Saturday, June 11, 2016

In Praise of Mage Armor

When it comes to Pathfinder, and even older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, we tend to get distracted by the shiny red balls. You know, those 9th-level spells, and 20th level class abilities that you rarely get to have for more than a session or two at the end of a campaign. However, as I pointed out in posts like The Best Alchemical Items For Your Pathfinder Party, sometimes we forget how truly powerful lower-level abilities and items can be, when properly utilized.

That's why, today, I'd like to talk about Mage Armor, and ask why it is we aren't abusing the holy crap out of it.

Come at me, bro!

What Makes Mage Armor So Great?

All right, let's begin at the beginning, here. So, we all know that Mage Armor is one of those bread-and-butter spells for spellcasters at lower levels. Wizards and sorcerers everywhere will take this spell because it grants them a +4 armor bonus to their AC, it lasts for hours per level, and it's a force effect, so incorporeal creatures can't ignore it. However, as you start getting access to more powerful magic items, better spells, etc., mage armor tends to fall by the wayside. You probably still pre-cast it on yourself, but it's far from your most impressive spell.

Of course, there's a lot of mileage you can get out of this first-level spell. Even if you're not a wizard.

This is where shit starts to get weird, isn't it?
On the one hand, it's important to remember that if you have two sources of the same bonus, like DR 5/- from being a barbarian, and DR 10/silver for being a werewolf, that you use the bigger bonus. However, it's equally important to remember that if the bigger bonus is ignored, the secondary one comes into play.

So, let's say you're a full-plate tank, but your party is going up against incorporeal enemies. You might not have the money for ghost touch armor, but having the wizard tap you on the head with Mage Armor (or getting a wand of it, since the spell lasts for hours per the caster's level) means that you still have a +4 bonus to your AC those ghosts can't ignore. If you couple it with Shield (cast from a spell-like ability, wand, or scroll, since its target is You), then you have a +8 bonus to your AC against those pesky ghosts. Sure, that won't come into play if you're just going toe-to-toe with a troll, but it can be a lifesaver if you're trying to avoid that bad touch.

And, let us not forget, there are a lot of characters who don't wear armor, but who still aren't spellcasters.

The monk is probably the most obvious candidate. After all, adding your Dexterity modifier, your Wisdom modifier, and your monk AC bonus together isn't bad, but why not add a floating +4 armor bonus that lasts for hours, doesn't count as armor, and has no negatives associated with it? The same is true for the swashbuckler, the gunslinger, and the duelist; the classes grant you additional bonuses based on wearing light or no armor, and if you're going to be leaping about making Acrobatics checks, the last thing you want is an armor check penalty screwing you up. And if you're a member of a class that doesn't get Use Magic Device as a class skill, just remember the Dangerously Curious trait is all you need to fix that problem.

Animal companions, mounts, and familiars can also make great use of this spell. After all, no one wants their pet wolf, or mouthy pseudodragon, to wind up getting skewered by the enemy. Which is why a simple tap on the head can make them that much harder to hurt, over and above the abilities they gain for being unique class features. Rogues also benefit from mage armor. They get all the bonuses they'd have from wearing a chain shirt, but they are free to be as sneaky and stealthy as they can be. What's even better, though, is that mage armor can be worn anywhere without giving it away. When you're in the pub gathering information, or at dinner with the duke, you can keep some protection going without worrying about committing the social faux pas of wearing a brigandine to the ball. Even barbarians who favor a shield, like the Savage Barbarian archetype, can combine their natural armor with Mage Armor to make them much harder to hit before they go a-raging across the battlefield.

How Do You Get Mage Armor?

Well, the easiest way to get access to Mage Armor (and Magic Vestment, if you want to stack the bonuses together), is by becoming good friends with the spellcasters in your party. At mid-level, the wizard or sorcerer would probably be more than happy to reserve a level 1 spell for you, assuming you've proven that keeping you alive is key to their survival and success. The cleric may do the same. However, not all spellcasters are willing to armor their allies instead of themselves. That's when you have to get creative.

Just how creative are we talking, here?
Well, one way you can make sure you have Mage Armor on hand is to buy a wand of it, shell out the extra gold to get it from a higher-level caster so you don't have to refresh it every hour, and be sure your Use Magic Device skill is up to snuff. That way you can pop yourself on the head, but you don't have to eat up your first action in combat. You could also use a ring of spell storing, or, if you have rogue levels, get the Major Magic rogue talent, and select Mage Armor as your spell-like ability. The advantage of this is that you get the spell at a higher caster level, even if you're doing a multiclass character.

Just One Tool in The Toolbox

It's important to remember that you have a plethora of options when it comes to your adventuring toolbox. Mage Armor, and similar low-level spells, might not be as shiny as the pneumatic head-crushers you get at higher levels, but sometimes you just need a claw hammer to get the job done.

Thanks for dropping in! I hope everyone found this week's Crunch topic useful. If you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative going, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar? As little as $1 a month gets you some sweet swag, and makes it that much easier for me to keep doing what I'm doing. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, why not start now?


  1. One minor mistake... Magus does not have mage armor on their spell list.

    1. Not sure how that's a mistake, LazarX. I don't believe I mentioned the Magus.

    2. You did "At mid-level, the wizard, magus, or sorcerer would probably be more than happy to reserve a level 1 spell for you"

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I find this option (house-rule) to be amazing:

  3. Have you heard about our Lord and Savior Inertial Armor?
    that moment when the party psion gets more AC than the tank!

  4. On the topic of getting Mage Armor for your Monk or like from a friendly spellcaster, consider buying them the present of a Pearl of Power (1st). For 1000gp, not much more than the cost of a CL 1 wand of a 1st level spell (which would be 750gp), you've basically given them an extra daily use of any one 1st level spell they have prepped (or known, if Spontaneous).

    Ask nicely that they use it on Mage Armor, and presto, you got +4 AC that applies to incorporeal touch attacks for 1000gp! If the time comes that you get a magic item or other bit of gear that does the job for you, they'll be able to use it on other utility spells instead; like the article mentioned, there's tons of good 1st level utility spells.