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One essential part of playing through Skyrim is deciding what build you want to run. Between one-handed and two-handed melee weapons, ranged weapons, sneak attacks, and all of the magic schools, there are a ton of options that can be mixed and matched in any way.
One that can be particularly fun, especially for veterans looking to mix things up on their next playthrough, is an unarmed build. Unfortunately, Skyrim does not have a skill tree dedicated to unarmed combat, but there are still ways to maximize one’s damage output when using nothing but your fists.
Big Picture Up Front:
Race: Khajiit or Orc
Skills: Heavy Armor, Smithing, Enchanting
Optional Skills: Restoration, Alteration
Perks: Fists of Steel
Unarmed Build Description
Like most builds in Skyrim, an unarmed build needs to keep you alive while allowing you to deal with hordes of enemies as well. This is especially important for unarmed builds, as you will take a lot of damage from multiple enemies at once, especially those with ranged attacks.
The lack of an unarmed skill tree also means that increasing unarmed damage requires taking advantage of the limited ways the game offers. This means that you will want to use Heavy Armor to help you stay alive and for the one perk in the game that will raise your unarmed damage.
During combat, an unarmed build will also need to use shouts effectively to buff itself, control crowds of enemies, and quickly reposition when necessary. You can make up for some of the build’s weaknesses using magic trees such as Restoration, Alteration, or Sneaking.
You also will want to invest in crafting skills like Enchanting and Smithing to make sure that your gear is optimized as much as possible.
The only decision that impacts your gameplay is what race you pick during character creation. The undisputed best race for an unarmed build is the Khajiit. This is because of their special ability, “Claws,” that make their unarmed attacks deal 12 points of damage.
This brings the damage of their unarmed attacks up to a whopping 22 damage, which is higher base damage than nearly any one-handed weapon. Playing a Khajiit also comes with the special ability “Night Eye” that gives you a power that can be used unlimited times per day to see better in the dark.
They also come with a +5 to Alchemy, Archery, Lockpicking, One-Handed, and Pickpocket, which aren’t handy for this build. However, they also include +10 to Sneak, which could be helpful if you want to sneak while using the unarmed build.
The second-best option is an Orc character if you want to attempt an unarmed build without choosing the Khajiit. Orc characters have normal unarmed damage as all of the other races, but their skill bonuses will help get you started leveling the skills you need, while their special ability can help you out as well.
When making an Orc character, you get +10 to Heavy Armor and +5 to Block, Enchanting, One-Handed, Smithing, and Two-Handed. One-Handed, Two-Handed, and Block aren’t very useful, but the others are all skills you will be focusing on in this build.
Their special ability of “Berserker Rage” also gives you a power that doubles your damage dealt and halves your damage taken for 60 seconds, which can be very helpful for killing bosses or escaping tricky situations.
Leveling up in Skyrim allows you to increase your Health, Magicka, and Stamina alongside choosing perks that strengthen your build and capabilities. Focusing on Health and Stamina is paramount for an unarmed build unless you also want to lean on magic to augment it. As for perks, the essential skill trees are Heavy Armor, Smithing, and Enchanting.
The Heavy Armor skill tree is the most important for the unarmed build. This is because not only will you need the armor to keep you alive, but you also will want to pick up the Fists of Steel perk to increase your unarmed damage. All of the perks in the Heavy Armor tree are below in order of importance for an unarmed build.
|Fists of Steel||Increases damage dealt by unarmed strikes by base armor rating of worn Heavy Armor.||This is the only perk that will increase your unarmed strike damage.|
|Juggernaut (5)||Increases the armor rating for your equipped Heavy Armor by 20% for each rank.||Can be leveled up as your Heavy Armor skill does and helps keep you on your feet.|
|Tower of Strength||Cuts received stagger in half when you are wearing only Heavy Armor.||This will help a lot in combat as it will make sure that you don’t get stun-locked as quickly so that you can keep attacking.|
|Reflect Blows||Gives you a 10% chance of reflecting the damage from melee attacks from enemies when wearing all Heavy Armor.||Requires max Heavy Armor to unlock, but is very useful as you will be taking a ton of melee hits with this build.|
|Well Fitted||When wearing all heavy armor you get a 25% bonus to armor rating.||A useful way to give boost your armor rating and how much damage you can take.|
|Matching Set||Gives you a 25% bonus to armor rating when wearing a matching set of Heavy Armor.||Is useful, but the optimal gear of this build includes unique gauntlets that can nullify this benefit in the end.|
|Conditioning||Makes your Heavy Armor not affect your Stamina use while sprinting or your carry weight.||Is useful outside of combat but doesn’t do much to help keep you alive or deal extra damage.|
|Cushioned||Makes you take half fall damage when wearing all heavy armor.||This benefit is highly situational, and fall damage can easily be avoided without it.|
Taking advantage of smithing is very important for an unarmed build to ensure that you always have the best gear possible. It also will allow you to enhance your gear to make it even better. All of the smithing perks you should unlock for the unarmed build are listed below in the order that you should unlock them.
