Monks: A Hands-On Approach to Combat

I pretty much follow the same process whenever I create a PC or a ‘named’ NPC. There’s the seed idea, creating a focus for the character’s role in the plot and/or combat, include a weakness in that role (yes, even for my PCS), and then the nitty-gritty of character creation.

I like to feature mechanics that are little used at our table and I try to never, ever repeat myself.

This post is about the one time that I bit off more than I could chew.

The Seed Idea

I was running 3rd Edition’s Return to Castle Ravenloft for a group of 6 or 7 and I needed a new villain to keep them on their toes. I decided that I couldn’t go wrong with another vampire, so I set out to create the best one I could from a grapple-focused dwarven monk. I never actually used him, but the idea stuck with me and I ended up recreating him (sans-vampirism) for a Pathfinder game that I was playing.

Holy crap, I almost couldn’t do it by hand! There’s a lot of math and modifiers flying around on this, in large part to the way combat maneuvers work.

Combat Maneuvers

The target level was 6 and, thanks to the excellent Advanced Player’s Handbook, I settled on the Monk of the Sacred Mountain variant. In the finest tradition of pun-ishing names, I dubbed the dwarf ‘Trip Stone’.

As usual, I started with the elite array. After applying racial modifiers, I had:

	Abilities Str 15, Dex 14, Con 10, Int 10, Wis 16, Cha 8

Monks receive and AC bonus which applies to Combat Maneuver Defense (CMD). Trips’ AC bonus is +4 but he also receives his Stability bonus for being a dwarf. At 1st and 6th levels, he also receives the bonus feats Improved Grapple and Improved Trip.

        CMD 22
	    26 vs bull rush
	    24 vs grapple
	    28 vs trip

Those are pretty high defenses, I think, but it gets even better! At 4th and 5th levels, Bastion Defense and Iron Limb Defense grant additional benefits if Trip hasn’t moved on his turn. Bastion Defense makes him immune to bull rush and Iron Limb Defense adds a +2 shield bonus to his CMD, which can be improved to +4 by spending a ki point as a swift action.

For offense, at 3rd level, monks receive Maneuver Training, which lets them substitute their Monk level for their Base Attack Bonus when calculating Combat Maneuver Bonus (CMB). Again, the ‘Improved’ feats add modifiers.

	CMB  +8
	    +10 grapple
	    +10 trip

This is about as good as a fighter could manage on his/her own, though they tend to have a higher strength bonus. Compared to Trip’s defenses though, a Fighter would have a hard time escaping or reversing the grapple. A 6th level Rogue stand the best chance to escape with Escape Artist (+12 before feats) but still has to roll higher than average unless they really specialize.

It’s also essential to note that any stunned creature grants a +4 bonus to combat maneuvers performed against it. Use your Stunning Fist wisely!

Laying on Hands

Generally, grappling as a strategy pretty much sucks. The main advantage is using your speed to move in and isolate powerful opponents and remove them from play: Grapple, Pin, then Tie Them Up. If your target is pinned before you tied them up, the escape DC is automatically 20 + your CMB (DC 28, in Trip’s case). If that DC is higher than 20 + your opponents CMB, then they can’t escape, even if they roll a 20 on their check. This is particularly effective against spellcasters if you can slip past their defenders and get the drop on them.

Because of your high CMD, moving your target into hazardous conditions is quite viable, assuming such hazards exist or can be created in the encounter.

A successful grapple also allows for automatic damage, but the wording does not explicitly allow for other effects such as combat maneuvers (trip, disarm) or Stunning Fist. As a DM, I’m inclined to allow them as it fits right in with real-life martial arts that have a grappling component.

On the bright side, grappling and pinning imposes AC and Dexterity penalties on your target while allowing your allies to attack that target with no penalties. Surely this is an oversight, but one that your allies may take free advantage of, even if it makes them look like bullies dog-piling an opponent in the schoolyard.

Other Options

The monk’s Flurry of Blows feature allows you to substitute disarm, sunder, and trip combat maneuvers for one or more of your flurry attacks. Since the maneuvers do not appear to suffer that attack penalties for making multiple attacks in a round, they make a your monk a powerhouse for de-buffing opponents on the field.

Trip is particularly useful against armored opponents as it imposes a -4 AC penalty against melee attacks and standing up provokes an attack of opportunity, which I believe can be substituted with another Trip (Stay Down!), a grapple (So you want some more?), or a Stunning Fist (El Kabong! *whack*).

Feats like Lunge and Stand Still along with items like the Tanglefoot Bag can keep your targets from getting away, not they are a match for your superior speed.

All of the monk’s abilities that I have discussed so far do increase in potency at higher levels, however there aren’t that many new features that add to your arsenal. Quivering Palm may only be used once per day and the Vow of Silence (a Sacred Mountain variant power) required that you have not spoken for the previous 24 hours in exchange for mere +2 insight bonus to AC and CMD. Most of your improvements will come from feat selections.


A monk is not a solo operator. While he may make brief incursions behind the enemy line or to scout ahead, when faced by superior numbers he cannot stand alone for long.

Both of the monk’s hands must be empty in order to grapple and you become vulnerable to attacks from outside forces. You can make no other attacks or maneuvers in your defense unless you let go of your target and what’s the point of grappling then? Make sure that you have an ally close at hand to buy you time to do what must be done. When Trip Stone was conceived, I worked with a fellow player to create a bounty-hunting duo who covered some of each others weaknesses.

A monk is noticeably deficient in ranged combat options. His greater movement helps make up for that but consider the party balance.

I haven’t played a high level monk but, if you stand still long enough, it seems that you are pretty easy to hit. So again, you need your allies help to buff your defenses and to watch your back.

Vamping Out

Going back to the original premise, adding the vampire template can turn this monk into a pretty good hit & run assassin sent to pick off the party one-by-one.

The vampire template grants substantial bonuses to natural armor, strength, dexterity, and wisdom. All of the dwarf monk’s base numbers will increase and his combat maneuvers will be much more effective. His grapple is both nearly inescapable and a prerequisite to the constitution-draining bite attack!

Inflicting negative levels with Energy Drain lowers your prey’s CMD and Children of the Night can summon allies to keep your prey’s friends at bay. It is unlikely that you will kill a target within 3 rounds unless they were severely weakened by previous encounters, but you can certainly cripple them for several days.


~ by Hunter Rose on August 5, 2011.

One Response to “Monks: A Hands-On Approach to Combat”

  1. After speaking with @scholar_99 I looked up AOO rules for forced movement for Pathfinder.

    Generally speaking, Moving out of a threatened square provokes an attack of opportunity. However, If you move a creature as a result of a grapple, they received a free attempt to break the grapple if they would be moved into a hazard. Bull Rush does not allow AOO on the creature moved unless you have Greater Bull Rush.

    So, in the spirit of the rules, I would say that you can’t drag some poor soul through the gauntlet allowing your friends to take free shots along the way.

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