Knockback Man, thank goodness you came!

Imagine the fun we had in the Halls of Lightning yesterday.

The group started with the familiar ‘gogogo’ call of the hopelessly incompetent dps (a shaman in this case), so I headed off to gather up the first couple of pulls at about the same speed as usual.

All goes well. We head down the slope to pick up a few more mobs. I see the first boss with his adds approaching – I consider whether we could take all of them plus the group at the bottom which I hadn’t yet pulled. I decide that this group probably isn’t high enough dps for it so draw back a bit to wait when ….


Suddenly ‘my’ mobs all fly backwards in random directions. Naturally one of them pulls the boss (in empowered mode, of course), plus the extra group. I think … something … and go pick up as many as I can. Some of the ranged guys run off, shoot a few arrows, and then run after the healer. He runs in the opposite direction whilst still managing to type ‘omg keep aggro’. I can barely see where the rest of the mobs are due to having a huge and arcing boss in my face but I suspect some of them may be out of AE taunt range. This proves to be the case.

A wipe ensues. And as per usual, while I’m yelling at the misbegotten shaman who dared use an unauthorised knockback on my mobs, everyone else is yelling at me. My husband is yelling at the shaman too but he isn’t actually in the group, he’s just watching over my shoulder.

Imagine for a moment that you are a game designer and you have been challenged to invent a new ability that will really really annoy every tank in the game.

How do you do it? Think about the tank’s job in PvE, then think about how other people can make it more difficult. If there is a random element, even better.

  • A misdirect that sends the monstie off to smack a random group member? (My burglar has that in LOTRO.)
  • A castable shield that removes all threat from the tank? (That’d be a paladin special.)
  • An amnesia spell that just resets the monster’s threat table? (My sorcerer had that in DaoC.)
  • The ability to teleport a monster away from the group in a random direction? (That’s City of Heroes.)
  • Or maybe an instant AE nuke which also flings all monsters away in random directions at the same time? (What is this I don’t even …)

Knockback is the epitome of anti-crowd control, allowing a hapless caster to create chaos where once there was order.

Thunderstorm in particular is a dreadful example of game design. It’s an instant AE nuke, also gives some mana back to the caster, AND knocks back the enemies in a random direction by 20’.  This means that it mixes together a few abilities that a caster would really want to use, and a side-effect that will make everyone hate you in instances. Tanks will hate it because they inevitably lose some control, plus there is a good chance that at least one of the mobs goes flying into another group. Also there is a special hidden aspect to Thunderstorm which forces shamans to use it JUST as you hit shockwave so your best AE threat ability is completely wasted and now on a cooldown while the monsters run wild … 20’ away in random directions.

But all is not lost, there is a glyph of thunderstorm that PvE-ifies the spell. So you get the same damage, more mana, and no knockback. It’s also a great example of how glyphs can be used to customise spells in interesting and useful ways. That should be a win, right? Well, it would be a win if the PvE version of the spell was the default, and people had the option to glyph for the PvP/solo friendly knockback.

I don’t know what they were thinking. Because otherwise that was a neat and player-controlled way of letting spells behave differently in PvE or PvP situations. But the non-PvE friendly version should never have been the baseline.

All that means is that clueless players wander into groups, toting spells that are guaranteed to piss off the rest of the group and with side-effects that have no good place in group content. A 20’ random AE knockback is very very rarely going to be useful in a group.

I could imagine games where this would be less of an issue. Where chaos in PvE is the order of the day. Where tanking and healing abilities are more spread and players are more self sufficient, so spraying a bunch of monsters around just makes it easier for people to pick separate targets and bag them. But WoW is not that game.

Spells with multiple effects

One of the hallmarks of more recent iterations of WoW abilities are new spells which do multiple things. Shockwave, for example, puts out some damage, a lot of threat, and also stuns mobs.

Warriors have a lot of fun with Shockwave. It can be used to hold a group in place briefly while you charge off and grab another set. It can be used purely for the threat, with the stun as a side-effect. It can be used in PvP purely for the stun, with the damage as a side-effect. Producing more than one effect makes the spell more flexible and more group friendly, not less.

Also there are very few occasions where the side effect is problematic.

Another example would be lifebloom which heals like a regular HoT with a burst heal at the end. So in TBC druids could choose to either stack the HoTs (rolling lifebloom) or let it bloom. Again, not an ability that would ever hinder a group but the extra effect makes it more flexible and fun to use.

And the knockback abilities can also be great in the hands of a skilled player. I’ve seen Blastwave used to knock mobs back towards the tank, for example.  But not every situation is knockback friendly. So really the caster needs to be able to choose when to use that side-effect, not have it tacked on to a spell that is part of their core dps rotation.

Knockbacks used right

Warhammer Online had some great notions for knockback. And in that game, tanks were given many of the CC spells.

The knockback was intended to let tanks throw an enemy away from a more vulnerable group member in PvP. And throw people into lava in Tor Anroc, an awesome PvP scenario featuring narrow paths r around pools of lava which was roundly hated by every class which didn’t have a knockback and loved by every class which did.

What the devs realised is that knockback is a PvP ability, where maintaining perfect control of a pull is less important than ‘get it off me right now!!!’