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5e: Armor Guide

Written by Leonardo Andrade

Leonardo is a writer/narrative designer. He spends most of his time crafting stories or immersed in them. Currently, he partakes in several D&D 5E campaigns and likes messing around with other systems such as Heart, Spire and Rats in The Walls. Here's his portfolio.

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Armor is a big deal in D&D—it’s the thing between your ribcage and the spear-wielding kobolds on both sides of the narrow tunnel you’ve just fallen 20 ft. into. In this post, you’re going to learn all about it from the 5E rulebooks. First things first, what does armor do in 5e:

Armor are wearable items that raise your Armor Class (AC) if you’re proficient in wearing them. They can be light, medium, or heavy—each has pros and cons. Light is better for dexterous, stealthy characters; heavy for tanks (bad for stealth; requires a minimum strength). Medium is in between.

Shields don’t count, although they give proficient users a +2 to AC and appear in the Player’s Handbook (PHB pg 145) armor table. Fun thing: shield AC stacks with Mage Armor.

Now onwards to the guide!

Armor Proficiencies: How Do You Get Them?

You want armor? Well, you gotta know how to wear it well enough that it doesn’t limit your movement and screw you over in battle. No one likes to fall on their face when a owlbear is hunting you for lunch.

To ensure you have those proficiencies, you will want one of the following:

Races

Classes

  • Artificer: light and medium armor (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, TCE, pg 10)
  • Barbarian: light and medium armor (PHB pg 45)
  • Bard: light armor (PHB, pg 45)
  • Cleric: light and medium armor (PHB, pg 45)
  • Druid: light and medium armor (PHB, pg 45)
  • Fighter: all armor (PHB, pg 45)
  • Paladin: all armor (PHB, pg 45)
  • Ranger: light and medium armor (PHB, pg 45)
  • Rogue: light armor (PHB, pg 45)
  • Warlock: light armor (PHB, pg 45)

Archetypes (Aka Subclasses)

Chosen at 3rd level, you will choose an archetype/subclass. Here are the armor proficiencies you get from those:

  • Armorer (artificer): heavy armor (TCE, pg 115)
  • Bladesinger (wizard): light armor (TCE, pg 76)
  • College of Swords (bard): medium armor (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, (XGE) pg 15)
  • College of Valor (bard): medium armor (PHB, pg 55)
  • Forge domain (cleric): heavy armor (XGE, pg 19)
  • Hexblade (warlock): medium armor (XGE, pg 55)
  • Order domain (cleric): heavy armor (TCE, pg 32)
  • Tempest domain (cleric): heavy armor (PHB, pg 62)
  • Twilight domain (cleric): heavy armor (TCE, pg 34)
  • War domain (cleric): heavy armor (PHB, pg 63)

Multiclassing

Multiclassing is when you decide to incorporate a second class into your character. Perhaps you’re a level 5 monk and you want to beef up a bit. At the next level up, you decide to put one level into barbarian, which requires a Strength of 13. (Yes, all classes have requirements for multiclassing.)

Congrats, you’re a level 5 monk, level 1 barb, thus taking most of the benefits of what a level 1 barbarian would have. These are the armor proficiencies that would come with one level in the following:

  • Bard: light armor
  • Cleric: light and medium armor
  • Druid: light and medium armor
  • Fighter: light and medium armor
  • Paladin: light and medium armor
  • Ranger: light and medium armor
  • Rogue: light armor
  • Warlock: light armor

You can’t become proficient with heavy armor by multiclassing unless you take a Subclass (also called Archetypes) that gives this proficiency.

Feats

  • Lightly Armored: light armor (PHB, pg 167)
  • Moderately Armored: medium armor, but requires proficiency with light armor (PHB, pg 168)
  • Heavily Armored: heavy armor, but requires proficiency with medium armor (PHB, pg 167)

Magic

  • Tenser’s Transformation (6th-level transmutation): temporary proficiency with all armor. Concentration, up to 10 minutes. (XGE, pg 168)
  • Magical armors whose descriptions specify that whoever wears them is proficient in wearing them.

