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Kick Butt Kung Fu
Masters of both martial and mystical arts, the 5th edition monk hones mystic energy and rigorous training into a lethal force. Monks get to punch and keep on punching with the most attacks out of any 5th edition class. Grab your nunchaku and get ready to train as we go through everything you need to know in this complete monk guide for 5th edition D&D.
What Are Monks?
Monks are everything you’ve seen in kung fu movies and anime, they’ve trained their body and minds to perform feats of superhuman strength and agility. Monks achieve these heights through years of dedication and discipline, seeking to perfect themselves into living weapons and men of insight. Sometimes they come from a background of religion, other times they've adopted a philosophy that requires resolve. The iconic monk is the innocuous unarmed man who faces down a gang of thieves, the silent newcomer that does not abide injustice, and the wise voice of reason in a world of silence towards evil. That’s not all a monk can be though, 5th edition monks have plenty of niches and specialties for your punching pleasure. You’ve got tons of fighting styles and disciplines to choose from, including everything from drunken masters to full-on anime style energy punches like something out of Dragonball Z. Mechanically, monks are martial characters with a very high number of low damage attacks and a selection of almost magical abilities akin to cool spells fueled by a special resource called Ki points. They tend to fill a front-line tank and DPS role, but they’ve got enough defensive ability and variety to push into other roles with only a little effort.
Some of the most iconic characters that match the monk class description in D&D include Iron Fist, Ryu from Street Fighter, Ty Lee from Avatar the Last Airbender, most of the characters from Dragonball Z and many other Shonen anime, and Jackie Chan in practically every role he has ever played.
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Monk Class Features
Before we get into the builds and options in this article, we should go through the fundamental features and rules that define the monk.
While you aren’t wearing armor or using a shield you get a special AC that represents your superhuman agility and resilience. This AC is 10 + your Dexterity modifier + your Wisdom modifier.
Firstly, this means you won’t use or need armor or shields as a monk.
Secondly, it means you’ll want your Dexterity and Wisdom as high as possible to push your AC as high as you can get it. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem since these are your key abilities anyway, but more on that when we get into monk ability scores.
Finally, this means you’ll probably have an AC between 16 to 18 for the majority of your adventures. Those aren’t bad ACs by any stretch, but you likely won’t be quite as tanky as a paladin or heavy armored fighter, but you’ll still be able to hold your own in melee.
This is the meat and potatoes of the class that you’ll be using from 1st level all the way to 20th level. The martial arts feature is actually a bunch of stuff stapled together, and it’s easy to gloss over or misunderstand parts of it. Fundamentally though this ability lets you do real damage with your unarmed strikes, rather than the practically nothing damage that your fists would normally do.
To start with, let’s get a good handle on “monk weapons”, which can be all sorts of things really, but have a few stipulations. To be used as a monk weapon, it must be a Simple Melee weapon, and it CANNOT be Two-Handed, or Heavy. And for whatever reason, it can also be a Shortsword.
Being a “monk weapon” matters because you can’t really do any of your cool martial arts if you try to use a weapon that isn’t a monk weapon. So, while you’re not wearing armor or using any of those despicable “not monk weapons”, you get the following 3 features:
- You get to use Dexterity instead of Strength for all your attack and damage rolls with your unarmed strikes and monk weapons.
- Instead of the measly 1 damage normal for unarmed strikes, or whatever damage your monk weapon would do, you deal 1d4 instead. This damage is called your martial arts die, and it improves when you hit later levels.
- Whenever you make an Attack, you get to make an unarmed attack as a bonus action. Note that this is absolutely free and doesn’t take any ki points.
It's also worth mentioning that you attack with proficiency with your unarmed melee attack, just in case you weren't sure.
Putting this all together, as a monk you’ll be an effective damage dealer with just your fists, where most characters would be useless. There’re also a couple very important points here to optimize.
Firstly, your martial arts damage improves to 1d6 at 5th level, 1d8 at 11th level, and 1d10 at 17th level.
This means that at the early levels, you'll benefit more from your monk weapon options then you will from your unarmed strikes, so you should make use of one. After you hit 1d8 though, the simple weapon options can't really keep up and your fists will give you a better benefit.
