Look at me, standing in my magic full plate armor and shield. 22 AC, resistance to fire and poison, a mountain of hit points, and hey where is everyone going? What do you mean the wizard is dead? What is “the tank fallacy”?
Is this you? Is everyone in your party dying, but you’re an unassailable wall of armor? You may have fallen into the “Tank Fallacy”, and I’m going to try to help you get out of it.
This article is system-agnostic, but I’ll make specific references to DnD and Pathfinder as examples. Depending on what you’re playing, other options may be available.
What is the Tank Fallacy?
At its simplest, the Tank Fallacy is the idea that a character is so durable that enemies will be more effective in combat if they ignore you in favor of your less-durable allies, and since you’ve invested so heavily in durability, you’re not a significant offensive threat.
Where did the “Tank” idea come from?
Video games. While tabletop RPGs have always been fueled by the near-limitless imaginations of the people playing them, video games have always been limited by the capabilities of current technology.
To be brief: video game enemies aren’t very smart compared to actual living creatures.
In many video games, creatures will engage the nearest enemy and attack them until either side is dead or disengages in some way, at which point the creature will either pursue it or find a new target depending on the game’s logic. While video game AI has improved significantly over time, this base assumption hasn’t changed all that much.
In CRPGs, especially MMORPGs, a “tank” is a character whose job is to run to the front, get enemies’ attention, and hold their attention while the rest of their party does everything else (damage, healing, weaving baskets, mashing buttons, etc.). In older games, being in the front was often sufficient, so if you could stand at the front for a long time without dying, you were a successful tank.
Eventually video games introduced the idea of “aggro”. Aggro is a system used to help enemies prioritize players as targets more intelligently by prioritizing players based on their actions. To continue enabling tanks, video games also introduced “taunt” mechanics which would draw aggro toward tanks. Effectively, video games gave enemies a way to pick good targets and then compelled players to bring an effective counter in order to not have their glass cannons immediately smashed.
Defenders vs. Tanks
We here at RPGBOT intentionally use the term “Defender” rather than “Tank”. Defender is a term which we borrowed from 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, which had explicit party roles for classes which broadly described how a character would fit into a party. In a game with a large number of classes, that was helpful so that parties didn’t accidentally end up without crucial capabilities in combat. We avoid the term “Tank” specifically because it invokes the “Tank Fallacy” mentality.
The idea of a “Defender” is that they defend their party members in some way, but not necessarily by tanking. Inhibiting enemies’ attacks or preventing them outright, preventing enemies from getting within range of your allies, and making your allies unusually durable are all viable strategies depending on your ruleset and your build. Sure, standing in front and being a punching bag can work sometimes, but most TTRPGs don’t have a clear taunt/aggro mechanic to work with.
As a player, what do I do about it?
If you’re coming from video games, you need to adjust your thinking. TTRPGs don’t have taunt/aggro mechanics like video games do, and rather than a scripted blob of polygons, your Game Master is simulating a creature of some degree of Intelligence.
Protect for Your Allies
The root purpose of the Defender/Tank is to protect your allies, not simply to survive. Look for character options which allow you to protect your allies either by diverting or mitigating attacks.
In DnD 5e, Fighting Style (Protection) and Fighting Style (Interception) are good examples of attack mitigation because you’re reducing the effectiveness of enemies’ attacks on your allies. In PF1, the Bodyguard feat allows you to boost your ally’s AC when they’re attacked, potentially blocking the attack.
In multiple editions of DnD, the Arrow-Catching Shield can turn ranged attacks originally intended for your allies to attack you instead. Other character options might allow you to interpose yourself in other ways, becoming the target of an attack in place of your ally.
Make Yourself Sticky
DnD editions 3.0 and beyond and both editions of Pathfinder include options for creatures to react when an enemy moves out of melee with them. This creates a sort of “stickiness” which can discourage or prevent enemies from moving away in order to reach your allies. If you are sufficiently sticky and your allies are out of reach, enemies are often forced to engage you in combat regardless of how durable you are.
Opportunity Attacks or Attacks of Opportunity (same concept, but called different things in different rule sets) are the absolute floor of stickiness. Hitting an enemy as they move away adds a cost to doing so, but unless the enemy is worried about your damage output, that cost may be minor compared to the benefits of eating that tasty wizard over there.
Beyond just Opportunity Attacks, you may be able to slow enemies or entirely prevent them from moving away. Creating difficult terrain around yourself, knocking enemies prone (which you can do with an attack of opportunity in DnD 3.x/PF1), or halting their movement as a Reaction (DnD 5e’s Sentinel feat) makes you very sticky because you can inhibit or entirely negate enemies’ attempts to move away.
In many RPGs, if you grab or grapple enemies, they’ll be unable to move away. DnD and Pathfinder both reduce grabbed/grappled creatures’ speed to 0 (with some exceptions since grapples can be moved), which outright prevents them from moving away from you without paying some cost (usually actions) to escape first.
Be a Threat
The second half of the tank fallacy is that tanks often over-emphasize defense at the cost of offensive capabilities. But if you balance those priorities, you may be enough of a threat that enemies can’t afford to ignore you. A raging barbarian swinging a two-handed weapon often does enough damage that simply ignoring them is a poor choice despite how difficult it might be to kill them.
For many characters, improving your damage output might be as simple as changing equipment. If your 5e paladin is falling into the tank fallacy, put down your shield and grab a two-handed weapon. Reducing your AC will draw more attacks to you, and improving your damage output will make it harder for enemies to ignore you.
Look for Taunt Mechanics
While they’re intentionally rare, some RPGs do have taunt mechanics. These are often individual character options such as spells or feats rather than core mechanics, and finding these options is often a great short-cut to being an effective Defender.
As an example, DnD 5e’s paladins have access to the Compelled Duel spell, allowing them to magically force enemies to remain within a certain radius and inhibiting their attacks against other creatures. It’s certainly not a perfect spell, but it’s a great example.
As a DM/GM, what do I about it?
Consider how intelligent/wise your monsters are and play to that level of intelligence. Smart creatures won’t just charge the nearest enemy: they’ll think tactically, choose targets that make sense, look for opportunities to capitalize on the player’s weaknesses, etc. The players don’t have a monopoly on tactical decisions.
Conversely, play unintelligent monsters appropriately. Wild animals will generally pick the easiest target and likely aren’t smart enough to do much else, but are very likely to switch priorities to whatever dealt them obvious damage recently. If several people dealt them damage in a round, consider having the animals go after whatever dealt the most damage. Zombies are going to charge the nearest moving thing. Against many of these creatures, being durable and nearby may be enough to make the player’s Defender effective, and it’s okay to let that happen sometimes.
Just don’t make it every encounter. There’s only so much zombie vs. player shin kicking that a party can tolerate before it gets dull.