With the disclaimer that I’ve never played a monk in 5th edition, from my experience watching others play them, plus following the general online discourse around them, it seems clear to me that the class has issues.
Despite being a martial class, monks are brittle and struggle to do any serious damage… and that is clearly far from ideal!
While watching this video by D&D Shorts (who maintains the class holds its own in higher levels), some really simple fixes came to mind that are easy to remember and will make monks significantly stronger, while remaining faithful to the class’s design and identity.
Before I start with my three simple buffs for monks, however, there’s an elephant in the room – and that is Stunning Strike. This ability is frustratingly good and was perhaps given to the class to compensate for some of their other shortcomings. Unfortunately it ends up being, if not game-breaking, then encounter-breaking and the source of many DM headaches. The stunned condition is about the least fun you can have in D&D (I’m an advocate for a lesser ‘dazed’ or ‘staggered’ condition to replace it), and repeatedly whaling on a monster until it’s stunned is a tediously effective strategy that I don’t enjoy seeing on the table. Stunning Strike is also so powerful that other potential uses of ki are largely going to fall by the wayside as a result, making playing a monk more boring.
Anyway, let’s looks at some potential monk buffs first, before we look at how to
nerf balance Stunning Strike.
3 Simple Monk Fixes
1. Boost Hit Dice to d10s
This is a bit of no brainer (indeed, I’ve since seen it mentioned by various other folks as an obvious fix). We’re talking about a frontline fighter, so why have they got the same hit dice as melee-shy warlocks or rogues? When we think about monks, or martial artists, from fantasy fiction, they come with plenty of endurance and fighting spirit, so d10 is the minimum hit dice they should have IMHO.
2. Switch Saving Throw from Strength to Wisdom
Another no brainer. Monks’ key stats are Dexterity and Wisdom, and if anyone is going to resist a Jedi mind trick it’s these guys. By switching out Strength for Wisdom saving throws, we’re giving monks arguably the best two saves in the game, and that’s a massive boost to this class. And totally on brand.
3. Make Patient Defense a Reaction Ability
I’d imagine the most irritating thing about playing a monk is that nearly all their core abilities are based around bonus actions (in tandem with ki points). But surely Patient Defense should work like D&D’s other defensive features, such as Uncanny Dodge, Defensive Duellist and shield spell? I.e. by using a reaction.
A sprinkling of Hipster remix magic gives us:
When you are targeted by an attack you can see, you may spend 1 ki point to take the Dodge action using a reaction.
With just a subtle switch of action economy we’re bringing an amazing ability back online, letting players live out their Jackie Chan / Neo from the Matrix fantasies (and use their Flurry of Blows!), and stopping that annoying situation when you take the Dodge action and then the DM chooses to target other players. Now you use Patient Defense when you have already been targeted by an attack, meaning it doesn’t go to waste…
BONUS FIX: Remove Ki Cost to Deflected Missiles
Not a game changer, but I’d also be tempted to remove the ki cost from making a range attack with a successfully deflected / caught missile. This situation doesn’t happen often anyway, given that DMs soon learn to stop targeting monks with ranged attacks (the meta-gaming bastards!), and this little fix allows monks to enjoy their little moment in the sun, perhaps once per combat, without having to spend precious ki.
Back to the Elephant…
Ok, so back to Stunning Strike. It’s a tricky one because without it monks are kinda useless, but it’s so powerful that playing a monk basically becomes all about how many monsters you can stun in a turn.
A few ways you could deal with it, as a DM, would be:
1. One Stunning Strike per creature per turn…
If a creature succeeds its saving throw against being stunned, it is immune to the effects of Stunning Strikes until the start of its next turn.
The most annoying thing about Stunning Strike is that monks can keep doing it to a creature until they fail… it feels anti-D&D that you can force a result this way, but the monks’s Flurry of Blows, used in combination with SS, seems to accidentally enable that. This rule legislates against that.
2. Change Stunned condition
By making stunned condition less punitive, SS would become less of a problem. I had a go here, although not totally happy with the results.
3. The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Are to Stun
Another option to fix Stunning Strike would be to introduce a scaling cost to stun creatures depending on their size. It feels to me that stunning a hill giant should be several times harder than stunning a guard (and not just 15% percentage harder, based on the hill giant’s better Constitution).
Size doesn’t seem to matter much in 5e, but I’ve always argued that it should, so I’d rule that the ki point cost for attempting stunning strike is:
1 ki point – medium or smaller creature
2 ki points – large creature
3 ki points – huge creature
4 ki points – gargantuan creature
A Stunning Buff…
With one hand I taketh away, but another I giveth. I would rule that whenever a (5th level or higher) monk scores a critical hit, the target must save vs. Stunning Strike or be stunned (no ki points required).
One very obvious solution for fixing monks is to simply give them more ki, but on my tables, at least, short rests are taken between nearly every combat, and combats typically only last 3-4 rounds, so I am a bit reluctant to play with that balance for now. (By giving monks a chance to use Deflected Missiles and Stunning Strikes with no ki cost, I’m reducing the tax on the limited resource anyhow).
What I might advocate is spending an action to regain some or all of your ki in combat (if so I would rule that you would get them back at the start of your next turn, not the end of the current one [so you couldn’t use Patient Defense while recharging]). This effectively ensures that you have ki for every encounter, and even gives you a strategic decision to make during a longer boss or horde fight.
Overall, while my suggestions haven’t fixed the fact that monks don’t deal much damage (there are plenty of other classes that do that, and I feel the monk isn’t supposed to specialise in damage dealing), with three simple changes we’ve dramatically improved the monk’s defensive capabilities, allowing them to live long enough to be the versatile and mobile melee combatants they are supposed to be.
More Monk-eying Around
In a recent post I stat-ed out the rather sexy meteor hammer weapon, as wielded by Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill, and created a new feat to go with it.
While the feat introduces more competition for that precious bonus action, I think one could make an interesting build around doing damage from 10 feet away and maximising getting opportunity attacks.
The monks definitely feel like a divisive class in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, so I’d be interested to hear about your thoughts and experiences either as a player or a DM.