Are unarmed fighters viable?

New to the game here. I like making Brawler/Monk types in other RPGs, but if I try to build one in Burning Wheel, am I going to get wrecked in a fight? How would you guys go about making a strength-based unarmed fighter, if it’s possible to do so?

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Welcome, Chad!

They are very viable (depending on your setting)!

One of our longest campaigns features lightly to unarmored pugilists going at each other with bare hands and feet. It’s all about getting Inside and keeping control once there. That requires a lot of Speed! And a expert brute can do some serious damage with a B6 power (3/6/9). More terrifying is when they get a Lock on their opponent and squeeze them into unconsciousness. And if they need a little extra oomph, they can use Brawling to wield Found Weapons like a chair leg.

That all said, I mentioned setting. If you send an unarmed fighter into a sword-swinging, axe-wielding pit of heavily armored warriors, don’t count on them lasting very long! They might be able to take on one-at-a-time, but again, only if they win initial positioning and keep it.


If you can spare the General points, pick up Boxing / Martial Arts, as it will make an excellent FoRK for Brawling and you’ll be able to use it to slowly try some more advanced fighting techniques like Throw Person.


Is it viable in real life? If I have a longsword, spear, or bow, and a peak Mike Tyson wants to close with me: if I’m even vaguely competent, can an unarmed, unarmoured man close on someone with a weapon?

I’d lean towards no.

However, that doesn’t necessarily matter. This isn’t D&D, there is no “two combats and a social conflict” quota to meet. Maybe your punchdrunk pugilist wants to be the finest fist fighter in [city].
Maybe you make a setting - or a region within a setting where weapons were illegal.

If your character has armour, I think it becomes more survivable - you probably need to be able to eat a hit or two in order to close. Once you’re in, as Peter said, you can lock to your heart’s content.


Depends on terrain and demeanor: charging across a large, perfectly flat, open space toward someone who is expecting you will probably result in you getting hit. However, that isn’t likely to be the case.

Assuming Tyson-analogue puts some thought into it, it will be a surprise and/or he’ll start in close quarters. So, the armed person will need to act in time (i.e. they need to make a Steel test, then do enough damage to either force T-a to fail a Steel test or put T-a down) before T-a closes to fist range.

Once T-a gets a chance to grapple &c, the weapon becomes less of an advantage.

I’ve never been in a real fight with weapons and harmful intent, but I’ve hung around with enough live-steel reenactors over the decades to have seen a single person can break a line using force rather than weapons, so Brawling can work against sword-and-shield.

So, I’d say it’s not unrealistic that Range-and-Cover/Fight allow an unarmed fighter to close with an armed one if the unarmed fighter is both tactical and holds their nerve.

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Also, if you can get into a Fight! and win positioning against a longer weapon (i.e. get inside their guard), then you can find yourself in an excellent position to Lock them out, Charge/Tackle them, Disarm them of their weapon, etc. etc.

I wouldn’t necessarily try all of this against a heavily armoured opponent, as that stuff’s hard to get through (although Locks are still wonderful).

Also, you can potentially do fun things with Physical Actions, such as wrench off armour, etc.


Having watched a foot melee earlier this year, I can attest that once you get a plate-armoured warrior down, booting them repeatedly appears a very effective way to get them to submit; perhaps even more effective than it is under the BW rules.

This is how I interpreted Chad’s question. The Monk/Brawler thing suggests a toe-to-toe stand up fight to me. I could be incorrect in my interpretation.

I entirely agree that an ambush assault makes the unarmed attacker more viable - but it doesn’t bring the tropes of Monk/Brawler to mind for me. We’ll have to get OP to clarify.

I’m not diminishing the power of a good lock: I play Judo as my sport of choice. I’ve been thrown, locked and choked by a variety of experts. The techniques can be phenomenally effective.

However, I’ve also played enough HEMA to say: you could not pay me enough to try and close on an armed and armoured swordsperson wearing only robes myself.

I’ve tried closing on a guy with a longsword, where I had shortsword and shield, and even that is intimidating.

I’d agree that BW probably doesn’t make stomping a guy on the ground effective enough, but I’d say the same for longer weapon.
In my (limited) experience, the positioning test involves the longer weapon getting a free shot. Someone armed with a weapon may block or parry that entry shot. An unarmed person may only dodge.

Ah. Whereas my core image of a Monk is an unarmed man sitting quietly against a wall or humbly wandering along without seeming a threat until the corrupt guard/thug/&c. starts something and gets besmacked. So, my assumption was social “ambush” was a key part of the trope. As you say, depends on what character the OP had in mind.

Having done some HEMA based on Italian dueling, not having armour is less terrifying in certain circumstances. I think that’s a key take-away: a viable unarmed fighter has to have the Dodge to get close without getting beaten down and the Steel to keep going if they do take a hit.


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