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View Full Version : D&D 5e/Next What the monk tells us about design: lots of features doesn't mean overpowered!



Grizl' Bjorn
2017-05-17, 05:01 AM
I think itís worth remembering as a homebrewer that classes without spell slot access SHOULD have a lot of class features- some of them very powerful. Taken in isolation this might seem unbalanced, taken together the synthesis of literally dozens of features creates a class that is just barely able to keep up with a full spell caster. The lesson of the monk is don't be afraid to hand out class features by the literal dozens to non caster classes.

Remember that the monk is considered one of the weaker classes! Yet if one were to adopt a certain mode of evaluating classes, where one simply tallies features, it might appear super-op.

Features of a shadow monk at level 20

(Where a feature is effectively multiple features I've split them.)

Very powerful monk features:

Empty body (Greater invisibility + universal resistance. If this were a spell it would be level 7 at least, it only costs four ki)

Empty body (Astral projection- a ninth level spell)

Martial arts

Extra attack (Core of any martial class)

Diamond soul (Proficiency in all saving throws)

Diamond soul (Ability to reroll all saving throws at a cost of 1 Ki)

Flurry of blows (What allows the class to reach viable damage)

Shadow step (Unlimited teleportation 60 feet as a bonus action with advantage on attack and only a minor restriction)

Cloak of shadows (Practically unlimited invisibility- how common is bright light really?)

Evasion (What makes this so powerful is its synergy with diamond soul)

Shadow arts: Silence (Very strong because normally only casters get this- negating much of its usefulness)

Major monk features:

Opportunist

Ki-empowered strikes

Immunity to poison and disease

Stillness of mind

Stunning strike

Deflect missiles

Unarmored movement

Unarmored defence

Patient defence

Step of the wind

Shadow arts: Pass without trace

Shadow arts: Darkness

Shadow arts: Darkvision (Darkness and darkvision make major because of the powerful synergy between the two)

Shadow arts: Minor illusion (it is the most powerful cantrip in the game!)

Minor monk features:

Tongue of the sun and moon (Third level spell active at all times but situational)

Timeless body (Immunity to negative effects of aging- could be major in a very long arc campaign I guess)

Timeless body (No need for food and water- again, could be major in a campaign where this is a key issue)

Slow fall

Sindeloke
2017-05-17, 07:19 AM
The monk also demonstrates something really important about balancing features:

Some "features" are actually completely value-neutral or even a net negative, due to the way they overlap with or interact with other abilities. For example, "unarmored defense" seems really cool, right, it's this enormous boost to armor class that you get when you're not even armored! That looks like a really powerful feature!

But in fact, it's not a "feature" at all. It's a compensation, something that brings the monk up to baseline; because the monk cannot wear armor and still use her best class features, we need to give her fake armor. In the end, if we assume she can get both Wis and Dex to 20, she has just managed to break even with a shield-using martial who could have had that AC with no ability score investment at all. The increased unarmed damage is the same, allowing the monk's primary attack to eventually be almost as good as a first-level human with a glaive. Essentially, the monk has two class "features" that do nothing but reflavor the base weapon and armor proficiencies every martial gets as part of the base chassis, so when you're counting "neat things the monk has" you have to remember to count those two out.

Something similar happens with dwarf racial bonuses. Getting +Str is a good boost, and so is getting armor proficiency, but even though this looks like two bonuses, it's actually only one, because a class who can benefit from Str already has armor proficiency. Either you're a caster who gets a nice defensive boost, or a martial who gets a nice offensive boost, but you don't actually get both at the same time. This leads to an appearance of overbudgeting when really the race is fine.

Secret Wizard
2017-05-17, 11:10 AM
The monk also demonstrates something really important about balancing features:

Some "features" are actually completely value-neutral or even a net negative, due to the way they overlap with or interact with other abilities. For example, "unarmored defense" seems really cool, right, it's this enormous boost to armor class that you get when you're not even armored! That looks like a really powerful feature!