|Steel Smithing||Allows you to craft steel armor and apply two levels of improvement.|
|Dwarven Smithing||Allows you to craft Dwarven armor and apply two levels of improvement.|
|Orcish Smithing||Allows you to craft Orcish armor and apply two levels of improvement.|
|Arcane Blacksmith||Allows you to improve armor that is enchanted.|
|Ebony Smithing||Allows you to craft Ebony armor and apply two levels of improvement.|
|Daedric Smithing||Allows you to craft Daedric armor and apply two levels of improvement.|
|Dragon Armor||Allows you to craft Dragon armor and apply two levels of improvement.|
Enchanting will also give you more ways to improve your gear. This is especially important as it is one of a few ways to increase your damage from unarmed strikes. The enchanting skills you should invest in and the order you should get them are listed below.
|Enchanter (5)||Makes enchantments stronger by 20% for each rank.|
|Insightful Enchanter||Makes enchantments that increase skills 25% stronger.|
|Corpus Enchanter||Makes armor enchantments that increase Health, Magicka, and Stamina 25% stronger.|
|Extra Effect||Allows you to enchant items with two enchantments.|
Unarmed Build Playstyle
Using an unarmed build-in Skyrim will require you to adopt a particular playstyle. To do this, you’ll want to focus on using a limited number of shouts as well as choosing targets during combat encounters carefully. This is particularly important earlier in your playthrough before your perks and gear are fully optimized.
When playing an unarmed build, you’ll want to focus on three shouts that each play a precise role on the battlefield. You’ll also want to avoid the Dragon Aspect shout. Its benefits may seem helpful in a build such as this, but they only work when wielding weapons, making it a waste for unarmed players. The shouts you will want to use are listed below.
This shout is critical for repositioning during combat or avoiding high damage attacks such as dragon breath. The shout makes you effectively invincible for some time, although it also makes you unable to deal damage during that time as well. Becoming Ethereal can also be useful for leaving combat momentarily to heal or re-apply spells as well as helping you close the gap to ranged fighters that would otherwise be chipping away at your armor as you approach.
This shout can be a massive help in large combat encounters, especially those filled with ranged enemies. The shout summons a storm above the Dragonborn that repeatedly strikes enemies with lightning bolts. However, you only want to use this shout if you don’t have a follower, horse, or NPCs that you don’t want to hit nearby, as the shout does not differentiate between friend and foe.
The most iconic shot of the game is helpful for just about any build, and it is no different for unarmed characters. This shout is extremely useful for controlling crowds and giving you breathing room if you need it. You’ll want to use it when the group of melee fighters surrounding you gets to be too much to provide you with a break or to knock down more formidable enemies so that you can land some punches without their defenses getting in the way.
Whirlwind Sprint is another solid option for escaping hairy situations when they arise, but its primary use is for the closing distance between you and ranged fighters. Mages and archers will frequently be backpedaling to keep away from you, and your heavy armor can make you pretty slow at times. This makes Whirlwind Sprint the best way to get up close and personal so that you can start dealing some damage.
If you plan on incorporating Alteration into your unarmed build, you’ll want to cast them before you get into melee range with any enemies. Alteration spells that will be the most useful for you either raise your armor rating or allow you to mitigate physical damage.
These include Oakflesh, Stoneflesh, Ironflesh, Ebonyflesh, and Dragonhide. The Paralyze and Mass Paralysis spells can also be used to help you control crowds of enemies and take them down one at a time. Don’t be afraid to use an Alteration spell that drains nearly your entire pool of Magicka as well, since you should have some time for it to recharge before you need it again.
Again option for the start of combat is to sneak around the encounter and try to take out high-value targets before the chaos starts. This can be a viable option once your unarmed strikes are buffed enough, but they will not benefit from the Backstab perk.
This also may be difficult to do until you unlock the Muffled Movement Perk with a Sneak level of 30 or put the Muffle enchantment on your boots to ensure that your heavy armor doesn’t give you away. If you attempt to sneak attack some enemies, you’ll want to start with ranged combatants, as they’ll give you the most trouble. After that, you can either sneak attack the remaining enemies or just alert them and start swinging.
Once the enemies are alerted, you will want to focus on any melee fighters first. The ranged enemies will attack you while you do this, but if you try to hunt down the ranged enemies first the melee ones will get in your way and can easily trap you.
