As I scrolled through Twitter recently, I saw that my friend and fellow fabulous creator Matthew Foreman was wishing that Four Elements monk was better… or rather, wishing someone would make it not suck. This is no new statement, as it has been shared that Way of Four Elements monk is one of the lowest ranking subclasses alongside Beast Master ranger. Very recently in a game DMed by our own Natalie Wallace, I was playing a very high level Four Elements monk and was, for lack of a better term, crushing it. Now, I’m in no way saying Matt is wrong, because in a game like Dungeons & Dragons everything is subjective, and I also don’t need all of Dice Priori egging the Mage College campus in retaliation. (Not that they’d actually do that, they’re all lovely people) When I played it, I had fun, a lot of fun. I will admit, I was aware of the challenges of playing a Four Elements monk. Thus, I am sharing with you, and my good friend Matthew, how I managed.
Path of Fire
The character I was playing was Arrador Emberheart (pictured above), my high elf that comes off as a Kylo Ren x Prince Zuko love child. Arrador, like many of the characters I have ported from my early days of D&D and Pathfinder, was once a different build entirely. In 3.5 Arrador was an Abjurant Champion who was fond of the fireball and haste spells. When we made the jump to Pathfinder 1e, Arrador became a magus. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the magus, it is a base class that sits in the same space where paladin and ranger do for the divine and primal magics, but for arcane. They are the true arcane warrior, unlike the Eldritch Knight and Bladesinger ends of the scale that you are familiar with (Yes, it is as cool as it sounds). When coming into 5e, it was challenging to make Arrador. Eldritch Knight while an intriguing subclass prohibits fireball until far later than any full spellcaster gets. I might be impatient, but we identified that fireball is a core spell to Arrador’s identity, I didn’t want to wait forever for it. While I slowly shaped him into more a pyromancer than versatile spellcaster, it didn’t feel great to limit my choices from the wizard’s versatility into only fire spells and utility, and no existing sorcerer subclass seem to fit. Yes, I did create the Fire Soul sorcerer for him, but that still required multiclassing, which is also a problem in itself. On top of all that, Intelligence vs Charisma was a constant struggle. Arrador was intelligent, but his spellcasting never felt like it was something he studied. Charisma didn’t feel right either because while he could lose control, it never felt like he just willed things to be on fire. I always liked the idea that he instead channeled the fire through him. He’s not a devotee of some god, cleric was out, and druid was not right, so I turned my sights onto Way of Four Elements focusing on fire as my theme.
Stoking the Fire
It is important to note that in order to get the most out of this, there was one house rule used, and one Unearthed Arcana. Both of which we will cover later. This is a level 12 monoclass monk build, and requires the feat optional rule, as well as rolling for ability scores. Arrador’s background isn’t crucial to this build, but for purposes of disclosure, he’s a noble. As you read, keep an eye on all of the monk’s base features. There’s plenty of goodies in there as well.
Race – High Elf
In Arrador’s backstory, his mother is a fire genasi druid of elven descent and his father is a high elf. This manifests as Arrador being a fairly regular high elf, but his chosen cantrip reflects his mother’s impact on his heritage. For his elf cantrip I chose control flames. This choice keeps the utility of the elemental attunement discipline, without requiring to hold onto it.
Having swapped out Elemental Attunement at my earliest convenience, I had the following Elemental Disciplines:
Fangs of the Fire Snake – Extra reach for pure fire damage unarmed strikes for all of 1 ki point, with a micro 1d10 smite built in for an extra ki per hit. Really not a bad option when fighting through a crowd. Probably the most useful when using grid based combat for the sake of distance, but it certainly has its uses and works with both Flurry of Blows and Stunning Strike.
Sweeping Cinder Strike – Cast burning hands, and the spell can be powered up eventually to 5th level. Not quite as strong as the Sun Soul monk variety, but it fits well with the theme, and only costs 2 sorcery points, making it a cheap AoE option.
Flames of the Phoenix – The big one, casting fireball for 4 ki points. What more is there to say, really? It’s a fireball.
Mist Stance – Casting gaseous form for 4 ki points is pretty neat, and is a great infiltration spell. For a fire flavored element monk, I explained it as turning into smoke. An often glossed over boost to this spell is that a monk’s unarmored movement bonus increases the movement speed granted to you in mist form, making the mist form movement 30 feet. Dashing every turn cranks this up to a 60 foot movement that for all intents and purposes is completely silent, slips through cracks and other small spaces. This is an amazing infiltration option when presented with the right opportunities.
Remember that despite all requiring ki points, ki points recharge on a short rest, making these spells as accessible as they would be to any warlock. In some cases, the higher level spells cost less than they would if a sorcerer were to convert the sorcery points to create the spell slots for them. A monk’s fireball costs 4 ki points, while a 3rd-level spell slot costs a sorcerer 5 sorcery points. A 12th level fiend warlock, on the other hand can cast three fireballs, all at 5th level, but that exhausts their spell slots immediately for that short rest, while the monk can divide their spells between smaller and larger effects. At 20th level, you get 4 ki points back when you roll for initiative. You may as well be handed a gift coupon for one free fireball per encounter.
