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From the following excerpts:

Monk class Feature - Martial Arts

You gain the following benefits while you are unarmed or wielding only monk weapons and you aren’t wearing armor or wielding a shield:
• You can use Dexterity instead of Strength for the attack and damage rolls of your unarmed strikes and monk weapons.

Grappling

When you want to grab a creature or wrestle with it, you can use the Attack action to make a special melee attack, a grapple. If you’re able to make multiple attacks with the Attack action, this attack replaces one o f them. The target o f your grapple must be no more than one size larger than you, and it must be within your reach.

Using at least one free hand, you try to seize the target by making a grapple check, a Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use). If you succeed, you subject the target to the grappled condition (see appendix A). The condition specifies the things that end it, and you can release the target whenever you like (no action required).

Escaping a Grapple. A grappled creature can use its action to escape. To do so, it must succeed on a Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check contested by your Strength (Athletics) check.

Thank you.

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No, your Dexterity bonus can't be used for grapple checks instead of Strength.

You don't get the swapping benefit for everything you do unarmed — being unarmed is just the first condition of the ability. You get the effect, when unarmed, for "unarmed strikes and monk weapons."

Starting a grapple isn't striking (aka hitting to deal damage), it's grabbing them to hold on.

The basic principle is that not all melee attacks in the game involve actually hitting someone in the "striking" sense. There are lots of melee attack rolls called for in the rules that are there to resolve something other than a strike.


Now, if you want to throw someone in a martial-arts style after a successful grapple, or grab someone to throw them instead of to impose the Grappled Condition, that's an entirely different ball of wax because grappling doesn't offer that option, but there is another rule that does.

For that you actually want to look at the improvisation rules (PHB, p. 193), which invoke the DM's Contest rules (DMG, p. 238), in order to resolve a throw. If your throw technique involves speed and agility to maximise leverage to use the opponent's own mass and strength against them instead of using your own Strength, that would reasonably qualify as a Dexterity Check for your half of the Contest.

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Well, as you noted, on page 195 of the Player's Handbook it states that a grapple check is a melee attack. But it doesn't state unarmed melee attack. On the same page, under the heading "Melee Attacks" it states that if you're unarmed, you can fight in melee by making an unarmed strike.

It seems clear to me, from these rules, that unarmed strikes are their own, distinct type of melee attack, and that you do not get to use Dexterity instead of Strength to make grapple attacks. They are two different melee attack options entirely.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Going by RAW, I agree; the text implies that it applies to the somewhat-uniquely-defined unarmed strike. As a DM, though, I might house-rule that Dex could make sense, if the player came up with a convincing enough argument. Strictly speaking, most person-to-person grapples, IRL, have more to do with strength and leverage than anything else. It would have to be a unique situation in which Dexterity played a greater role. \$\endgroup\$ – markross__c Jan 13 '15 at 23:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @markross__c Does "leverage" not sound like dex? \$\endgroup\$ – Rawling Jan 14 '15 at 13:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Rawling No, "leverage" means you have a chance to apply your strength in the first place. Gaining leverage through fancy moves might be Dex, but the strength to use it has to come from somewhere. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 14 '15 at 17:36
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I believe this is an oversight on the authors' part. Grappling is a martial art even if it isn't a unarmed strike, it is an unarmed attack however. Judo and Aikido are formalized martial arts styles that strongly rely on finesse grappling. Tavern Brawling feat mentions improvised and simple weapons of which Unarmed Strike is considered a simple weapon. My own personal experience as a high school wrestler, I can tell you for certain raw strength isn't everything, and being skilled and dextrious was more important. I won MANY matches because of my brute strength being able to overpower everyone I was matched with, but I wasn't very skilled and when someone was matched with me who was fast, quick and knew what he was doing, he literally owned me, knew where and how to move and hold me to prevent my strength from being an advantage.

So my call is if you have Martial Arts, then grappling is a Dex check.

EDIT: furthermore, I think this is supported somewhat by the fact that the victim is able to make an athletic OR acrobatics check. Why wouldn't you be able to counter Dex with Dex? So it does indicate that the authors were thinking about it, but probably overlooked it when writing either the grappling rules or the Martial Arts feature rules.

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Maybe for one small part of the grapple

The problem isn't as much with the single attack roll that is used to initiate the grapple. That is a melee attack, and could easily be looked at as being made with whatever weapon you're armed with or as an unarmed attack. Both approaches make sense and give the Monk some leeway.

The problem in my observation is the contested skill-check afterward. This is not an attack or damage roll, and states that the initiator uses Strength (Athletics) without an option to use something else. This significantly hampers the monk's ability to grapple unless they are strong as well as quick and wise.

Thus on the initial attack roll to connect to the enemy, yes Dex would likely be able to help with the roll. On the contested skill check, by RAW the answer would be no.

However:

Stories of monks throwing creatures larger than them persist, and fighting styles that use an enemy's momentum and weight against them exist. The fantasy aspects of these fighting styles give them enormous leverage to state that it should be feasible, at least for a reasonably trained monk that specializes in it.

This leads me to feel that there is a missing monk build, a missing skill application, or a missing feat choice (more likely the first) that should be there. If you are trying to build a character with that type of theme, then try to talk to your DM about one of the following options:

  • Re-skinning some of the monk abilities of open hand and creating a grappling style/archetype with you.
  • Allowing monks to substitute Dexterity (Acrobatics) or Dexterity (Athletics) for the Strength (Athletics) check.
  • Building a feat to allow any character to gain some advantages in grappling, to include the skill swap mentioned above.
  • Hand-wave the mechanics and create the martial-arts style throws as descriptive applications of the monk unarmed attacks.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Theoretically, yes, but it would be exceedingly easy to hit, which breaks their unarmored defense. You could focus on 3 stats, though. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Jan 14 '15 at 23:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Martial arts doesn't work with armor, neither does unarmored movement. It could be done, but you lose a lot for trying... monk damage goes away completely, reducing damage to 1 point and removing the extra attack and movement speed bonuses. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Jan 15 '15 at 0:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, I forgot you lose Martial Arts. My bad. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Jan 15 '15 at 0:07
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I think the rules were specifically written the way they are in 5E so that you cannot use Dex to initiate grapples. Allowing Dex based grappling Monks seems extremely imbalanced to me (although maybe no more than many other imbalanced things that can be accomplished without breaking any rules) but I also have no real world excuse for why you shouldn't be able to use dex, or even Wisdom as the attribute for combat.

Consensus on how martial techniques "really work" between martial artists with years experience doesn't exist so it is really hard to talk about how those mechanics should be translated into game mechanics. You could easily spend 30,000 hours studying fights, reading analysis, and practicing martial arts and still be a beginner in many ways. Hell, Bruce Lee only started to explore Judo and ground fighting a couple years before he died. A 70 year old teacher I had who started Jiu-jitsu at 6 years old told me that all a master is is someone who recognizes all the mistakes they are making.

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