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After the release of Volo's Guide to Monsters, I was bantering with some friends about character concepts with the new races. One that came up was a Kobold Paladin—and once that seed was planted, the character idea has developed personality and backstory and wants to become a real PC.

My question: Is a Dexterity-based paladin build competitive with a Strength-based paladin as a front-line fighter?

The stereotype for paladin that's presented is a burly, heavy-armour-wearing, heavy-weapon-swinging pillar of righteous wrath. If we challenge the stereotype and make a high-dex, lightly-armoured finesse paladin, what effects would it have on the class's combat effectiveness (which seems to be tied primarily to damage output and survivability) in filling the role of a front-line fighter?

  • AC: Low STR means no access to heavy armour. Full plate is a fixed AC 18 but studded leather (AC 12 + DEX mod) will give AC 17 by Lv8 and without spending ridiculous wads of cash (which would probably put the full plate out-of-reach until about this level anyways).

  • Damage The best finesse weapon deals d8 damage (average roll: 4.5), heavier weapons usually deal d10 (average roll: 5.5). That's only 1 point of damage difference (on average), which shouldn't be make-or-break territory?

None of the other Paladin features that I saw seemed to use STR as an attribute—so as far as I can see the only hits to making this holy kobold avenger are -1 to max AC, -1(average) to damage output.

Am I missing anything? Alternatively, are these seemingly-small disadvantages actually much larger than they appear?

In case it helps, feats are allowed, as are any rules from official supplements from WotC

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    – V2Blast
    Jul 3, 2019 at 2:16

7 Answers 7

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Yes, this build is competitive. Compared with a strength based dueling paladin, you'll actually be better off in many ways. Though you can't compete with a great weapon fighting paladin in damage. To illustrate this: let's compare some general build options.

Let's assume there are two paladins: Strong and Dexter. Strong and Dexter have the same stats except that Dexter has dexterity equal to Strong's strength, and strength equal to Strong's dexterity. This means that for the purposes of attack rolls and damage modifiers, the two are exactly the same. For that reason, I'm omitting modifiers when I make damage assessments below. I'm also not including magic items because with enough magic, you can make anything work.

Sword and Board

Dexterity is very competitive here, if not the best choice. In this case, both paladins take the dueling style and wield a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other. The highest damage one handed weapons all deal 1d8 damage. For Dexter, that means using a rapier. For Strong, it could be a longsword, warhammer, battleaxe, or rapier. Regardless, because the damage die is the same, and the paladin's relevant ability score modifiers are the same, their damage output is identical. Eventually, when Strong gets plate armor, they will have 1 higher AC than Dexter does (18+2 vs 17+2, as you have noted) Strong also has options to deal all three types of physical damage (slashing, bludgeoning, and piercing). Dexter will only be able to deal piercing damage, but their initiative, stealth, and dexterity saves will all be higher than Strong's. Dexter also has much better ranged attack options since they're as effective with a bow as with their rapier.

In return for being 5% easier to hit compared to Strong with plate armor, Dexter will be better at range, go earlier in the initiative more often, and make their dexterity saving throws more often than Strong does. Honestly, that's a pretty fair trade off.

Great Weapon Fighting

Dexter can't compete with Strong's damage here. Dexter keeps their shield and rapier. But Strong takes great weapon fighting and a heavy weapon. Their damage die goes up to either 1d12 or 2d6, depending on which weapon they choose. And they get to reroll 1s and 2s on that damage. Using the results of the How much damage does Great Weapon Fighting add on average question, that works out to roughly an extra +1 damage on average. So, strong will be dealing about 8 damage per hit before modifiers regardless of which weapon they choose. Strong could also take the Great Weapon Master (GWM) feat to further increase their damage output. Dexter is still dealing about 4.5 per hit before modifiers with their rapier and doesn't really have any feats that will consistently increase their damage to Strong's level. So, Strong is dealing twice as much damage as Dexter on average. However, Strong loses their shield. So even with plate armor, Dexter now has a 1 AC advantage (17+2 vs 18), making them 5% harder to hit than Strong. And Dexter is still better at initiative, ranged attacks, and dexterity saving throws.

