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I was poking around answering for this question about the highest AC possible for a sorcerer and noticed something odd.

It doesn't seem to be possible except in the case of the Barbarian to naturally get your AC over 20 without the use of magic items.

Is there a way that I'm missing or is this a relatively hard and fast rule (with the noted exception of the Barbarian).

The Barbarian's exception lies in the fact that he gets to add Dex and Con to his AC, and his Level 20 capstone is a +4 bonus to CON (to a max of 24, which I'll assume here), which gives him a potential AC of 24 (Dex +5, Con +7, shield +2).

(Note: I'm looking for permanent solutions; if you want to delve into spells, they should have duration similar to mage armor and not require concentration.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Would the shield spell count if it was using the wizards spell mastery? That is effectively permanent as long as you have a reaction available \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jan 29, 2021 at 14:48

8 Answers 8

24
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Dual-wielding Monk

A simple way is to be a Monk with the Dual Wielder feat, 20 Dex, and 20 Wis. This gives you a 20 AC from Unarmored Defense, with +1 from the Dual Wielder feat for a total of 21.

This can be increased by 2 in most combat rounds if you're a Kensei. If you use a kensei weapon and a monk weapon in your hands to count as dual-wielding, you can make unarmed attacks by kicking your enemies. Any round you kick using your Attack action gives you +2 to AC from the Kensei's Agile Parry feature, for a total of 23.

Defensive Style

A Fighter, Ranger, or Paladin can take the Defensive Style feature, which gives them +1 AC when wearing armour. This gives them a maximum of 21 (18 from plate, +2 shield, +1 style).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Why can't a dual-wielding Fighter take both the Defensive Style and the Dual Wielder feat? Multiclass with Monk or Barbarian for unarmed defense and you can have AC22. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Dec 13, 2018 at 5:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin Dual Wielder gives you +1, a shield gives you +2. Also, you need to be wearing armour to take advantage of Defensive Style, so that can't stack with Unarmored Defense. \$\endgroup\$
    – DuckTapeAl
    Dec 13, 2018 at 6:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah, didn't know about the Defensive Style armor restriction. Thanks. +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Dec 13, 2018 at 6:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ The monk got better with the release of Way of the Kensei in XGtE: after attacking with an unarmed strike, you get +2 AC. This can reliably triggered and should fulfill the "permanent" restriction imo. Just convince your DM that for a monk, a hand is a weapon (so you still get dual-wielding) or that you can kick someone (so you can dual-wield weapons, but still get an unarmed attack in). \$\endgroup\$
    – DonFusili
    Dec 13, 2018 at 8:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW I don't think Rangers use Heavy Armor \$\endgroup\$ Feb 29, 2020 at 14:14
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Combine Full Plate and Shield with racial and class options for AC 26 without spells

There are at least three ways to get an extra +1 to AC on top of the AC 20 that full plate and shield provides to you, and possibly five:

  • Warforged get +1 to AC from their Integrated Protection feature. ("You gain a +1 bonus to Armor Class.")

  • Fighters with the Defense fighting style wearing armor get +1 to AC.

  • Forge Domain clerics can use the feature Blessing of the Forge to enchant their armor for +1 to AC. 1

  • The Soul of the Forge feature Forge Domain clerics get at 6th level adds +1 to AC while wearing armor.

As per this Q&A, you can combine all four of these, for a total AC of 24.

  • Artificers get infusions on level 2. This adds +1 AC for infusing your shield with Enhanced Defense. You cannot get more because you cannot use the same infusion more than once.1

As a warforged fighter with Defensive fighting style, Chainmail and Shield you can start with AC 20 at level 1. By level 2, taking one level of Forge Domain cleric, you already will achieve AC 21, and by level 3 you should be able to upgrade to Splint Mail for AC 22. By sixth level, you will be able to afford the Plate Mail for AC 23, and by seventh level gain an extra AC for AC 24. Now take artificer levels. By ninth level, you get AC 25 from infusing your shield with Enhanced Defense, by 19th level you get another +1 to AC from better Enhanced defense on your shield alone, for a total of AC 26.

