The Complete Gear Guide to Armor in DnD 5e

What Is Armor in 5e?

Armor is a piece of equipment that increases our base Armor Class, or AC.

Whether you’re dressed in full plate or harnessing the benefits of a spell like Mage Armor, this protective gear is your most basic defensive measure in combat.

In order to understand how beneficial any type of armor is, we need to first talk about AC.

You’re probably aware that we roll a 20-sided die to make most of our attacks in D&D. When we make an attack, we roll the d20, trying to get equal to or above our target’s AC.

In other words, the AC of a creature or character tells us how hard it is to hit them.

An AC of 10 is pretty easy to roll above, since half of our d20’s possible results are higher. Then, an AC of 20 is very difficult since we’d have to roll a 20 or have a significant bonus to our attack roll.

Without armor or a shield, a player character’s base AC is 10 + their Dexterity modifier.

Putting on armor gives us a higher-base AC, making it harder for creatures to hit us. The type of armor we have determines just how high of an AC we’ll really end up with.

There are three categories of armor that we can have proficiencies in: light armor, medium armor, and heavy armor.

Technically, there is a fourth category, shields, but seeing as there aren’t several different types of shields, it feels silly to call it a “category.”

You don’t need proficiency to wear armor.

Anyone can wear armor or strap on a shield to get a good AC for themselves. However, armor proficiencies aren’t useless. 

If you don’t have proficiency in the type of armor you’re wearing, there are several penalties that you’ll have to compete with.

While wearing armor you aren’t proficient in, you have disadvantage on all ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws that rely on Strength and Dexterity, and you lose the ability to cast spells.

Essentially, if you’re not trained to wear a certain type of armor, it will still provide you with a boost to defense, but you’ll be too encumbered to perform normally.

The armor you wear can also impact your ability to move stealthily.

Some types of armor will give you disadvantage on stealth checks either because they restrict your movement or are too loud to even remotely be considered stealthy. 

Mithral Armor 

Uncommon Magic Item (Any medium or heavy armor but not hide)

Mithral is an incredibly light and flexible material often used in the production of high-value armor. It weighs half as much as steel, is rarer than gold, and costs more than platinum. 

This truly remarkable material provides a couple very basic benefits to any armor made of it.

First, mithral armor doesn’t impose disadvantage on stealth checks. Second, mithral armor gets rid of any strength requirements an armor might have.

Light Armor

Proficient Classes: Artificer, Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock

Light armor is the most basic form of armor, little more than extra padding. This armor is best for highly dexterous characters since there is no cap to how much your dexterity modifier can benefit your AC. 

With a dexterity modifier of 5, studded leather becomes as strong as the best medium armor (half plate), and it doesn’t impose disadvantage on your stealth checks.

You likely won’t be starting off with a Dex score of 20, but if you plan on building your character up to that point, light armor is all you’ll ever need.

While this means that rogues and most rangers will be at their peak performance with light armor, to most classes, this is just the default armor you’ll wear until you can find something better.

For bards, rogues, and warlocks, this is the best armor proficiency you’ll pick up from your main class. All of these classes can do well with a high-dexterity build, so you don’t really need to focus on picking up extra proficiencies.

Medium Armor

Proficient Classes: Artificer, Barbarian, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger

Medium armor is, unsurprisingly, middle-of-the-line armor. It offers decent protection and can cost a hefty amount.

It’s definitely the most common form of armor you’ll see as it doesn’t require high dexterity or strength to be functional.

The highlight of medium armor is that it uses a maximum dexterity bonus of +2. This means that characters with just a decent Dex score can still get the highest AC out of the armor they’re wearing.

In other words, you don’t have to funnel points into dexterity just so that you can survive in battle.

Naturally, this means that medium armor is a solid option for anyone who can’t wear heavy armor or who wants to avoid disadvantage on stealth checks. 

Heavy Armor

Proficient Classes: Fighter, Paladin

Heavy armor offers the highest base ACs and don’t factor dexterity into their calculations at all. The biggest downside is that all heavy armor gives you disadvantage on stealth checks. 

This category of armor also comes with its own additional mechanic – strength requirements.

Three of the four heavy-armor varieties have a strength requirement to wear. If you don’t meet this requirement, your speed is reduced by 10 while wearing the armor.

For most heavy-armor-wearing characters, this really isn’t a problem at all. After all, this kind of build is best for characters who want to be able to take a hit.

That likely means that you have a high strength score and are going to mainly be engaging in melee combat.

Shields

Proficient Classes: Artificer, Barbarian, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger

A shield is extremely straightforward. It is a one-handed item that gives you a +2 bonus to your AC. While it doesn’t “set” your base AC, it does still follow all of the other rules of armor.

Shields are an excellent and simple way to boost your AC if you have the proficiency for it. 

The only downside of a shield is that it eliminates a free hand. This means that you can’t use a shield while holding a two-handed weapon and that you can’t casually drink a potion if you’re holding a shield and a one-handed weapon. 

Spells with somatic requirements also require a free hand to cast. So if you’re a caster that also utilizes weapons, you’ll probably want to avoid picking up that shield as well.

