Guest post: The mind of a tank

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Syp is AFK on vacation this week and put out a call for substitute writers! Today’s guest post is brought to you by Linguistic Dragon of the Ultima Journeys blog — check it out!

In stark contrast to Syp, there’s only been two MMOs that I’ve really devoted any time to. In fact, it’s even arguable that there’s only really been one, as I kind of ignored the Ms in the first one I played and treated it pretty much as a single-player experience that you happened to have to be online for. Consequently, my understanding of the traditional MMO roles – the tank, the DPS, and the healer – was mostly nebulous, conceptual, and entirely theoretical. DPS hit things, tank got hit by things, healer made sure nobody bit it in the process. Simple enough.

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My first MMO was Lord of the Rings Online, back in 2011 or so. I gave every class a whirl at some point or another, and it was through those classes that I got my first sense of what role did what. They also shaped my image of what those roles should be – people used Guardians and Wardens to tank, so okay, tanks were the big burly guys with the fancy heavy armor and the big ol’ shields that might not dish out a lot of damage but could sure take it. Minstrels and Rune-Keepers were healers, so okay, healers stuck to the robes and couldn’t take hits very well. And so on and so forth.

In recent days, though, my understanding of MMO roles has shifted. And not just because I’ve actually got some experience running group content now, either. No, said shift began not just because of the content I was playing, but because of the character I was using to do so.
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See, I’m the sort of gamer that tends to ascribe a certain persona to his characters. Comes from being a writer, I suppose. Regardless of the game I’m playing, whether there’s an abundance of choice or opportunity for roleplay (however you define that) or not, I’ve always got some sort of background and general personality in mind as I play. Sometimes it’s just rudimentary, sometimes it’s pretty developed. Sometimes it happens on the fly as I play. Other times I’ll borrow a character I’ve written or played elsewhere and see how he fares in the game world. Whatever the case, though, my in-game character’s always more than just a face and stats in my mind.
About five months or so ago, I gave The Secret World a shot, and got hooked pretty swiftly. The setting and general tone of the game put me in mind of a character I’d played in a decently long-running storytelling game with some friends – one that I found myself missing rather a lot – so I approximated him as best I could with the character creator, rechristened him “Ketea,” and sent him off into the game world as part of the Dragon, the faction he seemed the most naturally suited for. The time came to choose his initial weaponset, and after some consideration I went with a blade and chaos magic, the former because that’s what he’d used and the latter because it felt thematically appropriate.
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Then I discovered they were both ideal weapons for tanking in the game, and I’m pretty sure I laughed – hard – for a solid minute.
Ketea in his original incarnation was pretty much the physical opposite of what I pictured “The Tank” to be, in pretty much every way. Tanks were supposed to be stalwart, big and bulky, strong and tough. Ketea, on the other hand, was not. More the bookish type than anything else, he was short, a bit on the scrawny side, and definitely more nimble and speedy than tough and resilient. The thought of the humongous monsters smacking him in the face time and again while he just laughed it off was, therefore, hilariously dissonant in my mind.
And then I actually started to tank.
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Since my weapons of choice were already well suited for it, when I first decided to go dungeon delving, I did my first few runs as a tank. It took some time (and a lot of patience on the part of those I ran them with, for which I am very much grateful), but slowly, slowly, I started to get the hang of it. I discovered tanking was much more than just getting smacked in the face – I learned tanking was more about control. An awareness of the field and where everybody and everything was, being able to find the most advantageous position and make full use of it, the ability to discern what could be borne and what needed to be avoided – all of these were things that I found necessary when playing a tank. You couldn’t just focus on the boss and make sure you were the one he was hitting – there were a whole bunch of other factors you had to keep in the back of your mind, all of which had to do with controlling the flow of battle to the best of your ability.
And quick on the heels of that realization came a second – that described Ketea perfectly. In his first appearance, that was exactly how he approached whatever fights he ended up in. What he lacked in strength and endurance, he made up for in adaptability and ingenuity. He’d take stock of his environment and use every advantage it could offer, from the makeshift weaponry it provided to the ideal vantage point to strike from. He played the field to its fullest, and did everything he could to make it work in his favor.
Maybe he wasn’t the physical image of the tank, but he was certainly the mental image of one, I was finding out.
And that, I think, has been the crucial turning point for me. To step outside the bounds of mere build and stats and gear – something made much easier by TSW’s classless system – and start thinking of the typical MMO roles asmentalities. I find myself focusing on different things as a DPS as I do a tank, after all, and if I ever give healing a whirl I expect I’ll be paying attention to other things entirely. To say nothing of TSW’s ability to hybridize – which I’m sure will end up a whole other beast should I ever mess around with that.
Maybe MMO roles can serve as more than just descriptions of function – maybe there’s something to be said for them in terms of character archetypes and personality traits, too. And they might not all be quite what you think they are, either – strip away the physical aspects of a role, cut to the essence of it, and suddenly you’ve got a new sense of how the role works in concert with everything else.
It’s definitely something I expect will be handy both in my gameplay and my writing, that’s for sure.
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6 thoughts on “Guest post: The mind of a tank

