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One of my players wants to buy a set of brass knuckles to keep on him as a low-profile weapon in case he can't bring his giant axe with him into a situation and feels the need to engage in fisticuffs. My initial thought was to treat this as a club, or maybe a slightly weaker club that deals only 1d3 damage.

But then I thought: Would I let the paladin do the same with her gauntlets? She's wearing full plate, after all. My instinct is to say no, since the book doesn't mention anything about gauntlets counting as a weapon and turning unarmed strikes into weapon attacks has some implications.

But that feels odd to me, since it seems obvious that wrapping metal around your fist should do more damage than the fist alone (monks aside, naturally, and ignoring any magic items). I'm fairly sure I'm not missing any relevant core rules, so the question is:

Is there a balanced way to deal with this? If I ruled that gauntlets and knuckle-dusters increase the base unarmed strike damage to 1d3 (and still don't count as weapons), would that cause any unforeseen problems?

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This won't break anything

In several years of playing, I have yet to observe an unarmed strike from someone who is not a monk, so whatever you decide here is extremely unlikely to affect game balance in any material way.

The characters will have access to alternatives that hit better and deal more damage in practically any combat. The majority of the damage will be from their ability bonus. Even using an improvised weapon like a smashed bottle or stool would deal more damage (although at the cost of losing your proficiency bonus to the attack). If they can smuggle in knuckledusters, they likely also can smuggle in a small dagger. This will not break anything.

Brass Knuckles

Brass knuckles can be considered to be a weapon, like a knife. In this case, they are not listed on the weapon table, so you either could treat them as an improvised weapon, or you could homebrew their stats. Unfortunately, the DMG does not provide guidance on how to do that (other than reflavoring existing weapons, like for Wuxia campaigns, p. 41), so you could reflavor the club. I would probably give them 1d3 damage, a weight of only 1 pound, and treat them as a martial weapon, so that only fighting classes will be proficient with them.

Gauntlets

The gauntlets from a suit of armor are not designed as weapons, like brass knuckles are. Brass knuckles have an interior bar you can grip, to redirect impact from your actual knuckles and finger bones to the palm, and they concentrate the impact to a narrow ridge. An armor gauntlet does not.

As you say, the rules also do not support using gauntlets as weapons. It takes special gauntlets with spikes and a specific class feature like a battlerager barbarian or an armorer artificer, or a magic item like demon armor to use them as weapons. The attack with spiked gauntlets from the barbarian deals 1d4 damage (as a bonus action, making it a lot better).

You also cannot use gauntlets as improvised weapons by the rules. The improvised weapon rules require you to wield the weapon, and gauntlets are not objects you are wielding; you are wearing them.

So we are in homebrew/ruling territory. If I did allow them on unarmed strikes, I would want them to deal more than the 1 damage a plain unarmed strike deals, and less than the 1d4 that a dagger, a "weaponized" spiked gauntlet attack that needs class abilities, or a bigger improvised weapon deals. So I would use 1d2 with plain gauntlets, and 1d3 with spiked ones.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like the part where you highlight the structural difference between a gauntlet as a weapon and a brass knuckle. Wish I had thought about it. Enjoy the +1. \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Sep 29, 2022 at 10:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @3C273 I liked your answer too, so let me return the favor. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29, 2022 at 10:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ "treat them as a martial weapon, so that only fighting classes will be proficient with them" - Seems odd to me that rogues, the group most likely to want to use small concealed weapons like this, would not be proficient in them by default (of course, you could always say "They're martial, but on the rogue list"). I suppose the thugs you always see using these on TV, while criminals, would not typically be classed as "rogues" in D&D (probably NPC warriors/fighters), but still. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29, 2022 at 16:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ShadowRanger You certainly could add them to the thieves' list separately, or instead make them simple weapons - probably not worth to get too complicated here. But yes, I think of thugs more as the muscle, and of rogues more as the sneaky type. I'd also think about saps for rogues, to KO someone out nonlethally, another weapon not on the list. Probably as you can do that with any melee attack in 5e, even with a stiletto, however that is supposed to work... \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29, 2022 at 17:10
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About ruling 1d3 and damage

Short answer, no it likely won't break anything. This is easier to get, but weaker than unarmed fighting style and less versatile than a level in monk.

