While many D&D campaigns are all about the adventuring, at many of our tables it wouldn’t be a campaign unless there was a free-for-all at some local inn or tavern. Some of the best, and funniest, memories of our campaigns involve unarmed strikes and not just because of an overpowered monk – but you need to understand how 5E’s unarmed strike works to play these scenes out right.
Because as one wise fictional character once said:
You know they tell ya never hit a man with a closed fist, but it is on occasion hilarious.Captain Mal, Firefly
The good news is that unarmed strikes are actually pretty easy to figure out, and a good DM always has the ability to throw in some homebrew to spice up a scene (like allowing a player to use their inspiration to back suplex a bear through a table in the middle of a bar fight) if they so choose.
If you want to know everything there is to know about unarmed attacks in 5E, read on because we’re going to cover it all!
How the Basic Unarmed Strike in 5E Works
In 5th Edition unarmed combat is actually very simple, though some would argue that it is a bit too much so, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The basic formula for an unarmed attack is:
1 + STR Modifier = Damage from Unarmed Strength
That’s all of it. Unless you are a monk or have the Tavern Brawler feat, you only get 1 hit point of damage plus your Strength Modifier (+1 for 12, +2 for 14, +5 for 20, etc) for damage. This information can be found o page 195 of the Player’s Handbook for those of you who always like to double check and verify.
There are some who argue it should be Strength or Dexterity, but my thought is once you get to fighting styles using Dexterity, you’re in martial arts and Monks so having Strength as the only core stat for unarmed combat makes a lot of sense to me and I think it was the right choice.
It’s also worth noting that an unarmed strike is an unarmed strike. In 5th Edition D&D there is no distinction between a punch, kick, elbow, knee, or headbutt.
The Monk’s Unarmed Strike in 5E
The monk is the master of unarmed combat. Whether imagining a traditional build like the Kung Fu monks of China or Bruce Lee, or something out of left field like the mighty sumo (having a sumo with a 60 movement speed was hilarious – highly recommend), Monks are masters of unarmed combat and the Martial Arts.
While they have Monk weapons and special class abilities like Unarmored defense that not only fit thematically with unarmed combat but make them more effective than a purely unarmed build, they are the class that is clearly made to profit from the use of unarmed strikes that are “super powered” compared to what other classes can do.
Monks are the only class that have a hit die for damage for unarmed attacks in 5E as apposed to a just a base damage of 1. The hit die used is based on level.
For monks the hit die are:
- Level 1-4 monks use a d4 for unarmed attacks
- Level 5-10 monks use a d6 for unarmed attacks
- Level 11 monks use a d8 for unarmed attacks
- Level 17 monks use a d10 for unarmed attacks
In addition to this, Monks may choose to use their Dexterity Bonus for damage instead of Strength. Since Dexterity is the most important stat for a Monk, that is great for the class and often leads to even more powerful unarmed attacks.
Monks can use an unarmed strikes as an Action, as a Bonus Action after attacking with a monk weapon, OR spend a ki action to use Flurry of Blows as a Bonus Action which gives them two unarmed attacks as part of the bonus action. Add in the fact monks’ fists count as magical weapons after 6th level and they can attempt Stunning Strike at 5th level and it’s easy to see why Monks are all about mixing the unarmed combat with everything else they do.
How the Tavern Brawler Feat Affects Unarmed Strike
Recognizing that not every player interested in a character able to handle themselves in a fist fight wants to play a monk, the 5E Tavern Brawler feat in most games is more of flavor thing for lower levels than an extremely useful feat throughout a campaign, but it’s a great feat to add extra flavor for the Fighters, Barbarians, or other classes that have a character who wants to mix it up once in a while.
The Tavern Brawler is a huge feat for unarmed strikes done by any class other than Monk.
The Tavern Brawler feat changes damage from an unarmed attack from 1 + STR Modifier to 1d4 + STR Modifier.
