The party managed to dash into a narrow tunnel before the onrushing duergar surrounded them in the chamber. With the more fragile and ranged allies behind the barbarian and the cave’s walls flanking her, she stands strong as a bulwark, taking blows to spare the others. The enemy crashes upon her like waves on a rocky shore. Yes, waves do wear down rocks, but it takes time, and most rocks don’t have healing spells and powerful friends to drive them back.
A tank is a character who can absorb damage without dying and deal consistent damage. They are front liners and protectors. They should be the most accessible target and keep foes from reaching the more fragile party members. Ideally, they can draw fire through abilities and spells.
Tank duties entail high hit points, good Armor Class (AC), decent damage output, and some degree of battlefield control. The term tank in D&D is a loanword from the realm of MMORPGs, where they can draw aggression (aggro) from computer-controlled enemies with special abilities.
D&D 5e doesn’t feature much of this, which makes some folks question if the “tank” label makes sense in a 5e context. We believe it does, hence this article. Keep reading to learn the ins and outs of building your very own tank character.
Table of Contents
The Basics of Tanking
As a frontline fighter whose job includes preventing others from taking damage by soaking it up yourself, you’ll need high hit points. We’re talking d10s and d12s for hit dice unless you’re running something exotic.
A druid specializing in wildshape like those of the Circle of The Moon certainly works as a tank, as does a well-built Tempest Domain cleric if you stretch the definition a bit—more on that later. D6s are still not allowed, though.
You will also need to invest in Constitution (Con) as a primary ability score for the hit points and saving throws against nasty effects. The other primary score will be your damage-dealing stat, most likely Strength (Str) or Dexterity(Dex) as a melee damage dealer.
As a rule of thumb, you want to go for builds that don’t make you spread your Ability Score Improvements (ASI) too thinly (aka MADness; Multiple Ability score Dependent)—which should free you up to grab useful feats.
For your AC you will need proficiency with heavy armor, medium armor plus shields, or some sort of Unarmored Defense.
Finally, you must exert some battlefield control. How do you keep enemies near you, focused on you, instead of upon your squishy casters or—gods forbid—the dedicated healer if your party relies on one?
Making the most of your attacks of opportunity, slowing down opponents or messing with their positioning, and even clever use of magic can go a long way.
Grappling and shoving can be very powerful if a high priority needs shutting down. We have a whole article about it.
Races for Tanks
First off—you don’t have to optimize race unless you’re going for a hyper-specific build or combo of features. Feel free to skip over the race suggestions; I urge you to read about the classes, however.
Why? Because Tasha’s changed race bonuses. While everything in Tasha’s is considered optional, the gist of their message was:
- Reassign the ability score bonuses you get from race.
- If you get more than one, you can’t apply them both to the same ability.
- Your score can’t be above 20.
This means race is more important when considering the other perks that come with it, but if you don’t play with Tasha’s at your table, we’ll talk about their base characteristics anyway.
Given what we have discussed so far, the optimal choices for a character intended as the party’s protector are the following:
- Dwarves: +2 Constitution. +2 Strength for mountain dwarves, dwarven resilience for hill dwarves. The reduced movement speed might prove frustrating when trying to get in position/close gaps.
- Variant Human: Free Feat! A feat can sometimes be a cornerstone of your playstyle, and having one from the jump may make combat really fun for you.
- Half-Orc: +2 Strength, +1 Constitution, Relentless Endurance for enhanced survivability, Savage Attacks to benefit more from critical hits.
- Goliath (Volo’s Guide to Monsters, pg 108): +2 Strength, +1 Constitution, Athletics proficiency if you want to grapple, Stone’s Endurance for survivability.
- Warforged (Eberron): Aside from not needing to eat, drink, breathe, ever lose consciousness, or get sick, they also have advantage on saving throws against poison and resistance to poison damage. They also get +1 to armor, which cannot be unwillingly removed while they live. And that’s just the base race, which is already pretty OP.
