How do you design monsters that ignore armor?

I'm trying to homebrew a nasty hornet swarm with some added attacks to make it more dangerous. One of the ideas that I had was to make the hornets crawl under the armor/clothes when attacking, thus ignoring the armor/shield bonus. I wonder if there are already mechanics for something like this in the game or monsters that do something similar. During my research, I could not find any monster with such mechanics. My access to books and knowledge is, unfortunately, limited.

If there are no rules for it, I would probably give them an ability like:

Attack from within By spending 5 feet of its movement, the swarm can crawl in between the armor of the target, attacking them directly. Use a target AC of 10 + Dexterity modifier for any attacks made in this state unless the target is wearing protective clothing, has unarmored defense or similar. This effect ends by the end of the swarm's turn when it crawls back out.

I would prefer to tweak a similar design. Is there a similar design, and if not, what kind of considerations do I have to make when homebrewing the monster?

• If a similar feature exists then that would be better to tweak I think, but otherwise, i'd appreciate advice on making it. – Coolcrab May 1 at 10:25
• Are these 'normal' hornets that are unnaturally gathered and directed in a swarm? – Kirt May 1 at 15:42
• "unless the target is wearing protective clothing" Presumably multiple types of armor would constitute protective clothing for large parts of the body... – ShadowRanger May 1 at 17:13
• Not a monster, but a spell that is of similar flavor: roll20.net/compendium/dnd5e/Insect%20Plague – Ben May 3 at 19:33

There are several options available to you

The spell shocking grasp (Player's Handbook p.275) has the clause

You have advantage on the attack roll if the target is wearing armour made of metal.

This is to simulate how fantasy-electricity $$\^1\$$ conducts through metal armour to the wearer, approximately negating the armour's protection. You probably want to do something similar.

In past editions (e.g. 3.5e, or its relative Pathfinder), there existed situational variants of AC. The relevant variant here is touch AC, which ignores armour-like bonuses to AC. But 5e has done away with such details for the sake of simplicity. I have seen nothing in D&D 5e that has a different AC calculation in different circumstances. A creature's AC is independent of its state or the type of attack. A creature keeps the same AC even if they are unconscious or paralysed (so cannot move) or targeted by a touch attack (which should ignore armour). Only donning or doffing armour or other protective effects or items change AC.

What has replaced situational variants or modifiers to AC is advantage and disadvantage. When circumstances make a creature easier to hit than its normal AC would suggest, the attack roll has advantage. For example, attackers have advantage against unconscious creatures to approximate their inability to dodge. In a more detailed simulation you would remove their Dexterity bonus to AC (flat-footed AC in 3.5e and Pathfinder), but 5e approximates it with advantage. Likewise, shocking grasp has advantage against opponents in metal armour to approximate the ineffectiveness (or even detriment) of the metal armour.

In your case, you could grant the swarm advantage on attacks against targets wearing medium or heavy armour. Light armour, with +1 or +2 AC, is probably not worth granting advantage against, which normally works out to around +4 or +5 to hit (depending on AC and to-hit), but that's your call. Also your call what to do with shields. But wherever you decide to draw the line, advantage is probably a good way to have an attack which has an easier time hitting armoured targets than their AC suggests.

Use a saving throw instead of an attack

Many spells and other features which only take effect if they touch the target with no regard to armour use a Dexterity saving throw.

For example, disintegrate (PHB p.233) calls for a Dexterity saving throw to avoid the thin green ray created by the spell, presumably to simulate dodging the ray.

Or see the Spawn of Kyuss (Volo's Guide to Monsters p.192), which has a bug related ability.

Burrowing Worm. A worm launches from the spawn of Kyuss at one humanoid that the spawn can see within 10 feet of it. The worm latches onto the target's skin unless the target succeeds on a DC 11 Dexterity saving throw.

Again, we a Dexterity saving throw used to simulate dodging something which ignores armour.

A different example is the insect plague spell (PHB p.254). It creates a 20-foot-radius sphere of insects.

When the area appears, each creature in it must make a Constitution saving throw. A creature takes 4d10 piercing damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. A creature must also make this saving throw when it enters the spell's area for the first time on a turn or ends its turn there.

