January 18, 2017

Unearthed Analysis: Monastic Traditions

Hello to all! I would like to introduce myself, since this is the first time I'm posting here: I am the Knuckle of Vecna, or as people might know me on Giant in the Playground, DracoKnight. I am incredibly happy to be here, and I'm starting a new monthly article where I offer my personal analysis of the Unearthed Arcana articles put forth by Wizards of the Coast. The purpose of my articles is to offer my thoughts on how the content will function in your campaign, whether or not something is overpowered, and how to tweak the content if it is overpowered, or in the very rare case, underpowered.

I'm not planning on writing my articles in the same order as WotC, but instead I'm writing on the Unearthed Arcana in the order of which I find most interesting. With that out of the way, the article that really leaped out and grabbed me is the article on monastic traditions.

Monastic Traditions

Okay, so I like monks. I really like monks. They're probably my favorite class, with my favorite monk from the Player's Handbook being the Way of Shadow. I played a high-elf shadow monk in my first campaign, after my dragonborn fighter retired due to a deadly encounter. Oh, boy was it a blast; we fought a bunch of stuff at night, and we were 7th level, so I got a lot of mileage out of the 6th level Shadow Step ability. And then when the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide came out, we had two new monastic traditions! I was overjoyed! The Way of the Sun Soul is a blast, and I can't wait to have someone in our group try out the Way of the Long Death.

With five official traditions it made sense that we hadn't seen anything for the monk in WotC's monthly Unearthed Arcana articles, but then they announced on Twitter that Unearthed Arcana was becoming a weekly article, and they were going to go through each class creating new subclasses for each. Every week they seemed to get better and better, and my anticipation built for the Monk. After five weeks of waiting, I finally got to see what the WotC writing team came up with for the Monk, and honestly, I had mixed feelings about it. The Way of the Kensei was almost exactly that I wanted from the PHB monk. It could use martial weapons as a monk, and I was super-psyched for Dexterity-based longswords and greatswords, not for optimization purposes, but because I'm a huge fan of the Fire Emblem games, and the monk was almost the perfect Swordmaster in my head. Almost, except it lacked the weapon proficiencies. They Way of the Kensei gave me all of that, and requires only moderate tweaking for play, but I'll get to that later.

First Impressions

I was less enthused for the Way of Tranquility. You know what really grinds my gears? Pacifist characters. Not because I abhor diplomacy, or social interaction. My experience with pacifist characters is that they will never pick up a weapon, even if their best friend has just been murdered. I've DM'd for a pacifist character who watched innocents get tortured and let the torture continue because they refused to fight. That doesn't sit well with me, but I guess maybe I'm too Chaotic Good, which leaks over into a lot of my characters. So, when they gave us a monk focused on not fighting, I was less than enthused, since it seems like a validation of a play-style that I disagree with. Now, I don't mean to say that pacifism is BadWrongFun. Quite the contrary, I admire the people who are able to pull that off in their roleplaying; I am just unable to do it myself.

Way of the Kensei is pretty much everything I wanted from the monk, like I said. It's perfect for replicating the Swordmaster from Fire Emblem, and I fell in love with the kensei the moment I read it. In fact, I'm getting ready to play a tabaxi kensei in an upcoming campaign. On my initial reading, it seemed the perfect blend of martial arts and martial weapons, and then someone pointed out to me that kensei weapons were not called out as monk weapons. This shuts down a decent portion of the monk class, basically everything for them, combat-wise, revolves around their martial arts feature, which only functions if you are empty-handed or wielding a monk weapon. This throws a huge wrench into how it plays, so let's look at the features:

Kensai - By the Features

At 3rd level, you gain the Path of the Kensei class feature. This is where your martial weapon proficiencies come from. It gives you a list of benefits that shape how the subclass plays. You gain three martial weapon proficiencies of your choice, which is really nice because there's no longer any limits to the weapon table. You're a dwarven kensei? You can use a battleaxe. You're an orcish kensei? Feel free to pick up that warhammer. You're an elvish kensei? That longsword is totally cool. What's even better is that all martial weapons you are proficient with are kensei weapons. This makes racial weapons relevant, since you no longer need to spend one of your three weapons to pick a racial weapon as a kensei weapon.

Secondly, you can scale kensei weapons with your Martial Arts die. This won't be relevant for a while, since most will pick up 1d8 weapons, or it will never be relevant if you pick up a maul, a greatsword, or a polearm. However, it makes flavor-informed choices just as valid as optimized choices, which I like.

