Meditating on Monk Balance

Who needs weapons? Shut up Kensai, no one was talking to you.

Anyway… who needs weapons? Or armor, for that matter? When it comes to combat, all that really matters is skill, focus, and discipline – all particular specialties of the Monk!


So grab all that crap from the fighter article and throw it away!


On the Origins of the Monk

Unlike with many of the classes we’ve covered so far, the monk doesn’t have much of a “real” history, per se. The monk, at its core, is based around the concept of an Asian monastery whose members learn both martial arts and the philosophy of meditation – becoming masters of calm-minded combat in the process.

Now, that’s not to say that there weren’t monasteries in Asia. In fact, there remain a large number of monasteries in Asia to this day, and practice of martial arts is often one of the many ways people can express their spirituality, or focus their mind. It’s just that, frankly speaking, the Dungeons and Dragons monk has very little to do with all that.

Instead, the D&D monk largely draws its inspiration from old kung-fu movies. Rather than pointing to historical figures (like Harald Bluetooth or other Vikings for the barbarian, or William Shakespeare and others for the bard), you’re best off looking at the lead actors from famous kung-fu movies instead – people like Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee.

I could go into the history of the monk in D&D specifically, but honestly… it’s a bit dull. Monk was a class in the original version, then not a class in the next two versions, but added as a (very different) class in an expansion, then… it’s all fairly normal, and doesn’t have too much bearing on the class as it is now.


A Monk’s Features

And, with that, let’s run down the basic features of the monk. The table below breaks down the base class features and the levels you earn them at – we’ll look at subclasses in a moment.

1st Unarmored Defense, Martial Arts 11th Monastic Tradition #3
2nd Ki, Unarmored Movement 12th ABSI
3rd Monastic Tradition #1, Deflect Missiles 13th Tongue of the Sun and Moon
4th Ability Score Increase (ABSI), Slow Fall 14th Diamond Soul
5th Extra Attack, Stunning Strike 15th Timeless Body
6th Ki-Empowered Strikes, Monastic Tradition #2 16th ABSI
7th Evasion, Stillness of Mind 17th Monastic Tradition #4
8th ABSI 18th Empty Body
9th Unarmored Movement + 19th ABSI
10th Purity of Body 20th Perfect Self


Much like with fighters last time, the monk has a lot of features. Unlike with the fighter, many of them have literally no impact on normal gameplay. So, for the purposes of our discussion, just keep in mind that I’m not really taking into account any of the following features:

  • Slow Fall
  • Unarmored Movement (9th level improvement)
  • Tongue of the Sun and Moon
  • Timeless Body

None of those generally have any impact on most games, so we’re going to just ignore them.


Now, lets look at the other features the monk has to offer.

The central mechanic of the monk lies in Unarmored Defense and Martial Arts, both of which come at 1st level. These two things allow you to fulfill the central monk fantasy – a warrior wearing no armor and wielding no weapons. Or a nunchuck, if you want to reskin a club to one.

With an Armor Class based on Dexterity and Wisdom, as well as all of the Dexterity-related benefits of Martial Arts, the monk is set up to be a very Dexterity dependent class. The addition of Ki abilities at 2nd level ups the importance of Wisdom to match.

The key to the monk is making unarmed combat viable. Normally, a character deals only 1 damage with their bare fists – monks get to deal 1d4 and up. Martial Arts also allows unarmed attacks to scale alongside weapons (with Ki-Empowered Strikes taking care of the nonmagical weapon resistance), and can also let the monk use Dexterity with normally Strength-only weapons.

Ki abilities take care of the spirituality and mystic power aspects of the monk fantasy. Most interact with Martial Arts in some way, with things like Stunning Strike or Flurry of Blows. And this is where the general design of the monk comes out.

Despite being able to add Wisdom to their AC, monks still only have mediocre hit points and can’t boost their AC up to absolutely ridiculous levels. They also don’t do too much damage either – while Martial Arts allows the monk to keep up with weapon-using classes, they don’t do a huge amount of damage.

Instead, the monk is a class mostly focused on combat utility. With Stunning Strike and Flurry of Blows, the monk has a lot of chances to stun enemies. With Patient Defense and Step of the Wind, the monk can also keep themselves safe while trying for this. And the monk’s subclasses expand on that even more.


Less of an Archetype and More of a Stereotype

The monk has two subclasses included with the PHB. And no, Way of the Elements is not one of them – that thing is over in the bad PHB with Berserker barbarian and the entire ranger class as written.

Anyway, the two subclasses of the monk are the Way of the Open Hand and the Way of the Shadow.

Level Purpose Features
3rd Additional Use for Ki Points Open Hand Technique
Shadow Arts
6th Utility/Defensive Ability Wholeness of Body
Shadow Step
11th Non-combat Ability Tranquility
Cloak of Shadows
17th New Combat Ability Unbalanced Bullshit
Quivering Palm


So, lets take a look, shall we?


First off, let’s just get this out of the way – save or die mechanics were way more common in 2e where I first started playing D&D, and Quivering Palm is totally a save or die classic-style. It’s insane.