Alternative approaches to AC

The alternatives forgo (heavy) armor and sometimes shield to get to add a stat bonus (Wisdom for the Monk, Intelligence for the Bladesinger wizard, Constitution for the Barbarian) and win back the Dexterity bonus that gets quenched by heavy armor.

Normally a best case for this is +10 to AC from stats, for the +8 to +10 from armor and shield. This is on par for baseline, but it means they cannot benefit from magic armor or shield bonus or enhancement features that work only with them, and have to find alternatives, like Dual Wielder.

Both the Barbarian and the Monk set your base AC to be 10 + Wis/Con + Dex, so they cannot benefit from natural armor or mage armor. The Bladesinger can (and can also use light armor).

With a variant human bladesinger 10/artificer 10, with two weapons and the Dual Wielder feat, in bladesong you would get to total AC 25 (AC 14 infused studded leather armor (+2), +5 Int from Bladesong, +5 Dex, +1 Dual Wielder. Close, but not quite as good. (I think using a warforged would not work, as it has +2 to Con that leaves you short of ASIs to max Dex/Int and take Dual Wielder).

With a warforged barbarian (the +1 bonus does not depend on armor), if you agree to Axoren's reading that you can use the Tavern Brawler / Dual Wielder feats to treat your shield as an improvised weapon while it adds its AC, you also get to a total AC 26 (10, +7 Con, +5 Dex, +2 shield, +1 Dual Wielder, +1 Integrated Protection). Else, again 25 AC, either not quite as good.

Why is this so hard?

Two of the features listed for armor based approaches compete with the improvements you could get from +1 or +2 armor and shields over time. It is really only Defense fighting style, Integrated Protection (and warforged are not available in all settings), and Soul of the Forge (from an optional class) that come on top; considering the large number of races, classes and subclasses that has been published, this is slim pickings.

Overall that it is difficult to get above permanent AC 20 without magic items is by design. AC is one of the cornerstones of bounded accuracy and ways to increase it, especially in tier 1 or 2 where 90% of play happens, risks breaking bounded accuracy.


1 This feature turns a nonmagical item into a magic item. If you would consider the use of this ability to be a "magic item" you could exclude it and still get to 23 AC. You cannot bolster your armor through both Blessing of the Forge and Enhanced Defense at the same time, as both require a nonmagical item to start from.

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    \$\begingroup\$ the Warforged Bladesinger could work pretty easily in a came using Tasha's Customized Origins. Regardless, excellent answer! \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Jul 16, 2022 at 23:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @joseph-rutledge, Thank you for the edit! \$\endgroup\$ Dec 17, 2022 at 0:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ To elaborate on bounded accuracy: One of the core design choices of 5e was that low-level enemies should still be able to harm higher-level characters. A weak enemy might have a +2 to hit while a mid-level boss has a +6 so that 4 more dice results (4 results out of 20 - or 20%) are hitting the PCs. These mathematical differences each point in AC or to hit makes are relatively small - unless we approach the boundaries of the system: If a creature has +2 to hit and your AC is 22 (or higher), that creature only hits with a nat20 and losing a single point of AC doubles the chance. \$\endgroup\$
    – hajef
    Apr 2 at 15:31
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If you are using Eberron rules (Rising From the Last War) and you're looking for a low requirement decent AC build this is what you need: a warforged artificer.

As a warforged you get a passive +1 to AC. As an artificer you get infusions. Which I guess is "magic" in a sense, but hear me out.

Infusions work like so: apply it once and until you take it off it stays like that forever.

Full plate armor (1500 gold though) + enhanced defense infusion gives you 19. Add a shield with another enhanced defense you get a +3 to your AC plus your passive +1 for being a warforged giving you a total of 23.

Or you could just roll with much cheaper splint armor at 200 gold giving you an 18 instead of 19 giving you a total of 22 instead of 23... sorry for being long.

