This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Ninety Six on 19th January 2022.
Killer DM: All right numbers man, it’s nap time, I need…
Killer DM (with a hint of concern): Ah dear. I don’t remember you sitting in on one of my games, what happened to you?
Ostron: Um…bar fight.
Killer DM: Hey! You! Lawyer person! Get in here.
Tony (slightly disturbed): Um, hi, the name’s actually “Tony”, and…oh man. Why are you calling me? I’m not a cleric! You have one of those on staff.
Killer DM: Well that’s what you do, isn’t it? When someone gets hurt, the first thing you do is call a lawyer and they tell you where your money’s going to come from.
Tony: Okay that’s…a gross misrepresentation of my job, to begin with. Also you don’t call the lawyer before the medical professionals.
Killer DM: Oh I’m calling it here, he’s clearly too far gone to save.
Ostron: I have bruises and some shallow cuts! One healing word would probably-ow..ohh…okay maybe a cure wounds?
Killer DM: Will you just do your job and let other people worry about the rest of it?
Tony: Again, this is really something police-
Killer DM: Objection! That’s right, isn’t it? Yes. Objection!
Tony: On what grounds?
Killer DM: On the grounds I’m going to drop on your head if you don’t get to it.
Tony: I want it noted for the record that duress doesn’t even begin to cover what’s going on here. Ostron, are you all right? What happened anyway?
Ostron: I went to a bar and there was a disagreement.
Tony: What were you doing in a bar? You don’t even drink.
Ostron: They’re good places to get information.
Libby (from a distance): Book!
Ostron: Yeah, this wasn’t information that’s in the annex. Anyway, I was trying to talk to some people, there were…disagreements and then it got out of hand.
Tony: Forgive me for pointing out the obvious but you’re a wizard. Shouldn’t you have been able to…I don’t know put them all to sleep? Or toss them out the window?
Killer DM: Or blow up the bar? I mean, alcohol is flammable.
Ostron: It was run by a beholder.
Tony: So no magic for you. No offense intended but why aren’t you dead?
Ostron: They also have a strict no weapons policy.
Killer DM (disgusted tone): Oh wonderful. So it was one gigantic slap fight.
Tony: Well, I haven’t personally been in a bar fight but from what I’ve heard they’re no joke.
Killer DM: They are in D&D. Everyone loves a good bar fight.
Ostron: Um, I didn’t particularly enjoy-
Killer DM: Everyone who matters loves a good bar fight. Unfortunately because of the way certain rules are written in D&D, it’s difficult to really have a good bar fight. Same thing with a wrestling match or something similar.
The main issue, again, is that the designers of the game want to make sure all the pretty little heads of the players don’t start melting because they have to remember too many different modifiers or do extra math. Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m in favor of all of that, particularly the melting heads bit. But it does mean some aspects of storytelling don’t get the robust treatment they might deserve. People fighting without weapons is one of those aspects. And all of you with the robes and the headbands can sit down, we’ll get to you.
Tony: As my acquaintance here pointed out-
Killer DM (offended): Acquaintance
Tony: We’ve seen each other twice!
Killer DM: You’ve known Ryu for years, how different are we really? You shouldn’t believe anything the spoony Brit told you either.
Tony: I can think of about 39 ways to convince any reasonable jury that you are not the same person, and that’s only from talking to you for a few minutes. Can I get on with this?
As I was saying, unarmed combat is very simplified for fifth edition, however the way they simplified it leaves a few loopholes that can be exploited.
We’ll start with the basics. Unarmed strikes made by any given creature always use the creature’s proficiency bonus and their strength modifier to determine the plus to hit (the game graciously assumes you are proficient with using your own limbs). If you manage to connect with your wild haymaker, you do…1 damage. However, fear not! You also get to add your strength modifier to the damage. Which is great unless you’re Ostron here and your strength mod is negative.
Tony: I’m sorry was that wrong?
Ostron: No but…you don’t have to advertise it. Don’t you have a confidentiality thing you have to follow?
Tony: I’m sorry, I forgot. Oh, did I give you a receipt for that retainer you paid me?
