Fangs and Fists: Unarmed and Natural Weapons in 4e

Lately, Talen and I have spent a lot of time discussing furries.

I am not, in my own view, An Furry; I’m way too detached from furry culture and lifestyling to have it as an identity. However, I am furry-adjacent with zero shame. I love drawing and designing characters after anthropomorphic animals, and I see no reason it should be fine to be horny for an elf, but weird to be horny for a catboy. Fantasy ass is fantasy ass—let’s not be pretentious about it.

In any case, when I started building my own D&D setting one of the fundamental ideas was always that humans were not from around these parts—and if you go back far enough, even elves and eladrin are immigrants to Alm. The creatures that originally defined personhood are the beast-kin; a blanket term for a bunch of anthropomorphic species like kobolds, equitarn, abilen, and—most prominently—gnolls.

I’ve always been fond of gnolls. It’s mostly because they’re hyaenas, and I’ve always had a soft spot for those since—much like one of my other faves, the Tasmanian devil—colonial researchers seem to have found them fucking horrifying. It’s definitely also because the “canon” insists they are all fanatical bloodthirsty followers of a demon god, but the fandom is much more interested in them being giant fuzzy dog-cats.

Their low-key but consistent popularity means that in pretty much every modern edition, the gnoll is due at least one splatbook or magazine treatment to “flesh it out” as a player character choice. 4e is no exception, with Dragon Magazine 367 expanding the bare-bones stat block from the Monster Manual into a fully-fledged character heritage.

Well… most fully-fledged, anyway. At least, it’s perfectly okay if you’re really into melee combat and charging. And it got a smattering of interesting feats based on the various gnollish monsters already published, including the Claw Fighter feat.

And this, friends, is where all the trouble starts.

Claws and Clauses

The original version of Claw Fighter is a very bad feat.

“You possess vicious claws, which you can use as weapons with a +3 proficiency bonus and 1d6 damage. For purpose of powers and feats, you can treat your claws as light blades, and you are considered to have a weapon in each hand. You cannot enchant your claws.”

—Dragon 367, pg 54

Loooove spending a feat for the privilege of using a weapon mechanically equivalent to what any given melee class gets for free. Plus you can’t even enchant them, making them comically weak compared to any real weapon after about level seven? Gosh. Tell me more.

Eventually the writers sort of acknowledged this, because more than a year later they added the following errata:

Update (11/23/2009)
Replace the last sentence in the feat’s Benefit section with the following: “You can enchant and disenchant your claws. When you disenchant your claws, they do not turn to dust.”

Which is… better? I guess? It’s still kind of a wasted feat, to get the stats no better than a shortsword. Any given gnoll could also just spend that same feat on a superior weapon proficiency, this one should be at least a little better than that? Perhaps you’re meant to be able to enchant both claws as if they were one item? That’s worth something at least, since the need for the off-hand property means the feat is only really good for dual-wielding characters in the first place. I’m not aware of any explicit rulings, so I guess we’ll never know for sure.

This is about the point where I made my own version, since gnolls were important in my world and I wanted to make sure the few heritage feats they got were actually worth taking. If you visit the Skies of Escarnum website now you’ll find a very different version, but my original take was thus:

Benefit: You gain proficiency with the beast claw natural weapon.

Your beast claw is a natural one-handed melee weapon in the light blade and unarmed groups. It has a +3 proficiency bonus and deals 1d8 damage, and has the off-hand property. Whenever you do not wield another weapon or hold a shield in one of your hands, you are considered to be wielding a beast claw in that hand.

You can enchant and disenchant a beast claw like a normal weapon, except that when you disenchant it, it does not turn to dust. (Each hand is its own weapon and has its own enchantment, just as if you were wielding two manufactured weapons.)

Not a big change, but a substantial one. Who doesn’t want to dual-wield rapiers that also leave your hands free in case you need to wrassle a guy? Setting aside the extreme optimisation fans (who are already scoffing at me for saying a weapon die upgrade is ever worth it when you could get static bonus damage instead), I think this version is pretty sick.

