The D&D Version of The Iron Bull

I’m dipping my toes here into Character Creation Speculation.  Every week the Total Party Thrill Podcast creates a new character trying to hit a new archetype.  Sometimes they make character from fiction like Spiderman, sometimes they make a character who fights different, an archer who fights in Melee, or exploit a specific rule like how The Faustian Fiddler gets the highest possible performance check.  The many many posts on my PCs to the contrary, I don’t usually play with 5E D&D character creation much because 1) I don’t play many different characters 2) I tend to build single classed characters and 3) I tend to make specific characters for specific games.

But I got a bug in me to make a character (probably because D&D and Dragon Age have been off for a couple weeks) based on The Iron Bull from Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The Iron Bull is kind of the only character in the Dragon Age Universe that really merits thought about their build in 5E since it is a low-magic setting.  Blackwall is an interesting character but he’s just a human guy.  A Fighter maybe with some Rogue.  Varric is a Dwarf Rogue with a Crossbow.  Cole would be the only other character I’d take a hard look at creating but his abilities and nature are so unique to the rules of the Dragon Age setting.

Iron Bull though, or rather, The Iron Bull.  I think this is a character that could inspire a unique 5th Edition D&D PC.  Who is The Iron Bull?  To answer that you have to know a bit about Dragon Age Backstory and I’m going to try to skip the pages and pages of lore to give you the nickel tour.  Iron Bull is a Qunari.  This Q-Word refers to two things in the setting, a race of tall powerful grey-skinned horned humanoids, and a philosophy/religion that almost all members of that species follow.  This philosophy is referred to as the Qun.  TVtropes says it is most similar in real life to a mixture of Islam and Confucianism.  It governs all aspects of life for those who follow it.

Iron Bull was born into this philosophy.  Like all raised under the Qun he was raised communally and his caretakers watched to see what job would suit him when he grew up.  Iron Bull was a born fighter but he could also lie.  So he was trained for the Ben-Hassrath, the secret police of the Qunari, as a spy.  Like all Qunari he got a name at this time.  Iron Bull would be a nickname he chose himself, his given name is Hissrad, which in Qunari means “Weaver of Illusions” or more bluntly, “Liar.”  He served on the frontlines of the Qunari’s brutal and never-ending wars until he developed severe PTSD and asked for a new job.  So he was sent out into the world away from the frontline to pretend to be a mercenary while making occasional reports to his superiors.  Out in the world he took the name “Iron Bull” for his hard nature and giant rack of horns.

Thus we have The Iron Bull.  He’s a hard fighting, hard drinking, pansexual commander of his own mercenary company.  He offers to sell his swords to The Inquisition in the video game and makes no secret that he’s a spy to get that into the open.  I must point out that Bull is not a bumbling brute.  Iron Bull is one of, if not the most, intelligent, insightful, and perceptive people in your Dragon Age Inquisition party despite having one eye.  He’s equally capable of playing chess in his head with no board against the Elf Wizard, the smartest member of the party, or cutting an enemy in three pieces with a single stroke.  He notices everything, lies effortlessly, and subtly manipulates everyone around him to stay in control.  His battlecry translates to, “I will bring myself sexual pleasure while thinking of this later, with respect.”  He gave his eye for a man, a stranger to him, being attacked by soldiers.  The core of his conflict in the story is, will he turn his back on the mercenary life he enjoys to remain loyal to the philosophy that gives his life purpose and order?

What does this mean to 5th Edition D&D?  At his core, Bull needs to be a Strength based melee character skilled in the arts of a spy.  In canon he is in no way magical and in fact spent most of his life fighting against Mages.  The typical D&D setting typically has less of a stigma against mages though.  So you have a few choices here: What race, what martial class, and how to get those spying abilities?

On Race I think you have several good options.  Again, remember that what makes Iron Bull immediately unique is that you expect him to be a big dumb fighter when he’s actually extremely intelligent.  He plays against a stereotype.  Unfortunately this will fall heavier on RPing these traits since abilities are so expensive in 5E.  Goliath is probably the closest in size and nature to Dragon Age’s Qunari.  Minotaur from Ravnica gives you the horns that make the name Iron Bull fit.  But I would also consider Eberron’s Warforged, Dragonborn, or the Zariel Tiefling Variant from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.  All five of these get a Strength bonus, some get Con bonuses, and the last three get a Charisma bump (at least Envoy Warforged can).  The Triton gets all three although by canon the Triton actually shorter folk but you could always change that.

While you could easily make the Fighter your martial class I prefer Barbarian.  It fits Iron Bull’s inherent nature as The Big Guy as opposed to Another Fighter Guy.  In Dragon Age he is a Reaver which deals out more damage the more damage you take.  His size and constitution provide as much protection as the heavy plate a fighter depends on.  Also his art mostly depicts him without a shirt, so, Barbarian.  But what path?  This isn’t exactly low fantasy but I like Zealot.  Iron Bull is a zealot for the Qun.  He is a believer.  This especially fits a Tiefling of Zariel which really leans into a Fallen Angel vibe I dig very much.  A Zealot barbarian also costs nothing to raise from the dead other than a spell slot which matches Dragon Age where if one person is still alive at the end of the fight, everyone in the party just gets up.  Zealot gets a leaderly battlecry at level 10 and at level 14 you don’t die while raging.

