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The optional Disarm rule in the DMG says:

A creature can use a weapon attack to knock a weapon or another item from a target's grasp. The attacker makes an attack roll contested by the target's Strength (Athletics) check or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. If the attacker wins the contest, the attack causes no damage or other ill effect, but the defender drops the item.

So the case of the attacker winning the contest is pretty straight forward. But what if the target wins? Does nothing happen, or can the attack still hit? The rules for attacking say:

When you make an attack, your attack roll determines whether the attack hits or misses. … If the total of the roll plus modifiers equals or exceeds the target's Armor Class (AC), the attack hits.

Nothing in the Disarm rule overwrites this. We're using an attack and making an attack roll. The Disarm rule only says that if the attacker wins the contest the attack causes no damage or other ill effect. If the target wins the contest, will the attack be resolved like a regular attack?

It's natural to compare this to Grappling and Shoving. Both these explicitly state that they replace your normal attack. No such wording is present in the Disarm rule.

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If the attempt to disarm fails, combat continues as if nothing happened

A big chunk of confusion around this is because the creature that is attempting to disarm another is making an "attack roll". Therefore it is natural to assume that it is just another form of attack. But there are two other examples to show that this is not the case: shove or grapple.

Shoving a Creature: Using the Attack action, you can make a special melee attack to shove a creature... Instead of making an attack roll, you make a Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use).

Grappling: When you want to grab a creature or wrestle with it, you can use the Attack action to make a special melee attack...Using at least one free hand, you try to seize the target by making a grapple check instead of an attack roll: a Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use).

These clearly point out that the creature does not make an attack roll, but instead make a check. And that check is contested.

In this case, the disarm rule states:

A creature can use a weapon attack to knock a weapon or another item from a target’s grasp. The attacker makes an attack roll contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) check or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. If the attacker wins the contest, the attack causes no damage or other ill effect, but the defender drops the item.

Since this is a contest, we look up the rules of contests:

Both participants in a contest make ability checks appropriate to their efforts. They apply all appropriate bonuses and penalties, but instead of comparing the total to a DC, they compare the totals of their two checks. The participant with the higher check total wins the contest. That character or monster either succeeds at the action or prevents the other one from succeeding.

If the contest results in a tie, the situation remains the same as it was before the contest. Thus, one contestant might win the contest by default. If two characters tie in a contest to snatch a ring off the floor, neither character grabs it. In a contest between a monster trying to open a door and an adventurer trying to keep the door closed, a tie means that the door remains shut.

So the two creatures contest to see if one will drop a weapon. Roll dice, and whomever has the higher total wins. So in this case, the creature holding the weapon wins and can keep their weapon. But what about the attack itself?

Why are we using a weapon attack roll?

Contests are normally done via skills, so why is this saying attack roll? Easy, because there are too many options for performing the maneuver and attacking is a consistent value!

Consider, the attacker, Kermit, is trying to disarm Fozzy. How would they do it?

  • If Kermit is a fighter type with a big mallet, they would just knock the item away with pure strength
  • But if Kermit had watched Errol Flynn, he might try using dexterity and a rapier to spin the item away
  • Maybe Kermit is a monk and sneaks past Fozzy's defense and uses wisdom to grab a pressure point making Fozzy drop the item
  • Then again, Kermit might be a Hexblade and doesn't have a lot of strength or dexterity, but through charismatic will, knows how to just walk up confidently and knock away the item
  • Kermit seems more like a Battle Smith Alchemist, who would use his intelligence to realize that based on the on the fulcrum point, if he leveraged the item in a certain way, it could easily be torn free from Fozzy's grasp

Do you see where I'm going? Every one of those methods could potentially work, but each one of them calls for a different skill check: Athletics, Slight of hand maybe, medicine, I'm thinking intimidation, and maybe just a straight up intelligence check.

So instead of trying to come up with a new check every time a disarm is performed, and describing how it would be done, just let the character use a skill that they should be good at, attacking. And that is what each of these characters are doing; attacking an opponent with the goal of disarming, not necessarily harming.

And since I've mentioned it twice in the comments, this is not an "attack" as you are not using your attack roll against the opponent's AC; you are in a contest against another creature's Strength(Athletics) roll. The attacker is not trying to break through plate armor, a shield, mage armor, a shield of faith spell, or any other AC modification feature. None of that comes into play. This is the same mechanic as Shove and Grapple, but using a creature's attack roll instead of a skill roll.

From a certain point of view

There needs to be a balance on disarming; you can attempt to do damage or you can attempt to disarm.

If you look at this from the other point of view. Every time an attack lands a blow, you would need to have the recipient perform a strength check to keep their weapon, because why not? If Kermit makes an attack, and even though Fozzy held on, he still takes damage, why wouldn't every attacker say, "I'm trying to disarm."?

