The DnD 5e Monk Guide

Published on June 25, 2020, Last modified on July 15th, 2020

In this guide, we will be examining the 5e Monk’s Class Features and how you can optimize your Monk through choosing your Race, Ability Score, Spells, and Feats. This article will focus primarily on content from the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook, but will also delve into some of the content in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.

What is this guide?

This guide is meant as a deep dive into the DnD 5e Monk. For a quick overview on the Monk Class, see our breakdown of the DnD 5e Classes. You can see the Monk Class Features here.

In this post, we will be examining the Monk’s Class Features and how you can optimize your Monk through choosing your Race, Ability Score, Spells, Feats, etc.

The color code below has been implemented to help you identify, at a glance, how good that option will be for your Monk. This color coding isn’t a hard and fast rule; there are plenty of sub-optimized options out there that will be viable to your party and will be fun to play.

  • Red isn’t going to contribute to the effectiveness of your character build at all
  • Orange is an OK option
  • Green is a good option
  • Blue is a great option, you should strongly consider this option for your character
  • Sky Blue is an amazing option. If you do not take this option your character would not be optimized

So if you’re ready, power up that ki and get punching!

Did you know?

D&D Beyond can help create your characters by making choices using a step-by-step approach. Full customization and control of your character, none of the flipping through hundreds of pages to reference obscure rules.

Before You Start

Races

Check out our Guide to DnD Races for non-standard races. Keep in mind, most races and subraces are limited by the setting and source material chosen by the DM. Check with your DM before selecting any of the races not listed below.

The Monk’s AC, attack bonus, damage and other important features depend on DEX, so it is by far the most important stat to stack. WIS is next because it will enable the Monk’s Ki features. CON is also nice but not as important.

Dragonborn: STR and CHA doesn’t do anything for Monks since they use DEX for attack and damage rolls instead.

Dwarf: As mentioned above, CON is helpful but not a priority.

  • Hill: WIS and hit points, but no DEX unfortunately.
  • Mountain: STR doesn’t do anything for Monks since they use DEX for attack and damage rolls instead.

Elf: Proficiency in Perception is great; Perception is the best skill in D&D 5e. In addition, the DEX score increase of 2 pairs perfectly with the Monk’s game plan. 

  • Drow ElfCHA needs to be a dump stat so Monks can pump their DEX, WIS, and CON. Sunlight sensitivity is just flat out annoying.
  • High Elf: INT doesn’t do anything for Monks, but a cantrip from the Wizard spell list offers some utility.
  • Wood Elf: Everything here is great. A WIS score increase and higher movement speed is helpful to any Monk, while Mask of the Wild pairs well if you are trying out a sneaky build.

Gnome: Gnomes excel for spellcaster classes, but monks are not suited for that style of play.

  • Forest: Some DEX and the Minor Illusion cantrip. Mediocre option.
  • Rock: Nothing here is going to help the Monk.

Half-Elf: CHA is bad but you can increase DEX and WIS by 1. Proficiency in two skills is also a nice bonus.

Half-Orc: Leave this one to the STR based classes.

Halfling: Great DEX bonus and the Lucky class feature is really helpful. Plus it’s incredibly funny to imagine a little dude running around punching things.

  • Lightfoot: Hiding behind creatures is useful even if you’re not a Rogue.
  • Stout: Higher CON is good to be less squishy.

Human: Humans are always decent.

  • Vanilla: A middle of the road pick because they increase all their ability scores by 1.
  • Variant: You can increase your DEX, WIS, and CON scores as you see fit. Also, having a feat at 1st level is really powerful, especially because Monks usually want to take ASI over feats when they level up.

TieflingThe ability scores Tieflings receive simply aren’t what a Monk wants. Hellish Rebuke is a cool spell to have but your CHA will likely be quite low.

Ability Scores

Ability Score Increases (ASI) at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level.

Monks rely on multiple abilities, meaning you need to dump some stats. The best thing to do is to focus on DEX, WIS, and then CON, in that order.

STR: Take some STR if you’d like to Shove or Grapple enemies, both of which can be quite good for Monks.

DEX: Monks use DEX for everything. Attack rolls and damage rolls are calculated using DEX, and Monks also want decent AC due to their average hit points. Deflect Missiles is also affected by DEX and helps to keep you alive.

CON: Don’t ignore CON. Letting your hit points fall behind as you level up because of a low CON score is a surefire way to be very vulnerable at higher levels.

INT: You probably need to dump INT to ensure a decent amount of DEX, WIS, and CON.

WIS: Unarmored Defense lets WIS contribute more to AC. Some of your ki abilities also rely on WIS. 

