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In my previous campaign, a player started the campaign with a tanky fighter build with a chain mail, a shield, and Defense fighting style, for a total of 19 starting AC. For a level 1.

I was still learning to DM, so I became frustrated whenever it was a monster's turn and the closest target was him. Unconsciously, I finished the monster's turn noticeably more quickly than others attacking other targets ("Oh, a 12. The dagger can't pierce your armor. Okay, next one is ...")

This resulted in:

  1. Frustration when forced to deal with him - closest target or the only target.
  2. Preference on attacking targets other than him, if possible.
  3. Preference to attack with save-based effects on him. Usually I saved limited resources of save-based effects and exclusively used them on the tank.

I tried to become as objective as possible, and this resulted in me trying to do the reverse: forcing my monsters to be inefficient by attacking him over easier-to-hit target beside him, reluctant to use save-based effects on him, etc.

I tried to be fair, but it seems I become meta-metagaming and I don't like that.

How to deal with this tank fairly? I've tried not to think about the 19 AC, but it is inevitable that I need that info to properly play the game (and the AC won't likely to change for a long time).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: How does a DM deal with a PC with an abnormally high Armor Class? \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Jul 12 at 10:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why do you get frustrated when a monster targets him? This only makes sense if you want the player to get hit, but as a DM you shouldn't want that without a good reason. \$\endgroup\$ – Behacad Jul 12 at 18:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ Remember that some encounters will be against monsters who threaten PCs in other ways than direct physical attacks (magic, area of effect abilities, and so on); AC won't help against those. But fundamentally, as others have said: the player wanted to play someone who is hard to hit. Monsters rolling 18 and missing is what the player finds fun (to oversimplify). \$\endgroup\$ – Greg Martin Jul 15 at 2:29
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Avoid the DM vs Player trap

It looks like you may have fallen into that trap, based on how you presented the problem. This isn't a matter of a "fair fight" between a monster (or a group of monsters) and a PC. It's about the player making choices that have costs. This player gave up more offensive power to be better at defense. Honor that choice.

That high armor class is neither a fluke nor an exploit. It is well within the limits of the game as built and comes with a cost: reduced damage output (and in the case of heavy armor, disadvantage on Stealth checks).

Your player took an opportunity cost to become hard-to-hit

Rather than taking the dueling style, which would have added +2 to damage for each hit, or Great Weapon Fighting, which would make his damage output higher, this player chose to be harder to hit. There is no reason for you to get frustrated - You Are Not The Monsters.

  1. Monster success is not a sign of a good DM
  2. Monster defeat is not a sign of a bad DM.

    The monsters1 will try to defeat the PCs based on your choices, to be sure, but the monster's defeat or difficulty in hitting a purposefully built hard-to-hit character is not a problem. It's a consequence of the players' choices.

Bottom Line: put yourself in a neutral mind set, be the referee.

  1. Do this before play begins: commit yourself to being a referee2 rather than a "side" in a battle or a contest.

  2. Don't over-identify with monster/NPC success or failure.

  3. The PCs are the stars of this movie anyway. They are by design scheme intended to become larger than life. Take a look at these descriptions of the tiers of play in the Basic Rules, p. 12:

    the first tier (levels 1–4) ... threats they face are relatively minor, usually posing a danger to local farmsteads or villages...

    In the second tier (levels 5–10) ... These characters have become important, facing dangers that threaten cities and kingdoms...

    In the third tier (levels 11–16) .. These mighty adventurers often confront threats to whole regions and continents...

    At the fourth tier (levels 17–20)... becoming heroic (or villainous) archetypes in their own right. The fate of the world or even the fundamental order of the multiverse might hang in the balance during their adventures...

The dice are your tools, let them help you be fair

Let the dice / RNG remove your fears of metagaming. They are fickle and they are fair.

  1. It doesn't matter if the monster hits or misses. Roll the dice and see what happens. That little rodent who rolls a 20 or a 19 still hits this "tanky" character.

  2. Let RNG help you. If you feel that you are picking on one player too often, or that another player never seems to get attacked, use a random die roll to see which character gets attacked when more than one character is within range. I've been using that tool since I started DMing.


Notes:

1 For the purposes of this answer: Monster also applies to any NPC opposing the PC's.

2 It is worth noting that when D&D was first published in 1974, and before "dungeon master" became the term of art, the person running the game that the players were in was called "referee" or "judge." Both of those terms have the connotation of impartiality: embrace it. It'll make you a better DM.