- Githyanki ( ): Generally, it’s their racial proficiencies that get them mentioned here. Their martial prodigy gives proficiency with light & medium armor, short swords, longswords, & greatswords. They also get to misty step (alongside an invisible mage hand and jump) for free once per long rest at level 5, easily jumping into or out of the fray.
Classes for Tanks
These can be divided between the standard three and the exotic two.
You can tank-up characters with dips into the standard three classes:
This is what most people think of when someone says “tank”. The ultimate meatshield. D12 hit die, Unarmored Defense based on Con and Dex plus the use of a shield? They won’t go down easy.
Rage to make all those hit points even more impressive—plus more damage and better Strength checks for grappling!
Danger Sense comes in handy, too, making Barbarians particularly resilient against Dex-save nukes.
There is such a thing as a Dex-based barbarian (dexbarian): a character like this misses out on some Str-based class features in exchange for the highest AC they can get, meaning even more tanky.
Durable warriors with the most Ability Score Increases (ASIs) and extra attacks in the game if you don’t multiclass too much.
Their d10 hit die and proficiency with all arms and armor goes a long way for survivability.
You can go with Dex or Str without losing anything; both approaches can get you great armor class and damage.
Holy warriors that can act as both tanks and strikers (or a terrifyingly effective mix).
At 1st level, a paladin is basically a worse fighter that prays, but once Smite (level 2; lots of damage!) and Auras (level 6; buff allies nearby, debuff enemies) come online, they come into their own.
Their hit die is also the d10, and they are proficient in all armor types, as well as simple and martial weapons.
Like fighters, they can go with Str or Dex without losing anything. The healing from Lay on Hands helps them stay up and get allies back up.
Although the majority of their spell slots are for smiting, a strategic paladin can make good use of their spellcasting to bolster themselves and protect allies. These are mostly buffs and healing.
It doesn’t fit the above grouping.
They’re the most “meh” of the bunch as far as tanking is concerned. They have a solid d10 hit die and a Fighting Style, and yet are less durable than fighters and paladins.
They are meant to be a rogue-fighter middle-ground and work better as a striker—but with no real defender toolkit. The subclasses are all offense-oriented.
Playing one as a dedicated tank can work, but it squanders what’s best about them—sneaking and dealing damage. They will never match the other possible tank builds. Even the cleric is better for this.
The Exotic Three
Moving on to the exotic three. The D8s of the bunch.
Many would call them off-tanks; characters that can step up to tank duties if required but aren’t tailored for it.
Some subclasses make them respectable as main defenders, though.
Their infusions, extra attunement slots, and casting can help increase survivability significantly.
- Enhanced Defense
- Repulsion Shield
- Resistant Armor
- Replicate Magic Item, most notably:
Spells that help survivability:
- Absorb Elements: it’s a reaction to take half damage to the offending element until your next turn, and your next attack gains some power from it.
- False Life: Not a big fan of this one, but more HP does help a bit.
- Sanctuary: Doubly useful; you can stand there and heal or buff others, having enemies possibly waste attacks (assuming other allies aren’t within range). Or you can use it to support the class healer or skill monkey working to get something done in the midst of battle.
- Aid: Increase maximum hp for three allies that lasts 8 hours, very nice.
- Blur: Just great for overall defense.
- Protection from Energy: Not great to be a tank and maintain your own concentration spells, but it’s still useful for that end.
- Stoneskin: Same deal with this one, but resistance to nonmagical physical damage is pretty boss, but it comes a bit late to be terribly useful.
Clerics may not have the biggest hit die, but their overall design encourages high Con to maintain concentration on spells.
Speaking of spells, the cleric list is incredibly good and provides a lot of defense/control options:
If you pick up heavy armor proficiency—which some subclasses provide—and always have shield of faith prepared, you can get to 20 AC quite early.
Spirit guardians slows enemies trying to get past you and hurts them for trying. The list goes on
With a solid subclass and smart feat picks (see below), you can make a seriously tanky cleric who excels at battlefield control.
