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Premise

Typically, you deal damage by hitting the other guy with a stick (or a fireball) [citation needed]; however, spells like fire shield damage enemies who hit you:

In addition, whenever a creature within 5 feet of you hits you with a melee attack, the shield erupts with flame. The attacker takes 2d8 fire damage from a warm shield, or 2d8 cold damage from a cold shield.

Similarly, hellish rebuke allows you to damage enemies in response to them damaging you. Either way, the enemy wouldn't have taken damage if they chose to just ignore you. This leads to my question: what is the highest average damage that a level 10 character can deal in response to being hit or damaged?

Restrictions

Yes, there are a lot of restrictions here. Most of them stem from the following desires:

  1. Answers should be comparable. Without restrictions, one build could look great, until you realize that it's built for one round of combat per long rest.
  2. Answers should resemble a playable character. Without restrictions, you end up with 30 Charisma, a slew of legendary items, and unintended UA feature interactions - fun, but not really practical.
  3. Answers should be relatively simple. I say "you never lose concentration" not because I'm using that rule (that'd be a terrible idea!), but because the alternative is much more complicated.

Character

  • Level 10.
  • May use the PHB and one of the following: EE, MToF, SCAG, VGtM, or XGtE. This restriction does not extend to spell selection; spells may come from any or all of those sources.
  • No variant rules besides multiclassing, feats, and variant human.
  • Up to three magic items from DMG Tables F or G with a maximum rarity of Rare.

Combat

The basics

  • Four encounters; Combat 1, Combat 2, Short Rest, Combat 3, Combat 4 (each of these events is separated by 30 minutes). The Short Rest is mandatory.
  • Each combat encounter has you face off against two earth elementals. These elementals do not have any damage vulnerabilities, damage immunities, or condition immunities. They keep their damage resistances.
  • Each combat lasts three rounds. All participants get a turn in each round. Initiative order is up to you.
  • The elementals use their Multiattack normally (moving into range, if needed). Compare the To Hit in the elemental's stat block to your AC as normal to determine how often the elemental hits. Hits deal average damage.
  • For the sake of simplicity, treat enemies and the PC as if they had infinite non-temporary hit points.
  • You never lose concentration as a result of taking damage.

The anti-cheese

Don't get me wrong - I like me some cheese, just not for every meal!

  • Enemies do not make opportunity attacks.
  • You may not use the Ready action. (Mainly to prevent "I ready blight for when I get damaged" from being the best answer.)
  • Any spell or ability that lasts 10 minutes or longer may be activated before entering combat. Any spell or ability that lasts longer than 8 hours may be activated the day before. (Other spells may also be cast outside of combat, but will expire before combat begins.)
  • You may not spend more than 100 gp on spells that consume costly material components. (So casting identify and find familiar is fine, because identify doesn't consume its costly component, but casting glyph of warding is not.)
  • Allies cannot help you, unless you summon/create them yourself (via conjure animals, animate dead, etc.)

Damage calculation

  • Damage should be the average damage per round over the course of the adventuring day.
  • Only count damage dealt to enemies (the earth elementals) in direct response to, and in the same turn as, being hit or damaged. Hellish rebuke is fine. The extra damage dealt by absorb elements is not. You may still deal damage in other ways (in case it's necessary for setup), you just can't count it in the total.
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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Can the combats be made to last less than three rounds if the earth elementals drop in less than that? Are we permitted to use on-turn damage to cause them to drop earlier so as to reduce the total number of rounds in the day? \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Jul 14 at 20:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden Good question. I clarified that enemies and the PC should be treated as if they had infinite health. (Therefore, the number of rounds in the day cannot be changed.) \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jul 14 at 20:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think we need to know the rules for the earth elementals hitting us. Do they always hit? Do we calculate average damage per round? \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Jul 14 at 21:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov You use their stat block to figure out the average. If you had fire shield on and an earth elemental has a 50% chance to hit you (based on its To Hit and your AC), then it would take 4.5 damage per attack from fire shield, on average. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jul 14 at 21:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've reorganized the combat restrictions into basics and anti-cheese. I also added the logic behind those restrictions. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jul 15 at 17:22
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Tanky Warlock, I Like It

I made a Bladelock several years ago that used the strategy of "hit me" with Armor of Agathys to great effect. The nice thing about this build is that it doesn't rely on ideal stats to make it work. This build can be made a little better in spots based on racial selections (i.e. pick Tiefling for Hellish Rebuke), but the boost to damage is pretty minimal. Instead of focusing on 1 reaction, I instead focus on getting hit and dealing way more damage in response regardless.

This build is an extension of that but with an attempt to optimize towards the stated goal:

  • Fighter 1/Warlock 9 (Fighter needs to be 1st so that you've got Heavy Armor proficiency for free, but this can be swapped with any other class that grants Heavy Armor proficiency at 1st)
  • Race: Whatever you want
  • Feats: Heavy Armor Master, Anything Else you Want (maybe Lucky to cancel crits)
  • Equipment: 2 Rods of the Pact Keeper +2, Ring of Spell Storing with Catnap stored

Setup before the Day

  • Be attuned to 1 of the Rods of the Pact Keeper ahead of time.
  • Cast Armor of Agathys (AoA) using a 5th level spell slot.
  • Recover the slot using the Rod.
  • Ensure you're wearing your worst heavy armor and leave the shield behind to increase hits taken.

Combat 1

  • Round 1 - You have 25 Temp from AoA. Move next to monsters and go prone. Suffer 3 hits which each deal 11 damage, you will automatically hit back on each hit with 25 damage for 75 damage overall.

Take a 4th hit (or don't).

[DPR: 75]

  • Round 2 - Recast AoA. Remain next to monsters and repeat cycle.

[DPR: 75]

  • Round 3 - Recast AoA. Remain next to monsters and repeat cycle.

[DPR: 75]

Summary: No warlock slots left. Overall per round damage was 75.


Combat 2

  • Setup - Using your Ring of Spell Storing, cast Catnap and knock yourself out and recover your slots.

  • Round 0 - Recast AoA.

  • Round 1 - You have 25 Temp from AoA. Move next to monsters and go prone. Suffer 3 hits which each deal 11 damage, you will automatically hit back on each hit with 25 damage for 75 damage overall. Hex damage isn't available this time.

Take a 4th hit (or don't).

[DPR: 75]

  • Round 2 - Recast AoA. Remain next to monsters and repeat cycle.

[DPR: 75]

  • Round 3 - No warlock slots left. Take the Dodge action.

[DPR: 0]

Summary: No warlock slots left. Overall per round damage was 50.

SUMMARY BEFORE SHORT REST: Average damage per round was 62.50.


Because each event is separated by 30 minutes, I'm thinking that there is a full 2 hours between Combats 2 and 3. Which means you've got 1 hour to remove your attunement to one Rod of the Pact Keeper and another hour to attune to the second.

Short Rest: Recover your warlock slots and attune to another Rod.


Combat 3

  • Round 0 - Recast AoA. Use Rod of the Pact Keeper to recover the slot.

  • Round 1 - You have 25 Temp from AoA. Move next to monsters and go prone. Suffer 3 hits which each deal 11 damage, you will automatically hit back on each hit with 25 damage for 75 damage overall.

Take a 4th hit (or don't).

[DPR: 75]

  • Round 2 - Recast AoA. Remain next to monsters and repeat cycle.

[DPR: 75]

  • Round 3 - Recast AoA. Remain next to monsters and repeat cycle.

[DPR: 75]

Summary: No warlock slots left. Overall per round damage was 75.


Combat 4

  • Round 0 - Equip your best armor and shield.

  • Round 1 - No warlock slots left. Take the Dodge action.

[DPR: 0]

  • Round 2 - No warlock slots left. Take the Dodge action.

[DPR: 0]

  • Round 3 - No warlock slots left. Take the Dodge action.

[DPR: 0]

Summary: No warlock slots left. Overall per round damage was 0.


Daily Summary

Your overall responsive damage for the day was 600, your average DPR was 50.00.

If misses occur during this process, it doesn't substantially alter the overall calculation. It just means that if there was a round that had no damage, it will carry in some damage from before by the law of averages.

Your biggest risks for this strategy are crits against you. One definitive way to mitigate the risk is to get yourself a set of Admantine Armor, but since I'm using all the magic items for spell slot recovery in a variety of very contrived ways I instead recommended the Lucky feat for countering. This obviously is not guaranteed to mitigate all the crits, but most of them.

Player accepts all risks assumed with laying upon the elemental stomping altar. Damage reflected here is based on minimizing crits taken. Crits may still occur if the user is negligent or walks face first into a pike. Player may need to make one or Persuasion checks on their DM. Some players have exhibited loss of hearing and feelings of despair upon learning of crits occurring even on the re-roll. Players should always consult with their DM prior to implementing cheese builds.

