Ever since 5e came out, I’ve talked around how medium armor isn’t great. There are a few specific builds that are stuck with it, but its positioning feeds into the problems of Strength vs. Dexterity in 5e. To put that another way, any Strength-focused character that can’t wear heavy armor has a tough road ahead. In this post, I’m breaking it way, way down, as well as looking at armor structures in previous editions.
A Brief History of D&D Armor
In OD&D through 2e, the light/medium/heavy distinction doesn’t exactly exist, and a lot of the peripheral stats around armor (really, everything that isn’t AC, cost, or weight) don’t yet exist. Classes can wear varying weights of armor, which at this point can be summed up as “none, up to leather/studded leather, or all.” Druids are outliers, in that they care about materials rather than weight.
As far as I know, OD&D went with very few armor types. The armor chart was deliberately constructed so that you could know a character’s armor-and-shield choices based on their AC number. AC 9, no armor; AC 8, leather; AC 7, leather and shield; and so on, until you get into magical armors. This meant there were relatively few armor types.
2e’s one big change to armor is that – for rogues and rangers – armor does penalize their percentile skills. This is the clear precursor to 3.x’s Armor Check Penalty. At later levels, your percentile skills scale up so high that even fairly severe armor penalties to skills might not matter too much. The DM had considerable leeway in all of these editions to declare that your character was wearing too much armor to swim, where later editions built rules to show players how their characters could or couldn’t swim in full plate armor.
1e introduces Dex adjustments to AC, but the armor you wear has no bearing on that; the same is true in 2e. 1e also offers several more armor types, creating a more granular progression track. There’s no longer a direct association of one number to one armor-and-shield combination, but that wasn’t a high-yield piece of information for most users in the first place.
2e has still more armor types, especially in the Arms & Equipment Guide. These are less for a sense of progression, since there are so many types at some AC values, and more a demonstration of looks you could give PCs and NPCs. Probably NPCs, because – for whatever reason – there are a lot more varieties available on the less desirable end of the armor spectrum.
3.0 brings a lot of new innovations to the armor chart: a formal division between light, medium, and heavy armors, maximum Dexterity bonus, armor check penalties that applied to everyone’s skills, arcane spell failure (so you could cast arcane spells in armor if you were willing to risk losing the spell), and movement penalties for medium and heavy armors.
This is the armor table from 3.5e, but there are no meaningful differences between this one and 3.0 that I recall. Anyway, the critical things to see here, as regards medium armor, are that:
- There are several different Max Dex values.
- Armor bonus + Max Dex adds up to either +7 or +8, putting it 1 point behind the best-case heavy armor, and equal to or ahead of other heavy armors.
- Since ACP applies to Balance, Climb, Escape Artist, Hide, Jump, Move Silently, Sleight of Hand, and Tumble checks, and double that value to Swim checks, there’s considerable margin in even fighter brutes caring about their ACP. Now, what actually happens is that fighters are stuck being bad at even the things they’re good at, unless they can take off their armor – Climb, Jump, and Swim are a substantial percentage of the fighter skill list.
The properties of mithral in 3.x also play a huge role in the metagame of armor types.
Most mithral armors are one category lighter than normal for purposes of movement and other limitations. Heavy armors are treated as medium, and medium armors are treated as light, but light armors are still treated as light. Spell failure chances for armors and shields made from mithral are decreased by 10%, maximum Dexterity bonus is increased by 2, and armor check penalties are lessened by 3 (to a minimum of 0).
At least in our 3.x groups, and I assume this was common in other groups, mithral breastplates were incredibly popular starting points for gear enchantment. Technically, there are also a few different enchantments that boost Max Dex and reduce ACP, but that wasn’t a big part of play that I personally observed. The point is, mithral lets you wear heavier armor types as if they’re lighter, so medium armor looks more like a viable part of the upgrade track, and a lot less like designer-intended itemization.
I think that if we’re honest about this armor table, there’s a very short list of “viable” armor types: leather (for extremely high Dex scores), studded leather, chain shirt, hide (druids only), breastplate (especially with mithral), and full plate (mithral helps here too). Everything else is at best a stepping-stone toward the “real” armor of that bracket. The fact that there are multiple “viable” types of light armor is all about tuning your armor to fit your stats. It’s reductive and a solved question for each character, but there you go.
The fourth edition of the world’s most popular roleplaying game goes in a very different direction with the relationship of armor and stats. Light and Heavy are both meaningful armor categories, and each of those has three armor types, with some material upgrades within each type; for more on this, see my Tribality article on upgraded armor materials.
Anyway, I don’t think there’s a lot of point on sharing the whole chart here, but I want to make a few key points about it.
- Light armors let you add the better of your Dex or Int modifiers to your AC, on top of their armor bonus. Heavy armors do not have any ability score adjustment to AC. In 3.x, 8 Dex is mostly unacceptable for melee front-liners; in 4e, it becomes standard for heavy armor classes.
- Classes are designed tightly around an intended armor type. You can pay feats to move to heavier armor, but this is not going to help much – the enchantments that apply to those heavier armors plug into class features you don’t have, in some percentage of cases. Also, there won’t be anything in that armor type that specifically plugs into your class features.
- There are also classes that use lighter armor than is typical for their combat role, such as avengers (melee strikers) using cloth armor. In such cases, the class usually gets some kind of AC-fixing feature. It focuses attention on the sense that armor types are cosmetic choices made by the designers.
- Armor Check Penalty is still here, but it’s cut way down in severity: it ranges from -1 to -2. On the other hand, it applies to more things: all Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution skill checks (but not Str/Dex/Con ability checks, which are more meaningfully separate in 4e). For whatever reason, hide, chain, and plate all have ACPs, but scale gets skipped – probably so that fighters can excel at Athletics and Endurance in challenges.
