How to Play a D&D Tank, Photo Sketch of an Armored Knight

How to Play a Tank in D&D 5e

The party tank is one of the Dungeons & Dragons roles you fill with your character.

But, what is a tank in D&D 5e? How do you play one? Are there any general strategies or tactics for tanking in D&D?

This article covers the basics on how to tank in D&D.

Let’s start off with defining what a tank is in D&D 5e.

What is a Tank in D&D 5e?

The tank is a combat role in D&D 5e. Their main job is to prevent hostile creatures from attacking the physically weaker party members.

Basically, tanks stand as humanoid shields between enemies and allies.

If you’re familiar at all with MMOs and their dungeon mechanics, you’re probably familiar with the idea of tanking. Armored individuals that pull aggro or enmity away from the damage dealers and healers of the group. It works in much the same way in D&D.

The main difference is there are rarely rules for directly grabbing an enemy’s attention in D&D. That usually involves a class feature or spell.

Now, I will say there is no official definition for a tank (or any role) in Dungeons & Dragons. These terms usually come from MMOs or other video games. And, you don’t even need a tank in your D&D 5e party to have fun and do well.

But, if you’re looking at playing a tank, there are ways to play one in the game.

How to Play a Tank in D&D 5e

How to Play a Tank in D&D, Photo Sketch of a Warrior with a Shield
Tanking in D&D means enticing enemies into attacking you over your allies

So, now that you know what a tank is, let’s take a look at how to play a tank in D&D.

There are quite a few aspects to remember when making a tank. From hit points to armor class to the tactics you should employ in combat, you should understand what your role in the party is.

The main things to remember when playing a tank character are:

  • You (usually) need a decent Armor Class
  • You should have a good amount of hit points
  • Don’t neglect your Dexterity Ability Score
  • Utilize positioning in combat
  • Entice enemies into attacking you
  • Understand basic tanking tactics

Each of these elements help in creating and playing a good tank character in D&D.

Should you follow all of these elements with every tank character you ever play?

Absolutely not. At the end of the day, play the character you want to play. And, not every tank needs or is even able to follow these general elements.

With that, you should know there are a few ways to play a tank in D&D5e.

Types of Tanks in D&D

There are really only three types of tanks in D&D 5e; sacks of hit points, heavily armored warriors, and dexterous dodgers. Each one comes with its own advantages and disadvantages over the others.

Let’s go over each of these in a little bit more detail.

Hit Point Tanks
Hit point tanks prioritize maxing out their hit points. Usually, this means making their Constitution Ability Score their highest stat. The downside to these tanks is they don’t mitigate damage or focus on having the best Armor Class. Good hit point tanks include the Barbarian and Druid.
Armor Tanks
Armor tanks prioritize boosting their Armor Class as high as possible. Through this, these characters aim at taking damage less frequently than other tanks. The drawback here is usually this means sacrificing any sort of stealth as heavy armor often imposes disadvantage on Stealth (Dexterity) checks. Clerics, Fighters, and Paladins make good armor tanks.
Dexterity Tanks
Dexterity tanks, or Dex Tanks, focus on maxing their Dexterity Ability Score and using traits and features to boost their Armor Class. The main element of these characters is they grab features that let them take the Dodge action as a bonus action or through other damage mitigating traits and features. Problems with Dex Tanks include using some of their action economy to avoid damage and a smaller health pool than other tanks. Monks and Rogues make for decent Dexterity-based tanks in D&D.

Now that you know the three basic types of tanks in D&D 5e, let’s go over elements typical for tank characters.

Have a Good Amount of Hit Points

Photo Sketch of a Barbarian Drinking from a Flagon
Having a good amount of hit points is very important for tanks in D&D

Tanks in D&D usually have a healthy pool of hit points.

Since they fight on the front lines during combat, tanks get hit quite often. So, you should have enough health to survive a few good hits.

This means ensuring you have a decent Constitution modifier and hit dice. At level up in 5e, you’ll roll your class’s hit die and add the number with your Constitution modifier. That is the number by which your maximum hit points increases.

Because of this, Barbarians, Fighters, and Paladins all make good tank characters because of their d12 and d10 hit dice.

Increase Your Armor Class

Armor Class (AC) plays a big part in tanking. A higher AC means enemies hit you less often.

There are two main ways for increasing your Armor Class: better armor and a higher Dexterity modifier. Better armor might mean upgrading from light to medium to heavy. But, the tradeoff there is Dexterity plays a less important role in AC depending on the armor type.

  • Light Armor: Add full Dexterity modifier to AC
  • Medium Armor: Add up to +2 from Dexterity modifier to AC
  • Heavy Armor: Do not add Dexterity modifier to AC

Getting better armor also means using a shield for that sweet +2 to AC…while its equipped.

