Wizards are often the fantasy equivalent of heavy artillery, capable of wiping out armies by themselves from afar. And like heavy artillery, you don't want them in close combat because they're relatively easy to kill if you can get to them. So why don't they wear armor so they last longer?
Some settings justify this by having the armor apply a penalty to the mage's powers. This may be because magic requires precise Magical Gestures that are made more difficult by armor's weight. Others use the solution that magic requires such intense study that there's no time to learn how to use armor properly. In still other settings, iron is antithetical to magic by its very nature, or large quantities of metal interfere with the wizard's attunement to the Background Magic Field — though these still leave the question of why mages are rarely seen wearing at least some form of protective leather instead of a Robe and Wizard Hat.
In gaming the trope is most commonly used as a way to compensate for Quadratic Wizards for the purpose of game balance. It may manifest as spellcasting characters being restricted on which types of armor they can equip, if any, or apply a penalty to the potency of the spell. The trope has been around long enough for that purpose it's arguably achieved Necessary Weasel status.
Closely related to Squishy Wizard. Compare Armor Is Useless. Contrast Magic Knight, the most common manifestation of this trope's aversion.
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Video game examples:
The .hack R1 Games have 3 levels of armour, with Wavemasters only being able to wear the lightest version.
Fortune Summoners justifies this In-Universe. The main character, Arche, is the only one who can wear metal armour and use a sword because she doesn't rely on magic (because she can't cast it until the end, where she becomes able to do a Fusion Dance with an air elemental), which large metal objects interfere with.
Final Fantasy set the example that other games in the series have used, subverted, or otherwise zig-zagged on. The black mage and white mage are both lacking in terms of what armor they can equip, though things improve (somewhat) later on with a few decent pieces of equipment they can equip. At the same time, the red mage averts this trope, having decent armor availability compared to the other two casters.
Subverted in Dissidia: Final Fantasy, as Golbez wears full black armor as in his original game, but is a fully magic fighter. Gilgamesh then lampshades this trope by calling out to him that if he's a wizard, he should dress the part. Likewise, Exdeath is much more the Evil Sorcerer than anything else, and also wears full plate. Possibly played with with The Emperor: While his "canon" costume is a suit of golden armor, it's possible that it's only for show, a trick to make him look more imposing, as he's a Squishy Wizard whose alternate robe outfits reveal him to be quite thin.
Played with in Dragon Quest IX: magic classes like the Mage and Sage can wear some medium armor without penalty, but they rely on the Stat Sticks only found is magical garments for decent spellcasting strength. So if they aren't Squishy Wizards they'll be mediocre spellcasters.
In Diablo I and II, this happens in a roundabout way. A character's ability to wear a piece of armour (aside from level and any specific class restrictions on an item) more often than not depends on how many stat points are in STR. The result is that the 'pure' mage classes (wizards in the first game, necromancers and sorceresses in the second) can't wear the heaviest armour because the player has likely put most of their stat points into INT. In other words, they can't wear the armour because they're squishy, and they're squishy because they train their minds more than their bodies. Additionally in Diablo I wizards had the lowest maximum STR, placing another cap on what armors they could equip.
Although not magic, gunners in Monster Hunter have long-range attacks and greater versatility through the ammo system than their blademaster counterparts. In exchange, they are limited to using armor that usually has only half the defense of the sets the close-combat fighters use.
Downplayed in RuneScape. Armor imposes a damage penalty on offensive magics, to the point where a lot of spells are useless if you're wearing full plate armor. However, the penalty only applies to Hit Point damage: spells inflicting Standard Status Effects work fine.
In Rift: Mages can only wear cloth armor. Justified as follows:
"The art of weaving magic does not favor heavy armors that distract the senses and restrict movement."
Guild Wars: Pure spellcaster classes (Elementalist, Mesmer, Monk, Necromancer) are restricted to lower armor ratings than fighter type classes.
Guild Wars 2: Scholar type professions (Elementalist, Mesmer, Necromancer) can only wear light armor.
Very early in Ultima Online there was no such restriction in place. This was changed with an update because it created serious balance issues.
In EverQuest and EverQuest II, as well as the spinoff Champions of Norrath, all the mage classes are restricted to wearing cloth armor, though EQ2's appearance armor slots have allowed for them to at least appear to be wearing full platemail while wielding giant flaming swords.
In Star Wars: The Old Republic, the more Force-oriented Jedi/Sith classes (Consulars and Inquisitors) were only proficient with light armor at first. The game has since added adaptive armor, which once equipped becomes functionally equivalent to the heaviest armor the character can normally wear, which can allow them to wear armor that looks heavier (though a lot of players tend to go the opposite direction).
Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas
In League of Legends, you can build even a magical damage mage as much armor as you want, but then your spells wont do any damage. Also, mage's abilities scale in a way so that it's more reasonable to build them into glass cannons. Averted by Ryze, however, whose spells scale off mana as opposed to ability power, so that he can take advantage of the tanky mana items that give additional armour buffs.
