Over the years there have been a million blogs reminding us that different people play RPGs for different reasons, but if we’re being honest most of us are at least partially motivated by the chance to kick ass in combat encounters.
Even the most reserved of players will let out a joyous yell when their Rogue lands a critical hit and has to beg handfuls of d6s in order to calculate just how badly they murder their target. But what happens when kicking in doors and generally being a ruthless badass isn’t really your character’s cup of tea?
How do you play a dedicated support class and still manage to be highly effective and finish the session with a smile on your lips?
Honestly, quite a lot of it will probably depend on your own personality. Most people can take satisfaction in setting up their allies every now and again, but it takes a special kind of person to enjoy a long-term supporting role.
Without wishing to fall back on stereotypes, most of those who I’ve met that fit the description are a little more mature and thoughtful than their damage-heavy comrades. They tend to be the ones to plan schemes and set traps rather than simply walk in guns blazing.
To enjoy playing a support class is to view yourself as the puppet master, tugging your allies’ strings and helping them to achieve things that they could never have managed on their own. You need to learn to take satisfaction in the Paladin’s ability to hold off those Kobolds because he was buffed to high heaven, or in the way that the Rogue you just turned invisible managed to take out the enemy Wizard in one brutal attack.
Unsurprisingly, in the same way that there are some people more inclined to help than others, there are also classes that it the support role much better. Any class with a full spell progression can commit to backing up their allies, but there are three that excel at it – namely the Bard, Cleric and Wizard.
I can’t imagine those first two surprising anyone, but some may be taken aback at the Wizard. After all, plenty of the Wizards I’ve played with have specialised in dropping fireballs like they were going out of style. Those that focus on the schools of Transmutation, Illusion and Enchantment, however, can offer unrivalled levels of utility.
Subtle & Quick to Anger
My first exposure to D&D came with 4E, and though I liked the system more than many in the community I’ll admit that it made magic heavily combat-oriented. There were utility spells on offer, but they generally weren’t all that powerful and your choice was rather limited.
As you can imagine, when I first read the 5E spell list my jaw dropped. The amount of things a player can achieve with the clever use of a few spell-slots is truly incredible, and the master of this is undoubtedly the Wizard.
Faced with a yawning chasm and a rickety bridge that screams ‘ambush’? Just use Fly and avoid it entirely.
Have a pressing need to decipher those Dwarven runes? Isn’t it lucky you have a Comprehend Languages ritual sitting in your spellbook!
With the right spell a Wizard can read minds, teleport across the planet and safely hide the entire party in an extraplaner cubbyhole. And after they’ve done all that they can still have enough magic juice left over to rain liquid fire from the sky.
Even in combat the right spells can massively boost the success of your party members. One of my favourite characters at the moment is a Gnomish Illusionist, and when he isn’t leading entire war parties on hunts for his Improved Minor Illusions he’s casting Greater Invisibility on the party’s resident psychopath, promising ten rounds of virtually guaranteed Sneak Attacks without the need to drag a party member along with him.
The creative use of illusions can distract and disorient the enemy, while enchantments can leave them confused or even cause them to turn on one another. The king of support magic, however, is undoubtedly transmutation.
Though the traditional image of a transmuter has them slaving away to turn lead into gold, they also have the ability to Enlarge the Paladin until he’s 12ft. tall and swinging a broadsword longer than the goblins he’s fighting. Alternatively, they can help the Ranger Levitate over the battlefield, raining down death while the Owlbear below can do nothing but hoot with impotent rage.
It’s true that the inability to heal or cast many of the conventional buffing spells do limit the Wizard’s ability to sit in the fulltime support role, but there are few things more supportive – or funny – than tossing the Barbarian into a group of unsuspecting enemies and Polymorphing him into a particularly furious dinosaur.
One of the things I enjoy about 5E is that the Cleric class is no longer tied down to its traditional role as a White Mage heal-bot. If you want, it’s entirely possible to roll up a Tempest Domain badass that strides about with plate armour and a hammer that trembles with the fury of a thousand storms, far too busy cracking skulls to bother with stitching her allies back together.
However, if you’re a fan of the old archetypes the Cleric can still offer truly unparalleled support abilities. Played well, they can act as a force multiplier that allows the party to take on challenges far beyond their level.
