5E Scale Mail Guide – Overlooked Cheap Effective Medium Armor?

I have a bit of a soft space for scale mail, in part because in a couple of low money, low level one shots or three shots I played a character that needed some degree of AC or defense but had never seen 100 gp in his entire life.

Scale Mail is an inexpensive high-tier medium armor with a base AC of 14 + up to 2 more based on Dex modifier.

This isn’t an armor that comes out during game very often, in part because in 5th Edition it’s no major secret that Medium Armor struggles.

However, Scale Mail’s description just straight out sounds cool and if you find yourself in a group trying a low gold, low level one shot and you need some decent AC cheap, there’s a reason you should take a serious look at what 5E’s scale mail has to offer.

Let’s dive in!

silver scale mail armor
Great example of hand crafted scale mail armor. Source.

What Is Scale Mail?

Scale Mail is a medium armor that combines leather with overlapping strips or pieces of metal. What does the actual Player’s Handbook say about Scale Mail?

According to The Player’s Handbook Scale Mail is:)

Scale Mail. This armor consists of a coat and leggings (and perhaps a separate skirt) of leather covered with overlapping pieces of metal, much like the scales of a fish. The suit includes gauntlets.

The Player’s Handbook, Medium Armor Section, p.144-145

In the armor chart Scale Mail has a base AC of 14 + Dex Modifier (maximum of 2) and it imposes disadvantage of Stealth. If your DM is a sadist and tracking weight, then it’s worth noting that Scale Mail is heavy coming in at 45 lbs.

This means that a base Scale Mail can be up to 16 starting AC for any character that has at least a 14 Dexterity, which should be pretty normal especially for a character who is going the medium armor route.

Scale Mail costs a mere 50 gp. Breastplate has the same AC but costs 400 gp just to take away the Disadvantage on stealth checks. That’s pretty costly for minimal benefit (in most cases).

This makes 5E Scale Mail a very inexpensive option for decent low level AC campaign, or early on in a longer campaign.

At a minimum, it’s a nice potential stop gap until finding a better light armor or heavy armor combo.

5E Armor Chart
The all-important armor chart from The Player’s Handbook.

How Good Can Scale Mail Be In 5E?

While a 16 AC is okay for low levels but doesn’t seem that impressive, it is worth noting that depending on the type of campaign that’s not bad. It’s also worth noting that a player focusing on scale mail has several other ways to up their AC.

The DM, for example, can give magical versions of Scale Mail that are +1, +2, or even the glorious +3. Add a shield for an easy +2, and if your DM likes to homebrew they can even +1, +2, or +3 that shield being used.

Meanwhile if you go all in and grab the 5E Medium Armor Master Feat you can add a further +1 assuming your Dexterity is at least 16 since you can get up to +3 from Dex bonus instead of +2 if you take this feat.

One DnD Medium Armor Master Feat gives the same bonus, allowing a Dexterous enough character to add that +1 in One DnD, as well.

Add in a ring of protection for another +1 AC and that means in a high magic campaign you can build up Medium Armor to a pretty insane level.

The variables you want to look at to increase your AC while wearing Medium Scale Mail armor:

  • +1, +2, +3 magical versions of Scale Mail
  • Adding a shield
  • +1, +2, +3 magical versions of shields
  • +1 from a 12-12 Dexterity Score
  • +2 from a 14+ Dexterity Score
  • +3 from a 16+ Dexterity score IF you’ve taken the Medium Armor Master feat
  • +1 AC from the Ring of Protection magical item

A few examples from basic to optimized of the ACs a Scale Mail build in 5th Edition can have:

  • 18 AC base (Scale mail, shield, +2 from Dex)
  • 19 AC with feat (Scale mail, shield, +3 from Dex via Medium Armor Master)
  • 20 AC no feat but +1 shield and +1 armor (pretty common for most 5E games)
  • 26 AC optimized high magic campaign (+3 Scale Mail, +3 Shield, Medium Armor Master, +1 from Ring of Protection)

That means a character wearing Scale Mail can range anywhere from a base 14 AC (though this would be a really weird and unoptimized build) up to a 26 AC from a medium armor Scale Mail build, and that’s a number that is truly impressive even in a high damage, high magic campaign.

man wearing scale mail armor
Not to mention the fact scale mail looks really, really cool. Source.

There’s also just the fact scale mail looks really, really cool. While that might not be a mechanical benefit, in a game where “The Rule of Cool” is a thing, I think we’d be doing scale mail a disservice without bringing it up.

