Not to put too fine a point on it, but 5th Edition monks are bad. They might not be as bad as the Beast Master ranger, but they certainly give it a run for its money. The class is supposed to evoke the fantasy of being a martial arts master, from the drunken antics of Jackie Chun* to the elemental kung fu of the Avatar from The Last Airbender. Unfortunately, a combination of lackluster features and few relevant magical items leaves any aspiring monks stuck with characters who do less damage, take more damage, and are less flexible than the alternatives.* With this in mind, I think any new monk subclass should make a conscious effort to push the class’s power beyond any of the current options. Normally, I’m not a fan of obvious power-creep, but with the baseline monk being so weak, I believe it is necessary here for the class to be a competitive choice. Thankfully, the new Astral Self subclass does a reasonable job of accomplishing this, starting at level 3.
Level 3 – Way of the Astral Self
Monks of the Way of the Astral Self have an internal struggle with their ki. They see their mystical energy as a representation of their true form, an astral self. This form has the capacity to be a force of good or destruction, with some monasteries training students to either temper their nature or embrace their impulses.
Forms of Your Astral Self
The astral self is a translucent embodiment of the monk’s psyche and soul. As a result, the form of an astral self reflects the mind of the monk who manifests it. Your astral self could be a humanoid knight with a helmeted face and large, muscular arms, or it could be a golden metallic form with thin arms like a modron.
When choosing this path, consider the quirks that define your monk. Are they obsessed with something? Are you driven by justice or a selfish desire? Any of these motivations could manifest in the form of your astral self.
This part of the subclass is entirely flavor, stipulating how the character’s Astral Self can appear.* Overall, the flavor is fine, with one major exception. The first sentence of the feature’s description cites an “internal struggle with their ki.” I’m not sure if this is from an earlier draft of the rules, but as written I don’t see anything in this subclass that reinforces that fiction. Since this section is the Astrel Self’s introduction, it should be the time to clearly communicate what the class is all about. Instead, it leads players on with flavor that never pays off, and I hope Wizards either changes the rest of the subclass’s flavor or changes this initial description.
Level 3 – Arms of the Astral Self
Your mastery of your ki allows you to summon a portion of your astral self. On your turn, you can spend 2 ki points as a bonus action to summon the arms of your astral self for 10 minutes. These spectral arms hover near your shoulders. You determine the arms’ appearance based on the qualities of your character.
While your astral arms are summoned, you gain the following benefits:
You can use your Wisdom modifier in place of your Strength modifier when making Strength checks and Strength saving throws.
The arms are monk weapons and have a reach of 10 feet. The arms deal radiant or necrotic damage (your choice). When you attack with the arms, you can use your Wisdom modifier instead of your Strength or Dexterity modifier for the attack and damage rolls.
Immediately after you use the Attack action with your astral arms on your turn, you can make one extra attack with your astral arms as a bonus action. The number of extra attacks increases when you reach certain levels in this class, increasing to two at 11th level and three at 17th level.
As the subclass’s name suggests, the Astral Self is its main feature, one that will be improved upon as the monk levels up. Overall I think this is a good mechanical start. One of the monk’s many problems is that its resource, ki, is used up so quickly that the class is left with little to do besides basic attacks. By generating a pair of beefy spirit arms for 10 minutes, the monk can invest a minimal amount of ki for benefits that can last them multiple combats.
The use of wisdom for strength checks/saving throws and attack/damage rolls is nice, but of limited use. Monks usually use dexterity as their main combat stat, and the need for a high AC means any monk who doesn’t want to die will still have to raise their dexterity. The most valuable use case I see for this feature is substituting wisdom for strength when attempting to grapple. However, because grappling isn’t very powerful, even that is a minor bonus. Additional reach is also a nice, if not great, feature, allowing for feats like Sentinel to gain value without using a polearm. The choice of necrotic or radiant damage is also decent, ensuring the monk’s attacks will be effective against almost any opponent. Unfortunately, linking the arm’s damage to the class’s martial arts die means that, prior to level 5, the arms are dealing 1d4 + stat bonus, making them a poor weapon choice. By level 17 this die will grow to 1d10, but it’s unfortunate that it starts so weak.
The best part of the feature is the final piece, being able to use a bonus action to make an additional attack after attacking normally with the arms. This is essentially dual wielding, but with the bonus that the monk adds its damage stat to the “off-hand” strike without requiring a fighting style.
For comparison, the base monk feature, Flurry of Blows, allows the monk to spend 1 ki point and their bonus action after attacking to make two additional unarmed attacks. This allows for a higher damage output with its 1 additional attack. However, it requires 1 ki per usage, compared to the arms’ flat cost of 2 ki, making it a much less efficient use of resources over any combat lasting more than a couple of rounds. The arms draw further ahead at level 11 when they pick up an additional bonus attack.
