Fixing the Four Elements Monk
If you haven't heard, one of the monk subclasses in the Player's Handbook is, um, not a strong subclass, and a lot of people struggle with finding a reason to choose it over other monk subclasses that have been created over the years. In fact, in a recent poll on one of the larger YouTube content creators, over 45% of responses gave it a ranking of a "D" on a scale of S-tier to D-tier.
Now granted, the group could be biased, but I think such a high number is telling regardless of the audience. And it's not that the group doesn't like monks as a class; the Way of Shadow and the Way of the Open Hand did very well in the polling.
So what is it that people don't like about this subclass, and can it be redeemed? Let's take a look.
I. The Issues with the Way of the Four Elements Monk
There are many reasons why players steer away from the Four Elements Monk. The most common reason is that the tradeoffs are too high: instead of dealing several attacks in a turn you gain access to relatively weak spells that cost a high number of ki points.
There are very few elemental disciplines that can deal as much damage as your Extra Attack feature (especially when you add the bonus action to perform an unarmed strike following the Attack action), and the utility spells are nice, but not great compared to the abilities you see in other monk subclasses.
The other major issue is that you don't really choose an "element" to practice, and not all of the elements are equal or equally represented. There are 3 water spells (which are actually decent - not great, but decent, and I actually do wish that Water Whip was a spell), 4 fire spells (which are Fireball + a suite of okay damage options), 5 air/storm spells (which are good), and only 2 earth spells, both of which cannot be taken before you hit 17th level (or you could say 3 if you consider Shatter to be an earth spell, but it's not really).
Add onto this that a lot of the abilities that you get are 1) not as strong for the ki points you spend as the other monk abilities you have, and 2) arrive far later than other classes get them (nature casters are getting Stoneskin and Wall of Stone almost 10 levels before you do), and you can see why people don't take this subclass.
And that's a shame, because the concept is awesome. Which is where we turn next.
II. The High Concept Revisited
Whenever we make a fix to something, we first want to look at the high concept (or the overarching idea that is being encapsulated) for the subclass to ensure that we are staying true to the original vision. For the Way of the Four Elements monk, this is an easy one, as it is reminiscent of the tv show, Avatar: The Last Airbender in its approach to the elements.
As someone who loves Avatar, this was exciting for me! I love taking something that I love and making it work in a roleplay context, and getting to do that for D&D was a lot of fun (and well worth the late nights I spent working on it). So when I set out to build this, I drew heavily from not only how magic works in Avatar, but also in how it feels in the show.
In Avatar, magic is first and foremost common. Lots of people have magic, albeit in different amounts, but seeing someone use magic is not a shocker. So when thinking through the mechanics of how to make the magic work, we first start with the theory that casting for this monk subclass should be common. This meant that, in order to maintain the feel of Avatar, we will need access to cantrips (which we don't really have with the current subclass).
Second, control over your magic and harnessing it into your strikes or blocks is key. And literally, in this case, we are going to make it "ki" to how you cast your higher level spells (see what we did there? Hehe, okay).
And finally, there are different schools of magic that must be mastered, and not all practitioners can become an avatar, mastering all four elements. In fact, very few are ever selected, and it's not something that you choose. So we worked that in as well, which made up a lot of the labor of love that is this subclass.
III. Fixes to the Way of the Four Elements Monk
You can find our fix to the Way of the Four Elements Monk here, easily printable to show to your game master for their approval thanks to our friends at Homebrewery. The Way of the Four Elements Monk is modeled in many respects after the Totem Warrior Barbarian and several of the subclasses we have created in that you get variety in what you choose for this subclass.
It is also worth noting in advance that since our homebrew content has to be compliant with the Wizards of the Coast Open Gaming License (OGL), we are limited in our spells that we can use to the items found in the SRD put out by WotC, so if there is a spell that you love and don't see in our subclass (like most of the Earth spells, which came out in Elemental Evil and were reprinted in Xanathar's), that's why they are not in there. We apologize in advance, but have supplemented with new options in our homebrew spells which you can find here.
Since we are trying to encapsulate the style of the "magic users" from Avatar: The Last Airbender, we have used the four primary elements from that show: Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. We have also added a fifth discipline: an Avatar of the Four Elements that weaves all four together, taking advantage of the strengths of the spells from all four lists, but not being as strong as the more dedicated masters of an element.
This gives you a wealth of choices, and a lot of room for replayability in the future as your playstyle will be dramatically different with each elemental monk you play. Fire disciples are better at damage, both with their spells and their weapon and unarmed attacks. Air disciples are very hard to hit and hard to hold down, giving you a more evasive and mobile character. Earth disciples are resilient, turning a class that only has a d8 hit dice into a class that is hard to break as it tears you to pieces with its fists of stone. Water disciples have the most utility, ranging from healing, to seeing the future, to evasion, to harder difficulties to pass saving throws against their spells.
But of course king of the choices (and hard to do, unless your game master just tells you that you are an Avatar of the Four Elements) is the Avatar: a master of the Four Elements who leads the monks in bringing peace and order to the world. Do you want to damage him/her? Don't use elemental damage or it will cost you. Do you want to survive against the Avatar's spells? I recommend having an insanely high Armor Class and a good pool of hit points, because he is going to hit you hard.
And as I was wrapping up the subclass, it struck me: in Avatar they have other types of benders (sand benders, swamp benders), so who knows - maybe in the future I'll sit down and make those. But at least for now, I'm sitting back thinking how fun it would be to play any of these benders in a D&D game.
A subclass like this should be evocative and thematic. The monk has a wide range of tools at its disposal, and the subclass should augment this, not take away from it. And I think this reworking of the subclass really builds on the power of the monk class: lots of attacks, great mobility, good defenses against saving throws, and an asymmetric "magical power" through ki points.
This subclass doubles down on each of those elements with, well, the different elements, adding useful spells and abilities to accompany the strengths of the class with area of effect damage being one of the key (see? I did it again! Hehe, okay) parts of the subclass, as that's something that monks struggle with innately.
We hope you enjoyed this post - in our next post in the series we'll be returning to new subclasses, but we are also looking at reworking the dragonborn race (as it's a bit underpowered compared to other races in the Player's Handbook, let alone later sourcebooks) and some of the other subclasses that seem to be lacking.
Until next time,