Defenders in 5th Edition D&D
A guest article written by Jessica Celeste Deuel:
Hi everybody. Some of you may know me (and possibly hate me) from a couple 5th edition D&D Facebook groups out there, but I am a long time D&D player and a very outspoken fan of 4th edition.
One of the changes in 5th edition that a lot of people are cheering is that the game system went back to not admitting that party roles actually exist. Now roles have always been in D&D in some form or another with parties from earlier editions benefiting from one person being the meatshield to accidentally trigger the traps in a dungeon and take all the damage, another to steal from other PCs, one person who drew the short straw to cast healing spells so you could get around the abysmal resting rules, and another to be your party’s ranged AP carry. However, 4th edition
just copied World of Warcraft so munchkins could play MMOs offline when the internet in their mother’s basement was down made the roles more defined and combat-centric and gave classes actual mechanics to help them perform that role. You had defenders to protect the squishier party members, leaders to heal and buff their teammates, strikers to deal lots of single target damage, and controllers who dealt out status effects and area of effect damage. Defenders are the role that has probably suffered the most from the transition from 4th edition to 5th edition, but I want to clarify a few things before someone tells me that tanks don’t belong in D&D because only MMOs have aggro tables.
How tanks usually work in MMOs
One character with generally mediocre damage output and amazing defense engages a group of enemies. Ideally all of those enemies will all mindlessly attack the hardest to kill member of the party because tanks have abilities that generate the most “hate”(also known as aggro or threat) and are the most efficient targets to heal. If there are too many enemies for the tank to handle then one of the damage dealing classes will use some form of crowd control before the fight starts so either the tank won’t die too fast for the healer to keep alive or the extra monsters that the tank can’t keep the attention of won’t run wild and kill the squishier party members who are actually a threat. After the fight is over everyone will regain all of their resources and move on to the next fight.
How defenders usually work in 4th edition D&D
One character with pretty good damage output(although not quite striker level good) and above average defenses will try to engage some of the enemies. Ideally the most dangerous enemies will attack the defender because the defender has greater survivability than other party members and has ways to penalize enemies for not attacking them through their marks(which grant a penalty to attack different targets and often include extra effects like automatic damage or bonus attacks against that enemy or even preventing some of the enemy’s damage outright). Having all of the enemies attack the defender is actually a bad situation to be in because even if the defender survives all of that focused fire, they will be the only one in the party spending healing surges and the whole party will have to stop much earlier in the day to rest than if the damage was spread out evenly.
These two things may not seem all that different at first glance but the biggest difference is that the 4e defender is a dangerous buttkicker in their own right while the MMO tank is only a threat because the AI says so(in many MMOs that have player vs player combat tanks are either considered worthless or incredibly niche because many players are able to safely ignore them). How does this apply to 5th edition though? They took a lot of tools available to defenders and made them optional instead of baseline, but the idea is kind of the same. A 5th edition defender is a hard to kill character who incentivizes monsters to attack them instead of their party members.
Before making a defender for 5th edition, you should clarify a few things with your DM. First ask if they are using the optional feat rules in their game and hope that they say yes. Feats(especially the Sentinel feat) are so crucial to having any sort of defender character in 5th edition that it would be hard to make it work otherwise. Next ask if they are using the marking rules from the DMG. While the marking rules in 4th edition gave a -2 attack penalty to hit other targets, the marking rules in 5th edition instead cause opportunity attacks against marked targets to not expend your reaction. That optional rule brings back 4th edition style defenders in a big way and makes the Sentinel feat much better than it already is. Finally, find out if your DM is a kumbaya singing carebear hippy. You might luck out and your DM might be so afraid of accidentally killing squishier PCs that their monsters will focus their attacks on you anyways. Score!
For the 5th edition DMs
I know that 4th edition has a negative reputation among a lot of people and that defenders might seem like “MMO tanks on the tabletop”, but there are some good reasons to allow players to more easily play defender characters. First off, defenders are one of those character types that strongly encourages team work in D&D. One of the negatives about 5th edition is that a lot more parties can become collections of individuals instead of parts that build towards a greater whole. Having characters that encourage teamwork in combat can help with party cohesiveness out of combat and can give a reason for the less benevolent PCs to actually care about other PCs making it through an adventure alive. Second, it helps promote 5th edition’s goal of unity among D&D players across editions. 5th edition might be the only way that you’ll see certain players, who just a year or two ago may have wanted nothing to do with each other, actually sit down and game at the same table and shutting out certain character types might drive away certain players who would otherwise be a valuable addition to the group.
