Optional Strength rules for unarmed combat [D&D]

It’s a fundamental element in most RPGs: Strength modifies hit chance and damage. From time to time, a few heretics claim that the main attribute for close combat should be speed, dexterity, or something like that, but the answer to these people is always the same:

“You are as ignorant as you are [probably] ugly. For a trained warrior, speed is strength, and strength is speed. The damage any object may cause is basically speed x mass, so the bigger and stronger you are, the faster you will hit, and the more brutal you will be.”

The idea that, somehow, a nimble fighter would beat a 240lb man probably comes from the same crazy hole that gave us Waif-fu and similar nonsense.

[Note: as a commenter -dmdr- noted, there are many games that use Dexterity (or something similar) as the underlying skill for combat. I still think that’s a mistake, and I suspect the error comes from confusing agility/nimbleness with skill (or character level, for those games that use that.) The designers imagined one of those fast fighters one can see in movies (a Yoda-like thing, for example) and assumed that such speed was what the dexterity ability scores reflects. In fact, that speed is not a function of some natural power but of years of training (and in the Yoda example, superpowers or The Force -which, by the way, probably gave him extra Strength to be able to do those things-) So, the answer wouldn’t be that the warrior has a high Dexterity but that he is a high-level character.

Also, there is the error that strength and speed are somewhat incompatible, which is nonsense. Speed is Strength. Weak people are slow and clumsy. And yes, there are big, strong people who are also relatively slow and ineffective when fighting, but that’s because they are not trained in hand-to-hand combat or in any martial arts. If they were, they would crush you (and that’s the reason I created these optional rules.) Imagine a 3-meter ogre trained in kung fu, and then tell me his Strength shouldn’t matter that much because it’s all an issue of being fast and nimble.

I do not deny there are certains moments when something like Reflexes may matter in combat, but that’s why those scores add to AC or Defense. In any event, what I will never accept is the idea that the main skill governing unarmed combat should be Dexterity instead of Strength.]

In fact, here I will argue that games like D&D underestimate the importance of strength, at least in relation to unarmed combat. That’s understandable, though, because unarmed combat is usually and afterthought to the more general combat rule system. Also, the game implicitly states that unarmed combat is the easiest skill to learn (because everybody can punch and kick) and it doesn’t matter much if you are a “martial artist” or not.

What I present here is not a new complex rule system for martial arts but a simple modification to the Strength table and a few optional rules. Everything else still works like always has.

Basically, what I propose is just adding another column for “Bonus to hit,” but this one only for unarmed combat when: (1) NEITHER you or your opponent are using any weapon, (2) AND the attacking character has a proficiency in unarmed combat. So, a big, burly mage would not use that new column because (probably) he doesn’t have that proficiency, and a trained fighter would not be able to use that column because his opponent is attacking him with a dagger, and that nullifies the special bonus of the new proficiency.

Proficiency in unarmed combat” simply means you have some kind of martial arts training (karate, boxing, judo, whatever) or that you are very good at knocking people thanks to your bar-fighting experience. If you are playing 3rd edition, it works like a feat, similar to a “weapon proficiency” but with a few differences. Also, please note that in this optional system, “Unarmed strike” is not a “simple weapon” anymore but it’s own weapon category (“Unarmed combat”) with its own proficiency  and mastery feats.

Proficiency in unarmed combat, like other basic proficiencies, doesn’t give you any bonus to hit, BUT unlike other proficiencies, you don’t suffer any penali¡ties (the standard -4) either. What does it do then? Well, it allows you to use your strength when punching people to its full potential. In other words, your bonus to hit thanks to your Strength will be bigger. All warrior classes (fighter, paladin, ranger, barbarian, and monk) have it and, if you are playing D&D 1st edition, also dwarves. The other classes need to purchase it.

Optional rule: for those who want to create a more hardcore or brutal simulation, you can give a penalty to characters that don’t have the proficiency in unarmed combat, but I think it should be smaller penalty, something like -2  or -3.

Once you have that proficiency, it is assumed that you have some knowledge of a martial art (or its animal/monster equivalent) so you can use this new column to kick some ass IF the other combatant is also unarmed.

D&D alernate STR 1st 2dn & 3rd
The first one is for 1st E D&D or AD&D                                       The second is for 3rd edition

[The second table could be expanded so the bonuses won’t jump, for example, from +2 to +4 in a single leap]

As you can see, the new column basically doubles your STR bonus. That makes those extra points in the 18-18/00 (or 16-19 for D&D 3E) range really important for someone in the business of crushing skulls with his hands. The rationale behind this is the same one that created weight classes for boxing: if two boxers fight each other, the bigger one will almost always crush the smaller one. Differences in Strength and size don’t matter THAT much for people wielding weapons, but for trained martial artists they do.

You may think that some of those bonuses to hit are too high, like +12 for 24 STR. Yes, they are quite high, but they have to be. Anything beyond 18/00 or 19 STR is basically inhuman strength. 24 STR is the strength of a Storm Giant, a 6 meter tall, 5400 kg humanoid. Really, if you are stupid enough to try beating a monstrosity like that at a boxing match, you deserve all the +12 of the world against you.

Note that this applies to all sizes and types, so if a very idiotic rat attacks you and you try to kick it, punch it, or -uh- bite it, you (but not the rat) will use the new column for bonus to hit.