You have to be proficient in armor and shields, so I'm not too sure how helpful this is. You probably need a feat (Heavily Armored) to get heavy armor proficiency.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel obliged to point out that you can't apply the same infusion twice, so you can't have enhanced defence on both your armour and shield. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Feb 29, 2020 at 11:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ On the other hand, Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Feb 29, 2020 at 11:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil Fortunately, an Artificer can pick up the Repulsion Shield Infusion at level 6 and still get the listed AC bonuses. \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    Jul 15, 2022 at 23:59
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The Bladesinger can consistently do this but it has limited uses per adventuring day

This answer is a little problematic due to game pacing and DM discretion on whether or not a short rest happens in a given game "as designed" (two short rests per long rest, per DMG) - the bladesong class feature is usable twice per short rest. For DM's or scenarios where short rests don't happen, this goes out the window and can only be done twice ... in the original version of Bladesinger(Sword Coast Adventurers Guide). In the Tasha's Cauldron of Everything version, you get "proficiency bonus uses per long rest" which means that the number of uses is tied to the PCs level. With that caveat...

For practical purposes, AC is needed when combat arises, and the bladesong will usually be activated in a combat situation. The Mage Armor, once cast, lasts for 8 hours so the walking around AC will be Dex bonus + 3 (16-18) while combat AC will get this enhancement.

Bladesong, at level two, adds the Int ability modifier to AC.

While your Bladesong is active ... you gain a bonus to your AC equal to your Intelligence modifier (minimum of +1). (Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide)

An unarmored Bladesinger at level 2 w 16 Dex/ 16 Int, plus mage armor, gets AC of 19.
At level 4, AC of 20
At level 8, AC of 21
At level 16: AC of 23
Assumption: all ASI's are assigned to Dexterity and/ or Intelligence, and the PC uses either point buy or standard array to start with 16 Int and 16 Dex. (For rolled stats, the PC may start with slightly higher stats, so the AC would be higher a bit sooner).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This has changed with the Tasha's version of Bladesinger; it's now prof. bonus uses per long rest, rather than twice per short (or long) rest. For low level characters, it's a strict loss, at higher levels it might be better (depending on DM encounter structure). The compensating advantage added is that the Tasha's Bladesinger's Extra Attack feature also lets you swap one of the attacks for a cantrip cast (e.g. Booming Blade). \$\endgroup\$ Jul 14, 2022 at 21:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Defensive fighting style unfortunately only adds AC when wearing armor, so you would need to wear light armor (bladesong only works when not wearing medium or heavy armor); this would add +1 AC from style, but cost you -1 from not being able to use mage armor for 13 base AC, so it would not actually improve overall AC. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 14, 2022 at 22:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ShadowRanger Just noticed your note, so I updated it. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 2 at 20:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin Just noticed your note, so I updated it. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 2 at 20:44
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An Air Genasi Barbarian can do better than 24 AC

Race: Genasi (Air) - Elemental Evil Player's Companion

  • Starting Stats: DEX 15+1, CON 15+2

Equipment: One-handed Melee and Shield - PHB

  • +2 AC

Class: Barbarian (Any) 20 - PHB

  • Unarmored AC of 10 + DEX + CON
    • Effectively +6 AC
  • 5 Ability Boosts
    • +2 DEX (18 DEX, 17 CON)
      • Effectively +1 AC
    • +2 DEX (20 DEX, 17 CON)
      • Effectively +1 AC
    • +2 CON (20 DEX, 19 CON)
      • Effectively +1 AC
    • Tavern Brawler (20 DEX, 20 CON)
      • Effectively +1 AC
    • Dual Wielder (20 DEX, 20 CON)
      • +1 AC from wielded Shield since it counts as improvised one-handed melee weapon
  • Primal Champion (20 DEX, 24 CON)
    • Effectively +2 AC

AC Calculation = 10 + 5 (DEX) + 7 (CON) + 1 (Dual Wielder) + 2 (Shield) = 25


Crux of how this was pushed further:

From Dual Wielder:

You gain a +1 bonus to AC while you are wielding a separate melee weapon in each hand.

Improvised Weapons are weapons. A shield isn't a weapon, but you can improvise it as one. If for some reason your DM requires you to be proficient in the weapons for them to qualify for Dual Wielder, you also have Tavern Brawler, which makes you proficient in improvised weapons.

This allows you to get both the +2 AC from the shield proper, but also a +1 AC from Dual Wielder. Otherwise, you would have to trade one for the other.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Does is have to be an air genasi? Or just any race with +2 Con? \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Dec 14, 2018 at 1:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Air Genasi is an easy example because I had it on hand. There are other races that can do it just as well as the Air Genasi are Elf (Sea), Goblins, and Halfling (Stout). Alternatively, you can achieve the same with a UA: Warforged with 22 CON but with a racial +1 AC. \$\endgroup\$
    – Axoren
    Dec 14, 2018 at 1:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, improvised weapons aren't considered weapons at any time other than when being used to attack. See Crawford's tweet here: "An improvised weapon is, indeed, a weapon, but only the moment it's used as such. A chair/shield/etc isn't a weapon otherwise." It wouldn't qualify for the benefit of Dual Wielder. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Dec 14, 2018 at 1:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Here are two threads archived on SageAdvice.eu where Crawford is more explicit. Dual Wielder is meant to work with actual weapons. sageadvice.eu/2015/04/20/dual-wielder-and-shield sageadvice.eu/2016/06/15/… \$\endgroup\$
    – DuckTapeAl
    Dec 15, 2018 at 5:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I haven't downvoted, since most of your answer is good, but I can't upvote if you're saying that the shield gives two separate AC bonuses. Even if it might technically work by some combination of rules and rulings, the idea of one defensive item giving two different AC bonuses doesn't seem right to me. \$\endgroup\$
    – DuckTapeAl
    Dec 15, 2018 at 5:05
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How my Paladin did this: AC 21/23, no magic items

Variant Human, feat = Medium Armor Master
Dex: 16
Fighting Style at level 2: Defensive
Armor: Half Plate and shield

Medium Armor Master lets you add up to 3 Dex AC bonus (for Dex 16 and up) to medium armor, so it adds up like this:

15 + 3 + 2 (Shield) +1.
While I began the campaign with Scale Mail (to get the Dexterity bonus and not get the stealth penalty) it wasn't long before I could afford half plate.
I had AC 21 at level 3.
I still had AC 21 at level 17 when the campaign ended. It worked well enough.

I admit I was hoping for a +1 shield or a +1 half plate to drop, but they never did.

Use of a spell for the occasional boost

On a few occasions I cast the Shield of Faith spell (concentration) to boost it to 23, but I usually saved my spells for other uses. (As an Oath of the Watcher Paladin I had counterspell and banishment, and of course used some spell slots for divine smites).

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Several ways are possible to get better than 20 AC (if not by much): Draconic Sorceror or lizardman or Mage Armor + 20 Dex = 18 AC. Or anyone in plate mail = 18 AC. Add a shield to any of those = 20 AC. Add defensive fighting style = 21 AC. On top of those, the Defensive Duelist feat lets you add your proficiency to your armor class as a reaction (using a finesse weapon).

As you note, there are several spells that can improve it briefly, or with concentration. Do you count obtaining a Shield Guardian as a magic item? I think that's worth +2 AC.

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    \$\begingroup\$ From the post: "(Note: I'm looking for permanent solutions, if you want to delve into spells, they should have duration similar to Mage Armor and not require concentration)." The Defensive Duelist feat doesn't quite meet this requirement. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Dec 13, 2018 at 4:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1; Defensive Fighting Style requires wearing armor. Neither Mage Armor, Draconic Sorcerer's Draconic Resilience, nor Lizardman's Natural Armor are compatible. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Dec 14, 2018 at 14:47
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Half-Plate/Shield gets you AC 19, Lvl 6 Forge Domain Cleric gets you +1 AC and access to Ceremony and Revivify and Shield (more on that later), Lvl 1 Fighter gives you fighting style Defender for +1 AC.

Capture/pay/convince a small humanoid and perform Ceremony (Marriage) between you two for +2 AC for 7 days, provided you are within 30 ft of each other.

At the end of the week "widow" yourself and cast Revivify on spouse's body, and remarry. Bonus points to Revivify for not regrowing limbs, tongues, etc. so you can remove limbs for a silent, small quadriplegic that can easily fit in your backpack.

Also, you get the spell Shield, so you have a reactionary +5 AC in your back pocket (along with your spouse).

Keeping your spouse tied to you also gives you cover, so there's another +2 AC.

So, at level 7 you can have 25(30) AC.

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