Going ahead I’m going to assume that your DM allows feats and disallows marking(which is in line with Adventurers League rules). Now there are four major attributes of defenders that you have to worry about: stickiness, mitigation, durability, and saving throws.
A sticky defender is one that is good at keeping the monsters absolutely stuck to them often times through incredibly threatening opportunity attacks, immobilization of some kind, or through other kinds of disincentives. A lot of your stickiness comes from the Sentinel feat and relies heavily on your one reaction a round and sometimes the threat of your reaction can be almost as powerful as the use of your reaction. If you use your reaction too early(and you don’t have other ways to increase your stickiness) then the vampire you were fighting will bend your wizard over and take a walk up their estrada chocolata while he is sucking the blood out of their neck.
Mitigation is your ability to prevent hits from landing usually in the form of armor class but sometimes in the form of giving enemies disadvantage to hit you. A defender with a ridiculously high mitigation but very little stickiness will have the pleasure of watching their friends die first. A defender with very little mitigation and ridiculously high stickiness is called a Rogue. Unless you like rolling up new characters every other session, make sure that your defender can actually avoid a hit or two.
Endurance is what you rely on when the dice just aren’t going your way. A defender with good endurance will still remain standing after a crit or a string of lucky hits. Eventually you have to find a way to heal up that damage, but being a giant meat sack full of hit points does have a lot of advantages. In MMO terminology a tank that trades out a lot of mitigation for endurance/hit points is known as a “soak tank”. Healers generally hate soak tanks in MMOs and they might not be a big fan of you here either. Personally I differentiate mitigation from endurance by defining mitigation as what stops the hits from landing and endurance as what happens after the hit lands. So for our purposes I consider damage resistance as part of endurance.
This is one of the least fun parts of D&D, because generally when you have to roll a saving throw then you know something really bad is about to happen. Your ability to kick butt and shrug off damage doesn’t matter when you spend the fight paralyzed, petrified, stunned, immobilized, or recoiling in terror, but as much fun as it would be to fail a saving throw against a vampire’s charm and finally have a viable in-game reason to feed your party’s diplomancer their own intestines, it really isn’t conducive to teamwork or successful murderhoboing.
So what classes are ideal for those who want to defend their party members from the horrors of the adventuring world? Well 5th edition is a bit more free form in that regards. Technically anyone with the Sentinel feat is sticky and a lot of classes out there have ways to avoid dying, but I’m going to talk about some of the better choices. Sadly unless you want to wait until 4th level to be reasonably sticky then you’ll probably be forced to pick human as your race.
Stickiness: starts off average but can become good at high levels
Mitigation: starts off average but can become amazing at high levels
Saving Throws: average
Barbarians are a really unlikely choice since a lot of people think that they are just great weapon wielding monsters who mindlessly hack enemies to pieces, but the Totem Warrior has some really good abilities for making a tribal warrior who protects the innocent.
Pros: Barbarians have great damage resistance while raging on top of the highest hit dice in the game and the bonus to damage rolls from raging means they can break even with other defender characters with the Dueling fighting style when using a one-handed weapon and shield and can do even more damage on opportunity attacks if they choose to use a two handed weapon. Danger Sense helps make Barbarians even more resistant to Dexterity based magic attacks than they were already. Reckless Attack let’s you sacrifice mitigation(which helps incentivize enemies to stay on you by making you an easier target to hit) for greater offensive output. At higher levels Totem Warriors gain resistance to all non-psychic damage while raging and can grant disadvantage to nearby targets who attack someone other than the Totem Warrior which helps protect other melee characters in the party. If you reach your capstone level then you can have one of the highest armor class values in the entire game.
