Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Plans don’t always pan out in D&D 5e. Sometimes, you find yourself disarmed or in a position where you can’t grab a weapon, like when an assassin comes for your character in the middle of the night.
So, square up adventurer – it’s time to learn how to throw a mean hook!
What Is Unarmed Strike?
An unarmed strike is a melee weapon attack that you make using a part of your character’s body, such as throwing a punch, striking with a kick, or landing a headbutt. For most adventurers, unarmed strikes are done when they are disarmed or unable to get to their weapons, while others will use it as their default weapon of choice.
According to the Weapon table on page 149 of the Player’s Handbook, an unarmed strike deals 1 + your character’s Strength modifier in damage when you land an unarmed strike.
That means that an unarmed strike deals the least amount of damage of all the weapons that deal damage in the game. Sure, nets deal zero damage, but unarmed strikes are the worst at dealing damage without building your character for using them.
Unarmed strikes also do not have any special properties to them, unlike many other weapons. They cannot be used with Dexterity via the finesse property since unarmed strikes lack that property.
So, unless you have a natural weapon or a class feature that lets you make unarmed strikes with Dexterity, you can only use Strength for an unarmed strike.
Unarmed Strike vs. Weapons
Some weird rules interactions can go on with unarmed strikes. While unarmed strikes are listed on the Weapon table and count as a melee weapon attack, they are not considered to be attacks made with a melee weapon.
This is because an unarmed strike is not a weapon, but rather an attack with your body. Unless you have a way to treat your unarmed strikes as a natural weapon, such as with a racial ability like the tabaxi’s claws, then you won’t be able to use abilities and features that rely on using a weapon during a melee attack.
Unarmed Strikes and Divine Smite
This is a rules question that gets brought up quite a bit. The wording for Divine Smite states that you have to be making a melee weapon attack in order to smite, and unarmed strikes are melee weapon attacks.
However, according to Jeremy Crawford, unarmed strikes don’t qualify for triggering Divine Smite. Whether it works at your table or not will be up to your DM.
However, the Improved Divine Smite ability would never work with an unarmed strike because of the wording of the feature. Improved Divine Smite states that you get to add 1d8 radiant damage with all attacks made with a melee weapon.
Since an unarmed strike doesn’t count as a weapon, just a melee weapon attack, your fists will never get that extra boost as a higher-level paladin.
These rules are then extrapolated to other class features, such as the Cleric’s Divine Strike or Barbarian’s Rage. These features will work with unarmed strikes depending on if the features say “melee weapon attack” or “attack with a melee weapon.”
Should You Use Unarmed Strike?
Unarmed strikes should be your default weapon only if you are building your character specifically to use them. Since you don’t roll any dice for an unarmed strike, you will never deal a large amount of damage with an unarmed strike.
Damage from an unarmed strike will always be the minimum that you could do with another melee weapon, so if you can reach a weapon, that’s almost always the better option.
In fact, an unarmed strike can potentially deal zero damage every time you use it. Since an unarmed strike’s damage is 1 + your Strength modifier, an adventurer with a negative Strength modifier would always deal zero damage with a punch.
For all you Wizards or Rogues out there with a low Strength, it might be worth hiding a dagger or wand somewhere on you in case you get ambushed!
In previous editions, unarmed strikes were one of the few reliable ways to deal “subdual damage,” or damage that would knock a foe out instead of killing them. Normal weapons would incur a massive penalty to do this before. In D&D 5e, any weapon can be used to knock a foe out instead of killing them, and without penalty to your attack roll.
Now, some situations are better for unarmed strikes than others. If you find yourself in a back-alley fight or a tavern brawl, then drawing a sword on the drunken crowd is a surefire way to get yourself arrested or worse in a civilized part of your campaign world. Townsfolk also don’t take well to vagabonds coming into town and killing their friends and neighbors.
Some classes are better at using unarmed strikes thanks to their class features. Classes that favor a high Strength score, such as Barbarian, Fighter, and Paladin, will be able to dish out a stronger unarmed strike than many of the spellcasters or a Rogue. A higher Strength modifier means you have a larger number adding to your unarmed strike. It might not be much, but it’s better than nothing.
Monks are the default option from the Player’s Handbook for excellent unarmed strikes. Their Martial Arts class feature gives them the ability to use unarmed strikes with Dexterity instead of Strength, which is their default physical ability score.
Also, monks have ways to make extra unarmed strikes on their turn thanks to their Martial Arts and Ki class features. These unarmed strikes aren’t Strength-based, but they are the most reliable way to use unarmed strikes.
How To Make Unarmed Strike Better?
For those out there that want to run up the dragon and punch it in the face, there are several ways to do that. The trouble is finding those options and putting it all together. Here are some ways to go about improving your unarmed strike damage;
Many races that have been released after the Player’s Handbook come with improvements to unarmed strikes in the way of natural weapons. Natural weapons count as unarmed strikes but have different damage calculations and damage types associated with them. Here’s a quick list:
- Aaracockra: This avian race lets you make claw attacks as unarmed strikes that deal 1d4 + Strength modifier slashing damage.
- Centaur: In both the Ravnica and Theros books, Centaurs can attack with their hooves for 1d4 + Strength modifier bludgeoning damage.
- Leonin: Also from the Theros supplement, Leonin has claws that deal 1d4 + Strength modifier slashing damage.
- Lizardfolk: From Volo’s Guide to Monsters, this race has a bite attack that can deal 1d6 + Strength modifier in piercing damage and grant temporary hit points once per short or long rest.
