Player’s Handbook, page 195
Unarmed Strikes 5e
Many players love the idea of a brawling adventurer who solves problems with their fists rather than pesky weapons or tricksy spells. But, as in almost every other roleplaying game in the canon, unarmed strikes in Dungeons and Dragons are (almost) never the optimal choice.
That said, the Monk class relies on unarmed strikes for a number of their features. And with big changes hinted at in the most recent Unearthed Arcana, the future of unarmed strikes may be very different than the current rules suggest.
This article will cover:
How unarmed strikes work and how to calculate unarmed damage
How to improve your unarmed strikes
Monks’ unarmed strikes
Rules for unarmed strikes
Unearthed Arcana’s new rules for unarmed strikes
How Do Unarmed Strikes Work in 5e?
Unarmed strikes are melee weapon attacks made without weapons, but the attacker’s body instead. All creatures are proficient in unarmed strikes. For an unarmed strike attack roll, roll a d20 and attack your Strength modifier and proficiency bonus.
For example, if your Strength modifier is +2 and your proficiency bonus is +3, the result of your unarmed strike attack roll is d20 + 2 + 3. If the result matches or exceeds the target’s AC, the attack lands.
How Do You Calculate Unarmed Strike Damage in 5e?
To calculate unarmed strike damage, you simply add 1 to your Strength modifier. You do not add your proficiency bonus to an unarmed strike’s damage. Unarmed strikes deal bludgeoning damage.
For example, if your Strength modifier is +2, your unarmed strike will deal 3 bludgeoning damage on hit.
How to Improve Unarmed Strikes in 5e
There are several ways to improve your unarmed strikes in DnD, from choosing a race with Natural Weapons, to picking up spells, feats, subclass features, and fighting styles that can boost your brawling capabilities. And, most potent of all, choosing the Monk class will really unleash the full fury of your character’s fists.
Races With Natural Weapons in 5e
Natural weapons are a physical part of a creature, like fangs, claws, and horns. Several playable races have access to natural weapons, which are usable whenever a player makes an unarmed strike.
Unlike regular unarmed strikes, unarmed strikes with natural weapons count as weapons (Sage Advice Compendium, page 14).
Here are all of the playable races with natural weapons in DnD 5e:
|Aarakocra||Talons||1d4 + Strength slashing|
|Centaur||Hooves||1d4 + Strength bludgeoning|
|Dhampir||Bite||1d4 + Constitution piercing||Advantage when below half hit points; may empower yourself based on proficiency bonus per rest|
|Dragonborn||Claws||1d4 + Strength slashing||Optional Racial feat from Xanathar's (pg. 74)|
|Leonin||Claws||1d4 + Strength slashing|
|Lizardfolk||Bite||1d6 + Strength bludgeoning||On hit, gain temporary hit points equal to Contitution modifier. Bonus action; usable once per rest.|
|Minotaur||Horns||1d6 + Strength piercing||May use as a bonus action after Dashing more than 20 feet|
|Satyr||Horns||1d4 + Strength bludgeoning|
|Shifter (Longtooth)||Fangs||1d6 + Strength||Only usable while shifted|
|Tabaxi||Claws||1d4 + Strength slashing|
|Tortle||Claws||1d4 + Strength slashing|
Spells, Feats, Subclass Features, and Fighting Styles
There are other, more niche ways of improving your unarmed strike damage and capability:
Alter Self (Spell). A 2nd-level transmutation spell that allows the caster to gain Natural Weapons (of the caster’s choice) for up to 1 hour. These deal 1d6 damage of the appropriate damage type (e.g., piercing for horns, bludgeoning for hooves, slashing for claws, etc.).
These natural weapons are also magic and have a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls.
Tavern Brawler (Feat). Changes unarmed strike damage from 1 + Strength modifier to 1d4 + Strength modifier. Also allows the player to grapple the target as a bonus action if they hit them with an unarmed strike.
Barbarian: Path of the Beast (Subclass Feature). A 3rd-level feature that allows the Barbarian to gain natural weapons (bite, claws, or tail) while raging. These attacks deal greater damage than normal natural weapons and also include powerful rider effects as well.
Unarmed Fighting Style. Fighting syle available to Fighters and anyone who takes the Fighting Initiate feat (TCoE 80). Increases unarmed strike damage to 1d6 + Strength modifier, increasing to 1d8 when the player isn’t wielding a weapon or shield.