Still, a druid built to tank would be a Circle of The Moon druid: all of this subclass’ features are about being in wildshape; higher CR forms, bonus action self-heal while wildshaped, elemental forms… It’s the thing to do.
Subclasses for Tanks
Rapid fire now. Here are the tankiest class archetypes, divided by class:
- Heavy Armor proficiency.
- Guardian armor: thunder fists (seldom resisted) that make it harder for people you hit to hurt your friends (and adding INT mod to both attack and damage rolls is very nice).
- Extra attack at level 5.
- At level 15, you get a reaction to forcefully move targets up to 30 ft. closer to you.
- Battle Smith:
- Spellcasting: Several of the spells are concentration, but while they’re up, they will help significantly, like:
- Heroism: Immune to being frightened and temp HP
- Shield: Higher AC for the front line, perfect.
- Aura of Vitality: Too bad it’s concentration, but damn, 2d6 healing within 30ft. as a bonus action per turn? That’ll keep you on your feet. A single-level dip into Life cleric boosts this healing to 2d6+5.
- Aura of Purity: Immune to disease, resistant to poison damage, and advantage against a smattering of effects.
- Fire Shield: Punish them for attacking you. Note: not concentration.
- Battle Ready: Add your INT mod to attack and damage rolls with magic weapons (given the possible infusions, you will almost always be using one)
- Steel Defender: Takes up space, can use its reaction to impose disadvantage on attacks committed by those near it, can be easily healed (outside combat, even if dead), or resurrected if you lost its body (long rest).
- Extra Attack at level 5
- Arcane Jolt: when your magic weapon or the steel defender land a hit, expend a use to either add 2d6 force damage to the attack, or heal 2d6 hp to someone within 30ft of the target (debatable if you can heal yourself)
- Improved Defender: All the above gets a boost.
- Spellcasting: Several of the spells are concentration, but while they’re up, they will help significantly, like:
- Ancestral Guardian: the best defender barbarian you can be. You get an AoE ability to hinder any heavy-hitter’s attempts to hurt your friends and a defensive reaction to negate damage against allies.
- Beast: Bite and Tail are great for durability, Claws are good for damage, and you get to choose every time you rage. Infectious Fury is great for forcing enemies to hit their allies and lose a reaction.
- Totem Warrior: The bear totem lets you resist every damage type except psychic (which is rare, and you can resist if you pick the kalashtar race.) Many options to customize your barbarian but bear is the tankiest.
- Forge: Heavy armor proficiency. AC bonuses, Divine Strike to hit hard on the frontlines, and resistance to fire damage (arguably the most common damage type).
- Tempest: Martial weapons and heavy armor proficiency. Lots of lightning and thunder damage (Destructive Wrath is brutal), and forced movement options. I have one in my long-running campaign and he’s terrifying.
- Twilight: Martial weapons and heavy armor proficiency. Twilight Sanctuary protects the party a lot. Also Divine Strike.
- Moon: Nastier wildshapes and bonus action combat heals with spell slots. Elemental Wildshape is insane at later levels. Combos well with a barbarian dip.
- Battlemaster: Dominate the battlefield with your Maneuvers. Switch places with allies to get them out of melee range. Disarm, trip, goad, grapple. Command the rogue to attack on your turn, too. And more!
- Cavalier: Built as a defender, you can impose disadvantage on attacks against targets other than you, boost ally AC with a reaction, and lock foes in place starting at level 10.
- Crown: Every single feature of this oath is a banger. You can force enemies to stay close to you, heal allies, and take damage from attacks that hit allies. On later levels, you are near-immune to Paralyzed and Stunned.
- Redemption: Rebuke the Violent to retaliate when an enemy damages an ally, Aura of the Guardian lets you take damage that would otherwise hurt an ally, and Protective Spirit makes you even sturdier.
Are Dodge Tanks A Thing?