Now, if you’re a particular fan of gnolls—or swordmages—you might have noticed I left out the second errata to the official version of the Claw Fighter feat:

Update (2/8/2010)
Replace the feat’s Benefit text with the following text, incorporating the December changes. This change revises the claws to have the off-hand property, synchronizing it with the monk and resolving issues with how it is possible to wield two non-off-hand weapons. However, this change does fix issues with the swordmage, which requires a hand free to gain the benefit of its aegis. As the text stands, a gnoll with this feat cannot gain the +3 benefit of the aegis because it is considered to always have a weapon in each hand.

“When you make a weapon attack, you can use your claw, which is a weapon in the light blade weapon group. This weapon has the off-hand weapon property and a +3 proficiency bonus, and it deals 1d6 damage. While you aren’t holding anything, you are considered have this weapon in each hand. You can enchant and disenchant your claws. When you disenchant your claws, they do not turn to dust. ”

(I can only assume the errata detail here is meant to say “does not fix”, both because they use “however” as their transitional word, and because the new wording clearly does not fix the issue described.)

I wasn’t aware of any swordmage issue when I made my version, but I considered it pre-solved in my version, since it was an unarmed weapon and that means your hand is empty.

(You’re right, but wait for it.)

Then Talen made his version, which is where all the trouble starts.

Looking for a Handout

In the last few years, my partner Talen has spend a lot of time reworking his campaign setting, Cobrin’Seil. Whilst it’s pretty fresh compared to anything D&D has released officially (why, why does anybody still like Faerun?), Cobrin’Seil is also a world developed over twenty-plus years of actual gaming sessions, many while we were literal adolescents. Thus, a lot of Talen’s D&D design recently has focused on offloading accumulated baggage, trimming vestigial ideas, and wholesale reimagining anything mired too deeply in the colonial christian nonsense of classic D&D.

One such task has been reviewing the species that represent major cultures in his world, and how they interact with its history and cosmology. Cobrin’Seil isn’t as fundamentally furry as Escarnum, but there are quite a few anthro heritage choices, including essentially the same abilen also featured in Escarnum, a reworked dinosaur-inspired dragonborn, and—as of fairly recently—my boys the gnolls.

In fact, just a few days ago, Talen published an article over on his blog that included his reworking of the Claw Fighter feat. When I saw it, I pulled him up on his wording—mostly, I was surprised that he had chosen wording so different to my own, which I had pretty carefully crafted to cover all the issues. We both hate unnecessary rules text, so why add extra clauses to cover the swordmage stuff when it was already covered by the unarmed group?

“Wait, where does it say that?”.

This is how I learned that apparently, I have spent more than a decade taking it for granted that unarmed weapons allow you to consider your hand empty.

Now, I was sure I hadn’t gotten the idea from nowhere, because here’s the thing: way back in my first 4e game as a player, I built a Brawler Fighter with a spiked gauntlet, and I had almost the same exact argument with my (equally programmatically-minded) GM. I don’t think he ever completely agreed with my reasoning, but when the online character builder (rest in proprietary) was updated from supporting his reading to supporting mine, he was kind of forced to concede. But, neither the PHB nor Rules Compendium entries for the weapon group, nor even the spiked gauntlet itself, say any such thing

So where did I get it from? Well, it turns out there is something behind my confidence, but I had a do some real digging to find the stupid thing. In many ways, this was where all the trouble starts.

Coming up empty-handed

To find out how I wound up thinking that unarmed weapons have inherent properties, I started by checking the spiked gauntlet. It’s effectively the only manufactured unarmed weapon in the game, since the talid is just a Darksun flavoured reskin. For that matter, until the monk shows up in the PHB3, it’s effectively the only unarmed weapon at all, since punching somebody without it is categorised as “improvised” instead.

To me, the whole reason the “unarmed” group exists is to make it so that your hand is free—but I can’t deny that it’s only an implication. The text just says “When you punch, kick, elbow, knee, or even head butt an opponent, you’re making an unarmed strike,” which doesn’t even really tell us what it means to be an unarmed weapon, reading more like a replacement effect than a definition.