Magic Initiate (Druid) – One house rule we used was each character gets a free feat at level one while prohibiting variant humans (nobody needs two free feats). In order to really steer into the fire theme, my choice for this extra feat was Magic Initiate, choosing druid as the spellcasting list it would come from. For the cantrips, I chose produce flame and create bonfire, opening up a ranged attack option as well as minor battlefield manipulation option, both using the same ability score as the rest of my ki features. The only choice left to make was which 1st-level spell. I wanted to stay on theme, so I narrowed my options down to absorb elements, faerie fire, and fog cloud. Absorb elements was too little of a benefit for a once per long rest spell, while faerie fire could be neat, it still required me to be in combat, and it only lasted a minute. Fog cloud steered into the same theme as gaseous form using smoke as the flavor over fog. It lasted up to an hour, and I felt that of all my options, it had the greatest value while still being on brand. If your group doesn’t use extra feats at level one, but still allows for variant human, this is a great option.
Elemental Adept (Fire) – This feat was almost necessary, it raises the minimum of all my fire spells by 1 per die of the spell and ignores resistance to fire. A third tier produce flame has a minimum of 6 as opposed to a minimum of 3, and ignores resistance. A fireball has a minimum of 16, and so forth. Although it seems weak on first glance, upon further inspection, it is quite an improvement.
Aside from these two feats that are core to Arrador’s identity as a fire monk, I also chose the following:
Elven Accuracy – Stunning Strike hands out advantage, why not make advantage more powerful? This might be one of those feats that is too good to not take, but here I was happy to take it as it fits Arrador being both a skilled fighter and powerful blaster.
Mage Slayer – This one is more meaningful to Arrador’s backstory and his run-ins with evil mages, so, this one is nothing short of personal, but even then being able to punch a wizard in the face for casting a spell and turn it into a stunning strike is nothing short of magical, or rather, anti-magical.
The Class Feature Variant Unearthed Arcana, mainly supported two main features of Arrador’s. First, the Monk Weapon variant, allowing him to count longswords as monk weapons thanks to his elf weapon training feat. This feature promotes the idea that monks may differ by culture, allowing elf monks or dwarf monks to feel that their connection to their culture is inherent to their existing training. The second being Ki Fueled Strikes,which allows a monk to make a bonus action attack if they spent at least a ki point as part of their action. This feature is just as good in execution as it is in principle. Nothing was quite as great as casting burning hands, and kicking the poor bastard I scorched half to death in the face, only to stun him for further punishment. The other two variant features, Distant Eye and Quickened Healing didn’t come up, but they are nothing to scoff at. Especially as Quicken Healing qualifies for use of Ki-Fueled Strikes. The inclusion of the variants was a small addition, but it definitely helped over all.
Master of Fire
The only other ingredient in this whole scenario was my dungeon master. Natalie wanted the players at the table (Kannah and I) to have fun. She’s tremendously good at blending the rules as written or intended into the rule of cool in a near seamless fashion. At no moment does it feel like she is throwing out the rules of the game, or the intention of the players. I strongly believe Natalie adjudicates 5e as it was intended. Character options in any game are only as strong as the opportunities presented to them. I will of course review some of the highlights of the sheer shenanigans I pulled off with Arrador, but it needs saying that I had the right DM for this. Keep in mind that DMs ultimately decide which rules to use, and this build is very dependent upon the DM being open to a few optional rules. Of course, any GM should have their limits and hard stops, and I trust Natalie to be discerning when it comes to identifying problematic game options. She might want us to have fun, but she isn’t going to let us steal the whole table too. Remember that your character is only ever as fun as your DM.
Watching it Burn
Unlike most hypothetical builds, this one I got to play. Really, it was awesome. The monk’s versatility with its gravity defying shenanigans made this feel like the Arrador I hoped for. In the game that Natalie ran for us, I had the pleasure of playing two characters. Though my other character’s actions didn’t much affect how my experience as a Way of Four Elements monk, which made it even better. The action was split that my ranger and Kannah’s character took one battle, while my Way of Four Elements monk and our companion NPC took the other. That is, not before Arrador gave the enemy army the gift of a fireball. Perhaps, the most memorable sequence was sneaking up on an already wounded tiefling commander of the enemy legion (courtesy of a critical hit from my ranger/assassin’s bow) by using my faster gaseous form to fly above them and their henchmen a solid 60 feet, drop concentration, and cast fog cloud centered on the commander, falling into the sea of smoke I created taking 0 damage thanks to my Slow Fall. Using this moment of surprise, it was only a round until the enemy commander fell to Arrador’s flame tongue longsword, and with one last create bonfire that evaded resistance to fire, the rest of the legion fell in a matter of rounds in what could only be described as something out of The Last Jedi’s throne room fight scene starring a fire bending Kylo Ren with the help of the NPC bladesinger.
This whole experience was nothing short of fun. With a little bit of creativity and planning, along with the help of a good DM, I was able to surpass the negative press of the most ill-reviewed monk subclass. Let me know on Twitter if you want to see me test and play more “bad” subclasses and make them enjoyable. If there’s enough interest, I’d even revisit this subclass to try different variations of the monk focusing on the other elements or even making the Avatar style Four Elements monk.
Thanks for reading and stay ma- Oh wait, I almost forgot. How could I make you read all this without giving you something fun to play with. Try this new feat:
Prerequisite: The ability to cast at least one spell that deals fire damage
You have an affinity for conjuring and manipulating fire. You gain the following benefits.
- As an action, you can magically ignite a flammable object you touch with your hand, such as a piece of paper, a torch, or fabric.
- When you use your action to cast a spell that deals fire damage, until the end of your next turn your melee weapons deal an additional 1d6 fire damage.
- When you deal fire damage to a creature or object, you deal additional damage equal to your proficiency bonus.
Alright, now that I’m thoroughly burnt out, I hope this helps, and don’t forget to check out what Matthew Foreman is up to and his awesome channel featuring equally awesome people, Dice Priori! ‘Til next time, stay magical!
Art: Arrador Emberheart by Kannah Casler