Training

The PHB (pg 187) and DMG (pgs 131 and 231) provide training options for downtime by which you can gain levels, learn languages, become proficient with tools and skills, or earn a Feat. This includes the feats for wearing armor.

The PHB specifies that learning a skill takes 250 days (at 8 hours a day), costing one gold piece (gp) per day with a willing instructor.

The books also suggest making up new downtime activities. Adding weapons and armor proficiencies to the list of things you can learn by training is a small, reasonable tweak.


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What Is Each Type of Armor for?

Light Armor 

There are three light armor options listed in the PHB. They are:

Light ArmorCostACStealthWeight
Padded5 gp11 + Dex modifierDisadvantage8 lb.
Leather10 gp11 + Dex modifier10 lb.
Studded leather45 gp12 + Dex modifier13 lb.

Light armor is meant for high Dexterity (Dex) characters, sneaky ones, and those without unarmored defense or proficiency in medium/heavy armor—namely warlocks and bards, excluding certain archetypes.

Padded armor, such as a gambeson, is made with quilted fabric (linen or wool), and the stuffing can be made of rags, animal hair, and so on. Why does it give a disadvantage to stealth? Your guess is as good as mine.

Medium Armor 

There are five medium armor options listed in the PHB. They are:

Medium ArmorCostACStealthWeight
Hide10 gp12 + Dex modifier (max 2)12 lb.
Chain shirt50 gp13 + Dex modifier (max 2)20 lb.
Scale mail50 gp14 + Dex modifier (max 2)Disadvantage45 lb.
Breastplate400 gp14 + Dex modifier (max 2)20 lb.
Half plate750 gp15 + Dex modifier (max 2)Disadvantage40 lb.

Medium armor is for medium to low Dex characters who don’t fulfill the Strength (Str) score requirements of most heavy armor. Medium armor doesn’t interfere with barbariansclass features, so it may be a good early game alternative before their Unarmored Defense surpasses it in AC.

It also allows you to have decent AC and not suck too much at stealth while having a Dex mod of up to +2 if you choose the chain shirt or breastplate. Hide armor is the worst of all worlds, and the only attractive thing about it is the price tag; the money you save if you buy it won’t stop a blade, though.


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Heavy Armor 

There are four heavy armor options listed in the PHB. They are:

Heavy Armor CostACStrStealthWeight
Ring mail30 gp14Disadvantage40 lb.
Chain mail75 gp16Str 13Disadvantage55 lb.
Splint200 gp17Str 15Disadvantage60 lb.
Plate1,500 gp18Str 15Disadvantage65 lb.

Heavy armor gives characters flat ACs, so the Dex mod is irrelevant. They also all give disadvantage on all stealth checks due to all the clanging metal. They’re for those who want to hold the line and hit hard. The clear use-case here is Strength (Str)-based melee fighters and paladins.

The prices are quite steep. That final extra point of AC from splint armor to plate will run you 1,300 gp… which is still likely cheaper than buying a Ring of Protection or getting a suit of splint armor enchanted for better AC. More on that in a bit. 

Drawbacks of Medium and Heavy armor

There’s an optional rule in the DMG, which says wearing medium or heavy armor in extreme heat gives you disadvantage on the Constitution saving throws (Con saves) against Exhaustion (DMG, pg 110).

XGE has another optional rule that adds extra hassle to these armor types: If you sleep in medium or heavy armor, you only get 1/4th of the hit dice you would normally get, and this long rest does not remove Exhaustion levels (XGE, pgs 77-78 ).

Armor weight does count toward your carrying capacity (PHB, pg 176), too, but heavier armor users tend to be stronger, which bumps up the limit.

All of them, except for hide armor, are made of metal and therefore vulnerable to the Heat Metal spell. At lower levels, it might cook you to death inside your metallic carapace while you struggle to remove it. Speaking of…

How Long Does It Take to Put On or Take Off Armor?