Making this character a good spy is a bit trickier.  You should give him the spy background feature but good spying takes Expertise with a capital E doesn’t it?  And maybe a few tricks up your sleeve.  The idea here is to multiclass and you have two options.  First, Rogue.  Straightforward.  Take one level for Expertise and Thieves’ Cant, two levels for Cunning Action, and three levels for an archetype.  Probably Inquisitive although Assassin gives you some spike damage.  I think I would prefer Bard, for 3 levels.  This gets you Bardic Inspiration, Jack of All Trades, The All Important Expertise in Two Skills, and a Bardic College.  Since Valor Bard gives you mostly the same crap as your Barbarian levels I’d recommend Lore.  This gives you 3 more skills and Cutting Words.

In addition, three levels of Bard gives you spells, 2 cantrips, four 1st level slots and two 2nd level slots.  Granted, Iron Bull isn’t supposed to be a mage of any sort.  If I was playing this character in Thedas I wouldn’t do Bard.  But this probably ain’t Low Magic Dragon Age, it’s High Magic D&D.  Lots of tricks you can pull at these low levels although the fun ones like Detect Thoughts, Suggestion, Charm Person or Zone of Truth require saving throws and I’m not sure how much you want to put into Charisma.  You may even want less Barbarian.  Total Party Thrill has a build called the Savage Sage that uses 14 levels of Barbarian, 5 levels of Warlock, and 1 level of Knowledge cleric for goodies like Guidance and Bless.

You could start Bard or Rogue to get more skills and proficiency in Dexterity saves while your Barbarian-ness will cover your Strength/Con saves.  But with Zealot Barbarian and maybe even lower Con if you go Bardbarian you really need to start with Medium Armor which you don’t get multiclassing into Barbarian.  Recall the Barbarian gets Advantage on Dex Saves against “Effects You Can See” (Traps/Spells).  A breastplate and +2 Dex will give you more AC.  A Zealot barbarian doesn’t tank as well as a Bear Totem Barbarian so the High AC is probably better, objectively speaking, but maybe not.  I’m not good at this.  It usually takes me a couple sessions before realizing something like, “Oh, Dragon Heist doesn’t go to level 6 so Valor Bard is kind of shit from level 3-5 compared to Lore Bard.”  It really depends on the campaign you’re in and the party makeup.

If I was doing this character in Thedas I would likely go Goliath Barbarian with 2 levels of Rogue.  Goliath’s big feature, damage reduction once per short rest, is better for a Bonus Action hungry character like this rather than Minotaur.  You would need those bonus actions for Raging and Cunning Actions.  The Minotaur lets you do your Horns (1d6+Str) as a bonus action IF you use the Dash Action, which you’re not going to be doing since you already used your Bonus Action to Dash so you could use your big goddamn weapon.

I think if I wanted to do this character for something like Avernus, I might go Tiefling, Zealot Barbarian, and Lore Bard.  Get your Barbarian to level 5 for extra attack, then do your Bard, then the rest Barbarian and you can also bail out and get more Bard if you want.  Probably no less than 14 levels of one class, no more than 6 of the other.  Put the two Expertise Skills into Deception and Insight for the most Iron Bull-y spy instead of Perception since he does have the one eye.  Downside for Avernus is that your Tiefling Bonus Spell, Searing Smite, deals fire damage which will probably be completely useless in Avernus.  I’m curious if they’ll come up with a way around that so PCs dealing Fire Damage or PCs resisting Fire Damage won’t have too hard or easy a time.

So who is my Iron Bull?  Well, if I’m going Tiefling Bardbarian for Descent into Avernus, she was or maybe is a loyal agent of Zariel.  A planetouched soldier in the Blood War sent to infiltrate this band of upstarts mucking about in Baldur’s Gate.  Demon originating Minotaur would work the same from the other side of the Blood War.  Maybe she serves another Devil Lord of Hell and is a double agent.  Maybe a reskinned Fallen Aasimar (which could also be a good race) on a redemption arc.

Iron Bull’s background in Inquisition mimics Zariel’s rule with few changes.  Zariel is the newest Duke of The Nine Hells.  She was an Angel who grew corrupted by her zeal to fight The Blood War.  It makes sense that she would want to build her own bloodline of Tieflings and have more control of them than say, the default Asmodeus Tieflings which have spread thoughout the multiverse.  It makes sense that she would want to breed more soldiers.

In Dragon Age, Iron Bull’s great choice is between his comrades in arms, the mercenaries he leads, and whether or not to sacrifice them for the government he serves.  It is a classic choice between being Chaotic Good or Lawful Evil.  In the game, this choice falls on the player.  An alliance with Iron Bull’s Qunari or the lives of the quirky soldiers you’ve come to know over the game.  From the way the Dragon Age Inquisition DLC goes the writers seem to indicate strongly that there is a right choice and I won’t spoil that here.

I said I don’t like to randomly build characters because I tend to build specific PCs for specific campaigns but I think I just did.