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There is a place between skill and sorcery, where the hard lines of what is and isn't supernatural begin to blur. It is a place beyond the codified laws of magic, where will and spirit become manifest, and allow the impossible to become real.
Those who unlock the gate to this land of supernal feats are called monks, and they engender both fear and awe when they display their prowess. If you've been having trouble finding the path to start your monk on, then this guide is here to help. Also, while this guide is intended for the Pathfinder RPG, other games with a monk class may find the following advice to be of use.
For more advice and insight on gaming and RPGs, check out my blog Improved Initiative!
#1: How do you fight?
Monks are, first and foremost, warriors. While not all (or even most) monks have been to a monastery, all of them have devoted their lives to the art, form, and intimate understanding of battle. Many of them follow philosophies of war, and their studies of different schools of thought and practice impacts the type of weapons they use, or turn themselves into.
So ask yourself, how does your monk fight?
This is not just an aesthetic question (though that's certainly part of it). It's also a mechanical question. For example, say you have a monk who is famed for his ability to do more damage with a single punch than most warriors could do with two hands and a mace. Well, you'll probably want to invest in feats like Power Attack and Vital Strike, in order to pool your damage dice into a single shot. On the other hand, if you are a callous, brutal brawler, then you might want to use the Boar Style feats (a fighting style invented by orcs) as a way to showcase the ripping and tearing capabilities of your monk's savage style.
When talking about how you fight, it is extremely important that the stats on your sheet match the description in your head.
#2: What kind of lawful are you?
The first thing most players know about monks is they are unarmored warriors who fight with their unarmed strikes as often as with weapons. The second thing most players know about the class is it has a lawful alignment requirement. However, it's important to remember that while being lawful implies you possess certain traits (general obedience to authority, respect for tradition, honesty, keeping one's word), it is important to note that there is depth and circumstance to how a character views such things without breaking this requirement.
As an example, take Harak Chainbreaker. This half-orc was raised in the brutal killing pits of the arena, until he eventually became a champion, and staged a revolution, breaking himself and his fellow arena fighters out of slavery. Now, Harak deciding to break the law of the nation by violently freeing himself from bondage, along with many other slaves, does not mean he is not a lawful individual. As long as he has a stated code and philosophy, and there is a clear logic as to what laws he feels apply to him and what laws don't, you might argue that his alignment is fully intact — especially if he is lawful good, and he understandably felt that making enslaved, sentient beings kill each other for sport was not a law he felt he should obey.
This will require sitting down with your DM to work out the details of your character, and in what ways they reflect the different elements of what is considered lawful, and how those reflections play into their personal philosophy of combat as a monk. For example, Daeran of The Splintered Hand is obedient to what he considers legitimate authority. While that means he will follow the will of his masters in the Order, and those of his commander in the Temple Legion, he may feel no particular requirement to obey the commands of a pompous militia sergeant in a backwater town he's merely passing through, particularly when he suspects that sergeant's authority is derived not from his position, but from the fact that he has twenty-five bully boys who will attempt to cudgel anyone who doesn't do what he says.
Lawful characters have far more wiggle room than most players think, so don't let the alignment requirement stifle what your monk can be.
#3: What is your philosophy?
Every monk has some kind of guiding philosophy; it is what they draw their higher understanding from. Whether it's a doctrine written down a hundred generations ago by the first masters who reached enlightenment at a hidden temple, or something a self-taught pugilist has cobbled together through their own, hard-fought experience, this philosophy is intimately tied to the monk, and their abilities.
So, take a few moments to ask what your monk's philosophy is, not just in the broad strokes, but in the details. What was this philosophy meant to teach? How are those lessons exemplified by this particular monk's actions and powers? For example, does adherence to the Doctrine of Stone give a Monk of The Iron Mountain their damage reduction, their immobility in the face of force, and their natural armor? Does studying the fighting style of the Djinni warriors grant a monk the power to tap into their elemental powers, allowing his body and mind to transcend a barrier between those who are born of the wind, and those who are not? Does someone who has devoted herself to turning her body into a weapon teach her how to mimic the properties of steel, or allow her to pierce resistances to magic, or cold iron?
Put another way, your philosophy is the lens through which your monk views the world. It isn't just a series of platitudes or catchy phrases; it is an instruction manual for decoding life. Just as the study of combat is the central discipline of the monk (generally speaking), that study also effects how they see everything. From everyday interactions with people, to the political maneuvering of empires, it all filters through that philosophy.
#4: Who taught you?
Nowhere in the class description of a monk does it say they can only learn their skills and disciplines in a monastery. That's certainly an option, but not the only one. It does bear asking, though, both who and where your monk learned their philosophy, fighting style, etc.
As an example, is your fighting style and combat philosophy something taught only by one master to those students he personally trains? Were you part of a unique military unit, who trusted in advanced technique and unique skill over brute force and steel? Was it originally created by an outsider, be it a devil, an angel, or some other entity which infused the teachings with the power of their own realm? Is it written down, or must it be delivered through lessons taught by a master?
And if you were not taught by an individual, then where did you have your great epiphanies? Did you have to adapt your fighting style in order to defeat a werewolf, understanding how to overcome their damage reduction? Did you compile a list of pain points, and strike styles, learning how to strike not only a foe's body, but also their spirit? Or, if you didn't learn the techniques in battle, did you follow in the footsteps of myths and legends? Such as running to the summit of Ice Mountain, then meditating on the crag for three days with no food or water until your mind could transcend your body, and learn how to undo the cold so it no longer touched you?
These explanations, whether they come up in RP or are just part of your monk's history in the world, are where some of your most unique character moments will come from.
#5: What are you seeking?
This technically applies to every character, but monks have the unique opportunity to ask where the campaign fits into their training, technique, and study of war.
As an example, say you are a monk who is dedicated to proving their technique is powerful. You want to garner respect, and perhaps train apprentices, in time. So when an opportunity to prove the effectiveness of your style comes your way (fighting off bandits, entering a tournament, taking on a position as a bodyguard, etc.), you may jump at the chance to prove yourself. Or, you might be fleeing the past that turned you into a living weapon. Perhaps you were raised by an evil cult, and had your fighting techniques beaten into you, but you want to try to turn them toward the side of good. Maybe you were part of the losing side of a war, and want to leave that fight behind along with your uniform, but events conspire to keep drawing you back into the fray. Maybe you revel in the stillness, and the inner peace, that only comes when a fight has started. Do you seek that out, or do you try to avoid it the way an alcoholic knows one drink is too many, and a thousand too few?
Then, once you know all that, ask how it plays into your other motivations. Do you want fame? Fortune? To do good? To hurt an enemy? Find the man who killed your father, and best him with his own unarmed technique? You've got all sorts of options here.
The Rest of The "Top 5" Classes Articles
If you liked these five tips about playing better monks, then you should check out the rest of the "5 Tips" series for Pathfinder's base classes.