Tanking (mostly DAO)

I’ve been reading DAO forums, recently. One of the constants makes me want to reach through the screen and slap some idiots – except I think they’re ignorant, not stupid. Ignorant can be fixed. Thus, this attempt.

The complaint is that the tank isn’t holding aggro.

Now before I get to the general fixes, let me make a bit of defense here. See, DAO has added something that’ll probably start showing up in more games. That thing is variable behavior. Mobs aren’t supposed to be robots with everyone going “ooh, shiny” and attacking it. Some of them might be smart enough to say, “Kill the Healer”. (Well, in DAO it’s Kill the Mage – magic user roles are indistinguishable.) A few will have a pathological hatred of rogues. Add to this the willingness and ability to be positioned a bit differently or move in a different path based on where YOU move and, well, the AI is getting more frustrating.

Second thing to know before we go to general actions is that there’s a 5 second “lock” on aggro tables. The way threat works is that every possible opponent gets a line on a table. A score is created for each, and the mob attacks the opponent with the highest score. The scores can be changed (and we’ll get to that), and as a new opponent gets high score the mob moves. EXCEPT, in this game every time someone gets the new high they keep the mob’s attention for five seconds REGARDLESS of what other scores may change. No threat yoyos. (A game in WoW where a mob can be moved back and forth between players each trading Big Threat and Threat Clearing actions.)

That last parenthetical, however, moves us into the lessons for DAO. See, what’s happening for most people is that they are engaged in DPS races. Almost every MMO tank knows and dreads these. The rogue and the mage (for example) start posting Damage Meter reports to brag about being The Most Deadly player. (Note this EPEEN is an old idea – see Legolas and Gimli at Helm’s Deep as but one example.)

Here’s a clue – if you do TOO MUCH DAMAGE you WILL drag the attention to yourself. Happens in real life too – when you realize that THIS GUY is the really dangerous one, you tend to suddenly shit your focus.

Also significant is the healer. If the healing is big enough, it too will drag attention away. Now in DAO it appears (not certain, still testing) that basic heal spells won’t do much, but Big Heals will. The more the character heals, the more likely it’s going to attract some attention.

An influencing factor to both heal and damage is precision. Area of effect spells (AoE) are big and flashy and GET ATTENTION.

It all boils down to this. I definitely notice if I get hit. I sorta notice if the guy next to me gets hit. If I’m hit by two or three things at the same time I’m going to notice the hit from what I’m fighting UNLESS one of the other hits is a lot bigger. If my neighbor gets hit by some Big Crap I’m going to notice if I have nothing else to worry about – and if it’s REALLY Big Crap I will notice even if my attention is already grabbed.

We now have most of the pieces. Most people actually have a pretty good handle on the tank itself – use armor, flashy moves (threaten, taunt), attack first, do as much damage as possible. That works. The problem(s) come from everyone else. So to make the tank work better, some things to note:

1) Focus fire. Everybody hits the same mob at the same time. Yes, there are exceptions, but in general you want the only mob to notice you to be the one that dies.

2) Restricted AoEs. AoEs are GREAT at clearing mobs, eventually. They rarely kill quickly. That means you’ve got a lot of mobs who have made YOU the favorite target. If you’re going to use an AoE, know why and prepare for what happens next, whether that’s blocking a door or running like mad or dying or…

3) Dump Aggro. Every class has an ability that reduces their threat. Mages have Mind Blast, Warriors have Disengage, Rogues have Combat Stealth. There are specifics in all cases to keep in mind – things like the fact all only apply to enemies nearby (if you’re being targeted by archers, it isn’t going to do you any good) – but the basic deal is simple. You drop the threat nearby enemies are holding to zero, you hold out for up to five seconds while doing only basic damage if any, and all your foes go to the new number one. (As a digression, I therefore think Mind Blast should be one of the earliest spells a mage picks up.)

4) Battlefield maneuvers. OK, this will apply to other games too. Here’s the basic deal: if you stand in the middle of the kill zone challenging all comers, you WILL get overwhelmed. Move. Use pulling techniques to get small bits of the enemy to pursue you to YOUR place of attack. Use crowd control spells to break large groups into smaller ones – yes, that those AoEs I mentioned in point 2 – and slaughter the smaller groups one chunk at a time.

To recap, the reason tanking is failing boils down to two things: a) an AI replicating slightly smarter mobs; and b) everyone else outdrawing the tank.

Let me end by noting one last element. Some mobs will fixate – and NOT on the tank. For these frustrating oddballs, nothing the tank or the target or anyone else can do will pull them off. Fortunately there is one last, simple solution. Kill them. That idiot should be come the focus target for all your damagers. How you do it may vary – and I think I’ll discuss DOA tactics in another post to raise at least one option – but if part of the enemy is voting to follow a plan that isn’t yours, take away their vote first.

I expect to see this ‘semi smart’ mob behavior in more and more games (MMO, Action, and RPG). It’s a step toward increasing the replay value — making each run-through challenging even if the ‘surprises’ aren’t surprising any more. Where tanking is possible, it is worth taking time to THINK about the tanks’ limits. In the long run, it makes victory more certain.

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