There is little reason to use this unless it's all you have. And if it's all you have, you are in an interesting situation. Enjoy it.

Brass knuckles

I have no argument against brass knuckles. I'd even say: makes them 1d4 to match daggers. They are weapons after all! And even at 1d4 they are worse daggers.

It's kind of weird they are not part of the base game.

Gauntlet

But know that just giving 1d3 for being in heavy armor is not RAW. And I'd argue against giving it for free. In part because realism: armor is made to deflect blows and prevent a blade from biting into the skin, not to harm others by conducting bludgeoning force. In part because armor is protective and letting a piece of equipment be both protective and offensive is not how the game work.

It doesn't break the game, but know that you are setting a precedent at your table. Most the the rest of this answer will be about gauntlets.

What you're describing is just an unarmed strike

If we are talking pure RAW, punching someone with a gauntlet is just an unarmed strike. Nothing is said about any kind of equipment affecting unarmed strikes in the rules. (Accept individual magic items) The following quote is from this answer (referenced as PHB page 195).

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.

Full plates are not mentionned in weapons rules, neither heavy armor nor general armor says anything about offensive capabilities. Even spiked armor is not described any differently form any armor. It is the Barbarian subclass that allows a battlerager to attack using his armor. Which implies that the game is not meant to work this way. From the Battlerager subclass description:

When you choose this path at 3rd level, you gain the ability to use spiked armor (see the “Spiked Armor” sidebar) as a weapon.

Considering armor as improvised weapon

Staying in the RAW territory, you could rule the armor as improvised weapon. You are free to give them any damage die. And as pointed above, 1d3 is not going to break anything.

But you are potentially leaving the door open to someone saying they are kicking with their boots, and can thus apply for improvised weapon.

What I'd suggest at my table

Punching with a gauntlet is fine as far as balance goes. But to avoid setting a precedent and to keep the distinction between unarmed and improvised clean. I would ask at least one of those things:

  • A specialised gauntlet. Made to withstand being used to repeatedly punch things.
  • Those unarmed strikes are only beneficial against certain enemies. Such as silver gauntlets against werewolf. Or against acidic oozes.
  • Special training. A week or a month of downtime + training cost to say "this character knows how to harm others with the pointy bits of his armor"
  • There's a possibility of breaking the armor. Likely a 1-in-6 as part of the damage roll (with 1d3, that would be 50% chances when you roll 1 damage).

Those last two are based on how I run my game: my players have to use some downtime and gold to do things already, so telling them they need to stop adventuring for a month is a common occurance. Also, I have no problem telling a player that they have lost the use of an arm until they spend some time repairing their armor. I also have no problems with players spending downtime to train for fighting classes and other things that are usually class abilities.

So adapt what I propose as you see fit. If time is not a factor and you don't want random failure, then the only thing someone needs is to declare that they are thinking about punching with their armor. Which anyone in heavy armor should do. But it's not gamebreaking.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ From a balance issue, it might be interesting to see what PF2 does: They have "knuckledusters" available as weapons. They are effectively the same damage as bare fists (and daggers), but its lethal rather than nonlethal. Same with gauntlets. There are also bladed and spiked versions that in addition to being lethal, change the damage type to slashing or piercing respectively. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 29, 2022 at 22:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @T.E.D. damage types are criminally underused in 5e, Unfortunately. But those examples would be good justification for point #2. If the GM homebrews monster to have more typed physical resistances/weakness. \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Sep 30, 2022 at 1:33
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As far as gauntlets what he describes is cestus. Which are real weapons designed for pit fighting by the romans. D2+STR because its a puncture weapon, and the damage is less then duel welding the battle axe. It will not break the game since there is similar options already in the game. This is a thematic choice. This is in AD&D.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm unclear if this is a comment in response to a question or an attempt at an answer using a different system. Either way, I don't think you've actually answered the question being asked. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 1 at 19:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Plate-armor gauntlets, brass knuckles, and caestus are all different things in real life (though some or all of them may arguably be handled as the same thing, mechanically), and I'm talking about armored gauntlets and brass knuckles. Also my question is about 5th edition. I'm not sure what edition you're talking about. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 1 at 19:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review \$\endgroup\$
    – User 23415
    Apr 1 at 19:49

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