This hand giveth, and this hand taketh away
For a while now, I've wondered why the Monk doesn't have a decent healing class. I can't really explain why that is – maybe because I see them as being a little bit akin to a Cleric – there's no reason why a monk can't follow a deity I guess, even if their power is not derived from their faith in the same way that a Cleric's is. Enter the Way of Mercy, the humanoid embodiment of Cure Wounds and Inflict Wounds, or Harm and Heal (unless you're a Centaur, in which case I guess you're not really humanoid...)
Right off the bat, this subclass seems pretty original and kind of out of left field, in a good way. It brings together some design elements in terms of fluff that I wouldn't necessarily have thought to put together – a (potentially) masked wanderer seeking out those in pain to heal them (yay!) or put them out of their misery (eek!)
As with the other articles from Unearthed Arcana in this particular batch, we're treated to a table to roll on (if we want) to pick a mask for our creepy Monk. Spoiler alert, they are all terrifying. Except maybe the butterfly. Unless it's a butterfly with massive fangs. And a sub-machine gun. Or you're scared of butterflies – yeah that last one would definitely do it.
Each of the subclass features will get a short summary below, but you can download the full rules, for free, from the Wizards of the Coast website here.
Implements of Mercy - 3rd Level
Gain proficiency in Insight or Medicine. Gain proficieny with the Herbalism or Poisoner's Kit.
So at 3rd level you are treated to THREE abilities. THREE. May as well get your value for money in early! We open the show with something that adds a bit more depth to the flavour of the subclass – proficiency with the Herbalism or Poisoner's Kit, which immediately paints you as an apothecary (and potentially a nasty one). You also get to choose a free bonus skill proficiency – either Insight or Medicine.
Now, I'm a big fan of choice. Choice is good. However, reading the intro blurb for the class left me wondering why Insight is a potential option here. Maybe it's to root out the evil that this subclass has a penchant for ruthlessly murdering, so fair enough, we'll wave that one through. However, given that this is a class that's at least half way about saving poor ailing victims if there is any chance of them recovering, the fact that the Healer's Kit doesn't appear as a choice for tool proficiency does seem a little strange. I'd love to see that added in at some stage.
Hands of Healing - 3rd Level
Spend a Ki to touch a creature and heal for Martial Arts die + Wis mod. You can use this to replace one strike in Flurry of Blows.
For me, this is spot on, both tonally and in terms of mechanics. It starts off as not the greatest healing spell in the world (an action for a d4 of healing and one of your 3 valuable Ki points used up), and eventually turns into a better version of level 1 Cure Wounds. You don't get to boost the number of dice that you roll, so don't expect to be taking someone from unconscious to full health with it, but it's definitely not the worst thing in the world.
Where it shines, though, is its ability to replace one of your strikes in Flurry of Blows. Now, this will get real expensive real fast, but touching an ally, or yourself (oo er!) to heal as a bonus action while you're still pummelling the enemy really seems like an efficient way to use your actions. This is the kind of heal that you would want to use at a crucial moment to stop someone from dying rather than capping off their hit points – that way you can be sure to get the most value out of it.
Hands of Harm - 3rd Level
When you hit with an unarmed strike, spend a Ki to deal additional damage, which triples if your victim is poisoned or incapacitated.
Ladies and gentlemen, it's a new flavour of smite! This Monk subclass does Paladin impressions! Well – not quite, and again this is the kind of ability that comes into its own the more you level up, but being able to throw in 3 Martial Arts dice against an enemy that's poisoned or incapacitated is a great thing. Monks are great at dishing out damage as it is, so being able to potentially pile on 3d12 on top of what you were already doing once you get into the major leagues ain't bad at all, especially for one Ki point.
Again, this absolutely plays to the flavour of the subclass – this of course being the kind of mercy that someone wouldn't necessarily want to be on the receiving end of. But then maybe that's their fault for having the wrong alignment! Ha!
Noxious Aura - 6th Level
Spend a Ki to create a 5 foot aura around you for 1 minute. It gives ranged attacks against you disadvantage and poisons everyone who enters it.
