Cry thunder!
Sword in his hand,
Titans of justice, fearless we stand
Cry thunder!
Strong in command
Blessed by the union, freedom of man

Cry Thunder – Dragonforce

Introduction

Monks tend to get the short end of the stick most of the time. With conflicting features and limited resources, Monks occasionally feel like they fall behind when judged on damage. The Kensei is susceptible to falling into the same traps as other Monks, but at least has a few ways to do some respectable damage numbers. If you want to be a martial arts weapons master, we’ll make sure you put your best foot forward.

Kensei is a little analogous to the Hunter Ranger: it has a few different abilities for melee vs ranged weapons, and like the Hunter, the ranged option is better. They have Agile Parry for melee, which gives a little extra AC, vs Kensei’s shot, where you do a little extra damage but also don’t get hit by not walking into melee. This is one of the strengths of the Kensei when compared to other Monks: having an actual ranged option.

To that end, the example build down below shows what Kensei can bring to what would otherwise be every other Sharpshooter Crossbow Expert build. In particular, when Sharpen the Edge comes online, the ability to add +3 to attacks and damage ends up negating the penalties of Sharpshooter. With Unarmored Movement, this build is able to simply outrun many foes while turning the targets into pincushions.

Table of Contents

Disclaimer

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.

  • Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational. Nearly never useful.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances. Useful sometimes.
  • Green: Good options. Useful often.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character. Useful very frequently.

We will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, in handbooks for official content because we can’t assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. We also won’t cover Unearthed Arcana content because it’s not finalized, and we 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.

Way of the Kensei Features

  1. Path of the Kensei: These are the fundamental features which will define how your character functions. Features granted at higher levels generally build on top of these features.
    • 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.

      It’s easy to look at this feature alongside 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).

      • 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 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.
      • Ranged
        • Longbow / Shortbow: The only options without the Loading property, so it’s the clear winner unless you want to take Crossbow Expert or Gunner and fight in melee 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.
        • Musket: If your game is using firearms, a musket is a great weapon choice for the Kensei. The Loading property only matters if you’re not trying to trigger Agile Parry, but if you want more than one attack you will need Gunner.
    • 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 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.

      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.

    • Kensei’s Shot: 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.
    • Way of the Brush: One proficiency in a tool which will probably never get used.
  2. 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 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.
    • 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. 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.
  3. Sharpen the Blade: 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.

    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.

  4. Unerring Accuracy: 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.

Way of the Kensei Ability Scores

Way of the Kensei has a typical Monk ability spread. We want Dexterity to support our attacks, Wisdom to boost our AC, and Constitution to have some HP.

Str: We may occasionally want to shove someone, so if we’re using the standard array this is our 12.

Dex: This is your attack score and half of our AC.

Con: We don’t want to get dead.

Int: Not important for us.

Wis: This is half of our AC and also sets the DC for Monk abilities like Stunning Fist.

Cha: Not important for us.

Point BuyStandard Array
Str812
Dex1515
Con1513
Int88
Wis1514
Cha810

Way of the Kensei Races

Monks are feat starved because they need both Dexterity and Wisdom to power AC. That means that the races with bonus feats stand out. Anything not covered here is covered in the Monk Race Breakdown.

  • Custom LineageTCoE: If you want your bonus feat to come with a +2 in a single ability score and the option for Darkvision, this is your race. Great if you can get a hybrid to up Dexterity to 18.
  • Variant HumanPHB: If instead you want your bonus feat to come with a pair of +1s and no Darkvision option, this is your race. This option is better if the bonus feat is not a Hybrid as it allows for Dexterity and Wisdom to both be 16s.

Way of the Kensei Feats

For anything not listed here, check the Monk Handbook.

  • Crossbow Expert: You might be thinking, don’t Monks already have ways to make bonus action attacks? They do, but those either cost Ki points or are restricted to unarmed strikes. But we can instead save Ki points for the rest of our Kensei powers by making a hand crossbow our Kensei weapon.
  • Sharpshooter: If we’re already going to use a ranged Kensei weapon, we might as well do all the DPR.

Way of the Kensei Weapons

The Kensei is the weapon Monk, but because Tasha’s Cauldron introduced the Dedicated weapon feature to all Monks, they wouldn’t really have any more options available than standard Monks except for the fact that a they gains proficiency with the weapons it chooses.

  • 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 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.
  • Ranged
    • Longbow / Shortbow: The only options without the Loading property, so it’s the clear winner unless you want to take Crossbow Expert or Gunner and fight in melee 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.
    • Musket: If your game is using firearms, a musket is a great weapon choice for the Kensei. The Loading property only matters if you’re not trying to trigger Agile Parry, but if you want more than one attack you will need Gunner.
    • Hand Crossbow: Used with Crossbow Expert and Sharpshooter, this is objectively the strongest choice for sustained DPR.

Way of the Kensei Armor

That’s what your Wisdom score is for.

