Tanks, Healers, DPS and Time

Rowan over at I Have Touched the Sky is musing on WoW a lot lately and recently went to explain why you can compare apples and oranges and that all MMO boss fights are essentially the same. Sure, Ragnaros had the fiery adds where Nefarian had randomized trash and class calls (add any epic boss fight here) but at the end of the day a lot of what makes the so-called complex encounters in WoW is added fluff around the tank-healer-DPS equation. Iteration, iteration.

Not surprisingly, I’m with Rowan when it comes to appreciating MMOs for a lot more than boss fights or raiding. I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that WoW raids are the exact same as Rift or Allods raids, but there are only so many ways to design great trinity-based encounters across all games and only so many ways to make one of them truly memorable. If I think back on my very intense WoW raiding spree between vanilla and the end of WoTLK, there are maybe ten out of a 100+ different boss fights that I would call remarkable. (Coming to think of it…how many raid bosses did I experience in WoW? Now I am tempted to count them down! Scary.) The world on the other hand, the setting and lore, the cities and zones, the races and other creatures, the graphics and music – those things make MMOs for me. They give them their unique face and flavor.


While boss design is one thing, I would like to differentiate between encounter design and combat here: combat style and basic mechanics are a huge part of MMOs no matter what you choose to do – in those games where no non-combat classes exist, anyway. Solid combat design, as in intuitive, responsive, tactical, you-name-it is essential.

It’s a DPS world

Rowan is right of course in that all encounters are essentially DPS races or “about DPS”. The easiest way of proving that is that you can design pure DPS fights (which includes all soloing) but you cannot design pure healing and/or tanking fights. Even the so-called “healer or tank fights” are DPS fights: famous Valithria Dreamwalker was nothing but a weak twist and other bosses relying heavily on taking are essentially about tanks bravely biding their time until DPS is back. How are you going to kill stuff without dealing damage?

In that context, I always liked to think about the three roles in relation to the element of time, when discussing trinity based combat:

– Tanks create time in MMOs. Without them, it’s usually an insta-wipe and no fight can take place. They’re the wall between life and death. From that point of view, for the raid tanks are the creators of time and opportunity.
– Healers, in analogy, keep time. They ensure tank survival and therefore maintain time so DPS can deal damage in peace. Healers are therefore the preservers and extenders of time. They let any crucial role in the raid die and time (to kill the boss) disappears.
– Last but far from least, DPS are those that progress time and only them. Their output decides whether it’s gonna be a long or short fight (which affects healing and from there, tanking) or a wipe. DPS are the great drivers of time and by the same virtue, masters of duration. They can shorten the required time just the way healers should extend it.


Since time means life, you can pretty much substitute the terms in that analogy and it still works. Either way, it makes for an interesting picture if we imagine DPS as that driving force or the pendulum that swings between tanks and healers. You can add any other mechanic to an encounter – timing, phases, rotations, hybrids – it comes down to the same. Of course that goes for trinity combat as much as any other MMO combat and encounter design, in fact even more so.

And yet, ironically DPS have always been the undervalued, inflated currency of trinity MMOs. While good tanks or healers are important, the only reason DPS don’t receive equal love in WoW and elsewhere, is not necessity of role but numbers. In a game that would require as many healers and tanks as DPS to beat encounters, nobody would ever fail to thank his fellow DPSer. After all, what good is having all that time if you can’t spend it?


  1. Reminds me of the time I compared Rogues with socks in WoW. There were so many of them, like socks, they were replaceable. And not always in pairs.

    But by the same token tanks often complain about doing their job largely unnoticed or without praise. In my experience it’s the healer that gets the compliment, if a compliment is given. Which is kind of funny because if you think about it the healer’s job probably has the lowest profile of the three.

    I love the analogy with time you give here. It also reminds me of the countless times, as a healer, I would be in a 5 man PUG with all 3 DPS dead and still completing the encounter.

    1. Some fights were great like that =D I remember my first ever Nefarian kill where we lost 80% of our DPS halfway through. Limit-healing and tanks and healers both trying to squeeze out some DPS, it took 30mins rofl…

      And we had like 6 rogues per raid in MC/BWL omg!

  2. I think you could quite easily design pure Tanking or Healing fights, certainly in solo content. Most MMOs already use some form of energy, stamina or mana system, for example. The win condition would just need to be based around that instead of health pools. A defensive warrior, for example, could be tasked not with damaging her opponent but withstanding the attacks long enough for the enemy to collapse exhausted. A healer could absorb or repair damage to himself for long enough to run his enemy right out of mana.

    Whether anyone would prefer matching those numbers instead of matching damage vs damage is anyone’s guess.

