Guidance – Rules 101: Fun with Armor

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be taking a look at some fun tricks that you can do with armor.

Today I’ve a shorter article for you today, a “Tricks of the Trade” article about something that most of you care about: armor! I wouldn’t call any of this “advanced,” by any stretch of the imagination, but I would call it an intermediate skill, so I thought it would be nice if I took the time to sit and discuss a rather effective gearing strategy that you could theoretically use if you wanted to. So without any further delay, let’s talk about weird tricks that we can do with armor!

For the purpose of this article, I’m assuming that you know all of the basic rules in the Core Rulebook. If you don’t, go read up on them; it might be helpful.

Crash Course: Non-Proficiency Penalties for Armor

All right, so before we start, I’d like to begin by refreshing everyone’s knowledge on how Armor Proficiency works. As you probably know, armor and shields require proficiency to use, and we’re sort of drilled to say, “Oh no! I better not use this if I’m not proficient?!” But honestly, when you sit down and read the rules, the non-proficiency penalty is … rather low. Basically, if you’re not proficient with a suit of armor or shield that you’re using, you add the armor’s check penalty on attack rolls. And that … is about it.

So if you’re a character who, for some reason, isn’t proficient with Light armor or something, there’s actually a rather sizable list of armor that you can wear without taking any noticeable penalties. They are: armored kilk, padded armor, quilted cloth armor, leather armor, rosewood armor, and leaf armor. Now, if you’re a monk, you still lose all of your class features for wearing these types of armors and if you’re a spellcaster, you still take arcane spell failure. So why is this good? Well, we need to refresh ourselves on the workings of masterwork armor and shields for this part.

Crash Course: Masterwork Armor and Shields

So yeah, if you make your armor or shield masterwork, its armor check penalty is reduced by –1, so adding to the above list, you can also wear: hide shirt armor, parade armor, studded leather armor, and buckler shields without any real penalty. That last one is pretty big: you can use a masterwork bucker with no real penalty! Great if you need an extra AC boost, but aren’t able to cast shield or proficient with traditional shields. (Note that this is why monks specifically cannot flurry with shields despite not being proficient with them; they technically could and take no penalties for it.) Now, a –1 penalty might not seem like a huge deal, but it becomes even more effective when you add in special materials.

Crash Course: Armor Special Materials

Pathfinder has two special materials that armor can be crafted from that reduces the armor’s overall armor check penalty and arcane spell failure. The first is mithral, which is incredibly well-known. The second is darkleaf cloth, which is basically the same thing as mithral, except with different armors that it affects. Basically, any armor that is mostly made from metal can be mithral while any armor that is mostly made from cloth, leather, or hide can be darkleaf cloth. Both items grant the following modifications: spell failure for armor and shields are decreased by 10%, maximum Dexterity bonuses are increased by 2, and armor check penalties are decreased by 3. Remember that the bonus for being masterwork and the bonus for being mithral / darkleaf don’t stack, so that’s just a flat reduction of 3.

With this modification, all kinds of shields are now ACP –0, while the following kinds of armor are added to our list: chain shirt (light), armored coat (medium), hide armor (medium). In addition, the following types of armor have their spell failure chance reduced to 0 if the character is wearing armor made from this material: quilted cloth armor, leather armor, and rosewood armor.

Believe it or not, though, that’s STILL not all of the moding that we can do to your armor’s ACP; there’s just a LITTLE bit more….

Crash Course: Armor Expert and Comfort

Armor Expert is an Advanced Player’s Guide trait that reduces the armor check penalty of any suit of armor (but not shield) that you wear by 1. Likewise, comfort is a special armor quality from the Pathfinder Society Field Guide that, among keeping your armor clean, fresh, and comfortable, reduces your armor’s armor check penalty by an additional 1 at the cost of 5,000 gp. That’s right; this doesn’t even require an armor bonus; its just a flat gold sum.

Assuming you have both of these on a mithral suit of armor, you can reduce your armor check penalty by up to 5, which reduces the armor check penalty of all types of Medium armor and one type of armor from the Inner Sea World Guide (field plate) to 0. For the most part, this is overkill, as the only Medium armor that has an Armor Check Penalty higher than 4 is chainmail, and overall chainmail is worse than having a breastplate because it has a higher ACP and a lower maximum Dex bonus.

So, with all this in mind, what sort of shenanigans can we do? Well, let’s take a peak!

Spellcaster Shenanigans

For casters, the big thing that we’re looking for is to keep our ACP and arcane spell failure at 0, so we don’t feel any sting when we’re casting. Now, unless we start buying into the Arcane Armor Training feats, this basically restricts us to light armor. The highest AC that we can get is from darkleaf cloth leather armor, which has no ACP and has its arcane spell failure of 10% reduced to 0. Leather armor has a +2 armor bonus and a darkleaf cloth version of the armor would cost 760 gp (light darkleaf cloth armor costs +750 gp). This is compared to bracers of armor +2, which cost 4,000 gp. Now, if you’ve got an extra 4,000 gp to burn anyway, you could enhance your leather armor to +2, which would give you a total bonus of +4, meaning that for 4,750 gp you’ve got a +4 armor bonus that gives you no ACP and no arcane spell failure. Yup, you’ve guessed it: you’re wearing mage armor all the time!

We can actually be even more ridiculous with shields. Normally using a buckler-bearing arm to cast a spell with somatic components costs you to lose that shield’s shield bonus to your AC and you flat-out can’t use a shield-bearing arm to cast such spells. Now, you could always have a shield in one hand and cast a spell with the other, but then you’ve got no weapon to help your buddies flank should they need that service from you. So, what are you to do?

