The Monk class is one of the weakest in the game. It has extremely few powerful or useful features, and those that are useful tend to have extremely tight limits on how often they can be used. The only major exceptions, namely their Unarmed Strikes, AC Bonus, Flurry of Blows, Evasion, and their bonus feats, all happen in the first two levels. There is almost no situation in which it is optimal to take more than 2 levels of Monk.
And in those few cases (using Alternate Class Features), you still max out at Monk 6.
Overview of Monk class features
Just so we’re on the same page, here’s what Monk has to offer. Most of it is pretty weak.
Unarmed Strike Damage
The Monk’s unarmed strike damage is their best feature. Unfortunately, it grows extremely slowly, and you cannot (easily) enhance them as you could a normal weapon, so even though it’s the Monk’s best feature, it’s still not a particularly great feature.
The best way to maximize this damage is by increasing your size. Start as a race with Powerful Build, like Goliath (Races of Stone) or Half-giant (Expanded Psionics Handbook), or maybe even go for some real monstrous race or template, like Half-minotaur (Dragon vol. 313) or Feral (Savage Species). For that matter, the anthropomorphic animals in Savage Species might just be overpowered enough to make a Monk worth something. A Warforged with a Battlefist (Eberron Campaign Setting) gets the damage bonus but not the other benefits of Powerful Build.
Take feats that improve your size for the purposes of your damage, like Improved Natural Attack (Unarmed Strike) (if your DM thinks that you cannot take INA with Unarmed Strikes, or houserules so that you cannot, do not even consider the Monk). Get ways of increasing your size further, like Expansion (Expanded Psionics Handbook), or, if you must, Enlarge Person (but note that Enlarge Person’s 1 round casting time makes it absurdly inefficient in combat, and it won’t work on Goliaths or Half-giants). In a high-level game, get a magic item of these things, or Giant’s Size (Complete Arcane) for growing two size categories. Though your odds of remaining competitive in a high-level game are really low.
If you can, get a Necklace of Natural Attacks (Savage Species); if you can’t, it’s even harder to justify Monk. The Necklace of Natural Attacks allows you to give your unarmed strikes actual special abilities. If you cannot get the Necklace of Natural Attacks, the Scorpion Kama (Magic Item Compendium) can have its damage replaced by your Unarmed Strike damage, so that’s decent, though more expensive. Do not ever buy an Amulet of Mighty Fists. That item is ludicrously overpriced, even for a Monk who needs it.
If you can afford it from character creation, the Fanged Ring (Dragon Magic) is must-have. It’s 10,000 gp, but it gives Improved Unarmed Strike and Improved Natural Attack (Unarmed Strike), as well as a free Con-damaging poison. If you cannot afford it to begin with, you probably need to take Improved Natural Attack on your own; the bonus is just too important.
If you run out of size increases, bonuses to your effective Monk level can work too. Unfortunately, they work slowly, thanks to the fact that the Unarmed Strike damage only goes up one die size per four Monk levels. Monk’s Belt and Superior Unarmed Strike (Tome of Battle) both have these sorts of bonuses (but note that RAW, the Monk’s Belt and Superior Unarmed Strike do not stack; most DMs allow them to though). You may also ask your DM if you could get Superior Unarmed Strike as a bonus feat if something would otherwise give you Improved Unarmed Strike (which you already have by virtue of your Unarmed Strike class feature) – the Fanged Ring becomes even better then.
Flurry of Blows
Also known as Flurry of Misses. You’re a medium BAB class, and you’re taking yet more penalties. Might be worth it for an extra attack, if you had a source of bonus damage like a Rogue does. You don’t, though, and you cannot afford the Rogue’s focus on Dexterity.
Monks have a very hard time hitting things. You cannot afford to go all-in on Strength like other characters might, you need a lot of feats so Weapon Finesse hurts to take (and you still can’t go all-in on Dexterity, either), you have poor BAB, etc. Flurry makes that worse.
This class feature would be much better on another class. For example, the Shou Disciple prestige class is full BAB and gains Flurry, for example; that’s at least better anyway. If you want to optimize Flurry of Blows, you really want two things the Monk does not have: full BAB, and bonus damage dice. There aren’t a lot of good options for getting all of those things, however.
Other Monk Weapons
The Monk gains proficiency in some Exotic weapons; this is yet another feature that you get at level 1 and that gives you no reason to stay in the class. They’re almost entirely worthless anyway, but for completion’s sake:
- Kama: can trip, but no reach. Guisarme is vastly superior for a trip-lockdown build.