CHA: You probably need to dump CHA to ensure a decent amount of DEX, WIS, and CON.


Monk Class Progression

1st Level

Hit Points: A d8 of hit points is pretty deadly considering that Monks engage in melee combat. Luckily they sport a sizeable AC due to Unarmored Defense.

Saves: DEX saves happen all the time and Monks will be great at succeeding at those. STR saves are typically less important but do come up more often than something like an INT save.

Weapon/Armour Proficiencies: Monks don’t get any options for armor or shields, but they don’t really want them anyways due to Unarmored Defense. Many of the Monk weapons aren’t great either but being able to use DEX instead of STR bonuses should help some.

SkillsOnly two skills and the list to choose from is pretty subpar.

  • Acrobatics (DEX): Sadly Acrobatics is quite an underutilized skill. Many situations use Athletics instead or there is already a rule in place such as for jumping distance. Some DMs like to be more lenient and let you use Acrobatics for skill checks if you ask. 
  • Athletics (STR): Good for grapples and moving around difficult environments, especially if you don’t completely neglect STR.
  • History (INT): Can be nice if you enjoy lore and roleplaying, but you will make your DM work extra hard! Unfortunately your INT score won’t be high enough to take advantage of this skill.
  • Insight (WIS): Monks typically have a good WIS score to take advantage of Insight. It’s a pity that this isn’t Perception though, since Perception is just better most of the time.
  • Religion (INT): Same as History but sometimes more useful if your campaign includes gods. Unfortunately your INT score won’t be high enough to take advantage of this skill.
  • Stealth (DEX): Since Monks have high DEX and don’t wear any noisy heavy armor they are a great option for sneaking around or scouting. Although if you have a Rogue in the party your usefulness in that regard becomes next to zero.

Unarmored Defense: Once you hit 20 in both DEX and WIS you’ll manage to get 20 AC. Not too shabby for a character without armor but that won’t be until level 19 if you don’t take any feats.

Martial Arts: This is the key feature that makes the Monk actually work as a class. Most importantly, STR can be dumped in favor of DEX and an extra attack as a bonus action helps keep damage more consistent with other classes.

2nd Level

Ki: Ki features some fantastic options for combat that can use your bonus action to maximize action economy.

  • Flurry of Blows: You can either do Flurry of Blows for a total of three attacks or the extra attack from Martial Arts for two, not both. Still, Flurry of Blows is a solid way to get in more damage.
  • Patient Defense: The Dodge action is a great way to avoid taking damage.
  • Step of the Wind: Step of the Wind grants some good in-combat mobility options.

Unarmored Movement: Increased speed is another reason to leave armor for your party members. Walking on water and vertical surfaces is also situationally useful.

3rd Level

Deflect Missles: Super cool if you manage to catch the missile and hurl it back at your foe. Obviously Deflect Missiles won’t work with spells, so its usefulness is limited.

At 3rd level, the 5e Monk may choose their Monastic Tradition. 

Way of the Drunken Master

Source: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

Surprisingly, Way of the Drunken Master excels at mobility and is a great option if you like to move around the battlefield.

  • Bonus Proficiencies: Performance isn’t a skill that one usually hopes to be proficient in, but perhaps it does make sense flavor-wise given the drunken nature of this subclass. The brewer’s supplies proficiency also falls into this category.
  • Drunken Technique: Somehow in your drunken stupor you can combine Flurry of Blows with the Disengage action and heightened mobility. Great for weaving in and out of combat.
  • Tipsy Sway:
    • Leap to Your Feet: Only really good if you get knocked prone and need to hightail it out of there. Otherwise, after being knocked prone half your movement should usually suffice.
    • Redirect Attack: This feature feels awesome to use, but only comes in handy when you’re near more than one enemy. Even still, it’s really effective at increasing damage output per turn.
  • Drunkard’s Luck: Negating disadvantage on a saving throw could potentially save your skin. The same could be true to a lesser extent for ability checks and attack rolls.
  • Intoxicated Frenzy: Combined with Drunken Technique you’re in for a wild ride. Your party members will stare in awe as you sprint around the battlefield punching anything that moves.

Way of the Four Elements

Source: Player’s Handbook

Perhaps the most versatile and unique Monastic Tradition, allowing you to cast spells. Unfortunately using the elemental disciplines is quite expensive in terms of ki points, meaning more often than not you’ll still end up using Flurry of Blows.

