Friday, August 27, 2010

D&D Lessons: How to Play the Defender

Alright, it’s time to finish off my D&D roles guide with a look at my favorite role: the Defender. Why is it my favorite role? Well, allow me to return back to the earlier football comparison I made with the Striker. While the Striker is the Wide Receiver/Runningback who everyone buys jerseys for and the Leader is the Quarterback that everyone knows is the face of the team, and the Defenders are the linemen who are often times neglected by even fans of their own team.. It’s a thankless job, but a necessary one. Without a good line a quarterback can’t get the ball off, and a runningback can’t break out into the field. That’s the Defender in a nutshell. Remove the football analogy and the job still remains the same: take a beating so your team doesn’t have to.

A Defender might be a very difficult job for people to understand as people hear “Defender” and think “Tank”. It’s not that cut and dry, and truth be told a Defender will be played differently depending on your DM, but I’ll get to that in a bit. The thing that makes each Defender unique is that they all have a mark. Now a mark is something plenty of classes (and monsters) can do, and on the surface it’s a simple -2 penalty to attack anyone else but the person who marked you until the mark ends. However each Defender has their own unique way to mark, and their own unique way of punishing a mark so that it’s actually threatening to disobey. See, that’s the key to a Defender: being threatening. A monster has to actively fear what you can do for a mark to be effective causing perhaps the most unique class feature in the game. This is a power you never want to activate. Yes that’s right you have super cool punishing powers designed to lay big damage down on the enemy, and you don’t ever want them to be used. The reason being that if they violate your mark that normally means they’re going after one of your teammates, and it’s your job to prevent that as much as possible.

A Defender is a tough role to play especially considering your DM. On one hand a DM may honor your mark in almost all situations meaning building a good Defender is easy, however some DMs will play monsters with a tad bit more intelligence. See a monster will realize when it’s futile to continue attacking someone who isn’t reacting to it, and will usually try to find someone else to beat on—afterall there’s little point in fighting a battle you almost statistically can’t win. This means that you can’t just build a Defender with super high defenses and HP who sits there and takes punishment. Realistically you want monsters to hit you. This sounds crazy, but trust me, you do. Every moment a monster hits you is a round they’re not hitting your allies. It might not be fun to be the guy getting wailed on, but that’s what a Defender is. They’re the tough sons of bitches that can actually survive said beatings.

I suppose I should mention the elephant in the room and talk about how you’re going to die… a lot. Well, actually you’re not going to die, but you probably will drop to 0 HP and pass out every so often. This isn’t as bad as it sounds as you’ll often have a Leader ready to save you, but to be honest some Defenders actually take falling in combat as a sign of honor. It’s like a battlescar—proof you were there, did your job, and lived to tell about it. Now your goal isn’t to die in every encounter of course, but the thing to note is that it’s going to happen. Some of you pansy, squimish types might grimace at this thought, but look at it like this. You know that fiery ball of hellfire that crit you and took you from bloodied to – 5? Yeah, think about what would have had happened had that attack hit your squishy wizard or your fragile thief. Such a strike would turn them into mushed paste oon the ground. That’s what you prevent everytime you get hit. That’s –why- you want to get hit! Again, I know it seems like a weird style of gameplay to sit tight and take attacks, but truly that’s the job of a Defender. If fighting like a man isn’t what you want to do, then roll up a Striker. This isn’t the role for the weak of heart.

So what tools does a Defender have that makes them effective? Well each Defender has a particular way of marking, and a method of playing that either makes them sticky (or in the case of the Swordmage; not sticky), or makes it so enemies are drawn to them. Let’s look at the Warden. The Warden is considered by many to be the best class at surviving with their high HP and ability to roll saving rolls at the beginning and end of their turn. Their method of marking is an automatic mark on anyone adjacent to them, so they’re not too tough to play, however their punishment is less than impressive. However Wardens are incredibly hard to get away from with their powers that pull enemies in and their famous Level 1 Daily “Form of Winter’s Herald” which makes them nearly impossible to escape from. On the inverse look at the Paladin. They have almost no way of keeping enemies next to them. No pulling powers, no abilities to attack enemies who try to get away, etc. However, no class is better at marking tons of enemies at once. Heck, a Level 1 Encounter power has the ability to mark all enemies within three squares of them for a turn. That’s only one of many powers a Paladin has to dominate the battlefield by forcing enemies to stay with him, or betray his mark.

