Tuesday, March 11, 2014

How to Get a High Armor Class in Pathfinder

It's possible to run a Pathfinder campaign without combat. A talented storyteller and fully engaged players can maneuver through a huge range of different scenarios using nothing more than guile, stealth, and their wits to solve problems while still managing to maintain tension and suspense. Sooner or later though someone is going to try and solve plot by grabbing somebody and beating the information out of them. When that happens it's time to roll initiative, and to hope that when the dust settles the party is still in one piece. The best way to come through in one piece is to have the highest armor class possible, which is what we're going to talk about today in Improved Initiative's crunch department.

Before you read on I'd like a disclaimer here; this entry is not in any way, shape, or form claiming to have every answer for building the best armor class. Nor will this list have conditional AC benefits like a paladin's smite, since that only works against evil opponents. This is simply a list of the high notes players should be aware of, and which they might want to look into when building a concept who can take a hit and keep on coming no matter who is throwing the punch.

Right then. Let's get started...

Class Abilities

Some adventurers rely on training and skill over magic and metal to keep them safe from the slings and arrows of their foes. While not all of these class abilities work for every build, they're important to know about.


Do not fuck with this guy.
Monks can't wear armor, and as a result they have other ways to compensate. The primary method of compensation is that a monk adds both her dexterity and wisdom bonus to her armor class. Additionally, every 4 levels the monk gains another armor class bonus just for being a monk. Also at 4th level a monk gains access to her ki pool, and may spend 1 point as a swift action to add a +4 dodge bonus to her armor class for one round. Dodge bonuses are one of the only kinds of bonuses that stack, which is what makes this important.

Duelist and Kensai

The pointy end goes into the other man.
Both the duelist and the kensai (a magus variant found in Ultimate Combat) gain the canny defense ability. When not using a shield, and wearing no more than light armor these characters add 1 point of intelligence modifier to their armor class per level. This ability is denied to characters who are caught flat-footed or who are denied a dexterity modifier, but it's a great way to fight smarter.

Stalwart Defender

Approacheth me, brother!
An entire prestige class designed around being a rock, the stalwart defender gains a huge amount of bonuses to not being hit in combat. Starting at level 1 the defender receives a dodge bonus at AC, and it increases to +4 by the end of the class. Additionally the defender can enter a defensive stance, which increases strength and constitution, while providing an additional +2 dodge bonus to AC. The catch, of course, is that the defender can't move from that spot while fighting, and once the stance ends there are penalties similar to barbarian rage. If you want to outlast a horde or go toe-to-toe with a giant though, the stalwart defender can help you endure round after round.

Dragon Disciple

If you can't beat them, join them.
While most players take levels of dragon disciple for the ability boosts and the draconic flight and breath weapon, it does grant natural armor as the character progresses. It doesn't offer much, a +3 by the end of the prestige class, but it does warrant a mention for sorcerers that are looking for a way to bulk up.

Savage Barbarian

Why did you say it twice?
While one of the less-played barbarian variants, the savage barbarian (found in the Advanced Players Guide) foregoes armor in favor of natural toughness. This provides minor dodge bonuses as well as natural armor beginning at 7th level and adding every three levels past that. It isn't much, but it does qualify for the list.


Magi never do look like much.
The magus is a favorite for those who want magic and melee in equal measure. When mixing it up it's important to think about the spell shield arcana. For a single point from the character's arcane pool the magus can gain a shield bonus equal to his intelligence modifier for a round. At mid levels that can be one hell of a bonus.


At least one of them has been here. Recently.
While they aren't known for their huge armor classes, alchemists do gain natural armor from drinking their mutagens. Some variants gain more than others (cough Ragechemist cough), but the combination of natural armor with an increased dexterity score can make a lot of difference when it comes time to start smashing.


