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By default, an unarmed strike deals 1 + Strength modifier damage. If a character has one or more levels in Monk, the class's Martial Arts ability gives them the following benefit (among others):

You can roll a d4 in place of the normal damage of your unarmed strike

Now, is the "normal damage" of the unarmed strike the "1 + Strength modifier" (meaning that a level 1 monk deals just 1d4 damage with an unarmed strike regardless of ability scores) or is it just the "1" (meaning that a level 1 monk deals 1d4 + Strength modifier damage with an unarmed strike, with the option of using Dexterity instead of Strength)?

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Yes: the logic works if you go from General to Specific.

But first, a word from the lead rules guru, Jeremy Crawford, from the 2019 Sage Advice Compendium:

Can a monk use Stunning Strike with an unarmed strike, even though unarmed strikes aren’t weapons?
Yes. Stunning Strike works with melee weapon attacks, and an unarmed strike is a special type of melee weapon attack. {italics/bold mine}

The general rule for "Melee Attacks" applies to all characters:

Instead of using a weapon to make a melee weapon attack, you can use an unarmed strike: a punch, kick, head-butt, or similar forceful blow (none of which count as weapons). On a hit, an unarmed strike deals bludgeoning damage equal to 1 + your Strength modifier. You are proficient with your unarmed strikes.(PHB, Ch 9; Basic Rules p. 76)

Check out the bolded part. Before any modification for the specific Monk case, we:

  1. add the Strength modifier and proficiency bonus to the attack roll, because we are proficient with unarmed strikes, and then
  2. add the Strength modifier to the damage (1) of an unarmed strike.

    The normal damage of an unarmed strike is 1 + Str Mod. The normal damage for any other melee weapon attack is {weapon damage} + modifier. The game then modifies this general rule such that ranged weapons use Dexterity instead of Strength, and attacks with finesse weapons can choose to use either Dexterity or Strength.

Look at the pattern

Go back to how weapon attacks work. Unarmed strike uses the same logic1 - the unarmed strike is treated as a melee weapon attack even though it is also called "not a weapon" in the SAC cited in the beginning. In the original weapons table, Unarmed Strike was a weapon that did 1 bludgeoning damage1. The Sage Advice Compendium table (page 10, Sage Advice 2019) clarifies the adding of Str modifier to the damage of melee weapons attacks.
enter image description here

The rules on damage rolls state:

When attacking with a weapon, you add your ability modifier—the same modifier used for the attack roll—to the damage. (Basic Rules, p. 77)

Melee attack damage is {base} plus {mod}:

Unarmed strike damage is {X} + {mod}
A melee weapon's damage {X} + {Mod}
A Dagger's damage is.... 1d4 + {mod}
A Halberd's damage is... 1d10 + {mod}
A Mace's damage is....... 1d6 + {mod}

That makes internal sense; unarmed strike is a melee weapon attack. Damage from a melee weapon attack takes the form of "weapon damage + Str Mod".

If I have a Strength score of 10, my unarmed strike is 1: 1 {+0}
If I have a Strength score of 12, my unarmed strike damage is 2: 1 +1.
If I have a Strength score of 8, my unarmed strike damage is 0 (1 - 1)
If I have a Strength score of 8, my damage with a Mace is (0-5): d6 - 1 ...

The normal damage of the unarmed strike is 1, plus the character's Strength mod (which can be a negative value). I have a vague memory of a youtube or early discussion about unarmed strikes pointing to a variety of unique issues - like you can't use them for most Paladin smites - but my current files don't have them

Monk-Specific

From PHB Chapter 3, the Monk-specific modification of the above is from the Martial Arts feature, which all Monks get. Since the question isn't asking about Monk weapons, we will address the "you are unarmed " case.

You gain the following benefits while you are unarmed or wielding only monk weapons and you aren’t wearing armor or wielding a shield:

  • You can use Dexterity instead of Strength for the attack and damage rolls of your unarmed strikes and monk weapons.

The normal damage of 1 + Strength mod becomes 1d4 + Strength mod (until level 5, when it becomes 1d6 plus Strength mod):

  • You can roll a d4 in place of the normal damage of your unarmed strike or monk weapon. This die changes as you gain monk levels, as shown in the Martial Arts column of the Monk table.

QED. We went from general (use Strength) to Monk-specific (can use Dexterity instead), and the Monk subs in a d4/d6/d8/d10 (+ Str mod) for the normal '1' (+ Str mod) damage inflicted by an unarmed strike.

