Disclosure: Henri Hakl, author of Monk Unfettered, is a player in my Serpent's Skull play-by-post game on the Paizo forums, and has recently converted his monk character in that game to a monk from this book. He has also been a player in other play-by-post games that I have run (in which he has also played monks; he likes monks). Naturally, I have done my best to ensure that this fact has not influenced my response to his book. I have endeavoured to review it as objectively as I can (insofar as it is ever possible to objectively review anything).
The monk class has frequently been the subject of some controversy in 3rd Edition D&D and Pathfinder. Namely, there are many people who feel that is underpowered and can't contribute effectively to adventuring parties over the long term. Various reasons, both valid and invalid, are given for this. It is a class that gains great bonuses to mobility (to speed, ability to jump, etc.), but its principal ability, flurry of blows, requires the monk to stay in one spot to use. People often mockingly call that same ability “flurry of misses” in reference to the fact that the attacks seem to miss more frequently than they hit.
To be honest, I rather like the monk. I think Pathfinder made some great improvements over the 3rd Edition version, and I find it an enjoyable class to use for various NPCs in my games. However, I will concede that it is a class that requires a certain level of system mastery to make effective. Without that system mastery, monks can indeed end up being amongst the weakest of characters.
Not surprisingly, the various criticisms of the monk have spurred numerous attempts at reworking or changing the class to improve it in some manner or other. The recent hardcover Pathfinder book, Pathfinder Unchained (review of that book coming in due course) contains an entirely new, optional version of the monk aimed at addressing these concerns. Monk Unfettered is another example of a reworking of the class. As a fan of the monk class, author Henri Hakl has put his own spin on it, producing a class that aims to be both recognisably similar to the core monk but also considerably more versatile, allowing players to more easily create monks inspired by a wide range of sources, and making every monk unique and interesting.
The most prominent change in this new monk class is the introduction of insights. These are similar to rogue talents and barbarian rage powers. Monks gain access to one at first level and then an additional insight at every even level thereafter. And there are a lot of insights to choose from! Some insights are a little more powerful and are referred to as deep insights. A monk can only use a limited number of deep insights (based on level) at the same time. Without doubt, the most impressive part of Monk Unfettered is the vast number of insights players have to choose from (there are a full 10 pages of them), allowing every monk to be different from the last. Some of the insights will be familiar to players, as several of the core monk's abilities have been turned into insights. These include abilities like diamond body, diamond soul, and abundant step. A few insights are improved versions of these, such as improved diamond soul, but the majority of them are brand new abilities not seen in the game before.
The insights frequently have flavourful names and/or effects. Endless summer increases 1-round-duration ki abilities to 2 rounds. Sonic shout allows the monk to use the Stunning Fist feat at range. There's something wonderfully flavourful about the monk stunning an enemy with simply a loud yell. It creates an image in the mind that then spurs on more and more ideas.
If I have one criticism of the insights, though, it's that it would seem that, in the attempt to get as many into Monk Unfettered as possible, their descriptions don't always cover all the rules details they might need. As flavourful as sonic shout is, the description isn't clear as to whether this is actually a sonic effect. The name has the word sonic in it, but the ability works exactly like a Stunning Fist attempt, except it can be used on a foe up to 30 ft away (by making a ranged touch attack), and Stunning Fist is not a sonic ability. Apart from the name, the word sonic never appears in the description, and there is no mention of whether or how it works on creatures that can't hear. This may seem like an obvious thing—of course sonic shout is a sonic ability, many people might say; just look at the name!—but Pathfinder is a game that requires the rules to be precise; otherwise, some people start to abuse them. Sonic shout and a few other insights lack that precision. (I should note that improved sonic shout specifically refers to causing sonic damage.)
While insights form the most notable change to the monk, they are not the only changes. Flurry of blows has been reworked (and renamed as just flurry to allow for confusion-free comparison between the abilities). The new flurry actually slightly decreases the number of attacks a monk gets, but the monk suffers no penalty for using the ability and all attacks are at the monk's full base attack bonus. So while the monk may be attacking slightly less frequently, a larger percentage of those attacks will hit (a 20th-level unfettered monk gets 6 attacks, all at +15, compared to a core monk's 7 attacks at +18/+18/+13/+13/+8/+8/+3). Monk Unfettered states that the average damage per round for the unfettered monk works out to be the same as for the core monk (I haven't double-checked the math, but this seems right). This may make the change seem a bit pointless at first, but Hakl has cleverly realised that a large part of a class's “effectiveness” is based on perception rather than raw numbers. Hitting with a higher percentage of attacks feels like you are doing a lot more damage even if the actual numbers average out to about the same amount, and it is that perception that makes playing the class fun.