    1. I also don’t agree with your (Syl’s) conclusion that DPS is the only thing that you can design “pure” without tanking or healing present, while the other two depend on DPS support to reach their goals.

      (As an aside, I have a sense of dΓ©jΓ  vu – wasn’t there a similar discussion a couple of months ago? I can’t remember exactly, it’s just coming back to me very vaguely as I’m typing this.)

      Especially in soloing, you can easily do tank or healer fights. I mean, yes, DPS is the most straightforward to design, because “everybody can DPS (badly)”, so if you design a solo fight that relies on DPS, you also covered tanks and healers, it might just be a bit more annoying for them. However, as an example: I’ve done quite a few of the FFXIV instanced quest fights (where you are dragged into a solo instance for 5 minutes to duke it out with your NPC friends against a group of NPC enemies) almost exclusively by healing. I could imagine, though I never tried, that this also works with tanking (because you typically get a holy trinity of NPCs supplied by the game to fight on your side). I could easily imagine a game with a healer or tank “pet class”, a bit like EQ2 moloing, in which you can design content around a player DPSing, tanking, or healing, and this working roughly equally well.

      1. @both
        I’m not sure encounters where one side is not engaging in any kind of fight/combat, can be regarded as combat. for me, combat is a dialogue, not a monologue. lasting through attacks until somehow the enemy self-explodes or gets killed by other NPCs isn’t battle for me – that’s being besieged and sitting it out. of course you can tweak win conditions but in that case I would personally stop talking about engaging in combat.

        I do feel you misunderstand me somewhat; I am not trying to say that DPS is more important in this article, nor my analogy – in fact it’s supposed to prove how all three parts matter for trinity combat, with tanks&healers creating/maintaining a situation (passive) and DPS moving it forward (active). all three components are necessary because of trinity design.
        I am also not saying that DPS cannot be done by tanks and healers, they will obviously add some but that changes nothing about the basic premise. all fights are ‘DPS fights’ as long as the following is true to win an encounter:

        – Boss has HP. Boss (and other entities) needs to lose HP.

        That is every kill in a nutshell and only dpsing can change this. that goes for so-called ‘healer/tank’ fights too (which I would rather call healer/tank checks).

      2. @Syl (can’t find a “reply” button under your comment, maybe due to nesting restrictions?)

        I think while your main point was about raids, I somehow got derailed to the single-player scenario. In these cases, I would still argue that there is no difference between pushing buttons to kill an NPC, or pushing buttons to heal and NPC who kills for you. Single heal/tank-only scenarios are quite possible to design.

        When it comes to raids, I guess part of the attitude of players towards DPS is that, (a) because DPS are the largest group of players, they’re the least remarkable (in old-school raids, if the tank died, the fight was over. If a DPS died… well, a few died every fight, and it didn’t matter to the outcome), and (b) “everybody can DPS” (which is true… to an extent.) At the top, high-performance DPS players are understood as vital part of your raid for and sought after, because in those fights, everybody has to produce high numbers, and nobody may die. It’s just that at the lower end, DPS performance doesn’t matter because bosses are tuned to keel over eventually anyway.

      3. Yeah it won’t indent comments further than twice – no space πŸ™‚

        I do agree with what you say here – in the end, it’s a bit of a technicality really. and both the point about scarcity and “everybody can DPS” are very true – I hadn’t considered the second one before.

  3. I like this analogy. Pretty apt.

    In current content, Norushen is the closest we have to having pure healing/tanking encounters, and that’s in a sub-fight in a different realm. Player leaves the raid to this test realm by themselves, and have to either:
    1) Survive 60 seconds (Tanks)
    2) Keep the other NPCs alive (Healers), and I think they do more damage the more health they have
    3) Kill all the mobs (DPS)

    Do it successfully and you get a huge buff for yourself.

    “And yet, ironically DPS have always been the undervalued, inflated currency of trinity MMOs. While good tanks or healers are important, the only reason DPS don’t receive equal love in WoW and elsewhere, is not necessity of role but numbers.”
    This is true in LFR land, where DPS, regardless of skill level, are a dime a dozen, but as a normal raider, I can tell you good DPS are hard to find. Just as hard as decent healers, to be honest. And if you don’t have those good DPS, you wipe because you hit enrage timers. Perhaps it’s different elsewhere, but I definitely appreciate our good DPS players as much as our healers or tanks.

    1. I don’t know Norushen, but I assume that the ‘different realm’ is only a part of the encounter, yes? Is there still an element outside the realm where the raid is actively killing the boss? Because if so, then these are still ‘DPS fights’ by my definition. The boss needs to go down – everything else around it is fluff.

