D&D 5e: Way of the Kensei Monk Guide
Role in the Party
The Kensei Monk is one of the most bizarre subclasses in the game, and after Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything was released, it was featured in a wide range of controversial builds. It’s generally accepted to be one of the better monk subclasses, but there’s wide disagreement about the degree to which this is true.
The Kensei is meant to be a versatile weaponry-themed monk that can choose to specialize in either ranged or melee weapons; although there are some problems with the Kensei, you can make some decent builds with it.
Way of the Kensei Monk Features
Path of the Kensei
When you choose this tradition at 3rd level, your special martial arts training leads you to master the use of certain weapons. This path also includes instruction in the deft strokes of calligraphy or painting. You gain the following benefits:
Kensei Weapon: Choose two types of weapons to be your kensei weapons: one melee weapon and one ranged weapon. Each of these weapons can be any simple or martial weapon that lacks the heavy and special properties. The longbow is also a valid choice. You gain proficiency with these weapons if you don’t already have it. Weapons of the chosen types are monk weapons for you. Many of this tradition’s features work only with your kensei weapons. When you reach 6th, 11th, and 17th level in this class, you can choose another type of weapon – either melee or ranged – to be a kensei weapon for you, following the criteria above.
Agile Parry: If you make an unarmed strike as part of the Attack action on your turn and are holding a kensei weapon, you can use it to defend yourself if it is a melee weapon. You gain a +2 bonus to AC until the start of your next turn, while the weapon is in your hand and you aren’t incapacitated.
Kensei’s Shot: You can use a bonus action on your turn to make your ranged attacks with a kensei weapon more deadly. When you do so, any target you hit with a ranged attack using a kensei weapon takes an extra 1d4 damage of the weapon’s type. You retain this benefit until the end of the current turn.
Way of the Brush: You gain proficiency with your choice of calligrapher’s supplies or painter’s supplies.
Kensei Weapon is worded in some bizarre ways, but it basically says “you can shoot a bow as a monk”. That’s it. The problem with it is that it doesn’t make you particularly good with a bow, and you give up your martial arts if you try and do ranged combat. The Ki-Empowered Strike and Focused Aim features from Tasha’s let you make bonus action attacks now and then and hit more often with your attacks, and you can combine them with Sharpshooter and a one level fighter dip if you want, but you’re better off just going with a different class if you’re trying to squeeze all you can out of ranged combat.
Agile Parry is pretty good. Sacrifice a little damage at low levels, and gain +2 armor class. Sacrifice no damage at high levels, and gain +2 armor class. A straightforwardly good way to boost a monk’s mediocre armor class.
Kensei’s Shot is a bad use of ki, and it doesn’t even scale with your martial arts die. You’re better off using that ki to do something else.
Way of the Brush is a fine ribbon feature, but nothing special.
One with the Blade
At 6th level, you extend your ki into your kensei weapons, granting you the following benefits.
Magic Kensei Weapons: Your attacks with your kensei weapons count as magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage.
Deft Strike: When you hit a target with a kensei weapon, you can spend 1 ki point to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target equal to your Martial Arts die. You can use this feature only once on each of your turns.
Your weapons are probably magic already, but if you found a magic greatsword and a magic heavy crossbow and a magic net and none of these things are just useful for you, you could get some use out of Magic Kensei Weapons in the right campaign. Deft Strike is a waste of ki unless you get a critical hit, then it’s okay.
Sharpen the Blade
At 11th level, you gain the ability to augment your weapons further with your ki. As a bonus action, you can expend up to 3 ki points to grant one kensei weapon you touch a bonus to attack and damage rolls when you attack with it. The bonus equals the number of ki points you spent. This bonus lasts for 1 minute or until you use this feature again. This feature has no effect on a magic weapon that already has a bonus to attack and damage rolls.
This only squeezes into Meh because if your dungeon master doesn’t give you many magic items, or if they’re fond of items like Flametongues that don’t have bonuses to attack and damage rolls, you can spend ki and get a bit of use out of this. But in a campaign where you’re handed a +3 weapon that’s suitable for you, it’s useless, and in a campaign where you have even +1 or +2 weapons, you still don’t get as much out of this.
This feature is noteworthy for skewing damage calculations online; lots of people make the sensible assumption to not include magic weapons in DPR calculations for their builds since it’s hard to predict what magic weapons they’ll get, but this makes Sharpen the Blade look much better in DPR calculations than it would be in an actual game.
At 17th level, your mastery of weapons grants you extraordinary accuracy. If you miss with an attack roll using a monk weapon on your turn, you can reroll it. You can use this feature only once on each of your turns.