To mitigate the damage you take from any mages and archers you face you can try to keep the melee fighters in between you and them or lead them around a corner to separate them. Leading enemies to a chokepoint like a door can also be useful to help you not get overwhelmed.
At some point during combat, you will also have to heal. If you are using potions or food to do so it is as easy as just opening up the pause menu. If you want to use Restoration, however, you’ll want to separate yourself from the enemies to get some breathing room.
This will not only help you heal safely but will make sure that you always have both fists available when in combat. Then you can cast your healing spells and recast any Alteration spells if you want before going back to combat.
For Restoration spells, you’ll want to focus on ones that give you a burst of healing rather than healing over time. You’ll want to get your hands on Fast Healing, Close Wounds, and Grand Healing if you can get enough space between you and your enemies to not accidentally heal them as well.
Once the melee enemies are taken care of you can focus on the ranged stragglers. As mentioned previously, the best way to do so is to use shouts such as Become Etheral or Whirlwind Sprint to close the gap. Once you get close to them they shouldn’t give you too many problems as your high armor rating should defend against most of their melee attacks and your damage output should be high enough to kill them quickly.
As you progress through your playthrough your build will have to change and adapt. To make the most out of the build, and to get it to an optimized place as quickly as possible, there are some things that you should make sure to do as you play.
Standing Stones are an extremely useful mechanic when it comes to leveling up particular skills or gaining extra abilities to give you the edge in combat. At the start of your playthrough, you’ll get the option of three Standing Stones with others being scattered across the map to find as you adventure.
Out of the three starting stones, you’ll want to pick the Warrior Stone. This will make all of your combat skills increase 20% faster, which will help you get your Heavy Armor skill up nice and early. Later on, you will want to switch to either the Lover Stone to help level up your Smithing and Enchanting faster or the Lady Stone or Lord Stone.
The Lady Stone will make your Stamina and Health each regenerate 25% faster while Lord Stone grants you 50 points of damage resistance and 25% resistance to magic, which will both help keep you on your feet. The Lover Stone can be found just east of Markarth while the Lady Stone is north of Falkreath on a small island in Lake Illinalta and Lord Stone is east of Morthal.
As you start amassing a fortune, you may want to help yourself along by getting some training as well. Each skill you have can be leveled up five times via training per character level, so it is a good way to get your Smithing and Enchanting up over time without having to grind the crafting. All of the trainers you may consider going to are listed below.
|Master||Tolfdir||Winterhold (College)||You must be a student at the college|
|Enchanting||Expert||Sergius Turrianus||Winterhold (College)||You must be a student at the college|
|Master||Hamal||Markarth||Only available after completing the sidequest The Heart of Dibella|
|Heavy Armor||Expert||Gharol||Dushnikh Yal||–|
|Master||Farkas||Whiterun (Jorrvaskr)||Only available after completing the sidequest Proving Honor|
|Restoration||Adept||Keeper Carcette||Hall of the Vigilant||Is killed in the Dawnguard DLC|
|Aphia Velothi||Raven Rock||–|
|Expert||Colette Marence||Winterhold (College)||You must be a student at the college|
|Master||Danica Pure-Spring||Whiterun (Temple of Kynareth)||Only available after completing the sidequest The Blessings of Nature|
|Florentius Baenius||Fort Dawnguard||–|
|Master||Eorlund Gray-Mane||Whiterun (Skyforge)||You must be a member of the Companions|
|Gunmar||Fort Dawnguard||Only available after completing the quest A New Order|
|Sneak||Adept||Khayla||Khajiit Caravans||Travels back and forth between Whiterun and Markarth|
|Master||Delvin Mallory||Riften (The Ragged Flagon)||–|
Your unarmed build can also be helped by having a capable follower join you on your adventures. Since this build excels so much as melee combat you will want to take a ranged fighter of some kind that will not get in your way in melee and that can help take care of any ranged enemies you come across.
Which follower you ultimately take depends on personal preference for their combat abilities as well as their personality, as you will be hearing their voice lines quite a bit throughout the game. All of the followers that make a good companion for unarmed builds are listed below.