Two-Weapon Fighting

Here's an interesting option. If Dexter has 13 strength, they can take one level of fighter to pick up the two-weapon-fighting style. They also take the Dual wielder feat so they can use two rapiers. Now, Dexter and Strong have the same AC (17+1 vs 18) and Dexter deals an extra 4.5 damage on average with their off hand attack. up until 4th level, Strong will deal about 8 damage per hit and Dexter will deal about 9 damage over two hits. So Dexter hits harder than Strong! As long as both attacks hit anyway.

The issue is that once the paladins hit 5th level they get an extra attack. Strong now deals 16 damage over two hits (8 damage twice), and Dexter deals 13.5 damage over three hits (4.5 damage thrice). And that doesn't factor in the bonus damage that GWM offers Strong. At this point, Strong hits harder than Dexter does, and again Dexter can't do much to catch up.

Final Thoughts

This is a very quick analysis. Enough to get the point across I think. There is no way for a Paladin using dexterity to deal the same damage as a paladin that's focusing on dealing as much weapon damage as possible. If you want to deal maximum damage, you have to go with a strength paladin. But dexterity gives you much better survivability. Dexterity saving throws are very common, and can deal some really high damage (think fireballs, lightning bolts, and fiery dragon breath). And with higher dexterity you can go earlier in the initiative and position yourself where you need to be as soon as possible. Plus the large damage bursts that paladins are known for because of their smite is, as you have pointed out, not dependent on weapon damage. It's just based on spell slot level. All of that is to say, the survivability and flexibility is something that will definitely serve you well and I personally think is a reasonable trade-off.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you take a level in fighter, you would get a second fighting style. TWF and Defense, without the Dual Wielder feat already matches Heavy armor AC, and with the feat, surpasses it. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 2, 2016 at 21:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Something worth noting, is that a sizable chunk of Paladin damage comes from their Divine Smite, and at higher levels, the Improved Divine Smite add-on to their regular attacks, both of which are independent of weapon damage, or for that matter, what attribute you use to attack with. When you're dealing smite damage, a point or two difference will rarely be noticed either way. \$\endgroup\$
    – Randomorph
    Jan 9, 2017 at 17:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ The problem with a multiclass Dexterity Paladin is that you still need Strength 13, which may or not be an issue for traditional races, but for a kobold with its Strength penalty it might be prohibitive. \$\endgroup\$
    – Shago
    Apr 9, 2018 at 13:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @shago Aye, that line about multiclassing was something everyone in our group had missed until well after this character started out on his career path. Our GM wasn't worried that there would be balance issues and was willing to houserule it without any worries, but it does mean the character isn't 100% by-the-book legal anymore. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave B
    Apr 9, 2018 at 16:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Competitive...though not optimal" especially once you say the magic words "Kobold Paladin" you have a net negative to stats vs other races, so no it can never be optimal. That said, I'm playing a L10 kobold paladin right now and the constant advantage from Pack Tactics gives you addl chances to crit over a different race's Str Paladin, so with crit smites I still end up either combat MVP or, at worst, tied with the party monk (we don't have a STR based cohort to compare to). \$\endgroup\$
    – huston4
    May 25, 2020 at 5:08
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Not far behind Strength, but still behind

Damage

There are 4 ways to occupy your hands in melee combat:

  • 2 handed weapon
  • 1 handed weapon in one, other empty
  • 1 handed weapon in one, shield in the other
  • 1 handed weapon in each hand

In all of these options either Strength based Paladins are clearly better, or the option is bad for every Paladin.

2 handed weapon

No Finess weapons here, so Str obviously wins.

1 handed weapon in one, other empty

This option is only enticing for Grapplers, you need Athletics for that, so Str again.

