This article was first broadcast in Episode Thirty-Eight on 29th August 2018.
Ryu: I really don’t think they’re worth it.
Lennon: Well I don’t think they exist just because someone was bored
Ostron: What are you two arguing about
Ryu: Monks. I don’t get them.
Lennon: And…to be honest I don’t really know any
Ostron: Oh monks are great
Ryu: Of course you’d say that; as soon as you look at how to become one you have a bunch of weird calculations to do.
Ostron: Well….okay, you’re not wrong.
For most of the classes in D&D people have a vague idea of what their purpose is just based on popular fantasy tropes. Druids make plants and animals do weird things, wizards blow things up, warlocks hurt things and are creepy, fighters hit things, barbarians hit things but angrier, and so on. But when you get to monks, most people give a vague answer along the lines of “don’t they do martial arts and jump around and stuff? And they’re weird?”
Monks are something of a cult class in D&D. The people who like playing monks REALLY like playing monks, and the ones who don’t or haven’t often have a hard time getting into them because it’s difficult to point to their purpose the way you can with a fighter, wizard, or cleric. Few people recommend them to new players because their mechanics ARE a little complex, the same thing that keeps most powergamers away from the class.
So what is it that makes monks so odd? Well it’s a combination of things. First they have a bunch of abilities centered around being unarmed and unarmored. They get a bonus to unarmed strikes right away, and they get extra AC from NOT wearing armor, similar to the barbarian. Then, beginning at 2nd level, they get extra movement speed and their infamous ki points.
This is where the powergamers give up most of the time. The unarmed bonus only turns the unarmed damage from 1 to 1d4, which is better but not amazing from a math standpoint. Also, the AC is based on Dexterity and Wisdom, but Wisdom may or may not get used for any other combat abilities, so maxing out the stat ONLY helps your AC. And while you may have a higher than average AC, you’re only getting a d8 for your hit die, so your health total is not going to be anything to write home about compared to a paladin or fighter.
All of those things immediately start a debate about what the monk should be doing in context of a group, particularly at lower levels. Do they try to use their higher AC to absorb the attacks, knowing that they won’t be outputting a ton of damage and if anything actually hits them they will almost immediately need healing? Or should they be using their extra movement and ki abilities do dip in and out of close combat?
The frustrating thing for most people is that any of those roles can be done better by other classes at the early levels. Any of the more solid “tanky” classes can form a more solid defensive line, and rogues and rangers are much better at diving in and out of active combat and, at least on paper, doing more damage on average than the monk.
So why play them? Why does everyone hate Warlocks when these monks seem frustrating and useless? Well, let me paint you a picture of a Monk at level 10:
- They have an extra 20 feet of movement, so even a dwarf is going 55 feet a turn
- Their AC, without any armor, is between 18 and 20 and if someone hits them with a ranged attack, they can reduce or eliminate the damage
- Most of the time, when they’re attacking, they get 4 attacks that do d6 magical damage each
- They can completely avoid damage from area effects and falling
Like their real life counterparts, monk characters require patience for there to be any payoff. Monks never really get a massively showy single ability like a rogue’s sneak attack damage or a champion fighter’s wider critical range. They get little abilities here and there that, on their own, don’t do very much. But when you combine them with everything else the monk gets it turns into a very useful package.
The only exception to the showy abilities is when the monk chooses a monastic tradition. Once that happens, the monk’s utility becomes a lot more obvious as their initial tradition choice guides a lot of how they will be using the monk. Drunken Masters, for example, are great and weaving in and out of combat and can even make enemies hit each other. Kensei monks gain even more defense and can increase their weapon damage. Sun soul monks can do all of their regular attacks from 30 feet away without a weapon or magic. Speaking of magic, Elemental monks just straight up use their ki points to cast spells.
Again, one of the challenges with the monk is the patience required and the awareness of how abilities do or will synergize with each other. This is usually why newer players shy away from them and describing their specific role in the party is tough. Also, none of the official monk builds at the moment focus on non-combat roles, so those interested in being more of a diplomat or even a support character won’t gain much from playing it. There was a “Way of Tranquility” path that focused on healing and diplomacy but so far that’s only been released through UA.
The monk doesn’t necessarily get you anything from multiclassing either. Where some classes can grab a d12 hit die from a level in barbarian or sneak attack damage from a level in rogue, the monk’s slow ramp-up means there aren’t immediate benefits to taking a level. The level one abilities are unarmored defense, which you have to strip off your armor to take advantage of, and Martial arts, which only works if you’re unarmed. An argument can be made for a spellcaster that needs to bolster their defense and ability to hit back if something closes, but they’d be sacrificing spell slots to grab that.
So in short, the monk is tricky. Both you and your group of players have to have patience if you play one. At early levels, you’re going to be on the squishier side and definitely need a stronger buddy with you or someone to heal away your pain if you jump into the front line. However, if you stick with it you’re going to end up being a formidable combatant that’s able to get out of most situations and do damage besides.
Ryu: …I still don’t know. I still prefer my knives
Ostron: Well then don’t be surprised if you run into a guy in robes and he hits you from across a room before outrunning you completely.