Arts already gives you.
Because the subclass is simple, forgiving, and Ki-efficient, it's a great option for new players. If you're a veteran and want more buttons to push, you may still find that the Monk's core features are sufficiently complex to keep you busy.
- : Two proficiencies, but neither of them are especially useful.
- : Combine Flurry of Blows and Disengage for just one Ki point. Excellent for hit-and-run tactics which monks often need to rely upon because their AC is relatively poor and they have few hit points compared to other front-line martial characters.
- : 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.
- : 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 Ki point on Flurry of Blows. To make this work reliably, you'll need to position yourself so that you're withing 5 feet of two enemies, which can be a dangerous prospect for the Monk and isn't always possible because enemies may want to fight other creatures instead.
- : 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. However, Disadvantage isn't always a problem, so this is situational by design.
- : Remember that Drunken Technique allows you to Disengage as part of Flurry of Blows, so you can use your ridiculous speed (+30 ft. above your race's base speed at this level) to run around the entire encounter and hit everything (5 things at most) once with your Flurry of Blows bonus attacks, plus your two regular attacks. This is great for handle multiple enemies, but it's only meaningful in encounters with three or more foes, which isn't every encounter.
Highly customizable, and many of the options are good, but there are a lot of traps and challenges here. Monks have issues with flight, crowds, and enemies resistant to weapon damage, and way of the Four Elements attempts to fix 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 and Stunning Fist and often causing you to run out of Ki very quickly until you learn to weight the costs and benefits of casting a spell instead of just punching things.
The Ki-Fueled Attack Optional Class Feature is hugely important for Way of the Four Elements. Because Elemental Disciplines all use your Action, you typically can't take the Attack action (Fangs of the Fire Snake is an exception) and therefore can't use your Bonus Action to attack with Martial Arts or Flurry of Blows. Ki-Fueled Attack addresses this problem, offering a meaningful boost to your damage output. It's not enough to fix the subclass, but it helps.
Way of Four Elements has several major challenges. You get spellcasting at a similar rate to the Edlritch Knight, though you do get access to one 5th-level spell (Cone of Cold) and Way of Four Elements gets access to their highest-level spells two levels earlier than the Eldritch Knight. Where the Monk falls behind is in the total amount of spellcasting that they can do in a day. Because the Ki point cost scales quickly, you'll likely only be able to cast two to four spells between each Short Rest, and without cantrips you lack an inexpensive go-to magical option.
Because some of the abilities allow you to cast a spell you're vulnerable to counterspelling and issues like resistance or immunity to spells. You can upcast spells and add damage to other disciplines by spending more Ki, but there is a cap and doing so is rarely worth the cost, so you're typically casting low-level spells a long time after other spellcasters got access to them.
You get just four choices of Elemental Discipline, so there's less customization than you might like and you'll have very few options. Until level 6, your subclass essentially boils down to the abuility to cast one 1st-level spell a few times per short rest, so I hope you really like burning hands.
As a quick fix to Way of the Four Elements, I recommend three changes:
- Each 3rd-level discipline except Elemental Attunement also gives the Monk a cantrip with the same element. So Fangs of the Fire Snake might grant Produce Flame, while Shape of the Flowing River might grant Shape Water. This gives the Monk inexpensive ways to use magic without immediately burning through their Ki.
- The Monk learns an additional discipline at levels 3, 8, and 14. This gives them a total of 7 at 17th level rather than 4, allowing some more versatility and allowing the Monk to justify something that isn't .
- Use the Ki-Fueled Attack Optional Class Feature so that the Monk isn't forced to take a turn off to stop being a monk so that they can be bad at spellcasting.
- : This is effectively the whole subclass, and it defines your not-quite-spellcasting. The actual interesting parts are you choices of Elemental Discipline.
- Elemental Disciplines:
- : This is mostly flavor and minor trickery. But hey, it's free!
