Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
Today's special edition of Classy was prompted by some conversations on Twitter about the possibilities of a better Archery Monk subclass. So here we have it, a spin on the old Zen Archer archetypes (if folks have a less culturally loaded set of terminology I'm definitely up for renaming, I just wanted to show the inspirations from older editions).
The Way of the Zen Archer integrates Monk abilities more deeply with ranged weapons, taking the specialty a step further past the Kensei. Notably, the Zen Archer also moves the class's primary stat to Wisdom. This makes the class notably SADder (much like the Astral Self), allowing the Monk to bring Wisdom to the forefront.
The initial ability Mind's Eye gives the Monk access to a wider variety of ranged weapons (basically just excluding the heavy crossbow and net weapons) and allows them to use their Wisdom in place of their Dexterity modifier for attack rolls. This is already a big gain since it adds the prodigious reach of a Longbow to a monk's attacks. The last piece allows the Monk to still make their bonus action attack even at range.
The level 6 abilities have a distinctive defensive edge, Lightning Reflexes allows the Monk to punish enemies who close and attempt to escape while the Disorienting Step gives them the ability to reposition on a Flurry of Blows, staying out of reach (and disadvantage) of most enemies.
At level 11 the Zen Archer picks up one of their main offensive abilities, Expansion, which allows them to burn ki to deal additional damage and frighten when they focus fire on the same creature. The immunity to charm and frightened also gives them some substantial if niche protections that underline the class's aesthetic of mental and spiritual focus.
Finally, at 17 the Zen Archer picks up their subclass capstone. Unerring Strike allows them to ignore half and three-quarters cover but also adds concealment to the mix. The final ability, True Shot, allows them to amplify this trait. By spending a hefty chunk of ki they can gain Truesight, exemplifying their spiritual senses. The damage swap to force is a nice ribbon ability that will also help them avoid certain resistances/immunities that become more common at higher level.
Themes and Reskinning
While the Zen Archer class is definitely drawing on specific imagery and concepts from Japanese martial arts traditions there are a number of real world and fantastical inspirations that would work as well. The Zen Archer is a prime candidate for a Psionic Archery reskin, replacing the spiritual elements of the class with more of a Stranger Things vibe. The psychic damage on Expansion already lends itself to this swap.
For a more mundane archer, you could reflavor the abilities simply as peerless human skill and lean into real world martial archery icons like the English Yeoman, Central Asian or Parthian mounted archers (which might called for a few feature swaps to include mounts) or even the campy (and ahistorical) trickshooters of the Wild West entertainment shows.
You could even swap the damage types to Radiant or Necrotic and have yourself a Holy or Fiendish archer. With the Wisdom lean it already fits smoothly into the Cleric family and abilities could be reskinned as divine blessings or fiendish gifts.
Let me know what you think! Too overpowered? Too weak? How do you see a Zen Archer fitting in at your table? If you get a chance to play it drop us a comment and let us know how it went (and of course what kind of character you made!)
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.