Saturday, May 2, 2020

Tankies Are People Too

This week saw Shintar and Yeebo both talking about the tank's lot in modern MMORPGs. They agree it's not a happy one.

Yeebo has given up on the archetype altogether:
"I used to really enjoy playing tanks, and now it's far and away my least favorite class role in most MMOs".  
Shintar, after taking a break from tank duties, is very much back on the warhorse with no fewer than "six max-level tanking alts" but she's not finding it as much fun as it used to be either:
 "...if you want other people to tank for you, you might want to consider not turning every trash pull into an uphill battle for them... Else you may find yourself waiting on the group finder soon, wondering why your requests for a tank in guild chat were met with nothing but silence."
It's been a very long time since I tanked for anyone other then myself or an NPC. Even back in the white heat of my grouping days I preferred to main heal. I did have a max level tank class in EverQuest for a couple of years, though, back when, as Shintar says, a tank was seen as "a group's guide and protector".

In those days, as Yeebo reminds us, "it was expected that the rest of the party would try to work with you towards the goal of aggro management, rather than against you". True, it was an expectation that wasn't always met but back when reputation was more than a stat on your character sheet, magicians who couldn't control their pets and wizards who liked to nuke 'em til they glowed tended to find groups remarkably scarce, despite all those "LFM" messages scrolling through chat.

My Shadowknight, with the trusty two-pronged fork he used for much of his tanking career.
Like Yeebo, I played a Shadowknight. When I first started in EverQuest the only class anyone wanted standing between them and the mob was a Warrior but by the time I was in a position to care, as I ground my way slowly through the fifties to the then-cap of level 60 in the Velious era, hybrid tanks were not just accepted but often preferred.

The EverQuest of the time was still a roleplaying game. Quite a few players spoke in character and had backstories.  More than that, though, it was a game in which every player, like it or not, played a role dictated by the class they chose.

It's become a commonplace to say that EQ was a game in which grouping was not just expected but required. That was always a misconception. From the beginning, EverQuest was designed to accomodate both group and solo play. The trick was knowing which class had been intended to go it alone.

The problem, as Yeebo points out in his reply to my comment on his post, was that although, as numerous later interviews confirmed, the designers had prepared the ground for soloing, they neglected to mention anything about it at the point when it mattered most - character creation. In fact, they seemed quite determined to keep the whole concept of soloing to themselves.

I could get a few posts out of the things they say in here...

I forget what it used to say on the character creation screen but I have the original manual in front of me as I type and the only advice I can find is this: "Norrath is a dangerous and unforgiving land, especially for a solo beginner traveller. The best way to survive and prosper is to join up with a group of players..."

But who read the manual? Plenty of people couldn't wait for that. They looked at the choices, picked something familiar like Warrior or Rogue and off they went. They'd learn better but maybe not before they'd soured on the whole idea.

I'm the kind of person who reads the manual from cover to cover before they even install the game. I also did a ton of research online before I went to the store to buy a copy. I knew I wanted to solo because just going online was scary enough without having to actually speak to anyone, so I did my due diligence. It still took me a couple of weeks and several restarts before I finally happened on a class that could, genuinely and enjoyably, solo.

That class was Druid. I swiftly followed it with Necromancer, which was even better. I learned later that the original EverQuest design brief had those two marked as designated solo classes. Over time I came to learn the hierarchy of soloability, Necromancers at the top, followed by Druids, Magicians, Wizards, Enchanters and Bards in increasing order of skill requirement.

You'd think the big ogre would be the tank, wouldn't you? Nope, the ogre's the healer. The frog's the tank.
In truth, any class could solo to the original level cap of fifty - provided the player had the patience of several saints. Yes, even rogues, a class so broken in the base game that it struggled even in a group setting. I soloed my rogue into the twenties. It was not fun but we weren't all that bothered about frivolous things like entertainment back then. I knew someone who soloed a rogue all the way to the cap so it was possible. I'm not saying it was sane. Also that was after a couple of expansions had turned rogues into something more than feeble fighters armed with pointy sticks.

Anyone who stuck around for more than a few sessions soon learned EverQuest was a game of archetypes as well as classes. The manual is astonishingly blasé about that: "When putting a party together, consider the balance of the players in the group. It's important to have strong fighters and mystical spell casters, but it's also a good idea to add a cleric or other type of healer..."

Gosh! You think?

In fact, even in 1999 there were groups that tried to dispense with the services of both healers and tanks, particularly at low levels. I played in some groups that had neither, even as far as the mid-to-late leveling game. I knew enchanters and bards who claimed their speciality was "everything" as they grabbed the tanking, pulling, buffing, debuffing and crowd control roles for themselves.

