Powergaming: Making a Powerful Fighter or Monk in Core 3.5 D&D

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Powergaming

fighter_monk_thumbIt’s reasonably well known that Fighters and Monks are the weakest classes in 3.5 D&D. Whilst this can be partially be fixed by extending to non-Core books, this doesn’t actually solve the problem, and for some, that simply isn’t an option, either due to DM restrictions or just unavailability of the books. However, it actually is possible to make decent Fighters and Monks in Core 3.5: you just have to be a little clever about it.

This article will start with stuff common to both Fighters and Monks (there’s a lot), and then splits off into separate parts. Some of the ideas in this article may be interesting for other characters, like Barbarians and Paladins.

What’s the Problem?

This picture summarises half of it:

D&D wizard battle fighter monk

Magic is… powerful. Really powerful. Getting Fighter Bonus Feats or the various Monk stuff is insignificant by comparison to the power of magic. The most powerful classes in Core 3.5 are the Wizard, Cleric, and Druid: no surprise there. Monks get an ability (running down walls to not take falling damage) which is worse than a 1st level spell (Feather Fall; also comes in a 2000gp ring). Yeah. When you consider what melee monsters Clerics (with Divine Power), and Druids (with Wild Shape) can be, it’s hard to see how Fighters and Monks can be useful, especially when the other classes can cast Spells in addition to hitting things.

Magic is also a lot more versatile. A caster can simply change their entire spell list overnight to cater for different situations. Fighters and Monks don’t have that kind of versatility. What that really means is we need to get our choices right first try.

Okay, so what DO we have?

Fighters get piles of Feats. Monks get a few Feats, Flurry of Blows, increased Speed, good Saves, Evasion, and a pile of almost useless abilities.

The trick is selecting the right Feats, and the right tactics in battle to utilize those Feats.

Monks get 3 bonus Feats: Improved Grapple or Stunning Fist, Combat Reflexes or Deflect Arrows, Improved Disarm or Improved Trip. Choose the ones in bold. Reasons:

  • Improved Grapple: Grapple’s good, and the Save DC for Stunning Fist is too low to be useful later.
  • Combat Reflexes: Apart from being neat, and synergizing with Improved Trip, this works wonders when Polymorphed or Enlarged so you also have Reach. Also, Deflect Arrows only works 1/round, so it’s basically useless at high levels. Also, it specifically rules against deflecting ballista bolts and catapult stones. ๐Ÿ™
  • Improved Trip: Because you can’t Disarm most monsters, and Disarming a Spellcaster is pointless.

For Fighters, these three Feats are also on your must-get list, although, as has been pointed out by a comment (thanks Zephyulos!), Improved Grapple has Improved Unarmed Strike as a prerequisite. Thus, I’d go for Combat Reflexes and Improved Trip first and leave Improved Grapple for when you have Feats to burn… which you will.

Grappling and Tripping

As commented above, all decent Monks and Fighters should have Improved Grapple and/or Improved Trip, and probably Combat Reflexes. With decent Strength (buffed with Items or Spells, of course), these Feats, and maybe a bit more magical help, it’s pretty easy to Grapple or Trip any Medium or even Large creature. With enough buffs, you can take on Huge creatures, and maybe have a try at larger ones, especially for tripping. Yes, you can trip a dragon, it’s just not very easy.

What does all this mean? Well, read the Grapple and Trip rules. For both Grappling and Tripping you start with a Melee Touch Attack… which is a lot easier than hitting normally, usually. Then, you make opposed Grapple or Strength checks, and hope you win.

Grappling basically allows you to completely disable one creature. This is the easiest way in the game to disable a powerful Spellcaster, and works pretty well against stronger foes, too, if you’re buffed enough. Fighters can add spikes to their armour for more fun, although the rules are a little confusing. If there’s a Rogue in your party, they can Sneak Attack a creature you’re Grappling (although two creatures Grappling can’t Sneak Attack each other).

