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I wanted to try Vow of Poverty and a monk because I liked the idea of an ascetic melee fighter, but the limitations of vow of poverty about using magic items is tough. I do not want to slow down the party and would like to balance VOP by using magic item alternatives such as incarnum. The master usually doesn't use house rules, but I could try to be convincing.

How do I add incarnum to my planned 1st-level monk character? The DM has not yet specified how ability scores are going to be determined, but we are using flaws.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you talking about player-side optimization of the character, or are you talking about DM/campaign-level houserules to improve monks and/or Vow of Poverty with incarnum or incarnum-like ideas? \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 19 '17 at 0:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, since this is an existing character, can you please give your stats? Your ability scores, existing feats, and so on? Some knowledge of his character and backstory could also help. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 19 '17 at 1:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am actually in the process of creating it. I just planned race, vop, and being a monk. The master is lazy and still didn't tell the group what rules he decided to use for characteristics.... so we all are in a cold limbo. \$\endgroup\$ – beppe9000 Dec 19 '17 at 12:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you by any chance using the flaws variant from Unearthed Arcana? \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 19 '17 at 15:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I can use flaws \$\endgroup\$ – beppe9000 Dec 20 '17 at 18:08
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Incarnum does have some decent ability to staple it on to other characters, through the Shape Soulmeld and Open Least/Lesser/Greater Chakra feats. On the other hand, those feats are not nearly enough, on their own, to replace magic items.

Actually, to be perfectly honest, even though bound soulmelds fill magic item slots, several slots do not get opened until very late in the game, and even at high levels you only get at most 5 chakra binds, which is not enough even then to fill every slot. Incarnum cannot replace your items. You will never achieve parity this way.

Still, monk is a particularly poor class, and so incarnum can help. A level or two of monk gets you very-nearly everything the monk class has to offer, and incarnum classes multiclass pretty well. So you can get a fair amount of incarnum that way.

But Vow of Poverty on monk requires you to be lawful good. Incarnates, by-far the most monk-appropriate incarnum class, requires you to be neutral on exactly one axis: neutral good or lawful neutral, but not lawful good. Soulborns are required to be non-neutral, so lawful good is allowed to them, but soulborn might be an even worse class than monk, so that doesn’t help very much.

The Wild Hermit

The alignment issue leaves totemist as the only incarnum class worth the name open to this character. So I guess you were a hermit out in the wilderness, getting in touch with nature as some dedication to nature as inherently good. Could work, a little unusual, maybe not exactly what you had in mind, but it could work. Except that you have an already-existing monk who wasn’t a totemist before now. Perhaps a vision quest kind of episode could happen? Visitation in dream by “the great beast lords” suggesting a greater level of zen that he could find for himself?

Totemist also works out OK mechanically. Monks favor a fighting style with lots and lots of attacks; totemists excel at that style. You can’t use a natural weapon for a flurry of blows per se, but you can use your natural weapons as secondary attacks after you finish your flurry of blows. So let’s see how this works out.

  • Vow of Poverty. You took it, and even though it would probably be better for you to just write off the two feats spent on it and go ahead and break it, the premise here is that you aren’t going to do that. OK. What does this give you?

    • AC bonuses: exalted (that functions mostly like armor), deflection, natural armor. No idea why they went with three different bonus types here, but oh well, they did. Kind of synergistic with monk but ultimately not actually that impressive. You will still miss magic armor. Maybe ask your DM if you can trade in some of these bonuses for special armor properties? Soulfire, also from Book of Exalted Deeds, and the core heavy fortification property, are probably your top choices. Note that deflection bonuses are worth way more than the exalted or natural armor bonuses, or the usual enhancement-to-armor bonuses that you would ordinarily use to get those special armor properties, so if you trade in deflection bonuses for them you should probably get more bang for your buck, so to speak.

    • Bonus exalted feats. Exalted feats mostly suck, but at least a few are excellent for you:

      • Intuitive Strike: Allows you to dump Strength and Dexterity in favor of Wisdom. Could allow you to use just Constitution and Wisdom, which is pretty solid. If you have good Strength or Dexterity, you should strongly consider begging your DM to retcon that.

      • Touch of Golden Ice: The DC on this poison ravage is abysmal, but you get to apply it to every attack. You will be making a lot of those. Early on, this can be devastating, and later, well, natural-1s happen.

      • Nemesis: The best detection ability in the game, bar none. Only works on your favored enemies, though. What’s that, you don’t have any favored enemies? We’ll fix that.

