The D&D Monk class has several archetypes, but the wide range of real-world and fantasy martial arts traditions offer ideas for new subclasses.
The Monk has always been an outlier in Dungeons & Dragons, as a class that is not rooted in the works of Tolkien or other traditional western fantasy genre conventions. A core class in the current fifth edition of D&D, the Monk has Monastic Traditions presented in the Player’s Handbook, and supplements like Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything provide additional options. Groups looking to create new Monk subclasses can look beyond traditional fantasy for inspiration, with martial arts cinema and more contemporary media providing ample ideas.
The earliest rendition of the Monk in D&D was as an offshoot of the Cleric class. First edition Dungeons & Dragons made the Monk a core class, based on Asian martial arts traditions as interpreted through a fantasy lens. Second edition initially returned the Monk to a Kit for the Cleric class before later re-introducing it as a base class in supplemental books, and some Monk abilities were later incorporated into the Psionics system. Since third edition D&D, the Monk has remained a base class, and the Monk’s fifth edition Monastic Traditions provide some versatility, but not nearly enough to encompass the archetype’s potential.
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The Player’s Handbook’s Way of the Four Elements Monk is in part a nod to real world martial arts traditions and Hong Kong action movies, but most closely aligns with the abilities displayed in Avatar: The Last Airbender. A similar approach for a new Monk subclass in D&D could produce the Way of the Celestial Breath, rooted in both real-world breath control practices and ascetic conditioning, as well as fiction, such as the breath-based martial art Hamon from the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure manga.
An early subclass ability might grant a Monk the same effects as the Necklace of Adaptation, the ability to breathe in any environment and advantage on saving throws against harmful gases and vapors, a useful item that is often overlooked due to its Attunement requirement. This new D&D subclass could offer Monks ki-based breath weapon attacks, the ability to imbue other party members with Monk-like benefits by synchronizing their breathing, and the ability to block an enemy’s breath, preventing spellcasting.
Fiction & Real-World Martial Arts Inspire D&D Monks
While the Fighter’s Eldritch Knight and the Rogue’s Arcane Trickster both offer these martial classes access to spellcasting, D&D Monks have no such equivalent. A subclass like the Way of the Mystic Flow could fit that niche, taking a different approach to a warrior interacting with the spell system. This Monk could gain training in the Arcana skill and the ability to use Dispel Magic and Counterspell as Ki powers, providing defense against enemy D&D spellcasters. They might also gain use of the effects of a Ring of Spell Storing as an innate ability, another versatile magic item normally limited by attunement, potentially scaling to contain more than the five levels worth of spells the ring can contain. This new D&D subclass could provide the Monk the ability to instantly recharge their stored spells with a spell that they countered or dispelled, limited by Ki points.
Lastly, while the Kensei Monk from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything allows for martial weapon-using Monk characters, a Monk D&D subclass based on Iaido, as well as fiction based around the tradition of quick-draw swordsmanship, could provide a distinctive and useful character. A Way of the Piercing Mind Monk might feature Expertise with the Insight skill, and proficiency with a single one-handed martial weapon.
The focus on studying an opponent to know their weaknesses could be represented as an option to make an Insight check opposed by an enemy’s Charisma saving throw to gain advantage on attacks against that enemy for one minute, as an Action, and at higher levels as a Bonus Action. This Monk could gain the ability to draw and sheathe their signature weapon without using their Free Action object interaction. Striking an opponent that has not acted yet in combat, or who is stunned, perhaps by the Stunning Strike ability, could add bonus damage, similar to a Rogue.
There are numerous inspirations to pull from when designing custom Monk subclasses in D&D. From classic films like the Five Deadly Venoms, to numerous martial arts anime, any of these could make excellent Monastic Traditions, but players and Dungeon Masters should carefully consider game balance, as with any homebrew Dungeons & Dragons creations.
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