Armor rarity in 5e

While writing an earlier post I noticed some oddities in the distribution of magic armor types in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) magic item tables.

To summarise, the cheapest armor types in each weight category (padded, hide and ring mail armor) are never enchanted. The next cheapest types (leather, chain shirt, scale, chainmail) appear at the normal frequency for the rarity category of their enchantment. The next types up the expense scale (studded, breastplate, splint) are one rarity category harder to find than their enchantment would suggest. And the most expensive armors (half plate and plate) are two categories harder to find than their enchantment tier.

This strikes me as wrong. It looks kind of irrational to enchant leather or scale at all, never mind for it to be two orders more common than magical plate. Let me explain…

Ordinary armor

Start by considering ordinary armor. (You might want to reference the armor table in the equipment section at this point, on p145 of the Player’s Handbook. I am using it as is and am not considering historical accuracy.) Suppose you have plenty of money (for example you are an adventurer who has looted a few good treasure hoards, or a wealthy knight or lord) and you don’t much mind whether your armor is a few pounds heavier or lighter (as is generally rational under 5e encumbrance rules). Suppose also, for this stage of the thought process, that magic armor and other special armors from the magic item tables are not available. You may consider the following armor types:

Plate – this has the highest base AC and is likely your go-to armor if you can afford its very high price and are proficient in heavy armor.

Splint – this is only slightly less protective than plate and much more affordable, for low-level adventurers and less wealthy knights.

Chain mail – if you’re not quite strong enough to wear splint or plate (your Strength is 13-14) then this is your most protective option. It is also affordable and more protective than any non-heavy armor.

Half plate – a good choice for characters proficient with medium but not heavy armor (such as barbarians, some clerics), or who has Strength under 13, or Strength 13-14 with Dexterity 14+. 

Breastplate – the most protective armor that does not impose disadvantage on Stealth checks. It might be typical for well-off rangers and knights on covert operations.

Studded leather – the most protective light armor. Because it allows unlimited Dexterity bonus, it is as protective as breastplate or chain mail if you have at least 18 Dexterity, and with higher Dex it improves from there. Being fairly inexpensive, it would be typical for even modestly well-off bards, rogues and warlocks, and maybe some Dex-based warrior builds. It officially doesn’t need to be made with metal, so it is also a decent choice for druids.

Hide – this protects most wearers as well as studded, also has no metal in it, and is a pound lighter so would probably be the top choice for druids unless they have Dexterity of 16+

Only people on a budget will consider cheap, inferior armors: ring mail or scale (protect less than half plate, much heavier and noisier than a breastplate) chain shirt (worse protection than breastplate without significant advantages over it), or leather or padded (worse protection than studded or hide without significant advantages over them).

Non-armor magic items and special material armors

Now, consider some of the options in the magic item lists. First, we will look at the Uncommon tier, for which the guide price of 100-500gp is in the same ballpark as some of the optimal armour types discussed above. Therefore if magic items are available for sale or commission in the world, then these can be viewed as potential alternatives to or supplements for nonmagical armor.  

Gauntlets of Ogre Power – these grant a Strength of 19, removing the need for less muscular characters to wear chain mail and some of the need for half plate. They provide significant bonuses to attack and damage for melee weapons as well as other benefits, so I would expect these to be a popular item in any world where warriors’ demands influence the supply of items. Their main limitation is that they require attunement, so they might lose out to other items in the ensemble of a very well-equipped character.

Mithral Armor – this does not impose disadvantage on stealth or have a Strength requirement. If you can afford mithral splint (700gp using my pricing at the end of this article) or mithral plate (2150gp on my pricing, cheaper if you follow the DMG prices for Uncommon items) then there is no reason to choose chain mail and only proficiency limitations and maybe lightness or Dex bonus in favour of half plate, breastplate or any other light or medium armours.

(Mithral chain shirts and mithral breastplates have the specialised benefit that they can be worn under normal clothes, making them a desirable piece of equipment for assassins and anyone who has cause to fear them, but they’re not better than ordinary steel in any situation where you can openly wear armor. On my pricing mithral scale and an ordinary breastplate cost the same and perform the same but the breastplate is lighter, so people probably would not make mithral scale. Mithral half plate would offer slightly better protection over a breastplate for a stealthy ranger or barbarian with money to burn.)

Turning now to Rare items, Elven Chain functions as a breastplate in terms of AC, weight and stealth, but does not require proficiency. If it is available for money it would be an upgrade over studded leather for wealthy warlocks, rogues and bards with less than 18 Dexterity (and would be a highly desirable item for most wizards and sorcerers). Since +1 studded leather is also a Rare item (see below) Elven Chain is similar in price/availability and is superior in protection for wearers with less than 16 Dexterity. +2 studded leather is a Very Rare tier item but still requires 16 Dexterity to beat Elven Chain for protection. I therefore conclude that if Elven Chain is on the market studded leather would relatively rarely be enchanted, despite its merits as a mundane armor for several classes.

Dragon Scale Mail is Very Rare, so doesn’t come into consideration as an alternative armor to mundane or even +1 hide armour or studded leather. But dragon scale has benefits over +2 hide (or studded leather) at the same rarity and AC, and is also usable by druids. So if dragon scales are available at Tier 3, +2 hide perhaps should be especially scarce.

Magic armors

Finally, I get to the original purpose of this piece, which is to think through the relative frequency of different base armor types when placing enchanted +1, +2 or +3 armor. For clarity I’m going to start at the top.

