R.I.P. Aretha Franklin
Natural weapons are weapons that are “built in” to a player character race. For players who often find themselves waking up in a jail cell, they can be a welcome means of facilitating escape. Mostly, they function as a cool flavorful addition.
For those interested in homebrewing their own natural weapon race, let’s look at how the D&D designers have built natural weapons. Taking lessons shown from their evolution, we can build our own natural weapon template for homebrewing. (Note: we’re leaving out breath weapons, which is a story for another day.)
The Evolution of Natural Weapons
While you won’t find any natural weapon races in the Player’s Handbook, that changed with the publication of the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion. Then, Volo’s Guide to Monsters introduced two playable races with natural weapons. If the August 2018 Unearthed Arcana is any indication, D&D designers have developed a comfort level with bestowing player races with natural weapons. The latest release includes the Viashino, who sport a bite and tail attack!
Elemental Evil Player’s Companion – April 2015
The first foray into natural weapons was perhaps the cleanest, leaning on existing rules without overexplaining itself. Almost. There was no need to say that you are proficient with your unarmed strikes, since “You are proficient with your unarmed strikes.” is already printed on Player’s Handbook p. 195. In any event, this is a simple damage upgrade (unless you’re a Monk) and type swap.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters – November 2016
The team had a little more confidence to juice up the damage to a d6 with the Lizardfolk’s unarmed strike. We see a few changes here. Notably, it is now referenced as a “natural weapon” which qualifies it for interactions with other features requiring weapon attacks. The language also clarifies that you need to add you Strength modifier to the damage of an unarmed strike, which we know from the Player’s Handbook, but could be construed as intentionally omitted with the old Talon language. There is also a note that the damage type change is “instead of the bludgeoning damage.” This indicates a further desire to clarify interactions with the base ruleset.
Tabaxi Cat Claws
Volo’s Guide to Monsters – November 2016
The D&D team’s second foray into natural weapons remained timid. The Tabaxi’s claws function as an unarmed strike that does d4 + Strength modifier slashing damage. Compare this with the unarmed strike of any standard race with does 1 + Strength modifier bludgeoning damage. While changing the damage type, they only boosted the damage to the same as a Level 1 Monk’s unarmed strike. This means that the Tabaxi Monk sees little benefit from this racial feature, which is probably fine because of synergies in other places (i.e. speed).
Unearthed Arcana – May 2015 ➤ May 2018
As how we previously examined the evolution of the Minotaur’s Hammering Horns, its most insightful to see the evolution of a feature across one race. Though, the Minotaur’s Horns have a wrinkle: they’re “natural melee weapons” instead of an unarmed strike. While this follows the design intent of the 2015 phrasing, its interesting to see the distinction between this and the unarmed strikes language used for other natural weapons. Though tested in 2015 as an apparent alternative to the unarmed strike phrasing for natural weapons, it was maintained in the 2018 revision, and in fact bled into the Centaur design. We also see that the damage was scaled back (from d10 to d6) and it was specified that the Strength modifier is added to the damage.
Unearthed Arcana – May 2018
Like the Minotaur, the Centaur’s hooves specifically mention that the player should use their proficiency bonus when calculating the attack rolls for their natural weapon. This may seem to be a regression to the Talon language from the first iteration, but it’s necessary because the Centaur’s Hooves are classified as natural melee weapons instead of unarmed strikes. While the natural melee weapon iteration makes it clunkier in that you need to specify the application of proficiency, it gave the designers comfort to dispense with the “instead of the regular bludgeoning damage” that saddled the unarmed strike iterations.
Viashino Bite and Lashing Tail
Unearthed Arcana – August 2018
The Viashino Bite and Lashing Tail attacks function similarly. They are both natural weapons which render you capable of making unarmed strikes. They bump the unarmed strike damage to 1d4 + Strength modifier. The flavor here is presented as versatility in damage type, with the Bite dealing piercing damage and the Lashing Tail dealing slashing damage. There are also some mechanical differences in the action economy consumed by these features, which the designers used to further distinguish them.
Notably, after a few months of consideration, the design team has gone back to using the “unarmed strike” language. Whether Centaurs and Minotaurs will fall into design conformity in their official release remains to be seen.
Simic Hybrid Grappling Appendages
Unearthed Arcana – August 2018
The Simic Hybrid’s Grappling Appendages are natural weapons that can be used to make unarmed strikes. While the type of damage is not modified, it is increased to a d6 + Strength modifier. Ultimately, this design is very simple and enhanced by other mechanics that surround the unarmed strike.
We see a lot of tinkering in the rules to make sure that the natural weapon attack triggers other rules interactions (proficiency, melee attacks, weapon attacks, unarmed strikes).
Ultimately, the best rules are the most concise. Extra words cloud clarity. With natural weapons, this is accomplished by leaning on the unarmed strike mechanics. If the design team feels that there is a risk of confusion due to rules interactions, the best solution might be a sidebar that copies the small paragraph on unarmed strikes. The important things to remember are as follows:
- Unarmed strikes are a melee weapon attack
- You are proficient with unarmed strikes
The rest of the rule (damage and damage type) is going to be modified by the racial feature provided. It’s your call whether to include the bit about it overriding the usual rule.
Using unarmed strike language is also clean because it integrates nicely with the Monk’s unarmed strike damage scaling and Dexterity modifier access. Depending on the scrutiny of your DM’s interpretation, Minotaurs and Centaurs may be left without damage scaling, since their racial features are classified as melee weapons instead of unarmed strikes. A good rule relieves the DM of the burden of deciding a race’s fate.
The August 2018 iteration is the most refined. It recedes from the experiment with natural melee weapons, while leaning on the unarmed strike rules. It eschews unnecessary language such as the addition of your proficiency bonus. It’s clean and concise, which builds a neat framework for allowing it to interact with the action economy.
Your [FEATURE] is a natural weapon, which you can use to make unarmed strikes. Your unarmed strikes with [FEATURE] deal damage equal to [d4/d6] + Strength modifier[, instead of the bludgeoning damage normal for an unarmed strike].
Consider adding language that will allow the race to expend part of their action economy (attack, bonus action, reaction) under certain conditions (being attacked, being hit, charging in a straight line, flanking) to add a little functional flavor to the feature.
Cover art: Viashino Firstblade by Matthew Stewart © Wizards of the Coast