How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat

I’ve seen a dungeon master go from openly rolling saves against a monk’s Stunning Strike to rolling in secret. I’m sure that meaningless switch had nothing to do with prior encounters where the monk ran around the battlefield and stunned all the strongest monsters before they acted.

The title of this post uses the word “cheat,” but we know DMs can’t really cheat. I chose the word for a provocative headline. The DM’s sudden switch to secret rolls certainly came from a noble goal. He aimed to make the game more fun, and Dungeons & Dragons rarely proves fun when every encounter turns into a beat down of helpless monsters.

At least a monk’s player always relishes such encounters. I love playing a monk with boots of speed and the Mobility feat, who zooms about like the Flash and punches everything. I’m sure my monk’s stunning fist has irked a few DMs, but I play an unwise monk. My monk pushed Constitution ahead of Wisdom, a poor choice because he hardly needs the hit points. Before the monsters’ turns, his speed lets him run for a cup of tea. (I like tea.) A good monk focuses on Wisdom for a more potent Stunning Strike. The Stunning Strike feature rates as so powerful that an optimal monk rarely squanders ki on anything else. Good monks barely need hit points. Their foes wind up with cartoon stars and birds swirling around their heads.

Some folks suppose that monsters typically enjoy good Constitution saves, and that limits the power of Stunning Strike. That theory mixes a sliver of truth with lots of wishful thinking. Few monsters can repeat saves against stuns from a monk with a high Wisdom. Monks regain ki after just a short rest, so they usually bring enough to make three or even four stun attempts on their first turn. After a monk’s allies finish mauling stunned foes, turn two rarely needs so many stun attempts.

Monk ability scores

For the best monk, make Wisdom and Dexterity your highest attributes. Both raise a monk’s AC. Dexterity helps your attack bonus and damage, but Wisdom stuns. By the time you near 10th level, you usually hit anyway. When you spend ki to stun, you want the high save.

Monk races

With ability score increases to Dexterity and Wisdom, plus a 35-foot walking speed, wood elves make especially good monks.

The Mobile and Alert feats combine so well with the monk class that human monks make another sound choice. A variant human can start boosted by a feat.

If your campaign allows aarakocra characters, consider one. They gain +2 Dexterity, +1 Wisdom, and a 50-foot fly speed, which seems too strong when paired with a monk’s hit-and-stun tactics. Without special permission, the Adventurers League forbids aarakocra characters.

Monastic traditions

The power of Stunning Strike typically makes spending ki on anything else a poor choice. That makes the Way of the Shadow a strong choice for monastic tradition. Shadow monks can use Shadow Step, their strongest ability, without spending ki. In dim light, this ability lets shadow monks teleport up to 60 feet. Plus, they can spend 2 ki to cast Pass Without Trace, a spell good enough to merit 2 fewer stun attempts.

If the optimal strategy of spamming Stunning Strike seems tiresome, other traditions bring more variety. Here are some stronger options.

If you prefer lots of attacks and battlefield control, the Way of the Open Hand lets every hit from a flurry of blows bring a chance of knocking foes back 15 feet or knocking prone, which brings advantage to the rest of your flurry.

The Drunken Master tradition lets monks disengage after a flurry of blows, adding some mobility and defense. The tipsy flavor may not resonate with some players though.

The Path of the Kensi enables a monk to use more damaging weapons and to become a master archer. However, if you want an Asian-flavored archer that deals game-breaking amounts of damage, opt for a Samurai. (See How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D (If the Rest of Your Group Doesn’t Mind).)

Monk feats

The Mobile feat combines with monk so well that according to D&D Beyond, 23% of monks select it. You gain even more speed and foes you attack in combat can’t make opportunity attacks against you. This enable monks to attack, and then dart from reach. Monks hardly need hit points when they only run into combat on their turns.

The Tough feat ranks as the second most popular monk feat, but it makes a weak choice. Well-played monks can survive on fewer hit points. If you want a more durable monk, choose Resilient (Constitution) instead.

The Alert feat pairs well with a monk’s Stunning Strike. Combining the feat’s +5 bonus to initiative with the monk’s Dexterity means you almost always go first. This gives you a chance to stun all the most dangerous monsters before they act.

No wonder Stunning Strike tempts DMs to roll saves in secret for no particular reason.

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25 thoughts on “How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat

  1. Jacob Blalock

    When would you take Resilient (Con). Seems like a waste when you could be pumping up your Wisdom or Dexterity. That (or Mobile) should eat up your first two ASIs. If you make it to Level 12 you’re only two levels away from Diamond Soul which will give you proficiency in all your saves anyway.

    1. Gunars

      Exactly. Get your Dex to 20 as fast as you can and start pumping that WIS to 20 after. Do not pick up feats even mobility. On paper it sounds great, but remember that you will proc a stun on your target so there is no need for this feat when you have ki.

