If you want to make barehanded punching your go-to solution in Dungeons & Dragons—instead of relying on fancy weapons or magic—monks provide a rogue-lite way to get through the game. The subclass you choose determines what kind of monk you’ll be and, more importantly, which of your skills you’ll hone most.
Quick note for beginners: monks can be challenging to play, since they are dependent on multiple stats to be effective.
- Astral Self
- Cobalt Soul
- Drunken Master
- Four Elements
- Long Death
- Open Hand
- Sun Soul
Way of the Astral Self
This subclass is for people who want to play a spiritual monk, highly connected to their mystical powers. The main idea is that your humanoid form is temporary or an illusion, and your true self is something much harder to comprehend.
You can gain spectral arms to help you out during a fight, intimidate others who are terrified by your soul’s form, or grant you special advantages as you continue to level up and discover more about your inner self.
Way of the Cobalt Soul
Hit streaming program Critical Role partnered with Wizards of the Coast to release a few subclasses that were unique to their show. Way of the Cobalt Soul, brainchild of Matthew Mercer, focuses on the mental aspects of a monk.
Members of the Cobalt Soul are archaeologists, devoting their lives to serving the goddess of knowledge, Ioun, by discovering secrets and dragging them into the light.
The subclass gives your monk more Intelligence-based skills and languages. Since monks typically don’t have very high Intelligence scores, this subclass gives you expertise or double your proficiency bonus in those skills so that you can feel confident about discovering new things and holding your own with smarter companions.
Way of the Drunken Master
Oddly, although the elements of this subclass revolve around utilizing the lazy grace and luck of drunkards, there is nothing in the mechanics that says your character actually must consume alcohol. They could achieve the same effect through drugs, or while completely sober.
This monk gains proficiency in the Performance skill, embodying the idea that your character acts much more inebriated than they really are to play the fool—thus lulling their enemies into a false sense of security before unleashing a devastating attack.
Way of the Four Elements
Monks generally stay away from spellcasting and magic to focus on their magical flying fists, but the Way of the Four Elements is styled after the Avatar the Last Airbender. The subclass gives your monk the ability to wield the elements—like bending in the TV show.
Enhance your punches with magic fire, or throw your enemies around the battlefield with nothing more than the wind.
Way of the Four Elements addresses some of the monk’s weaknesses, such as fighting multiple enemies or fighting at range.
Way of the Kensei
Remember how monks don’t need to rely on weapons? Well, Way of the Kensei gives you the ability to combine weapons and your bare fists for more versatile fighting.
Kensei monks can use their weapons to parry, especially if they are holding a weapon in one hand and using the other one to attack. Essentially, this subclass allows you to use a weapon as an extension of your body.
Way of the Long Death
Monks who follow this tradition spend the majority of their time contemplating death, the meaning of life, and the methods of how people die.
The official rules describe these monks as somewhat cold. They conduct extensive experiments and record notes about the moment of death, as well as how it works in different creatures.
Mechanics of this subclass involve harvesting life force from enemies and healing yourself during a fight. Despite their fascination with death, these monks will do just about anything to survive and live on.
Way of Mercy
What if a monk focused on medicine and became a fighting doctor?
The Way of Mercy gives your monk proficiency with medicine and an herbalism kit, so that you can work on creating medicine for your fellow adventurers. As you advance in levels, you can start using some of your attacks to actually heal your friends.
Role-playing with a Way of Mercy monk might involve high-fiving your friends and healing them, or smacking their shoulder so enthusiastically that they recover hitpoints.
Way of the Open Hand
Way of the Open Hand is considered the vanilla option for monks. However, you shouldn’t underestimate its power in a fight.
This subclass grants your monk a variety of options to use in combat, such as knocking opponents prone, taking away their reactions, healing yourself, or even protecting yourself for a turn.
At very high levels, you gain the signature technique called Quivering Palm. With it, you can punch someone’s life force with your fist—thus causing their body to vibrate at a speed that can permanently end their life, if you so choose.
Way of Shadow
The ultimate rogue-lite version of the monk, the Way of Shadow allows monks to slip into the shadows alongside the rogue of the party and sneak into every confrontation.
Monks with this subclass also gain the ability to cast certain spells to enhance their stealthiness. What’s more, they can teleport between shadowy areas.
The flavoring for this subclass implies that practitioners are thought of as ninjas, but you can certainly style your character however you like.
Way of the Sun Soul
Similar to Way of the Four Elements, Way of the Sun Soul grants your monk limited magical abilities which use their ki points to fuel.
The sun bolt gives your monk a ranged option. This is useful when running up and punching the enemy isn’t a choice.
As you continue to level up, you can extend the range and damage of your long-range radiant attacks. Your capstone ability lets you deflect attacks, and automatically deal retribution damage to enemies who would dare to lay hands on you.
The role of a monk in your party is an important one, and your subclass will dictate your fighting style quite a bit.
Whether you’re a monk, cleric, sorcerer, or any other class in the game, be sure to pick the one that suits your style. And if you’re just not sure what you are – or haven’t heard of D&D, be sure to look over the beginner’s guide to get yourself up to speed. Lastly, be sure to talk with your DM about any specific feats for your quest and you’ll be ready to play.