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So, I got intrigued by grappling after reading The Grappler's Manual for 5e. It didn't mention if wild shape attacks were considered unarmed strikes, especially in regards to the Tavern Brawler feat's last bullet, which enables a grapple attempt after hitting with an unarmed strike.

It doesn't say in the PHB under the Druid section. In the MM, it says that a beast's attacks are Melee Weapon Attacks. However, the Alter Self spell says that the claws, fangs, etc are unarmed strikes. So, are they or are they not considered unarmed strikes?

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You can make unarmed strikes while Wild Shaped, but they do normal unarmed strike damage.

From the errata for the PHB:

Melee Attacks (p. 195). The rule on unarmed strikes should read as follows: “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.”

An unarmed strike is now defined extremely clearly. On the plus side, an unarmed strike can replace any attack with a weapon. From the Monster Manual, page 10:

The most common actions that a monster will take in combat are melee and ranged attacks. These can be spell attacks or weapon attacks, where the "weapon" might be a manufactured item or a natural weapon, such as a claw or tail spike.

So your unarmed strikes can definitely replace your natural attacks.

The downside to this is that your natural attacks definitely don't count as unarmed strikes, so you can only do your normal unarmed strike damage. This was also confirmed by Jeremy Crawford.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Also see this podcast from Jeremy Crawford at around 29:50 to hear him talk for a few minutes about how and why this works. His tweets can be terse, so it can be helpful to hear him go into more depth. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dacromir
    Mar 4 '18 at 5:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Counterpoint: The Aarakocra and other PC races that have natural weapons clearly define Natural Weapons as making Unarmed Strikes. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 17 '18 at 0:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CuthbertCooper: They are the exception. In general, natural weapons are not used for unarmed strikes, except for those specific traits that let you do so with a particular natural weapon. I believe all playable races with natural weapons have this exception; monsters you can Wild Shape into, for instance, do not. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Apr 25 '19 at 20:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ The issue of whether natural weapons are considered weapons (and whether they're used for unarmed strikes by default) is now explicitly addressed in the latest Sage Advice Compendium: "Are natural weapons considered weapons? Things designated as weapons by the rules, including natural weapons, are indeed weapons. In contrast, unarmed strikes are not weapons. They are something you do with an unarmed part of your body." You may want to update your answer accordingly. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Oct 5 '20 at 5:46
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Natural attacks are a sort-of gray area between general unarmed attacks and weapon attacks. However, a careful reading of the Tavern Brawler feat reveals that it says (emphasis mine):

  • When you hit a creature with an unarmed strike or an improvised weapon on your turn, you can use a bonus action to attempt to grapple the target.

So, clearly having a weapon in hand is not a limiting factor. Moreover, when the MM was describing natural weapons it said:

These can be spell attacks or weapon attacks, where the 'weapon' might be a manufactured item or a natural weapon, such as a claw or tail spike.

In which case, I would assert that the book is trying to define two categories of attacks: spells versus weapon. And in that case, natural weapons falls under the 'weapon' category. This is important because spells will use Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma for their attack rolls, whereas weapons use Strength or Dexterity. It is not meant to be an assertion that natural weapons are armed attacks (like with a sword) against unarmed attacks (with a fist).

I would check with your DM, of course, because he or she may have a different take, but I'd say the rules as written would definitely allow a shape-shifted druid to take advantage of both natural weapons and Tavern Brawler feat.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This does not make it clear that natural weapons count as unarmed or improvised weapons, i.e. that they count for tavern brawler. This just makes it clear they count as weapons, so it doesn't appear to be really solving the problem. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 9 '14 at 10:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ That is why I said to check with the DM. One's mileage might vary. I didn't figure I'd have to quote the spell the OP already pointed out which implies natural weapons are unarmed attacks. The argument is that the Tavern Brawler feat and the MM do not contradict the spell's implication that natural weapons are unarmed attacks. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 9 '14 at 11:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ 'take advantage' is sort of misleading. Perhaps "would definitely penalize a shape-shifted druid for having taken Tavern Brawler" would work better? \$\endgroup\$ Dec 8 '14 at 7:22
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So, this may end up changing once the DM guide comes out, but I started thinking about what constitutes an unarmed strike for a human. If you're wielding two short swords, you can still make an unarmed attack by kicking, for example. So, there's kicking, biting, clawing with fingernails, head-butting, etc. Why then would adding longer or sharper teeth change biting from unarmed to armed? To my mind it wouldn't. So, it would explain why the altered shape spell considers natural weapons to be under the unarmed strike proficiency. The Harpy comes to mind with both a club and claws. If one is armed, then one can be disarmed, a Battle Master can make the Harpy drop the club but not claws, the claws being an unarmed strike.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You may want to update this answer since it's been years since the DMG was released. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Apr 25 '19 at 20:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ The issue of whether natural weapons are considered weapons (and whether they're used for unarmed strikes by default) is now explicitly addressed in the latest Sage Advice Compendium: "Are natural weapons considered weapons? Things designated as weapons by the rules, including natural weapons, are indeed weapons. In contrast, unarmed strikes are not weapons. They are something you do with an unarmed part of your body." You may want to update your answer accordingly. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Oct 5 '20 at 5:46
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If you look at the spell Alter Self:

Natural Weapons. You grow claws, fangs, spines, horns, or a different natural weapon of your choice. Your unarmed strikes deal 1d6 bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, as appropriate to the natural weapon you chose, and you are proficient with your unarmed strikes. Finally, the natural weapon is magic and you have a +1 bonus to the attack and damage rolls you make using it.

That alone should state that a natural weapon is an unarmed strike per the book.

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