Thirdly, if you hit a creature with your kensei weapon you can use your bonus action to cause the target to take a bonus 1d4 bludgeoning damage, as you pummel them with the opposite end of your weapon. Positive? It doesn't require an attack roll. Negatives? It's always 1d4, it doesn't scale, or if it does, that's not explicitly stated. Another negative is that it doesn't say 1d4 + your Strength or Dexterity modifier. It's a flat 1d4, but it's free.

Finally, Path of the Kensei closes some of the AC gap between the barbarian and the monk, if you make at least one unarmed strike on your turn you gain a +2 bonus to your Armor Class, effectively making it a shield as well, without requiring shield proficiency. This is an awesome boost to the monk, although maybe a little too much with everything else the kensei gets at this level.

At 6th level, you gain the One with the Blade feature. This feature extends your ki into your weapon, keeping your weapons relevant to your playstyle. Firstly, it makes your kensei weapons magical, this keeps it in line with your unarmed strikes which become magical at the same level. The thing I like about this is it keeps your starting gear in line with what the rest of the party can do. I can't tell you how many characters I've seen show up with their grandfather's sword only to see their grandfather's sword get outclassed by the warlock's pact blade, or any magical gear that the rest of the party accrues. So that character has to decide to shelf their grandfather's sword, or be subpar in combat. This feature fixes that dilemma. It also shines in games with low, or no, magic items.

The second benefit of this feature is Precise Strike. You know what the bread-and-butter of a skill-based character is? Expertise. You know what Precise Strike gives you? Expertise in weapon attacks. Okay, it's only 1/rest, but it's still incredible. Pick a greatsword and the Great Weapon Master feat, and once per rest you are almost assured of landing that -5/+10 power attack. I love this part of the feature, because while it's not usable every round, you have it when it counts, or you recover it after a short rest if you don't. It creates a substantial tactical choice for the player to make.

At 11th level you get an excellent boost in power. Sharpen the Blade allows you to spend ki to grant a numeric bonus to your weapon's to hit and damage. You can spend between 1 and 3 ki giving you a bonus equal to what you spent. This is done as a bonus action, and lasts for 1 minute. With ki being recovered over a short rest, there's no reason not to do this often. It also stacks with any bonuses you already have. Your DM gave you a +2 longsword? Now it's a +5 longsword. This pairs really well with the Great Weapon Master feat, as I mentioned earlier. This is a powerful feature, but at the same time, it's hardly broken at the level you get it. It sucks up your bonus action that first round of combat, so you can't use Flurry of Blows, and it also doesn't apply to your unarmed strikes, just to your kensei weapon.

Unerring Accuracy is the kensei capstone, coming in at 17th level. Not as impressive as the Way of the Open Hand's save-or-die shenanigans, but still great and goes to show that the kensei is all about accuracy with their weapons. The feature allows you to (once per turn) reroll one attack that you missed. Combine this with Precise Strike and Sharpen the Blade, and you should be hitting your target most of the time. And keeping in mind that the monk's über-awesome Stunning Strike just requires a melee attack, and this kick-ass feature assures you'll hit more often, giving you a better chance to stun your target. Advantage for everyone!

Kensai Changes

If there's one thing I would fix about the kensei, it would be to make it's kensei weapons monk weapons. It simplifies so much. Without this change, the monk's unarmed strikes do damage equal to 1 + Strength mod, and they can't use a number of their monk features. Changing this brings their power in line with other monks, and definitely does not break anything. Leaving kensei weapons as non-monk weapons unnecessarily weakens the subclass, almost to the point of unplayability. The designers themselves said that it was a failed experiment to try a kensei whose weapons weren't monk weapons, and that future iterations would have their weapons be monk weapons.

Way of Tranquility - By the Features

So as I said earlier, I'm not a fan of this tradition, but I will do my best to keep personal bias out of this analysis. That said, if you're looking for a healer who can do other stuff, this is totally broken.

Starting off at 3rd level, the Way of Tranquility gets two features the first of which is Path of Tranquility. This feature places the character under the effects of the sanctuary spell at the end of a long rest, and this special casting of the spell lasts for 8 hours. Already this feature made me nervous, not because sanctuary is a super-useful spell on a combat class, but because Way of the Open Hand gets this ability at 11th level, 8 levels later. But I figured, eh, they're a likely a pacifist and if they wanna use the combat features of the monk they lose it, so no biggie. So I kept reading. What I read next pissed me off. "Once you cast the spell in this way, you can’t do so again for 1 minute." So. . . the only consequence I have for abandoning my pacifist principles and fighting - thus losing my sanctuary - is I have to wait 1 minute? I was dumbfounded. So if I just want to zip around the battlefield healing I'm untouchable, however if I want to attack, I loose that and have the full combat power of the monk - which is one of the best striker classes. And I get my sanctuary back 1 minute after the combat ends? This ability is absolutely ridiculous.