- : Really only helpful if you need fire damage or can't stand adjacent to your target. Spending extra Ki for 1d10 damage is a poor investment beyond very low level, but since it's extra damage it's multiplied on a critical hit similar to divine smite. Unfortunately, you need to activate Fangs of the Fire Snake at the beginning of your Action rather than waiting until you roll a critical hit.
- : Knocking enemies away from you doesn't help you much since you can spend Ki to Disengage, and Thunderwave's tiny AOE can rarely hit more than one creature. The damage scaling is decent compared to many other Elemental Disciplines, but it's still effectively a first-level spell.
- : Decent range and damage, and it both knocks the target away and knocks them prone. The damage is slightly better than the damage output from two unarmed strikes from a high-level monk (2d10+10*65% hit chance vs. 3d10, avg. 13.65 vs 16.5), and knocking flying targets prone also causes them to fall, allowing you to counter flying enemies without flying yourself. Using Ki-Fueled Attack to follow this is especially helpful because you can likely attack the now-prone target.
- : Very situational.
- : This works similarly to Shape Water, which is one of my absolute favorite cantrips, but it's only situationally usefully because you can only use Shape of the Flowing River meaningfully when you have a large amount of ice or water nearby. If you have a lake or something handy you can completely reshape the battlefield, but how often do you fight on or beside a lake or atop a glacier?
- : A good AOE with solid damage and decent scaling. The cone is small, but you should still be able to consistently hit two creatures while running around in melee. At low levels this is a great use of Ki compared to Flurry of Blows, but expect to retrain this as you gain levels.
- : Similar to Fist of Unbroken Air, but you can either knock the target prone ir bring it into punching distance.
- Elemental Disciplines:
- : Paralysis is an off button for a single enemy. Turn them off, then go punch them a whole bunch. Unfortunately, it's just Hold Person so it's only situationally useful due to the creature type limitations.
- : The next best thing to Fireball, and the best AOE damage you can get until you can get Flames of the Phoenix at 11th level. If you can hit two targets, this is likely worth the Ki. If you can hit three, it's absolutely worth the Ki. However, it works on a Constitution save, and those tend to be high.
- Elemental Disciplines:
- : Great damage at long range. Fireball is the best instantaneous AOE damage in the game until 9th-level spells come online. The Ki cost is high, and you get this 6 levels after the Wizard, but it's often still worth the cost if you can hit a group of enemies. The damage scales linearly and 1d6 extra damage feels small, but compare 1d6 damage to 3+ targets to the extra damage from one additional attack with Flurry of Blows. If you can hit a big group of enemies, it may be worth putting as much Ki into this as you're allowed to spend.
- : Good escape and infiltration option, and with a 1-hour duration you can do a lot for the Ki cost.
- : Flight is a defining part of high-level combat. If you're stuck on the ground, you're missing half of the fighting unless Fist of Unbroken Air or Water Whip can knock some foes down to your level. At higher levels you can even use this to upcast Fly and affect your allies.
- Elemental Disciplines:
- : Just slightly more damage than Flames of the Phoenix, but without the appeal of fantastic range. Cones can work for the Monk, especially since your high speed allows you to easily position yourself to use them, but Flames of the Phoenix is less expensive and easier to use, so it's hard to justify learning this when you get so few disciplines.
- : 1-hour duration for a fantastic defensive option, and you get to omit the material component. Note that the required level was changed in Errata from 12th level to 17th level.
- : Fantastic area control at any level, but maintaining Concentration may be difficult, fire resistance is common, and at this level the damage may not be especially effective. Wave of Rolling Earth may be a better choice simply because the wall can't be walked through without first breaking it.
- : The name doesn't quite make sense, but Wall of Stone is fantastic both as area control and for utility.
The biggest draw of the Kensei is that it opens up some martial weapons to the Monk. 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. Even worse, the Dedicated Weapon Optional Class Feature steal's the Kensei's signature gimick and lets every monk use martial weapons effectively.