Tripping allows you to knock someone over. They need a Move action to stand up, which means they can’t run away, and standing up offers you an Attack of Opportunity on them (starting to see the synergy with Combat Reflexes?) What’s more, with Improved Trip you get a free attack on them after you knock them over, so you’re not really sacrificing your attack to trip them. Fighters can get even more creative: there are a variety of weapons which you can use for Tripping, such as Flails and Spiked Chains. Sidenote: with a Whip, Bards can make decent trippers (yes, they’re proficient). Note that if you fail to Trip the foe, they can try to Trip you. For Fighters using a weapon, you can just drop it instead. For extra amusement, carry a stack of Flails and Quick Draw a new one whenever you need to drop one.

This all gets even better when you start getting multiple attacks per round (and/or Monk Flurry of Blows). If you miss a Grapple attempt, you can try again with the next attack. Yes, it’s a lower attack bonus, but that’s only for the touch attack to start (which is easy); the actual Grapple check is on your full BaB. For Tripping, you can substitute any or all of your attacks with Trip attempts. So, you could Trip multiple foes, get the free attacks against them as they fall, and then (using Combat Reflexes), make Attacks of Opportunity against them as they all get up.

Party Assistance: Buffs

I’ve mentioned buffs a few times so far. Basically, if you can convince the rest of your party to throw even a tiny bit of magic in your direction, your whole life is easier.

Here are some good ones. Most of these are Wizard spells, although some (like Bull’s Strength and the like) also appear on the Cleric and Druid lists.

Spell Level Reason
Enlarge Person


Being larger gives a Str bonus, and a +4 Grapple and Trip bonus. Plus, you do more damage (see this and this).
Bull’s Strength


Str bonus (attack, damage, Grapple, Trip), good until you get an item.
Cat’s Grace


Dex bonus (AC, Reflex), useful in some builds involving Weapon Finesse (Spiked Chain Fighters, for example).
Bear’s Endurance


Con bonus (HP, Fort), generally improves durability


Extra attack, movement, attack bonus, AC, and Reflex.
Greater Magic Weapon


This gives extra attack and damage, and lasts basically all day. Very handy if you’re short of actual magic weapons. Can be used on Monks’ fists. Monks can also be buffed by Greater Magic Fang, if you have a Druid.


If you’re fighting flying foes, you really need this (didn’t you see the picture?)


Assuming your DM allows this… it rocks. Get your Wizard to turn you into something bigger, stronger, and with reach… then go Trip and Grapple things. Try Hydra and Treant forms. Note that there is a stack of errata for this spell. Important bits: your HP never changes, and you don’t get the Type or Subtype.


It could be said that the best Fighter or Monk is not a Fighter or Monk; that isn’t, however, the point of this section. A straight Fighter is basically a terrible idea: having a bazillion Feats gets old fast. Straight Monk is better, but throwing in one or two levels of something else can lead to interesting options. Note that Monks have multiclass restriction: you cannot go back to Monk if you leave it. Thus, you must take levels of other classes first, then take Monk 1 and continue. Since this is a guide for Core 3.5, I’ll only look at Core classes; and, more than that, I’ll focus on the more useful combinations.

The specific idea we’re looking at is level dipping, where you take just one or two levels of another class; any more than that is generally not that useful. Apart from the obvious bonuses, if you take a level of a caster class, then you can use Wands of any spell on their spell list. For example, a dip into Paladin allows you to use Wands of Cure Light Wounds. A dip into Wizard would allow you to use Wands of any spell on the Buff list, above.

Some multiclass suggestions have also appeared in the comments, check them out. The Monk/Fighter option, which I somehow missed, is very promising: take 1 level of Monk for Improved Grapple, great saves, and some minor stuff, or 2 levels for that, plus Combat Reflexes, and, if you’re only wearing light armour, Evasion.


1: Fast Movement, Rage 1/day
2: Uncanny Dodge

Only for Fighter, as the alignment restriction clashes Monks; you could technically still do it, but you’d lose the Rage, so there’s little point. For a Fighter, if you want the Barbarian bonuses you need to stay out of heavy armour, which may be a problem depending on how you’re playing.