But in fact, it's not a "feature" at all. It's a compensation, something that brings the monk up to baseline; because the monk cannot wear armor and still use her best class features, we need to give her fake armor. In the end, if we assume she can get both Wis and Dex to 20, she has just managed to break even with a shield-using martial who could have had that AC with no ability score investment at all. The increased unarmed damage is the same, allowing the monk's primary attack to eventually be almost as good as a first-level human with a glaive. Essentially, the monk has two class "features" that do nothing but reflavor the base weapon and armor proficiencies every martial gets as part of the base chassis, so when you're counting "neat things the monk has" you have to remember to count those two out.

Something similar happens with dwarf racial bonuses. Getting +Str is a good boost, and so is getting armor proficiency, but even though this looks like two bonuses, it's actually only one, because a class who can benefit from Str already has armor proficiency. Either you're a caster who gets a nice defensive boost, or a martial who gets a nice offensive boost, but you don't actually get both at the same time. This leads to an appearance of overbudgeting when really the race is fine.

Clearly you need to learn to love the Dwarven Abjurer Wizard battletank.

T.G. Oskar
2017-05-18, 03:22 AM
The monk also demonstrates something really important about balancing features:

Some "features" are actually completely value-neutral or even a net negative, due to the way they overlap with or interact with other abilities. For example, "unarmored defense" seems really cool, right, it's this enormous boost to armor class that you get when you're not even armored! That looks like a really powerful feature!

But in fact, it's not a "feature" at all. It's a compensation, something that brings the monk up to baseline; because the monk cannot wear armor and still use her best class features, we need to give her fake armor. In the end, if we assume she can get both Wis and Dex to 20, she has just managed to break even with a shield-using martial who could have had that AC with no ability score investment at all. The increased unarmed damage is the same, allowing the monk's primary attack to eventually be almost as good as a first-level human with a glaive. Essentially, the monk has two class "features" that do nothing but reflavor the base weapon and armor proficiencies every martial gets as part of the base chassis, so when you're counting "neat things the monk has" you have to remember to count those two out.

I feel I should do some minor counterpoints, because this feels as if it has some of the "Monk is weak" 3.5 bias.

Unarmored Defense, indeed, is a compensation, but one that has its perks. At, say, a reasonable starting Dex and Wis (15, the top for point-buy), you'd have an effective starting AC of 14, or rather, 12 + Dex; the same as studded leather light armor. A fighter or paladin will most likely have chain mail + shield, which is AC 18 - roughly 4 points higher, but the fighter (or paladin) is limited to wielding a one-handed weapon and a shield. At 4th level, the Monk can increase its AC to 16; that's the equivalent to chain mail alone, and superior to just about any medium armor you get; it also gets no disadvantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks, nor has a fixed Strength proficiency. By then, the fighter or paladin may get full plate and keep the shield. Compare to, say, a Rogue (can't get higher than studded leather, and will cap at AC 17 with Dex 20, which it can't achieve at level 4), a Ranger (either the same as Rogue, same as Rogue + shield bonus to AC but no Dual Wield/Archery benefits, or less Dex but specialize in medium armor for a total max of 18 with half-plate) or a Barbarian (same as Monk, but has the benefit of wielding a shield in exchange for lack of two-handed weapons). Of the three classes, ONLY the Barbarian is meant to be geared as a tank (whether a Bearbarian or Ancestors' Path Barbarian), and the Barbarian has damage resistance and d12 to compensate for the lack of high AC that a Fighter or Paladin can boast (Full Plate, Shield, Defense fighting style). As AC goes, the Monk is roughly half-way in terms of defense - no better than a Fighter or Paladin in full defensive gear, somewhat equal to a Barbarian in AC, comparable to Ranger, superior to Rogue. For full completion, a Monk is comparable in AC to a Cleric without heavy armor proficiency, superior to a Sorcerer or Warlock, and superior to most Wizards (aside from Abjurer or Bladesinger) For being a "compensation" ability, it's pretty solid; about the only thing it lacks is boosts from magic armor sources, and permanent Dex/Wis boosts should compensate (then again, they're as rare as +3 armor/shield, in the first place). Also, no cool benefits from magic armor/shields, but then again, those are pretty rare too.