Played with in Bungie's Myth universe. Mages have no restriction against wearing armor. They generally still don't since they often have magical protection which would render armor redundant, but some wear armor anyway. For example, Balor The Leveler was an archmage who went full Tin Tyrant for no other reason than it made him look more intimidating. Likewise, Alric would eventually wear a custom suit of Heron Guard armor to signify his possession of the Ibis Crown and ascension to Emperor of Cath Bruig.
This applies to some degree in many, many Roguelikes, for balance purposes.
Spells in NetHack are far more likely to fail if you wear metal armor, for no adequately explained reason. Wizards zig-zag the trope: they generally wear metal armor early in the game because they're so squishy without it, and they don't know many spells yet anyway. Eventually dragon-scale mail, divine protection, and armor enchantments make metal armor obsolete, allowing high-level wizards to become Magic Knights.
Dungeon Crawl, similarly, has armor increase spellcasting failure proportional to how much it hinders your movement. It's more pronounced on high level spells so a character with mostly low or mid level spells can often get away with medium armor, but a conjurer or summoner will usually avoid anything heavier than leather armor.
This is used in the Fire Emblem series, with magicians generally drawn in robes and having a low physical defense score. The sword cuts both ways, though: armored units are frequently just as bad at fending off magical attacks.
Downplayed in the Disgaea series. Apart from weapons there aren't any restrictions on what equipment characters can equip, so it's very possible to equip mages with armors without any hindrance to damage output. However, the effectiveness of equipment is determined by the class's Aptitudes. Mages generally have low DEF Aptitudes, and thus get less DEF bonus from equipment. Of course it doesn't take long until even the highest defensive stat boosts are useless.
In Knights of the Old Republic wearing any armor other than Jedi robes means that certain Force powers are unusable. The sequel adds a few types of armor specifically designed for Force users that do not have this effect.
Project Eternity may avert this. Information from the developers states that the setting's primitive black powder firearms are effective at piercing spellcasters' spell shields at close range, so mages have turned to bulletproof plate as a countermeasure.
Pure mage NPCs typically don't wear armor, as how effective it is depends mostly on your skill level with that armor class, and NPCs typically don't have many skill points outside of their class skills. However there's nothing that actually stops them from equipping itnote This is readily demonstrated in the PC version The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind by console-cheating armor onto an unarmored NPC. They'll automatically equip it., and the series has always had several types of Magic Knights on up to the heavy armor-wearing Battlemage.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion imposes a penalty on any spells cast while wearing armor, based on how skilled your character is at wearing that type of armor. Spells cast while wearing an armor your character is completely untrained in will have only 80% effectiveness, while a master of armor will cast at 95% effectiveness.
Skyrim changes it up a little. Spells work just as well with armor as without, but the Alteration skill tree has a perk, "Mage Armor," that adds a multiplier to protective spells like Stoneflesh if the caster is unarmored.
In the Dragon Age series, magic and heavy armor don't mix for two reasons: heavier armor sets tend to have high requirements on Strength, which the mages generally don't develop, and also make casting spells more expensive, effectively reducing their mana pools. It is, however, possible to subvert this in Dragon Age: Origins if you manage to unlock the Arcane Warriormage specialization, which checks Strength requisites against your Magic score instead. Further, many armor sets offer fatigue discounts when the full set is worn—applied to a Mage, this means they have a much larger pool of mana to work with as an Arcane Warrior than while wearing regular robes.
In Drakensang (which is based on The Dark Eye, below), magic users are able to equip anything; however they are completely blocked from casting spells if they wear only one single piece of metal armor (with exceptions).
There is no in-game explanation for why, but spellcasting classes in Might and Magic VI to IX tend to have worse armor skills than their more might-focused counterparts, either in simply not getting the heavier armor skills, or in not being able to upgrade the skill as much. Clerical spellcasters tend to be slightly better at this than Elemental-focused spellcasters (for instance, Clerics being able to wear chain when Sorcerors are limited to Leather).
Averted in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls; nothing stops you from being a spellcaster wearing heavy armor, but in Demons SoulsArmor Is Useless and in Dark Souls, concentrating on the two stats that make you an excellent spellcaster (Attunement for more spells lots and Intelligence or Faith for more powerful spells) tend to leave you with not enough stats to level your Endurance, which increases how much equipment you can wear without being slowed down. It is certainly not unheard of, for sure.
In the original Mass Effect the greater the character's focus on tech or biotics, the less heavy the armor they could equip. Tali, Kaidan, Liara, and Adept, Sentinel, and Engineer Shepard could only wear light armor, and Liara and Sentinels don't even have any options for improving their competence with it. Garrus and Infiltrator or Vanguard Shepard start out with only light armor available but can invest skill points to unlock medium armor. Wrex, Ashley and Soldier Shepard, the most combat-focused characters, have access to medium armor from the start and can unlock heavy armor. The later games in the series removed armor classes, though still adhering to the principle, with more power-focused classes and characters usually having less health and shields, as well as fewer weapon choices.
