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At first level, the chance for death is fairly high especially for the squishier members of the party. A fighter comes with high hit-dice, a self-healing ability, and starts with chain mail and a shield, so has (at least potentially) one of the higher ACs and most (effective) hp of any 1st level character.

What actions, character options, tactics, or choices can a fighter make to help defend their squishier allies and save them from dying at level 1?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The fighter starts with Chainmail, not Scale mail, at least in the default equipment, which is even higher AC at 16 (or leather, but that is probably not the kind of fighter you have in mind here), I edited that -- you can revert if the scale mail was for some reason intentional. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 6, 2022 at 5:49

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This depends on the kind of fighter you are

Not all fighters fit the mold of serving as a strong front-line tank1. What you look for are abilities that allow you to effectively stop enemies from moving around to reach your allies, that increase your AC and hits to be able and absorb more attacks when you are attacked instead of them, and to heal or stabilize your allies.

To be good at this, you probably want to make this a priorty when buidling your character:

  • Sentinel One of the strongest things you can do for this is to take variant human and pick the Sentinel feat: When you hit a creature with an opportunity attack, the creature’s speed becomes 0 for the rest of the turn, among other things. That will stop dead opponents that try to slink by you to get at the casters and shooters at the back.2

  • High AC, if your plan is to be in the way and absorb attacks, a high AC helps to conserve hit points. Chainmail and shield for a total of 18 are a great starting point. You can take the Defense fighting style to increase yours by 1. Being a Warforged would also add 1, if these are available in your campaign.

  • Protection Alternatively, you can take the Protection fighting style, which will allow you to impose disadvantage on an attack on your allies next to you with your Reaction, as long as you wield a shield (which you do anyways to maximize AC). The Interception fighting style from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything is yet another alternative, which lets you reduce damage by 1d10+proficiency bonus in this situation, and on level one is going to prevent more damage than Protection, if your DM allows these optional rules.

  • High Con If you wear heavy armor, your Dex won't matter. You can optimize for constitution to maximize your hit points. Dealing damage is still important, because you need to be a credible threat and dead foes do not attack, but is certainly should be your second highest stat, if not the highest. This will give you +2 or +3 hits.

  • Pick a tough race You can pick a race that helps. Half-orc, which has the Relentless Endurance trait of falling to one instead of 0 once per long rest if not outright killed, meaning you stand at least one hit longer. We already covered variant human for the feat and Warforged for AC. Mountain Dwarf from the core races is also OK with +2 on both Con and Str.

  • Athletics Combat maneuvers like grappling can also help immobilize opponents. You want to pick Athletics as one of your abilities, to help with that. It is generally useful, and on your list of skills anyways.

  • Be a doctor. You can pick up medicine to stabilize dying allies. The Hermit background can provide access to that. Even better is just getting a Healer's Kit with your starting gold, so you do not even have to make a check (it just costs 5 gp, so easily within your funds of 5d4 x 10 gp). For extra healing, you also could pick Aasimar as your race.


1If you optimize for ranged combat, for example a variant human with high Dexterity, the Sharpshooter feat, archery fighting style, a longbow, and leather armor that is the alternative for chain mail in the equipment, you may still have more hit points, but you only will have AC 14 instead of 18, and you do not want to get stuck in melee.

2 As Matthieu points out, many of these abilities are good, but you cannot have them all at the same time. You for example can only pick one of the feats that can help, and only one of the races, so you have to make choices.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this answer should note that there is a tension between using Sentinel in conjunction with a Reach weapon (to stop foes before they can reach you) and wearing a Shield (for AC, and/or Protection Fighting Style). You can't have both, so there's a trade-off to be made based on the style you wish, or the circumstances of the encounter. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 6, 2022 at 13:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. I agree, and there many such trade-offs like between different races to pick, between picking Sentinel and other feats like Protection, or Healer/Inspiring leader like another answer suggested etc. I'm not trying to mandate a specific build, just tools you can use for such a build. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 6, 2022 at 14:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ IIRC, Protection is generally considered pretty weak in the long run, so unlike the other choices, it's a short-term gain for a long-term sacrifice. Worth noting in that bullet point. With Sentinel you could make an attack yourself instead of just imposing disadvantage, if a creature you're next to attacks someone else. (If your DM is going to let you re-spec your fighting style later, then Protection could be more worth considering.) \$\endgroup\$ Oct 6, 2022 at 14:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Should add to this the Interception Fighting Style introduced in Tasha's is a alternate option to the Protection Fighting Style. Perhaps better for protecting squishies at low levels. It lets you reduce the damage taken by 1d10+proficiency bonus. \$\endgroup\$
    – Typhado
    Oct 7, 2022 at 2:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ footnote number 2 is incorrect. sentinel can only be used to stop foes from reaching you in conjunction with the polearm master feat - you don't get an opportunity attack when enemies enter your reach normally. Sentinel can be used with reach weapons to have a wider 'area of control', but that will potentially let enemies reach your friends without leaving your reach, meaning a sword sentinel is perfectly viable for the job of keeping an enemy from being able to leave your side (which is the goal of the question). \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Oct 7, 2022 at 3:38
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Actions

Grapple - physically stop an enemy from reaching your friends

Dodge - stand in a choke point and dodge to keep enemies away from your friends

Character Options

Be an aasimar - healing once per long rest can save a downed character

Protection fighting style.

Magic Initiate. Good spell options include healing word and spare the dying, but a lot of wizard spells can help a lot as well.

Sentinel - keep the enemies at bay.

Tactics

The big one will be to position yourself between the enemies and the squishy party members. That could include choosing where to fight if you can. It's a lot easier to block movement in tight spaces than in an open field.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This misses the Opportunity Attack in general, which at level 1 can take out many foes. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Oct 6, 2022 at 7:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ True, but how can you actively use that? The part about positioning yourself between the enemies and your friends in effective partially because of opportunity attacks. If you have anything concrete to add, please do. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 6, 2022 at 7:35
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In addition to Groody's thourough answer, I want to add the following.

Consider a protective feat.

The Inspiring Leader and Chef feats can protect multiple creatures with a layer of temporary hit points - equal to your proficiency bonus for Chef (but only for that same number of creatures) and your level + your charisma for Inspiring Leader (which can be reapplied to any number of creatures but only once per short rest per creature).

Also, the Chef and Healer feats can help replenish your allies' hit points - Chef adds a bit of extra healing to every short rest they spend a hit die during (not very often at lvl 1, admittedly), while Healer lets you spend one charge of a healer's kit to restore a fairly significant amount of hit points to a creature (1d6 + 4 + level), again, once per short rest.

Admittedly, these options require you to either be a variant human / custom lineage or your DM to allow starting feats, but they are worth considering.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ These are good too, I had totally forgotten about the Healer feat. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 6, 2022 at 9:04

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