The terms DM, judge & referee are all synonymous in D&D; largely a matter of choice. (~ Tim Kask, Editor, Dragon Magazine #9, page 6)

RNG: common abbreviation for "random number generator"

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 While having monsters that are fun and doing stuff is interesting, running memorable and exciting stories is what GMing is to me, getting the players hyped up and playing to their characters - throw hordes of tiny minions at the armoured fighter, give them their moment! Let the players shine and do what their characters want to do; hit them with curveballs so they don't get too comfortable, but when at the end of the session the players are already talking excitedly about the next one? That's payoff and tells you you're running a great game. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Jul 12 at 13:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jul 13 at 19:59
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This is not metagaming

The only AC increase that is not immediately visible in this case is from the fighting style, and that is a +1. All others are readily apparent in the game world, unless measures are taken to hide them (eg. disguise self). Heavy armor and shields are quite obvious and even low-intelligence beasts recognize that they have a hard time biting metal. Adjusting tactics based on this information is completely fair.

Even in other, more nebulous cases, like mage armor or Unarmored Defense, the fact that their attacks are not hitting the target is obvious. Just like players, NPCs and monsters can know when they roll 17 for an attack and miss a seemingly unarmored opponent. The communication of this information and adjustment of group tactics is dependent on the intelligence and training of the combatants, but they can draw the conclusion "this guy has high AC", even if you would phrase it differently in-game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ gasp... you mean that NPCs and monsters are not just bags of stats that fight the same way to the death at each encounter? Also, if minions fight the PCs and the PCs continue to use the same tactics at every turn you can be sure (assuming survivors) that the leaders will attempt to counter said tactics at a future encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Jul 12 at 11:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can the monsters know they rolled a 17 and still missed? That seems pretty metagamey to make decisions based on knowing the die roll itself. I'd think the monster could figure it out after swinging and missing multiple times at a seemingly unarmored opponent, but I don't see how a monster could immediately distinguish between a low attack roll and a high AC. \$\endgroup\$ – Nuclear Wang Jul 12 at 19:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NuclearWang It's not crazy for a character to have an idea of what the die roll was. An experienced fighter can tell a well executed swing (a 17) from a wonky off-balance thrust (a 2). \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jul 12 at 20:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NuclearWang the exact representation "in universe" can vary, but if the players can know it, it seems fair for the monsters to know the same. Dress it up in narration as/if needed, e.g. "the arrow hits right into your chest, but bounces off as the goblins look on" or w/e \$\endgroup\$ – mbrig Jul 12 at 20:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NuclearWang Missing the AC doesn't have to mean the attack actually misses. I could mean that a beast actually bit the metal, or a sword glanced off a shield. \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o Jul 12 at 23:02
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Evaluate the information at hand and discern whether or not you are metagaming.

You should make yourself aware that those 19 AC come with a lot of resource investment not only due to the choice of the fighting style that defines the character, but also the choice of character class. During the early encounters, you will often face enemies who will have a tough time dealing with a high AC (yes, + 1 AC and the option of proficiency due to the fighter class are an investment). This is the player's time to shine and enjoy that investment of their character-build.

How will that affect the monsters who deal with the tanky fighter? This heavily depends on what kind of creatures you will throw at them. A Zombie (MM 315) has limited ability to reason and will attack the closest enemy, but other creatures aren't that limited in their reason. A Harpy (MM 181) would never go for a fair fight or face an obviously heavy armoured warrior head-on. Creatures have varying intelligence and tactics that you can usually find in the descriptions of creatures. Some of them will tackle the heavily armoured fighter head-on (letting the character building decisions shine), and others will immediately notice that the fighter is not the target that they will want to attack.

That creatures make choices gives your players the option to play with tactics and all the interesting options that encounter-solving has in wait. If you force an intelligent creature in a narrow pathway for instance and it only can reach the heavily armoured fighter or make the decision to slip past risking opportunity attacks (PHB 195) to reach the caster who erupts lightning from their palms, then that choice and that player set-up pay off.

Threat assessment as long as it uses the information that is obvious and discernable to the creature is not metagaming. The player group reveals by their actions and their equipment what kind of threat they pose, and intelligent creatures will reassess the threat any player character poses.

