Class is in session! If you want to play the ultimate martial arts master, you’ve come to the right monastery. This week, we take a deep dive into a monastic tradition that allows you to emulate the great martial artists of the ancient world—and the flashy martial artists of Hollywood and Hong Kong kung-fu and wuxia films. The Way of the Open Hand grants you all this power and more.
Story of the Way of the Open Hand
“You would draw blades against me?” The monk looked at the trio of hobgoblins that stood before him with incredulity. He looked small and weak and practically naked before them, wearing only a simple tunic while they wore heavy, spiked plate armor.
The monk opened wide his hands, displaying to all that he was unarmed. “I’ve studied in monasteries across the Moonsea. The monks of the Monastery of the Yellow Rose taught me how to fight with infinite vigor at altitudes where the air is thin as smoke. At the Black Raven Monastery, I learned how to sense the flowing rivers of ki within my foes’ body—and how to disrupt them with a touch. And at the House of the Broken God, I learned how to fight in a way that showed mercy and grace towards all living beings.”
At this, the hobgoblins only laughed, and drew closer. The monk scowled, and clenched his fists. “Yet you—You are testing the limits of my mercy. I will demonstrate to you what I have learned.”
The Way of the Open Hand instantly draws comparison to the stars of Hong Kong action cinema, like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Cheng Pei-Pei—perhaps even more than it draws comparison to actual martial arts! This is to be expected, since D&D’s somewhat abstract combat system encourages cinematic action over gritty realism. Though the class is named “monk,” you must dispel any images of Friar Tuck that appear in your mind. The class’s name was probably coined perhaps in reference to Shaolin monks, who were renowned for their martial arts prowess—but the monk class has no inherent ties to faith, unlike the Christian monks of medieval Europe or the Buddhist monks of feudal China or Japan.
When creating a monk—especially one who follows the Way of the Open Hand, which is the platonic ideal of a martial artist monk—try to think of stories that feature monastic warriors, who fight in the name of an organization or a philosophical ideal rather than a faith or a god. For monks who wield weapons in addition to unarmed strikes—like in D&D—think of the souhei, warrior-monks of feudal Japan, especially during the sengoku jidai, or Warring States period. These monastic warriors often fought with bows and naginata spears, like any sensible soldier of the time. For a non-historical example, think of the Jedi knights from Star Wars, and how their fighting style melds weaponry, sorcery, and philosophy.
Finally, be sure to read the “Monastic Orders” sidebar in the Player’s Handbook. This elaborates that while most monasteries that teach a martial art in the Forgotten Realms are Shou in origin—and thus have a broad “East Asian” aesthetic—monasteries dedicated to gods rather than ideals or philosophies are common on the Sword Coast. The monk class isn’t monolithic, and neither is the Way of the Open Hand. It’s kind of like the differences between Hong Kong and Hollywood martial arts movies; similar in topic, but wildly different in content, tone, and approach.
Way of the Open Hand Features
As stated earlier, the Way of the Open Hand is the most iconic, essential ideal of the monk class. As such, its class features tend to enhance the class’s strengths and leave its weaknesses relatively untouched. The features of this subclass grant you the ability to manipulate not just the ki (energy) within your own body, but the ki within other creatures, as well. Generally, these features either allow you to cause harm to enemies or heal harm done to your own body. The monk gains access to four subclass features in addition to their monk class features, gained at increasingly wide intervals at 3rd, 6th, 11th, and 17th level.
You can read all of the Way of the Open Hand features for free in the D&D Basic Rules. In summary, your subclass features allow you to:
- Use martial arts to hinder your enemies’ movement or reactions.
- Manipulate your own ki to heal your wounds.
- Surround yourself with an aura of peace.
- Kill a creature with a single strike.
