Editorial: Four visions of the future of tanking

We’re all thinking about tanking at the moment. Does the future contain tanks? And if it doesn’t, is there anything left beyond “lol we al jus DPS”?

Is the future of MMOs an endless hell of mid-60s just-post-Wrath instances with 5 auto-healing, overpowered Death Knights?

Not at all.

Tanking as a mechanic, as Ben Sanders said yesterday , evolved in response to the earliest MMOs’ very simple AI, and the problem of not having clothies die instantly. Buncha monsters? Guy in a dress? What’s to stop them attacking him?

Well, we could implement collision detection, but that’s Hard. Or we could just give another party member the ability to change the monsters’ AI so that they only attack him or her.

And so the tank was born.

But there are a lot of other solutions to the “why doesn’t the clothie die instantly?” question, taken from other computer games, pen-and-paper roleplaying, and even practical experience with real swords. Here are four visions of the future of tanking that doesn’t look a lot like our current “Oy! Ya momma smells like cheese!” model, and frankly, could be a lot cooler…

Shove past the plate

A Live-Action Roleplaying or re-enactment fight goes a lot like this: Two lines of fighters look at each other cautiously. There’s guys with swords and shields at the front, guys with two-handed swords or spears behind them, and either archers or, if you’re in a fantasy setting, guys in cloth with big books at the back. There might be the odd guy in the brush skulking around too, but unless you’re good at that role, it’s a fast path to a long lie-down.

And then… CHARGE! Or, more usually, cautious shuffle. There’s no way you’re getting to the guys at the back, because the guys at the front are physically in the way. And trying to close fast on anyone who’s supported by a pike or a two-hander is another good way to get a nice lie-down. Instead, you’ve got to rely on your own mages/archers to open up a breach (a well-timed Fear spell can do wonders), superior combat skills (if you can take one or two of the armour-clad people down you can break through the line and go crazy with an axe amongst the guys in light armour), or occasionally a crazed charge.

In computer games, of course, there are a bunch of well-known problems with enabling collision detection, mostly to do with douchebags blocking the door to the Auction House. But those are solvable problems – possibly solvable with a “shove past” mechanic – and once you enable physical blocking, you end up with a very interesting mechanic that can enable a lot of complex interactions.

Fighters desperately blocking doorways. Rogues taking the long, hidden route around to come up behind the enemy. Mages blasting the enemy back and opening a hole in the line for the fighters to charge through. Complex, interesting tactics.

Smart mobs mean smart PCs

“Right. I’ve scouted the next room, and we’re looking at half a dozen Orc barbarians – pretty dumb critters, they’ll just attack whatever’s nearest, so paladin, you stand at the front and keep them busy. We’ve got bigger problems, though – there’s a skirmisher there who’s going to try and circle round us, so our rogues need to be watching to counter that, and they’ve got a shaman in there with a big guy in armour who looks like a warlord. They’re going to attempt to take out the weakest member of our party, so – “

“Oh, god, not the dress again.”

“Yep, that’s right. Mage, grab a shield and a sword and try to look threatening. Warrior, get in the dress already and look like you’re casting something.”

There’s no threat in PvP, and yet plenty of people seem to enjoy it. So what would happen if we rewrote monster threat to incorporate varying levels of intelligence?

Well, for starters, we’d see a lot more variety in dungeons. No longer would it be the case that everything’s either going to run toward the closest thing or the thing that did the most damage. Instead, you’d have to learn how different monsters worked – dumb monsters would just attack the nearest thing, whilst smarter monsters might try to target weak enemies or healers, hit the highest damage dealers, mob single targets or charge forward to try and get through the lines. And players would have to use PvP-like tactics to counter them – stealth until the time is right, look like a class you’re not, protect and surround the weakest of your party, bait-and-switch the monsters with situations that look tempting but are dangerous.

From my point of view, that sounds pretty damn cool.

“You’re mine!”

