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The monk's Way of the Four Elements monastic tradition (from the PHB) has an elemental discipline titled Elemental Attunement. One of its possible uses is to use your action to:

Create a harmless, instantaneous sensory effect related to air, earth, fire, or water, such as a shower of sparks, a puff of wind, a spray of light mist, or a gentle rumbling of stone.

Are you able to generate a small amount of fire, water, or sparks out of your body? Or does the element need to be present?

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The monk generates the effect, but not the element

The preceding sentence in the description of Elemental Attunement is "You can use your action to briefly control elemental forces nearby, causing one of the following effects of your choice:" so I would argue that the shower of sparks or the light mist is a product of the Monk directing the ambient elemental energies around him.

This may beg the questions:

  1. Can you produce a fire effect if you're in the ocean?
  2. Can you cast this spell when on a plane where the four elements don't exist?

There may exist a highly detailed answer for these questions but for the sake of keeping this answer brief and on-topic, it seems that you can always use this ability on the material plane, regardless of the apparent availability of elements locally, since the four elements are inherent there.

In other planes it may be down to the GM to decide whether elemental abilities no longer work, or whether the elements present in objects (and bodies) from the material plane count as "elemental forces nearby"

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The element needs to be present nearby.

The Elemental Attunement feature states the following:

You can use your action to briefly control elemental forces nearby...

The option you cited is then provided:

Create a harmless, instantaneous sensory effect related to air, earth, fire, or water...

In order to create such an effect, you have to control a nearby elemental force. If that elemental force is not present nearby, you can't control it and can't create the effect.

Exactly what constitutes "nearby" is probably a matter for the DM to adjudicate and might differ depending on the campaign setting and the mythology surrounding the four elements, which is not described in the rules for the Way of the Four Elements. For example, a DM might require that you can see or touch a particular manifestation of the element, or a DM might rule that the elements are always around you as part of the fabric of the world.

So, if the DM isn't you then you should ask them how they would rule on "nearby," and if the DM is you then you should be prepared to rule on "nearby."

The effect isn't intended to be created from nothing.

Although Elemental Attunement is not a spell, the wording of a "harmless, instantaneous sensory effect" is nearly identical to the wording in the druidcraft, prestidigitation, and thaumaturgy cantrips, which are from the transmutation school of magic. This similarity suggests that the description of the transmutation school of magic can give us insight into the feature.

Transmutation[s] change the properties of a creature, object, or environment. They might turn an enemy into a harmless creature, bolster the strength of an ally, make an object move at the caster's command, or enhance a creature's innate healing abilities to rapidly recover from injury.

Changing the properties of the environment implies not an act of creation from nothing but an act of manipulation from existing stuff. This fits with the idea that the elemental force needs to be nearby in order to control it to produce the harmless sensory effect using Elemental Attunement. I suggest that shows us the designer's intent regarding how the harmless sensory effect option is supposed to work, since it is effectively a derivative of the three transmutation cantrips above rethemed for use by a monk instead of a traditional spellcaster.

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Yes, you create the effects without needing elements to be present

Given that the wording of this "monk-cantrip" (which is roughly what it is) begins with the word "Create", I interpret this to be effectively conjuring the effects into existance rather than manipulating elements already present. In this way it is compatible to the cantrip Prestidigitation.

The only possible exception was the one that your question sidestepped; "a gentle rumbling of stone". This one, if it is just the sound (which I'd say counts as a "sensory effect"), is something that you could generate without having stone present, otherwise I'd say you do need stone to be present in order to cause it to rumble since it mentions nothing about creating stone, but the other effects do not need their respective elements to be present.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I argue that the "effect" is created but the element for that effect is not actually conjured. For example, if a monk cast Elemental Attunement on a person so that they experienced a gentle breeze, that person would feel the breeze but there would be no measurable effect, for example their hair wouldn't move, their skin temperature wouldn't drop and so on. At least that's my understanding of "sensory effect". The monk creates the feeling of wind, he does not actually move any air. \$\endgroup\$ – Hamstertron Jun 11 '18 at 9:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Hamstertron Interesting interpretation, so we (meaning our answers) are essentially conjuration vs. illusion? I'm skeptical of it, though, as the description doesn't mention illusions, and usually 5e tends to be pretty consistent with calling illusion out as being illusions. Also, the opening paragraph of your answer seems to be supporting the conjuration interpretation (i.e. my answer)? To address your comment, I would assume their hair does move, etc, but only to a very slight degree (i.e. a harmless sensory effect, rather than something more akin to the gust cantrip). \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jun 11 '18 at 9:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think that "harmless" for me is what tips it into illusion territory. A shower of sparks into a face or a gust of wind which blows your hair into your eyes mustn't be real or you could use them to give an enemy disadvantage on an attack roll. I don't want to speculate too much but it seems the intention is that this spell is for roleplaying and the designers don't want players sweet-talking DM's into having a cantrip that was a swiss-army knife of beneficial effects where other cantrips are very specific (e.g. Ray of Frost) as to what they do. \$\endgroup\$ – Hamstertron Jun 11 '18 at 9:45

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