      • Nymph’s Kiss: I hope you dumped Intelligence and Charisma, because those do little and less for you and you need the other ability scores too badly. If so, this helps make up for it.

      • Knight of Tyr’s Holy Judgment: Officially requires you to worship Tyr and be a member of his Knights of Holy Judgment, so probably not available to you. I just wanted to mention this because 1. it’s in Champions of Valor rather than Book of Exalted Deeds, which means you might miss it, and 2. it’s frankly awesome, basically giving you law-sense.

      • Favored of the Companions. Probably incompatible, fluff-wise, with Knight of Tyr’s Holy Judgment; maybe you can get that waived if you’re not actually in Faerûn. Anyway, this feat is complete garbage, but you 1. have bonus garbage exalted feats to spare, and 2. you need it for prerequisites. Seriously, I list this last, and on its own merits that is where it belongs, but this ends up being pretty important.

    • Ability score enhancement: You want Wisdom, Constitution, and then Dexterity (pretty much just for initiative). Maybe Constitution over Wisdom. Either way, the fourth choice doesn’t matter; +2 is too small a bonus at that level to mean much, and ideally none of the remaining scores is terribly important to you.

    • A smattering of random other stuff. Some of it’s good, most of it isn’t, several things are bizarrely small/late (resistance bonuses to saving throws are the big offender there), and just about all of it could be purchased by a regular character with a lot of money left over, but anyway none of it really is open to optimization. Exalted strike does check an important box, anyway, since you can’t buy an amulet of mighty fists. Again, might be worth asking your DM if you can trade in some of the bonuses from it for special weapon properties.

  • Bonus Essentia. You are a meldshaper, so like every other meldshaper there has ever been, you will want this feat. Magic of Incarnum.

  • Beast Strike. This feat from Dragon vol. 355 allows you to add your claw or slam attack damage to your unarmed strikes. Note that it is extremely ambiguous about how exactly that works, and we have a number of questions here about it:

    Obviously, Beast Strike is better if you can use it to double your Strength bonus to damage, and if you can use it and then still actually attack with your claws. But even if you can’t, the feat is still worthwhile.

  • Cobalt Power. Magic of Incarnum, requires Power Attack. Anyway, decent bonus to attack rolls, which you might want, maybe. But most importantly, it’s a bonus essentia point attached to a feat you might actually use sometimes, which is better than a lot of incarnum feats.

  • Shock Trooper. Complete Warrior, and again, requires Power Attack, and also Improved Bull Rush which is meh but whatever. This is a good feat—you’ll be charging a lot since sphinx claws grant pounce, and you’ll have lots of attacks to put that damage bonus on.

  • Favored Power Attack. Double your Power Attack damage bonus when attacking your favored enemy. No, yes, you will, hang on a second. Found in Complete Warrior.

  • Shape Soulmeld (thunderstep boots). The one good thing soulborns get, you can poach. Just for shaping them, not even binding, you get 1 or more d4s worth of sonic damage on every attack after a charge. You have pounce, and you have a lot of attacks, so that adds up. And if you do bind them, every attack forces a save against being stunned for a round; lots of things are immune to being stunned, but for things that aren’t your DCs should be decent and the sheer number of attacks you’re making should make that reasonably reliable.

  • Random incarnum feats. More essentia is always good. Most of the incarnum feats are generally not worth investing essentia in (and that generally means they do nothing), but the bonus point of essentia you get for each one is pretty solid.

  • Martial Study and Martial Stance. These are from Tome of Battle, and let you use a bit of the maneuvers from that book. Those maneuvers are pretty good, so that’s a good thing.

  • Open Least/Lesser/Greater Chakra. Ask your DM how these work for proper meldshapers. If they allow you to bind more chakras, they are worth getting. If they only allow you to bind new places, but using the chakra binds you already have, they’re worthless to you since totemist will already be opening those for you.

  • Alertness, Track. These are on the list for the exact same reason that Favored of the Companions is—and like that feat, on their own merits these are terrible.

OK, so several of those feats reference favored enemy; what’s up with that?

Well, monk 1st gives you almost everything you could ever want from monk. You could pick up monk 2nd for evasion, but that’s only OK, not great. Nothing thereafter is worth a damn. And then totemist doesn’t give you a whole lot from 19th level, and even though 18th is pretty good (another chakra bind), it’s not crucial. So since you’re not getting the 20th-level capstone anyway, you can afford to grab a couple of levels in different things.

Specifically, if you still want the heart chakra, you have 3 levels to play with. One of those is monk, sadly, but that’s done. The other two? Those could be levels in stalker of Kharash, from Book of Exalted Deeds. At 2nd level, the stalker of Kharash gets “favored enemy—evil.”

