Oops We’re Unarmed

Last updated: 200813…220616

The best indicator that the grappling rules in 1e are terrible is the number of times they’ve changed. The DMG, OA, UA, Dragon #61, Dragon #83. Every other edition of D&D also includes a different system for unarmed combat— sometimes more than one system in the same book! Almost all have detailed tables to represent variables. And all the systems are terrible (explaining why there’s a never-ending stream of them). I spent years trying to tweak one system or the other to arrive at satisfactory results—all failures. Every use of a system required major revisions.

I finally gave up and created my own. The foundation of the system is: what happens when a large body of kobolds attacks a 10th level fighter unarmed, with the expected result of, “the fighter loses.” Alone, the fighter is screwed, but it takes time—time for allies to come to your aid without certain death. That said, allies need to do something, causing urgency. There’s a lot of math, and code, analyzing the associated variables of hat outcome, tweaking calculations to be additive (people do addition faster than subtraction).

This system intentionally removes a bunch of factors. Take size as an example. If a big and small person are fighting, the small person should be likely to get away, right? Then again, if a big person grabs a small person, they should be more successful—enough of a wash to make inclusion not valuable enough. Many of the unarmed systems use AC, but why is someone in leather easier to grab than someone in mail? In a bar, why is a 10th level fighter disproportionately vulnerable?  

The below system takes into account the character’s (and monster’s) ability, as well as Strength/Dexterity, without those factors being overwhelming. Each PC has a predetermined number based on THAC0. Monsters use their THAC0. The PC(s) and monster roll d20 (or d30), add their score, with the lowest total indicating success. Done. While an opposed heck, it’s still in the context of AD&D combat. Each round both sides have the opportunity to change things.  The simplicity means applicability to a wide range of circumstance.

We use the same mechanic for related unarmed combat situations: Overrun, Rush, Disarm, Pummel, Drag, and Shove.

On to the details …

Close Combat (Unarmed)

Close Combat Actions use contested Close Combat Checks (CCCs) to determine success, comparing the CCC scores between the attacker(s) and defender(s). Close Combat can’t occur against opponents disparate by more than one size. Close Combat Actions cannot be combined with Weapon Actions.

The Non-Weapon Score (NWS) modifier is added to the CCC, and can be calculated in advance:

  • Base THAC0
  • -DEX Reaction/Attacking bonus (Monsters vary based on AC)

OR (depending on which is better, does not aggregate)

-To Hit STR bonus

Add the following modifiers when engaged in CC:

  • +4 vs. Multiple Attackers in Unarmed Combat
  • +1/opponent
  • +1 for each opponent’s leg beyond two (or +2 for zero legs)

CCC: die + NWS + modifiers, Low to succeed

Close Combat Actions (normally d20):

Overrun: One or more characters attempting to push through one or more opponents. Each “line” of opponents counts as one “opponent”. One CCC roll is made for each “line” to pass through, +1 (cumulative) for each successive “line” tried on the same round. Any following character must also succeed on a CCC each attempt, or get left behind.

Rush: Push the opponent backwards 5’ + 1’ for each point of difference. Add +1 for each “line” of opponent.

Disarm: Modified by +8 for each Defender’s hand. Permits Save vs. Petrification.

Unarmed Combat (uses d30): Up to six Attackers can attempt Unarmed Combat, modified by size (smaller than the Defender counts half, larger than the Defender counts double). An armed Defender may make a single free attack when an unarmed attack is attempted; success does not foil assistance of that individual attacker. A successful CCC indicates the Attacker and Defender are Engaged. Once Engaged and beyond:

  • Combatants cannot move, fight other opponents, be safely targeted by missile weapons, or cast spells (unless Verbal only), and are limited to weapons of small size after the first round of combat;
  • Combatants gain no defending DEX AC bonus vs. non-Engaged melee attackers;
  • Combatants can make one Unarmed Combat Action (as an CCC) each round, including the first:
    • Incapacitate (EGPH):
      1. Grapple: Take an Engaged defender to the ground/ grab them. If grappling an opponent that makes multiple, separate attacks, the grappler can neutralize one of those attacks.
      2. Pin a Grappled defender. Pinned characters are +4 To Hit by other (non-Engaged) attackers. A Pinned defender automatically goes last when comparing Initiative. When Pinned, the only possible action is attempt to A character pinned from the beginning to the end of a round is Held, and helpless (unable to defend themselves or react in any productive way).
      3. Success decreases a Pin to Grapple, a Grappled to Engaged, or Engaged to Breaking Free. Those who break free may not move away that round.
    • Pummel: Additional attacks can Pummel with fist or small object, even when Engaged. Damage of STR bonus + (d2 vs. small/medium, d3 vs. large, or a small weapon).
    • Drag: Drag/Move a Grappled defender 1”.
    • Shove: Shove a Grappled defender 5’ away or knock them down, and disengage.

Two opponents fighting check each round. The attacker trying to Pin the opponent, success moving them closer. The defender trying to escape each success moving them farther from being pinned.

Appendix A—d30

So why d30 for unarmed combat where everything else is d20?

When adding modifiers to a roll the outcome is affected by how small the die. A +1 bonus on a d6 is more significant than a +1 bonus on a d20. To generate the appropriate variability in the roll, a d30 lets you have +1 bonuses without the same level of significance for a d10 or d20.

The problem was that a +1 cumulative effect was too weak, and a +2 cumulative effect was too strong. The d30 drops it back into the sweet spot.


TSR 2011, Dungeon Masters Guide [1e], 1979.
Dragon Magazine, Issue 61, “Without Any Weapons,” May, 1982.
R-4, Doc’s Island, p. 14, 1983. [Unarmed combat]
Dragon Magazine, Issue 83, “How to Finish Fights Faster,” March 1984.


Author: Rick

A DM for *mumble* years, I've been playing AD&D since junior high. I've currently got two separate campaigns running, both in Mystara. I've been told when they handed out hobbies, I stood in the short lines. I actively cycle tour, kayak, play board games, read, develop home automation software, play Stars!, volunteer with the International and National American Red Cross, and work on a never-ending stream of home repairs. In my wake I've left paintball, medieval full-contact combat (SCA), computer gaming, Heroclix, and kite construction.

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