Can my human character become incorporeal with a spell and add his armor bonus (braces of armor) or shield bonus to his AC?

I have not found one Incorporeal monsters having armor or shield bonus on their stats. But at the same time, in the descriptions on incorporeals in the Monster Manual 3 page 216, it is only mentioned that they do not have natural armor bonus.

  • \$\begingroup\$ RE: "I have not found one Incorporeal monsters having armor or shield bonus on their stats[.]" Was the Monster Manual entry for the ghost 5th-Level human fighter (117) insufficient? (It's okay to still have the question if that example was simply overlooked; incorporeality is a pain.) \$\endgroup\$ Dec 3, 2022 at 18:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Thank you for your reply, I had a look and it has two ACs (12 OR 21). in the first the armor and shield is not added, in the second it is. The same is for attack bonuses (+6 OR +8 against other incorporeals). I dont know what to conclude from this except that it applies when attacking other incorporeals but not with non icorporeals? \$\endgroup\$
    – Digius
    Dec 3, 2022 at 19:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Digius With a quick look, Str mod is 2 points higher than Dex mod (and an attack is 2 points higher against etherial foes, not against other incorporeals). \$\endgroup\$ Dec 6, 2022 at 18:14

2 Answers 2


You lose your armor and shield bonuses

Explicitly, you lose your natural armor and armor bonuses. It's implicit that you lose your shield bonus. It's unsaid, but reasonable to extrapolate, that you retain these bonuses from force effects.


Strictly, the Monster Manual is the primary source on creatures and their abilities; anything that another source says that contradicts the primary source is either superseded by the primary source, or is a special case. Anything that does not contradict the primary source could potentially be considered to be clarification. Examples and assumptions in other works might also serve to clarify how the rules are supposed to work, but author or editor intent might not be attributable, and mistakes or misinterpretations often occur.

Regarding incorporeal armor, the Monster Manual entry on the incorporeal subtype (310-11) only mentions natural armor:

[...] An incorporeal creature has no natural armor bonus but has a deflection bonus equal to its Charisma bonus (always at least +1, even if the creature’s Charisma score does not normally provide a bonus) [...] An incorporeal creature’s attacks pass through (ignore) natural armor, armor, and shields, although deflection bonuses and force effects (such as mage armor) work normally against it.

The rules on incorporeality from the Player's Handbook (309) say:

[...] An incorporeal creature has no armor or natural armor bonus (or loses any armor or natural armor bonus it may have when corporeal)[...]

The rules on incorporeality from the Dungeon Master's Guide (294) say:

The physical attacks of incorporeal creatures ignore material armor, even magic armor, unless it is made of force (such as mage armor or bracers of armor) or has the ghost touch ability.

In the same book, the ghost touch armor/shield property (219) shows that armor and shield bonuses are lost, since incorporeal creatures only benefit from the enhancement bonus of the armor or shield:

Both its enhancement bonus and its armor bonus count against the attacks of incorporeal creatures. It can be picked up, moved, and worn by incorporeal creatures at any time. Incorporeal creatures gain the armor or shield’s enhancement bonus against both corporeal and incorporeal attacks, and they can still pass freely through solid objects.

These rules, though not explicit in the Monster Manual entry on the incorporeal subtype, are reflected in the sample ghost's stat block; it has a manifested (incorporeal) AC with no armor or shield bonus but adding a deflection bonus, and an ethereal AC with both its armor and shield functional and no deflection bonus.

Later publications, such as Monster Manual III (214-5), Libris Mortis (140-3), the Rules Compendium (64-5), and the (now archived) glossary all have updated rules regarding the incorporeal subtype, which change nothing regarding whether an incorporeal creature has an armor bonus. The pertinent part of these updated rules says:

[...] Any equipment worn or carried by an incorporeal creature is also incorporeal as long as it remains in the creature’s possession [...] Magic items possessed by an incorporeal creature work normally with respect to their effects on the creature or on another target.

The importance of an incorporeal creature's equipment being incorporeal is not spelled out, but is readily inferred, both from what the incorporeal creature's attacks ignore, and the sample ghost: armor and shield bonuses are ineffective unless they're either made of force, or have the ghost touch quality. Since the incorporeal magic items still function with respect to the incorporeal creature, a ring of force shield or bracers of armor would still function, providing shield and armor bonuses, and being made of force, it's reasonable to assume they'd be effective versus material and incorporeal attacks.

