Monk is a term that can mean two very different things, depending on whether you're talking about the real world or modern fantasy.
Real World Monnks
In the real world, a monk is a male who has taken a vow to live a life of celibacy, asceticism and religious devotion. 'Abandoning the world', and all that. Monasticism is most commonly associated with Christianity (the Catholic and Orthodox branches, anyway) and Buddhism, though monasticism exists in other religions as well (particularly Hinduism). Monks often live secluded in monasteries, but this isn't always the case - both the Dharmic religions and Catholicism also have mendicants, beggar-monks that don't seclude themselves from society. Sufis are often seen as Islamic monks, though this isn't entirely correct because sufis are usually not celibate (as Islam generally frowns upon celibacy). The word 'dervish' refers to a certain type of sufi.
Note that a monk is not the same thing as a priest. A priest is someone whose job it is to carry out religious rites that ordinary believers either aren't qualified to, or simply wouldn't have the training necessary to do. A monk is technically just a regular believer who took up asceticism. For example, a regular Catholic monk is not allowed to perform mass, because only an ordained priest can to do that. You can be both a monk and an ordained priest in Catholicism, but that's not necessary nor all that common, depending on the monastic order in question (of which there are hundreds, each with their own distinctive traditions regarding this and many other questions and practices, although the basics apply throughout; in the Christian tradition, this is the threefold vow of "poverty, chastity, and obedience.") Other religions can vary quite a bit; in general Eastern monks and priests are quite different and one might seek out one for one purpose and the other for another, although the same applies in the West, only to a lesser extent: any Christian monastic settlement of any size is likely to have at least one or a handful of monks ordained as priests.
Also note that monks are male by default in real life. The female equivalent of a monk is a nun, and the term 'nun' is likewise applied to monastic women of any religion (so you've got Buddhist nuns, Orthodox nuns, etc.).
Then there's monks as they appear in Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy...
Here, the term 'monk' basically just means "East Asian-style martial artist", and is not gender-specific. Nuns and fighting nuns do exist in several other settings, but they're usually absent from the D&D-style stuff.
This is primarily because Dungeons & Dragons introduced the Monk class as a martial arts expert, much in line with kung-fu movies where people dance on bamboo leaves while beating each other up with super-fast punches and kicks. In fact, the original inspiration for the class was Brian Blume's fascination with the proto-weeaboo novel series "The Destroyer."
Kung-fu monks really do exist, of course. There's the historically martial arts-practicing monks of the Shaolin Temple in northern China, who were self-organized into a legendary militia to defend the complex against barbarian Mongol raiders. But note that most Buddhist monasteries don't practice martial arts at all, and that the Shaolin monks are an exception even in China.
Long story short? D&D-style monks have almost nothing in common with real life monks. Not even with your average Buddhist monk. Aspects like religion, celibacy and asceticism are underemphasized if not ignored alltogether with D&D monks. And thus, you get the rather weird situation where 'monk' can refer to either a pudgy pale elderly man in long robes or a surly ambiguously brown musclegirl in a tube top.
As for the rules and game mechanics with D&D monks... hoo boy, there's a lot to be said.
With the proper feats and items, you can turn any D&D Monk into a veritable machine of death, destruction, and holy Jesus fucking Christ fists (3rd Ed Hint: The tripping line of Feats + spiked chain) but that's only after you've gotten over the horrible hump of single-digit levels, and you will still be the fifth wheel in a party that has a Cleric or Wizard. You're better off using a Barbarian, Bard, Ranger, Swordsage... pretty much any other class if you're starting from level 1.
Originally introduced in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor supplement. Appropriately enough, it was a sub-class of cleric. A lot of the familiar tropes for the class were already present in 1975: High Wis required, largely lawful, no armor but AC that improves with level, multiple unarmed attacks and scaling fist damage (that tops out at holy living autismal fuck 4d10 at level 16), slow fall, dodging ranged attacks, charm resistance, Quivering Palm... yet curiously had thief skills, a d4 hit die, and proficiency with ALL weapons. ALL of them. Clearly the class had not yet settled.
