A nice broad question to set the scene

I'm fairly new to roleplaying and I'm struggling with a valid reasons for both why and how a character would multiclass into another class independently - that is, on their own, without specific training from an NPC, temple, college, etc.

More detail

I'm currently playing a Rogue and I would like to multiclass into Monk, taking more levels in both Rogue and Monk in the future. The current campaign has not included a local monk temple/monastery where my character could seek training (to explain his new skills) and at this point in the campaign my character simply doesn't have time to sit in a cave for a few months learning from a (miraculously) passing grandmaster.

I'm familiar with the idea of classes as a metagame concept, so I can get behind the idea of new class abilities retroactively being part of my character's existing training. However, the sudden jump in abilities from monk levels - especially the AC improvement from Unarmored Defence - seem like such a huge change for a rogue.

Most other classes 1st level abilities make sense to an extent, and can be explained away as a gradual improvement of skills that eventually "click" and makes a noticeable difference to the character. However, I can't quite resolve why someone used to running around in leather armour would decide they'd do better without it? Or why a rogue used to stabbing people in the back would start (effectively) lashing out with fists, elbows and kicks.

Paraphrasing the PHB slightly, Monks are portrayed as ascetic communal hermits, training for years to achieve personal perfection through the study of Ki. Multiclassing into the Monk class seems to ignore this whole background concept almost entirely.

So what roleplaying options/ideas are available to me in this scenario to explain my character's sudden acquisition of new skills?

Updated Update:

For more character background detail (as discussed in the comments below) my character concept so far is a wood elf Assassin Rogue/Shadow Monk. I'm not aiming for a stereotypical street-wise city thief - instead I'd them to be more of a sneaky forest dweller (due to being a wood elf), killing only when necessary and intent on personal training and perfection. A sort of good/neutral "nature's ninja" if you will.

My character may also be taking a single level in Fighter at some point but this is a lot easier to explain simply through a personal focus/dedication to general martial training.

Extra credit

Bonus points are available for relevant or interesting concepts and ideas based around other classes outside this scenario, however, my main focus is explaining the Rogue -> Monk transition.


8 Answers 8


Your PC can invent a new technique on his own

Taken from wikipedia's entry on the Southern Praying Mantis kung fu style:

Praying Mantis

The association of the term "Praying Mantis" with the style is also controversial. Each branch of the style offers a different explanation.

The traditions of the Chow Gar and Kwong Sai Jook Lum branches each maintain that their respective founders Chow Ah-Nam and Som Dot created their styles after witnessing a praying mantis fight and defeat a bird. Such inspiration is a recurring motif in the Chinese martial arts and can be found in the legends of Northern Praying Mantis, both White Crane styles, T'ai chi ch'uan, and Wing Chun.

If your rogue is observant enough - he may become inspired by some natural phenomenon, gaining insights about efficient and effective motions useful for offense, defense and maneuvering.

He doesn't need to be an acetic philosopher (though he may grow to become one as he advances) - he just needs the conviction and self-discipline to push him to go through the physical training required to hone his technique.

If your group's play style allows placing more emphasis on narrative at the cost of poorer combat optimization, you can even select to make the transition of your PC's reliance on his new martial skills gradual - continue wearing armor, combine armed attacks with unarmed strikes (not necessarily in the same round, though), etc. But, eventually your PC will start feeling that his armor is limiting him, preventing him from escaping blows that using his technique he can now avoid - then he may consider giving up on wearing armor. Same goes for unarmed strikes - have him hold on to his dagger, but occasionally use a flurry of blows(1) using a fist and an elbow of his other, empty hand - and let him realize that his hands have become faster and more accurate and than any weapon he is used to. This can lead him to relinquish the use of melee weapons, to use an interchanging combination of weapon and unarmed strikes or perhaps even seek "better" weapons which are more compatible with his developing abilities.

Bottom line - just because the "metagame concept" says your PC can now do something, doesn't automatically means he is aware of that and trusts himself enough to give up his old ways completely and immediately.

