Wednesday, August 25, 2010

MMO vs. Tabletop Rpg's and the Concept of Aggro

4th edition brought accusations of "it's a videogame" or "it's an MMO" or more specifically "It's World of Warcraft". Most of these I found to be tied up in the terminology used in the game and not really correct, but there is one concept that seems to have made it in that does have a substantial impact on 4E.I'm seeing some revisionist history on this area and wanted to set forth my own thoughts on this.

Premise: "Aggro" is a concept that springs solely from MMORPG's and has no heritage in earlier forms of D&D yet is a big part of 4E and the redefinition of character roles that colors the entire game.

Now I'm not going to judge whether this is a good or bad thing (Yet) I'm just establishing where it comes from for now.

Aggro is a term for having a monster's attention. Basically if you move too close to a monster in an MMO then it will attack you. This idea goes back to even early video & computer games like the Ultima series where you could see monsters on a map far enough away that you could go around them but stray too close and the chase was on. This was a bit of an upgrade from the earlier tunnel-vision games like Wizardry where if you could see a monster than combat was pretty much underway. Other computer games and then later MMORPG's refined this concept to include things like different monsters having different aggo radii, which way monsters were facing, and even varying levels of hostility - some creatures may not attack unless attacked first and some may issue a warning before beginning combat. There are all welcome refinements and make the games more realistic (in a sense) and nuanced.

So how did early D&D (I'm looking at BECMI, 1E, 2E, and maybe even 3E here) handle "aggro"? Mainly through the DM. There really aren't hard rules in most editions about when monsters fight. Holmes Basic had a reaction table that was supposed to be used whenever monsters were encountered  to determine their actions. Otherwise it was pretty much common sense - if you kick down a door to an orc lair, you're probably going to fight. You can parley in some other situations but the default assumption in most of my games anyway is that adventurers are considered invaders and will be attacked almost all of the time. If they launch an attack on a monster, peaceful or otherwise, they will almost certainly be attacked. Now after combat begins you can get into things like morale rules and such but that's after the initial reaction. So the initial start of combat is really pretty similar- get too close and the monsters will attack or start shooting/swinging at them and the monsters will attack..

So far, so good.

The nitty-gritty part of this discussion happens after the initiating event. Say combat begins when a  fighter shoots a bow at one member of a party of orcs.

In older D&D I , as DM, would have the wounded one and maybe one more go after the archer while the rest spread out to engage the rest of the party. A smart creature or leader type might try and target a mage if he sees one (back when they all wore robes and pointy hats it was easier) and some will target anyone wearing a symbol of something they hate whether it's having the green tree emblem of the Elf Kingdom on your shield or having a holy symbol of Gustavus the Orc-Slayer around your neck. Monsters usually responded to an attack by a group by attacking "the group".

In an MMO the orcs will generally react by swarming the attacker.  They don't typically see the attacks as coming from a "group" they see the source of the damage as coming from "Player X" and move to eliminate Player X, moving right by Players A, B, and C without attacking to get to him. This is a crucial difference.

In more detail "Aggro" is usually tied to the amount of damage done already, not the potential biggest threat. The bow-attacked creature above will drive for the wizard even if he has to run right past a dual-wielding-super-specialized ranger named "threshing machine" to get to him, ignoring this deadly threat due to the simple AI involved. I will grant that orcs are not the smartest opponent in most fantasy worlds, but I can tell you that in a tabletop RPG session that orc is going to think twice before running past and exposing his flank to the dual-blade bad boy. In fact, he's probably more likely to charge that guy, because he sees him as more of a challenge than the skinny little wizard in the robes - but that won't happen in most online RPG's.