In D&D Rules Cyclopedia the class was called Mystic. This version was closer to the Monk as established in AD&D, being a full-fledged independent class (instead of a proto-prestige class like the Paladin and Druid) that had no clerical magic, but did have innate mystical abilities and a supernatural adeptness for unarmed combat.
The monk class seems to be an afterthought, even appearing last in the list of classes instead of in alphabetical order in the AD&D PHB. The monk class required four ability score minimums, started with an average of (2d4 +1 CON bonus) 6 hit points and COULD NOT WEAR ARMOR... but had a natural AC of 9, whoop-de-doo. The oh-so-awesome unarmed combat licked taint, since even a magic-user could do more damage with darts, and do it at range. However, the powers they got at higher levels were over the top, with immunity to disease, poisons and eventually aging, AC that was better than plate while they're still naked, fists that counted as magic weapons for hitting ghosts and undead, nigh-invulnerability to falling damage, and the quivering palm attack that could make your target's heart stop immediately or days later if you felt like it. Also, their fists went from taint-licking suck to the only d20 weapons in the game.
In AD&D 2nd Edition the Monk is stripped down from a full class to a kit for the Priest. Appearing in Player's Option: Spells and Magic as well as Faiths & Avatars. They don't get to wear armor; instead they get an AC bonus that increases as they level to a maximum of 2 at level 14 (this was the edition of THAC0, remember). They have major access to the Spheres of All, Divinations, Numbers, Thought and Guardian, and minor access to Combat, Healing, Necromantic and Time. They cannot Turn Undead, but in return they get to save VS Spell against detection, scrying and mind reading, constant access to Free Action and don't grant a bonus to opponents when attacking them with their bare hands. Exactly how damage works depends on if you use the aforementioned Player's Option book, The Complete Fighter's or Priest's Handbook, or just the core books. This does not greatly increase their attack power, so it's best to stick with the regular Priest instead.
The monk was revamped and brought into line with the rest of the melee classes, but still treated as a weeaboo kung-fu master in a world of Merlins and knights. The power curve was more gradual and didn't start with that much suck, though it most certainly ended with it. They also got the "weapon proficiency: exotic" so they could use weird weeaboo horse-stickers and nunchucks, and their abilities were associated with this quasi-magic stuff called "ki." They're a tier 5 class, meaning that they are in the same pit of shame as the Healer, Soulknife, and unoptimized fighter. Why, you ask? Because anything they can do can be done with magic items that they probably won't even be able to use, they do shit for damage, their armor class is shit, and they can't hit shit (3/4ths BAB.) Oh, and they're the damn poster boys for MAD (srsly, just look at that page.) Also, they're not
proficient with unarmed strikes. Seriously. Look it up well understood by some people. Monk unarmed strikes count as natural weapons, and all characters are proficient with any and all natural weapons that they have, but these two bits of information are never on the same page so some people don't realize that monks ARE proficient with their unarmed strikes. Monks had the worst capstone in the game: Becoming an Outsider so the Enlarge Person spell you've depended on for 19 levels no longer works on you. Since Monk has a lot of passive class features, they are typically used as a Dip Class or in Gestalt.
Monk was barely changed in 3.0 to 3.5. They gained an extra feat at level 1, and their slow fall progression was made more granular so they weren't missing a class feature at level 14. Their capstone got even worse, since they only became a native outsider instead of getting all the weird side-benefits being an outsider came with.
The first Monks were an errata from Wizards, suggesting you could have a Monk class if you used a dual-wield Ranger build with a few changes to use "fists" as the dual weapon. Monks were published in the PHB3, and they are a Psionic Striker that doesn't use the Psionics rules of the rest of their classes - which means they've picked up an even more fantastical feel, going from the wuxia movie refugees of editions past to escapees from a fighting game or anime like Street Fighters.
Monks are envisioned as a hyper-mobile striker, able to get around the battlefield and wreck whatever gets in their way like the humanoid equivalent of a full-auto barrage of rubber riot shotgun shells. This is aided by their unique mechanic; Full Disciplines. See, every Monk At-Will or Encounter Power allows the user to take both an Attack option and a Move option in the same round, which you use in whichever order you like. For example, the "Dragon Tail" at-will power lets you touch either an ally or a prone enemy and switch positions with them, as well as slapping somebody to the ground and knocking them prone, both in the same round.