Also allows for 1d4 bludgeoning damage per turn to be dealt to a creature that the player is grappling.
Eldritch Claw Tattoo (Magic Item; TCoE 126). Uncommon magic tattoo that makes unarmed strikes magical and gives a +1 bonus to unarmed strikes’ attack and damage rolls. Also provides a once-a-day ability that increases unarmed strike reach to 15 feet and increases their damage by an extra 1d6 force damage.
Monk’s Unarmed Strikes
Monks have more powerful and more varied unarmed strike options than any other class. Let’s break it down:
Additionally, allows the monk to make an unarmed strike as a bonus action whenever they attack with a Monk weapon or an unarmed strike.
Flurry of Blows. 2nd-level class feature. A monk may spend 1 ki point to make two unarmed strikes as a bonus action.
Ki-Fueled Attack. Optional 3rd-level class feature from Tasha’s (pg. 48). Allows a Monk to make an unarmed strike as a bonus action on their turn whenever they spend 1 or more ki point.
Ki-Empowered Strikes. 6th-level class feature that makes unarmed strikes magical, overcoming nonmagical resistance and immunity.
Additionally, several Monk subclass features have ways to further empower unarmed strikes.
Unarmed Strike Rules in 5e
The rules for unarmed strikes in 5e are as follows:
You add your proficiency bonus to unarmed strikes’ attack roll, but not its damage roll. All creatures are proficient with unarmed strikes, so you add your proficiency bonus and Strength modifier to your attack roll. However, you do not add your proficiency bonus to unarmed strikes’ damage, which, at its base, is 1 + Strength modifier.
You do not need a free hand to make an unarmed strike. Unarmed strikes do not require the use of your fists — headbutts, kicks, elbows, etc., can all be used to make an unarmed strike (PHB 195).
“Unarmed strikes count as melee weapon attacks despite not being weapons” (Sage Advice Compendium, pg. 5). This means that unarmed strikes work with features that require melee weapon attacks (of which there are many).
Unarmed strike does not function with features that require weapon damage. Because unarmed strikes are not technically weapons. This only has a few niche interactions. For example:
Paladin’s Divine Smite doesn’t work with unarmed strikes. Because the feature “refers to the ‘weapon’s damage,’ an an unarmed strike isn’t a weapon” (SAC 5).
The Savage Attacker feat doesn’t work with unarmed strikes. Beacause this feat “relies on a weapon’s damage dice, and an unarmed strike isn’t a weapon” (SAC 10).
Natural weapons are weapons. “Things described as weapons by the rules, including natural weapons, are indeed weapons” (SAC 14). Despite natural weapons being used to make unarmed strikes, they are still considered weapons. This means that they do work with things like Divine Smite and Savage Attacker.
Unarmed strikes can be used for Extra Attacks. “Extra Attack imposes no limitation on what you use for the attacks” (SAC 3).
Monks’ Martial Arts feature doesn’t make unarmed strikes into finesse weapons. Although the effect is similar, the feature “doesn’t confer that property” specifically (SAC 5).
New Unarmed Strike Rules From Unearthed Arcana 2022: Character Origins
Playtest material from Wizards of the Coast reveals new changes planned for One D&D, the update of 5e’s ruleset we can expect to go live in 2024. These are not official rules as written at this time, but players are encouraged to try out playtest material.
Follow this link to download all currently available playtest material. You can also provide Wizads of the Coast with feedback on their proposed changes, so stay tuned and let your opinions be known. We all get to take part in making the next generation of Dungeons and Dragons.
Here are the details on the new rules for Unarmed Strikes, found on page 20 of Unearthed Arcana: Character Origins. This was released on August 18, 2022.
An Unarmed Strike is a melee attack that involves you using your body to damage, grapple, or shove a target within your Reach.
Your bonus to hit with an Unarmed Strike equals your Strength modifier plus your Proficiency bonus. On a hit, your Unarmed Strike causes one of the following effects of your choice:
Damage. The target takes Bludgeoning Damage equal to 1 + your Strength modifier.
Grapple. The target is Grappled, and the grapple’s escape DC equals 8 + your Strength modifier + your Proficiency Bonus. This grapple is possible only if the taret is no more than one Size larger than you and if you have a free hand to grab the target.
Shove. You either push the target 5 feet away or knock the target Prone. This shove is possible only if the target is no more than one Size larger than you.