Ostron: I never…
Ostron (sighing): Right. Moving on.
That’s right, the negative modifiers apply to the damage, so if you have a strength mod that is negative in any way, you literally cannot do damage with an unarmed strike unless there are special circumstances.
Another fluke of the mechanics is that because of the way damage works in 5e, critical hits basically mean nothing with unarmed strikes. You do still automatically hit regardless of the creature’s AC, but the basic damage doesn’t change. You aren’t rolling any dice for unarmed damage, and that’s the only thing a regular critical hit modifies. So again, mundane characters with a negative strength modifier can contribute nothing to a straight up fistfight.
All of that can also kind of ruin immersion. You can have a seven foot tall goliath backhand a gnome over a table and if the gnome has a higher strength mod than “Rocky” they’re still going to be able to do more damage by running back and kicking him in the shins.
“Ah” I can hear you all thinking, “but you’re leaving out the best parts of the bar fight!” And yes, that’s true. When bare fists and shod feet aren’t cutting it, people start breaking bottles, picking up chairs, or (because you have species that start out at seven feet tall hanging around those that top out at three), possibly picking up their fellow patrons and swinging them around as weapons.
And this is when the bar fight goes from boringly mundane to outright annoying.
Again, in the interests of simplification, the rules give blanket statistics for improvised weapons. From the rules:
An object that bears no resemblance to a weapon deals 1d4 damage (the DM assigns a damage type appropriate to the object). If a character uses a ranged weapon to make a melee attack, or throws a melee weapon that does not have the thrown property, it also deals 1d4 damage. An improvised thrown weapon has a normal range of 20 feet and a long range of 60 feet.
So right away you have some extra work for the DM. Obviously a shattered beer bottle is not going to have the same damage type as a table leg; the bottle is probably slashing, while the leg is almost certainly bludgeoning. But then again, that broken table leg probably has some jagged wood at one end, so what if the creature starts poking at people with it? And what do you do when someone takes an intact bottle and shatters it over someone’s skull? Obviously the impact is going to do some bludgeoning damage, but that shattered end is probably going to cut real well on the follow-through.
The good thing is that there are few instances where the exact type of damage is going to matter that much (unless a bunch of oozes get involved somehow) but it leads in to the other issues of adjudication. Again, from the rules:
Often, an improvised weapon is similar to an actual weapon and can be treated as such.
This gives rise to the negotiation or arguments that the Killer DM probably doesn’t want to deal with. That table leg? It’s got one of those fancy ornate feet carved in the bottom that sort of flares out. Doesn’t that mean it could count as a mace? And hey, break those pool cues right and they’re basically javelins, aren’t they? Plus, if you pull the Waterdavian flag off the pole it’s a quarterstaff, isn’t it?
Killer DM: If you don’t stop I’m definitely going to kill you.
Ostron: I’m not actually trying to make any of those arguments.
Killer DM: No but you’re doing far too good of a job imitating it.
And that’s basically the problem. All the weapons Ostron mentioned do more than 1d4 damage on a hit, meaning that gives the character an edge over the rest of the people trying to make do with beer steins or somebody’s shoe. And even if they just try to argue that the table leg is a club, which still does 1d4 damage, that might still be worth it if their character is proficient with simple weapons. By default, nobody is proficient with improvised weapons. If you can successfully argue an improvised weapon is actually a legitimate weapon, that means the proficiency bonus comes back for the attack rolls, again giving that character a bonus over the rest of the crowd.
If you intend to have bar fights in your game (or just know the characters are going to end up in bars, because we all know how well plans hold up once players get involved) get some ground rules ready. You don’t want your entire bar fight to stall in the middle while players write dissertations on why a tapped keg can totally function as an alcoldraulic crossbow. It’s better to list out some of the standard items from a bar and what they could count as for weapons, and just say everything else is an improvised weapon. And players, try to just follow what your DM lays out for that kind of thing unless there’s a really compelling reason you have to come up with something new. After all, I’m assuming you don’t want to die.
Ostron: Where did you come up with alcoldraulic?
