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I'm running a game of four (currently) 5th-level characters. All of them are heavy damage-dealers (a wizard, warlock, ranger and paladin) with the paladin as the nominal tank. However, the paladin is consistently going down the first few rounds of every combat. He has a pretty high AC (20 with shield of faith), but his Con is only 12 resulting in only 39 hit points. For comparison, both the dwarven ranger and warlock have more hit points.

I can sense that the paladin's player wants to be more tanky, but isn't really sure how. They are already in the habit of using shield of faith, as I mentioned, and took the protection combat style. What kind of magic item/special ability/other help would be good to give them to help them feel like they're achieving their goals, without just having them stumble upon an Amulet of Health and letting them dominate? I'd like not to have it be too heavy-handed.

Some ability I could give the other characters to let them buff the paladin would also be good.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What powerful monster? It might help us knowing what kind of combats they are facing \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Mar 2 at 10:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @colinmarc Please edit in (as seemlessly as possible) any additional information into the question. While you're at it, could you add how you chose that encounter including any encounter challenge (Adjusted XP) calculation you did? \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Mar 2 at 15:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ You said the paladin took Protection style, where he shoves his shield in the way to impose disadvantage on an attack against an ally. Did you mean Defense, where he gains +1 AC? \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Mar 2 at 16:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym no, it's Protection style. I think that is tanky, no? It doesn't directly improve his survivability, but that's not the point. \$\endgroup\$ – colinmarc Mar 2 at 20:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's fine, it's just you listed it alongside shield of faith so it sounded like you thought it was boosting his AC. For what it's worth, the protection style might be the worst fighting style option available in the core book, as discussed over here: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/172362 Traditional tanking powers that demand that enemies attack the guy in armor don't make as much sense in a game where everyone who might be in melee has AC kinda in the same range, and often just contribute to the big guy falling over faster. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Mar 2 at 21:17
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It sounds to me like your Paladin player didn't realise the importance of Con when he built him, so the first thing I'd consider is letting him swap some stats about. In the interest of fairness, I'd give this option to everyone. I'd have a brief chat at the end of the next session "Hey guys, we've been playing for a bit, and maybe your characters aren't working quite how you intended. If you want to re-spec them, let me know, and as long as it isn't too broken, we can sort something out."

If you want to stick with their current build, then I'd suggest the Paladin looks at the Aid spell they just got at level 5. Its often overlooked, but gives 5 extra HP to 3 characters without concentration. These are not temporary hit points, but an increase to hit point maximum, meaning they can be recovered by healing and will stack with temporary hit points.

If you want to give them a push with a magic item but don't want to go with the Amulet of Health, the Belt of Dwarvenkind is a good alternative. +2 Con and they grow a beard.

The final option I'd consider, would be the Inspiring Leader feat. A high Cha character, probably your Warlock or Paladin, gives the whole party (Level + Cha mod) temporary hit points. This stacks with the HP boost from Aid, but not other temporary hit points. I'd make this a quest reward only if they really need it and have earned it, because giving out feats can unbalance the game very quickly.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Letting the player switch DEX and CON seems like a totally reasonable move, given that it's her first time playing seriously. I will ask her about that. \$\endgroup\$ – colinmarc Mar 2 at 19:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @colinmarc That's fair -- really any character who's wearing heavy armor and hasn't dumped Dex might be doing something wrong. There might be reasons to do it that way, but Dexterity is usually the least interesting stat to a melee-focused combatant whose Dex doesn't contribute to their armor calculation in any way. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Mar 2 at 21:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ (And going the other way, if you have at least Dex 14, medium armor is a much cheaper and less restrictive route to the same AC, at least until you're considering buying into actual full plate, so again, it would be unusual to see a non-dumped Dex in heavy armor other than full plate.) \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Mar 3 at 14:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ but not other temporary hit points - that's because Aid doesn't (in game-mechanics terms) give Temporary HP. It actually boosts current and max regular HP, giving you a bigger pool to be healed back into, including via hit dice on a short rest. That (and stacking with Temp HP) are part of why it's so good; you can benefit from the extra HP multiple times. Perhaps alternate phrasing, like mention that Aid is true HP, not Temp when you mention Aid. Or maybe for Inspiring Leader, say "remember that temporary hit points don't stack, but Aid is real HP so you can combine them". \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Mar 4 at 9:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes But keep in mind that you can only benefit from a given spell once at a time, per the "Combining Magical Effects" rules (PHB p.205). If two people cast aid on you at the same time, you only benefit from one of them. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Mar 5 at 14:55
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I honestly don't think an extra 5 or 10 HP is going to do much to fix the problem you're having. If one level 5 character is taking 40-ish damage in a couple of rounds even with AC 20, I feel like something is going wildly wrong with how you're running combat. Sure, that could happen under normal circumstances, if it's a hard-to-deadly fight with a boss monster or a group of enemies who specialize in just doing tons of damage and nothing much else (say, griffons or ettins), or if there's just a run of unfortunate dice rolls; but for this to be happening in nearly every encounter, it kind of sounds like every enemy in the fight is focusing fire on the Paladin, and that's not really how 5th Edition is supposed to operate.