This immediately opens up a world of possibilities for this character. Now roughly a third of all characters ever—and presumably the overwhelming majority of those this character wants to fight—is a favored enemy. That means Nemesis, which is fantastic detection, works on all of them. And it means that Favored Power Attack is allowing you to add quite a lot of damage bonuses on all those attacks you’re making.

If for some reason favoring all evil creatures ever isn’t quite enough for you, I note that Dragon vol. 310 has a hunting monk variant that gets a favored enemy at 1st instead of a bonus feat. Probably not worth it, but if there’s some non-evil group you really want to be able to fight well, and your DM is up for a ret-con, you could do it. There’s also a holy monk and raging monk in the same source, trading the bonus feat for aura of courage and turn undead or for rage, which are both pretty solid. Note that rage can then be traded for whirling frenzy for another bonus attack (and another −2 penalty, which could be a problem). And martial monk could get you a fighter bonus feat for Power Attack, which is also available to a monk of the overwhelming attack fighting style.

While we’re on the subject of changing that 1st level, you would really like your DM to allow you to switch human for azurin, from Magic of Incarnum. Azurins get the same bonus feat, but instead of bonus skill points, they get a bonus point of essentia. This is nearly worth a feat itself, so that’s a pretty solid idea.

Between exalted strike, Favored Power Attack, thunderstep boots, sphinx claws, and Shock Trooper, your charges will be packing a rather large amount of bonus damage. You also get a pretty decent amount of rider effects (stun from thunderstep boots, the ravage from Touch of Golden Ice), and totemist allows you some important utility effects (most importantly flight) that you would otherwise lack.

But you’ll still be a rather unusual kind of one-trick pony, an übercharger from a very weird direction. Things you can’t charge—to say nothing of things that can’t be solved by knocking someone out—are going to be difficult for your character to do much of anything about.

A sample build order:

Level Class Special Feat
1st Monk¹ AC bonus (Wisdom), flurry of blows −2, unarmed strike Sacred Vow, Vow of Poverty,² Alertness,³ Track,³ Power Attack,⁴ Nymph’s Kiss⁵
2nd Totemist Intuitive Attack⁵
3rd Totem Chakra bind (+1 capacity) Shape Soulmeld—thunderstep boots
4th Touch of Golden Ice⁵
5th
6th Chakra binds (crown, hands, feet) Bonus Essentia, Favored of the Companions⁵
7th Stalker of Kharash Scent of evil
8th Favored enemy—evil Nemesis—evil⁵
9th Totemist Totem chakra bind (+1 meldshaper level) Favored Power Attack
10th Knight of Tyr’s Holy Judgment⁵
11th Rebind totem soulmeld, 1/day
12th Chakra binds (arms, brow, shoulders) Beast Strike, any exalted feat
13th
14th Totem chakra bind (double bind) any exalted feat
15th Rebind totem soulmeld, 2/day Double Chakra
16th any exalted feat
17th Chakra bind (waist, throat)
18th Totem chakra bind (+2 capacity) Cobalt Power, any exalted feat
19th Rebind totem soulmeld, 3/day
20th Chakra bind (heart) any exalted feat
  1. Using the overwhelming attack fighting style.
  2. Bonus feat from race
  3. Bonus feat from flaw
  4. Bonus feat from monk levels
  5. Bonus feat from Vow of Poverty
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Alright I'm going with this one. Thanks @KRyan \$\endgroup\$ – beppe9000 Jan 30 '18 at 7:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ The alignment thing isn't as bad as it looks. A monk who becomes nonlawful can't keep rising as a monk, but they also lose that ability just for multiclassing. You can't keep VoP without remaining Good, but it's entirely possible to be a NG VoP ex-monk. All you have to do is make the switch sometime during the last monk level before you MC into whatever else you're interested in. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Jul 26 '19 at 19:18
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A wholly different approach, this time with less “Monk” and more “monk.” You will have everything notable about the monk class, but you won’t actually have levels in any class called “monk.”

This relies on a feat from Secrets of Sarlona called Tashalatora. Tashalatora requires Monastic Training, a feat in Eberron Campaign Setting that has you choose some non-monk class, and then allows you to multiclass that class freely with monk (since monks, for no good reason, have a rule that if you are a monk and then multiclass to another class, you cannot return to the monk class—as if you would want to). Tashalatora says that if you chose a psionic class with Monastic Training, your levels in that class stack with monk levels for determining your AC bonus, flurry of blows, and unarmed strike damage—read, everything remotely good about monk (well, other than the bonus feats and evasion).