On a related point: the feat Tavern Brawler upgrades the damage that an unarmed strike does in bullet 3:

  1. Your unarmed strike uses a d4 for damage (PHB, p. 170)

What is that an upgrade from? A d4 is the lowest damage die. The upgrade is from 1 damage to 1d4 damage, which is consistent with all of the above.

Bottom Line

When you are a Monk, you can add your Dexterity modifier for attack and damage rolls when making unarmed strikes.

  • Note: Your Monk can, if they wish, use their Strength modifier instead! Yes, a Monk can do that! If Dexterity is 16, and the Monk finds and attunes a pair of Gauntlets of Ogre Power at level 3 (setting their Strength score to 19 and making their Strength modifier equal +4), the Monk can apply the benefit of +4 to hit and +4 to damage, since it is greater than the Dexterity modifier. The Martial Arts class feature says "you can" rather than 'You must!"

1 In the original printing of the basic rules and the PHB, unarmed strikes were listed as melee weapons and included on the table of weapons (right below Spear):

enter image description here

In the first PHB errata in 2015, the designers removed "unarmed strike" from the weapon table and added the current text on unarmed strikes on page 195 quoted above - that text (redundantly) bakes the general rule for adding modifiers to weapon attacks into the rule for unarmed strikes. (Some attacks require weapons, - paladins' Divine Smites - and the devs apparently used this errata to prevent hand inflicted Divine Smites, among other things. Thus the SA comment about "special kind of weapon attack")


For What It's Worth: on D&D Beyond, the damage calculator adds in the ability modifier to the Monk's unarmed strike (Thank you @Medix2), and the pregenerated characters at WoTC's site also do that (thank you @Sdjz).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 6 at 7:27
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The monk uses the 1d4+Strength (or Dexterity) for unarmed strikes until the martial arts die goes up at later levels. The normal damage is 1+Strength so the 1 is replaced by the martial arts die and the Strength can be replaced by Dexterity if you choose as per the monk martial arts as clearly stated in the Martial Arts feature. It states:

You can use your Dexterity instead of Strength for the attack and damage rolls of your unarmed strikes and monk weapons.

You can roll a d4 in place of the normal damage of your unarmed strike or monk weapon. This die changes as you gain monk levels, as shown in the Martial Arts column of the Monk table.

On page 149 of the PHB it states the damage of an unarmed strike to be 1 bludgeoning.

In addition, if you create a monk using the DNDBeyond site it will show that a level 1 monk unarmed strike is 1d4+Dex (if Dex is higher than Str).

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 It's done. \$\endgroup\$ – Eternallord66 Nov 5 at 19:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ But if the normal damage is 1+Str mod, as you say, wouldn't "You can roll a d4 in place of the normal damage" mean that the d4 replaces the entire 1+Str mod? How are you concluding that only the 1 is replaced? Also note that page 149 only states the damage of an unarmed strike is 1 in the original printing; later errata removed that entry and added a passage on page 195 that says "On a hit, an unarmed strike deals bludgeoning damage equal to 1 + your Strength modifier." \$\endgroup\$ – jwodder Nov 5 at 19:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Sage Advice Compendium's answer to "How do I know which ability modifier to use with an attack roll and its damage roll?" indicates that the ability modifier is added to both attack and damage rolls of all "melee weapon attacks" (which unarmed strikes are). Crawford also unofficially tweeted in May 2016: "When making a weapon attack, you add your ability modifier to the damage, unless a feature tells you not to.", further supporting your conclusion. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 6 at 7:12
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The ability modifier is NOT included in the damage roll

As far as I can determine, there is no definition of the phrase "normal damage" anywhere in the core rules; hence, we must turn to the common English meanings of the words. I assert that the most natural and appropriate reading of this phrase is "the damage under normal circumstances," i.e., the damage when not using the option of rolling a d4 instead. Now, what is the damage of an unarmed strike under such circumstances? It's 1 + Str mod. The Strength modifier is part of the damage, and so it is part of the "normal damage," and so the "normal damage" is the entirety of "1 + Str mod." Hence, "1 + Str mod" as a whole is replaced with 1d4, and so the resulting damage roll is just 1d4 with no ability modifier, quod erat demonstrandum.

Note that the Strength modifier is part of the damage because it is "built in" to the damage dealt by an unarmed strike, as defined on page 195 of the PHB. The Strength modifier is not there due to the rule that causes the ability modifier to be added to weapon damage (see below). If it were, and the unarmed strike's base damage were really just 1, then the Strength modifier would not be part of the damage defined for an unarmed strike, and so the d4 would replace just the 1, with the ability modifier added in by a separate rule. But that's not how it works.