Donning and Doffing Armor

The last thing to remember with armor is that it takes time to put it on (don) or take it off (doff). Going into combat isn’t as easy as snapping your fingers and being all equipped and ready to fight.

If you don’t spend the proper amount of time putting on your armor, you don’t receive the benefits of its AC.

This may seem inconsequential, but if you forget to put your armor on, you’ll be at a serious disadvantage in combat.

Even light armor takes an entire combat to don, and an ambush by a band of goblins probably won’t sit and wait for you to get all armored and ready to go.

How To Get Armor Proficiencies

The proficiencies granted to you by your class are typically more than enough. We don’t normally see rogues in medium armor or wizards in full plate mail.

Still, there are certain builds that require more AC than the normal approach to a class would, and you can pick up those extra proficiencies through feats or multiclassing.

Now, the most common builds that call for more armor will probably provide it as a subclass proficiency.

Several domains of cleric are well suited for a tank role, and each of these domains offer up heavy-armor proficiency at 1st level.

There’s also the bladesinging wizard that offers up proficiency in light armor so you can actually withstand a hit or two.

Multiclassing

Still, you might have an idea for a build that wouldn’t normally get the armor proficiency you need to get it off the ground.

Multiclassing is one of the quickest ways to solve this issue. However, when you take a level in a class, you don’t immediately get all of their proficiencies.

The table below shows the armor proficiencies gained from multiclassing into each class.

Multiclassing Armor Proficiencies

If you’re looking for light or medium armor or shields and you have some idea of a multiclass build that you can work with, there are quite a few options.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for heavy armor, you’ll have to be a bit more creative.

To pick up heavy-armor proficiency, you’ll either need to take the Heavily Armored feat (which we’ll cover in a bit) or be a bit more creative with how you multiclass.

While you can’t get heavy-armor proficiency from just taking a level in any class, you can get it through a Bonus Proficiency feat offered by a subclass.

Here are the subclasses that will give you proficiency in heavy armor:

  • Life Domain Cleric 1st Level
  • Forge Domain Cleric 1st Level
  • Tempest Domain Cleric 1st Level
  • Twilight Domain Cleric 1st Level
  • Armorer Artificer 3rd Level

Of course, you can also start in a class that gives you heavy-armor proficiency at 1st level and then multiclass out into the class you want to main. 

However you decide to pick up a proficiency, make sure that you’re following normal multiclassing logic.

Avoid creating a M.A.D. build, find synergies, and have a plan, and you should be well on your way to the perfect build for you.

Feats

You can also pick up an armor proficiency by taking a feat as there is a feat for each proficiency. The only drawback to this method is that each feat requires you to have proficiency in the next lowest type of armor.

Lightly Armored

You have trained to master the use of light armor, gaining the following benefits:

  • Increase your strength or Dexterity score by 1 to a maximum of 20.
  • You gain proficiency with light armor.

Moderately Armored

Prerequisite: Proficiency with light armor

You have trained to master the use of medium armor and shields, gaining the following benefits:

  • Increase your Strength or Dexterity score by 1 to a maximum of 20.
  • You gain proficiency with medium armor and shields.

Heavily Armored

Prerequisite: Proficiency with medium armor

You have trained to master the use of heavy armor, gaining the following benefits:

  • Increase your Strength score by 1 to a maximum of 20.
  • You gain proficiency with heavy armor.

Each of these feats also allows you to increase a relevant ability score by 1. Considering that you’ll be taking this in place of an ASI, this is definitely a welcome addition.

Feats are highly valuable as you’ll only get so many opportunities to take them, and you take them at the expense of much-needed boosts to your ability scores.

Because of this, it only makes sense to take one of these feats if you can’t justify multiclassing to pick up the proficiency you want. 

It’s absolutely out of the question to take multiple of these feats when a single level of multiclassing could get you any proficiency that you want.

Still, if you’re a wizard looking to pick up light-armor proficiency or a druid that really wants heavy armor, you can take the appropriate feat and boost yourself up.

Now, there are also a few feats that you can pick up if you’re just looking to improve your armor. The medium armor master and heavy armor master each give you a few bonuses to wearing their respective armor types. 

Medium Armor Master

Prerequisite: Proficiency with medium armor

You have practiced moving in medium armor to gain the following benefits:

  • Wearing medium armor doesn’t impose disadvantage on your Dexterity (Stealth) checks.
  • When you wear medium armor, you can add 3 rather than 2 to your AC if you have a Dexterity of 16 or higher.

Heavy Armor Master

Prerequisite: Proficiency with heavy armor

You can use your armor to deflect strikes that would kill others. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase your Strength score by 1 to a maximum of 20.
  • While you are wearing heavy armor, bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage that you take from nonmagical weapons is reduced by 3.

Medium armor is definitely the better of the two, allowing you to ignore the disadvantage certain medium armors would impose while also getting an improved AC.

This makes medium armor an actually viable option for characters with high dexterity, turning stealthy characters into stealthy characters with good AC.

Whether you’re outfitting your first character or trying to make the bulkiest multiclass build you can think of, armor is incredibly important in D&D.

The simple math involved in finding our base AC is something you’ll come back to time and time again.

As always, happy adventuring.