Ultimate Armor 5E Guide | Everything to Know About Armor in D&D

armor 5E

Armor; one of the most important defensive items a Dungeons & Dragons 5E player can get. Wearing a set of armor that best fits you can be the difference between decapitation and complete immunity. But, at times, why and when to wear armor can be a little bit strange. If you’re proficient with Fullplate, should you wear it, even with +10 Dexterity? What do the qualities of armor even mean? What about magic armor; is that important? If you’ve had those questions, or more, then our Ultimate Armor 5E Guide has the answers.

All Things Armor 5E

Armor Class, or AC, is a calculation of how hard you are to hit with attack rolls. By default, your AC is 10 + your Dexterity Modifier. Armor is the most basic way to increase your Armor Class; when you wear any set of armor, your base AC increases to an amount based on what you’re wearing. Your armor may also influence how much of your Dexterity Modifier that you’re allowed to apply to your AC – hard to backflip over a sword swing when you’re covered in metal!

Armor Proficiencies

Armor proficiency is extremely important to your choice about what armor is worn. If you aren’t proficient in armor, then you take a ton of penalties; disadvantage on everything that rolls a d20 + Strength or Dexterity (including attack rolls and saving throws) and you can’t cast magic! That’s why you don’t see many Wizards wearing heavy armor without a silly amount of multiclassing and feat dedication. You literally can’t cast magic without proficiency!

Unfortunately, you do not add your proficiency bonus to your AC, so the only benefit you get is whatever the armor tells you. In the mid-to-late levels, your armor bonus will not prevent too many hits.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear armor, though! Even a +1 to your AC gives you a 5% chance to dodge a hit. And, if you’ve ever played any RPG or video game, you know how bad it is to get hit!

So, use your Armor Proficiencies as a guide. Know what armor you’re proficient with, because it’s probably what the class expects you to wear – a Rogue is proficient in light armor because they have high Dexterity, for example. Speaking of light armor…

Light Armor

There are 3 choices of basic Light Armor in the base game of D&D 5E; Padded, Leather, or Studded Leather. Most classes in the game are proficient with Light Armor; you are not proficient with Light Armor if you are a Monk, Wizard or Sorcerer. Otherwise, you’ll have proficiency with the most basic of armors.

Light Armor
NameCostACStealth Weight
Padded5 gp11 + DexDisadvantage8 lb
Leather 10 gp11 + DexNormal10 lb
Studded Leather45 gp12 + DexNormal13 lb

Padded armor is little more than extra covering. Normally, one would wear Padded Armor beneath a set of normal armor. Because of that, despite the armor being “light”, it’s actually pretty dang noisy. If you can, don’t wear this!

Because Leather armor is much better for you! Simple, cheap, and doesn’t make stealth next-to-impossible. This is the standard armor for extremely cheap Rogues.

There is no reason not to upgrade to Studded Leather, though. The only downsides to it are it’s extra expenses and it’s heavier weight. Neither of these should be much of a problem, though! If you plan on wearing light armor, try and wear Studded Leather whenever possible… Unless there’s a set of artifact-level Padded Armor lying around!

Medium Armor

After Light Armor comes Medium! Medium armor is much rarer amongst the classes. The classes that start with medium armor are actually quite varied; Artificers, Barbarians, Clerics, Druids, Fighters, Paladins, and Rangers get proficiency in these right off the bat.

Medium Armor
NameCostACStealth Weight
Hide10 gp12 + Dex (Max 2)Normal12 lb
Chain Shirt50 gp13 + Dex (Max 2)Normal20 lb
Scale Mail50 gp14 + Dex (Max 2)Disadvantage45 lb
Breastplate400 gp14 + Dex (Max 2)Normal20 lb
Half Plate750 gp15 + Dex (Max 2)Disadvantage40 lb

Hide armor is arguably the worst armor in the game. Starting at 12 AC and getting to a maximum of 14 is pathetic; don’t use Hide Armor if you can avoid it! Unfortunately, if you’re a Druid, Hide Armor is the best Medium Armor you can wear (without DM intervention). Poor Druids just can’t get away with good AC, huh?

Chain shirt is a step up, but is made of metal. This is where druids have to step off the train! 13 + Max 2 isn’t a whole lot, though. The only real upsides of this armor is how cheap it is, and how light it is. It’s a step above light armor, at least.

Scale Mail has some fantastic AC, and is really cheap! But, it has two downsides. One, is that it’s super heavy at 45 pounds. That’s not the worst it can get, but it’s the worst medium armor can get. In addition, you also take disadvantage on Stealth checks. That’s actually a bit of a bad downside, especially for Rangers! Some scale armors are made of dragon scales, and thus could theoretically be worn by druids… So that’s a plus!

