D&D 5E Artificer Review: Armorer Subclass

A grizzled man handing out armor, from the MTG card Veteran Armorer
I have been disappointed with the Dungeons and Dragons artificer class since it was introduced in Eberron: Rising from the Last War. Like many in the community, I love the idea of gadgetry in D&D, and all the fan art of arcane Iron Man makes me very happy. Unfortunately, the reality we got was another weak half caster to keep the ranger company. A bad spell list, small hit dice, and very weak offense left me feeling cold on the original three subclasses, but perhaps now is the time to change all that.

The Armorer, an artificer subclass found in the newly released Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, takes the hints of Iron Man found throughout the class and tries to bring them together into a consolidated set of features, allowing players to customize their own sets of arcane armor. Let’s take a look at this new subclass and see if there’s enough here to make me revise my somewhat low opinion of 5E’s newest class, starting at level 3.

Level 3 – Tools of the Trade

You gain proficiency with heavy armor. You also gain proficiency with smith’s tools. If you already have this tool proficiency, you gain proficiency with one other type of artisan’s tools of your choice.

You can rarely go wrong with adding heavy armor to a class, and the Armorer is no exception. I can’t say the same for tool proficiencies. Tools have always been a very weak part of 5E; they aren’t used by all that many rules, and many of their effects can be replicated by low-level magic or ancestry features.* Thankfully, the subclass has a lot of features at level 3, so we can afford to spend some of those features on near-useless tool proficiencies.

Level 3 – Armorer Spells

You always have certain spells prepared after you reach particular levels in this class, as shown in the Armorer Spells table. These spells count as artificer spells for you, but they don’t count against the number of artificer spells you prepare.

Armorer Spells
Artificer Level Spell
3rd magic missilethunderwave
5th mirror imageshatter
9th hypnotic patternlightning bolt
13th fire shieldgreater invisibility
17th passwallwall of force

I’m of two minds on this list of spells. On the one hand, Magic Missile, Hypnotic Pattern, Greater Invisibility, and Wall of Force are all great spells. However, the artificer being a half caster means it gains access to all these spells later than a full caster, making it relatively weaker. This late spell progression is a problem for all half casters, so I don’t want to single out the Armorer, but the artificer lacks a useful outlet for spell slots like the paladin’s Holy Smite. Overall, I’m more positive on this list than most half caster expansions, but it does suffer due to the class’s underlying issues of being both a bad caster and a bad martial character.

Level 3 – Arcane Armor

Your metallurgical pursuits have led to you making armor a conduit for your magic. As an action, you can turn a suit of armor you are wearing into Arcane Armor, provided you have smith’s tools in hand.

You gain the following benefits while wearing this armor:

  • If the armor normally has a Strength requirement, the arcane armor lacks this requirement for you.
  • You can use the arcane armor as a spellcasting focus for your artificer spells.
  • The armor attaches to you and can’t be removed against your will. It also expands to cover your entire body, although you can retract or deploy the helmet as a bonus action. The armor replaces any missing limbs, functioning identically to a limb it replaces.
  • You can doff or don the armor as an action. The armor continues to be Arcane Armor until you don another suit of armor or you die.

This is a fine feature that combines useful mechanics with fluff. The first bullet is a free pass to dump strength, allowing the artificer to focus on intelligence or dexterity while retaining its normal movement. Unfortunately dumping other combat stats in favor of pure intelligence does lock the artificer into using its subclass’s subpar unique weapons, ones I cover in detail below, but it’s at least a nice bonus for doing so.

The second bullet that allows the use of the armor as a spell focus is probably the strongest part of this feature, as it frees up the player’s hand if they don’t plan on taking Warcaster immediately. The third and fourth bullets are essentially flavor unless your GM likes to ambush the party when everyone is out of their armor.*

Level 3 – Armor Model

You can customize your Arcane Armor. When you do so, choose one of the following armor models: Guardian or Infiltrator. The model you choose gives you special benefits while you wear it.

Each model includes a special weapon. When you attack with that weapon, you can add your Intelligence modifier, instead of Strength or Dexterity, to the attack and damage rolls.

You can change the armor’s model whenever you finish a short or long rest, provided you have smith’s tools in hand.

The fourth and final level 3 feature, this is the central mechanic of the subclass. Putting aside my opinion of the variants themselves, I like how the Armorer is allowed to switch the type of armor they have whenever they rest. I like giving players the freedom to make decisions on their own, instead of locking them into a single choice when a feature is acquired.

