Earth, fire, air, water: long ago, the four elements lived together in harmony within the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons beta. Then, everything changed when the Player’s Handbook was officially released. Only the Dungeon Master, master of the world itself can save what the Way of the Four Elements became, but I believe it can be reborn. Okay, okay. I promise I’ll try to keep the Avatar: The Last Airbender references to a minimum (even though it’s my favorite TV show of all time).
When 5E D&D was still in beta I eagerly downloaded each patch of new content, and when it was announced the Way of the Four Elements made the cut into the PHB I was absolutely ecstatic! Finally! I would get to play a character like the avatar! I’d played a four elements-based monk character in a homebrewed version of 2E AD&D in the past and I was so excited to make him into 5E D&D, officially using the rules for what had previously been just a dream for me to see Wizards of the Coast put out.
So, imagine my disappointment when I read how the once-epic Way of the Four Elements had devolved and nerfed into a ki-burning nightmare with fewer options than I’d ever feared they might reduce it to. A lot of the core problems with the Way of the Four Elements as it stands struggles for two primary reasons, in my opinion.
Way of the Four Elements consumes too much ki!
The amount of ki required for a monk to perform a maneuver just once is astounding for any Monastic Tradition in 5E D&D. Other monks get to do more for less ki expenditure, and while I understand versatility is valuable in itself, I really don’t think it’s well balanced.
Bear in mind a single ki point represents a Dodge action as a bonus, returning a projectile after catching it without using any action at all or any number of other monk subclass-specific features. There’s just not enough bang for the amount of ki bucks you’re spending per ability. When you compound this with the fact they don’t get any subclass features that don’t consume ki points, the problem only compounds.
Not enough monk options!
Piling onto the previous point you’re offered a list of options your monk character can choose to develop and customize their style, which is cool in theory, but the problem is you only get one option per tier, as written in the rules, with a lot of the better options costing massive amounts of ki. Feeling cool and getting to do your amazing 5E D&D things are relegated to higher levels of gameplay — levels most players never reach.
When you consider most other monk subclasses get multiple features, or at least multifaceted features, that don’t rely on ki expenditure to gain any use, the Way of the Four Elements is quickly outclassed by every other Monastic Tradition. The 5E D&D design team did offer the option of allowing one additional choice of maneuver per tier, and that honestly felt like a weak attempt at a fix.
Note I called it an attempt. Because when I examined this closely I realized even if a player was simply granted all of the options that exist for a given tier, it still wouldn’t be fixed because of the ki expenditure problem. This is something I think is crucial to understanding how to fix this subclass.
Reincarnation is the answer
At its baseline the Way of the Four Elements monk subclass is fundamentally flawed because of the two reasons I covered above, but how do we fix it? Obviously, we can’t just allow monks to start slinging fireballs at 3rd level and call it good. However, we can look at how the class was built initially and restructure everything using similar principles.
Expending ki to mimic spell effects is a fun idea, but we have to ensure the ki expenditure doesn’t break the subclass, and along that same line we need to add abilities to the subclass that don’t rely on ki expenditure in any capacity. This will ensure the Way of the Four Elements isn’t suddenly rendered useless when the monk expends the last bit of ki.
Let’s look at rebuilding this monk subclass from the beginning. Let’s reincarnate this subclass, if you will.
Ki isn’t the only thing to consider when building a monk subclass. Monks love their bonus actions. Bonus actions for monks are sort of resource in themselves, as they limit what a monk can spend ki points on and how much they can accomplish in a single turn. Monks are great at accomplishing a lot of really cool little things with their action, bonus action, reaction and movement. The action economy works to counterbalance a monk’s effectiveness. So we’re not only dealing with ki.
Theme vs. fun
When it comes to the Way of the Four Elements, the theme is in the name: four elements. We want to be equally good at slinging stones as shaping water and blasting fire while running like the wind. Each element has its own thing to offer and we want to embrace this from the start so no matter what tier of play you’re engaged with playing this monk you’ve got fun and diverse options.
A quick way to balance the diversity this monk could achieve sent me to looking at what I perceived to be the sort of spiritual successor to this subclass: the Wu-Jen mystic. Now, before you bend those boulders to crush me for referencing the broken mystic, hear me out.
