D&D 5e: The Protection Fighting Style


My gaming schedule has given me a lot more chances to see people create new 5e characters lately, including more than a few fighters and paladins. Some of those players set out to be the tankiest tanks that ever tanked, so they pick up the Protection fighting style, and… it kinda works, but the more I see it, the less I like it. Specifically, I think it comes in well behind all of the other fighting styles of the Player’s Handbook, to say nothing of the much more egregious ones proposed in Unearthed Arcana articles. Let’s break it down.

The Rules

When a creature you can see attacks a target other than you that is within 5 feet of you, you can use your reaction to impose disadvantage on the attack roll. You must be wielding a shield. (SRD, p. 24)

A Creature You Can See: This is fine, good inclusion, though I guess it theoretically stops you from blocking traps (because traps aren’t creatures). Personally, if a protection fighter or paladin stood by the traps rogue as the latter worked, I’d at least consider letting this fighting style benefit them in some way.
Attacks a Target Other than You: Your goal as a defender is to keep attention focused on you. Your gameplay is all about frustrating the enemy whenever they try anything other than just attacking you. I’m sure there are arguments to simulation that someone who is not me cares about here (that protection fighters should be able to help themselves in some way), but this is a sacrifice to gamism that I make without a second thought.
The problem here is that the When trigger is connected to Attacks, not Hits. I’ll come back to this in my proposed solution.
That is Within 5 Feet of You: You can only defend people near you with your shield, even if your reach is greater than 5 feet for some reason. (This is not terribly common.) Note that you can block arrow-fire by distant enemies as long as your ally is near, and you don’t need to be able to reach the attacker for anything.
You Can Use Your Reaction: This clause introduces a cost. Now, I love reactions in 5e. I think they’re phenomenal for getting players to pay attention even when it isn’t their own turn. A lot of my favorite design involves new reaction options for attack, defense, or mobility. However, you only get one reaction per round, which refreshes at the start of your turn. That means that this fighting style is competing with opportunity attacks, especially the badass OAs of the Sentinel feat, for your sole reaction in a round. The effect of this fighting style needs to be pretty impressive.
To Impose Disadvantage on the Attack Roll: This bit is the Problem. Now, let me be clear: my problem isn’t with Advantage and Disadvantage per se. They’re amazingly efficient mechanics that have sped up 5e combat to an unbelievable degree. The problem in this case is that you’re spending your reaction to maybe have an effect on the outcome, sight unseen, because with disadvantage you’re rolling the initial attack and the “effect” of your action at the same time, so unless you’re playing on Roll20 or another medium that definitely has sequential rolls, you might not even know if you helped. Here are the possible outcomes:

  1. Both d20 results are less than your ally’s AC: your reaction was wasted.
  2. One d20 result matches or beats your ally’s AC, and the other does not: it’s an existential coin-flip as to whether your reaction made a difference, because maybe the low die was the one that the enemy would have rolled anyway.
  3. Both d20 results match or beat your ally’s AC: your reaction was wasted, unless the attacking enemy had a Sneak Attack feature, in which case you probably negated all of the SA dice and left them with base weapon damage. Most monsters don’t parse their attacks in this way, but a DM could create a character that worked that way.
  4. Both d20 results match or beats your ally’s AC; one is a natural 20 while the other is not: oddly enough, this is a best-case scenario for you! You saved your ally a pile of damage, and that pile of damage is increasingly eye-opening as you advance, so you can feel like your fighting style is getting better with you! 
    1. (This case comes up just under 5% of the time. There’s always the question of whether that natural 20 was the “second” die that they only rolled because you imposed disadvantage, of course.)
  5. Both d20 results are natural 20s: your reaction was wasted. (This, fortunately, is a 1-in-400 outcome.)
  6. The enemy had advantage on the attack, which you neutralized by imposing disadvantage: your reaction definitely changed something, though it may not be easy to isolate how much it changed. If the attack hits anyway, then you probably don’t feel like you accomplished anything, except for the corner case of enemies with Sneak Attack-like mechanics. This case “feels” best, then, when you’re defending a high-AC ally.

