Based on this question to Order of the Stick #1002 featuring combat between the main protagonist and a vampire, I wonder what is historical motivation for D&D vampires being tough to hit, not based on sneakiness and, uh, Dexterity-ness (agility I guess ;), but due to natural armor class?

Why do vampires even have a natural armor bonus? Being a vampire doesn't make you a rhino or a dinosaur. You are faster and [sneakier], sure, but not thicker skinned.

Answers based on the history of any edition of the game—including those preceding the formal concept of natural armor class—welcome.

Comment on accepting KorvinStarmast's answer given the other good answers here: The "no explanation was given for why they were so hard to hit" really seems to nail it. The "vampire's magical nature is the root of its high armor class" just feels like so much (fantasy) handwavium, given that other corporeal under such as the ghast or wight are also magical in nature, and yet do not have the vampire's serious natural armor. The history of D&D game design simply seems to have valued hard-to-hit vampires, and that is about it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Answer in answers, not comments please. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Sep 5, 2015 at 16:39

4 Answers 4


Vampires Were Always Hard to Hit

  1. The original release of OD&D didn't explain why. The Vampire was assigned the armor class of 2, which was the equivalent in OD&D of plate mail and shield. This may have been related to its level as a monster (7-9 HD) and thus a reflection of how tough it was even for higher level characters to do significant damage to it. It could also be explained by the vampire's inherent magical nature.

    From Monsters and Treasures (OD&D, Vol II, TSR 1974, p. 3)
    Armor Class 2 // Move 12"/18" (foot/flying) // HD 7-9 // % in lair 25% // Treasure Type F

In the text on page 9, no explanation was given for why they were so hard to hit. It explained much else on what made vampires such tough monsters.

  1. In AD&D 1e, (MM, p. 99) the armor class was improved to 1, and the vampire had to be hit with a magical weapon +1 or better. No explanation was given. The "eastern vampire" was cited as being invisible and thus causing -2 from any to hit roll. (effective AC of -1). No further explanation was given. (Of interest, the DMG p. 45 noted that Polymorph Other only changed the form of vampires and other shape changers for one round, and that in gaseous form Holy Water would not harm vampires).

  2. An early article on Vampires in Dragon #17 (p. 9) explained how DM's weren't playing them hard enough. While addressing powers of a vampire, it did not say why the AC was so high.

  3. An extensive treatment of the undead in Dragon #138, Tim Moldvay, did not explain why vampires had high AC.

  4. Second Edition AD&D Monstrous Manual carried over 1e info. No "why" was given for high armor class; Eastern Vampires lost the Charm power while retaining invisibility.

    • The 2e DMG (Ch 9, Combat) used vampire as the example of immunity to non-magical weapons

    ... they loose a volley of arrows at him. Three hit, but he doesn't even break his stride. They watch, aghast, as he disdainfully plucks the arrows from his body.

What is Armor Class?

While not getting this sort of detailed treatment in OD&D, Monster Manuals for 1e and 2e both described AC as ...

... the general protection worn by humans and humanoids, protection due to physical structure or magical nature, or difficulty in hitting due to speed, reflexes, etc.

You can derive from this that a vampire's magical nature is the root of its high armor class.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Given depictions on other media, I'd say their speed also has something to do with it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 16:24

Every part of a vampire that isn't its heart is effectively armor.

Severing a vampire's arms & legs won't kill it. Destroying its lungs or breaking its back won't kill it. It likes having those things, true, but it can survive without them to go hole up somewhere and heal. From a perspective of "what needs to be protected, and what is protecting it", almost all of the vampire's body is armor. When you hit a vampire, you're not so much damaging the vampire itself as you are damaging the shell it happens to be using.

TLDR: Armor is material you can live without that covers & protects material you can't live without. A vampire only needs its heart.

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    \$\begingroup\$ but shouldn't high HP reflect this, rather then armor. High Hp means it takes awhile to chop you down, armor means you can't chop him down, at least not if your can't beat his AC. Even a vampire body should eventually collapse if he sustain enough minor bits of damage. Imagine a scenario of dozens of low level dwarfs shooting at a vampire with rifles. They wouldn't be effective, but I would still expect eventually the body to take so much damage it stats to fall apart if we shoot him enough. With a high AC the vampire blocks all the bullets and never takes damage. \$\endgroup\$
    – dsollen
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 20:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I understand your point. However, you stated yourself that he would go to mist form and move to his coffin if he lost his body. That sounds like the very response you expect from a vampire with very low HP to me. If you just want him to take a beating before falling HP would be what you want. AC specifically is about mitigation of all damage, not being able to sustain but ignore the damage until your body is falling apart. \$\endgroup\$
    – dsollen
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 21:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @dsollen Really, this is getting into the question of what HP & AC actually represent in the game world. AC represents "how difficult it is to have an attack reduce a target's HP", but it's never clearly spelled out what HP represents. It could represent "structural integrity of entity's form", or "entity's ability to continue fighting", or any other number of concepts; all we know is that at 0hp you're unconscious or dead. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 21:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I hate how this answer has a TLDR for 5 sentences... haha \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 10:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Every part of a vampire that isn't its heart is effectively armor." This is difficult to reconcile with other corporeal undead in D&D, which similarly don't need gall bladders, spleens, etc., and yet do not generally share the vampire's good natural armor class. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 4:39

I think the "problem" with their armor class stems a bit from the nature of Dungeons and Dragons and how things work there.

We have to take 2 things into consideration there

  • How do armor bonuses work?
  • For what type of character is the vampire planed as an adversary?

Type of character

Vampires are meant to be adversaries for medium to high level parties. In Dungeons and Dragons this means they need a strong armor class in order to not be automatically hit by virtually any attack.

In the later Dungeons and Dragons editions like D20 there were rules for how to convert a normal person into a vampire. Now instead of just saying "ok this is that armor class live with it" they needed a general rule there and added an armor bonus of +6. Although this armor bonus should not be confused with the armor bonus gained through the dexterity bonus (as that is in addition so they gain +6 natural armor and +2 armor through the higher dex).

How does armor work?

As we saw before they needed an armor bonus in order to make them feasible as adversaries for high level parties. If you look at the armor rules you will find that there are plenty of armor bonuses that can apply... but each bonus does not stack with its own kind (only with others).

More logical from an out of universe context would have been a profane modifier to armor as vampires are inherently evil and chaotic and thus a bonus from "powers of evil" would make sense there. But they choose the natural armor bonus.

So what is it?

A natural armor bonus improves Armor Class resulting from a creature's naturally tough hide.

Now as we know vampires don't have diamond hard skin as else staking them would be quite impossible as a feat to do. But still they get a tough hide bonus.

The only possible explanation there (aside from an oversight by the creators of the vampire rules) is that they took a few things into consideration and thus decided on a natural armor bonus there:

  • Vampires are undead: Thus they are more resilient to damage than other beings. Although also skeletons and zombies are undead too this should not affect them too much.
  • Vampire powers: In addition to being unliving and thus unbleeding vampires have fast healing and a damage reduction. If we take this into account you COULD see it that weapons (aside from silver and magic normally) just have almost no to no effect on a vampire at all. And also he regenerates most of the minor hits at once. Thus as armor class itself also represents how hard you are to hurt this could be an in-game reason for why vampires have a higher armor class than their normal counterpart. In addition to this this is a natural part of being a vampire not an evil induced, not a luck induced, not given by a god, .... it is just part of being a vampire, part of its nature. Thus this could be a reason why they ruled that it is a natural armor bonus.
  • Other types of armor class bonuses. If you look at them there is only one that represents general toughness that is not induced by gods,... and that is in addition not just you evading the attack but instead taking it, smiling and hitting back. That is the natural armor bonus. Even though it says about tough skin there it is the only armor bonus that represents pure and other toughness.

So in total the natural armor bonus is not the best fit (in terms of fluff text for the armor bonuses) BUT it is the only fit that stands for what the vampire designers wanted to portray, that the vampire just can stand up to you, take a blow (by you missing the AC bonus) and smile while you see not a single effect there on him. Although this is redundant with the damage reduction (and beats it as the damage reduction is of no use against silver or magic) it would fit in with what is being portrayed there. In addition, with the available types of armor bonuses it is the best fit there rules-wise and what can be portrayed by which armor bonus.

Note: The stats I talk about (and also rules) are mostly from the 3.5 and d20 versions (the D20 version can be found at: http://www.d20srd.org/srd/monsters/vampire.htm). In later versions like D&D 4 these things change though. Like in D&D the vampires gaining a shield bonus instead of a natural armor class bonus.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure which book it is in as I used mostly D20 and/or pathfinder when I used vampires so far and also looked up stats for them (which are both web based as they are open source contents). But put in the link anyway \$\endgroup\$
    – Thomas E.
    Commented Sep 5, 2015 at 17:08

KorvinStarmast's great answer says (emphasis mine) "The Vampire was assigned the armor class of 2, which was the equivalent in OD&D of plate mail and shield. This may have been related to its level as a monster (7-9 HD) and thus a reflection of how tough it was even for higher level characters to do significant damage to it."

I'd like to expand on this concept a bit...

That's where vampires fall in the undead power series

If you are coming to this from a 5e perspective, there is a certain amount of naturalism to AC, at least within the narrative. The narrative is 'things that are more nimble and things that are more protected are harder to hit' (and this is supported by the meta [AC is 10 plus your dex mod and can be augmented by armor]). So in 5e ghouls are AC12 because they have Dex mod+2 but no armor, and skeletons are AC13 because they have Dex mod+2 and armor scraps.

In 5e you can expect more powerful monsters to have a higher CR by definition, and the AC of the monster is one of the things that goes into calculating CR. But because there are other components to CR, and because those things vary more than more than AC does, CR doesn't really tell you much about AC. To put it simply, in 5e a tougher monster doesn't necessarily have a tougher AC, and even if it does, it won't always be in proportion to its toughness.

But it wasn't always so.

In OD&D and first edition, the 'toughness' of a monster is measured by its Hit Dice, and these serve as a benchmark for all its other abilities. In 1e specifically, the HD tell you what level of the dungeon the monster is supposed to be on and thus how powerful you need to be before facing it. Tougher monsters are, by definition, more difficult to hit, so HD is strongly correlated with AC, and there isn't really any attempt to justify this naturalistically by saying they have some better type of armor. What kind of armor you have, what it is made from and how it is made, is very important to characters, but not monsters.

Because different sorts of monsters have different builds, this basic assumption of AC being tied to HD is most evident when the monsters run in series, from less powerful to more powerful, and Gygax loved series. There is a series of humanoids, from kobold to ogre (with lizardmen being introduced just because the series 'needed' a 2HD being), there is a series of giants (from hill to storm), there is a series of dragons (from white to red), etc. And there is a series of undead.

The "natural order" of this series can be taken from the matrix for turning undead on 1eDMG 73 (undead don't make Wisdom saves to avoid being turned; rather, each undead has its own value in the matrix and a cleric of a given level needs to roll higher to turn the more powerful undead).

If we take the order of the undead in the matrix and add in columns for HD and AC, we can see that there is a really tight fit, with each increase in undead power also increasing HD and decreasing AC (remember that in first edition, lower AC means more difficult to hit).

Undead HD AC
Skeleton 1 7
Zombie1 2 8
Ghoul 2 6
Shadow2 3+3 7
Wight 4+3 5
Ghast3 4 4
Wraith 5+3 4
Mummy 6+3 3
Spectre 7+3 2
Vampire 8+3 1
Ghost 10 0
Lich 11+ 0

So, within the paradigm of monster power for OD&D and 1e, vampires are difficult to hit simply because they are powerful monsters, and being difficult to hit is a large part of what makes them powerful. As it turns out, they are not disproportionately difficult to hit – they are precisely as difficult to hit as we would expect them to be based on their order in the series – more difficult than spectres, but easier than ghosts.

Post hoc speculation on my part addressing slight disconformities in the table:

1 Zombies are easier to hit than weaker skeletons because, in one of the rare moments of naturalism in AC, they are notoriously slow. They always strike last in the round (don't roll initiative).

2 Shadows are easier to hit than weaker ghouls likely because they are the 'first' (weakest) undead for which you need a magic weapon to damage them.

3 There were no ghasts in the OD&D Monsters and Treasure booklet. They might have had to have been shoehorned in between the preexisting wights and wraiths for 1e, resulting in their odd number of HD.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I started with AD&D in the late 70s, so no: not coming from a 5e perspective. :D Nice insight about HD and AC correlation in the rules! \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 19:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is the real answer, IMO, the rest is post-rationalisation in later editions (or lack of it, seemingly, for vampires). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 20:14

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