1: Basic buffs and heal spells, Domain Powers, wand usage

Only so-so. Paladin’s usually better, but the healing could be handy depending on the party. If you’re looking for wand usage, though, this is definitely the one to go for: take Magic Domain, and with a single level dip you can use all Cleric AND Wizard wands.


1: Smite Evil 1/day, wand usage
2: Divine Grace, Lay on Hands
3: Immune to Fear, Disease

A very good option, for both Fighters and Monks. Divine Grace is +Cha to all saves, which is amazing. Buff Cha with a Cloak of Charisma. I’d take 2 levels, although depending on the campaign being immune to Fear and Disease could be useful.


1: Sneak Attack +1d6
2: Evasion
3: Sneak Attack +2d6

Sneak Attack’s good, although you don’t actually get Sneak Attacks against a foe you’ve Tripped or Grappled. For more about Sneak Attack, read this then this. Monks already get Evasion, and Fighters may not have the Reflex to make it useful. If you take Rogue 2, you may as well take Rogue 3 for 2d6 Sneak Attack. Rogue also gives a pile of Skill points.

Wizard or Sorcerer

1: Spells, Familiar, wand use
2+: More/better spells

The ability to use Wizard wands is pretty good, and spells like Mage Armour are great for Monks and lightly armoured Fighters. If you take Wizard, take a Specialist school (see our Guide on Wizard Specialization): you don’t need versatility, you need the extra spell. Wizard is normally best for a Fighter, since you’ll already have at least Int 13 to get Improved Trip. A Fighter/Wizard/Duelist was one of my favourite characters. Alternatively, Sorcerer gives slightly more spells and the Cha could have synergy with a Paladin dip.


As to what race you should choose, there is just one rule: no Small races. There’s a -4 penalty for Grapple and Trip, you deal less damage, and you’ll (usually) have a Strength penalty. Other than that… no Dwarven Monks, they move slowly. A Half-Orc may not be the best Fighter because of the Int penalty, and Half-Orc basically means no Paladin multiclass, because your Cha will be terrible.


You’ll need at least Dex 13 for Improved Grapple and Int 13 for Improved Trip (which needs Combat Expertise). Keep that in mind when you’re creating your character, but, honestly, you’ll want those anyway, for AC and Skill points.

The only thing you have going for you is Feats, so make them count. Whilst you could expand into Sunder and Disarm and the like, you only have so many actions, and it’s usually more useful to Trip or Grapple. Thus, passive boosts like Weapon Focus and Blind Fight are generally more useful.

Here’s a summary of Fighter Feats, colour coded for your convenience. (Red: bad. Green: good. Blue: average.)