As you might expect, the biggest thing the Cleric brings to the table is healing. Clerics get access to virtually every healing spell in the game and are generally very good at using them. A well-timed Healing Word can be the difference between winning the battle and having to flee so quickly that you don’t even stop to pick up your allies’ bodies on the way out, while Prayer of Healing can provide just the top-up needed to press out without a short rest. So long as they’re willing to burn through spell slots and get half-decent rolls, a Life Domain cleric can pump out truly extraordinary amounts of HP per round.
Like with many other support actions, however, the effectiveness of combat healing depends heavily on how well the rest of the party is playing. Ideally, everybody being attacked – and therefore in need of healing – should be as tough as possible.
Though the amount of health they restore won’t vary from character to character, the effectiveness of it will – that 15 extra HP will probably last much longer on the heavily armoured Fighter than it will on the Wizard that just bumbled into close combat with a half-dozen Orcs and is calling for heals. If you can arrange things so that a Bear Totem Barbarian is tying up half the battlefield then you’re going to have a happy Cleric indeed, as their near-universal resistance to damage means that all healing is effectively doubled.
Of course, there’s much more to supporting your allies than just refilling their life bars every now and again. Judicious use of Bless – essentially a floating d4 for the target to use whenever they want – can save lives, while Guidance – the same deal, but only for ability checks – packs an incredible amount of utility for a cantrip.
Quickly drop it on the Rogue before she starts sneaking into the enemy encampment and it may be the difference between her lining up the perfect sneak attack and being turned into a pincushion by a guard patrol. And if she never needs it, you really haven’t lost anything at all.
The fact that you have access to the entire Cleric spell list to pick from each day really improves your flexibility. If you know that you’ll be going up against a pack of demons or exploring the Burning Caves then a quick Protection From Evil and Good/Energy can really boost someone’s survivability.
In may ways, the only thing that keeps Clerics from breaking the game entirely is the Concentration mechanic, which keeps you from piling on multiple buffs at the same time. Even so, the amount of support you can give with only one spell at a time is impressive, especially when you get to higher levels and get to throw around even more of your god’s power.
And remember, if you save someone then all the damage they deal from that point on can technically be credited to you – not that the Warlock is going to remember that when he’s boasting about tossing the evil baron into a portal to hell.
Most of the Bards I’ve played with over the years haven’t exactly had the supporting personalities in the world, acting as a mixture between rock star and stage hypnotist. However, their skill-set can make for an incredibly versatile utility character.
Given the class’ reputation as a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, Bards offer something of a compromise between the two styles of support typified by Clerics and Wizards. They can’t keep the party standing as well as a Life Domain Cleric or break the game with the ease of a dedicated utility Wizard, but instead have the ability to do both at a pretty reasonable level.
The Class Abilities of the Bard are heavily geared around backing up the rest of the party. Even at low levels Bardic Inspiration – imagine a Bless spell that scales as you level – has the ability to turn missed blows into solid hits, which can be especially for magic users throwing around powerful spells that rely on a successful attack roll.
Should you take the path of a Valour Bard then your allies get to add the Inspiration Dice onto their damage roles, effectively allowing them to deal an extra 4d8 damage per short rest.
On the defensive side of things, it’s important not to underestimate the value of the Lore Bard’s Cutting Words. While you may not be the best healer in the game, remember that turning aside the evil Cleric’s Inflict Wounds with a particularly barbed insult can prevent monumental amounts of damage from landing in the first place and doesn’t even cost you a bonus action.
Similarly, the healing offered by Song of Rest may not seem all that significant, but the fact that it can apply to the entire party at once means that it can really add up over the course of a couple of rests.
When it comes to spells, the Bard may lack the raw power of the Wizard, but he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. The archetypal Bardic Cantrip, Vicious Mockery, may have relatively weak damage potential but more than makes up for it by disrupting the enemy’s attacks. Most of the rest of the Bardic spellbook is shared with other classes, but there are a handful of excellent support abilities such as Heroism that can inspire your allies to new heights on the battlefield.
If you go down the path of the Lore Bard then you gain plenty of room to enhance your supporting power with spells stolen from other classes. One of the quirks of this is that this ability allows you to grab high-level Paladin and Ranger spells long before their ‘natural’ class can.
This is excellent news, as some of the Paladin spells are among the best support abilities in the entire game. Aura of Vitality is a truly excellent third-level spell that can offer as much as 20d6 of healing, while grabbing Circle of Power at level 10 will make the DM hesitate before bothering to throw any major spellcasters at you.