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 unless your DM guarantees access to magic weapons that's a dangerous gamble. On top of that, other monks will actually benefit more from magic weapons because they don't need to give up one of the attacks made during their Action to get an AC boost.
The Kensei benefits greatly from the Optional Class Features introduced in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything. Decicated Weapon admittedly robs the Kensei of their monopoly on martial weapons and weapons with the Two-Handed property like bows, but the other Optional Class Features solve some key problems which the Kensei has faced since they were published.
While fighting in melee, the Kensei typically needs to make one Unarmed Strike during in order to benefit from Agile Parry. Thanks to the new Ki-Fueled Attack feature, you can spend one Ki point during your Action using either the Kensei's Deft Strike feature or the Focused Aim Optional Class Feature to trigger Ki-Fueled Attack. That then allows you to make an attack with your weapon as a Bonus Action rather than using an Unarmed Strike. While fighting at range it will often be cheaper to stick to Kensei's Shot, but at high levels your damage output from a third attack may be large enough compared to the 2d4 total bonus damage (1d4 on two attacks) that you might spend the Ki occasionally to trigger Ki-Fueled Attack.
The Kensei is conceptually interesting, but the specific wording of the features makes it frustrating to play. Try allowing all of the Optional Class Features for the Kensei, and see if that helps. Alternatively, allow the Kensei to use Agile Parry any time that they take the Attack action and make any melee attack so that the Kensei can actually justify using a weapon more than once per turn.
: These are the fundamental features which will define how your character functions. Features granted at higher levels generally build on top of these features.
It's easy to look at this feature along the Dedicated Weapon Optional Class Feature and feel like it's not very useful. In truth, if you can get proficiencies elsewhere, Dedicated Weapon makes Kensei Weapons mostly redundant. The only advantage of Kensei Weapons is that you're not limited to one weapon chosen at the end of a long rest so you can change weapons to fit your situation (not that that happens much).
: 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.
- : 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.
- : Numerically identical to spears.
- : 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.
- : Literally the only way for the Monk to get reach with a weapon. 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.
- : The only option without the Loading property, so it's the clear winner unless you want to take Crossbow Expert and fight in melee range with a ranged weapon. You could do that and it would be really fun, but Monks desperately need Ability Score Increases so feats are usually a hard choice.
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 poor durability. Unfortunately, that means that a smart Kensei will frequently make at most one 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 justify struggling to use your weapon.
The Ki-Fueled Attack Optional Class Feature can address this issue to some degree. If you spend Ki to use Deft Strike or the Focused Aim Optional Class Feature, that triggers Ki-Fueled Attack, allowing you to use your weapon to attack as a Bonus Action. : 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 doesn't count. Until you get Extra Attack you'll want to forgo your weapon in favor of the AC bonus, and once you get Extra Attack you'll typically make just one attack with your weapon.
- : Not a ton of damage, but it makes ranged attacks competitive with your melee attacks and doesn't cost Ki. Normally monks fighting at range totally sacrifice the potential damage from their Bonus Actions, so it's nice to have an easy way to turn that action into something useful. Since it's extra damage, it's multiplied on a critical hit.
- : One proficiency in a tool which will probably never get used.
- : 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.
: Two mostly independent benefits.
- : Normally the Monk needs to rely solely on their unarmed strikes to overcome damage resistance to non-magical attacks unless you can guarantee access to magic weapons. This allows you to continue using your favorite weapons without issue, even if they're not magic.
- : 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. The wording also says "extra damage", which means that the damage is part of the attacks normal damage and is therefore multiplied on a critical hit the same way Eldritch Smite and Divine Smite are, and much like those features you can decide to use it after rolling your attack so it's an easy damage boost if you roll a natural 20.
Your best use case for this is when fighting at range where Agile Parry is less crucial. Grab a longbow, put 3 Ki points into it, and start shooting. Consider using Deft Strike and/or the Focused Aim Optional Class Feature so that you can trigger Ki-Fueled Attack and attack as a Bonus Action, but you'll want to make that decision early since you want to use Kensei's Shot before you start attacking if you're going to use it at all. : Extremely tempting, but that's a lot of Ki to spend on one (possibly 2 with Ki-Fueled Attack) attack per turn. The additional attacks from Flurry of Blows will likely be a more useful way to spend Ki.
