A Barbarous Tank
Very specific tactics for fun and profit.
A guest edition today, written by Anna, who has played in nearly all of my tabletop campaigns for the last twenty-some years. For my part, I’ll just draw your attention to the Druid, Warlock and Bard Post-Apocalyptic Class t-shirts and hoodies available from the shop for one of my other newsletters, Gentle Decline, which seem ideal for this audience. Take it away, Anna.
I love casters. I nearly always play a caster, usually a cleric. So when we started our current campaign, I announced that I wanted to play a tank.
A tank, in MMOs, is a role where you’re typically not so great at dealing damage, but you excel at absorbing it. The objective of this role is to keep the attention of the boss, using your abilities to mitigate their damage, while the rest of the party gets on with the killing. In MMOs, the gameplay around this uses a highly numerical mechanism called threat.
D&D doesn’t have threat. The boss points wherever the DM says they point. So how can you have a tank in a game that doesn’t even support its defining mechanism? Never mind, I said, waving my hands; we’ll try something and maybe do something with role play.
Reader, 5e supports tanks. Oh yes. And this half orc barbarian, this axe swinger, has become one of my favourite characters.
First, let’s look at the character. She needs to be able to do two things: grab someone’s attention, and take their blows.
Few things grab attention faster than an axe in the face. So she’s strong. But here we hit our first tradeoff: in an MMO, this character would doubtless use a shield. Without the benefit of “high threat” attacks, though, she’s going to have to appear dangerous by more direct means; doing a lot of damage.
She’s been wandering around with a greataxe most of the time, because a d12 in the groin can ruin any NPC’s day. Sure, a smart opponent will try to ignore this and look for a healer to squash. But six feet of half-orc extracting a pound of flesh twice per round has a decent chance of breaking your concentration. And meanwhile, your badly paid henchgoblins have forgotten the tactics you’ve taught them and are trying to swarm the tall lady with the pointy stick.
The greataxe has just recently been swapped out for a halberd, which does a little less damage, but lets her put the frighteners up anyone in the surrounding 24 squares, instead of just eight. This might be a wash, but it might be hilarious.
So that’s all very well for getting attention, but how do you take the hits? Well, Constitution may be an even more important stat than Strength. A barbarian with an Amulet of Health can wander around at level 5 with 60 hit points. So simply being able to take the damage, and popping a potion at every opportunity, gets you a long way to being a futile, yet tempting, target for the NPCs. (We have a house rule that allows us to take potions on a bonus action, and our DM is a frustrated economist at heart, so he likes it when our characters buy them literally by the dozen.)
This is all very well, but then we add Rage. We like to Rage. As well as just making some of the nice numbers even nicer, Rage gives the barbarian resistance to bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage… exactly the kinds of damage that the henchpeople with hand-me-down weapons tend to use. It’s been very satisfying to see two different NPCs land decent, solid hits in the same round of combat, then see that the tank is still standing there with a glint in her eye, and consider that perhaps they have made an unfortunate misjudgement.
At low levels, the Primal Paths don’t have an enormous impact, but the Path of the Zealot has a lot of hilarious potential. Even at level 3, Warrior of the Gods makes it feasible for the barbarian to tactically die, in the knowledge that someone will be able to scrape her up and get her resurrected on the cheap. At level 10, Zealous Presence is going to make the NPC’s dilemma over whether to attack the barbarian or to hunt for a healer even more fraught.
The toughest part of the balancing act has, surprisingly, been AC. By focusing on Strength and Constitution, her Dexterity is middling. Her Unarmed Defense means that the benefit of any armour is marginal. And using two handed weapons to appear genuinely dangerous leads her to eschew shields. So while our monk is dancing around the grid with an AC beginning with “2”, my barbarian struggles to hit 17. This matters, because every point of AC is a 5% drop in hits she has to take. Oh well, she’ll just have to cry into her 60 hit points.
So we’ve managed to build a character that’s hard to ignore and hard to kill. But what can we do on the field to make this work?
A surprising amount! For a start, the traditional approach of “send in the tank, get the casters and healers to hang back” really does work. Simply allowing two hundred pounds of semi-orc to barrel into the middle of the action will cause one’s opponents to react to that immediate danger, often by trying to swarm her. That’s good, because she’s designed to deal with it. Then the rest of the party can reposition as suits themselves, leaving the bulk of the NPCs within stabbing range of a screaming, swearing brick wall, frozen between the sunk cost fallacy and a very painful attack of opportunity, while our damage dealers pick off their compatriots one by one, like a ruthless orchestra made of chainsaws.
Speaking of attacks of opportunity, they become fascinating points of gameplay. We started out highly averse to incurring attacks of opportunity; why give the opponents a free shot? But with a character like this, hit points become a resource you can spend in exchange for mobility. If my barbarian has the attention of a couple of henchpersons, and spots a greater danger appearing, she will absolutely take the hits in order to reposition and mitigate that greater threat. If she’s lucky, the henchpersons will follow, and if the mage is paying attention, a fireball might follow them. Yes, the tank will get hit by the fireball as well, but that’s just spending some more hit points for a tactical advantage. C’mon. I get a discount on resurrection anyway.
It’s been a bit of a journey getting over my cleric’s instincts of staying out of the line of fire. But the creativity with spells has been replaced by an (entirely book-legal) creativity with combat tactics. Once you’re prepared to put yourself in harm’s way, the rules turn upside down. Wedge yourself in a doorway and prevent half the NPCs from supporting the other half, who are being mown down in the next room. Throw yourself down the steep slope, and get to the bottom with a nosebleed, a smile, and a surprised opponent. Literally attack the darkness. What’s right is wrong and what’s wrong is right, and everything is fun again.
Drew again: I’m greatly liking having the half-orcs in the Heliomar campaign, alongside a goliath, a firbolg and a loxodon. They make the party feel rather more solid, if not stable, and probably rather intimidating compared to many other parties for whom I’ve run games. I’m also fascinated by the new art that’s out there surrounding half-orcs; they’re a lot less brutish than they used to be. I reckon World of Warcraft has a lot to do with this, but fan art from various streamed campaigns, and just people’s own home games probably drives a lot of it too.
I have some thoughts about combat encounters, non-combat encounters, and the semi-sandbox situation that is the Heliomar game, but they can wait until next time; I want to get Anna’s excellent words in front of you now. Have good games!