Speaking of monk weapons, statistically the best one is going to be the quarterstaff since it lets you get up to 1d8 if you use both hands. Other weapons have some utility but it really with the extra damage potential it's the best option all around. When in doubt, use a quarterstaff.
Starting at 2nd level, you gain a special resource called “ki points” that you can spend to activate a ton of different features.
Your ki points equals your monk level, so a 5th level monk has 5 ki points, Etc.
You get all your ki points back on a short rest, so you shouldn’t feel too bad about spending them in any given fight.
Some of your ki point abilities will force a saving throw just like a spell, for those situations your DC is 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Wisdom Modifier.
Now getting to the good stuff, we have the lovely ki abilities you gain access to at 2nd level. You’ll get some more at higher levels or from your monk archetype, but these are the basic ones:
Flurry of Blows: This is going to be the feature you use the most often, as it lets you turn your ki point into more melee attacks for a better damage output. Immediately after you make an attack action, you can spend a ki point to make 2 more unarmed attacks as a bonus action. If you’ll remember from your martial arts feature, you already get to make a single attack as a bonus action, so really this is letting you spend a ki point for 1 more attack than you could normally do.
Patient Defense: This lets you spend a ki point to use the dodge action as a bonus action. It sucks that it uses up your bonus action, but dodging is a powerful ability. When you dodge any attacks against you until your next turn have disadvantage and doing so usually costs a whole action. If you’re on the ropes or trying to tank for the party, remember this feature and pop it for some extra survivability.
Step of the Wind: This lets you spend a ki point to use the disengage or dash actions as a bonus action instead, and also triples your jump distances for the turn. The typical use of this feature is to close a distance when you absolutely need to, but the jump part is nothing to sneeze at. Even if you have a flat Strength score of 10, using this ability would make your long jump distance 30 feet and you could jump 9 feet straight up. Remember this if you’re facing a wide chasm or need to reach difficult places.
Starting at 2nd level, you move faster when you’re not wearing armor or a shield (which you shouldn’t be doing as a monk anyway). It starts out as 10 feet of extra movement, which is already huge, but you get even more movement speed as you hit higher monk levels. This all serves to make monks incredibly mobile, and you’ll really be able to get anywhere you need to be in most combat situations. Once you hit 9th level you can even run up vertical surfaces and step across water so long as your movement doesn’t end there.
Starting at 3rd level, you get to be an absolute badass and catch arrows and other missiles with your bare hands. When you get shot at you can use your reaction to reduce the amount of damage you take by catching it or deflecting it away. You simply roll 1d10, add your Dexterity modifier and your monk level, and reduce the damage by that amount.
This does use up your reaction, which you only have one of per round, so that means that the 2nd arrow will sadly still be able to hit you.
It gets even cooler though, because if you manage to reduce a shot all the way down to 0 using this ability, you can spend a ki point to throw it back at them! It works a bit wonky, as it suddenly treats the arrow or bolt as a monk weapon, but you basically get to make a ranged attack at another target within a short range of 20 feet, or a long range of 60 feet.
This ability you pick up at 4th level is incredibly simple, but I find a lot of DMs and players will slip up on it because in other editions it was more complicated. Simply put, monks take less fall damage. When you’re falling, you can use your reaction to take 5 X your monk level less falling damage than you would normally take. This means that most of the time, you won’t be taking any fall damage at all unless you try jumping off of mountains. Even then, 5e has a maximum fall damage of 20d6, which has an average output of 70 damage. This means once you hit level 14 you have good odds of jumping off literally anything and taking no damage, even if you fall for miles!
At 5th level, you get what is arguably the monk’s strongest ability. After hitting creatures with a melee weapon attack (make note here that it’s after you already hit) you can spend a ki point to turn that hit into a “stunning strike” and hit that creature with precision. A creature hit by your stunning strike makes a Constitution saving throw (using your ki point DC), and if it fails it is stunned until the end of your next turn. This is amazing because the stunned condition is ROUGH. A stunned creature can’t take actions or reactions, which means you basically skip their next turn. They automatically fail Dexterity and Strength saving throws, and all attacks against them have advantage.
