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A Guide to the Martial Artist Monk (Pathfinder)

Kevin has been playing tabletop games for almost as long as he can remember and currently edits for Jon Brazer Enterprises.

 Though they are generally less versatile than other monks, martial artists allow for character concepts, such as a chaotic wandering monk, that may not fit well with the standard monk.

Though they are generally less versatile than other monks, martial artists allow for character concepts, such as a chaotic wandering monk, that may not fit well with the standard monk.

The polar opposite of the qinggong monk, the martial artist eschews the supernatural elements of a standard monk’s training, focusing entirely on physical perfection. Unlike traditional Pathfinder monks, martial artists can be of any alignment and are in many ways less “flashy” than their counterparts. Though they are generally less versatile than other monks, martial artists allow for character concepts, such as a chaotic wandering monk, that may not fit well with the standard monk. That being said, it’s wise to keep in mind that versatility can be very powerful in Pathfinder, so make sure that your party members can make up for your loss of powerful utility abilities (like abundant step).

As noted above, martial artists can be of any alignment, which isn’t ultimately a huge boon, but it does allow them to multiclass with barbarian, opening up access to rage and rage powers, if that suits your character. Two levels of barbarian would give access to reckless abandon, which would be one of the most notable benefits of the martial artist’s lack of an alignment restriction. As usual, multiclassing is a double-edged sword, though, as you give up favored class bonuses and delay access to higher-level powers. Your mileage will most likely vary!

Third Level

A martial artist of the third level gains pain points in place of still mind. This static benefit provides a +1 bonus on rolls made to confirm critical hits and also increases the saving throw DC of the monk’s Stunning Fist and quivering palm abilities. This may seem like a minor benefit, but still mind isn’t particularly useful for the standard monk as it is (since they have good Will saves and likely high Wisdom scores). Stunning Fist, in particular, is also a pretty strong feat, so a +1 to its DC is still quite useful. Just remember to make use of it!

Fourth Level

In lieu of slow fall, at the fourth level, the martial artist may treat his monk level as his fighter level for the purpose of qualifying for feats, opening up Weapon Specialization and the associated feats, but also Critical Mastery at higher levels. This is the first major area where a martial artist will want to shore up his lost versatility compared to a standard monk, which he can easily do with a ring of feather falling or a trusty wizard friend. I’d recommend the ring, personally, as your mage friend might not always be falling off the cliff with you after a well-timed bull rush from one of your enemies.

Exploit weakness, also gained at the fourth level, replaces the martial artist’s ki pool and his ability to treat his unarmed strikes as magical (and later lawful and adamantine) for the purposes of overcoming damage reduction. Instead, as a swift action, he can make a Wisdom check (adding his monk level to the roll as well) against a DC based on the target’s hardness or challenge rating, and if he succeeds, he ignores his target’s damage reduction and/or hardness for one round and gains a +2 bonus on attack rolls against the target as well. Alternatively, he can make the same check to gain a bonus equal to half his monk level on Sense Motive checks, Reflex saves, and to Armor Class for one round. While exploit weakness gives the martial artist some defensive capability a standard monk lacks, an unlucky roll will leave him unable to penetrate damage reduction as consistently as a standard monk, so this is probably a net downgrade. Exploit weakness also requires the use of a swift action, which will conflict with style feats, should you be interested in them.

Keep in mind that although the martial artist does not lose abundant step, exploit weakness replaces his ki pool, meaning he has no way to use the ability. There are a few other ways to gain a ki pool (such as through ninja levels or rogue talents) if you still want this ability, though the hit to your base attack bonus will be somewhat significant if you do multiclass with either of those classes.

Fifth Level

Starting at the fifth level, the martial artist replaces purity of body, followed by diamond body and perfect self. In exchange, he immediately gains immunity to fatigue, and then immunity to exhaustion (tenth level), stunning (15th), and death effects and ability drain (20th). Overall, these are some very powerful bonuses, well worth the exchange, as these are some of the worst conditions for a martial character to face in the game. The immunity to fatigue also benefits a martial artist/barbarian, providing that benefit by the sixth level, which is earlier than several other ways to achieve fatigue immunity.

