Weapons of all manner appear in the DnD world. From primitive clubs to ornate crossbows, from swords and spears, axes and arrows through to, depending on the technology preference of your campaign, simple gunpowder weapons.
But sometimes, even the most prepared and highly-trained warriors find themselves without a weapon when they need one. Some classes even specialize in hand-to-hand, unarmed combat. It is such situations and such classes who have come to rely on the Unarmed Strike 5e.
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What is an Unarmed Strike?
The definition of an Unarmed Strike is pretty much what you imagine for the name. It is an attack a character makes with their fists, legs, shoulder, elbow, or other body parts. Even when wielding weapons, a character can attempt to use such an attack in combination with the weapon they are wielding, often in the form of additional kicks, shoulder barges, punches with a free hand, and headbutts.
How does Unarmed Strike Work in 5e?
In game terms, when you perform an Unarmed Strike against a foe, you roll a d20 and then add your Strength and Proficiency modifiers to see if you hit. Everyone is automatically proficient with unarmed strikes, so you get your proficiency modifier no matter what. If the hit is successful, you deal 1 point of Bludgeoning damage, plus the strength modifier to your victim.
As your body is essentially your weapon, you are considered to be constantly ready to administer such attacks without having to choose and draw a weapon.
Unarmed Strike, Natural Attacks, and Natural Weapons
Natural Weapons and Attacks are attacks made with claws, teeth, tails, or any other natural feature attached to the character. These are separate attacks in a different category from Unarmed Strikes.
Even if a character has a clawed hand, an attack with the claw is considered a Natural Weapon Attack. These Weapons are considered to be part of a separate category similar to Martial or Simple weapons.
Making the Most of the Unarmed Strike
Although everyone understands the basics of Unarmed Strike (even the timidest and non-threatening characters will use their natural defenses to defend themselves when cornered), some classes and feats combine to make Unarmed Strike more potent.
If you want to get the most out of playing a character that excels in unarmed combat, then you should choose the Monk as your character class. Initial damage from a Monks Unarmed Strike is 1d4. At levels 5, 11, and 17, this damage roll increases to 1d6, 1d8, and 1d10, respectively.
Monks also can use Dexterity as an attack modifier instead of Strength, a reminder that sure combat techniques are not about brute force but landing well-positioned blows in vulnerable and vital locations. Also, after using the Attack Action, a Monk may spend a Bonus Action to attack with an unarmed strike again. Pow!
Monks also have access to the mystical energy known as ki. The expenditure of these allows access to several other unarmed combat fighting techniques, which combine well with Unarmed Strike. At level 6, a Monk’s fists are always regarded as magical, without the need for magical enhancements.
Alter Self and Unarmed Strike
The Alter Self spell is another way to quickly boost your Unarmed Strike. One of the options allows the player to grow some form of natural weapon. It could be spikes, claws, horns, or simply hardening your fists. This alters your damage type accordingly and increases the damage Unarmed Strikes do to 1d6.
In addition, the Unarmed Strike is considered a magical weapon attack and players get a +1 to attack rolls.
Other Improvements on Unarmed Strike 5e
The Monk might be the master of unarmed combat, but there are other ways of increasing the potential of the Unarmed Strike.
Clawed creatures such as Tabaxi get a bonus to their Unarmed Strike for the additional damage that such raking fists or taloned feet inflict. This is usually capped at 1d4 damage. That isn’t a patch on what the Monk can generate at higher levels, but it is much better than the usual 1 damage + Strength modifier.
The only other class to come close to the Monk’s unarmed prowess is the Fighter (as well as subgroups such as Paladin, Barbarian, etc.) if they opt for the Unarmed Fighting Style. This option boosts Unarmed Strikes from 1 damage to 1d6 and up to 1d8 if they are not also using shields or weapons.
This means that the Fighter’s one powerful attack at lower levels is comparable to the Monk’s ability to launch more, less devastating attacks. The Monk eventually outranks the Fighter as you move up through the levels.
