Consider the following when building a monk following the Way of the Four Elements in DnD 5e.
- Choose a class with high Dexterity and/or Wisdom modifiers
- Build a classic monk and choose a monk weapon that relates to your element
- Lean into the wise sage trope
- Focus on one element and use spell attacks at the right moment
A monk belonging to the Way of the Four Elements is a martial spellcaster in Dungeons and Dragons 5e. These monks can pull from air, fire, earth and water to cast these spells as they swiftly move through the battlefield. Some monks focus on perfecting a single element, while others blend all four elements together. The best example of this character is Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Playing this sort of monk, you’ll need to focus on Wisdom and Dexterity. You won’t be a primary caster, as these spells will be cast with ki points. However, used discerningly, you can work in a powerful elemental technique at the right moment.
Before we jump in, you can play this monk in an original premade adventure, Dead Man’s Tale. You know, if you’re into pirates and spooky things.
Choose a class with high Dexterity and/or Wisdom modifiers
So, now that we want to play a monk, we should consider a race that would benefit a monk’s strengths. High Dexterity and Wisdom scores will add to our character’s AC, damage output and monk abilities.
For agile monks of air or fire, try wood elf, drow, tabaxi, kenku or goblin. These races tend to lean toward the Dexterity bonus, with the wood elf and kenku adding a +1 to Wisdom.
Tortles could make fun earth or water specialists. This turtle-like race is bulky but gains a +2 Wisdom bonus and extra shelled armor. Firbolg’s are another bulky choice, a solid candidate for an earth-style monk with a +2 Wisdom modifier.
Build a classic monk and choose a monk weapon that relates to your element
Firstly, we need to build a basic monk. I’ll set this character up with a cool monk weapon—a staff, short sword, or, my personal favorite, nunchaku. I can also choose artisan’s tool or a musical instrument. So, I’m a little artsy. For my two proficient skills, I’ll choose Insight and Acrobatics to crank up the monk flavor.
At first level, I gain Martial Arts and Unarmored Defense, which set me up in my own unique system of combat. Martial Arts allows me to roll 1d4 for unarmed strikes, using my Dexterity modifier for the damage and attack rolls. It also allows me to roll a bonus unarmed strike when I attack with a monk weapon. Unarmored Defense allows me to use my Wisdom modifier + Dexterity Modifier for my AC instead of armor.
My important Ki abilities come at level 2, which is the source of power I’ll use for my elemental techniques and monk moves. I gain ki points equal to my monk level, and can use them at level 2 for 3 techniques:
- Flurry of Blows adds an extra unarmed attack after a landed blow
- Step of the Wind allows me to disengage or dash as a bonus action
- Patient Defense allows me to use the dodge action as a bonus action
These are all cool abilities, but our path opens these abilities up to spell attacks.
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Higher-level abilities include Unarmored Movement (move 10 feet faster), Feather Fall, Deflect Missiles and several enhancements to my physical body. It’s important to remember all of monk abilities and use them together. It’s easy to compare to a spellcaster and be disheartened, but wizards can’t throw blows like a monk.
Lean into the wise sage trope
We should consider role playing options for this type of character—who is far more than a brawler with magic. Having a high Wisdom score allows this character to pull off skill checks like Insight, Animal Handling, Perception and Survival. Our monk is one with nature—similar to a ranger or druid. However, the monk offers an Eastern flavor to the typical Western philosophies these tropes are based in.
The monk is always self-improving, often speaking slowly and thoughtfully. I could play this character as a source of Wisdom and calm thought. I like to think of Grand Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda as a Tortle monk of this variety. The movement of elements could offer this character a Taoist outlook on the universe.
Or we could twist our sage wisdom to sound abnormal. Perhaps this character is a hardcore martial artist who believes in a nihilist philosophy. The elements can certainly be brutal and unforgiving, so a hard monk of earth or wrathful monk of fire could fit this worldview. They still believe in the balance of their actions—they just believe balance works both ways.
Focus on one element and use spell attacks at the right moment
When I take the Way of the Four Elements (level 3), I’ll be able to use a certain set of moves with my ki points that act as spells. These moves are called disciplines, and I’ll learn 2 of them right off the bat—Elemental Attunement and another of my choice. Elemental Attunement is a basic discipline of all 4 elements, allowing me to:
- Create a harmless, instantaneous effect with one of the elements—spark shower or ground rumble
- Instantly ignite candles, torches and fireplaces
- Cool or warm 1 pound of nonliving material for up to an hour
- Create a 1 square foot shape of your choice using one of the four elements
My next choice should pack a punch in combat. Per my Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender example, I’m gonna choose something windy. Fist of Unbroken Air sounds like the best choice. With a cost of 2 ki points, I create a blast of air that hits hard. On a failed Strength saving throw, enemies take 3d10 bludgeoning damage with an additional 1d10 for each ki point spent over. Plus, the creature is knocked 20 feet back and is now prone. I mean, that’s a big boom.
As I raise in level, I’ll be able to learn more techniques. However, this one takes the cake as a starter technique. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about spending ki points for other moves. Starting with 3 ki points, we could dodge on one turn and counter with this move on the next. Or turbo charge the move for 4d10 damage.
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