The Trinity: Keeping the masses safe since 1999!

This post by ‘I played WAR before anyone else did’ Richard Bartle (via KTR) brings up some interesting points, with the big take-away for me being that the MMO genre would be a lot cooler right now if Ultima Online had been more popular than EverQuest way back in the day.

SOE: ruining the genre since 99!

That aside, the main point of the post is about the ‘trinity’ of tank/healer/dps in many of today’s MMOs, and how it makes little sense not only from a realism perspective, but also in terms of design. ‘Forcing’ someone to play a meatshield, forcing someone to sit in the back and heal, and then having everyone else tag along to spam whatever they have at the boss does indeed look rough on paper for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is of course the fact that you can basically plug anyone into the dps role, while the tank and healers determine the fate of your group. The tank is the rockstar by design kids.

I would say it’s amusing that so many MMOs go down this path, especially when you have games like UO or EVE showing working examples of deeper, more free-form ‘classless’ systems, but than this sad but obvious fact comes up: the more decisions the average players has to make, the higher the chance they are going to screw up, and hence the trinity model is ‘safe’ and ‘easy’ in terms of design and player protection.

But beyond protecting the less aware, the trinity was also an easy way to fake AI back in the day and give encounters an easily-followed setup. Due to hardware and network limitations, you simply could not afford to have hyper-intelligent mobs that would play and react with anything more complex than “see player, attack player”, nor could you really have encounters go at the speed of a FPS in terms of movement, aiming, and precise timing. Technology has advanced, and while many MMOs claim better AI or more complex combat systems, they still crutch on the trinity and hence are still constrained by it. And now that MMO and WoW are one and the same for so many, the simple departure of the trinity itself is a huge shock for too many players. Too many still approach every MMO with a WoW mindset, trinity expectations firmly included.

Blizzard: Graciously accepting the destroyer crown SOE handed them!

One defense of the trinity you often here is that players enjoy playing a set role; be it tank, healer, or dps, and they view the removal of the trinity (or classes) as a change that no longer allows them to play the way they like. That’s just flat-out ridiculous. Sure, no one went around with ‘meatshield’ in their profile in UO, but do you really think smart groups did not organize themselves in a similar fashion? That they did not have someone who’s primary (but not only) function was to keep everyone in good shape, or someone who would initiate the encounter? Groups would still gear-out certain players to give them the best dps, but the fact that the player could still heal or take a shot does not mean he could not play the now-traditional ‘dps’ role. That it takes more skill to play a dps-focused character with ‘tank’ and ‘healer’ capabilities, or someone who is responsible for keeping people alive but can still fight back, should be viewed as a positive, rather than a possible design issue that needs the addition of ‘classes’ to solve and save the players from making mistakes.

Yet we all know that’s not going to happen. No matter how far technology advances, how smart you can make the AI, or how low your ping to the server gets, the shift back to a ‘classless’ system is not going to happen, at least not in mainstream MMOs. Sure, the combat in Darkfall blows hotbar MMO combat out of the water at its purest form, and thanks to better technology it works today when it would have been impossible in 1999, but the fact that a goblin can kill a player because the player played poorly is not acceptable for many in today’s market. The expectation is that the mob runs up, swings meekly, and waits to be hotbar spam-smashed to death, and that’s just for solo combat. Things get really ‘crazy’ when you get a group together… Choices, player skill being a factor, and a more open-ended approach are all scary things and potential sources of customer frustration. What you sacrifice in deeper, more interesting gameplay options you more than make up for in simplicity and accessibility, and it’s not hard to see which direction the mainstream has been going in for some time now.

MMO Genre: No thinking zone!

Chuck-o-the-day: Chuck Norris can build a snowman out of rain.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Combat Systems, Darkfall Online, EVE Online, MMO design, Rant, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The Trinity: Keeping the masses safe since 1999!

  1. pkudude99 says:

    I loved SWG’s “classless” system before the NGE. Some skill trees offered amazing offense, but no defense, others offered amazing defense with decent offense, etc. But even the healers could still “tank” and dish out the hurt as well. I had a friend who combined the doctor and Swordsman tree and he could kill jedi when the jedi were still wickedly OP, but he was a skilled player with a good build. I had other friends who could tank mobs all day without needing any kind of healer becuz the mobs simply couldn’t hit them. Call them the “monk” of SWG or something. But you definitely had to build for it and sacrifice opportunity cost. Still….. I never got into a group that said “Oh wait, we don’t have a doctor so we can’t go out!”

    It wasn’t until I started playing EQ2 that I was introduced to the concept of the trinity.

