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Playing support in D&D 5e is hardcore. You burned your reaction to cancel the dragon’s critical hit with Sentinel at Death’s Door, so the fighter‘s still standing—just barely. Healing them is probably a waste of a spell slot at this point. So, you mark the dragon’s Path to The Grave—because the rogue is next—and take cover. You’re already concentrating on keeping everyone #blessed, and will save that Healing Word to get the fighter back up when she falls.
Support is a common role in RPGs. They heal and amplify allies’ capabilities (buff), limit enemies’ capabilities (debuff), and control the battlefield. Clerics and bards are stereotypical “support classes,” but 5e gives flexibility for other classes to provide support, too. Let’s look at how.
In fact, 5E has some pretty deadly, damage-oriented cleric domains like Tempest and War, so the days in which cleric and healer were basically synonyms are long gone. Besides, the burden of “being the support” need not fall solely on one Player Character’s (PC) shoulders: support capabilities can be spread around the party.
There’s a lot to cover, some of it counterintuitive, but we’ll break it all down in this guide on how to support the hell out of your party. Here’s the table of contents:
The very definition of support to many, healing is definitely important in 5E, but not the way a lot of people seem to think it is. Let’s establish this right off the bat: as a dedicated healer, you can’t out-heal the damage in fights that are level-appropriate and up.
Preventing damage is often a better choice than healing, and we’ll cover it in the next section.
The point is not keeping your allies topped up (which is wasteful) but to keep them fighting for longer and get them back up when they fall. The action economy plays a role in this: you want to keep the team at full fighting capacity, actions-wise, and you need to consider the chances of whoever you heal being snuffed out before they can even act.
TL;DR: Smart healing is reactive; timing matters.
Your friend’s maximum HP matters, too. If you have a squishy wizard brought to single-digit hit points next to a dragon, Firebreath might insta-kill them, so you heal them enough to get them out of the instant-death zone, even if they’re likely to go unconscious right after it.
Now that that’s out of the way, how do you heal an ally?
The most straightforward way is with healing spells. All clerics, bards, artificers, druids, rangers, and paladins have access to them. Celestial warlocks and divine soul sorcerers do, too. Not all healing spells are equal, however. There are different ranges, from touch to as far as 60 ft. Broadly speaking, the shorter the range, the fatter the heal. However, longer range affords the caster versatility and gels better with the action economy.
One loophole to this is that you can cast touch spells via your familiar as long as it’s within 100ft. of you. This can mean carefully keeping them in position, so they’re where you need them to be on your turn (which privileges faster forms), or just making them tiny and leaving them in the pocket of whoever you want to keep on their feet.
Another is Polymorph. Remember that squishy, close to death, wizard? You can keep them up and possibly increase their output of reliable damage by turning them into a giant ape with 157 hit points. Caleb frequently does this to himself on Critical Role. But Dungeon Masters (DMs) beware—I have seen tough fights trivialized by turning a character into one of these and then casting Haste on them.
To wrap up: I’m lumping stabilizing a dying character without restoring any hit points with the more prosaic healing spells, so the Spare the Dying cantrip also fits the bill.
Class and subclass features
There are, in 5E, ways to bestow magical healing without casting a spell or using an item. For PCs, these are class and subclass features.
The life domain cleric’s Preserve Life Channel Divinity is a classic, as the paladin’s famous Lay On Hands—while MCDM’s prestige “anti-paladin” class, the illrigger, gets Infernal Conduit. The aforementioned celestial warlock has Healing Light, way of mercy monks can literally slap the hit points back into people.
And there’s more, so if you wish to have at least some healing capability without taking a class that excels at it, it pays off to do your homework. Even so, there are other ways.
Healing potions are great! You can actually administer them to other people as an action, and I wouldn’t rule out an artificer or adequately flavored character from creating a sort of syringe launcher to do this from a distance with an attack roll.
There are also healer’s kits. Each kit has 10 uses and is limited to stabilizing downed characters without a Wisdom (Medicine) check, which is further amplified by the Healer feat. With it, the user can bring the stabilized character back up to 1 hit point or heal a conscious character (1d6+4+the character’s maximum number of hit dice).
The Healer feat can make any character with good mobility a decent battlefield medic. Rogues and monks are good candidates. And barbarians, even, but the best way for them to support the party is almost always to hold the line and prevent the enemy from getting to the squishies.
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Buff and debuff
As alluded to in the previous sections, damage prevention is a fantastic way to fulfill support duties. It’s more efficient than healing, although usually not as reliable: an enemy you’ve debuffed can still roll well enough to blow past it, but if you cast a healing spell, it just happens. You might still roll crap, though (which can be circumvented by the Beacon of Hope spell).
There is an argument to be made that tanking is frontline support: you stand strong and take hits to prevent damage from reaching the more fragile characters, control the battlefield (Polearm Master + Sentinel being regarded as The Bastard Combo for a reason), buff/debuff (see the path of the ancestral guardian‘s Ancestral Protectors). Then there are a few battlemaster maneuvers… you get the picture.
That out of the way, we can turn to what is usually understood as support, zeroing in on buff/debuff. These effects can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
Bane and Bless—a buff and a debuff of the same magnitude—are staples of the support toolkit. Bane subtracts one d4 from enemy attacks and saving throws, Bless adds a d4 to allies’ attacks and saving throws. This pair is illustrative of how you should think when doing support work.
Although Bless is generally better—the extra d4 to saves applies to keeping concentration on it—there are occasions in which Bane might be preferable—like against enemies with many attacks or that are able to knock someone out in one turn.
Another way to minimize damage taken and conserve resources is killing your enemies quickly. If your main damage dealer is a sorcerer using Area of Effect (AoE) spells, Bane can be …the bane… of your foes’ lives. Conversely, if you rely on martial characters for damage, you might want to go with Bless.
Haste only has one target; Slow has six. More importantly, robbing enemies of their attacks is usually more advantageous than getting an extra one for your party, especially so when you’re outnumbered, as the action economy is brutal in these scenarios.
You can also kite slowed enemies: make them follow along while you stay out of their danger zone and pelt them with ranged attacks (or do hit-and-runs). Let’s not forget the Heat Metal tactic of a “cook and book”.
Now we have covered spell-buffs dealing with dice rolls and with the action economy. The final category to consider are ones that somehow extend hit points beyond their usual maximum. You can get this in the form of temporary hit points that you ideally “apply” before the combat encounter with spells such as Heroism and Hero’s Feast.
Heroes’ Feast technically raises the hit point maximum for 24 hours, which is great, as it stacks with actual temporary hit points such as those granted by class features or an Inspiring Leader speech.
Class and Subclass Features
As mentioned in the intro, a grave cleric—possibly my favorite cleric subclass—can negate critical hits against allies with Sentinel at Death’s Door. They can also double an attack’s damage (goes great with paladins and rogues!) with Path to The Grave.
Bards are also great at preventing damage without casting spells. An inspiration die added to a saving throw can spare you the worst of a Fireball or save the whole party from a mind-controlled fighter. On the flip side of this damage prevention, bardic inspiration can also be added to attack rolls, even damage rolls with weapons if the bestower of this inspiration is a valor bard.
The bardic college of lore takes it even further with their Cutting Words: see an enemy make an attack roll or saving throw? Subtract your bardic inspiration die from their roll!
Taking it to the frontlines, Paladin auras can also help those close to them succeed on saving throws, so they help the melee combatants in the team most of the time, as the squishies avoid the melee where paladins thrive.
There’s even a rogue subclass—the mastermind—that can help (give an ally advantage on the attack roll) as a bonus action, from 30 ft. The options go on, reiterating that support functions can be spread around the party to great effect.
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A lot of this falls back into amplifying (allied) damage output and reducing (enemy) damage output. What distinguishes control as a type of support activity is that it’s more about positioning and the action economy than applying penalties to rolls. The aforementioned Haste and Slow absolutely fit here, too. Categories can be a little fuzzy.
A controller can make enemies waste turns or take agency from them in a variety of ways. Let’s take a look at some examples:
- Any stun effect belongs here (which monks are good at, with their Stunning Strikes).
- Mind Control (most Charm effects) can temporarily get rid of hostility, waste enemy turns, and even turn enemies against their own. To list a few alternatives:
- Center a bubble of Silence on the enemy spellcaster when your paladin gets within Smite distance. They’ll likely have to risk an attack of opportunity to be able to cast anything (all teleportation spells in 5E have verbal components).
- Hypnotic Pattern can take a bunch of enemies out of a fight at once or enable stealthy assassinations!
- You can also play with repositioning friends and foes to set up combos:
- The Glamour Bard’s Mantle of Majesty allows you to not only grant temporary hit-points to allies as a damage buffer, but it also lets them immediately burn a reaction to move up to their full speed.
- If you play a conjuration wizard, you can use Benign Teleportation to trade positions with party members within 30 ft. So if an enemy striker gets close to you, you can leave them alone with your grappler pugilist friend on your turn.
- Use Earthbind to bring a flying enemy into melee range.
- Knock an enemy prone to facilitate an ally’s safe getaway
- Cast Evard’s Black Tentacles to hold foes in place, or shove someone into it once it’s cast! (Great teamwork by my campaign’s warlock and tempest cleric right there).
- The Telekinetic feat can also help by shoving or pulling an opponent/ally 5ft. Though, there is a save DC for the unwilling.
I could go on for ages, but this should give you the tools to think in terms of battlefield control and use it to devastating effect.
Counterspell and Dispel Magic
These two merit a section of their own. Counterspell is actually a hot topic, as some people think it’s overpowered and shouldn’t even be in the game. I don’t see it the same way and suspect most campaigns allow it. This is handy for support builds because it can be the ultimate way to prevent damage and negate enemy battlefield control. Goes both ways, though.
Counterspell is very powerful and, due to its nature, lends itself to drama. It has been a source of many memorable moments in actual play streams that fans might point out to you. I can think of at least four in Critical Role without much effort. The drama stems from how extreme it is:
In short, it cancels any spell cast at a level equal to or below the level of the spell slot you spend to counterspell. No question, no roll, just an instant “screw you” to the caster. If the spell you are trying to counter is at a higher level than your Counterspell you need to beat its DC (10+ the level it was cast at) with an Ability check using your Spellcasting Ability (usually Charisma, Wisdom, or Intelligence).
Oh, and you can Counterspell Counterspell. It’s total madness, and I love it.
Dispel magic works the same way, but is meant to cancel an ongoing effect on a target instead of keeping it from taking hold. Bring down protective wards like Globe of Invulnerability, get rid of the buff that turned the enemy brute into a pain train, etc. And yes, of course, you can counterspell Dispel Magic.
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Utility is an integral part of a good support build. Good utility can help the party conserve resources, gather information, and it makes life easier overall. This is where rogues shine along with bards because being a skillmonkey is great for this. See Expertise, Jack of All Trades.
Here’s our skillmonkey build from the multiclassing guide.
On that note, social skills offer great utility: what better way to conserve resources and avoid damage than talking your way around fights?
Then come tool proficiencies and magic. There are 20 tool proficiencies to choose from in 5e—apart from musical instruments, gaming sets, and vehicles—most of them are only situationally useful.
Xanathar’s Guide added some oomph to tools (like using leatherworker’s tools to maintain shoes and thus boost travel speed), though, and Hannah from Halfling Hobbies wrote a great article about getting the most out of them with some creativity.
The more relevant tools here are:
- Thief’s Tools: Get past locks, disarm traps; most rogue’s bread and butter. More on them in this post.
- Alchemist’s supplies: Make potions, bombs, alchemist fire, and so on. More on that here.
- Herbalism kit: Make healer’s kits to stabilize people with, also potions and antidotes.
- Disguise Kit: Go unnoticed, infiltrate places without necessarily sneaking.
Now onward to magical utility.
These are great for problem-solving outside combat and circumvent the lack of specific skills in the party, but they can also help in a fight! One of my favorites is casting Invisibility on a rogue or paladin to send them after enemy spellcasters. I also like the roleplay potential of things like Speak with Dead and Commune.
Below are some of the best utility spells.
- Cantrips: Light, Guidance, Mage Hand, Message, Minor Illusion.
- 1st level: Detect Magic, Identify, Feather Fall.
- 2nd level: Knock, Pass Without Trace, Invisibility.
- 3rd level: Leomund’s Tiny Hut, Catnap, Speak with Dead.
- 4th level: Arcane Eye.
- 5th level: Legend Lore, Scrying, Commune.
What are the Best Support Feats in 5e?
The optional rule that’s so ubiquitous it hardly feels optional, feats are a great way to add some support capability to any character or amplify it in dedicated builds.
- Bountiful Luck (exclusively for Halflings, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything pg 73): Share your halfling luck with the rest of the party.
- Chef (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, pg 79): Cook delicious treats to give party members temporary HP as a bonus action when they eat it. Enhance short rests with an extra d8 of healing from your hearty meals.
- Healer (Player’s Handbook, pg 167): stabilize unconscious creatures back up with 1 HP using a healer’s kit. Use the healer’s kit to actually heal 1d6+4 + their level damage from friends who haven’t fallen yet.
- Inspiring Leader (PHB, pg 167): Give a rousing, 10-minute speech that gives up to 6 creatures within 30 ft. hit points equal to your level + your Charisma modifier. Great when preparing for a boss fight.
- Lucky (PHB, pg 167): Get increased survivability and reroll failed saving throws to maintain concentration
- Mage Slayer (PHB, pg 168): greatly increases your likelihood of breaking an enemy’s concentration on a debuff against your party, or buff on his own, with a melee attack.
- Magic Initiate (PHB, pg 168): Get your choice of support and utility from another class. Two cantrips, one 1st level spell. I recommend Guidance, Light, Vicious Mockery, or Spare the Dying for cantrips. For the spell, Bane and Bless are cool, as well as Healing Word.
- Ritual Caster (PHB, pg 169): Conserve party resources by using ritual casting. Protect the party at night with a Tiny Hut, etc.
- Sentinel (PHB, pgs 169-170): stop enemies dead on their tracks when they try to get past you to reach the backline. If you’re a Battlemaster, you can use your maneuvers to try and disarm, trip, or restrain the target!
- Warcaster (PHB, pg 170): As a support caster, you’ll constantly concentrate on spells. Having advantage on saving throws made to maintain it is invaluable. Being able to cast a spell as an opportunity attack is also neat.
Support Classes, Subclasses, and Multiclass Suggestions
Below is a quick, condensed list of each class with their best supportive archetypes, highlighting key features. This can guide you when choosing what to play, and how to multiclass.
- Artificer (TCE, pg 9): Infusions, Flash of Genius
- Barbarian: tanking is frontline support!
- Bard: Bardic Inspiration, Expertise, Jack of All Trades, support-minded spell list.
- Cleric: Best healing in the game, Turn Undead.
- Arcana (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, SCAG pg 125): Arcane Abjuration, Spell Breaker
- Grave (XGE, pgs 19-20): Sentinel at Death’s Door, Path to The Grave.
- Knowledge (PHB, pgs 59-60): More skills, Knowledge of The Ages for temporary proficiencies.
- Life (PHB, pg 60): be the ultimate healer; the whole Domain is built around it.
- Druid: Good control spells, Wildshape.
- Fighter: action surge, tanking.
- Monk: Step of The Wind to reposition, Patient Defense to be a dodge-tank, Stunning Strike.
- Paladin: make for good tanks, have Paladin Auras that buff nearby allies, Lay on Hands to heal.
- Ranger: great for exploration/traversal, nice control spells (Entangle is great), some healing.
- Rogue: ultimate skillmonkey, great utility.
- Sorcerer: Spells, Metamagic, Constitution save proficiency.
- Warlock: Eldritch Invocations, Pact of The Tome.
- Wizard: Book-based ritual casting, best utility in the game.
How to Use Support Abilities as A DM
As I’ve shown throughout this article, support is dope. Word of caution for you DMs out there, though: you shouldn’t be using it as players do. What do I mean by this?
Players can and should relentlessly target your brutes with mental ability saving throws, but if you do the same to them, you kill the fun. Each player controls one character, and if you take them off their hands, all that’s left is waiting.
Also, constantly countering all their cool stuff is frustrating.
The way to do support as DM is using it to make the fight more dynamic. The moment you put a support caster on the enemy team, you also put a target on them. Mold your combat encounter accordingly. Make the challenge of getting rid of the enemy healer/buffer/debuffer/controller interesting.
Huzzah—this one was a lot of work, but I believe we got everything. You are now equipped to support the hell out of your party.
Let’s go over the main point to drive them home:
- Support capabilities can be spread around the party.
- Support casters are not healbots, and healing is less efficient than preventing damage.
- Healing timing matters. Healing Word usually beats Cure Wounds thanks to the range, but you can cheat this with a familiar. Polymorph can be the king of healing spells in the right situation.
- All clerics, bards, artificers, druids, rangers, and paladins have access to healing spells. Celestial warlocks and divine soul sorcerers do, too. Wizards can’t heal magically.
- A support caster is constantly maintaining concentration. Find ways to improve your Constitution saves.
- The Healer feat can make any character with good mobility and a healer kit into a decent battlefield medic.
- Tanking is frontline support.
- When buffing, debuffing, and controlling, consider the action economy, number of targets, and demands of the specific fight you are in. A lot of what you do is setting up combos.
- Counterspell and Dispel Magic are amazing—especially if you play an abjurer.
- Utility conserves party resources, solves problems out of combat, gets you information, and occasionally helps you in combat, too (see
or, rather, don’t see: invisible rogues).
- Skills, tool proficiencies, utility spells.
- Good Feats for support builds: Bountiful Luck, Chef, Healer, Inspiring Leader, Lucky, Mage Slayer, Magic Initiate, Ritual Caster, Sentinel, Warcaster.
- Every class has some sort of support built-in; the martial ones usually less than others, but you can amplify it with archetypes.
- DMs should use support to make fights more dynamic and take care not to take agency away from players and/or counter all their cool stuff.