Back to tabletop D&D: In a dungeon you generally had 10' wide passages so that attackers couldn't always get to that archer. It was usually set up so that no more than 2 or 3 characters could fight abreast in a dungeon corridor. Usually that meant fighters up front, clerics right behind,  Wizards and Thieves in that 2nd or 3rd rank. This puts the melee specialists up front and the non-melee specialists behind a wall of steel where they can still contribute but aren't likely to get chopped down unless the party is attacked from behind. This helps to illuminate the emphasis on marching order in so many of the early D&D books: it was important. Wilderness adventures were much more dangerous as the party could not control the action by putting the fighters up front - numerous foot opponents, mounted or faster or flying attackers could swarm the party and attack whoever they wanted and the guy at the back with no armor was an obvious easy target. It was dangerous and  items like rings of invisibility were seen as defensive tools, not just scouting gear.

MMO's have a problem here as it's generally not possible to physically block a monster from getting past you even in a dungeon corridor for technical reasons. Pathfinding, collision detection, and trying to keep things from getting stuck in walls usually means that you can't physically seal off an area. This turns every combat into the wilderness situation described above. Now if the aggro is coming from a fighter shooting a bow, then it's not a huge issue as they will move to engage the fighter. The problem comes when the wizard fireballs the orc war party. Now the wizard has done the damage so the orcs are coming after him and the front line of fighters can't stop them from doing so, which leads to a dead wizard..In some games the monsters treat healing as a form of attack as well, so if the cleric tries to heal the wizard to keep him alive then the monsters will split and some will attack him as well - this just makes the problem worse as now the weakest party members are under attack while the characters best equipped to handle a melee fight are ignored. This undermines the whole hit point mechanic commonly seen in MMO's and creates a big issue around survivability and player satisfaction.

Now this isn't really off-base behavior - if I'm running a tabletop fight and the monsters notice someone healing while the fight is still going on they may well try to stop them - hold person is a fine choice here - but the fighters have ways to intervene by using the rules for fighting withdrawals or position swaps or bull rushing in 3E etc. Plus most swarm type monsters = orcs, kobolds, etc have low enough hit points that one hit is likely to take them down, letting a fighter intervene by clearing the attackers away before they can kill off the mage, very much in keeping with what a "fighting man" does. In most MMORPG's these lower-end creatures do not go down in one hit, eliminating this as a solution to the "swarm the wizard" problem.

In most MMORPG's the answer to this problem is the "Taunt". This is an ability that most fighter-type classes have, usually a ranged attack, that does "ghost damage" to draw the target to attack the fighter - that's how it works mechanically anyway. It's a mechanical construct to let a fighter force an opponent to attack them instead of the wizard. Sometimes it affects a single target, sometimes a group but this is how it works in a broad sense. This leads to the concept of "Holding Aggro" which means that it's one character's job to draw the monsters' attention and keep it, soaking up attacks to keep the rest of the party safe. This is really where the modern concept of the "tank" starts to diverge from the classic D&D concept of the "fighter".

On a mechanical level I find "taunt" to be an inelegant solution to a technical problem and on a conceptual level it's just a mess - apparently all fighters learn vile insults in all monster languages as an integral part of their training and consider it a vital combat move. It's foreign to fantasy literature and movies and TV. Most older videogames  typically used the rule of "attack the nearest target" which while seemingly simple allows the fighter to intervene just by being the closest target. This fits into a world much more smoothly than "taunting" by fighters. I have seen situations where 2 fighters move some distance apart and alternate taunts on a group of monsters to the point that they spend the combat running back and forth between the two fighters without ever striking a blow while the rest of the party whittles them down with lesser attacks. It's ridiculous and would never happen in a tabletop game or a movie or a book.

This also leads to a split in the role of the fighter as some fighter types are built around this concept as more defensive types while others are conceived as more offensive types - they generally are not expected to Hold Aggro, they are expected to do lots of damage by attacking the monsters. MMO Rangers usually end up as one of these "DPS" (damage per second) types. This idea that fighter types can only be good at either defense or offense but not both has taken root in many other computer games now and is bleeding over into tabletops .