This is like a conditional Extra Attack; if any of your attacks on your turn miss, you get to make another attack. Even a slightly worse version of Extra Attack is still pretty good, since more attacks = more gooder. The main problem is that you don’t have many other useful features, and unless you’re using Sharpshooter with a ranged weapon, each attack of yours won’t hit very hard.
You are the best monk for using a ranged weapon, and you are an ideal subclass for campaigns that have specific kinds of magic item distribution habits. Your armor class will also be higher than the typical monk.
You can’t use Martial Arts, Flurry of Blows, Stunning Strike, and similar features from a distance, so you essentially lose features from your main class if you use your subclass. You could always go into melee to use these, but then you’re not using ranged weapons and won’t have their range and damage benefits. Kensei Monks also suffer if the dungeon master hands out magic items, especially magic items with a +X bonus to attack and damage rolls, which appear in nearly every campaign. Lastly, Kensei Monks are extremely ki-hungry, just like most monks, and some trap options are a waste of ki.
Best Race Options
Kensei Monks are a more generic sort of weapon-using monk than most monks, so nothing’s particularly thematic. Still, there are some mechanically ideal options:
Monks need high dexterity, constitution, and wisdom scores, so Half-Elf’s +2 and two +1 boosts are ideal, and you also get access to Elven Accuracy. Fey Ancestry is also helpful.
Monks can move fast, and Tabaxi can increase their speed with Feline Agility, so you can move incredibly quickly. Speed becomes less useful if you already have enough to get anywhere on the battlefield, but the Tabaxi monk speed build is always funny.
The Dhampir’s Vampiric Bite synergizes well with the monk’s martial arts die, and being vampire-adjacent is fun.
Choosing the Right Skills
If you want to be a trained warrior, Acrobatics and Athletics let you be a solid all around physical activity expert.
Wisdom skills like Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, and Survival are solid places to put a proficiency, given your solid wisdom score. Perception will be your most important wisdom skill though, so you should prioritize that above everything else.
Stealth and Sleight of Hand are solid choices for a stealthy character.
If you want to be a ranged Kensei Monk, you’ll want the Sharpshooter feat. This will increase your overall damage output and synergize well with Focused Aim and any sources of advantage you can get.
Elven Accuracy will turn an elf or half elf Kensei Monk into a very reliable damage dealer, especially when used alongside Focused Aim. You won’t hit hard without Sharpshooter, but you will hit even more often than the usual Elven Accuracy character. Make sure your allies can generate sources of advantage for you though.
If firearms are allowed in your campaign, the Gunner feat is a great pick. You can take advantage of the large damage die of firearms with Ki-Empowered Strikes and boost an odd dexterity score. Custom Lineage lets you start with 18 dexterity at level 1 if you take this feat.
Hermit is a fine feat for any monk; monks are thematically tied to isolated monasteries, and the Discovery feature can be a lot of fun.
The Mercenary Veteran background isn’t something most monks would take, but the Kensei fits it well. Unlike those monks in monasteries who focus on spiritual perfection, you studied the blade, or the bow, or the gun, and you decided to make some cash.
A stealthy Kensei who’s more of a ninja might take the Spy background.
One level of Fighter gives you Second Wind, useful weapon proficiencies, and most importantly, a delicious Fighting Style that you can use for Archery. This is ideal for the ranged Kensei route.
When you’re not getting bonus action attacks from Ki-Empowered Strikes, you could use War Domain Cleric’s War Priest ability to get a bonus action attack anyway. This is more potent at the levels soon after level 5 when you don’t have much ki anyway.
Three levels of Gloom Stalker Ranger will give you some spellcasting, a fighting style, the ability to be invisible to creatures using darkvision while in darkness, and you gain some offensive benefits on the first round of every combat.
Would I recommend playing a Way of the Kensei Monk?
I’m hesitant to recommend the Way of the Kensei since it’s only significantly better than the average monk if you go with a ranged build, but you’ll just be a decent ranged build and not a stellar one. It also doesn’t have the versatility of your standard Battle Master Fighter or straight-classed Ranger, even if you can do roughly similar damage. You also have a lot of standard monk problems, like ki shortages and very few powerful high level features.
Despite this, you can bring a Kensei Monk to some tables and do fine. You might have fun if you just want to damage while having the option to run in and use Stunning Strike, but you might be better off with another class if you want to play a ranged character. If you’re not a ranged character, you’re mostly stuck with core monk offense, which isn’t very good; I would recommend most other classes for a melee build instead of a melee Kensei.