The Wu-Jen offered something special: the ability to move between stances of elements that granted different passive abilities. This works nicely for the reincarnated Way of the Four Elements monk because as previously mentioned, monks love their bonus actions. By requiring a bonus action to change stances between the elements, the monk can exchange their bonus strikes, Flurry of Blows, Step of the Wind and so forth for versatility offering (slightly) smaller bonuses to exchange the next turn. No ki cost. Just a bonus action. This automatically makes this monk more fun and flavorful than the original ever has been.
That’s right — one bonus action and this monk gets to swap the set of subclass features it benefits from at any given moment. This means we don’t have to worry if any element’s feature is close to the power of other monks, because this monk only benefits from one set of features at a time.
Way of the Four Elements: Reborn
Just what is this subclass, exactly? What can it do? I’ve got all the flavor text in the downloadable PDF linked below, but I’ll list the features per level tier below:
Beginning when you choose this path at 3rd level, you gain the ability to manipulate the elements around you. As a bonus action on your turn, you can create one of the following effects:
- You create a harmless sensory effect using the elements around you, such as a puff of air, a shower of sparks, a spray of mist or a rumbling of stone.
- You instantaneously light or snuff a candle, torch or other small fire (such as a campfire).
- Chill or warm up to one pound of nonliving material for up to one hour.
- Cause earth, fire, air, or water within a 1-foot cube to move and/or shape itself into a crude form you designate for up to one minute.
You can have up to five such effects active at a single time, as long as you maintain your concentration as though you were concentrating on a spell.
Casting Elemental Spells
Some elemental disciplines allow you to cast spells. See the Spellcasting section for the general rules of spellcasting. To cast one of these spells, you use its casting time and other rules, but you don’t need to provide material components for it.
Also at 3rd level, you can use a bonus action to enter an Elemental Stance, synchronizing your ki with one of the four elements. Each Elemental Stance grants you specific benefits as listed under each element’s Elemental Stance below. Each Elemental Stance lasts until you dismiss it (no action required), until you are incapacitated, or until you switch to a new Elemental Stance as a bonus action on your turn.
You unlock new features of each Elemental Stance when you reach 6th, 11th and 17th level in this class.
Beginning at 6th level, you can spend 2 ki points to cast absorb elements.
Starting at 11th level, you can cast mold earth, control flames, gust, and shape water even when you are not in the associated Elemental Stance. You can cast any of these cantrips as a bonus action.
Beginning at 17th level, you can cast each of the following spells once:
- Stance of Earth: investiture of stone
- Stance of Fire: investiture of flame
- Stance of Air: investiture of air
- Stance of Water: investiture of ice
Once you cast one of these spells using this ability, you become unable to enter the associated Elemental Stance listed alongside it. You regain the ability to reenter that Elemental Stance after you finish a short or long rest.
You regain use of all of these spells through this feature after you finish a long rest.
Stance of Earth
Beginning at 3rd level, you gain the following benefits while you are in Stance of Earth:
- Earth’s Embrace. You can cast the mold earth cantrip.
- Rooted Defense. When you move 15 feet or less on your turn, your Armor Class increases by 2. This bonus remains until you move for more than 15 feet in one turn.
- Stone Anchor. While you are standing on nonmagical earth or stone and have moved 15 feet or less on your turn, you cannot be forcibly pushed or pulled until the beginning of your next turn.
At 6th level, you gain the following additional benefits while you are in Stance of Earth:
- Carve the Path. You gain a burrowing speed of 20 feet.
- Stone’s Throw. You can attack by throwing rocks. When you do, you make a ranged weapon attack with a short range of 60 feet and a long range of 90 feet. These rocks are monk weapons for you, and count as magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical damage.
At 11th level, you gain the following additional benefits while you are in Stance of Earth:
- Grasping Tomb. As an action, you spend 3 ki points to choose 1 creature within 60 feet of you. The creature must make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failure, the creature is grappled and restrained, as the earth itself rises to grasp it. A creature that is restrained in this way can use its action to attempt to break free of this effect. The DC for breaking free is your ki save DC. Creatures that are more than 10 feet above the ground automatically succeed on the initial saving throw against this ability.
- Knock, and It Shall Open. You can spend 5 ki points to cast stone shape.
At 17th level, you gain the following benefits while you are in Stance of Earth:
- Sculpter’s Touch. You can spend 6 ki points to cast transmute rock.
