Mage Tank #1: The Basic Model

This is the simplest and easiest way to make a mage tank that can tank right from level 1 and continue through to level 10. This is achieved by distributing ability scores in such a way that the mage is durable and tough without use of spells or special abilities, making the mage easy to play effectively.

Overview

There are two key elements to making a good tank: survivability and threat. Threat is what the character does that makes people want to attack you. Survivability is the ability to not die due to being attacked. For a mage-tank, the difficult thing to achieve is survivability. The opportunity cost of being able to survive frequent attacks will mean the mage will have a lower primary spellcasting ability. This means the player will want to avoid spells that offer saving throws, and instead focus on environmental effects, touch attacks, summoning, and buffs. However, as the character gains levels the more powerful and aggressive spells that offer saving throws should still be added in. I know some players feel the need to max the saving throw DC in order to use spells that offer saving throws, but just take my word for it that this is not actually necessary.

Levels 1 and 2

Regardless of whether the character is a wizard or a sorcerer, for this build they must have 14 dex, 14 con, and 14 in their primary spellcasting ability score. This is before applying racial modifiers to ability scores. They must also take the toughness feat. The character may be of any race, but a human, gnome, or halfling works the best. If the mage-tank is of any other race, they will need to wear leather armour. If human, they may either take dodge as their bonus feat or wear leather armour. I suggest the leather armour because I consider a 5% spell-failure chance negligable. At higher levels, this will be replaced with either Bracers of Armour or the Mage Armour spell. However, this is preference.

It is not necessary for a human to increase their primary spellcasting ability to 16; dexterity or constitution may be a reasonable choice depending on school specialization or bloodline.

For starting spells I suggest Chill Touch, Snapdragon Fireworks, or Shocking Grasp. They are similar in usefulness at level 1, but as the mage goes up levels they significantly alter the kind of threat imposed by the mage. Of these, I believe Snapdragon Fireworks is the most effective choice for a mage tank, but it is also the spell that does the least amount of damage.

It is at level 2 where the main difference between these spells becomes obvious. Snapdragon fireworks requires a move action to shoot a firework at an enemy, allowing the mage to continue to use standard actions however they want each round. This provides the enemy with significant incentive to harm the mage as quickly as possible, to prevent the mage from shooting a firework again the next round. Chill Touch requires a standard action, but does not consume additional spells and will not cause attacks of opportunity in the 2nd round of use. This makes it very effective if the enemy chooses to continuously attack the mage. Both Chill Touch and Snapdragon Fireworks fill a similar role: both turn the mage into a lasting threat. Shocking Grasp is a one-off spell that does large amounts of damage. If the enemy does not keep the mage within their threatened area, shocking grasp can be used to severely punish them for it.

Levels 3 and 4

It is at this point where spells that have duration of “1 round per level” are likely to last the entire combat, and spells that last “1 hour per level” are easy to schedule into an adventure. This is the point where chill touch and snapdragon fireworks are likely to be at their most useful. It is also the point where Mage Armour or Blur should be used to replace leather armour.

Based on experience during play, you will want to decide whether your mage-tank needs more survivability, one-shot damage, or persistant threat. If you need survivability, for a 2nd level spell take Blur or Mirror Image. If you feel your mage does not adequately punish opponents who do not engage the mage, take Burning Ray or Acid Arrow. If you want to impose a persistant threat, take Flaming Sphere; it uses a move action to deal 3d6 points of damage. Burning Gaze is a suitable alternative. Therefore it functions in a similar fashion to Snapdragon Fireworks.

Your character’s level 4 stat increase should be their primary spellcasting ability, unless they plan on taking Craft Wondrous Item. If so, they can be completely garanteed to increase their primary spellcasting ability above 14 with items by the time they need it (level 9 for wizards, level 10 for sorcerers).

Levels 5 and 6

Level 3 spells are the mage’s playground. Unfortunately, fireball is not a good choice for the Mage-Tank. The large area of effect makes it a poor choice for punishing opponents who do not engage the mage-tank in melee. An opponent who does not engage the mage-tank is likely attacking someone else, so the mage-tank will run the risk of blowing up their own allies with a fireball. Lightning Bolt will work better, but the mage may need to move to a new position to ensure they don’t hit an ally. This makes it largely incompatible with Snapdragon Fireworks or Burning Sphere.