The unfettered monk's damage die for unarmed attacks also increases a bit earlier than the core monk's, with the first increase coming at 2nd level. The rate of increase after that is the same, but it means that unfettered monks continue to get higher damage 2 levels earlier than core monks.
One of the most called-for changes in the core monk is an increase to the base attack bonus to the fast progression (like that of fighters and barbarians). People might therefore be surprised that the unfettered monk doesn't do this. It keeps the medium progression rate. Flurry is also based off this bonus (not following a separate bonus like the core monk). This makes calculating flurry attacks a lot easier. Indeed, the biggest benefit to flurry over flurry of blows is that it is much simpler to calculate—a fact that is especially useful for making multiclass monks.
I mentioned above that flurry gives slightly fewer attacks per round than flurry of blows. This means—perhaps somewhat paradoxically—that 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-level unfettered monks only get one attack when making a flurry. As flurry is a full-round action and uses the same attack bonus as a single attack action, one might wonder why anyone would ever use a flurry at these levels instead of a standard action attack. I did a double-take myself when I first saw this. However, there is method to the madness. For many monks, there may well end up being no point to a flurry at the first few levels; however, there are several insights that can be taken at low levels that affect flurry attacks. Accurate self, for example, provides a +1 bonus to flurry attacks (this improves at higher levels). Thus, a 1st-level monk with accurate self has the choice to take a full-round action to make a single flurry attack with that +1 bonus, or to use a standard action without the bonus but still having the benefit of making a move action.
Unfettered monks also retain several of the core monk's abilities as class features that are not insights. These include armour class bonuses, evasion, ki, and fast movement.
Speaking of fast movement, the unfettered monk addresses the movement/flurry dichotomy through insights. Divine wind, for example, allows a monk to make a flurry at the end of a charge. Tackling the problem in this way does mean that many monks (those who do not take the appropriate insights) will still have that dichotomy, meaning that they'll be very fast, but unable to use that speed to much effect in combat. I'm not entirely sure this is the best way to deal with this, but on the plus side, those monks will have other abilities to make up for it.
A little under half of Unfettered Monk is devoted to describing the class abilities, including insights, but there is more in the book. The book also offers a small selection of new feats, some new monk-themed magic items, and numerous new favoured class options. Many of the favoured class options provide incremental improvements to abilities gained through insights. Normally, favoured class options are race-specific, but the ones offered here do not appear to be (and strangely, the book offers no explanation for this, even though Hakl does a very good job of explaining decisions throughout the rest of the book). It would seem that anyone can take them. I'm not sure this is the best idea. I can see an argument for making favoured class options for all classes available to every race regardless, but doing it for one class and not others is a bit of a bad precedent. Still, this is something that individual GMs can easily adjudicate and adjust for their own games, if necessary.
Monk Unfettered also contains seven sample monks ranging from 1st to 19th level. These NPCs can be easily dropped into any campaign (always nice to see GM time-saving devices like these), but they also demonstrate the amount of diversity possible through chosen insights. Each of these monks is a very different character with very different abilities, yet all still identifiably monks.
One thing I really like in Monk Unfettered is that it is very open about the processes that went into designing the new class and why various decisions were made. There is an entire section at the end devoted to this, as well as comments throughout the book. It reminds me of Paizo's early GameMastery adventure modules which sometimes had sidebars explaining decision-making processes. There are also suggestions for how to use existing archetypes with the unfettered monk (and a discussion why most of them don't really work with the new monk).
Overall, I'm not sure Monk Unfettered will satisfy many people's complaints about the core monk, though it certainly will satisfy some. Even though some things, like flurry, are simpler, I suspect it will still take some system mastery to make a fully effective unfettered monk. That said, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It just means the class won't be for everyone. One thing Monk Unfettered definitely does succeed at, though, is expanding the versatility of the monk class. Monks created through this book have a much wider degree of choice available to them, meaning players can create more different kinds of monks than ever before. I suspect that any group that chooses to use this book will gain a lot from it.