Without getting into specific test cases, there’s no way to guess relative frequency of some of these cases, but even the test cases wouldn’t mean much to players using this fighting style over the course of 19 (paladin) or 20 (fighter) levels. We can at least say that your reaction was definitely wasted in three of these six cases, and 50% likely to be wasted in a fourth (though you’re probably not thinking of it that way at the table, unless a online tabletop is your medium). This is even more frustrating, I think, if there are multiple incoming attacks against your adjacent allies, since you’ve spent your reaction and won’t be doing anything else – not even stopping enemies from moving around you.

You Must be Wielding a Shield: This is thematically appropriate, since a lot of the mental image they’re after is interposing your shield. Whenever you don’t have your shield (maybe because it would be socially inappropriate, or maybe because you were ambushed in the middle of the night), this feature leaves you. It’s the only style of the Player’s Handbook that requires something that isn’t a weapon.

In addition to competing for your reaction against OAs and superior Sentinel OAs (I mean, holy geez, Sentinel was a lot of fun the other day), Protection is also competing against five other fighting styles – or, if you know you want to play a shield fighter, two other fighting styles: Defense and Dueling.

Defense is the more “selfish” defender, improving the fighter’s survivability and only indirectly aiding others. That’s fine, though – 5e mechanics aren’t as based on give-and-take between party members as 4e’s were. Given the bounded accuracy of 5e, one point of AC is strong and dependable. Also, well, passive abilities are hard to beat. Dueling solves for the reduced damage output of attacking with just one weapon. It’s better for fighters than paladins, because it applies to each of a fighter’s four attacks, but doesn’t scale with the paladin’s Divine Strike or Divine Smite damage. It doesn’t get doubled on crits the way an increased damage die size would, but other than that it’s a lot like increasing the damage die by two steps (d8 to d12 in one hand… yes please). It won’t come up often, but any time you don’t lose access to your fighting style because you don’t have a shield available, you’ll be happy you went with Defense or Dueling.

Other Active-Defense Mechanics

Protection is far from the only active defense (that is, defense that uses your reaction) in the game. Let’s do a quick survey of others, including – as a sop to my ego or just a bit of advertising – one of my own making.

Shield is a sorcerer’s or wizard’s best friend, a panic-button spell if there ever were one. It costs a first-level spell slot and a reaction, so that’s a more substantial cost than Protection, but instead of imposing disadvantage it grants +5 to AC, applies to all incoming attacks until the start of your next turn, renders you temporarily immune to magic missile, and (this is the key) is declared when you’re hit, rather than when you’re attacked. Self-only.

Projected Ward is an abjurer’s 6th-level feature, allowing them to extend their Arcane Ward to an ally within 30 feet. It costs the abjurer’s reaction and takes precious points off her Arcane Ward, but it’s declared after damage is rolled (obviously one of the most advantageous times to declare, because you have all the information) and simply negates damage.

Cutting Words is a College of Lore bard’s unique approach to Bardic Inspiration dice. They can apply their dice as a penalty to any opponent’s attack or damage roll, or ability check, as a reaction. Declare a penalty to an attack roll when you see the result but the DM hasn’t yet declared the effect, and declare a penalty to damage when you see the damage result. Again, this is hugely advantageous, and costs a reaction in addition to a vital class currency (Font of Inspiration is a life-changing feature for almost any bard.) It’s definitely possible to waste a Cutting Words reaction with a poor roll, but the player acts with a lot of information.

Parry is a Battle Master fighter’s way to reduce incoming damage. Much like a bard’s Bardic Inspiration, Combat Superiority dice are a vital currency for Battle Masters, but Parry’s damage negation is declared after the damage roll and definitely does something. It also scales a bit by level, as your CS die gets bigger and you get more of them. Self-only.

Uncanny Dodge shows up in the core of the rogue class (5th level) and in the Hunter ranger (one of three options at 15th level). It costs your reaction, requires that you can see the attacker, and halves the damage dealt to you.

Defensive Duelist is a feat that requires a finesse weapon. It’s declared after a hit, and lets you add your proficiency bonus (oh look, good internal scaling) to your AC, potentially negating that attack. No help for nearby allies, though. Getting to increase your AC after you know whether or not that boost will help is a big deal in the action economy.

