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
"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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.