The Realm of Eberron trembles with each heavy, metallic footfall of the steel defender. This stalwart mechanical companion strikes both awe and fear into the hearts of friend and foe alike. No self-respecting Battle Smith artificer would be caught adventuring without one. But simply having a steel defender does not make one a master. To truly unleash the incredible potential of this construct ally, one must understand how to tactically apply its abilities. This guide will explore the secrets to maximizing the capabilities of the iconic steel defender.
An Introduction to Steel Defenders
At 3rd level, Battle Smith artificers gain the ability to create a steel defender, a medium-sized construct bearing an appearance customized by its creator. Though it may resemble an animal, beast, humanoid, or completely unique form based on the artificer’s aesthetic preferences, its statistics remain the same. These statistics scale up as the artificer gains levels, making the steel defender remain relevant even against higher challenge rating enemies.
The defender shares its master’s initiative count, taking its turn immediately after the artificer. It can move and utilize reactions independently, but is limited in the actions it can perform on its turn. By default, it simply takes the Dodge action, providing a defensive boost. However, the artificer can expend a bonus action to command the defender to take alternative actions, unlocking more tactical options.
This complex dynamic is essential to understand in order to properly leverage the capabilities of the steel defender. It is not a fully independent creature, like a player character or NPC. Rather, its actions are ultimately dictated by the artificer. This requires the Battle Smith to carefully weigh the action economy costs and benefits of issuing commands, a nuance we will explore shortly.
First, let us delve into the basic combat abilities of the steel defender:
- Force-Empowered Rend: A modest but reliable melee attack that utilizes the artificer’s spell attack bonus. The damage dealt is partially based on the artificer’s proficiency bonus, causing it to scale.
- Repair: A unique non-attack action that allows the defender to restore hit points to itself or another construct. It has a limited number of uses, but is very helpful for keeping it in the fight.
- Deflect Attack: Imposes disadvantage on an attack made against the defender or an ally within 5 feet of it, as a reaction. This universal defensive ability always threatens punishing enemies for targeting the defender’s allies.
In terms of defensive capabilities, the steel defender has many strengths:
- High Hit Points: The defender has hit points equal to twice its constitution modifier (a fixed +2) plus the artificer's Intelligence modifier and 5 times their artificer level. With its constitution save proficiency, it can soak a tremendous amount of damage.
- High Armor Class: Starting at a 15, it eventually gains a +2 bonus at level 15. With its proficiency bonus added, its AC scales well and stays competitive.
- Saving Throw Proficiencies: The defender adds the artificer’s proficiency bonus to its Dexterity and Constitution saves, making it adept at resisting many dangerous effects.
- Skill Proficiencies: The steel defender utilizes the artificer's proficiency bonus for both Athletics and Perception checks, with expertise in Perception. It will rarely fail checks associated with those key skills.
- Magic Resistance: The defender has advantage on all saving throws against magical effects, thanks to its nature as a construct imbued with its creator’s magic. This applies even if the artificer lacks Magic Resistance.
- Immunities: Condition immunities to charmed, exhaustion, and poison further reinforce the steel defender's fortitude against debilitating effects. It also has total immunity to poison damage.
- Darkvision: 60 feet of darkvision ensure the defender remains an unimpeded sentry and scout even in total darkness.
- Vigilant: As a construct, the steel defender is perpetually alert. It cannot be surprised.
With its ability to Dodge by default, these defenses allow a steel defender to absorb tremendous punishment on behalf of its artificer master. Proper tactics can transform it into a virtual fortress on the battlefield. Now let us explore how to unlock its full potential.
Action Economy and Commanding the Steel Defender
Given its limitations, managing action economy is critical to utilizing the steel defender effectively. Since it naturally only Dodges when acting independently, an artificer must weigh the benefits and costs of expending bonus actions to command alternate abilities. These limitations mean a Battle Smith cannot just sit back and enjoy the fruits of an entirely autonomous companion.
This dichotomy creates interesting dynamics. The Dodge action alone can be highly beneficial, since the steel defender has such formidable defenses. For example, positioning it in a choke point or in front of a squishier ally, then having it default to Dodge every round forces enemies to reconsider their target selection. Meanwhile, the artificer is free to focus on other actions like spellcasting or attacking.
However, expending bonus actions to command additional tactical options for the defender has advantages as well. Having it utilize the Help action to grant advantage on a heavy hitting ally’s attack leads to major increases in damage output. Commanding it to attack with Force-Empowered Rend rather than Dodge boosts the party's overall damage per round, even if only modestly.
One underutilized option is commanding the Repair action on key objects. In combat, resetting traps or healing an Eldritch Cannon can enable additional damage and control. Outside of combat, the defender can fix complex devices or sabotage enemy machinery. Creative artificers can find nearly endless applications for Repair.
In general, look for situations where the benefit gained from an alternate action outweighs the value of Dodge or the action you would take yourself. For example, using the defender’s action for Help is likely worth sacrificing its Dodge if that grants your barbarian ally advantage to land a brutal hit. Analyze the opportunity cost of commanding the defender versus another bonus action option the artificer may have.
