Okay, you don’t literally have to be naked, but this article is about unarmored builds and how to craft one that doesn’t sacrifice effectiveness or survivability. I always find myself gravitating to unarmored characters because it fits my personal fantasy of a heroic protagonist. From shirtless barbarians to suit-wearing badasses to unlucky everyman survivors… Fiction is filled with characters who take on the world without a shred of protection beyond their skills and smarts. But unfortunately, D&D’s primary form of AC is equipping armor (heck, the acronym literally means ‘Armor Class.’) Which means you need to keep some things in mind if you’re going to attempt to play an unarmored character.
Some notes before we start
There are a number of systems we’re going to wholly ignore even though they might help you out. The first is magic items, since those are largely GM-dependent. (The only one I’m going to namedrop is the Barrier Tattoo, which bypasses this article completely if your GM is on board.) We’re also going to ignore “acceptably bad AC” builds like ranged spellcasters, since everyone understands they’re gonna be squishy. This article assumes you want to be able to charge into melee combat buck-naked without instantly having to roll up a new character. And finally, this article will only cover specs which are optimally-built. If a character has access to armor proficiencies, for example, they only qualify for this list if they can somehow earn a higher AC unarmored.
Furthermore, I’m only covering builds that come online quickly, like level 1 or 2. I doubt anybody’s going to sludge through more than a single level of fragility before they can start actually having fun.
Core concepts to keep in mind
The first rule of unarmored melee characters is that Dex is your favorite stat. Your dexterity modifier is added to your base AC, meaning you should probably make it one of your primary abilities. (Consider also using finesse weapons, which let you use Dex instead of Str for your attack and damage bonus.)
The second rule is that 16 is your magic number. If you can’t reach an AC of 16, your build is frankly not going to survive on the front lines. As we go through the upcoming options, you’re going to notice D&D clearly balances around 16 (or 13+Dex) being the ideal AC for any hypothetical starting character. Pretty much every 1st-level build that puts +3s in their primary abilities (the highest allowed with standard point-buy) will just naturally end at minimum AC 16. Not to mention, if you look at the available armors, 16 is one point better than most armors will get you with a Dex of +3. So if you can’t do that, you might as well be wearing studded leather.
Classes with unarmored bonuses
Monk is the first class that comes to anyone’s mind when considering unarmored builds. Your AC equals 10+Dex+Wis right out the gate, which are already your primary abilities. If you want to play an unarmored character with no further brainpower required, go monk. You won’t be disappointed.
Barbarian is the other class that gets an unarmored bonus, but I honestly don’t think it’s worth investing in. An AC of 10+Dex+Con is slightly less useful in that Barbarians are usually a Strength class. If you try to pump Dex and Con for AC, then your Str for damage, you’re gonna have to gut your social abilities and that’ll hurt during roleplaying. (You can’t dump Strength entirely, most of your Rage abilities revolve around it.) Then consider that Barbarians are proficient in medium armor, so you could have just grabbed a Breastplate instead of borking up your stat spread. I can’t in good faith recommend a naked barbarian build, which really sucks.
The third unarmored class most people think of is Draconic Sorcerer, which gets natural armor of 13+Dex and bonus hitpoints. The main problem is that melee sorcerers pretty much universally suck. You can try taking the cantrips with “blade” in their name, but you might be better off playing a normal ranged sorcerer and just enjoying your additional tankiness. (And since you’re already draconic, I strongly recommend the “Gift of the Metallic Dragon” feat. Free cure wounds and lesser shield without needing to prepare them is extremely nice for improving your survivability and versatility.)
The final class I’ll recommend is weird in that it doesn’t come online immediately. Warlocks gain two Eldritch Invocations at level 2, and one of them is Armor of Shadows, which grants the spell mage armor at will. 13+Dex is a perfectly-good AC, especially since you basically only have to worry about Charisma otherwise. (That first level’s gonna suck, but just hang back and snipe with eldritch blast.) Hexblade is the prototypical melee patron, with Pact of the Blade as another option.
