The Art of Defending (by mkill)


First Post
Originally posted by mkill:

The Art of Defending

-- A beginner's guide to the Defender role --​

This article aims to take a step back from typical character building handbooks. Instead of focusing on the intricacies of picking feats and powers, I'll concentrate on how to put your defender into play effectively.

Thanks to ShanFR, you can also read this guide in French: L'art de la défense (PDF).

Also check out part II, The Art of Striking and part III, The Art of Leading.

More than a Meat Shield

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.

. More than a Meat Shield

I. The Defender Catch-22

To reach this goal, all defenders use a powerful tactic: boost up their own defenses and die-hardness, and then put enemies before a choice. Either attack the defender, or be punished. The key ability of every defender class to work this punishment is their mark.

Again the choices for the foe:

A: Risk a miss against the defender
Concentrate your attacks on the defender. He has high defenses, high hit points and ways to remove or ignore status effects. This makes the enemy's attack likely to have little impact.

B: Soak the punishment
Try to circumvent the defender and attack his softer allies. First of all, the defender imposes a penalty to this attack with his mark. Then, each defender class has individual ways to keep the enemy from reaching the target, staying near the enemy, reducing the attack's effect or punishing the enemy.

A good defender needs to make both A and B painful for the enemy.
If he neglects his defense, he is a liability to the party because it is easier for enemies to render him ineffective with weaken, stun and other effects. He also needs to be healed more often, which drains party ressources.
If he neglects B, he'll be like a stone pillar that enemies can't push over, but they can just walk around him and kill his allies first, then finish him off last.

II. Understand your Defenses

There are 4 defenses to worry about: AC, Fortitude, Reflex and Will. The last three are also called NADs (non-AC defenses). For more information on how to keep your defenses high, check the build handbook for your class on the Character Optimization forum.

Most of the monster attacks you'll have to shake off will be melee attacks. If you check the Monster Manual, you'll see that a very high percentage of melee attacks will be against AC. This also includes opportunity attacks. AC is your highest priority.
The big decision for all defenders (except the swordmage) is: Shield or not? The +2 AC of a heavy shield means that 3 out of 10, rather than 4 out of 10 attacks will hit you. On the other hand, you could wield a reach weapon for better battlefield control, especially as a fighter or warden, or a two-handed weapon for more damage, or two weapons for more attacks (tempest fighter). Each alternative leads to different tactics.
Shield wearers / swordmages should try to achieve an AC of 20 + level. Without a shield, a good AC is 18 + level. Offensive high damage builds like tempest fighters are effective even with a lower AC of around 16 + level.

Monster attacks that target NADs usually have an attack bonus that is about 2 points lower than attacks against AC. NADs 2 points lower than your AC should suffice then, but the bad news is that it is difficult to get all of your NADs that high. Monster attacks increase by +1 for each monster level, so a 31st level monster will have a +30 higher attack bonus than a 1st level one. Your NADs rise only every second level, so there is a gap of 15 points that you have to fill.
Remember that you can boost two of your ability scores at level 4 and 8 of each tier and all of them at 11 and 21. But even if you raise two abilities that boost different defenses, there will always be one defense that you don't boost. At 30th level, two of your NADs will get a +5 bonus that way, but one only gets +1. You need to fill the remaining 10 / 14 points with feats, your neck slot item, and handpicked other items.

Fortitude attacks often do more than just hit point damage, they weaken, slow, push, poison, petrify and do other nasty effects that can hamper you. For Fighters, Wardens and Strength paladins, their main attack stat will raise this defense, but it's still a good idea to boost it further.

Dragon breath and other area effects often target Reflex. It's the least likely to carry nasty side effects, but don't rely on that. Swordmages will have a good Reflex thanks to their Intelligence, and others can carry a shield to boost it.

Monster Manual statistics say that this defense is the least likely to be targeted. But Will attacks are also the one that is most likely to have very nasty effects like daze, stun or even dominate. A party with a dominated defender who starts to hack away at his vulnerable allies has pretty much lost the battle. Don't let that happen to you.
Charisma Paladins will have the best Will defense. Fighters and Swordmages really need to watch out here. Consider Iron Will and similar feats.

Secondary Defenses
What I call "Secondary Defenses" is everything that helps your character reduce the effect of a being hit. Since you're the designated punchbag of the party, you need to make sure that you survive being hit better than your fellow party members. There are a wide selection of class features, powers, feats and items that provide these.
  • (more) hit points
  • temporary hit points
  • healing surges / higher healing surge value
  • self-healing
  • bonuses to saving throws
  • free save rolls (Warden, Paladin's Virtue's Touch, martial feats)
  • resistance against elemental damage or all damage


Another way to defend yourself, and your party members, is not to raise your own defenses but to hand out penalties to monster attacks. Giving a monster a -2 penalty to attacks is the same as raising your own defenses by 2. Conditions you cause with your powers are also powerful ways to hamper enemies, including weaken, daze, stun, blindness etc. See "IV. Reducing Enemy Effectiveness" for more techniques of "Offense as Defense".

III. Understand your Mark

The key class feature of each defender is his marking ability. Each mark has one thing in common: Marked enemies take a -2 penalty to hit when they make an attack that does not include the defender. This does boost the defense of his allies, but alone it is not powerful enough to successfully discourage an enemy from attacking the defender's allies. That is why each class has additional abilities to add more punishment to their marks.

Note that each enemy can only be subject to one mark at a time. If you have more than one defender in the party, they need to coordinate their marks carefully. Refer to chapter VII. for more on that topic.

Paladin - Divine Challenge

Paladins have an easy and straightforward mark: Pick the toughest enemy, stay next to him and he'll take radiant damage if he tries to ignore you.

But while the Paladin has the best defenses from his class abilities, the punishment power of his marking ability is fairly weak in comparison. It only works against one enemy at a time, and tougher enemies like elites and solos have enough hit points to simply ignore the damage from it. As radiant damage it is effective against undead, at least.

Strength Paladins are even worse off because the damage is keyed off Charisma. On the other hand they have powers that allow them to mark multiple enemies, which the Charisma-Paladin lacks (take them!).
Let's hope Divine Power will bring some mark-boosting feats for Paladins, they need them.

Fighter - Combat Challenge and Combat Superiority

The Fighter has two different, but very powerful abilities that make him "sticky". This refers to his ability to punish monsters if they try to move away from him.

Combat Challenge
The first, Combat Challenge, is his marking ability. Unlike the other defenders, a Fighter marks an enemy whenever he attacks, hit or miss. He can mark as many opponents as he can hit each round. For example, a Dragonborn Fighter will automatically mark every enemy in the attack area of his Dragon Breath attack. This gives a fighter effective crowd control through blast, burst and multiattack powers.
The mark lasts until the end of your next turn, at which time you must attack the enemy again if you wish to keep them marked.
In addition, if an adjacent enemy marked by you shifts or attacks someone other than the Fighter, you can make a Combat Challenge attack. This is a melee basic attack and it uses an immediate interrupt action, which means that you can only perform one such attack per round.

Combat Superiority
The second class feature, Combat Superiority, is a boost to his opportunity attacks. First, he receives an attack bonus to opportunity attacks equal to his Wisdom modifier. Second, unlike normal opportunity attacks, a Fighter's opportunity attacks stop enemy movement and prevent the foe from leaving the adjacent square if the attack hits.
Also note that as per standard opportunity action rules, the Fighter can use this power once per each enemy's turn.

Despite their similar name, both powers above are completely separate. They trigger in different situations: Combat Challenge when a marked enemy shifts or attacks an ally, Combat Superiority when any enemy, marked or not, moves away.
Particularly confusing is that since the attack granted by Combat Challenge is not an opportunity action, so it does not gain the Wisdom bonus from Combat Superiority and it also does not stop a shift.

Even though the fighter can punish normal move and shift, some monsters have movement modes that still allow them to get away from a fighter unharmed, such as teleporting.

As the fighter's punishment capability relies on basic attacks and opportunity attacks, it is important to keep your attack and damage high, as well as your Wis score for Combat Superiority.

Swordmage - Aegis of Shielding
The Shielding Swordmage has a straightforward mark like the Paladin. Once per round, it reduces the damage of one attack by the marked opponent against an ally. Unlike the Paladin, the swordmage can put his mark on the biggest brute and then walk off to fight other enemies. It does not offer much for battlefield tactics, but it is very effective at keeping your rogue / ranger / barbarian / warlord friend alive.
At higher levels, you can boost your aegis with feats to mark several opponents and get better at crowd control, rather than just focusing on one opponent.

Swordmage - Aegis of Assault
Assault Swordmage tactics are more tricky. Like the Shielding version, you mark the enemy and then you are free to walk away. If that enemy then attacks an ally, you can teleport back to your opponent and smack him with a basic attack. Since this is an immediate reaction, you can't prevent that your ally is hurt, you can only punish it. Like the fighter, you need high attack bonus and damage to make this effective.
Unlike the fighter, you are "reverse-sticky". Your opponent is free to run away from you, but you'll always be back to pester him. There are two ways to use this power:
Annoy the artillery: Go for mobile, ranged combatants like lurkers, artillery, controllers or skirmishers. These don't want you next to them, as they will draw opportunity attacks if they try to use a ranged power or try to run away. With your mark, you'll always catch up to them. This works best if there is another defender in your party.
Always get the flank: Against a big bad guy, you won't want to run off, but rather stay close and help bringing him down. Big bad guys often don't move much except for shifts. But even if the big bad manages to shift out of a flank, if he starts whacking your ally you get a free teleport to pick a new spot next to him and regain the flank.

Warden - Nature's Wrath
The Warden's mark is about crowd control: Similar to the Fighter, he doesn't need to waste an action on it, and even better, he can mark each adjacent enemy once per turn, where the fighter needs a burst power. On the other hand, the Warden is not as good at disrupting movement as the fighter is.
The Warden's tactic is "mark as many as you can get".
No matter how many enemies you have marked, you only get one immediate action per round, so you can only use either Warden's Fury or Warden's Grasp once. Usually, you'll want to use the Fury because it does damage, and the rogue will love you for the combat advantage. The Grasp is handy to keep a skirmisher away from the wizard, though.

IV. Reducing Enemy Effectiveness

Kill them
A dead enemy can't attack the party. As defender, it's your job to go for the toughest enemy first, especially if that's the one with the highest damage potential. Leave the easy kills for strikers and controllers. Still, if you're able to take down a tough enemy all on your own, you help the party a lot, so keep your damage output up.
Many defender classes like Fighters, Wardens and Assault Swordmages rely on weapon attacks to deliver their punishment (B above). For them, keeping their damage output up is a key priority.

Status effects
A weakened enemy deals less damage. A dazed enemy can't attack and move (caution: it can still charge). An immobile or restrained enemy can't go after your squishies. These and other status effects help a lot in your job. Make sure to have an effective selection of powers that debuff enemies.

Hinder their movement
A lot of enemies, especially skirmishers, rely on their mobility to get to squishies in your party. Use your mark effects and status effect powers to hinder their mobility. This is a specialty of polearm wielders (often fighters, sometimes swordmages)

Pushes, shoves and slides
Powers which push, shove and slide monsters or allies don't look like much when you see them on paper. With your first character, you'll probably skip them and go for something with direct effect that's more easy to measure, like higher damage, extra attacks or healing. Powers with forced movement are situational in comparison, but if you can use them at the right moment, they can turn a losing situation into a tactical advantage.
For a defender, pulls are very effective. You can drag the monster away from the ally it is pounding on and force it within your area of control. An example for this kind of power is the Swordmage at-will Lightning Lure and the 7th-level Fighter encounter power Come and Get It.
Push powers are very handy if there are terrain hazards like a lava pit or a Wizard's Wall of Fire. If you're fighting next to a cliff, a simple at-will like Tide of Iron is deadly. A second use for push powers is to move the foes' defense line to get closer to the weaker targets.

Soak damage from allies
This is a Paladin specialty. Take half our all damage that was meant for an ally. Most 4th edition characters are tough enough in their own right, so this will be an emergency measure, even though an effective one. If, for example, a dragon has a powerful breath weapon that can freeze the whole party, it's effective if the character best equipped to deal with that (you) takes the hit for the team so everyone else remains in the game.

Boost ally defenses
If you're a secondary leader, this is an effective tactic to add to punishment. Your mark just in itself is only a -2 penalty to enemy attacks, and often not enough to make enemy attacks fail on an ally. Especially if you wear a shield, your AC will often be 4 to 5 points higher. If you can boost ally defenses, the gap closes, and foes are more likely to concentrate their attacks on you.

V. Battlefield Positioning

A defender shapes the battlefield not with fancy powers but by sheer presence. His ability to withstand attacks and hamper enemy movement means that the front line is defined by where the defender is. At the start of combat, it is the defender who decides where the heat of the battle will be by deciding his position.

Front line
The defenders, together with other tough melee characters like barbarians or warlords, form a front line that does not let enemies through, while ranged characters like a bow ranger or warlock shoot from behind. This works best in terrain like narrow dungeon corridors. As long as the front line does not get overwhelmed, this is a solid setup.

This risky tactic means that the defender charges straight ahead into the enemies, and tries to get as many around himself as possible. This assumes fairly open territory, and a large number of weaker enemies. With good defenses and close burst powers, a defender can hold himself quite well in this situation. The main advantage is that he can bind a large number of enemies and deal a big amount of distributed damage. Blaster wizards will love the well-packed enemy square.
The danger of such a setup is that if the defender goes down, nobody will be able to come to his rescue, so be sure of how much you can soak.

Back with the squishies
This is a typical position of the second defender, if the group has one. While the first one runs off to a surrounded position, or flanking with the rogue, you make sure that no monster can break through and munch on the wizard. While this is an important position, chasing the lurker is less glorious than moving down the minions at the front or taking the brute head-on.

Everybody flanking
Here we have the sort of unorganized mess that fights get into when a small group fights a small group and everyone tries to gang up on everyone. Defenders should make sure they put their high defenses against the enemy that can deal the most damage. If you can mark multiple enemies, use this power to concentrate as many enemies on yourself as possible so other party members can act freely. In addition, try to block enemy skirmishers to reap opportunity attacks, and provide flanking to your strikers.

All against the big boss
The situation with one large enemy in the middle and the group around him is typical for solo fights. As for positioning, this is pretty straight-forward: Make sure you are always right next to the critter, and keep your allies at distance to avoid breath weapons and other close blast attacks.

VI. Dealing with Enemies by Monster Role

You can find an introduction to monster roles in the DMG p. 54. The roles ordered by priority: If it's high on the list, it's a monster you will want to concentrate on in most combats.

If you face a strong solo, immediately mark it and get adjacent. Check your daily and encounter powers for status effects and other debuffs, self-buffs, party buffs, and effects that last a whole encounter. Make sure you get an attack bonus from items, flanking or the leader, and hit it with the big guns. If this is a boss fight for the adventure, don't hesitate to throw action points to fire several dailies at once.
Lower-level solos are less of a threat, but still require you to stay adjacent all the time to limit its mobility and ranged options and draw its attacks.

Elites have higher damage and disruption potential than standard monsters, so always concentrate on them. Keep them busy so the rest of your party can clear the cannon fodder, than bring them down as a group.

Melee Leaders
These will usually be beefed up brutes and soldiers with effects that boost their allies. Identify and engage them quickly and take them down first to make all other opponents easier targets.

Soldiers are in many ways the mirror of defenders on the monster side. Many soldier monsters even have marks. If your party outnumbers the opposition, head up to the soldier and keep him occupied until he goes down, while your allies take down his friends.
If the party is outnumbered, think twice: If you occupy the soldier, the soldier also occupies you, and soldiers can be hard to take down. One way to deal with this is to engage the soldier and take him down quickly with the help of a striker, then you're free to go after squishier targets.
A second method is to push the soldier or shift around him so you can get both him and other enemies with multi-attack and burst powers.

Brutes have a lot of hp, and can deal a lot of damage in melee, even though they don't hit very well. In short, brutes are very dangerous to the party wizard, but if the defender blocks them in melee he can take them down quickly, possibly with some help of the striker.

Ranged Leaders
These can be especially nasty, as they can hit fairly high every round, boost their allies, and are hard to reach. Your best chance is to keep all other monsters occupied with yourself to allow your strikers to get him.

Artillery & Controllers
If the enemy defense line has been taken care of, focus on ranged combatants like artillery and controllers next. With marks and opportunity attacks, you can disturb them very effectively. With their weak melee abilities, they won't have much chance to fight back. As a bonus, artillery and controllers are usually less mobile than strikers or lurkers, so they can't flee as easily once you've nailed them down. If the enemy has a strong back line and a weak front line, and you feel like taking risks, you can try to carve an opening early and engage both the ranged combatants and the front line from behind.

These are nasty as they have means to evade your mark and your opportunity attacks, and they hit well and high. If you face one, try to block their routes, delay actions if necessary, and hit with attacks that immobilize or stun. Be careful because often their attacks are more dangerous if they have combat advantage.

These are annoying as they deal a good amount of damage and status effects, but are hard to nail down. They'll make it hard for you to attack them with nasty tricks like invisibility, teleports, or stances where they can't attack but also take no damage.
Don't become too entagled with a soldier that a lurker can sneak through. Usually, you will lack the mobility to chase them down. If a lurker is a problem, stay close to your allies, especially the leader, and try to keep it off as good as possible. Try to get your mark on it. If your party has a ranged striker, let him take it down.

Most defenders are melee types and don't have much in the way of area damage. If your party has a controller, it is best to let him deal with them and concentrate on tougher targets like a brute. Even squishies like a sorcerer can survive it if a minion comes to close, so don't worry unless they gang up in big numbers.
Only if you're dealing with a really large amount of minions, charge right into the fray to keep them in one handy block for the controller to blast. It's also fun time for all those close burst.

