Tanking Guide For D&D 5e (Tips + Character Build Ideas)This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something we may get a small commission at no extra cost to you. (Learn more).
An adventuring party is made up of several characters, each acting to help each other through the campaign.
To avoid overlap causing one player to feel inferior, players generally try to take different roles to help the party in a specific way.
Here, we’re breaking down the role of the tank.
What is Tanking?
The tank is acting as the defensive backbone for your party.
As a tank, you’re trying to keep the focus of enemies away from your party and focused on yourself.
This requires managing your location relevant to your party members, incoming enemies, and any defensive abilities you may have.
The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D 5e) is built around most roles being helpful, but optional.
A tank isn’t entirely necessary in 5e.
But with the helpful tips in this tanking character build guide, you can make a tank that could save your team’s lives more times than they could count.
The first big choice that most players make is their race.
The race is your character’s species, giving them modifiers to certain scores and 3-5 abilities.
Because many Dungeon Masters (or DMs) limit players to the basic races, we’ll start with the three that can provide a base for your defensive build.
First, the Hill Dwarf gives you an additional two points in constitution and an additional point of health per level.
Second, the Half-Orc gives a point in constitution and Reckless Endurance, letting you take one extra hit before finally going down.
If your DM allows Variant Humans, you might find it useful to try one of the six feats we discuss later for a specific build.
Otherwise, Half-Orc provides a bigger benefit at lower levels. While Hill Dwarf pulls away at higher levels from a defensive standpoint.
If your DM allows other races, then you have four more significant options.
The Goliath offers a damage reduction ability similar to the Half-Orc. Weaker, but easier to use.
The Loxodon and Tortle offer alternate armor calculations that allow you to try other options, most of which would appear in the defensive spells section.
Finally, the Warforged gives an additional point to one’s existing armor and resistance. Or immunity to several magical effects.
Classes are the most important choice any player makes.
They’re the broad package of abilities and tools a character has at their disposal.
Somewhere between level one and level three, you also choose a subclass that alters how your character behaves from the standard class.
Let’s look at some good class choices for tanking.
First, we’ll try the Fighter. The fighter is typically considered the easiest class to learn.
But that doesn’t mean it sacrifices competence for simplicity.
As one of the two classes that can start with heavy armor, you can easily get a high armor class, or AC, to reduce the amount of hits that land.
At level one you receive a fighting style, making you better at a specific part of combat.
As a tank build, there are two helpful choices.
If there are other melee characters fighting alongside you, Protection can be helpful to keep them from being hit. The Defense style adds an additional point to your AC, which is less powerful, but useful in more situations.
At the same time you receive Second Wind, an ability that allows you to regain a small amount of health lost while on your party’s front line.
Throughout the mid-levels of the game, you receive increasing amounts of Indomitable as well, allowing you to recover from spells and other saving throws.
Fighter Subclasses For Tanking
Subclasses can help in slightly different ways.
The Banneret expands Second Wind and Indomitable to allies.
Battle Master is more complex, but you may select maneuvers to interfere with attacking enemies and disincentivize attacking allies.
The simplest of the subclasses, Champion, grants an additional fighting style. And grants automatic emergency healing at the capstone.
Finally, the Samurai gives a small amount of temporary health that can act as a shield at third, tenth, and fifteenth levels.
Next let’s take a look at the Paladin.
Like the fighter, you receive heavy armor to help you get a high starting AC. Also like the fighter, you receive a fighting style at level two.
As a tank build there are two helpful choices here.
For a Paladin tank build, you have the same choice between general Defense or situational Protection.
At level six you can make your allies more resistant to incoming spells with Aura of Protection, which grows at level eighteen to cover a larger area.
Paladin Subclasses For Tanking
Some of the Paladin’s subclasses make them even better tanks too.
Oath of the Ancients offers resistance to spell damage at level seven, and two high level abilities that can heal you and prevent you from going unconscious, letting you stay up as a human(oid) shield.
Oath of Conquest’s third and seventh can be used together to create a barrier preventing enemies from running past you and possibly locking them in place to take a small amount of psychic damage.
While the capstone ability can be used to help dull big hits against you for a short time.
Oath of the Crown best fulfills the MMO ideal of a tank. The third level ability lets you force enemies to stay near you, allowing your ranged members to snipe them from afar.
At seventh level, you can take damage for allies next to you. And the capstone ability lets you take half physical (BPS) damage and make it nearly impossible for unconscious enemies to die for an hour.
Now the Oath of Redemption is similar, but a bit more reactive, focusing on punishing enemies for dealing damage rather than controlling their movement.
The Barbarian is our final big tank.
Unlike the Fighter and Paladin, they start with no armor at all.
Their armor class is instead a combination of their strength and constitution modifiers. With these two modifiers being high enough, the Barbarian can match or even beat the AC of the other two. Especially with help from a shield.
Even if your AC is lower, the added health the Barbarian starts with should make up for any armor deficiencies.
Your other starting feature, Rage, can decrease incoming damage for a short period of time.
At the second level, Danger Sense gives you an increased chance to succeed on dexterity saving throws, the most likely to cause damage.
And at eleventh level, Relentless Raging can stop a final hit from knocking you unconscious. And at the class capstone, your constitution (and strength) go up four, increasing your AC by two and substantially raising maximum health.
Barbarian Subclasses For Tanking
Three of the Barbarian subclasses can help you in your goal of being a tank as well.
First, the Ancestral Guardian lets you mark an enemy with your attacks at level three.
A marked enemy will have trouble hitting allies and will do decreased damage.
At level six you can reduce damage done to allies while using Rage, and the subclass capstone lets you damage attackers while using the level six ability.
The Bear and Wolf choices within the Totem Warrior subclass can give you limited defensive abilities.
And the Zealot can help you and allies with saving throws. Plus the subclass capstone can keep you up even after you should have died.
Choosing a good feat or group of feats can make up for any weaknesses in your current build.
At levels four, eight, twelve, and sixteen, all classes can add two points to your ability scores.
Most DMs allow you to instead select from the list of feats that can make you significantly better in a narrow part of the game.
There are six solid feats that can help you build your defensive wall as a tank.
Let’s look at the two that can improve your health first.
These keep it simple and allow you to stay up for longer.
The Durable feat allows you to add one to your constitution and increase the amount of health you regain during a short rest.
And the Tough feat simply adds two health per level to your maximum.
If you have an odd constitution score or you expect to take multiple short rests, then consider Durable.
Otherwise, Tough is more likely to give significant benefits.
Opportunity Attack Feats
Our next three mainly focus on enhancing your opportunity attacks.
Opportunity attacks are extra attacks anyone can make as a reaction when an enemy leaves their melee range without taking the disengage action.
The most situational of these is Polearm Master. When wielding an appropriate weapon, you can make an opportunity attack when an enemy enters range.
This is good for damage, but hard to use as a defensive feature unless you manage to position yourself where an enemy starts outside of your range, and couldn’t reach other party members by the time they left your range.
An easier feat to use for defense would be Blade Mastery.
This offers advantage on opportunity attacks. And if you’ve managed to avoid needing the opportunity attack, then you can use your reaction to raise your AC by one, a helpful boost if you’re going to be taking attacks in your role as the tank.
Finally, Sentinel takes full advantage of the “opportunity” in opportunity attacks.
Even if the enemy disengages, you would still be able to use your opportunity attack. Even better, a successful opportunity attack will now stop the target from moving any further. You and your backline can keep slightly moving each turn to lock the target in place, unable to catch your more flimsy friends.
Our last choice is an odd quirk. But worth looking into.
If you already have a good handle on your abilities, the Martial Adept can add a few more options to your tool belt.
Something like Maneuvering Attack, Parry, or Pushing Attack can all help in managing enemies.
Spells For Tanking
Spells are specific magical abilities that you can do a certain amount of times per day.
Note this section is less important if making a Barbarian or Fighter build, as those have no or limited access to spells.
For most tanks, spells will only be relevant for those that chose one of our Paladin builds.
We’ll therefore start with Paladin spells, then examine helpful spells for players trying the Loxodon or Turtle alternative builds.
At first level there are three defensive spells for our defensively inclined Paladins.
Bless gives an extra boost against saving throws, if your party is expecting to face spellcasters.
Protection from Evil and Good significantly reduces the chance for one creature to be hit by certain types of creatures that appear most often at higher levels.