    As it is, EVE is my main game right now and I find myself flying Heavy Interdictors. What part does “tackle” play in the trinity? Especially since part of my “tackle” isn’t just my warp bubble, but using a remote sensor booster on a Rapier or Huginn so that they can insta-lock and get webs (more tackle!) on enemy ships. Critical role in EVE to prevent runners, but doesn’t put any dps on target, nor necessarily receive damage in return, and I’m certainly not healing anyone either.

    Personally, I love having the “4th role.” And then there are scouts who might not even be in the same system as the fighting, but whose performance can be critical…… Yeah, I love EVE, if you couldn’t tell.

  2. Bhagpuss says:

    “MMO Genre: No thinking zone!”

    That’s kind of what I log into MMOs for. I see MMOs largely as machines for stopping me thinking, something I already do FAR too much of. They are the virtual equivalent of sorting your sock drawer or lining up dominoes and knocking them over.

    If I was going to have to think for another 4-5 hours a day I would want a more substantial and lasting reward than some characters in a computer game. The manuscript of a novel, for example, or a patent application.

    • Ursus says:

      Then you probably never played D&D because half the fun of D&D was sitting around for hours creating your character. Many of us are just tired of the mindless MMO’s that are released these days and would love to go back to games like UO and AC where people actually had to think about their character while creating it as well as it’s development as they played.

  3. Bhagpuss says:

    Pkdude’s reply popped up while I was writing mine and it’s very instructive.

    He’s describing the original third pillar of the Trinity, of course, before DPS stuck its boring, dull head in the way. I used to love the Trinity dynamic when it was Tank/Healer/Crowd Control. Playing an Enchanter in a busy dungeon did require thought and counter to my earlier comments I used really to enjoy that role. Healer was always the best, though.

    I revise my opinion in the light of this. Thinking in MMO play IS fun. What it is not, however, is relaxing. I have a job now that tends to leave me both physically and mentally quite tired at the end of the day, so I am usually looking for relaxation not stimulation. Even the old CC or Healer role I used to relish seems too exhausting to take on regularly.

    Nowadays I can manage about one 2-3 hour session like that at the weekend and that’s enough. The rest of the week I want just to potter quietly.

    • Adam says:


      You sound like you might be ready for the glue factory bro.

    • halfabee says:

      @Bhagpuss this is exactly how I feel, too. I loved Darkfall, and I know that in my student days when I was supposed to be revising I would have eaten up the drama, but it requires so much mental energy. It is certainly a hit but my emotions cannot cope with the shock these days.

      Perhaps if I ever become a stay at home mum I’ll welcome the distraction but for now I’ll happily spend an hour or so a day click-clicking on wights and dwarf-iron ore after a stressful day in the office.

    • Fortuente says:

      I am feelin that.

  4. PeterD says:

    I’d like to see a game where each character is capable of switching to a needed role on the fly and mob AI is designed to react intelligently instead of responding to a generic “threat” meter that can be artificially manipulated by the players.

    As in, a group of four players engages a group of enemies. The enemies decide to focus-fire one of the players, so he switches to a defensive stance and “tanks”. The other players deal damage and assist with heals (or whatever) as necessary. When the initial target refuses to die, the mobs try something else, either switching their focus-fire target or splitting up into multiple one-on-one fights (etc.). The “tank” switches to an offensive stance, the new focus fire target switches to a defensive stance, a third player decides to devote himself to support, and so on.

    Make the combats more dynamic, and give players the flexibility to change roles, and make those role changes necessary to succeed. That sounds like more fun than the normal trinity to me.

    • Snafzg says:

      That sounds a bit boring to me imho. You have this completely classless system where everyone can eventually do everything with proficiency. There are no trade-offs except the investment of time.

      Sure it would require skill and quick thinking, but it would be like if all of Superman’s nemeses were other Supermen. If you ever got into a situation where player skill was even the fight would never end.

      I really like the SWG system where you can hybridize and make interesting and wacky class combinations. Your choices have consequence. Going down route A means you can’t go as far in route B, etc.

      I also like GWs concept of skill limitations. You never know what kind of foe you’re going to come up against even though your group might be comprised of the same base classes.

  5. Adam says:

    Classless is much more “real” world. With a little perspective classes are a silly fraud of a game mechanic.

    Think of 300.

    300 guys with a helmet, shield, spear, sword and maybe some bandages in a pouch.

    They use each at the appropriate moment as the actual battle shifts.

    One may run forward a bit to taunt some zerglings in but when the swarm comes forward everyone is spearing together or the 300 all die.