Seventh Level

Physical resistance, gained at the seventh level, provides the martial artist with a form of damage reduction against ability damage, ability drain, and ability score penalties. At the seventh level, the martial artist reduces any reductions to his ability scores by one, and for every third level thereafter, he increases that reduction by a further point. There are very few (if any) other ways to reduce ability damage in this way, and for this unique ability, the martial artist only gives up one ability (wholeness of body, with the other two being timeless body and tongue of the sun and moon) that will find regular use in most games.

Thirteenth Level

At 13th level, the martial artist gives up diamond soul (and his lovely spell resistance) for the defensive roll ability, as the rogue ability of the same name. He gains an additional daily use of this ability at 16th level and again at 19th level. Spell resistance is an incredibly useful ability, however, so the martial artist comes out a little behind here in my estimation. Defensive roll is still a solid ability, however, so you’re not too bad off as a martial artist this late in the game. At 19th level, in place of empty body, the martial artist’s defensive roll improves in a manner not unlike improved evasion, allowing him to take none of the damage from an attack that would otherwise kill him if he succeeds on his Reflex save and only half of the damage if he fails.

For every level above 15th, the martial artist gains another daily use of quivering palm, giving him access to a death effect six times per day at 20th level. While most games won’t see this in play very often, for any game that does, the martial artist is really getting bang for his buck here, assuming he can get the save DC high enough to work on dangerous opponents. His pain points ability will help here, as will making sure his Wisdom is high through magical items and wish spells (or tomes, as is appropriate).

Sample Build

Now that all of the martial artist’s abilities are out of the way, it’s time to take a look at a basic build, as always. In general, you’re going to want to build your martial artist just like you would any other melee character—they have many of the same strengths and weaknesses that a fighter or another monk would.

Human Martial Artist: 5
Ability Scores (15 Point Buy):
Str 17, Dex 12, Con 13, Wis 14, Int 10, Cha 8
Improved Grapple, Improved Initiative
2 Combat Reflexes
3 Power Attack
5 Tiger Style

There’s nothing too revolutionary in this build, but it should get the job done. Improved Grapple and Combat Reflexes (your monk bonus feats) are fairly standard choices. Improved Initiative is a solid feat for many characters (and one of the few you can take with your +0 base attack bonus at 1st level). Power Attack and Tiger Style then set you up for Tiger Pounce at 9th level (though you’ll have to also get Tiger Claws at 7th for that). If the style feat isn’t your thing, you can also take advantage of the martial artist’s access to fighter feats and look at Weapon Specialization (and the associated feats), but you might also consider feats like Disruptive, which will give you an edge over enemy spellcasters. There are a number of other options for feats for a martial artist, including a stronger focus on battlefield control (most especially through grapple, but also through tripping, and the associated feats for both).

While the martial artist is less versatile than some other monk might be, he should, with the proper focus on his Strength, function as a capable damage dealer in combat. In games where higher stats are available (such as through dice rolls or more generous point buys), a martial artist can serve as a solid front-line “tank” as well, with a high Constitution and higher Wisdom score (though this isn’t necessarily unique to the martial artist among monks). Happy gaming, and be sure to sound off in the comments if you’ve played a martial artist (or someone at your table has) or you’ve got your own suggestions or questions!


Christina A Morris (author) from SOUTH BEND on January 29, 2014:

In general I'd agree. It's a limitation of using 15-point buy, which really limits what you can do. However, it's considered the "baseline" for characters in the game, so I default to it here. It has the benefit of showing you general stat priorities as well.

Rune on January 29, 2014:

Should a monk actually be capable of surviving with such low wisdom and dexterity yet no ability to wear armor? It's a trend I have noticed in many monk builds. 13 or so starting AC and a +1 con bonus sounds marginally better than a wizard entering melee, except the monk has the str to hit sometimes and hurt something at those early levels.