Or, he can find written records of a technique

Taken from wikipedia's entry on the Northern Praying Mantis kung fu style:


There are many legends surrounding the creation of Northern Praying Mantis boxing. One legend attributes the creation of Mantis fist to the Song Dynasty when Abbot Fu Ju [...] supposedly invited Wang Lang and seventeen other masters to come and improve the martial arts of Shaolin.
The Abbot recorded all of the techniques in a manual called the Mishou ("Secret Hands")
This manual supposedly disappeared until the Qianlong reign era,
The manual records Wang Lang "absorbed and equalized all previous techniques" learned from the 17 other masters.

Aside from self mastering a technique, your rogue may find a documentation of a certain technique - this can come instead of having him invent it from scratch, or as a latter supplement giving him more inspiration and advanced abilities.

At either case, you can probably work the narrative details with your GM so they won't clash terribly with the campaign settings (assuming that having a monk in it doesn't do that in the first place).

(1) Or whatever equivalent term used in 5e for that...

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Confirming that the equivalent term in 5e is flurry of blows. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 1:56

You need not be your class(es)

You are playing a character, who has a certain skill set. That character may self-identify as a rogue, and then may recognize a distinct switch from being a rogue to following the way of the monk. Those are options.

They are not the only options. Consider Miko Miyazaki:

Elan: So Miko, did you take levels in the old samurai class or the new one?

Miko: I did not take any levels in any “samurai” class.

Elan: Huh? But you said you were a samurai.

Miko: Yes, that is my position in the heirarchy of my homeland, but it is a social title, not a core class. My class is paladin, not counting the monk training mentioned earlier.

Elan: Ohhhhh, I see.

Elan: So then you took levels in the Master Samurai prestige class.

Miko: No! No, I did not.

Miko: Why is it so difficult to believe that I can be a samurai without having a class with the word “samurai” in the title?? Can there not be facets of life that are not defined solely by class?

She refers to herself as a “samurai,” which confuses the characters in the comic because they think she means her class (it’s a silly comic). In reality, she is a multiclass monk/paladin, “samurai” is her social title and occupation, not her class.

Which highlights my point: it is only a very silly, tongue-in-cheek game (like Order of the Stick itself) where the characters are so deeply familiar with the game mechanics, things like having specific levels. In most games, levels are a metagame construct used to abstract the details of the reality that the characters live in. They are not aware of them.

So a multiclass rogue/monk could be a thief who consciously decided to change things up, joined a monastery or, perhaps in your case, got more disciplined about martial arts training.

Or a multiclass rogue/monk could just be a character who, in-character, was always following a single path – ninja, perhaps – and rogue/monk is just the mechanical way the player has chosen to represent that path.

  • 13
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for a character being more than class+race combination. The most interesting characters often start with a concept, with class, race, and background being selected to follow that concept. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 16:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree - this is an important point from a class/multiclass concept point of view. My character certainly doesn't think of themselves as a Rogue or a Monk (also, +1 for OotS). \$\endgroup\$
    – Tommy
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 16:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ In 4e you could pretty much re-fluff any class into any occupation with almost zero effort. \$\endgroup\$
    – psr
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 17:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I support the latest idea, that your character has been training as a Rogue/Monk from the beginning. I've toyed with the "Classes aren't professions" idea in the past, with a priest who was not a Cleric but a Fighter ("I ain't no miraclemaker magician, sir!") or, even better, a Warlock (with their Patron being their deity; the Faeric Pact makes a cool nature god). I have yet to play as one, though. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 10:41

I'm going to write this answer specifically to a Rogue taking up Monk levels and continuing down both of those paths, but I don't think the ideas I'll present here are too different for any other MC combination, whether it's a single level dip or a multi-level commitment.

There are two paths here, one takes substantial DM buy in and the other you can pretty much do on your own. It sort of depends on how your character and group handle level ups in general.