Cons: First off a lot of the Barbarian’s abilities are tied to raging and if you run out of rages or find yourself unable to rage then you are going to suffer greatly. At early levels the Barbarian needs to wear a shield if they don’t want to be stuck with a really mediocre armor class. Also because of how Unarmored Defense works, Barbarians have a multiple attribute dependency(a.k.a. MAD) and will often have to make the choice between raising their attack stat or raising their mitigation stats as they gain levels since they don’t have access to heavier armor. While Barbarians have proficiency in one of the saving throws most likely to instantly render your tank useless(i.e. Con) they are hindered by having no proficiency in Wisdom saving throws or any class ability to help with saving throws. Unless you are a Berserker(which requires trading away some amazing defender abilities), then there is a very real chance that you might spend some fights cowering in fear the whole time or mind controlled.
What changes with DMG marking: Not much beyond slightly increased stickiness. You only have two attacks per round at higher levels so you aren’t getting many more opportunity attacks and you don’t have many reaction abilities that benefit from freeing up your reaction.
Stickiness: average to good depending on Wild Shape
Mitigation: horrible but can range from poor to average at higher levels or if you have Barkskin
Endurance: good but becomes amazing later on and can eventually break the game
Saving Throws: good
The Druid of the Moon is a favorite among many players this edition and is an immensely versatile subclass. I’ve actually gotten high fives from people for choosing to play a Land Druid because of how popular Moon Druids are. Moon Druids have the distinction of being an amazing class at defending while still also being a full caster.
Pros: Your animal forms often have a decent amount of hit points and those hit points don’t need to be healed up after combat if you shift back to humanoid form. In your animal form you can burn spell slots to heal damage you have taken as a bonus action. Since you gain the physical attributes of whatever form you Wild Shape into, your opportunity attacks are going to scale well with level and you don’t actually need to improve your physical attributes in order to actually have good physical attributes. This means you can spend your ability score gains all on feats if you really wanted to or in improving your already phenomenal mental saving throws(Moon Druids are not likely to run away in terror or to be mind controlled). During fights where you can’t Wild Shape, you are still a full spell caster and can provide a lot of amazing utility to your party with one of the game’s most versatile spell lists. If you can survive until level 20 and get your capstone ability then you become nigh immortal and will probably be the number one reason(outside of Wish+Simulacrum shenanigans) why your DM makes you all retire your characters and start over.
Cons: You probably won’t be defending until second level. Without Wild Shape you are a hide armor wearing hippy with a mediocre armor class and very little melee ability. This also means that if you run out of Wild Shape uses and can’t short rest then you are also not doing much defending. One of your best forms to Wild Shape into(i.e. Earth Elemental) takes two uses of Wild Shape which means you may only be able to use it on especially tough fights right after a short rest. At early levels without Barkskin cast you have an armor class that even the arcane magic users in your party might laugh at. This means that, despite having a boatload of extra hit points that you don’t have to heal up after combat, you will be getting hit a lot especially compared to other defenders and can very easily be knocked out of Wild Shape mid fight. Not having proficiency in Con saving throws by default means that you can lose concentration on spells easily unless you pick up a feat to help with that. Finally because of how hit point thresholds work in 5th edition, you can find yourself incredibly vulnerable to certain spells and abilities that other defenders might not have to worry about as much(such as Sleep, Power Word Stun, or Power Word Kill).
What changes with DMG marking: Same as with the Barbarian. Not much changes beyond some extra opportunity attacks to root targets in place. Forms with multiple attacks might be able to mark more, but you don’t get much benefit from freeing your reaction for non-opportunity attack uses.
Stickiness: average (good if a Battle Master)
Mitigation: good (can become amazing if an Eldritch Knight)
Saving Throws: Starts off average but becomes good at higher levels
The Fighter in my opinion lost a bit during the transition from 4th edition, but has become a much more versatile class encompassing anything from a dual crossbow wielding gish to your standard sword and board warrior. Fighters are one of the few classes(along with Paladin) where all of the subclasses add new and interesting ways to make a good defending character.
