5e Unarmored Defense & Unarmed Strikes: Bare of Chest & Knuckle

Written by Leonardo Andrade

Leonardo is a writer/narrative designer. He spends most of his time crafting stories or immersed in them. Currently, he partakes in several D&D 5E campaigns and likes messing around with other systems such as Heart, Spire and Rats in The Walls. Here's his portfolio.

The D&D session ends with a bang. Panaya leaps knee first into the soft underside of the kruthik’s neck as it reels its head back to take a bite out of Gadd. The creature’s windpipe doesn’t break as she’d hoped, so she brings down a mighty elbow on top of its chitinous head. There’s a satisfying crunch, followed by a horrible gurgling shriek as the thing collapses into a twitching heap. She lands gracefully like a dancer and tells her friend: “Get up, loser. We need you alive to check for traps.”

D&D 5e allows you to make a powerful combatant with no arms or armor, and it doesn’t have to be a monk. Fighter and barbarian are terrific options, too, if built right. It takes multiple good ability scores to manage it, though, more so than most builds.

In this article, you’ll learn all you need to play a martial artist, crazed brawler, or anything in between, with no arms or armor.

How to Get Good Unarmored AC in 5e

There are a few ways to calculate a Player Character’s (PC) Armor Class (AC):

  • Unarmored: 10 + your Dexterity modifier (Dex mod).
  • Armored: Depends on the armor.
  • Unarmored Defense (barbarian): 10 + your Dex modifier + your Constitution (Con) mod. Allows shields.
  • Unarmored Defense (monk): 10 + your Dex mod + your Wisdom (Wis) mod. Doesn’t allow shields.
  • Draconic Resilience (sorcerer): 13 + your Dex mod.
  • Natural Armor: 10 + your Dex mod + your natural armor bonus. Or it’s a flat number, as with the tortle race from The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount (EGW).

Unarmored Defense Doesn’t Stack

All of the above are mutually exclusive, meaning they don’t stack. There is even a special multiclassing rule concerning Unarmored Defense: you can’t gain it from multiclassing if you already have it (Player’s Handbook [PHB], pg 64). This prevents monkbarians with lucky rolls from rivaling the Bladesinger‘s AC while having much better hit dice.

Both monks and barbarians are Multiple Ability Score Dependant (MAD; explanation). Their Unarmored Defenses have the same raw potential, but barbarians can get +2 AC from shields and increase their AC faster if they use Dex as their damage-dealing stat. Dex-based barbarians are a way to get around the class’ MAD problem.

Situational buffs from spells can affect your AC from Unarmored Defense (naturally, debuffs also apply), but an opponent with Heat Metal can’t cook & book you. Barkskin won’t do anything for you if your unarmored AC is higher than 16, but you can still benefit from Haste or Shield of Faith. Magic items are also helpful; things like a Cloak of Protection and Bracers of Defense.

If you wish to play something like a fighter with no armor, without multiclassing, a tortle is probably your best bet. The 17 flat AC from natural armor is quite nice, and it doesn’t count as “wearing armor”. And you can make them hit like a truck, too, without weapons. Let’s get to it.

Unarmed Strikes Rules in 5e

Things can get a bit confusing on this topic, but you need not worry; I’ve done the research for you. 

First things first: an unarmed strike is a melee weapon attack, but whatever body part you use to hit people is not a weapon (natural weapons are tricky, we’ll cover it downstream). This has a couple implications:

  • Rules as Written (RAW) Weapon buffs don’t work for unarmed strikes. Holy Weapon, for instance, wouldn’t work on fists. I bring it up because Matt Mercer allowed it on Critical Role, and it got some people confused. It might have been a quick ruling to keep the ball rolling or an instance of Rule of Cool; both valid, as DM authority trumps RAW. 
  • Smites don’t work on unarmed strikes. Which I think is dumb and will 100% house-rule away if the paladin in my game wants to punch-Smite someone.
  • You can’t make an unarmed strike as a bonus action “off-hand” attack. Bonus action attacks are very specifically worded to exclude this possibility: 
    • ‘”When you take the Attack action and attack with a light melee weapon that you’re holding in one hand, you can use a bonus action to attack with a different light melee weapon that you’re holding in the other hand.” (PHB, pg 195).

