A Guide to the Zen Archer Monk (Pathfinder)
The zen archer (Ultimate Combat) exchanges a lot of class features to excel at something monks generally aren’t known for—in this case, it’s ranged combat. The end result is a character that doesn’t resemble a traditional monk (in the D&D sense, at any rate) in a lot of important ways. As a zen archer, you’re positioned to be an effective ranged combatant, and you still have all the mobility and skills of a monk. If you want to play an archer, but fighter and ranger don’t fit what you have in mind, the zen archer is definitely worth a look.
From first level, your abilities are all about using the bow. You gain proficiency with the longbow and shortbow on top of your normal special monk weapons. You give up your normal ability to flurry with unarmed strikes and monk weapons in favor of being able to make a flurry of blows using any bow. At higher levels, this gives you more attacks than you would normally gain by using Rapid Shot and Manyshot together, which is why you can’t also use those two feats while making a flurry of blows. This is of special importance while selecting feats for your zen archer, as it means that, unlike most archers, they aren’t necessary feats for you by any means.
Your monk bonus feat list is also retailored to be more suitable toward ranged combat. Because you can ignore prerequisites while choosing monk bonus feats, this allows you to avoid minor feats (like Point Blank Shot) and get right to the good ones (like Precise Shot and Improved Precise Shot), so long as your monk level is high enough (the list is still limited at early levels and expands at 6th and 10th levels). As noted above, Rapid Shot and Manyshot don’t work alongside your flurry of blows, so you’ll probably want to avoid choosing them as bonus feats, even though they’re available to you.
Some recommended choices for your bonus feats are Precise Shot, Improved Precise Shot, Improved Critical, and Shot on the Run (which is better for you than it is for others you don’t need prerequisites and you have very high base speed as a monk).
Still another change at 1st level is the exchange of Stunning Fist for Perfect Strike, which you are given special allowance to use with a bow. You’ll get the most mileage out of Perfect Strike by using it on your iterative attacks (including the ones you gain from flurry of blows), as those are made at a lower bonus and are less likely to hit than normal. At 10th level, you get to roll three times for each attack roll you use this ability on, which will greatly increase your chances of hitting.
At 2nd level, you gain way of the bow, which grants you Weapon Focus as a bonus feat (which you must apply to a type of bow). You also gain Weapon Specialization at 6th level with the same bow. The big downside here is that you give up one of the monk’s best abilities: evasion. Evasion is a very powerful ability; however, as an archer, you thankfully have far less reason to be caught in devastating, Reflex-based, area attacks (like the common fireball) than your melee friends do. Just remember that you don’t have evasion, so you can position yourself accordingly on the battlefield, and you probably won’t miss it all that often.
You replace maneuver mastery at 3rd level with zen archery, which lets you use your Wisdom modifier for ranged attack rolls with your bow in place of your Dexterity modifier. This does a lot to reduce the multi-ability dependency you otherwise would have as an archer monk. Normally, you’d want a moderate Strength at the least (for damage bonuses from a composite longbow), a high Dexterity (for your attack rolls), and a moderate-to-high Wisdom score (for your Armor Class and ki pool). Zen archery relaxes a lot of the trouble you’d otherwise have here. That being said, you may not want to forget Dexterity completely, as it will determine your attack rolls until 3rd level, and it also determines the number of attacks of opportunity you can make per round if you take Combat Reflexes. If you truly want to avoid Dexterity, rely on melee attacks for the first couple levels, since your Strength will still be fairly decent.
You also exchange still mind for Point Blank Master as a bonus feat at 3rd level, which means you can worry far less about pesky monsters getting in your face and making your life as an archer difficult. If they do, you can do your normal full attack routine right in their stupid monster face and get on with your life. In all seriousness, though, you’d probably still want to get out of there if you don’t think you can take down the enemy with a single full attack. Let the fighter get beat up on. He gets paid for that. (He doesn’t, but don’t tell him that.)
