The Monk occupies a strange place among 4e classes. It uses the psionic power source, but doesn’t use power points. It’s a striker class, but there aren’t that many good ways to increase its boost damage (at least not anything like what you can do with the other strikers). They have the most access – by far – to positional powers of any class. They have access to the ki focus item slot, which has some odd interactions with other gear. Overall, the class feels interesting, with lots of potential, but counterintuitive and clumsy to assemble.
I had some serious concerns with Monks in previous editions, especially 3.5. In 3.5, the basic concept behind the Monk was, “I’m the source of my cool, not some magic item.” They were balanced around not having much, if any, gear. This avoided two persistent rules about RPGs. First, gear is part of character advancement and optimization. Not only were Monks left out of the “getting cool stuff” part of improving as a character, whole avenues of optimization and personalization were closed. Remember the “Iron Arm” character from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Can’t do it*. Further, would-be game designers hate a vacuum almost as much as they hate being told no. By the time they were done, there was a whole warehouse of stuff for the class that was designed not to need gear. Play balance went right out the window, not that it wasn’t on the sill to begin with.
I mention these things not to belittle 3.5, but because, from my perspective, a 4e Monk has to resolve these issues.
Basic Feel: The first thing I noticed about the Monk was that its striker damage boost is more like a Sorcerer than a Rogue or Ranger, in that it’s baked-in damage rather than dice. Unlike a Sorcerer, however, the Monk’s extra damage is restricted to once per round on your turn, so there’s no way to double up with an action point or to benefit from granted attacks. Flurry of Blows is really designed for the chopsocky feel of running into a bunch of enemies and smacking them around, rather than pounding one guy into the dirt. This locks you into a play style that you may not enjoy. It also reduces the Monk’s ability to close out an enemy with spike damage.
I like the concept behind the Full Disciplines, but in practice they can be somewhat disjointed. Each of these powers comes with an attack half and a move half. You can use one without the other, but you can’t mix and match from two different Full Disciplines. This mechanic is supposed to give you increased options, but in actual play you get locked into the other half of whatever power you need that turn. I found the Monk powers very colorful, but I always felt like I had a misfiring cylinder.
Races: There are three different builds of Monk, each centered around a different boost stat: Strength, Constitution and Wisdom. There is an unique Flurry of Blows effect for each build. (I don’t generally look at monster races.)
Half-Orcs and Thri-Kreen can both be two of the builds. Half-Orcs don’t fit my mental image of the class, but their racial abilities are good no matter what type you choose. It makes sense for Thri-Kreen to be excellent monks, given how they were presented in Dark Sun.
Drow, Wilden, Elves, Razorclaw Shifters, Shadar-Kai and Githzerai all have access to a DEX/WIS attribute combo, which gives you access to a ton of choices. Of these, only the Elves have the contemplative feel I was hoping for in a Wisdom-based Monk.
Humans do surprisingly well as Monks because having the extra at-will Full Discipline and an additional feat opens up a bunch of possibilities. Having a slightly lower boost stat isn’t that much of a concern, as a full third of the Monk powers don’t use a boost stat.
Once you leave the “hard optimized” races, the pickings become quite thin. Not very many races have DEX as an option without having one of the boost stats. I suppose a Gnome Monk would be amusing… for about 30 seconds.
Hybridization: It doesn’t show up on the power cards, but Flurry of Blows only works with Monk (and Monk paragon path) powers. The biggest problem with hybridizing a Monk is armor. Very few of the cloth armors are good for other melee strikers, even though this is all the compendium suggests. There are two ways to get around this. The first is to find another class that doesn’t use armor. Sorcerer and Wizard spring immediately to mind, except that neither crosses cleanly with Monk as long as you want to use powers that require a boost stat. If you go that route, combining a Monk with a staff Wizard seems like a lot of fun.
The other option is to pitch out the cloth or no armor ideas and find a way to strap on some heavy metal. The Battle Cleric’s Lore from the recent battle Cleric article hasn’t found its way into the character builder yet, but will present an interesting hybrid once it hits. That +2 shield bonus precisely matches the bonus you give up for being in armor…
The real benefit to Monk hybrids is proficiency with ki foci. Go look at all those Monk powers. They don’t have the weapon keyword. yeah, that’s right. A ki focus works with powers that have the implement keyword. Can you think of any other classes that use implements? I knew you could.
Multiclassing: Mutliclassing to Monk is good for every class, simply for access to ki foci. There’s only the one multiclassing feat – Monastic Disciple – and it only requires DEX 13, which is easy to manage.
Multiclassing as a Monk is less simple, because nothing immediately leaps out as especially strong or thematic. Taking one of the leader classes would add a daily heal to the mix, but that’s something you do as an adaptation to party composition and synergy. Taking fighter opens up a bunch of feat and paragon path options, but, again, there’s nothing that screams “build me!”