In 5E, these actions are called donning and doffing, respectively. There’s a handy table in the DMG (pg 146) to determine how long it takes, unassisted, depending on armor type:

CategoryDonDoff
Light Armor1 minute1 minute
Medium Armor5 minutes1 minute
Heavy Armor10 minutes5 minutes

If you’re thinking it’s a little silly that donning a chain shirt takes as long as donning full plate armor, you’re not alone. The (mostly good and helpful) simplicity of 5E’s design sometimes clashes with immersion like this.

Arcane Failure

Arcane Failure is the chance that a magic user will fail to cast a spell while wearing armor. The thinking was that you needed full range of motion to cast spells, so any armor that restricted movement would cause the caster to have a chance at failing. 

Pathfinder, a competing system to 5e, still uses it in their system, but 5e has gotten rid of it.

In 5e, so long as a magic user is proficient in the armor they’re wearing, they can cast spells without any increased difficulty.


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Special Armor Materials

There are two special metals in the core game that are worth noting as armor materials: Mithral and Adamantine. These are also considered magical metals, so suits of armor made with them are magic items.

Mithral is incredibly light and flexible. So much so that if an armor would normally have a Strength (Str) requirement or give disadvantage on stealth checks, its Mithral version doesn’t.

Adamantine, on the other hand, “is an ultrahard metal found in meteorites and extraordinary mineral veins” (XGE, pg 78). It’s so hard that when you wear armor made of it, any critical hit against you becomes a normal hit.

Mithral and Adamantine suits of Armor are uncommon magic items, but some Dungeon Masters (DMs) reflavor them as masterworks, a concept borrowed from 4E. This means that they are special due to the amazing craftsmanship that goes into making them.

How Do You Commission or Make Armor?

According to XGE (pg 128), the time it takes to get armor made from scratch—in workweeks—is its price divided by 50. It’s the same for crafting it yourself. 

For instance, no light armor takes a full workweek to make, but half plate takes fifteen (750gp/50=15 workweeks). You can lower the process’s duration by having multiple people with adequate proficiencies (XGE, pg 128) work on the armor at once. 

As a DM, it makes sense to make armor cheaper to craft than to buy, but sticking with the standard price for deciding crafting time. The idea is that by investing time, you only spend money on raw materials and not on labor. Just like real life!

For leather and hide armor, you need leatherworker’s tools. For everything else except padded jackets, it’s smith’s tools. Maybe weaver’s tools for padded armor.

As for maintaining armor, your equipment is maintained as a part of the money spent for lifestyle expenses (PHB, pg 157).

How Do You Get Enchanted Armor?

Straightforward AC increases in the form of armor enchantments, according to the DMG (pg 152), come like this:

  • +1, rare
  • +2, very rare
  • +3, legendary

Rare magic items can cost anything from 500 to 5,000 gp (DMG, pg 135). Very rare items go for 5,001 to 50,000 gp. Legendary cost more than 50,000 and have no upper price limit. 

Going back to the heavy armor price tags: having a magic increase in AC like this costs less than buying better, normal armor, but it can make magic feel… mundane. I suggest pricing a +1 armor enchantment at around 1500 gp, but it ultimately comes down to what sort of world your campaign is set in.

XGE (pg 126) offers slightly different asking prices for magic items based on rarity:

  • Rare -2d10 x 1,000 gp
  • Very rare – (1d4+1) x 10,000 gp
  • Legendary – 2d6 x 25,000 gp

Maybe magic is no big deal in your neck of the woods. Still, legendary items probably don’t belong in Ye Olde Magic Shoppe on the corner. 

The acquisition of a very rare or legendary suit of armor could be an important quest in itself. If so, it’s probably wise to make this important quest objective more interesting than just a +X breastplate. Give it history, a name, and unique effects. You can even make it sentient! 

You can also enchant armor yourself! XGE (pg 129) has a crafting rule for this:

  • Rare: 10 workweeks, 2,000 gp
  • Very rare: 25 workweeks, 20,000 gp
  • Legendary: 50 workweeks, 100,000 gp

The work can be distributed over a longer period, depending on the time frame of your game. 