Breastplates are the last set of armor that doesn’t take disadvantage on Stealth. So, if you want to roll just one d20 for your sneaky business, this is the heaviest it gets! That’s good for Rangers, but you may want to abandon this if you’re looking for protection. Losing even 1 AC is a lot to ask for! If you plan on sticking to the shadows, this is the (rather expensive) choice for you.

Half Plate… hoo boy! What a heavy pile. For an extra 350 gold, disadvantage on Stealth Rolls, and 20 more pounds, you get… 1 more AC then a breastplate. That can be… tricky. While I personally prefer 1 AC, stealth is such an important skill. If you plan on relying on stealth, and don’t have a way to negate the disadvantage on stealth, then stay with breastplate.

Heavy Armor

Finally, there’s Heavy Armor. Heavy Armor is, arguably, the most important part of Fighters and Paladins. Some Clerics also get access to Heavy Armor through Domains. Wearing Heavy Armor is tough; almost all of them require a lot of time and preparation just to get into. And it’s hard to move your joints while in them, so you don’t add Dexterity to the number you have. Sheesh! At least you don’t subtract your Dexterity if you have negative Dex! 

Heavy Armors may also have a Strength requirement. If the armor has a Strength requirement, then you must meet that, or have your movement speed reduced by 10 feet. Of course, if you are wearing Heavy Armor, you probably want to have a decently high Strength score.

Heavy Armor
NameCostACStrengthStealth Weight
Ring mail30 gp14NoneDisadvantage40 lb.
Chain mail75 gp16Str 13Disadvantage55 lb.
Splint200 gp17Str 15Disadvantage60 lb.
Plate1,500 gp18Str 15Disadvantage65 lb.

This table is much easier to check out, thankfully.

Ring Mail is a simple 14 to AC. It’s the same as Hide, but you don’t need any Dexterity or any Strength to get full use out of it. It’s also relatively cheap, compared to other Heavy Armors, and lighter than Scale Mail. Unfortunately, that 14 is just too low to be realistic. You have Heavy Armor proficiency; go crazy, and get better!

Chain mail and Splint armor are both middle-of-the-road. Chain Mail is important because it only takes 13 Strength to wear with full movement speed. That means you can be a Cleric with a focus on Wisdom without too much Strength investment. Splint armor is the first 15 Strength armor, and with 17 AC! That’s as good as Half Plate with 14 Dexterity! That’s usually worth the investment, and Splint mail isn’t… too expensive!

Unlike Plate Mail… Plate Mail, oh boy! 1,500 gp is relatively expensive for some low-level magic items! In fact, you could buy 3 pretty expensive +1 weapons for the cost of Plate! If you can get any way to get any sort of discount, take it… Because Plate Mail is the best armor in the game. Offering a huge 18 AC without any magic or Dexterity, Plate Mail is the most AC that non-Light Armor (with high Dexterity) can give. Once you can get Plate Mail, you’re going to be happy with it! As long as you’re proficient, of course. 

Shield

A miscellaneous category is Shield. There is exactly one shield in the game.

Shield
NameCostACStrengthStealth Weight
Shield10 gp+2NoneNormal6 lb.

Shields are not traditional armor. Classes who are proficient in Medium Armor get shield proficiency; Artificers, Barbarians, Clerics, Druids, Fighters, Paladins, and Rangers. Shield proficiency is required, or you take the same penalties as if you’re taking armor non-proficient penalties.

Shields simply add +2 to your AC, but at the cost of your offhand. If you’re wearing a shield, you cannot use that hand for casting or holding anything. However, for the purpose of Fighting Styles, the hand is not “holding a weapon” so you’re fine for Dueling.

There is no reason not to use Shields if you have proficiency and don’t plan on using both hands. It boosts your AC by quite a bit, and is one of the ways to get crazy AC later on!

How Do I Get Armor Proficiencies?

If you don’t have the armor proficiency by class, you can obtain armor proficiency in two ways:

  • Feats: The Lightly, Moderately, and Heavily Armored feats give you light, medium/shield, or Heavy armor proficiency, respectively. You need to have a lower armor proficiency to get a higher one; so, a Warlock can’t get Heavy Armor proficiency right away.
  • Multiclassing: Some classes, like Paladin, give you a ton of Armor Proficiencies when you initially multiclass. Check what proficiencies you get before you multiclass into them, since you can’t get Heavy Armor via multiclass!

What Armor Should You Choose?

This might be a bit obvious, but your choice in armor should be based on your Dexterity. I know, shocker. But, the choice isn’t always yours. You have to be Proficient in armor to be useful during fights. So, if you’re only proficient in Light Armor… Then use Light Armor. However, let’s say you randomly get proficient in all armors from a powerful God’s blessing. What should you do?

If you plan on having high Dexterity (for a ranged build, a Rogue, or a finesse weapon focus), then you want Light Armor (specifically Studded Leather – Padded and Leather are just cheap Studded leather). Light Armor can scale infinitely, and with the correct magical enhancements, your AC can skyrocket. So, the extra +2 armor that Studded Leather gives just helps you along.

