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As highlighted in this question about Razortooth Goblin, racial unarmed attacks seem to be significantly weaker than manufactured weapons.

Some examples:

  • Razertooth Goblin jaws: Damage comparable to a Shortsword, both are Finesse, but the Shortsword is also Agile (very good) and Versatile (less important, but still better than not having it)
  • Saberteeth (Catfolk): Similar to the one above, but not even Finesse
  • Fang Sharpener: if taken with Razortooth heritage, you trade the Finesse for d8 damage die, which makes it similar to a Warhammer (but not better, at the cost of a heritage and a feat)

So why would I spend a ancestry feat or a heritage on them?
I could use them as fallback options if my main weapon is dropped or taken away, but then I have to upgrade them regularly (which is costly), or they quickly fall behind (in which case they are pointless).
Of course I could use them primarily, with a Handwraps of Mighty Blows, but as stated above, racial unarmed attacks tend to be weaker than weapons with similar properties.
Even Animal Instinct Barbarians cannot use racial unarmed well because the extra damage is only for unarmed attacks provided by the Instinct.
Monks have better unarmed attacks.

For 2 sp a Gauntlet provides about 80% of the functionality:

  • usable when the main weapon is dropped
  • has a different damage type than most weapons (or you could use a Spiked Gauntlet if you main weapon is Bludgeoning)

The only mechanical benefit I see1 is for unarmed attack that use something other than hands, like jaws or tails. These could enable niche builds, where a hand is needed for a shield, and the other for something else. (But what?)


  1. Besides sadistical DMs who enjoy taking away the tools of my trade
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3 Answers 3

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When They're Worth the Cost

For characters like animal instinct barbarians or monks with better unarmed attacks, there may not be much use in taking these abilities. But for various characters like the goblin wizard or even just a regular fighter looking for a guaranteed backup option, the benefits may outweigh the typically low costs.

Benefits of Ancestral Unarmed Attack

You've mentioned quite a few reasons it might be worthwhile to get an unarmed attack beyond the standard 'fist', including as a backup if weapons are taken away and freeing up whatever hands a weapon would use.

Having an additional free hand opens up quite a few Athletics actions like Trip and Grapple that render foes flat-footed to your entire party, as well as allowing the Grab an Edge reaction without needing to let go of a precious weapon if someone knocks you off a cliff.

Additionally as ESCE mentioned below, there's value in having multiple damage types available in case of enemies with resistances, immunities, weaknesses, or other circumstances. Dealing 1d6+10 on a bite against piercing weakness would potentially be better than 2d8 slashing with a striking weapon, even factoring the +1 accuracy.

And while a spiked gauntlet would be pretty good as an alternative for one of these cases, it deals less damage than many of these ancestral unarmed attacks and isn't finesse for characters that lack Strength.

Additionally, not all ancestral unarmed attacks deal physical damage—there's also options like an automaton's energy beam dealing fire.

Character-Specific Benefits

Virtually all characters are at least trained in unarmed attacks, while many are not trained in martial weapons like shortswords or warhammers. A wizard with a surprising d6 bite attack might come in handy compared to drawing out a dagger (requiring an open hand) and dealing less damage. Or an alchemist firing a laser out of their eye might make a good ranged option when there aren't any bombs left.

Not to mention that with some options there are more ancestry feats associated with the unarmed attack. Like the goblin's bite in the reaction Ankle Bite and Hungry Goblin, allowing more specialization and benefits using these unarmed attacks as you level up. Whether any ancestral unarmed attack has similar synergistic options will depend on the specific case, a goblin building around that bite attack by taking those ancestry feats seems like an interesting character with advantages over other attack options.

And with versatile heritages like dhampirs, beastkin, and tieflings, these options are available to virtually any character regardless of ancestry, with varying levels of additional support through higher level ancestry feats.

Flavor

There's also the simple benefit to being something like a sabre-tooth catfolk or an automaton shooting lasers out of their eye. Having an ancestral unarmed attack might be a core piece of character identity that a player will try to optimize around, rather than considering it as part of optimization.