There's no character in the game that can absorb all the attacks from a whole encounter-worth of monsters and stay upright. If there's four PCs, the damage kind of has to spread out among them so the party's action economy doesn't suffer.

I sometimes see a mindset, often from people who are coming out of Warcraft or similar games, that every attack that doesn't target the tank represents a failure on the tank's part, but that's not really valid in D&D. The "tank" classes don't actually have that much more HP than anyone else, and while their AC might be somewhat higher than other melee-focused classes, it's not that much higher -- overall, a fighter or paladin is more survivable than a ranger or similar, but only by perhaps 20%.

When I'm the DM, I usually figure the party tank should take twice as many attacks as anyone else, but should not be the only target I'm attacking, unless the party is going out of their way to make that happen (such as everyone else hiding in ambush while the paladin walks in the open).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to add to this - there's the specific Goading Attack maneuver to try to force an enemy to attack you \$\endgroup\$ – Rycochet Mar 3 at 12:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure, there are plenty of "taunt" abilities that either force an enemy to attack you (or stay close to you), or just punish them for failing to do so, and in some circumstances it makes a lot of sense to draw fire to the paladin instead of letting the squishy wizard or wounded ally take hits. But it's a 'sometimes food' -- activating that sort of thing is a tactical decision made with the understanding that it might mean you go down, and probably shouldn't be your go-to general strategy. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Mar 3 at 14:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you really focus on being tanky, you want feats like Heavy Armor Master that give you a damage reduction (of 3) on each hit. Potentially very strong at low levels, when combined with really high HP like full plate + shield. If you can actually get enemies to attack you, that often wastes most of their attack if they don't have a high +hit bonus. But you sacrifice a lot of offense that way, so smart enemies will try to attack others. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Mar 4 at 9:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you like watching live-play D&D online, Dimension20's Crown of Candy season has a character built this way: an Eldritch Knight royal bodyguard with a magic shield for a total of AC23 IIRC, (or 28 with the Shield spell :P). The magic shield lets him (as a reaction) teleport in to take an attack for a nearby member of the royal family that he's a bodyguard for. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Mar 4 at 9:19
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Your combats are likely too hard

A single flind is CR9, which alone is a deadly challenge for 4 5th level characters (5000xp whereas the deadly threshold is 4400xp), and in melee has a +9 to hit which is quite high.

If this was the 'boss' encounter of the day, after a series of easier encounters then that is fair play, but if the player is going down in every combat then quite simply your combats are too hard.

A CR5 creature is meant to be a medium challenge for a group of 4 level 5 PCs. I would suggest not really picking a creature with a CR above the party level, especially if you are also adding extra mooks which make combats much harder due to the action economy.

If you look at the starter adventure lost mines of phandelver, the hardest fight (for groups up to level 5) is a young green dragon, which would be solo, is CR8 and often the advice is to talk to it and avoid the actual combat encounter. It is also specified to fly away at 50% HP which is a pretty big deal when it comes to encounter difficulty.

How to fix it if you don't want to change the combats

I can understand wanting to use powerful enemies, but you need to help your party out by increasing their power accordingly. At level 5 it is perfectly acceptable for this paladin to be in plate armour, with a shield, and having an AC of 22 including shield of faith. My own paladin in this situation multi-classed into warlock to get access to the shield spell as well, taking AC up to 27 whenever I needed it.

Because I liked to tank I rarely used spell slots on smite, and instead preferred to use shield to stay alive.

You might also want to review the party and ensure they are using effective tactics. A flind for example has 30ft movement, and unless you started the combat that close and the flind won initiatve, someone in the party should have done something debilitating to the flind to prevent it getting straight into melee, get a few rounds of ranged attacks off and weaken it before it closes in.

You might have a party where everyone thinks damage is the be all and end all, which is isn't, especially against such a powerful enemy.

Your wizard could cast slow, your warlock could keep it at bay with repelling blast etc. There are all sorts of method.

Your paladin player might like to get straight into melee, but that isn't an efficient tactic, and if you are sticking with difficult combats then they need to be more sensible.