No one ever seems to expect them.
Inquisitors, like alchemists, can do a little bit of everything. They can wear armor, carry shields, and their judgment ability can provide them a sacred/profane bonus to their AC. It's not much at lower levels, but at higher ones these holy harrowers can be a major threat that just won't be stomped out.

Fighter Variants

They'll be at this all day.
Fighters are one of the go-to combat classes, and there are a lot of varieties that focus on providing characters with a higher AC. For players who want to walk out of a fight relatively unscathed it's a good idea to try out the following:

Shielded Fighter: Gain dodge bonuses in place of armor training when using a shield. Advanced Players Guide.

Swordlord: These masters of dueling gain dodge bonuses when making full attack actions with a dueling sword, and they gain bigger bonuses with smaller negatives when fighting defensively. Inner Sea Primer.

Freehand Fighter: These fighters attempt to use mobility and focus on a single, one-handed weapon to be as dangerous as possible. Gain dodge bonuses and lose armor training. Advanced Players Guide.

Armor Master: The armor master has figured out how to apply her shield and armor bonuses to touch attacks in a limited way. They lose bravery, but are safe behind their steel shells. Ultimate Combat.

Tower Shield Specialist: Found in Ultimate Combat, the tower shield specialist gains bonuses touch AC, can wield a tower shield more effectively, and can increase the effectiveness of any armor worn. Not a variant to sneeze at when it comes to armor class.


Let's get this party started.
Feats are the heart and soul of most combat-heavy characters, but it's easy to forget that feats can provide bonuses to one's defense as well as offense. While not all feats are created equal, here's a quick list of the ones that will help players avoid blows that could put them in the ground.

Dodge and Mobility: Rarely seen apart dodge provides a +1 dodge bonus to AC, and mobility provides a +4 bonus to AC against attacks of opportunity. They're both in the Core Rulebook.

Combat Expertise: A friend of lightly armored combatants everywhere, combat expertise allows a character to take a -1 to attacks, and a +1 to AC. When someone's BAB reaches 4, and every 4 after that the negative and bonus increase. This feat can be used along with the fighting defensively option, which also provides a +2 AC bonus and a -4 to attack. If a character has 3 or more ranks in the acrobatics skill, the +2 changes to a +3, which can be a game changer. This one's also in the Core Rulebook

Ironhide and Improved Natural Armor: Available for dwarves, orcs, and half-orcs, ironhide provides a +1 natural armor bonus. Improved natural armor can be taken on a 1-to-1 basis to increase that natural armor as well, giving these characters extremely thick skins. They're found in the Advanced Players Guide and Bestiary respectively.

Shield Focus: For characters who carry a shield, shield focus increases the amount of protection it provides. Core Rulebook.

Deflect Arrows, Missile Shield, Ray Shield: None of these feats increase your AC, but they do give you a "get out of being hit free" card that can be worth burning the feat slots. Deflect arrows allows a character to slap projectiles out of the air if he or she isn't flat-footed, and missile shield allows characters to do the same thing with a shield. Ray shield allows the shield to catch ray spells, saving the wielder some potentially nasty magical hurt. These feats are in the Core Rulebook and Advanced Players Guide respectively.

Dueling Mastery: This feat from the Inner Sea World Guide is another benefit for players who want to try out an Aldori Swordlord. It allows the sword to be treated as piercing for the purposes of being a duelist, it provides the Swordlord with a +2 to initiative if the sword is in hand when the check is made, and it provides a +2 shield bonus as long as the dueling sword is being wielded one-handed. The shield bonus drops to a +1 if it's being used in two hands.


Some armor is worn in the mind.
You can only take armor class so far without the aid of the mystical. For some characters magic is really the only option for increasing that all-important AC score. For those looking for solid defensive spells, there are plenty to choose from.

Shield of Faith: A level one cleric spell, the subject gains a +2 deflection bonus with an additional +1 for every six levels the caster has. Core Rulebook.

Magic Vestment: This spell adds a +1 enhancement bonus per 4 caster levels to a non-magical shield, suit of armor, or suit of clothing. Core Rulebook.

