Writer, musician, and host

Dungeons & Dragons Combat Roles

I was looking back at dungeons and dragons 4e and noticed its emphasis on particular combat roles. These roles made 4th edition feel like a video game sometimes and the MMO “Holy Trinity” of tank, dps, and healers seemed to have influenced this particular edition. In 4e, everyone was a damage dealer plus something else. A defender was a damage dealer that had a threat mechanic, a leader was a damage dealer that had a healing mechanic, a controller was a damage dealer with field control, and a striker was a slightly better damage dealer. Therefore, in 4e the “rule of cool” was heavily used because even the tankiest tank could do heaps of damage and received a “daily power” to do something extraordinary.

In 5e, we returned to the classic dungeons and dragons sort of mindset. A class isn’t stuck in definitive roles and many people believe (at least based on my initial google search) that party roles no longer apply and we should allow the characters to create five fighters if that is what they want to do. While I agree that 5e allows itself to have five fighters and still work out alright with smart play, it has a fairly very boring approach as we don’t want five characters doing the same thing. Though subclasses give some variation, it is still basically the same thing. Plus with a balanced party, the party will go through combat a bit easier and allow the players to focus on the roleplay and story. In my games, the story usually takes precedence over the mechanics. I normally ask my players to not have the same class as everyone else; if two people play the same class they must vastly different from each other and have different subclasses.

Today, I am petitioning for five combat roles to maybe help balance out the group and then present a system to help achieve the five combat roles. Note this article is designed for combat and not social activities which is another conversation for another time.

  1. Damage-Sponge - This is someone who has a high AC or a high health pool. He is your frontline character who can punish people who ignore him. He is hopefully the character who can get into the thick of things and allow freedom of movement for the rest of the party to do their thing. This is not to say that can’t be a formidable force of their own, doing more than enough damage to defeat the enemies. I think the best example of this actually comes from the feat "sentinel" that allows a player to attack a target that isn't focusing on him as a reaction.

  2. Frontline damage - Every damage sponge needs someone out there to support them and to achieve that amazing flank. Even the damage sponge sometimes needs someone to take the pressure off of them and to deal with the one or two enemies that slips past the front line when possible. I think the classic example here is a melee rogue, the disengage as a bonus action allows the character to get into a convenient spot.

  3. Utility - This is the person who can control the enemies to make them less threatening. Think of a cleric who can “turn undead”, for undead creatures it puts some of them out of the fight for a significant amount of time. We want a character who can do that consistently to many targets and give other characters an opportunity to take advantage of the situation. This may take the form of a monk using “stunning strike” consistently - forcing a potential for four enemies to lose their turns in a single round. Or even something like a spell caster knocking an opponent prone so the melee characters can obtain that glorious advantage. Also, consider a spell like “bless” would also count as utility since it helps allies hit the target to do damage.

  4. Ranged Damage - Ranged damage dealers have the ability to use more of the map to their advantage. A ranged dps can deal with a pesky mage that is out of range from the melee or throw an AOE attack that can potentially obliterate some of the creatures who don’t have a lot of hit points. Frontliners don’t always get the ability to attack the target that needs to be focused but a ranged damage dealer can be the hero we need them to be.

  5. Damage Mitigation - healing in 5e isn’t that great and is mostly left to an out of combat mechanic. Think of it this way, is it better to heal a target 3d8+3 (thinking a level 3 cure wounds spell) or throw a 6d8 fireball to stop the enemies from actually doing the damage. But there is a place for damage mitigation in combat. Think of a level 1 spell slot. Cure wounds will potentially do 1d8+3 or 8 hp on average. Or you can cast a reaction spell like Shield and gain a plus 5 to AC hypothetically preventing at least 1 attack or more. Enemies that hit hard will do more than 8 damage on a hit, and therefore mitigating the damage is a much better use of that first level slot. Not saying clutch healing isn’t important, but it is better not to get hit in the first place. I instead petition a damage mitigation role. Where someone uses “shield of faith” or uses a feat like “Inspiring Leader” to help prevent actual hp lost. Things like this don’t kill your standard action, which the party can use to get much-needed damage, and actually, help prevent hp loss from the party. Think of the bard mechanic cutting words, as a reaction you can decrease the enemies d20 role or damage role by your bardic dice. This is immensely powerful as a mechanic.

As an aside, I used to play a lore bard who was a healer by damage mitigation and utility. With a combination of the sentinel feat and polearm master feat, some targets wouldn’t even touch him. Cutting words prevent damage, and he stole the spell “aid” and would have eventually taken an inspiring leader feat as a before combat healing ability. Rarely did he cast a healing spell, but he kept the party alive in his own way. These are the best ways to “heal” in my opinion based on the mechanics 5e has laid out.

But back on topic, characters will generally hit 2-3 of these categories by level 3 and I normally strive to have people pick their level 3 subclasses during character creation. Sometimes I'll consider just starting at level 3 if I have experienced players. A cleric at level 3 for example, could be part damage sponge via high AC, a utility with a spell-like bless, both a range and melee damage dealer with spells and/or a melee weapon, and mitigate damage through shield of faith and aid. So I created a system for a five-man party to hopefully create a balanced party while still having some flexibility. Here goes.

Every player character has 3 points leading to a total of 15 points for five people. In turn, I am asking for two points in each role. This allows players to have 15 points at their exposal in a system that requires only 10 points. If no one wants to actually play a damage mitigation primary, we may still be able to get that 2 point requirement if people put points into it as a secondary. For example, a utility lore bard can swing a point into damage mitigation because of cutting words and a fighter who has a protection fighting style can invoke disadvantage on an enemy attack as a reaction. Thus the damage mitigation category is fulfilled but still there to keep the team alive. In this system, I would ask players to justify why their characters are in this role and I will ask the players to keep to the role they suggested most of the time.

Luckily in 5th edition, there are many ways to play a role. If you as a person really want to play a mage type. You can play a mage who specializes in utility, range damage dealing, melee damage dealing, damage mitigation, and a tank. This flexibility comes from subclasses, spell choices, and playstyles. With Xanathar out, we actually see a Warlock subclass that allows you to do secondary healing without losing to much damage per round and a monk subclass that allows you to have great AC potential. With this, I always ask my players to focus on character story first with flexibility on mechanics. I would rather have you pitch me a ferocious fighter who is on a quest for revenge than a “Battle master who wields a greatsword”. The revenge story emphasizes the plot and with some willingness, you can fit a tank role, damage role, or range role (archer) as needed and isn't locked into the Fighter class.

To emphasize, a balanced party means we aren't stressing out about combat as much, and that can lead to a better story between combats instead of freaking out about why we didn't have a range damage dealer to deal with that pesky mage. Balanced parties, in my opinion, make the game better. I strongly encourage players to come in with a character concept and not a character class. 

And here is a picture of Erathis that my wife drew because it is great and I need a thumbnail.