Making Your Own Monk Subclass
You may decide that you want to create your own monk subclass that best fits your campaign. Before embarking on this task, you want to be sure that no existing monk subclass can meet your design goals. One of the greatest flexibilities offered in 5e class design is how open it can be to reflavoring the features. If there is a subclass that can meet your mechanical needs and stylistic vision, it is best to simply use that and save yourself a lot of time in designing, writing, and play testing.
If, however, you find that no existing subclass achieves the fantasy or has the mechanics to match your visions, this section will guide you toward making a monk subclass that fits the 5e D&D model. The guidelines will help you create the features for your subclass and detail how you should balance the class to fit within the official options and those offered by Therin Creative and similar content creators.
Please note that despite the guidance offered herein, your subclass may need further tuning. Be certain to spend the time to playtest your subclass.
The monk is class that favors both Dexterity and Wisdom. It has its own resource, ki points, that it spends to use its core features. Ki points refresh on a short or long rest, so the monk should typically have access to it resource throughout a standard adventuring day. Monks generally don’t care about Strength, Intelligence, or Charisma, so you want to avoid requiring these lest you stretch the monk’s ability scores too thin.
The monk has a d8 Hit Dice. This places the monk as capable of taking a hit or two, but they won’t last as long as fighters or barbarians. Monks can expend ki points and their bonus action to increase their survival chances.
The monk has access to simple weapons and the shortsword (plus any added via this supplement), but it also has stronger unarmed attacks than normal, and monk weapons scale with unarmed strike damage. The monk has no armor proficiencies and are built to wear no armor or a shield. The monk also has a small selection of skills, making skill proficiencies ripe for subclass features.
Ability Score Improvement
The monk uses standard progression for the Ability Score Improvement (ASI) feature (4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level). Monks shouldn’t gain additional ASI features as that is the domain of the fighter and rogue classes and not something a subclass generally grants.
The monk uses ki points to fuel many of abilities. Ki management is a core component of the class, and you want to design monk features that interact with this resource. Pricing ki cost is imperative for a monk subclass the cost can’t be trivial, but it also can’t be prohibitive. Decide how often a monk should use a ki power you give it and price accordingly.
The monk has few features that enhance pillars other than combat, relying more on skill proficiencies. A monk’s subclass provides more noncombat features.
Monastic Tradition Features
Monk traditions grant features at 3rd, 6th, 11th, and 17th level. Take note that half its features align with the onset of tier 3 and 4 play.
Monks aren’t Fighters or Rogues
While the desire may be to create a monk subclass that can operate like the fighter or rogue class, the monk chassis is built on a resource pool. Fighters and rogues work without resources for the core class with explicit features that have uses per rest.
Despite temptation, you will want your monk subclass to at least partially lean into the ki point resource. At least one of your features should spend ki points in a new way.
Building a Monastic Tradition
Once you understand the class chassis, you’re one step closer to building a subclass. You’ll also want to review existing subclasses to get a feel for their design and balance. This section will aid you in understanding what your subclass features should accomplish.
Before starting on the formal work to build your subclass, devise its theme and role. What is your subclass’s purpose? What roles does it fill in an adventuring party? How are its mechanics interesting and unique? Why would a player choose your subclass?
Let’s start by looking at some existing monk subclasses.
Way of the Open Hand. The Way of the Open Hand is the eponymous monk, gaining many of the features monks had in earlier editions. They are frontline breachers that have the ability to push and trip targets. They gain features to aid their ability to survive and embed themselves behind the enemy front line, and ultimately bring a power technique that can kill a foe. Players choose this monastic tradition because they want to render foes vulnerable, expose weaker foes, and to experience a classic monk feel.
Way of Shadow. The Way of Shadow is the spiritual successor to the Shadow Dancer prestige class. It operates under the cloak of darkness, leveraging a number of shadow arts such as teleporting within darkness and invisibility. Players choose this monastic tradition to play a subtle striker, attacking from the dark and disappearing before discovery.
Way of the Kensei. The Way of the Kensei is a weapon-focused monk that adds a couple martial weapons to its list of monk weapons. Its features focus on improving its talent with its chosen weapons. Players choose this monastic tradition because they want to master the use of a weapon while gaining the monk’s movement prowess.
Way of the Astral Self. The Way of the Astral Self is a fairly unique monk that delves deeper into the spiritual side of the class, summoning phantasmal force to augment its body. Players choose this monastic tradition for the flavor of having a spectral form that enhances their combat ability while inspiring awe.
Way of the Ninja. The Way of the Ninja is a monk that mixes weaponry with special arts. The ninja is a rogue-like subclass that can be potent with thrown weapons. Players choose this monastic tradition because they want to make a ninja warrior that can strike suddenly and a character that can serve as a spy.
