Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Home, home on the range

In video games you run into it all the time. You find yourself thinking, man, I wish I was a melee guy right now or, man, I wish I was a ranged guy right now. MMOs are the biggest culprit, unsurprisingly, with certain encounters favoring one role, class or spec over the others. While many feel this is a chance at a spotlight, others believe that this leads to marginalization. However, think back to single-player, or even group play games. You have experienced the same thing, I guarantee it. We all remember the Lightning Enchanted jerks from Diablo. We remember the horrible "deathblow" abilities that chunked away at melee life. Mass Effect 2 brought on the death of the Vanguard by making charge a death sentence or impossible to use in a lot of circumstances. Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 tend to favor ranged in most circumstances, but you still need a few melee folks in the group. Still, there are many times when tank and three ranged is the correct answer. Of course there are times when melee is blatantly overpower for the ease of use. The melee weapons in Left 4 Dead 2 are a good example. That ninja sword was made for zombie murder. Fallout 3 and onward treat melee with more reverence than it possibly deserves.

Melee seems to come with the built in expectation of low survivability for those that choose to deal damage that way. As a result, the sustained damage, and often burst damage, tends to trend higher. This can be expanded to include ranged physical damage dealers, as well. Rangers, hunters, etc.

That's all well and good for video games, but what about for table top games? Is there a difference in efficacy between ranged and melee classes that has been taken for granted or not explored? Let's take a look at a few different systems.

DnD: 4E:
Melee Damage Examples: Barbarians, Rogues, Monks, Avengers, Rangers
Ranged Physical Damage Examples: Rangers
Ranged Magical Damage: Sorcerors, Warlocks

Taking this sampling, in no way entirely complete, I think the edge goes to the Ranged classes. The melee classes deal a lot of damage, but are subjected to auras. This is a pretty huge deal in 4e. Auras, auras, everywhere. In addition, you have the marking mechanic, which encourages tanking. The creatures often end up in melee range, which is good for all parties involved, except the melee characters are likely to take splash damage, or be included in attacks. Additionally, once in melee, the characters have an increasingly hard time with mobility. It's very hard to get away from things, especially without taking even more damage. Even if you aren't the focal point of the attacking creature. Charge can help as a gap closer, but it's not a hard gap closer. It's still subject to the dreaded attack of opportunity.

Due to their "fragility", ranged classes tend to end up with more hard escapes. Teleports and damage avoidance are high. Damage for the ranged magical classes tends to scale extremely well, and often multiple targets over a large area can be hit with spells and effects, without limiting the damage that is being produced. Even if they are in melee range, they aren't limited as to what they can cast, because of the way shifting works. They are rarely threatened to any large degree, and auras almost never come into play. Now, you can actively work around this if you are running a game, but you have to work to do so. If you do it every time, it does tend to marginalize the concepts of the defender, and it can frustrate the melee, as they can't pick all of the targets in the same manner than ranged can.

The edge in fourth edition goes to ranged classes, strongly I feel. Though this scales from marginally to greatly as the game progresses in level.

DnD: 3e, 3.5e
Melee examples: Fighter, rogue, ranger, barbarian
Ranged physical damage: Rogue, ranger
Ranged magical damage: Wizard, Sorcerer, Cleric

3e had some parity issues, to put it mildly. Multi-classing and prestige classes were just nuts. However, I think 3e and 3.5 were more friendly to melee, at least early on. Once you get to the later stages of the game, the ranged classes begin to not only dominate, but make you wonder what you are doing wrong.

Auras aren't really a thing in 3/.5E. Multi-attacks, however, are. So many multiple target, multiple attacks. It's as bad as early MMO cleaving. Without an artificial tanking mechanic, it meant if you were close, you were going to get battered. Spiked-Chain Fighter serving as a statistical anomaly here, there was very little incentive to play a melee character. Rogues did great with evasion and greater evasion, but if you lacked that, you were going to have a bad time. Of course, you could pick up a lot of that as a ranged character, simply by using a bow, for example, as a rogue, and not give up your sneak attacks. Even more so than 4e, you really, really had to have potent magic items in 3e to compete as a melee character. Not to mention that you didn't bring any of the party utility the way the magical ranged classes did. We all know that buffing was ridiculously powerful in 3/.5E. Movement was less of a big deal here, as the scale was simply different and it didn't tend to quite be so frustrating. However, again, Spiked Chain Fighter might as well have been from a different game.