Way of the Kensei Multiclassing

The Monk Handbook has a little to say on Multiclassing, but our weapon choices give us something to think about.

  • Fighter: A one level dip for Fighting Style (Archery) is better than spending a feat on the Fighting Initiate feat if we’re using ranged weapons.

Example Way of the Kensei Build – Why don’t you just shoot it?

The usual issue with Monks is that they are barred from Heavy weapons so they can’t use Great Weapon Master to boost DPR. But the Kensei has a lot of benefits that can be applied to ranged weapons, and is therefore a prime candidate for the Crossbow Expert and Sharpshooter feats. Combine that with applying the Martial Arts die to a Hand Crossbow and Sharpen the Blade giving a +3 to attacks that mostly offsets the penalty of Sharpshooter and this actually starts to look very strong.

While the build below will list the optional class features from TCoE when they would be acquired, none of these abilities are actually required for the build, but some are nice. Dedicated Weapon allows us to take off our armor a level early. Focused Aim helps us when we just barely miss. Quickened Healing allows us to burn Ki right before a short rest to get extra healing out before the pool refills. Ki-Fueled Attack does nothing for us because we already have Crossbow Expert.

Abilities

We’ll be using a Hand Crossbow with Dexterity, we’ll want Wisdom for AC, and Constitution for HP.

BaseIncreasedLevel 20
Str101010
Dex151620
Con141414
Int888
Wis151618
Cha888

We’re using Variant Human and taking Crossbow Expert as our bonus feat. The +1s are going into Dexterity and Wisdom. Because our feats and ASIs are so tight on this build, we’ll let Constitution stay at 14 and put the leftover points into Strength.

Race

We’re taking Variant Human for the bonus feat. Because we’re taking Crossbow Expert instead of a hybrid feat, we get better mileage out of pushing Dexterity and Wisdom to 16 over putting a single +2 into either and having a 17 and 15. We also get a skill proficiency and choose Acrobatics.

Multiclassing

We’ll be taking two levels of Fighter in this build, first in order to get the Fighting Style (Archery), but then later to also have Action Surge.

But I don’t want to Multiclass?

We’ll definitely lose a bit of the oomph if we’re not getting that Fighting Style (Archery), with the level 20 DPR dropping from 46.66 to 39.60, but that’s not too big of a problem. Overall, the feat choices and order do not change, and we’ll get the final ASI from Monk, which we can use to cap Wisdom.

Background

We’re choosing Urchin for the Disguise Kit, Thieves’ Tools, Stealth, and Sleight of Hand proficiencies.

Skills and Tools

We’ll be taking our first level as Fighter, and as such we choose from the Fighter list for skills, choosing Perception and Survival.

Feats

Because we take one level of Fighter then move into Monk, our ASIs arrive one level late. We also take the second level of Fighter at 20th level as Action surge is stronger than anything else we could get for the nineteenth level ASI/Feat from Monk.

Variant Human gives us a feat at first level, Crossbow Expert.

At fourth level of Monk, fifth overall, we take Sharpshooter.

At eighth level of Monk, ninth overall, we take an ASI for +2 Dexterity.

At twelfth level of Monk, thirteenth overall, we take an ASI for +2 Dexterity.

At sixteenth level of Monk, seventeenth overall, we take an ASI for +2 Wisdom.

Levels

LevelsMartial ArtsFeats and FeaturesNotes and Tactics
1-Fighter 1Fighting Style (Archery)

Second Wind

Skills
-Acrobatics
-Perception
-Sleight of Hand
-Stealth
-Survival
Yeah, this Monk build starts with a level of Fighter. We need Fighting Style (Archery) and this is how we’re getting it.

Grab a Hand Crossbow and start making bonus action attacks. For AC, get a chain shirt or some hide armor. Nothing too expensive because we’ll be ditching it when we’re a second level Monk.
2-Monk 11d4Martial Arts

Unarmored Defense
These are important features, but we’re going to wear some medium armor for a little longer because these won’t do much for us right now.
3-Monk 21d4Dedicated Weapon (Optional)

Ki

Unarmed Movement +10ft
Here we go, now we have the option of shedding that medium armor because we have access to Dedicated Weapon for our Hand Crossbow. Or not if medium armor gives us more AC, which it might if you can afford half plate by now.
4-Monk 31d4Deflect Missiles

Ki-Fueled Attack (Optional)

Way of the Kensei
-Kensei Weapons
-Agile Parry
-Kensei’s Shot
-Way of the Brush
Normally, Deflect Missiles is just okay, but we’ll be fighting at range so we’ll mostly be hit by ranged attacks and Fighting Style (Archery) does apply to the return reaction attack. In fact, when we get Sharpshooter, that will also apply.

Ki-Fueled attack. On most Monk builds, this is rather useful. On this build, we already get to attack with our weapon as a bonus action without spending Ki points thanks to Crossbow Expert.

We take our Monastic Tradition, Way of the Kensei, and declare the Hand Crossbow as a Kensei weapon, along with whatever Melee weapon we want. I suggest the Battleaxe for fun.