Feat Summary Comment
Blind-Fight You’re better when blind and against invisible foes Quite good; mandatory for anyone in light armour or less (personal experience…).
Cleave Free attack when you kill something It’s popular, but its usefulness decreases as you gain levels. It’s not a bad choice, but if you take it, take it early.
Combat Expertise Sacrifice attack for AC Good in its own right, but needed because it leads to Improved Trip.
Combat Reflexes Extra Attacks of Opportunity Extra attacks without having to spend an action is great.
Diehard Stay conscious at below 0 hp Only take this if you already have Endurance (prereq). Don’t take Endurance just for this. It’s still not that good, but quite dramatic.
Dodge +1 AC vs one foe Pretty underwhelming, but leads to some good Feats.
Endurance Assortment of small bonuses If your DM likes to ambush you in the night, take this to sleep in medium armour.
Exotic Weapon Proficiency Proficiency in an exotic weapon This can be good, depending on the weapon. Spiked Chain is good, Bastard Sword and Dwarven Waraxe are alright.
Great Cleave Like Cleave, but unlimited per round Pretty useless in most games. If your campaign throws bazillions of little foes at you… take a level of Wizard and grab a wand of Fireball.
Great Fortitude Bonus to Fort saves Your Fort save is probably already high enough, you probably don’t need this. Either way, a 2-level dip into Paladin is probably more useful (with a cloak of Charisma).
Greater Weapon Focus Bonus to hit with chosen weapon Sure, why not. Take more important things first, unless you’re actually struggling to hit things.
Greater Weapon Specialization Bonus damage with chosen weapon By this stage a minor damage bonus isn’t fantastic, but it’s better than many other options.
Improved Bull Rush Better Bull Rushing Bull Rush is simply not as useful as Grappling or Tripping. I’d pass on it.
Improved Critical Larger Critical Threat range It’s not as good as you’d hope, but if you don’t have anything else to take, go for it.
Improved Disarm Better Disarming Disarming is nice, except it doesn’t work against most Monsters or Casters. It’s probably best not to take this.
Improved Feint Better Feinting No. Don’t be fooled by the Fighter-like prereq and its inclusion on the Fighter Bonus Feat list. Bluff isn’t a class skill for you, and Feinting sucks in Core anyway.
Improved Grapple Better Grappling Take it… but sadly for non-Monks you first need Improved Unarmed Strike to qualify.
Improved Initiative Initiative bonus This is good for basically every character. Go for it.
Improved Overrun Better Overrunning Like Bull Rushing, Overrun is just not that good by comparison to Grappling and Tripping.
Improved Shield Bash Better Shield Bashing Shield Bashing is a waste of time.
Improved Sunder Better Sundering Unless you know in advance that you’re going against a Hydra and your DM will enforce the rules about cutting off its heads, skip this one.
Improved Trip Better Tripping Half the article’s on this. Grab it ASAP.
Improved Unarmed Strike Better Unarmed Strike. The only reason to take this is to qualify for Improved Grapple.
Iron Will Bonus to Will saves If you’re really suffering due to low saves, and have already take a 2-level dip into Paladin and buffed your Cha with a cloak or something, and you already have buffed your Wis with an amulet or something, then you can take this.
Leadership Cohort madness Ha ha, ha ha, ha. If your DM actually allows this, your whole party should take it.
Lightning Reflexes Bonus to Reflex saves See Iron Will, above.
Mobility Bonus to AC vs AoO Not terrible. Handy in some situations, and as a prereq for some things.
Mounted Combat Protect your mount with Ride checks Only if you can fit your mount everywhere you intend on going. Honestly, a Halfling Paladin is the way to go for this kind of thing.
Power Attack Subtract attack to add damage Mandatory. You need this to hurt things with DR, like Golems.
Quick Draw Draw a weapon as a Free Action I like this one, but it’s not necessary. You can do some neat things with it. It’s slightly campaign-dependant. Good in ambushes.
Spring Attack Move, attack, flee in one turn The prereq chain a bit annoying, but it’s not a bad Feat. Better for lightly armoured Fighters.
Toughness Bonus HP It’s a trap! No! Don’t do it! 1 Feat is worth a lot more than 3 hp!
Two-Weapon Fighting Fight with two weapons Two-Weapon Fighting is statistically worse than using a Two Handed weapon, especially with Power Attack, unless you have piles of Sneak Attack dice. Don’t do it.
Weapon Finesse Use Dex for attack roll with certain weapons Only for certain weapons, like Spiked Chain.
Weapon Focus Bonus to hit with chosen weapon Sure, why not. Take more important things first, unless you’re actually struggling to hit things.
Weapon Specialization Bonus damage with chosen weapon Nice at low levels, and not terrible at high levels. You’ll eventually get it because it’s better than the alternatives.
Whirlwind Attack Attack all adjacent foes once Apart from the Feat chain to get it, I don’t like this because you are rarely surrounded by more than a couple of worthy foes, and it may not work with Improved Trip properly.

Even with all that, you may start running out of decent Feats. Multiclass dips basically cost you a Feat, so do that, it’s a good exchange. Otherwise… beg your DM to let you at the PHBII. Yes, okay, fine, this is a Core guide… but the PHBII rocks.

Other than all that, just try to get creative: try not to get bogged down in melee just throwing dice at your foes, as such. If you’re taking damage, don’t be afraid to use Combat Expertise to raise your AC: it doesn’t matter how much you hit if you die.