To clarify: the force effects working for the incorporeal creature is not explicit anywhere, but can be extrapolated. However, if they do work, as DM I'd rule that the force effects prevent the creature from passing through material objects. Some authors might have assumed that even force effects don't benefit incorporeal creatures (see the psion uncarnate, below)

There are a couple creatures that I can recall who have special abilities to benefit from armor while being incorporeal:

The psion uncarnate has a special version of incorporeality in his shed body ability

[...] His material armor remains in place and continues to provide its armor bonus to AC (see Uncarnate Armor, [below]). His material weapons also remain corporeal. [...] He can use equipment normally, deriving benefits from items that enhance his capabilities; however, all his equipment remains material even when the character is uncarnate (but see the assume equipment ability, described below).

Uncarnate Armor (Su): A psion uncarnate wearing armor (or using inertial armor or a similar effect) gets his armor bonus to AC even when he becomes incorporeal (see Shed Body, below). However, unlike other incorporeal creatures, a psion uncarnate does not gain a deflection bonus to Armor Class from his Charisma modifier. This ability works even if the armor being worn becomes incorporeal (such as through the use of the assume equipment ability described below).

Assume Equipment (Su): Beginning at 3rd level, a psion uncarnate can designate a number of pieces of his worn equipment (including armor and weapons) equal to his psion uncarnate level to become incorporeal when he uses his shed body ability. This has no effect on the equipment’s function, but now when the psion uncarnate is incorporeal, he can enter or pass through solid objects while wearing nothing other than the designated equipment. Once designated, the equipment automatically changes to incorporeal when the character sheds his body, and it returns to corporeality when the character does. The character can change his designations as he desires.

The phantom template (Monster Manual V 130-31) grants creatures whose base CR is 5 or higher:

Phantom Defense (Su): A phantom’s armor bonus, deflection bonus, natural armor bonus, and shield bonus count toward its Armor Class, whether it or its attackers are incorporeal or corporeal.

  • \$\begingroup\$ tank you for your reply. I have one point in regards to your answer: If we extrapolate that bracelet of armour would work on incorporeals as they are force effect then, for any player that wears the bracelets, the bonus AC is not lost not even with contact attacks (which is not the case as it is considered as armour bonus) as it is force effect. How does this sound? \$\endgroup\$
    – Digius
    Dec 10, 2022 at 9:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Digius Bracers of Armor are effective against attacks by incorporeal creatures; the rules state this without extrapolation. Where we have to extrapolate, or house-rule if you prefer, is whether the armor bonus from a force effect benefits incorporeal creatures. I'm happy to rule that Armor and Shield bonuses from force effects benefit incorporeal creatures in my games, but it's for consistency. The rules don't imply that incorporeal creatures normally get to keep any form of armor or shield. I believe that it's very reasonable that they should work, but not that the rules say it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chemus
    Dec 10, 2022 at 20:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Digius If there are no incorporeal creatures in the mix, bracers of armor don't apply to touch AC—the force effect isn't far enough from the wearer's body. Just as a cleric can inflict wounds a fighter by touch his armor instead of him, she can inflict the wizard by touching the bracers' force effect. Whether they protect against incorporeal touch attacks is unclear (the rules just state "physical attacks"), but it makes sense that a shadow's touch attack requires it to pass through a body, rather than just make contact, so the bracers would work. But a ghost's inflict spell? Up to you. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 11, 2022 at 15:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Prevarications It is not so unclear: ... An armor bonus doesn't apply against touch attacks, except for armor bonuses granted by force effects (such as the mage armor spell) which apply against incorporeal touch attacks... And inflict spell (ghost's or not) would be regular touch attack. But an above ghost may deliver its touch spell via incorporeal touch, like a human can via regular attack with his fist. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 11, 2022 at 21:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @annoyingimp The unclear part is that force armor bonuses apply against the "physical attacks" of an incorporeal creature. "Physical" isn't defined anywhere in the rules as far as I'm aware. Your resolution distinguishes between the touch attack in touch spells and the touch attack of, say, a spectre or shadow, but that's not normally a distinction the rules draw. One could also read it that bracers of armor apply only against an incorporeal creature's non-touch attacks, or that they work against any attack requiring contact with an incorporeal creature, up to and including a touch spell. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 11, 2022 at 21:53

Short Answer

Technically you get to add all your normal modifiers except natural armor to your AC while incorporeal, but it's complicated enough that some DMs might rule otherwise.