Uniquely amongst the classes, Monks use ki focuses to power their abilities, meaning they can get attack bonuses regardless of the weapon they are wielding at the time.
The Monk equivalent of subclasses is handled by its "disciplines" feature, which confer defense bonuses and determine the type of Flurry of Blows they have. Instead of Flurry of Blows being multiple attacks, it is a second attack as a free action after the first that doesn't require an attack roll and does set damage (so a melee magic missile without the 'force' keyword). As your level progresses, you can do more damage with the flurry and target more people. In the PHB3, the two Disciplines presented are the Centered Wind, a style focused on mental equilibrium and awareness, which grants a Flurry of Blows that can slide enemies, and the Stone Fist, a physical and mental powerhouse style whose Flurry of Blows does a lot more damage. Psionic Power adds the Iron Soul Discipline, which is a weapon-focused style that uses its Flurry of Blows to disorientate its victims.
Monks also have some abilities that should've been errata'd at some point, including one that when read as written results in one of your targets exploding into a pile of gibs, and the other possibly gibbing too, but at the least will be near-dead.
The Monk's Paragon Paths are all extremely fantastical. The Ghostwalker basically learns to punch peoples' souls out of their bodies. The Initiate of the Dragon uses dragon-inspired fighting techniques, including throwing fire blasts and turning into a Half-Dragon once per day. The Mountain Devotee is the ultimate champion of the Stone Fist style, making them super-tanky (for a monk). The Radiant Fist is a god-worshipping monk who can channel radiant energy through their fists, basically making them kung-fu-fighting holy men who kick zombie and vampire asses with their bare hands for the greater glory of their god. The Basilisk's Fury Adept can literally petrify others with their touch. The Four Winds Master is essentially an Airbender. The Soaring Blade is a wuxia swordmaster, an acrobatic unarmored weaponmaster who channels their ki through their trusty blade. The Tiger Claw Master is a savage warrior that specializes in ripping enemies apart with their bare hands. The Transcendant Perfection is an old-school mystical kung-fu sage. And the Unseen Hand is a ninjaesque monk-assassin hybrid.
The 5e Monk is a different sort of beast altogether, although it definitely borrows from the lessons learned in 4th edition. As in 4e, MAD is no longer an issue as their Martial Arts class feature means they can substitute Dexterity for Strength when making attack & damage rolls with unarmed strikes and "monk weapons" - it also bumps up their unarmed strike damage from 1 to level-dependent (D4 at first, then D6 at 5th level, D8 at 11th level and D10 at 17th level) and lets them spend their bonus action after making an attack with an unarmed strike or monk weapon to make another such attack. However, unlike 4e, their unarmed strikes don't count as a weapon in their own right, which prevents them from applying buffs like, say, smearing their fists with poison.
Pretty much all of the iconic monk features are back; flurry of blows, deflect missiles, unarmored movement, slow fall, stunning strike, ki-empowered strike (unarmed strikes count as magical), evasion, stillness of mind, purity of body, tongue of the sun and moon (talk all languages), diamond soul, timeless body... However, like all 5th edition classes, monks have to choose a subclass, called a Way, at third level, which determines assorted unique abilities and powers you get.
Monks in this edition use a mana system called a ki pool, where they have access to a reserve of "ki points" that they can spend to use or buff up various features. Some of these are universal, like Flurry of Blows, being able to throw back a caught missile, or using Empty Body (spend 4 ki to go invisible for 1 minute). Others depend on the Way that you're following.
The first batch of Ways - Open Palm, Four Elements, and Shadow - appeared in the PHB. The Way of the Sun Soul appeared in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, alongside the Way of the Long Death, and was then reposted in Xanathar's Guide to Everything. Xanathar's Guide also contained the official versions of the Way of the Kensei and the Way of the Drunken Master.
The Way of the Open Palm is the iconic 3.x Monk brought back to life; its powers are the Open Hand Technique (Flurry of Blows can push, knock prone or immobilize foes), Wholeness of Body (heal yourself 3 time per long), Tranquility (apply a Sanctuary spell to yourself 1/long rest) and the iconic save-or-die killing blow technique, the Quivering Palm.
