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I am working on creating a "Tank" character, of course the goal is to prevent the party to be hit, rather than getting hit, but obviously getting hit is likely and the character should survive hits as much as possible.

There are various ways to mitigate the damages/effects of spells (and even gaining immunity), however when it comes to physical damages (to HP) it seems more restricted:

  • Armor Class: if you do not get hit, you do not take damage
  • Damage Reduction: directly reduces the damage taken
  • Fortification: and in particular Heavy Fortification, or anything that prevents being a victim of a critical hit (Plant/Undead type, ...)

However neither is a panacea:

  • Armor Class is swingy, if the GM is lucky, you might well take 2 or 3 hits in a row
  • Damage Reduction is hard to come by (especially DR/-) and therefore lags considerably behind damage output
  • Fortification is well and all, but even non-critical hits still take their toll

I only found one instance of another mechanism: in Ravenloft, the Ancient Dead template has a special quality (Damage Resistance?) which reduces the damage of physical blows by 50% before DR.

Are there other mechanisms than AC/DR to mitigate the damage of physical blows?

Note: of course playing an Ancient Dead is one option, however a Lawful Evil mummy does not necessarily fit in every campaign... therefore solutions as broadly accessible as possible would be preferred (types/subtypes/races/feats/magic items/spells are all acceptable).

Note: healing, such as Fast Healing, would potentially work, but is usually very limited in magnitude as well; furthermore healing does not scale as fast as damages, thus the goal is to reduce the damage taken.

Note: as mentioned, the goal of a Tank is to prevent the party from getting hit, meaning using an array of methods preventing the enemy from acting (Trip, Stun, denying actions, ...); however, despite all precautions, being a front-line fighter involves getting hit as fleeing might unleash the enemies on more squishy targets. Thus, I am looking for options that allow a character to stand though.

Note: for the particular character I have in mind, I am probably going to lean heavily on Tome of Battle, and multi-classing is not an issue. As mentioned I would prefer solutions as broad as possible (for further reuse), however using specific maneuvers from the Nine Petal Blossom is also viable.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You mean mitigating only hp damage, right? There're more than a few (but not, like, a lot of) spells that do this; do those interest you, or are you angling for ways a wholly mundane creature can mitigate hp damage? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 22 '15 at 13:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan: Only HP damage yes, I leave "effects" to the appropriate saves/spell resistance; it would be better if the solution was available to mundane creatures (as I envision the Tank being closer to a Fighter archetype), but spells are good too as the Tank is part of a group which may include spellcasters and it can buy magic items. The spells I know of however are either "AC-like" (Blink, Mirror Image introduce extraneous chances of missing) or "DR-like" (such as Barkskin, I think?). \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jun 22 '15 at 13:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ You want to stop yourself from being hit as well, or just the other members of the party? Most of the focus here seems to be on how you can prevent yourself from being hit, but I read your intent differently=) \$\endgroup\$ – joedragons Jun 22 '15 at 16:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @joedragons: Well, the role of a tank is to prevent other party members from being hit, however that I think I got covered... to do so though places my character in front-line, and thus requires it to tough it out in the event some foes are not fully incapacitated. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jun 23 '15 at 6:15
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Use the spells delay death and beastland ferocity

The 4th-level Clr spell delay death [necro] (Spell Compendium 63) says

The subject of this powerful spell is unable to die from hit point damage. While under the protection of this spell, the normal limit of –9 hit points before a character dies is extended without limit. A condition or spell that destroys enough of the subject’s body so as to not allow raise dead to work, such as a disintegrate effect, still kills the creature, as does death brought about by ability score damage, level drain, or a death effect.

The spell does not prevent the subject from entering the dying state by dropping to –1 hit points. It merely prevents death as a result of hit point loss.

If the subject has fewer than –9 hit points when the spell’s duration expires, it dies instantly.

The spell targets 1 creature within close range as a standard action and has a duration of 1 round/level.

The 1st-level Drd spell beastland ferocity [ench] (Spell Compendium 25) says

The subject becomes such a tenacious combatant that it continues to fight without penalty even while disabled or dying. While between –1 and –9 hit points, the creature gains a +4 enhancement bonus to Strength. If the creature is reduced to –10 hit points, it dies normally.

The spell targets 1 touched creature as a standard action and has a duration of 1 minute/level.

Both are low enough level to fit in wands, and some prestige classes can even cram them into potions.

A legalistic DM may kill the creature affected by both spells when the creature hits –10 hit points anyway, as per the spell beastland ferocity, but the effects of the spell delay death should alter what would otherwise be dying normally for the affected creature. Nonetheless, before whipping out this strategy at the table, I strongly urge first clearing it with the DM.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, turning the tables! Indeed if getting below 0 HP is no longer an issue (well, supposing that heals are forthcoming) then reducing the amount of damages taken is less of a priority. However Delay Death does not help with death from massive damage that I can see (though a Tank should have a high Fortitude save), and also the character is left vulnerable to Dispel and the lack of forthcoming healing. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jun 22 '15 at 13:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. The massive damage question is here. Also, I'm not sure how deep I need to go for this to be satisfactory. Once the creature's immune to hp damage, then the creature can work on securing that immunity on its own (and there are a much wider variety of ways to do that than there are ways just to be immune to hp damage). Moving the goalposts is okay, but do that in the question. :-) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 22 '15 at 14:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 because it's a nice combo, but frankly, ok, you have -30 hp and the spells expire in 3 rounds… what now? \$\endgroup\$ – o0'. Jun 22 '15 at 14:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lohoris Drown yourself? The thread even mentions this combo. :-) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 22 '15 at 14:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan lol that's so cool I might even allow that (with consequences). \$\endgroup\$ – o0'. Jun 22 '15 at 14:52
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Shield Other

In our current campaign, the regular addition we use to standard tank AC/DR loadout is the spell shield other. This halves the damage the tank takes, albeit by sharing it to someone else - that someone else is usually a healer or other caster that can focus on mitigating that damage while not in harm's way, however.