- Nunchaku: +2 bonus on Disarm; doesn’t even counter-act the +4 bonus for holding a weapon in two-hands. Disarming is a waste of time anyway when Locked Gauntlets are so easy to use and add such a huge bonus.
- Sai: +4 bonus on Disarm; actually does cover the two-hand bonus, but there’s nothing special about these otherwise. Disarming remains a difficult tactic to use.
- Shuriken: the best of the bunch, because it counts as ammunition. Only worthwhile if you’re really abusing that, though, to get vastly-cheaper weapon enhancements. Only justifies one level in Monk anyway, and Ninja (Complete Adventurer) is arguably better since throwers really want bonus damage.
- Siangham: literally a Short Sword with a smaller critical range. The game would be improved if this didn’t exist and the Monks could just use Short Swords.
Actually a decent bonus, but unfortunately you’ve got so many ability scores that you need to maximize that you won’t be able to get a very high Wisdom. Plus, really, most of the time, plain armor is better. And if it comes down to it, the Monk’s Belt replicates this feature for a relatively affordable 13,000 gp.
Maximizing this is pretty obvious: pump Wisdom. That’s really hard on a Monk, however, since the Monk really badly needs Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution as well. This is a major, overarching problem with the Monk, for which there is not really any good answer. Even if you were to roll really high scores, keeping them all high becomes prohibitively expensive by mid levels. This feature is far better for a Cleric or Druid than it is for a Monk.
Bonus Feats and Evasion
Decent, but hardly amazing. Fighters and Psychic Warriors get better feats; Rogues get an awful lot more useful class features along with Evasion. Rings of Evasion are pretty pricey for what they do, but it’s a bad sign when your class features are easily replicated by magic items.
Honestly, these are one of the better reasons to be a Monk. With all of the alternate class features and additional Monk feats in supplements, you can get some good stuff. Usually the idea here is to get a bunch of useful feats in two levels, and move on to something else. Only really worthwhile if you need two feats you can get from Monk and Improved Unarmed Strike, though.
Just pointing out that you cannot use this at the same time as Flurry of Blows. A pretty good example in a nutshell of what’s so wrong with the Monk. Having high movement is usually close to useless to a PC character – usually running out ahead of your party is a very bad choice, and your party won’t be able to keep up. In combat, distances are only seldomly so large that you’d need the boost.
There’s just... not much purpose to this. It just is.
This is actually insulting. At 20th level, you gain a version of this that is still worse than a 1st-level spell. That Silverbrow Humans can get as a racial feature, along with several other benefits, in exchange for just the human bonus skill point per level.
This is even less useful than Fast Movement. It affects almost nothing, and nothing affects it. You cannot optimize it in any meaningful fashion.
Still Mind, Ki Strike, Purity of Body, Wholeness of Body, Improved Evasion, Diamond Body, Diamond Soul, Timeless Body, Tongue of Sun and Moon, Perfect Self
A series of small and niche bonuses to things. Almost all of these are pretty easily replaced with items.
Being an Outsider could be useful, but you need class levels in things other than Monk, which you cannot have as a Monk 20 (pre-Epic, anyway). The rest... just don’t do very much. You cannot really optimize these either. The ones that are important (defense vs. [Mind-Affecting] is the big one) should be overwritten with outright immunities. The rest can and probably should be ignored.
Stunning Fist, Abundant Step, Quivering Palm, Empty Body
Mediocre to OK effects with ridiculously tight limitations on them. Quivering Palm is a joke at 1/week. Note that it’s a [Death] effect, which tons of things are immune to and those that aren’t usually try pick up immunity to it. Stunning Fist is in the same category; immunity to Stun is very common and very desirable, so you won’t have a lot of valid targets. Abundant Step is as dimension door which means you cannot do anything after using it, and again, you don’t get to use it very much. Empty Body is good but comes way too late and lasts way too little time.
Unfortunately, while there are ways to optimize some of these (ways to get more uses of Stunning Fist, new and better effects on Stunning Fist attacks), I am not aware of any that are good. Abundant Step is much improved by Shadowpounce (Telflammar Shadowlord from Unapproachable East or Crinti Shadow Marauder from Shining South), but there are much better ways to get teleporting for the purposes of those classes. Generally, these effects require too much investment and give too little return. The optimal thing to do, sadly, is to take what you’re getting anyway, and try not to sink too many resources into them.
There are some beliefs about Monks that are pretty common, but are ridiculously false.
Monks make good tanks
They have a low HD, cannot wear armor, have bonuses but not immunities to a lot of things, and pose no threat to the opposition so there is no reason for the enemy to waste time with them.
