Tactics and Tips03/21/2005

Improving Your Armor Class (Part One)

Both Gwendolyn and Stephen think that having a good Armor Class (AC) is essential to your character's survival. But they had some different tips on which specific tacks to take. So we let them go head to head for these two columns so you can take a look at how two members of R&D agree -- and think differently -- on this aspect of the game.

Armor and Shields

Stephen: A character's Armor Class starts with the armor she wears, and the type of armor worn usually depends upon the character's class and Dexterity. In most cases, a character gains the greatest benefit by wearing armor that allows her to use her entire Dexterity bonus to Armor Class, while maximizing the armor bonus of said armor. For basic armors, a chain shirt allows the best flexibility for high-Dexterity characters, while less nimble PCs could look initially to chain mail, and eventually to a breastplate or full plate. If you look at Table 7-6 in the Player's Handbook, you'll note that most armor provides a +7 or +8 bonus to Armor Class when Dexterity is considered, with full plate and padded armor being the exceptions.

The best armors? Mithral breastplate for the barbarian (for movement), adamantine full plate for clericswho will love the damage reduction provided; mithral chain shirt for rangersand rogues who want a really high maximum Dexterity bonus; and bracers of armor for the wizard or sorcerer who doesn't want to use spell slots on mage armor. (These items are found in the Dungeon Master's Guide in the chapter that should be labeled "Toys" instead of "Magic Items" -- but more on these toys later!)

Gwendolyn: Invest in armor and shields to the best of your ability.

Barbarians, bards, monks, rangers, and rogues do well with light armor because of their class abilities. They're very mobile characters. The chain shirt is an excellent option. A mithral chain shirt has no armor check penalty and a maximum Dexterity bonus of +6, making it an optimal buy for these characters at 1,100 gp. Because it's made of mithral, it's already masterwork and ready to be enhanced.

Clerics, fighters, and paladins can wear heavy armor. In general, they should. It's well worth giving up the extra mobility on the battlefield for these classes. Every one of these characters who can afford it should be in full plate armor. A regular suit costs 1,500 gp, but you'll likely find that spending the extra 150 gp to make it masterwork will save you money when you go to get it enhanced.

Druids have a number of armor restrictions. The best option for them is dragonhide armor. Dragonhide full plate costs 3,300 gp. It is masterwork and ready to be made magical.

Arcane spellcasters aren't proficient with armor or shields. However, even they have one reasonable option. A regular buckler has an armor check penalty of -1 and an arcane spell failure chance of 5%. However, armor and shields made of mithral have their armor check penalty lessened by 3 and spell failure chance decreased by 10%. This means that an arcane spellcaster can use a mithral buckler to gain +1 to Armor Class without suffering any nonproficiency penalties or spell failure. Adding enhancement bonuses and special abilities to the buckler make it an even better option.

Stephen: Every little bit counts since Armor Class adds up, and a shield is a necessity for any character attempting to maximize her Armor Class. If your character doesn't need an extra hand free, then a large shield is a must, and a light shield allows clerics and other spellcasters to cast spells while still providing that little bit of extra protection. Even characters not proficient with shields might still benefit from a masterwork buckler or light shield (and Gwen mentions this above), since the masterwork quality reduces the armor check penalty, and thus the nonproficiency penalty, of such shields to zero. Archers especially should always equip a buckler, since it doesn't interfere with the use bows or crossbows.

Magic Items

Gwendolyn: Several items can help a character's Armor Class. Everyone can benefit from the following items.

  • An amulet of natural armor gives a bonus to a character's natural armor.

  • A ring of protection adds a deflection bonus, helping both a character's regular Armor Class and his touch Armor Class.

  • Gloves of Dexterity can help characters who haven't reached the maximum Dexterity bonus of their armor.

Unlike the items above, bracers of armor might or might not be a good acquisition for your character. If it makes sense for him to wear regular armor, don't bother with bracers. A fighter in +4 full plate adds +12 to his Armor Class. A fighter wearing bracers of armor +4 only adds +4 to his Armor Class. If your character is an arcane spellcaster, your character doesn't have many good options for armor without hampering his spellcasting abilities. Bracers of armor are made for characters like yours. If your character is specialized and can't cast conjuration spells, they're a good buy. If your character has access to the mage armor spell, though, you may want to evaluate whether you're better off having him cast the spell regularly (duration 1 hour/level) for a +4 armor bonus or spending gold on the bracers.

Stephen: As your character gains in level, magical means of increasing Armor Class become increasingly available. For instance, aside from the items Gwendolyn lists above, you can also see about enhancing your PC's armor and shield permanently. For characters who want to focus on maximizing their defense, a good strategy is to collect a wide variety of defensive magic items, initially all of low power level, and then upgrade each one as cost and time allows. A character could spend 9,000 gp on a +3 enhancement bonus to her armor, or could instead use that same amount to gain a +2 to her armor, a +1 to her shield, and also use a ring of protection +1 and amulet of natural armor +1, gaining a total of +5 instead. The following table lists the costs for increasing a component from its previous level:

+1 enhancement 1,000 gp
+1 deflection/natural 2,000 gp
+2 enhancement 3,000 gp
+2 Dexterity (+1 AC) 4,000 gp
+3 enhancement 5,000 gp
+1 insight (ioun stone) 5,000 gp
+2 deflection/natural 6,000 gp
+4 enhancement 7,000 gp
+5 enhancement 9,000 gp
+3 deflection/natural 10,000 gp
+4 Dexterity (+2 AC) 12,000 gp
+4 deflection/natural 14,000 gp
+5 deflection/natural 18,000 gp

A character who wears armor and a shield, with around 22,000 gp to spend (less than half a typical 10th-level PC's net worth) could get a total Armor Class bonus of +18, plus her Dexterity and any other feats she might have (assuming +3 full plate (+11 AC), gloves of Dexterity +2 (+1 AC), a +2 heavy steel shield (+4 AC), a ring of protection +1, and an amulet of natural armor +1).

Next Week: Gwendolyn and Stephen explore a few more options regarding your character's Armor Class.

Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the following resources: Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual, Player's Handbook.

About the Author

Gwendolyn F.M. Kestrel works full-time as a game designer for Wizards of the Coast. Recent and upcoming books include d20 Past, Races of Eberron, and Planar Handbook. She simultaneously leads the lives of an avid gamer, Ph.D. student, trio of birds of prey, and a hedonistic cat.

Stephen Schubert, formerly a minion of a large computer services company, has written for Dragon Magazine, Star Wars Gamer, and the Wizards of the Coast website. He now works as a developer for roleplaying games and miniatures at Wizards of the Coast, and he has been involved in many products on the 2005 schedule.

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