Massively Overthinking: Thoughts on the holy trinity in MMOs

Why not the 'stately tetrahedron'?

    
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One of MOP’s bright new columnists, Tyler Edwards, blogs over at Superior Realities, and he recently brought to my attention his pieces on the MMO trinity, amounting to an epic threepart series breaking down the concept in our genre and making the case for and against it.

“I think there’s a rule somewhere that if you blog about MMORPGs, at some point you need to do a rant about the ‘holy trinity’ of group roles (tank, healer, DPS),” he joked. “If I had to pick a side in this endless debate, I would go with the ‘against’ faction, but really my view is more nuanced. There are some people who truly hate the trinity, who want it dead and buried, but I’m not one of them. I’m not a particular fan of the trinity, but it’s a functional system that has been well-polished over the years. I play plenty of games with the trinity, and I enjoy group content in these games well enough. What does bother me is when people start to treat the trinity as be-all and end-all, the only system under which you can have interesting group mechanics.”

I thought it would be fun to pull out the trinity topic since it’s been a while since we’ve really debated this. Where do you stand on the MMO trinity – do we need it? Is it outdated, or so baked into multiplayer RPGs that it’s part of the package? What are some good examples of it working – and failing?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I say this as someone who mostly tanks and/or heals: it’s far from ideal. Even the best MMOs that pull it off have better encounters that throw something more interesting into the mix. For example, the Instructor Razuvious fight in World of Warcraft had the tank and spank aspect, but it included using crowd controlled mobs that you even wanted to heal in a smart way.

Darkfall, mostly known for PvP and broken PvE, actually had some interesting PvE (when it worked). The game’s dragons are still the most dragonly dragons I recall fighting, flying high in the sky and not wanting to comedown and play at our level. You either rained spells and arrows on them (without tab targeting – pure skill shots!) or tricked it into coming down, and boy was that rarely a good idea. No tanking here, just good placement, healing, and accuracy.

Monster Hunter as a series does well with the trinity being softly in play. Everyone will basically tank and self heal in the battles, though there are weapons, items, and gear to assist you with doing any of those roles more often and better. In between, everyone shares the load though, and again, it’s more skill-based. You don’t pick tank and get reduced damage, you either actively block or dodge. Yes, some skills and gear help with that, but it’s a flexible system that allows you to mix and match quite a bit depending on how you want to play things out.

Crowd control, positioning, pet/minion maintenance, combos, vehicles, buff/debuff timing… all of these can be “fun” despite what some devs tell us. A whole class devoted to any one of them may not be necessary, but that’s also why strong roles seem antithetical to creating a good encounter. Give open-ended fights with multiple solutions and players can do some really fun things. Lock them into a “one way to do it” scenario and the genre as a whole gets bogged down.

And I’m saying this as a player! I can’t imagine having to design encounters with generally strict roles in play, and as certain skills always seem to cause one class to be balanced against the others, why not just let skills dictate the characters so future balancing doesn’t affect whole skill sets and roles you the designer created in the first place?

Andy McAdams: Like most things in life, the trinity in moderation is a good thing. Taken in excess, you get drunk on the rigidity of the triangle and forget that in fact both trapezoids and the stately tetrahedron can also be fun dynamics of class archetypes. The trinity provides an entry point for people coming into a game to understand their ‘place’ in party dynamics — it’s like a lighthouse experience. You know your role, generally whats expected of you, and it makes the transition into any particular game easier.

But when there’s only a trinity, it becomes problematic. Developers start to discard fun mechanics and class ideas because they don’t fit into this predefined role. They also start to become obsessed with balance, “Well, X damage spec does Y damage, and Z damage spec only does A damage and therefore no one will play it.” Classes started to feel less unique and more like basically the same as every other tank, DPS, or healer class with different visuals. Even slight deviations from this upsets the sacred balance of the trinity. I think WoW is a great example of a game that has doubled down so heavily on the trinity that it actively hurts the game. Classes have no real flavor anymore (say nothing of the “class fantasy” they touted so much in Legion, and promptly threw in the garbage in Battle for Azeroth).

