Tanks are your best friends. In a party’s composition, tanks are almost a necessity. You need someone who isn’t afraid to get in there and get the job done. This post is dedicated to them: the real heroes. The tanks.
What Is a Tank?
With high health and defensive capabilities, Tanks are those characters who will stand in harm’s way in order to not only protect their allies but also create the space needed for their allies to do what they do best, whether that is casting spells, making ranged attacks, or achieving secondary objects that need to happen during an encounter.
Which Classes Make the Best Tanks?
While it is possible for any class to be a tank (yes, even a Wizard), it comes more easily to the so-called “martial classes.”
Fighters, Barbarians, and Paladins are the classes most readily turned into tanks. Their weapon and armor proficiencies, when combined with their high HP and defensive options, make them formidable martial characters on the battlefield.
With a bit of foresight and min/maxing, it is also possible to create very tanky Clerics, Monks, and Druids. Many Clerics get heavy armor proficiencies, and their healing spells work on themselves just as well as on anyone else. Monks can impose disadvantage on attacks just by thinking about it, and Druids get medium armor, shields, and boatloads of temporary HP in the form of wildshape.
To make a tank out of Wizards, Bards, Sorcerers, or Warlocks, you will have to devote almost your entire magical repertoire to defense. While it is possible, ultimately, it ends up making you walk around in a giant indestructible bubble with very little firepower to balance it.
What follows are several tank builds that you can use to model your own characters. We will begin with some standard tank builds that are basically “easy mode.” If you want a simple, yet effective, tactic to portray on the battlefield in order to spend most of your energy on roleplaying, try mixing and matching these builds — or even copying them exactly.
Building any character is all about making the right choices early in the game. The following build tables will show you what choices you will need to make in the first 5 levels of your character. Once you get those established, it isn’t hard to follow the pattern.
Standard Tank Builds
The Best Paladin Tank starts with the best gear for the role. In this case, it is definitely the shield and the heaviest armor your DM will allow. Typically, this will be scale mail since that is what you are given in the starting options, but you never know. It is worth asking.
The reason we chose the shield and a one-handed weapon is that the shield provides a +2 bonus to AC while the one-handed weapons provide an extra 1d6 damage. The tank’s mentality is that they don’t have to do loads of damage all at once; they only have to wear you down.
At second level, the Defense fighting style will improve your AC, and every bit of improvement is precious. You can save your HP with a high AC. The Interception and Protection fighting styles will help you protect your allies better. In this case, any one of these three choices is valid for a successful paladin tank.
At third level, you will get your Oath spells and your Devotion abilities, all of which boost you and your allies’ defensive capabilities.
At fourth level, the Sentinel feat will top you off with all of your tanky glory, allowing you to stand guard and protect your allies, punish your enemies, and keep your own skin safe.
The ideal Barbarian tank is a protector. He is more focused on his allies, unlike the paladin whose abilities are mostly self-focused.
This Barbarian comes with a few abilities from a few different published works. From Xanathar’s, we have the Ancestral Guardian Path and from Eberron: The Last War, we have the Aberrant Dragonmark feat.
The Barbarian’s tankier aspects come from its substantial HP: 1d12 per level. The Constitution bonus to AC is also nothing to shake a stick at, especially when combined with a shield.
The Ancestral Guardian primal path takes your natural barbarian resistance to nonmagical bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage and gives it to your allies. In addition, enemies have disadvantage if they attack anyone except you.
Finally, the Aberrant Dragonmark feat gives you a +1 to Constitution, thus increasing both your HP and your AC! It also grants you two cantrips and a single spell.
Now, you can not cast a spell while raging. We get that. But you will be able to enter a rage as a bonus action, which means you can cast a preparatory spell immediately beforehand.
My personal favorite is Color Spray. This will allow you to blind your enemies before you leap in and attack. While this will mean you can’t attack until your second round of combat, it will mean you have seriously ruined every enemy’s day within a 15-foot cone. Use it during a surprise round.
As far as cantrips go, any one is fine, whether that is Blade Ward to protect you, True Strike to make that charge attack go well, or even Frostbite to slow your enemy down. Lightning Lure is also a good option if you want to pull your enemy closer.
Unique Tank Builds
Monks are a difficult yet highly rewarding tank to make. In particular, the least appreciated Monk subclass, The Way of the Four Elements, makes the best Monk tank in my humble opinion.
Your first level is always focused on gear, and for this Monk, you will want a weapon that you can throw and use one- or two-handed. The idea here is for you to deal enough damage and to interpose yourself so much that the enemies will try to attack you. Sadly, you will not have a mechanical way to enforce this, but you can still draw aggro the old-fashioned way: by being all up in their face!
At second level, you will automatically get Patient Defense. You won’t have to choose it; however, it is still worth putting on here because you will need to make sure that you use it often. Your AC will probably be around a 15 or 16, which is awesome, but being able to impose disadvantage on attacks against you is going to be one of the main things that keeps you alive when your HP begins to dwindle.
At 3rd level, you will get your first ability for your subclass. For this ability, you should choose the water whip. First, it deals massive damage — at least 3d10. Secondly, you can pull your target up to 25 feet toward you. Twenty-five feet is a huge distance, and if you use the ability at the end of a run, you could cover 70 feet in a dash and then shoot this whip out an additional 30 feet, meaning you can nab anyone on the board, most likely.
At 4th level, you should take Magic Initiate (Wizard or Sorcerer). The goal here is to give you some creative abilities that you can use to protect yourself and your allies. Make sure that the spells you choose do not require your targets to make saving throws or protect against your attacks because you will not have the Intelligence or Charisma to back that up.
Instead, choose the Shield spell as a last-minute way to save your bacon from a lucky shot by the enemy. For cantrips, choose Blade Ward, which will give you resistance to nonmagical weapon damage and which you can still use a ki point to attack as a bonus action after casting.
For your second cantrip, I highly recommend Friends. While your Charisma is low, the advantage on the Charisma check will be beneficial, especially when you are consistently making intimidate or deception checks to goad your opponent into attacking you. By teasing your target, threatening your target, or even pretending to be weak and injured, you can do the tank thing by making them attack you.
My favorite tank to play is not your typical choice. I love the Armorer Artificer. Yes, it was made to be an Iron Man knockoff, but who cares? It’s awesome!
To do this one right, you will need to get the heaviest armor you can at 1st level along with a shield. Make sure to wield your arcane focus on the other hand instead of a weapon.
At second level, you can infuse your armor for a +1 to AC and your shield for an additional +1 to AC. After that, I recommend replicating Goggles of Night or a Wand of Detect Magic, and see if you can talk your DM into letting you infuse that into your helmet just for flavor and the whole glowy-eye thing, yeah?
At 3rd level, your armor becomes just short of a mech suit. It gains its own attack options and can be used as a spell focus. You will have to change your Arcane Infusions at this point because you won’t be able to infuse your Arcane Armor since it is now considered magic.
That’s okay, honestly. You get more versatility that way. Besides, how often can you successfully create a melee spellcaster? Not very.
At 4th level, you should take the Sentinel feat. This will give you a wider range of options when it comes to standing your ground and protecting your friends.
This build is the best.
Everyone loves having a tank in the party, but not everyone loves being a tank. If you haven’t tried it yet, try one of the builds we’ve made here.
Good hunting, my friend. May all your 20s be natural.
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I played the game a lot as a kid, back in first edition. Over the past few years since 5e was released, I’ve really started getting back into it. Currently, I run a campaign online for some friends and my brothers, and we also play a side-sesh just to mix things up.