The armor chart of the D&D Next playtesting materials is odd, as many have commented, but I want to start this post by making it clear that I’ll be talking about 5e’s armor only in general terms, not in specifics. I get that it’s not a finalized design and nitpicking the numbers would be pointless. This will also reference the 3.x armor chart and the 4e armor chart. There are two things I want to discuss on armor. The first is the path of gear upgrades, and the second is whether characters have any incentive to own more than one suit of armor.
As we all know, improving your character’s gear is one of the most rewarding goals of any traditional roleplaying game. We all want stuff that has more pluses, right? (Unless we’re playing Alternity, in which cases we want more minuses. Anyway.) Gear upgrades are a tangible representation of achievement: you’ve either saved up enough filthy lucre to buy that new improvement, or you won the whole piece as treasure from a battle or a quest. The former can be satisfying when it’s a decision that the player makes (because we all understand the feeling of scrimping and saving to get what you want). The latter is satisfying because finding out what’s behind Door #3 is a surprise, or because you watched the bad guy use this piece of gear against you and you’ve been looking forward to claiming it.
But if you’re a gamer, you know all of this. What’s odd is how some of those upgrades manifest in the system. Gamist and simulationist urges are clearly in competition here, varying by edition. Also, this is going to run a bit long as I get into obsessive levels of detail. To be clear, I don’t advocate treating tabletop games as gear treadmills, as even the most gamist of campaigns can have a more engaging story than that, and it’s an awfully uncharitable way to treat a DM’s efforts.
The core rules of 3.x have a solid variety of armor types, but many of them seem to be included just for traditional completeness. The cost-to-value judgment between padded armor and leather armor is such that I sincerely doubt players have ever chosen padded armor, but then the whole idea of padded armor is that it is a gambeson – it’s the thing that goes under armor to make the armor comfortable. Let’s set aside the extensive historical notes on the use and effectiveness of padded jacks, as they don’t have much place in the fantasy-history that D&D sets out to create. My point here is that other than a desire for completeness in translation from 2e, there’s very little reason to include padded armor. It makes me cry a little that scale armor is in the same boat, because scale is so awesome in real life.
In general, a D&D fighter is better off with either the next more expensive armor (a chain shirt) or the next less expensive armor (studded leather) because of the much lower movement and armor check penalties. It always bothered me that the game’s default assumption and recommendation for starting gear was just not a good idea. First-level characters don’t start with any flavor of heavy armor without some kind of variant rule in play, and once you’re starting to pick up enough treasure to consider buying better armor, you’re going to go for either the breastplate or banded mail, assuming you don’t skip this step entirely and go straight for full plate. Splint mail and half plate are just not worth your time. Obviously, this is a little thing, not something actually worth getting worked up about, but it needs discussion for later points.
Okay, so you’ve got a pile of money, and you want to turn it into an armor upgrade. You can either choose a mundane upgrade (get rid of your old armor in favor of new armor) or you can get someone with Craft Magic Arms and Armor to enchant your armor, assuming the suit of armor was already masterwork. You almost certainly didn’t start play with masterwork armor, given its price tag, so that’s another upgrade concern. Figure out what type of armor you want to be wearing for the majority of your career, and save up enough cash to get a masterwork suit of that armor. These mundane upgrades might be anywhere from 165 gold (upgrading from leather to masterwork studded leather, for the rare rogue who can’t be happy with a chain shirt) to 1625 gold (upgrading from studded leather to masterwork full plate). Don’t bother starting with the magical upgrade track until you’re done with the mundane upgrade track (but see below), because having to purchase and then dump +1 scale mail that is no longer worth your time is a painful waste if you’re being pragmatic.
At long last, this brings me to the part that bugs me: some of these armors are just so inferior to other kinds of armor that no one should have made the conscious decision to get that suit of armor enchanted. A +1 suit of padded armor, scale mail, chainmail, splint mail, banded mail, or half plate are all a waste of money, because you could do better spending the 500 gold (to say nothing of the enchanter’s 40 XP) on mundane upgrades. Still, the thing I’m noting here is a much more striking issue in D&D Next, as we’ll see.