  • 3rd Level
    • Elemental Attunement: Not as useful as Minor Illusion or Prestidigitation, but you get this automatically.
    • Fangs of the Fire Snake: The damage isn’t great, but 10 feet of range and fire damage could come in handy.
    • Fist of the Four Thunders: Thunderwave is a fairly good spell for a melee character who is pretty squishy, since it has a chance to push them away.
    • Fist of Unbroken Air: Knocking an enemy prone won’t help you directly since you already attacked for the turn, but it can set up some nice damage for your Rogue’s Sneak Attack.
    • Rush of the Gale Spirits: If you want to push enemies, use Fist of the Four Thunders because it does damage as well.
    • Shape of the Flowing River: If you are near water or ice, Shape of the Flowing River is amazing. If you are literally anywhere else, it sucks.
    • Sweeping Cinder Strike: Burning Hands isn’t usually the best spell, but as a Monk you’ll take what you can get. 
    • Water Whip: Another way to move your enemies and knock them prone.
  • 6th Level
    • Clench of the North Wind: Hold Person can turn the tide of a fight by taking out the scariest humanoid opponent.
    • Gong of the Summit: Destroying armor and weapons your opponents have is pretty funny, since you will then proceed to show them that fists are better anyways.
  • 11th Level
    • Flames of the Phoenix: Fireball is always awesome. At higher levels you will have to spend quite a few ki points for the damage to remain significant, making this expensive.
    • Mist Stance: Enhances your ability to get in and out of places you shouldn’t be.
    • Ride the Wind: Flight is usually a massive combat advantage, but most of the Monk’s abilities are only useful when in melee distance.
  • 17th Level
    • Breath of Winter: If you took Flames of the Phoenix, you already have a solid AoE option. If not, this is worth considering.
    • Eternal Mountain Defense: Coupled with a good AC, Eternal Mountain Defense will make your Monk capable of tanking quite well.
    • River of Hungry Flame: Wall spells are strong. They let you split up the fight, escape, or prevent escape.
    • Wave of Rolling Earth: Same as River of Hungry Flame. You can also use this to make a bridge or ramp.

Way of the Long Death

Source: Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

Way of the Long Death assumes a more robust role for the Monk. Take this Monastic Tradition if you want to be similar to a tank character.

  • Touch of Death: Temporary hit points keep you in the fight and are especially good at early levels when your AC and regular hit points are still quite low. The fact that you can use this every time a creature near you is hit to 0 hit points is very powerful.
  • Hour of Reaping: Very similar to the Fear spell. Great for crowd control and getting out of a sticky situation.
  • Mastery of Death: Makes you near unkillable as long as you have ki points left to burn.
  • Touch of the Long Death: Good as a burst of damage if you know you won’t be needing any more ki points and choose to spend a fair few. If you don’t have many ki points left or want to save them, just use your fists.

Way of the Open Hand

Source: Player’s Handbook

Way of the Open Hand is what would be considered the classic approach to the Monk class. It allows for the typical playstyle of the class but can’t really do anything special.

  • Open Hand Technique: Adds a little spice to your Flurry of Blows. Knocking enemies prone, pushing them away, or blocking their reactions are all useful options to both you and your party.
  • Wholeness of Body: It’s great to be able to heal yourself without your party members having to waste their spell slots or other resources. Scales fairly well.
  • Tranquility: Tranquility is hardly, if ever, useful. Sometimes you really don’t want to be hit, but at that point you’ve likely already attacked and therefore the effect of Tranquility has already ended.
  • Quivering Palm: Instant killing is insanely good, especially since it only costs 3 ki so you can do it multiple times. Even on a failed save 10d10 damage is quite a lot.

Way of the Kensei

Source: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

Way of the Kensei offers an interesting take on the 5e Monk class, but access to more weapons doesn’t make the subclass particularly good. It’s cool, but your fists will do just fine.

  • Path of the Kensei
    • Kensei Weapons: There are some good options, but very few.
      • Melee
        • Battleaxe: The best damage available for any of the melee weapons (1d10).
        • Longsword: Same as battleaxe.
        • Warhammer: Same as battleaxe.
        • Whip: Poor damage, but the damage die does scale with your level and it gives you reach.
      • Ranged
        • Longbow: Better than crossbows since they don’t have the loading property.
        • Crossbows: The problem with crossbows is that they have the loading property, which can only be mitigated by the Crossbow Mastery feat. Monks are better off taking other feats or using ASI instead.
    • Agile Parry: Monks critically need the bonus AC that Agile Parry grants. Remember that you must make an unarmed strike as one of your attacks to use this.
    • Kensei’s Shot: Necessary to make your ranged attacks viable, it takes up your bonus action but the damage applies to both strikes. Also, if you are in ranged distance, you likely don’t need to make that extra unarmed strike.
    • Way of the Brush: Useless.
  • One with the Blade:
    • Magic Kensei Weapons: Similar to the class feature Ki-Empowered Strikes. Really great if your weapon isn’t magical.
    • Deft Strike: By the time you reach 6th level, you will have access to a lot of Ki points that can recharge on a short rest. This is a great way to sneak extra damage in when you need it.
  • Sharpen the Blade: Sharpen the Blade is fantastic if you want to mainly stick with your weapon as a source of damage. Otherwise, save your ki for Flurry of Blows.
  • Unerring Accuracy: More reliable damage output with your Kensei weapon of choice.