Benefits of Playing a Way of the Open Hand Monk
Monks who follow the Way of the Open Hand rely predominantly on skills as martial artists, rather than upon any sort of supernatural powers, making them more akin to Cheng Chao-an (Bruce Lee’s street-fighting protagonist in The Big Boss) than to Yin Chik-ha (Wu Ma’s ghost-fighting Taoist priest in A Chinese Ghost Story). Or, for a more contemporary example, more like Ty Lee or Suki than Azula or Zuko (all from Avatar: The Last Airbender).
As such, your subclass focuses on making you a well-balanced melee combatant, and does a good job at it. It strikes an impressive balance of offense and defense, and gets to the good stuff quickly while still tantalizing you with one of the most striking “capstone” features in the game. Your Open Hand Technique, the first feature you gain in this subclass, grants you a diversity of tactical offensive options that allow you to manipulate your enemies’ position on the battlefield. Knocking an enemy prone can set up a devastating Sneak Attack combo with your party’s rogue, and battlefields with hazardous terrain like acid pits or lava, or active spell effects like moonbeam make pushing a creature up to 15 feet a niche but useful ability.
Wholeness of Body’s healing isn’t as useful as a fighter’s Second Wind trait in the heat of combat, it can still provide some additional healing between battles. Fortunately, it scales better than Second Wind, making it useful even as you rise into higher levels. Additionally, Tranquility shouldn’t be underestimated as a defensive feature. Gaining the effects of a sanctuary that lasts your entire adventuring day—or until you take hostile action yourself—protects you from ambushes in the first combat encounter of any given day. This isn’t the best in long dungeon crawls, but it is useful when traveling long distances, such as in the jungles of Chult or the Faerûn’s Savage Frontier.
This subclass’s most exciting feature, gained at 17th level, is Quivering Palm. By spending 3 ki points, you can fill a creature’s body with imperceptible vibrations that last for a number of days equal to your monk level. At any point during that time, you can use another action to turn those vibrations into a lethal disruption of that creature’s ki—forcing them to make a successful Constitution saving throw or die instantly. Even on a successful save, the creature takes a significant amount of damage. The power to kill a creature instantly on a single failed save is always impressive, and its low ki cost makes it even more appealing. Creatures that can instantly succeed on saving throws thanks to Legendary Resistance aren’t quite as intimidated by this ability. Nevertheless, the thought of killing an ancient red dragon by tricking it into spending its Legendary Resistances on trivial spells, only to slay it with a Quivering Palm is enough to drive any monk mad with power.
Drawbacks of Playing a Way of the Open Hand Monk
The monk’s central crisis is that it’s torn between being a frontline fighter and a stealthy speedster—and isn’t always able to do both. Spending a bonus action to Disengage by using Step of the Wind is nice, but is it really worth sacrificing using your bonus action to attack two more times with Flurry of Blows? Your Open Hand Technique helps somewhat by allowing you to disable an enemy’s reactions, allowing you to dart in, attack, and escape, but this subclass does nothing to solve the problem of the monk’s mediocre hit points or middling Armor Class—and while it provides some defensive abilities in the form of Wholeness of Body and Tranquility, neither of them are tremendously useful in the midst of combat.
In a phrase, the Way of the Open Hand does nothing to address the iconic weaknesses of the monk class, such as mediocre defenses, dependence on a wide array of ability scores, and lack of ranged attack options.
Along these lines, since you don’t have any magical powers or proficiency with martial weapons, your ability to fight from afar is severely limited. You can pick up a handful of thrown weapons like handaxes or javelins, and a few ranged weapons like shortbows or light crossbows, but finding magic items that support your limited ranged options can be difficult. A single +1 handaxe won’t get you far. Here are all potential options available to you from the core rulebooks. Of all of these options, the javelin of lightning is probably the most exciting—essentially transforming the thrown javelin into a lightning bolt, piercing all creatures between you and your target with crackling energy. All other options are simply weapon types (like vicious weapon or weapon of warning) that can apply to any weapon in D&D.
