DnD 5e - Monk Subclass Breakdown
Last Updated: March 11th, 2020
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.
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.
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 other creatures 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. This allows the Monk to add Healer to their staple roles as a Scout and Striker. 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.
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.
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, and it's weird that you don't get proficiency with a 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. : You martial arts die plus your Wisdom modifier is roughly equivalent to a 1st-level Cure Wounds. That's not a ton of healing, 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.
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. Of course, Flurry of Blows and Martial Arts only allow unarmed strikes, so there's always going to be some portion of your attacks where you can apply this. : 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 follow up Hand of Harm to 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.
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.
Hand of Harm is now free if you use Flurry of Blows, which is a nice boost to your damage output, especially if you're not trading attacks to use Hand of Healing. : The wording for the first paragraph appears to have an error. It states that you can use Hand of Healing "without spending ki points for the healing." However, you still need to spend a Ki Point to use Flurry of Blows and the base text of Hand of Healing specifies that you don't need to spend more Ki to use Hand of Healing at that point. This was likely leftover text from the Unearthed Arcana version of the ability, so expect it to be reworded when we get errata.
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 unless you have someone in the party who can cast Gentle Repose to extend the time limit. : 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're likely to still have a bunch to spend.
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.
- : 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.
- : With an 8-hour duration, you can afford to have this running all the time.
- : 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 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.
- : 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.
- : 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.
- : Free attacks are always nice.
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. 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 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.
- : 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 on because their AC is poor and they have few hit points.
- : 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.
- : 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.
- : 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.
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.
- : 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 ki for 1d10 damage is a horrible investment beyond very low level.
- : Knocking enemies away from you doesn't help you much, but it's and AOE with decent damage and scales reasonably well.
- : Decent range and damage, but since it takes your Action you won't be able to capitalize on knocking the target prone.
- : Very situational.
- : 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.
- : A good AOE with solid damage and good scaling.
- : Similar to Fist of Unbroken Air, but it brings enemies into punching distance.
- : Paralysis is an off button for a single enemy. Turn them off, then go punch them a whole bunch.
- : Situational, but much more useful in an edition where destroying enemies' gear isn't a financially devastating life choice.
- : Great damage at long range, but it doesn't scale well.
- : Good escape and infiltration option.
- : Flight is a defining part of high-level combat. If you're stuck on the ground, you're missing half of the fighting.
- : Just slightly more damage than Flames of the Phoenix, but without the appeal of fantastic range.
- : 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. Keep enemies from running away.
- : The name doesn't quite make sense, but Wall of Stone is fantastic.
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).
- : 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. This ability can be abused by repeating totally 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.
- : Great when you're outnumbered, or just when your party is facing enemies with poor Wisdom saves. Prevent your enemies from approaching and handicap 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.
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.
- : 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 or pushing them.
- : 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.
- : Kill things every other round for 3 Ki.
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.
: These are the fundamental abilities which will define how your Kensei functions. Abilities granted at higher levels generally build on top of these abilities.
: 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. 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.
- : 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.
- : 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.
- : 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. This allows you to continue using your favorite weapons without issue.
- : 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.
- : 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.
- : You're going to be making one weapon attack per turn, so you might as well make it reliable.
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 to pick up a ranged cantrip) does essentially the same thing to much greater effect.
- : 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 you don't need free hands to do so, 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 most real spellcasters.
- : A great option when you're facing crowds of enemies, but it can be hard to line up when you're already in melee and the damage isn't great unless you spend a bunch of Ki Points.
- : 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, you need to spend a ton of Ki to do any serious damage.
- : A nice deterrent.