The basic combat actions of a steel defender provide a solid foundation. But master artificers can combine these with clever tactics to amplify the impact of their mechanical companion even further. Here are some advanced strategies to consider:
- Mount Up: Small sized artificers can ride the steel defender, utilizing the Mounted Combatant feat to great effect. This maneuverability and defensive boost synergizes brilliantly with the capabilities of the defender itself. A lance wielded while mounted generates immense offensive power as well.
- Bodyguard: Instead of simply Dodging in place, proactively move the defender around the battlefield to protect allies, hide them from enemy sightlines, or limit adversary mobility. The Dodge action enhances its capability to serve as a “bodyguard.”
- Magic Item Mule: Outfit your defender with useful magic items by having it attune to them or otherwise utilize their benefits. A Cloak of Protection provides an easy +1 AC, while magic weapons give new options for its Force-Empowered Rend.
- Flanking Foil: Carefully maneuver the defender (or yourself) to create flanking scenarios, generating advantage on your own attacks. Your steel defender is great at enabling allies as well with flanking.
- Arcane Jolt Applicator: This 9th level class feature allows an artificer to add bonus force damage when they or their steel defender hit with an attack. Commanding Strike-Empowered Rend just got more appealing!
- AoE Damage Mitigator: When clusters of party members are forced together, position the defender to absorb area damage utilizing its improved saves and evasion capabilities. It defends against spells better than most PCs.
- I See You: Exploit its darkvision, perception skill, Magic Resistance, and condition immunities to have the defender scout ahead or manipulate dangerous magic objects that would threaten a PC.
These techniques demonstrate that mastering the steel defender offers much more utility than simply gaining a stalwart ally in battle. Battlesmiths who creatively combine its abilities to suit their party, the circumstances, and their own capabilities will gain tremendous advantages.
Now let us explore how to optimize utilization of the steel defender based on common artificer archetypes:
Optimizing for Different Playstyles
Battlesmiths have the flexibility to customize their artificers for vastly different playstyles. Here is how to best leverage your steel defender for some popular build paths:
The Melee Battlesmith:
For Strength-based frontline builds, the extra mobility provided by commanding the Dash action enables the defender to reach priority targets. When engaged in melee itself, your defender can use Deflect Attack to punish enemies for targeting you. Have it utilize the Help action on your biggest damage dealers to enable their feats like Great Weapon Master.
The Ranged Battlesmith:
If utilizing a crossbow or firearm, Repair becomes more valuable for resetting traps to control enemy movement. Your steel defender can run interference to disrupt adversaries attempting to reach you. Lightly armored sharpshooting Battlesmiths benefit greatly from the protection the Dodge action provides nearby.
The Healing Battlesmith:
Focus on spellcasting, utility, and healing? The defender’s Hit Points, AC, saves, and defensive abilities enable it to wield items and activate mechanisms too perilous for party members. Use it as a lab assistant! When allies fall, it can Draw Aggression with Dodge.
The Multiclassed Battlesmith:
Multiclassing provides immense customization options, but risks making your steel defender under-leveled if you do not take enough artificer levels. However, certain dips synchronize nicely if you plan carefully. Two levels of fighter give Action Surge to command the defender twice in one round. A few levels of wizard or sorcerer can really amp up your spellcasting and ability to support the defender with enhancements like Haste.
Frequently Asked Questions
Let us address some common queries players have regarding properly utilizing steel defenders:
What actions can the steel defender take if I don't command it?
By default, it will simply take the Dodge action on its turn. However, it can still move and utilize reactions like Deflect Attack independently.
Does the steel defender occupy a space on the battlefield?
Yes, it is a medium sized creature that exists in a physical space adjacent to other combatants. Enemies can move through its space, but it provides cover against ranged attacks.
How does moving/positioning the steel defender work?
On its turn, the defender can move just like any other creature. You can also expend 5 feet of movement to command it to move when you move, similar to mounted combat rules.
Can other PCs attack or damage the steel defender?
Yes, it can be targeted and damaged just like any other creature. You cannot compel it to harm itself though.
What happens if the artificer who created the steel defender dies?
According to the rules, the steel defender immediately perishes if its master dies. Only by expending a spell slot can it be revived after its creator's death.
Can a steel defender attune to and utilize magic items effectively by itself?
This is unclear and up to DM discretion. As a construct, your steel defender can utilize magic items physically. Whether its limited intelligence allows proper attunement is debatable.
Concluding Thoughts on Mastering the Steel Defender
The steel defender embodies much of what makes the Battle Smith unique and formidable. Much more than simply another body on the battlefield, this mechanical companion enables artificers to fulfill a wide variety of roles and tactics. Mastery of this iconic class feature unleashes devastating potential.
With the action economy intricacies demystified, tactics explored, and common artificer builds addressed, this guide has fully equipped you to dominate with your trusty steel defender. Whether you favor wading into melee, raining destruction from afar, or subtle magical subterfuge, integrating a steel defender will significantly augment your capabilities.
When playing a Battle Smith, understand that true mastery goes far beyond merely creating a steel defender. You owe it to yourself and your companion to learn the nuances of applying its abilities to their fullest. Use the knowledge you have gained here to take your artificer to new heights on the battlefield! With steel defender in tow, a cunning Battle Smith can accomplish nearly any task that Eberron’s conflicts demand.
Now go unleash mechanized mayhem!