D&D General Monk: The Past, Present, and Questionable Future of an Iconic Class

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
How can I miss you if I don't know you're gone?
After a lengthy trek through the various municipalities, localities, and jurisdictions of these United States I find myself back at home with a question on my mind... what are The Powers That Be doing to the Monk? But after looking at the various threads, and reflecting on the issue for a while, I realized that the Monk, much like the Ranger, might simply be struggling with issues of class identity that trace back to the origin of the class. It is remarkable, isn't it, that of the twelve core classes in 5e, ten of them (10/12) existed in OD&D, and are largely unchanged since then. That's right, I'm calling out the young 'uns like the Warlock and the Sorcerer, who are still far away from ordering from the Denny's Senior Menu.

Anyway, the issues with the Monk, and the proposed changes, bother me. The Monk and the Warlock are my two favorite 5e classes. The main reason I find them interesting is because they are mechanically differentiated from the the other classes and thematically differentiated from the other classes; in other words, both of them have both "lore" and "crunch" hooks that I always return to. In particular, the Monk can be rewarding to play as a martial character both because it uses limited resources and because it has both advantages and limitations that make for tactically interesting choices. That said, while I have repeatedly defended the monk class (at least, the past implementation of it), I would never say that it was "OP" or "needed a nerf," only that it was a rewarding choice to play for some people who weren't overly concerned with the power treadmill.

With the preamble out of the way, in order to identify the issues with the class today- and the issues with the proposed implementations for the class- I think it's important to first understand the history of the class. History doesn't repeat, but it usually rhymes. Like blistery. Or wistery.


A. Remo Williams- The First Monk
It's Mercy, Compassion, And Forgiveness I Lack. Not Rationality!
I get a lot of questions. Questions like, "Are you sure you want another double of whiskey?" And, "I can't remember if you told me to cook it with baking powder or baking soda?" Not to mention, "What's the deal with the Monk?" Well, the Monk first appeared in the Blackmoor Supplement of D&D (OD&D) published in 1975. Blackmoor is credited to Dave Arneson, although it is questionable as to how much of the material is truly original or written by him (as opposed to being heavily "edited" by Tim Kask). Among other things, it included two new PC classes- the Assassin and the Monk. This makes the Monk the sixth (or seventh, depending on how you count the Assassin) class in D&D! Yep, the class order in terms of publication is Fighting-Man, Magic-User, Cleric (LBBs), Thief, Paladin (Greyhawk), Monk, Assassin (Blackmoor). That's right, despite the vagaries of the Monk class in the future, it truly is one of the earliest core classes in the entire game.

As for where the Monk came from? Well, if you've read the excellent history of this time by Jon Peterson, Game Wizards, you know that the Blume family doesn't come out of it looking that great. But if you can credit them with one good thing, it might be this- that's right, the Monk class is because Brian Blume wanted to play Remo Williams. For those of you who aren't familiar with the time, there was a dramatic upsurge in interest in America in martial arts in the late 60s into the 70s. In retrospect, a lot of this was pretty cringe- it usually involved someone from the West traveling to the "orient" (usually some unspecified of made-up country) in order to learn from a stereotypical wizened old master, and emerge with all sorts of mystical abilities to kick posterior. Actual martial artists were often reduced to an inferior position (infamously, Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet). Anyway, this was a fairly common trope in all sorts of media- Iron Fist first debuted in comics 1974, Caine was on TV in 1972, and Remo Williams (The Destroyer) had his first novel in 1971. And this overall gestalt, and more specifically Remo Williams, is what Brian Blume wanted to play. And from Blume's desire came the original Monk. Let's have a look at it!


