Unarmed Combat is a sub-form of combat that involves attacking an opponent with your fists, performed by attacking with nothing equipped (spells, weapons or shields) in one or both hands. Unarmed combat does not have its own skill tree and cannot be developed like other skills, but certain races start out with higher unarmed damage, and the ability does have perks and a specific enchantment that may enhance its damage. Unarmed combat may be a reliable type of combat early in the game when opponents are at lower levels, matching your character level.
Base Unarmed Damage and Reach
While all races of Men and Mer do the same amount of unarmed damage (base of 4), Khajiit and Argonians do more unarmed damage. The Khajiit's beginning advantage, granted by their passive claws trait, enables them to deal more damage with fists than with weapons in the early levels of the game. However, these damage values do not improve with the level progression of skills (such as One-Handed) or overall level, meaning eventually unarmed attacks become less effective than attacks with weapons or spells as you continue to improve the relevant skill trees.
† The in-game text states that the Claws passive ability adds 15 points to Khajiits' unarmed damage, but the actual effect magnitude is 12. The game data also describes the effect as "Khajiit claws do four times the damage of a man's punch", which is incorrect, as it is actually 5.5 times the damage.
All playable races have the same unarmed reach, 96 units (a measure of length defined in the game engine) or 4.5 feet. For comparison, a dagger has reach 98.7 units, and one-handed weapons have reach 141 units.
Increasing Unarmed Damage
The Fists of Steel perk adds between 10 and 18 to the total unarmed damage when you wear heavy armor gauntlets. The value added to the damage is the base armor value of the gauntlets, thus improving the quality of such gauntlets by smithing does not increase this value, nor does levelling the Heavy Armor skill.
A unique item found within The Ratway, the Gloves of the Pugilist is the only item within the game that contains the Fortify Unarmed Damage enchantment. To maximize unarmed damage, you can disenchant these gloves and then apply the enchantment to both gloves and rings.
Sneaking while performing an unarmed strike applies the double damage effect.
Lycanthropy and Vampirism
Being a werewolf increases your base unarmed damage by 20 and grants the werewolf additional bonuses to unarmed combat depending on the character level. The Dawnguard add-on added another way to increase the unarmed base damage while being a werewolf by the addition of a specific perk, Bestial Strength. This perk can be chosen multiple times and adds a flat percentage-based damage increase to all damage while in the Werewolf Beast Form.
Being a vampire grants the possibility to increase unarmed combat by using the power Vampire Lord. This power grants the user bonus unarmed damage. Additionally the Vampire Lord Perk Tree contains the Poison Talons perk, which increases unarmed damage by 20 points.
A brawl is a fistfight in which either party attempts to beat the other until their health is depleted (but not killed). Some NPCs will challenge you to a brawl and some quests require you to challenge an NPC to brawl. Rewards for winning a brawl can include a monetary gain from a bet with your opponent, a reward from a quest giver, obtaining information, and increasing NPCs' disposition towards you.
During a brawl, spectators will gather around you and your opponent and shout encouragements or other phrases at you, such as "Fight! Fight!", "Those fools are actually fighting!", "Who taught you to fight? Keep those hands up!", "Drive that snowback to the ground, come on!", "Remember ... hit the one in the middle!", "Are you just going to take that? Fight back!", and "Twelve septims on the big one!"
You must fight someone by attacking only with your fists or bashing with a shield until a winner emerges. When combat begins, your weapons and spells automatically unequip. You may use spells like Healing, or a shield, but any damage dealt to your brawling partner other than that from bashing or punching (including the passive effect from the Ebony Mail) will void the fight and count as a crime. The rules of brawling prohibit you from healing an opponent.
Quests Involving Brawls
- Bloody Nose: Defeat Hofgrir Horse-Crusher in a brawl.
- Fight! Fight!: Prove your strength by wagering on a fist fight with another. (radiant)
- Hired Muscle: Fulfill a contract for the Companions to bring a citizen back in line. (radiant)
- The Forsworn Conspiracy: Investigate a murder in Markarth to discover a sinister plot surrounding the Forsworn.
- No One Escapes Cidhna Mine: Escape from Cidhna Mine!
- Taking Care of Business: Collect some debts for the Thieves Guild.
- If you approach a guard in any hold with your fists up, they may say, "You come up to me, fists raised? You looking for a beating?" Alternatively, if you are a Khajiit, they may say, "Sheathe those claws, Khajiit."
- Unlike earlier TES games, unarmed attacks damage only the health of the recipient, not stamina or magicka.