You might have seen the expression “dodge-tank” before. The idea is using Dex to get into ridiculous levels of AC/damage reduction to achieve high durability without a lot of hit points.
It’s the opposite of a meatshield. Specifically, this applies to monks.
A rogue can jump into the frontline and survive with uncanny dodge/evasion/high-AC once they max out dex and get magical armor, but they suck at holding enemies in place.
Monks share the d8 hit-die with clerics and druids, but their defensive and tactical arsenal really is great. The class suffers from a bit of a Multiple Ability Dependency (MAD) and takes a bit to get good with standard array or point-buy, but you may get kickass rolls at character creation or have the patience to make it work.
Without said kickass rolls, a monk tends to be generally feat-starved due to the MAD issue, so variant human is the premium race pick.
Monks are great at getting in position quickly with their Unarmored Movement and Ki-powered bonus action dashing if need be.
Once in the thick of it, they can also use Ki to bonus action dodge on top of having generally decent armor class from their Unarmored Defense. The optional Quickened Healing feature from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCE) increases their durability, too.
The best part only comes at 5th level, though. Extra attack, sure, but they also get Stunning Strike, which is a powerful save-or-suck shutdown. And it can go on attacks of opportunity (article on those here).
At 7th level, they get Evasion and Stillness of Mind (on top of already good Dex and Wisdom) to avoid damage from Dex-save nukes and jump over the common pitfall of tanks being vulnerable to mind-control and charm effects.
Monks make for decent dodge tanks starting at the second tier of play.
Multiclassing for Tanks
A dip into any of the standard three will tank up another base class, but some have more synergy than others. I’m looking at you, hexadin (Hexblade warlock + paladin). The usual paladin mixes lend themselves better to striker duties, though.
Mixing Barbarian and fighter to your heart’s content will surely do the trick as well.
Roguebarian works well, trading some durability for more damage and grappling prowess. Reckless Attack lets you Sneak Attack with advantage all the time, Athletics Expertise makes your grapples near unbreakable, and you can Uncanny Dodge on top of raging.
Things like sorcadins and hexadins water down the paladin’s tankiness, but tank up a sorcerer or warlock base. They may add battlefield control to the paladin, though.
If you are going with Dexterity for your melee damage, splicing some monk levels into the build can be great fun, too. Bonus-action dodge with Ki points comes in handy, Unarmored Movement goes great on a monkbarian (who will eventually get more movement from the barbarian side, too).
If you go as far as 5 monk levels, Stunning Strike is nasty against enemy action economy, which mean battlefield control! It also might work with an unarmed combat build.
Feats are a great way to optimize your build for a particular party role (or for optimizing classes).
When it comes to tanking, my top picks are:
- Alert: The bonus to initiative helps you get in position to protect the squishies and potentially shut down high-priority targets early. Never losing the first round of combat from being surprised is great for this, too.
- Charger: Dash into the fray without losing your attack. If you have a buddy following suit, you can shove the target prone for them to attack with advantage. It also works for removing enemies from a position where they can hit your friends.
- Crusher: More Str and Con are always good, and the ability to push targets 5 ft. away with a swing of our hammer/club/stick/fist with no save is great. Making targets vulnerable after you crit them goes great with a rogue buddy nearby.
- Heavy Armor Master: More Str, and damage reduction from every nonmagical melee hit that adds up.
- Medium Armor Master: No stealth issues from armor, and better protection for your dexy-tank!
- Polearm Master: Drastically improves the reach of your opportunity attacks and modestly increases your average damage output if you have no other use for your bonus action. Combos super hard with Sentinel.
- Resilient: The only way for the fighter and the barbarian to get good at Wisdom saves. Plug the mind control gap.
- Sentinel: Disengage doesn’t work on you and your opportunity attacks stop opponents in their tracks. You can also use your reaction to retaliate against folks who attack your allies.
- Shield Master: bonus-action-shield-bash-shove, better Dex saves, and a damage reduction reaction.
