I am the ruler of a vast realm. I came from nothing, the youngest son of insignificant parentage, yet I rose above my peers and wrested away the leadership of my clan through my prowess in battle. I made use of my strengths while exploiting the weaknesses of others. Through conquest, diplomacy, and treachery I conquered the other clans and tribes, forging them into a mighty nation.
Now I sit upon my throne, brooding deep within the fortress I have raised. A gaggle of five adventurers have invaded my domain. A temporary alliance of convenience, none had met another prior to a few minutes ago, but now they slaughter the warriors that I have trained through grueling wars spanning a decade. One by one my finest lieutenants fall until this group of marauders enter my presence.
The first is garbed from head to toe in plate armor, the visor of his helm pulled down so I can barely even see the slits of his eyes. There is hardly a gap in the many plates for a ready blade to penetrate to skin. He hides behind a shield almost as large as himself. Beside him stand two other fighters in lighter armor. One wears chain mail and clutches an enormous two-handed battle axe forged by a master weaponsmith. The other is garbed in boiled leather and has a fiery arrow nocked in her great bow crafted from the horn and sinew of some fell beast. Behind them stand the final two invaders wearing only cloth garments. The first is a wizard with a great staff in her hands, ready to call down fire and blast me with lightning. The second holds only an orb and a book, yet I know in him is the greatest danger. Whatever damage I deal to his compatriots, this one will heal as if the wounds had never been.
I rise from my throne, ready to attack with all of the wisdom and prowess of a lifetime on the battlefield. A cunning warlord, I know that until the healer falls, any damage I inflict will be meaningless. Perhaps in the heat of battle, my anger will misdirect me and I will lash out at those who cause me pain: the mage, the archer, or the fighter with the massive battle axe. But no… as the battle begins, I ignore all of my intuition, experience, and training. I attack the one person I cannot hurt. The one who wears armor so thick that few attacks can break through his defenses and those that do are quickly healed. Why, you may ask? Because he made a rude gesture and called me an unpleasant name…
The archetypal concept of the tank assumes that PvE opponents have the mental capacity of cattle. Instead of a monster intelligently attacking what would make his enemy most vulnerable (the Healer) or what is the greatest actual threat (the DPS), it attacks the one opponent that is, in actuality, often the smallest real threat and the hardest to kill: the Rodeo Clown… er Tank.
This isn’t meant to poke fun at Tanks. Holding aggro is a much more challenging task than simply dishing out damage. It requires a higher level of situational awareness and situational control, especially if members of the group don’t know how to moderate their own aggro. I don’t know much about the rodeo, but I suspect that rodeo clowns are at least as competent as the riders they are protecting too. The purpose of this analogy is instead to point a finger at a flaw in the system which is centered on a combination of monster AI behavior patterns and the means by which the archetypal tank conducts his business.
Tanks generally maintain aggro through various “taunts” or specific attacks that have a higher threat even if they do not necessarily do more damage. This is counter-intuitive. It ascribes to the opponent an absurd level of stupidity. One might expect such methods to work against certain beasts, and perhaps some low-IQ humanoids, but not against opponents of average intelligence let alone Boss monsters who presumably have reached their position through prowess and ingenuity.
As I was contemplating this article, I tried to find examples of MMO tanks in history and at first I came up empty. On a basic level, there is nothing comparable. No standard arm of battle has existed who’s primary purpose is to get opponents to attack it. I did realize, however, that there are plenty of examples where an individual, unit, or some type of stratagem temporarily took on this purpose. At the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal lured the Romans to attack his main Celtic line (the Tank) while he maneuvered his Africans and around the flanks and assaulted with his cavalry at the rear (the DPS). The Napoleonic era is replete with examples where a cavalry charge forced enemy infantry to form a square which was crushed by an infantry charge or where an infantry attack forced the enemy to form a line which was then flanked by cavalry. At the Battle of Gazala, Rommel fixed the British front by an attack with his Italian Divisions (the Tank) while he drove his heavier Afrika Korps around the southern flank (the DPS). At Chancellorsville, Lee used Longstreet to affix the Union Army while Jackson marched around to attack them from behind. Any time you hear terms like “hammer and anvil” or “fixing force,” odds are someone is playing the Tank.