      I do agree of course that good DPS are just as rare as good players in general. πŸ™‚

  4. “This is true in LFR land, where DPS, regardless of skill level, are a dime a dozen, but as a normal raider, I can tell you good DPS are hard to find. Just as hard as decent healers, to be honest”

    It’s even harder in heroic modes. There’s a saying that does

    “Tanks and healers make or break normal modes, DPS makes or breaks heroic modes.”

    Meaning that while your DPS can’t completely suck on normal, the fights are fairly lax on tuning and the tanks/healers performing well often makes a larger difference than DPS.

    In heroic, though, you live or die on your DPS. Now this is partially true because you won’t even get to heroic modes without decent tanks and healers, but your healers/tanks being better than a certain skill level adds little on heroic. There’s a reason heroic guilds focus on gearing DPS first — their performance is far more important on heroic modes (the tanking/healing requirements are much laxer, relatively speaking).

    In heroic modes, 95% of the wipes are due to one of two things:

    1, people messing up a mechanic of the fight
    2, not enough DPS

    There are very, very few cases where a group wipes (in a group of equivalently skilled players) because of the tanks or healers.

    Honestly, I think the problem is there tends not to be many DPS checks until heroic raids and some normal fights. That’s why DPS are typically undervalued.

    1. That’s a good point. I don’t know how it is nowadays but back in vanilla, there were almost no DPS checks (Patchwork being one of the few) while MC and BWL were all about healing and tanking. but I don’t call such fights ‘healer / tank’ fights, they’re still in the end about killing the boss. healer check or tanking check are the much better terms indeed.

      1. “I don’t know how it is nowadays but back in vanilla, there were almost no DPS checks”

        Every heroic fight is a DPS check to some degree and there are also some normal fights with somewhat high DPS requirements.

        But yeah, for a long time the idea of boss fights was “Survive long enough for the boss to die” instead of “We need X DPS to kill the boss.” You could do MC with 20 people in blues the DPS/healing checks were so light.

      2. Well, but there were no heroics in vanilla WoW? not in the original one, anyway πŸ™‚
        the first ever widely approved of ‘dps check’ was Patchwerk and only a small portion of the vanilla raiding bracket ever experienced original Naxx 40. I was lucky to be among them.

        It’s true though that in the WoW we knew later on, lots of dungeon and raid heroics were dps checks.

      3. Naxx 40 was effectively a heroic raid. But yeah, very few people ever got there. Basically the same amount of people who complete heroic content today πŸ˜‰

  5. I liked the time analogies, though I don’t think they really take into account how interdependent each is. For example, in older raids in WoW fights were never strict DPS checks. In fact, we don’t really see this mechanic until Black Wing Lair if memory serves. but since you can’t have time without space, there’s no meaningful distinction being made between heals/dps/tanking in this regard. The trilogy only works together.

    We can all trip down memory lane on the dozens of boss fights we’ve had over the years and think of examples that were certainly healer fights. Bloodboil comes immediately to mind (the proof on this one just piles up once you recall that few guilds wanted to do that fight without a resto shaman and/or holy priest; the healers literally could break that encounter). Vael was equally a DPS and heal fight because the raid was randomly dying and no one would know if a healer was going or a DPS. Reliquary of Souls showed all three of the dimensions of time you named, breaking it down to a tank fight, DPS fight, and heal fight in a single encounter. I think it might be the purest example of your analogies existing all at once.

    There have even been encounters which are almost strictly about positioning (when enrage timers aren’t a serious issue). Heigen comes to mind. Saphiron comes to mind, even in it’s original form — actually, probably most of Naxramas was like this …that’s interesting to think about ….

    1. I think the first raid fight that had anything remotely resembling a DPS race was Ragnaros. All the others could be dragged out as long as your healers didn’t run out of mana, but if the sons didn’t die fast enough on Ragnaros, you were pretty much dead. As you said, DPS races didn’t really start until BWL, and even then, it depended a lot on the fight. It was still more about mechanics half the time than about DPS races (Firemaw, Ebonroc, Flamegor, even Chromaggus for the most part). The only big exceptions were Vaelastrasz (as you mentioned) and, again, as the final boss, Nefarian. I think there’s a reason Vael was nicknamed the “guild breaker” back then, because it was the first fight that really tested your tanks and your DPS in coordination and raw numbers. (Though I personally always found Razorgore’s pure organized chaos more interesting and more demanding; it took us weeks to get him down, only to roflstomp over Vael; but that’s another story and shall be told another time.)

      Talking about Naxx, yes, it was a lot about positioning and individual mastering of movement mechanics. But it was also hard on DPS, because you needed to break the encounters before the mechanics overwhelmed you, in almost every fight. Some, such as Patchwerk, even were the quintessential DPS race fight. Naxx was popular because it had a bit of everything. And because few people saw it in its original version, which transformed it into somewhat of a legendary bed time story for newbies. And as always with the past, people forget the ugly details in some of the great mechanics… farming for shadow protection potions for Loatheb comes to mind.