B. The Blackmoor Monk
I Can Tell You With No Ego, This Is My Finest Sword. If On Your Journey, You Should Encounter God, God Will Be Cut.
The first thing to note about the Blackmoor Monk is that it is a subclass of cleric. That's right- while the later AD&D monk is shunted to it's own area, the BM (Blackmoor Monk, not, um, bowel movement) is considered a subclass of the cleric. Now, let's look at what the BM's features are in OD&D as originally written:
1. Armor and Weapons: No armor, but can use any weapon. When using weapons, they add half their level as a bonus (up to eight points).
2. When fighting unarmed, any score 25% or higher (it says 5 or higher, but this is a confusing rule) than the minimum needed to hit the opponent will either stun the opponent for 3-12 turns (30-120 rounds) or kill the opponent. No save. (75% stun, 25% kill). In addition, monks will get multiple attacks and increased damage from unarmed attacks as they increase in levels. See below!
3. Hard to surprise.
4. Can use thief abilities of open locks, remove traps, listening, moving silently, hide in shadows, and climbing sheer surfaces.
5. Can fall distances (depending on level) without taking any damage.
6. Can speak with animals (4th level) and plants (8th).
7. Can feign death (5th level).
8. Can block ESP (6th level).
9. Can heal themselves (7th level).
10. Suggestion and hypnosis have no effect (8th level).
11. Quests and geases have no effect; heightened defense against telepathy (10th level).
12. Quivering Palm at 13th level; effectively, you can kill anything (with delayed effect if you want) of your level or lower. Once a week.
13. Can dodge missiles of any kind, including magic missiles, on a save.
14. Anytime a monk saves, he takes no damage (even if it is a half-damage effect). At eight level, even failed saves are half damage.
15. Increased movement speed, increasing with level.
So imagine an OD&D monk that has maxed out at 16th level- the highest you could go. Not only do you gain all of those abilities above (including the ability to kill anything will less than 16 hit dice, automatically, once a week), you also get the following- an unarmored armor class of -3. A movement speed of 34" (standard is 12") - which is 340 ft or 340 yds, depending on whether you're in a dungeon or outdoors, per round (I know you have questions .... just don't). And ... wait for it .... FOUR ATTACKS per round, with each attack doing 4-40. Think about that last one for a second. The ability to inflict 16-160 hit points each round, with every hit having a chance of stunning or killing the opponent if you roll high. So you might look at all of this and think to yourself, "Self, given this grabbag of insanely overpowered abilities, why didn't every single person play Monks? Why weren't there just swarms of Monks destroying every single dungeon? ALL UR DUNGEONS R BELONG TO MONKS!"

Well, the answer to that (other than the usual, "People have always chosen to play because of lore and their own desires, not just because of grabbags of abilities") is pretty simple- Gygaxian Gatekeeping. Gygaxian Gatekeeping was the old concept that if you gave out a bunch of cool abilities, you had to do two things- either "gate" them behind absurd ability score requirements so that they were hard to roll up (see, e.g., the Paladin's 17 charisma requirement) or pair them with something that made it nearly impossible to play (you wanna play a Drow? awesome .... hope your campaign never goes outside during the day!). See, I've listed all the cool things about the monk ... and there are a LOT of cool things about the Monk. Let's talk about some of the not-so-cool things.

First, you couldn't wear armor. That meant that at level 6, which was pretty high for OD&D, you had an AC of ... 5. That's chainmail.
There were minimum requirements- 12 in strength, and 15 in wisdom and dexterity.
Oh, and hit points? You use a d4. You get mage-level hit points.
You want treasure? Well, you can only every have FOUR magic items. And you have to give away all gold other than what you need for yourself.
And those four magic items? Well, you can use magic weapons, and those rings and miscellaneous items used by thieves. Nothing else. No scrolls. No potions. No nothing.
And followers (NPC henchmen) - they have severe restrictions on those, as well. Which doesn't seem like a big deal to players today, but was considered much more of a restriction in play back then.
To quote Steve Jobs .... And one more thing. You like going past level 6? Well, every time you want to advance. Every. Single. Time. You have to go out and find the single Monk that is higher level and beat him in a fair fight. Fail, and you drop down to the XP below the level you were just at. And does that mean that, from time to time, you will have to defend your level? What do you think?

And that Monk, and those abilities, remained largely unchanged when it was published in the AD&D PHB. Sure, it added new and bizarre restrictions (weapon restrictions, can't use oil). It stretched the class out to level 17. It added some new ribbons at different levels (can't be affected by slow/haste, can't be affected by disease, can't be affected by poison). It clarified a few things to avoid power creep (Monks can't use strength bonuses, Monks can't use dexterity bonuses for AC, explaining and complicating the auto-kill on hits to reduce the possibility, quivering palm also couldn't affect creatures with more than 2x monk hit points). It added even more onerous requirements for the class (15 in strength, wisdom, and dexterity, and 11 in constitution). But in essence, it was a character that was rarely played for a simple reason. As attractive and overpowered as the Monk was at higher levels, there simply wasn't a great demand for a class that was both melee-focused and so incredibly squishy for so long. If you had a character that actually met the minimum requirements to be a monk, why would you want to play a character that would likely die if you ever entered into combat? Sure, once you got to mid- and high-levels, the Monk could be tons of fun, but the chances of surviving to that level were low, you probably weren't going to have a lot of fun playing until that point, and if you happened to meet the requirements to be a monk, you were much more likely to use them on a character that could take advantage of the strength and dexterity bonuses! So instead of hordes of Monks, it was an occasionally seen "luxury" addition most adventuring parties. Nevertheless, this gives us an idea of what the essence of the Monk is, or at least, should be, in terms of class identity.