But that's not all that the Way of Tranquility gives out at 3rd level. Let's look at Healing Hands. Healing Hands... Healing Hands... Oh, boy.

I'll be the first to admit that I think healing in 5e is very weak. It's honestly better for healers to heal out of combat and in combat use their actions to help kill things faster. Weak as it is, I also feel that new healing options shouldn't be better at healing than the Life Domain cleric. In fact, the Life Domain Cleric should be the best healer in my opinion. That's their shtick. Healing Hands grants the Way of Tranquility a pool of hit points which works like the paladin's Lay On Hands feature, except it instead offers 5 more hit points per level than a paladin gets. That's 30 hit points worth of healing at 3rd level and 200 at 20th level. That's better than the paladin can ever hope to get. I thought: "Well maybe they won't get to cure poisons and diseases like the paladin can." *sigh* They can. For the same 5 hit point cost. "Well at least it's still limited to an action, right?" *sigh* You can replace one of your attacks from Flurry of Blows with healing from Healing Hands. This does nothing but make the Life Domain Cleric and the paladin look like a joke. Why should anyone ever play a Life Domain Cleric with healing word for bonus action healing ever again? If I can make 3 attacks and heal someone at 5th level, I'm gonna take the ability to do so as a healer. The fighter is poisoned? Nope! And I still make 3 attacks and have 45 hit points worth of healing left.

Arriving at 6th level we find Emissary of Peace. Actually, I like this feature. It's a social feature which doesn't pop up on the monk all that often (almost never) and it answered a question I had: if monks are a prime candidate for dumping Charisma, how are they expected to act as peacemakers? By giving them advantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks to convince people to make peace. On top of that you get proficiency in your choice of Persuasion or Performance. This is nice if you somehow got Persuasion through your background or race, like if you were a Variant Human or a Half-Elf. This is a great way to introduce the monk to the Social Pillar and make up for their lack of Charisma.

Douse the Flames of War comes online at 11th level. This feature allows you to touch a creature and force them to make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save they lose their hostility until they are attacked or take damage, or if any of their companions are attacked or take damage. This is pretty neat, combined with Emissary of Peace. Your Assassin friend just pissed off the captain of the guard? Give him a nice hearty handshake, and all of a sudden he calms down. Now that he's calm, you can persuade him that he and your Assassin buddy should make up. Now that they're friends the Assassin can wait 'til the guard's back is turned and go about his business. There's a thousand other applications for this feature, and I think that brings me to the thing I don't like about it: there's no rest recharge, and there's no limit on how many times you can use it on the same creature.

Here we are, you've been a pacifistic healer and peacemaker for 17 levels of adventuring. What do you get for your diplomatic ways? Anger of the Gentle Soul. Wow. This feature is awesome, but it is SO out of left field and against the theme of the class. So if you see an ally die you ditch your pacifistic ways and on every attack you make that round you add additional damage equal to your monk level. At 17th level, if you land all four of your attacks (Extra Attack plus Flurry of Blows) you're looking at an average of 110 points of damage for that round. And this ability lasts for the round, so if you make an Attack of Opportunity, you're looking at an average of 27.5 damage. Usable once per short or long rest this ability makes the paladin and the rogue and the fighter choke on just how much damage you can do on your nova round. Fantastic at 17th level, and will only get better over the next three levels, though it does depend on how often your friends die. One way to get this to trigger more often would be to get hirelings almost constantly. Or pick up Magic Initiate or Ritual Caster feats for the find familiar spell.

Way of Tranquility Changes

Kensei needs just one simple change and it's fine, but I wish the Way of Tranquility was as easy to fix. If I were to allow my players to use this monastic tradition I would change the following things: Path of Tranquility would be changed to allow you to cast sanctuary once per short or long rest, lasting until your next rest, but ending early if you make an attack, as defined within the spell. I would get rid of Healing Hands, because this feature diminishes the importance of the Life Domain Cleric and the paladin. Instead I would give the Way of Tranquility Lay On Hands exactly as it appears on the Paladin (scaling with monk level, of course). That fixes their problem of being the über-healer who is better than the cleric in every way. I would leave Emissary of Peace mostly as is, but I would make one small change: I would give the Way of Tranquility Expertise with the Persuasion skill, again to make up for the lack of expected Charisma on the monk. For Douse the Flames of War I would add a clause that if a creature succeeds on their saving throw they're immune to the effects of the ability for 24 hours, or I would add a limit on how many times you can use the feature per rest. I would like to remove Anger of the Gentle Soul from the Way of Tranquility entirely, since I think it fits a mini-barbarian monastic tradition better, but I don't know what to replace it with. Since it does fit with the idea of a pacifist taking up arms in the face of great atrocities, I guess I would ultimately leave it as a part of the tradition.