I was there as main healer because that was the one role they couldn't claim to offer, although some bards would argue even with that. Grouping with players like those in the mid-40s and low 50s was an experience I still haven't forgotten, much though I've tried.

An excellent paladin tank, two pets, suggesting a necromancer and a magician must be safely esconced somewhere to the rear. Someone I don't recognize lurking round the back of the mob. A rogue, I guess. I'm the cleric, out of shot, taking the picture.

The original holy trinity comprised tank, heals and crowd control. Ideally those roles would be filled by a warrior, a cleric and an enchanter but there were several acceptable options for each slot if you couldn't find exactly the class you preferred.

With a group size of six that left three spots and there were plenty of options: buffs and debuffs, spot healing, off-tanking, pulling... and DPS. That was the role you filled last. You probably only really wanted one specialist and that would be a wizard.

There were only two specialist DPS classes to choose from, the other being the rogue. If you took a rogue it usually meant they were a friend or guildmate of someone in the group. Either that or you were feeling sorry for them. Or there was a door that needed unlocking. Some rogues were very good players and people knew it.

You pretty much had to be a good player if you mained a rogue. Mrs Bhagpuss played a rogue who got groups that way, back when reputation mattered, but even so, mostly she got groups by putting them together. If it's your group they have to take you.

Other than that, dps was everyone's responsibility and no-one's. When Yeebo describes the modern-day tank as "basically a crappy DPS", it's not much different to how it was for everyone, once upon a time.

What a tank sees. Mob in my face, about to give me a slap. Mrs Bhagpuss's rogue behind him. Our enchanter, also creator of the custom channel that provided most of my group play for eighteen months, levitating in werewolf form while making excuses in chat . To my left, I think, is one of our regular tanks playing her ranger, which would explain why I'm tanking. Out of sight, another excellent cleric and someone whose name I remember but whose class I forget. It was a long time ago.

As the content got harder and particularly as the locations became more dangerous - in dungeons, especially - group composition solidified. I did run with some all-DPS groups as late as Lost Dungeons of Norrath but they were mostly seen as avant garde theater more than serious gameplay.

While hardcore raiders and dedicated dungeoneers doubled down on only inviting the right class for the job, more casual players became increasingly restless with the strictures imposed by set roles. Even in a groupcentric game like EverQuest you increasingly saw people soloing - or trying to. Quad- kiting, swarm-kiting, reverse-kiting, charm soloing, root-rotting - the overland was rife with people doing their best to avoid having to tank or heal or socialize.

As a player of many alts and most classes, I could see all angles. I loved main healing for a group. I haven't done it for a decade but even now I see it as the zenith of MMORPG gameplay. I also loved the crowd control role, which on a good day felt like pulling the strings for a particularly violent puppet show.

Good as those roles felt when they worked, I can't deny they were stressful. Playing a cleric required a peculiar combination of patience and alertness. I could keep it up for a good session, two or three hours before I tired, but when it came to crowd control, I could only stumble around the foothills of the skill mountain a great enchanter was expected to climb for half that long, at best.

Tanking lay somewhere inbetween. I found it lot more stressful than healing but I felt I had a better grasp of the essentials, taunting and holding aggro, than I did with the Enchanter's intimidating toolset. I still couldn't tank for as long as I could heal. though. Tanking requires a lot of physical effort, hauling the mobs around, turning them, positioning, jumping to someone to grab aggro then scuttling back into your corner.

Down but not out. Let's see a Warrior try that! As a shadowknight I could tank and solo. So long as I wasn't in a hurry.
And the noise! Tanking is so loud. You're right in the center of the action. All the explosions are going off in your face, the weapons are hitting the armor right by your head, the mob is yelling in your ear...

I found it wearing. Very wearing. I didn't not enjoy it but I usually had to be persuaded to play my SK instead of my cleric. Between the two I never went short of offers to group but I didn't always want to take those offers up. When I wanted some me time I soloed. It might be slow but I relished the peace and quiet.

When World of Warcraft launched in late 2004 it kicked open a door that was already half ajar. By modern standards, as we've seen so plainly with the coming of Classic, vanilla WoW wasn't as solo-friendly as it seemed at the time, but by comparison with its contemporaries it was a revelation and a game changer. More than that, a genre changer.

The holy trinity shapeshifted into the form it's taken ever since - tank, healer, DPS. Instead of being an afterthought anyone could provide, damage became king. In a devil's bargain, as Yeebo and Shintar ably describe, tanks and healers retained all the responsibility while losing all the respect. They turned into the kind of parents every teenager resents, needed but not wanted.