    This is one of the things that makes the combat in Darkfall so brilliant.

    Or think of you and 5 of your buddies going out to the woods with spears to kill a bear. Who’s the healer? Who’s the tank (lol, ie who will die first since noone can survive a bear’s focus)? Who is the dps?

    Dumb questions. If you don’t all spear the bear you will all die alone running.

    • Drew says:

      Well, except for the part where in MMOs there are people who have magic. So I get where you’re going with the analogies, but they don’t really apply.

      I agree with much of the article, though, and particularly the part where he discusses the different dynamics of solo combat vs. group combat. Why can’t both be challenging and interesting?

  6. sid67 says:

    I’m a big fan of what I call “hard choices”. Meaning, those choices that take you down a path and there is no going back.

    Now I’m not saying that I think the “trinity” is perfect by any means but I do like the hard choices that have to be made to specialize in a specific area.

    Contrast that to Darkfall where the classless nature of it means that there really aren’t many hard choices and everyone ends up as kinda sorta the same.

    This is also an area where I feel WoW really broke some implied promises with the hybrids. First by allowing the hybrid classes to be equal to the pure classes and then again when they allowed them to insta-change via dual-spec. Where is the hard choice in that?

    And yet, if you are not a hybrid (like a Mage/Rogue) you HAVE made your hard choice. Very broken IMO.

  7. Sean Boocock says:

    I’ll preface this with saying I like class-based combat systems in games and have since the release of Tribes and Battlefield 1942. Also, this will address PvE gameplay though I think the main points still hold for the sort of PvP seen in class-based MMOs.

    You ended your post with:

    “What you sacrifice in deeper, more interesting gameplay options you more than make up for in simplicity and accessibility, and it’s not hard to see which direction the mainstream has been going in for some time now.”

    Accessibility and depth are not mutually exclusive notions and the implementation of the “holy trinity” and classes in WoW is a good example of how they can be complementary.

    In terms of accessibility, classes give a new player the basis for a character they can adopt and a purpose they might fulfill. Just the names of familiar classes like “Warrior” and “Mage” gives someone familiar with those fantasy archetypes an idea of what he will be doing in the game. I think classes can be as important from a dramatic perspective as they are from a formal one. I think the idea of playing a Rogue has its own set of implicit character motivations versus a sandbox MMO where one starts as Tabula Rasa. Whether one prefers one over the other is a matter of taste, but I for one like games that give me some hooks in the form of a class/race on which to build a persona rather than task me with doing all of the heavy lifting myself.

    Formally, class-based systems are more accessible as the basic player procedures are implied by the class itself. The Warrior beats things at melee range. The Hunter probably shoots things with bows. The Mage? Probably uses magic. Having classes serve as containers for themed sets of abilities makes those abilities more manageable and intuitive for novices.

    The holy trinity design that harkens back to Diku style MUDs is a way of creating meta-classes – classes at the level of groups of players in this case – in which players can fulfill a role working with others. That each class can at any one time only fulfill one of those roles reinforces the need for groups and the satisfaction one gets about performing their role in concert with others. No one is a solo hero in a WoW dungeon, at least not until they significantly outlevel/gear it so as to make the mechanics that required groups in the first place trivial. The same idea of rigid roles in group contexts appear in other games like EVE – tackling, electronic warfare, etc – but the game doesn’t do as much to formally recognize a certain set of roles nor does it do things like limit the number of players who can tackle a Sleeper cell or Agent IV mission. You can overpower the PvE encounter in EVE at any level; just bring more bodies and throw tactics out the window.

    It also allows for the game designers to create PvE scenarios in which they can finely tune the difficulty because of how they limit the number/type of abilities a player has access to. In WoW, the holy trinity and class-based system means that encounters are designed around groups of a certain composition. People contribute in different ways and to different immediate ends whether it be doing enough damage to specific targets over specific intervals, dispelling a certain type of curse or debuff when X circumstance obtains, using short duration/long cooldown abilities to survive otherwise killing blows, etc. There is a lot of variety and depth to a player’s abilities in WoW that are the replacement for the attention and skill a free targeting system requires in a game like Darkfall.