Finally, here are some examples of enchanted armor across the rarity spectrum:

  • Common: Cast-off Armor (XGE, pg 136); “you can doff this armor as an action.”
  • Uncommon: Mariner’s Armor (DMG, pg 181); “While wearing this armor, you have a swimming speed equal to your walking speed. In addition, whenever you start your turn underwater with 0 hit points, the armor causes you to rise 60 feet toward the surface. The armor is decorated with fish and shell motifs.”
  • Rare: Glamoured Studded Leather (DMG, pg 172); “While wearing this armor, you gain a +1 bonus to AC. You can also use a bonus action to speak the armor’s command word and cause the armor to assume the appearance of a normal set of clothing or some other kind of armor. You decide what it looks like…”.
  • Very Rare: Demon Armor (DMG, pg 165); “”While wearing this armor, you gain a +1 bonus to AC, and you can understand and speak Abyssal. In addition, The armor’s clawed gauntlets turn unarmed strikes with your hands into magic weapons that deal slashing damage, with a +1 bonus to attack rolls and damage rolls and a damage die of 1d8.” Mind the Curse, described in the link; you can’t take it off unless someone casts Remove Curse and you have disadvantage while fighting Demons.
  • Legendary: Efreeti Chain (DMG, pg 167); “While wearing this armor, you gain a +3 bonus to AC, you are immune to fire damage, and you can understand and speak Primordial. In addition, you can stand on and walk across molten rock as if it were solid ground.”

How to Destroy Armor

As a player, it will probably come down to homebrewed abilities or items, and the DM adjudicating something you do on the spot.

As a DM, the answer is monsters. Here are the bastards capable of wrecking armor:

  • Black pudding: “The pudding can eat through 2-inch-thick, nonmagical wood or metal in 1 round.”
  • Gray ooze: “The ooze can eat through 2-inch-thick, nonmagical metal in 1 round.”

These two are worse against weapons as specified in their rules, but considering how an inch equals 25.4 mm and plate armor thickness is 4 mm thick at most, you can safely rule that these monsters can damage armor. 

  • Rust monster: As an action, it can corrode a nonmagical ferrous (aka iron) metal object it can see within 5 feet of it. If the object is being worn or carried by a creature, the creature can make a DC 11 Dexterity saving throw to avoid the rust monster’s touch.

If the object touched is either metal armor or a metal shield being worn or carried, it takes a permanent and cumulative -1 penalty to the AC it offers. Armor reduced to an AC of 10 or a shield that drops to a +0 bonus is destroyed.

Summary

  • Armor in 5E comes in three categories: light, medium, and heavy.
  • Shields are not armor, but they do add to our Armor Class (AC).
  • You can get armor proficiencies from a few races, most classes, some class archetypes (aka subclasses), three Feats, and training for 250 days (8h a day with a teacher for 1gp/day).
  • Light armor works best for high Dexterity, Stealth-focused characters, like bards and warlocks.
  • Medium armor is good for mid-to-low dexterity, semi-stealthy characters, and it doesn’t interfere with barbarian class-features, other than Unarmored Defense.
  • Heavy armor is meant for tanks, most of them have Strength requirements, and they all give disadvantage on Stealth.
  • The heavier the armor, the longer it takes to don and doff without help.
  • Medium and heavy armor reduce benefits from long rests.
  • Mithral armor is magical, light, quiet, and expensive.
  • Adamantine armor is so hard it turns critical hits against you into normal hits.
  • To make armor, the time needed is its price divided by 50.
  • +1 armor is rare. +3 is legendary. Enchanting armor is expensive and can take as much time as crafting normal armor or much more.
  • Black puddings, gray oozes, and rust monsters can destroy armor.

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  1. 5E: Multiclassing Guide — Make a Skill Check - […] Some class proficiencies, most notably heavy armor (unless you take a subclass that grants it—see our armor guide) […]
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