It wasn't until Guild Wars 2 broke the mould again, doing away with the trinity altogether, along with aggro, taunting, healing, crowd control and almost everything anyone thought MMORPG combat couldn't get along without, that it seemed there might yet be a third way. Sadly that turned out to be a step too far for most players. These days even GW2 offers a soft trinity and semi-defined class roles.

The only wizard I ever played in twenty years. She got to level 12. I did not like the DPS role at all.
The ironic thing is that after all of that, in most MMORPGs I've played everyone still does DPS, just like in the old days. The main difference is that now it matters. It's not good enough any more to just keep on poking at the mob until you wear it down. Now you have targets to meet, meters to watch and there's a scorecard.

In my serious grouping days, which ended sometime around 2008 or so, the only post-fight report that mattered was whether you and your group were still standing. Every fight was win/lose, not a time trial.

Damage meters were just making their presence felt in EQ when my career as a main healer ended. I installed and ran a parser to see how I was doing, just for my own interest. Groups were beginning to quote numbers at each other although no-one was taking names and kicking butt because of it.

I got out at the right time, I think. Main healing and tanking were stressful enough without some jumped-up time and motion johnny waving a virtual clipboard in my face, asking if I couldn't throw a few nukes between heals or taunts.

I certainly wouldn't argue that, as Yeebo says, "In modern MMOs playing a DPS is arguably much more fun than it used to be". When the only classes I knew that had dealing damage as their main function were rogues and wizards, I used to think it was by far the most tedious of all the archetypes. I never played either class beyond the lowest levels and they weren't much fun even there.

Still, I'm not sure I agree with Yeebo that what we've gained has been a good trade for what we've lost. I still think there's a better option out there. For a while people seemed to be searching for it. Trion, with the soul system in Rift; FFXIV's jobs; the aforementioned freestylings of Guild Wars 2.

Sadly, such innovation seems to have come to an end with the drying-up of the triple-A well. Big money doesn't go to MMORPG design any more and ageing games and niche new entrants all rely heavily on nostalgia and fan service.

I'm under there somewhere.
Given the choice, I'd prefer a system designed to assign specific functions to classes. Every player should be free to solo, duo, group or raid but to do so they should have to make a choice over which of their characters to play. If you want to solo, pick a solo class. If you want to get groups quickly, play a class that groups always need. If you want to do both, play more than one character.

Yes, it's vital everyone should be able to play with friends without artificial barriers getting in the way but having to play a class that fits in with the classes your friends have chosen is neither artificial nor a barrier. It's synergy.

Having all the classes on one character, as in Rift and FFXIV, is the same thing as having separate classes with defined roles, just tidier. And while it sounds great on paper, in practice most people choose to stick with one or two roles anyway, for good reason. Playing well in a game with combat based around archetypes takes skill and skill takes practice and time. Your character may have all the skills but you probably don't.

That's why I end up back at GW2. It's a true casual's game, incredibly forgiving of incompetence, inability and ignorance. You don't have to be good to play and if you are it doesn't help much. No-one even notices.

Its not stressful at all, at least not until you find yourself in a dungeon or a fractal or, god forbid, a raid. At which point you may well find yourself thinking wistfully of the days when everyone had a well-defined role and stuck to it.

In the end I think I probably prefer where we are to where we've come from. I do sometimes miss the structure and the satisfaction of a game with strong archetypes. I miss main healing. And crowd control. But I don't miss tanking. Not at all.


  1. I dunno, even twenty years ago, I was playing games with less rigidly defined archetypal roles. They existed even then, just perhaps not part of the mainstream zeitgeist who found one defined role per player easier to grok.

    The MUD I played was each player had numerous alts. Some alts were stay at home characters to craft and brew consumables for the combat characters. Their class just happened to be “cleric.” Combat characters went out and fought monsters and everyone was expected to be dps, the class you used was either the class with the highest spammable damage skill, like thief or vampire, or a mage for the special mobs which were damage skill resistant to the former. The tank was someone with the gear for highest hp to soak damage and they just sucked up consumables to absorb attacks while doing the same amount of damage. When they ran out or were going to die, we tank swapped by letting them exit combat and someone else randomly took over.

    City of Heroes had classes with strong role overlap. Tank not needed if the controller could area control everything. Tank or controller not needed if there were so many defenders that stacking buffs and debuffs made everyone sturdy enough to not melt. City of Villains deliberately hybridized the roles that had evolved out of CoH even further for both more soloability and group coverage - all you needed was a few people who knew what they were doing to protect the rest.