It can be game changing if there’s a single melee character alongside you against one of the affected creatures, but inadvisable if you don’t expect to see those creature types.
Shield of Faith is another single target spell, granting two to AC for a short amount of time.
If your melee partner didn’t make their character with defense in mind or someone is unexpectedly in danger, this can recover the fight.
At second level, you have a single defensive option.
The Aid spell can offer a few party members a small amount of extra health that day. It’s most useful when you have a good healer in the party to take advantage of the raised maximum.
At third level there’s a single solid defensive spell. Magic Circle acts like a stronger version of Protection from Evil and Good.
It has a radius, multiple effects, and completely prevents melee damage while also making ranged attacks more difficult.
When fighting an affected type, you can use it on flimsier party members to afford them extreme protection. Even better, it can also be reversed to act as a cage, providing control or defensive effects.
There are two good options at level four.
Aura of Purity offers a radius of resistance to most conditions, which is especially good if you expect to fight spellcasters since they can bypass many of the other defenses you prepare as a tank.
Death Ward acts like the Half-Orc’s Reckless Endurance, allowing another player to overextend themselves if necessary or a low health caster to survive an unusually large hit.
Now there are two more defensive choices at the paladin’s maximum spell level of five.
Circle of Power is another saving throw focused spell that greatly protects against spellcasters.
Summon Celestial Spirit puts another body on the field to split the enemy’s focus away from both you and those you’re trying to protect. It has relatively low health at the level you can cast it, but a defensive buffer that can attack on its own turn should not be underestimated.
Alternative Build Spells
The other spells are from wisdom lists for those who wanted to go the Loxodon or Tortle route.
The beastmaster ranger can make a decent wall just by being two bodies for incoming enemies to need to get past.
From the default list, a giant weasel has the best combination of AC and health. But most DMs will let you choose an animal of an equal or lower challenge rating.
If you can get it approved, the giant crab with its starting AC of 17 puts at least two well armored characters between your wizard and incoming enemies.
Pairing that with Conjure Animals and Conjure Woodland Beings puts even more allies on the field, creating a living wall to completely stall your DM.
Spike Growth can punish enemies for trying to move toward you while your team can keep attacking from afar.
Wind Wall can block smaller creatures and projectiles, which does unfortunately affect you and your allies too.
For Druids, they have a similar animal health style of tanking. By choosing the Circle of the Moon subclass, you can shift into an animal form, doing increased damage and having a bonus pool of health.
When out of your animal forms, you can do even more summoning and obstruction spells like the ranger could such as Conjure Minor Elementals and Wall of Stone.
Finally, Clerics have no direct tanking abilities like a Beastmaster or Moon Druid.
But they get many of the same kinds of spells that Paladins, Rangers and Druids would get.
Protection From Evil and Good, Magic Circle, and the rest of the defensive spells we considered for Paladin. Summoning celestials acts to add allies into the mix and they get a fair mix of magic walls.
Since so many subclasses offer heavy armor, they could easily step to the front and help if necessary.
If all else fails, they have the best access to healing and can help recover from a failure.
The last thing to understand is your positioning and how that meshes with the style of tank you’ve made.
Depending on what you made, you might be trying to stay close to help someone next to you.
Or you might be trying to stay far away to try to force distance between enemies and your party.
A Barbarian, for example, can heavily reduce damage to themselves and output high damage. But the base class features don’t extend to your party.
By intercepting the enemy from a distance with your enhanced speed, you can take hits by yourself without needing to watch out for allies.
A Paladin has auras that help at close range, so they should probably be a bit closer to other party members.
Opportunity attack feats work best a small distance ahead of the rest of the party, so an enemy couldn’t leave your range and reach an ally on the same turn.
Anytime your DM describes a narrow hallway or other possible choke hold, plant yourself there and count yourself lucky. Most of your party should have ranged options, and then melee enemies have no way to get to your party.
In combat, always consider what abilities you have ready when moving and planning around others.
We’ve considered a number of options to make your character a serious defensive threat.
You could be a Human fighter, controlling the field with opportunity attacks and manipulating monsters with well-timed maneuvers.
Or you could be a Half-Orc Barbarian that will never fall.
Or a Paladin guarding your team to the end.
You could even try a less direct magical tank raising walls and flooding the field with minions.
But however you build, may you preserve your party.