Tashalatora means that psionics is far easier to mix with monk class features than any other subsystem in the game. But psionics, you may have noticed, is not meldshaping. The solution to that is soul manifester, a psionics–incarnum “theurge” prestige class. Soul manifester can advance both your psionic powers and your meldshaping, which is very nice. So you take 10 levels of that, and choose it for Tashalatora, and you have the AC bonus, flurry of blows, and unarmed strike of a 10th-level monk.

Because, oh yeah, Monastic Training and Tashalatora? They don’t actually require you to be a monk at any point. Monks can take those feats as bonus feats, but you can take them as regular feats without being a monk. (I would call this cheesy, but honestly two feats for those benefits is pretty steep—really, it’s just a sign of how weak the monk class is that it can be almost-entirely replaced by two feats and that’s a kind of dubious trade. And you’re taking Vow of Poverty, so all the cheese in the world isn’t going to save you.)

Now then, the question becomes, what psionic class do we want to progress with soul manifester? Psychic warriors are very nice—Wisdom-based, bonus feats, very nice combat-oriented powers—but they take 4 levels to get the 2nd-level powers that soul manifester requires. Thus, I suggest the ardent class from Complete Psionic. The ardent is also Wisdom-based, and while it does miss out on bonus feats and some of the combat powers of psychic warriors, it gets much better manifesting (including 2nd-level powers at 3rd level instead of 4th), and it does get a fair bit of combat power. It is also a rather philosophical class, taking on “mantles” which are vaguely similar to cleric domains—great fit for a monk (in fact, ardents are a very common suggestion for replacing monks).

Ardents don’t have the same alignment requirements that monks do, so you could do a good incarnate here, but totemist synergizes far better. Plus, you need two levels of either incarnate or totemist to qualify for soul manifester, and incarnate 2nd gets the crown chakra—which soul manifester redundantly offers at 3rd—while totemist gets the excellent and exclusive totem chakra. So I go with the totemist here.

Again, azurin is the top choice for race.

Level Class Special Feat
1st Totemist Sacred Vow, Vow of Poverty,¹ Azure Talent,² Monastic Training² (soul manifester), Nymph’s Kiss³
2nd Totem Chakra bind (+1 capacity) Intuitive Attack³
3rd Ardent Assume psionic mantle (2) Practiced Manifester (ardent)
4th Assume psionic mantle Touch of Golden Ice³
5th
6th Soul Manifester Psionic investment 1, AC bonus (Wisdom), flurry of blows −2, unarmed strike 1d6 Tashalatora, Knight of Tyr’s Holy Judgment
7th
8th Chakra binds (crown, feet, hands) any exalted feat³
9th Unarmed strike 1d8 Bonus Essentia
10th AC bonus (Wisdom + 1), flurry of blows −1 any exalted feat³
11th
12th Psionic investment 2 Double Chakra, any exalted feat³
13th Chakra binds (arms, shoulders, shoulders), unarmed strike 1d10
14th Flurry of blows −0 any exalted feat³
15th AC bonus (Wisdom + 2), psionic distillation Track
16th Slayer Favored psionic enemy +2, enemy sense Nemesis³
17th Brain nausea
18th Lucid buffer Open Greater Chakra, any exalted feat³
19th
20th Favored psionic enemy +4 any exalted feat³
  1. Bonus feat from race
  2. Bonus feat from flaw
  3. Bonus feat from Vow of Poverty

With this, at 15th you have the AC bonus, flurry of blows, and unarmed strike damage of a 10th-level monk, the meldshaping of a 12th-level totemist, and the manifesting of a 13th-level ardent (with manifester level 15th, allowing you to choose 8th-level powers). After 15th, things kind of drop off—you stop gaining monk or meldshaping features—but you can still take Open Greater Chakra at 18th to get your throat or waist. And you wind up with 19 psionic powers at manifester level 20th, including up to four 9th-level powers. That’s a pretty big win. I go with slayer over continued ardent levels since we already have Practiced Manifester and assuming a fourth mantle isn’t exactly incredible, but if you want to save the feat on Track and do something else, that’s valid. Slayers get favored enemy, which means you can actually do something useful with that bonus exalted feat and get Nemesis—but slayer favored enemies are pretty limited, unlike the stalker of Kharash’s phenomenal favored enemy—evil.