VII. Working with your Allies

Other defender - best buddies
Few things help you be a better defender than a meat shield buddy. Two defenders can easily block a 6 square corridor. Two defenders can flank. Or one defender jumps into the fray, while the other stays back to build a front line to shield the ranged combatants.
If the party lacks a second defender, you can still use many of these tactics together with a tough melee combatant like a barbarian or a warlord.
The only difficulty in coordinating two defenders is marks: If you fight a single big bad guy, only one of you can put his mark on the big bad guy.

Leaders - making you tougher
Leaders provide you with healing, take those nasty conditions off, give you extra attacks, move you where you are needed, buff up your attacks and defenses... what's not to like? If there is any other party member you want to rely on, it's your leader.
Learn what your leader can do for you, and work with him. Always communicate tactics in short words with him (don't bog down play by discussing each move for hours, but tell him what you're up to).
And last but not least, watch his back, he'll appreciate it.

Strikers - Your evil twin with a goatie
Strikers do the opposite of you: deal as much damage and strike down as many foes as quickly as possible. If the monsters catch up to them, they're down quickly, so they will rely on you to take the hits for them. Sometimes you'll feel they steal the show, as they'll have higher kill rates and damage numbers. Don't worry, that means they do their job, and you're a professional, you can handle it.
And there is no quicker way to take a big monster down than a flanking striker and defender.

Controllers - Incoming Airstrike
Controllers are usually pretty squishy, and it is part of your job to keep them alive. Make sure that between your controller and the monster, there is always you.
But there are many ways the Controller can help you too: break up enemy defense lines so you have a charge line, clear away pesky swarms and minions, hold up enemies so you can focus on the big guy, and many many more ways.

VIII. Mobility

Being mobile is not as important for you as for the striker, but you still benefit from it. Not every fight will allow for a clear front line setup where your job is to hold the line. There are several ways for a defender to gain mobility.

A charge allows you to move twice your speed and attack in one turn. In many fights, it's the best thing for your to do in the first round to make sure you engage the enemy quickly. In fact, there are a number of defender builds that are specialized on charging an use it as their main tactic.

Mobility through high defenses
This is somewhat counter-intuitive. A walking can like a fighter in plate and shield shouldn't be very mobile, right? On the battlefield, the main tactic monsters use to keep a character from moving is opportunity attacks. With a high-AC defender (20+level), most monsters have a chance to hit with their opportunity attacks of 25% or even less. It's fun to walk across the battlefield to where you are needed and just watch the monsters fail to stop you. A speed of 5 is faster than you think if you can move from A to B in a straight line.

Drawing the enemy to you
The alternative to walking yourself, make the enemy come to you. A specialty of the Ensnaring Swordmage, but Fighter powers like Come and Get It do the job too.

The best short-range mobility method of all. You just appear at the space you want, and there are very few ways to stop you. Even immobilized, restrained and grab don't help against a teleport. It's also a great way to get to archers who think they are safe behind a chasm.
Teleports are a specialty of Eladrin, especially Fey Chargers, and Assault Swordmages.

IX. Other Things to Consider

Elemental Resistance
You're in the thick of things, so you'll regularly be hit not just by enemy carpet bombing, which will often be elemental damage, but also by friendly fire. Wizards are notorious for this. If your group has a trigger-happy fire wizard, make sure you have a high fire resistance. This can be achieved by items.

Even if your party has a Leader, you should not rely only on him to be healed up. Their healing powers have daily or encounter limits, and it won't be enough to keep you alive and the foolish striker that got flanked by golems and beaten to a pulp. If your class has self-healing powers, or sources for temporary hit points, use them. And always carry at least three healing potions, they're cheap.

Retreat is an option
A competent party can deal with pretty much any threat, but keep in mind that sometimes, it's best to run from an encounter. Experienced DMs will spice things up with a hard to impossible encounter sometimes to remind the heroes that they are not, in fact, invincible. If more than one party member is down, or if you are on your last healing surge, it's time to get out.
If the party has to run, make sure the skirmishers and controllers escape first. Let the leader give you his last boost and let him go to. Guarding the retreat is your job, you go last.

Controlled retreat
You take the total defense action and a normal move. Your ranged combatants, like the bow ranger, concentrate fire on whichever pursuer is closest.

The controller throws a distraction (zone of darkness, wall of fire etc.) and everybody takes a double action to run. It's risky because you grant combat advantage. Make sure that you still have enough hit points left to take one or two opportunity attacks or ranged attacks.

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