- Slasher: More Dex. If you slash someone, they lose 10 ft. of movement speed until your next turn; your crits impose disadvantage on the target’s attacks until your next turn. They don’t get saves.
- Tough: More hit points. It adds up fast.
- Warcaster: Cast spells with your hands occupied by weapons and shields. Maintain concentration on spells amid frantic melee. Use spells as attacks of opportunity.
Although most tanks have better uses for their action economy, some can benefit from spellcasting. The below are some useful tanking spells:
- Lightning Lure: Damage and forced movement rolled up into one cantrip that helps you keep the enemy away from your backline. Also handy to bring flying threats down to your level.
- Booming Blade: it hurts to get away from you. Goes well with Warcaster.
- Command: What the name says, limited to one word. As versatile as you can be creative. You can seriously throw a wrench into an enemy’s plan with this. Also good against fliers.
- Compelled Duel: Force a target to stay near you and have disadvantage on attacks against anyone other than yourself.
- Grease: This can be a powerful defensive measure. Prone enemies have a hard time getting to you and are harder to hit from more than 5 ft. away.
- Gust of Wind: strong forced movement threat that you can keep up with concentration.
- Thunderwave: good damage that scales up, forced movement.
- Spirit Guardians: AoE movement speed debuff and damage.
- Spiritual Weapon: ongoing bonus action big bonk of a seldom resisted damage type that takes no concentration to keep up. Great for a tanky cleric.
Magic Items for Tanks
As an adventurer, you are bound to pick up a lot of coin that you can spend on cool things.
If your DM is like me, they’ll also ask around to see if players are interested in particular magic items to work them into the game.
Some magic items go well with tanking duties particularly well. Here are some choice picks:
- Adamantine Armor: critical hits against you become normal hits.
- Belt of Giant Strength: it makes you ridiculously strong, which is good for hitting things, shoving, and grappling.
- Bracers of Defense: more AC for unarmored fighters like barbarians and monks!
- Javelin of Lightning: we’ve all heard frightful tales of mighty warriors rendered almost useless by enemies with a flying speed. You should already carry a pack of javelins for this type of situation, and getting one that channels a lightning bolt for extra damage is great.
- Ring of Spellstoring: With a cooperative spellcaster in the party, this item allows the tank to provide some spellcasting support or help themselves stay up during the fight. Some banger picks to ask your caster to put in this (note the lack of concentration requirements since tanks get hit a lot):
- Armor of Agathys: Lasts an hour, get temp HP, and deal damage whenever you’re hit by melee. Nice.
- Earthbind: as Scorpion would say to the wyrm exploiting its flyby tactics: GET OVER HERE!
- Mirror Image: Great defensive spell, especially if you’re getting attacked a lot.
- Shield: a heavily armored fighter with a ring full of shield is a nightmare to the opposition.
- Spiritual Weapon: As stated above; no concentration, rarely resisted damage type, and an extra attack using your bonus action.
- Winged Boots: winged boots let you chase the aforementioned flying foes into the air to beat them up or tackle them back to the ground. Plus you can weaponize fall damage (see how here).
This is a hefty one! Fitting since this article is all about heavy, chunky frontlines. It’s a lot of info to get clubbed over the head with, so here’s a condensed version:
- Tank duties require high durability, decent damage, and good battlefield control.
- Tanks are stalwart protectors that keep others from taking damage.
- The main classes for this are barbarians, fighters, and paladins. Not rangers.
- Clerics can, too, with good subclass picks. Druids if they’re of the Moon circle, artificers if they’re Armorers.
- Way of the Long Death for a monk dodge tank.
- Optimal race picks are dwarf, variant human, half-orc, and goliath, but it matters way less than classes and archetypes. Follow your character vision.
- Feats are a big deal for tanking. Polearm Master + Sentinel is a time-tested classic.
- Control-type magic can fit inside a tank’s toolkit as well.