On to Martial Arts. Here's where I mention what I feel is "bias" - you ONLY mention unarmed strikes, when Martial Arts also applies to "monk weapons", which it specifies to be shortswords and "simple melee weapons without the two-handed or heavy properties". That means the ONLY weapon from the Simple Melee weapons list that's forbidden is the Greatclub. That leaves the Club, Dagger, Handaxe, Javelin, Light Hammer, Mace, Quarterstaff, Sickle and Spear as viable "monk weapons". Let's go with some things that Monks can do:

Quarterstaves are monk weapons. They're also viable for Polearm Master. A monk can do decent damage, using Dexterity, while using Polearm Master for lockdown purposes. Of course, the bonus attack is NOT boosted (it remains 1d4 + ability modifier), but you already get better bonus action attacks in the first place. Quarterstaff won't do as much damage as the other polearms until 17th level, when the monk deals 1d10 with monk weapons; that's a good point. But, it counts for other purposes.
The dagger, handaxe, javelin, light hammer and spear are also thrown weapons. YMMV with this, but there's nothing that says that a monk can't use its better damage die for monk weapons when they throw them; in fact, the rules seem to suggest that you replace the damage die when making an attack with said weapon as part of an Attack action (barring special bonus attacks; see Polearm Master and quarterstaves). So, you could use a javelin and deal 1d10 + Dex worth of damage twice per round as a 17th level Monk, which isn't half bad. That's as much as two shots from a heavy crossbow per round. Of course, that might not seem as much as, say, a Fighter using a longbow with all its Extra Attacks, or a Ranger using a longbow with Swift Quiver.
All monk weapons cannot have the heavy property. To give you an idea; the best weapons a Small character (gnome, halfling) can aspire to wield are a battleaxe, a longsword or a warhammer, with all three dealing 1d10 if wielded with two hands. A Small monk can wield a javelin to deal 1d10 in melee OR up to 120 ft. away (with disadvantage, granted) with just one weapon, leaving its other weapon free.

While this may seem minor, it's actually a pretty solid set of abilities that not every other class can achieve. Focusing ONLY on Unarmed Strikes makes Martial Arts seem a bit underwhelming, when the fact is that its application to other weapons makes it surprisingly flexible.

Again - it IS true that the Martial Arts and Unarmored Defense abilities serve as compensation, but you gotta gauge them with similar traits. A Fighter on full plate with a shield will have better defense, yes; the Monk is NOT meant to be a tank, however, so achieving such a high AC in the first place is quite a surprise, let alone leaving you with a free hand and no penalties to Stealth. Likewise, dealing as much damage as a glaive can be surprising when you can do it with one hand, and also have a short-distance ranged weapon on top of that; comparing the damage to a greatsword or greataxe wielded by a 20th level single-classed Fighter will definitely cause concerns, but you're comparing a Monk to one of the top physical damage dealers of the game. Compare to the other classes, and you might see a much better comparison - a Barbarian deals more melee damage but is limited to 2 attacks tops, and can only achieve this in melee; the Paladin can only deal an extra 1d8 unless it REALLY goes nova with Divine Smite + a smite spell, but again only with melee weapons; a Ranger can deal tons of damage but requires a pretty specific build that pretty much screams a ranged weapon. The Monk can deal solid damage, several times (with bonus actions or Flurry of Blows), with some cool aftereffects (Stunning Strike, for example; Open Hand Monks get to shove for free after using Flurry of Blows but only for the added unarmed strikes, or Quivering Palm which at least has a ton of damage on a successful save which totals to 55 necrotic damage on average), but works best as a harrier than as a damage dealer. The fact that the Monk doesn't necessarily need a weapon for that is the biggst plus.

So yeah - it's not anything against your argument (the Monk has lots of features, but having them doesn't mean they're overpowered; ergo, you don't have to be stingy when doing homebrew if the class isn't a spellcasting class), but I feel you undersold these abilities. I feel that ignoring them doesn't allow you to understand another great thing about class design - the worth of a class feature, particularly when you can get creative with it. Martial Arts and Unarmored Defense are much, much worthy than core Ranger's Beastmaster (thank goodness for Revised!) or Berserker Barb's Frenzy, which doesn't do much and in exchange it gets you one step closer to death.