So how do you avoid metagaming further information that you as the GM have, but creatures do not have? This is done by clear communication and description of what your player characters want to do before you narrate their actions (PHB 5), and reflection of the information that is accessible to the creature. Sometimes you accidentally metagame particular things that wouldn't be obvious to a creature just like most players know things that their characters don't (yet) know. I consider that to be a wash unless it becomes problematic, but that would be a different question to ask.

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Plan how monsters will react to this sort of information!

  1. A berserk monster might attack whoever's nearest indiscriminately.

  2. An animal hunting for food might pick off someone from the edge of the group.

  3. Goblins might rush in but avoid whoever looks scariest.

  4. Mercenaries, experienced fighters, might have thought-through tactics, e.g. "take out the glass canons first" or "all attack the same enemy".

    For "average" enemies I often have them attack the closest player, as a sort of default, so if the players play smart and the vulnerable ones get back, the brunt is usually borne by the tanks, but if the players get into a muddle where they're not supporting each other, the squishy characters can get in a lot of trouble.

Mix it up. It affects an encounter with a 'monster' as much as its stat block does. If you describe it appropriately, no-one will find it out of place.

This is one of the things his character specialised in, so the character should be good at it. Ideally that will come up fairly often. But the enemies don't always have to attack the tank, if the players don't make an effort to have that happen.

Decide what an appropriate mix is, choose an appropriate variety of enemies, and the individual combats should take care of themselves, with some where he shines, and some where it doesn't help.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I want to add, I like to use the creatures intelligence score to decide whom they attack. \$\endgroup\$ – findusl Jul 12 at 20:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Please back up your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jul 12 at 21:23
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Having Your Cake...

The other answers make a good point for this, but it bears repeating: The whole point of the game should be to keep your players engaged while telling a story together. I find the best way to do that is to focus on the PCs' strengths and make sure everyone has a chance to shine. They don't have to shine all of the time, but no one wants to feel like their character is useless and just along for the ride.

In this case, your player has settled on the high-AC tank for the kind of character he wants to play. This is honestly more of a concession on his part than it might look at first. Sure he is harder to hit, but he also gave up a lot of the options that would have upped his damage potential. I would argue that a character optimized for damage is much harder to balance than one optimized for defense so this actually works out better for you.

Letting the tank shine is a simple enough task. Throw in some physical-damage-based monsters and let him stand in front of them like the walking wall he wants to be. Play up how dangerous the monsters are, describe them chewing on his armor but not penetrating it, and your tank is going to feel like an important member of the team that carries his weight.

And Eating It Too

It sounds like what you are really getting frustrated by is that you want challenging combats (entirely reasonable) but the tank makes that difficult. Either you focus on him and feel like you are cheating or you ignore him and feel the same way. The good news is that it shouldn't be too hard to create scenarios where the tank is meaningful but not disruptive.

My very first suggestion would be to get used to creating combat encounters that look like boss fights in games. You want one big scary obvious threat, and then some number of smaller minions for back up. This way your tank can handle the big guy while the rest of the party mops up the minions and then focuses on the real threat afterwards.

A really good example of this for Level 1 characters would be a group of goblins led by a Hobgoblin (or bugbear, or chieftain, or whatever else). The hobgoblin is going to stand out as the main threat when surrounded by the smaller goblins. It should be fairly obvious to your PCs that the tank should handle that, because the mage would be turned into paste if he tried to do so. While the tank and the hob have a very epic (and slow) fight the rest of the group can pick off the goblins. Then everyone helps clean up the hob as they get the opportunity.

Switching Things Up

So when you want your PCs to have a standard brawl it is really easy to come up with an encounter where the tank shines but doesn't ruin everything. But that kind of fight would get boring fast if it was the only kind, so lets look at what else you can throw at the party and how the tank plays into it.