So, how does this tie back to 4E? Well in 4E fighters have a "mark" ability and it is tied directly to this concept. It allows a fighter to "mark" an opponent (sometimes multiple opponents) and if the marked monster attacks anyone other than the fighter they take a -2 n their to-hit rolls. What is this, exactly? What does it look like? how would it be described in a novel or short story? It's clearly a taunt, designed to drive a monster to attack the fighter instead of some other party member. Now I admit I like D&D4 but this is one of the weirdest concepts to be added to the game. What problem are we trying to solve here, exactly? It does introduce a tactical element that can make fighters a little more complex to play and one complaint over the years has been that "fighters are boring" but I'm not sure this resolves anything. Why is it here? Part of it is tied into "Class Roles" as seen starting in 3rd edition where "Fighters" were largely considered defensive while Rangers and Rogues (of all things!) were considered offensive types. In 4E fighters are flat-out declared to be "Defenders" while rangers and rogues are declared to be "Strikers". This unnecessary split is all tied back into the concept of  taunts and holding aggro. It pulls a clumsy solution to a technical problem from the online world back into tabletop gaming for no good reason.

No one played a fighter in AD&D 1E because they wanted to suck up more damage than anyone else - they had the best hit points, sure, but they were the best at killing things at mid to low levels too - wizards arguably passed them at higher levels but that's not where most of the game was played. We didn't buy Plate Mail and a Two-Handed Sword  to protect some other character - we did it because Plate was the best AC and a two-hander did the most damage - we were tough AND we were awesome in combat! We didn't have to choose! We wanted to be on the front line because that's where you could kick the most ass! Not because it was my duty to protect some guy in a dress! This forced split in approach has no basis in old-school D&D, no basis in movies or literature, and no basis in old computer & videogames - it springs solely from the MMORPG world. To someone who grew up playing the older editions of D&D the idea that the party's thief would be the primary damage dealer while the fighter is there to suck up hits is just mind-boggling. Shouldn't the wiseacre thief-type character who's too quick to be hit by the big clumsy ogre be the one issuing taunts? That's how it usually goes in books and movies - the light fast character keeps one opponent busy by dodging and insulting the big bad until the fighter can join the fight, whereupon the fast roguish type usually gets in a backstab or two but rarely finishes the fight - that's how some of the classic melee engagements go. 

Somehow this has led to the idea that the role of the "Tank" is equally enticing as the role of "Striker" and "Controller" and "Healer". I have news for you - it's not. Even the name is a misnomer - most actual tanks are tough, yes, but they have awesome firepower too, they aren't just there to draw fire. they're mainly there to blow stuff up. In most MMO's "Tanking" means standing at the center of a bunch of enemies doing mediocre damage and watching while the rest of the party blows stuff up. Quick, is Conan a Defender or a Striker? How about Lancelot? King Arthur? Fafhrd? Gray Mouser? Elric? Aragorn?

To flip into another genre for a moment, who is the tank of the X-Men? Most people would say Colossus is the Tank while Wolverine is the Striker. However, if you go back to  the Marvel Super Heroes RPG Colossus can not only take more damage, he hits for more damage too (Monstrous Strengthe = 75 points of punching damage)! Wolverine with his near-infinite regen but comparatively low-damage claws (Wolverine's claws are Class 1000 material but do Excellent damage, which is 20 points) actually looks more like the concept of the "Tank" on paper than Colossus does, but no one thinks of him that way or would play him that way but then again the game predates the MMO era and doesn't view things that way either. In movies or TV does Superman sit there and take it while Batman and Aquaman club an opponent into submission? No, he takes the other guy's best shot then punches him through a building! Yes, his defense is strong but his offense is just as strong!

So I'm left wondering who decided that fighters shouldn't be good at both attacking and defending?  Who decided that this was too powerful? Who decided that "taking damage" is fun and a class-defining ability?

Not me, that's for sure. It seems to me that somehow the answer to "Fighters are boring" is to make them less effective at what they used to be good at. How is that better?

That's enough for now - I'll have more on Character Roles tomorrow .


GrayPumpkin said...

Excellent post.

Blacksteel said...

Thanks - I think it's a little wordy but if it's getting my point across then it's good enough.