Each monk subclass does something unique, explores the monk kit in a certain direction, but at its core, each is a monk, tapping the full range of the class features at its disposal.
Building the Subclass
This guide covers building a monastic tradition consistent with official published material. Each monastic tradition adds to the core class’s components. A subclass may favor certain aspects of the class, but it has the full range of monk features to tap.
Subclass features are granted at 3rd, 6th, 11th, and 17th level. Each Monastic Tradition feature level should generally only grant one subclass feature. Consult the Monk Subclass Features table for when you should grant features.
There are exceptions for the rule of only granting a single subclass feature:
- Ribbon features are frequently weak on their own, so in certain cases you may grant a second, minor feature, which could be another ribbon feature.
- The feature has some complex interactions that are much clearer when separated. Often this is indication that something should be cut, but in rare cases, it makes sense to split a feature for comprehension.
- You are expanding an existing feature in a minor way. Sometimes it’s better to include the enhancement in the core feature, and at other times it could be a note in another feature.
Monk Subclass Features
|3rd||Core Expansion Feature|
|6th||Augmentation I Feature|
|11th||Augmentation II Feature|
Core Expansion Feature
3rd-level [Your Monk Subclass] feature
This feature adds new options on top of the monk chassis. It should interact with existing monk features, such as Flurry of Blows, or offer a new way to spend ki points. This feature should give the subclass the tools it needs to differentiate its role in adventuring. Future features can build off this one.
In general, this feature shouldn’t directly increase the monk’s damage. Monks already have the tools for damage at early levels of play. This feature can, however, indirectly affect the monk’s damage such as through offering it spells or powers, as well as tools that can make a target vulnerable.
If you need to add proficiencies to the monastic tradition, add an extra 3rd-level feature. Only add what you need to fulfill the fantasy of your concept.
Augmentation I Feature
6th-level [Your Monk Subclass] feature
An augmentation feature grants the monk some extra layer of tactics above and beyond the normal class. It can do one of the following options:
- Give the monk a new option to spend ki in a way that doesn’t expand an existing feature (e.g. Wholeness of Body)
- Grant the monk a new option for its bonus action (e.g. Shadow Step, Searing Arc Strike)
- Expand the monk’s damage potential (e.g. One with the Blade)
- A reaction ability (e.g. Tipsy Sway)
- Expand the Core Expansion feature (e.g. Physician’s Touch)
- Add utility options (e.g. Visage of the Astral Self)
This is a tricky feature to decide, and you’ll need to design it alongside the 11th-level feature which does a similar thing. Usually, you want to include a feature that adds something with more breadth that can double as a utility feature, such as the Way of Shadow’s Shadow Step feature which enables limited teleporation.
If your Core Expansion feature granted some form of combat or damage enhancement, this feature probably should add to it. If your 3rd-level feature concept includes damage and a rider effect, you should split that feature and offer either the extra damage or the rider effect with this feature.
It is acceptable to offer a boost in damage with this feature, but take note, because this choice will impact your 17th-level feature’s design.
In any case, this feature should be something that comes into play frequently.
Augmentation II Feature
11th-level [Your Monk Subclass] feature Like the feature at 6th-level, this is another one that augments the monk’s or the subclass’s kit in some way. The options from the 6th-level feature are all valid for this feature, as well as the following options:
- Grant the monk a defensive option (e.g. Tranquility)
- Expand the monk’s combat options, such as adding a new action (e.g. Searing Sunburst, Sharpen the Blade)
Regardless, the features should augment different facets. You don’t want to double up on the same kind of augmentation so that your subclass as more breadth in its capacity.
This feature is a great place to double up on defensive and utility effects, such as in the case of Cloak of Shadows. Be cautious of increasing damage with this feature. Don’t increase it if the 6th-level feature added damage, and be mindful of any damage granted by the 3rd-level feature.
17th-level [Your Monk Subclass] feature
The final feature monks get should offer a substantive boost to its damage capabilities. While it feels constraining to wait this long to boost the monk’s damage, this is the way the class is officially built. You are looking for about a 25% boost in the monk’s per turn damage while using Flurry of Blows. If you are using the Seamless Form optional feature, the boost is closer to 20%.
The easiest way to add this damage is to attach a damage rider adding two rolls of the Martial Arts die or grant an extra unarmed strike, possibly by enabling use of the reaction to make an attack on a wider array of triggers beyond standard opportunity attacks.
If you boosted the subclass’s damage earlier, then you need to constrain the amount this feature adds, or even forgo using this feature to boost the subclass’s damage at all. In some cases, you may have built damage scaling into an earlier level feature, removing the need to add more damage. For instance, the Way of Mercy enables its damage boost without expense at 11th level, achieving its damage boost early, freeing the 17th-level feature to grant a recovery option.
If you already hit your subclass’s 20% to 25% damage boost, look at adding a utility or efficiency option here.