Guardian. You design your armor to be in the front line of conflict. It has the following features:

  • Thunder Gauntlets. Each of the armor’s gauntlets counts as a simple melee weapon while you aren’t holding anything in it, and it deals 1d8 thunder damage on a hit. A creature hit by the gauntlet has disadvantage on attack rolls against targets other than you until the start of your next turn, as the armor magically emits a distracting pulse when the creature attacks someone else.
  • Defensive Field. As a bonus action, you can gain temporary hit points equal to your level in this class, replacing any temporary hit points you already have. You lose these temporary hit points if you doff the armor. You can use this bonus action a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

I like the idea of the Guardian making it hard for enemies to focus on their friends while they buff their own survivability. Unfortunately, I think it fails on its execution. The first major issue is with Thunder Gauntlets, and it’s one I see crop up a lot with any class that has its own special type of weapon.* Simply put, there isn’t enough support for weapons like this to let them compete with powerful options that already exist in the game.

There are no rules for adding a flametongue enchantment to the gauntlets, it doesn’t work with feats like Polearm Master, and its basic +x bonuses are much slower than other weapons.* Even if you set aside all those issues, the fact that the gauntlets aren’t light means you have to take a feat if you want to use them with two-weapon fighting.

The ability to penalize enemies for attacking people other than you is useful, and I like abilities that build in tank-like mechanics, but the gauntlets are so weak offensively that you’re probably better off making monsters look at you by threatening to murder them if they don’t. Tanking as the artificer also has the issue that you’re a class with no real healing and d8 hit dice, meaning you’ll crumple quickly under concentrated attack.

As for Defensive Field, it has certainly fallen from its Unearthed Arcana printing where it had no limitation on its number of uses. I don’t have much to say on this feature; it’s a fine defensive option that nets you an additional 6 temporary HP at level 3 and will equal between 32 and 40 HP at levels 8-10, where many campaigns end. If you do make it to level 20 with a mono-classed artificer, you’ll get a whopping 120 extra HP, but like many things that happen at level 20, this is more theoretical than practical.

I definitely like this feature more than Thunder Gauntlets, as it shores up a weakness the artificer has without locking me out of using powerful options already in the game. I also find it funny that people forget how temporary HP works so often that they had to add a redundant clause about the HP replacing existing temporary HP, as the game already has rules for that.

Infiltrator. You customize your armor for subtle undertakings. It has the following features:

  • Lightning Launcher. A gemlike node appears on one of your armored fists or on the chest (your choice). It counts as a simple ranged weapon, with a normal range of 90 feet and a long range of 300 feet, and it deals 1d6 lightning damage on a hit. Once on each of your turns when you hit a creature with it, you can deal an extra 1d6 lightning damage to that target.
  • Powered Steps. Your walking speed increases by 5 feet.
  • Dampening Field. You have advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks. If the armor normally imposes disadvantage on such checks, the advantage and disadvantage cancel each other, as normal.

While I’m glad the Infiltrator exists for the flexibility it provides, if the player wants to get their sneak on, it is definitely the weaker of the two in my mind. The Lightning Launcher suffers from all the same issues that the Thunder Gauntlets do and is compounded by the artificer’s lack of the Archery Fighting Style. The +2 to attack rolls is a key part of what makes ranged attacks so good in 5E, and its absence is keenly felt.

The weapon’s special feature of 1d6 extra damage per round suffers from attempting to compete with the strong vanilla ranged options like the hand crossbow. A flat 1d6 is not nearly as good as the bonus attack offered through the Crossbow Expert feat. If designers want their unique weapons to be viable options, then these comparisons need to be examined.

Level 5 – Extra Attack

You can attack twice, rather than once, whenever you take the Attack action on your turn.

A simple but very powerful feature. The artificer is already a low damage class, and the Armorer definitely needed this if they even want to look competitive compared to other martial options. This extra attack also lets the Armorer spread out their on-hit effects on more targets, although this means spreading out damage, which is rarely a good idea in 5E.

Level 9 – Armor Modifications

You learn how to use your artificer infusions to specially modify your Arcane Armor. That armor now counts as separate items for the purposes of your Infuse Items feature: armor (the chest piece), boots, helmet, and the armor’s special weapon. Each of those items can bear one of your infusions, and the infusions transfer over if you change your armor’s model with the Armor Model feature. In addition, the maximum number of items you can infuse at once increases by 2, but those extra items must be part of your Arcane Armor.

Finally, the Armorer’s special weapons gain the magical boost everyone else has most likely had since around level 5 from finding or buying magic items. I like where this feature is headed, but I don’t think it goes far enough. At this level, the artificer can infuse 3 different items, coming to a total of 5 infusions with this feature. This means an Armorer that wants to fully infuse their Arcane Armor only has one infusion left to use for something else.

Infusions are by far the strongest artificer mechanic, but between the artificer and their party members, there will almost always be more infusions the artificer wants to make than slots available. This means infusing the entirety of a character’s Arcane Armor will rarely be the optimal use of those limited infusions, clashing with what the subclass is pushing the player to do. I don’t think the Armorer should be penalized for wanting to live the fantasy this subclass keeps promising of having tricked-out magic armor.