Also, since this does not care about AC, it wouldn't matter how fortified the opponent is. That BBEG with an AC of 30? No problem, attempt to disarm and even if they hold on to their weapon, you'll somehow still do damage.

Or Fozzy could say, "I drop the weapon." Since the disarm succeeded, he doesn't take any damage. Then as a free action, either pick up their weapon or grab a new weapon.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One major difference between Disarm and Shove/Grapple is that Shove and Grapple explicitly say that you replace an attack, while Disarm says that you use an attack. \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2023 at 21:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JoakimM.H., yes, but I had to bring them up as it lays the foundation of attacks that are actually contests. Shove is an attack, but instead of an attack roll, you do an ability check as a contest against your opponent. Disarm is an attack, where you still roll your attack roll, but it's a contest against your opponent not a "to hit". AC is never involved. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    May 23, 2023 at 0:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JoakimM.H., and this follows in that same theme. The only difference is that instead of an ability check, you make an attack roll. But notice that you're not making an attack roll to hit. You're not comparing your attack roll against the opponent's AC. You're having a contest against the opponent's skill check. So shove, grapple, and disarm use the same contest mechanic. It's just that disarm uses a different roll for the "attack" then an ability check. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    May 23, 2023 at 21:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JoakimM.H. 'Why didn't they word it the same way' - perhaps because it is in two different books, written at two different times, and as MivaScott says they are renowned for inconsistent editing? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    May 25, 2023 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Here is why the wording must be different. Using the format for shove; "Using the Attack action, you can make a special melee attack to knock a weapon or another item from a target’s grasp. Instead of making an attack roll, you make make an attack roll contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check." That doesn't make sense, so it needed to be worded differently. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    May 25, 2023 at 21:29
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They are simply not disarmed

The attack strikes their weapon or item

The DMG Disarm option says (emphases mine):

A creature can use a weapon attack to knock a weapon or another item from a target's grasp. The attacker makes an attack roll contested by the target's Strength (Athletics) check or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. If the attacker wins the contest, the attack causes no damage or other ill effect, but the defender drops the item.

It is strongly implied here that your attack strikes the opponent's weapon or item, not the opponent themselves. While it explicitly refers to your opponent as the target of the attack, you are also selecting the item that they will drop. How else would you knock a weapon from their grasp, but by hitting the weapon itself? If you were forcing them to drop an item by damaging them, or threatening to damage them, and they had an item in each hand, how could you be sure they would drop the item you selected, and not the other one?1

A success forces them to drop the weapon because you hit the weapon (and not them) - a failure on the contested roll means that your blow on the weapon was insufficient to cause them to drop it (either you missed entirely or struck but at the wrong time or not with enough force). A failure on the contested roll to disarm them should not mean that you now have the opportunity to 'switch targets' and do damage to them instead (by comparing your attack roll to their AC).

The option should not be better than the Battlemaster maneuver

We can agree that if your attempt to Disarm via the optional DMG rule is successful, you disarm your opponent but do no damage. The question is, when you fail to disarm them, whether your attack still has a chance to do damage. Here we can compare the optional attack rule from the DMG with the Battlemaster Disarming Attack ability in the PHB:

When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can expend one superiority die to attempt to disarm the target, forcing it to drop one item of your choice that it's holding. You add the superiority die to the attack's damage roll, and the target must make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, it drops the object you choose.

Here we notice a number of things. First, the ability specifically says that you are hitting the creature (and not their weapon); if you hit you are doing damage to them. Second, rather than a contested roll, you are having them make a save (and your roll is a designated attack roll vs. their AC). Third, if they succeed on the save they are not disarmed, even though you have spent a combat superiority die on the attempt.

In the event the opponent is disarmed, the combat maneuver outcome is clearly superior to the optional DMG rule since the Battlemaster can both disarm and damage. We should expect the Battlemaster's outcome to be superior, because they had to spend a combat superiority die, the limited resource on which their subclass functions, in order to make the attempt, as opposed to just declaring it for free like the DMG option.

However, suppose the attempt to disarm fails, which it should about half the time2. The Battlemaster gets to damage the opponent if their attack roll was high enough. If using the optional disarming rule from the DMG also permitted you to damage the opponent when the disarm attempt failed, then the two methods would have equivalent outcomes, even though the DMG option did not spend a superiority die. This is not reasonable. We should not expect the optional disarm attempt to also damage, because we cannot expect the outcome of the 'free' optional rule to be just as good as the outcome the Battlemaster had to pay for when the disarm attempt fails.

That's not what 'win' usually means

The optional rule disarm says:

If the attacker wins the contest, the attack causes no damage or other ill effect, but the defender drops the item.

