Tuesday, January 3, 2012

You Shall Not Pass: A Treatise on Defending

I would like to delve a little deeper into this post than I have in some of my last posts. Although all of the roles are important, it is possible that the Defender is the most important role. Without a good Defender the enemy Brutes and Skirmishers will be able to rip apart the other characters whose defenses tend to be lower and which are less able to recover. A good Defender sets the tone of the battle and dictates where the enemy is able to engage the party. A good Controller is also key for this aspect of combat, which is why many of the best Defenders have a strong control secondary role. So, what is a good Defender?

I'll save you Hobbits!
Let's start at the core: What does it mean to be a Defender? As a defender, it is your job to counter and negate enemy attacks. The importance of the role is obvious: If you and your allies are petrified, unconscious or dead, you'll lose the fight, no matter how much damage your group can put out. If your group takes too much damage, they burn through healing surges too fast. If a group's healing surges are used up before they win the final fight of the day and can take an extended rest, they'll have to flee or risk a TPK. The classic defender is the frontline of the party, holding of the brutes' and soldiers' attacks, and preventing them from reaching softer targets. This is a valid tactic, of course, embodied by the shield-bearing Fighter and Paladin, but effective defense can be done in other ways as the highly mobile Assault Swordmage shows.

The above  is from an excellent Wiki on the art of Defending on the Wizards of the Coast community page. Unfortunately, the game has evolved somewhat since the wiki has been updated. The new Essentials style classes deal with the same issues as their pre-Essentials counterparts, but they have a different set of tools to use. The article talks about creating a Catch 22 as a Defender and that is a great way to think about it. You have to make the enemy decide between two really bad choices; either he must attack the Defender, who has high defenses and is usually the most resilient character, or try to circumvent the Defender and suffer the punishment the Defender dishes out.

The article talks about two things every Defender needs to do.  As you will see I believe there are three. First, a good Defender needs to have survivability to avoid being a drain on the party’s resources. Survivability includes having higher defenses, more hit points and a better ability to recover from attacks. This is a bit of a balancing act because if you’re too hard to hit (or kill) the enemy will simply ignore you no matter how bad your punishment is. A good rule of thumb is to keep your defenses about 2-3 points higher than the rest of your party. I’ll get into why in a minute. If you are building a character in a vacuum, you should try for 19-20 + your level for AC and around two points lower for your Non-AC defenses. You also want to make sure you have decently high HP and some way to prevent damage, like resistance or temporary HP. Finally, you need to have some self-recovery and a way to shake off status effects. Dwarves are excellent for this because they can use their second wind as a minor action and have bonuses to Constitution and Wisdom or Strength, abilities which are important for most Defenders. Additionally, Dwarves take less of a penalty for wearing heavy armor than other races, because they are already slow and heavy armor does not decrease their speed further.

This is what happens when you hurt my FRIENDS!
The second thing Defenders need is punishment, or a way to keep enemies from ignoring them. Early in Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition this was handled by Marks. Every Defender had some sort of a Mark as a class feature which gave a flat -2 to all attacks which did not include them. That is why you should have your defenses be about 2 higher than the rest of the party. If it is much higher it would make sense for the enemy to ignore your mark. The best part of the Mark system was that each class had a unique punishment mechanic. The wiki does a good job explaining the punishment mechanics of the early Defenders so I won’t repeat that information here. Generally the punishment consists of doing some damage and perhaps imposing a status effect on the enemy who dares to attack your friend. The key difference for the Essentials Defenders is, instead of a Mark, they have a Defender Aura which works in the same way. An enemy in your aura takes a -2 on all attacks that don’t include you and have some sort of punishment mechanic. The Essentials Defenders also have one advantage over pre-Essentials Defenders. A pre-Essentials Defender can only punish one enemy a round because, with one notable exception, the punishment is an immediate action. All the Essentials Defenders have a punishment attack, which is an opportunity action, so they can punish each enemy that ignores them instead of just the first one. The trade off is that Essentials Defenders need to keep an enemy in their aura for it to work, which brings me to the third thing I think all Defenders need.

Don't you dare walk away from me!
Defenders need stickiness, or a way to keep enemies from moving away from them. Many of the pre-Essentials defenders, and all of the Essential Defenders, cannot punish effectively unless they are adjacent to an enemy. Even those Defenders who can punish at range still benefit from some level of stickiness. Usually the stickiness comes in the form of soft control. This is why a Defender with a good secondary in control or a Defender with a good controller can be so successful. At a minimum, a Defender needs some way to restrict enemies’ movement or needs to be very mobile themselves.

I am going to do an in-depth look at the Berserker in a future article and there are many good guides for each Defender on the Wizards of the Coast Community site. You can play without a Defender, but if you want to keep your friends alive and like to take a bit of punishment I hope this helped you understand how important you are. Until next time remember don’t let your DM tell you no. It’s always Yes and?....

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