However, until your Dexterity Skyrockets, Medium Armor might be correct. Medium Armor is best for AC if you have 14-15 Dexterity. The best Medium Armor is a Breastplate if you love stealth, and Half-Plate if you don’t care.

 If you get any more than +2 to Dexterity, consider Light Armor. If you have less, then Heavy Armor will be more useful, since your Dexterity doesn’t matter. The math can be annoying, but basically; Studded Leather will outperform Breastplates at +4 Dexterity, and Half Plate at +5 Dexterity. At +3 Dexterity, you can stay in your Breastplate just fine… but plan a little ahead!

If you have 8-12 Dexterity, then you are gonna love Heavy Armor. You wont need to put points into Dexterity to defend yourself, and you can just relax with a massive amount of AC.

Other Aspects of Armor

Those are all the basics of armor, but what else matters about it? Well, there’s a specific list of magical armors and armors of special material that you should look out for. Special material is less rare than magic, but can still be hard to find! Even so, you can get really good value out of this! Magical armor works a lot differently than weapons, since armor can be invested in.

Materials

There are a few armors made of specific materials that you should keep your eye on.

  • Adamantine: You can’t be crit anymore. That’s… Wow! You reduce damage against yourself by a shocking amount; crits can be a surprising amount of damage. If you’re in metal armors, this is the best option by far!
  • Mithral: Worried about your disadvantage on Stealth Checks? Well, as long as the armor is made of Mithral, you don’t have to! The armor is much lighter, and no longer needs Strength, nor imposes Disadvantage on Stealth. Super good for Fighters with okay stealth! You can get into Plate and move like the wind.
  • Elven Chain Shirt: This shirt gives 14 + Dex (Max 2), and you are always proficient in it. Perfect for casters with low Dexterity! 

Adamantine and Mithral are the two most common armors, both uncommon and steel-only. However, theoretically, since they aren’t actually magical and you don’t have to attune, most DMs would let you enchant these! That’s right, you can either get durable or stealthy without too many issues. You can keep pumping AC without sacrificing your stealth rolls… Or immunity to crits. And, your caster’s AC can go through the roof without needing to pump Dex.

Do make sure your DM is okay with that. They might not be.

Magic

Armors, of course, have the standard +1, +2, and +3, which simply add to AC. If you need some inspiration, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has an array of interesting magical items. Those armors are fantastic, but armor can be so much more than just AC. Here’s a list of some of our favorite magical armors, and what you might want to look for during shopping.

  • Armor of Resistance: This armor is resistant to a specific type of damage. If you know what type of enemies you’re about to run into, this is a quite powerful effect! Even if you don’t, being resistant to Fire Damage is incredibly useful, since Fire is so common.
  • Arrow-Catching Shield: This shield gives you a +2 to AC against ranged attacks, on top of the shield’s normal AC! If that wasn’t enough, you can throw yourself in the way of a ranged attack made against someone nearby. Great for tanking spells that have attack rolls!
  • Animated Shield: If you use two weapons, you can’t use shields. But, this shield simply floats around you for a minute as a Bonus Action. This essentially lets you spend a single bonus action to gain, at minimum, +2 AC. Crazy strong, but requires proficiency.
  • Dragon Scale Mail: Hunting a dragon? Well, look no further! This set of scale mail is magical dragonscale. It gives you advantage on any saving throw a dragon could throw at you (other than spells). It also gives resistance against the dragon’s breath weapon, of the scales it is made of. Finally, you can magically sense a dragon of the same type as your armor within 30 miles. Really good for hunting down nests of evil dragons.
  • Spellguard Shield: A legitimate reason to get shield proficiency by itself! This late-game shield gives you advantage on magical-based saving throws. Also, spell attacks have disadvantage against you. Considering how strong spells are, being able to roll d20 whenever a spell targets you is amazing!
  • Armor of Invulnerability: The ultimate Plate Mail.  You gain resistance to nonmagical damage, and can give yourself immunity to nonmagical damage for 10 minutes once per day. This alone can let you solo entire armies if you so choose!

Of course, if a set of armor better fits your playstyle, be sure to take that. This is just a basic list of armors that might be useful for you at some point on your adventure. Do research, and be sure to see if your DM might have more specific magical armor in the future!

Concluding our Armor 5E Guide

And that’s about it for armors! Armor is one of the most powerful and important pieces of equipment an adventurer should have (unless you’re a Monk!). Try to hunt down the best armor you can wear (and afford) at every point in your adventure… Because dodging hits is arguably better than healing!

Jason Toro
About Jason Toro 198 Articles
An English-Game Design student at Northeastern University, Jason appends his love of video games by writing unfinished novels and short stories on the side.

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