I thought about doing something topical, like people being emotional twats, but no good could come of that. Instead, I think I'mma do an essay on something that has very recently become near and dear to my heart. We've described characters like Fabula, Ashin, and Valik as "tanks" for a while now, but that term has two completely different meanings to two different groups of people. The term "tanking" in internet culture is widespread, but I want to take a closer look.

Tanking is an RPG term that's migrated into netizen jargon. In ye olden times, the "tank" of a party was often referred to as the "meat shield." Their role was much simpler than modern tanks, as all it really mandated was standing at the front and being hard to kill. The big man in heavy armor and the "brick" superhero with her incredible durability could both sponge a bunch of hurt and contribute some hurt back to the party. They weren't the unkillable stone walls armed with feather dusters we have now, but the core idea was still there: stand in harm's way, get hit so the less durable party members don't.

When RPGs changed their genre of choice from tabletop to video games, a new mechanic came into existence. "Aggro." Keeping track of hate/threat/enmity/aggro is fundamentally a result of having a computer to process all of the relevant numbers in the blink of an eye. Aggro might easily have existed in tabletop form if it wasn't such a bitch to calculate. Each individual attack's damage is added to a huge list, and the one at the top of that list is what the monster attacks. This requires constant math, which tabletop players want exactly none of (especially since the one doing the mathing would be the DM, and they've got enough work already).

With the addition of aggro, monster targeting became a direct matter independant of any logic or discretion beyond the sum of several numbers. This meant that the meat shield had to adapt or fall out of favor. I saw a lot of this in early Flashpoints back when I started playing TOR. Several people would join, but we often didn't have a tank in the group, or the tank was too low-leveled to have access to some very iconic tanking abilities I'll mention in a bit. As a result, the enemies targeted whoeve generated the most aggro, which was by necessity always a damage class (or healer, if anyone was bothering to heal). It was chaos, but it was managable on the micro scale, with a small group in an easy instance. In a larger group or with stronger enemies, it would have been impossible. They simply hit too hard and too randomly.

Enter the tank. I want to thank whoever first came up with the idea of specializing one party member to be the focus of 100% of incoming damage. It's something we couldn't concieve of beforehand, but in retrospect seems so simple. The evolution of a meat shield to a tank was objectively minor, but conceptually immense. No longer was the party vanguard's job to intercept most of the attacks and not die as easily; now, the vanguard's job was to intercept all of the attacks and not die ever.

The modern tank has two jobs completely unique to it. First, and most importantly, the tank needs to abuse the aggro system. Everything must be attacking the tank at all times, or damage gets spread around to other party members and overtaxes the healers of the group. Next, the tank needs to be able to withstand incredible amounts of incoming damage. This can be accomplished several ways, often through high defensive stats, blocking, dodging, or high health pools. Most frequently it's a combination of several of these things.

A modern tank is nigh-invincible compared to modern damage characters. DPS durability vs tank durability isn't even a contest in most cases, and even when it comes close the tank always has the edge. In order to keep things balanced to where every group didn't just roll three tanks and never die, they had to give something up. That something was damage, hence the quote "stone wall with a feather duster" above. Taking away damage meant that the tank had to rely on both other party members for support: the DPS to hurt things, and the healer to make sure she didn't die. But taking away damage also removed the tank from the aggro calculations. What do?

Aggro abilities. A "stance" to fall into which increases your aggro generation. Skills that you use that increase your aggro generation. The ubiquitous "taunt" skill that functions as an emergency aggro button, to pull an enemy back to the tank if it got distracted. Tanks still like damage, because it's multiplied into their aggro calculations. A Jedi guardian using "guardian's slash" in Soresu stance is multiplying her damage by x4 when it comes to aggro, and easily leaves the DPS in the dust if played correctly. After a minute or three of fighting, there is an immense gulf of hate between the tank and anyone else in the party. Honestly, sometimes I could just stop pressing keys at all and still hold aggro for probably thirty seconds.

But this is silly! I'm not doing anything to hurt it. I've stopped whacking it, burning it, or stabbing it. Why does it still want to attack me? If there's one criticism I can make about tanking, it's that it's become fundamentally illogical from anything other than a mathematical standpoint. Meat shields made sense. Big guy in your face hurting you as much as everyone else, why not hit him? Modern tanking is a tiny waif wearing a metal bikini doing about half as much damage as either of the other members hitting it. Alone, that tank usually can't kill the monster, but said monster insists on hitting the tank to the exclusion of everything else.

I'm not making a point here. MMO tanks are necessary to the game and I adore playing them. Sometimes it's a little silly, though, when my 4'8" catgirl is the thing that the giant spider-scorpion is attacking, rather than the kung fu death machine and black magic walking artillery standing behind it. Silly in the best possible way. Thank you, MMOs, for creating the most incredible knight in shining armor fantasy I've had to date.