Do MMOs Need to Break the Holy Trinity?

By now, all MMORPG vets are familiar with the concept of the “holy trinity”. I’m referring to, of course, the three basic class roles in most MMOs– the tank, the healer and the damage dealer (often called “DPS”). Sometimes games try and be creative and toss in a fourth role that’s usually designated as “support”, but this fourth role generally becomes optional in small group content as the power and skill levels of players increase once the game’s been out for a while.

MMORPGs are generally set up with a trinity system because that’s what players are used to. When running dungeons and raids together, it’s only natural that there will be multiple roles that players will have to cover. Dealing damage, receiving damage and recovering damage/preventing damage are those three roles in their simplest forms. In order to simplify each role, it was decided to make certain classes and archetypes excel at those roles in particular.

The archetypes first began in pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. It was customary for heroic, shield-bearing archetypes like paladins to serve as a protector, or tank, for their group. Clerics became healers mostly due to the fact that not all classes had access to frequent heals. Classes like mages and rangers learned to stay back and deal damage. These are the archetypes all modern MMORPGs are based off. Partially, the holy trinity exists because of this tradition.

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Is the Holy Trinity Needed?

When games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, an epic MMO game that we will launch Warlord of Draenor Guide in this November, introduced mainstream gamers to the trinity system, players started learning that they generally preferred to play a particular role. Tanks started leading runs, so players that were naturally inclined to leading and serving as a protector started preferring the tank role. Players who enjoyed reacting to high-stress situations and saving their teammates from a potential  tended to enjoy the healer role. Players who enjoyed dealing as much damage as possible and min/maxing their rotations tended to enjoy DPS.

When a new game launches, most of us who have played MMORPGs for years will latch on immediately to a particular class because we expect it to perform a certain role. Most players who enjoy healing, for example, will be drawn to a healing class (unless they feel like mixing it up). This is one reason why most new MMORPGs continue to create the holy trinity. It simplifies encounter development and gear creation to an extent, but also simplifies the character creation process for the players.

In this sense, the holy trinity system isn’t needed at all, but it does simplify a game’s creation significantly. It also makes it easier for veteran gamers to quickly pick up the game and find a class they enjoy.

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Alternative Systems

Some MMOs have tried to create an alternative system to the holy trinity. The most popular example might be Guild Wars 2. In GW2, all classes are DPS/support hybrids with a myriad of different abilities that can serve to heal themselves, heal others, protect others, and of course, deal damage as seen in this guide. In a way, every class is a mini trinity system in itself. Encounters aren’t built around requiring tanks and healers. Instead, they’re built requiring a few support-type abilities and mechanics like kiting.

Unfortunately, what tends to happen in GW2 is that certain classes are seen as their trinity role regardless of their chosen ability setup. Most Guardians are expected to tank to a certain degree and heal to a certain degree. Instead of a class system built around expected, defined roles, GW2’s is built around expected, undefined roles. It’s a simple fact that gamers tend to want to perform a role that they enjoy. If they don’t enjoy a particular role, they’ll expect someone else to perform it so they don’t have to.

GW2 may seem like a DPS zerg fest at times due to every class having DPS potential, but when it comes down to difficult content, certain classes are expected to use certain traits. In this sense, GW2 isn’t much different from a game with defined trinity roles.

Other games like The Elder Scrolls Online which sales for our leveling guide are very huge
and ArcheAge have tried to encourage an open-ended class system where players can combine talents and defensive/offensive capabilities, but what ends up happening is that players will use a standard DPS/tank/healer role for group content because those pure specs are far more efficient for that particular role. The hybrid specs generally end up underperforming in comparison.

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So, is the Trinity System the Only Way?

MMORPGs are certainly free to experiment with non-trinity systems, but instead of thinking about ways to change up the role model, it may be a good idea to rethink encounter design instead. Players who enjoy tanking, after all, want to tank, so why take that opportunity away from them?

Instead, create games that give players reasons to rethink their preferred role. Make tanking and healing mechanics more fun and more rewarding for players who think outside of the box. Make DPS players have to contribute to combat in other meaningful ways besides just hitting the boss over and over. With a little creativity, MMO developers can think of a great number of ways to add a little excitement to the trinity system without necessarily reinventing it.

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