Lastly I would suggest letting the paladin respec, maybe they could do with a CON boost, or let them take the average HP instead of rolling, or like I do give max HP for the first 3 levels to ensure the 'tanks' have that HP buffer they often rely on.

To address how to be tankier

I have looked at playing melee tanks before, and concluded that most classes just are not good at it. AC20, or 22 with standard gear doesn't cut it against difficult foes in my eyes, and as levels go up the + to hit from enemies begins to scale faster than +AC.

As such you have to turn to magic.

My paladin tank, which is the only character I have ever created that I would consider actually tanky, is an oath of conquest, with a level of hexblade.

Hexblade means I can skip STR and become SAD (single attribute dependant) instead of MAD (multiple attribute dependant), which allows for higher CON.

It also gives me a short rest spell slot, and access to the key spell; shield.

Conquest paladin means I use fear liberally which gives enemies disadvantage to hit me.

So I have an AC up to 28 when I need it, a +5 bonus to my aura of courage for amazing saves and can afford to keep my STR at 15 which allows for more HP.

I would suggest you let your player make a similar build, because otherwise sticking to 'standard' builds against the combats you seem to talk about just won't work.

I would even caution against this, because I recently did a level 20 fight and the crazy attack bonus' at that level meant that I still got hit more often than not, and actually just sticking within 30ft and giving my aura of courage (plus my aura from my holy avenger) was more use to the group than anything else I could do. D&D simply doesn't allow for proper tanking against anything that wants to kill you.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I recognize as far as the standard calculations go this was a deadly encounter for them, but I feel it was appropriate for a boss fight. They had surprise, and, had they used it appropriately, they would've totally bopped the Flind. There has been a bit of CR creep, because the players do so much damage (all of them). So, all that said, the question was really about how to nudge the paladin towards tankiness, both because the player wants that and because it'll smooth out the encounters (less rocket tag). \$\endgroup\$ – colinmarc Mar 2 at 18:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @colinmarc: It's normal in 5e for combats to be only three or four rounds long, especially if it's one of multiple combats for a day. High player damage output is compensated by the fact that they have limited HP and ability to heal, and monsters also have the ability to do fairly high damage quickly. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Mar 4 at 9:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @petercordes I wasn't really asking for advice about my encounter setup, but you're right that's relevant and you describe the problem accurately. If I put appropriate-CR monsters in front of the characters, they steamroll them in one round, because the damage output of the players is so high. If I put slightly more difficult monsters in front of the players, the players get slaughtered, because they don't win in the first round and then they go down. That's part of why I'd like to help one of the players switch more from offence to defence. \$\endgroup\$ – colinmarc Mar 4 at 10:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @colinmarc: ok yes, one round is generally too short, unless players are blowing very limited per-long-rest resources (like a Fireball if the wizard can catch multiple weak enemies in the blast). Are these characters really heavily optimized with combos of feats and classes? If so, then yeah you might legit have a glass cannon problem (but ranger, at least Gloom Stalker, is supposed to have big opening burst). If not, possibly there's something else (rule misinterpretation?) shifting the balance further toward offence at your table. Stack Exchange isn't an ideal format for more details. :/ \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Mar 4 at 11:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @colinmarc I've had exactly the the problem of glass cannons you are having. I took CR appropriate monsters and buffed their HP (Using the max HP for the monster rather than the average), This gave the monsters survivability without making them too deadly. \$\endgroup\$ – Phil Mar 5 at 8:53
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Phil, Darth, and SeriousBri have very good answers to the underlying problems, and you should try those first. If you still want to go with a character-level solution, or you've changed your monster tactics and it's still a big problem, here are some possibilities. Mix and Match according to your best understanding of the weak spots.

Step 0: talk to the player

You should probably do this first no matter what strategy for character-level improvement you decide to go with.

  • See if the player has plans in mind to improve their PC's situation, which also gives the opportunity to explain relevant mechanics better if they're still confused.
  • You can check that the player doesn't have any specific RP things that might interfere with some of the solutions you're considering.
  • Depending on how severe the problem is, and what method you decide to go with, your preferred solution may also work better with player buy-in, especially if you want to encourage more strategic usage of spells/resources everyone already has.

Remember that the PCs, in-universe, have also noticed how quickly Paladin drops once something gets through their guard. It's not out of the question for the characters to decide 'something needs to be done about this' and acknowledging the situation in RP.

Method 1: Get that tank some (more) armor!

A key part of the 20 AC already fielded by Paladin is shield of faith, which is a concentration spell. Because shield of faith is concentration, it's vulnerable to dropping every time a hit gets through, which can interact nastily with a focused multiattack. Consider shield of faith as a handy burst of AC, rather than a permanent part of Paladin's AC, because it's not permanent.

