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One of the players in my campaign decided to play monk. We are all pretty new, so I couldn't have alerted him to this, but from what I understand now, monks are weak. Very weak.

This player in particular, a lvl 3-4 monk by now, has quite the low AC for being a melee combatant, and is a bit frustrated about his character dying a lot of the times. How do I make the game enjoyable for him?

Now, I know I could shower him in rings of protection, bracers of armor, amulets of NA, and similar magic items, but I'd rather it not be the case. I have tried a bit to send enemies that suit him, as in, having him face archers, since he has Deflect arrows, but it didn't seem that effective. Are there ways to make him feel good playing the monk?

Edit: We play mainly core, for the simplicity, but if there is anything worth it out there in the world of splatbooks, I am willing to give it a go. Same goes for pretty much anything, including quality homebrew. Retconing shouldn't be a problem, although some consultation with the player will be necessary.

Note: not a duplicate of this question, since I am not asking as a player about optimisation, but rather about GM techniques.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 24 down vote accepted

You need to focus on the fact that no matter how much optimizing or tweaking you do, a Monk is simply not great at straight-up combat. Monks are good at doing crazy stuff. Monks should not be slugging it out rolling boring attacks, they should be looking for non-standard actions.

A good monk will have lots of ranks in things like Jump and Tumble, and can use the environment to do unusual things both in and out of combat. Thus, try to engineer combat environments that have things to interact with, and encourage the Monk player to use them.

You can take this a step further by using concepts from more narrative games like Spirit of the Century, whereby you encourage the player to suggest the existence of interesting options. A player should be asking things like, "is there a chandelier I could swing off?", and your default answer should be "yes", unless there's a specific reason to say no.

Finally, give magic items which actually work with unusual combat techniques. That means: forget about boosting attack, AC, saves, etc, and focus on cool Wondrous Items that can be used creatively. Boots of Springing and Striding make their already good movement and Jump abilities even better, and if you give a Monk an Immovable Rod and they can't think of something interesting to do with it, then the player should not be playing a Monk.

Incidentally, Monk's best pure combat options are non-standard as well. A strong optimized Monk uses abilities like Trip, Grapple, and Use Magic Device (UMD is feasible for utility / buffs because the DC for wands is only 20 and you can retry fails without expending charges). They really don't need house ruled full BAB or armour or anything because they're not Fighters and shouldn't be played the same.

EDIT: Apparently the mods are removing large numbers of comments and putting bits into my post, so here's a part that was originally across a few comments (by me). It wasn't in the post originally because the whole point of my answer is the mechanics are the wrong way of approaching this problem. Heck, this comment doesn't even make sense outside the context of the (now deleted) comment thread.

Trip is a Touch Attack, so you're a LOT less likely to miss against most targets. And since Monks get Improved Trip for free at level 6, you get a free attack to try to deal damage if the Trip succeeds, PLUS an AoO when they stand up. Add Enlarge Person for Size bonus and extra Strength, and Trip becomes way better than just attacking. Monks are better general-purpose Trippers than Fighters because a Fighter has to use a specific Trip-compatible weapon, whereas the Monk can just use their unarmed strikes.

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@DuncanMatheson still several BAB increases worse than a fighter doing the same thing. –  Zachiel Jun 19 '13 at 8:25
    
Please take discussion over site comment policy and communal editing to meta or chat. –  mxyzplk Jul 11 '13 at 2:33
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Immediate and Obvious Steps

Full Base Attack Bonus

Between their low HD, weak weapons, the penalties that Flurry of Blows applies, and so on, the less-than-full BAB of the Monk is just insulting. Switching Monks to full BAB is probably absolutely necessary.

Magic Unarmed Strikes

Allow Monks to upgrade their Unarmed Strike as a magical weapon. Charge 300 gp for “Masterwork” quality (and the +1 Enhancement bonus to attack), and then (enhancementBonus)²×2000 gp for additional bonuses.

As a DM, if you don’t want to just outright houserule this, a magic weapon that uses the value of one’s Unarmed Strike damage as its base (a magic gauntlet, perhaps) may fit what you’re looking to do more.

Another Pretty Good Idea: Armor

Allowing Monks to use light armor while retaining their class features may feel like you’re losing too much of what makes a Monk a Monk, but it would mean they can actually expect an AC bonus.

Again, you can switch this around by simply providing things that offer “unarmored” AC. The important thing, however, is to not just offer AC bonuses, but also the special abilities that can be put on armor, and without the prohibitive extra costs associated with, e.g., rings of protection.

Reducing MAD

Ultimately, one of the biggest problems for the Monk is that he utterly depends on at least four different ability scores (Str, Dex, Con, and Wis), and it’s not like he wants to totally ignore Int. Reducing this will help.