Prestige classes allowed for things like Mystic Theurge, Arcane Trickster, Hierophant, and Arcane Archer. The first three are the holy trinity of ranged ridiculousness. The first two are the most egregious offenders, but Hierophant and Neutral with Negative Energy reversion is a really, really close third.

The edge in 3/.5E goes to ranged classes, with the caveat that with enough gear it eventually evened out. The gear level for this was ridiculous and required SR or Immunities, but hey.


I was going to give examples, but really it's simple here. Spellcasting is really, really powerful. It can be frustrating...until you get your powergamer options. Ice Mace and Chains, Pain, Bonedance, etc. etc. Once a caster advances, melee exists as a frontline to not overrun the casters. The casters are the show, minus rogues with questionable math. Spellcasters can even help out the melee with a little choice. The weapons created with magic rock face. Being able to get things like Air Throne with a spell were pretty ridiculous. The complete glossing over of things like how evil some magic is certainly helps, too. Not to mention that getting in range of horrors seems like a Bad Idea. Of course, Earthdawn was pretty egalitarian about the ranged vs melee attacks. However, it was a setting based on the danger/allure of magic. It's not surprising that the outcome is what it is.

Over the Edge

It's classless. It's a great system, but holy shit guns. Having a gun is just better than everything else, even with limited skill. Kung fu is bullshit, get some more guns. You should be a John Wu film.

Spirit of the Century
Very little difference, it's narrative play. Every gets to be awesome in their own way. I liked that a lot.

So, I think for the most part, in the games I have played, that ranged seems to win out. In part it's because it is easier to mess with melee characters. Being in range of the bad is the biggest detriment to the melee characters. Then again, ranged characters also tend to have more use out of combat. Though, that's another entry all together.

In video games, mechanics are introduced to mess with ranged characters, where movement means less damage or less safety. With the turns of table tops, it just really doesn't work this way. As mentioned before, having monsters appear on them, or ignore defenders or whatnot is ok sometimes, but not something you want to lose a lot. You could do things like increase auras, but that's just obnoxious. So what are some ideas to even things out a little in combat?

Eye of the Storm - Reverse aura. You would have a small area of safety around certain units, but that opens you up to attacks. Some options include a dampening field that lowers damage dealt, encouraging players to get close to be more effective, a storm that strikes lightning in the cloud around the eye, or strong winds that decrease the ability to strike actively or moves characters around.

Tendrils - Ranged attacks in addition to melee attacks. Tendrils wouldn't occur as often as ranged attacks, but a character being lashed by something if they were far away or just as an extra damage kicker of the creature would add a little more risk.

Pillars - Things that require line of sight. If the characters can't attack every round, it's obnoxious for them. They feel useless. However, if the characters can use cover and take bonuses and penalties from doing so, it might be encouragement for risk.

Cones, Splash, Breath - More pie slice/wide area attacks. Punish everyone, be equal!

It might not be as big a deal as I am making it out to be, but I do think there is a disparity. Usually this is in survivability, and the trade is very slightly more damage for the melee. However, sometimes this isn't even the case. It might be nice to keep that in mind for future design.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tanks for the Memories!

Welcome heroes! You are about to enter a land of mythical beasts and terrible creatures. The very fabric of the world is at stake, as the vague construction of folk tales, public domain writing, and nearly plagiarized ideas of others come together to create a rich, social gaming experience. That's right, it's an MMORPG!

Well, brave adventurers, I am glad you have decided to play the game as a group! It's always a better idea to have a base of people to play the game with, even if that leads to complications in the end-game scale that I won't go into, because it's not important right now. Now it's time to build a well rounded group. Ok, you need two or three damage dealers, maybe three, but that damage dealer should probably be a support guy, a tank, and a healer. Ok guys, who wants to heal? Oh, cool! We have one semi-interested volunteer and one half-hearted please-don't-agree-to-let-me-heal-I'll-bitch-everytime-we-play-and-then-re-roll-later-on-as-soon-as-I-can-and-demand-aid-in-leveling-my-alt volunteer. Picking the semi-interested volunteer? Excellent choice! Ok, now, who wants to tank? Anyone? Anyone? *sigh*