1 handed weapon in one, shield in the other

As others mentioned, both can do it, with same DPR. AC is one worse for the Dex based, not offset by the verstility of ranged weapons in my opinion. Str Paladins can use Javelins if they really can not get close.
The main appeal of this build is the nearly sure Advantage for you and your melee allies with Shield Master. However, as with the previous option, you need Athletics, so Str wins again.

1 handed weapon in each hand

Paladins can cast spells with Somatic and Material components while wielding a Shield and a weapon, and everyone can while wielding a 2 handed weapon (you hold it in one hand while casting). If you have a weapon in each hand, you need Warcaster to be able to cast.
On top of this, dual wielding is only competitive before level 5. So I would say this is not a good option for any Paladin.

Dex based Paladins are not weak, but they are weaker than Str based ones.

AC

This depends heavily on your DM. In most cases, you have way more gold than ASIs.

This means Heavy Armor provides better AC than Medium Armor + Medium Armor Master.
If you maximize your attack stat at every opportunity as you should, you reach 20 at level 8 (assuming point buy). In Light Armor your AC is 17, in Medium 17 if you have 750gp, 16 otherwise, and in Heavy it is 18 if you have 1500gp, and 17 otherwise. On level 12 this much gold is trivial, so 18 AC is easy for a Str based paladin, but for a Dex based one the next ASI has to be spent to get to the same level.
So he will be +2 behind on Cha.

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Yes.

Armor

Unless you are using stealth for scouting or surprise, you can still wear a plate armor by just taking the speed penalty, if you fight mounted it won't matter anyway.

Heavy Armor. Heavier armor interferes with the wearer’s ability to move quickly, stealthily, and freely. If the Armor table shows “Str 13” or “Str 15” in the Strength column for an armor type, the armor reduces the wearer’s speed by 10 feet unless the wearer has a Strength score equal to or higher than the listed score.

Alternatively the Medium Armor Master feat would allow you to have the same AC wearing a half plate, while avoiding the speed penalty and stealth disadvantage.

Damage

Unless you use two-handed weapons or a versatile weapon with two hands you would be dealing the same amount of damage, which caps at 1d8 for one-handed weapons. With a notable exception for the lance which deals a whopping 1d12 damage and can be used one-handed while mounted, but sadly is not a finesse weapon.

Ranged Attacks

You would be better with ranged weapons, period. Throwing javelins is OK only at short range (30 ft); more than that you're rolling with disadvantage, also javelins deal less damage than longbows.

One thing to note is that you can't use divine smite feature with ranged attacks, and only two smite spells work on ranged attacks: Branding Smite and Banishing Smite, but you won't be able to go nova by using both divine smite and a smite spell on the same attack.

Also if you're planning a lot of ranged attacks the avenging paladin has access to the ranger's spell Hunter's Mark which is useful both for melee and ranged attacks. Although Hunter's Mark is very useful you cannot use it paired with smite spells, as both are concentration spells.

Saving Throws

Dexterity saves are way more common than Strength ones, so there's better survivability.

Initiative and Surprise

Higher initiative is always better for any character. If you use stealth to surprise your enemies and beat them on initiative you're effectively acting twice before they even get the chance to, which could led to better damage output.

You could even take the criminal or urchin background for the stealth proficiency. If you go this route consider taking the Medium Armor Master feat to avoid disadvantage without sacrificing AC.

Multi-classing

You're probably dumping strength, well in that case forget about multiclassing, you need Strength and Charisma 13 to multiclass. For a kobold would be even harder because of its Strength penalty.

To qualify for a new class, you must meet the ability score prerequisites for both your current class and your new one, as shown in the Multiclassing Prerequisites table.

Maybe your DM can remove this restriction or change Strength to Dexterity as a house rule, if you talk with him or her.

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Yes, it is competitive

There is very little in the way of frontline-ness that you cannot achieve being Dex-based instead of Str-based.

