In combat, there are plenty of ways to get the best of your opponents. I’ve often heard it said that the best defense is a good offense. Sure, that might be true, but doesn’t that make a good defense the best offense?
When it comes to D&D 5e most people like to go for the all-out bashing and smashing, casting wild spells, and striking with all their might. Fortunately, that sort of wanton violence and destruction is not a prerequisite to having an amazing character.
In fact, some of the most interesting characters are those who favor the use of shields and defense to save their allies and push forward towards victory.
In this article, we’re talking about a fighting style that allows you to do this effectively. We’ll cover how the protection fighting style works, who should use it, and how to put together a build that is going to put opponents in their place.
What is the Protection Fighting Style?
Paladins, fighters, and rangers all get access to fighting styles, a list of features that greatly improve these martial classes’ prowess on the battlefield. A player chooses a fighting style that is centered around the build they’re trying to play.
The protection fighting style is available to fighters and paladins, and is meant to make the characters better at using a shield and, well, protecting people.
When a creature you can see attacks a target other than you that is within 5 feet of you, you can use your reaction to impose disadvantage on the attack roll. You must be wielding a shield.
Compared to other fighting styles that simply give you a bonus to attack or damage rolls, this style has you up in the midst of battle, fighting alongside your allies. There, you’ll be ready to save them from oncoming attacks simply by wielding your own shield.
Let’s talk about how this compares to just normally wielding a shield. Typically, a shield just boosts your AC by 2. You don’t get to protect anyone with it, or use it as a bashing weapon. It’s just extra armor, which makes sense, that is the intended use of a shield.
Since armor is largely tied into dexterity, this style paints a picture of a shield wielder that is so dexterous, so alert, that they are prepared at any time to jump in front of a sword, arrow, or whatever, just to protect their allies.
Normal tanks try to draw fire from their allies, this one doesn’t even have to. It’s also different from stepping in front of the attack since you have to take absolutely none of the damage, even if it does manage to hit.
When we look at the mechanics of this ability, it’s pretty clear how much of a boost this really is. Disadvantage drastically changes the odds of success.
In fact, on a normal roll, each side of the d20 has an equal chance of being rolled, a 5% chance. In contrast, the chance of each consecutively higher number drops significantly with disadvantage.
The odds of rolling a 1 are close to 10% and the odds of rolling a 20 drop below 1%.
Compare this with a +2 bonus to an ally’s AC, an equally logical bonus to give if you put your shield in front of them. Your foes still have just as much chance at rolling a nat 20, even if hitting the AC is a little bit harder to do.
Who Should be a Protector?
For starters, paladins and fighters, since they’re the only ones who can use this. Technically, anyone who picks up the fighter initiate feat can add this to their roster, but it’s unlikely someone is going outside of these classes for a defensive martial build.
What kind of fighters and paladins though? That’s the question we want to be asking. Anyone that decides to wield a shield is going to be a good bet. There are, however, some subclasses that are better than others when it comes to setting up a tanky build.
The battle master gets some excellent maneuvers. Some of them happen to be incredibly defensive if used effectively. Bait and Switch lets you switch places with people 5 feet near you, and then boost their AC.
Maneuvering Attack can get them close to you. Rally gives your allies temporary hit points. Evasive footwork boosts your own AC. Goading strike focuses your opponents on targeting you.
Brace lets you prepare an attack reaction when an opponent comes within range. Long story short, there’s a lot you can do to turn yourself into the ultimate protector with this subclass.
Cloud Rune is a rune that you can carve into your gear that lets you use your reaction to redirect an attack against a creature within 30 feet of you towards any target other than the attacker.
This means that you have ultimate protection over allies within 5 feet of you and limited protection over your allies that are a bit further away. Storm rune is another way to give creatures disadvantage, or alternatively, give your allies advantage.
The 7th level ability runic shield is also a great way to force attackers to reroll if they were going to succeed on attacking your allies.
Oath of the Ancients
Aura of warding is an excellent ability that gives your nearby allies resistance to damage from spells. This means that you’re protecting your allies from martial attacks and spells, which is excellent.
Oath of Redemption
Aura of the guardian is another great protection feature, but it does have you sacrificing your own HP by magically absorbing damage that the ally would take. The next feature you get at level 15 is Protective Spirit which lets you heal yourself quite often.
Any class can wield a shield, but having other protective abilities to go alongside it will drastically improve how you perform as a tank and as a protector.