- Mason’s Hedge. You can spend 6 ki points to cast wall of stone.
Stance of Fire
Beginning at 3rd level, you gain the following benefits while you are in Stance of Fire:
- Fire’s Embrace. You can cast the control flames cantrip.
- Energy Burn. Your unarmed strikes’ reach increases by 15 feet, and you can cause their damage type to be fire. If your unarmed strike extends into your expanded reach, the damage must be fire.
At 6th level, you gain the following additional benefits while you are in Stance of Fire:
- Scathing Will. You add your Wisdom modifier to all fire damage you deal.
- Inner Flame. You can cast produce flame, and you can cast it as a bonus action on your turn.
- Dragon’s Breath. You can spend 2 ki points to cast burning hands
At 11th level, you gain the following additional benefit while you are in Stance of Fire:
- Phoenix Screech. You can spend 4 ki points to cast fireball.
At 17th level, you gain the following benefit while you are in Stance of Fire:
- Hedge of Passion. You can spend 5 ki points to cast wall of fire.
Stance of Air
Beginning at 3rd level, you gain the following benefits while you are in Stance of Air:
- Air’s Embrace. You can cast the gust cantrip.
- Flying Leap. When you make an attack, you can spend 1 ki point to fly up to 15 feet. This movement does not provoke opportunity attacks.
At 6th level, you gain the following additional benefits while you are in Stance of Air:
- Windy Strike. You can cast the shillelagh cantrip, as the wind itself fuels your strikes.
- Leaf on the Wind. You do not take damage as a result of falling while you are not incapacitated.
- Whistling Gale. You can spend 2 ki points to cast gust of wind.
At 11th level, you gain the following additional benefit while you are in Stance of Air:
- Sentinel’s Breath. You can spend 3 ki points to cast warding wind.
At 17th level, you gain the following benefit while you are in Stance of Air:
- Guide the Four Zephyrs. You can spend 6 ki points to cast control winds.
Stance of Water
Beginning at 3rd level, you gain the following benefits while you are in Stance of Water:
- Water’s Embrace. You can cast the shape water cantrip.
- Surge Assault. Your unarmed strikes’ reach increases by 15 feet, and you can cause their damage type to be bludgeoning or cold.
At 6th level, you gain the following additional benefits while you are in Stance of Water:
- Tendril Form. You can cast the thorn whip cantrip. It manifests as a tendril of water instead of a thorny vine. You can cast this cantrip as a bonus action on your turn.
- Biting Cold. You can cast the primal savagery cantrip, as claws of frozen, acrid water form on your fingertips. You can cast this cantrip as a bonus action on your turn.
- Ebb and Flow. As an action, you can spend 1 ki point to choose an area of water within 210 feet of you that is no larger than 30 feet on a side. You can change water to ice in the area, and vice versa. You can reshape ice in the area in any way you wish. You can raise or lower the elevation of water, ice or steam, and you can cause steam, fog or mist in the area to appear or disperse entirely. You can also dig a trench with the ice or water, but you cannot use the ice or water to cause damage a creature.
At 11th level, you gain the following additional benefits while you are in Stance of Water:
- One with the Water. You gain a swimming speed equal to your current speed, and you can breathe underwater.
- Healing Flow. As an action, you can touch a creature’s flowing life energy and spend a number of ki points up to your monk level, divided by four (rounded down), to augment the creature’s natural recovery. For each ki point you spend, a creature spends one hit die and adds its Constitution modifier and your Wisdom modifier to the amount of hit points recovered.
- Resurgent Ki. You can spend 3 ki points to cast lesser restoration.
At 17th level, you gain the following benefits while you are in Stance of Water:
- Liquid Command. You can spend 5 ki points to cast control water.
- Ever flowing Globe. You can spend 5 ki points to cast watery sphere.
[NERDITOR’S NOTE: Several spells mentioned in the Way of the Four Elements Reborn are available in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything as well as included in the free Elemental Evil Player’s Companion. Worth noting: the EE Player’s Companion content is available to anyone through D&D Beyond too. The Basic Rules, SRD and other freely distributed content from WotC is part of the digital toolset. This includes Unearthed Arcana playtest content too!]
What do you think of the Way of the Four Elements reborn?
Do you like this rewriting of a classic 5E D&D PHB monk subclass? Do you think this is better or worse? Let us know your thoughts!