The ogre stares at his opponents, confused – then a hole opens in the squishy humans’ group, and there’s a single human there, not wearing armour, with fire building up on its hands. He doesn’t notice the figure lurking in the shadows – instead, he growls a warcry, and charges at the weak, unarmoured creature.

He gets closer – closer – closer – and then the party’s rogue dives out of his hiding spot, slicing neatly at the ogre’s hamstrings as it charges past, ignoring him. It stumbles and falls – and the rest of the party dives upon the now-helpless creature. One down…

Dungeons And Dragons 4th Edition was heavily inspired by WoW, but didn’t want to take the “threat” mechanic across in its entirety. So the designers came up with what’s possibly its best mechanic – “Marking”.

Essentially, most melee classes have the ability to “mark” a target as theirs – focussing on it in combat. That means that they’re concentrating on it as their main opponent, and if it doesn’t concentrate on them, they can take advantage of that.

Provided that monster attacks them, it won’t be under any penalties – but if it attempts to change its focus and attack someone else, various Bad Things happen to it, from taking a bunch of Holy damage from the Paladin’s ability, to being stunned and unable to move if they’re trying to avoid a Warrior.

I rather like this approach – it’s probably the most similar idea of the ones I’m suggesting here to the existing tank idea, but it makes a whole lot more sense. You’re not insulting a monster into attacking someone else – instead, you’re engaging them and taking advantage of any distraction. It also enables a lot of interesting tactical situations, from the horde of monsters (which ones do you mark?) to the creatures that will cheerfully take the damage if they manage to maneuver to attack your clothies.

The Merlin Effect

It’s 2016, and you’re playing a WoW SuperHeroic Dungeon. You’ve got a full party. One Shaman healer, a rogue, Druid and Death Knight DPS, and your tank, or as they’re known now, “controller” – the mage.

Combat starts, and the DPS charge in and start doing what they do best – spamming AOE damage abilities and, if the healer’s lucky, getting out of the fire. Three of the monsters, meanwhile, spot the guys in cloth at the back and charge toward them, cheerfully ignoring the Death Knight hacking away at their backsides. Strangely, the clothies don’t look too worried.

The mage spins around, and wind howls across the map. The creatures charging toward her are suddenly picked up and flung violently back to where they started charging. The rogue’s getting beaten down by the huge ogre he’s fighting – another spell goes off, and a blast of fire temporarily blinds the creature, allowing the rogue to get behind him and neatly fillet the ogre’s intestines.

Someone’s Done It Wrong, and a pile of adds come charging in from the back toward the party – the mage spins again, and a wall of stone tears away from the ground and blocks their path…

The other great idea from D&D 4th Edition is that of the “controller” class – a class that doesn’t do much damage, or healing, but simply messes with the battlefield and the opponents’ movement. Blasts of wind that knock opponents back or down, walls of elemental earth or fire, illusions that fake opponents into attacking where the party isn’t, the whole nine yards.

We’ve already got these abilities in the game to some extent – Warlocks, for example, can often solo two or three elites by creative use of Fear spells, and Druids and Mages can both root monsters in place. What if, rather than having a “tank” class, there was a class or several classes who had far, far more of these abilities? A tank would be pretty much unnecessary – with a skilled controller in your party, the monsters are only ever going to get in range of the people who you want them to be in range of.

Of the four ideas, this one’s probably my favourite. It’s a really interesting and different way to look at a mage, druid or shaman class – it feels powerful and interesting, and would certainly give the control freaks like me who like being in charge of the battlefield something to do. It allows the monsters to be as smart or as stupid as the game designers want, and unlike a tank class, it’s something that the monsters can have too – an enemy Controller would make for a really interesting fight.

Plus, we’d get the chance to see the mobs dodge out of the way of our fire for a change.

What do you think? Any oideas for the future of tanking? Do any of these visions grab you, or can you think of something even cooler?

_Images from http://mybroadband.co.za/vb/showthread.php/249140-Who-s-going-to-Icon-2010, http://elementz1.webs.com/apps/photos/photo?photoid=45474536, http://www.dalakora.com/?page_id=120, and http://www.cpvipers.co.uk/larp.php_