Cloak of Chaos: This spell provides a +4 deflection bonus to armor class, and a +4 resistance bonus on saves. The lawful variant is shield of law. Core Rulebook.

Barkskin: Grants a +2 natural armor bonus which increases by one for every three levels above 3rd to a maximum of +5. This bonus stacks with the subject's existing natural armor, but not with other enhancers. Core Rulebook.

Cat's Grace: Increase the subject's dexterity score by providing a +4 ehancement modifier. Increases armor class as well as reflex saves and other uses of dexterity. Core Rulebook.

Shield: This spell creates a floating, invisible shield that absorbs magic missiles and provides a +4 shield bonus. Core Rulebook.

Mage Armor: An old standby, this spell provides a +4 armor bonus to AC. Core Rulebook.

Vestment of the Champion: Like magic vestment, but for alchemists, and it only works on the armor or shield the user is carrying. Ultimate Magic.

Haste: Along with all its other effects, haste provides a +1 dodge bonus to AC. Core Rulebook.

Silk to Steel: This spell imbues a scarf with the properties of steel. It can be used as a whip, or as a shield which provides a +2 shield bonus. Ultimate Magic.

Ablative Barrier: Provides a +2 bonus to AC, and the first 5 points of damage are converted to nonlethal. The spell also grants DR 5/- against nonlethal damage. It lasts for 5 points per caster level with a maximum of 50 points before discharging. Ultimate Combat.

Litany of Defense: While this spell is active all enhancement bonuses on the subject's armor are doubled, and the subject is immune to fear. Ultimate Combat.

Tactical Acumen: this spell enhances all bonuses gained due to battlefield position (high ground, flanking, etc.) by a +1 insight bonus. The bonus increases by +1 for every 5 caster levels above 5th level. Ultimate Combat.

Bullet Shield: Taget gains a +4 deflection bonus against bullets and ranged attacks with +1 for every five caster levels. It also applies against scatter guns. Ultimate Combat.

Magic Items

The most powerful of relics.
There are a lot of magic items characters can use to gain additional AC. Aside from the obvious choices of magic armor, magic shields, and defending weapons (which allow the transfer of the weapon's enhancement bonus to the wielder's AC), there are a slew of useful little tools that can really save someone's bacon in a fight.

Necklaces and Rings

There are a few amulets and rings that any adventurer who wants to avoid having her insides on the outside will invest in. A ring of protection +1 to +5 is a great option for those who need a deflection bonus to armor class, for instance, and a ring of force shield can also help provide a great +2 shield bonus for those who eschew more traditional, ironclad protection. An amulet of natural armor provides an enhancement bonus to one's natural armor from a +1 to a +5, which can truly come in handy.

Bracers and Belts

The belt of great dexterity (or any belt that increases one's dexterity) is a great way to increase a character's AC. Bracers of armor are a good addition for those who can't wear regular armor, providing an armor bonus between +1 and +8. If a character gains AC from different stats, such as a monk's wisdom bonus or a duelist's canny defense drawn from intelligence, then an additional stat boosting item can net someone double the AC increase.

Ioun Stone

The dusty rose ioun stone provides a +1 bonus to AC. It's a pricey item, but it takes up no slots and can make the difference between being hit, and not being hit.

Monk's Robe

The monk's robe allows any character with monk levels to treat them as 5 higher, including all bonuses to unarmed damage and AC bonuses.

Final Notes

Very final.
Having a high armor class is great, especially if one considers miscellaneous things like a size bonus for small characters. However there are two things that are important to remember when specializing a character to avoid blows at every turn.

The first is that unless it expressly says in the description, bonuses don't stack. Enhancement, insight, luck, divine/profane, size, alchemical, you take the best one you have. Dodge bonuses are the only ones that stack, and you've seen how rare they are. While it might be possible to achieve a ridiculously high armor class in the 40s, make sure you didn't accidentally count a few bonuses twice.