- Minotaur: Like the centaur race, this race is found in the Ravnica and Theros supplements and has horns that deal 1d6 + Strength modifier in piercing damage.
- Satyr: Satyrs from Theros have horns like Minotaurs, but ram with them to deal 1d4 + Strength modifier bludgeoning damage.
- Longtooth Shifters: This subrace option for Shifters from Eberron grows fangs when they shift, dealing 1d6 + Strength modifier piercing damage as a bonus action on their turn.
- Simic Hybrids: Once this Ravnica race hits level five, they can take a grappling appendage that deals 1d6 + Strength bludgeoning damage on a hit.
- Tabaxi: In addition to climbing with them, this race from Volo’s Guide to Monsters can deal 1d4 + Strength modifier in slashing damage to a creature.
The Monk Class
Monks are the quintessential unarmed striker in D&D 5e. This is due to a combination of their class features that take their unarmed strikes from basic punches to flurries of fists.
To begin with, the Martial Arts class feature adds a lot of functionality to unarmed strikes to make them viable in combat. Monks will use anywhere from a 1d4 to a 1d10 for their unarmed strike damage instead of the usual 1, depending on their level.
This feature also lets a Monk use Dexterity in place of Strength for unarmed strikes, a stat that Monks rely on to keep their AC up. Finally, Martial Arts also lets Monks make an unarmed strike as a bonus action of their turn, provided they spend their action using a monk weapon or unarmed strike when taking the Attack action.
Other Monk class features stack onto this over time, too. Ki points from the Ki class feature can be used on Flurry of Blows, allowing a monk to make two unarmed strikes with a bonus action if they spend a ki point and attack with a monk weapon or unarmed strike.
Stunning Strike at level five lets a monk possibly incapacitate a foe with an unarmed strike by spending a ki point.
A handful of subclasses for the non-Monk classes can take advantage of natural weapons to use in place of an unarmed strike. These aren’t numerous, but opens up your options for character creation outside of what racial and class options normally exist:
- Path of the Beast Barbarian: This subclass from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything gains either a bite attack, claws, or a tail to ravage foes when it rages.
- Circle of the Moon Druid: This classic druid subclass from the Player’s Handbook can use its Combat Wild Shape feature to turn into different beasts, gaining their stats and natural weapons to use in combat against foes.
Neither of these options improves your unarmed strike damage itself, but rather gives you options to use your bonus action to substitute in a better natural weapon for your unarmed strike.
“Unarmed Fighting” Fighting Style
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduces plenty of new and unique fighting styles for the martial classes to take. For Fighters, the Unarmed Fighting option changes the damage die of the fighter’s unarmed strike to 1d6 + Strength modifier, or 1d8 + Strength modifier if the character uses two hands to deliver the blow.
In addition, a target grappled by a fighter with this fighting style takes 1d4 bludgeoning damage at the start of the fighter’s turn.
This option opens up some interesting character builds. This fighting style is available to Fighters at level one, meaning that a quick dip into fighter allows a Strength-based character to have viable unarmed strike damage die.
The bonus damage on a grapple could matter to Barbarians that love to use the advantage that Rage grants on Athletics checks to grapple and pummel their foes with this, too.
The Tavern Brawler Feat
If you have a feat to spare, the Tavern Brawler feat can increase your unarmed strike damage and add other benefits. With this feat, you can increase your Strength score by one, use a 1d4 for your unarmed strike damage die, and use improved weapons with proficiency. This feat also lets you grapple foes as a bonus action after you hit them with an unarmed strike or improved weapon.
This feat is a solid pickup for characters that can’t afford the fighter multiclass dip but want to increase their unarmed strike options. Grappling and unarmed strikes go together often, so getting both in one package is a pretty sweet deal.
The Alter Self Spell
This spell, available to Sorcerers and Wizards, can give you a natural weapon of your choice when you cast it. There are quite a few natural weapons to choose from, but they all deal 1d6 + your Strength modifier in damage and are treated as a magic weapon attack. The natural weapon from this spell also has a +1 to all attack and damage rolls made with the natural weapon.
This spell is most often used to make you look vastly different for infiltration or social encounters. Still, having a combat option for this spell makes it slightly more versatile. Plus, the spell only needs verbal and somatic components, meaning you don’t need to be armed with an arcane focus or component pouch to cast this spell. In fact, Sorcerers with the Subtle Spell metamagic could cast this with no components, suddenly gaining fangs or horns in an instant!
Commonly Asked Questions
Unarmed strikes are a confusing topic in D&D since they aren’t used very often. Because of that, here’s a collection of some of the common questions we’ve seen about how unarmed strikes work:
How Do You Calculate Unarmed Strike Damage?
Normally, unarmed strikes deal 1 + Strength modifier in bludgeoning damage to a foe you hit. Natural weapons and class features can change the damage die or modifier used for the attack, depending on your character build choices.
Do You Add Your Proficiency Bonus To Unarmed Strike Attacks?
All characters are proficient in unarmed strikes, so you will add your proficiency bonus when using unarmed strikes no matter what class you play as. Natural weapons follow suit, as well.
Can Unarmed Strike Be Used as a Bonus Action?
An unarmed strike can be used as a bonus action if you have the Monk’s Martial Arts or Flurry of Blows class feature. You cannot dual-wield unarmed strikes without the Dual Wielder feat because unarmed strikes do not have the light property.
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I played the game a lot as a kid, back in first edition. Over the past few years since 5e was released, I’ve really started getting back into it. Currently, I run a campaign online for some friends and my brothers, and we also play a side-sesh just to mix things up.