Give Ground is my own creation. Spend your reaction to move 5 feet away from an opponent (this does not provoke OAs) to reduce damage from a melee weapon attack roll by 1d6. This has the benefit of being declared after the damage roll, and it’s designed to be superseded by Uncanny Dodge, Parry, and other damage-reducing features, as well as make you worry about getting backed up against a wall or other allies.

There are many more active defenses in the game, including the very flashy Deflect Missiles, but this is a pretty good representative sample.

Some Solutions

The problem I keep coming back to in addressing Protection is the tension between the very early point of declaration and the peripheral effects of Disadvantage (blocking Sneak Attack, not stacking with other sources of disadvantage, etc.) as opposed to forced rerolls and penalty dice. The exact handling on what happens when one forces a reroll on a roll made with dis- or advantage is unclear to me and I’m not completely sure where to find such a rule, other than maybe Jeremy Crawford’s Twitter feed.

That would be the lowest-hanging fruit answer, though: change Protection so that, instead of disadvantage, you can spend your reaction to force a reroll of one weapon attack that hits an adjacent ally. That way you know for sure that you’re only using the ability when an attack has otherwise hit, and you can tell whether your intervention made a difference. The answer may be no, but at least you know; it’s not like Archery helps you when you hit by more than +2, I guess? But because the rule on forced rerolls might work like Lucky, where disadvantage + Lucky = Better Lucky, you might be making things worse and that makes no sense. (But I don’t love that ruling on Lucky in the first place.)

My next thought is to add damage mitigation to a Protection action, for when you attempt to protect and don’t block the hit. If it makes sense for Parry or the… unnamed defensive maneuver that UA played with for Cavaliers and Scouts (which granted a Combat Superiority die to AC and halved damage from the attack) then it makes sense here, I think. Letting a fighting style halve the damage to an adjacent ally is pretty amazing, but I could be a little happier with the implication of “I interposed my shield to block the shot and… half damage?” I mean, I know hit points are representative gamism, but still.

I thought about going with a dice-based or fixed-scaling damage mitigation, rather than halving the damage, so that some attacks will be completely blocked, while others strike with enough power, accuracy, or élan to still deal damage to the target. This is not exactly the hill I care to die on, but still. Dice-based mitigation lacks an obvious scaling mechanism, since many people taking this fighting style won’t have Combat Superiority dice, while a flat value could readily be x hit points per fighter or paladin level.

Stands-in-Fire pointed out to me that one of the big issues here is that Protection is the only fighting style completely dependent on active use – it isn’t part of just what you’re doing anyway. (Two-Weapon Fighting comes close, what with its bonus action, but really it’s still a passive boost to the two-weapon-fighting you can do anyway.)

I keep looking back at Tunnel Fighting, from UA’s “Light, Dark, Underdark!” article. It is hilariously better than Protection and comes pretty close to being as good as Sentinel – and it’s super, super broken when paired with Sentinel.

My Version

When a creature you can see hits a target other than you that is within 5 feet of you, you can use your reaction to force the enemy to reroll the attack. If you are wielding a shield, the enemy rerolls the attack with disadvantage. You must use the new result.

This improves the decision point (from the Protector’s point of view), while maintaining the protection from Sneak Attack mechanics, if you have a shield. With a shield, if the initial attack had advantage, the reroll applies disadvantage, and thus the enemy rolls a single die. I would think about adding damage mitigation also, but I would like to keep my revised Protection from taking up appreciably more time or mental energy than the original. (Appreciably is operative and open to a lot of debate; this is a first draft, so my only basis is my own tastes.) 

It remains possible to have a situation where you spend your reaction and the attack hits for full damage, but I hope we would all agree that “When a creature you can see hits a target other than you that is within 5 feet of you, you can use your reaction to convert that hit to a miss. You must be wielding a shield.” would be stronger than intended.

It’s still the lonely active fighting style in the sea of passive boosts, but the ways I readily see to convert it to passive don’t speak to me. Radiating an AC boost to adjacent allies is what 4e would have done, and the mental load of remembering to apply it and things like it is why I don’t run 4e anymore.

You know what? I bet a whole lot of you have opinions. Hie thee to the comments!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *