When I saw that D&D4 had made defender powers, I thought it was a neat idea because I remembered that in the games my gaming group used to play – like Champions, Star Wars, and Torg - we used to have powerful bricks who wanted to attract more than their fair share of enemy firepower, and I thought it was cool that there was a rule to force this rather than just relying on GM discretion.
However, I have some problems with the implementation of defenders in play. I tend to feel the defender powers are much more effective at hosing specific enemies than at generally drawing attacks towards your defender and away from vulnerable members of the party. A fighter can really frustrate an enemy by “locking him down” and preventing him from using ranged attacks or powers requiring movement, but that enemy tends to be the one that would have attacked the fighter anyway, so it doesn’t protect the group much unless that enemy is some sort of unusually powerful “boss” enemy.
A second problem, commented on by a friend of mine, is that a balanced character would need to be rather warped in order to be tough enough to take on their own foe and somebody else’s, so (unless the fight is easy) either you aren’t balanced, or you aren’t tough enough and you act as a heroic sacrifice while you friends tear down the villains, or you are tough enough but have toothless offense, or you are supported by an awesome healer who is either unbalanced or has a toothless offense to compensate for all that healing power. I wondered how defender-like characters used to work in the older RPG’s I used to play.
Even if you successully implement a tank, MMORG-style, the problems that came to mind for defense-oriented tank characters in a tabletop RPG setting can be summarized as: having low offense is boring, getting thrashed so that an offense-oriented character can deal damage feels like you are a meat shield for someone else who gets all the glory.
The model D&D claims to be going for, which seems based on MMORG concepts, involves defense-oriented tanks, backed up by healers, distracting foes and sucking up damage so that offense-oriented strikers can destroy them. I thought I’d compare this to how offense-oriented and defense-oriented characters used to work in my pre-D&D gaming groups. I’ve included the actual character names from my gaming group; the wider audience can ignore these.
Most of the characters were just intended to be balanced. These characters just expect to take on their fair share of the opposition and go at it one-on-one. The strong characters would tend to take on the strong foes and the weak characters the weak foes; but if the weak characters were still sometimes outmatched, that’s OK, it’s part of their character conception. Examples: Hotshot, Starlight, Gravlock, Lance Benthar, Farukka, most of the Torg characters.
Many of the characters I would think of as defenders – our classic Champions bricks, for instance – were, in fact, characters who were very powerful overall. They had strong offense and very strong defense. They were tough enough to take on more than their fair share of opponents and be happy to do so, and had plenty of offense making them fun to play. Even if they were forced to deal with more foes than they could handle, it was hard to complain when you knew you were so awesome that they couldn’t defeat you without teaming up. Examples: Atom-Smasher, Hellspawn, Monstrosity, Cutlass, Surge, Dr. Sandar, Solan Ionescree.
There were characters who had strong defense but mediocre offense, theoretically the equivalent of a "tank". But these characters did not feel or work at all like the D&D fighter or MMORG tank. Rather, these were scrappy characters who liked that even if they couldn't win the combat, they wouldn't be taken out of it; they would always get to be present, doing their thing. They might try to take on tough opponents to give the rest of the party breathing room, but more as a special stunt than a routine combat tactic. Mostly, they just liked knowing they would be the last one standing in the group. Examples: Blitzkrieg, Charm, Psi-Knife, Olan (the Star Wars Gambler).
On the opposite side of the spectrum, those characters we made to have relatively poor defenses were usually characters who were not very powerful overall. Since these characters were weak, they merited less than their fair share of opponents, and it wasn't a big stress on the rest of the party if they hid in the "back ranks" and weren't engaged at all. Everyone was happy because the weak characters survived, the party was glad their solid offense was being made good use of, and the front line didn’t feel like mere meat shields because they knew they were more powerful and important than the back ranks. Examples: Backlash, Troubleshooter, Colonel Quar.
There were characters who were arguably high on the offense with relatively average defense. It seems to me that these characters didn’t want to take on more than their fair share of opponents, but would be quite happy to take on one opponent. If that opponent was pretty strong, the fight might be over more quickly than usual but would certainly be fair and entertaining; if the opponent were normal, the powerful hero might be expected to win, then help his scrappy allies who have been holding off the remaining foes. This involved a little GM cooperation (it isn’t much fun if the villains all join up to stomp you into the ground), but everyone ends up more or less happy; since the high-offense character is still taking on a fair share of the enemies, the other characters don’t feel so much like they are being used as defense for a wizard that gets all the glory. Examples: Predator, Shock, ATHENA.
Some characters had average-to-mediocre defense and weak offense. These were typically skill-based characters. They had various ways of dealing with combat. They might find a weaker opponent to go one-on-one with. If forced to take on a fair share on the enemies, they would take on a mindset of being outmatched and take pride in tying up their opponent as long as possible until the cavalry could arrive. The lack of glory in this was not a problem since the skill-based characters got all the glory they needed outside of combat. Sometimes they would decline to take part in combat at all and concentrate on mission objectives, relying on their relatively good defenses to survive crossing a dangerous battlefield. Examples: Psyk-Out, Troubleshooter.
One other type of defense-oriented character is one who has good defense and low offense because they are powerful but incompetent (either due to inexperience or general comedy). These characters don’t mind being somewhat ineffective on offense because that is part of the character conception. And they usually feel pretty dangerous when they get lucky and really do something effective. Examples – Acme, Valkyrie (w/o Einherjar)
Interestingly, I really did not find any characters built on the “tank” model – weak offense, mighty defense, and a “hit me please” mentality – or the “wizard” model – mighty offense, weak defense, uses friends as meat shields. Probably because our early experience with RPG’s had been that such characters do not work, so we made sure not to make any.
I’m not sure what my conclusion here is, except for the observation that the kind of polarized characters designed for the MMORG team dynamic, are exactly the sort of characters that did not work at all in a regular RPG. That might explain why I’m finding that combining the two approaches does not work quite right.