On the other hand, if it’s not the case, then the spiked gauntlet is… completely pointless? It’s just a strictly worse light mace that may or may not take up two enchant slots. In a system like 4e, where all weapons are more or less balanced within their proficiency tier unless you’re very into optimisation, it would be odd to design a genuinely useless weapon on purpose. At the very least, you might expect the functional-reskin-talid to add some kind of benefit, rather than just clarifying the enchantment thing. It’s especially odd when the same book also includes the gauntlet axe, a weapon which doesn’t have the unarmed group, but does specify that it keeps the hand free.

The talid does give us a bit of clue though, describing itself as “augments unarmed attacks”. This supports the idea that the actual meaning of being an unarmed weapon is that it sort of layers over the not-weapon weapon that is your hand, implying that it does not impede its normal function.

I finally found the real evidence—and surely the basis of my argument for my first character all those years ago—in Martial Power 2. A fighter build option released years after the spiked gauntlet, Brawler Style provides a bonus when fighting with a weapon in one hand while keeping your other hand “free” to grab enemies. Assuming the unarmed group does imply certain properties, the spiked gauntlet is an obvious choice for such a character—and indeed, its attendant sidebar on its page addresses this specifically:

“Your hand is free if you wear a spiked gauntlet, even if you use the gauntlet to attack during your turn”.

Finally! At least I didn’t just make the whole thing up.

This property was never added to the spiked gauntlet itself, mind you. It also never got a glossary entry in the compendium, and the sidebar is omitted from the compendium entry for the fighter, which at least explains why it was so hard to find.

Obviously it’s also specifically addressing the spiked gauntlet, not the unarmed weapon group, However, let’s not forget that the spiked gauntlet was the only unarmed weapon when this was written. And consider; would you honestly look at the talid and believe that it’s not intended to work for a brawling fighter in the exact same way?

Okay okay. So while I think I have a pretty good case, I must agree that this is all implication, and that’s not good enough for 4e. Well! This is where all the trouble ends.

Taking matters into our own hands

Okay! Enough of this vague nonsense. This is 4th edition, and we (and our code-brained GMs) expect our rules to be stated cleanly. And frankly there are too many furries in my world for me to let the “unarmed” rules stay such a god damned mess.

I want to create errata for the unarmed weapon group that unambiguously codifies (what I believe was always intended to be) its unique traits. Fortunately this isn’t unprecedented, as a couple of weapon groups already have specific rules associated with them outside of properties and such.

Thus, I propose the following addendum to the the unarmed weapon group:

Add the following text to the description of the unarmed weapon group:

“Unlike most weapons, an unarmed weapon does not occupy the hand wielding it. This means you can perform actions and benefit from effects that require you to have your hand free (or empty) without removing the weapon. However, you can also only attack with the unarmed weapon while your hand is free, unless you’re attacking an enemy whom you are currently grabbing with that hand.

This does not allow you to wield more than one weapon or implement in a single hand, even if both are in the unarmed group. You can choose to wield another weapon or implement in a hand that currently wields an unarmed weapon, but while you do so, you lose the ability to wield that unarmed weapon.”

Granted, the wording gets a little unwieldy here—such is the nature of covering all corner cases in 4e’s intentionally programmatic rules structure. The intention (and if I crafted it well enough, the effect) is thus:

  • An unarmed weapon doesn’t make your hand occupied (specifically mentioning both “free” and “empty” to make it clear we are addressing those rules issues). This is the big thing, since it stops unarmed weapons from messing up Brawler Style, Swordmage features, and so forth.
  • You can use your hand to do normal hand stuff without un-equipping or ceasing to “wield” the weapon. We don’t want things that care about your equipped/wielded weapons—like feats and enchantment properties—to strobe on and off if you happen to climb a ladder or throw a rock or something. (I did have to re-word this to avoid a stupid but not logically incorrect reading of ” your hand never stops being free while you wield an unarmed weapon”—such is the strange language of 4e. )
  • However, we do want it to un-equip if you, say, pick up a sword and use that as a weapon instead. That’s to stop you from doing anything blatantly dodgy (like getting extra static enchant properties or feat benefits, or trying to wear infinite spiked gauntlets because your hand is still “free”).