Pros: Second Wind gives you good emergency healing that recharges on a short rest and at higher levels Indomitable gives you a second chance at making important saving throws. Fighting styles can help you out as a defender by either increasing your damage output(and thus your stickiness), your armor class, or by giving you the ability to grant disadvantage as a reaction when that would be better than an attack from Sentinel. With their high number of extra attacks(either naturally or through Action Surge) Fighters are some of the highest damage dealers in the entire game. Champions gain some nice passive benefits that increases regeneration and damage output. Eldritch Knights have spells that can provide some amazing mitigation depending on the situation(such as Greater Invisibility, Stoneskin, Shield, Blur, etc) and can cast Counterspell if they really need to make sure a spell doesn’t get cast and are willing to give up their reaction to do it. Battle Masters have maneuvers that can provide some great effects for tanking and can add extra damage when used on opportunity attacks. Goading Attack is great for forcing enemies to attack you without using your reaction and Parry can be used to help mitigate damage. Fighters gaining so many ability score increases means they can max out the scores they need early and gain most of the feats they could want. Fighters can go with either Strength or Dexterity as their primary attack stat and not lose out on class features and, because they have access to heavy armor, Fighters can go with either a two handed weapon(for tons of extra stickiness) or with a one handed weapon and shield(for extra mitigation).
Cons: Not having Wisdom proficiency by default means Fighters might have problems being frightened or mind controlled during battle and their lack of Dexterity proficiency means, that if they aren’t a Dex based Fighter, they might be taking full damage from breath weapons quite often. Outside of two fighting styles and using maneuvers, you really don’t have many ways to improve the damage your opportunity attacks do, so you may find enemies might risk taking attacks from you more than other defenders. Eldritch Knights will probably have to pick up the War Caster feat so they can still cast spells with somatic components.
What changes with DMG marking: Everything! Fighters eventually get the most attacks in the game(therefore the most marks) and not having to rely on reactions for your stickiness means that you can use a lot of amazing abilities like Shield or Parry or Counterspell without giving up your ability to keep enemies locked down. The Protection fighting style becomes a better option in this case as well.
Stickiness: starts off poor but becomes amazing at later levels
Mitigation: starts off poor but becomes amazing at later levels
Saving Throws: starts off average but becomes amazing at later levels
I bet you weren’t expecting this one. The poor Monk has a reputation with some people for being kind of an underpowered class in this edition, but they get a lot of utility and control that I think is greatly underrated. It’s not really a classic choice for defending characters, but in my opinion it is a really unique take on it.
Pros: Patient Defense means that you can dodge as a bonus action(which makes you really hard to hit) as long as ki holds out and still do other things with your action. Stunning Strike can completely shut down some enemies and drastically reduce the damage that you and your team takes. Stunning Strike combined with Sentinel means that as long as you have ki points to spare, either attacking a target other than you or provoking an opportunity attack can result in an enemy losing the rest of their turn entirely. Diamond Soul at higher levels allows a Monk to have good saving throws even in stats where they might have a low score. Prior to that Monks have proficiency in Dexterity saving throws(which is a really common save for monster abilities to target) and Evasion and Stillness of Mind help them to further reduce damage and to escape charm and fear effects. Finally because most of a Monk’s tanking abilities come from the class itself, you have a lot of freedom in choosing what subclass you want because chances are your high demand for ki means that the subclass abilities won’t come into play as much anyways.
Cons: You are going to start off slow with this class. You don’t get any ki points until level 2 and everything you want to do takes ki points. Even at 20th level you could probably burn through all of your ki points in three rounds if you aren’t careful. Without ki points, you just aren’t that great of a defender. Even with ki points, you will still be squishy if enemies land a hit on you because of Constitution being a tertiary stat for Monks and having a d8 for your hit dice. That also makes Con saving throws a big danger to you until you gain Diamond Soul at 14th level. Sadly while Stunning Strike is an amazing ability, there are creatures out there with Legendary Resistance that can possibly negate the first few uses of Stunning Strike(although that does help it so magic users in your party can land their spells). This is playing a defender on hard mode.
What changes with DMG marking: The DMG marking rules can do a lot for the Monk. You can mark more targets since you can get anywhere from two to four attacks on your turn at higher levels(although extra attacks come at the sacrifice of Patient Defense), but that will burn through your ki points much faster if you actually try and stun everyone that provokes an opportunity attack.
Stickiness: starts off average but becomes amazing
Saving Throws: starts off good but becomes amazing
Paladins are kind of the archetypal defenders in the fantasy genre and they are probably the class in 5th edition that lends itself most easily to defending and can do it reasonably well with any of their subclasses. You could probably make a decent defending Paladin even if your DM doesn’t allow feats in their game.