So how can MMO Tanking be changed to reflect something more feasible than a taunt? I believe it can be fixed in two ways, but for this to really work one major change needs to happen to MMO dynamics. Characters need to occupy space. As it stands right now, players can pass through or occupy the same space as other players and monsters. I suspect the reason this was done was to prevent griefing. In AC, PK players were designed (at least initially, I don’t recall if it changed) to occupy space. The grief aspect of this was most readily apparent on Darktide, the all PK server. Players could conceivably block doors, cut off players from merchants, and so on. I would shudder to see what mayhem could be caused in WoW’s Dalaran by a handful of griefers under those rules. The solution, however, I think is a simple one. Allow players to take up space, but design it so that other players of the same side (or even the opposing side in a neutral zone like Dalaran) can shoulder by them, moving the character slightly and temporarily out of the way as they pass.
If a player takes up space, a whole new tableau of strategies open up in combat. This means that when a Tank stands between a monster and more vulnerable members of his party, he is actually standing between the monster and the more vulnerable member of his party! To attack a healer, an archer, or a mage, the opponent must somehow get past the Tank rather than passing through like the Tank doesn’t exist.
This brings up the second real Tanking technique: disengaging. Why were Hannibal, Rommel, and Lee successful in the examples listed above? In simplistic terms, because it is extremely difficult to extricating oneself from combat (most military experts agree that this is the hardest of all operations). The Roman Army couldn’t simply pivot from the Celts to fight the Africans on their flanks. Nor could Hooker withdraw his II or XII Corps to counter Jackson’s attack. If he had, Longstreet would simply have run him down. The same concept applies in individual combat. A person dueling someone to their front cannot very well turn around to attack someone behind them. Nor can they ignore the person engaging them and run past to attack someone else. Any one of these maneuvers leaves them vulnerable to deadly attacks from the flank or behind.
As it stands now, attacking someone from behind in an MMO gives certain bonuses. The opponent usually can’t block, dodge, or parry, critical hit chances may increase, and some special attacks do more damage (or are only executable from behind). The problem is that these bonuses do not fully reflect the vulnerability of a rear attack. This is a sensible precaution in a world where players and monsters do not take up space. It is very easy to walk through someone and attack them from behind. But if characters take up space and engaging someone makes breaking off more difficult, then it is quite reasonable to allow rear attacks to have the much more potent effect they should.
Allowing players to occupy space would revolutionize the possibilities for the Tanking role. Players would no longer have to rely on dubious taunts to draw enemy ire. Instead, engaging an enemy would fix them, just like it does in real life and make attacks on more vulnerably players more difficult. It would allow maneuvers such as a flank or rear attack to live up to a realistic level of potency. Additionally, it would permit PvP and PvE combat to operate under more similar conditions then they do now. The hammer and anvil could reach its true potential.
A Semi-Related Rant:
Before I bring this conversation to a close, I want to diverge into a related rant about the term “Tank” itself. I’m not sure where the term originally came from and I suspect that, as with a lot of gaming slang, it emerged from the nether and gained acceptance without a discernable source. I doubt anyone could say something like, “The term was first used by Biff at 8:53pm EST on February 18, 2001.”
In any case, as the term is applied it has very little in common with its namesake. The purpose of a real tank has never been to “draw aggro.” Nor has it been just to absorb damage. First developed in World War I by the British, the early tanks were intended to break the gridlock of trench warfare by being able to survive enemy fire and then breach the opposing trench line. They were not intended to draw fire away from the infantry, but rather survive such fire and affect the breakthrough themselves. Indeed, the emblem for US Armored Divisions personifies the purpose of the tank with its use of three colors symbolizing the melding of the three classic branches: Blue for Infantry, Red for Artillery, and Yellow for Cavalry. In essence, the tank is not something that just draws fire and takes damage. It melds the three core branches for maximum potential. It combines the survivability of the infantry with the firepower of the artillery and the mobility of the cavalry. Revolutionized in World War II, tanks have since been employed in mass formations and used as the actual spearhead of ground attacks, supported by mobilized (and later mechanized) infantry, artillery, and air support.