A note on Mage Armor
That aforementioned spell, mage armor, is also available to Sorcerers and Wizards. And it lasts for eight freaking hours without concentration. There’s nothing stopping them from casting it on themselves once and running around fighting all day, and it’ll probably still be active by the next long rest. The main downside is having to burn a spellslot every session activating it, and the general lack of melee builds for either class. Bladesinger is likely your best bet, but it’ll still be annoying (especially in earlier levels) to keep wasting a spellslot applying that AC buff.
But there’s actually another way for most spellcasters to get mage armor (at will, no less.) And that’s by taking the “Eldritch Adept” feat, letting you snag the same Armor of Shadows invocation that qualified Warlock for this list. I wish that darn prerequisite wasn’t there; the requirement that you have the “Spellcasting” feature is annoyingly limiting. Not to mention unarmored martial builds would freaking love the ability to take this feat. Oh well…
A tie-in note on Abjuration Wizard
I have to give a related shoutout to a normally-underpowered subclass. By default, most people don’t play Abjuration Wizard as the protective ward is too costly to keep charged through spellcasting. But with Armor of Shadows via the feat, you suddenly have a way to cast infinite 1st-level abjuration spells for free. Now you can fully charge your protective ward at basically any time, leaving you perpetually defended. It’s a cheesy yet durable build definitely worth giving a shot.
(If you’d rather skip the feat, you could also learn alarm and cast it repeatedly as a ritual to recharge your ward out of combat. But this is a lot less versatile since you’re wasting huge chunks of time whenever you do it, plus now mage armor costs a spellslot. The feat’s the only way to use this trick truly for free.)
Races with natural armor
But what if you didn’t want your class choice to be limited whatsoever?
Well, good news! The other way to build an effective naked character is to choose any of the races that come with inherent AC bonuses. Tortle is the first real contender, with a flat AC of 17 and a straight up inability to wear armor. You’ll have a harder time finding a clothed Tortle out there with free AC that good. Lizardfolk, Autognome, and Thri-kreen take second place with (starting to look familiar?) 13+Dex AC. The fishlike Locathah (12+Dex) and the elephantine Loxodon (12+Con) are honorable mentions.
(Pour one out for UA Warforged, who would have qualified for this list before the official version made them absorb worn armor into their body. Some people might still count that as naked, but I don’t.)
Lastly, Variant Human and Tasha’s Custom Lineage deserve mention for their ability to take the “Eldritch Adept” feat at level 1. (Technically any race could do this later when taking a feat, but it’s kind of a silly use of a feat unless its free.) The main restriction is that your class needs to know how to cast a spell for the prerequisite. Dragonborn can alternately get 13+Dex AC with the “Dragon Hide” feat.
And last but not least…
There’s one final class I gotta shoutout before we close out this article, and it’s my homeboy moon druid. A naked druid is absolutely not playing optimally, but it kinda doesn’t matter as soon as you shapeshift into a bear? It’s the one class in the game where your equipment just ceases to exist while you’re doing your job, so I have to mention it. Plus Dex is already your secondary ability, and it kinda fits the class archetype to run around in a loincloth like Tarzan. (Side note, if you grab Armor of Shadows, it’ll still work in Wildshape, buffing a ton of popular animal forms.)
One thing I love about D&D is its flexibility in allowing niche builds that fulfill whatever the player’s hoping to do. Every time you read some online thread where someone wants some weird concept, there’s always a couple builds in the comments making it work. If you want to read up on the nuts-n-bolts for why D&D can mechanically handle so much, look up bonded accuracy. And remember, at the end of the day, it comes down to what you and your GM agree on. If you want to minorly tweak some class so they get Unarmored Defense, just ask! It won’t really break anything in my opinion. Ultimately, 16 AC is 16 AC no matter how your character fluffed it.