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Inspired by this answer, and to avoid lengthy back and forth comments, I decided to make this a question in itself.

You can put on your helmet for +1 AC and disadvantage on Perception checks. In combat, this'll likely mean -5 to your passive Perception.

I believe that this is a pretty amazing trade. You are becoming a lot more difficult to hit because of bounded accuracy, and trading this for a minuscule chance that some enemy will be able to hide better from you to gain advantage.

Note that this is not, mathematically, the same as trading +1 AC for giving enemies advantage. As they will have to first take the Hide action to even be hidden to get that advantage, they're essentially sacrificing attacking twice to gain advantage (unless they're a rogue of sorts).

Is gaining +1 AC in combat by gaining disadvantage on Perception checks a balanced trade?

Note: I am working under the assumption that you will simply take your helmet off again after the fight, so you are not walking into traps or ambushes with disadvantage. You are putting on your helmet as your free object interaction in the first turn. The penalty only comes into effect during combat, as does the +1 AC.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Out of curiosity, is the assumption that you can don/doff the helmet as an interraction raw? Because I would have assumed that it would take at least an action to strap it back on. Also because I think this distinction is a huge power boost to the item's power \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Dec 6 '19 at 23:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ (Since I can't update : ) instead of raw, I should say raw or the way your group would treat a helmet. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Dec 6 '19 at 23:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @3C273 You can put on a mask or hood as object interaction. Not all helms had chin straps, but I should think the chin strap would be an action. I'm not sure it really makes a difference to the action economy, since you would usually draw your weapon (interaction) and put on your helm (action) on turn 1, or if you have your weapon out unstow helm (interaction) and put it on (action). It would only make a difference if you have your weapon unsheathed and helm in hand. \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Dec 7 '19 at 4:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Armor comes in four categories for role balance reasons - light, medium, heavy, shield - and carries penalties for wearing without proficiency. Which one does your homebrew helmet fall into? \$\endgroup\$ – 40355 says Reinstate Monica Dec 7 '19 at 4:52
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It is a very strong trade, combat-wise, as a free object interaction.

If you are exploring a dungeon, and have your weapons drawn, and helmet off, you minimize your risk of being surprised and use your object interaction to put the helmet on (assuming your DM lets you do so). If enemies are tricksters that rely on being hidden, you can choose not to put the helmet on, or remove it during combat.

The helmet might not be so useful on surprise combat in non-combat areas. If you don't have your weapons drawn, you need 2 turns to put the helmet on: on the first turn, draw weapon. On the 2nd, put the helmet on. 3 turns if you're a 2-weapon fighter.

That being said, armor usually takes more to be donned than 1 free object interaction. A shield takes an action, and heavy armor takes up to 10 minutes. Your DM may (like I would) classify the helmet as armor (since it gives you 1AC, and, flavor-wise, needs to be well adjusted on your head in order to be effective), and rule that a free object interaction is not enough to don it. When considering how balanced this is (or not), it has to depend on the rarity of the item that attributes it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that this should not be a free interaction logic wise. One could maybe make it some sort of visor that you have to put down to get the ac bonus. That may pass as a free object interaction. \$\endgroup\$ – findusl Dec 6 '19 at 12:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you saying it's a great trade as in it's not balanced (yeah, I'd always take that option!), or it's a great trade as in it's a reasonable exchange(ooh, that's a tough one to consider)? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Dec 6 '19 at 15:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I meant its a strong (nearly imbalanced) trade, I would very often take it. I updated the title \$\endgroup\$ – BlueMoon93 Dec 6 '19 at 16:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Putting on a mask or a hood are listed as free object interaction. In most cases you are going to require an action plus free object interaction to put on your helm, which means you are going to spend an entire turn putting it on. You could optimise your character to always have their weapon and helm in hand, clearly there are big disadvantages to that, but it would let you still attack on first turn. \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Dec 7 '19 at 0:29
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This is not balanced

The concern with this is that many characters who wear armor are on the front-line. Their job isn't to be perceptive, their job is to smash and stay alive. Trading away some perception for increased survivability becomes a no-brainer. And anything that's a "definitely yes" decision tree is unlikely to be balanced.

AC vs Perception

Whether or not skill checks are used in combat is going to be very DM dependent. Looking at this from a purely mechanical perspective, AC is always on. Skill checks are dependent upon the DM and on the table. Player roles also start to become involved. If someone has built a character for combat and is willing to let softer skills suffer (not an uncommon decision), then this becomes a very clear decision. Especially if other party members pick up the slack on the skills side.