At 4th level, you gain a special addition to your ki pool that lets you increase the range increment of your bow by 50 feet for one round. This isn’t a huge ability, but it does mean you can probably skip out on Far Shot as a feat. Otherwise, those times when you need extra range will likely be fairly rare, and you can spend your ki points to gain additional attacks per round like you normally would instead.
Starting at 5th level, you gain ki arrows, another ki power that lets you spend a point to make your arrows deal damage as your unarmed strikes would for one round. At 5th level, this likely won’t be an increase for you (as your unarmed damage is equal to longbow damage), but starting at 8th level, you do gain an increase that you can also improve with a monk’s robe. That being noted, it’s still going to generally be a better idea to use a ki point to gain an extra attack during a flurry of blows in most circumstances. Ki arrows are useful when you’re making a single shot or in any situation in which you think you’ll be making a lot of attacks of opportunity over the next round (mainly applicable if you take Snapshot and Improved Snap Shot).
Once you hit 9th level, you gain reflexive shot in place of improved evasion, which allows you to make your attacks of opportunity with your bow. You still only threaten the area threatened by your unarmed strikes, which unfortunately robs this ability of a lot of its potential. You can still take the Snap Shot line of feats to capitalize on attacks of opportunity as you would with any other ranged weapon, though.
At 11th level, you gain trick shot, which replaces diamond body. Using various numbers of ki points, you can ignore concealment (1 point), ignore cover (2 points), or shoot around corners (3 points) for one round. These abilities are all situational, but they do provide you with some versatility that other archers don’t really get.
Finally, at 17th level, you give up tongue of the sun and moon to gain ki focus bow, which lets you channel your ki strike through your bow. You can also, if you take Stunning Fist, use your bow along with that feat, which gives you some nice ranged lockdown potential.
That’s everything there is to know about the zen archer in brief. When it comes down to it, many of your ability substitutions serve to make you function more like a traditional archer, so despite the guide (and the archetype’s) length, if you’re familiar with the way archery works in Pathfinder, the zen archer isn’t anything particularly revolutionary. It is, however, a pretty cool take on the monk concept.
Now that we’ve got the nuts and bolts out of the way, it’s time to think about how you’d build a zen archer. For the most part, you’re going to want the same feats every archer wants, but your class bonus feats really give you some flexibility since you can avoid prerequisites. This build is pretty standard and sets you up to take the Snap Shot line of feats at higher levels as a way to get more arrows landing in your opponents. To better prepare for Combat Reflexes down the line (and to make levels 1 and 2 less painful) this build has a higher Dexterity. You probably don’t want more than a 14 or so, so if you have a higher point buy total or good rolls, I recommend focusing on Strength for your composite longbow.
Human Zen Archer 5
Ability Scores (15 Point Buy): Str 13, Dex 14, Con 12, Int 10, Wis 17, Cha 8
1 Combat Reflexes, Precise Shot (bonus)
2 Rapid Shot (bonus), Weapon Focus (longbow) (bonus)
3 Deadly Aim
5 Extra Ki Pool
You don’t have a lot of great options for your bonus feat at 2nd level, but Rapid Shot is required for Snap Shot, so if you plan on taking those feats, that feat is the best place to take it. If you’re not taking Snap Shot, you might as well take Point Blank Shot or Far Shot there, at your preference. After 5th level, your feat choices are actually pretty open, as you will be using your bonus feats to get essentials like Improved Precise Shot and Improved Critical. You can, as this build is prepared to do, take Snap Shot at 9th level and the rest of those feats as you gain levels or you can consider more general use feats like Improved Initiative or Toughness.
6 Improved Precise Shot (bonus), Weapon Specialization (longbow)
7 Improved Initiative
9 Snap Shot
10 Improved Critical (longbow)
That should get you started on your zen archer. The class is fairly self-sufficient in terms of feats, though, so you don’t have to spend hardly any of your normal feats on ranged combat (barring Deadly Aim). This leaves you free to try other things like having a secondary melee style or maybe even item crafting via Master Craftsman. Not many other archers have that kind of flexibility, so you should take advantage of it if you can!