Give him 6+Int skill points per level; that will put him on par with the Bard and Ranger, and allow him to be a little more in-tune with his “mindful warrior” archetype. Strongly consider abilities that allow him to base his attack and/or damage on Wisdom.

The other way to handle this, and this is perhaps more appropriate from the DM’s perspective, is to give him items that give Enhancement bonuses to all ability scores. No one appreciates that kind of all-around bonus like a Monk does. Again, the magic weapon that uses Unarmed Strike damage might also use Wisdom for attack rolls.

Giving Real Class Features

Shoring up the numbers (as discussed above) will help, but ultimately do not lead to a Monk that actually does things: the Monk has plenty of numerical problems but those are not his only problems. Giving the Monk mystical or pseudo-magical abilities is a great way to both make him special, and give him greater flexibility and versatility.

Perhaps they are the ancient teachings of his monastery, passed down in scroll form, written in a language taught only to their very best students. Or perhaps he has simply reached some level of nirvana. At any rate, some number of Divine spells, Psionic powers, or Sublime maneuvers are highly recommended. They fit the class and give it the actual abilities that it needs. These could be given in the form of special magic items the Monk finds, or require things like Stunning Strike uses, to make them unique to the Monk.

These problems cannot and should not be ignored

Other answers suggest that the problems don’t really exist, or that fixing them somehow makes the Monk not a Monk any longer: this is horribly untrue. I cannot strongly enough recommend that you look at your own game, see the problems that you, yourself, have encountered, and realize that these answers cannot be completely correct.

Duncan Matheson has a lot of really cool ideas for the Monk. However, most of them are things the Monk cannot really do, and none of them, even if you let the Monk do them, are going to allow the Monk to keep up. There are serious, mathematical problems with the Monk that must also be fixed.

The Monk is not as amazing at Acrobatics as implied. He has a high movement speed, but that doesn’t directly translate into anything except jumping higher/farther (and moving more per round, of course). In fact, with his low skills and heavy Multiple Ability Dependence that forces him to keep his Intelligence low, keeping all of the acrobatic skills (Athletics, Balance, Climb, Jump, Tumble, and so on) at high levels is very difficult for the Monk.

Adding in cross-class ranks to Use Magic Device is just adding insult to injury, in my opinion: Charisma is the only ability score that Monks can afford to really dump, and even hitting the DC 20 check for Wands is going to be difficult with cross-class ranks. Moreover, Wands are expensive, particularly with high Caster Levels that allow the Monk to cast them ahead of time.

Finally, as addressed in my answer about optimizing Monks, they are atrocious at Combat Maneuvers, which depend heavily on Strength, BAB, and size: none of which the Monks get.

Monks are supposed to be mobile, dynamic warriors, highly-trained and capable of exotic, even mystical techniques. Unfortunately, their actual class features are a mish-mash of poorly-thought-out, uncoordinated abilities that are weak, mutually exclusive, extremely limited, or, usually, some combination of these things. You need to give the Monk actual skills in order for him to feel like a skillful character. That means he needs special techniques that aren’t just worse versions of what the Barbarian or Fighter are doing. I recommend using spells, psionic powers, or the Tome of Battle sublime way for these things. These allow the Monk to be versatile and different from other characters.

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@KRyan You cannot say that an answer that is correct, in the context of a common play style, is "wrong". Not only is such a statement factually incorrect, we do not permit One True Wayism here. You make your answer on it's own merits and let the votes judge the merits. You can't do an end-run on the voting system by saying "this is right and other answers wrong". –  SevenSidedDie Jun 19 '13 at 14:38
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You Probably Can't

At least, not in a Monk-specific fashion. I'll explain why in a minute or two, but consider that you may have to solve this on an OOC level, with the player himself, and not on the character's level.

Here's the Problem

Monks have a lot of reasons that the game's not enjoyable for them specifically. Some of these are answered in the question you linked already, but this time I'm covering them from the GM side of things.

Reason One: Monks Aren't Good at anything

Monks don't have a specialty. They don't even have a half-baked niche, and this is a huge issue when designing "monk-friendly" encounters. Traps? They can move past them but not disarm them. Social encounters? Low skill points and crappy Charisma means that they can't participate. Combat? Monks can't protect their fellow party members, can't deliver the damage, don't inflict status conditions, and on top of all of these things they don't do there are huge swaths of enemies they straight up cannot fight without magical assistance. Puzzles could, of course, be a thing but that's not really Monk-specific, is it - and none of their features help with those either.