For Survival Spells, go with Blink or Vampiric Touch. For punishment spells, go with Deep Slumber, Hold Person, Suggestion, Ray of Exhaustion, or Slow. For persistant threat, go with Summon Monster 3. Summon Monster 3 is special because it can summon 1d3 monsters from the Summon Monster 2 list, allowing you to gain multiple Elementals or Lemures. Because they are smart enough to understand and speaking is a free action, the mage can direct them to use aid another on any/all of their allies, which can be done while flanking enemies. This will give their allies either +4 to attack, or +2 to attack and +2 to defense. Keep in mind that multiple aid another bonuses stack, allowing the bonus to attack to max out at +8 and defense maxes out at +6 (+2 from 3 monsters, and +2 from flanking). This is a persistant threat because it requires that your character remain active in giving directions throughout the combat; an undirected summoned creature just attacks the mage’s enemies.

The strength of using summoned monsters in such a fashion is its flexibility. Haste provides a stronger aggressive buff, but it is spread out across the party and has minimal defensive applications. Being able to give a beleagured ally a wopping +6 to AC can make that ally seem like a very unappealing target. Giving a single ally +8 to their attacks will result in large amounts of damage if that ally has the sneak attack ability, the power attack feat, the expertise feat, or multiple attacks from any source. If the entire party is spread out, and everyone is fighting their own target 1 on 1, the summoned monsters can join in the fight and either use aid another on each party member or attack and provide a flanking bonus. There is also significant downside to the haste spell for a mage-tank: haste will usually make other allies into a bigger threat than the mage. Summon Monster 3 avoids this by requiring the mage to give commands (a free action) every turn.

Levels 7-10

At this point of the game onward, spells start to become highly situational. Stoneskin is a great spell to help the mage the survive, but it is unlikely that a defensive buff that strong will be useful very often. Beast Shape 2 is an especially good way to impose a lasting threat because it can grant the mage Grab and Trip. It is therefore a very effective way of forcing enemies to engage the mage, because they are unable to leave. Unfortunately, casting spells while polymorphed is seldom effective, so there isn’t a way to punish anyone who manages to escape the mage. Phantasmal Killer and Enervation are excellent punishment spells, but are completely useless against certain types of opponents.

It is within levels 7-10 that a mage will gain access to their really cool class abilities or prestige classes. My favourite of these abilities is probably the Transmuters (beast shape 2 for a number of rounds/day equal to class level), but that is just preference. The abilities unlocked here are the main consideration for bloodlines and school specializations.

Dazing Spell is a very useful metamagic feat at this point in the game. It can be applied to either Chill Touch or Snapdragon Fireworks. Do not get Dazing Spell confused with Dazzling Spell. Dazzling Spell is not very useful.

Combat Plan

In the first round of combat it is almost always a good idea to use a “lasting threat” spell (snapdragon fireworks, flaming sphere, summon monster 3, etc) as these are more powerful the longer the combat lasts. Thereafter, the mage must adjust their choices based on whether they are being attacked or not. If they are not being attacked, they must punish their opponents for allowing them to cast spells freely. If they are being attacked, they must take measures to ensure they survive (and maybe do some damage at the same time).

If the mage focuses on spells that impose a lasting threat and the opponent does not attack them, they become more dangerous in later rounds of combat. Consider that flaming sphere and chill touch will combine to be a possible of 4d6 damage every turn at level 3 (4 for sorcerers), which can be a very efficient use of spell slots. Contrast this with straightforward damage spells, and you will see that it takes 4 spells (at level 3) or 3 spells (at level 4) to surpass that amount of damage.

Round

Spell

Total Damage Dice

1

Flaming Sphere

3d6

2

Chill Touch

7d6

3

11d6

4

(flaming sphere ends)

12d6

The ideal circumstance is, therefore, that the mage is left alone and able to cast these spells. However, in the interest of defending team mates, a more severe and immediate punishment can be called for. This depends on the specifics of the combat; if a shocking grasp will kill an opponent in 1 round and a chill touch will kill it in 2, it is better to kill it in 1 round, even if over the course of 3 rounds the chill touch will do more damage over all. This is where preference, team interaction, and the opponent’s strategies all can effect play. Have fun!