    To give a small example, take the Valkyrs that appear throughout the heroic version of the 25 player Lich King encounter, the hardest fight currently in WoW. Periodically in the fight, the Lich King will summon three winged Valkyrs that pick up players wherever they are standing and drag them off the pedestal the fight is taking place on. This event happens according to a timer, the random element being how it coincides with other abilities/events during the fight. Each of these Valkyrs will only drop their targets then they reach 50% health, and to do that requires 1.5million points of damage (read: a shit ton). So how would one deal with this? The only way is to chain a series of stunning blows on the targets (three maximum) and hope those playing the DPS role are good enough to bring them down in time. Except, there are other things happening in the interim, like an ability that drops a void zone underneath a person that expands so long as anyone is in it and can potentially kill everyone. Except that the fight is so tightly tuned that having the dps switch targets makes it less likely there will be enough time to kill the Lich King himself. Except that if one of those targets happens to be a certain healer, a debuff that otherwise occupies that healer’s full attention throughout the fight might kill half the raid. Except that the first time this happens, there will most likely be an additional add in the fight who must be positioned in a special way to prevent him killing/silencing everyone. Except that the Lich King might use an ability that allows him to hit extremely hard, perhaps killing the tank if the healers/tanks can’t react fast enough.

    All of this is just one mechanic during one phase of a roughly 16 minute fight that the group must handle in addition to everyone playing their class near optimally. That requires using a specialized, class specific set of abilities at the proper times, reacting to personal buffs/debuffs, taking advantage of group buffs when they occur (either randomly or a tactically determined intervals), etc. While elements like targeting and relative position are mostly abstracted in WoW and its ilk (though range is still relevant, and being behind a target as melee is usually far far better than being in front of it), the classes’ abilities and their interplay provide a lot of depth both in the planning and execution of coordinated PvE encounters.

    I’m looking forward to reading about Darkfall’s addition of specialized NPC abilities and how successful a model that might be. People only have so much “bandwidth” so if the combat is as interesting and dynamic as you say it is, the addition of any sort of meaningful unique ability might be too difficult for players to handle. And if it is, well, just bring more warm bodies.

    • sid67 says:

      Good reply. You are definitely right in that a “class” or “trinity” system is not intrinsically a less complex system. In it’s own way, it can be just as complex or even more complex.

      I also agree that I think it’s mainly a style and taste preference thing. One of the things I really detested about Darkfall was how homogenized each character is in comparison to everyone else. On the flip side, I can totally see how it would appeal to players who appreciate more choice or freedom.

      That said, the first 500 hours for ANY player in Darkfall would be to work on pretty much the same skills. And only after that point does any kind of differentiation begin. And even then, it’s just what flavor of nuke and not any real uniqueness.

      Now compare that complexity to Arena PvP in WoW where the “best” players need to know the strengths and weaknesses of every single class and how to recognize what they are doing. I’d say it could easily be argued that is significantly MORE complex than a classless system.

      Now all that said, Syn’s post is specifically about the trinity. And in that regard, I definitely would like to see more games break away from that mold. And let’s just start that by throwing away the “healer” archtype altogether.

      • SynCaine says:

        Classes allow you to easily identify a player in PvP, which is a huge crutch, and memorizing how to hard-counter X class in an arena is not exactly on the same level as handling a large-scale engagement in a FFV PvP game like DF, but that’s not exactly the topic here.

        You can easily play a class without being expressly told you are one in a good setup like UO, EVE, or DF. How exactly you envision your healer might be different from someone else, but a good system will allow you to still do so. There is a ton of room to further enhance this aspect (as I believe prestige classes will do in DF), and it’s sad that so many games keep repeating warrior/priest/mage over and over in an MMO.

        • sid67 says:

          Even so, it’s still a taste or preference thing and not about substance.

          As I said above, I actually find the jack-of-all-trades approach in Darkfall to be less complex and far too homogenized for my taste.

          And what makes combat in Darkfall complex has absolutely ZERO to do with the skill-based over class-based system and everything to do with the first-person interface.

          Now if you restrict the argument to just “the trinity is overused” than I totally agree with you.

          But the class vs. skills argument is mostly one of preference and one is not intrinsically more or less substantive than the other.

        • Sean Boocock says:

          “Classes allow you to easily identify a player in PvP, which is a huge crutch, and memorizing how to hard-counter X class in an arena is not exactly on the same level as handling a large-scale engagement in a FFV PvP game like DF, but that’s not exactly the topic here.”

          The difference in level is primarily one of scale as well as the combat systems that determine the outcome of the engagement. A WoW arena match is at most a 5v5 encounter. There is never a question of flanking or coming upon an unsuspecting opponent. Your descriptions of similiar scale encounters in Darkfall suggest that they boil down to cat and mouse games with one player kiting the other or circle strafing to try and get a blow to the back. The skill there is like that in Quake and relies foremost on keeping a cursor on target.