C. What is the Essence of a Monk?
Those Of You Lucky Enough To Still Have Their Lives, Take Them With You! However, Leave The Limbs You’ve Lost! They Belong To Me, Now!
From the beginning, we can see that the Monk has several salient features that carry through, and that define the identity of the Monk.

First, they are, and have always been, a martial class that eschews magic. Not only does the Monk not use magic, the Monk will usually have several ribbon abilities devoted to various types of defense against magical attacks- both mental and improvements to saving throws (or the ability to "dodge" magic attacks that other character might not be able to, such as fireball).

Second, the Monk is unarmed and unarmored. The Monk traditionally has had the ability to use weapons (and even advantages when using weapons!), but their prowess with unarmed combat is usually so overwhelming that, especially as the Monk increases in level, unarmed combat must be considered a defining feature of the Monk.

Third, the Monk has always had some ribbon added to their unarmed strikes. This has traditionally been the ability to stun (and even kill) with each hit.

Fourth, the Monk is fast. Wicked fast. No other character class can approach the mobility of a Monk.

Fifth, the Monk has defensive abilities that make up for their squishiness. This includes advantages to magic effects, poison, diseases, controlling effects, falling, and missile weapons.

Sixth, the Monk has ribbon abilities and skills. These fall into two types- first are the "thief abilities" that Monks use that give them utility out of combat, especially as scouts. Second are the cool ribbon abilities that players like, but aren't about the combat- these are the things like "talk to plants and animals" or "slightly heal yourself."

Seventh, and finally, the Monk is squishy. If you look at everything I wrote above, you can basically say ... It's a fighter, but with all of this stuff tacked on to make it better because I wanna win everything all the time! But the essence of a Monk is that it is not, and should not be, a front-line fighter trading blows like a drunk playing “Quien Es Mas Macho?" by trading blows. Because the Monk doesn't wear armor (and can't use magic armor) the Monk will always have an inferior AC. Because the Monk won't be using the Holy Sword of Awesomeness and Rectitude, the Monk has to be more judicious in its attacks. Because the Monk has lower hit points than Olaf the Slightly Stout and Very Dumb, the Monk can't tank. Whether you call the Monk a "skirmisher," or "tactical," or "like a fighter, but really annoying to play," the whole point of the Monk is that the Monk isn't a front-line fighter- it's a different type of martial character. You have to accept the bad with the good. Maybe not quite as bad as the OG Monk, but still.

And it's with those seven attributes in mind that we should evaluate the proposed changes in the Monk in UA.


D. A Brief Interlude- Discussing the Problematic Issues of the Monk
Our reputations precede us.
It's impossible to discuss the Monk without addressing the elephant in the room. Early D&D drew from influences that spanned the globe and put them all into a blender that we now recognize as D&D. With that said, the predominant influence on early D&D was Western European fantasy. From that perspective, the Monk qua Monk certainly stood out. It was not uncommon for new players to believe that the Monk was supposed to be some type of "Friar Tuck" character, because many players had a different conception of what a Monk actually was. As AD&D matured in the 80s, this schism reached the point that when Oriental Adventures was published, it was assume that the Monk would follow and become an archetype only in those OA types of campaigns (and OA had a modified version of the PHB Monk within it). The author of OA, Zeb Cook, later on went on to write 2e, and the Monk was dropped as a core class for that exact reason- later appearing in various supplements (although the true Monk archetype arguable did not re-appear until 1999, with the publication of the Scarlet Brotherhood).

All that said, it is inarguable that the original Monk was based on Remo Williams which was ... well, if you are familiar with the issues with the Iron Fist television show, you can understand why this wasn't a great trope. So when it comes to designing a better Monk, you are left with a few different issues-

On the one hand, you have the origins of the class which are .... Not great, Bob. However, the archetype of a Monk has been adopted beyond D&D into other areas, including CRPGs (like Diablo) which means that there is a strong desire to play as a class. In addition, you have a player base that has grown up and is familiar with manga, anime, and concepts like martial arts and wuxia that wants to play these characters. Not to mention everyone, in their heart, wants to be John Dalton (you're too stupid to have a good time....). So while there are certainly issues worthy of discussion, I also think that the Monk as a class and a concept has continuing viability and validity in the game. .... well, if done correctly.