AC

Yes, your base AC will be a bit lower. However, there are several things you can do to augment your AC:

  • Medium armour master feat combined with half plate gives you an AC of 15 + Dex mod (max 3), or 18
  • The dual wielder feat grants you a +1 AC when you have two weapons in hand (and also lets you dual wield rapiers!)
  • Rogue 5 gives you uncanny dodge, a reaction that halves the damage of a targeted attack
  • The paladin's defense fighting style gives you +1 AC when wearing armour
  • A one-level dip in draconic sorcerer gives your kobold hardened scales, and causes AC to be 13 + Dex mod, and for the option to take shield as a first level spell

Damage

There are many options available to Dex-based characters to augurent your damage—and some of them also appear in the AC boosting section, too!

  • Dual wielder feat, as noted above, lets you wield two rapiers (d8+Dex/d8 damage). This also gives you another chance to apply smite damage (and increases the chance of a crit from 5% to 9.75%)
  • Rogue multiclass gives you sneak attack damage. That's 3d6 extra if you go rogue 5 for uncanny dodge. And be sure to take swashbuckler as your archetype (from The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide) since it applies your Cha mod to initiative rolls and gives you more options for sneak attack
  • A 1-level dip into fighter gives you access to two-weapon fighting, which allows you to add your Dex to your off-hand attack's damage. A 2-level dip also gives you action surge, yet one more attack once per rest!

No (Optional) Feats

If you're not using the feats optional rule, rogue 5 will still give you a smattering of defensive options that are not 'always on' like +AC, but on only when you need. Draconic sorcerer, as well, is still a great option—and very in-character! Blade ward is a good cantrip to have in your back pocket just in case, and either acid splash, poison spray, or fire bolt can be thematic for a kobold playing at draconic might!

Damage options are always easier to come by than defensive options, so the lack of feats will not impact you that severely. No dual wielder means d8 rapier and d6 shortsword. Only a loss of 1 point of damage on average. Sneak attack—especially being a kobold who can get advantage frequently—and a dip into fighter still allows you to use your Dex bonus on your off-hand attack.

Or, if you prefer to focus on AC, drop the fighter level and go sorcerer 2, which gives you the ability to 'refresh' a level 1 spell slot to use shield one more time with your 2 sorcery points.

Conclusion

There are a few ways to shore up what you perceive as shortcomings, but they will cost you in ASI and/or paladin levels.

Paladin 13/rogue 5/fighter 2 will give you 3 ASI's from paladin and one from rogue. That is enough to boost your Dex to 20, let you take medium armour master, and dual wielder. That still leaves you one ASI for another feat or possible improving your ability scores.

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    – V2Blast
    Jul 3, 2019 at 2:21
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Yes, in some situations.

A DEX-based Paladin has very little that is strictly worse than a STR-based one.

I'll address your question's points:

AC: Low STR means no access to heavy armour. Full plate is a fixed AC 18 but studded leather (AC 12 + DEX mod) will give AC 17 by Lv8 and without spending ridiculous wads of cash (which would probably put the full plate out-of-reach until about this level anyways).

With your AC, the -1 to potential AC is definitely true, however this is potentially mitigated through a couple of channels, notably:

  1. A spellcaster casting mage armor on your character (AC 13+DEX)
  2. Wearing Half plate armor, with the Medium Armor Master feat, increasing the maximum bonus from Dex to +3 for medium armor.

It should be noted however that neither of these options come without a cost.

Damage: The best finesse weapon deals d8 damage (average roll: 4.5), heavier weapons usually deal d10 (average roll: 5.5). That's only 1 point of damage difference (on average), which shouldn't be make-or-break territory?

Funnily enough, the damage is less of an issue than the AC.

While it is true that while the best finesse weapons only have a d8 damage die, only two-handed non-finesse weapons have a larger damage die. A longsword or battleaxe have d10 only while wielded in two hands, and glaives, greatswords, greataxes, halberds, mauls, and pikes are all two-handed weapons. A lance is a special case, which has drawbacks and is only one-handed while mounted.

In this situation, a DEX-based Paladin shows up a negative point: Less versatility.