Secondly, a high armor class isn't really all that impressive. Yes, yes, you just read through a huge document and now you're rarin' to build the biggest, baddest tank you can. That's great, as long as your ST only has you fighting foes your AC can stop. What happens if invisible enemies start attacking your duelist, who loses all insight and dexterity bonuses against those thrusts? What if your armored colossus now has to fight a spellcaster who deals in touch attacks? There's always a way around what you've specialized your character to do, and you need to be aware of your weaknesses so when those fights do crop up you're not crossing your arms and accusing the storyteller of not playing fair.

Always have a back up plan. Always.

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  1. You forgot the Synthesist archetype of the Summoner class, which can be built into an AC monster with awesome secondary defences such as immunities to elemental damage, DR, SR and some other resistances. Not to mention the huge pile of extra hitpoints that keep you standing if the enemies get lucky and do get a hack or slash through.

    How did you manage to overlook this?

    1. I did not forget the Synthesist. It's simply so big and so complicated that it would need its own guide. Since I wanted to focus more on the small bonuses that are more useful for general or multi-class characters, I purposefully didn't mention it.

  2. Kensai and Duelists get +1 of their Int bonus to AC per level. May have just been a typo, but you have only mentioned a flat +1 bonus.

    1. Thank you for pointing out the typo. It has been corrected.

  3. Also, a Kensai Magus is not proficient with any armor (even light). :) Very enjoyable read!

  4. Shield specialization lets you add your shield bonus (but not its enhancement portion) to CMD, another important consideration in the world of defense, and the tower shield specialist at 9th level adds their shield bonus to their touch AC (all of it). This can quickly make their touch ACs far less ... emm ... touchable, and their CMD more formidable (esp. if human and combined with the fighter +1 vs two manuevers favored class bonus vs, say, grapples and trips)

  5. You state: "the fighting defensively option, which also provides a +2 AC bonus and a -4 to attack. If a character has 3 or more ranks in the acrobatics skill, the +2 changes to a +3". Could you cite the source location that says with "3 or more ranks in the acrobatics skill, the +2 [of fight defensively] changes to a +3" AC bonus, please?

    1. It's in the description of the Acrobatics skill on page 90 of the Core book.

  6. You may want to mention boots of speed as a method of getting haste.

    Jingasa of the fortunate soldier gives a +1 deflection bonus to AC. It's more expensive than a ring of protection, but it has the added benefit of negating a crit once a day. Good choice if you want to free up a ring slot.

    Cape of the Swashbuckler
    +1 dodge bonus to AC. For mid to late game when adding to AC gets more expensive

  7. How did you miss Snake Style? You play a Wisdom-heavy class and dump every skill rank you can into Sense Motive!

  8. I know it is very niche, but check out the Stonelord dwarven racial archetype for Paladin. You lose a bunch of stuff, but if you are going for just AC, it is ridiculously broken. By around level 10, with ideal conditions, close to 50 AC.

  9. New monk archetype recently came out: Water Dancer. Uses Cha for monk class features instead of Wis (meaning Cha to AC from AC Bonus), and also gives 1 point of Cha per level to your AC as a dodge bonus. After several levels, you'll end up with 2 x Cha mod to AC. Of course, you still can't use armour with it.
    The Verdant Shifter archetype of the new Shifter class gives a natural armor bonus to AC starting at 2nd level. And, unlike a normal Shifter's Defensive Instinct, the Verdant Shifter's Wild Armor can stack with a monk's AC Bonus ability. It only works with no armour or light armour, however.

  10. There are 3 more cleric spells which give deflection bonus:
    BLessing of fervor(choose)
    Stunning barrier
    Protection from (evil)

  11. Investigator is like an alchemist in terms of getting high AC, as they get same mutagen and spells, but as the Dex variant has it as the first, not second stat, you are most likely to end with a higher AC.

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