Finally. The most fun I've had in this game to date and my proudest Skyrim achievement so far, the Master Monk is a build that any fan of Unarmed combat can appreciate (don't stop reading yet!) without also having to be a fan of grinding through crafting skills just to reach a barely-viable damage output (told you!). Inspired by some other incredible Skyrim translations of classic Elder Scrolls class archetypes, I've decided to do the same with one of my very own personal favorites, the Monk. And in spite of the uphill battle we all know I faced trying to find success and enjoyment with Unarmed in Skyrim, I couldn't possibly be more pleased with my results.
The Master Monk
Little is known of this wanderer's origins. Legend tells of a time before, when he was but an eager young warrior who accepted the gift of otherworldly strength from Hircine himself in a power-hungry bid for fame. It took the deaths of two innocents, a protector of Winterhold and priest at Solstheim, by his claw before he would renounce his old ways and seek the resolve so desperately needed to control the beast within. He had heard tale of ancient monks atop Skyrim's highest mountain who possessed the very unmatched restraint he sought to acquire, and thus began his journey down the path set forth, leaving a trail of discarded weapons and armor from his former life behind him in the snow.
In my pursuit of a build that remains as steadfast to the classic archetype of the Monk as possible without sacrificing any enjoyment just to fit it into a game so seemingly hell-bent on keeping said archetype out, I've fully realized quite a few goals that I've set out to accomplish:
Race: Any! The following are my favorite choices though:
Gear: The following combinations achieve what I feel are absolutely perfect aesthetics:
Skills: Sneak, Archery, Alteration, Heavy Armor
Weapons: Fists/Claws!, Auriel's Bow, Sunhallowed Arrows
Spells: Flesh Spells, Ash Rune, Whirlwind Cloak
Shouts: Slow Time!, Whirlwind Sprint, Cyclone, Unrelenting Force, Disarm, Throw Voice, Ice Form, Marked For Death, Become Ethereal, Clear Skies, Storm Call, Dragonrend, Dragon Aspect
Build: Level 30!
Thanks, Shuuiketsu Nero!
And so this build is a byproduct of my devotion to recreating the Monk archetype relatively faithfully in the face of so many obstacles (like absent skills or an almost-absent combat style) and my dedication to creating a fun experience given those very boundaries. Let us consult the in-game description of the Monk from previous Elder Scrolls iterations to determine the basis for this build's conception:
Quick and cunning with the empty hand, Monks are strong in spirit. Specializing in martial arts, they prefer to solve conflict by arrow or by fist. Disciplined in nature, monks have honed their bodies into lethal killing machines, using their bodies and weapons as one, full of grace and power. Monks typically do not wear armor or utilize shields...and are especially capable of avoiding attacks from their opponents. Due to their high mental discipline, monks can actually reduce the amount of damage an attack would normally inflict on another opponent.
Given the above, the foundation becomes readily apparent: Scout-like ranged, tactical prowess, Acrobat-like speed & finesse with easily-simulated lightning-fast reflexes, defense boosting discipline, and a Shout-based plan of attack (none of which interfering with, above all else, the wholly unique combat premise of a penchant for kicking ass and taking names of heavily armed and armored, steel-plated, sword-swinging foes with no more than fist or claw). The ideas all come together effortlessly, but it is their actual execution that requires no small miracle: aside from the best set of kill-cams around, the only bone Skyrim has thrown to Unarmed combatants is a single perk in Fists of Steel, and one that doesn't quite fit the unarmored Monk approach or work as you'd hope or expect it to (until now!). On top of that, half the skills the previous game's preset Monk class was built upon are no more (or might as well be), and there is nothing clunkier than attempting to switch from spell to fist and vice versa mid-combat...
Enter the little trick that makes everything possible for this build: gauntlet stacking. Yes, it's an exploit, but there have been builds that have made excellent use of those before, and Skyrim has simply left us fans of Unarmed Combat no choice in the matter. Found a few months ago (as far as I know), simultaneously transforming into a werewolf while engaging in conversation with a follower (and then initiating a trade and giving them your gear) allows one to equip as many items as one would like through their follower's inventory screen, in this case enabling us to take advantage of the Fists of Steel perk by stacking heavy armor gauntlets and accumulating their base armor ratings as ever-increasing Unarmed damage! So instead of improving one gauntlet to strengthen damage (if the perk took Smithing into account like we all wish it would) we simply have to stack multiple gauntlets together instead.