- : You're only going to be making one attack with a weapon each turn unless you use the Ki-Fuelled Attack Optional Class Feature, so you might as well make it reliable.
Exceptionally tanky, Way of the Long Death makes the Monk very difficult to kill, but lacks useful offensive or utility options. This allows the the Monk to serve as a Defender more easily than they can typically manage with their d8 hit dice and slowly scaling AC (typically 15 or 16 at level 1, up to 20 eventually compared to a fighter who can start at 19).
Way of Long Death is very mechanically simple. Of the four features, only two are active abilities so there's very little additional complexity on top of the Monk's already-complex core features. It's a great option for new players, and experienced players will find that the tactical benefits of Hour of Reaping are enticing enough to keep them occupied.
This ability can be abused by reducing innocent creatures to 0 hit points, so carry around a bag of rats and knock one unconscious between combats to keep your temporary hit points running. : If you can bring this into play even once or twice a day, it's potentially a huge boost to your hit points. When combat starts, look for weak enemies to pick off before engaging enemies who are going to eat through your hit points.
- : Great when you're outnumbered, or just when your party is facing enemies with poor Wisdom saves. Prevent your enemies from approaching and hinder their attacks while your party kills them at range. The duration is only until the end of your next turn, but this can be used as often as you like so you can just stand there menacingly and win the fight for your party without spending any expendable resources.
- : As long as you have Ki, you have hit points.
- : 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, and expect enemies to pass the Constitution save since Constitution saves tend to be high.
The "generic" 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.
If you need to get out of melee, preventing the target from taking Reactions prevents them from making an Attack of Opportunity so you can usually choose to use Flurry of Blows instead of using Step of the Wind to Disengage. : 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 and push effects are your best bet for making enemies prone or relocating them. Unfortunately you apply these effects with an attack from Flurry of Blows, which is made after your Attack for the turn, so you're making at most one attack against a target after you knock them prone.
This is somewhat redundant with the Quickened Healing Optional Class Feature, but Wholeness of Body will restore more hit points and doesn't cost Ki. : 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.
- : Considering that Monks lack any social skills, a peaceful approach is rarely the best way for Monks to approach problems. This will help prevent enemies from attacking you until you break the Sanctuary effect, but usually this will only last until your turn on the first round of the first combat each day.
- : Save-or-die one creature every other round for 3 Ki. The save is Constitution and Constitution saves tend to be high, but at the tiny cost of 3 Ki it's inexpensive enough that you can afford to retry several times against powerful single foes.
The Sun Soul Monk tries to bridge the gap between the Monk's melee capacity and the ranged capacity of a Blaster or ranged Striker. The features 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 or shooting at them with Radiant Sun Bolt. Way of the Four Elements (possibly with Magic Initiate to pick up a ranged cantrip if you're desperate for a ranged attack option) does essentially the same thing to much greater effect, and has the additional ability to pick different spells.
Way of Sun Soul has some really good ideas, but the exection of those ideas simply isn't effective. Radiant Sun Bolt gives the monk a meaningful ranged option, but the only real improvement is that the Monk can attack from 30 feet away. It's no more damaging or efficient than just walking up and punching something, and you actually lose potential damage compared to using a spear at low levels. Searing Arc Strike helps with crowds, but it's a 1st-level spell with a tiny area of effect and low damage which you get 3 levels later than basically anyone else who can cast it. Searing Sunburst is basically Fireball but less damage and a worse save, and even though it's free you'll typicaly get better results from punching things, which is also free.