Obligatory Optional rule: What’s that 3E nonsense about “weapon finesse” for unarmed strikes? Burn that heresy!

“Wouldn’t that mean that little animals like rats suck at fighting humans?” Eh… yeah, they ARE little animals, they should suck.

Note that monsters and creatures need that feat to use it, too. Some may have it, others probably won’t. For example, a dragon probably wouldn’t it since there is no reason to assume it had any opportunity or need to train in unarmed draconic combat. As a general rule, martial humanoids (orcs, hobgoblins, and so on) probably will have that feat. Many savage animals, especially predators, may also have their own version of that proficiency, but I’ll leave that to your discretion. I think, however, that many should for the simple reason that trying to punch a tiger or a wild boar is a very, very bad idea.

Now, why does this optional strength system applies only when both combatants are unarmed? Simple, because weapons equalize the combatants and make strength a little less relevant. On the other hand, when fighting unarmed or wrestling a gorilla, it is then that being a big mofo is extremely important.

Rogues in the House, Conan #44



9 thoughts on “Optional Strength rules for unarmed combat [D&D]

  1. Interesting. Having practiced judo for a few years way back, I can see why some people might subscribe to the nimbleness/dexterity school of thought, but if anything I’d say that would apply more so to grappling. It’s true that if you’re skilled and knowledgeable of things like bars, chokes, and pressure points, it can probably help you turn the tables on a larger/stronger opponent under certain circumstances (probably on the ground). But then if you’re fighting some dude that’s all muscle, or if you’re pitted against a gorilla or a dragon or something…yeah, probably won’t matter a whole lot.

    But I dunno, I don’t really have any expertise about real fighting. Maybe some people want to run cartoony, Dragon Ball Z style campaigns where little dudes can just jump around and punch giants to death. But for my part I think I’d subscribe to your more realistic rules.


    1. emperorponders

      Well, I don’t know if they are ‘realistic’ but at least they simulate something I think is obvious but has been, as far as I know, ignored in all games: that strength matters more for unarmed combat than for fights using weapons. I’m sure a Schwarzenegger in his prime, wielding a katana, woul be quite scary, but those muscles would be even scarier and deadlier if he is trying to strangle me or punch me to death. There is simply no way I could win against that in hand to hand combat, but with a sword… I can always get lucky and stab him before he strikes :b

      tl.dr version: “David & Goliath” kind of fights make sense if one or both are using weapons. If not, I think David is screwed.


  2. dmdr

    Haven’t read the whole post, but I just had a quick look at my collection based on your first couple paragraphs and…
    White Wolf (Vampire/masquerade, Changeling/dreaming) games attack rolls are based on Dexterity
    GURPS 3e all physical skills are based on D(e)X
    Cyberpunk 2020, Brawling/Fencing skills are based on REF(lexes, ie. DEX) (presumably other h2h skills too… each martial art is it’s own skill… but I just passed my eyes over the skill list real quick)
    Mongoose Runequest II, combat skills have an initial value of STR+DEX
    Mongoose Traveller allows the attacker to choose between STR or DEX when attacking
    Tunnels and Trolls has ‘combat adds’ based on STR, DEX and L(uc)K. These add to hit and damage
    Warhammer Fantasy RP 1st & 2nd eds., fighting is it’s own stat.
    Call of Cthulhu makes stats have no bearing on combat skills. STR + SIZ(e) modifies damage.

    Unless things have changed recently, games tend to favour DEX and similar stats, or give STR and DEX equal weight, but usually base damage off of STR. So D&D is the heretic in giving STR it’s proper place (and you’ll also note that recent, lamer editions have made the Rogue, ie. a nimble little dude, better damage dealers than the Fighter)!

    (Nice blog by the way).


    1. emperorponders

      True, true. I guess I focused too much on D&D and those who tried to follow it. I’ll add a note to the text about that. Of course, they are still all heretics :b



      1. dmdr

        Good addendum – it sums up my thoughts on the matter pretty much exactly, and anyone who disagrees should probably take a good long look at the results of a google image search for ‘male gymnast.’

        Currently I’m (very) slowly putting together a set of rules for STALKER type adventuring, based on the FUDGE SRD (http://www.sonic.net/~rknop/php/Omar/fudge/srd.php/FudgeSRD/). The only physical stat will be STR, because really what other physical ‘stats’ aren’t completely dependent on it anyway?


        1. Really, the only one I could think would be something like Stamina, for things like running for hours. Marathon runners, for example, look like skeletons so they certainly aren’t strong. But I’m not sure I would make that a “stat” since it’s already implicit in whatever athletics skills your character may have.


  3. dmdr

    Alright, one last rant while I’m here: little animals like rats and cats should have no stats in D&D! 1HP worth of damage is something that has the potential to kill a normal person, stuff like sword blows and weights falling on you, NOT rat bites and cat scratches and sitting on razor blades, as though anyone would ever be dumb enough to do that ha ha.
    This can be easily seen by the fact 1st level characters can have 1HP in early editions — 1/6 of the time for 0th level normal humans, in fact, and nothing like 1/6 of the population gets killed after stepping on their cat’s tail. 1 HP is not ‘just a scratch’ and giving tiny animals stats makes no sense at all.

    If a rat fights you, you win. Even if you’re a 1st level magic user whose only spell is Tenser’s floating disc. The end.


  4. Pingback: Most animals don’t need stats or attributes. – The Frisky Pagan

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