+3 Armor is a Legendary tier item. It therefore costs over 50,000gp to buy (DMG) and 100,000gp plus labor to make (Xanathar’s). The cost of the mundane armor is trivial in comparison. Therefore the only armor types with any chance to be enchanted to +3 are the ones that are in some respect optimal if money is no object: plate, chain mail, half plate, breastplate, studded leather and hide.

Given that characters with Legendary armor should have no trouble getting hold of an Uncommon item like Gauntlets of Ogre Power, even +3 chain mail should be scarce, made only for a niche market of ultra-high-net-worth warriors with Strength 13-14 and better things to do with their attunement slots than gain two or three steps of Strength bonus. I also tend to think that classes not proficient in heavy armor may find higher priorities for commissioning Legendary items than +3 protection, so half plate and lighter armors will probably also be less frequent. The most likely armor type at +3 enchantment will be plate.

Dropping down one tier, to Very Rare, we come to +2 armor. Very Rare enchantments cost 5000 to 50,000 gp (DMG) or 20,000 gp plus labor (Xanathar’s) and therefore the same logic on the triviality of the base armor cost applies as for +3 with only marginally less force. Again the most likely armor type to be found as +2 should be plate, with a minority at half plate, breastplate and maybe studded leather. As I noted above, Dragon Scale Armor may displace +2 hide, and elven chain (which is only Rare) may, if it has found its way to the general market, to some extent reduce the occurrence of even +2 studded. And I see little reason to choose +2 chain mail over the much cheaper mithral plate so I don’t think +2 chain would get made either.

At the Rare tier is +1 armor. Rare items cost can cost as little as 500 gp in the DMG, so I had drafted some analysis about how the price of plate (base cost 1500 gp) and half plate (base cost 750 gp) might make +1 versions of splint or scale competitive if +1 armor was at the cheap end. But now that I have Xanathar’s, with a clearer guideline for major Rare item crafting cost of 2000 gp plus labor, I’m pleased to drop that complication.

Which takes us down to plate, chain mail, half plate, breastplate, studded leather and hide as possibilities for +1 armor.

If mithral is on the market for hundreds of gp (see below) then mithral splint or plate (or Gauntlets of Ogre Power teamed with ordinary splint or plate) displace +1 chain mail as a low-Strength choice. And mithral half plate displaces the +1 breastplate as a stealthy medium armor.

Elven Chain (another Rare armor) beats +1 studded leather for protection for some users, as also discussed above.

So unless mithral armor or Elven Chain are unavailable, plate, half plate, hide and occasionally studded leather are the only armors that need enchanting to +1

Fixing the magic item tables

So I think I’ve reached a point where I can suggest a quick hack for the magic item tables in the DMG. As a house rule, I propose the following:

Any time a roll on item table G generates a result of +1 armor, ignore the type from table G and place +1 armor of a type determined on this table.

Roll d20+1 Armor type
1Studded leather
2-5Hide
6-10Half plate
11-20Plate
Replacement armor table (Rare tier)

Any time a roll on item table H generates a result of +1 or +2 armor, ignore the type and bonus from table H and place +2 armor of a type determined on this table.

Roll d20+2 Armor type
1-2Studded leather
3Hide
4-6Breastplate
7-10Half plate
11-20Plate
Replacement armor table (Very Rare tier)

Any time a roll on item table I generates a result of +1, +2 or +3 armor, ignore the type and bonus from table I and place +3 armor of a type determined on this table.

Roll d20+3 Armor type
1-2Studded leather
3-4Hide
5-6Breastplate
7-8Half plate
9Chain mail
10-20Plate
Replacement armor table (Legendary tier)

I have to acknowledge that this does increase the chances of finding +2 and +3 armor, and especially of finding magical plate (and to a lesser extent other high-end armor types). This will therefore tend to increase character ACs. I know some 5e GMs already find high ACs a challenge, with the limited attack bonuses available to monsters in 5e. Adopting the above armor tables may create a need for further house ruling or game management to keep monster chances to hit high enough. I did consider bumping +1, +2 and +3 shields up by one rarity tier each, but that would alter the balance between shield builds and builds that use both hands for weapons or spellcasting, and generally require more thought.

It would also require further rewriting of the magic item tables. If I get to that, I should also increase the chance of finding Gauntlets of Ogre Power, certain kinds of Mithral Armor, Elven Chain, Dragon Scale Armor and suchlike. I’ll put that project on the shelf for now.

Mithral Armor

I also have a house rule to suggest for mithral armor, based on the statement that it is a light metal (DMG p182) and an aim to get a price formula roughly within the range of Uncommon items.

I propose that mithral armor weighs half of the equivalent steel armor, and costs the normal armor price plus 20gp per pound of adjusted weight.1 Since scale mail, ring mail and splint are made of metal pieces attached to a leather or textile backing, count 10lb of their weight as outside of the weight reduction and cost increase calculations.

Mithral ArmorCost (gp)ACStrengthStealthWeight
Chain shirt25013+Dex (max 2)Under clothes10 lb
Scale mail40014+Dex (max 2)27 lb
Breastplate60014+Dex (max 2)Under clothes10 lb
Half plate115015+Dex (max 2)20 lb
Ring mail3301425 lb
Chain mail6251627 lb
Splint7001735 lb
Plate21501832 lb
Mithral armor

1: I realise this makes mithral less valuable than gold, but to increase the price to 50gp per pound or higher would take a suit of such armor entirely out of the Uncommon price bracket – I have already stretched the price premium up to 650 gp for plate. Perhaps we can understand ‘mithral armor’ as being made of steel alloyed with a dash of mithral that allows the armor to be made thinner and lighter without loss of protection. Pure mithral can then be worth more per pound.

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