Sun Soul needs a lot of changes to make it work. Adding the Optional Class Features helps, but it is nowhere near enough. The core issue with the subclass is that the features are usually at best equivalent to just attacking and using Flurry of Blows. Here are some suggested fixes:
- Radiant Sun Bolt: You may replace any unarmed strike with a Radiant Sun Bolt attack, allow the monk to use either Dexterity or Wisdom for attack and damage rather than locking them into Dexterity, and increase the range by 10 feet every time the Martial Arts die increase, up to a maximum of of 60 feet at level 17. This allows the Monk to attack with their Bonus Action without spending Ki, allows them to build around Wisdom to focus on special features instead of just punching, and to function at range greater than the movement speed of nearly everything in the Monster Manual.
- Searing Arc Strike: Instead of using Burning Hands, this is a 15-foot cone which deals 1d8+Wisdom Modifier damage, and activating it costs no Ki. The Monk may spend Ki to enhance the effects, adding 1d8 damage and +5 feet to the size of the cone, up to a maximum number of Ki points equal to half their monk level. This gives the monk an inexpensive way to handle multiple foes, and the ability to expand the cone keeps the feature meaningful at high levels once Searing Sunburst comes online. Adding the Monk's Wisdom modifier as a flat damage bonus helps keeps the damage roughly consistent if you don't spend Ki to improve the effects.
- Searing Sunburst: Change the base damage to 2d6+Wisdom Modifier.
You don't need free hands to make these attacks, so you can switch between your spear and Radiant Sun Bolt at will. If you spend the Ki Point to make two attacks as a bonus action, you can keep up with or even outdo real spellcasters in terms of ranged damage output. Even the Warlock with Eldritch Blast+Agonizing Blast may struggle to match Radiant Sun Bolt when you spend Ki to make additional attacks as a Bonus Action since you still add your Dexterity bonus to the attacks. The Warlock won't catch up until 17th level when Eldritch Blast adds a fourth ray. Of course, Eldritch Blast doesn't cost Ki to make all of those attacks, so by level 11 Eldritch Blast+Agonizing Blast will be more effective if you're not willing to spend Ki. : Finally, a meaningful ranged option for the Monk! The damage die is admittedly small compared to using a spear in melee, but you can replace any of your attacks during the Attack action (not the one from Martial Arts), and the damage die will scale as you gain levels.
If you can hit three creatures, this is a more efficient use of both your Action and your Ki than spending the same turn to attack and use either Flurry of Blows or the Bonus Action attack with Radiant Sun Bolt.
Getting this feature at 6th level is frustrating. Cones work fine on martial characters who can survive in melee, but it's a 1st-level spell that you get at level 6. Way of Four Elements has been casting Burning Hands for 3 levels already at the same Ki cost.
Still worse, once you get Searing Sunburst, this is basically useless. For the same two Ki points, Searing Sunburst deals 6d6 damage (avg. 21 compared to Searing Arc Strike's 13.5) in a significantly larger AOE and at 150-foot range. Adding more Ki widens the gap even further. This feature starts weak and becomes completely obsolete at level 11. : A great option when you're facing crowds of enemies in close quarters, but it can be hard to hit more than two creatures with such a small cone, and the damage isn't great unless you spend a bunch of Ki. This also does fire damage, which is weird because everything else in the subclass deals radiant damage.
The best part of this is that you can use it for free. 2d6 damage still isn't a ton of damage, but the range is great at 150 feet (compared to just 30 feet for Radiant Sun Bolt), so if you're fighting at long range you can shell your enemies with this at the base damage until they either die or get tired of your shenanigans and move closer. : The base damage isn't great, but it scales reasonably well and doesn't cost any Ki Points to use at the base damage. Unfortunately because the base damage is so low that you need to spend a ton of Ki to do any serious damage, and since this is on a Constitution save your enemies are likely to pass the save.
- : A nice deterrent. The damage isn't huge (probably 10 damage this level), but the effect is constant unless you turn it off, which you might do when you need to be stealthy. The biggest frustration is that this consumes your Reaction so you can't use it for Opportunity Attacks or something like that.