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Grumpy Gamer's Troubling Tropes: Big Dumb Meat Shields

Posted Sat, Mar 08, 2014 by gunky

Grumpy Gamer's Troubling Tropes: Big Dumb Meat Shields

I remember back in the day when I was first introduced to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition, through some good friends in college. The group had been playing together for a while, and knew the thoroughly bewildering THAC0 system inside and out. They had awesome characters - an evil necromancer, a psychopathic thief, a High Elf fighter pretending to be human, a corpse-skinned cleric of pestilence and many others. I was new to the game and unfamiliar with the system, so, instead of having me make some kind of abject failure of a first character, Greg the DM gave me the character sheet for Chunk.

Chunk was a fighter with an Intelligence score of... somewhere between 3 and 6. He had a decent strength score and mediocre everything else, but to me, his defining characteristic was his abysmally low Intelligence. To this day, I cannot imagine him as anything other than Sloth from the Goonies. Even though his name was Chunk, and that was the fat "Truffle Shuffle" kid.

Grumpy Gamer Big Dumb Meat Shield - Sloth from the Goonies

"HEEYY YOU GUYYYYYYYYS!"

He was a single-purpose character - the bodyguard of a female wizard. He had no identity beyond that. He was the quintessential big, dumb meat shield.

Back in the 2nd Edition days, "Fighter" was your only real option if you rolled a set of crap ability scores. The only requirement to play a fighter was a minimum Strength score of 9 - everything else could be terrible, and Intelligence was usually the "dump" score (and still is).

A Fighter obviously wants a high Strength score - he's a master of weapons and needs a lot of muscle-power to be able to swing them around effectively without tiring. Constitution is also important, because Fighters are front-line types and need to be able to take a sustained beating. They want to be able to move quick, so a high Dexterity score is desirable, and they want to be able to resist mind-control magic, so a high Wisdom score is generally not the worst idea. That leaves 2 stats at the bottom end of the importance scale: Charisma and Intelligence.

Grumpy Gamer Big Dumb Meat Shield - Cover of 2nd Edition Player's Handbook

Open Doors roll: successful

Charisma might seem like a fairly easy decision - who really cares if the armor-plated behemoth has a face like crushed brick and the personality of a block of wood? But back in those days, Charisma was used to determine how many henchmen a character could have, and how loyal those henchmen would be. It was also used to determine encounter reactions - a low-Charisma Fighter was more likely to piss people off and get in fights all the time, whereas a high-Charisma Fighter was more capable of talking his way out of an unwinnable situation.

In 2nd Edition rules, Intelligence had almost no importance for Fighters. Fighters cast no spells, and speaking only one language is sufficient when meaning can be effectively conveyed by gesturing menacingly with a sword or growling ferociously.

Grumpy Gamer Big Dumb Meat Shields - Conan the Barbarian

He only had about 12 lines the whole movie, but in his defense, he is multilingual.

2nd Edition AD&D was the birthplace of the big, dumb meat shield, but as the game became more sophisticated, the players evidently did not. Intelligence remains the common "dump stat" for tweaker builds - you put just enough points in it to qualify for certain feats, and the rest are allocated elsewhere. The Fighter is relegated to a tanking role - the front-line guy taking the beats while the rest of the party does the "real" work.

It's not just players who are locked into the "big dumb fighter" trope - game designers are particularly guilty of this. The "Holy Trinity" of Tank - Heals - DPS relies on one character - usually a heavily-armored melee or short-range fighter - whose sole job is to act as a damage sink for the rest of the group. All other considerations are essentially secondary - his damage output is often fairly low, he can't heal and usually has no controlling abilities besides generating "hate" or "threat" or "aggro" or whatever the term is in the specific game. His only job is to keep enemies facing a certain way and to get hit by them more than everyone else.

Some players find this play style engaging and fun. They get to be the center of attention in every fight, and if they fail, the group suffers for it. But there's a reason that DPS classes are usually more common than tanks. DPS guys get to hit big damage numbers without having to do all the extra work. Even healers get more glory than tanks - the big green numbers they pump out are more obvious than the hidden math that determines which target a boss monster focuses on. But the fact of the matter is, if being the group's designated punching bag was more rewarding, tanks would be more common than they are.

Grumpy Gamer Big Dumb Meat Shields - Tank Stats in LotRO

MMO tanks are all brawn and little brain.

Crack open the stats on the MMO tank and you'll find the same unbalanced concept at play here - physical power is vastly higher than mental power. Tanks and melee DPSers are big dumb brutes that hit hard but don't spend a lot of time thinking about it.

This concept makes no sense in the real world. Dumb fighters, incapable of forming strategies or of learning from their opponents to discern their weaknesses, would be killed quickly, way before they ever became epic hero types.

The idea may come from conscripted soldiers in the Middle Ages - farmers and peasants who were handed a spear and a thick quilt pretending to be armor, and who were told to go stand in the field yonder and fight. These soldiers didn't need to be clever or well-trained. There just needed to be an awful lot of them - particularly because they were not battle-hardened veterans and would flee at the first sign of danger, or collapse and play dead after sustaining the least wound should they prove brave enough to stand and fight.

But consider a warrior like Spartacus. Spartacus was no thick-headed moron. He was a strategist who won against terrible odds by fighting smarter than the Romans. Or William Wallace, who outmanouevered the British and infuriated them by winning battles where he should have been slaughtered instead. Alexander the Great was a military genius and a front-line fighter. These guys were Fighters with above-average Intelligence scores. That's why they were victorious, and that's why their deeds are legendary.

Grumpy Gamer Big Dumb Meat Shields - body builder

Bro, do you even hold aggro?

The other problem with the "big dumb meat shield" is that these characters require smarter players, especially in MMOs. Tanking is harder than it looks - it requires attention to detail, the ability to adapt to rapidly-changing situations and a capacity for multi-tasking. A true "muscle-bound oaf" character likely wouldn't possess that kind of mental agility and spatial reasoning and whatnot. A brainless hunk of armored meat is the very worst kind of tank.

On the other hand, despite the fact that Chunk was not particularly fun to play, the simplicity of the character did teach me how the game worked, and provided a gateway into a new and exciting world. Had it not been for that beefy ignoramus, that world might have remained closed to me.The Grumpy Gamer would have ended up being a... Grumpy Temp Worker. And the world has enough of those already.


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