This trick is so powerful and simple to perform it could easily be game-breaking, but in the case of this build, instead it is, game-MAKING. It's crucial to loving Unarmed in Skyrim.
And this is where this build's immersion also takes an interesting turn: it is simply so quick and hassle-free to accumulate unarmed damage and armor rating using this method that overpowered (and ultimately boring) levels of strength can be reached right from the onset of the game if you, the player, do not adopt the same philosophy of restraint as the character in which you're playing. That's right! - on some Skyrim-meets-Inception level shit - your goal as a player is a direct reflection of your Master Monk's goal as a character: find the inner-strength necessary to refrain from giving in to the temptation of becoming overpowered! A guide will be laid out below to help achieve the proper level of balance to enjoy this playthrough immensely.
But, first and foremost, this trick doesn't just stop at finally validating Unarmed combat: it allows us to stack multiple Amulets of Talos as well, to achieve 100% Shout cooldown reduction, thus providing a vast arsenal of tricks up our gauntlets that don't impede upon the arrow-shooting, fist-swinging and/or claw-swiping gameplay that having to switch back and forth between such combat styles and regular old spells certainly would. And my god are there some spectacularly fitting combinations for the Master Monk when Shouts can be used in conjunction with one another without any cooldown to worry about.
The Monk archetype has always catered to being the ultimate Scout. Success for any good Monk build boils down to the same reason that Batman, a mere mortal superhero, has always been able to kick the asses of overpowered, demigod-like companions of his like Superman:
He always has a plan.
When outmanned and outgunned (so to speak) the Monk must rely on careful planning to turn the tide and grant himself the advantage he gave up in foregoing arms and armor. The Master Monk rely on his prowess in Stealth and Archery to plan ahead and initiate combat from afar, thinning the herd and drawing enemies in to where he will utilize Shouts like Throw Voice, Disarm, and Ice Form as guerrilla tactics to divide and conquer, provide crowd control, and even the playing field. And he'll use them all - and more - in combination, without having to wait, and thus to such devastating effect.
Spells are also utilized by this build, but only those which can be employed preemptively, so that seamless combat can be enjoyed without any clunky swapping to interfere with our fun. Luckily, the school of Alteration in which the Monk has always been known to dabble offers the best of the bunch in that regard, with set-and-forget Flesh spells to buff your defenses (ah!, that damage-mitigating discipline), eventual perks that improve your other capabilities (Stability + Slow Time, anyone?), and Ash Runes that make for the best back-up plan any tactician could hope for: simply set one down before entering the fray and fall back to it if need be, taking any threats who pursue out of the equation entirely while you regroup! And if you feel like stacking enough Destruction cost-reducing rings and necklaces (why even bother with the perks?), even Whirlwind Cloaks make an excellent choice to enter battle equipped with when likely to be outnumbered or looking to stay at range.
Speaking of, the element of Wind also does just seem to be the perfect fit for a Monk thematically, echoing the speed for which they're known, and luckily there's plenty more where that Cloak came from. Cyclone and Unrelenting Force can provide anywhere from a quick breather to a superb (and fatal) tactical advantage depending on how and where they're utilized, and both Whirlwind Sprint and Slow Time (especially) allow the Master Monk to achieve wind-like speeds and open up unseen levels of evasive maneuverability, unopposed offense and tactical brilliance. Hell, I'd think a Master Monk would be one with nature in general, so even Storm Call and Clear Skies just feel right for the roleplay.
In order to get started on the journey laid out by the Master Monk's back-story and embrace the stacking glitch in moderation, as is required to find true enjoyment with this build, I recommend taking the following steps, all of which can be performed as soon as you emerge from Helgen:
The combinations afforded by 100% Shout cooldown and a clearly defined focus on speed and stratagem open up some incredible tactics which, when combined with the capability to actually employ an Unarmed combat style and this build's emphasis on the gameplay rather than the grind, make for one hell of a rewarding playthrough. Here are just some of the possibilities the Master Monk can utilize to gain the advantage.
Careful planning ahead can allow a Master Monk to even the playing field even in the most outmatched scenario. Simply gather your foes in a single area, remaining unseen, before relieving them of their weapons in a single disarming gust, and then leave them frozen in place before they can even think of picking those swords back up.
Throw Voice + Disarm + Ice Form
Toss Without Effort
Not so much a combination of in-game abilities as a very Monk-esque tactic for using a single one: when you find your back to a ledge simply await your aggressor's rabid approach with a zen-like calmness and spring your wind-trap at the very last moment to send them hurtling overhead to plummet to their death while you casually walk away without even a single glance back, like a boss.