While the minimum damage from a build with an unarmed strike is the same with or without this feat, the maximum goes up 3 points of damage and the average moves up 1.5 points of damage per unarmed attack.
If you’re going to have an effective unarmed strike outside of the Monk you are going to need to take this feat as part of a building block. Add this to a +5 from a maxed out Strength Barbarian, Fighter, or Cleric then you are suddenly throwing uppercuts and headbutts that can really put down opponents.
What Is the Best Unarmed Build in 5E?
First of all let’s get one thing out of the way – there is no good high level build for unarmed characters in 5E. There’s a reason no army of bare fisted peasants pummeled an army of armored swordsmen and archers in World History. While a Level 20 Fighter can be created into a devastating boxer, they are devastating by unarmed standards – not necessarily a viably playable character.
With those caveats out of the way…
Barbarians can be great in a fight because they have a high Strength and Constitution, not to mention an Unarmored Class feature that allows them to take hits or dodge in a fight, not to mention raging to just take half damage which will help them just keep going in any bar fight well after most everyone else has gone down.
Fighters can take multiple attacks per attack action, many more so than any other class. If they have the Tavern Brawler Feat to go with the almost certain 20 STR score at high levels for that +5 damage, they can put up a pretty good showing in an all-out bar brawl.
Clerics are an intriguing class for a bar brawl and they have the ability to give a pretty good unarmed strike if they are Strength-based in the build. The one down side? It’s very, VERY hard to justify taking the Tavern Brawler feat for a Cleric unless it’s low level and just for fun.
Paladins can’t smite with their fists, but as another class that tends to be Strength-based builds so if you have them with the Tavern Brawler feat they’re going to be able to get in the brawl with any non-Monk and hold their own for at least a while.
Druids don’t need it…because they can just Wild Shape and cheat.
Common 5E Unarmed Combat Questions
There are several common question when it comes to how unarmed strikes work in 5th Edition D&D and here are the answers to some of the most common ones that come up.
Does Tavern Brawler stack with Monk’s unarmed attack?
No. The d4 attack aspect of Tavern Brawler doesn’t stack with what a monk gets for unarmed strikes. This is why Monks are pretty much never going to take this feat as it doesn’t make a lot of sense for them.
Is the Monk the only good class for unarmed combat?
For a long-term build, yes, because Monks are built to have the unarmed strikes go hand-in-hand with Monk weapons and the benefits they get because of Class Features and Ki-Point options
Can you kick in D&D?
Yup. The flavor text can be filled in however you want, it doesn’t affect the damage at all.
Can you head butt in D&D?
Same as above with the answer about kick. You can call your unarmed strike whatever you want, it all mechanically works the same but it does allow you to throw in some flavor text and change things up a bit story-telling wise.
Does the Grappler feat help an unarmed character build in DnD?
It does from the wrestling standpoint, but from a practicality standpoint it doesn’t make that much sense.
5E Unarmed Strikes: In Conclusion
Unarmed strikes might not come up all that often outside of the Monk in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s a good mechanic that can come up for bare knuckle boxing arenas, unarmed combat, or maybe just trying to bloody up an NPC at low levels to make them more cooperative.
There are multiple ways to make decent brawling characters who can throw fists, elbows, kicks, and headbutts, throwing their favorite unarmed strikes with abandon during whatever shenanigans are currently going on.
Other 5E Articles You May Love
- Best Feats for Barbarians
- Best Feats for Monks
- 5E Core Stats Guide
- One DnD Tavern Brawler Feat Guide
- All Damage Types in 5E DnD
Proud to embrace the locally created moniker of “Corrupt Overlord” from one of the all time great Lords of Waterdeep runs, Shane is one member of the Assorted Meeples crew and will be hard at work creating awesome content for the website. He is a long-time player of board games, one time semi-professional poker player, and tends to run to the quirky or RPG side of things when it comes to playing video games. He loves tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Werewolf, Fate, and others, and not only has been a player but has run games as DM for years. You can find his other work in publications like Level Skip or Hobby Lark.