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In the Player's Handbook, it says that paladins can use Divine Smite when they make a melee weapon attack. That seems to mean that I can use Divine Smite when I attack with my fists (I think, based on stuff I've read on a few other forums?).

But Improved Divine Smite says it applies when I hit a creature with a melee weapon.

Does this difference in phrasing mean that, by the rules as written, I can only use Divine Smite with unarmed strikes, but can't use Improved Divine Smite with them?

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    – V2Blast
    Feb 10, 2022 at 19:05

1 Answer 1

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According to the Sage Advice Compendium, neither feature works with unarmed strikes

Because of the awkward wording around this ability, the specific question of whether or not you can use Divine Smite with unarmed attacks has been raised and clarified in an official ruling in the Sage Advice Compendium. The relevant section (here in the PDF, or here on D&D Beyond) reads:

Can a paladin use Divine Smite when they hit using an unarmed strike? No. Divine Smite isn’t intended to work with unarmed strikes.

Divine Smite does work with a melee weapon attack, and an unarmed strike can be used to make such an attack. But the text of Divine Smite also refers to the “weapon’s damage,” and an unarmed strike isn’t a weapon.

If a DM decides to override this rule, no imbalance is created. Tying Divine Smite to weapons was a thematic choice on our part—paladins being traditionally associated with weapons. It was not a game balance choice.

So, regardless of the unfortunate awkwardness of the rules as written, WotC's official ruling is that the rules don't even permit you to use Divine Smite on unarmed strikes at all, let alone Improved Divine Smite. But they also tell you that this was a purely thematic choice on their part and there's no compelling game balance reason to rule this way, so in my opinion it'd be a quite harsh DM who proscribes a paladin from empowering their punches.


Sage Advice aside, you are correct that the distinction between a melee weapon attack and an attack with a melee weapon is such that an unarmed strike technically counts as the former but not the latter – so without Sage Advice overruling our understanding, it would be a fair reading to conclude that unarmed strikes are compatible with Divine Smite but not Improved Divine Smite.

Personally, I would instead rule that if Divine Smite is permitted, then Improved Divine Smite should be permitted as well – there is no particular game balance or in-fiction reason that one feature should work but not the other.

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