If you really really want to, you could take a single level of monk instead a third level of ardent. Practiced Manifester will allow you to choose 2nd-level powers as a 2nd-level ardent (as long as you have it before you take your second level of ardent). That monk level can get Monastic Training as a bonus feat, which means you can get Beast Strike. It also means you end up with the features of an 11th-level monk, i.e. greater flurry. This costs you a power known, which is a big deal, as well as 30 power points, which hurts as well. I don’t think it’s worth it—but it could be worth it if your DM doesn’t like a monk-less Tashalatora.

This approach probably plays pretty similarly to the stalker of Kharash monk version, in that it is still fundamentally an exotic übercharger. But psionic powers can be as good or better than totemist soulmelds for pulling out tons of natural attacks (see king of smack builds), plus they offer a great deal of utility—this is a far more well-rounded build.

The drawback is that you lack the incredible detection abilities offered by Nemesis (or maybe have them but only for a single select psionic creature rather than all evil creatures ever), and you do not have thunderstep boots, Power Attack, and Favored Power Attackbut to really pile on the damage bonuses. You could swap Bonus Essentia—or Track and thus slayer—for Shape Soulmeld (thunderstep boots), but those are kind of late in the game for it, plus your essentia is rather tight since you only wind up with 12th-level totemist meldshaping. And slayer is pretty important after ten levels of poor BAB on soul manifester. You actually may end up wanting Multiattack to improve your attack bonuses more than you want Beast Strike.

Fair warning, though: you will have basically zero combat ability at 1st level, since you’ll have BAB +0, only simple weapon proficiency, and don’t have any combat feats. This is a problem with totemists generally, but dumping Strength and then not having Intuitive Attack until 2nd makes it a lot worse because your accuracy will really suffer. Things get a lot better at 2nd, and then much better again at 6th with Tashalatora, but you should be aware.

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Incarnum, as far as I'm aware, requires specific classes. I don't believe you can just "add" it. It is from the DnD 3.5e book Magic of Incarnum, so if you/someone else doesn't have this then you are probably better off not using it.

As a general summary, Incarnum isn't necessarily a direct substitute for magic items. It acts something like a strange cross between spell-buffs and magic items. For a really good summary, I would suggest looking at this useful introductory guide. If you decide that you like the idea of Incarnum, it'd be a good idea to get the book (unless you already have it).

As a last note -- VoP is horrible, HORRIBLE on a monk. Monks struggle to keep up in DnD 3.5e anyway, so I'd recommend against this. There is one "ideal" build I know of (off topic to put it here, so I won't), but generally I'd advise considering another route.

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As a level 1 human monk with Vow of Poverty, you can't use incarnum at all. You gain no incarnum abilities from that race or class, and while you can gain incarnum abilities from feats, you spent both your starting feats on Vow of Poverty and its prerequisite Sacred Vow.

However, suppose you gain a bonus feat by taking a Flaw (a variant rule from Unearthed Arcana). You can take the Shape Soulmeld feat to gain a soulmeld (essentially an Incarnum "item"). The options available are too numerous to list here. Soulmelds arguably circumvent Vow of Poverty's prohibition on items, since they're manifestations of spirit rather than possessions, but it's not necessarily optimal since you have to spend feats to acquire soulmelds or single points of essentia to power those up.

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    \$\begingroup\$ RE: "Soulmelds arguably circumvent Vow of Poverty's prohibition on items…." Wait… wait… what's the argument that soulmelds violate the strictures of the feat Vow of Poverty? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Dec 19 '17 at 1:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ I believe the question was about what could be done moving forward. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 19 '17 at 2:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Once shaped, a soulmeld takes on a solid physical form in the shape specified for that particular meld." (MoI p49). The asker's DM could potentially argue that this constitutes an item. Soulmelds are described as something between spell effects (allowed by VoP) and magic items (not kosher), making it rather ambiguous. In any case, my post is not about whether soulmelds violate VoP, which I do not address at all, but that the question asks how to add Incarnum to a first level VoP monk (in the process of character creation), to which the answer is you can't (not while you're level 1). \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Dec 19 '17 at 22:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Of course you can get Essentia at level 1 as a Monk: take an Essentia feat. Cobalt Power, for example, requires only Con 13, Str 13, and Power Attack. Level 1 Human, Con 13, Str 13, takes Power Attack with level 1 feat, takes Cobalt Power as bonus feat. Boom, done. Essentia at 1. \$\endgroup\$ – Michael W. Dec 20 '17 at 18:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's correct, but I never said you couldn't do that. I said a level 1 human monk with Vow of Poverty has already spent both his starting feats on Vow of Poverty and its prerequisite Sacred Vow. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Dec 21 '17 at 0:37

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