While comparable as a Sword-and-Shield Paladin, a DEX-based Paladin can not compete with a STR-based one as a "great-weapon fighter", due to the fact that no two-handed weapons have the finesse property.

As noted in the comments by THeibert, a DEX Paladin will also have a higher DEX saving throw, allowing them to better escape the worst of the effects of many damaging spells. This may well outweigh the penalty of a -1AC in terms of survivability, especially in a caster- or dragon-heavy campaign.

In summary, while not competitive as a great-weapon fighter, a Paladin who fights sword-and-shield style, a DEX-based Paladin would have 1 less AC than a STR-based one unless they spent a feat or had a friendly caster cast mage armor on them. The Paladin would also have comparable damage, but to do so would be locked into using a rapier, and thus only dealing piercing damage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is the piercing damage limitation one that actually affects combats often? Most monsters and abilities I've seen refer to "Bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage", sometimes with a "from nonmagical sources" thrown in there. There don't seem to be very many occasions where the differences in physical damage types actually come into play...? \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave B
    Dec 2, 2016 at 20:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ In my experience in this edition, no. The biggest issue is that the Paladin would be restricted in the kinds of magic Weapons they would use. \$\endgroup\$
    – MrNattious
    Dec 2, 2016 at 20:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, good point. Hadn't been thinking of the magical loot that comes with slaying the unholy. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave B
    Dec 2, 2016 at 20:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Adam without a doubt! It's just something to keep in mind is all. As a DM myself, my players often "coincidentally" come across weapons they prefer to use, so with the right DM, it's not a problem at all :) \$\endgroup\$
    – MrNattious
    Dec 2, 2016 at 20:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Something else that could be noted, alongside the AC improvement options, is that you'll have a higher DEX save, allowing you to take reduced damage from spells and effects, and have a better chance to avoid traps. Depending on the situation, this difference could far outweigh the AC difference. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 2, 2016 at 21:18
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The problem with all of the other answers is that they are evaluating late-game characters as early-game. Someone said, "Plate armor is 1500" - At level 1. do you have that?

Dropping your highest stat in Dex, Con and Cha while taking a race that has a bonus to either one (Dwarves) of those stats, two (Tiefling variants) or all of them (Human/half-elf)sets you up nice.

Str Paladins have to play catch up in the beginning on Armor and sure they can out damage you. But that isn't as important as survival period and to start Str Paladins get Chain mail which is AC 16. A fair Dm will let you exchange starting equipment for Chainmail for Scale mail. Or studded leather if you have +4 or +5 by rolling 17 or 18 for Dex then add in your race bonus.

It really doesn't matter if they don't allow you to the low level enemies will have this armor on them. Take it and simply sell your Chain mail for 35g. Take a shield as part of your starter equipment. At this point the Str paladin has to have a shield to be be one AC point behind you at worst if your Dex is a 14 or 15 with races bonuses.

They're saving to buy plate a Dex Paladin is saving for a +1 Studded leather or Adamantine Medium armor. Which is a lot lower than a +1/adamantine Heavy armor even if it's a Breastplate 400gp + 500gp for adamantine AC16 armor with Dex do disadvantage.

If you want an extra point and don't care about the Disadvantage to stealth half plate is 750gp + 500gp either way you have higher AC and can't be hit with Crits.

A Str paladin can't do this unless they rolled very well for starting stats or waste their racial bonus leaving them weaker in other areas.

If you're dealing with a DM that won't let you buy low level +1 items or Adamantine when you get the gold (talk about it in your Session 0) then drop a thirteen 13 in strength. That way if +2/+3 Heavy armor drops no one can argue that you don't need it if you do.

You're already ahead of a Str paladin defensively who has to have Dex for skills they want to use, initiative, bows and Medium Armor or not use those things well. Dividing their decent ability modifier rolls of at least a 14/15 that would be better placed in Cha, Con, Wis or even Int if multiclassing for them.