Spell Schools and Bloodlines

When picking a specialization or a bloodline, there are only two concerns for the Mage Tank: level 1 abilities and the abilities unlocked during levels 7-9. As very few of the level 1 abilities do large amounts of damage, it is better to look at abilities that can cause severe debuffs. The best spell schools are therefore Enchantment, Illusion, and Necromancy. Conjuration is the only spell school that can do a competitive amount of damage with their level 1 spell like ability: acid dart. If the mage is any other spell school, they must take shocking grasp. They will otherwise lack a significant threat at level 2 if the enemy ignores them. If the Mage is an enchanter, illusionist, necromancer, or conjurer, however, they ought to begin the game knowing chill touch and snapdragon fireworks, and then take mage armor at level 2. Arcane Bond will need to be an object, because otherwise the character is far too limited by their small number of spells per day at low levels.

As far as sorcerer bloodlines go, Aberrant and Elemental have reasonable damage dealing abilities at level 1. Fey, Infernal, and Undead can impose some potent debuffs. The Karmic Sorcerer (a wildblooded variant of the Destined Sorcerer) is particularly interesting for a mage tank, as they get a power that can be used as an immediate action on enemies who attack them. I am of the opinion that the Aberrant bloodline is the strongest, but any sorcerer bloodline can be an effective tank if spells are used well.

If the character is a human and takes Weapon Finesse as their bonus feat, the various bloodlines that bestow natural attacks become effective: Draconic, Abyssal, and Serpentine. Serpentine is especially fun because of the Serpentfriend power, which allows the character to speak with animals for reptilian animals. This allows the mage to use Summon Monster 2 to summon 1d3 vipers, and tell them to use assist other, 2 whole levels before this is available to other. The mage could even use Summom Minor Monster and do this at level 3 with tiny lizards, but this seems a little bit silly. I do enjoy the idea of a character who screams “hold him back, boys” to an army of blue tongued skinks, and then run up and bite the enemies with remarkable finesse.

A Basic Mage-Tank: Gnome Sorcerer Tank.

The first build is for people who want to only use content from the pathfinder player’s handbook. I call it The Manipulative Trickster. It fits into the archetype of a magical gnome who evades and confuses their enemies. The character begins the game as a gnome sorcerer with 14 dex, 16 con, and 16 charisma. They begin the game with the toughness feat, and choose hit points for their favoured class bonus. The character is Fey Blooded, and begins the game with Snapdragon Fireworks and Sleep.

At level 3, learn Mage Armour and Entangle (as a bloodline spell). Woodland stride is unlikely to be a very useful ability. For the 3rd level feat, take combat casting.

At level 4, increase constitution, learn Flaming Sphere, and replace Snapdragon Fireworks with Shocking Grasp. Since this character won’t be learning Dazing Spell, Snapdragon Fireworks will become less useful as the game continues.

Upon reaching level 5, evaluate your AC based on the gear the GM has allowed you to find or purchase. If your character’s HP is lower than 41 (unlikely), or their AC is lower than 20 (fairly likely), learn the Blur spell. Otherwise, pick Acid Arrow. The bloodline spell Hideous Laughter is a powerful spell for punishing opponents who do not engage you. Pick your new 1st level spell for utility or story telling purposes. Charm Person or an illusion spell fits with the theme.

At level 6 take Spell Focus: Enchantment and learn Hold Person. Hold Person and Hideous Laughter are both enchantment (compulsion) spells, so between the feat and the Fey bloodline arcana the save DC will be 3 higher. This is quite the benefit. However, if the campaign consists mostly of fighting non-humanoid, undead, or construct opponents take point blank shot and learn blink instead. In such a case, retrain Blur (if taken) into Acid Arrow or Burning Ray.

At level 7, take dodge for the bloodline feat. Deep slumber is another powerful compulsion spell that is gained as a bloodline spell, and it may make sense to add Suggestion as a general utility spell also.

At level 8 learn Beast Shape 2, retrain hold person into vampiric touch (it is redundant to have hold person and deep slumber), and increase constitution. At level 12 and up, charisma will begin to be increased. In this fashion, no charisma boosting items will be required to obtain access to higher level spells until level 16. If your character hasn’t found even a Headband of Allurin Charisma +2 by level 16, you have the world’s stingiest GM

At level 9 take Greater Spell Focus (enchantment). Compulsion spells will remain very useful the whole game long, even with only 16 charisma at this stage of the game, thanks to a total of +4 to save DC. The Fleeting Glance ability is excellent for getting into optimal position for tanking in the first round of combat, or escaping late in combat when a long fight of successful tanking leaves you almost dead. Poison (the new bloodline spell) will be useful against opponents that you know have low fortitude saving throws, but the low charisma score makes it very unreliable against anyone else.

