Tanks For The Memories
I saw a thread on a D&D forum recently where someone was talking about making a defensive Fighter build, but said they worry about what they called “the standard tank problem of ‘if I can’t harm it, then why focus on it?'”
A little bit of background here to get everyone on the same page: the concept of a “tank” comes from computer games based (through winding paths) on Dungeons & Dragons. In Dungeons & Dragons, the Fighter’s high AC and Hit Points has always meant that other characters would tend to hide behind the Fighter, especially during lower levels.
In a computer game where there’s no human mind directing all the monsters and minions you fight, this is represented by giving Fighter-type characters abilities that allow them to attract a monster’s hostile attention—“aggro” in the parlance—and hold it better than more vulnerable characters. In simple terms, a tank is a higher priority target for the computer than other characters are. The tank’s two defining abilities are to be attacked more often than their teammates and to survive more attacks than their teammates.
In D&D, a human mind is directly responsible for directing the “aggro” of any NPC enemies the party fights, so all you really need to have in order to tank is the second clause: the ability to survive more attacks. Or that’s the way it’s supposed to work.
The “standard tank problem” described by this prospective player is the notion that in the absence of any mechanical incentive for monsters to attack the Fighter, game theory demands that they don’t. The odds of hitting the well-defended Fighter are lower than the odds of hitting another target. It will take more hits to drop the “Fighter than anyone else on the field, a side’s ability to inflict damage does not decrease until a member of that side is taken out of the fight, and it decreases fastest when characters optimized for doing damage rather than taking it are knocked out first.
This is an example of the law of unintended consequences in action: in making it so that your character is the best at taking hits, you become the least attractive target on the battlefield.
This was considered a big enough mechanical flaw in the era of 4th Edition that they did attempt to import some computer-game style “aggro grabbing” mechanics that complicated battle but made it easier for tanky warrior characters to do their job of standing between the oncoming horde and their squishier friends.
Some of those mechanics survive in 5E as an optional rule in the DMG and an equally optional feat in the PHB, but I’m not going to talk about those rules or their effectiveness. Instead I’m going to talk about the mindset that leads to the situation where they seem necessary, and how to avoid it.
What’s A Meta For?
The “metagame” is essentially the game of playing a game. A boxer who notices that their opponent has trouble keeping their left glove up because of an old injury that’s bothering them is metagaming the sport of boxing, as is a boxer’s manager who cherrypicks opponents to build their fighter’s confidence and public profile.
Though you can game a system for many purposes, metagamers typically analyze the rules of a game, the social practices of playing it, and even the context in which it’s played in order to figure out how to achieve their goals within the game.
When people talk about metagaming a roleplaying game, they usually mean taking advantage of their mastery of the system in order to first build the most mathematically optimal character and second to use that character to overcome all challenges they encounter while playing it. My previous column touched on the problem of thinking there’s a single path to “optimizing” a character, alluding to metagaming in the process.
A lot of players will metagame combat in particular, out of some combination of desire to crush their opponents decisively because it’s awesome and fear that if they don’t leverage their characters’ abilities to the hilt, those characters will die and they will lose the fight and fail in their quest. They see metagaming and playing to win as being interchangeable concepts, and don’t understand why anyone would not play to win.
I will argue until I’m blue in the face against the idea that such metagaming is the only way to play the game, but I’m not overly concerned with players who do it. The problem comes when Dungeon Masters match a player’s metagaming with metagaming of their own. This is what creates the supposedly standard problem for tanks. DMs who metgame in the same way that players do and for the same reasons will inevitably deform the game system, breaking down the tacit assumptions on which the combat system is based and robbing it of any hint of realism.
The Conga Line of Death
A textbook example of how two-way metagaming deforms things is a phenomenon of the 3E/d20 system known as the Conga Line of Death. Internet personality Spoony explains the concept in a video.
The basic idea of this: since you get a mechanical advantage to hit enemies when you have an ally on the other side of them (called flanking, in the system), the “correct” strategy is to always flank.