Final Thoughts

So those are my thoughts on the Unearthed Arcana for the Monks, and I have to say, while overall I generally like the Unearthed Arcana articles and allow players in my games to use them, this one was the first article that was a mixed bag for me. Maybe it was because I had so many expectations, but in the end it wasn't the best work of the development team. I can't complain too much because I got a Kensei out of the deal, and it will only get better going forward. Way of Tranquility doesn't do anything for me personally, and I would do heavy editing before allowing a player to use it, but it does fill a niche that wasn't previously filled in the monk class, so it's not altogether a bad thing. I look forward to doing more Unearthed Arcana reviews in the future, and I hope that everyone enjoyed this one and found something useful in it.

Going Forward

Next month I am going to tackle the Unearthed Arcana: Cleric Domains article. It contains my favorite Domain published (though, not officially) by Wizards of the Coast: the Forge Domain. After that I don't have any particular order that I want to tackle the articles in, and so I will open it up to you, our readers, as to what order I review the Unearthed Arcana. If you think anything I said in this article was incorrect in terms of what's balanced, or anything I said that is just absolutely crazy, let me know in the comments. This is only my first time doing this, and I want to improve with each review. I look forward to doing this again for you guys next month, so until then: Happy Gaming!


  1. What surprised me was that they have acknowledge there are issues with the Way of the Four Elements, but this article, a perfect opportunity to address them... didn't.

    I want my water bender damn it!

    1. I totally feel you! Apparently there was a Tweet where the developer team said that the Way of the Sun Soul was their first step in fixing the problem with the Way of the Four Elements.

    2. If you look around google, you can find a fantastic Way of the Four Elements remastered that fixes all the problems and makes the class far more playable. Free to use.


    3. That one's great and I've used it before, but it's still slightly annoying that WotC has acknowledged a problem with their material and didn't take advantage of an opportunity to fix it.

    4. Agreed, hopefully they do something sooner rather than later. Of course if they don't, this is always an option that most DMs would accept.

    5. One thing that very few people talk about with a four element monk is that you are a modified 1/3 caster much like the eldritch knight or the arcane trickster. To that end both the eldritch knight and the arcane trickster get a set of new resources to use to cast their spells with, their new archetype doesn't interfere with the use of their old abilities. With the four elements monk they get a bunch of new spell like abilities but have to use the same ki pool with new abilities that drain them faster than other archetypes. To that end I offer my player these options for a four element monk. First off, elemental attunement is a free ability that cannot be traded out (cause why keep it is your currency is damage?). This lets the monk keep the thematic feel without sacrificing damage potential to do so. Secondly I give them a pool of elemental ki that can only be spent on elemental disciplines. This pool is calculated by using the sorcerer's spell point conversion with the amount of spells that the eldritch knight or the arcane trickster get which equates to 1 elemental ki per level. The monk can still burn their normal ki to fuel these abilities, but this way the monk can still keep enough ki to use their core abilities and still fell like they can use their cool elemental abilities.

  2. Huh. It's cool hearing someone who likes Kensai heavy weapons proficiency. Most people I've seen thought it was unnecessary and out-damaged the other monk paths. Personally, a Warforged Kensei is totally Hakumen.

    I also agree with your thoughts on Tranquility's healing. That was way overblown.

    All-in-all, I have been enjoying the weekly barrage of UAs. The concepts and ideas were great, even if they felt half-baked at times (looking at you fighter...). Likewise, I'm looking forward to reading you thoughts on the rest. Forge cleric is awesome and Grave was pretty cool too, if messy. Are you compliling you revision into pdfs?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Heavy weapons for Kensei don't allow any serious advantage for Dexterity-based builds that aren't in the game already. A Fighter with the Sharpshooter feat can already make a Dexterity -5/+10 power attack, and so there's no real reason to say: you can do that at range, but you can't do it in melee. Now there are some shenanigans possible with Polearm Master and Sentinel, but those problems aren't exclusive to the Kensei, they're inherent to 5e. Monks are starved for ASIs already, usually only having room for 1 feat, so if you wanna sacrifice AC or your DCs for some Dexterity-based polearm shenanigans that's up to you.