There is also the similar infestation spell (Xanathar's Guide to Everything p.158).

You cause a cloud of mites, fleas, and other parasites to appear momentarily on one creature you see within range. The target must succeed on a Constitution saving throw, or it takes 1d6 poison damage and moves 5 feet in a random direction...

For these spells it is assumed there is no opportunity to dodge. Rather, the saving throw represents the target resisting and enduring the biting creatures. Whether you think a Constitution saving throw or a Dexterity saving throw is more appropriate is up to you (and might also depend on whether you already use Constitution saving throws elsewhere in its stat block). Note also that Dexterity saves for half damage are subject to Evasion and the Shield Master feat (but not Dexterity saves for no damage).

Just deal damage, no roll required

A few abilities, like the spell magic missile or a storm giant quintessent's Wind Javelin (Volo p.151), always strike and damage their target, regardless of their AC. These are attack-like in that they use an action and have projectiles. These abilities simulate unerring accuracy, which might not be quite what you are looking for, but it ignores armour.

Other abilities deal damage automatically when creatures are in a certain area, like a balor's Fire Aura, or a fire elemental's Fire Form.

Fire Form. ... The elemental can enter a hostile creature's space and stop there. The first time it enters a creature's space on a turn, that creature takes 5 (1d10) fire damage and catches fire.

This might be particularly appropriate for your swarm (which normally enter hostile creatures' spaces to attack them anyway), dealing some automatic damage each time it enters another creature's space in a turn. This would represent how it is impossible to escape unscathed when surrounded by the swarm.

$$\^1\$$ I say fantasy-electricity, because in real life metal armour would conduct electricity around the wearer, protecting them from the shock. This is the principle behind a Faraday cage. The extent of such protection would be dependent on how well connected all the metal parts are to each other and the ground (more metal is better).

• Regarding a creature's AC being independent of state, I think it's worth noting that a creature's AC remains the same even when they are paralyzed or unconscious. The clear intent seems to be that a creature only ever has one AC at a time, and AC should never need to be recalculated except when donning or doffing armor or other items that affect AC. – Ryan C. Thompson May 1 at 13:23
• @RyanC.Thompson I had that in a first draft but dropped it in a reorganisation. I'll stick it back in. – BBeast May 1 at 22:36
• Depends on if that metal armour were grounded and had an unbroken line of metal to that ground. With metal plates attached by leather, or a chain shirt, etc, the electricity is eventually going to have to move through you to get to the ground. It would also be possible to introduce more current than your ground could conduct. – Jason_c_o May 3 at 14:38
• I bet Faraday was locked in his cage in the first place as punishment for having the audacity of applying science to my fantasy world in the first place :P :D – dsollen May 3 at 15:59
• Regarding Dexterity saving throws: be sure to consider effects like Shield Master feat or the Monk/Rogue's Evasion ability. It's be a little funny to narrate a fighter deflecting a swarm of bees with his buckler. Might also be helpful to check out the Insect Plague spell. – Glasses2C_Sharp May 3 at 16:08

The most straight forward way to "ignore armor" is to do what spells do: don't roll against AC. This is an existing mechanic in lots of monsters, that force their opponent to make a save to avoid taking damage.

For a swarm, I would suggest either using a Constitution save to shrug off the damage, or just outright skipping the roll and dealing automatic damage.

There are no other effects that change the armor calculation for a character, my guess would be because it's a lot of mechanical complexity for essentially no gains over just skipping the attack roll or replacing it with a saving throw, or giving the monster Advantage on the attack or something simple and straight forward like that.

• I was about to comment on the main post that giving AC for dex or 'unarmored defense' didn't feel very logical to me. It's not as if your monk is going to dodge every single hornet in a swarm. Flat unavoidable damage seems more logical since there are too many insects to reasonable avoid any other way. The fact that it also simplifies combat roles and speeds up the game is an added bonus to the fact that it makes more logical sense that you can't avoid every hornet in a swarm no matter how good you are at defense. – dsollen May 3 at 15:58