The holy trinity is one of the oldest MMO tropes, a mechanical design concept that came to video games from pen and paper tabletop RPGs. More recently though, new MMOs like Blade & Soul have challenged the trinity concept, in many cases removing one corner of the triangle completely. Ostensibly the goal of these games is to give players more flexible class choices and reduce the inevitable surplus of DPS characters, with a possible side effect of encouraging more creative encounter design.
So, should MMOs ditch the holy trinity? In a word: no! Not even a little bit.
What is the holy trinity, anyway?
Before I try to convince you to love the trinity, we should probably define our terms. There is one standard grouping that is considered to be the holy trinity for MMO players: healer, tank, and DPS, or damage-reducer, damage-taker, and damage-dealer.
Usually this trinity takes the form of a tank, a healer, and a handful of DPS characters. The tank is responsible for generating hate on the target, soaking damage, picking up additional creatures that spawn, and moving the target as needed. The healer is responsible for defensive buffs, resurrections, shields, and restoring missing health in the party. The DPS is responsible for offensive debuffs and killing things real dead, real quick.
Now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s get into the four main reasons the holy trinity is a good thing.
Reason 1: Familiarity Breeds Content
The descriptions of each role that I gave above are generalizations but they hold true for the majority of MMOs. This also means that experienced players can pick up a new game that uses holy trinity class design and know right from the outset what they might enjoy playing the most. In this modern era when most people frequently hop between MMOs rather than stick with just one for years, having a jump on knowing what class you want to play makes the process a lot smoother.
Not only that but statistics show that people will bond with a game within the first 10 levels, or they’ll just log off and never return. Why waste time levelling a role that you ultimately won’t enjoy? It’s in the best interest of developers to give us an experience that we expect and already love.
There’s a reason why tank-healer-DPS has become shorthand for role types. It’s useful!
Reason 2: Boss fight!
It’s no accident that the rise of trinity-free MMOs has come hand-in-hand with the rise of solo MMOs. The trinity is at its best when applied to group encounters.
In fact, I would challenge anyone to point out a well-designed, interesting, and challenging PvE boss event that completely ignores the trinity concept. The very clever folks at ArenaNet tried it with the dungeons in Guild Wars 2, and despite their best intentions… well, dungeons they may have been but “interesting” and “challenging” they arguably were not.
Instead, without a tank or healer class, players were frequently killed in one-shot, resulting in that blunt weapon of strategies, the graveyard zerg. (For those who don’t know, a graveyard zerg is when players die and repeatedly run back, throwing themselves against the monster until it dies.)
Without the potential for group interaction and specialization, encounter designers are left with extremely limited toolsets. Sure you could have adds spawn but they can’t be expected to hit very hard. Enrages are dulled, and mechanics that require careful positioning of the boss are difficult, if not downright impossible, without a tank. Most fights end up being a DPS burn and instead of more granular lose conditions like running out of mana or slowly losing health, you get insta-kills.
Reason 3: Just Another DPS in the Wall
As argued above, in a trinity-free world every encounter becomes a DPS race. Without strong damage mitigation, it’s less about mastering mechanics and more about burning the mobs down as quickly as possible before they can use their powers to kill you. And when every event is a nail, every player becomes a hammer.
One of the most popular arguments against the holy trinity is that it discourages diversity in classes. It’s an understandable complaint: doing difficult content in a trinity-based game often requires you to focus solely on stats and skills related to your role. Jacks-of-all-trades are, at the end of the day, masters of none, and can have a hard time finding a group who wants to support their “sub-optimal” playstyle.
However, while many current trinity-free MMOs offer a fascinating selection of class abilities, it seems that in practice all players focus on one thing: doing damage. Any deviation from either doing lots of damage or enabling others to do lots of damage is frowned upon by the general playerbase.
Again, let’s use Guild Wars 2 as our example. Every experienced Guild Wars 2 player knows that the metagame is DPS spec, or “Zerker Meta” because the Berserker stats result in the highest DPS output. Classes that are designed to sacrifice damage for crowd control or other neat tricks are shunned in dungeon and raid groups and often tell stories of being denied groups or even kicked out!
The trinity, it seems, is not the thing forcing players into cookie-cutter specs and roles.
Reason 4: Is There a Healer in the House?
The final argument in support of keeping the holy trinity in MMOs is admittedly a personal one. It seems that when a new game wants to ditch the trinity, it’s inevitably healers that disappear. Damage must be done and to some degree mob aggro must be controlled. Healing, though, is often decentralized, giving most classes a small self-heal or Area of Effect spell, or even just a lot of health potions.
For those of us who like healing – and we exist! – this is something of a bummer, and it’s not even like we can play true support classes instead, given the insistence on DPS-or-bust in a trinity-less game.
Getting rid of the holy trinity means getting rid of the healers, which means removing a fun and well-established playstyle for many players. No thank you!
There are many cases where it makes sense for a new MMO to ditch the niches of tank, healer, and DPS. A game that is designed to be played 100% solo, for example, or a game that entirely revolves around 1v1 PvP. But an MMO that has group PvE encounters is just going to benefit from sticking with the tried and true.
The holy trinity is a class framework that is familiar to players. It allows for complexity in boss encounter design, gives people the opportunity to focus on more than just damage output, and supports diverse playstyles. It is definitely worth keeping around.
Want a Differing Opinion?
Still not sure about the trinity framework in MMOs, or pretty sure it’s a bad idea? Check out the other side of this debate in the post Why MMOs Should Move Past the Trinity by my fellow MMOGames writer Isarii!