E. What the UA Changes Gets Wrong About the Monk
It was not my intention to do this in front of you. For that, I’m sorry. But you can take my word for it. Your mother had it comin’.
Let's start with the basics- I've seen a few of the threads discussing the Monk changes, and I've seen people commenting on various things, saying anything from "Just let them use crossbows," to "They are perfect if the enemy spellcaster is exactly at this range and has no allies," to "Eh, they do sufficient damage if you take this special case at this level and don't think about stuff like AC and the like." Look, I get it. This is a forum. We argue. There will be people that argue to the cows come home that True Strike and Witch Bolt are actually the greatest spells ever if you just have this one specific use-case that they came across in their campaigns. With all that said, the changes to the Monk concern me because they don't really add anything to the Monk chassis that makes it more compelling to play as a class for a few different reasons. Don't get me wrong- I'm not against all of the changes; it's more that I think that the changes evidence a profound misunderstanding of what the class should be.

Let's start with the basics. Monks are unarmed and unarmored. Sure, they can use weapons (and if you want to have a Kensei subclass, that works too), but that's not the core identity of the Monk. Here's the issue- it appears that The Powers That Be ("TPTB") think that this is some kind of super-duper ability. It's nice! Really, it is. There are times in any campaign when being able to fight without weapons and armor is a good thing! But ... no armor and no weapons means no magic weapons and no magic armor. I know the refrain from TPTB is that the game runs fine without magic items, and I think that this is a true statement; but in the vast majority of campaigns (certainly all that I've seen) magic items exist. And magic weapons and magic armor are among the most common items. Do you know what is almost non-existent? Magic items that improve unarmed combat. So all that white-room theorycrafting about DPR not only undervalues how much damage the other martials will be doing (with their magic weapons) but it also overvalues the Monk's damage, because it doesn't count on the fact that Monks will almost always have a much worse AC and worse hit points than the other martials. I could comment on the "nerf" to stunning strike ... but while I generally approve of the limit to 1/round, I have to seriously question why they have it end at the start of the Monk's next action; what, have they never seen a Monk engage in solo combat??? Doesn't it make sense that the Monk should gain some benefit from their own attack?

Next, Monks are mobile. This is a great ability ... really! If you're in a campaign using a grid for combat ... those minute difference really add up. If, however, you are playing ToTM, this ability is nearly useless.

But this gets to the salient issue- fundamentally, the UA has moved Monks explicitly to a "martial class" section. Which, okay, Monks are, and have always been, a martial class. Next, the main design buff for martial classes overall is that they are adding Weapon Properties. Again, not a problem. But now ... what did TPTB do with the Monk? First, the did give the Monk a slight bump in damage for unarmed attacks. But then TPTB chose to remove the ability of Monks to use their martial arts die for damage. Which .... means that unless you're playing a subclass, like some revamped Kensei, means that the primary buff that martials get is simply not helpful to you.

More importantly, they are just removing ribbons left and right. Speaking all languages? Gone. Don't age? Gone. No disease? Gone. I know what you're probably saying- WHO CARES. The Monk finally gets to recharge their "Di" Points automatically! Well, this gets to the fundamental issue with the Monk, and why the new changes aren't really helping.

The changes have been made to further orient the class along the combat line. But in doing so, they are seriously misunderstanding the class. The Monk is notoriously MAD, and for that reason will almost never be good at the social pillar. In addition, Monks rarely have great strength, so will often suffer at the things they are supposed to be great at because of the confusion between athletics and acrobatics (if you've ever played a monk, you know what I mean!). More importantly, they will never be "straight-up" as good at combat as Fighters and Barbarians, and lack spellcasting and smites that Paladins, Rangers, and Bladelocks have. Heck, they have high dexterities but aren't even going to be attacking at range!

But what about, say, scouting... with that high mobility, that seems like a no-brainer. Well... about that. Unfortunately, Monks also can't be skill-monkeys at all. Unlike Rogues (who are also squishy damage dealers with better ACs and the same hit points) they can't get insanely high skill levels to skulk around with. They can't acquire extra feats because they don't extra feats (like the fighter) and usually have to upgrade their scores (because they're MAD). So what do they get instead? Ribbon abilities, right? Stuff that is, at a minimum, cool.

Instead, we see the Monk being further pushed into the role of "combat-only skirmisher." Which, okay. Except for the fact that they are buffing all the other Martial Classes with Weapon Properties ... which is something that the Monk (as a class) is not going to be that into.

With all of that, what is my solution? How would I re-design the Monk? Well, I think that most of the combat changes are fine (including the level 13 deflect missiles upgrade). I understand the change to Discipline points, I just hate having to type out the longer name. I think that the 7th level change to allow a short rest in one minute is going to be great for most campaigns, and borderline OP for campaigns that already allow the standard amount of short rests per long rest (if you do the standard 2 SRs per LR, plus this ability, you are going to get four times the discipline points per day).