  1. Ravanel Griffon May 31, 2016 / 9:54 am

    Great post about tanking! I started out a little differently, playing support roles in LOTRO (lore-master, captain), then full healing (sage, SWTOR) and only then, finally, starting tanking actively as well. I can say that every role I’ve taken on me has changed my grasp of the others in a positive way. So it’s entirely possible that you will learn even more about tanking by starting to heal, as counter intuitive as it sounds.

    Totally off-topic (sorry): what outfit is your LOTRO character wearing in the last picture? It looks gorgeous! I’m looking for something similarly gold-y that fits my captain’s newest horse. ^^

  2. Aywren May 31, 2016 / 12:12 pm

    Awesome post! You view the mechanics of tanking exactly like I do.

    I feel there’s a whole lot of responsibility in being a good tank because the amount of awareness you have to have of everything on the screen can sometimes be enormous. The more knowledge you have about your enemy and what you can best do to keep them under control, the better the tank you are. It’s very much a learn-by-doing class, because I don’t know any other way to discover this info!

    I’ve only dabbled lightly in tanking myself, but I find it a rewarding class type to play.

  3. Sylow May 31, 2016 / 12:27 pm

    “I discovered tanking was much more than just getting smacked in the face – I learned tanking was more about control.”

    Level up. 🙂

    I agree on all you write. Curiously, while i prefer the role of healer and still rather tank than DPS (and quite often end up as a tank), the high responsibility of those two roles seem to be what drives many players out of them. [Not so much in TSW as in other games, though. It seems to be easier to find a tank and healer in this game than in most other MMOs. ]

    On the other hand, as you already mention for TSW, the free skill system allows you to do wild things. When the game was still young, we did some dungeon with five leech-healers with provoke, so nobody would actually “tank” the enemy, but we’d all heal each other and keep the enemy running instead of attacking by taunting it all over the place. Some other dungeon we did with several people with Shotgun and Chaos, to have the chaotic pull available several times and thus to be able to control additional enemies, which the tank could not care for any more.

    So in effect, this game actually allows you to play very much “freeform”, it’s possible to go without tank, it’s possible to go without pure healer, but it’s also possible to combine tank and healer on one character if you know what you are doing.

    Still you have those three roles in use in TSW. Theories on that i have several, the most promiment among those is that the fixed roles are much easier to be taught to players than to go the distance to build and adjust the setup of several people for a dungeon if you are just in a pick up group. [Followed by the theory that people are just too used to the roles and it’s not too easy to break them out. ]

    Despite all of this, you have people prefer to tank, you have people prefer to heal (yeah!) and surprisingly there’s also many people who prefer to only deal damage. As a bonus, i even dare to say that i have some kind of expectancy on the personality of a tank or healer, and i am rarely disappointed. Players of these roles usually are more dedicated to tasks than the average player, and also quite often go the “extra distance” to resolve problems in other areas, be it helping people or resolving guild internal problems.

    Before i get missunderstood: No, i am not claiming that “all DPS are lazy or antisocial”, there’s also many good and dedicated people among them. But while those rise and shine, all the people who are not ready to take responsibility and who are not so much dedicated to the team just also stick to the DPS crowd. Thus while group “DPS” consists of both average and great players, the group of “dedicated healers” and even more so the group of “dedicated tanks” consists of almost exclusively awesome players. Not always in skill, but almost always in their mindset.

    Of course, this is just my personal perception [perhaps because i appreciate good tanks so much] and i could be terribly wrong, too. 🙂

  4. linguisticdragon May 31, 2016 / 9:45 pm

    @Ravanel: I fully expect it to, when I finally get around to getting myself some decent healer gear! I’m pretty sure I’m a better DPS when running the dungeons I’m used to tanking, solely because I know what at least one other perspective is dealing with and I know how I can help mitigate that from my end. It’s all an intricate dance, and it’s been fun getting to know it better! As far as the armor goes – I know its an “of the Valleys” set, but I don’t remember exactly where it came from, crafting or questing. I’m pretty sure it came from somewhere in Gondor, though.