Who Should Wear Scale Mail?

This can also be rephrased as “What classes can benefit from wearing scale mail in 5th Edition D&D?” This is a bit tough to answer because 5E has an undeniable Medium Armor problem where the builds that would use Medium Armor would also use Light Armor and have a maxed out Dexterity score, which adds a +3 above the AC (and makes studded leather armor better than all medium armor options).

It’s also often easier just to jump to heavy armor with grabbing the Heavily Armored Feat and get the extra AC with plate.

However, in early game there are a few classes that could benefit from using scale mail.

Barbarians Can Benefit from Scale Mail

Barbarians have an unarmored defense that is pretty good but in the early game there’s a good chance the Scale Mail gives better AC in the early levels. Since Barbarians start with proficiency in Medium Armor scale mail could be a very good early or even mid-game options for them.

Rangers and Fighters Won’t Take Scale Mail

Fighters are likely to go heavy armor since they have access to all armor types (like Paladins) and while Rangers have Medium Armor proficiency, they are almost always built for stealth. Which means a maxed out Dexterity score, which makes light armor in general, and studded leather armor in particular, a better option that not only gives a higher total armor class (AC) but also doesn’t give disadvantage on stealth.

Medium Armor Clerics

While most clerics have access to heavy armor as a class feature, depending on the domain of the cleric they might only actually have medium armor proficiency. Since Clerics generally aren’t meant to be stealthy the cheapness and relatively good strength of scale mail could be a good fit for say a Trickery Domain Cleric who doesn’t want to spend a feat to get Heavy Armor proficiency.

In this case, Scale Mail could be a great option to boost up your Cleric, and maybe that’s the one campaign where you take a look at this armor for the above “super build” in a high magic campaign.

Is Scale Mail the Same as Dragon Scale Mail?

Many players confuse regular Scale Mail with Dragon Scale Mail. These two are not the same item. Scale Mail is available from the beginning as an inexpensive but relatively effective Medium Armor. Among Medium Armor types it is one of the better ones, as long as the DM isn’t tracking weight.

Scale Mail = Basic Medium Armor available from Level 1.

Dragon Scale Mail = Specialty magical item, often homebrewed at tables, that is very rare and either found at later levels or crafted in-game.

These are not the same armor, although they likely look similar as the scales of a dragon are going to overlap the same way the crafted metal scales would for the hand-made armor.

But no, these two things are not the same, although depending on what homebrew source you look at, some have the Dragon Scale Mail as a homebrew Scale Mail option while others have it as a heavy armor.

FAQ for 5E Scale Mail

Here are the most common questions that come up for this commonly overlooked piece of gear.

What is the AC of scale mail?

The starting armor class for basic scale mail is 14 plus your Dexterity modifier up to +2, meaning for agile characters the base scale mail AC could be 15 or 16.

Is scale mail better than chainmail?

Yes, for the majority of players scale mail will be a better option than chainmail. Why?

  • Scale mail is 25 gp cheaper than chain mail
  • Based on the average Dexterity scores for Medium Armor users, scale mail and chain mail will have the same AC
  • Chain mail is heavier than scale mail for those very detail oriented DMs

Why isn’t scale mail heavy armor instead of medium?

While heavy, there’s still some freedom of movement. As with any armor there’s overlap between the heaviest of light armors versus the lightest of medium armors, and the heaviest medium armors versus the lightest heavy armors.

Do you add your DEX to scale mail in 5E?

You add up to +2 of your Dexterity modifier for scale mail.

Is Breastplate or Half Plate really worth the extra cost over Scale Mail?

In the beginning of the game, no. There’s not enough of a difference to spend the extra gold, however in mid to late game, or in games that have a lot of treasure, it’s worth spending the extra money for the extra AC. Just in early game there’s more value in Scale Mail.

5E Scale Mail: In Conclusion

Many campaigns aren’t low gold, low level, or low magic, so Medium Armor continues to struggle, which wasn’t helped because while I love 5E, they didn’t do any favors to Medium Armor and that means all of the various types of armor in 5th Ed that fall in the middle hybrid category suffer as a result.

However I have a soft spot for this armor, which has no soft spots at all in 5th Ed and as the real life pictures above show, it’s very good looking armor that brings style with functionality.

And if you have an artist in the group who does character sketches…it might be worth choosing this early game just for how much better the picture looks.

That is all you need to know about Scale Mail in 5E (and One DnD) Dungeons & Dragons!

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