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I'm fairly well-acquainted with 5e rules, and realised recently that, as far as I know, being unarmed in melee combat imposes no penalty at all to AC, nor confers any advantage to an armed attacker.

By unarmed in this context, I am referring to the description of a character neither holding nor possessing as a freely-manoeuvrable part of their body something capable of deflecting or making attacks beyond an unarmed strike. Examples would include a longsword, a shield, or an iron bar, but would discount insignificant carried objects such as a stone or a pencil. A general rule might be that if the creature has attack options beyond making an unarmed strike, or is holding a defensive item such as a shield, it would result in the creature being considered armed. As an example a werewolf, a tarasque, and an earth elemental would be considered to be armed in this rule because they all have explicit attack options.

This seems counter-intuitive to me - if character A, armed with a longsword, rushes at layman character B while swinging said sword, who has but his fists to protect him, it seems to me that B is at a significant disadvantage (in terms of avoiding/blocking the attacks) compared to if he were also armed. My first question in this scenario would be: does 5e necessarily assume that the standard adventurer is not capable of using a weapon to parry an incoming strike (and the possession of a Feat such as Defensive Duelist allows this)? If not, how do the rules resolve this with the concept of arbitrary HP loss/damage?

I've been considering this, and have come up with a rule which has me feeling tentatively satisfied: melee-weapon attacks on an unarmed creature have advantage. As a side-note, the Monk's Unarmored Defense feature would allow a creature to ignore this penalty. I like this solution as it functions somewhat-independently of Feat-based defensive options such as Defensive Duelist and Dual Wielder, preventing a disruption in their balancing, while addressing the mechanic that I take issue with. I briefly considered letting a(n unarmed) creature backpedal to avoid a melee attack, but that's a different rabbit hole and can of worms.

This could also come under the category of creatures that are unable to defend themselves, namely creatures affected by the Unconscious, Paralyzed, or other similar conditions, which I would likely house-rule to cause the affected creature to have an effective Dexterity score of 0 (typically -5 to AC), so as to keep these statuses relevant in comparison to an unarmed creature.

How does this rule sit with the overall balance of 5e, and how could it be improved? Should it even be considered?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Fie: Worth noting that you can always ask another question. Although obviously now you may not have the desire to because I think you were cleared of a misconception. But just so you know, that option is always there. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jan 4 at 16:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ The comments workshopping the question have been moved to chat for posterity. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 4 at 17:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Kindly noted, @Rubiksmoose. I've certainly had things cleared up for me, though I may be back for more! \$\endgroup\$ – Fie Jan 6 at 12:31
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I don't think the houserule presented is broken if it applies only to unarmed humanoids who lack natural weapons, but I just don't think it's going to come up very often.

D&D isn't really supposed to be a simulation game, so every complication of the rules should have a strong reason for adding it in, and really I mean beyond "It just makes sense". Do your players often attack unarmed civilians? Does their ability to slaughter the innocent strike you as problematically difficult?

Since your basic unarmed dude is going to have an AC in the 9 to 11 range anyway, it seems to me that a PC's ability to hit them isn't really an issue. (I mean, at my table if a PC decides to kill a random unarmed civilian, they don't roll for it, I just say, "Okay, you run him through and he's dead," and we continue on with whatever that brings down on them.)

Unarmed monsters? Poor rule

If this is meant to impact any monster that doesn't use an actual melee weapon, it's absolutely broken. There's no valid argument for making every attack against a tiger or troll with advantage.

You might be laboring under a mistaken concept of how weapon combat works, though. Contrary to popular belief and Hollywood fight choreography, you typically don't block weapon attacks with a sword or axe. Catching a blow on a blade is a good way to snap the blade; and even if it's a really stout sort of sword that won't break, you'll badly notch the edge, probably beyond repair. Having a blade in hand is good for retaliating and forcing an attacker to stay back, but that's true whether the attacker is coming in with a balled fist, a dagger, or a solid chair leg. (Yes, parrying is a thing in sword fighting, but not to the degree you see in sport fencing. Blocking with your blade is merely better than getting killed, not a desirable way to stop an attack.)