If the attacker wins the contest, and the defender loses, the defender can't take damage. If you propose that when the defender wins the contest, they still have a chance to take damage, that is not what 'winning the contest' should imply. Yes, they still retain their item, but for a low hp opponent, the damage could actually kill them. It would be a perverse situation where the opponent is hoping they lose the contest, because if they win, they could be killed.


1I have practiced disarming strikes in real life, and at least in my martial art they are either blows to the weapon itself or to the opponent's hands. However, D&D in general does not permit targeted strikes to specific parts of the body when doing damage, and when you make an attack you must "1. Choose a target. Pick a target within your attack's range: a creature [as a whole], an object, or a location [in space]."
2Assuming your opponent's saves, via CR, are progressing roughly in line with your maneuver DC.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I may agree with the comparison with the battlemaster manouver, I think the first part is not completely correct. From the description of the disarm rule: "knock a weapon or another item from a target's grasp.": the target is the creature, not the weapon. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    May 25, 2023 at 7:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ The text for Disarm calls for the target to make a Strength (Athletics) check, so obviously the creature holding the weapon is the target. The opponent's weapon cannot make a Strength check. As for the Battlemaster maneuver, it's still superior since they deal damage (with added superiority die) regardless of the disarm outcome. \$\endgroup\$ May 25, 2023 at 7:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Eddymage Fireball targets a point in space - but the creatures within that space become targets of the spell. W/RT Disarm, you first target the creature you want to use the ability on, and then choose (target) the weapon or item to disarm. If the weapon was not also a target, then in the case of an opponent holding items in either hand, who decides which one is disarmed? The DM? Is it random? Or does the disarmer also target the item, thus making it a target of the ability? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    May 25, 2023 at 14:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JoakimM.H. Yes, the creature is a target of the ability, but is it the only target? DM: 'The mage carries a wand in one hand and a thick grimoire in the other'. PC: 'I will attempt to knock the wand from his grasp.' DM: 'Sorry, you can only target the creature, you don't get to decide which item it drops.' \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    May 25, 2023 at 14:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JoakimM.H. As my answer explains, we agree that BMD is superior when the disarm works. I don't think this somehow makes up for the fact that it would be inferior when the disarm fails, if we expect the disarm to fail about half the time. That's not an edge case, it is a large part of the probability space and BMD underperforming ORD there is (I think) unreasonable. A BM PC, knowing the chance of their opponent making the save / contented roll, should not be saying, 'this particular opponent has a better than even chance of keeping their item so... \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    May 25, 2023 at 14:55
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Rules-as-written: Yes, if disarm fails, you resolve the attack normally

The disearm optional rule tells you to make an attack roll, and this is what an attack roll means (p. 194, PHB):

To make an attack roll, roll a d20 and add the appropriate modifiers. If the total of the roll plus modifiers equals or exceeds the target’s Armor Class (AC), the attack hits.

It also is clear that the creature is the target of your attack, because disarm says the attack is a contest against “the target's Strength (Athletics) check”, and objects or locations do not have Stength scores. Because of this, the target being the creature, you know what AC to compare your roll to.

On strict reading, you can still hit AC with your attack roll if you fail the contest, as long as your roll is high enough to beat AC. And if you have not won the contest, the attack would deal damage or other effects.

This actually makes disarm a lot better, because as written, you would not give up your chance to deal damage for using it, only if you succeed in disarming. Essentially it is a normal attack, that replaces damage with disarming if you hit and win the contest, and salvages a miss into disarming if you win the contest.

Nobody I know normally takes the effort to calculate this under the assumption that disarm attacks never deal damage. And I suspect that is the intention of how it works, but that is not what is written in the rule. We've never played it like that, and felt that disarming is powerful enough to be a fair deal when you have to give up the chance of damage or other effects.

Because Disarm is an optional rule, ask your DM how they play it. They may be OK with this, or they may decide that this is too good, and not not allow disarm at all, or they may decide to tweak the disarm rule, so it either disarms, or fails entirely as an attack.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I see that this answer has gotten some downvotes, yet none of the downvoters have put forward their own answer. Would someone care to explain why this has been down voted? \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2023 at 8:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ I did not downvote, but I think that you spent a weapon attack for a different action, i.e the attempt to disarm someone. So, if that action is not successful nothing happens at all, because a) you did not attack and b) there's no rule what happens if a disarming attempt fails. -- Personally I think it's far too easy to disarm an enemy. Or rather: It's not clear what happens after that. Can the weaponless victim just grab it again in its turn (free action)? Can the attacker kick the weapon away (where will it land?)? \$\endgroup\$
    – Flynxer
    May 22, 2023 at 9:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ RAW nothing happens, because the rules only describe the result of winning the check. \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleth
    May 25, 2023 at 14:46

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