(The last point weighs on my mind a bit, because my greatest fear is accidentally creating some stupid loophole that means every optimised character now wears a spiked gauntlet with a low-level enchant that happens to give a good static bonus even if you never pay for the high level version. I truly do hate shit like that.)

A final concern is to make sure we don’t do anything to wreck the monk unarmed strike, since that will inherit any properties we add here. I think we’re pretty safe on that front—there’s no real reason to have a spiked gauntlet or a beast claw if you’re also using the monk unarmed strike, but if you do, you just “hold” them all and choose one to wield. Using the “wielding” wording takes care of the multi-enchant loophole, and a ki focus doesn’t require a hand unless you want it to, so we should be safe there.

Oh, and if you’re using this errata, it would also make sense to add the unarmed group to existing weapons like the gauntlet axe and the garrote, as these weapons already have or imply this functionality. (You know, if you think it’s worth acknowledging that the garrote exists at all.)

A natural conclusion

Now that we finally have the idea of unarmed weapons sorted out, I want to deal with the other key aspect of the claw fighter feat—and the implied state of being a natural or inherent weapon.

That’s not to say I have any real problem with how this is handled; really my only issue with it is that it’s ambiguous as to whether it enchants as two weapons or one. No, the main thing I want to do with this is make it an independent concept, because in my setting there’s going to be more than one feat like this. Sure, paired claws are fine for gnolls and wilderskins and whatnot, but I also want to make, say, a hoof pound for the equitarn and a fangy bite for the kobold.

It’s definitely in my best interest to give these rules their own entry—a weapon category for natural weapons. It seems most sensible for it to be a category, since its rules naturally position it as an alternative to the simple/martial/superior categorisations.

Natural Weapons

A natural weapon is a non-manufactured weapon which is part of a creature’s physical form, such as a fist or claw. Such weapons cannot be selected as normal weapon proficiencies; rather, proficiency with them is granted by the feature (typically from your heritage or a feat) that gives you access to the weapon.

Once you acquire a natural weapon, you are always considered to be wielding it unless you equip a different weapon, implement or shield in its place. For example, a claw weapon might be “equipped” in each hand whenever that hand isn’t wielding a different weapon or implement, or using a heavy shield. Most natural weapons are also in the unarmed group, allowing you to continue using your hands for holding or grabbing while you wield them.

Natural weapons can never be removed (stolen, confiscated, etc.) or destroyed. A natural weapon can be enchanted and disenchanted in the same way as any other weapon, except that disenchanting a natural weapon does not destroy it.

(I doubt that the passage about losing weapons is really necessary—4e doesn’t even really have rules for weapon disarming, so doing something like that is a story-based action that falls back on “just do a common sense” —but since we’re here we may as well make it explicit.)

The wording here is quite different from the monk unarmed strike, which is at odds with the final errata for the gnoll Claw Fighter feat. This is not done without reason; it’s because the monk unarmed strike does not have a clear-cut interaction with weapon enchantments (because of course it’s never intended to have one—it’s meant to inherit an enchantment from your ki focus). If it were to use weapon enchants, it would raise the question of when you are or are not wielding your unarmed strike, which sounds profoundly fiddly. With that in mind, I chose to codify it this way instead.

On the other hand…

This does raise a fun variant idea—what if we don’t let you enchant your natural weapons, and instead decide to apply ki focus inheritance to all natural weapons? To be honest, I’m not sure I don’t like that better; ki focuses are generally underutilised (Heroes of Shadow sucks don’t @ me), and it would be cool to give them another use case. It also makes natural weapons feel distinctly different from manufactured weapons. I suspect it may be “worse” in terms of raw power, but the flexibility of adding implement enchants to a superior-grade weapon might provide some interesting build opportunities at least.

Plus, only needing to buy one enchanted “weapon” for any number of natural weapons is a good value proposition for any multi-weapon build. We might even want to make ranged natural weapons like shooting quills or spitting acid, letting players go really deep into monstrous weapons if that excites them.