    Guild Wars 1 had fairly strongly defined roles, but there was both some variance in that specific builds had to be crafted to deal best with distinct situations, and one or a few players could pull off multiple roles with henchman or hero characters. (Man, I’m still waiting for a more modern game to embrace this particular style of gameplay more. There’s a reason some people multibox. Managing multiple characters can be a headrush.)

    1. I veer to one side then the other. It's been so long since I played a real, dedicated, role-defined, group-preferred class that I feel very nostalgic about it. I did enjoy main healing more than anything and I liked all the roles that felt like they put me in control - basically everything except DPS.

      That said, I loved playing self-sufficient classes that could do just about everything for themselves. I had several phases of grouping in EQ and EQ2 among other games and I probably played as many hybrids as I played strict roles. I played a Beastlord for a long time, for a start.

      The odd thing about GW2 is that although it supposedly facilitates non-prescriptive play, I've spent eight years mainly playing the same class - I have three accounts and I mostly play an Elementalist on all of them. What's more, they are all Staff eles. I've levelled all the other classes and many of the Elite classes but I would guess more than 75% of all my game hours have been spent on Staff Elementalist, nearly always in Fire.

  2. Back in TorilMUD the basic trinity of any group was tank, heals, and damage mitigation, the conj who could cast stone skin or dragon scales that would keep the tank from taking too much damage. Everything after that was filler.

    My memories of early EQ was tank, heals, crowd control, and after that you might in invite a druid for mob tracking and pulling, or somebody with buffs and alt heals.

    My own aversion to random groups in WoW is largely based on either tanks who are in a hurry to complete the dungeon as fast as possible or DPS that are in an even bigger hurry than the tank and try to pull ahead of the tank to speed things up.

  3. I was surprised by how much traction that tanking post of mine gained, considering it was just a rant I felt like getting off my chest after a somewhat annoying evening. I guess "whining about people misbehaving in group content" is one of those blogging classics.

    I still prefer healing and tanking to dps though. The latter seems to be mostly about memorising an ability rotation and then repeatedly executing it perfectly, which doesn't feel all that fun to me. I much prefer the "puzzle" presented to tanks and healers, whether it consists of which friendly health bars to fill first or how to handle a bunch of hostile mobs.

    The only time I remember really enjoying dps was as a shadow priest in WoW circa 2007, but a big part of that was that my damage actually mattered less than my utility. That's one reason for me to look forward to a Classic TBC, to re-experience a time in which there was a bit more to WoW's trinity than just tank/healer/dps.

  4. I say I prefer healing, and hate tanking (and am indifferent about dps) in most MMOs, but Rift was the game that broke all the boundaries for me. I loved warrior tanking in that (Paladin/Riftblade/something), and I loved support mage (Archon) as well. Not to mention Mage tanking (added later) or Mage healing!

    I suspect I would have loved playing support in Everquest (or EQ2 if such exists), but I've not gotten into EQ1 as yet in any even casual way. Do the roles you describe in detail still count in the modern game for much, at least on the progression servers?

    I prefer a game with roles, but one with more variety than just the modern trinity. I played Balance druid in WoW as a support character for Cataclysm at least - it wasn't until ability pruning started in earnest that this was no longer viable. It wasn't a support character in the formal sense - just a hybrid with lots of utility but that's how I felt it played. And I had no real experience (from EQ or other game) to compare that too.

    Food for thought indeed. I was already tempted by the announcement of the two new EQ TLP servers to come, and may even try the game more seriously for once.

    1. Everquest also has an officially approved emulator that is as close to classic Everquest as possible. It emulates the original 1999 game + the first two expansions.

  5. How did I miss this post? Great read, and thanks for the plug! Among your possible "better ways" the only one I've tried is Rift. I saw that you could build a group focused character there if you wanted to, but I only mixed in souls that would help with DPS and pet focused builds. I have played a good bit of FFXI, which lets you change jobs at will. However, you have to go back to your house to do it, you can't swap your class out willy nilly.

    I like classes that can swap over to doing something different in a group from what they do on their own. Loremaster in LoTRO used to get this about right to my tastes. Solid soloers, but in a group you offered debuffs, crowd control, power regen and backup healing (a strong heal on a long timer). They played kind of like a WoW mage and a hunter had a love child solo, and kind of like an EQ Enchanter in a group. You could also tank well or do decent DPS solo on some other classes of you built them right. However a few years ago the game switched to trees and now you have to pick between group utility or solo utility. I find the game much diminished because of it.

    As far as long term solution, I kind of assumed it was going to be games that let you easily swap your specialization on the fly. However that has it's own downsides.


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