Buy a klar. A klar counts as a weapon AND a light shield, so you can use your off-hand for casting and threatening, AND defend yourself with a klar. Better still, make your klar out of mithral for the low price of 1,000 gp and now your klar has no ACP or spell failure chance. Now you’ve got a shield with a +1 bonus and for 9,000 gp, your klar is as good as a shield spell. If that’s too expensive and you’re willing to use a heavier shield, a mithral light steel shield is virtually the same cost with the same ACP and spell failure, but has +1 to AC over the klar, meaning that you only need an extra 4,000 gp to be as good as a shield spell. Bearing in mind that a ring of force shield is an actual force shield, but for a mere +2 shield bonus for 9,000 gp. Yeah, I’d take the real shield too (or the spell for that matter).

Martial Shenanigans

Martials have it a bit easier than spellcasters; they typically don’t need to worry about arcane spell failure, they just need to worry about armor check penalty and speed. Mithral and Darkleaf Cloth knocks the speed rating of your armor down a notch, but that means if you’re going from Heavy to Medium, your speed is still impaired. As a general rule, the most common practice that I see is players taking the all-powerful mithral breastplate and combining it either with armor expert or the comfort armor ability to knock their ACP with the item to 0. That way, a rogue could technically wear Medium armor without suffering any penalties at all.

What’s interesting about the tactics here is that many martial abilities specifically say, “While you’re wearing X” kind of armor, and thanks to a recent FAQ regarding mithral armor, all of your cool class features that care about what kind of armor you’re wearing take mithral into consideration when deciding if you get the ability’s benefit. For instance, a brawler loses a few of her class features if she wears Medium or Heavy Armor, but a mithral breast plate counts as Light armor to her, so she can wear a Light breastplate and be fine so long as her armor doesn’t have a check penalty (or as long as she’s properly proficient with it). Likewise, a barbarian can wear mithral full plate and not lose her fast movement ability. The only class that’s REALLY hurt by this are classes like the monk, which specifically state “no armor.” Not even mithral can downgrade Light armor to No Armor, so none of these tricks work with the monk or any character that gains monk-like restrictions.

Well, that’s all the time that I’ve got today! Have any questions or comments? Leave your answers below, and check back in on Friday for another Iconic Design! Take care.

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander "Alex" Augunas is an author and behavioral health worker living outside of Philadelphia in the United States. He has contributed to gaming products published by Paizo, Inc, Kobold Press, Legendary Games, Raging Swan Press, Rogue Genius Games, and Steve Jackson Games, as well as the owner and publisher of Everybody Games (formerly Everyman Gaming). At the Know Direction Network, he is the author of Guidance and a co-host on Know Direction: Beyond. You can see Alex's exploits at, or support him personally on Patreon at

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  1. Actually, Hellknight Plate is an odd case. If you actually read the description, it says, “These distinctive suits of armor are a special type of masterwork full plate that, when worn by a character with levels in the Hellknight prestige class, grants additional effects.” So, it’s already masterwork, which interacts oddly with mithral, which is already automatically masterwork, but I think most DM would probably rule mithral only provides a (-2) benefit on top of the already existing masterwork condition, given it’s explicitly said to essentially be full plate that provides special benefits for Hellknights, which combined with Armor Expert (-1), and Comfort (-1) would only reduce the Armor Check Penalty +1. A bit more advanced, but are you familiar with the Steelbone Frame from People of the River? It’s a 6,000 gp magic item that’s basically a magical exoskeleton that can be attached to any medium or heavy armor and reduces the Armor Check Penalty by -2, as well as letting you ignore the reduction of speed your armor gives you for a round three times a day. However, it also adds 35 lbs. to the weight of your armor, but if you’re strong enough, even full plate can be reduce from a -6 Armor Check Penalty to 0 with mithral (-3), Steelbone Frame (-2), and your choice of Armor Expert (-1) or Comfort (-1), depending on whether you find the enchantment or the trait to be less expensive in the long run.

  2. Darkleaf specifically says it won’t reduce spell failure lower than 5%. It doesn’t zero it out completely.

  3. Another neat trick is for animal companions: use leather, mw studded leather, mithral chain, or even mithral kikko armor to get an ACP of 0. Your honey badger doesn’t care about arcane spell failure.

  4. make a +5 buckler, get a good armor that doesnt block your spell casting, rings of protection natural armor and you got a tank caster. btw bracers got their advantages as they are armor made of force that helps against touch and incorpreal, and they weight like nothing which is good for low strength character, a +5 mithral chainmail can be beast, but for a really high dex (24 dex+) you should have a good old bracers

  5. Another option which can be added to these is to give the armour the Nimble property. This is a fairly cheap (1000g) improvement that stacks with nearly everything and reduces the ACP by 1, as well as increasing the maximum dex bonus by 2. The downside is that it decreases the armour’s AC bonus by 1. Still, though, nimble (-1) mithral (-3) full plate of comfort (-1) has 0ACP if you happen to have the Armour Expert trait, and with a +8 AC it’s still 2AC better than a breastplate. The maximum dex bonus is also a reasonable +5. It also means that if you don’t take the trait, you can get a slightly cheaper, slightly worse, breastplate – though it might be worth seeing if you can talk your GM into letting you “upgrade” the Nimble into a comfort enchantment by paying the difference.

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