Stepping outside the trinity to include support or even less rigidly defined roles allows for designers to create more unique classes and mechanics because you aren’t limited to just those three and the obsession with balance that inevitably follows. You can have classes whose primary function in a group is outside the trinity. To the surprise of no one, I think that Anarchy Online is a great example of a game that didn’t really have a trinity and did it really well. Conversely, I think Guild Wars 2’s lack of the trinity was poorly implemented and resulted overall worse class design than it would have had otherwise.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): At one time, Lord of the Rings Online had an interesting support class mechanic with the Loremaster, which focused on CC, debuffs and group power (the LOTRO resource akin to mana or stamina) regeneration. At some point, however, an update made power regen much less of a factor, presumably for the purposes of simplification/solo play, and the introduction of skill trees turned the LM class into more or less a ranged magic DPS class. I would love to see more games try to incorporate debuffs and resource regen into support classes, rendering them an essential 4th role in group activities. As it is, “support” might as well be substituted with “healer.”

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Fun fact: I still remember when “holy trinity” meant tank, healer, and mezzer – the DPS players were a given, the warm bodies that filled out the rest of the group, and not part of the trinity back in the early pre-WoW days of MMO group content. The fact that this shifted over time really says all you need to know about how MMO class and combat design have changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Don’t mistake me; I no longer believe we need or must respect a trinity of either type. But what I truly resent is the loss of class variation and combat flow that naturally accompanied the demise of the classic trinity, specifically the fact that crowd control, buffing, and debuffing classes have all but disappeared in the modern rush to make nearly everyone a damage-dealer, even the healers and tanks.

As an example, I can still think of none better than City of Heroes, which offered all of the old trinity and new trinity class types (and then some) but made none of them actually mandatory to clear content. Yes, tanks and healers and CCers and buffers and debuffers and damage dealers all existed, but it was completely possible to get through the game with no healers, or all healers. With a scrapper tanking ahead of a fleet of corruptors. With a stalker and four controllers. With three bubblers and three tankers. Whatever. I don’t want to see strict trinity MMOs, but I’m even grumpier about the “everyone deeps” MMOs even more, especially when the end result is clusterfuck combat where nobody ever has control over the fight. It didn’t have to be that way, but modernish devs keep reinventing the wheel, convinced they can do better. Maybe someday, they will, but so far, nah.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I dare argue the trinity is one of gaming’s most perfect systems. But in the past few years, it’s become a victim of its own success. It’s soooooo mainstream now. Yes, I went there. Did you guys see the trailer for the Division 2? I cringed when I heard one of the actors say “aggro.” This pretty much tells me that it’s time to dig deeper and find the next best thing. I’m always looking for the next great underground and niche hit concept. Now that the trinity’s pretty much entered our zeitgeist, I personally want to move on from it. It’s why I embrace open PvP and actively look for MMOs that de-emphasize the trinity as well as challenge the concept of what makes an MMO.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Having played MMOs that don’t enforce a trinity (City of Heroes) and do (practically everything else), I can definitely agree that there’s enjoyment in a game that enforces or discredits the design choice. I enjoy playing the tank character or the support character. I like how a true team dynamic is implied by its presence. I appreciate that having those hard roles means there’s one less thing for people to have to fuss over or decide when forming up a group for more challenging content. All of those reasons are perfectly valid and enjoyed.

But then, I think back to the time in City of Villains when my Mastermind pet class character joined in a full group of seven other Masterminds to do a door mission, and just how hilariously mad and unbalanced and cramped it was, and how much fun everyone was having with each other in the chat, and I just can’t in good conscience offer my undying support to the trinity system. If it went away in MMO gaming forever, I would not shed a tear.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): What I find really interesting is that when I hear “holy trinity,” I think of tank, healer, and slower (i.e., someone who has a spell that reduces the monster’s attack speed) or crowd control. Then you just fill in the rest of the group with whatever DPS pops up looking for a group. This definition comes out of my specific gaming history, though, and it yields the same line of thought.