Level 15 – Perfected Armor

Your Arcane Armor gains additional benefits based on its model, as shown below.

Guardian. When a Huge or smaller creature you can see ends its turn within 30 feet of you, you can use your reaction to magically force the creature to make a Strength saving throw against your spell save DC, pulling the creature up to 30 feet toward you to an unoccupied space. If you pull the target to a space within 5 feet of you, you can make a melee weapon attack against it as part of this reaction.
You can use this reaction a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a long rest.

Infiltrator. Any creature that takes lightning damage from your Lightning Launcher glimmers with magical light until the start of your next turn. The glimmering creature sheds dim light in a 5-foot radius, and it has disadvantage on attack rolls against you, as the light jolts it if it attacks you. In addition, the next attack roll against it has advantage, and if that attack hits, the target takes an extra 1d6 lightning damage.

I really like the upgraded feature that Guardian suits get at this level. I only wish it wasn’t limited to a number of times based on proficiency. The feature already costs a reaction, targets what is often a monster’s strongest save, and can only be used against one enemy per round. If someone has powered through 14 levels of artificer, they should receive a better reward than this.

As for the Infiltrator, its enhancement is okay, finally allowing the Lightning Launcher to out-scale the hand crossbow, assuming you spread your damage across two targets and both follow-up damage boosts are triggered.* The feature that makes it harder for enemies to attack you is also nice, although ranged characters usually stay out of harm’s way, making the feature less useful than it would be for a melee-focused martial character.

Overall, I can’t say I’m too impressed with the Armorer. I think a lot of what the subclass tries to add is hamstrung by the class’s fundamental issues of low hitpoints, bad offense, a weak spell list acquired too late to be useful, and base features too weak to properly support any of its subclasses.

For anyone interested in being a support artificer, I’d recommend the Artillerist. Its protector Eldritch Cannon hands out temporary hitpoints every round and will be available for almost every fight. As for a frontline artificer, the Battlesmith would be my pick, as it creates a decent companion and can use its intelligence score for any weapon it wants, not just subpar ones granted by the subclass.

What I’d Change

The first change I would make to the Armorer is the addition of Shield to its expanded spell list. If we’re following the rule of two additional spells per level, I’d replace Thunderwave, as that spell is only good at levels 1 and 2, before the Armorer can make use of it. This subclass is supposed to be defensive in nature, and the lack of the best defensive spell in the game is a major issue.

Next, I would make changes to both the Thunder Gauntlets and Lightning Launcher. The first would be a scaling bonus to attack and damage rolls for both weapons: +1 at level 5, +2 at level 9, and +3 at level 13. As for specific changes, I’d make the Thunder Gauntlets light weapons so they could be dual wielded without taking the requisite feat. This would allow for a more offensive Armorer and grant the ability to apply their debuff to more enemies at once.

My last weapon adjustment would be to allow the Armorer to make an additional attack with their Lightning Launcher as a bonus action if they have nothing else in their hands. This would allow the Armorer’s ranged weapon to stay competitive with the powerhouse hand crossbow, and the final clause would mean using this more offensive option would restrict their ability to use a shield or some other off-hand item.

Next, I’d change Armor Modification to grant the Armorer free infusions for all parts of their Arcane Armor. As written, the Artificer has to use all but one of their total infusions to actually buff each piece of their armor. Infusing is the most powerful thing artificers do; don’t penalize people for doing what their subclass pushes them toward.

Finally, I’d make the Perfected Armor Guardian reaction usable an unlimited number of times. It targets the save that monsters are strongest with on average, and even if it works, the effect is middling for that level of play. I know some people look at battlefield control abilities like this as a way to completely lock down a target, but if a big enemy is defeated by getting dragged around, then it probably wasn’t a huge threat to begin with.

While the tweaks I made here would definitely help the Armorer, I think that the artificer faces a larger design problem that subclass Band-Aids can’t really solve. The class has deeper issues and requires a pretty major rework. As written, I don’t think the Armorer can compete with the Artillerist for support or the Battlesmith for damage, which is a shame as I too would like to be D&D Iron Man. Fortunately, if your DM allows homebrew, you can check out this amazing artificer redesign that does a better job of realizing the class’s fantasy than anything Wizards has put out.

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  1. El Suscriptor Justiciero

    > The armor continues to be Arcane Armor until you don another suit of armor… or die.

    I had to.

  2. ryan

    Me when I first started reading about this subclass: Holy crap! It’s like Iron Man did a fusion dance with Dr. Strange in the forgotten realms! This is awesome!

    Me when I finished reading about this class: Oh…oh. *droops in sadness*

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