If Paladin is still dropping fast even after you've spread your attacks around a little, adding a point or two of non-concentration AC will help them survive longer. More protective armor would hit ACs of 21 or 22 with shield of faith, and still be competitive against harder-hitting foes even when the spell drops. Against easier foes, Paladin no longer has to burn the spell slot or concentrate for AC, which opens up other strategies.

You can also use magical armor or shields providing +1 or more to AC, which may work if you want to boost AC and the player wants to keep the armor style as-is for RP reasons. This is where you start toeing the line of bounded accuracy, though, so be careful.

Cons: if it's important everyone in the party can sneak effectively, any armor better than a Breastplate will impose disadvantage to Stealth checks, which may be a specific RP/mechanical choice the player is making. That can only be countered with mithral versions of the armor, or a magic item that conveys advantage on Stealth checks. Ranger's pass without trace will help to some degree on this issue. If you allow Feats (and the Paladin uses medium armor), Medium Armor Master will also help, and gives room for improved AC if DEX is high enough.

Teamwork tactics for AC: Your wizard now has access to Haste, which grants +2 AC and gives a limited extra action, which gives Paladin some flexibility in how to act during their turn.

Method 2: Get that tank some health!

This one's a bit harder to do without player buy-in, depending on whether you want to go for a magic item or not.

Useful spells (remember temp hp does not stack):

  • Heroism grants temporary hp equal to your spellcasting ability modifier (requires concentration)
  • Aid grants +5 hp to current and max hp to 3 creatures, no concentration

Dungeon Master's Guide sets guidelines that rare magic items should probably start entering your campaign at about level 5. Possible magic items:

  • Amulet of Health: sets CON to 19. An option, but one you've already left on the backburner
  • Belt of Dwarvenkind: grants +2 to CON, among other effects (advantage to saving throws against poison and resistance to poison damage may also help survivability)

Do you use Feats?

  • If Paladin prefers Heavy armor, Heavy Armor Master subtracts 3 damage from nonmagical weapon bludgeoning/slashing/piercing damage
  • Tough grants +2 hp on each level up, and applies retroactively, giving Paladin an effective 16 in CON for the purposes of hp.
  • Inspiring Leader requires 13+ in CHA, and gives temp hp equal to feat-holder's character level + CHA modifier per short or long rest.

It's within the DM's purview to grant feats even if it's not at a level-up where a feat would normally be available. This is not one of the more subtle options, but Paladin is 3 levels away from when they could normally select a feat.

Method 3: Get that tank some tactics!

Beyond just spreading the foes' attacks around the party, boosting AC or boosting hp, encourage the following in your players:

Look for ways to impose Disadvantage on foes attacking Paladin:

  • using the Dodge action on their turn in deadly fights,
  • Depending on the foe, Protection from Evil and Good (concentration) forces disadvantage from attacking aberrations, celestials, elementals, fey, fiends, and undead. (This is also available to your Warlock and your Wizard, and the Horizon Walker/Gloom Stalker Ranger, for team tactics)
  • Your wizard has access to Blindness/Deafness; the blinded condition grants advantage on attacks against a blinded creature, and imposes disadvantage on attacks by the blinded creature. (Fiend and Undying Warlocks also gain access, if applicable) Color Spray would also work for this, especially upcast for more dice.
  • In addition to blinded, the conditions frightened, poisoned, restrained, and incapacitated (stunned, paralyzed) will also impose disadvantage on attackers

Look for ways to give resistance to damage types to Paladin:

  • Protection from Poison is a Paladin spell, no concentration, gives resistance to poison damage and advantage on saves against poison for 1 hour
  • Protection from Energy is a Wizard spell (and Ranger, once they get 3rd level spells) which gives resistance to one type of elemental energy for an hour (concentration)

Overall party tactics:

  • Encouraging crowd control or environment control abilities if the party isn't already using them (blocking line of sight for ranged attackers, imposing terrain obstacles for melee attackers, using Sleep upcast for more dice to remove minions for a while, etc.)
  • Debuff the foes. Increased damage is very fun, but suboptimal for survival in deadly fights. Spells to slow, hold, blind, bind, or turn your foes against each other can increase your chances a lot.
  • Paying attention to the environment. Are you in the middle of a big room where everyone can surround Paladin and just go to town on them, or are you trying to use your surroundings to limit how many attackers can get into melee with Paladin at one time?
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Aid doesn't actually provide temporary hit points, but rather boosts current and max HP for the duration, meaning it can stack with a source of temporary hit points and sources of healing can heal up to the new max HP. \$\endgroup\$ – 8bittree Mar 4 at 21:29
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"Tanky" is the ability to survive while keeping the enemy focused on you. The options for "tanky" characters, (ranked in order of effectiveness) are:

  1. being untargetable, but having the enemy more interested in finding you than attacking your allies
  2. damage resistance/energy resistance/enemy having disadvantage on damage rolls
  3. a high health pool
  4. temporary hitpoints/regeneration
  5. miss chance/enemy having disadvantage on attack rolls
  6. AC

I'll go over them in detail below:

  1. Being untargetable is relatively easy in most encounters, hide behind a wall, temporarily visit the ethereal plane, use ranged attacks, or hit-and-run tactics from further away than an enemy can run in a turn, (go paladin-on-a-horse trope.) The hard part is keeping the enemy interested in you and only you. This can be accomplished by doing more damage than your allies, (often by having them focus on smaller, easy to one-shot minions while the "tank" is the only one attacking the main enemy.) It can also be accomplished through spells and abilities that override the enemy's normal motivations, (4th ed had a bunch of these for tankish characters such as "marking" someone so they aren't allowed to attack anyone else, or an aura where if they attack anyone else you get a free hit on them.) You can also use mind control spells, (even failed attempts often piss the enemy off enough that you are a bigger threat than the damage dealers.) You can also use illusions or fog spells to make an enemy think you are the only viable target, (your allies are attacking from cover that isn't really there, or from a spot they can see out of, but the enemy can't find them.)

  2. Damage resistance and energy resistance are a godly abilities as instead of taking a huge spike in damage and dieing you have time to heal between attacks. Your overall amount of damage taken might be higher than someone with high AC, but your survivability is better as someone at 1 HP is just as effective as someone at full, but as soon as you go negative you lose actions. An enemy having disadvantage on damage rolls works out similarly removing the spikes where you die too fast to be healed.

  3. Similar to damage reduction a high health pool means you have time to heal before getting killed. This costs more actions in combat than not taking the damage at all so it's worse than damage reduction, (but it's way easier to accomplish.)

  4. Temporary hitpoints and regeneration mean you have an effectively higher health pool, but they rely on having time to set them up, or time to get back to full HP. While they are better from an action-economy standpoint than healing, they are usually harder to accomplish.

  5. Miss chance means you take 0 damage sometimes and 100% damage other times. This means if the enemy gets lucky, you take a LOT of damage very quickly and die. However unlike AC it's based on something you can control not based on the enemy, (in most cases, some enemies can ignore your miss chance.) You can often force an enemy to have disadvantage based on terrain and this works out the same as a miss chance mathematically.

  6. Having a high AC means you take 0 damage sometimes and 100% damage other times. This means if the enemy gets lucky or is slightly higher difficulty than you can handle, you take a LOT of damage very quickly and die. On the other hand, you can waltz through low level encounters where the enemy gets average luck without taking a single hit and get over-confidant that you are "tanky". While this seems similar to miss chance it's worse because it helps you when you don't need it, and doesn't do enough when you do need it.

I haven't done much 5th edition, so maybe this has changed a bit, but the math in 3.5 meant to become more "tanky" AC was actually a bad way of doing it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also a mix of the above will work better than any 1 alone. (and since effects tend to be hard to stack is way easier to accomplish.) \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Heward Mar 2 at 20:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note: a lot of these things to make the player more tanky are not accomplished by the player at all, (IE the wizard casting an illusion, or the ranger finding a good sniping position means the enemy can still be focused on the Paladin despite him using the terrain to his advantage and getting either advantage/disadvantage in his favour or being outright untargetable that round.) \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Heward Mar 2 at 21:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ As DM you can even encourage your players to do these kinds of tactics by having them fight a character who gets insulted by the paladin, ignores the other players, and makes an obviously super powerful attack that the paladin should know to dodge, (maybe one that takes a full round to charge?) \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Heward Mar 2 at 21:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately, 5E is significantly lower powered than 3E/3.5. 5E is built on a concept of Bounded Accuracy. A 10th level 3E fighter will have higher to hit and AC than a 20th level 5E fighter. So 3E advice does not hold up well in 5E. \$\endgroup\$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Mar 4 at 1:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ At low levels, high AC does actually work decently, when your enemies have relatively low +hit bonuses. Against tougher monsters, attacks will hit more often. (As you say, AC doesn't scale much with level, unlike enemy +hit chance, so plate + shield can make you pretty hard to hit at low level.) But their DM is using higher-CR monsters than normally appropriate for the party, like the Flind with +9 to hit. Also note this answer ranked AC last for tankiness. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Mar 4 at 9:29

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