Okay, so you’ve designed your character, you have a race, a class, skills, and feats. The last thing you need to do is to pick up the tools of your trade so you’ll be ready to get to work. All characters begin with a certain amount of starting money, based on their character class. This is listed with each class description in Chapter 3 of the Player’s Handbook, and it is also summarized on Table 7-1 on pg. 111, right at the beginning of the chapter that describes equipment.
You could think of this as your character getting an inheritance from their parents or some relative to get them started in the adventuring game, or it could be the pay they saved up during their apprenticeship. You could even think of it not as money at all, but that the equipment you buy is the stuff you picked up along the way during your training—it’s not that you suddenly have a sack of 150 gold coins and the clothes on your back, but that you have accumulated stuff worth that much during your apprenticeship.
This probably will be mostly in stuff, with only a handful of coins left over in actual cash. Maybe you earned your pocket change and accumulated your gear working as a mercenary or caravan guard, or picking pockets with a gang of street thugs, or it came as a gift from the temple of your faith, or anything else that fits your character. You can play out buying your equipment at the gaming table, but it is probably easier to just buy your equipment off-stage before the game gets started.
Carrying It All
Before we get started, one thing to remember about your stuff is that once you buy it you have to carry it. All of your equipment has a weight listed (if the weight is –, it is effectively weightless), and you should total up the weight of the stuff you are carrying. Your Strength score determines how much you can carry without your stuff slowing you down (as shown on Table 9-1 on pg. 162). Also, pay attention to the little fact that your size affects how much you can carry; halflings and gnomes can only carry ¾ what one of the Big Folk could carry with the same Strength score.
If you are carrying less than your ‘light load’ amount, you’re A-OK. Once you get past this amount, you start to slow down—your movement rate drops (from 30 to 20 feet for most characters, or from 20 to 15 for gnomes and halflings; dwarves have a special ability to not be slowed down by carrying heavy loads). In addition, you start suffering penalties to most of your physical skills, pretty much anything that requires strength, speed, or agility. This is accounted for in the fact that armor check penalties (see the ‘key ability’ column of Table 4-2: Skill on pg. 63 and skill descriptions) apply when you are carrying more than a light load, just like they apply when you wear heavier armors (see below). Take a heavy load and your penalties get even worse. Eventually, the best you can do is stagger around at 5 feet per round under a massive burden, or drag it on the ground, and sometimes you just aren’t strong enough to push, pull, or budge a pile of stuff that weighs too much.
A character whose Strength score is lowered by poison or a spell like ray of enfeeblement or chill touch might suddenly find herself overburdened just by the weight of her stuff and have a hard time moving and fighting. Characters with low Strength always have to be careful about how much they are lugging around, especially if they have to carry treasure or an unconscious and helpless comrade out of the dungeon! Characters with a high Strength score may find themselves the pack mules of the party, being asked to carry the wizard’s spellbook or the lion’s share of the loot (whether it be treasure or just salvaged equipment), just because they can actually carry it. Of course, when the ‘pack mule’ is the one who gets knocked out, the other party members may find themselves in quite a pickle trying to rescue their comrade and get their stuff!
Armor and Shields
If you are a low-level character, armor might be your most expensive item, and the main reason fighter types (and clerics) get lots of money to start is so that they can buy some decent armor and a shield—probably scale mail for most (or hide armor for druids) and a heavy shield. Some might choose studded leather (or maybe a chain shirt if they rolled well for starting money or didn’t mind spending almost all their cash on armor) if your character favors light armor, or you might forego the shield (or pick up a buckler) if your character usually uses a two-handed weapon or bow or crossbow. Still, even ‘light’ armors can eat up a substantial part of your character’s carrying capacity.
Armor comes in different types—light, medium, and heavy. Some classes start with proficiency in various kinds of armor and shields, ranging from nothing at all for wizards, sorcerers, and monks to everything possible for fighters. Some classes have abilities that can only be used in light armor (e.g., a rogue or monk’s evasion, a ranger’s combat style) or light and medium armor (e.g., a barbarian’s fast movement). Also, if you are a class that uses a lot of skills with an ‘armor check penalty’—like a rogue or a ranger with Hide and Move Silently—you might favor lighter armor even if it makes your AC worse, just so your skills will be easier to use.
Armor and shields are both heavy and bulky. They can slow you down, impose penalties to movement-based skills, and reduce how much of your Dexterity bonus you are able to use for AC, just like carrying a heavy load (see Table 7-6, pg. 123). Even if you are super-strong and can handle the weight, armor and shields can get in your way. A little secret, though, is that the penalties for your armor and shields don’t ‘stack’ or add onto the penalties for carrying a heavy load—you just take the worse of the two penalties. If your character is already wearing medium armor, don’t bother trying to keep to a light load. Just go ahead and pile on a medium load. You won’t suffer any more penalties for doing it. Heavy armor, heavy load, same deal.
Shields give a cheap AC bonus, but if you have a shield it takes one of your hands; you can’t use two-handed weapons. You also may need a hand free to cast spells, so it could be a choice between a shield or a weapon (though you can use a shield to bash people with in a pinch). If you have a heavy or tower shield, that hand is pretty much unavailable to you, but with a light shield you can still carry a torch or another item in your shield hand (though you can’t use a weapon in that hand). A buckler is the most versatile, because you can switch back and forth between using it as a shield or forfeiting the shield bonus to AC until your next turn and using your shield hand to fight (with a –1 penalty; see pg. 124).
There is one place where armor is different from just a heavy load: arcane spell failure. Any arcane spell (the kind of magic used by bards, sorcerers and wizards) with a somatic component—complex magical gestures—has a chance of failing and being ruined if you’re wearing armor (although bards can cast their bard spells in light armor without this chance of failure). If you are using a shield, you add the shield chance to the armor chance and just make one roll. Arcane spells with no somatic component or that have had their somatic component eliminated with the Still Spell feat do not suffer this chance, and neither do divine magic spells even if they do have somatic components. It’s not fair, but that’s life in D&D. You can, of course, take off your armor to cast spells with no failure chance and then put the armor back on; this sounds silly, but it works fine when you’re casting long-lasting spells like endure elements or non-combat spells like detect secret doors or identify.
Every class starts out with proficiency in certain weapons and armor, and you can take weapon and armor proficiencies as feats. You can wear armor in which you are not proficient. No one’s going to come to your house and arrest you, and of all classes only druids (who lose pretty much all their powers) and monks (who lose their AC bonus and suffer a chance equal to arcane spell failure that any use of their class abilities will fail) suffer big penalties. There is a penalty to using armor you don’t know how to use, in that you now suffer your ‘armor check penalty’ to all skill rolls for Dexterity and Strength-based skills as well as any attack rolls you make. This penalty may not be as big as it seems, though, since your armor check penalty already applies to most of the Strength and Dexterity-based skills. Also, if your character rarely if ever makes attack rolls (e.g., a sorcerer who is mostly casting magic missile spells), the fact that your attack rolls are penalized is almost irrelevant. You could be a sorcerer wearing full plate armor and a heavy steel shield and not suffer too badly for it (assuming you choose your spells carefully and have enough strength to carry all that steel!), but in general it’s easier to just play it straight on the assumption that armor is a bad idea for arcane spellcasters.
So What About the Rest of the Stuff in Chapter 7?
Having covered the heaviest subjects of armor, shields, and carrying capacity, next time we’ll look at the other kinds of equipment your character will need to prepare himself for the adventuring life, from heavy picks to lockpicks.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.