The Way of the Four Elements is an "elemental" monk, using ki to manipulate the elements in various ways - as a result, it's got the largest amount of unique traits in the form of its selectable Elemental Disciplines, which include both an assortment of spell-like abilities and more unique traits, like creating a Water Whip or hammering someone with blasts of compressed air or fire by punching at them from a distance. It sounds cool, as it's essentially letting you play the titular characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it's infamous as one of the weakest subclasses, mostly due to the complaint that the various Disciplines cost far too much ki to use given how small the monk's ki pool is until higher levels and the fact you need to take a short rest to regain it.
The Way of Shadow is... well, let's not beat about the bush here; it's a ninja. Rather than try and claim that ninjas are somehow different to rogue/monk multiclassing, 5e just makes it a straight-up style of monk, although you can always go for the Rogue (Assassin) multiclass if you really want to boost the theme. It mostly absorbs the Shadowdancer as well, in that its various powers revolve around manipulating darkness; a 5e ninja gets the Minor Illusion cantrip and can cast Darkness, Darkvision, Pass Without Trace and Silence by spending ki points. It can teleport from shadow to shadow via its Shadow Step, become invisible at will by using Cloak of Shadows when in areas of dim or no light, and its Opportunist power lets it get a free attack in on somebody who gets hurt by someone else.
The Way of the Long Death hails from the SCAG, and is essentially a mixture of a monkish assassin (so an alternate ninja) and a necromancer; Touch of Death lets you get temporary hitpoints when somebody drops dead near you, Hour of Reaping lets you spook fools within 60ft for a turn, Mastery of Death lets you spend a ki point to avoid being killed by an attack, and Touch of the Long Death lets you spend ki points to touch a sap and inflict necrotic damage, in a sort of poor-man's Quivering Palm.
The Way of the Sun Soul, also from the SCAG, is probably the most animesque monk so far and is a guaranteed weeaboo magnet. In essence, Sun Soul Monks harness their ki directly as a weapon, which lets them fling around motherfucking hadokens! They can make ranged Radiant-inflicting unarmed strikes at will, spend ki to cast Burning Hands, spend ki to throw around what is essentially a Radiant-inflicting Fireball spell, and produce a brilliant aura that burns anybody stupid enough to strike you whilst it's active. Whether this is awesome or just plain stupid is up for heated debate. This one was later reprinted in Xanathar's Guide to Everything. However if you fluff it to be the use of Hamon, then it is awesome.
The Way of the Drunken Master is... well, it's an homage to the Drunken Boxing style made famous by kung fu movies. Unlike its Pathfinder equivalent, it doesn't actually require you to get liquored up; as with IRL zuì quán, you're emulating a drunk, not actually being one. Coming with bonus proficiencies in Performance and Brewing Supplies, its first feature is Drunken Technique at level 3 (Flurry of Blows lets you Disengage and boosts your speed by +10 feet until the end of the current turn). Level 6 grants you Tipsy Sway, which means you can stand up when prone for only 5 feet of movement and, when a creature misses you with a melee attack roll, you can spend 1 ki point to redirect that attack to another visible enemy within 5 feet. Your level 11 feature, Drunkard's Luck, lets you spend 2 ki points to burn off Disadvantage on an attack roll, ability check or saving throw. Finally, Intoxicated Frenzy means that when your Flurry of Blows gains +3 attacks, but only if you use it to attack multiple targets in the same turn.