Agile Parry and Kensei’s Shot aren’t going to do much for us. We’re using a ranged weapon so we can’t Agile Parry, and Kensei’s shot is less damage than the attack from Crossbow Expert.

Free Painter’s Supplies proficiency though.
5-Monk 41d4Feat: Sharpshooter

Slow Fall

Quickened Healing (Optional)
Thanks to the +2 of Fighting Style (Archery), we get a lot of mileage out of Sharpshooter. Thanks to the bonus action attack of Crossbow Expert, we get even more damage output.

Slow Fall is nice if we fall.

Quickened Healing is actually pretty useful. Spend it before a short rest to save on spending hit dice.
6-Monk 51d6Extra Attack

Focused Aim (Optional)

Stunning Strike
We get to shoot twice with our action now.

Focused Aim can be useful if we miss by a few points.

Stunning Strike is for melee attacks. We could punch someone if we want to try for a stun, but we’ll be more successful firing bolts.
7-Monk 61d6Ki-Empowered Strikes

Kensei Weapon

One with the Blade

Unarmored Movement +15ft
Ki-Empowered Strikes make our unarmed attacks magical.

One with the Blade does the same for our Kensei Weapons, and we get to add another weapon to the list at this level.

OwtB also allows us to spend a Ki point to get some extra damage after we hit with an attack equal to our martial arts die. Like a mini Smite. Remember that since it’s “extra damage” it’s multiplied on a critical hit.

Also we move faster now.
8-Monk 71d6Evasion

Stillness of Mind
Evasion for taking less damage from Dexterity saves.

Stillness of Mind comes up infrequently, but it’s still great to have when we are subject to the conditions it can remove.
9-Monk 81d6ASI: Dexterity +2 (16=>18)More Dexterity, more AC, better attacks.
10-Monk 91d6Unarmored Movement ImprovementNow we can walk across water and up walls, but only during our movement on our turn.
11-Monk 101d6Unarmored Movement +20ftZoom zoom.
12-Monk 111d8Sharpen the Blade

Kensei Weapon
Sharpen the Blade is what really gives this build its edge.

Right now, we have Sharpshooter and Fighting Style (Archery), but for a bonus action we can make our Hand Crossbow a +3 weapon, which entirely negates the remaining penalty of Sharpshooter when combined with the bonus from Fighting Style (Archery).

It does cost 3 Ki points, and we do only have a pool of 11 points per short rest. At this level, if we had eight fights per day and got in two short rests, that would be 33 Ki points total, and we’d spend 24 points on this ability over that day, which would be worth it for the DPR.

This is a big part of why we’ve been using Crossbow Expert to save on spending Ki, so that we could build towards this incredibly strong combination while also having a consistent effective use for our Bonus Action without resorting to Martial Arts.

Pick another weapon to add to your list of Kensei Weapons.
13-Monk 121d8ASI: Dexterity +2 (18=>20)Even more Dexterity, more AC, better attacks.
14-Monk 131d8Tongue of the Sun and MoonTalk to everything with your 8 Charisma.
15-Monk 141d8Diamond Soul

Unarmored Movement +25ft
Proficiency in every save and spend a ki point to reroll a failed save. Remember that both of these benefits also apply to death saves.
16-Monk 151d8Timeless BodyNo more ageing. No more eating or drinking.
17-Monk 161d8ASI: Wisdom +2 (16=>18)More AC.
18-Monk 171d10Unerring Accuracy

Kensei Weapon
Reroll a miss with a Kensei weapon once per turn.

Pick another weapon to add to the list.
19-Monk 181d10Empty Body

Unarmored Movement +30ft
Our almost capstone ability is the power to spend 4 ki points to be Invisible for a minute. This is great and gives Advantage to attacking anything lacking truesight or blindsight or tremorsense.

We can also spend 8 ki to astral project, but that’s less useful.

Also, zoom zoom zoom.
20-Fighter 21d10Action SurgeAnd for our actual capstone, with the second level of Fighter, we can have two actions in a single turn once per short rest.

What if we just played Champion Fighter for 20 levels?

We’ll compare this build to a variant human Champion Fighter that takes Crossbow Expert at first level and Sharpshooter at fourth, before taking Dexterity ASIs to 20. This chart uses our DPR calculator following expected math. Because our example build gets ASIs a level late, the Fighter reaches each of the level milestones below a level earlier than we do, but they’re close enough together that it’s still useful to compare the two.

First Level5th/6th Level8th/9th Level11th/12th Level12th/13th Level20th Level
Kensei10.1022.8024.1539.3844.5546.65
Champion10.1027.3028.8038.4038.4048.87

The result we see is that the pair are equal up until fifth level, where the Champion pulls ahead for about six levels. Then, Sharpen the Blade comes online and we are ahead until the Champion finally catches up at level twenty with Extra Attack (4). This all assumes they won’t already have magic weapons, which lessens the benefits of Sharpen the Blade.