The first question you need to answer is "is leveling up a ding event or does it come complete with a training montage?" Believe it or not this actually dictates a lot of what the story behind your MC actually is.

If your level up comes complete with a training montage, then your Monk levels can be explained rather easily. No you haven't encountered a monk or temple with monks in your journeys yet, but perhaps during your montage you make a pilgrimage to a specific monastary in the hills. Or uncover a secret ninja school underground in your current city (DM buy in helpful here, though not required). Better yet, perhaps a sensei comes to you in a dream and introduces several techniques and it becomes your character's goal to locate your hidden master (DM buy in huge here, but the payoff is so awesome that no DM will turn this down).

If your level up is simply a "ding" event (I suspect this is the case for most groups), you'll have to be a bit more creative. Many of the things I spoke of in the previous paragraph are still in play, and in fact should happen during your downtime between levels and then the narrative is that they simply click when you level up. However there are other options:

  • An ancient tome you discover (DM buy in may or may not be required)
  • You observe a monk in combat and learn his ways (DM buy in required)
  • You discover new moves in combat and life

That last one is the one I'm going to dwell on for a minute, because I think it's actually the best. The cool thing about this--and this occurred to me while typing it so it might be really stupid--is that you don't have to use all your monk abilities right away, let them bleed slowly into your character's combat repertoire and make them discoveries. In general with ding level ups, you just have new abilities from your own class. As if you've learned something new. This can be the same way with abilities from a new class.

Monk is a great class for this kind of thing anyways. It's a class that is all about being in tune with your body. Perhaps the level up model you use should be that you've gained new focus and mental abilities through your travels and you can now use focus based powers that are granted by the Monk. Early level monk doesn't necessarily mean exhaustive training in the monk arts (though it could), so this is a solid model. Some later monk levels may require (based on your story needs, not mechanics) that you train with a sensei during your downtime though.

Side note: This is a great opportunity to use the downtime activities and develop a new one for your campaign "train with a master of a new discipline" that would then open up MC options. This is probably not a recommended thing for a first campaign, but may be a solid one where DMs want to limit MCs to narrative reasons only.


This is one of those rather broad open question, and often is solved with the good old fashion wandius wavious miraculous.

Easiest would simply to have somewhere in his background he had studied it but fallen from the path of training and took up thievery. As an established character it's harder as background is pretty much set unless you have some amnesia thrown in there.

Not knowing the chars established background, ideal, bond etc.

As a rogue your most fitting Monk Way is Way of the Shadow. Perhaps in his past he was a young student at a very secretive monastery. When he failed in his training he was cast out and his knowledge stripped from him, including the time he spent at the monastery. Most such clandestine places would most likely simply kill the failed applicant but in this case they don't for a reason.

Like many classes you are only really considered trained when you reach level 3 and can pick a tradition. So your first few levels of monk are your training coming back. For some reason the magic that locked away those skills is failing and he is regaining his knowledge.

Now you have some plot hooks into his background. Why did he fail, why was he cast out and his knowledge removed, perhaps they felt in time experience would make him better and he's destined for something greater. Where is the monatery, who were the masters.


The easiest to explain route for Rogues is to consider the overlap between assassins and monk powers.

"I already knew how to hit vital locations of the body to kill. Training further, I learned how to use my hands instead of a knife (monk unarmed damage). I began to study a few medical texts, and saw overlap with the mystical books about the flow of magic. It felt like there was a connection... a different set of energy - like a map of life force, invisible in the body but connected like veins. I started to focus on it, feel it in myself, first. (Ki) Once you feel it, you find you can take strikes better, avoid getting hit altogether, almost as if you sense movement before it happens. (Wisdom bonus to AC)."

Of course, this is like months to years of study if you want some kind of basic acceptable plausibility to it. Talk to your GM, because that really will help you both figure out what makes sense. It might be cool to base an adventure to two on the things you need to do to learn your abilities and that would be fun as well.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Additionally/Alternatively "I felt like I couldn't get the technique right for a long time. One night we camped with a stranger, and he saw me practicing, and pointed out I was placing my foot wrong. Bingo! Now I can dodge attacks with ease!" Explains the sudden jump in AC in a couple hours of in-game. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 23:02

Set it up before you do it, and it will make more sense.