If you’re playing a monk from 1st level, you should choose a race that improves either Dexterity, Constitution, or Wisdom—ideally two of the three. Dexterity will make your attacks stronger and more accurate, Constitution will grant you more hit points, which will help you last longer on the front lines, and Wisdom will increase your Armor Class and make it harder for foes to resist your martial abilities.
Wood elves gain a bonus to both Dexterity and Wisdom, making them agile and cunning martial artists. Likewise, stout halflings gain a bonus to both Dexterity and Constitution, making them nimble but durable skirmishers. And, as always, humans gain either a small bonus to all ability scores, or can gain a feat by taking the “variant human” race, making them more flexible in their builds.
Once you’ve prioritized your primary ability scores, you should consider which among your Strength, Intelligence, and Charisma are strongest and weakest. A high Strength will make it easier for you to initiate grapples and resist being overpowered in those few situations when your Dexterity won’t allow you to slip out of a creature’s grip. A high Intelligence will help you make the most of knowledge skills like Religion and History. A high Charisma will help you interact better with NPCs, and make alliances with them by showing them either compassion or intimidating them into submission. As usual, your character’s background is up to you. You can make your character more unique by choosing unusual backgrounds like Criminal, representing a convict who turned to a monastic life out of penance, or follow a more traditional archetype by choosing a background like Acolyte, representing someone who has dedicated themselves to their faith since birth.
Choose EQUIPMENT instead of GOLD at the end of character creation. Choose a shortsword or another simple melee weapon of your choice. While other Dexterity-based combatants have to worry about choosing weapons with the Finesse property, you don't have to. Any monk weapon—that is, shortswords and any simple melee weapons that don’t have the two-handed or heavy property—allows you to add your Dexterity bonus to attack and damage rolls.
You won’t choose your Way of the Open Hand subclass until you reach 3rd level as a monk, so use this time as a 1st- and 2nd-level monk to figure out if Way of the Open Hand is really the right path for you. Are you enjoying the fantasy of being a peerless martial artist? Do you feel like you need more Avatar-style elemental magic? Or would you rather embrace the shadows as a ninja? If you’re enjoying yourself, stay the course.
Once you’ve reached 4th level in this class—or even at 1st level, if you selected the “variant human” race—you have the option to select a feat or improve your ability scores. As a monk, you have a lot of flexibility built into your core class already, and a lot ability scores you want to make as high as possible (Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom), so eschewing feats entirely isn’t a bad idea. Nevertheless, if you want to customize your character further, consider some of the following feats:
- Athlete. Monks are already highly mobile combatants, but improving your Strength or Dexterity score while also making it harder for the environment to restrict your movement can be a potent, if niche, benefit.
- Martial Adept. This feat is an interesting one; if you want to be an even more tactically oriented combatant, taking the Martial Adept feat will grant you access to two maneuvers from the fighter’s Battle Master subclass, which could help you pull off the cinematic stunts your class is themed around.
- Mobile. Monks are already incredible speedsters; taking the Mobile feat makes them nearly impossible to slow down, netting them an additional movement speed buff, an immunity to the slowing effect of difficult terrain when you take the Dash action (which you can do as a bonus action through your Step of the Wind feature), and an easy way to shut down opportunity attacks, just by attacking a creature. With all these features at your disposal, a Mobile monk can speed around even the most hostile battlefields, throwing out attacks with impunity.
- Resilient (Wisdom). Monks are proficient in Strength and Dexterity saving throws, but gaining proficiency in Wisdom saving throws and improving that ability score by 1 is a significant boost to your defenses against magical effects. Note that, if you plan on playing into high levels, this feat loses some oomph, as you gain proficiency in all saving throws when you reach level 14 in this class.
- Skulker. If your party doesn’t have a rogue, you may be the closest thing to a scout or stealth specialist your party has. The Skulker feat will help you fill this role even better.
If you want more advice for building a monk, check out Monk 101: A Beginner's Guide to Mystical Combat. Have you ever played a Way of the Open Hand monk? What advice would you give to players that want to make a character like this?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their animal companions Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.