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I'm getting back into D&D (5e) for the first time in a couple of decades, last playing with OD&D and AD&D 1e & 2e. I've just made my first ever monk. I'm struggling to understand how the monk's tropes — the book describes them as an ascetic, wandering to seek enlightenment and bettering themselves — are intended to be balanced against typical adventure tropes of killing monsters, taking all their stuff and becoming a wandering one-man magical army.

Is there D&D 5e game content that guides me on how I'm supposed to balance these against each other, and how I'm supposed to handle keeping his stuff vs donating it away to charities (and leaving his equipment largely unchanged from first level) given the class is described with terms such as being "ascetic"? I'd like to seek both decent balance and authenticity to the game materials in this.

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Welcome back to the game! I'd like to answer your question in two different parts: the mechanics and the ascetics.

Mechanics

I think there is a core misconception here:

balanced against typical adventure tropes of killing monsters, taking all their stuff and becoming a wandering one-man magical army.

which I think comes from your background with 1e and 2e.

5e has a much lower dependence on magic items. In particular, I invite you to take a look at the table Starting Equipment on page 38 of the DMG. In case you don't have it handy, it breaks down expected starting wealth into four character level ranges (1-4, 5-10, 11-16, and 17-20) and maps them onto Low, Standard, and High magic campaigns. The recommended number of magic items for the most magic-y, high powered game, a level 20 high magic campaign?

Six.

Three Uncommon, two Rare, and one Very Rare item. The main reason you want magic items in the first place is to give yourself new abilities (teleportation, fire immunity, etc) or improve existing ones (hit chance, spells per day, etc). In 5e, neither of these is as much a problem as in previous editions.

For the first, classes are much more flexible than previously. Only two classes don't have access to spells (Barbarian and Monk), and even these have very spell-like options (speaking with nature itself, or using your mind to light your magic fists on fire).

For the second, 5e has a concept called Bounded Accuracy. At first level, a fighter's to-hit might be +4. At max level, it could be around +11. Mirroring this, the AC for creatures goes from around 13 on a standard Orc up to 22 for an Ancient Red Dragon or 25 on the extremely defensive Tarrasque. Since the numbers don't really vary much, you don't need much in the way of items to keep up with average monster defenses. The damage bonuses (usually in the form of more damage die) get bigger, but the real meat comes from multiple attacks rather than stupidly big numbers.

So, mechanically speaking, keeping your magic items to a minimum won't impact your game that drastically, so long as your DM isn't giving them out like candy to your other party members.

Ascetics

Magic items in 5e are all so valuable they're literally priceless. Price ranges can be found in the DMG, but it's advised to trade services and favors, rather than outright selling things. This can be used in your favor. Willingness to trade away your magic items lets you trade direct combat ability for greater influence (compared to your compatriots) in the social environment of your campaign. This is likely to vary greatly on your DM and game style. Great for city sleuthing, poor for straight dungeon crawls. There are more official, but optional, rules for this in the form of Organizations on page DMG 21. Talk to your DM about setting up your monastic order as an organization in the world.

A roleplaying alternative to straight giving or trading away your valuables is to consider one or two of them as holy or otherwise special relics. Your character may well consider a particular item or monk weapon to be special to his order, and it's his duty to see the item used in some way in the world. Of course, your monk may decide to keep an item or two as a reminder or keepsake of a particular adventure, relationship, or lesson learned.

Lastly, and perhaps most on point, a few of the rarer magic items are effectively consumables that give permanent benefits. Take a look at the Tome of Understanding in particular. You read it, learn from it, improve yourself, then rid yourself of the burden of possessing it. Depending on this approach will require something of an accommodating DM, but note the first paragraph in this section. Long-lived or immortal creatures such as dragons may well be willing to let you peruse their libraries for a week at the cost of some bauble you found. Permanent possession of a new item could easily be worth effectively a 100-year loan of a different one.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you! This is exactly the kind of mental framework I was looking for! \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Jan 12 '17 at 1:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Paul While I appreciate your enthusiasm, and I'm happy to help, it's traditional to wait a day or two before accepting an answer in case a better one comes along. Also, you do have the ability to unaccept an answer and accept another if you like. \$\endgroup\$ – Joel Harmon Jan 12 '17 at 2:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 Good answer, but minor nitpick on bounded accuracy: PCs tend to range from +5 to +11 hit bonus, and monsters have an even wider range. AC for PCs hardly changes from levels 1 - 20, and is rarely higher than 20, and even the toughest monsters don't have more than 25 AC, which keeps the smaller to hit bonuses on even weak creatures relevant all game. It's the combo of low to hit, and low AC that really keeps things bounded. \$\endgroup\$ – Randomorph Jan 12 '17 at 3:24
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Rules Don't Forbid Greedy Murder-Hobo Monks

The monk class doesn't forbid a monk from playing the role of greedy murder-hobo. In fact the only role-play choices that the rules address is Paladins keeping their oaths (if they don't, there are optional rules for them becoming an Oath Breaker in the DMG).