Reason Two: The Fluff

Monks in 3.5/Pathfinder have a strongly ingrained fluff of coming from remote monasteries where they cut themselves off from society in order to achieve enlightenment. This unfortunately means that unless you alter this fluff there's not a lot of Monk-specific plot hooks you can throw out either - I mean, you can only attack a temple so many times. On top of that, the idea of separating the Monk from their former life can even impede trying to involve the character's personal backstory because, well, they sort of cut themselves off from the world. What personal backstory?

Reason Three: Everyone Has Skills

Some people point to the Monk's skill list as a suggestion for improving the game for them. This is a fallacy, firstly because Monks don't really get a lot of skills, but secondly because everyone gets skills - and just about anything a Monk can do, another class does better. Sense Motive for a social encounter? Handled better by the Cleric or Paladin. Acrobatic tricks for mobility benefit the Rogue, Swordsage, or Factotum much more than the Monk who has no ability to take advantage of his superior positioning; Diplomacy and Bluff get handled better by Bards and Sorcerers (who actually have a Charisma worth talking about), etc. Even as jacks-of-all-trades Monks pall before Rogues, Bards, Factotums, and even the martial classes presented in Tome of Battle. For every resource the Monk struggles to find a use for, other classes have multiple uses that let them get creative and fun.

But...

There are some options for your player without losing the Monk "feel", as it were. The Sacred Fist (Complete Divine) and/or Enlightened Fist (Complete Arcane) prestige classes mechanically combine Monk with spellcasting classes but there's no reason you have to flavor it that way - maybe his Monk studies esoteric methods of shaping his ki, or has discovered a path to the divine that has yielded unexpected fruit. That'd solve the problem of encounter participation nicely, though there still wouldn't be a defined "Monk" niche for encounters - they'd be support in other kinds of encounters.

You can also create a Monk-like character with the Psychic Warrior base class (SRD), with the psychic powers being explained through, again, ki. The Swordsage base class (Tome of Battle) has an unarmed variant that makes it a wonderful Monk replacement and comes with the benefit of similar fluff - and its Maneuvers all retain a very Monk feeling, from simulating Flurry of Blows (Dancing Mongoose, Raging Mongoose, Avalanche of Blades) to acrobatics and mobility (Shadow Jaunt, Shadow Jump, Shadow Blink, the entire Desert Wind Discipline, Sudden Leap) to the Monk's increased saves and concentration abilities (the Diamond Mind counters).

Encouraging your player down any of these lines will make it easier for you to design encounters in which he feels like he can participate. Unfortunately, if something doesn't change with the character himself - or unless the player makes peace with dying all the time - there isn't really another solution outside of rebuilding entirely.

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If you are not playing at a high optimization level, then a monk is a perfectly valid and enjoyable character. My group has run a large number of 3.5/Pathfinder campaigns and there are plenty of monks as PCs selected over time, and their players have enjoyed them in play just fine. So it's clearly not impossible.

For a specific play example, in our current Pathfinder pirate campaign I GM the PC captain is a core monk! At seventh level his base AC is 25, boostable to 29 with a ki point, and it's "on all the time," which has stood him in good stead through many ambushes. You can CharOp a character with a 40 AC or whatever by that level I'm sure, but we don't play that way so we don't care. Anyway, our monk captain excels at running around the ship, climbing the rigging, saving sailors thrown overboard, and has a super high Prof: Sailing due to his high WIS - in those storm-tossed sea skill challenges he really shines. And he's about impossible to assassinate by mutineers. It has its weaknesses - sure, the "flurry of misses" rears its head from time to time, but the flaws don't ruin the class for us.

Here's some things you can do to help the monk player's enjoyment.

