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I do have some experience with D&D 3/4, but 5 is pretty much new territory for me. Now, from what I can remember, monks used to be kind of an inbetween pick - not the worst, but not really shining at anything. That being said, I'm under the impression that 5e changed that to some extent, which is one of the reasons I'm tempted to pick up a monk for an upcoming group.

This group is lacking a tank as it is and I wonder if a Monk could somehow substitute that. Of course, monks aren't suited for CON-tanking, but maybe something along the line of DEX-tanking could be done? Planned concept:

  • Variant Human Monk
  • Way of the Open Hand
  • Combat Reflexes Feat (or its equivalent)

With this as a foundation, how can I make a tanky Monk?

While this character needs to deal some damage, the tank side of it is aimed at a substantial hit point pool, and being more robust than a Skirmisher or Striker style.

If a Tanky Monk isn't a practical or viable build objective, the reasons why would be greatly appreciated.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ rpg.stackexchange.com/a/38202/10642 - related to what monks were. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Mar 21 at 8:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ By "tank" do you mean a character that is hard to take down, or a character that protects their allies from harm? \$\endgroup\$ – Ruse Mar 24 at 13:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have edited this to get it more into our 'optimization' guidelines format. Please review (yes, I know this is an old question) and see if it fits your objectives. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 24 at 14:45
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Monks can be tanky, but it requires both high Wisdom and high Dexterity. With a 18 in each stat, you'll have an AC of 18. They are not the best tanks though, and generally shine at taking down many weaker enemies, rather than soaking up damage themselves (especially at earlier levels).

However, if the DM allows you to choose the goliath race from the Elemental Evil Player's Companion, you gain access to the Stone's Endurance trait, which will allow you to mitigate 1d12 damage per short rest.

In addition, if your DM allows you might want to ask about being able to use the Way of the Unmoving Mountain (a homebrew path), which will allow you to mitigate 1d6 damage as a reaction and by using ki points.

The Combat Reflexes feat was removed and is not part of 5e currently.

If your group really needs a tank, you are better off with a Barbarian or Paladin, and multi-classing to Monk when you feel it acceptable.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That sounds like an idea. I will go over it with my GM. I know he allows the Goliath Race, I'll talk about him concerning the Way of the Unmoving Mountain. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$ – Just some Guy Jun 16 '15 at 12:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CraigYoung That's not the case, because they don't combine: How does Mage Armor interact with Unarmored Defense? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 21 '16 at 19:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another Homebrew Tradition I find inspiring: imgur.com/X6oXchH \$\endgroup\$ – Khaz Nov 1 '18 at 9:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Bracers of Defense, RoP, and Displacer Cloak can improve monk's tankiness. It might be worth noting that, in terms of AC upgrades and avoiding being damaged. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 17 '18 at 18:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Circle of the Moon Druid is also a pretty decent tank, especially if you dip one level into Barbarian (and/or one level into Monk for Unarmored Defense in beast form) \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Mar 24 at 11:56
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It's more "play as a tanky monk" than "make a tanky monk"

What we found at our table is that it's as much a play style as a build.

Background

I'm currently playing a lizardfolk monk as the sole frontliner of our (relatively squishy) party: bard, mystic, sorcerer. I'm following the Way of the Sun Soul, which on paper isn't necessarily optimised for tanking. We've been playing from level 2 until 6 so far, and we've faced multiple deadly encounters in the form of both big isolated heavy hitters and being outnumbered by crowds of enemies – which we all survived.

Deadly. A deadly encounter could be lethal for one or more player characters. Survival often requires good tactics and quick thinking, and the party risks defeat.

Funny detail: my frontliner monk has an AC of 19 (18 Dex, 18 Wis, Ring of Protection), but he has less HP than the mystic (and less even than a wizard I play in another game, at the same level). Yet still I can tank successfully. Below I will explain how it works for our table.

Ability Points

In my experience: that d8 as Hit Die is the only downside of being a monk tank. Keeping your HP pool high can be a challenge, since you already want to max Dexterity for AC (but also for attack/damage rolls) and Wisdom for AC (the higher passive perception is also pretty useful). So raising Constitution will probably not be a priority over Dexterity and Wisdom. It isn't for me, and so far my character has only fallen unconscious twice – of which once due to deliberate friendly fire.

The limited vitality of a monk – taking hits – feels nicely balanced though, as the monk offers interesting alternatives for the classic "tank & spank" strategy. Just like my martial arts teacher in real life (Wado Ryu Karate) used to say: "It's better to not get hit at all."

My advice is to adapt your tanking playstyle to the versatility a monk offers on the battlefield. So, instead of merely "making a tanky monk" I suggest to "play as a tanky monk".

Monk features

The monk is great for making many attacks in a short time: from 5th level onwards it's 3 attacks per round (or even 4 attacks every round as long as you have 1 ki point to expend). This is Attack action + Extra Attack + Martial Arts (or Flurry of Blows).

When the party is outnumbered, making many attacks could be helpful by turning the action economy into the party's favor: the side that has the most actions per round usually has an advantageous position in combat. So assisting your allies in taking out as many weaker enemies as fast as you can, is beneficial as these foes can't attack you (or your allies) when they're dead.

Against heavy hitters though with lots of health – we hunt dinosaurs – you might want to save your ki points to use Patient Defense instead of going for those extra attacks:

You can spend 1 ki point to take the Dodge action as a bonus action on your turn.

Dodge as a bonus action is huge(!), since it grants disadvantage on attacks rolls made against you. This is especially great if you are in the face of the opponent and your allies can freely focus fire on the target.

Stunning Strike and Step of the Wind could also offer more survivability, combined with the monk's crazy mobility (and adequate positioning of the party).

If the enemy can't hit you or your allies, you'll be an effective tank.