The Way of the Kensei is a warrior-monk, trading the typical expertise with unarmed attacks for greater proficiency with weaponry; in this, they emulate the unarmored samurai weapon-masters beloved of wuxia films. It predominantly revolves around its level 3 feature; Path of the Kensei. This lets you nominate two weapons (one melee, one ranged) as "kensei weapons"; such weapons must lack the heavy quality and the special quality (though longbow is also acceptable). You gain proficiency with the selected weapons, treat them as Monk Weapons, and gain the traits Agile Parry (an unarmed strike whilst holding a kensei weapon grants you +2 AC until the start of your next turn, so long as you're holding the weapon and not incapacitated) and Kensei's Shot (as a bonus action, grant a ranged kensei weapon +1d4 bonus damage until the end of the current turn). You gain an additional kensei weapon proficiency at levels 6, 11 and 17. Also, Path of the Kensei gives you a bonus proficiency with either calligrapher's supplies or painter's supplies, your choice. At level 6, you gain the feature "One With The Blade", which A: makes your kensei weapons count as magical for overcoming damage resistance/immunity, and B: lets you spend 1 ki point when you hit with a kensei weapon to do bonus damage equal to your Martial Arts die, which you can do once per turn. Level 11's feature, Sharpen the Blade, lets you spend up to 3 ki points as a bonus action to gain a bonus to your attack rolls & damage rolls with a kensei weapon equal to the ki points spent - this bonus lasts for 1 minute (or until you use it again) and has no effect on magic weapons that already grant attack & damage roll bonuses. Finally, level 17 gives you the Unerring Accuracy trait, which lets you reroll a missed attack with a monk weapon once per turn.
Unearthed Arcana for August 2019 introduced The Way of the Astral Self, which has evoked immediate comparisons to Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, but could be inspired by the Siren class from Borderlands 3, or a couple of other anime characters. Its whole gimmick revolves around summoning its "astral self" partially into the mortal world; at 3rd level they can summon just the arms for 2 ki points, which provide bonus attacks (+1 at 3rd level, +2 at 11th level, +3 at 17th level) of necrotic/radiant damage with extended reach, whilst at 6th level they gain the ability to summon the "Visage" as a mask to gain Advantage on Insight and Intimidation as well as 120 feet of magical darkness-piercing darkvision - this costs 1 ki point. At level 11, they gain the feature Awakening of the Astral Self, which gives them a pretty extensive power-up if they have both the Arms and the Visage summoned simultaneously: they can partially deflect Acid/Cold/Fire/Lightning/Force Damage, do bonus damage with their Astral Arms bonus attacks once per round, and freely communicate telepathically with one ally within 30 feet or everybody within 600 feet. Finally, at level 17, they can spend 10 ki points to summon the Complete Astral Self; this provides the bonuses of having Arms & Visage out as described previously, as well as giving the monk +2 AC and letting them regain Ki points equal to their Wisdom modifier whenever a creature within 10 feet drops to 0 HP.
Got a number of buffs and tricks to try to avoid some of the problems listed above, can now equip Cestus weapons to add magical effects to their fists (while the Martial Arts Handbook adds in Handwraps... which are pretty much cosmetic, except for Masterwork version, at which point they totally enchantable, but they don't count as a weapon like the Cestus), and they can get a positively retarded amount of attacks, though their MAD issues are still... well, less of an issue, but still present. They get animal fighting styles ranging from classical, historical ones such as tiger and mantis (if you want to stun, mute, knock down, nauseate, and blind someone with one hit), to djinni, kobold and even stranger things; lots of weird Chinese weapons such as monk's spades, nine section whips and so on; "vows", which are self-imposed conditions as never talking or try to solve everything peacefully and fight defensively or tell only the truth, and if you do not break'em you gain bonus Ki points (Pro Tip: it is explicitly stated that the Vow of No Lying and Vow of No Talking DON'T contradict each other, so if you aren't the Party's Face... Oh, and it's doesn't say anything about hand gestures or writing).
On their own a Monk still struggles to escape tier 5, but thanks to their wide variety of completely separate class features to trade away, they have the widest variety of archetypes in the game. These can either make them into "single class multiclasses" (the sensei is a monk with bardic performances, the qiggong monk can duplicate the effect of spells burning ki points, the sohei is essentially a monk-fighter-ranger-whatever, he is on horseback mostly), which is in line with the "20 level in a single class" Paizo policy, or are awesome and hilarious (the drunken monk generates ki points from alcohol, the tetori is a Los Tiburon kind of wrestler, the scaled fist becomes cha-dependent and starts emulating dragon stuff). Most of the good ones are comfortably tier 4, but several (or combinations of them. Quingong combines with almost anything.) are potent enough to reach tier 3.