You can even have a bit of fun setting it up.

Start eating food with sticks instead of utensils. Try to catch and kill flies with them between meals.

Offer to polish/wash people's walls for them, for practice. Apply wax, and scrape it off. Sand decks.

When you are standing around doing nothing, stand on one foot with the other tucked up under you.

Try pounding nails into a board with your hand. Fail miserably, "ow ow ow ow ow".


Traditionally, Rogues have been (are) both nimble and perceptive (they had Spot and similar skills as class skills in previous editions; and in 5E, Rogues can be proficient in Insight, Investigation and Perception). The fact that you start with at least 13 Wis attests to your even higher acuity (relative to other rogues). With that in mind, a few thoughts:

  • Unarmored Defense can be attributed to improving your dodging (through practice) and ability to read and anticipate your enemy's movement. At least, that's how I interpret the Monk's ability to add Wisdom (which is tied to Perception and Insight) to their AC: the higher AC is based on perceiving and having better insight into the enemy's body language, what that reveals about their next attack, and how the Monk can then make sure to not be where the enemy is about to strike. You soon realise that your eyes provide you with enough information to dodge with greater success than the protection offered by your armour; you're so good, in fact, that your armour is only getting in the way by slowing you down.
  • Unarmed Strike is a bit trickier, BUT, if you're willing to compromise, you actually don't have to compromise ;): just use a shortsword (a Monk weapon that also has finesse) from the get-go, and there's no weapon transition. Re: the extra unarmed strike (via bonus action), you can also chalk it up to grinding/self-improvement (as above): your above-average dexterity has enabled you to strike so swiftly with your short sword, that you can also deliver a decent punch. As you continue practicing this new-found technique, you find that you can deliver more and stronger punches.
  • Ki might be the harder one to explain, but here goes: As you continue fighting and gaining insight into your own body and abilities, you begin to discover ("stumble upon") a source of energy that you had never felt before (think of Neo, in the Matrix, when he is first able to deliver super-fast punches): you don't really know how it happened, you just know that you 'tuned in' to something inside you, and went beyond what a mere mortal could do. You also realise that this energy is limited, but as you continue training, you feel the pool growing inside, together with a wider range of super-human abilities that it can fuel.

(I'm omitting Shadow Monk discussion because we already covered that at length, in our chat)


My style as a referee has to been to present the campaign as something to experienced by the players as their characters. When a players wants to do something or I introducing an element to the game, I try to figure how would it look if I was actually standing there watching this.

The Monk Class in 5e in revolves around the use of Ki. I assume this is based on the eastern concept of qi/chi. There are many variations of the traditional definition but the one that leaps out at me is this.

Mencius described a kind of qi that might be characterized as an individual's vital energies. This qi was necessary to activity, and it could be controlled by a well-integrated willpower. When properly nurtured, this qi was said to be capable of extending beyond the human body to reach throughout the universe. It could also be augmented by means of careful exercise of one's moral capacities.[18] On the other hand, the qi of an individual could be degraded by adverse external forces that succeed in operating on that individual.

Like anything involving thinking beings this can be taught but it also plausible for somebody to become aware of their ki and instinctively learn to develop it. That leads them to unlock the rest of the abilities of a monk.

My suggestion is that the Rogue starts out being interested in honing their skill at unarmed combat. Through trial and error along with hard work manages to train themselves to the first level of monk. That in the process becomes aware of their ki and in the process of exploring it starts to unlock the other abilities of the monk as they progress.

The question then became how to roleplay a self-taught monk. You could roleplay it as a increasing amount of inner serenity, or a character driven by inner anger to excel. The martial arts genre has many tropes on which to base a character on. Pick one and develop one for your own character.

From TV Tropes

Master of your Domain Martial Arts and Crafts


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