And since you can still form a flank against an enemy that is flanking you, once someone has you flanked you’re halfway to flanking them back; it just takes one ally moving into position opposite you on the other side of a flanking enemy and now the two of you are flanking that enemy.
And now that enemy is halfway towards flanking your ally, so another enemy moves into position, and so on.
If this continues, then before too long the entire battle will consist of people standing in a line, alternating between your side and their side. A battle that is 5 people against 5 people somehow becomes a series of fights that are all two-on-one fights.
The first time I saw someone watching this video, I was fascinated by the fact that Spoony is describing the concept with a bit of frustration, but he treats the Conga Line of Death as an inevitable outgrowth of the rules, because “you always want to flank.” You never don’t want that advantage. There’s a sense of, “This is terrible, but what are you going to do about it?”
Despite Spoony’s air of resignation, the Conga Line of Death is not inevitable. Probably more groups have played 3E-style games without it happening than have played it with it happening. Or maybe it happens once, everyone sees how ridiculous it is, and never again. It’s just that in the circles in which it does happen, it will keep happening. Because the logic that drives it will lead to the same conclusion in every situation where there are enough combatants, because everybody involved wants that mechanical advantage of flanking.
But all it takes to break the deadlock that creates the Conga Line is for one person in particular to abstain: the DM. If the DM controls one entire side of the battle. If the DM isn’t in a dancing mood, the conga line can’t happen. In a very real sense, players can’t create a Conga Line situation. It’s what happens when the DM matches them flank for flank, meta-tactic for meta-tactic.
People who defend this type of metagaming by the DM often make the argument that it would be unrealistic to not metagame, because everybody in the fight knows that it’s likely to the death and the best way to survive is to win, and the best way to win is to use the best tactics. It’s not really metagaming to take advantage of rules like flanking because the characters in the game know how flanking works, too.
But I think it’s obvious to everyone that the Conga Line of Death is not a realistic depiction of how a skirmish among two groups of about half a dozen or so combatants would break out and then break down. People would never line up like that for a fight.
As a DM, you can’t prevent this by telling the players, “That wouldn’t happen.” when they try to grab the first or second flank in a sequence. The rules say they can, so they can. And so can you. But you don’t have to. If you know that it wouldn’t happen, your job is to make sure it doesn’t. As a DM, your number one power for preventing the game from devolving into a ridiculous farce is to not do things that wouldn’t happen.
So I Just Have To Let Them Flank Me?
Yes, you do have to let the players grab mechanical advantages without concern for verisimilitude, the suggestion of reality. It’s not their job to provide that kind of feeling. It’s your job to do so. The rules are there to provide them with knowable, predictable limits of what they can and can’t do. The fact that they’re knowable and predictable means they’re game-able. The fact that they can be gamed means that some people will game them. But you don’t have to game them back.
A lot of times, when someone goes on a D&D forum asking for DM advice about what to do with metagaming players, particularly ones who only seem to be metagaming, not roleplaying or engaging with the game on any level except “How do I win?”, the advice is that you have to match them move for move or they’ll walk all over you.
Unfortunately, this tends to make the game less fun for everybody, and it also reinforces the mistaken notion that this is just how the game is played. It not only reinforces the behavior in the first player, but it teaches everyone at your table that they have to play the metagame to the hilt, even if it comes at expense of playing the actual game.
The truth is that as a DM, you are really not playing the same game as the players are, which means you shouldn’t be playing the same metagame. There are some goals that everybody at the table shares. Having fun is the obvious one. Telling a story is another possible one.
But the players are also trying to complete a quest, and/or advance their characters’ goals, and/or amass riches and power through daring exploits and/or living out their heroic (or villainous) fantasies. You as DM are not trying to do any that. You’re trying to provide an environment where they can do all that while being entertained and challenged. The balance of challenge might vary from group to group, and there’s no right level except the level that provides the most fun for the group (yourself included). But even acknowledging that challenge is one of your goals, you’re still not playing the same game as they are.