Much later on, other mundane upgrades show up: mithral, adamantine, or darkwood materials, with still more exotic options over the lifespan of the product line. This table comes from Pathfinder, but it strongly resembles ideas found in late 3.x materials. These mundane upgrades are often far more expensive than adding another +1 enhancement bonus to an existing suit of armor, but depending on your stats and character build, they may be a bargain at that price.
Quick Arcana Evolved Note
Arcana Evolved introduces a whole category of superheavy armors, called Devanian armors, scaling the available armor bonus up to +12. Devanian armors act as full plate when the wearer is flat-footed or denied a Dex bonus to AC, and require a feat to use effectively. As with other armor categories, there’s one type that is by far and away the best, and the other armor types in this category are expensive enough that almost no one would bother to buy them rather than simply saving up for the appropriately-named “definitive harness.” There’s also a crystal-based upgrade track, that has both an at-creation-of-item and less-powerful post-creation option. The benefits of crystalline and crystal-laced gear are incredibly good, but don’t stack with the Devanian upgrades on a single item. Because of the way the information is organized, it’s a lot clearer that these are an intended gear upgrade track, but they are expensive enough that deciding against them is a reasonable option until quite high levels – this is definitely a YMMV kind of thing.
The whole approach to armor shown in 4e is unrelated to the way armor was handled in 3.x and earlier editions. A character’s class determines the type of armor the character wears, unless the character spends feats to use heavier armors. Since Light armors allow a character to apply Dex or Int to AC and Heavy armors don’t, there are many characters for whom chainmail and heavier armors are a big step down in effectiveness. There are a number of oddities in the basic armor types, such as how scale armor is better for athletic maneuvers than either the lighter or the heavier armor. Also odd is the existence of a “mundane” upgrade track that only kicks in at +4 and +6 enchantment grades (though +3 and +5 types were introduced in later books), so there’s no real reason to have scale armor enchanted to +4 or better; the game assumes you’ll step up to forgemail as soon as you can, because it’s a huge leap in AC. The highest-level 4e game I ever ran ended at 13th level, well before +4 armors were a consideration, so I never had to worry about this oddity directly.
It’s hardly new to note that 4e embraced gamism, but this is one of the more noteworthy ways in which it did so. For many classes, there’s basically no reason to ever use a type of armor other than the one “assigned” to you by your class, though I did have one character spend the feats to go all the way from hide armor to plate because of hybrid-classing oddities.
Ultimately, armor in 4e is your character’s “skin,” a stat chassis that places your AC where the math wants it to be and carries some kind of useful enchantment. The thing that bothers me about this is the same problem as my issues with 3.x armor, but from a different direction. In both cases, armor isn’t as much of a choice or a question of character expression as it could be. I would like a fighter-type to think about the upcoming situation and choose armor and weaponry accordingly, just as I want the wizard to choose which spells to prepare for the day. I would like different suits of armor to be reasonable choices, with benefits in different situations. It seems to me that fighter-types in fantasy books and films (though not video games) are making such a choice.
Once again, I want to point out that I know the armor chart presented in the How To Play document is not final. What’s interesting here is that they’re showing three armor weight groups, and you probably wouldn’t consider changing out of the armor weight group given to you by your class, unless you had some way to shift from Medium armor to Heavy armor. Armor has far fewer fiddly bits of statistical effect this time around, as the game shows no concept of arcane spell failure chance (or, rather, all armor has 100% arcane spell failure), and the only armor check penalty is that stealth-related skill checks have disadvantage in medium or heavy armor.