Nothing in the very scattered rules about incorporeality stop you from getting an armor or shield bonus to AC, but 3.5 authors seem to have assumed that to be the case, to the point where a DM might find it easier to rule it that way.

Even if your DM goes with the various examples that have incorporeality ignore armor bonuses, bracers of armor are explicitly called out as force effects on page 295 of the Dungeon Master's Guide (as well as described as such on page 250), where it says they affect incorporeal creatures. There's no sensible reading of the rules where bracers of armor don't give their benefit. The same is true of the spells mage armor and shield.

Long Answer

The Rules for Incorporeality

The rules for incorporeality were originally split between pages 294 – 295 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, which have a general description of incorporeality, and pages 310 – 311 of the Monster Manual, which describe the incorporeal subtype. At some point quite early into 3.5 (during the writing of Complete Arcane and Monster Manual III, judging from a sidebar by Chris Thomasson on page 65 of the Rules Compendium), there was a concerted effort to make all incorporeality into the incorporeal subtype.

Ultimately, the rules for incorporeality were split between the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Monster Manual, the Monster Manual III (an update of the Monster Manual rules), Libris Mortis (an in-depth synthesis of the previous three sources), and the Rules Compendium (which tries to overwrite the DMG rules with the MMIII rules). To make matters worse, the archetypal incorporeal creature, the ghost, is a nonfunctional mess (it's supposed to be incorporeal only on the Material Plane, but it never loses its incorporeal subtype on the Ethereal Plane. Its stat block, which I suspect is the source of all the subsequent misunderstandings, lists two ACs, presumably one for when it's incorporeal and one for when it isn't, but the stat block is simply wrong).

Problematic Examples

It's easy to look at a creature like the Sacred Watcher (Book of Exalted Deeds 182) with its armor class of:

12 (+1 Dex, +1 deflection), touch 12, flat-footed 11, or 21 (+1 Dex, +8 full plate, +2 large shield), touch 11, flat-footed 20

and think that it doesn't get its plate armor AC bonus while incorporeal—certainly, whoever wrote the stat block seemed to think that was the case.

Then there's the Psion Uncarnate, from the Expanded Psionics Handbook, with its Uncarnate Armor class feature:

A psion uncarnate wearing armor (or using inertial armor or a similar effect) gets his armor bonus to AC even when he becomes incorporeal (see Shed Body, below).

According to the rules, this ability shouldn't need to exist: nothing says a character doesn't get his armor bonus to AC, but it's clearly implied here that he wouldn't unless he were a Psion Uncarnate.

As a final example, take the Spirit Shaman's ability Spirit Form:

While incorporeal, a spirit shaman gains all the advantages of the incorporeal subtype, including immunity to all nonmagical attack forms, a 50% chance to ignore damage from any corporeal source, and the ability to enter or pass through solid objects. The spirit shaman loses any armor or natural armor bonus to AC, but gains a deflection bonus equal to her Charisma modifier (minimum +1).

Unlike the previous examples, whoever wrote this class feature codified their misunderstanding into the ability: in a RAW game, everyone else gets to keep their armor bonus while incorporeal (because nothing says they don't), except the poor Spirit Shaman.

How Should You Play It?

Either the DM has to houserule incorporeality or fix a bunch of erroneous stat blocks; depending on the DM's style and inclinations, either is a valid fix.

Ultimately, the AC of an incorporeal PC probably doesn't matter all that much. The only people who are trying to hit a ghostly wizard with a sword are the types of people who hit things really well; other people will just use spells. If a DM isn't fazed by a PC's ability to zip through doors and hide in the floor, then chances are that DM won't have a problem with a high AC, so I don't think letting armor and shields work while incorporeal is a problem in terms of balance—it's just so much less relevant than the other problems incorporeality brings.

Personally, I would go with RAW and say that incorporeal creatures do get their armor and shield bonuses to AC, and I would ignore or change the preponderance of examples that say otherwise. I wouldn't do this because I necessarily think it's "more correct," but because I think it might create for some memorable encounters against incorporeal monsters with equipment and am willing to re-stat monsters on the fly if it comes up in a game and take a bit of time retooling the various PC classes that assume no armor while incorporeal. It's definitely the safer option to rule otherwise, however: fewer concerns about power level, and less re-writing for the DM to do.


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