Massively Overthinking: Thoughts on the holy trinity in MMOs

Why not the 'stately tetrahedron'?


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 Is it outdated, or so baked into multiplayer RPGs that it’s part of the package?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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