"But you always add the ability modifier when dealing damage!"

Not true. The rule in question, found on page 196 of the PHB, reads (emphasis as in original):

When attacking with a weapon, you add your ability modifier — the same modifier used for the attack roll — to the damage.

(This rule is hereafter referred to as "the WAMD rule," for "weapon-ability modifier-damage.") However, unarmed strikes are not weapons, a point repeated several times in the Sage Advice Compendium. (They are melee weapon attacks, but that's irrelevant here.) Thus, you do not add your ability modifier to an unarmed strike's base damage; if you did, a non-monk would deal 1 + Str mod + Str mod damage with an unarmed strike — double the Strength modifier!

"Then why does Martial Arts let you replace Str with Dex in an unarmed strike's damage rolls?"

Aside from letting you roll a d4 in place of an unarmed strike's normal damage, the monk's Martial Arts ability contains the line:

You can use Dexterity instead of Strength for the attack and damage rolls of your unarmed strikes and monk weapons.

This can be read as implying that Strength is involved in the damage roll of a monk's unarmed strikes. However, replacing an unarmed strike's normal damage with 1d4 is optional (as indicated by the "can"), and Strength is involved in the damage roll of a normal unarmed strike, so it is entirely possible that the ability is referring to the normal unarmed damage calculation.

"Following your logic, monk weapons wouldn't add their ability modifier to damage either!"

The sentence from the Martial Arts ability quoted in the question reads in full (emphasis added to portion not in question):

You can roll a d4 in place of the normal damage of your unarmed strike or monk weapon.

I accept that an ability modifier is added to the damage of monk weapons even when rolling a d4, so why the apparent inconsistency with the damage of unarmed strikes? Answer: Because the ability modifier isn't part of a weapon's damage and thus isn't replaced.

A weapon's damage is given by the table on page 149 of the PHB; unlike the unarmed strike, it does not include an ability modifier, as, for weapons, that is added in to the damage calculation by a separate rule. The damage for, say, a handaxe is just 1d6, and it is this value that can be replaced by a d4 using the Martial Arts ability, leaving the ability modifier to be added in later intact.

"But all melee weapon attacks follow a pattern in which the total damage is {normal damage} + {ability modifier}, so the unarmed strike must follow this as well!"

Yes, melee weapon attacks follow a pattern of the total damage being X + modifier, where, for weapons, the X is the weapon's normal damage — but seeing this relies on already having a pre-existing definition of "normal damage" for weapons, and using it to conclude what the normal damage is for unarmed strikes relies on simultaneously not having a pre-existing definition of "normal damage" for unarmed strikes.

  • If your definition of a weapon's normal damage is just "the damage listed in the weapon's entry in the weapons table," why would that not naturally extend to the unarmed strike so that its normal damage is the damage given in the unarmed strike's definition on page 195, i.e., 1 + Str mod?

  • If your definition of a weapon's normal damage is "the damage before applying the WAMD rule," then — because the rule doesn't apply to unarmed strikes and so the unarmed strike's damage is 1 + Str mod before & after checking the rule — the normal damage for an unarmed strike would still be 1 + Str mod.

  • If your definition of a weapon's normal damage is "the damage without any ability modifiers," then you're just begging the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2: Yes, I would. \$\endgroup\$ – jwodder Nov 5 at 19:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ One thing I wonder: unarmed strikes, in the original printing, did appear on the weapons table but were removed in an errata. Did the writers perhaps neglect to update the wording on how unarmed strike damage is calculated in conjunction with this change? \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Nov 5 at 19:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ If I understand this answer, it essentially boils down to "an ability modifier is not a modifier when it comes from within the rule for calculating damage, not from outside it, regardless of whether it's called a modifier or not." That's a bit difficult for me to swallow because it would mean that a monk would have the option of swapping a fixed 1+mod damage for a more variable 1d4 (no mod) damage. Why spend the ink to give monks a worse ability option like that? \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Nov 5 at 20:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rykara It's hard to swallow because there are no secret rules. There is no text to that effect anywhere in the books, because it isn't how things work. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Nov 5 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rykara I don't believe that's their point here. That wasn't the case before the errata, but with the errata and a lack of updating the Monk's Martial Arts text, a strict reading of the rules results in the absurd scenario described \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Nov 5 at 22:04

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