  • Magic attackers - If you actually want to do damage to the tank, or threaten him in general, this is the way to go. Magic Missile doesn't care about his AC. Fireball hits his Dex save instead, and also negates his just standing in front of the rest of the party as a human wall. Think about how big of a threat your tank is at the moment when deciding if the enemy would use their spell or ability on him. Smarter enemies might choose to go after weaker party members if they have the choice, while low-Int enemies might just see a big shiny meatshield and get tunnel vision on taking him down.
  • Ranged Attackers - This is similar to above in that it negates the tanks ability to block damage to his team, but is less likely to be a threat to the tank himself. Ranged attackers have much more options when it comes to choosing a target in combat. It doesn't really matter if the tank is the closest enemy to them as long as he is not the only enemy in their range. This is actually a really good option for you to make challenging fights, because you can change how dangerous the fight is on the fly just by choosing to have more or less enemies target the tank.
  • Dangerous abilities - Also similar to the magic attackers point, there are some enemies which have extra abilities which make them inherently scarier to fight up close. Imagine a pack of Ghouls attacking the party. Even if the tank is hard for them to actually land a hit on, the effects of just one hit is much more pronounced. Enemies which have any kind of affect on hits other than just damage will add an extra edge to combat. They will also be a really obvious draw for your tank, because letting a squishy mage get hit by them would be even worse. Just be careful not to make these enemies too dangerous, since one slipping past the tank could really mess up the rest of the party if they aren't prepared.

Legos, But With Monsters

Using the handful of enemy types above you should be able to build a wide variety of combat encounters that keep things interesting for the whole party. The tank can handle the big burly fighters, or hold off the ravenous ghouls, while everyone else can deal with the other threats. If you want to injure the tank just shoot him with magic. If you want to ignore the tank then get a group of bandits with crossbows. The more of a threat the tank looks like during a fight, the more enemies should target him. You can build your fights however you want or need to, with just a little forethought.

Make sure everyone else has a chance to shine while the tank holds off the stuff trying to murder them and I guarantee your player will love every second of it.

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Others already have some very excellent answers (would make this a comment if I could) to this question but no one addressed this feature of 5th edition; bounded accuracy.

While your tank is hard to hit at low levels, after a few levels it will become less of an issue as monster attack rolls tend to scale up faster then player AC does. The PC's don't stay at first level for very long.

  • Example: An Orc (CR 1/2) has 16 Strength, so has +5 to hit. When it hits, it doesn 1d12 + 3. On a crit, 2d12 +3. All an orc needs to roll is a 14 or better and there's a chance to one-shot this tank. The PC can try to evade that orc, but the orc's aggressive feature allows them to close with nearly any enemy. While well armored, your example PC is hardly invulnerable.

Anecdotally I have found it harder as a DM to give high defense characters any time to shine as monsters can literally just ignore them and attack the squishier targets since the tank has no way to actually force enemies to engage them.

Also if they get surrounded, monsters attacking with advantage, or just rolling a lot of to hit rolls, will frequently get past the tank's AC.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer certainly could stand on its own and could be fleshed out if you back it up. \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jul 15 at 12:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ I eddited in an example in the interests of "showing by doing." Feel free to edit in a better example or support. Welcome to RPG.SE. Please take the tour and visit the help center to get an idea for how an SE Q&A site is different from a discussion forum or a reddit. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 15 at 12:48
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Even though the other answers are correct, I don't fully agree with them.

Yes, You should avoid falling in the "DM vs. player-trap", but I think you should play the monsters as they would be playing themselves. They will take every advantage they can in order to stay alive or to win a fight. That's their instinct. If you don't do that, the players will notice, and this is also metagaming.

To answer your question:

AC translates to physical properties which are not meta

An AC of 19 means that the creature will look very heavily armored and very tough. The monsters will often attack the closest target they can find, but they might also attack a different enemy that is doing more damage to them, but looks less armored.

Same applies to PC's when they see creatures: some will look small and weak, others will look very tough. They can expect that the creatures that look weak have a low AC and HP, and the tough creatures have a high AC and HP, even though they don't know the number because this would be meta.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure high AC means looking heavily armored. I can have an unarmored monk with low strength and an AC of 20. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 14 at 14:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch: Yes, but then there would be other physical signs that give away his toughness, no? A dragon would also not be wearing any armor, but it's clear that the thick scales are hard to penetrate. \$\endgroup\$ – Opifex Jul 14 at 16:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ AC may also be reflective of how much they can evade being hit. Not just about being tough. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 14 at 16:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer is not backed-up, please improve it by backing it up. \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jul 15 at 12:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a DM, one can try to distinguish between "visible AC" and "hidden AC" and have intelligent characters attack PCs with lowest "visible AC". It is totally natural for an orc to attack a monk counting on a easy target and be surprised when they are punched to death while their swings never hit. And of course, high-level intelligent creatures, e.g. experienced mercenaries should know their way around different enemies and be able to recognize a monk by his emblems/attire. \$\endgroup\$ – Jakub Tustanowski Jul 15 at 14:11

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