    @Aywren: I don’t tank all that often myself, mostly because I’m still not all that confident in my skills in doing so yet, but I too find it very much rewarding, despite the fact I didn’t expect I’d enjoy it that much! I expect it’ll turn out to be my favorite of the ‘big three’ roles – I’ve never run a full-out healer before, so I can’t say for sure, but the tank ‘mindset’ is one that appeals very much to me, I’ve discovered. Some of my most enjoyable dungeon experiences have been tanking for a group of eager-to-learn newbies.

    @Sylow: I’d LOVE to give a healtank a shot in TSW one day, but I imagine that day’s a long ways off, both in terms of gear and ability. The freeform system made it much more easy to break down the perceived barriers between what each role “should” be and cut to the heart of the mentality behind it, and that’s been extremely helpful. I’m not sure if it’s so much the higher ‘responsibility’ that might drive people away from tanking or healing as much as a need for attentions to be spread thinner – often times a DPS can get away with focus just on what’s on between them and the boss, whereas a tank needs to be aware of the whole field and the healer needs to be aware of the rest of their team, too. I think there’s an aspect of single-mindedness that’s helpful for good DPS, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing sometimes – and perhaps part of what might contribute to your own personal perceptions in that respect?

  5. Shandren June 1, 2016 / 3:27 am

    I know this might be a bit tangential, but this is exactly why WoWs change to ‘active mitigation’ gameplay over ‘controlling your threat on the mobs’ gameplay, was such a “bad” change for dedicated tanks. The mindset required to be a good tank was changed from focusing on battlefield control to focusing on a perfect rotation. There was still some battlefield control in the role, but a lot of the core gameplay was changed to resemble DPS gameplay instead. It probably made more people dare to tank, and it definately made PUGs easier, but it also, in my oppinion, destroyed what was a key part of the lure to the class. The juggling act of holding everyones attention.

    Disclaimer: coming from the exact opposite end of the spectrum, I have tanked since EQ, and didnt ‘really’ try dpsing untill sometime late vanilla wow. My main has always been a tank though. (And healing is definately my 3rd choice).

  6. Sylow June 1, 2016 / 6:51 am

    @Linguisticdragon:

    Interestingly enough, the gear requirements for healtanking are not that harsh, as long as you don’t intend to go straight away to healtank the New York Raid. The role with the strongest gear requirements in TSW is leech healing, mostly due to needing very good glyphs.

    A tank “only” needs reliable hit rating, to land the interrupts. (Even if the interrupt is blocked, it still interrupts. ) While some defense is nice, with enough health the pressure can be moved over to the healer, making it possible to tank with comparatively low defensive stats. For DPS, while some fights are DPS checks, most can also be beat by “endurance”, and fist healing can get along well with mediocre heal rating, as long as reasonable crit rating is present. By keeping several heal over time effects up continuously, he provides a reliable stream of healing. In contrast, the leech healer uses small heals as builders (often all over the team), to then top up the tank with a consumer which does massive healing.

    The risk is in the dependency to this one consumer: if the enemy dodges or blocks, both its damage and thus its healing are tiny. Thus the leech healer requires similar hit rating as the tank, but also needs very high penetration rating.

    Where you are right, though, is the pressure. I did healtank the New York Raid a few times, and it really stretches me to the limits of my ability. There are some people who make it look easy, but for me it is very exhausting.

    On “responsibility”, my conclusion is founded on asking several people, if they’d like to tank or heal, either because i only volunteered to do one of the two tasks, or because we were at some of the bosses where additional tasks needed to be covered and nobody of the DPS said he was able to do that task. Quite often the response was something like “no, i don’t want to tank/heal, i don’t want to be responsible for us to wipe”.

    Mind you, i also don’t really get that. They’d rather hope for somebody else to turn up or a dungeon tour to break down and leave, than to try do something else than dealing damage, while i prefer to try new stuff. What’s the worst to happen? We wipe, we pay marginal repair fees, we try again for a few times. This doesn’t cost more time than waiting for somebody else to fill up the team, either. But i heard the “i don’t want to be the one to blame” answer often enough, to form a picture, and i even think i know where this comes from. While TSW is the only MMO i am active in such roles (the other MMO i play is GW2, but i am not into the raidgame there), i have a history of tanking and healing in other MMOs, and i very well remember those groups were people made dozens of mistakes. The tank and healer worked hard to compensate for them without ever complaining, but the moment something went wrong on tanking or healing, a wave of toxic comments flooded the group chat, till the degree that the tank and/or healer left the group. (which of course ended this groups activity. ) I can very well understand that people who experienced that repeatedly learned to stay away from being a tank or healer, so they would not be on the receiving end of such hostility.

    And to also clarify that: neither am i claiming that tanks and healers are saints, nor do i want to express that lots of DPS have bad manners. But unfortunately even a small quota of such people manage to leave a permanent mark, driving people out of the “more visible” roles of tank and healer.

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