  2. George Dorn

    Negating a PC’s abilities by concealing dice rolls really is cheating; it’s cheating the player out of an ability they chose to take. If the power is a problem, negotiate a solution to that with the player. They made choices to obtain that power, including giving up other options, so it’s far better to ban the power outright and let the player rebuild the character than it is to pretend the power exists but decide when it actually works by DM fiat.

    1. sapphirecrook

      Agreed. There’s fudging for a good cause, and fudging because you’re unable to handle a toolset. The players never get to undo their own saving throws because the night’s been pisspoor with luck, and I’ve rarely seen a GM openly contradict a roll. The GM screen is, like the internet, a way to make anonymous and shift blame.

      Either way, the answer is to be an adult. Either own it, or talk it out. Don’t hide behind dice you don’t even use.

      1. Mr D

        My DM combat rolls are always in public, no matter what. I never fudge, no matter if it would be good or bad for the narrative (or whatever other reasons there could be). I tell my players that at session zero. As a player, that’s what I’d want too.

        If that monk zipping around the battle field is causing issues, well, what’s good for the goose…!

    2. Guncha

      Depends how often DM “cheats”. If monk can drive-by stun entire encounter then it will remove most of the challange from fights that makes balancing encounters hard, since it all relies on lucky dice rolls. Like DM can plan the fight in advance that he will allow 3 maybe 4 stuns on his 6 monster encounter 1st round.

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  4. Amber Henson

    I played a tabaxi monk, and that was a super good class/race combo. Climbing walls, running 200+feet with feline agility and still being able to make an attack the same turn. The only time I was ever even hit was when I got caught in a narrow corrider flanked by 2 invisible creatures.

    1. Bombadil84

      Well done! I’ve played a drunken fist tabaxi monk. The mobility and speed burst were a delight!!! Our campaign ended when the DM rage-quit after we downed one of the 2 remaining bbeg’s of the campaign in one turn (paladin crit smite negated the shield spell as did the tipsy sway of my monk) after his frustration had build up over months partly due to the stunning strike negating most of the cool villain stuff he had prepared. There were a few other important reasons though for why the campaign ended that day but the scene and collective laughter we had will always be engraved in our memories.

  5. Zandraxon

    I ran a githzerai monk in 3.5 one time… At low levels he was a better fighter than the tanks, a better rogue than the thief, a better scout than the ranger and thanks to a high wisdom score had like a 19 AC to start, so I never got hit and could stand in any fight, at least in the beginning. By the time we ended the campaign around 10th level he had movement of 90′ and as a DM I knew all the tricks and how to take advantage of them. It got to the point where I had to consciously take a back seat so that the other players could contribute. It was so good that we banned them forever…

      1. Numa Pompilius

        Well, explain maybe. But almost any race with level adjustment and monk are both very suboptimal choices in 3.5. Very. Holding back as a monk by level 10 is something I just can’t believe. Were that party fighters all built like Tordek?

        1. George Dorn

          The Unearthed Arcana rules that let you ‘buy off’ level adjustment by spending XP make a lot of sense. At low levels, level adjustment is critical for balance, but at higher levels it starts being a massive penalty, unbalanced in the other direction, so buying off that penalty incrementally means the XP penalty fades as the relative power gain from the race also fades.

  6. GavinRuneblade

    I’m curious, are most encounters happening with enemies starting round 1 all clumped up and in small spaces AND ALSO all visible?

    Mentally running through the last dozen encounters I ran, this strategy would work and be fun. But it would fail to dominate or break anything because more than half of enemies would be out of sight or spread out or not on the map yet.

    It would still be effective, but there would be no need for me to adjust anything about how I run the encounters. Which is good because any player who wanted to go for it could enjoy their character doing their thing.

  7. Prescott Schwartz

    This build for a monk is not that optimal realistically, or atleast not to the full extent it could be, honestly the best race for breaking the game with a monk, is the tabaxi, since they can basically double their immediate move speed for one turn, and attain I think 60 or 80 without any spells or bonuses, they also gain dex as a racial stat witch is the second best stat for them to have, since it directly can improve both their AC and damage, also there is one other thing that makes it the best, though I forget. Also if you want move speed, it’s technically possible to reach Mach 46 in game using a tabaxi monk, though it will only last about a minute at most and take a lot of set up so isn’t worth it unless your DM is crazy and decides to apply physics to it. Also any Con modifiers or feat’s are lost on monks, you really only ever want to use Dex and Wis since you can easily obtain 24 AC with monks using dex and with high Wis you can stun anything and do other stupid things.

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  9. Gray

    Its a good review. Based on this you would prioritise wis over dex? Having leveled to 8 last night im torn on dex (cur 18), wis (cur 14) and mobile.

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