Tanking. It's a mechanic of just about every MMORPG you can name. The guy or gal that gets smashed in the face by a six story troll wielding an axe that shoots bears on every swing, that the tank has to then taunt to make sure the party doesn't get eaten by axe-bears. While the rest of the group is saving lives, or murdering Garalt of the Murderous Pony Clan, the tank stands there, and sings Bohemian Rhapsody to drown out the beatings. However, what the average tank lacks in e-stardom, he makes up for in Little Punkin' Feelings. The words "Main Tank" leave a film in my mouth not unlike the grey-green mold on the dishes left filthy in the sink over a long vacation by a college kid on break. People that care about the words "Main Tank" and demand that the other tanks be referred to as "Off Tanks" tend to be Prima Donnas. They are one step away from getting a guest spot on Drop Dead Diva. If the game has symbols or numbers you can assign above a monster, they will demand they tank the one that is the most important...all the time. The extremely high demand on one or two well-equiped tanks in every single end-game guild leads to an almost arbitration-like situation where the tank has to be catered to, or he bails, leaving the guild in the lurch. What does this make other people do? They don't like tanks, and are quick to blame the tank, or bash the tank, or otherwise hate the tanks they come across. While it's not necessarily the right thing to do, you can understand the backlash.

This leads to having to personally know one of the tanks to prevent this behavior. In fact, the only way you can be 100% sure of this not occurring is to do it your-damn-self. This means you have to accept the burden of responsibility, and you have to make sure you are on your game all the time. It actually is one of the harder jobs in the games, and this is said by someone who has played just about every role to a fair degree in different games. Does this excuse the douchedom? No, Bobby Massengil needs to sit the fuck down and not be such a bag of saline.

Being the guy that steps up to tank, I have tanked a lot. In a lot of different games. Now that I have a good amount of experience at it, I can say that up until this point the Rift class Riftstalker is the single most fun I have ever had tanking. That doesn't mean much unless you know what else I have played and what else I have experience in.

EQ1 - Paladin tank, in a small guild of world-first guild alts. Tanked just about all content through Planes of Power, when I stopped playing. Other characters played were a druid, rogue, and wizard.

WoW - Paladin tank, in a small guild focusing on 10-man content in WotLK. I ended up tanking a lot for various 25-man guilds too. All content was cleared in the 10-man setting, including hard-modes. Stopped in Cataclysm, but most of the available stuff was cleared before I stopped. Other characters played were roughly a million healers, some melee dps, and some ranged dps. So easy to level and gear, why not?

Warhammer - The elf tank guy. Mostly in groups and in public quests. Played a white lion, shadow hunter and warrior priest besides that.

Rift - Riftstalker spec rogue. Most of the other time spent as an assassin spec rogue, but some as marksman/nightblade. Some low level dudes in the 20-30 range.

So, a smattering of tank classes over various games. A few times clearing most of the content,and a few times just as a mook. I feel I am well-versed in comparison, as well as stating what it is about Riftstalker that makes it the most fun tank class I have played in a game so far.

In EQ1 tanking really was as simple as hitting taunt as often as you could and using a weapon with threat generation on it. You might want to use spells as a paladin, but only ones that had a stun component so that threat could be generated. You stood in a corner and got the monster as close to you as you could. The phrase "stand on his nuts" was coined during this era. Tanks didn't have to do a whole lot of anything besides stand there. You had to have one tank per creature on a raid scale. The idea of holding multiple creatures at a time just wasn't a thing. People like giant creatures in epic encounters, right? Sometimes there were threat wipes, you had to just be quick to save people then. You had to move them around sometimes, but it was rare. Overall, simple, very gear dependent, and not very interactive. Still, necessary.

In WoW tanking was much more complex, and there were many fights where the difference between a bad tank, a normal tank and a good tank were huge. Of course, it was never a showy difference, and it just helped speed up the fights or slow down the mana intake. Originally, it wasn't much different than EQ1, but slowly fights became more complex, and you had to tank swap, first without taunts and then eventually with taunts, tank a lot of adds that would spawn randomly, most out of effects, use line of sight tricks, kite things around while staying out of melee range, and even interact with objects that let you tank through other means. Fights that were just-stand-there-and-take-it-in-the-face were few and far between. As a paladin, you were the master of area threat gen, and you had a lot of spell tricks that were useful. Your cooldowns weren't great, but they eventually got better. You had some ranged tricks, and some interesting taunt methodology. It was easier to tell the difference between bad and decent, but hard to tell the difference between decent and good, unless you were very observant. Dual Spec made tanks more common, but bad tanks were more common too. I call that a wash. Overall, it was more fun to tank in WoW than in EQ1 by orders of magnitude.

