Monday 10 May 2010

When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.

If I were to give you one word to describe me when tanking in an MMO it would be arrrgrghhhohgodohgodohgodwhoiswhereiswhathelphelparrrgggggghplah, which is admittedly not a word that will be found in the OED any time soon, but is about as close as I can get to what I’m actually thinking at the time without embedding an audio recording of me alternating between sweaty-faced screaming, mumbling in face-clutching wide-eyed horror, and laughing maniacally while chewing off the ends of my fingers.

I am not a good tank.

It’s the same every time: I read around the class, find out which abilities cause the most threat; what a decent rotation of these abilities is; how best to start a pull; how to snap aggro back if a mob decides to wander off and have a nibble on the healer; how to smile internally when the over-eager DPS AoE-pulls an entire group and you simply let them die. I practise the techniques on mobs out in the wild, grabbing a few at a time and methodically working through all that I’ve learnt, and everything seems to be in order. And so, suitably geared, with my well-thumbed curly-paged Guide to Tanking tucked in my back pocket, I head into a dungeon with a group of other well meaning folk, approach the first group and – having made sure everyone is ready – pull.

How do I describe what happens next? Imagine trying to maintain the attention of a pack of wilful and disobedient dogs when a lorry from the nearby Cat, Anise and Bouncy Ball factory crashes through the fence of the training school and discharges its contents all over the lawn: it’s the same with me and maintaining the attention of mobs. At least that’s what happens initially. Then, as the healer spams away trying to keep everyone alive, the mobs generally begin to congregate around them, until they look like one of those beleaguered Tanface McPermhairs from some nondescript boy-band, trying to force their way out of an airport through a crowd of screaming teeth and spasming pigtails.

No matter what I do I always seem to have my tanking magnet set to the same polarity as the mobs, so that I charge into the midst of them and then watch, demoralised, as they fly away from me in a thousand different directions at once or, as is more often the case, in a tightly directed beam straight at the healer.

The reason this issue has come to mind is that I’ve been playing my Warden alt some more in LotRO recently. I set out to play them purely as a solo venture: what with their primary role being to tank, and me being the tanking equivalent of a turbofan in a feather factory, this seemed like a sensible idea. I really love the concept of the class though, and seeing as they are well suited to soloing, it made for a happy marriage of circumstance. I ended up tanking anyway to some extent, because it turns out that Turbine have added quite a nifty tanking simulator into their game where a player can go and practise some of the fundamentals of managing aggro in a group without ruining the evenings entertainment for a number of other players. Enter the well known Skirmish system in which it is quite possible to have a fair crack of the tanking whip without causing undue alarm and distress to unsuspecting players, because the numerous NPCs that one encounters, both in the form of the player’s own soldier and in the various skirmish specific NPCs that aid you during the encounter, make acceptable substitutes for real players. So I read the forums, picked a soldier class that I thought would be a suitable match to my Warden (some form of DPS is recommended, seeing as we Wardens are a little lacklustre in that department, but have self-heals and defences enough to keep us going through all but the toughest of fights) and headed into a skirmish.

I was not a good tank.

I’m getting better. At first it was frustrating to the point of almost giving up. After a while, however, I slowly began to get the hang of it. For example, I no longer become frozen to a mob, such that when I see another mob run off and attack someone else I persist in hitting the mob I’m currently targeting, but harder, in the hope that it will make the other one run back over to me. Switching targets is a no-brainer, I knew I had to do it, and yet I’d get stuck when in combat, scared that the instant I stopped thwacking my current mob it would laugh at me and run off and eat the healer. You have to overcome the irrational anthropomorphisation of mobs if you want to tank, you have to allow your logical mind to win through, such that you don’t see angry Orcs with a will of their own, but a number of spinning plates that you need to balance. When you spin a plate on the end of a stick (if you’re any good) you have a good amount of time before that plate will slow to the point that it falls, so you can go and spin-up another plate and another. Every now and again you come back to the already spinning plates and you give them another little nudge, but they need less work than when you first started on them. The difference with tanking is that you have a bunch of other people running around slowing your plates down, some slowing one plate down considerably while others are slowing all the plates down gradually. It’s a tricky and technically challenging balancing act.

Playing as a Warden in a skirmish is somewhat of an extreme way of being introduced to tanking, a bit like someone deciding to learn to surf in shark infested waters while giving themselves paper cuts. For one, the Warden is a curious tanking class in that they have very little snap aggro and instead rely on aggro-over-time abilities, which means that once they’ve had a chance to build aggro you’re never getting anything off of them, but at the same time the critical phase of the initial pull needs that much more co-operation from the other members of the group while the Warden builds that aggro. For another, skirmish NPCs are perhaps the biggest bunch of over-aggroing dunderheads that you’re likely to encounter outside of the Charge of the Light Brigade. On the positive side, you’ll never hear an NPC scream “U SUK TANK LOL” when they die for the second time in a run.

It makes for a forceful, if frustrating, learning experience, but without the soul-crushing demoralisation of a baptism by anonymous peers.

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