  1. Use the Pathfinder monk instead of 3.5e core, it's beefed up, and can use ki points for various benefits including one-round +4 to AC bumps and extra attacks, and a lot of the numbers are tweaked up. You could probably just sub that into a 3.5e game and have a competitive monk.
  2. Set up monk-friendly situations. This can be at a campaign level - our pirate campaign, for example, has some major downsides to big-armor types (glub, glub) so the PCs have utilized lower-armor characters like monk, ranger, and cleric more (no heavy armor for clerics by default in Pathfinder). Or run Scourge of the Slavelords, WotC just reissued it, you spend a lot of the time fighting butt naked as escaped slaves and monks rule there. Or just on a smaller scale, every time the group is invited to some noble party and the fighters can't carry in their two-handed swords or longbows, the monk has a chance to shine. In water, in environments where you need acrobatics checks or there's lots of mini-cliffs... It doesn't have to be every combat, but just like with any campaign if you have an archer you'll try to set up some "beyond 30'" encounters, if you have an anti-undead cleric you'll try to have some undead... You can set up encounters where the monk will bring something unique to the table.
  3. Coach the character. Flurry of blows is good when you are trying to mow mooks. But it carries a to-hit penalty. Trying to hit a high-AC guy - don't flurry! A lot of monks keep flurry always on and then get frustrated. It's just like Rapid Shot, it's not always the best choice. Also, till you get a high AC, you can't "tank" like a warrior. (Our monk, now that he can easily boost up to 29 AC, has started deliberately pulling attacks and AoOs from the other party members). Using movement and movement special abilities to set up flanks, to constrain enemies' movement... Our monk will go run around and set up a flank for the slower rogues, and then trip the guy so he can't get out of it so easy, then start pounding. He even has "menacing" (better flanking bonus) on his magical gauntlets (remember, you don't have to be the one dealing the damage, support/crowd control is just as valuable).
  4. A monk can quickly AC-benefit from a variety of fairly cheap items - since they don't wear armor or shield, low level bracers of armor, and since they benefit from both DEX and WIS, a +2 to DEX item and a +2 to WIS item are way cheaper than a +4 to DEX item... There usually ends up being a surplus of these anyway (We killed the six wizards! Ok, now we have six bracers of armor. OK, give one to the wizard and sell the rest...).

From an optimizer POV the monk is terrible. From the POV of gaming groups that don't really care much about optimization, it's quite enjoyable. Missing with flurries and AC at low levels are the two complaints, and both are mitigatable, though if you wanted to switch the monk to full BAB I think that would certainly be within the bounds of decency. (Pathfinder ups the monk BAB while flurrying).

Some are more concerned with "mathematical realities" but I prefer gameplay realities, and monks are common characters at D&D tables because they can be enjoyable, although requiring a bit more subtle play.

We just finished a previous campaign and started on Carrion Crown, and yet again a player has chosen a monk (a dhampir Hungry Ghost monk) PC. They're as common as any other class in our games. (We don't run some weird variant on D&D, you can read our session summaries at those links - we fight monsters and go into dungeons and stuff.) We have various players that enjoy monks and keep playing them - you can too!

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If the player is open to it and the group doesn't mind, the simplest solution is just to make him not a Monk. There is no good way in core to "fix" Monks, the best you can do is things like changing class features and BAB to make something that's still kind of like the Monk class only better (as suggested already).

Comparatively, it's relatively straightforward as a GM to have the party run into a magic trap, mischievous spirit, cursed item, or general whatever you feel like that can transform the character into something else.

Granted that a straight up retcon is easier, but I always try to avoid those because they create a gap in the story. Hitting him with some kind of giant curse that turns him from a calm type to a raging berserker (and gives him the Barbarian levels to go with it) is a lot more fun.

Personally I'd avoid going to splatbooks for stuff that would really help, because if you do it for one player the others are inevitably going to start finding things they want and you're going to have a problem on your hands.

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+1 Although the OP says he doesn't want the player to switch characters, and so dismisses class changes entirely, this is a viable alternative that I've used in my campaigns. Often instead of a negative effect like a trap or curse, I use a god, powerful patron, or near-death enlightenment to justify the class change. –  BESW Jun 17 '13 at 11:27
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If you're going to run a whole bunch of combat, then yeah, I have to agree with folks that monks are a bit weaker than the other classes. I like the acrobatics angle and I don't think players and DMs use the "Rule of Cool" nearly enough to encourage this kind of behavior. It needn't be a specific power, but if your player is willing to "Jackie Chan" his encounters, using props and so on to make funny surprise attacks, I see no reason not to give him bonuses every now and that, in practice, bring him up somewhere close to a similarly-leveled fighter.

Non-combat is an area where characters like monks can really excel. If you have a monk in your party, try and figure out with the player why they're adventuring and try to incorporate that into the game. Make sure there are plenty of non-combat opportunities for them to use their skills (this is good advice for any group, not just one with monks in it). This has the happy side effect of rewarding players who use a skill point or two towards character concept and aren't simply min-maxing their guys to death.

I think my biggest issue with monks isn't so much that they're underpowered, it's that they're rather anachronistic in Western medieval fantasy. These are basically Shaolin monks, which, well, didn't exist in the West. If memory serves, Gary Gygax stuck them into AD&D in the late 70s because he thought that 70s martial arts movies were awesome and he wanted to add that flavor to the game. They certainly are mentioned nowhere I can see in the other literature he pulled from (Middle Earth, Lankhmar, the Shannara series, etc.). If you wanted to play a real bona fide medieval monk from the Dominican or Franciscan orders, it'd be more realistic to play them as a cleric or paladin.

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protected by BESW Apr 12 at 13:52

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