Of course this isn't something you can do by yourself, it's a combo you have to work up with your team. But that's the secret to martialling in D&D, all the theory about "well but casters are stronger than martials" tend to ignore that the combination of both is actually the way you win encounters.

However, MMO-style "just pure tanking" doesn't work well in D&D 3.X and you really need to be focusing a lot of your abilities on dealing damage. A one-round fight where you take 0-1(*creature's number of attacks) full hits due to bad AC is better than a five-round fight where you take 2-3(*creature's number of attacks) maybe-ablated hits due to high defense investment.

Blur/Displacement/Other Concealment

Since you are including AC, don't forget miss chances to avoid having the attacks land. Blur for a 20% miss chance and displacement for 50% is a flat percentage damage reduction. But it's not just these two spells - fog, darkness, anything that the monster can't see through helps you out. Now, it might hurt your attacks as well unless you have planned for mitigations for yourself, but if you want defense at the sake of attack, there you go. There's plenty of magic items that do this too (the Magic Item Compendium has some vest or something that poofs smoke...) We often use fog cloud and Pathfinder's fogcutting lenses (this doubles down for preventing sneak attacks and other precision damage).

Don't Be Subject To Full Attacks

The number one front line fighter killer is taking a full attack from, well, anything substantial. It's very hard to put enough pure defenses on yourself to soak a dragon's full attack. So don't take it in the first place! This can be via putting a condition on the opponent that staggers them or slows them (or stuns them a good % of the time), or just by mobility - if you have a way to move more than 5' away every round without pulling an AoO, then they can't get a full attack in on you. Many high level monsters have devastating full attacks but if they only get one a round, are easy to withstand. Slow is our favorite spell for this, metamagicked to be persistent when possible.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah nice, that's a good 50% much like the Ancient Dead. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jun 22 '15 at 15:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah we have one cleric who is high-hp and a super maximized healer; he puts this on both party main fighters and we go in, and a secondary healer heals us/buffs us close to the fight while he stands back with the mage and pours superhealing into himself. Theoretically risky but he has never ever gone down from this. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jun 22 '15 at 15:11
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The best defense is a strong offense

AC only protects against a fraction of attacks, especially armored AC, and DR is similarly limited. Moreover, even perfect AC, DR, and energy resistance, making your HP generally quite safe, make for poor defense because HP is not very important – as long as you have at least 1 HP, you are 100% effective. Chopping through someone’s HP is, therefore, meaningless in the short term, and strategies that eliminate you as a threat first, before worrying about HP, are more effective.1 As a result, your AC, DR, and so on, are only protecting against the least significant of threats.

In reality, there are just too many ways enemies might attempt to shut you down. You have to shut them down first, because once they act, there are too many potential threats for you to have protection against them all.

Furthermore, as you note, damage mitigation and damage healing options are extremely limited, so you won’t have perfect, or even decent, HP-protection. Ironically, decent protection against various maladies that enemies may attempt to use to shut you down is available, in the form of magic items. Getting effects that mimic death ward, freedom of movement, and mind blank is possible, and highly desirable. Fortification effects are also valuable. But these defenses are expensive, only available to high-level characters, and still do not provide a perfect defense. Consult @Ernir’s list of necessary magic items for what options are recommended for your wealth.

Thus, the strongest way to reduce the damage you take is to eliminate your foe’s damage output.

Classic “tank” characters accomplish this, typically, with Trip. It’s also possible to take this extremely-literally, and just kill things, though überchargers tend to be boring and cause headaches for DMs.1 Disarm is too-easily ignored (locked gauntlets, or just not needing a weapon), Grapple is really for monsters (Size matters too much), and other options just don’t really help.

As you might surmise, spellcasters are much better at this than physical characters. They are not as sturdy, but they don’t have to be when they can trivially shut down opponents. Right from first level, grease and sleep can remove opponents, and then as you progress it just becomes overwhelming.

  1. The claim that HP-damage is a weak strategy becomes very untrue the moment you can ensure a one-shot kill, which is definitely possible but tends to lead to very binary, unfun characters. By the same token, while I downplay the importance of protecting your HP, it is important that you don’t let yourself fall into the one-shot-killable range.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Since I envision a mundane but "Tome of Battle" based character, the array of maneuvers that stun or otherwise deny actions are definitely on my list (Setting Sun/White Raven are delightful here); however as a front-line fighter I will probably still take hits, and I would say (as a player) that I actually wish to: if the group could escape any fight unscathed, it would seem too easy. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jun 22 '15 at 14:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. Those are details that belong in the question. Your question as-is is extremely generic, so I cannot make assumptions like Tome of Battle or even that you are already planning on defense-through-offense. Setting Sun + White Raven is also not my usual assumption (since it requires multiclassing to get both), though it could be quite fun. Add those details to your question, and I can address some of those specifics. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 22 '15 at 14:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. Although, for now, I do recommend @Ernir’s list of necessary magic items, which addresses a lot of the best ways to get various forms of protection in item form. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 22 '15 at 14:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the list, I edited the question with the addition; as for multi-classing, I am angling for Master of Nine (although the requirements are... stringent), and therefore trying to get at least 1 maneuver of each school (for the Mo9 capstone). \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jun 22 '15 at 15:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. About qualifying for Mot9. Cleric 1/Swordsage 3/Warblade 1 would be a great first-five-levels for someone aiming at Mot9. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 22 '15 at 15:18

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