Costs of Ancestral Unarmed Attack

In most cases, a 1st-level ancestry feat or heritage. Some ancestries like humans have great 1st-level ancestry feats (Natural Ambition comes to mind), but others have more niche uses/fewer options that appeal to every sort of character.

For one of your examples, a Catfolk adventurer may not be interested in being a bit luckier on Reflex saves, dancing, knowing the ancestral lore of their people, or fighting with their ancestral weapons. In this case, the opportunity cost of one 1st-level ancestry feat would be low, and the benefits are more likely to outweigh it.

And at the low levels these abilities are available, upgrading the unarmed attack isn't required. Retraining out of these feats when they become less useful relative to your magical weapon(s) is an option as that becomes a problem.

There's also the 3rd-level general feat Ancestral Paragon that allows characters to gain an additional 1st-level ancestry feat, granting even more opportunities to take these abilities in situations where options are limited.

Are They Worth It?

Probably not for many characters, particularly if an alternate option is more attractive, they have stronger attacks from a class, or they don't worry about the problems an ancestral unarmed attack would cover (knowing your GM isn't 'sadistic' certainly helps).

That said, characters with weaker alternative options from their ancestry/heritage/class, or who are looking for a particular attack like a laser eye could find these options good enough to take. And characters specializing in these attacks with synergistic, higher-level ancestry feats might be worthwhile on their own merit.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Many martial builds will occasionally benefit from having an unarmed attack of a different damage type than their weapon. A Greataxe wielding character would benefit from a Tail Whip Attack, or a Flickmace Fighter from a Jaws attack. This answer gets at the crux of it: ancestry provided unarmed attacks are there for damage type versatility and for not needing to be drawn (nor occupying a hand). Imagine having electricity damage as a fighter without needing to draw a weapon! (See: 2e.aonprd.com/Feats.aspx?ID=2617) \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Mar 24, 2022 at 0:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ESCE, after level 4, the damage you gain by the right damage type is usually less than the damage you lose by doing for example 1d6 instead of 2d8 (striking rune) \$\endgroup\$
    – András
    Mar 24, 2022 at 6:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is incomplete: you cannot evaluate an option in a vacuum, listing reasons it might be nice to have is only half the equation. This is true for any question about the mechanical value of an option, but this question even explicitly highlights the other half by asking when it would be worth it: any answer to this question must also provide analysis of the opportunity cost of this option. If you use an ancestry or feat on this, what are you missing out on? What else could you have gotten instead? \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Mar 24, 2022 at 22:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ESCE I mean, that’s where system mastery comes in, why we seek expert answers. An expert in the system would know what’s comparable, whether this option stands up or not. An example that fulfills a similar role, but does it better (as suggested by the question’s examples of barbarian and monk, though those are obviously not feats) would be a strong way of offering a negative answer, but a positive answer is harder: it would have to demonstrate that this sort of niche, could-be-nice benefit is about the best you can generally expect. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Mar 24, 2022 at 22:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @brandon A more general question may be harder to answer, but that doesn't make answering it poorly acceptable. I have answered hundreds of questions of this sort for PF1e; it should not be necessary to ask a more specific question. This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask and expect a thorough answer to. This answer just isn’t. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Mar 25, 2022 at 1:35
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You should not spend feats on them

The problem with racial unarmed attacks is that they are rarely better than a Fist, and significantly worse than actual weapons, especially after level 3.

Flexibility is overrated

Take a Zombie Lord, as it has a weakness 5 to Slashing. If you are a Kitsune Fighter usually wielding a Rapier, on level 3 you do 1d6+2 (average 5,5) damage. If you have Retractable Claws, you can use them for Slashing attacks, doing 1d4+2+5 (9,5) damage.
On level 4 however, the benefit disappears, the Claw damage remains 5,5, while the weapon (with a Striking rune) goes up to 2d6+2 (9). It is still 0,5 less than a Claw, but the +1 to hit more than compensates for it. The math is even worse is your weapon has a bigger die.
You could buy a Handwraps of Mighty Blows to keep up, but then you cannot afford the Armor Potency Rune on next level. Bad idea.

