Featured Way of the Kensei Monk image credit to Wizards of the Coast’s D&D 5e Xanathar’s Guide to Everything with background color added.
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The Way of the Kensei Monk was introduced in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. It’s the weapons-focused Monk and fits nicely into either a ranged or melee approach to combat.
This article will review the Kensei Monk features and how these synergize with the core Monk class features. Then I’ll look at the feat, race, and multiclass options. Finally, I’ll combine all these into some build concepts.
As always, these are just my thoughts. If you have any other ideas about the Kensei, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!
3rd Level – Path of the Kensei
You gain four (wow!) features at level three. These features are based on your intensive weapons training.
Diversifying your weapon specialties will serve you well. By selecting melee and ranged Kensei weapons, you can become a threat up close or at a distance. Remember, Kensei weapons can’t possess heavy or special properties. Longbows are a valid choice (despite being heavy). You gain proficiency in these weapons, and they become Monk weapons for you, gaining all benefits of Monk weapons, including Dex-based attacks and a weapons die that will eventually improve to a d10, plus some additional bonuses for being Kensei weapons. You gain 3 more Kensei weapon types as you level up.
This is a strange ability. If you make an unarmed strike as part of your attack action and wield a Kensei melee weapon, you get to add +2 to your AC until the start of your next turn. When you pick this up at level three, you will only have one attack as part of your attack action. You’ll probably want to use a d10 versatile attack with your brand spanking new Kensei weapon, not a d4 unarmed strike.
This ability could be described like this: ‘you’ve trained extensively with weapons in order only to use them for defense.’ It gets slightly better at level five when you get two attacks per attack action and can at least attack once with your Kensei melee weapon. If your DM is nice, they may allow the addition of ‘unarmed strike as part of your attack action or bonus action,’ allowing you to trigger this with your standard Martial Arts bonus action or Flurry of Blows and actually use your Kensei weapon to, you know, attack.
Even though it’s a bit odd mechanically, the bonus to AC is still very nice at level three.
Use a bonus action to add a d4 to all ranged weapon damage rolls for the rest of the turn. This is simple and reliable. Given the issues with Agile Parry, this may encourage you to go for ranged weapons with your Kensei. It works nicely with a longbow.
Way of the Brush
Gain a ribbon feature of proficiency with Calligrapher’s Supplies or Painter’s Supplies. Go for the former; neither will help you beyond some minor roleplay.
6th Level – One with the Blade
We have two additional features for the Kensei Monk. Again, they focus on Kensei weapons.
Magic Kensei Weapons
Your Kensei Weapons now count as magical (to keep up with your Monk unarmed strikes). This is extremely useful in a low magic or survival campaign where magic weapons are scarce. Otherwise, you want to find and use a magic weapon.
After hitting a target with your Kensei weapon, you can add an extra Martial Arts die of damage to the roll by spending a ki point.
There are a few issues here too. This is a relatively expensive use of a ki point, and the ki is probably best saved for a critical hit to double the bonus damage die. Except… it synergizes nicely with the new Ki-Fuelled Attack feature from Tasha’s, which allows you to make an extra attack as a bonus action if you spend a ki point with your main attack – now you’re spending a ki point on a bit of extra damage and an extra attack, which for ranged Kensei is really nice (melee Kensei will probably want to use their regular Martial Arts unarmed strike most of the time). Except… this conflicts with Kensei’s Shot, where you have to use up your bonus action to get the bonus d4’s on each ranged attack.
Note – you can also use the new Focused Aim ability (spend ki to increase your attack roll) to trigger Ki-Fuelled Attack, which similarly conflicts with Kensei’s Shot.
At this point, you’re probably better off not using Kensei’s Shot unless you’ve run out of ki points. Agile Parry suddenly doesn’t look so bad (at this point, your martial arts die rises a d6, and you have Extra Attack).
11th Level – Sharpen the Blade
Spend one to three ki points to make your Kensei weapons into +1 to +3 weapons for one minute. It doesn’t work on magic weapons and is totally useless if you already have a +3 weapon. Great in low-resource campaigns, not so good if you already have magic weapons. It’s useful if you focus your abilities on melee attacks and want to use a ranged weapon (or vice versa) situationally.
This seems slightly expensive for what you get and somewhat campaign-dependent.
17th Level – Unerring Accuracy
This can be used once per turn. If you miss an attack roll using a Monk weapon on your turn, you can reroll it. This synergizes nicely with Focused Aim. Use Unerring Accuracy first. If you still miss, Focused Aim can make up the difference. It also works with Ki-Fuelled Attack. If you haven’t used Unerring Accuracy yet, you basically get two chances to land your bonus action attack.
It’s no Quivering Palm, but it’s a very reliable way to help boost your damage.
Kensei Monk Subclass Features Summarized
The Kensei gets a few features that are ‘always on’ and don’t require ki points. It has a few ways to boost damage and a defensive option too. Some of the features feel uneven in their design, and they don’t always mesh well with the new features from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
Having said that, I do feel that overall it’s a fairly strong subclass with ki-free features playstyle options that differ from other Monks.
Feat Options for Kensei Monks
As usual, Monks need a lot of ability scores. Feats will be taken at a premium.