At the very best, the somewhat-difficult-to-attack-but-totally-ineffectual Monk may get ignored until the end of the combat, at which point either the enemy is dead (no thanks to him) or his party is dead, and now he runs.
Monks can run away. They are pretty good at that...
Monks make good grapplers
They make awful grapplers. Their grapple check is very low, thanks to their BAB, lack of Strength, and lack of native access to size increases. The damage dealt by any grappler that doesn’t have Constrict is really low; the Monk’s is a little less low but still very low. Grappling is about locking a foe down, and the Monk can’t do that well at all.
For grappling, it’s all about size. Which is why Grappling is really for monsters, not humanoids.
Monks make good magekillers
No, they don’t. They have high saves, but spellcasters have ways to ignore saving throws. They don’t have access to a large number of important immunities. They cannot fly, see invisible creatures, affect incorporeal/ethereal creatures, and so on: These are defenses that mages like a lot.
A lot of this comes from the belief that Monks are good grapplers (see above): freedom of movement and/or dimension door says the mage doesn’t care.
Ultimately, the only people with any real chance of taking down a mid-to-high level mage with any competence is to be another mage, either higher level or more clever. Spellcasting in 3.5 is extremely overpowered.
Vow of Poverty is good for Monks
It’s not; it’s awful for Monks. Monks desperately need magic items to shore up all their myriad deficiencies, and Vow of Poverty prevents you from getting them.
Vow of Poverty is good for Anyone
Vow of Poverty literally grants you bonuses that you can buy for less money than you lose. It is mathematically bad for you, and that’s not even considering the two feats you burned (Sacred Vow and Vow of Poverty itself).
There are a few benefits from Vow of Poverty that money can’t buy; some ability score bonuses and some bonus Exalted feats. Unfortunately, there are very few Exalted feats worth taking; Vow of Poverty will get you those, but then you’ll end up taking random stuff that’s not particularly good but you’ve already paid for it so why not.
The only classes that can take Vow of Poverty and not be utterly crippled are things like Druids and to a far lesser extent, Incarnates and Totemists (both from Magic of Incarnum). And they’re still much better off without it. I’ll give a special mention to the Apostle of Peace, one of the most game-breaking prestige classes in the game (both because it is overpowered and because it literally breaks the game’s expectations and prevents others from playing), since it does require Vow of Poverty.
See here for a full description of the prolems of Vow of Poverty.
Ways to be a “monk” without being a “Monk”
Psionics and Tashalatora
Psychic Warriors (Expanded Psionics Handbook) and Ardents (Complete Psionics) make great “monks” straight out of the box. Both are ¾ BAB Wisdom-based classes, like the Monk, but both have Psionic powers to allow them to do things well. They can both take Improved Unarmed Strike if they want to punch things. They both get Expansion which, in combination to the other items/feats that a Monk would take, is going to likely make them better than a Monk at punching things. And much better at Grappling.
And then there is Tashalatora (Secrets of Sarlona). This feat requires Monastic Training (Eberron Campaign Setting), and allows you to stack any one Psionic class with your Monk levels for the purposes of Unarmed Strike damage, Flurry of Blows, Fast Movement, and the AC Bonus (read: everything that was even half-good on the Monk). Monastic Training can be taken as a bonus feat at Monk 1, and Tashalatora can be taken as a bonus feat at Monk 2. Hilariously, neither feat actually requires any Monk levels, which means for two feats your Psychic Warrior or Ardent can literally have the same stuff as a Monk of the same level, without giving up any of their manifesting.
Cleric: Casting spells while punching things.
Clerics can take Improved Unarmed Strike. They can even get a free Weapon Focus in it if they get the War Domain from a god with it as his favored weapon. More importantly, Clerics can make great melee combatant: buff up with spells, and let ’em have it. The Monk’s belt can replace the AC Bonus if you want, though it’s ultimately not really necessary. Cleric also adds Righteous Might as an option for size-increasing, and it’s a rather good one (though not as good as Expansion).
If you really want, the Sacred Fist (Complete Divine) advances both Monk and Cleric class features. It’s OK enough, but I’d probably try to enter as a single-classed Cleric rather than a Cleric/Monk.
The Swordsage (Tome of Battle) is everything the Monk should have been to begin with. They get the same AC Bonus, except they can also wear Light Armor. Their maneuvers allow them to be a real martial artist, instead of just Flurrying (and missing) every chance they get. There’s even a maneuver or two that replicate Flurry.
The Unarmed adaptation of the Swordsage also gets the Monk’s Unarmed Strike damage, in exchange for his martial weapon and light armor proficiency. The Shadow Sun Ninja also advances Monk class features if you have them, but as the name might suggest it’s not really your typical monk-type class.