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A PC wields a 1-handed weapon one-handed. He wants to make a disarm attempt with his empty hand. The PC possesses the feat Improved Disarm but not the feat Improved Unarmed Strike or any other similar ability.

I think that the PC provokes an attack of opportunity for making the disarm attempt unarmed. Put simply, I read disarm as an attack.

The PC's player claims that his PC does not provoke an attack of opportunity for three reasons:

  1. A disarm is not an attack as such, but an attack-equivalent action, which he simply interprets as a standard action.
  2. The Improved Disarm feat overrules the unarmed strike rules in this particular case.
  3. The PC's considered armed because the PC's still wielding a melee weapon.

Who's right?

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There's no attack of opportunity.

This is a case of specific-beats-general. Improved Disarm is unambiguous:

You do not provoke an attack of opportunity when you attempt to disarm an opponent.

Yes, disarming is a melee attack (disarm rules say that you do it "as a melee attack", not "instead of a melee attack" or similar), and an unarmed disarming attack is an unarmed melee attack. But the character is performing an unarmed melee attack as an attempt to disarm an opponent, and Improved Disarm clearly states that this doesn't provoke an attack of opportunity.

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The player is correct

The special attack disarm provokes attacks of opportunity no matter the weapon with which the disarm attempt is made, and the feat Improved Disarm (Player's Handbook 95), among other benefits, removes the possibility of the foe making that attack of opportunity. As the disarm attempt is being made with a light weapon—the unarmed strike—, the PC will suffer a −4 penalty on the opposed attack roll (neatly cancelled out by another benefit of the feat Improved Disarm), and the PC may even suffer a nonproficiency penalty on that opposed attack roll if the PC isn't proficient with his unarmed strike (like a druid, wizard or, ironically and controversially, a monk). But the PC—due to the feat Improved Disarm—simply obviates the attack of opportunity normally provoked by the disarm attempt no matter the weapon he uses to make the disarm attempt.

I assume that the Player's Handbook on Disarm (155) has already been no help in resolving this. Instead, then, the Rules Compendium, while not mentioning this specifically, alludes to this situation. On Resolving a Disarm says

If you beat the defender, the defender is disarmed. If you attempted the disarm while unarmed, whether you’re considered armed or not, you now have the weapon or item you targeted. The weapon is on the ground in the defender’s space if you used a weapon for your disarm attempt. (45)

Prior to this point in the Disarm chapter, the Rules Compendium has been silent on if it matters "whether [the attacker is] considered armed or not," implying that no special rules apply. Further, on Grabbing Items says, "You can use a disarm to snatch an item worn by the target. If you want to have the item in your hand, the disarm must be made as an unarmed attack" (ibid.), and makes no mention of special rules applying if the creature lacks the feat Improved Unarmed Strike (PH 96–7) or the equivalent.

I understand your reluctance to allow the PC to make unarmed disarm attempts absent Improved Unarmed Strike without provoking attacks of opportunity. I really do. In general it's incredibly frustrating for the DM to have a PC disarm his foe in such a way as to steal from the foe its weapon and keep the weapon,—especially if the weapon's important, expensive, unique, or powerful,—and the foe, for whatever reason, has no backup weapon. However, that's usually balanced by the PC having devoted resources to making disarm attempts, a strategy that sees its usefulness decline precipitously in most campaigns after about level 5 and, often, earlier than that.

Were you to make this a house rule anyway—something like If an attacker lacks the feat Improved Unarmed Strike, the attacker that makes an unarmed disarm attempt provokes an attack of opportunity from the creature against whom the disarm attempt is made—, it would be fair to consider making the same house rule for other special attacks, like bull rush and grapple. Such a house rule increases the value of the feat Improved Unarmed Strike but will make combat, overall, less interesting, essentially imposing another feat tax on already niche combat tactics. I recommend against such a house rule for most campaigns, but I can imagine such a house rule being a thing in, for example, a fighter-focused, low-magic swashbuckling campaign.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I am actually quite happy for my player, since he does use it in a rather flashy way and I guess you could argue that Improved Disarm includes IUS training for this specific action. Does he still get a penalty for using his off-hand? \$\endgroup\$ – TheQ Aug 7 '17 at 10:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TheQ Is the PC two-weapon fighting—that is actually taking a full attack to make an attack with the main hand weapon then making a disarm attempt with the off-hand? If that's the case, I'd say yes, but otherwise handedness isn't really a thing in 3.5e. If not two-weapon fighting, a dude's weapon is at its full attack bonus even if the other hand's occupied. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 7 '17 at 11:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ He makes an attack to grab somebody's weapon with the unarmed hand and then attacks with the other hand. So in this case he would take a penalty. \$\endgroup\$ – TheQ Aug 7 '17 at 11:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TheQ Yep. The PC's essentially trading his main hand's attack for the disarm attempt. The PC'd take the two-weapon fighting penalty on his opposed attack roll to make the disarm attempt. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 7 '17 at 11:19
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On srd:

As a melee attack, you may attempt to disarm your opponent.