We were doing really well – there was a very strong theme, we had the hurt/heal mechanics all ready and laid out and then... fart cloud. It's 100% my fault that this was what popped into my head the first time I read this ability, but after I got over my initial spell of puerile tittering and looked at it again, I found this ability kind of jarred with the rest of the class thematically.
Mechanically, yes – you have an ability that allows you to deal sick damage to targets that are poisoned (not literally sick damage, it's necrotic damage). I can see why it was felt that there was a need to give the subclass a way to switch this on rather than just crossing their fingers and hoping that it would happen. It's just that the idea of poisoning someone having anything to do with mercy, including the more sinister side of how the class deals with that, doesn't really add up. The introductory spiel specifically says that they bring a swift end to those beyond their help.
Obviously poisoning them first so that they can use their ability to slap them harder because they're looking off colour does bring about a swifter end, but that kind of blurs the line between the events in-game and the mechanics that sit underneath it in a way that maybe isn't as satisfying as it could be?
Disadvantage to ranged attacks against you is very cool, though - that feels like a ninja dropping a smoke bomb, which I like very much.
Healing Technique - 11th Level
Hands of Healing also ends one of the following: one disease, or the blinded, deafened, paralyzed or poisoned condition.
There's not much to say about this one other than it seems to make perfect sense. Other classes get the ability to cure status effects as they level up, either by way of class features or access to spells, and it definitely fits the theme. Given that you can't pump extra dice into the heal itself, giving it a little bonus like this keeps it relevant at higher levels. Great stuff.
Hand of Mercy - 17th Level
Touch a creature and spend 4 Ki to make them take a Con save. They can choose to fail. If they do, they enter a state of suspended animation where they are paralyzed, immune to damage, and appear dead.
I think the fact that this subclass is so creative is fantastic – that's not to say that the others from this batch are cookie cutter, because they aren't. Unique abilities that give a character a chance to do something like put someone in suspended animation and make them immune to damage for a few days are what make subclasses stand out. The ability to protect one of your party from death is significant – they might have to sit out as a spectator for a few rounds once they've become an eerily lifelike waxwork, but most players would rather that than lose their character to a grim and brutal death.
This has offensive capabilities too, of course, and the potential to be an incredible way of stopping a powerful enemy in their tracks. Did you get ambushed by something powerful on the way to complete an important mission? Put it in stasis. You might not be able to damage it, but you can absolutely hop on your cart and ride away at your leisure – the duration is a number of days equal to your Monk level, and you pick this up at level 17. That means you have almost two tendays to put some distance between you and your foe. Unless you're a teleporter, that's going to put you far enough away that whoever or whatever they were now becomes completely irrelevant. It's a little worrying that most boss-level monsters only have 3 Legendary Resistances, though, and this ability allows for 4 attempts to inflict a fight-ending condition. Maybe the number of Ki points needs to be dialled up by just a couple to give the DM at least some hope of being able to use the big bad in the final fight.
Feeling creative? You can use this for a few other things too. Tough character blocking a choke point? Suspend their animation and use them as a human shield! They're invulnerable until you choose to end the effect, and you actually have to choose to do it – even if you somehow get knocked unconscious they remain impervious. Want to sneak someone into a tyrant's castle? Turn them into a statue and send them in as a gift!
Mechanically, this looks like a solid subclass but where it really shines is the strong theme (the flatulence issue aside) that delivers what the description pitches in spades. You can do what a Monk does best and dish out lashings of damage in melee combat, but you also have the ability to keep other members of the party on their feet. This kind of versatility can take pressure off other classes that are traditionally needed to heal without compromising your own ability to contribute to the butt kicking. All of this and you get to wear a deep cowl and a creepy mask! What's not to like about that?
Stats wise, you'll be wanting to give plenty of love to both your Wisdom and your Dexterity (you want to be able to hit things in combat, but also to have your Wis mod as high as you can for better healing), but there's room for you to favour one aspect of the subclass over the other if you have more of a liking for being nice to your friends or a nightmare to your enemies. Roleplay-wise, you're looking at something quite different from other Monks here, and if you can resist going completely down the path of the edge lord, there is plenty to get your teeth into!