Complete DnD 5E Medium Armor Guide

Medium Armor tends to be that problem child of the armor types in 5th Edition DnD. There are many builds that make amazing use of light armor and Dexterity bonuses, as well as the tanks of fighters and paladins who love heavy armor…as does virtually every cleric who has the ability to upgrade to heavy armor.

The truth is that medium armor struggles mightily compared to other options in 5th Edition. While satisfactory for some builds at the lowest beginning levels, by the time any PC reaches level five they should almost certainly have much better options available to them. Most builds even at lower levels will have better potential options available.

Medium armor in 5E can work for a few low-level characters but is outpaced by light armor, heavy armor, and other available options given to PCs in most campaigns at a relatively low level.

So is medium armor worthless? Are there viable builds using medium armor instead of light armor or heavy armor? Is there even a good reason you would want to pursue these builds?

I’ll answer all these questions and more as we do a deep dive on medium armor in 5E D&D.

female viking in medium armor
The ax would almost dissuade me from the bad idea of hitting on the medium armor wearing Viking goddess…almost.

Who Wears Medium Armor?

There are five classes that start out with medium armor proficiency, and one sub-race. Getting the interesting one out of the way first, Mountain Dwarves are the one race that start with armor proficiency, and that is medium armor proficiency. This leads to some interesting early game possibilities for Mountain Dwarf wizards or sorcerers who can wear armor and still function as a class.

The classes that have medium armor proficiency include:

  • Clerics
  • Druids
  • Fighters
  • Paladins
  • Rangers

Despite this, there are very few PCs who use medium armor for any amount of time. Why is this? Can a medium armor build be effective or does 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons have a medium armor problem?

The short answer is that it has a medium armor problem. Now here’s the thing: I don’t want to see light armor heavily nerfed because too many systems whether TTRPG or an RPG video game (this second one is especially egregious of this) makes light armor worthless. D&D does a good job of giving light armor some excellent advantages or options over it’s heavy and medium counterparts.

The problem is that medium armor doesn’t dent into heavy armor enough or pull away from light armor enough to be a viable option past the lowest level builds.

While in theory that’s not a problem to be a “low-level specialty” it still feels like a bit of a cheat, a missing opportunity, and the problem is that even in that statement medium armor can be okay in some low-level circumstances.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, is it?

So let’s look at medium armor via the classes that start with those proficiencies.

You’ll Never Find a Medium Armor Fighter or Paladin

Okay, never say never, especially in the first five levels where the whims of the DM in regards to gear, gold, and available missions can make anything viable up until level 5 or 6, but on the average campaign you see any fighter or paladin wearing medium armor, it’s because they don’t have the money or funds to jump ship to heavy armor yet.

When you have proficiency in both, heavy armor is just better. And that’s fair – heavy armor should be heavy duty. But it also means when there are a limited number of classes that use medium armor to begin with, those that can use both will inevitably move to heavy armor.

Clerics & Medium Armor

This is all about the class of cleric. Clerics who have heavy armor proficiency right off the bat are going to build in that direction. There are some sub-classes of cleric that can only use medium armor. Even then, most will take a class of fighter in multi-class or take the feat to allow them to use heavy armor.

Druids & Medium Armor

Among all the classes, Druids are the most likely to have some use for medium armor into the mid-levels and even that is a bit of a red herring/misleading statement because it ignores the “don’t use metal” part of medium armor. Wild shape is a major part of the Druid’s arsenal which makes any armor just a little less important, though since they can’t wear metal it’s either light or medium armor.

Though if you go by the rule that Druids can’t use metal…that actually only leaves hide armor out of the medium armor options. Which means that with RAW, that medium armor proficiency only allows Druids to wear hide armor. Maybe scale mail…maybe. But even that is stretching the rules of the class.

Rangers

Rangers are racing to max out DEX and need to be stealthy. That means that studded leather armor is clearly the choice as a +5 from a maxed out DEX score would give a ranger 17 AC even without magic armor, and that’s better than any medium armor that doesn’t impose disadvantage on stealth checks. It’s tied for the best that medium armor can do (and that one imposes disadvantage on stealth checks).

Which is why rangers love that studded leather light armor.

All 5E Medium Armor Types

From the Player’s Handbook there are five types of medium armor to choose from. It doesn’t take long studying the following chart to see were things start to go wrong for the middle child of 5E’s armor family.

