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Thoughts on Defenders

Everyone wants their character to shine, and a good DM can give every character their chance, but it isn’t just the DM’s responsibility. As a player you need to be prepared to do your part as well for making your character get their moment. This is always easier to do as your mastery of the rules improves, when dealing with shining mechanically. New products and their options always make it easier as well, but they also increase the difficulty of attaining system mastery. So if you want your character to shine mechanically you need to invest some time in ensuring you understand the mechanics of the character.

4E introduced the idea of “role” as an explicit mechanical concept. Each of the 4 roles does a different job in combat and understanding what you want your character to do in a fight is an important part of building a character in 4E so that your mechanics support your narative concept. Getting these two things to align can increase both the fun of playing the character (Hey she is doing what I want. Awesome!) and the number of times they shine (You attack my ally, I do this and save them! Awesome!). To be able to do this you need to understand the job of each role, and how that job is supported by mechanics.

The Defender role is one of the two roles tasked with controlling the options that the enemy has, and thus increasing the options of the other PCs. Specifically the Defender is trying to make themselves the best option to attack. This is important to understand because if your character is not doing this the enemies will ignore you and go for the other characters that are bigger threats.

There are basically two ways to do this; make it to hard to hit your allies, or make it to painful to hit your allies. Every defender has a means of imposing a mark, but the truth is that a -2 is just not enough on its own to get them attacking you. That means your ability to punish can be critical to affecting the decisions of the DM and thus the monsters.

One of the reasons -2 to hit someone else is likely not enough to stop the enemy on its own is that even with the -2 it is possibly harder to hit your Defender than any other PC (or at least it might look that way to the enemy). There are a few ways to make this work better, the obvious one is “impose a bigger penalty”, another one is isolating the enemy away from your allies and restricting their movement, the last is reducing their damage to your allies. It is surprisingly hard to impose a bigger penalty, so without carefully investigating I suggest avoiding this approach. Reducing the damage can neutralise an enemy for a round or two as it must decide between trying to hit your high defence and doing possibly no damage to your allies. As to restricting movement this is where Fighters shine (punishing shifts and moves) and Ensnaring Swordmages struggle – simply relocating the enemy after they have had their way is not enough, you need to stop them getting there in the first place for this to be effective. So make sure your -2 is supported by some sort of additional effect.

The other option is punishment, or having an effect that allows you to damage your enemies if you are not attacked. There are basically two ways to do this; make an attack or do set damage. Set damage, such as the Paladin’s Challenge or Sanction is the easiest to grasp, because if they don’t attack you they take the damage. The problem is the damage needs to matter, if it is less than 5x tier (Heroic=1, Paragon=2, Epic=3) it probably isn’t enough. In fact as you approach the end of your tier you need to be approaching the next tier’s minimum. In short if 5-7 turns of attacking someone else isn’t going to kill the enemy it will ignore the mark and damage. (Remember your mark damage isn’t the only damage a monster should be taking, so few monsters should ignore a mark more than 2 times.) The other option usually depends on your melée basic attack (or things you can swap for that), at which point the accuracy and damage (or conditions) of the attack start to matter. This is a mistake I see often with Assault Swordmages, their melée basic is not accurate (+5 or +6 @ 1st) and does little damage (d8+2 or +3) – in short it doesn’t pose enough threat that it is better leaving your striker buddy alone.

So some general guidelines;

  • you want to be accurate
  • you want to do more than 5 damage reliably both with your attacks or your punishing effects
  • high hit points is better than a super high defence
  • your defence needs to be 17-20 at level 1
  • the more defence you have the bigger the punishments you impose need to be (or the more damage you must reduce)
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