Every class need to be generally valuable for group play. No classes should be so far out of the basic gameplay that people who choose them will be left out or feel forced to reroll. It is a tragic lack of imagination if developers can’t think of ways to make every class both needed and unique. If it isn’t, why include it to begin with?

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I’m more in the “against” holy trinity faction. However, I’m not completely against it, at least not anymore. In days past, I certainly advocated against it. I did not enjoy sitting around and waiting to fill a party with a precise and specific group composition. Few things infuriated me more (with MMOs) than just sitting in a lobby area… waiting. I’m here to play and I want to play now! But times have changed and my opinions have too – somewhat. I still don’t think the holy trinity should be a rule set in stone. I agree that there needs to be roles filled by different party members, but I don’t think those roles need to be so static and rigid as the classic holy trinity. Give players roles to fill while making those roles feel meaningful to the combat or situation.

Tyler Edwards: I mean, you cooould just read my original posts to get my thoughts… /end_self_promotion_mode. But really, my thoughts haven’t changed much. The short version of what what I outlined in my three post epic is that I think the trinity is too limiting and artificial and causes about as many problems as it solves. I don’t necessarily want it gone entirely, but I don’t like it being the default.

What really frustrates me is when people start to argue that the trinity is that the only way you can have interesting group content, or that altering it would remove class identity and make everyone play the same. I’ve been playing a lot of table-top D&D lately, and that game does an excellent job of giving classes clear identities and unique playstyles without pigeonholing anyone into a single narrow job. A druid, for example, can easily heal and put out respectable damage, and is generally not relegated to only ever doing one or the other. Meanwhile monsters, being controlled by a DM, behave more organically and aren’t always going to develop tunnel vision on one designated tank. Combat feels organic, and everyone has to have some degree of responsibility for their own survival. Tabletop and MMORPGs aren’t a perfect one to one comparison, of course, but there’s no reason online games couldn’t replicate at least some of that experience.

I think there’s a lot of ways to “solve” the trinity, and there’s not necessarily one perfect right answer. The solution I proposed in my original posts was to eliminate DPS as a role. Balance everyone around doing roughly the same damage and define roles by what you bring to the table in addition to damage. There’s no longer such pressure on healers and tanks because every group should have multiples of each. It’s closer to reality; instead of all the mobs dog-piling one guy and ignoring the rest, you have a team of tanks physically holding off the assault while their backline supports them with healing, buffs, and damage.

This would also probably necessitate some changes to encounter design and the pace of combat. Damage needs to be less spikey so that supports don’t always have to be spamming heals, and there would probably need to be more emphasis on adds than on singular big bosses. I think a big mistake GW2 made is that it got rid of the trinity, but still kept designing content the traditional way.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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Nephele
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Nephele

I guess you could say I’m on the fence on the “trinity”. The concept does provide a framework for differentiating characters from one another, and that’s a good thing in my opinion. But at the same time, it’s far too easy to go from differentiation to exclusion, and that’s bad.

I think what I’d really like to see, that very few games have successfully done yet, is for “trinity” (or “quaternity”) concepts to be applied to encounter design, but to marry that with a skill-based progression system for characters that’s both very broad and very deep. What I mean is that when you look at encounters, you’d still need someone who’s tank-focused, and heal-focused, and control-focused, and so on. And that would require players to have specialized their characters for those roles. But instead of saying “every tank gets X, Y, and Z abilities, set up character progression so that they players have some wiggle room in the definition.

Want to make your character a tank that can also do spot heals? Go for it. Want to be a healer-focused character with some control abilities? No problem. Want to just go all-out as a damage dealer? Have at. You still need all the “roles” of the trinity/quaternity for content, but players have more freedom to set up their characters to truly be distinct from each other.

I’m not saying that people should be able to reconfigure their characters at the drop of the hat, and I certainly don’t support the idea of everyone being able to do everything equally effectively, but a system that provides for more distinctiveness, uniqueness, and creativity than the standard trinity-based classes would be really cool to see.