Zen Archer is notable for not just being competent at their intended role, but being one of the better archer classes in the game. They get to add their wisdom to hitting with their bow (so they only need enough dex to qualify for feats, generally only 13), effectively have full BAB when using a bow and get most of the important archery feats for free. On top of this they have an innate way of dealing with anyone who gets close (they can still kick things). It still struggles to do much outside of combat, but stacking Qingong fixes that. It has the unusual option of multiclassing with Sorcerer and entering Arcane Archer.
If, for some insane reason, you want to play a Medieval European "monk", that's a Cleric archetype called the Cloistered Cleric, which trades a buttload of spellcasting and combat prowess for extra prowess as a knowledge skill monkey (and therefore, is useless).
Pathfinder Unchained included a rework of the monk class, known as the Unchained Monk. While this is a serious improvement on the class and brings them up to tier 4, it isn't compatible with most of the older archetypes due to how substantial its changes were. That said, however, it has seen its fair share of archetypes following their release, showing that Paizo doesn't view it as such a complete mistake like the unchained barbarian, but not a necessity like the unchained summoner.
The differences between the two variants are as follows:
- The U-Monk has a full BAB progression as opposed to the core monk's 3/4 BAB
- The U-Monk loses Will as a good save, meaning it no longer has good progression in all saves
- Flurry of Blows only grants the U-Monk one extra attack at their highest BAB as opposed to multiple attacks at a lower BAB than usual. Both still need a full action to use it.
- Every 2 levels after level 4 the U-Monk can select a ki power, which allows them to either take the core monk's abilities or take various other not-quite-magical powers...or take powers from the qigong monk without needint the archetype.
- Every 5 levels the U-Monk gets style strikes, unique attacks they can blend into one hit of their Flurry.
|Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Classes|
|Player's Handbook 1:||Cleric - Fighter - Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Warlock - Warlord - Wizard|
|Player's Handbook 2:||Avenger - Barbarian - Bard - Druid - Invoker - Shaman - Sorcerer - Warden|
|Player's Handbook 3:||Ardent - Battlemind - Monk - Psion - Runepriest - Seeker|
|Heroes of X:|| Blackguard - Binder - Cavalier - Elementalist - Hexblade - Hunter|
Mage - Knight - Protector - Scout - Sentinel - Skald - Slayer - Sha'ir - Thief
Vampire - Warpriest - Witch
|Settings Book:||Artificer - Bladesinger - Swordmage|
|Others:||Paragon Path - Epic Destiny|
|Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Classes|
| Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Warlock - Wizard
|Artificer - Mystic|
|The Classes of Pathfinder|
|Core Classes:|| Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Wizard
| Alchemist - Antipaladin - Cavalier |
Inquisitor - Oracle - Summoner - Witch
| Arcanist - Bloodrager - Brawler - Hunter - Investigator |
Shaman - Skald - Slayer - Swashbuckler - Warpriest
| Kineticist - Medium - Mesmerist |
Occultist - Psychic - Spiritualist
|Ultimate X:||Gunslinger - Magus - Ninja - Samurai - Shifter - Vigilante|
Monk was one of the career choices during character generation, mentioned in the splatbook Tome of Salvation. This is the European style monk, living a ascetic lifestyle in a setting where life is nasty, brutish and short.
- Stat Bonuses: WS+5, S+5, T+5, Ag+10, Int+25, WP+15, Fel+15, W+4
- Acquirable Skills: Academic Knowledge (Theology), Academic Knowledge x2 , Animal Care, Common Knowledge x2, Heal, Perception, Read/Write, Speak Arcane Language (Magick), Speak Language (Classical), Speak Language x2.
- Acquirable Talents: Linguistics.
- Gear: Prayer Book, Religious Symbol, Robes, Writing Kit.
- Previous careers can be: Friar, Initiate, Physician, Scholar, Scribe, Student.
- Next careers can be: Abbot, Apprentice Witch, Cantor, Cult Acolyte of Khorne, Cult Acolyte of Nurgle, Cult Acolyte of Slaanesh, Cult Acolyte of Tzeentch, Demagogue, Friar, Physician, Pilgrim, Priest, Scholar, Slave, Steppes Nomad, Steward, Thrall, Wise Woman, Zealot.