But if your table utilizes perception and other skills more frequently, and more specifically in combat, then the trade-off becomes more interesting as they'll have to decide if it's 'worth it'. But at that point, as other answers have suggested, moving this to an action cost for don/doffing also becomes necessary.

Equivalence/relationship to existing magical items

+1 Armor

This is basically an option to turn on/off a +1 to armor. +1 armor is itself a rare item, so if you were to offer this, it should be treated like a rare magic item, but providing a cost for donning/doffing should also be a consideration. However, it's important to note that you can wear this and have it stack with the armor, which increases it's value/rarity when doing so.

Bracers of Defense

The Bracers provide a +2 AC, but have the limitation of no armor or shield being used. It's a standalone item that can't be combined with armor, but is still rated as Rare.

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YMMV

Ultimately it depends on what kind of game you are playing.

If you play a campaign that is essentially a hack 'n' slash meatgrinder where enemies move forward and attack, then having disadvantage on perception is no problem at all--you may never even roll perception the entire dungeon. You can also capitalize on the AC bonus by easily soaking up all the attacks from the mindless enemies.

However, if you are playing a more classic style game with tactics, traps, hazards, and enemies that may be drawn to the fight, then having disadvantage on perception is huge--you may be required to make perception checks multiple times per fight. What's more, the +1 AC may not really matter in this kind of game. Why use attacks against the tanky guy with the fancy hat? Attack the squish caster, use spells on the high AC tank!

And then there's the action economy...

Having one more item that needs to be donned and doffed during combat and takes up space in your hand or has to be stored on your body can cause you a lot of problems.

Again, if it's just a meat grinder, it doesn't matter.

But if you are playing a more roleplaying playstyle, then you probably want to have your hat off so you can use your perception. You may have a torch, you may have your shield in one hand, maybe you want to have a weapon at the ready, you may need a free hand for touching things.

Suddenly you don't have enough hands for everything, you need to prioritise. Assuming you have 1 hand free and 1 hand with a torch, on your first turn you probably want to retrieve your helm with free object interaction, and don it with your action. That's a whole turn used up. Next turn you can draw your weapon. Losing a whole turn of actions is a big disadvantage that shouldn't be underestimated. Similarly if you do need to Search then you need to doff your helm, which of course you need a free hand for...

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You can put your helm on before the party opens a door, for example. You don't want the whole party having -5 Perception as the door opens (in case of other threats from the sides as part of an ambush), but probably not everyone even wears any armor. So for some parties that have a couple PCs with good perception that wouldn't want helms anyway, this might still be a good option to have for cases where combat can be anticipated. Sure it won't help for every combat, but sometimes you can see enemies before they're right on top of you. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Dec 7 '19 at 5:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes And that is why it's good and interesting, it's a conscious choice that has advantages and disadvantages in all situations, but it also has varying effectiveness in different circumstances. \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Dec 7 '19 at 11:31
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It would not balance out unless donning and doffing the helmet was a full action.

In order for the trade to be balanced, the amount of positive should be equal, or near equal, to the negative. In this case, wearing a helmet gives a better armor class (positive) but gives disadvantage to perception checks (negative).

But you're also saying that donning the helmet is a free action. Which means the player will spend 99% of the time with it off (no negative) and only put it on at the start of combat with no penalty. So the only time the disadvantage would occur is during actual combat. I could count on one hand the number of times I needed a player to make a passive perception check during combat. But there aren't enough fingers and toes to count when +1 AC would have saved someone's bacon.

In order to balance it out, you need to make donning and doffing the helmet the same as donning and doffing a shield; 1 Action. Now the player must choose between always wearing the helmet so they are ready to go, or generally keeping it off to better see but losing a round of combat to increase their AC.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That's only true if the player walks around with the helmet in one hand and their (single) weapon in the other. Most of the time you will at least have a torch, a free hand, a second weapon/item you want to wield, etc. So even if your helm is in your hand and you can put it on as free interaction, then you need to use your action to draw your sword or whatever. \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Dec 7 '19 at 0:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ In a solo game (one PC) that might be true ... but as was mentionned in another answer, D&D is generally a group game and frontliners generally are not the ones with good perception (except many paladins). So this rule basically won't change much for most groups, perception wise while still making the frontliner much stronger (especially at lower levels). I personally would never get rid of my helmet and trust the rest of the group on perception checks. \$\endgroup\$ – Catar4 Dec 9 '19 at 21:23

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