- Speed penalties are still here, but cut down to -1 (5 ft).
The big change – I presume it was a main goal – here is that every armor type is something that someone wants to use. Your party might not have that class, but there are no armor types every class looks down on. On the other hand, your armor type is only technically a choice, and you’d never pick a different kind of armor to suit a particular situation, or wear a magical suit of armor based on some other type.
All of which brings us, at last, to 5e.
The other key thing to know, outside the scope of this table, is Medium Armor Master. This feat increases the Dexterity modifier limit on medium armor by 1 and gets rid of the Disadvantage on Stealth checks for medium armor. Let’s look at what that does, all by itself.
In the best-case scenario of wearing medium armor without Medium Armor Master, you have 14 Dex and you’re wearing either a breastplate (resulting in AC 16) or half plate (AC 17, and disadvantage on Dexterity [Stealth] checks). The breastplate is on par with leather armor and 20 Dex, or studded leather and 18 Dex. By not imposing disadvantage on Stealth, it’s behaving like heavier, more expensive light armor that covers for your middling Dex. Half plate, on the other hand, is like wearing splint armor, but it requires Dex 14; or we could say “like plate armor but one point worse on AC.” What I’m trying to say is that half plate without MAM is the worst-of-both-worlds of the best light armor and the best heavy armor, and needs Dex 14.
With Medium Armor Master, there’s no remaining reason not to go up to half plate, since its only downside (other than weight, but I hope you can handle +20 lb) is gone. If you can also push your Dex up to 16 (or if it was 16 all along), you have the AC of plate armor, but without the Stealth disadvantage. The best of light armor and heavy armor! That’s pretty cool, but is it worth the various possible costs of Dex 16 and a feat?
On the positive side, if you’re combining Dex as an attack stat with a class that grants medium armor proficiency, you don’t get that many opportunities to spend a feat on boosting your AC (Dual Wielder is the other). It feels weird and kind of bad to have a +4 or +5 Dex bonus, and only add part of that to your AC, but we are still talking about a better AC than any nonmagical light armor can get you.
On the other hand, is an ASI/feat harder to come by than +1 studded leather? I can’t answer that, but I would suggest that in most campaigns, the answer is that you’d rather purchase, beg, borrow, or steal a magic suit of armor that doesn’t require attunement than pay a precious ASI/feat. I’ll grant that +1 half plate is still another point higher, of course.
On the gripping hand, if you think there’s any chance in the world of getting a Dex above 20 (a manual of quickness in action, maybe), medium armor loses out again. I guess there could be magical medium armor with a special property that allowed for a higher maximum bonus to AC from Dexterity, but that would be a custom item that your DM designed for your character, not something I can address here.
There’s one other key use case that deserves a mention. Only a few classes do wear medium armor but don’t wear heavy armor. Let’s talk about barbarians and their Unarmored Defense. With the option of either 10 + Dex + Con or (12-15) + Dex up to 2, there are a bunch of different points where your ability scores and armor availability might make either of those options better. Probably fairly few barbarians go above Dex 14, and even fewer go above Dex 16, so whenever 10 + their Con bonus is less than the base AC of the best medium armor they can get… (But if you just prefer to stick with one or the other for your character’s aesthetic, I am not the dude to judge that. It’s 5e, just make your character fun to play and make a burnt offering to the gods of bounded accuracy.)
The real problem with medium armor and Medium Armor Master is that the favorable use cases are fairly rare, and you’re making the decisions that feed into those use cases at character creation, probably. If you start with a Dex of, say, 12 or 13, and you’re using Strength as your attack stat, it’s incredibly hard to justify two ASIs and a feat to get to the place where it’s better than plate armor.
The ugly cases on medium armor are real. Strength ranger should be valid, but needing as much Strength as possible and Dex 14-16 is brutal, especially since they also want Con and Wis. There’s also at least an implication than Valor bards should be able to focus on Strength – their Bonus Proficiencies feature at 3rd level grants them use of all martial weapons (when they already had rapiers) and medium armor. Getting to 3rd level with good Strength and middling Dex is not an ideal early-game experience – survivable, but not great.
The design constraints are firm, here. ACs need to range from basically 10 to 18, fitting 5 points of Dex bonus to AC within that range. Even with a feat, you don’t want base ACs from armor to go above 18, so that avec shield you don’t go above 20 before taking other features (fighting style, magic armor and shield, whatever). The function of Heavy Armor Master highlights this – it reduces damage rather than pushing AC upward.
When I started writing this article, I thought I had a fix to offer for this. Suffice it to say that I wrote a lot more than what you see here, only to conclude that it wasn’t working. What I hope you take from this, then, is that medium armor can be good if your stats suit it. Even a Dex fighter, paladin, or ranger can benefit from medium armor, much more so if you can spare a feat for Medium Armor Master. Using medium armor comes down to either necessity (for example, a non-melee cleric that doesn’t spike Dex, such as Grave, Light, or Knowledge), or system mastery and build planning. The former case is fine; the latter I see as more of a problem.
If you’re creating a character and choosing between medium and heavy armor, ask yourself the following: “Do I care more about being stealthy while in good armor, or do I care more about mitigating some of the damage that does get past my armor?” It’ll be a few levels before you’re taking Medium Armor Master or Heavy Armor Master, if you take either. I’m well aware that character optimizers steer people away from both of these.
For DMs reading this, especially those who develop their own magic items, think about whether you want to further emphasize the things that make light, medium, and heavy armor different, or whether you want to make this suit of plate armor out of mithral (which also ignores disadvantage on Stealth checks in 5e). Making mithral merely uncommon, and not requiring attunement, undermines Medium Armor Master, so that’s not ideal.
Thanks for reading.