With that in mind, here’s a variant to use those rules instead:

Natural Weapon Implement Variant

This variant revises the natural weapon category with a version based on the monk unarmed strike. After the first paragraph, replace the remaining text with the following:

“When you make a weapon attack, you can use any suitable natural weapon with which you are proficient. You must have a hand free to use a natural weapon, and most natural weapons are also in the unarmed group, allowing you to continue using your hands for holding or grabbing while you wield them. Natural weapons can never be removed (stolen, confiscated, etc.) or destroyed.

You cannot enchant a natural weapon. However, if you wield a magic ki focus, your natural weapon(s) can use the enchantment on that ki focus as if the weapon were enchanted. When you gain proficiency with a natural weapon, you also gain proficiency with the ki focus implement.”

Gamer show feats

With all of this in mind—here’s the new text of my replacement for the Claw Fighter feat:

Beast Claws

Prerequisite: Beast or Magical Beast

Benefit: You gain proficiency with the beast claw natural weapon. Whenever you do not have another weapon, implement or shield equipped in one of your hands, you are considered to be wielding a beast claw in that hand.

Your beast claw is a natural one-handed melee weapon in the light blade and unarmed groups. It has a +3 proficiency bonus and deals 1d8 damage, and has the off-hand property.

If you enchant your beast claws, you can choose to enchant them as if they were one double weapon (sharing one enchantment) or as two separate weapons (paying for both enchantments accordingly).

(The “beast or magical beast” requirement is the result of Escarnum’s particular design, where I define “beast kin” heritages by having them count as the beast type. (Or, in the case of my hengeyoukai-and-shifter replacement, magical beast.) For your purposes, you’d probably replace it with whatever creatures you want to get access in your setting.)

It is… perhaps still a few more words than I would like? But unfortunately we do need to specify where the weapon is “held”, for reasons that will become apparent when we look at the next feat.

The second natural weapon feat I added to Escarnum is a hammer hooves, a signature of the equitarn (a horse-person that I wanted to have a really buff punch). It presents a natural weapon that counts as two-handed—which is why we still have to specify handedness even with the natural weapon category defined.

Hammer Hooves

Prerequisite: Equitarn

Benefit: You gain proficiency with the hoof slam natural weapon.

Your hoof slam is a natural two-handed melee weapon in the hammer and unarmed groups. It has a +2 proficiency bonus and deals 1d12 damage, and has the brutal 1 property. Whenever you are not wielding another weapon and do not have a shield equipped, you are considered to be wielding this weapon in both hands.

These are the only two natural weapons I’ve made so far, but obviously you could design any number of them that make sense for your setting. I might add some more to this article if/when I make them.

In the process of writing this article, I also realised that unlike most weapon groups, there’s no specific expertise feat for the unarmed group. Well! Let’s get to it.

Unarmed Expertise

Benefit: You gain a +1 feat bonus to weapon attack rolls that you make with an unarmed weapon. This bonus increases to +2 at 11th level and +3 at 21st level.

In addition, you do not need to have a hand free to make an unarmed attack. (You still cannot wield more than one weapon or implement in a single hand.)

A lot the discussion between myself and Talen has related to how it feels dumb that a kick or a headbutt requires you to still have a hand free. Not that we can’t see why they did it that way from a mechanical perspective—and you can imagine it as being less like “I kick with my fist” and more like “I need to be somewhat unburdened to effectively leverage full-body attacks in combat”—but it still has a bit of a no-fun vibe to it.

I could be missing something, but I can’t see any huge potential for exploitation, as long as it doesn’t let you multi-wield. Honestly, I’m not sure this feat is good enough! Maybe you’re going to make some wild grapple fighter build that can grab an enemy in each hand and still make opportunity attacks with their feet, or a monk who always has an alchemical item in hand, but I can hardly see those becoming the new standard for optimisation. As long as I don’t accidentally make a stupid loophole (stoophole?) I’m happy.

Finally, feat fixed!

Jesus. That was a really long article just to “fix” something that I was already taking as written! From my perspective it feels only right, though, after spending more than a full day untangling this mess with Talen.

Hopefully, if you have had similar problems, the suggestions here will be of some use to you too. And if you notice any issues or exploits that I’ve missed, go ahead and let me know!

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