Medium ArmorCostACStealth ChecksWeight
Hide 1012 + Dex Mod (max +2)10 lb
Chain Shirt5013 + Dex Mod (max +2)20 lb
Scale Mail5014 + Dex Mod (max +2)Disadvantage45 lb
Breast Plate40014 + Dex Mod (max +2)20 lb
Half-Plate75015 + Dex Mod (max +2)Disadvantage40 lb
A table on all medium armor in D&D 5th Edition is pretty uninspiring even before comparing it to alternatives.

Hide Armor

Hide armor is cheap, simple, works for Druids, and is pretty uninspiring. It starts with a base AC of 12 which can go up to 14 total AC as long as your Dexterity score in 14 or above.

On the plus side hide armor is extremely cheap, very light if you have the rare DM who tracks weight carried, and it does not impose disadvantage on spell checks. If you stat with a shield, then an AC of 16 isn’t the worst for a level one character, but it’s hardly special, either.

Even the description in the Player’s Handbook kind of dumps on hide armor describing it as “Commonly worn by barbarian tribes, evil humanoids, and other folk who lack access to the tools and materials needed to create better armor.”

For a level 1-2 Druid it can be okay but it should be quickly dropped for better options.

Chain Shirt

Weighing twice as much as hide armor at 20 lbs of weight, a chain shirt costs 50 gp, which also makes it better for low level loot than hide armor and starts with a base AC of 13 which can go up to 15 if your Dexterity score is 14 or higher. While you might think that having anything like chain mail would kill stealth checks, the design with cloth over and under the chains muffles the sound enough that you don’t get disadvantage.

A 15 AC isn’t anything special at low level but it’s acceptable for the first couple levels.

Scale Mail

This is armor that looks great. Seriously, in real life it’s pretty cool looking (some good examples on the early aka good seasons of Game of Thrones). Complete with gauntlets, this gives a 14 AC, up to 16 depending on DEX bonus, however it is also the first heavy armor that imposes disadvantage on stealth checks, which in many campaigns will come up quite often.

Breastplate

While I fully appreciate the Conquistador look, it will have limited uses in a 5E campaign. The Breastplate has the same AC as Scale Mail with 14, up to 16 with a high enough DEX bonus, but does not have a disadvantage on stealth checks. This helps explain why despite having the AC as Scale Mail the value of this armor is 400 gp versus 50 gp for scale mail.

Because this is the highest AC medium armor that does not cause disadvantage on stealth checks it is considered by many (including me) to be the best medium armor option available.

Half-Plate

Half-Plate is the strongest medium armor in 5E when it comes to pure AC score. Featuring an AC of 15 up to 17 with a DEX score of 14 and above, this armor costs 750 gp and also imposes disadvantage on stealth checks. Because of price this isn’t available to most characters in the very beginning.

Is Shield Proficiency Tied to Medium Armor?

Yes and no. Though mostly yes. This is one of the most annoying gray areas in 5th Edition, which is how shields are dealt with. In most places shield proficiency is tied to medium armor proficiency however there are areas in the book where medium armor proficiency is given without shields, and there is the Master Shield Feat…which doesn’t require medium armor proficiency.

It’s maddeningly inconsistent and I can see why shield proficiency is added in many places to medium armor to try and make it more appealing, but it is technically it’s own thing in 5E, although the two are often joined at the hip.

Is Light Armor Better Than Medium Armor in 5E D&D?

In a word, yes. In the overwhelming number of builds and forms high-end light armor actually comes out much better, and even straight up stronger, than medium armor does.

As the previous sections show, the AC range is limited for Medium Armor which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem but a +2 to AC from Dexterity is a hard cap when light armor can go +5. Considering the classes most likely to use medium armor are also looking for high (or even maxed out) DEX scores, light armor tends to leap above its medium armor counterpart options.

Long-term for sure, top notch light armor, especially the very easily accessible studded leather armor, is going to outperform top-notch medium armor, which is doubly helpful considering you don’t need to use a feat to make it less of a detriment.

In the earliest levels medium armor might be okay as long as you don’t need stealth (but don’t forget group stealth checks!) but because of cost unless you have a generous DM those higher level medium armor options aren’t even available until you’re already scaling the studded leather armor.

In most campaigns I’ve played I avoid the medium armor for other options every time.

Comparing Armor Rankings by Total Possible AC

Keep in mind that the numbers by level are based on the likely or average build that could be put together from the 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8 average starting stat block. If you roll for stats or do stat buy, the numbers get even worse for medium armor compared to the light armor and unarmored counterparts.