Basic D&D. In the Holmes (1977), Moldvay (1981) and Mentzer (1983) Basic sets and the Rules Cyclopedia (1991), magic users could not wear armor.
In 1st and 2nd Edition Advanced D&D, magic users/wizards were simply forbidden to wear armor under the standard rules. There were exceptions made in later supplements, such as 2nd Edition kits which allowed a wizard with that kit to wear armor.
In 3.X Edition arcane casters can wear armor if they take a proficiency feat or multiclass to Fighter or the equivalent, but if they do they risk a percentage chance that the spell will fail to cast, justified as the armor interfering with the gestures involved in spellcasting. Add to it, that's one fewer feat or character level they can spend on improving their spellcasting. Bards and the add-on classes warmage and warlock can wear light armor without hitting this restriction, and can take a feat, "Armored Caster", to be able to wear medium armor without risking spell failure. Also, armor made from mithral weighs less and reduces the spell failure chance by 10%. Of course, a wizard with skill in the schools of transmutation and abjuration doesn't necessarily need armor since they can protect themselves quite well with their spells. Also, not all spells require gestures (and many can be modified to not require it) getting around the spell failure chance.
Also from 3.X Edition, druids are only allowed to wear armor (and other equipment) made from "natural" materials (wood, hides, stone, etc.) or else their class features are unusable. Assuming default materials, this restricts druids to wearing light armor or the weakest type of medium armor, but the Dungeon Master's Guide and other add-on books added other esoteric materials (e.g. dragonhide in the DMG) that are classified as natural and can be forged into heavier armors.
In 4th Edition, there's no such thing as arcane spell failure, but wizards still have the worst armor proficiency. They simply don't care about proficiency because (as of Player's Handbook III) they can take a feat to have AC equivalent to leather and still wear those wonderful magic robes made specifically for them.
Averted in all editions by clerics, who can cast their spells in the heaviest plate mail with no problems and no chance of armor-induced random failure. This is one of the primary actual differences between "arcane" and "divine" magic in the game (for practical purposes the main other one is access to healing spells).
In The Dark Eye, forged metal interferes with the flow of magical energies (with some rare exceptions) in such a way that it makes casting spells more difficult and prohibits the regeneration of Mana if a significant amount is worn close to a magic user's body. While magic users can wear anything not made out of metal (e.g. heavy leather), this is frowned upon by the Magician's Guilds as not befitting a wizard's standing, further restricting proper certified wizards to fancy robes and such.
Averted in Mage: The Awakening. A mage could wear a suit of body armor, enhance the armor's effectiveness by enchanting it with various spells (largely Matter and Fate), and shroud themself in a shielding spell to top it off. The Squishy Wizard factor of Mage is due to magi lacking the inherent immunities or self-healing abilities other supernatural types possess, but they are good at avoiding harm in the first place.
In the Scarred Lands setting, one of the quirks of magic is that arcane spellcasters release a certain amount of heat whenever they use magic. This prevents them from wearing armor, and also explains why most prefer to wear loose fitting clothing.
Averted by Warhammer 40,000'sSpace Marine Librarians, who wear Power Armor with no more trouble that their non-psychic brethren (the fact that the transformation into a Space Marine makes them all seven feet tall and slightly bulletproof doesn't hurt). Taken even further with the Grey Knights, every last one of which is a Space Marine with psyker powers. Played straight with Imperial psykers, who mostly wear robes, though some can put on the heaviest armor the Guard has to offer (known as "T-shirts" by the fandom...).
It's common in Warhammer for wizards to not have access to armour (it interferes with their ability to tap into the Winds of Magic), but there are more than a few Magic Knight-type characters who avert the trope (in particular, Ogres and Blood Dragon Vampires). Some armour-type magic items specifically include an exemption allowing wizards to wear them.
Actually Ogre wizards were never meant to wear armour, and an interview with the writer of the current Ogre book reveals that it was only an oversight in giving them access to Ironfists (a type of fist-spike gauntlet) that let them technically qualify for magic armour (the rule being that if the wizard is permitted to wear regular armour in the army list entry, they are allowed magic armour too). The longest-standing and most prominent exception to the no-armour-for-wizards rule would have to be Chaos Sorcerers, whose Chaos Armour is so heavily saturated in magic that it is no impediment. Other exceptions include High Elf Loremasters, the Witch King of Naggaroth, Ikit Claw and Tomb King Settra.
Averted in Fantasy Craft where armor has no effect on spell casting and any class can wear any armor meaning that you can have a mage in full plate.
Although shielding was never really covered in Ben 10 the specially designed Hazmat suits Gwen wore interfered with her spellcasting when she was wearing it.