    2. I think I covered most of my answer in my reply @bhagpuss and @Talarian further up. just to add though, I disagree about Bloodboil whom I have killed many times as a healer. but the proof is right there: “….whom I have killed”.
      I think we use different terminology here because BB was a ‘healer check’ (funny enough so was the other BB, Broodlord) in the sense that most pressure was on healers, yes. still, all the nasty mechanics to keep us busy were fluff and the only reason the boss died was damage done, strictly speaking. πŸ™‚ doesn’t take away from the fact that DPS only stays alive thanks to healers.

      I hope I could clarify my position on fights being ‘all about dps’. I’m not saying healers/tanks aren’t just as important or that there are no clear healer/tank checks. just that very essentially bosses get killed by DPS.

      1. @Syl: Fair enough, but then when you say “”the only reason the boss died was damage done” then we can see the trinity more accurately from this angle that follows.

        Damage done for DPS is to the boss. Damage done for tanks is to themselves. Damage done for healers is their group mates. It’s an equal exchange of damage, all told. DPS must completely wipe down the bosses hit points. Tanks must completely absorb the damage (he is the anti-boss in the fight). Healers must fill as many hitpoints as is lost by both.

        It’s looking like DPS aren’t any more essential or more critical to killing bosses than any of the others πŸ™‚

        Also, must strongly disagree on Bloodboil. It was a healers fight because having greater DPS could not save you. I would say that’s the most important criteria for deciding which fights are DPS/Heal fights.

  6. I can categorically say that we did A LOT of boss fights!! Some were better than others for different reasons. For Ex. the plague wing in ICC was epic because of the voice overs and general hilarity of the fights/mobs. They weren’t tricky or anything, once you get the mechanics down (that can be said for any boss really), but they were fun.

    Goood Neeeews everybody ….

    1. Oh the memories. =)
      With the exception of some Sunwell bosses and AQ40, I have probably killed every single boss in vanilla, TBC and WotLK – and time appropriate too. a majority of them we have killed together, I think some of my favorites were definitely in BWL, BT and Ulduar. Also, our first ever Sarth 3D kill pre-nerf will never be forgotten. good times in great company.

      1. yup – certainly the high light, and that is also the reason why we will find it hard to like another MMo quite the same. Quite basically, our mates aren’t there to share the fun with πŸ™

        I adored the Algalon fight and don;t forget we did The Argent Coliseum 10 man without anyone dying as well – we kinda fluked that one, but it was epic!!

      2. God yes – that was the closest EVER! I was healing with Medli iirc…or was it Ostaker.
        Algalon I’ve never really helped work on. such a space opera πŸ˜‰

        It’s true what you say about mates. It’s why I can’t go back to wow. a part of me still hopes we’ll get together one day, be it a once a week thing or whatever, few of us for old times sake. am probably dreaming.

    2. I dunno Thib, some fights were still unforgiving no matter how many times you’d done them – if people were unfocused on on cruise control it was still possible to get your pants pulled down by “farm” content.

      I don’t remember any particularly special boss fights for us…all of the end of tier/expansion bosses that we killed were special ofc – I do remember being dead annoyed (and still am a bit =p) that they nerfed Black Temple right as we were on a roll – Adrenaline was rocking at that time, knocking over first kills for fun and it was a real shame to have the wind taken out of our sails like that.

      1. Yeah, I remember we reached Council when the nerf struck. oh well, it still made for a nice Illidan screenshot! πŸ˜‰

        ….and hellou, Sarth 3D WAS super special! <3 Archimonde comes to mind too - just because it took AGES and 150-or-so wipes until he finally bit the dust, argh! what was that alliance called again we had going for a while, lol? =D

      2. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed all of them – I just find it very hard to pick individual encounters out of the maelstrom – there were so many!! I can remember the ones I didn’t like quite so much – Vashj for example, muppets chucking cores to kiters made me want to throttle people!! (I do remember the elation when we did beat Vashj, so much so that I don’t think we ever went back more than twice!!) Faction Champions in ToC too made me want to throw my PC out of a window and take up competitive snakes and ladders instead =p

        Not sure what it says about my mental state that I remember the individual trials rather than successes but that “speshul” hat still fits =p

  7. I can’t remember the alliance name either…. I do remember “Drebo” though – their raid leader who absolutely loved the sound of his own voice – the other guild was Shiva. Nuru was their GM and was generally a decent guy but in a joining of arms and trade of skills and expertise, we ended up with a deficit on the deal!

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