Unlike a player who is playing to win, a DM’s metagame doesn’t—or shouldn’t, at least—consist of things like knowing that if you combine this ability with that rule and take advantage of an exception provided by interference from a conflicting interpretation of an optional rule then you can do an extra 37.5 damage per round. A DM’s metagame consists of taking the knowledge that Player A is motivated by the thrill of combat, but Player B likes a good mystery and Player C just wants to goof off and coming up with an encounter that has something for everyone.
A player who builds a “tank” character by making a Hill Dwarf Fighter with the defensive fighting style and maximum Constitution, AC, and HP for level one is using metagame knowledge to create a character who can fulfill a certain role on the battle field: being a living meat shield for the rest of the party to hide behind.
The DM’s metagame should take into account that this player created this character to achieve a particular experience in combat; i.e., the thrill of being in the thick of things, laughing as sword and axe blows slide off their armor with nothing more than a bruise underneath. This knowledge helps the DM “win” by allowing them to run the game in a way the player will enjoy more.
A DM who choose to ignore the Dwarf in order to pile on the weaker party members and obliterate them so they can then dogpile on the defense-optimized Dwarf safely is playing the player’s metagame.
Now, is it realistic for the party’s foes to focus their “aggro” on the one target they’re least likely to meaningfully affect, in favor of immediately changing the course of the battle by taking out the unarmored wizard in a single round?
Of course it is.
In terms of in-game “reality”, none of the little people on the battle grid are actually little or on a battle grid. None of them are watching the battle with a bird’s eye view. None of them are seeing things in terms of polite, orderly turns during which they can assess, over the course of a minute or so, the possible targets and note their odds of a successful attack. They don’t know the D&D rules of combat, only the reality that they are intended to—with some help from the DM—loosely emulate, and the reality is that there’s big armored dwarf right in front of them who is the most obvious, most immediate threat, too dangerous to be ignored.
The weakling in the robe, the skinny person with the knives? The DM knows that they are a Wizard and a Rogue, two of the most dangerous people to ignore on a battlefield. But most people in the world who don’t wear heavy armor or carry big weapons aren’t particularly dangerous in a fight, and the average NPCs won’t know on sight that they’re looking at exceptional individuals who are the protagonists of a heroic adventure story.
The trick is actually to let it go. Let them have their metagame and focus on your own. Once you do that, all the things that seem inevitable—the “standard” problem for tanks, the “unavoidable” Conga Lines—just sort of fall away.
Death of the Ego
The hardest part about adopting a better attitude towards metagaming as a DM is the feeling that when the players are winning, you’re losing. Very few DMs consciously believe this, but when characters under your control are dying and the people across the table are crowing about how easily they dispatched them, it can be hard to let go of the idea that you yourself are suffering a defeat. It doesn’t help if the player is obnoxious about it and talking about “owning” you, of course.
The trick is to remind yourself as well as them that you are not the bad guy. The best way to do this is to celebrate with them. Say “Nice one!” instead of “Ouch!” or “You all are really kick butt.” instead of “I’m getting my butt kicked here.” Involve yourself in what the players are doing.
Ironically, the more you separate yourself from the NPCs in an encounter, the easier it becomes to consider how the battle looks from their actual point of view instead of what the winning move in the metagame would be. This also discourages even more objectively deplorable types of meta-DMing, such as shutting down a player’s illusion or charm spell or clever non-magical trick because “Sorry, I just can’t see this person falling for that. It’s not realistic that they’d be caught off-guard.”; i.e., you feel like a chump when you have to go along with something that you know is a trick.
I’ll likely talk more about that—particularly as it applies to illusion and trickery—in a future column.
Don’t Just Let Them Win…
…but remember it’s not your job to make them lose, either. Give the metagaming players challenges that give them the benefits of being awesome, rather than challenges that take away their awesomeness. If someone made a character who really is the best at killing spherical goblins in a vacuum, throw a lot of things at them that they can kill. If someone is enjoying always having the answer to everything (because they know the books inside and out), make that knowledge relevant some of the time instead of trying to put a mechanical stranglehold on it (“You don’t know that. Your character wouldn’t know that. Make a knowledge check.”) or constantly pulling gotchas and switcheroos like trolls that are healed by fire instead of being vulnerable to it.
