I’m pretty slow on the draw when it comes to making decisions. If someone asks me to choose where we’re going to eat, you can bet it’s going to be awhile before I finally settle on a location. Ask me my favorite band and watch me give a noncommittal shrug. Where would I travel if I could go anywhere in the world? How am I supposed to know? Making concrete decisions is a skill where I’m lacking in proficiency, and that lack of skill has caused me to fumble on a very important decision in my life: which class I’m going to pick for my Dungeons and Dragons character.
In the coming weeks, I will be playing Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition for the first time in my life. I’m familiar enough with D&D from pop culture, video games, and from reading the book in the past to compare it to other tabletops I enjoy. But this will be the first time that I throw dice on the table as a player of this most legendary of tabletops, and like with most of my decisions I find myself at a stalemate. In this case, I have a couple of classes which really jump out at me and I’m having some trouble deciding between the two of them. One is the fist-fighting master of ki, the monk. The other is the stealthy stalker of the shadows, the rogue.
Now I could just wait until the day my dungeon master says to roll up a character and pick based on whatever feels right at the time, but that ain’t my style, adventurers. I want to overthink things, to meticulously analyze each class until I’m satisfied that the choice I’m making is as mechanically optimal as I can manage while also allowing my desires around roleplaying and aesthetics to influence the decision to a degree. So today, I’m going to do just that. I’ll dig into the rules of the game to compare these two classes in a few key areas like combat power, defensive abilities, and versatility. So let’s dive in and see which class will win the day in the battle for my heart!
Naturally one of the most important considerations when choosing a character in Dungeons and Dragons is how easy it is for you to put the bad guys in the dirt. To get an idea of this for each class, I want to examine how much damage each can do in a typical turn, how much they can do with special abilities, and also the variety of special abilities that they have to bring to bear in a combat scenario.
Monks don’t have a great selection of weapons, using only simple weapons, a short sword, or their own two hands. They make up for this with their Martial Arts feature. This enhances the hitting power of the monk’s bare hands and, at later levels, the weapons they wield as well. It also allows them to make an attack with their fists as a bonus action during combat. This means even at level one, monks are attacking twice in a round (generally for d6 + d4 damage, or a range of 2-10 if both attacks connect). At level five, two big things happen for the monk: they get an extra standard attack as well as an increase in their monk damage die. This makes it so that on a normal turn, the monk can attack twice with a weapon and once with their fists all for 3d6 damage (a range of 3-18 damage every round). This can all be focused on one target or spread between different targets in a melee. Also, keep in mind that we haven’t even started adding the bonus from the monk’s ability modifiers to this damage just yet.
Now compare this to regular damage for a rogue. The rogue’s best starting weapon for damage is generally going to be the rapier, which deals d8 damage. That’s, uh…that’s it. So the rogue is going to be dealing 1-8 damage each round at level one, which is a bit worse than the monk right out the gate, and things just get worse and worse from there. This is particularly true once we factor in modifiers – assuming that you use the standard set and a favorable race for statistics, both of these classes can add 3 to their damage at level 1 and 4 by level 5. So let’s make a quick chart comparing their standard damage potential side-by-side:
|1||(D6 + 3) + (D4 + 3), 8-16||D8 + 3, 4-11|
|5||3D6 + 12, 15-30||D8 + 4, 5-12|
|12||3D8 + 15, 18-39||D8 + 5. 6-13|
|20||3D10 + 15, 18-45||D8 + 5. 6-13|
The monk has an undeniable advantage when it comes to basic attacks, but how do special attacks factor in? Here the monk has more of the same – by spending a point of ki, they can add one more attack to the Flurry of Blows. When doing so, some monk schools also add a special bonus to the attack, like potentially knocking the target prone or shoving them backward a distance of 15 feet. When it comes to the rogue, their bread and butter in combat is the Sneak Attack – anytime they have advantage on their attack roll or when the target is flanked by an ally, the rogue adds additional dice to their damage. The number of dice increases every odd numbered level, making it so that the rogue actually increases in power more incrementally than the monk when it comes to special moves. Let’s see what that looks like in another chart:
|Level||Flurry of Blows||Sneak Attack|
|2||D6 + 2D4 + 9, 12-23||D8 + D6 + 3, 5-17|
|5||4D6 + 16, 20-40||D8 + 3D6 + 4, 8-30|
|13||4D8 + 20, 24-52||D8 + 7D6 + 5, 13-55|
|20||4D10 + 20, 24-60||D8 + 10D6 + 5, 16-73|
Now the rogue is looking a bit more competitive at higher levels when it comes to raw damage output, but there are more factors to consider on both sides. The chart above assumes that every monk attack hits. Flurry of Blows is a series of four separate attacks starting at level 5, but statistically speaking we can assume that one or two of them will miss on any given round. Now with the rogue, the damage is all or nothing – either you’ll get the range on the chart or you’ll get zero. The difference is that in most situations as the rogue, your attack will have advantage – after all, that’s the primary trigger for Sneak Attack. This means you’ll be rolling two dice and taking the better number, making it more likely that the Sneak Attack will be a successful hit.