At level 10, Telekinesis is the spell of choice. It is versatile, and can be used either for sustained threat (through combat maneuvers or dropping heavy objects on opponents) or for a punishing burst of damage using the “violent thrust” option. Depending on how often you are in fights before having the opportunity to rest, you may wish to retrain Flaming Sphere for a utility spell of some kind.

The Necromancer Tank

This Mage-Tank requires Ultimate Magic, and makes extensive use of the new feats based off of Spell Focus (necromancy).

Make the character human, with 14 dex, 14 con, and 16 intelligence. Take Toughness and Spell Focus (Necromancy). Take a ring for the bonded object. Opposition schools are Evocation and Abjuration. Take hit points for your favoured class bonus Wear leather armour at level 1. Begin the game knowing Chill Touch, Ray of Fatigue, and mage armor. When preparing spells, make sure you prepare Touch of Fatigue and Disrupt Undead (both 0 level spells), and chill touch twice. Touch of Fatigue followed by Ray of Fatigue is a very potent combination when fighting a single, very powerful opponent. Use Arcane Bond to cast the Ray of Fatigue if you find yourself in this situation. Note that using the spells in the reverse order doesn’t work. Take a rank in linguistics. Learn Aquan.

At level 2, start preparing mage armor also. Put another point in linguistics. Learn Auran. Add cause fear to your spell book; it is one of the few necromancy spells that is resisted by will instead of fortitude.

At level 3, take Skeleton Summoner (a feat from UM) and learn Summon Monster 2. Use it to summon 1d3 Skeletons, and use them for the aid-another trick, because skeletons will follow basic commands from their controler (unlike summoned monsters with low intelligence, which only attack enemies). Put another point in linguistics. Learn Ignan. Also learn Ghoul Touch.

At level 4, increase intelligence. Necromancy spells are mostly “save negates,” so high intelligence is very useful later in the game. You won’t need to increase Con or Dex to make the character more durable, because the skeletons can buff your defenses quite nicely if necessary. Put another point in linguistics. Learn Terran. Learn the spell “Defending Bone.”

At level 5, learn and prepare summon monster 3 and Vampiric Touch. Use summon monster 3 to summon 1d4+1 human skeletons. For a feat, take Greater Spell Focus (necromancy). Stop putting points into linguistics, and start learning Knowledge Religion. By this point, the GM might be getting annoyed about all the skeletons. The GM may start using enemies with area of effects to start clearing out all your minions, outnumber your minions so it’s easy to kill them all off quickly, or start sending you against enemies who can turn undead. Don’t worry; you speak all the elemental languages and with summon monster 3 you can summon 1d3 elementals and communicate with them. If the opponent uses area of effects, it is most likely going to be fire damage, so summon fire elementals. If the opponents outnumber your minions, use earth elementals instead; their natural damage reduction will make them nearly unkillable by huge numbers of weak opponents. In the unlikely event that it’s lightning damage, air elementals are so mobile that it’s very easy to not keep everyone in a straight line. Knowing Aquan is mostly for the sake of completeness.

At level 6, take Spell Specialization: Vampiric Touch. This works out to be an extra 1d6 damage. Continue to upgrade knowledge: religion, and add the spells Howling Agony and Accursed Glare. Accursed Glar is particularly valuable because it is resisted by will; a relative rarety among necromancy spells.

Level 7 is a necromancer’s playground. The three great combat spells are Boneshatter, Enervation, and Fear. Pick 2 of them to add to the spell book immediately. Boneshatter is the only of the spells that is useful against undead, but it is compeltely useless against opponents that don’t have bones (like Oozes). Continue to increase knowledge: religion.

Level 8 is a point of great interest to me because of the surprising defensive and “debuffing” power of Lifesight (a necromancer power unlocked at level 6). It can be combined with Obscuring Mist, Fog Cloud, Deeper Darkness, or Solid Fog, granting the necromancer the opportunity to fight with the defensive benefits of concealment while using Lifesight to not suffer the penalties on attack rolls.

At level 9, the necromancer gains the opportunity amusing opportunity to use Ghoul Army. Feat options open up significantly here, but I suggest taking Greater Spell Specialization: Vampiric Touch. Vampiric Touch is such a generally useful spell for a tanking mage that being able to cast it spontaneously will be very useful, and the effectiveness of the spell will continue to save up to level 18. Level up knowledge religion once, also.

At level 10, you can reach 6 ranks of knowledge: religion and take Thanatopic Spell metamagic feat. Now vampiric touch can be cast on undead too!