Kensei Monk subclass — how to play in DnD 5E

Master the way of the weapon with Kensei Monk 5E options.

© Dice Cove

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGtE) included a ton of new subclasses, but few are as stylish as the Way of the Kensei Monk. Masters of (almost) any weapon, the Kensei offers a nice blend of simple, fun, and effective options while emphasizing the cool factor inherent to any Monk. This article’s aim will be to walk through what new features the Kensei brings to the table. In the end, we’ll include a couple of quick builds for those looking for a little guidance on how to make their own Kensei. We won’t be discussing generic Monk features, except in cases where the Kensei alters or affects them. For a more general look at Monks, check out our definitive Monk class guide.

Sword Saints (Kensei Features)

The Way of the Kensei brings new features to the table at levels 3, 6, 11, and 17. We’ll be discussing these in the order they are obtained.

Level Three

Kensei Weapons – This is the Kensei’s bread and butter. You can choose two types of weapons, one melee and one ranged. They must lack the heavy and special properties, or be the longbow. You become proficient with the selected weapons, and they become monk weapons for you. Your 1st level Martial Arts feature affects all monk weapons, so you’ll be able to use Dexterity for Attack and Damage Rolls with your Kensei weapons and can use your Martial Arts Die for their damage. Many of your other Kensei features will reference your Kensei weapons in some way. 

Suggested Kensei weapons are:

  • The longsword, which can be wielded in both hands, gives you a d10 damage die 14 levels earlier than other monks. 
  • The longbow is simply the strongest ranged choice available, with a d8 damage die and 150 ft. normal range. 
  • Whips are an interesting choice since they benefit from your Martial Arts Die more than other weapons and are the only reach weapon available to the Kensei (the rest are all heavy or special). 
  • Hand crossbow is an excellent pick for your ranged choice if you’re looking to utilize Crossbow Expert

You’ll be able to add additional Kensei weapons at levels 6, 11, and 17. Those can help you add some versatility or maybe let you use a magic weapon you’ve found, but the first choices are the ones that will define your playstyle. 

Agile Parry-Another staple Kensei feature, Agile Parry allows you to trade a bit of offense for a nice defensive bump. If you make an unarmed strike as part of your Attack Action (not your Martial Arts or Flurry of Blows Bonus Actions) while holding a melee Kensei weapon, you get +2 AC until the start of your next turn. The opportunity cost is highest for longsword using Kensei, but even for them, it’s a trade of 3 (average) damage for 2 AC, which is a good trade in my opinion. At 5th level, this feature gets better as you’re only downgrading half of your attacks, and the damage difference is lower. Even Kensei are a bit too squishy to function primarily as a tank, but in a pinch, you can hold the line with Agile Parry and Patient Defense.

Kensei’s Shot – You can use your Bonus Action to add 1d4 damage to your ranged attacks with Kensei weapons for the turn. This is a workhorse feature, functional if unexciting. 

Way of the Brush – “The warrior practices a variety of arts to keep his mind sharp and fluid.” This is the epitome of a ribbon feature, granting you proficiency in either calligrapher’s supplies or painter’s supplies. Choose whichever fits your character best. 

Level Six

Magic Kensei Weapons – This is exactly what it says on the tin: your Kensei weapons count as magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance or immunity. This won’t do anything in most encounters, but when it’s relevant it will be very nice to have.

Deft Strike – After hitting with a Kensei weapon, you can expend a Ki point to add your Martial Arts die to the attack. You can only use this once per turn, but until higher levels, your Ki is probably best spent elsewhere. The damage does get doubled on a critical hit, which is nice. Don’t be afraid to use it when you need to go all out, or when you know you’ll be able to rest soon, but don’t just throw it out every turn.

Level Eleven

Sharpen the Blade – This is an excellent feature. As a Bonus Action, you can spend up to 3 Ki points to give a Kensei Weapon a bonus to Attack and Damage Rolls equal to the number of Ki points spent. The bonus lasts for a minute, so if you’re able to predict when a fight is about to start this gets much better. Like Deft Strike, this isn’t something to be used in every encounter, but it will make you a powerhouse in the encounters you use it. Note it can affect magic weapons as long as they don’t already give a bonus to attack and damage rolls, which makes items like flame tongue the holy grail of Kensei weapons. 

Level Seventeen

Unerring Accuracy – Once on each of your turns, if you miss with an attack roll using a monk weapon, you can reroll it. An excellent, resource-free way to increase your accuracy. A no-frills efficiency boost is the perfect capstone for the Kensei.

Those Who Walk the Path (Sample Builds) 

Suggested Stats

Here is a suggested stat array for any Kensei, made using the Point Buy method, but before any racial bonuses are applied:

STR 8 DEX 15 CON 14 INT 8 WIS 15 CHA 10

 If your race leaves you with an odd-numbered Dexterity or Wisdom, then evening it out with a half feat is highly recommended.

Zen Archer (Aarakocra Kensei 17/Battle Master Fighter 3)

Key Levels

1-4: Fighter 1,  followed by Monk 3 taking Archery as your Fighting Style and the longbow as your ranged Kensei weapon, for melee you can choose whichever you prefer, but longsword is usually the stronger choice.

5-10: Continue Monk to 9th level overall, then take the remaining two levels of Fighter. Take Piercer, or another Dex increasing half feat, for your ASI. Notable features gained are Extra Attack, Deft Strike, Action Surge, and Battle Master Maneuvers.

11-16: Your remaining levels will be in Monk, increasing your Dexterity and gaining Sharpen the Blade.

17-20: You’ll finish with 17 levels of Kensei Monk, and 3 levels of Battle Master Fighter, gaining Diamond Soul and Unerring Accuracy as features of note.

Feats/ASIs: Sharpshooter, Piercer (+1 Dex), +2 Dex, +2 Wis, or a utility feat such as Fey Touched

This build focuses on the longbow as its primary weapon. You’ll want to take your first level in Fighter so you can use a longbow from the beginning, along with some other nice perks, including the Archery Fighting Style. After that, we would recommend jumping into Monk for the majority of your career. Pick up Sharpshooter with your first ASI, and then focus on increasing your Dexterity. You can improve your Wisdom after that, or pick up some utility Feats if your flight and staying at long range is keeping you safe. Fey Touched, Alert, or Lucky are always solid choices. If your DM won’t allow flying races, I would use Tabaxi for this build. You can maintain extreme distance whenever possible, which has many of the same benefits as flight, and your Feline Agility feature gives you the ability to quickly either escape danger or jump into it to help your team.

Infiltrator (Wood Elf Kensei 18/Rogue 2)

Key Levels

1-4: Monk 4, taking the whip as your melee Kensei weapon and a ranged weapon of your choice. Your ASI will be Wood Elf Magic, giving you the speed and stealth to scout effectively.

5-10: Monk to 8th level, gaining Extra Attack, Stunning Strike, Deft Strike, and increasing your Dexterity to 18 with Skill Expert (Perception). Levels 9 and 10 will be your first and last levels into Rogue for Cunning Action, Sneak Attack, and Expertise (Stealth).

11-16: The rest of your levels are in Monk, gaining Sharpen the Blade and Diamond Soul, increasing your Dexterity to 20 with your ASI.

17-20: To finish out your career, you’ll gain Unerring Accuracy and Empty Body, as well as increasing your Wisdom or taking a utility feat to enhance your scouting, such as Shadow Touched.

Feats/ASIs: Wood Elf Magic, Skill Expert (Dex +1, Perception Expertise), +2 Dex, +2 Wis or Shadow Touched

The goal with this build is to be a hard-to-pin-down skirmisher and scout. Take your first eight levels in Monk, grabbing Wood Elf Magic from XGtE with one of your ASIs. This feat gives you a Druid cantrip (Guidance is my recommendation) as well as one casting each of Longstrider and Pass without Trace per day. Your other ASI should be bringing your Dexterity to 18. If you can get there with a half feat, I’d suggest Skill Expert getting expertise in Perception. Scouting is as much about seeing as it is about going unseen. Levels 9 and 10 are when we would suggest dipping into Rogue for Ki-free Bonus Action Dash/Disengage. This build probably wants to skip longsword as a Kensei weapon to maximize Sneak Attack, if you want to take advantage of Sneak Attack then you should take the whip as one of your Kensei weapons. However, if you’d rather use a longsword, you won’t be missing out on much damage.

Skirmisher (Variant Human Kensei 20)

Key Levels

1-4: All levels are in Monk. You gain your subclass, taking the longsword to hit as hard as possible and using your ASI to take Mobile, you are now able to hit and run effectively.

5-10:  Extra Attack, Stunning Strike, and Deft Strike become available to you, with your ASI increasing your Dexterity to 18.

11-16: Sharpen the Blade and Diamond Soul are the features of note at these levels, your ASIs will max your Dexterity at 20 and then either increase your Wisdom to 18 or be a Wisdom increasing half feat of your choice, such as Skill Expert or Fey Touched.

17-20: Unerring Accuracy, Empty Body, and Perfect Self are the notable features at the end of your career, your final ASI will either take your Wisdom to 20 or be a second Wisdom increasing half feat.

Feats/ASIs: Mobile, Dex +2, Dex +2, and then your choice of Wis +2 twice or Fey Touched and Skill Expert, both increasing Wisdom to 18.

This is the Kensei-est Kensei. You’ll want Mobile as your Variant Human feat so you can dance into and out of melee, and a longsword as your Kensei weapon to hit the hardest. The Ki points and Bonus Action you save by not Disengaging can be spent on Flurry of Blows, allowing you to dish out some impressive damage before retreating to the safety of the backline. Spend ASIs on Dexterity and then Wisdom. Consider Wisdom Half-Feats, like Fey Touched or Skill Expert, to add some versatility as you increase your Wisdom.