To put it another way, if you walk up and stun the big bad guy, your whole party basically gets to freely wail on them as they skip their next turn, and you can do it again on your next turn!
This feature makes monks a nightmare for big single enemies if they have a low Constitution score, as you can essentially stun lock them out of a fight. You’ll find it less effective against big muscle-bound monsters as they usually have a high Con, but especially against powerful but flimsy spellcasting type enemies you can just obliterate them if you get into melee.
At 6th level your unarmed strikes count as magical for overcoming damage resistances and immunity. Nonmagical attacks can have trouble against certain creatures so this is an essential bonus. Really, this is just here so that your punches can keep up with other martial classes that would normally be getting their first magic weapons about this level.
Evasion isn't unique to the monk, but still incredibly strong. At 7th level you only take half damage from Dexterity-based effects like fireball when you fail the saving throw, and you take no damage when you pass.
Stillness of Mind
Also at 7th level, you can spend an action to cure yourself of the frightened or charmed condition. Keep in mind that your flurry of blows and martial arts bonus action attack still requires you to use your action to attack first, so even though you may have a spare bonus action using this feature usually means you aren't attacking that turn.
Purity of Body
The wording on this isn't quite clear, but they've cleared it up in a later FAQ. At 10th level you become straight up immune to disease and poison. Which means that you can't catch any diseases, you are immune to the poisoned condition, and you are immune to poison damage.
Tongue of the Sun and Moon
This is a very weird ability to pick up at 13th level, but you get to magically understand all spoken languages and everybody can understand you. It's a useful feature to be sure, but odd at tier 3. Keep in mind it is only spoken languages, so you won't be translating any ancient texts.
At 14th level you gain proficiency in all the saving throws you didn't have before, and you can spend a ki point to reroll a save. Getting a bit better at ability checks is nice, but the real improvement here is rerolling the saves. As long as you have some ki left you should realistically pass most saving throws that matter.
At 15th level you stop "feeling the effects of age", and you no longer need food or water. This is sort of a hold-over from previous editions (sometimes called wholeness of body) where aging had more impact. In old editions aging could affect your abilities like Charisma and strength, but it just doesn't do anything now (besides flavor differences). Even the food and water part really shouldn't be an issue this late in the game. For the most part, this ability doesn't matter other than flavor and fluff.
At 18th level you can spend 4 ki points to go into "empty body mode" for a minute in which you are invisible and have resistance to all damage except for force damage. You also get the option to blow 8 ki points to do the spell equivalent of astral projection, which can be a potential benefit for late game adventures. Invisibility and resistance to practically all damage is totally worth those 4 ki, and at this late stage of play you should likely be using it for every major encounter.
Finally, at 20th level you get your capstone that restores 4 ki whenever you start initiative without any. Essentially all this does is let you spend your ki even more liberally. It's not the strongest capstone, but honestly there aren't many adventures where you'd get to this level anyway, so it's neither here nor there.
Building a Better Monk
Monk Ability Scores
From your starting level to your final ability score improvement at 19th level, you'll need to decide where best to put your ability points. To maximize the advantages of the monk class, put your highest ability roll into Dexterity. Most of the weapons you use as a monk will rely on your Dexterity score for attack rolls. So Dex will be your most important ability.
Monk’s use ki, the mystical energy that flows through living bodies, to enhance their physical power. But the use of ki often requires Wisdom. So put your second-highest roll into Wis.
Con is also an important stat for any D&D 5E character. It will allow you to gain more hit points as you level, giving you more survivability in combat. And it will help in many situations that require saving throws. Put your third-highest roll into Con.
Charisma, Intelligence, and Strength are generally not useful to monks. So put your low rolls into these.
5e D&D is intrinsically flexible, and really any selections and combinations you can make will still result in a playable character. However, if you’re interested in making optimal use of all the resources you have available to you, you’ll want to select a race for your monk character that has a bonus in both Dexterity and Wisdom:
Elf (Pallid or Wood)
Elves gain +2 Dexterity and both the pallid and wood subrace options will net you +1 Wisdom. Both are excellent choices, but you’ll have an easier time getting access to wood elves as pallid elves are a bit overpowered as they get permanent advantage on Insight and Investigation checks and they are technically setting locked into the Critical Role world of Exandria. Still, wood elves are an attractive option from a mobility standpoint as they’ll get to stack even more movement up for your monk.