Way of Shadow

Source: Player’s Handbook

As the name implies, Way of Shadow allows the Monk to assume more of a stealth role. In that respect, this subclass is a ton of fun. Unfortunately, Rogues can do most of it better.

  • Shadow Arts:
    • Darkness: Great to confuse, avoid, or escape.
    • Darkvision: Darkvision comes in handy so often, plus this spell lasts for 8 hours.
    • Minor Illusion: You get this amazing cantrip for free. So much utility!
    • Pass Without Trace: Makes sneaking for your whole party so much easier.
    • Silence: Your anti-magic ability since verbal components are a part of many spells.
  • Shadow Step: Teleportation! Sadly it only works in dim light or darkness and advantage on a single attack won’t do all that much considering you have Flurry of Blows. 
  • Cloak of Shadows: Free invisibility but also limited to dim light and darkness.
  • Opportunist: It’s like an opportunity attack that doesn’t require the enemy to be moving past you. Helps you pile on more damage per round.

Way of the Sun Soul

Source: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

Way of the Sun Soul is relatively unexciting, and the damage largely depends on how much ki you are willing to part with. If you’re willing to live with these downsides, the Way of the Sun Soul Monk is viable as a hybrid melee and ranged character.

  • Radiant Sun Bolt: Ranged attack with a relatively weak damage die unless you spend ki.
  • Searing Arc Strike: Casting Burning Hands as a bonus action can add lots of damage. Probably best used in combination with your ranged attack (Radiant Sun Bolt) so that you can catch as many enemies as possible in the cone.
  • Searing Sunburst: Again, weak damage die unless you spend a HEFTY amount of ki points.
  • Sun Shield: If your enemies want to focus on you Sun Shield will make them pay for it.

4th Level

Slow Fall: This isn’t useful that often, but you’ll be happy to have it when it does.

5th Level

Extra Attack: At 5th level you’ll become a punching machine! Your choice of Martial Arts (three attacks) or Flurry of Blows (four attacks).

Stunning Strike: Only one ki point to attempt to stun your opponent is a bargain. 

6th Level

Ki-Empowered Strikes: Resistance to nonmagical attacks and damage is an annoying problem when you want to rely on your fists. Ki-Empowered Strikes solves this problem.

7th Level

Stillness of Mind: Getting out of a debilitating condition can be crucial to your party’s success.

10th Level

Purity of Body: Depending on your campaign, Disease and Poison can be a constant threat.

13th Level

Tongue of the Sun and Moon: While this may be good for raw communication, any speech-based ability check will be tough since your CHA is likely very low.

14th Level

Diamond Soul: Saving throws no longer scare you. Proficiency and the ability to reroll in ALL saving throws is insane.

15th Level

Timeless Body: Timeless Body is impossible to give a rank to. Depending on your campaign it’s either the most important class feature or a waste of space.

18th Level

Empty Body: If you don’t have other means of becoming invisible, Empty Body is a welcome ability. Astral Projection can be useful given the circumstances of your campaign.

20th Level

Perfect Self: Makes using up your ki points without knowing what is coming next way less of a gamble.

Feats

Feats aren’t the best option for Monks because they want to max out both DEX and WIS, making all ASI very valuable. Typically, you will take either a single feat or none at all. Here are some options that are often considered.

  • Alert: Being up higher in the initiative order isn’t useful for the Monk.
  • Defensive Duelist: A really interesting option to make it harder to hit you. You need to wield a finesse weapon, but that doesn’t mean you have to attack with it.
  • Lucky: Lucky is a feat that is useful to any character.
  • Mage Slayer: A good option to hose magic users, but doesn’t do anything otherwise.
  • Mobile: Many people like Mobile on a Monk, but Monks already have great movement speed and have Step of the Wind to Disengage safely. However, Mobile adds even more movement and helps you save ki points to move anywhere you want during battle.
  • Sentinel: If you want to keep your enemies locked down and reduce their mobility, Sentinel comes in handy.
  • Tough: Because you need to focus on DEX and WIS, CON often takes a backseat. Tough can bring your hit points up to a reasonable level.

Hope you liked the guide! If you have any questions or feel like we missed something for the 5e Monk, go ahead and post a comment below. If you like our content subscribe to Arcane Eye!

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