In Warhammer it was a mixture of EQ1 and WoW tanking. The difference here is that you had more to manage on your character than things on the monsters, in a lot of cases. This is micro-management that appeals to me. It seemed less complex than WoW, and more like EQ1 tanking for the most part on an encounter basis. Then again, the addition of tanking doing things in PvP was huge. Taunting a player did things. That's worth mentioning for its own merits. The steps in the PvP direction were huge, but the PvE aspect was nothing to sing about.

In Rift, they made the interesting decision to allow three of the four archetypes to tank. Warriors, Clerics and Rogues all get at least one tank soul (read Talent Tree, but you get choice). Warriors get several options, Clerics get one, and Rogues get one. I play the Rogue version, the Riftstalker. While raiders and players are more experienced, making them extremely jaded and selfish, Rift tends to Not Fuck Around with its requirements on tanks. Yes, Rift end-game content was cleared quickly. Yes, people are saying It's Not Hard Enough! I hate to break it to you guys, but MMORPGs have been around for years now. You have seen a lot of mechanics, you have strategy guides available because the competition is more or less gone, and you have communities where things are discussed rather than hoarded (see EQ1 for all this). That doesn't mean the game is easier, or the mechanics are less complex, but that you are better prepared for the game. Rift tends to train its players by having "raid" encounters pop up in every zone. The low level raids have some fairly complex mechanics requiring positions, add killing, avoiding things, running away, etc. This leads to players being more comfortable with mechanics, as they see them all the time, and aren't surprised as the shift in the game meta once they reach max level from a PvE aspect (see WoW, EQ1, Warhammer, etc.). The dungeons reinforce this, with having similar encounters as each dungeon is entered. Having to kill things in a certain order, avoid things, run away from things, watching for buffs/casts/emotes and then reacting, etc. There are several open zone raids for PUGs also, which lets people get even more practice. It's not surprising that people find raids easier with that in mind. I will be interested in how their end game progresses and the feedback they get as a result. Anyway, I am digressing, and I should get back on track.

What makes tanking as a Riftstalker different than the other classes and what makes it more fun? Well, it's nice to have to care about watching pathing, being careful with pulls and using CC sometimes, but not all the time. Riftstalkers are rogues, and like all rogues, they rely on combo points and finishers to use their abilities. This means that starting a fight is extremely interesting. You have to work to get your armor increased, to get up your mitigation, and to maintain threat, all at the same time. You then have to keep the buffs from falling off. You have different cooldowns to work with, one that purges effects and makes you immune for a short time (three seconds), one that is the standard take-less-damage style of cooldown, and a strange one that allows you to delay all damage taken for ten seconds, where you take it all at once. This requires thought to use well, but it can make the difference between a wipe and a win. It's tough to use well, but I appreciate that.

To complicate things more, the Riftstalker has a huge mechanic available for the micromanager. The Plane Shift. Plane Shifts are teleports that work in various ways, but the Riftstalker gains benefits for a short duration after every teleport. This means that the Riftstalker should try and rotate through the teleports to make things easier, and to increase his efficacy. However, two of the teleports change the position of the creature, so using them is harder than just clicking the buttons. With cleaves, breath attacks, etc. it becomes important to communicate and work together to get the best out of the attacks and defenses. Area threat is limited, but it's a good weakness for the class. Working to gather things is difficult, but rewarding once you can do it well. On top of this, the tank really, really has to pay attention. It's everything WoW raiding was for tanks, and then more on top of that. I say this seriously. It's not necessarily harder, but it is more active. The differences aren't any more obvious between decent and good, but healers seem to comment more. Healing and mana throughput are more important in Rift at this stage, so that parallel seems to garner commentary. I love active play, and being able to manage the efficiency of my character through my play. It's nice that if I am having an off-day I won't completely screw my group, but good play does make a huge difference.

It will be interesting to see where tanking goes from here. This has easily been my most enjoyable experience so far, and I look forward to see how other games learn from this. Not to mention to see what I can cannibalize for other mediums.