Since Defender is the smallest role (in terms of available classes) I’ll actually try to explain the other roles more so you guys understand how the classes work. Fighter’s are the Striker Defender. They deal big damage, and they are the best Defender. I know it’s tough to say any class is “best” at their job, but truth be told a Fighter will normally be more effective than a Paladin or Warden. This isn’t to say don’t look at other classes, but simply put Fighters are monsters. A Fighter’s mark is the only mark that will be betrayed that you actually be happy about as they get to lay down the hurt whenever the enemy so much as shits their pants wrong. Save for ending their turn doing nothing or attacking the Fighter, there’s almost nothing an enemy can do to escape the Fighter without the Fighter attacking, and some Fighter Builds can even stop the enemy’s movement should they hit. Damn.

Swordmages are different depending on which aspect you take: Assault, Shielding, or Ensnaring. Each plays very differently from one another, so this choice will define how you play the role. Assault and Ensnaring are the closest, yet polar opposites. Both activate when an opponent attacks one of your allies, but Assault teleports you to the enemy while Ensnaring teleports the opponent to you. Both are good, though Ensaring keeps you sticky while Assault is best when your DM often betrays marks. Shielding however is right up there with Fighter as best Defender as her power is very simple. Mark enemy, and run away. Yeah, run away. See a Swordmage is at her best when the enemy has to chase her down every time the enemy attacks someone not marked by a Shielding Swordmage the damage they take is reduced by the Swordmage’s Constitution. This is the best example of mark and forget, and again, you want to leave your mark alone. Even if it does attack the opponent its damage won’t be very significant, and more than likely the monster will take some time tracking you down. A great Defender.

Last is the Battlemind which is the newest Defender, and thus the most underpowered. Many Battlemind problems are fixed including the Battlemind’s Blurred Step which is a class feature that allows the Battlemind to follow along with any marked foe that has shifted away from him. More than that they have the dreaded Mind Spike which causes an enemy to take damage equal to that it inflicts while it is adjacent to a Battlemind that has marked it. One aspect even has a nifty special power that lets it move before initiative which is pretty awesome.

Playing a Defender requires a mindset like many roles. You shouldn’t think “I have a lot of health and my AC is high”. You need to think “How can I keep that monster from attacking my allies”. You’re a self-sacrificing character, and yeah, people might not remember your exploits, but take solace in the fact that if your allies are around afterwards then you did your job.

The Defender role includes the Fighter, Paladin, Warden, Swordmage, and Battlemind classes. When Heroes of Shadow comes out in March of next year, it is rumored that the Hexblade class will also be a Defender. That wraps it up for my look at the roles, but I’m not done here. My next plan is to start looking at each class individually to help people see the positive and negatives to the classes. Also I’m always around to help with any other questions you guys might have, so never hesitate to ask! Until next time when I return with my look at the Paladin class, Namaste!


  1. This is a pretty amazing multi-layered write up. Par for the course, I say. I look forward to your class write up ^_^

  2. Looking forward to next time, because I do love my Paladin so. :)

  3. I love my Half-Elf Shielding Swordmage. He's all about being a team player, which, in my opinion, is what the Defender role is all about.

    Very nice work, Mr. Larios. I look forward to your future blogs! :)

  4. Great post. Nice to see some defender love when it seems to get a rep as a boring class type.

    A few nitpicks about the Paladin though:
    1) While Valorous smite is a nifty power, it only really works for Charisma builds (especially at low levels). Strength builds can take advantage of Piercing Smite, though it's limited by wisdom modifier and only doles out normal marks.
    2) The better option for Strength builds is the level 2 utility Call of Challenge, which has the same effect as Valorous smite, without the damage, as a minor action.
    3) The way to make this really pay off is the Mighty Challenge feat, which adds your strength modifier to the divine challenge damage. That way, you can keep the damage high and still have your pick into the strength-based paladin powers (which I find to be more useful overall, with the exception of lack of ranged options).

    With regards to AC, while focusing on it is kind of missing the point, it's still damn fun. I find the high points of being a defender telling the DM things such as "23? That's a miss". I've found a general rule (that at least seems applicable at lower levels) to be to make sure your AC is high enough that the average monsters your encountering miss your AC with at least half the numbers on the dice.

  5. I'll be looking forward to your fighter writeup, there is just so much you can do with him.

  6. Another very entertaining read and a fascinating look into a character role I initially thought was quite bland. Well now I know better.