This means, then, that no one should start in leather armor or ringmail if they can help it, though I can imagine backgrounds that reduce a character’s starting cash and make those your only option. A chain shirt is quite substantially better than ringmail, somewhat better than scale, and for many characters better than chainmail. They haven’t released very much about magic item creation yet, but based on the current chart, it’s hard to see why you would start in on a presumably-expensive magical upgrade track until you had gotten to the chain shirt, splint, or plate step of your current armor weight category. I can create reasons, certainly, and some of those would make for an interesting twist on the magic item creation system, but within the core rules, it looks to me like no reasonable person would ever create a suit of +1 leather armor, even if it cost less to do so than upgrading to normal studded leather (since you’ll be capped at +3 enchantment anyway – a surprisingly short advancement track, but good for their bounded-accuracy design concept).
The jump in price from a chain shirt to mithral chain, from splint to dragonscale, and especially from plate to adamantine is such that you will have to spend a lot of time saving up gold or questing hither and thither to secure that upgrade, but eventually it will be a point of armor bonus that you just can’t get any other way.
What I’d Like To See
Finally, I want to mention the things that would be worthwhile goals to me, if it were my call. This is a level of simulationism that might appeal only to me out of WotC’s entire customer base; I don’t really know. I just know from playing a fighter at LARPs that I always kind of liked considering whether it was worth putting on my heavier chainmail, wearing my much lighter chain, or going without armor – possibly putting on some of my character’s more formal duds. At least in those games, it never bothered me when I was surprised by a fight while wearing something other than my most protective armor, but then I had all the mitigation my CP could buy. It was also certainly possible that I’d need to remove my armor before attempting jumpystones or any other agility challenge. (…I digress, but the prizewinner of this category is the time I tried to wear a hazmat suit on a platformer-style module in Eclipse. That ended in tears.)
As I mentioned above, I would love it if armor-wearing characters had to give some thought to which suit of armor they wanted to wear into a given situation. I’m imagining some of my favorite scenes in movies, like The 13th Warrior, in which the surviving heroes take off their armor before entering the cavern of the Wendol, because they know they’ll be swimming and climbing. This is hard to do well in the course of actual play; all too often the fighter simply feels punished or excluded from challenges because so much of the character’s abilities are tied up in that suit of heavy armor. Outside of 4e, I’ve never felt like fighters and similar characters had enough interesting choices to make beyond who to attack, because I don’t actually enjoy the decision process of 3.x’s Power Attack. This was maybe the one benefit to the old Weapon vs. Armor Tables from 2e and earlier editions
Personally, I’d be fine with very few armor types. Cutting the list down to leather, chain, and plate would be sufficient; since I mentioned how much I love scale, I should say that I’d be okay with it getting categorized as either a kind of chain or a kind of plate. Yes, this does mean that I just said I kind of like the way something worked back in OD&D. Don’t make a big thing out of it. I’m not sure what kinds of benefits and penalties each kind of armor would need to carry to make the decision interesting, and even if I had, it’s not yet permissible to post third-party stuff based on the 5e playtesting materials. If there are going to be more than those three types of armor – and that’s fine too – I’d like to make sure they all have a niche that is something more than “the crappy 1st-level armor,” even if that niche is “I can only get this one magical property I want in the form of this otherwise-substandard armor.” There could certainly be magical properties that are worth sacrificing a point or two of AC to gain – a setup that would also encourage characters to think more carefully about which suit of armor they want to wear as they enter a new situation.
While I’m talking about all of this, I also want to flat-out praise the approach to magic items that Mearls is expressing in the Legends and Lore post I linked above. Restoring a sense of mystery and story to magic items is exactly what I want to see at this point. Now, there are also problems, and I may need to break this discussion off into its own post at some point. I worry, though, that a range of just +1 to +3 gear (aside from big-time artifacts), and a sense that players should be finding rather than purchasing, means that fighters and rogues might have a hard to figuring out what they’re saving up to buy. The few OSRians who haven’t already written off 5e would probably like to see a dedicated return to domain-level play, in which characters spend a career worth of loot on a castle and an army. That answer works for some campaigns, but far from all; other ways of playing D&D that don’t include stopping all of this adventuring to be a conqueror and king have been developed in the last thirty-eight years, and 5e needs to support those styles at high level as well. (My own commentary on some money issues can be found in this post and the one after it, from very early in the life of this blog.)