Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO ColumnClass Roles - Tank or Rodeo ClownJonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column - RSS 2.0
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.