That doesn't mean that one shouldn't try to play the character class they picked, in fact far from it. Just point out that it isn't enforced.

Thoughts on Monks in General

The issue comes in with attachment to things, and accumulation of wealth. If an item is more powerful and replaces an older version of the same thing. I don't have a problem with a monk having possessions that contribute to their success. I don't necessarily think trading up is a violation of ascetic principles. If a monk starts with a quarterstaff, and later gets a magic quarterstaff to overcome resistance or gain a +1, and gives away their old one, I don't think any ascetic principle is violated.

On the other hand, if the monk begins collecting a hoard of gold and gems, and dressing in fine silks, ect. that would be against the image of monks as they were imagined for the stock D&D world.

Finding balance between typical adventurer and your vision of the Monk as the character develops can be a source of fun or frustration. Walking this line could provide chances for character development.

Role-Playing Ideas

Maybe the struggle you face with role-playing is one your monk will have struggle with in game. The monk came from a monastery or temple and is now out adventuring...

  • How does the monk deal with the party that keeps accumulating worldly objects they seem to enjoy? (Relevant for non-domineering role-playing principles: How do I play a paladin without being a stick in the mud?)
  • How does the monk deal with new temptations that weren't around while the monk was in the temple?
  • What is more important to the monk as he progresses in the world: his path to enlightenment, or the urgent needs to fend off the new threats that might kill innocent people if he isn't strong enough (including his gear)?
  • Who was he before the temple? Is that old person starting to come back out, and is it a challenge to seek enlightenment?

Wealth

I think the key point is not collecting "wealth". I think having a magic item, which may or may not have large value on the market, is alright if the monk sees it for what it is -- an item that he can use as a tool to reach goal X. Once his objectives are met, he has no problem giving up the item if it can do more good somewhere else. Meanwhile, actual coin has little interest to him as long as he is nourished and in top condition to continue walking the path before him.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've given your post a copy edit, but it has a sentence partway through that I can't make sense of and which doesn't appear connected to the sentences around it: "If an item is more powerful and replaces an older version of the same thing." If it replaces an older item, then... what? The sentence is incomplete, you bring up a condition then don't follow through addressing it. Do you mean to say it's OK to pick up upgrades or something? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 12 '17 at 18:21
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So I think the solution to what you're looking for is to take a better look at the rules for Backgrounds that were first introduced in a manner with 3.x, but much better expanded upon (IMO) in 5e. Nothing is preventing you from playing a murder hobo Monk and nothing's preventing you from playing a charitable Fighter because nobody can tell you how to play your character.

That said, the way 5e uses Backgrounds is that it helps to define who you are as a person. Nobody is born and decides they're going to be a Fighter. Backgrounds say you were born into the nobility (and take the Noble background) and that has resulted in you becoming proficient in a few skills as well as having traits, flaws, bonds, and ideals based upon that. Alternately, you could be a devout follower of some god (and take the Acolyte background) who prioritizes charity and thus take an appropriate ideal for that.

Backgrounds guide a means to play a character. Based on what you're seeking, I would recommend taking Charity ideal. This is mentioned in a few different backgrounds and is reflected slightly differently each time, however, the underlying theme is that you give away to those in need.

For an example, I personally am playing a NG Monk who has the Criminal background. Because of his background, he's got a reputation as both an enforcer and a burglar. He also has a bit of a Han Solo streak where he finds compelled to break into bigger and more well-defended places to steal the goods within. However, the way I envisioned the character is that he's very devoted to his home village and the poor so notable percentage of what he steals is donated to either his village or a beggar.

It should be noted that wealth is less of a driving force behind effectiveness in 5e. My character suffers a little bit by giving away something in the range of 50% of his coins, but this doesn't significantly hamper his ability to contribute in a fight as a significant portion of his power comes from his class levels. Unlike 3.x, wealth isn't a shortcut to overwhelming power anymore.

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