Again, I think this rule is sliding towards (cinematic) simulation in favor of narrative -- trying to account for every aspect of the physical act of fighting rather than telling a story, wherein a fight occurred. The combat rules are fine as they are, for the most part, and you don't need to start throwing in advantage to account for whether or not the target has a resilient object to catch a blow with, as opposed to just dodge-rolling out of the way or something.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The houserule as written affects every creature not wielding a weapon. This would include the vast majority of the published monsters. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Jan 2 at 3:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Based on the OP referring to them as 'unable to defend themself' I kind of assumed teeth and claws count as weapons for the purpose. At least, to the same extent a dagger counts, which isn't going to be enormously useful as a parrying weapon. (And really that's where the simulationist complication is going to come in anyway, starting to ask questions like 'does this weapon count as a weapon for parrying?' and such.) \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jan 2 at 3:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I see how this may certainly present an issue with balancing in terms of mobs. I think that a pivotal part of this would be if natural weapons are included - I can see at least why this isn't an existing rule. \$\endgroup\$ – Fie Jan 2 at 4:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I altered my answer to take the natural weapons question into account, and also to talk a bit about how melee combat actually works. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jan 2 at 13:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think that the edit perfectly clarified and addressed my issue, certainly my false premise for suggesting the ruling. Much appreciate the response. I also understand the confusion in how ambiguous the definitions are, and I think that's what reveals the issues with the suggested ruling - something that came out through my asking of this question, and which hadn't occurred to me at the time of asking. \$\endgroup\$ – Fie Jan 3 at 11:40
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It is not about balance, it's about necessity

Introducing custom house-rules always brings a few issues into the game:

  • Your players are not familiar with it; they have to learn other material aside from official books
  • Any new rule you have to follow makes the game more complicated, which is not a good thing
  • A new rule can have unexpected interactions with other parts of the game, and you probably reveal this too late because of insufficient playtesting
  • All adventures which are not written by you do not take this rule into account
  • Other groups do not have this rule too, this makes sharing experience more problematic
  • An unofficial rule might have balance issues — thus, make one class more powerful than another one

Before introducing a new house-rule, it's logical to answer these three questions first:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve?
  2. Can this problem be solved using the existing set of rules?
  3. Can this new rule bring new problems, will pros overweight the cons?

Okay, let's answer them.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Since you've answered "This was a purely constructed scenario", there is no specific problem, I assume. Your players did not complain. The only problem I see is that 5e AC rules seems unrealistic to you. But is it a bad thing? Why? Try to answer this by yourself.

Can this problem be solved using the existing set of rules?

Yes it can! The DM is already granted with power to apply advantage, if they think it is necessary. See the Player's Handbook, page 173:

The DM can also decide that circumstances influence a roll in one direction or the other and grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result.

You don't need to introduce a new rule to do that. When your player will attack another one pitiful unarmed peasant, just let them roll with advantage. Or you can change your opinion about how bad the rules are being so unrealistic.

Can this new rule bring new problems?

It's hard to be sure, but probably not. Both casters and non-casters make attack rolls, so they both will benefit from the advantage.

Conclusion: this rule does not break anything, but it is unnecessary, so you shouldn't add it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ One thing I'd like to note about your comment on the DM being able to give advantage "if they think it is necessary" is that this appears to be in terms of governing extenuating circumstances. It is always favourable for players to know what to expect in terms of how the mechanics of the game work, as it helps to avoid situations in which a player is suddenly confronted with unexpected consequences; for example, this rule would communicate to the players in advance that being unarmed will make them significantly more vulnerable than usual, but circumstantially awarding advantage wouldn't. \$\endgroup\$ – Fie Jan 6 at 12:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Fie I get your point, but I think it's a double edged sword. If you turn a ruling into a rule, it becomes set in stone, and can work in inappropriate way in the future. On the contrary, giving advantage just because it is reasonable is simple, abuse-proof and intuitive to players. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jan 6 at 13:57

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