With a Monk, you need to be clever about when you duck in and out of combat, and when you stay in melee and use Flurry of Blows. Your natural Speed bonus means you can move in and out of combat far better than any other character. Whilst it takes most of your Feats, heading for Spring Attack is a pretty good choice (Dodge -> Mobility -> Spring Attack, but it has an annoying +4 BaB requirement so you can’t get it until level 6). Staying in Melee can also be good, as long as there is someone else to take the hits: your AC and HP won’t be that fantastic. You can, however, dish out a fair bit of damage: you get a lot of attacks, and all the bonus ones are at your full BaB. Make Trip attempts with all of those for more fun.

The best Core Feat you can take isn’t in the Players Handbook: it’s in the Monster Manual. The Feat is Improved Natural Attack, and increases the damage you deal with your natural weapons. The fists of a Monk count as both manufactured weapons and natural weapons. This Feat also scales nicely if you have Enlarge Person cast on you: there is a table in the Monk entry which shows the Unarmed damage for a Large Monk. For example, at level 6 (the earliest you can take the Feat), you do 1d8 unarmed damage. With Enlarge Person or Improved Natural Attack, you do 2d6 damage. With both, you do an impressive 3d6 damage with your fists alone. It also scales as you advance in levels, since your base damage improves.

For other Feats, Improved Initiative is always good, and Power Attack could come in handy against some enemies. Blind-Fight is also a good idea. If you want, you could also take things like Weapon Focus and Improved Critical for Unarmed Strike.

The next problem is getting it so you can actually hit anything with that nice damage. Normal people buy magic weapons, but that’s not exactly feasible when you’re fighting with your hands. Now, the D&D developers seem to have decided to purposely make our lives hard: they offer the Amulet of Mighty Fists, a ridiculously overpriced item. Take a pen to your DMG and cross it out. So how? Well, you can either invest in a Permanencied Greater Magic Fang (which can be annoyingly dispelled), or: you can simply craft a pair of gloves and enchant them. Done! If the DM complains, hit him with your 3d6 fists and show him the multitude of internet posts dealing with the weakness of Monks. I’ve seen it recommended that you enchant your fists themselves, but you technically can’t do that… not because you “can’t”, but because they aren’t Masterwork! If you can somehow get Masterwork fists, then go for it. ๐Ÿ™‚

I’ve seen a guide which recommended using Use Magic Device to patch up the holes in the Monk’s abilities, such as by using a wand of Divine Power to get full BaB. However, Use Magic Device is not a Class Skill for Monks, and besides, there is an easier way. Want to use a Cleric wand? Grab a level of Cleric, and you get that, some spells, and Domain Powers… and if you take the Magic Domain, you can also use all Wizard wands! Much better. Make sure you take the Cleric level before any Monk ones, due to the Monk’s Multiclass restrictions.

For Skills, Tumble is a must. It’s a fantastic Skill and you need it. I would also recommend Jump: with Monk Speed, you get a nice bonus to Jump checks (also, Jump and Tumble give a +2 Synergy Bonus to each other). Beyond that, it’s pretty campaign-dependant: for example, Hide for sneaky campaigns, Swim for aquatic campaigns; etcetera.

Note that if you ever hit level 20 Monk, you become an Outsider, which does strange things: for example, you can’t be buffed by Enlarge Person. Becoming an extraplanar being is not for everyone, consult your doctor. Multiclass or use Prestige Classes if you end up at this level and don’t want to take Monk 20.


Overall, even with all this, you may still struggle by comparison to the other members of the party. However, if you’ve optimized your character enough and use interesting attacks like Grapple and Trip, you’ll likely have a lot more fun that if you just stand in melee and roll a few dice every turn. Don’t walk into combat and hit things because “that’s what a Fighter/Monk does”, try to think of how to use your abilities most effectively. A Fighter has the HP and AC, and a Monk the mobility, to run past the enemy front lines and decimate high-priority enemies like casters. Finally, try to be creative with your abilities… and keep a Bag of Holding with a small armoury of magic items.

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About Duncan

Ellisthion's all about 5E D&D at the moment, but has at times has played every edition from 1E AD&D through to 5E, plus Star Wars: Saga Edition, Paranoia, and more. He DMs a lot, and tends to make overly-complicated campaigns and characters.
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