|Aela the Huntress||Ranger||Whiterun (Jorrvaskr)||50||Only available after completing the quest Glory of the Dead|
|Annekke Crag-Jumper||Ranger||Darkwater Crossing||30||Only available after killing the Bandit Leader|
|Aranea ienith||Mage||Shrine of Azura||30||Only available if you side with her during the quest The Black Star|
|Brelyna Maryon||Mage||Hall of Attainment||30||Only available after completing the quest Brelyna’s Practice|
|Derkeethus||Ranger||Darkwater Pass||30||Available after you free him from captivity|
|Durak||Ranger||Fort Dawnguard||None||Only available if you are aligned with the Dawnguard|
|Erandur||Priest||Dawnstar (Windpeak Inn)||50||Only available if you spare his life during the quest Waking Nightmare|
|Ghorbash the Iron hand||Ranger||Dushnikh Yal||30||Available once you convince him to travel with you|
|Illia||Mage||Darklight Tower||40||Only available after helping her in the quest Repentance|
|Jenassa||Ranger||Whiterun (The Drunken Huntsman)||40||Can be hired for 500 gold|
|J’zargo||Sorcerer||Hall of Attainment||None||Only available after completing the quest J’zargo’s Experiment|
|Marcurio||Mage||Riften (Bee and Barb)||40||Can be hired for 500 gold|
|Onmund||Sorcerer||Hall of Attainment||30||Only available after completing the quest Onmund’s Request|
|Serana||Vampire||Castle Dawnguard/Castle Volkihar||50||Only available after completing the quest Kindred Judgement|
|Sven||Bard||Riverwood||20||Only available after helping him in the quest A Lovely Letter|
|Talvas Fathryon||Conjurer||Tel Mithryn||25||Only available after completing the quest From the Ashes|
|Ugor||Ranger||Largashbur||30||Only available after completing the quest The Cursed Tribe|
Since your unarmed build focuses on using heavy armor, you’ll want to upgrade your armor whenever possible, whether that is through finding better gear in loot, buying it in shops, or crafting it yourself with your Smithing skill.
Whenever you get the new gear you will want to improve it as much as possible at a forge as well as enchant it. For enchantments, you’ll want Muffle on your boots if you choose to try sneaking. Beyond that, you’ll want to focus on enchantments that raise your health, armor rating, or resistances.
One very important enchantment, however, can only be found on a unique set of gauntlets known as the Gloves of the Pugilist. They are a unique pair of hiding gauntlets that increase your unarmored strikes by 10 points. They can only be found by killing Gian the Fist in The Ratway.
The Ratway is found beneath Riften, and once you get them you’ll want to disenchant them to learn the enchantment yourself. This will allow you to put the enchantment on a ring to wear, which you should renew as your enchanting level gets higher to make sure it is as high as possible.
You can also use that same enchantment on a pair of gauntlets unless you have the Fearsome Fists Creation Club pack that adds brawler’s gauntlets to Skyrim that can increase unarmed damage even further. Every pair of gauntlets in the pack are listed below.
|Armor Type||Unarmed Damage||Armor Rating||Weight||Value|
Another piece of gear worth picking up is the Ring of the Beast. The ring can only be obtained at the end of the Dawnguard quest Bloodline if you decide to become a Vampire Lord.
When the ring is equipped it gives you 100 points of health while adding 20 points of damage to your unarmed damage both in your Vampire Lord form and out of it. This makes it a great ring to use for an unarmed build unless you have level 100 enchanting and can produce something better yourself. Unfortunately, the ring is simply added to the loot table after becoming a vampire lord, so you have to track it down in one of the following locations:
- Abandoned Prison
- Ashfallow Citadel
- Altar of Thrond
- Bloated Man’s Grotto
- Bloodlet Throne
- Bloodskal Barrow
- Bleakwind Basin
- Broken Tower Redoubt
- Cragwallow Slope
- Coldcinder Cave
- Darkwater Pass
- Forsaken Cave
- Geirmund’s Hall
- Glacial Cave
- Halldir’s Cairn
- Knifepoint Ridge
- Mara’s Eye Den
- Movarth’s Lair
- Orphan Rock
- Pride of Tel Vos
- Rannveig’s Fast
- Rebel’s Cairn
- Shimmermist Cave
- Sightless Pit
- Skyborn Alter
- The Katariah
- Yngol Barrow
Question: Does unarmed count as one-handed?
Answer: No, unarmed attacks don’t count as one-handed attacks, even if you equip something in your left hand. Nothing that increases the one-handed skill will have any effect on your unarmed attacks.
Question: Do dual-wield perks affect unarmed?
Answer: The dual-wield perks of Dual Flurry and Dual Savagery has been theorized by some players to increase the damage dealt by strong unarmed attacks. However, this is incorrect, as they only apply when the player has two weapons actively equipped.
Question: Does the Elemental Fury shout affect unarmed attacks?
Answer: The Elemental Fury shout increases the attack speed of any melee weapon. However, it does not have an impact on unarmed attacks since there is no weapon for the shout to be applied to.
Running an unarmed build in Skyrim is a lot of fun, and a very unique way to approach the game. Unfortunately, there are no more options for how to approach the build, but once it is entirely optimized, your Dragonborn will be mighty. Eventually, you will be able to kill dragons with nothing but your fists and will see a completely new side of the game that many players never do.