NOTE: There are many, many builds that start with amazingly high ACs at low level, I’m not hitting the Tortle Bladesinger or the far out ones, just using the more common examples for an accurate comparison of medium armor. Obviously anything ridiculously high is another example. Shields also aren’t added – just add +2 to literally anything to boost that total, exception being the barbarian who can be unarmored and still use shields.

Starting AC at Level 1

  • 12 AC: Unarmored Dex Bonus (many sorcerers or wizards before spell casting)
  • 13 AC: Hide Armor (M), Unarmored Barbarian with no shield
  • 14 AC: Padded (L), Leather (L), Ring Mail (H)*
  • 15 AC: Chain Shirt (M), Studded Leather (L), Unarmored Monk Avg Build, Unarmored Barbarian with shield
  • 16 AC: Scale Mail (M)*, Chain Mail (H)*, Unarmored Monk Optimized for AC
  • 17 AC: Tortle unarmored AC

This doesn’t look bad, but consider that in many low-level campaigns players don’t have access to the best medium armor options this early in the game…or they can’t afford it. This sort of artificially boosts medium armor in the very early game, which is honestly where it does the best compared to other options.

Asterisks (*) denote disadvantage on stealth checks.

Average AC at Level 4

  • 12 AC: Unarmored Dex Bonus
  • 13 AC: Hide Armor (M)
  • 14 AC: Ring Mail (H)*, Unarmored Barbarian with no shield
  • 15 AC: Chain Shirt (M), Padded (L), Leather (L)
  • 16 AC: Studded Leather (L), Scale Mail (M)*, Breastplate (M), Chain Mail (H)*, Unarmored Barbarian with shield
  • 17 AC: Tortle unarmored AC, Half-Plate (M)*, Splint (H)*, Unarmored Monk Optimized for AC

Asterisks (*) denote disadvantage on stealth checks.

Average AC at Level 8

  • 12 AC: Unarmored Dex Bonus
  • 13 AC: Hide Armor (M)
  • 14 AC: Ring Mail (H)*
  • 15 AC: Chain Shirt (M), Unarmored Barbarian with no shield
  • 16 AC: Scale Mail (M)*, Padded (L), Leather (L), Breastplate (M), Chain Mail (H)*
  • 17 AC: Tortle unarmored AC, Studded Leather (L), Half-Plate (M)*, Splint (H)*, Unarmored Barbarian with shield
  • 18 AC: Plate (H)*, Unarmored Monk Optimized for AC

Asterisks (*) denote disadvantage on stealth checks.

Average AC at Level 12

  • 12 AC: Unarmored Dex Bonus
  • 13 AC: Hide Armor (M)
  • 14 AC: Ring Mail (H)*
  • 15 AC: Chain Shirt (M),
  • 16 AC: Scale Mail (M)*, Padded (L), Leather (L), Breastplate (M), Chain Mail (H)*, Unarmored Barbarian with no shield
  • 17 AC: Tortle unarmored AC, Studded Leather (L), Half-Plate (M)*, Splint (H)*,
  • 18 AC: Plate (H)*, Unarmored Barbarian with shield
  • 19 AC: Unarmored Monk Optimized for AC

Asterisks (*) denote disadvantage on stealth checks.

As you can see, as the levels come up light armor, unarmored options lift up while medium armor gets less and less attractive. If you adjust AC to include a -1 for armor that gives disadvantage on stealth checks that makes light armor look even better while medium continues to fall compared to other options.

Why Does Medium Armor Struggle So Much?

Some of this might come from the fact that potential benefits of Medium Armor only occur if there is a DM who is really RAW hardcore into the details. Prime example: weight limits. I’ve never been in a game where the DM paid attention to the weight that each character had in gear and/or loot. Not in 5E DnD, anyway.

This means the one potential drawback of heavy armor, the weight limiting loot and other gear that can be carried, isn’t in effect at all. And the benefit of medium armor giving decent AC with mero carrying weight also doesn’t come into play.

This isn’t the main reason, but it’s one that explains the design. If the weight is taken into account medium armor looks better compared to heavy armor, but it just doesn’t matter in most campaigns.

The biggest reason is that since Dexterity is an important stat for most classes, especially those that use light and medium armor, the limits on DEX bonuses to Medium Armor (which do make sense) means that Light Armor can result in a higher AC AND no disadvantage on stealth checks. Since studded leather armor is easy to find, unless you have a game where there’s no magical light armor, but there is a lot of magical medium armor, then light armor is better than medium armor for almost all high DEX builds.