Usually, armor tanks in D&D use heavy or no armor (Barbarians, man) with a shield.

But, sometimes you don’t want to have too high of an Armor Class.

This sounds counterintuitive when playing a tank in D&D. But, hear me out.

Your DM might run intelligent creatures, well, intelligently. As such, they might alter priorities depending on who is the easier target.

What would you do if you saw Samadin the Paladin in all their shiny, metal glory and Mizzard the Wizard in all their frail, squishy modesty standing before you? Who do you think you have a better chance at hitting?

Will this always apply?

Honestly, that depends on your Dungeon Master. This is either something you should consider heavily or not worry about at all.

Either way, your tank character should have a halfway decent AC if you’re pain averse.

Improve Your Dexterity Score

Dexterity plays a huge part in many aspect of D&D. For tanks, this includes improving their AC, saving throws, and initiative.

We already addressed how Dexterity plays a role in improving Armor Class. So, let’s take a look at the last two parts.

Dexterity saving throws in 5e are some of the most common saves you’ll come across or become subject to. Many spells, abilities, and traps force Dex saves in D&D. So, having a good Dexterity modifier for your tank character means a better chance of reducing, mitigating, and surviving these situations.

The next aspect is for initiative.

Your initiative modifier equals your Dexterity modifier. The higher your initiative modifier, the higher your chances of acting earlier in combat.

Moving early for tanks in D&D is super important. You want to get your character into position as soon as possible. This means you should hedge your bets when you roll for initiative by giving your character a good Dexterity score.

This all leads into the next thing to remember for D&D tanks: positioning.

Utilize Combat Positioning

Photo Sketch of Knights Fighting
Positioning during combat is your best tool for tanking in D&D 5e

Positioning is huge when tanking in D&D. Where you stand affects how enemies may move throughout the battlefield.

Generally speaking, the party tank’s main position is between the enemies and their physically weaker teammates. This way, they separate the two and reduce the chances of their allies from taking damage.

This is easier in small spaces like a hallway or cave. But, open battlefields like a field or courtyard provide a challenge for tanks.

The advice is about the same, though; "Stand over there and keep the bad guys from smacking the wizard." Even if you can’t completely stop the advance on your casters or other defensively-challenged party members, at least the enemies must push through or around you.

Now, if you can’t effectively stand between any hostile creatures and your allies, try standing next to your allies.

You might be able to direct how an enemy attacks if you harass them enough when standing next to your weakest ally. At the very least, you’re taking up a space that an enemy can’t step into.

If the battlefield allows, use choke points to funnel enemies. One tank can hold off more enemies if they’re facing them one or two at a time. Choke points include doorways, narrow halls, or even dense forest.

The point of positioning is to encourage enemies to attack you over your allies.

Get Enemies to Attack You

The most important part of tanking is encouraging enemies to attack you instead of your allies. This part is tricky in D&D 5e as there aren’t many ways of forcing enemies into targeting your character.

Now, this is the hard part.

Since there is no aggro system in D&D 5e, you can’t really force an enemy into attacking you over one of your allies. Yes, there are spells and features that encourage this behavior. But, there are very few, if any, that force them into targeting you with an attack or spell.

This is why positioning is so important.

Presenting yourself as the most convenient target or placing yourself between enemies and allies means a greater chance of you taking a hit instead of your party mates. It’s not perfect, but it can work.

Having a manageable AC also helps. Too high of an Armor Class and intelligent enemies might ignore you in favor of bringing down your spellcasters. But, too low of an AC and you’re taking hit after hit after hit.

Now, there are spells like command or compelled duel (if you’re a Paladin) that help in directing enemy behavior. But, you need to play a spellcasting tank or take the Magic Initiate feat to use them.

The best advice for encouraging enemies into attacking you over your allies is by being the most convenient target.


Final Thoughts on Playing a Tank in D&D 5e

Tanking in D&D is a bit tricky. Since you don’t have the usual skills or abilities MMOs or other games have, you need to get a little creative in how you draw an enemy’s ire.

Your biggest tool is proper positioning. But, using certain abilities means directing enemies away from your allies and towards you.

But remember; you don’t need a tank in your party.

D&D 5e’s design allows for many different balance levels. So, you rarely need to fill the classic D&D party roles.

That said, having a tank in your party is awesome. Especially if you have physically weaker or frail characters like sorcerers, wizards, or warlocks.

What’s your favorite tank build? What strategies and tactics have you used to improve your tanking capabilities?

Leave a comment below and share your experiences.

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