Level 6 – Visage of the Astral Self
You can summon the visage of your astral self. On your turn, you can spend 1 ki point as a bonus action, or as part of summoning your astral arms, to summon this visage for 10 minutes. The spectral visage covers your face like a helmet or mask. You determine its appearance based on the qualities of your character.
While your visage is summoned, you gain the following benefits.
Wisdom of the Spirit. You have advantage on Wisdom (Insight) and Charisma (Intimidation) checks.
Astral Sight. You can see normally in darkness, both magical and nonmagical, to a distance of 120 feet.
This feature is a lot more situational than the arms granted at level 3. Advantage on Insight is useful when needed, although the same cannot be said for Intimidation. As a monk, it’s unlikely one’s charisma is particularly high, making Astral Sight a minor bonus at best. Seeing in all forms of darkness is much better, making the Astral Self monk a good character to pair with any character that likes to create magical darkness. One example is the Darkness/Devil Sight warlock, a character with its own form of magical darkvision that uses the Darkness spell to generate easy advantage on its attack rolls. Overall, while the additional ki cost means the monk probably won’t be summoning their mask nearly as often as their arms, I do like the ways in which it expands the character’s abilities.
Level 11 – Awakening of the Astral Self
You tap into the greater power of your astral self. While you have both your astral arms and visage summoned, you gain the following benefits.
Deflect Energy. When you take acid, cold, fire, lightning, or force damage, you can use your reaction to deflect it. When you do so, the damage you take is reduced by 1d10 + your Wisdom modifier + your monk level.
Empowered Arms. Once on each of your turns when you hit a target with your astral arms, you can deal extra damage to the target equal to your Martial Arts die.
Word of the Spirit. When you speak through your visage, you can direct your words to a creature of your choice that you can see within 30 feet of you, making it so only that creature can hear you. Alternatively, you can amplify your voice so that all creatures within 600 feet can hear you.
Another set of bonuses, this time requiring both pieces of the monk’s astral self be summoned. By this point, the monk has enough ki points to power this, but I still think requiring the Visage to make use of “Empowered Arms” is a bit silly. As for the bonuses themselves, they’re pretty good. Deflect Energy gives the monk something to do with their reaction, preventing an average of 20 damage at the level it’s gained. Empowered Arms is by far the strongest, granting an extra d8 damage per round, something the monk could really use. Word of the Spirit is… well, it’s cool flavor. If your GM is a stickler about in-game communication, I could see this being useful, but for most monks it’ll be a minor enhancement. Additionally, Astral Arms picks up its second bonus attack, rendering Flurry of Blows completely obsolete and allowing the monk to efficiently use their ki to output a respectable amount of damage.
Level 17 – Completed Astral Self
Your connection to your astral self is complete, allowing you summon it entirely. On your turn, you can spend 10 ki points as a bonus action to summon the arms, visage, and body of your astral self for 10 minutes. This spectral body covers your physical form like a suit of armor, connecting with the arms and visage. You determine its appearance based on the qualities of your character. While your astral self is summoned, you gain the following benefits.
Armor of the Spirit. You gain a +2 bonus to AC while you aren’t incapacitated.
Astral Barrage. Whenever you use the Extra Attack feature to attack twice, you can instead attack three times using your astral arms.
Ki Consumption. When a creature within 10 feet of you is reduced to 0 hit points, you can use your reaction to regain ki points equal to your Wisdom modifier (minimum 1).
With this feature, the monk’s Astral Self is now complete. Costing a whopping 10 ki points, this adds another set of powerful bonuses. Armor of the Spirit is a great addition. Defenses have always been a sore spot for monks, and now we finally have a bonus to help offset that deficiency. Astral Barrage is also very powerful, granting the monk a total of six attacks at this level, the most in the game without using Action Surge. Though the previous two features are very good, Ki Consumption is my favorite by far, solving a problem that plagues every monk: how much ki their various abilities consume. By this level, each trigger of this ability should refund 5 ki points, allowing the monk to easily keep their resources topped off. This is also the level where Astral Arms pick up their final attack, making for a total of six per round.
As I said in the beginning of this review, I’m very happy to see the monk’s power pushed so much with this subclass. I’ve seen people complain that because this subclass is so much stronger than the other monk options, it reduces choice, and they are partially right. It’s true that this subclass is just stronger than the other options, but the monk was so bad before that I would argue that it already lacked choice. Now there is at least one option that players can choose that is capable of keeping up with the other classes.
What I’d Change
There are a couple of tweaks I’d make to this subclass. The first addresses level 3’s Arms of the Astral Self. I’d modify their damage to be either 1d6 or the monk’s martial arts die, whichever is higher. Spending 2 ki, an action, and a bonus action to deal 2d6 + twice stat modifier is on par with other damage options open to level 1 characters, so saddling the monk with d4 Astral Fists seems unnecessarily mean to me. The second change I’d make is to level 11’s Improved Astral Self. Instead of making all three features contingent on having both the Arms and Visage activated, I’d make Deflect Energy require both, Empowered Arms require just Arms, and Word of the Spirit require only Visage.