Stunning Strike
(...) you can spend 1 ki point to attempt a stunning strike. The target must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or be stunned until the end of your next turn.

Step of the Wind
You can spend 1 ki point to take the Disengage or Dash action as a bonus action on your turn, and your jump distance is doubled for the turn.

Make sure to always have 1 or 2 ki points remaining, just in case things don't go as planned.

Also keep in mind that as a dexterous frontliner you have a nice bonus to initiative, a +4 is hard to ignore. My monk usually goes first when combat starts, and this means I can often get into position before anyone else – including the enemies – which is very(!) helpful as a tank. In comparison to the more conventional frontliners such as paladin, fighter or barbarian chances are they are less frequently going first in battle than a monk. (This is unless they go down a Dexterity path too or take a feat, such as Alert to get a +5 on their initiative rolls. Barbarians of 7th level and higher, however, do get advantage on their initiative rolls, which is similar to having a +5 on the roll). Being high up in the initiative order can be beneficial when you want to try make the enemies focus you instead of your allies.

Party features

Remember this is a team-based game. Talk with your allies (preferably in character) about tactical options that enable you to be a more effective frontliner for the group. Are there any buffs that can be granted to raise your defenses? Any spells and features that could handicap the opponents? Anyone rocking Hold Person, Bless, Bane, etc?

Feats

If your monk still frequently gets knocked unconscious in battle, it could be worthwhile to pick the feat Tough instead of raising your Constitution:

Your hit point maximum increases by an amount equal to twice your level when you gain this feat. Whenever you gain a level thereafter, your hit point maximum increases by an additional 2 hit points.

This is similar to having +4 Constitution, minus the increase for the Constitution saving throw. If the campaign lasts long enough you'll get proficient in all saving throws anyway, through Diamond Soul at 14th level.

Combat Reflexes isn't a feat in 5e by the way, not by default. This feat from 3.5e isn't available in 5e, unless your DM is allowing some kind of homebrew variant of it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Tough essentially gives you the equivalent of a d12 when determining max hp if you use the averages. This is a great feat to have. \$\endgroup\$ – Eternallord66 Nov 8 '18 at 16:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Good job on filtering out and presenting the core message: much appreciated! \$\endgroup\$ – Vadruk Mar 24 at 19:50
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In addition to what has already been mentioned Way of Long Death, from Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide (p. 130-131), is a very survivable archetype.

The 3rd level feature Touch of Death gives you a re-usable source of temporary hit points. Notice that there is no limitation on the duration on the buff, so its benefits can carry from battle to battle. A generous DM may allow you to kill a critter to extract its life force at the start of an adventuring day. If you wanted to be especially cheesy you could even carry a cage of rats to kill and continually replenish your pool of temporary hit points. RAW there is nothing against this sort of use, but it is stretching RAI and a reasonable DM would restrict this feature, so YMMV.

Hour of Reaping imposes disadvantage on attack rolls and restricts movement, which are things that tanks are interested in doing.

Mastery of Death does a good impression of the Barbarian's Rentless Rage feature. The idea that a 1 HP Monk can take (at least) 11 hits before going down on the 12th hit is pretty impressive.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. You might want to cite the source book and page number that the Way of the Long Death subclass is from. :) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Mar 23 at 0:03
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In addition to the other answers, some useful monk traditions are:

Way of the Kensei (XGtE, p. 34-35)

At third level, you can use your kensei weapon to give you +2 AC when you make an unarmed strike as part of your Attack action on your turn and are holding a kensei weapon. With the AC in GMNoob's answer, that's 20 AC. In 5e's world of bounded accuracy that's hard to hit, even at the level by which you'd have 2 ASIs.

Way of Tranquility (UA: Monk)

At third level, 1/minute castings of sanctuary will make you harder to hit, but not allow you to attack or shove/grapple. You might be able to find non-attack things to do, but be limited in this.

As a bonus, you'll also get the Healing Hands feature at 3rd level, with a healing pool of 10 hp per monk level.

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Monks at 27 AC before items.

Race elf.

Monk Kensei 18 / Wizard Bladesinger 2

Bladesong-max Int. + 5 AC
Max dex. +5 AC
Use Mage Armor for flat 13 AC. +2 AC
Agile Parry +2 AC
Magic Initiative (Shield of Faith). +2 AC
Shield spell two times when needed for +5 AC (and swatting down Magic Missiles).

Don’t miss level 18 for monk. Resistant to all but force damage is big.

At this point, why monk when other classes do this better? “Dodge!”

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 8 at 23:00
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I fully support kensei monk, it's a personal favorite of mine. A tanky monk is something I have experimented with for a long time, and I have some ideas to help you with it.

To start with:

  • A level in light cleric
  • warding flare
  • shield of faith

More levels in cleric certainly don't hurt, and I find them very useful for other situations.

I recommend playing as a wood elf, and maybe even going with 15s in DEX, WIS, and CON and letting everything else be 8s. It is very one sided, but it will help its party a lot.

Another good idea is to take a level in barbarian. While it does spread your stats thinly, you get extra hp and raging martial arts is awesome. As for feats, there aren't many feats good for a monk and ASI's are very important, but the tough feat is nice and I also like sentinel and defensive duelist for tanks without levels in a attack mage class for shield.

Just wanted to give you some things to think about.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.se! Thanks for your contribution. Please take our tour when you have a chance to learn more about how we work here. I think this answer would be improved if you formatted it a bit and added some more details (perhaps even a partial build). For example you should explain why it is that you like all of those things. How do those options make the character tankier? But this is certainly a decent start to an answer! \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose May 28 at 15:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ When would you recommend the dip? There's a lot of juicy monk features early on through 7th level that would be tough to delay. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 28 at 15:53

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