Killer DM: Did you forget who I spend most of my time with around here?
Tony: Oh, ROSTRO, right? Yeah, met it.
Now to return back to regular unarmed fighting, Ostron mentioned special circumstances and, oh boy are there a lot of them.
Most of them have to do with the rule wording that states unarmed strikes count as melee weapon attacks. That means that any spell or ability that triggers or involves a melee weapon attack will work if an unarmed attack is made. So if you’re squaring off against the fighter and ignore the rogue that used strength as a dump stat, they’re going to come up behind you and shatter your spine because they still get sneak attack damage. And for the love of whatever god you can think of, do not try to take a punch from a paladin with spell slots available.
If you don’t have spells or aren’t a class that gives you something special when you hit with melee weapon attacks, you may still have a way to beef up your fisticuff abilities. The Tavern Brawler feat is designed to improve unarmed combat. It gives you a bump in Strength or Constitution, to start, so that might help you get rid of a negative modifier, but it also gives you proficiency with improvised weapons and bumps your unarmed damage to 1d4. So if your game allows feats, you too can score a critical hit with a salad fork.
Now if you know going into things that there’s a better than even chance fighting without weapons will be a regular thing, you can give yourself a leg up by changing your legs. Or arms. Or head.
There are several racial options that come with built in natural weapons as part of their makeup. Most of them are the ones that are on the monstrous side, such as Shifters, Tabaxi, and Tortles, all of whom have claws that will soon do 1d6 damage rather than the basic 1. Some of the more exotic racial options also have exotic unarmed attacks; Satyrs and Minotaurs can use their horns to greater effect, for example, and Lizardmen can take a chunk out of opponents with their mouths if they find themselves weaponless.
Another point of adjudication that should be brought up. Other creatures are considered improvised weapons in all cases, so even if you pick up the giant porcupine and hit someone with it the damage is still 1d4. However, throwing a creature at someone else gets…complicated.
That’s because the designers in their infinite wisdom have two different sets of rules that could apply here. To begin with, you have the obvious one; a thrown improvised weapon does 1d4 damage blah blah okay. However, there are also the rules for creatures falling onto one another. Those rules say a creature faced with a plummeting colleague has to make a Dexterity save or take as much damage as the creature would from the fall (which is 1d6 per ten feet, by the way). So now there’s more arguments, mostly from the physicists and the engineers who are trying to tell me how horizontal force is the same as vertical force and oh my goodness I really want to kill all of them.
Again, if you want to deal with that mess that’s your call but unless your DM gives you an indication that they also want to deal with that mess do not bring it up if you are a player. Unless you want to refer back to the melting heads thing from before.
And just because I said I would, we’ll talk about monks. This is mostly a no-brainer, but if you’re going to be fighting without weapons a lot, just be a monk. Their unarmed damage gets better just because of who they are, and they don’t have to mess around with fancy racial options or feats or anything like that. Three monks walking into a bar isn’t a joke, it’s a bloodbath. One of them will be able to punch people out without leaving their seat, their buddy will slapping people going for distance and accuracy on the landings, and the last one will be taking down everyone even after their twelfth tequila shot. If there is a monk in a bar, and they are not on your side, just hide under a table. And cut their legs off so they stop ruining my chase scenes.
Tony: I think you’re getting off topic a bit.
Killer DM: We’re off this topic as of now. And you may as well go get Gath. Ostron looks more pathetic than usual like that.
Tony: Why don’t you do it?….fine fine, just…stop looking at me like that.
Killer DM: All right numbers boy. You and I both know a beholder’s antimagic field matters to you as much as the latest fashion in lingerie so spill. What were you doing and why did you let yourself get beat up?
Ostron: Wouldn’t you like to know?
Killer DM: Oh it’s like that is it?
Ostron: Yes, it-
(rocks fall, Ostron dies)
Killer DM: Okay, I didn’t think that one through all the way, I’ll admit. But it felt really good. Especially after him making up all those weapon arguments. At least Gath’s already on his way. I’ll just have to figure out what he’s doing on my own.