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ This is the kind of thing I'm looking for! Does the DPR take into account the fact that the elementals might not hit you three times in a round (despite bad AC and advantage)? Also, I don't think hex works with armor of Agathys, since the armor doesn't "hit" and it's not an "attack". \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jul 14 at 23:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RedOrca I did not because the headache of that kind of math just adds additional decimals which don't have much value. If there are misses, they'll be evened out in rounds where you've got 0 DPR anyways. My overall point is that you don't have to do a damn thing. Close your eyes and lay upon the sacrificial altar that is the elemental stomping and sacrifice them in a fluke turn of events. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jul 14 at 23:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ From my experience, this is crazy effective against melee combatants. Most of the time, an enemy would smack me, get hit back even harder, and make the bold decision that they ought to go somewhere else. Obviously, this is less effective against any kind of range or enemies whose attacks hit harder than 25 damage per hit. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jul 14 at 23:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jul 14 at 23:32
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To answer this effectively, we need to determine which spells are worth casting.

The three spells to really consider are Armor of Agathys, Fire Shield, and Shadow of Moil.

Armor of Agathys deals 25 damage per hit, but is limited - it only deals 50 total damage in this case before the temp hp runs out. We can try some ways to increase that further though, mostly by reducing damage taken from the elementals on each hit.

Fire Shield deals 9 damage per hit, is not limited, and is not concentration. Over the 12 attacks by enemies in one combat, this adds up to 108 damage if all hit.

Shadow of Moil deals 9 damage per hit, is not limited, and is concentration. This has the same overall damage output that Fire Shield does.

With that in mind, the best version is simply a Fiend Warlock 10 with two Rods of the Pact Keeper and a Ring of Spell Storing (Catnap). You'll also take the Alert feat, making you go first in ~75% of combats. You'll take the Lucky Feat to minimize critical strikes while Armor of Agathys is up. You choose the damage type of Bludgeoning for resistance as your Fiend 10 feature.

This gives you access to 8 spells over your four combats, though you still can't quite cast both Fire Shield and Shadow of Moil because of Rod logistics.

Combat 1
Precast Fire Shield

First round: If you go first, cast Shadow of Moil. If you do not go first, cast Armor of Agathys.

Second round: regain a spell slot with a Rod.

Third round: Cast Armor of Agathys

Catnap.

Combat 2
Precast Fire Shield

First round: If you go first, cast Shadow of Moil. If you do not go first and don't have temp hitpoints remaining from your previous cast of Armor of Agathys, cast it again.

Second round: Cast Armor of Agathys if possible.

Third round: Wait

Short Rest, change attunement to Rods.

Combat 3
Precast Fire Shield

First round: If you go first, cast Shadow of Moil. If you do not go first, cast Armor of Agathys.

Second round: Regain a spell slot with a Rod.

Third round: Wait

Combat 4
Precast Fire Shield

First round: Wait

Second round: Wait

Third round: Wait


You bring an AC of 10 and crawl into each combat, resulting in a hit chance of 99.75% for your enemies.
[108] - Fire Shield is responsible for 9 damage per attack over 12 attacks each combat. Cast 4 times.
[108] - Shadow of Moil is responsible for 9 damage per attack over 12 attacks each combat. This has a 73.75% chance of happening for each of the first three combats.
[100] - Armor of Agathys is responsible for 25 damage per attack over four attacks that each deal 7 damage. It is also relatively unaffected by hit chance. This has a 26.25% chance of happening for each of the first three combats, and one guaranteed cast.

430.92: Fire Shield total damage 432 * 99.75%
238.35: Shadow of Moil total damage 324 * 73.75% * 99.75%
178.75: Armor of Agathys total damage 300 * 26.25% + 100

848.02 total damage over 12 rounds of combat, or 70.66 damage per round.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pyrotechnical because the damage stops when the temp hp runs out. At 14 incoming damage per hit, it only lasts for two hits unless you start reducing damage taken in some way. \$\endgroup\$ – Speedkat Jul 16 at 13:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RedOrca hmm. I'll edit under the assumption that you need a short rest to switch rod attunement. \$\endgroup\$ – Speedkat Jul 16 at 13:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good call with the Fiendish Resilience! I hasn't even looked at Fiend Warlocks that deeply. In your first combat, can things be improved if you just move the slot recovery to be part of the Pre-Cast portion? I'd assumed there was no issues with that in my answer and was curious why you were doing slot recovery mid-combat. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jul 16 at 20:45

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