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I'm weighing the pros and cons of equipping armor and shield to a (5e Artificer's) Steel Defender and accepting the penalties due to lack of proficiency.

The penalties:

If you wear armor that you lack proficiency with, you have disadvantage on any ability check, saving throw, or attack roll that involves Strength or Dexterity, and you can’t cast spells.

(PHB pg. 144)

The steel defender can't cast spells anyway, so that point is not very concerning.

The disadvantage on any ability checks and saving throws involving Str and Dex is a considerable penalty.

But what about the disadvantage on any "attack roll that involves Strength or Dexterity"? Will this penalty affect the Steel Defender's "Force-Empowered Rend" attack?

Force-Empowered Rend. Melee Weapon Attack: your spell attack modifier to hit, reach 5 ft., one target you can see. Hit: 1d8 + PB force damage.

(TCE pg. 19)

As an Artificer, "your spell attack modifier" refers to Intelligence in any normal situation, and the "PB" mentioned is short for Proficiency Bonus, which is explicitly pegged to the Artificer's. There is no mention of Strength or Dexterity in the action.

However...

The action is described as a Melee Weapon Attack. And when we look at the rules for attack rolls, it looks like some ambiguity returns:

Ability Modifier. The ability modifier used for a melee weapon attack is Strength, and the ability modifier used for a ranged weapon attack is Dexterity. Weapons that have the finesse or thrown property break this rule. Some spells also require an attack roll. The ability modifier used for a spell attack depends on the spellcasting ability of the spellcaster, as explained in chapter 10.

(PHB pg. 194)

We see the explicit claim that a melee weapon attack's related ability modifier is Strength, and then an example of an exception to this rule. Does the fact that Force-Empowered Rend asks us to use a spell attack modifier overwrite the "involvement" of Strength in the attack roll? Or is the involvement of Strength still present because it is a melee weapon attack, regardless of the inclusion of the spell attack modifier?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Has your DM agreed you can equip your Steel Defender with armour, and what game effect that will have? \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleth
    Commented Mar 28 at 13:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Caleth Not yet. I'm doing my research before bringing the question to him (or even deciding if I want to). \$\endgroup\$
    – Qami
    Commented Mar 28 at 13:15

2 Answers 2

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There are pretty good arguments that the Force-Empowered Rend is not related to Strength or Dexterity.

As you pointed out, the to-hit uses "your spell attack modifier" and is obviously not related to the Strength or Dexterity scores.

Additionally, the Steel Defender is not described as possessing any weapons. Since the Steel Defender can have two legs or four, it is not using hands to do the rending. The rends are "force-empowered". This can be contrasted with creatures such as the Shield Guardian, which has a "Fist" attack.

Finally, the Force-Empowered Rend causes force damage, normally associated with magical attacks, and not slashing, piercing, or bludgeoning, normally associated with melee weapons.

There are other examples where the general rule for melee weapon attacks are overridden by more specific rules. One example is the shillelagh spell, where the caster uses their spellcasting ability in place of Strength.

Equipping the Steel Defender with armor and shield is not covered in the rules, and so the DM will need to rule, but you have a good case that the Force-Empowered Rend should not be adversely affected if the Steel Defender wears armor.

Of note, the Steel Defender does not have the required strength to wear splint or plate, and those armors will slow it down.

Can a Steel Defender even wear armor?

One can reasonably ask, can the Steel Defender even wear armor? Again, the DM will need to decide, but it seems pretty reasonable.

The whole paragraph of which you quoted part says (emphasis added):

Armor Proficiency. Anyone can put on a suit of armor or strap a shield to an arm. Only those proficient in the armor’s use know how to wear it effectively, however. Your class gives you proficiency with certain types of armor. If you wear armor that you lack proficiency with, you have disadvantage on any ability check, saving throw, or attack roll that involves Strength or Dexterity, and you can’t cast spells.

Is a steel defender "anyone"? Seems reasonable. Does the steel defender have an arm to strap a shield to? Again, it seems reasonable that the two-legged form does. The DM will need to decide.

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No

Attack rolls have the following general rule:

Ability Modifier. The ability modifier used for a melee weapon attack is Strength, and the ability modifier used for a ranged weapon attack is Dexterity.

Since this is a general rule, there are specific exceptions. One is stated right after the rule itself; finesse weapons. Another common exception is the monk martial arts ability, which allows you to use Dexterity for melee attacks:

You can use Dexterity instead of Strength for the attack and damage rolls of your unarmed strikes and monk weapons.

Artificers themselves have multiple exceptions to this rule; Armorers have "special weapons" and Battle Smiths have the battle ready feature, both of which permit them to use their Intelligence modifier as their melee attack bonus. So it should not be surprising that they can install the same feature in a steel defender they craft.

Even the rule on wearing armor with which you are not proficient presages exceptions to the general attack roll rule:

If you wear armor that you lack proficiency with, you have disadvantage on any ability check, saving throw, or attack roll that involves Strength or Dexterity...

This rule could have said "disadvantage on any attack roll", period. But by specifically saying it applies to only attack rolls that involve Strength or Dexterity, it is calling out that exceptions to the 'melee attacks use Strength' rule exist, and where they exist, non-proficient armor won't impose disadvantage.

Based on this, it is simple to apply the steel defender's ability:

Force-Empowered Rend. Melee Weapon Attack: your spell attack modifier to hit, reach 5 ft., one target you can see. Hit: 1d8 + PB force damage.

Because the steel defender is applying your spell attack modifier to hit with this attack, and your spell attack modifier is Intelligence, the steel defender's attack bonus "involves" Intelligence, not Strength - just like your Battle Smith's own melee attacks with magic weapons. Thus, a steel defender in armor would not be at disadvantage on melee attacks. Narratively, you can consider the artificer's Intelligence to have constructed the force-rending implement to work with technology, rather than strength, and as such to be unaffected by armor.

As a DM, I would likely require that the artificer have specifically designed and constructed the steel defender's armor so as to not hinder whatever appendages it used to perform the force-empowered rend, but that would be about preserving verisimilitude, not following rules.

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