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zoward

It would be fun to let a player control the boss during these fights, and see how well the classic trinity holds up vs. other team allotments.

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Matt Comstock

Against. Trinity = having someone else to blame when things go wrong. Strict adherence to the trinity can be rather unforgiving when it comes to mistakes. Tank loses aggro for a moment, healer gets killed, group wipes, everyone blames tank. Healer misses a heal, tank gets killed, group wipes, everyone blames healer. DPS is too slow, boss enrages, group wipes, DPS blames tank and/or healer, while tank/healer blame DPS.

When each class has a bit more diversity, the group can survive more mistakes and still succeed. With self heals, everyone with decent damage, everyone with decent damage mitigation, peeps are all a bit less likely to rage against one person if the fight fails.

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Nordavind

Against. No trinity, no classes. Just skills and mean* monsters.

*Everyone know that you pick off glass cannons and those who may heal first, just not the A.I.

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Anton Mochalin

If A.I. picks glass cannons and healers all the group communication in such MMO will consist of glass cannons and healers whining about them not being defended properly.

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Anstalt

I love this subject and have thought about it a lot.

In my opinion, the ultimate goal of class design is to create OPTIONS.

Options both for playstyle, self expression and tactics. When designing roles into your game, the goal should be to create options for your playerbase. The more options, the more players are likely to find an option that really suits them. That will increase their enjoyment and thus their retention.

One role gives you no options for playstyle or tactics, only self expression (assuming you allow players to customise, or there are different flavours of that one role). Two roles starts to open things up a bit. Three roles is better, for playstyle and self-expression, but by using the trinity you’re still quite limited on tactics.

So, I’m a fan of more roles.

LotRO was my favourite in this regard. It either had 4 roles (tank, dps, heal, support) or 6 roles (tank, heal, dps, buffer, debuffer and cc) depending on how you looked at it. What this did was open up possible tactics within the game to levels I haven’t seen in any other game.

You could go brute force – just stick with the trinity for mega heals and dps and hope thats enough. A simple tactic and if you’re fast enough it would work, but without the support roles you’ll be taking more damage (no debuffs) and might run out of power.

You could go slow and steady – stack up on debuffs so the fight is easier, but without the dps it’ll take a lot longer.

You could go surgical – by combining some of the buffs of the captain and debuffs of the burglar, you can increase single target dps to great heights but it requires good coordination and might leave u vulnerable in a situation with lots of adds.

You could go full stack of one class – during content lulls this was a very fun activity. Doing 6 man instances with 6 captains, or 6 loremasters, or 6 guardians.

Or you could go balanced. A solid mix of everything (typically tank, healer, 2x dps and 2x support per group) gave you the tools to face pretty much any situation.

As a guild- and raid-leader in LotRO, the games design gave me so many options that it made running group content much easier than any other MMO I’ve played. For 6 man content I could pretty much take any group composition and win. Hell, even 12 and 24 man raids I had a lot of leeway with group composition and thus with tactics. It really allowed us as a guild to find our own path through the content. We weren’t just following tactics online, we were able to develop our own tactics that suited our playstyle.

Now, with all that said, roles are only one half of the equation: the other half is the content.

There is no point having lots of roles if the content does not make use of those roles or, like most trinity games, forces you to make use of those roles in just one possible way. SWTOR was terrible for this when I first played it. The holy trinity and only ever 1 possible tactic, forced on you primarily through enrage timers, pretty much removed all player skill from that game and dramatically reduced enjoyment.

If you are going to have lots of possible roles, you need competent content designers who can create encounters that allow for multiple approaches. That way, you can fully leverage the work you put into designing your roles. The more strict you get with tactics, the less point there is in having multiple roles.