  1. When you disarm, you provoke an attack of opportunity from the target
  2. When you disarm, the player make a attack. If you make a unarmed strike attack without the feat, you provoke an attack of opportunity(AoO) from the target.

A total of two AoO can be triggered. If you have Improved Disarm, the first AoO don't trigger. If you have Improved Unarmed Strike, the second AoO don't trigger. If both, no AoO.

You player have only Improved Disarm, IMHO, one AoO can be made for attack without Improved Unarmed Strike.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I see, that sometimes you can trigger two AoO from one opponent, but here it does not make sense to me since it is both "the same" action, rather than for instance when you move in a threatened square and then make an unarmed strike, or when you retrieve a potion and then attempt to drink it. You do not first make an attack and then attempt to disarm. The attack is substituted by the disarm attempt, so only one action. \$\endgroup\$ – TheQ Aug 9 '17 at 13:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, RAW and common sense is not the same thing :p The master can open exceptions and judge things like this. Is like cast a ray spell in melee. AOO from cast spell and from the ranged attack. The master can judge only 1 trigger, but by RAW is 2. If you dont trigger all attacks, some player how remember to buy the feat can be underestimate or some player underestimate the feat and nobody buy it. Options, options... Apply the best for you group, and great game. \$\endgroup\$ – Psycho Mantys Aug 9 '17 at 17:34
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Without Improved Unarmed Strike, does an improved disarm attempt provoke attacks of opportunity?

I think that the PC provokes an attack of opportunity for making the disarm attempt unarmed. Put simply, I read disarm as an attack.

No. Specific overrules general and disarm specifically calls out Improved Disarm as how to overcome the attack of opportunity.

This question highlights some inconsistencies in the dnd-3.5 rules, with respect to Attacks of Opportunity and Special Attacks.

AoOs are provoked under two circumstances; moving out of a threatened square or performing a provoking action while in a threatened square. The latter is sometimes described in the text of the action (skill use or special attack, perhaps others) and also whether or not an action provokes is listed in the tables under Actions in Combat.

Where it starts to get confusing is in the text for each special attack. For example, in bull rush:

First, you move into the defender’s space. Doing this provokes an attack of opportunity

Is this a poor choice of words? Meaning, it should read

First, you move into the defender’s space which requires moving out of a square threatened by the defender…

Or is this some sort of expansion, where both moving out of a threatened square and moving into an enemy’s square provoke? If you don’t move, do you still provoke for a bull rush attempt?

This is also similarly mentioned on Overrun,

Since you begin the overrun by moving into the defender’s space, you provoke an attack of opportunity

Further, grapple, disarm and sunder don’t give a reason, they just state that they provoke.

And trip specifically calls out the AoO is for making an unarmed attack.

Make an unarmed melee touch attack against your target. This provokes an attack of opportunity from your target as normal for unarmed attacks.

Does an attacker attempting a trip provoke if they have Improved Unarmed Strike?

Avoiding Attacks of Opportunity
If you have the Improved Trip feat...

This leaves quite a bit of room for interpretation. Does an attacker attempting to grapple or an unarmed bull rush provoke 4 times, once for moving out of a threatened square, one for moving into a defender’s space, one for making an unarmed attack and one for the special opposed attack?

Here’s how I handle it, but it’s really house rules at this point, since this is unclear.

  • Bull rush, disarm, grapple, overrun and sunder all provoke from the defender for the special attack itself, unless the attacker has Improved [special attack].
  • Trip provokes from the defender unless the attacker has Improved Trip or attacks with a weapon.
  • Improved Unarmed Strike is not required to make an unarmed special attack, nor is it sufficient to prevent provoking without the Improved [Special Attack] feat.
  • Only one AoO is ever provoked from the defender for making a special opposed attack.
  • However, with any movement before or after the attack, such as with bull rush, overrun or grapple, moving out of a threatened square provokes as normal for everyone except the defender.
  • Movement provokes from the defender if the defender is not moving (like an Overrun where the defender avoids), but not if the defender is moving with the attacker. Improved [Special Attack] never prevents AoOs from being provoked for movement.
  • AoOs must be taken by a weapon that threatened at the time the attack was provoked and whether or not you threaten is determined by the what you wield at the time the provoking action occurs.

The PC's player claims that his PC does not provoke an attack of opportunity for three reasons: A disarm is not an attack as such, but an attack-equivalent action, which he simply interprets as a standard action.

An opposed special attack roll is an opposed melee attack roll, so this is not correct.

The Improved Disarm feat overrules the unarmed strike rules in this particular case.

This is correct; specific disarm rules apply instead of the general unarmed melee attack rules.

The PC's considered armed because the PC's still wielding a melee weapon. Who's right?

This is another area that is not explicitly called out in the rules. In my house rules, wielding a threatening weapon does not impact actions taken with a weapon that does not threaten. Hey I Can Chan makes a compelling argument for this case.

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