Which are pretty much all builds that don’t use heavy armor, or the barbarian, whose unarmored trait is good enough to still beat out medium armor.

The third are the medium armor feats. Frankly, Medium Armor Master is trash and really would be the starting point for fixing Medium Armor proficiency if it was the standard for medium armor. For a “Master” feat it’s just not something I can recommend.

Two Medium Armor Feats

There are two medium armor feats in D&D 5th Edition, not including Shield Master which we are treating as separate, and which I have reviewed extensively. Both of these feats are underwhelming, to say the least.

Moderately Armored Feat

Grade: D-

The only reason this isn’t an F is it gives shield proficiency, and shields are awesome. There’s a chance that shouldn’t even save this from being an F grade, but with all the amazing things in 5th Ed the less time I can spend around junk like medium armor the better. Plus I already did a deep dive on this feat.

You can also see my full 5e moderately armored feat review by clicking on that link.

Medium Armor Master Feat

Grade: D-

Medium Armor Master can make medium armor more palatable by taking away disadvantage on stealth checks and letting DEX-based characters go up to +3 on AC for a high enough Dexterity modifier.

As a feat, it’s mediocre. As a fix to medium armor, it’s actually not half bad but again – there are better options for most builds so it still struggles to justify itself as an entire feat.

But if I was to give it a grade for improving medium armor it would get a C.

You can see my full 5e medium armor master feat review by clicking on that link.

5E DnD Armor FAQ

Q: Is light armor better than medium armor?

A: Generally speaking a light armor build is better than a medium armor build in 5E. This is especially true for stealthy characters or character builds that are aiming for more than a 14 score in Dexterity. Studded Leather Armor with maximum Dex gives the maximum AC that the best Medium Armor has without the disadvantage on stealth checks, is much less expensive, and in RAW games weighs much less, making it a clearly superior choice assuming a maxed out DEX score.

Which classes like rogues and rangers will almost certainly have, and possibly druids who go feat-lite but ability score heavy.

Q: Why is medium armor so much worse than heavy armor?

A: Heavy armor simply has a much higher average AC and in many campaigns is found faster than the highest level medium armor. Full plate is hard to compete with, and medium armor wearers MUST have at least a 14 in DEX to even remotely compete with heavy armor, while heavy armor users can ignore DEX for STR or CON, giving them even more hit points in the second case.

The heavy armor master feat also crushes the medium armor master feat as far as usefulness on every level of a 5th Ed campaign.

Q: Are there any situations where taking medium armor make sense?

A: Very early game it might make sense for a short time, but medium armor doesn’t really scale at all in the game whereas the other options and AC combinations do.

Q: How to get medium armor proficiency when you don’t start with it?

A: There are two main options for getting medium armor proficiency if you don’t have it to start off. One is by taking the moderately armored feat. This grants medium armor proficiency as well as shield proficiency. However, you must already have light armor proficiency if you are going to go this route.

The other option is to multi-class into a class like Paladin or Fighter which already has medium armor proficiency and therefore gain it that way.

Q: How can I improve medium armor?

A: Medium Armor Master is pretty lackluster compared to other feats but if you really want to focus on a medium armor build for some reason, it does allow you to add +3 to your armor because of Dexterity (assuming you’re at a 16) instead of capping out at +2. This also removes disadvantage of stealth checks if you’re using half-plate or scale mail.

Q: What is the best medium armor?

A: The best medium armor in 5E by AC score is Half Plate which gives an AC of 17 as long as your DEX score is 14 or above. However, I’d argue that for most campaigns that AC 16 that comes with a Breastplate (assuming the DEX score of 14 or above) is better because it comes without disadvantage on stealth rolls, which come up often in most campaigns I’ve been in.

What’s the Final Verdict on Medium Armor?

Medium armor is all but worthless in 5th edition once you get past the low levels, and it rarely is the best choice early on. In pretty much every situation light armor + Dexterity score is better, unarmored defense as a class feature is stronger, or a combination of spells is better.

In other words, there are incredibly few areas where medium armor does any good and the fact that shields are so often attached to medium armor shows how much of a boost that fact is to the armor…but it’s not enough.

In the first three levels you might find a weird campaign scenario where medium armor is your best option but you need to fix that as soon as possible if you want to be long-term viable in your average D&D campaign.

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