This is where dexterity comes into play. If you’re defending others, that means they’re relying on you to stay standing. Instead of taking a strength-based weapon, go for dexterity in most of these cases so you can pump everything you have into that.
Paladins will need dexterity, charisma, and constitution, in that order. Fighters will go for dexterity, followed by constitution. Which means… we’re going to need some good races to go with these builds.
There are plenty of races that give bonuses to the ability scores we talked about, and you don’t need to go with those bonuses to effectively make this build.
I chose the following three races based on the combination of their ability scores, which are very fitting, and their abilities. All of these races in some way make you a better defender.
Shadar Kai Elves
+2 Dexterity, +1 Constitution. These elves have resistance to necrotic damage, saving throws against being charmed, and can teleport to an unoccupied space as a bonus action.
Plus, once they reach 3rd level they have resistance to all damage until the start of their next turn after teleporting. This is a great way to finish a turn by putting yourself next to an ally that needs your help.
+2 Dexterity, +1 Charisma. Excellent paladins that can use their Fey Step ability to teleport 30 feet as well. This ability refreshes faster, on a short rest or long rest, and each season of eladrin has different abilities.
The spring eladrin which can teleport allies instead of themselves is a great way to move your friends out of harm’s way if they’re getting dangerously low on health.
+2 Dexterity. While they only get the one ability bonus they have some abilities that synergize so well with the protection fighting style. The best one is Pack Tactics, which states that “You have advantage on an attack roll against a creature if at least one of your allies is within 5 feet of the creature and the ally isn’t incapacitated.”
These are two HUGE benefits for staying within 5 feet of an ally.
Best Protection Builds
Using the races and classes we talked about above, we’re off to an amazing start. The only things we really have to consider are weapons because you still want to fight, and feats.
Feats are what will really make this character shine. You can have the best subclass/race combo in the world, but you’ll still be outmatched by a character that makes full use of the feats at their disposal.
Weapons are much simpler so we’ll start there. You have to be able to hold your shield, so your weapons should be one-handed. Plus, if you do take the maxed-out dexterity route, you’ll want a weapon that has finesse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this really limits our options.
Daggers work best when you’re wielding multiple weapons, but you can have some to throw. Whips give you a longer reach, but still only deal 1d4 of damage. Rapiers are the best martial weapons with finesse, dealing 1d8 piercing damage.
A light crossbow is also a nice touch, giving you even farther ranged options than throwing a dagger would.
As for feats, these are the options that I think you should definitely put with your protection build:
If you meet the dexterity requirement of 13, you can pick up this feat and add your proficiency bonus to your AC when another creature hits you with a melee attack.
This does require you wielding a finesse weapon, but you’ll probably have a rapier in one hand and your shield in another.
Medium Armor Master
This feat often gets ignored, but it’s wonderful for defensive dexterity-based builds. You can add 1 more to your AC while wearing medium armor, and you don’t have the normal disadvantage on stealth checks.
Yes! There is a whole feat centered around using a shield. This is essential to making the most out of this kind of build. It allows you to shove a creature 5 feet with your shield as a bonus action and lets you add your shield’s AC bonus to Dexterity saving throws against spells or other harmful effects that target only you.
What’s more, is that when you make a Dexterity saving throw against a spell that would give you half damage on a success or full damage on a failed save, you can make a reaction to take half damage on a failed save and 0 damage on a success.
This drastically changes your ability to both attack and defend yourself from all manners of damage across the board.
Putting all of these things together will give you a character whose shield is the stuff of legends. There’s a reason Thorin Oakenshield is one of the most feared dwarves of middle earth.
Wielding a shield doesn’t have to be for cowards, it can be for the wisest of combatants looking to gain every upper hand that they possibly can on their opponents, and that could be you.
P.S. If you still don’t believe shields are cool, read Kings of the Wyld. Then we can talk.
Can you use protection on yourself?
No. The attack you react to must be made against a target other than yourself.
Can you have more than one reaction in 5e?
Characters only get one reaction per round of combat. That means between your turns you can only use this ability, or any other reaction ability you might have, once.
Choose wisely and familiarize yourself with just how effective, and how likely, each of your reactions are so you know which ones to use and when.
Can I change my fighting style in 5e?
Yes, if your DM allows it. The variant rule Martial Versatility allows you to change your fighting style each time you pick up an ASI. For a fighter, this is pretty frequent.
I would advise you though, that the builds specified here will only support a few other fighting styles such as Defense, Archery, Dueling, Interception, and Thrown-weapon fighting.