Something Different: The Half-Orc Monk
Updated: Oct 19, 2018
“Something Different” articles explore race and class combinations that are just a little bit off-center.
There are days you feel you’ve seen it all.
You walk into the local tavern for a drink and find yourself surrounded by local farmers, merchants and idle adventurers. Serving boys smile as they navigate the crowd, holding large frothy mugs of ale. Everyone is so obvious they might as well be holding placards above their heads.
The Dwarf in full plate? A fighter.
The high elf with his nose in a book? Wizard.
The halfling with her hand in the merchant’s coin purse? Obviously a rogue.
But then you spy a half-orc dressed in a light tunic and a pair of pants cropped mid-calf. Her grey-hued arms are strewn with tattoos and ripple with muscles large enough to rival any barbarian’s, but you don’t see the large weapons.
Something’s unusual about this half-orc’s demeanor as well. She doesn’t appear surly or drunk. She’s not roaring in laughter or slapping her fellows on the shoulders. Instead, she appears calm… almost serene.
It takes you a moment, but as this half-orc turns to catch your gaze, you realize you’re looking at a fellow monk!
Why It’s Different
The half-orc monk is an unusual combination of race and class for two reasons:
It’s a sub-optimal pairing.
It plays against the expectations for both race and class.
As the Player’s Handbook points out, the monk class begs you to maximize your Dexterity and Wisdom scores. Starting with a high Dexterity increases your attack bonus, your armor class (AC) and your damage output. Simultaneously, maximizing your Wisdom score increases the strength of your ki features and drives your AC up even higher, thanks to the Unarmored Defense class feature. Humans, hill dwarves, elves, halflings, and kenku are all strong candidates for the monk class because they gain valuable bonuses to their Dexterity and/or Wisdom scores. Half-orcs do not.
Next, you have the fact that half-orcs are typically short-tempered and called toward rage by their orcish blood. They are often loud, chaotic and excitable, driven by their fierce passions—unlikely candidates for a class that demands personal discipline and is most frequently pursued by characters inclined toward law and order.
How It Can Work
While you can build a half-orc monk the way you would build any other monk—by focusing on Dexterity and Wisdom—I would caution you against it. Why? While there’s nothing inherently wrong in playing a sub-optimal character, it’s easy to become frustrated with your character’s failures when you keep missing by those 1 or 2 points you could have had with a different combination of race and class.
Instead, when you build your half-orc monk, you should play to your strengths—Strength!
The half-orc gets a +2 racial bonus to its Strength score, and a Strength-based monk can be every bit as effective as your standard Dexterity-based monk. It will, however, work best if we don’t just go straight monk. We’re going to start by embracing our orcish heritage and taking two levels of barbarian.
Barbarian provides two crucial advantages. First, the barbarian’s Unarmored Defense allows us to add our half-orc’s Constitution modifier to AC, instead of her Wisdom modifier.
Second, there’s the Reckless Attack class feature. Reckless Attack allows us to claim advantage on all our Strength-based melee weapon attack rolls for a round (including unarmed strikes), and this adds up quickly when we gain Flurry of Blows and an Extra Attack to swing four times each round.
After two levels of barbarian, though, our half-orc will be ready to pursue the monastic path for the remainder of her adventuring career. She’ll be a little bit behind the curve for monk class features, but she’ll hit more consistently, deal more damage, and boast more hit points than your standard monk.
Looking forward, we want to avoid any Monastic Tradition that tempts us with ki features that offer saving throws. Instead, we’ll take Way of Shadow, which allows our half-orc to spend her ki for silence.
Add in the fact that Reckless Attack gives her advantage on her grapple checks, and she becomes a frighteningly effective mage hunter. There’s almost nothing that scares wizards more than being knocked prone and immobilized in the center of a silence spell!
How to Play It
Our half-orc monk is a study in contradictions, and there’s a lot of good role-playing potential within our character’s internal tensions.
She’s driven by rage and raw emotion—but desires self-control and self-mastery.
Her heritage makes her an outsider among humans, but her temperament makes her an outsider among other half-orcs. Perhaps she’s looking for fellowship and acceptance among other adventurers.
Because half-orcs are short-lived, we might even imagine our monk a bit older. She could be looking to combat her body’s deterioration by discovering the secrets of Timeless Body.
If you have a character whose internal tensions make your in-game decisions meaningful, she’ll make your games more exciting and memorable. So use your character’s background to add even more tension or direction!
Maybe she’s a highway robber seeking redemption.
Maybe she’s a former gladiator looking to control her murderous rages.
Or maybe she’s a street urchin, looking for someone to guide her.
Pursue the complexities of your character for all they’re worth. At its finest, fantasy role-playing isn’t just about killing monsters and getting rich; it’s about discovering new layers and depths of character—such as you might find with the half-orc monk.