What I think is missing is more of a conception for the Monk out of combat. The Monk needs more ribbon abilities- more "cool things" (from talk to plants to talk to peoples, ahem) that don't necessarily make the Monk OP, but are fun. In addition, the Monk should have a limited expertise- you don't want to step on the Rogue's toes (step on Bards all you want, especially their FACE!), but allowing them to choose expertise from a limited set of skills at a higher level seems appropriate. Oh, and allow the Monk to choose to use dex for athletics checks. Because c'mon, already.

Those are my brief thoughts. I'm sure others have better ideas. But fundamentally, the Monk is, and should remain, a kinda squishy and fast martial character with great defensive abilities and some cool ribbon abilities.
 

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TwoSix

Uncomfortably diegetic
Good post. The history of the monk, and your takeaways of its design tropes from that history, seem pretty spot on to me. Probably my only point there is that I feel the monk has always had a secondary trope of carrying a bit of divine flavor; obviously it's origin as a cleric subclass in OD&D, but also unarmed fighting kits for clerics in 2e, and prestige classes favoring monk/cleric and monk/paladin combinations in 3e. That seems to mostly have gone away by 5e, with the psionic monk being a precursor of that flavor change when it was introduced in 4e.

I think your playtest observations are pretty on-point. I understand and support the impulse to have both unarmed and weapon-based monks as valid tropes that the playtest is following. But they need to be explicit as to if unarmed strikes are going to have magical item support. I don't feel that 5e's current "do what you want" magic item approach makes balancing intra-class specialties (like unarmed versus weapon-based monks, or Str vs Dex fighters) truly feasible within the rules; the DM needing to add weight to the scales somewhere seems like a near necessity if build balance is at all a play priority.

I would say that Monk Stunning Strike does give benefit to the Monk; assuming a Monk uses and succeeds on their SS use, they'll still be able to make 3 more attacks that turn benefiting from the Stunned condition (if their Di points hold out). Allowing the stun to extend to the end of a monk's next turn would give 7 attacks on a stunned target, which might be a bit too strong. (Although reasonable people can argue about the overall strength.)

I can understand why they choose to move a lot of the weird, wacky Monk flavor ribbon out of the base class, but I would like to see them moved into specific subclasses that support those ribbons. Weird immunities, strange movement abilities, and supernatural perceptive abilities should all be in the Monk's wheelhouse.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
The Monk grew on me. At first I hated it, because it was a weird version of Fighter that didn't quite fit the mold. Now, having played a couple of them in 5E, I've come to love it...because it's a weird version of Fighter that doesn't quite fit the mold. The game assumptions have changed over time, and my idea of what "fits" has changed with it.

And a little bit off-topic, but lately I feel that the Warlock is a better wizard than the actual Wizard.
 
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Bolares

Hero
One thing we should remember is that this is the first time we see the new monk, so there is plenty of room to give feedback and improve it.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Bonus points for...
MeaslyIndolentGypsymoth.webp
 

My opinion is in the new generation of players the stronger influences about "monk/(martial art) adept" are different, not only beat'em videogames (Street Fighters, Final Fight, Mortal Kombat, King of Fighters..) but manga (Dragon Ball) and even wuxia fiction and manhua+manwha. Today we imagine wuxia characters jumping over roofs like the action-live movie Tiger&Dragon.

I wonder if the sohei will be only a subclass in 5e, or we will see a new class, the cultivator, based in the xianxia fiction.

The monk can "alter the power balance" in the moment when the PCs are "nerferd" because they have lost weapons, armours and items. For example in the action-live movie for the sun games. Starting from zero is easier for monks.

And a monk with the exalted feat "vow of poverty" in 3.5 could break the game.
 



Theory of Games

Disaffected Game Warrior
The Monk never belonged in D&D proper. It's throwing Liu Kang into LotR. It only happened because the money guys behind TSR (the Blumes) wanted Gary to include Grasshopper from Kung-Fu into their D&D campaign. Just say no to the money-man and see what happens. It is %$@$^!% ridiculous to see Ryu fighting alongside D&D fighters, wizards, rogues and whatever else class that better fits that kinda-Medieval setting players are in :ROFLMAO: Like WHY is this happening? Oh yeah because Brian Blume said so a generation ago. I WISH Gary had said 'Yanno I've made my money. !%^$ your idea and I'm retiring'. Instead we get these WHAT IF episodes of Goku with Legolas, Conan, Dr. Strange and Jack Sparrow. WoTC just make it stop. Well yes:: differing opinion and maybe thou dost loveth monks. Karate*Chop ON!
 

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