It’s also worthwhile to consider how often the characters can activate their abilities. Monks can only use Flurry of Blows when spending a point of ki. Monks have ki equal to their monk level, which means that you can only use this ability twice before having to take a short rest at level 2, but 20 times between rests at level 20. Rogues don’t spend anything to activate Sneak Attack and therefore can theoretically use it every turn, but remember that they have to have advantage or be flanking the target. So in other words, they are limited by circumstances rather than their own energy. They have supplemental abilities to try and give them situations where Sneak Attack will trigger, such as their Cunning Action which allows them to disengage from combat, move around, or hide without burning their primary action during a turn.
So who comes out ahead in this category? I’ve gotta give it to the monk here. The monk has an undeniable advantage when not using special attacks and until late in the game, deals more damage with special attacks as well. While you have to succeed on more attack rolls to reach the monk’s full damage potential, this also means you can spread the damage between multiple targets to control a crowd. When you add in that the monk’s Flurry of Blows can have side effects in addition to damage depending on your monastic school, there’s little to point towards a damage advantage for the rogue class.
While the ability to murder things is very important in Dungeons and Dragons, you want to be able to live long enough in order to murder effectively. So in this section, we will compare each class on their defensive capabilities. Now when it comes to the armor, monks don’t use it at all. Instead, they add their Wisdom modifier to their armor class along with their dexterity modifier. This means that at first level, if you’ve optimized your race options and ability score assignments to have a 3 modifier in both stats, the monk can start with an AC of 16. Rogues add their dexterity like normal but can use light armor. A starting set of light armor is going to put you at AC 12 (we’ll assume the rogue can spring for studded leather) and +3 for DEX means we’re looking at 15.
Now it gets tricky to continue the comparison because at some point we have to assume that the rogue is factoring magical armor into their equation, right? This is harder to measure objectively because we’re not sure how generous the dungeon master might be or how lucky I might roll on loot tables. What I’m going to say in this situation is that the rogue might actually have a bit of an advantage here because they have more options. The monk is going to start losing abilities if they try to wear magical armor, meaning they can only benefit from amulets or rings that grant protection. The rogue can also wear those amulets and rings as well as wearing magical light armor. Overall, though, I’d say these characters are probably roughly even when it comes to AC, so let’s focus on their other defenses.
Monks get a variety of defensive skills as they level. At level 2 they can spend ki to behave as if they took the dodge action on that turn (giving the opponent disadvantage to attack them), and at level 3 they can block missiles out of the air. By level four the monk is significantly reducing the fall damage they take, and at level 7 they become more proficient at avoiding area attacks, halving the damage even on a failed save and ignoring the damage completely on success. They’ll go on to develop immunity to poison and disease and to gain proficiency on all six saving throw types, covering the four where they previously did not have proficiency. These abilities give monks a valuable resistance to a number of frustrating side effects.
Compare this to the rogue’s defenses. At level 2 rogues can use cunning actions to take defensive maneuvers like hiding or disengaging from melee without burning their standard action. At level 5, they gain Uncanny Dodge, an ability that uses the rogue’s reaction action during the turn to halve the damage they receive from an attack as long as they can see the attacker. By level 7 they gain Evasion just like the monk. Later on, rogues can always sense hidden creatures within a certain distance and become immune to the enemy’s advantage as long as they are not incapacitated. Add on a wisdom saving throw proficiency for good measure, and rogues have more defensive options than one might expect for such scrawny characters.