Anyway, when we look more at the subclasses’ other abilities, we can see a consistent trend emerge.

At 3rd level, both subclasses get a new way of using Ki points. And both of these features are utility-focused. The Open Hand Technique gets several combat utility options through Flurry of Blows, while the Shadow monk gets darkness-related spells to cast.

Then, at 6th level, both subclasses get new abilities that have a defensive slant. While the Open Hand ability to self-heal is more obviously useful from a combat standpoint, Shadow Step has a myriad of good positioning uses in battle (especially when combined with Shadow Arts).

At 11th level both subclasses get a mostly non-combat ability. This is the weird level, as Tranquility is an odd ability that doesn’t work as well as it really ought to, while Cloak of Shadows is pretty plain. However, both are fundamentally better out-of-combat – Cloak of Shadows will keep you invisible forever as long as no one turns out the lights, and Tranquility straight up turns a combat into a not-combat (for you).

And, lastly, at 17th level the two subclasses get their most powerful abilities. The Shadow monk gets nearly guaranteed extra attacks every turn, and the Open Hand monk starts killing people with back massages. Both very powerful, if a bit opposite in implementation.


So, let me try to generalize it like this.

The monk is a base class that offers a lot of utility. With Ki and Flurry of Blows, the monk is great for getting stuns off, or being the one to rapidly re-position themselves when needed.

Each subclass expands on this in different ways.

The Way of the Open Hand effectively makes the monk even better at things they were already good at. Now, rather than just stun, the monk has a wealth of options to control and hinder their opponents with Ki. Furthermore, self-healing and a killer capstone make the monk into a frightening character alone as well.

The Way of the Shadow, however, makes the monk better at stealth specifically. With a wide variety of spells to enhance their sneaking ability, the monk can now use Ki primarily out of combat, to set up for combat later on. Invisibility and teleportation add to this, and also enhance the monk’s potential for clever positioning and tactical thinking.

Ultimately, the monk is a skilled class – not in the sense that its a skill monkey or a particularly hard class to play, but simply in the way that it encourages thoughtful action rather than powerful action. And that, really, sums up the monk’s fantasy just as nicely.


The End of All Paths

While not based on any actual historical figures, the monk does have a long history. The stereotype of the mysterious Asian warrior wielding no weapons and wearing no armor is almost relentlessly popular. People love the concept, and so it endures through most other changes in fantasy tastes.

In D&D, the monk has its place as a sort of spiritual twist on the rogue – instead of being motivated by worldly goods (such as sweet, sweet money), the monk is dedicated to the pursuit of an ideal. Whether that ideal is good, evil, or neutral is another thing entirely.

To support that, the monk is an endless source of combat utility for any party that has one. Tactical thinking and clever use of abilities is the key to really mastering the monk. No ridiculous damage here – if you want that, play an evocation wizard, or a paladin or something.


Now, monk is a class I actually have quite the soft spot for. My first real character was a monk, and I loved him to bits. (Being the only one who was smart enough to survive a near-TPK certainly didn’t hurt my opinion of him.) And, yet, I have yet to actually play a monk in 5th edition, and I’ve only DM’d for one.

But hey, maybe that’ll change soon. Once I get ready for a break from my current character’s ridiculous amount of literal firepower, I think I might give monk another try.


Anyway, come back next time for our next article… my favorite class*, the best member of any party**, and the most enjoyable character to play***… the Paladin!

* To mess with and generally ignore.
** To blame when you’ve stolen something.
*** When you’re actually playing a rogue/warlock only pretending to be Sir Aelfric Goldenheart, Paladin of the Light.


Thanks for reading!

Click here for the rest of my homebrew how-to’s!

2 thoughts on “Meditating on Monk Balance

  1. Bill

    I’ve played a monk in 5e up to 8th level so far. Way of Shadows archetype. Its been…tough. Unarmed fighting puts you right up in melee range with low(ish) AC and low(ish) HP. To survive you have to use ki points wisely, but you also burn through them pretty fast. My group has never been the “well, we’ve finished a fight let’s all have a short rest” type, so those ki points are precious.

    1. Anathemys

      I can definitely see where you’re coming from. This was a shock I’d encountered back while writing the barbarian post – when comparing the barbarian’s Unarmored Defense to the monk’s, I just suddenly realized how squishy monks really are.

      I’d sort of lumped them in with fighters and barbarians as front-line combatants, but they really can’t keep up. Lower AC and a truly low HP pool really make you walk the razor’s edge.

      This is also made harder by your group not taking short rests though. Looking back on it now I wish I had addressed that myself – monk really is pretty dependent on short tests to remain viable… and alive.

      Anyway, thanks for posting your thoughts! It’s always nice to see that my vague theories and ideas do actually hold up in real gameplay.
      Just out of curiosity, what Ki powers do you find yourself using most when trying to survive the front lines? Are they mainly the base monk abilities like Patient Defense, or do you actually see a lot of use out of Shadow Arts?

      Just curious! And again, thanks for your input!

Leave a Reply