Class Feats: I wish that they had done more with swords in this section, because they’re a staple of many wushu and kung fu films. Actually, by only putting in clubs and spears, they avoided a great many martial arts tropes. They should have done something with fans (light blades) and fullblades (an anime favorite!). That they didn’t do anything with quarterstaves is nothing short of criminal.
Anything that improves your ki focus, however, is probably a good buy. This is especially true if you’re wanting to swap weapons.
WARNING: I was somewhat tired when I made these characters, so their feats were not chosen in what I would consider a viable order. If you use them as a template, please select feats for what you presently need.
Kizl of the Stick (CON build) – I make sample characters using the RPGA guidelines for magic items (a level+1, a level+0, a level-1 and the value of a level-1 item in gold). While an organic 10th level character might not have gotten +3 armor yet, it would also likely have received more items. All of this is a roundabout way of saying, “Yes, that 28 AC is legit.”
It was very easy to build a theme because there is a staff option for each power that uses CON as a boost stat. This was a little odd, given that one doesn’t normally associate “staff” with “tough,” but it does play somewhat into the Friar Tuck defensive concept.
This character would be an excellent “off tank” in parties where there is no second defender. Guided Shot follows this theme by helping ranged party members hit more often. Arc of the Flashing Storm will probably see a great deal of use with both halves of the Full Discipline.
Serash-gar, rides the thunder (STR Build) – From the moment I started putting this character together, I really wanted to hybridize it with Barbarian because the visual of this giant Thri-Kreen running around smashing people with fists wrapped in storm was very compelling. I wanted that primal feel (which is why I wouldn’t mind seeing them develop a Monk build that uses primal as a power source, rather than psionic). Sadly, trying to find a way to make the Barbarian powers work with unarmed attacks in the character builder was far more work than I was willing to put into the character (which may be yet another knock against the character builder).
This character does get a lot of fun mileage out of STR as a boost stat, however. Eagle Claw Strike will help “open up” those pesky high-AC soldiers, while Titan’s Step will allow you to smack people around the battlefield. I think it’s strange that the strength build ends up being the most “controllery” of the three, but I can roll with a “Hulk smash!” kind of vibe.
I find myself more than a little irritated with the Improved Unarmed Strike feat, because it doesn’t improve anything but your melee basic attacks.
As an aside, Harmonious Thunder uses the phrase “the first time either one of the targets takes damage during a turn“. Remember that a turn is basically each character or monster’s activation, so this power can be triggered multiple times in a round. This can be especially helpful if you have to chew through a couple of monsters at the same time.
Birubo (WIS build) – While D&D doesn’t really support a pacifist, contemplative adventurer, the wisdom-based Monk comes fairly close, at least in theme. Wisdom also feeds Perception and Insight, which fits right in. I was originally going to build a Githzerai Monk, but there was something irresistible about a Drow that runs into a group of enemies, craps out a cloud of darkness, then sets about stabbing them with his greatspear (I will confess to having drawn inspiration from Xin Zhao from League of Legends). If that image doesn’t tickle you at least a little bit, there isn’t much I can do for you.
Theme aside, the hidden strength of this character is having much greater positional freedom than other builds. Having reach dramatically changes the way you play, especially against monsters that have an aura 1. Until this character hits 11th level and starts wanting to whack more than one target with Flurry of Blows, it should be fairly easy to keep it out of trouble. This build synergizes very well with Warlords, especially if the Warlord provides an initiative boost. It also combos strongly with “lockdown” Wizards because it doesn’t have to be adjacent to its target. If you’re having trouble hitting, you could replace Implement Focus (Greatspear) with Polearm Flanker.
Kaliya (Monk/Sorcerer Hybrid) – I don’t normally make examples of hybrids because they’re advanced builds and these guides are intended as a basic introduction, but I felt that the potential behind having both an implement and a ki focus deserved some exploration. Staff Expertise was taken solely for the “I don’t provoke attacks of opportunity” aspect, as the to-hit bonus is redundant. The real benefit to this build, besides some fairly impressive flexibility, is that you can choose the magic item that gives you the best benefit for what you’re doing without having to swap. It’s clean, quick and effective.
It would be possible to take much the same feats as I put on the pure staff Monk (which is why I didn’t take them on this character) and achieve a similar defense line. That’s probably a pretty good idea, as I expect that this character will attract a great deal of negative attention.
Conclusions: I think that Monks will generally appeal more to people who build characters for concept, rather than numbers, as it’s really not possible to be competitive with the traditional heavy hitters without some hardcore optimization. That said, I think it’s much easier to build a Monk with flavor than most of those classes. I was able to find a fair number of hidden gems among the powers, especially repositioning and “get out of jail” effects.
My chief complaint about the class is that it hasn’t seen nearly enough development, especially with regard to fighting styles and weapon choices. Honestly, all the things I didn’t like about 3.5 Monks have been fixed.
* – But you can do it in 4e. I imagine it looks something like this: