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I am currently DMing a group with an average level of 10. This is my first experience as DM so I have never mastered high levels. Current ACs are reasonably high at the moment (22 for the Paladin with shield, 19 + reactions for the Ranger/Monk. The rest are casters with lower AC) and the battles are pretty balanced. I noticed that the hit bonus becomes much higher at higher CRs , more than +15 for the deadliest creatures.

Obviously, I think there is the need of improving the AC for the PCs, but I don't want to make things unbalanced by introducing OP/UP items and having too easy/too hard encounters.

So, my question is: what are typical values for AC at high levels (11–20)? Please don't consider this as an opinion-based question: I would like to know what are these values in an average situation.

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AC is only one form of defense, and doesn't typically grow with level.

What you're running into is the concept of Bounded Accuracy. One of the design pillars of D&D 5e is the idea that even high level characters don't have passive defenses that make them invulnerable to the attacks of lower-level characters. It is an intentional feature of the system that level 1 characters with an attack bonus around +5 can hit the AC of a level 20 character.

What this means is that, as characters level up, one of the ways that they get more powerful is that they hit more often, and are hit more often in turn. It's totally normal for most attacks to hit in a high-level combat where everyone is swinging with attacks above +10.

Generally speaking, without magic items, the highest AC a character can reach is in the low 20s. A paladin with a shield wearing plate armour isn't going to go much past 20 without magical assistance. A breakdown of how a character hits maximum AC can be found here. In short: Barbarians can get their AC a little higher than 20 without magic because of their higher stat cap, and magic item can push your AC another few points.

What you're missing is the other kinds of defense that make a high level character hard to kill. Higher level characters have many more hit points and access to defensive buffs than low level characters, and generally have more passive and active defenses in general. For example: your Paladin player will eventually get an aura that protects the party from various effects, based on their Oath. Also, Lay on Hands acts as an effective HP buffer that makes the party much more difficult to take down as the Paladin keeps them healed. In addition, your casters likely have a large number of battlefield control spells that make it possible to shut down enemies before they can even attack at all.

Your players probably won't have their AC increase, but they will get many more ways of dealing with threats defensively.

Note: The link to the Wizards article on Bounded Accuracy goes to the Wayback Machine, because the original article is no longer on the WotC site.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is there somewhere official I can quote something like "It is an intentional feature of the system that level 1 characters with an attack bonus around +5 can hit the AC of a level 20 character" from? The WOTC article on bounded accuracy seems to no longer be online. \$\endgroup\$ – PurpleVermont Aug 16 '16 at 5:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleVermont I added a link to a Wayback archive of the relevant article. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Aug 16 '16 at 5:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! I had tried to find it in the wayback machine yesterday, but found only 3 copies of Wizards' "Critical Error" page. :-/ \$\endgroup\$ – PurpleVermont Aug 16 '16 at 14:57
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It Doesn't Increase With Level

AC is very static, you get the highest level armour for your class (full plate for your paladin for example + shield) and that is the cap, without magical items (unless you take a point in fighter and take the Defence feature for example).

You should not be worrying about the AC of your PC's, they should develop strategies to deal with the situations that you throw at them, imposing disadvantage (be that by magical or physical means) and ensuring they get to roll at advantage.

or

Depending on your setting, they could purchase a ring of protection or a similar magical item, for a small AC boost.

As stated in comments, your paladin has a very decent AC already, you appear to be tackling the problem as 'I have a hammer' and seeing screws as nails. You have players that have access to a huge range of potential advantage and disadvantage imposing abilities, grapples, magical restraint, paralysis etc.

I apologise if this doesn't resolve your problem but it seems you are trying to tackle a problem that doesn't exist :)

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There are some good answers on this page. I would only add that given the restrictions of Bounded Accuracy, Hit Points have become a far greater indicator of PC survivability. Instead of being harder to hit, higher level players are simply harder to kill. A breeze through the Monster Manual will bear this out, as most ACs are well below 20. Some of the early design discussions for 5e were concerned over players feeling bored by futile strikes on their turn. It was felt to be more exciting to have a little effect on the opponent's health each turn, rather than going through turn after turn of swing-miss, swing-miss.

So in short, your PC's ACs sound very much in tune with what one would expect for their level. If you are at all in doubt, look at the sample characters provide by WotC. These are pre-generated sheets of each of the same characters by level from 1 to 10. As such, they should give you a good feel for the expected progression of abilities for characters of those levels. Although their hit points and abilities go up with level, AC changes very little. The half orc paladin for example has an AC of 16 at first level, but only 18 at 10th, despite the fact that his hit points have gone from 12 to 84, and his damage options and access to healing have scaled as well.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It is recommended that you don't refer to answers as being "above" or "below" other answers for the simple reason that different users sort their answers differently. For example, I sort by activity so your answer appears first on this page for me. There are no answers "above" your answer from my perspective. Additionally, if someone were to add a very bad answer on this page, it would invalidate your opening statement. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Jun 30 '16 at 21:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good points. I have edited. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jun 30 '16 at 23:45

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