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How to Increase Unarmed Strike Damage

Usually, the damage dealt by an unarmed strike is 1+ your Strength (Str) mod. You can drive this up with race and class features or feats.

  • The monk’s Martial Arts feature makes their unarmed strikes deal 1d4 + their Str or Dex mod at first (monks can choose which to use for their strikes), and the die goes up in size as they level up until it caps at a d10.
    • The pugilist, a popular homebrew class, has a similar feature called Fisticuffs. It starts d6 and gets to d12, using Str.
  • Fighters have access to the Unarmed Fighting Style, introduced in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCE, pg 42). It makes unarmed strike damage equal to 1d6 + Str mod; 1d8 +Str mod if both hands are free. On top of this, it lets you deal 1d4 bludgeoning damage to a target grappled by you at the start of your turn. To learn all about 5e grappling, click here.
    • This Fighting Style is accessible to all via the Fighting Initiate feat (TCE, pg 80), enabling unarmed barbarian builds and giving early game monks an edge.
  • The Tavern Brawler feat (PHB, pg 170) makes your unarmed strike deal 1d4 +Str bludgeoning damage and allows you to bonus action grapple right after punching someone.
  • The Unearthed Arcana Juggernaut warforged deals 1d4 + Str mod with their unarmed strikes.

And that’s most of what you need to know about unarmed fighting. There’s a wrinkle, though.

Do Natural Weapons Count as Weapons in 5e?

It’s complicated. They are designated as weapons by the rules, but weird weapons you can use for unarmed strikes. RAW, magic weapon buffs and Smites should work with an aarakocra’s talons or a tabaxi’s claws. As do the monk’s Martial Arts (minotaur horn attack with Dex!).

That said, the lead rules designer of 5e, Jeremy Crawford, has stated that “the magic weapon spell targets weapons (PHB 146–49), not body parts. A DM can rule otherwise and not break it” in a Twitter discussion about it

The same can be argued of magically enhancing someone’s fist (these spells target one weapon at a time, after all), but neither my nor Crawford’s opinion really matters. Just do what best suits your group and playstyle.


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Sample Build

For a sample build, 6th level is pretty reasonable. This isn’t about minmaxing your way into demigodhood but making a character idea come to life. In this case, it’s someone who fights bare-chested and bare-knuckled.

Half-orc for Relentless Endurance and Savage Attacks. Standard array stats, make your highest Str, followed by Dex and Con. A bit MAD, but no more than a regular monk. Start with one level of fighter, then go barbarian all the way.

Get Athletics proficiency, which you’ll use to grapple enemies with advantage when Raging, and the Unarmed Fighting Style. Your fists are hammers, and you can shut down enemies by piledriving them to the floor if need be.

Your barbarian archetype is Totem Warrior, and your totem is the Bear. It’s really hard to bring you down because you resist every damage type other than psychic.

Summary

This should cover all your needs regarding unarmored and unarmed play. Go forth and pulverize some monsters with your fists, elbows, knees, and shins! Here’s a brief summary of the article:

  • You can get unarmored defense as a class feature (monk, barbarian, and sorcerer (if you count Draconic Resilience)) or in the form of natural armor. All methods of AC calculation are mutually exclusive – they do not stack.
  • Normally, unarmed strikes deal 1+Str in bludgeoning damage. You can get around that by playing a monk, a fighter with Unarmed Fighting, a pugilist, a Juggernaut warforged. The Tavern Brawler feat also helps in the early game, but getting Unarmed Fighting via Fighting Initiate feat is better.
  • Natural weapons are weapons for the purposes of Smiting and weapon buffs, but you can perform unarmed strikes with them. I believe applying the same logic to any unarmed strike doesn’t break anything.

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