Monks have come a long way in terms of their development and power as a class, especially in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. Where they used to be thought of as an underpowered class in D&D, they’re now a unique and entertaining class to play–as long as players know how to build their monk for best use.
One useful thing about monks is their multiple utilities in combat, as they can handle support, defense, and damage dealing. It’s the one class that (properly built) rival rogues in mobility; their ability to strike hard and fast, stunning single opponents before dodging the danger themselves, is what makes the monk a formidable foe in combat.
Best Monk Races
Every new D&D character needs a solid base, and that’s the choice of which race they’ll be. Of the standard 5th edition races, hill dwarves, stout halflings, wood elves, and variant humans are the clear winners for races suited to a strong monk build, based on their bonuses and racial features.
Wood elves really have the perfect bonuses that correspond to a monk’s ability stat needs; they’ve got a +2 dexterity bonus and +1 to wisdom, along with increased movement speed. Plus, the basic features of an elf (including every elven subrace, not just wood elves) come in handy for monks, and the wood elf-specific Mask of the Wild is great too. Stout halflings also have good ability stat bonuses, plus the racial feats Lucky and Brave. Their lowered movement speed isn’t ideal, but it can be fixed later on.
Hill dwarves gain a +2 to constitution, which isn’t the ideal bonus. However, if players can roll a high enough number to assign to dexterity anyway (it should be at least a 16) constitution is still an important thing to have, and the dwarves’ +1 to wisdom is always good too. Variant humans will pretty much make any class’s list because they’re the perfect moldable race; players can choose which abilities to grant bonuses to, and choose an insanely useful level 1 feat, so there’s really no way to go wrong with this pick.
Players looking for something outside the primary D&D sourcebook can also check out aarakocra, the avian-hybrid race with bonuses to dexterity, wisdom, and flying speed. With all that, it’s almost ridiculous how good a monk an aarakocra would be.
Assigning Ability Scores
After selecting race (and class, obviously) it’s time to assign ability scores to the character, and there’s a specific formula for creating an optimal monk build. As hinted at above, dexterity should always be the monk’s primary and highest stat, for AC, damage rolls and attack rolls. If the dice rolls alone can do that, great. If not, well, that’s what the racial suggestions above are for!
The second most important stat is definitively wisdom, for both AC and DCs (as wisdom saving throws are extremely common). The monk’s wisdom should start around a 16, but once the monk starts reaching higher levels, players should work on getting that score up to an 18 or even 20. Following wisdom, constitution gets third place in a monk’s scores; it’s less important than the two aforementioned stats, but shouldn’t be undervalued in any circumstances. That’s why, if the rolls are high enough to support a good dexterity score, hill dwarves are still a solid choice for a monk.
While the previous three stats have a clear order of importance, the bottom three can get a little muddied. In general, strength and charisma would both rank about the same level of importance, above intelligence but below everything else. Strength and athletics are nice for a melee-oriented character, but monks don’t really need them; meanwhile, charisma is good for ability checks, but if the party already has at least two high-charisma characters, it could easily be the monk’s dump stat. In fact, while intelligence is generally the monk’s dump stat (even more so if the party already has a high-intelligence character like a wizard), either strength or charisma could replace it depending on the rest of the party’s composition and the type of character players are looking to make.
Basically, put those three stats below the others and the rest is up to players’ role-playing preferences.
Now it’s time to select the monk’s most favorable monastic tradition–or in other words, their subclass. There are six official subclasses to choose from: the Way of the Open Hand, Shadow, Four Elements, Drunken Master, Kensai, and Sun Soul.
Of those, players looking for the best monk build possible will want to go for Open Hand or Drunken Master, though players looking for a sneaky approach could go for Shadow too. And yes, ‘Drunken Master’ sounds like a goofy option, but it’s actually a fantastic subclass. The Way of the Drunken Master is essentially just learning to master a style of combat that copies the jerky unpredictability of a drunk person. These monks fake out their enemies by presenting an unsteady exterior before going in for the kill, and they’ve got some of the best abilities out of the subclasses: Drunken Technique, which combines Flurry of Blows with Disengage; Drunkard’s Luck, which is exactly what it sounds like for the price of 2 ki points; and at higher levels Intoxicated Frenzy takes the monk’s drunken technique to a new level of powerful.
The Way of the Open Hand monk functions exactly like most expect a classic monk to, but it’s still a great option–there’s a reason plenty of players still believe it the best out of the monk subclasses. The Open Hand’s abilities give them the most well-rounded combat options than any other subclass and utilize the monk’s core abilities to maximum effect. Its key ability is Open Hand Technique, which is just plain wonderful as abilities go, and another great one is Wholeness of Body–basically free healing.
The Way of the Shadow is for players who want some roguelike abilities while still playing a monk; unsurprisingly, multiclassing a Shadow monk with a rogue is quite the deadly combination. The main downside is that, for all these monks get to stealth like a rogue, they still don’t have any ability to rival a rogue’s devastating sneak attack.
Skills and Feats
To round out the best monk build, players will need to select corresponding skills and feats. Thankfully, most of a monk’s must-have skills are class skills, meaning two of them can be selected during character creation simply for being a monk. Acrobatics, stealth, and insight are all at the top of the list for skills a monk should have, so two of them can be crossed off the list when choosing the monk class. The remaining skill should be picked up as soon as possible some other way, along with perception. If possible, athletics, religion, and sleight of hand are also good supplemental skills.
Meanwhile, the few feats that monk players should consider above all others are Mobile, Alert, Lucky, Observant, and Resilient (Wisdom). Mobile grants an extra 10 feet of movement speed and prevents opportunity attacks in response to melee; for monks, whose mobility is a key feature, this further strengthens them. Similarly, Alert grants a +5 to initiative (another dexterity-based skill check) and prevents the monk from being surprised, so there’s really no downside to choosing it.
Lucky just works on anyone, as it’s three free redo rolls of the player’s choosing per long rest, while Observant grants a +5 to passive perception–if players need to boost one of their monk’s wisdom skills, this would be how. Resilient gives a +1 to the chosen ability score and advantage on saving throws of that ability, so choosing wisdom for this feat is a monk’s best option.
Finishing off a monk’s creation with a background that supplements their needed skills, such as Outlander or Sailor, is another smart choice. Then, players should be ready to start their new Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a monk build that will keep on kicking.
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