So unless the DM favors a Str paladin by drops, you'll be sitting pretty. I had a level 4 Dex Paladin hit AC 21 with two +1 drops (ring and Armor) in a Phandalin campaign. And a Crafted +1 Shield (Other guy had Armor made from a Dragon).

This left me with +4 Dex (rolled a 16 +1 Race bonus), +1 scale mail, +1 ring of Protection and a +1 Shield. AC 21 I get hit on crits only but our Fighter instead of getting a armor item got weapons both 2h and 1h for when he wants to use a shield. He NEVER uses a shield only two handed and he rips it up far more than I could which is typical.

With the exception of a couple Oaths the Party isn't relying on you the Paladin as a main Damage dealing. Not with Rogues, Fighters, Casters and etc. But Compelled Duel ALWAYS comes in handy so having high AC will always come in handy!

To me the pally works better as a Tank spot healer than a damage dealer of doom except for those couple of Oaths. That said I did take Dueling as a fighting stance over the plus one AC, I regretted it a few times but I know I need some balance.

Adding feats makes it sweeter:

Shield Master- Bonus action shield shove with your shield. Add Shield Ac to Dex saving throw against spells or other harmful effect that effect targets only you. If subjected to an effect that allows you to make a Dex saving throw to take only half damage you can use your reaction to take no damage.

Good feats for any paladin or melee types:

  • Mage Slayer:

    • When a creature within 5 feet of you casts a spell, you can use your reaction to make a melee weapon attack against that creature.
    • When you damage a creature that is concentrating on a spell, that creature has disadvantage on the saving throw it makes to maintain its concentration.
    • You have advantage on saving throws against spells cast by creatures within 5 feet of you.
  • Sentinel:

    • When you hit a creature with an opportunity attack, the creature's speed becomes 0 for the rest of the turn.
    • Creatures provoke opportunity attacks from you even if they take the Disengage action before leaving your reach.
    • When a creature within 5 feet of you makes an attack against a target other than you (and that target doesn't have this feat), you can use your reaction to make a melee weapon attack against the attacking creature.
  • Defensive Duelist (requires 13 Dex):

    When you are wielding a finesse weapon with which you are proficient and another creature hits you with a melee attack, you can use your reaction to add your proficiency bonus to your AC for that attack, potentially causing the attack to miss you.

With a defensive build and Defensive Duelist, you pretty much only get hit by save spells and when the GM wants to hit you. Good weapon upgrades will provide you with damage increases as you level up something should be available.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Jul 3, 2019 at 0:18
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Yeah, it is

Many people already pointed out AC, Damage, etc. and how it can be done to minimize the gap between STR and DEX. But i didn't see anyone say "Hey, it helps you with the most common saving throw in the game (DEX)". Fireball, Desintegrate and many other powerhouses of damage all require DEX Saving Throws.

Aura of Protection almost guarantees that you will succeed, adding your Charisma to all your saving throws at level 6.

Why is DEX > STR in this aspect?

Let's see: A lot of monsters have grappling effects when you're hit, but with high AC it shouldn't happen so often (even if you have -1AC without Medium Armor Master), STR saving throws are very rare and athletics isn't important if another player on the party has a STR character already.

On the other hand, DEX saving throws applies to the breath weapon of a dragon, many spells, avoid a lot of traps, 3 skills (Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, Stealth) and you can even use Shield Master to negate most AoEs damage with it's third effect and get a +2 to this saving throw. With maxed DEX and CHA the bonus is +10 making it a solid AoE resistance and Resilient (Dex) would make it add your proficiency bonus, if you take Shield Master it gets +2 more. So yeah, it has benefits.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome Aslatiel! This is an interesting perspective - would you be able to add a bit more detail to compare your proposed build to a strength-based build? Some details on how Aura of Protection works could also be useful for anyone on the fence on this type of setup too. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave B
    Dec 4, 2020 at 15:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi, @Aslatiel, It looks like you've accidentally made two accounts. You should go through the process of getting them merged. That way you'll own your own answers and can edit them without having to get the edit approved. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Dec 6, 2020 at 11:11

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