Pros: Paladins have some of the best opportunity attack damage potential in the entire game, second only to Rogues, due to Divine Smite and Improved Divine Smite. When combined with spells that either immobilize enemies or strongly incentivize enemies to attack them, Paladins become very sticky compared to many other classes and often at very little resource cost. Paladins start off with Wisdom saving throw proficiency for resisting mind control and fear effects and only get better from there with Paladins gaining a bonus to all saving throws based on Charisma and even some immunities to status effects and resistances. Fighting styles offer you some choices in rounding out your defender by either adding to your damage, increasing your armor class, or giving you the ability to grant disadvantage on a foe’s attack roll with your reaction. You could also use a two handed weapon and still have a decent armor class thanks to heavy armor. Lay on Hands gives the Paladin access to an emergency heal when necessary. Finally, the Paladin spell list is full of amazing options and can change greatly depending on what subclass you choose.
Cons: Paladins rely on having a high attack stat and a high charisma, so you may find yourself with a lower Constitution than some other defenders and you may not have access to the feats you want to take without giving up something in return. Also because Paladins rely on their spell slots to help with defending, they may be more reliant on long rests than other defenders are. That spell slot reliance means that until they get Improved Divine Smite at a higher level, they might have the same problems as Fighters in dealing enough damage to incentivize enemies to stay on them if they don’t have spell slots to burn. Also without the War Caster feat, you may find that casting spells to be difficult or awkward at times and you may find concentration on your spells breaking from time to time.
What changes with DMG marking: Not much beyond the normal awesomeness that DMG marking brings. You only have two attacks for marking targets and you don’t have much in the way of reaction abilities that would benefit from freeing up your reaction. You would get more opportunities to use the Protection fighting style if you chose that option though.
Mitigation: starts off good and can become amazing in some situations
Saving Throws: average
Similar to the Monk, here is a class that could be a defender even though the class isn’t really built around it, although the developers wouldn’t have given Rangers proficiency in shield use if all they wanted was Drizzt Do’Urden and Legolas clones.
Pros: Hunters have good opportunity attack damage against damaged targets with Colossus Slayer and some of their spells(such as Ensnaring Strike or their Conjure spells) can be used to further increase their stickiness by either rooting enemies in place or generating summoned creature opportunity attacks when targets move away. Hunters can situationally improve their mitigation against multi-attacking monsters, breath weapons, or damaging attacks with either Multiattack Defense, Evasion, or Uncanny Dodge(although those last two are mutually exclusive). Multiattack Defense allows a Ranger to get up to an AC of 23 or 24 against later attacks in a claw/claw/bite chain at high levels. If Elemental Evil spells are allowed, Rangers can mitigate a lot of spell damage with the Absorb Elements spell. Fighting styles allow you to choose between increasing your damage or your armor class although Rangers don’t have as many choices for defending as the other classes with access to fighting styles.
Cons: Rangers don’t start off with the best choice of saving throw proficiencies and really don’t have a way to get better at magic defense without having a large opportunity cost involved(e.g. trading Uncanny Dodge for Evasion or using their reaction for Absorb Elements) and Rangers may have to sacrifice spellcasting ability if they want any more feats for those saving throw proficiencies or if they want to raise their Constitution to a respectable level. Since Constitution is a secondary or even tertiary stat for Rangers, they may be squishier than a lot of other tanks when attacks get through their armor class and might rely on healing themselves from time to time. Also without the War Caster feat, you may find that casting spells(especially reaction spells) to be difficult or awkward at times.
What changes with DMG marking: Actually a fair bit. Whirlwind Attack means Hunters could mark quite a few more creatures than their number of attacks would suggest and Hunters often have decent options for their reaction that become a lot easier to use when they don’t have to rely on reaction attacks from Sentinel to lock things down.
Now this isn’t an exhaustive guide by any means and you may find plenty of other options out there especially when you get into the multiclassing rules(e.g. Moon Druid multiclassed into Monk can add their Wisdom to their armor class in beast form). Also as this guide may have hinted at with the Monk, sufficiently advanced controlling is indistinguishable from defending. So if you are willing to wait until higher levels, you could probably even defend your party by playing a Necromancer, a Conjurer, or a Land Druid.
Please let me know if you found this article helpful and tell me about your experiences with defending in the comments.
Jessica Deuel is a long time fan of table top RPGs. When she isn’t in class or enjoying RPGs with friends, she likes to do constructive things like argue with people on the internet or play Facebook games. You can reach her at email@example.com