          At least in WoW, the skill that decides these types of outcomes is the ability quickly plan out and execute on tactics using a much wider variety of abilities. What abilities you will use, how and what in order they will be used, and where you and your teammates need to be are all variables that change second to second in these matches. There is no “hard counter” for opposing comps in the sense that one can memorize “do x and we win.” Arenas are dynamic and to a small extent random in that buffs/procs for classes are not deterministic and the ability to capitalize on access to a new ability (or combination of your own and your teamates) adds an extra layer of suspense.

          To your other point, games like EVE do have roles that are effectively classes (hell EVE’s imo clunky “Certificate” system is an attempt at making groups of skills intuitive choices in the same way classes limit the number of available skills). The problem and reason I focused on PvE gameplay is that I find it very hard to imagine a completely open combat system that featured as rich or highly tuned encounters as you find in WoW’s high end raiding. The compartmentalization of roles and sub-roles that classes provide add a strategic layer to raiding that I imagine would be absent from Darkfall where the question is rather “How many dudes are on that want to kill the dragon?” The designers of such encounters, in order to make them satisfying, need to make assumptions about what the players can bring and build accordingly. The less constraints there are, the more unmanageable the problem of balancing the content becomes.

          I’ve been thinking of this discussion as something akin to a comparison of chess and go. Having played the former sowewhat seriously at one point in my life, I appreciate the immense skill required to manage the “classes” of units effectively. Go is a different model altogether, a game of relative positioning without any of the complications of special units with special moves. They both are incredibly deep, played and enjoyed by millions and often the same people. Like I said in my first comment, the depth of a game is not necessarily a function of the type of combat system it uses, and in the present case I don’t think it is.

        • defconquell says:

          Great posts, Mr. Booncock. As both a EVE and WoW player, I loved the WoW class design and PvE raid fights. Where WoW failed for me was a lack of focus on battleground play.

        • Ursus says:

          I happen to think you’re wrong on this one, especially in the arena scene. It’s fairly simple in WoW arenas now, to find out what kind of class/template your opponent is and then understand the tactics they’ll use. It’s much different in a game like Darkfall or Asheron’s Call, where you think you might know what skills your opponent has and have to develop your playstyle to match.

          In a class based game, like WoW, players still fill their roles whether it’s PvE or PvP. In a classless, skill based game like UO, Darkfall, EvE or Asheron’s Call, it’s much harder to deal with the unknown on the fly.

          You can pretty much understand the playstyle of a certain class/talent spec fairly fast and you have a template in your head of what to do. If player does x you do y. On the other hand, in a skill based game you really only get to know this by playing against the person not the class.

          Finally I’d like to say, arena based PvP is so much more a controled environment that it again allows for certain scenarios to happen over and over again. ON the other hand, in games like Darkfall or Asheron’s Call/Darktide, you never knew when your city/lifestone would be hit.

          Classles open world PvP allows for much more variance than class based structured pvp.

    • Der Nachbar says:

      Probably interesting to read, although the article is not avantgarde enough to suggest a totally different aproach :)

      Imho you would have to dump the whole combat mechanics of popular WoWesque MMOs. Tab-targetting into aimbased, throw out mass- and in-combat-healing, get in collision for players and projectiles, let mobs have challenging AIs (not just an invitation to write a choreography-guide on your guilds website), tone down the time an encounter takes, tune up the peril, make terrain more meaningful, maybe even include lots of physics and objects to interact with.
      Like … combine Dark Messiah & Mount&Blades combat-systems and make them work in a non-instanced MMO :D

  8. Ponder says:

    The thing that really annoys me the most are Mages.

    Mages should be non-combat. They should be exploring the mysteries of the physics of the world (teleport, blink, shields, summoning, etc). They should be guides and helpers. Sort of like old school MUD enchanters.

    They shouldn’t be just another dps. They shouldn’t grind mobs. However, that doesn’t fit in with the modern MMO …

    • sid67 says:

      I think you are confusing wizard with mage. In almost all fantasy lore (books, etc) anyone named as a “Mage” is almost always has some big damage dealing spells.

      Now where the lore fails in modern MMOs is that traditionally such spells took so much out of the mage that were wiped out afterwards and needed significant time to recover.

      Even in D&D, the spell was “forgotten” and needed to be memorized again.

  9. Crevex says:

    Im not sure if you ever actually played EQ Syn. In EQ there were certain classes that relied on the trinity but there were also solo classes. It wasn’t uncommon to see a solo enchanter or necro, or a duo of some sort farming the hell outa the high end named spawns. It fit either play style quite well imo, as the solo based classes were much less desired in group (in general). But you could achieve the same ends either way.

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