It has been said by many that monks are underpowered in Pathfinder for various reasons, including a less-than-full base attack bonus, a less-than-maximum damage output, and a multiple-ability-dependency. While I do not seek to disprove any of these points, I would argue that once you leave the world of theorycrafting and enter actual gameplay, monks begin to shine and their role becomes quite clear. We will go through several points one at a time, responding to the potential pitfalls as we proceed.
A Mobile Warrior
While one should look elsewhere for gaining the maximum in certain combat statistics, the monk becomes the star when movement is required. When well designed and played, a monk is unmatched by any in terms of mobility on the battlefield. With no need for armor, the monk avoids both speed loss and the armor check penalty that would otherwise apply to Acrobatics and the like.
In addition, the monk gains speed increases with level, quickly becoming the fastest creature on the field. With the addition of ki points to increase speed, even a mid-level monk can outrun almost anything in the game.
Now, movement on the battlefield is vital for several reasons. Firstly, controlling the battle is all about positioning. Where you are in relation to the enemy, how you predict their movements, set up tactical advantages, and innumerable other factors all rely on speed. Second, getting to the fight in time is almost as important for a warrior as being effective when he or she arrives. While the slower and armor-wearing warriors are stumping along, struggling to get in front of the softer caster targets, the monk may arrive suddenly and unexpected, like lightning out of a clear sky. Third, countering slowing effects and sticky situations can often be impossible without a great speed. In an encounter with difficult terrain, with enemies casting darkness and entangle effects, slower warriors can be mired for hours and worn down to death. The monk can run or leap out of these areas and bring the offense to the enemy instead of lying down in despair.
As soon as you stop having all your encounters in a small stone hallway and enter the world of adventure on real and complex terrain, a mobile warrior becomes a key component of any group.
The Power of Flurry
Monks have a powerful ability called Flurry of Blows, which allows them to make a dangerous full attack with a bonus as if they had a full base attack bonus. They gain this ability at first level, and it scales as they increase in power. This ability alone makes a Monk dangerous and effective in combat. It is true that their numbers fall slightly below a fighter or similar who takes all the two-weapon fighting feats that monks are assumed to have in Flurry. However, this doesn’t matter. Such a fighter would lack all the abilities and options that a monk possesses, while specializing heavily in one aspect of combat. A monk can be a master of the same thing without being the best, most damaging example that could possibly exist. They can have less than the best possible average damage in return for a deluge of powerful abilities in other areas.
One of the most common complaints regarding the monk has to do with their three-fourths base attack bonus. It is true that monks are a melee warrior class, and that they need to hit their targets just like everyone else. However, I would argue that the three-fourths base attack bonus is the only thing keeping monks back from sweeping all competition out of the water. Imagine a monk that could speed in and out of the battle every turn, hitting with the maximum bonus available in the game, and zipping away at will. It is appropriate to have a monk required to stand still and use a Flurry of Blows to get such a powerful attack in. Keep in mind that a monk is not a fighter without armor. A monk fulfills a powerful and unique role.
The Master of Defense
While they don’t always have the absolute highest number that one could possibly build for in a defense, monks are the hardest to kill of any base class. James Jacobs once stated that the monk is a defensive class, and he was correct; however, his phrasing has been misinterpreted by many.
A defensive class doesn’t mean that you only play responsively to the enemy, struggling to catch up in damage while reducing the amount taken. Nor does playing a “tank” literally mean wearing metal and advancing slowly and ponderously over the field while carrying the heaviest weapons. It means having the best defense available in all areas, and taking the enemy’s blows when others can’t.
The monk has the most well-rounded defense in the game. They are the one and only class with all good saves. I am tempted to put that in all caps: ALL GOOD SAVES. They can be built with a very high armor class (if not the highest possible in the game), and can pump that higher with a ki point. Nobody else can say that they don’t have an Achilles heel in any area. No matter what attack the game throws at a monk, whether it be axe-wielding cyclopes or fireball-hurling demons, the monk has a strong defense. This well-rounded defense makes the monk arguably the best tank in the game; where the fighters and paladins stumble in the face of a lightning bolt, the monk leaps away and has evasion to escape the entirety of the damage. A monk can direct attention to him/herself and then escape the consequences no matter what kind they might be.
Adaptability and Threat
While the monk may not be the most adaptable nor necessarily the most dangerous in the party, the class is very well designed to do both of these. With ki points, the monk can gain an incredible boost to AC, speed, or an additional attack in the round. As three things the Monk is already good at, the ability to become truly great at one of them in a round is crucial. Whether attack or defense is paramount at that moment, the monk can shine if necessary.
Finally, the monk does indeed pose an enormous threat to the enemy right at level one. This threat comes via Stunning Fist. With the ability to simply slip a stun into a flurry of attacks, the monk has the potential to deal damage and inflict one of the worst effects in the game, all in one turn. Here the monk synergizes extremely well with other warriors in the party, allowing them to move into position without provoking an AoO, set up a flank, and attack a flat-footed enemy with impunity. Avoiding a situation where the monk gets off a Flurry of Blows plus a ki point bonus attack plus a Stunning Fist plus a number of other effects from bonus feats could be absolutely critical in a fight. However, with the monk’s speed and array of movement abilities, avoiding that deadly situation may be impossible.
In the end, we find that monks have a number of places they excel, and an impressive array of unique abilities or combinations that few can match. The monk has a place in almost any party, and can shine almost no matter what kind of encounter they face. Playing a monk can be an enjoyable, fun, and even optimized experience for them and their thankful party members.
P.S. Monks: Why they so frickin’ rad?