      I've thought about compiling my revised versions, but that would be something I link to over on Giant in the Playground, or I could send in private emails, so I don't get Middle Finger of Vecna in trouble for violating copyright.

    3. Great to hear some justification for keeping heavy weapons! Whether you post them on GitP or have them ready to email, could you announce them?

    4. If anyone who wants a PDF of my revisions goes on GitP and sends me a message, I can let them know when I will have the PDFs ready! :)

  3. I am in complete agreement with you on the power level of the Way of Tranquility. I brewed up a Peace Domain a while ago that had similar powers, but the fact that a MONK archetype blows the Life and both the MFOV and my own Peace domains out of the water in terms of helping is ridiculous. And let's not even mention the paladin. It really says something when the full martial gets better healing than the holy half caster.

    1. It is absolutely mindbogglingly ridiculous. There's no excuse for how broken they made it.

    2. And honestly the Sanctuary feature is just lazy design. I could understand giving a cleric a duplicate of the open hand ability, but giving a monk archetype a blatantly broken version of a feature another archetype gets 8 levels later is just absurd. Sometimes I wonder if the designers actually read the Players Handbook.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. I get the theme and concept behind the Way of Tranquility, but it was not executed well. It definitely needs to be toned down before an official release, if it gets one. Personally I don't care either way on that.

      They could have done much better, and the Way of the Sun Soul, Way of the Long Dead, and the Way of the Kensei showed that they can do much better when designing an archetype. Yeah, Unearthed Arcana tends to be on the broken side of things, but this I think is the only thing that I wouldn't playtest as written - none of my players would be allowed to choose it without my tweaking it.

  4. Mike Mearls did address that it was an error, kensai weapons are monk weapons. :)

    1. Or rather it still works in tandem with martial arts.

    2. Correct. He clarified that they count as monk weapons.

  5. 100% agreement on Healing Hands. It's ridiculously overpowered and is just plain bad design. A subclass should never get a better version of another classes core feature(s).

  6. In my opinion your change to the tranquillity domain basically nerfs it out of existence. At the very least I think each domain should have the option to use ki in a unique way. You’d basically be a base monk with the ability to heal as an action (which would be more or less the same as using the healer feat or a healing potion). You’d gain nothing else to use in combat until level 17. I’d consider it inferior to every other type of monk.

    For core classes the paladin deals more damage, heals more and can be at least as tanky as a monk. A base class polearm master paladin (with quarterstaff dueling) by level 11 does more damage simply auto attacking than a level 20 monk even when the monk uses flurry of blows. They also have the same armor class as the monk (20 – plate+shield) and paladins have the larger hit dice.

    2 attacks x (quarterstaff 1 hand damage + improved divine smite + str + duelling) + polearm master bonus attack+improved divine smite + str+dueling
    Lvl 11 paladin 2x(d6+d8+5+2)+d4+d8+5+2 = 44
    4 attacks (2 basic attacks and 2 flurry of blows) x (martial arts dice + dex)
    Lvl 11 monk 4x(d8+5) = 38
    Lvl 20 monk = 42

    This damage doesn’t use any of the paladins resources but consumes the monks ki and the monk still loses. The paladin is also far more likely to have magic weapons add to his damage. This obviously doesn’t take into account lots of other things that could be added (stunning strike, paladin spells ie haste etc). Also polearm master is a particularly strong build.

    Now in terms of healing its true a paladin has lay on hands. They also have spell slots. To compare healing you should really compare all the resources one class gets with the other. The most healing (I could work out a base paladin getting) at level 20 in one long rest was 740 (with cure wounds, aura of vitalitys and lay on hands), compared to the tranquillity monk at 200. Hell even if lay on hands gets interrupted after 1 tick every time the paladin still outheals the monk at level 20 (236 vs 200) and every other level.

    Ultimately for a healing monk to function it probably ought not use spell slots (which limits options for healing mechanics). I think it also ought to be able to either heal with a bonus action or heal significantly more than a paladin (so it’s not worse than a paladin at healing damage and tankyness simultaneously). Ki should probably be involved in the healing somehow too.

    I guess what I’m really saying is I think you consider the tranquillity monk more overpowered than it is. Ignoring the healing scaling (which I think is the best place to tweak it – if not changing the mechanics entirely), I think it needs the ability to heal whilst damaging to remain interesting.

    The previous best healing monk (which it could be compared against) probably was a one level dip in life cleric with magic initiate goodberry (for 10 4 hp berries and healing words). This added a reasonable amount of healing whilst keeping the monk feel. I’m not certain whether the tranquillity monk is stronger than it.