Magic items can also have a bonus effect on using Unarmed Strike. Items like the Dragon Hide or the Eldritch Claw tattoo are valuable aids in dealing additional damage. The latter is incredibly effective, as it can increase your attack range and give you magical unarmed attacks.
This can be extremely useful since it allows the Monk to stay a safe distance from melee range. Monks generally have low HP and never want to spend longer than necessary as a front-line combatant. Better to have a heavily armed Fighter or a beef-cake Berserker hold the line and let the Monk dance through the melee, taking advantage of what opportunities arise.
Is Unarmed Strike good?
Unarmed Strike ensures that players will always have an attack at hand. By itself and without any bonuses, it’s not great. Players are probably better off looking for a creative way to take out opponents like dropping a rock on their head from a window, Tom & Jerry style.
There are exceptions, though. The Monk class in particular has several different abilities and subclasses designed specifically for unarmed combat and make for ferocious fighters on the battlefield armed with only their fists.
Alter Self also has a niche use as well. If players don’t have a magical weapon nearby they can instantly grow one to overcome damage resistances. But if you’re looking to deal the most damage, it’s probably not going to be the best option.
Unless your character is a Monk that’s built specifically for Unarmed Strikes and unarmed combat, chances are you won’t use it much.
Unarmed Strike FAQs
Does Divine Smite Work with Unarmed Strike?
No, and yes. Maybe… it depends.
This is a situation where I would default to the ruling of the Dungeon Master. As the rules are written, Divine Smite refers specifically to a weapon and a weapon attack. Unarmed Strikes lets players perform a weapon attack but aren’t weapons.
There’s a lot of conflicting information out there and depending upon who you ask at Wizards of the Coast, you’ll get conflicting information. As the rules are written you cannot use Divine Smite with Unarmed Strike.
As a player and fellow DM, I think that’s stupid. If your player is wearing a ring, gloves, or brass knuckles, I don’t see why you can’t use the ability. It’s ambiguous enough that you should consult with your DM and have them make a ruling.
Do You Add Attack Bonus to Unarmed Strike?
Strength Modifiers are added to the attack bonus of your Unarmed Strike. Unarmed Strikes are still considered melee attacks and follow the standard melee attack rules.
Does Unarmed Strike get Proficiency Bonus?
Proficiency Modifiers can be added to your attack rolls if your character is able to. The normal melee attack rules apply to Unarmed Strikes.
Can You Bonus Action Unarmed Strike?
In normal circumstances, players need to use their regular action to perform an Unarmed Strike. The Monk class has specific abilities that allow them to perform Unarmed Strikes as a Bonus Action. Special abilities and skills are the only way to perform Unarmed Strikes using a Bonus Action.
Is Unarmed Strike a Weapon Attack?
The Unarmed Strike is considered a Melee Weapon Attack. However, the character’s fists are not considered weapons.
Are Unarmed Strikes Finesse Weapons?
Sine Unarmed Strikes are not considered weapons, they have no weapon properties. This means they can’t have the Versatile or Finesse properties of normal weapons.
Monks have abilities that allow them to use Dexterity for calculating Attacks and Damage similar to Finesse weapons, but Unarmed Strikes are not Finesse Weapons.
Final Thoughts on Unarmed Strike 5e
Unarmed Strikes are not the most effective forms of attack. No matter how good the attacker, a chop to the throat is no substitute for a Two-Handed Great Axe hurtling down on an opponent. But sometimes, the situation calls for it.
If you find yourself weaponless and without even the most rudimentary object to batter your opponent, it is always worth knowing that you can at least land a few decent punches or kicks when and where they least expect it.
Kendra has always been a hardcore fantasy nerd. Growing up in the worlds of Tolkien, Sanderson, Jordan, and Abercrombie, DnD & board games just came naturally. She and her husband, Bryan, started GameCows.com in 2018 as a fun passion project that just took over their lives. An avid board gamer since childhood and chronic DnD chronicler for more than two decades, she loves to play, write, travel, and learn dead languages. She is also a professional content writer at SlashGear.com