And if the enemy is a Skeleton Champion (has resistance to Piercing and Slashing), a Fist is way better than a Claw anyway.

Opportunity cost

You take this feat instead of another Ancestry feat. There are great 1st level alternatives, like Nanite Surge, Halfling Luck, Catfolk Dance, Unconventional Weaponry, Natural Ambition, Burn It!, etc. If your Ancestry does not offer anything better than an unarmed attack that is good probably once in the lifetime of your character, you should just pick another Ancestry1.

Exceptions

  • Xyloshi with the Puncturing Horn feat is the only way to get an non-Advanced 1d8 Finesse weapon without occupying both hands2
  • If you already rely on Handwraps of Mighty Blows for your main attacks, a Seedpod or Energy Beam can be a good (and cheap) ranged option
  • Very special builds can benefit from hands-free unarmed attacks that you so helpfully compiled, like a melee Rogue with Snagging Strike and a Shield
  • For some Barbarians (Animal Instinct does not need it), very rarely, specific racial unarmed attacks can be useful; You cannot use a Greatsword inside the stomach of a Purple Worm, only light weapons and unarmed attacks. Drawing a new weapon is costly (as you are slowed) and not guaranteed (as you are grabbed, so there is a flat check). A Free-Hand weapon is a good solution for these problems, but all of them are Agile (just like the Fist), so Barbarians do half Rage damage with them. However, there are many non-Agile racial unarmed attacks

TL;DR

With a few exceptions, they are useless after level 3.


  1. We are talking about optimization here, not roleplaying
  2. Some consider the Aldori Dueling Sword a valid target for Unconventional Weaponry, I do not
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Optimization is not the only way to play

I think you are right if your goal is to maximize the damage output and effectiveness in combat for the character. It is hard to argue that it would be prudent to invest resources on these natural weapons over other options.

You make an assumption: that finding optimal mechanical choices is what every player would do. This is just not the case. There is more to role-playing games than rules mechanics (although I agree that in Pathfinder, the mechanics are given more emphasis than in some other games).

Wanting to express a concept for your character and playing them to the hilt are valid ways to go about it, too. Maybe you want to play a feral goblin that is snapping at the ankles of his enemies. This is a good reason to use these attacks, and having these options makes it playable for a longer period of time as you level.

If you are not the only person at the table who plays this way, a suboptimal build is no issue. If no one cares about optimized builds or even exact rules mechanics and people care more about the personality of their characters, experiencing adventures and telling a story collaboratively, then as much fun can be had with a sub-optimal party.

In my experience, lack of optimization is only a problem if one of the characters is a lot weaker or stronger than the others, and by this makes it hard for everyone to contribute.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note the optimization tag. It might not be the only way to play, but it is the only way to answer this question. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2022 at 6:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Regarding the optimization tag, it is not the "only" way to answer this questions because frame challenges are a valid answer as well. That being said, I like Brandon's answer more since Andras is concerned about mechanical benefit and they do exist but that doesn't invalidate pointing out that you get enough character flexibility to dedicate some to flavor (especially Ancestry feats which mostly have very limited combat viability overall) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2022 at 11:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso, sure it is not the only way to answer, but it rhymed so nicely with the title of this answer that I could not avoid it. I did not mean to be offensive. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2022 at 19:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I +'d this. The question was, "Why would I spend resources on racial unarmed attacks?" It is literally asking why bother if it's not optimizing the build. And this is a valid answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Mar 24, 2022 at 20:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SpearCarrier.no2 no worries, I was just pointing out a different perspective of why this probably shouldn't be downvoted into the ground \$\endgroup\$ Mar 25, 2022 at 5:27

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