As for not enough people playing roles other than dps, that’s really down to the class designers and the content creators. I’m fine with every class being dual-role – dps + something else. Worked fine in SWTOR, when they introduced proper specs in LotRO it worked well there too. However, its the actual gameplay that is usually the culprit. Healing and tanking just aren’t that fun for most players, so devs need to have a rethink. I’m personally a fan of player collision and think this should be used for tanking, rather than “threat”. I’d love to see group formations taking a role, so that players build a solid wall infront of the squishies, or form wedges to break through the enemy etc.

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jay

I feel like the correlation between Pen and paper D&D and MMORPG’s is a bit off for our current level of technology. In D&D you have a DM controlling everything, making “intelligent” decisions for the monsters/npcs. Able to adapt on the fly to changing tactics. This makes combat in D&D much more dynamic and less strict to a paradigm of any kind, as players have to be flexible.

With our current level of AI, I don’t think that this type of play is really possible in MMORPG’s. Blizzard went on this huge hype train about their islands with the latest x-pack. Talking about how the AI was emergent and would actually target who ever it felt like rather than the largest threat generator, and other factors.

In actual play, the AI is just boring. Doesn’t really adapt well, and just seems to attack who ever at random, without any real causation or “thought”. It makes the game feel like early GW2 where it was just mildly controlled chaos during world bosses.

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Lars Rönnbäck

I am a bit old school, but I’ve come to realize that the “holy multitude” of EverQuest was in many ways really great. It forced you to group and required discipline, communication and cooperation in order to take down anything of significance. Ideally you would have a tank, a healer, a ranger or rogue, a bard or chanter, and a wiz or necro in the group. That being said, I was thoroughly tired of being locked into a class after a few years of playing.

Along came GuildWars, which initially had a cost associated with respeccing your skills, but insightfully made it free later on. Raids were never as fun in GW as they were in EverQuest though, but the liberty of being able to freely spec up your character as any class of your choice was brilliant. I still do not understand why any game would insist on locking down your specializations, so that either they cannot be changed at all or at a cost?

I would very much welcome a game that would reintroduce the stress EverQuest put on cooperation and the interdependency of its classes, but that would take the skill/spell system from GW along with its ability to freely respec your character at any time.

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Schmidt.Capela

I’m not against the trinity (or, in a more general way, fixed roles) in an encounter.

I’m completely against characters having fixed roles, though. I want to be able to freely choose, together with the group, what each player will focus on for the next encounter, instead of being bound to just one or two roles decided at character creation. If characters are bound to a single role for every group encounter they take part in then I quickly get bored and stop playing group content.

Thus, I prefer if games handle it like Trove, FFXIV, or TSW: have a single character able to eventually become good at all roles, allowing players that want that — and are willing to put the effort to develop their characters more than would be required for a specialized one — to not be bound to any role or playstyle.

Ririrawr
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Ririrawr

Against it… coz I never was a big gamer to begin with and why I used to love Champions Online… but then the last two years or so they have been on a major balance everything for group content roll (and streamlining events+rewards, aka no-updates-maintenance-mode for those who don’t play it) and now the big/main group content needs: Tank, Healer/Buffer, CC/Mezz, and DPS.

I don’t do well in that environment and it is a big part of my love-hate with Neverwinter… and with the next big update, I am worried I’ll have less agency to mess around with my abilities.

Star Trek Online is still ‘oldschool’ Cryptic and you are free to do whatever. and if you want to still focus on tanking / healing / whatever, you totally can and still get properly rewarded in group content.

Trinity to me generally means: i get punished for not being good enough in my given role so i must focus on that to the exclusion of other things (which in turn means solo-play gets way harder), boo

Alyn
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Alyn

I like to think of the “holy trinity” as one may think of parts on an automobile. We still need a steering wheel, tires, and an engine. Until some engineer develops and thoroughly tests a vehicle without these parts, then we continue.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a class to hold aggro, a class for healing, and a class for for damage. The aspect of tweaking each of these classes in a way to help make them more interesting in a fight is the aspect, I think, of stepping out that “trinity” box. I warn though that we mustn’t get “too cute” with these adaptations.

Alyn
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Alyn

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