So then, which class has the advantage in the defense department? It depends to a degree on what you are looking for. Monks have defenses against more special circumstances such as poison and falling, and being proficient in every saving throw is a pretty powerful boon. But when it comes to raw HP damage, you can’t really beat the ability to halve all damage against you! There are also circumstantial factors to consider. The monk is a primarily melee combatant who is going to want to be in the thick of things during combat. The rogue, conversely, is just as capable at a range as in melee and spends a lot of their time taking evasive actions like hiding so that they can activate Sneak Attack. This means that the rogue is less often in a situation where they will take damage and are also better suited for avoiding damage. And since both of these classes have the same hit die, they are equally hardy – or not – when it comes to HP. With this in mind, I’m going to have to rule a tie for this one. The monk probably could use the rogue’s Uncanny Dodge due to their constant proximity to violence in melee, but the fact that they can spend ki to make it much harder for the opponent to hit them in addition to their resistances to more insidious types of harm allows them to keep somewhat even. In particular, having proficiency in all saving throws makes monks more defensive in out-of-combat scenarios even though rogues might have them beat in combat. This one, I think, is more a matter of preference when compared to the first category, which had more objective qualities that we could measure.
Versatility represents all of the abilities that a class brings to the table when you factor in non-combat situations. While D&D is certainly a combat-focused game and has the most detailed and granular rules when combat is involved, there are times when battle is not at the forefront and so considering what a class can do during those times is important. This section will focus on skill proficiency as well as class features that do not relate directly to combat situations.
Monks begin the game with two skill proficiencies chosen from Acrobatics, Athletics, History, Insight, Religion, and Stealth. Acrobatics and Athletics are valuable for performing and resisting combat maneuvers like grapple or shove, as well as tasks like climbing and jumping. History and Religion are knowledge skills allowing the character to know things about the game world. Insight allows the monk to read a person, and of course stealth allows them to hide and sneak around. Monk features allow them to understand any language at 13th level and to become invisible at 18th level. Depending on your monastic school, you can get additional non-combat abilities such as self-healing or teleportation in places of shadow.
Rogues start with twice as many skill proficiencies (four) and a larger list of skills to choose from: Acrobatics, Athletics, Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Perception, Performance, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth. Rogues have a larger number of active skills – remember that one third of the monk’s skills focused around knowledge. Rogues can interact with NPCs in a variety of ways (charming, lying, frightening) and they can read not only people but also situations (perception). Investigation allows them to conduct thorough searches and sleight of hand allows them to steal or perform other feats of manual dexterity. At levels 1 and 6, the rogue gets to choose two of these skills to get a second round of proficiency bonus, effectively doubling their potency in their trained skills. Finally, at 11th level rogues get so good at their skills that as long as they are adding their proficiency bonus to a roll, they cannot roll beneath a 10. Outside of the skills category, Thieves’ Cant is not a pessimistic slogan but rather a secret language that rogues can use to communicate.
Fortunately like the combat section, we have an objective form of measurement in this category. Unfortunately for the monk, that objective measure vastly favors the rogue. They get double the number of trained skills, a larger pool of practical skills to choose from, and multiple class features which enhance the potency of those skills. While a monk is likely to be a one trick pony out of combat, you never know what a rogue is capable of, so they are still exciting to play when it’s time to put the swords away.
If you’ve been keeping score, at this point you might be thinking “wow, Ian, that was a very unhelpful exercise.” You might be right. With each class having one category clearly in their favor and the third category split between them, it’s tough to declare one class as the decisive winner without having a stronger vision for what the campaign will be like. In a game where combat is less emphasized and where I’ll have lots of opportunities for my character to interact socially and perform exciting feats, the rogue seems a clear choice. In a game where I’ll be spending most of my time in battle and the non-combat sequences get glossed over, the monk definitely has an advantage.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to player preference. Do you want to excel at combat? Do you want lots of skills? Do you just really like the idea of having ki, or being able to speak a cool thief language? You can’t really go wrong with either class, which is great except that it means I’m no closer to choosing one after I wrote this article than I was before I started! Perhaps those of you who are similarly struggling will find more help from this exercise than I did – or even better, maybe you’ll be able to add some perspective to help the rest of us out. Have you played either of these classes in your own D&D adventures? Which one did you have the most fun with? Is there some detail I missed that might help push one over the other? Let me know in the comments if you have advice!