Halflings get the all-important +2 Dexterity, and the ghostwise subrace snags you +1 Wisdom. Halflings are always a powerful option due to the Lucky feature, and the monk’s bonus movement makes up for their relatively slow speed. Ghostwise also gives you straight-up telepathy, which is just as useful as it sounds.
Base human gets +1 to every ability score, and variant human will get you a powerful 1st level feat alongside +1 to any abilities of your choice (so Dexterity and Wisdom). Humans are intentionally flexible, and they really are a viable option for every class. You should especially consider taking variant human (assuming your DM is allowing it) if you’re trying to work towards any complex combat builds that take a lot of feats to function.
Your favorite difficult to spell bird people get +2 Dexterity and +1 Wisdom alongside their one real important feature which is the ability to fly. These birds are by far the most commonly banned player race, so the odds of you actually getting to play one is low. However, if you get the chance, they’re the ideal monks, with a perfect ability spread and about the strongest mobility feature you could hope for.
Your favorite easy to spell bird people also get +2 Dexterity and +1 Wisdom, but flight is a distant fantasy. Instead, you get a smattering of stealthy features that feel a bit more roguish than monk-like. However, they’re a strong fit if you plan on playing a Way of Shadow monk as you’ll have a lot of potential uses for the kenku forgery and mimicry as a spooky shadow monk.
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When your monk reaches 3rd level, you’ll get to choose a monastic tradition. This is your subclass that will determine a lot of your class features and how your character will play.
Way of Mercy
Cleric by way of monk, this tradition’s main feature is the ability to spend your ki points for healing or to deal necrotic damage similar to inflict wounds. You’ll find yourself burning through ki points even faster than most monks, but if you diligently save ki for healing you can be a surprisingly effective party medic.
Way of Shadow
This is another strong option for a monastic tradition that relies on stealth and darkness. At level 3, Shadow Arts gives you a handful of spells to cast using ki, including Pass Without Trace and Minor Illusion. At level 6, Shadow Step allows you to teleport from one dim-light area to another and gain advantage on your next attack roll.
Way of the Ascendant Dragon
This archetype is still under construction as an unearthed arcana so your DM may or may not allow it, but this is one of the best straight DPS options for any monk compared to previous monk traditions. You get to change up your damage type on the fly (which helps to overcome resistance) between a bunch of fantastic options, and you can turn your ki points into a dragon breath style attack. At 6th level you even get "dragon wings", which grant you a very limited but viable fly speed. Pick this up if dealing damage and pretending to be draconic creatures sounds fun.
Way of the Astral Self
Literally become a Jojo’s character as this tradition lets you summon an ethereal stand to do your punches for you. Aside from the endless anime references, it’s mechanically a solid front-line fighting archetype with a very odd twist. It allows you to use your Wisdom in place of your Dexterity for all your attacking needs, and with this archetype you can really drop Dexterity for the most part in favor of maximizing Wisdom and Constitution. Pick this one for the anime, or also if you like the idea of being extra wise and beefy.
Way of the Cobalt Soul
This archetype comes to us from Critical Role so it’s technically only in Exandria but with a little pleading your DM may allow it elsewhere. Thematically these are the nerdy knowledge seeking monks and mechanically they mix in a little bit of investigator with the ability to learn core features like damage vulnerabilities of whatever you’re fighting and a slew of extra skill proficiencies. Try this out if you want to punch things, but also want to investigate some history and mysteries on the side.
Way of the Drunken Master
Sway your tipsy self-right in and out of combat. You get to make your attacks and disengage every turn (well every turn you use flurry of blows). It’s a strong choice for any aspiring monk that wants to practically dance their way through the melee.
Way of the Four Elements
This tradition is underpowered because it uses up ki in exchange for access to a limited spell list. But if you want to play a character with this tradition, here are the best features to use:
Fangs of The Fire Snake - Spend 1 ki point to make tendrils of fire come from your hands or feet, increasing your unarmed reach by 10 ft. Spend another ki point to do an extra 1d10 fire damage.