Cyclone + Cliffs + Patience
Escape Without Effort
Typically known for initiating combat with a well-placed arrow or two, Master Monks also possess the speed and evasive capabilities to end fights from afar just as easily. When the odds are overwhelming at melee range simply create enough distance and buy enough time to allow you to quite literally disappear in the blink of an eye and resume your ranged assault without repercussion.
Whirlwind Sprint +Slow Time+ Shadow Warrior
Possessing incomparable reflexes, the Master Monk can not only use an enemy's momentum against them but can employ the speed necessary to land multiple strikes upon them as they hurtle helplessly through the air, in slow motion. Think air juggles from your favorite fighting game, only now in Skyrim!
Slow Time + Unrelenting Force + Fists/Claws
Force Without Restraint
Move over, Ulfric! As an ultimate in fight-finishing maneuvers, a Master Monk can literally Shout his opponents to death. Instead of landing a few strikes on airborn opponents, a Master Monk can instead choose to unleash his mastery of the Thu'um with enough force to tear flesh from bone. Those who don't outright disintegrate from the power of the Shouts will be hurled toward imminent death with the stacked force of a comet crashing into Earth.
Slow Time + Dragonborn/Unrelenting Force x 5
The Strength Within
Another devastating finisher the Master Monk can employ sees him focus his energies to such a magnified degree that releasing them into a single blow from his fist can crumble mountains. Stacking Marked for Deaths on an opponent accumulates negative armor rating such that follow-up attacks become even more powerful -vastly so - than they ever initially could have even hoped to be.
Slow Time + Marked For Death x 5
As just the biggest fan of Unarmed Combat ever, I'm extremely proud of finally making it work like a charm in this damn game, and of just how seamless the gameplay experience turned out to be for this build. There's nothing like being able to overcome the huge obstacles Bethesda threw in the way of enjoying Unarmed here with such ease and simply being able to relish in thrilling combat experiences based around your favorite fighting style from the start of your playthrough. As such, I hope this build is well-received and owe many thanks to those who've assisted along the way, beginning with theonyxphoenix for finding the glitch that made this whole thing possible. And though I ended up going with artwork over screenshots, I cannot say enough about the generosity and helpfulness of some of my comrades on this wonderful site. Mason, Nik Poulsen and Ponty: you are simply the reasons this site is such a great place. And Vaz, my own personal sidekick in the development of this build, your unwavering willingness to provide me with so much necessary playtesting has been immeasurably appreciated. My final thanks goes out to all those who've posted builds of their own that have gotten me excited to jump right back into this game over and over again, and everyone who tries and loves this and my other builds just the same. You're all true friends and I hope I've done you proud here!
*Bows! Thank you kindly.
How exactly does that glitch work? Wouldn't all your armor just come off once you exited wolf mode? Just wondering
Interesting, I thought armor came off when you became a werewolf, i'll definitely try this!
Under the first pc capion u wrote aide.
I believe this is going to cat 80
Ok the idea of a tiger monk walking around suplexing people is awesome,so 1+ on that alone,gonna start this one right now.
FWIW, Snakes didn't discover it. It's been on UESP an GameFAQs (and probably other sites as well) for a while now. Though I think this is the first build on the blog to do it.
I'm torn about this build. On the one hand, I love the write-up, the style, and the images, and I especially love the Slow Time + Unrelenting Force combo. I've written two 100% Fortify Shouts builds, and tried to explore shout combos as extensively as possible, but that is one that never occurred to me. Really cool idea there. So when you use Unrelenting Force multiple times in quick succession during Slow Time, the force is amplified? If so, that sounds like an awesome special move.
But on the other hand, I feel like this exploit is particularly cheap. As much as it can be a chore to grind Alchemy and/or Enchanting for better Fortify Restoration potions, it feels a lot less overtly exploitative IMO (at least, when you're not looping the effect). This is the kind of exploit that, when I first read about it, I told myself I'd never try on sheer principle.
Having said that, Snakes, you admittedly use it only for effects that the game otherwise disallows buffing. So there's an argument that your use is justified... I dunno, I'm still torn. I want to like this, and on some level I really do, but it just feels too exploitative. Which from me sounds pretty hypocritical I guess. :\
In any case, Snakes, you did great work with the presentation, and it's a nice concept. Very well done on that front, as always.