My favorite feat for Monks is Mobile for a ki-free, hit-and-run playstyle. It allows you to avoid opportunity attacks from a single enemy you attack, and it boosts your movement speed. If you are going for a ranged build, you likely won’t need it.
For a melee Kensei, Crusher and Slasher are useful options. Defensive Duelist is also interesting.
For a ranged Kensei, Sharpshooter is a great option to take (almost feels like a ‘must have’). The extra range and option to add 10 damage at the cost of -5 to hit are both powerful. The Fighting Initiate feat for the Archery fighting style (or a dip into Fighter) is great.
Crossbow Expert is another option to give you an extra hand crossbow attack with your bonus action (3 hand crossbow attacks in total). The issues with this one are that the Kensei already gets a few options for their ranged bonus action, and as usual, you need Sharpshooter because of the short range of the hand crossbow. The hand crossbow starts as a d6 damage die, rising to a d10 with Martial Arts.
The final option for a ranged Kensei is Piercer. This allows you to roll one damage die once per turn and add an extra damage die on a critical hit. Piercer also boosts your Dexterity by one. It’s useful for reliably adding damage.
Race Options for Kensei Monks
Selecting a race with martial weapon proficiencies can be useful for average Monks; however, picking a race based on martial weapon proficiency is unnecessary for Kensei Monks. They pick up whatever weapon proficiencies they need.
Variant Human and Custom Lineage always give you that free feat, and given how feat-starved Monks can be, this can be a great way to get started as a Monk.
For a melee Kensei, a Bugbear is a great option with the extra reach. Using reach allows you to skip the Mobile feat and go for something else.
If you want to go with a longbow, you’ll need to avoid the short races.
Multiclassing with a Kensei Monk
I like dipping a level of Cleric. Monks don’t have anything to do with their concentration, and a level of Cleric allows you to be a bit more versatile.
One level of Rogue is a nice option with its extra proficiencies, Expertise, and a little bit of Sneak Attack. A Rogue dip allows your Monk to act as the party Rogue if needed.
For a ranged Kensei, one level in Fighter is nice for the Archery fighting style (and Second Wind). A couple of levels of Ranger will also provide Archery, along with Favored Foe (a bit of extra damage), Canny (expertise in one skill), and a couple of Ranger spells.
Three Fighter levels provide Action Surge and open up the Fighter subclasses – the Samurai, Battle Master, and Echo Knight are fantastic options. I like the idea of a Samurai Kensei.
Kensei Monk Build Ideas
I think there are three interesting paths you can consider with a Kensei – a ranged damage dealer, a stun-fisher, and a tank.
The Defensive Duelist feat, Agile Parry, and Dodge as a bonus action create an excellent platform for a tank. You can mix in a lot of the other defensive features the Monk gets such as Evasion, Deflect Missiles, proficiency in all saves, immunity to disease and poison, ending charm and fright effects, and eventually Empty Body – invisibility for 1 minute along with resistance to everything except force damage. If you go with a Hill Dwarf, you can add extra hit points and the Dwarven Fortitude feat to spend hit dice to heal on your bonus action Dodge.
The ‘stun-fisher’ is a fun hit-and-run melee build for a Kensei. It’s built around the use of a Whip (and/or Bugbear). You use your extra reach to fish for stuns – if you land one, you close in and use your bonus action attack options; if not, you use your movement speed (and if necessary, your bonus action Dash or Dodge) to stay out of trouble. Using reach allows you to avoid the Mobile feat; you can pick up Slasher instead – reduce the speed of your hit target by 10ft once per turn (works great with hit-and-run), and on a critical hit, give your target disadvantage on attack rolls until the start of your next turn.
Ranged Kensei Ideas
A ranged Kensei will not be using one of the Monk’s most powerful abilities – Stunning Strike only works with melee attacks. You can still keep this in your back pocket and revert to melee if something really needs stunning; however, you often can use your ki to help boost your damage output, movement (Dash), or defenses (Dodge/Disengage). For damage, you will eventually have a d10 damage die on all your ranged Kensei weapons and can combine Deft Strike (and/or Focused Aim) and Ki-Fuelled Attack for both extra damage and a full bonus action attack. You can give yourself a +3 longbow for 1 minute with Sharpen the Blade if you need it. If you run out of ki, you can still use Kensei’s Shot. You can use a combination of Piercer, Focused Aim, and Unerring Accuracy to ensure you hit a lot more often than not.
With the high movement speed and defensive bonuses a Monk gets (see the tank build above), I think there’s an argument to be made that the Kensei makes the best archer in all of D&D 5e. There are other archery builds that potentially do more damage per round. Still, the Kensei’s combination of serious damage, high accuracy, high movement, and defense is potent.
Summary of the Kensei Monk
The Kensei is unique among the Monks with its features focusing on weapon attacks. It has several ‘always on’ features that don’t require ki. There are a couple of oddities in the way some of the features work and synergize with some of the new features from Tasha’s. Overall, this is one of the stronger Monk subclasses and offers a great way to play a Monk archer.
This wraps up my review of the Way of the Kensei! Check out more of my subclass reviews here on FlutesLoot.com. You can find a collection of my work here. You can also read all of FlutesLoot’s content about Monks right here. Enjoy your adventure this weekend!