Mist Stance - At level 11, you can turn yourself or another person into a gaseous form. This can be used on a foe during combat to render him harmless. Or it can be used on allies in non-combat situations so they can travel through cracks in the walls, keyholes, etc.
Ride the Wind - At level 11, you can use this feature to fly.
Way of the Kensei
This is the weapon monk, and it’s mainly about DPS and making the enemy dead fast. You pick a couple weapon types and you get to do a whole bunch of cool monk abilities with them. It’s also a great option for an archer monk, as you can pick longbows or other ranged weapons as your kensei weapons.
Way of the Long Death
This is the archetypal “evil monk”, which rewards you for being ruthless with temporary hit points whenever you kill something. You also get fear abilities and eventually at 11th level you get to essentially spend ki points to stay alive. Mechanically it’s a fine archetype that will work well for any monk getting into the thick of combat, but the fluff is so opaquely evil that you may run into DMs that will nix it for good parties.
Way of the Open Hand
This is a strong choice for a tradition, and many players believe it is the best. At level 3, Open Hand Technique enhances Flurry of Blows, allowing you to knock a foe prone or move him 15 ft. away from you whenever you use this feature. The victim gets a saving throw against Dex or Str to avoid these effects. You can instead prevent him from taking a reaction until the end of your next turn. In this case, he gets no saving throw against it.
Way of the Sun Soul
Laser monk! You might have heard of this one as the method for playing Ryu in 5e, and it is. You basically get to do all your monk attacks at range as your punches turn into beams of searing light. It’s not actually all that strong, but it sure is awesome and the range does make some combats easier to navigate.
No monk guide would be complete without a list of feats to pick. So here they are:
Lucky - Gives you luck points that allow you to sometimes roll an extra d20 and choose which one counts or to cancel the luck of others. This feat is frequently used to get adventurers out of dangerous situations.
Mobile - +10 ft. speed. Allows you to Dash through difficult terrain without it costing you extra movement. Prevents you from getting hit with opportunity attacks in response to your melee attacks. A nice feat for any class, but especially for nimble monks
Alert - +5 to initiative, prevents you from being surprised if conscious, negates the advantage hidden opponents have on attack rolls when hiding from you. What’s not to love?
Mage Slayer - Monks are great against melee and even ranged attackers, but spellcasters may give them a problem. This feat gives you bonus attacks against persons attempting to cast spells and advantage on saving throws vs spells. It also gives disadvantage to a victim whose concentration you are trying to break. If you face a lot of spellcasters in your campaign, this a great feat for a monk to have.
Resilient - Gives you + 1 to an ability score of your choosing and advantage on saving throws using that ability.
Optional Monk Features
In Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything every class got a set of optional features that act like a sort of upgrade patch to fix issues and improve things that needed improving. These features are technically optional, but assuming your DM allows them, make sure to include these class features with your new monk:
More or less, this lets you treat any weapon as a monk weapon if you focus on it for a short rest. You still can’t turn heavy weapons into monk weapons, so for the most part this isn’t a damage increase. Really, what this does is solve the “monk weapon” problem when you get a cool weapon, but it isn’t technically a monk weapon. Now it is a non-issue.
A lot of the ki abilities have had a utility problem, in that using ki points for more attacks is often more useful than the other abilities and doing both drains ki points fast. Now with this rather major buff, you get to make an extra attack every turn you spend a ki point. Suddenly all those other ki abilities feel a lot stronger.
Gained at 4th level, this new feature lets you spend 2 ki points to heal hit points equal to a roll of your martial arts die + your proficiency bonus. Efficiency-wise this is lackluster healing at the cost of 2 ki, but it’s a free new addition and any healing when you’re about to die can be a lifesaver. Just keep this new feature in mind if you’re beaten up or you’re about to do a short rest anyway and would rather not spend the hit die.
Gained at 5th level, this lets you potentially turn misses into hits at the cost of 1 ki point per +2 bonus, up to +6 on an attack! This is a straight up buff that makes monks significantly stronger. The way 5e functions there will be a lot of times where your attacks will only miss by a little bit, and it may cost ki but being able to force that damage through is huge.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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