Now, you can’t let the game become about celebrating the one player who has mastered the metagame the most to the exclusion of everyone else, of course. As a DM, your metagame is figuring out what every player is looking to get out of the game and, within reason, helping them find it.
Related: sometimes people will lament that you can’t balance combat when one character is heavily optimized for fighting and the others aren’t, because anything that challenges the overpowered character will wipe the floor with everyone else, while anything the others can handle will be wiped out by the overpowered one.
This is actually less of a problem in 5E than many people think, because of the care that went into the system’s design. But even to the extent that it’s true, it’s actually pretty easy to balance encounters for characters of disparate power levels, whether because one’s super optimized, or you rolled for stats and someone got lucky, or because they’re all different actual levels.
The key is to remember your metagame as DM: you’re not playing the combat to win, you’re playing it to provide an experience. And no one said you have to give everybody the same experience.
Spherical goblin-type game theory says that the PCs’ enemies should always focus their fire on the same target, preferably the one at the greatest intersection of “easy to kill” and “does the most damage per round”. But that’s not a realistic model of how the fight would actually go down.
Again, in real life, the most obvious, immediate threats grab the most attention first. And in stories, what usually happens when one person in the group is the best warrior is that someone on the other side recognizes this and chooses to engage them, either for the protection of their friends or because “At last! A challenge worthy of my skills!”
One of your goals is to challenge the players, yes. But it helps to think about designing adventures and encounters the way you would a similar thing in a video game; i.e., remember that the point of the challenge is that the players can overcome it.
Don’t Go Soft, Either
Finally, remember that this not about being a soft touch as a DM. Allowing players to metagame doesn’t mean you have to put up with argumentative rules lawyering or let them tell you how to run the game or dictate the terms of combat.
When it comes to interpreting the rules as written, I can be pretty hard line. I have the exceptions and house rules I allow at my table, but I know they’re exceptions and house rules. When it comes to what you can do and can’t do in combat, I’m very much a stickler.
I mean, if you’ve got a rad stunt that just doesn’t follow any particular rules, I’ll let you try it… if it fits the situation, doesn’t exactly emulate an existing ability that you don’t have, and it’s clear you don’t think you’re inventing a new rule that lets you do this cool thing at will. But don’t try to tell me that Quicken Spell should let you ignore the per-turn limits attached to spells with a casting time of bonus action because you think it stands to reason that it does. I’ll ask you to read what it actually says and then hold you to that.
If that example in particular means nothing to you, I’ll put it like this: allowing players to have their own metagame you don’t need to let players build “game breaking” characters or tactics that rely on questionable rules interpretations. If you don’t think the thing a player is trying to string together should work, you don’t have to give in. Deciding and enforcing the limits of what’s possible is part of your job as DM.
Also, just because you don’t automatically follow the same metagame tactics as the players doesn’t mean the rules that enable those tactics are off-limits to you. You can flank, if your edition includes flanking rules. You can decide that some of the enemies will gang up on a particularly troublesome hero (once the hero has had a chance to prove troublesome).
In particular, it’s worth remembering that you can always increase the ruthlessness of your tactics if a fight is going a lot easier than you expected… but it’s also worth remembering that there should be some easy fights. The fact that the dice are kind to the players isn’t something you have to actively counter. The law of averages will take care of that down the road for you.
But I don’t set limits within the rules on what players can “get away with”, nor do I try to match them meta for meta.
Remember: you’re the DM. If you won the game by killing the player characters, you could win it at any time. If you don’t just want to declare “Rocks fall, everyone dies,” you could have them accidentally wander into the dragon version of a chamber of commerce meeting. There’s no rule that says you can’t, only guidelines that say you shouldn’t.
You don’t do that kind of thing because it’s not fun. (Maybe funny, maybe once, but not fun the way the game is supposed to be.) And while working out the limits of what’s allowed and making use of that knowledge is a metagame for players, working out the limits of what’s fun and making use of that knowledge is the metagame for DMs.