In which I respect the Holy Trinity and solve the DPS issue!

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to yet another post on the holy trinity on MMO Gypsy! It never gets old!

For some reason a recent tweet of mine on sitting in boring DPS queues in FFXIV ended in a 100+ tweets-or-so conversation with all kinds of folk about why dungeon queues are broken in MMOs and how to fix them. Of course it didn’t take long for someone to suggest that DPS suck, or then healers suck, or something, and from there it was a lot of mix’n match between the “significance” of the three roles vs. their relative playstyle difficulty vs. responsibility and punishment. All rather interesting topics in their own way, also vastly different from one another. Alas, twitter is great to spark discussions but not so much for finishing anything.

The debates around DPS queues inspired Murf to go on a rant on his own blog and profess profound hatred for everything DPS in MMOs. He plays a healer of course (correction: he also plays everything else, including self-loathing DPS!). As a longtime ex-healer myself, I find this both entertaining and missing the mark although in the end when tempers have cooled, we probably agree that there’s a problem with how DPS work and get to coast in many MMOs. Or rather how I would put it, there’s a problem with the way many encounters are designed to put more pressure on tanks and healers, with less unforgivable mechanics for DPS. It is by design that tanks and healers are made to care because immediate and fatal repercussions (this is also how players get weeded out early on). By the same virtue these two roles get a lot of praise, sometimes far more than they deserve because everyone needs to thank them for still being alive. Nevermind that bosses don’t get killed by either of the two in any half-respectable showdown. DPS whether good or bad, can’t ever do enough in MMOs and they’re the ones that get haunted by meters in WoW and other games because of it.

But this discussion is far more interesting even: at its core it raises the question of how much holy trinity we truly want and can tolerate in MMOs (“we” as in the general “we” – I have not been a fan of the trinity in a looong time). Nevermind the great ideas of giving DPS “more responsibility” as in crowd control (tanks ARE crowd control), buffs/debuffs or ressing mechanics. While these assumed fixes sound fine in theory, they’re at best cosmetic – in reality it’s the trinity itself that needs fixing. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Taking the Trinity Seriously

If we actually believe in the holy trinity, we must accept that at a most basic and philosophical level even, the three roles are all equally important and co-dependent; they are three parts of a whole. I have written before about how each of them takes a specific role in regards to time/life in MMO combat. Assuming balanced encounters, all three of them are necessary (yes, I can come up with lots of fights where either DPS or healers or tanks are allowed to die, ignore that). Tanks and DPS are more enemy-centric, healers are ally-centric. Tanks and healers are directly supportive, DPS more in-directly which makes them no less part of a cooperative trio.

Now Murf came up with the following analogy in his post to illustrate the status quo of the three roles in MMOs:

“Imagine a family vacation. The two parents are your Healer and your Tank. The three kids in the backseat of the car are your DPS. Whether those kids behave and make it an easier ride to their destination or not, it is still entirely up to the two parents to get everyone there.”

This is sadly very often the case, although both FFXIV and Wildstar are good examples for sometimes more complex DPS encounters (endgame). The correct analogy if the trinity wasn’t in fact broken, should be this:

Dad drives, mom makes sure everyone’s good on food and the kids are the ones that run the engine. The car does not move without the three kids – it shouldn’t.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: there is no combat in any game ever without damage dealing. I realize that the obvious frustration with DPS is based on how the roles have played out in daily MMO reality, nonetheless it’s encounters that are the problem. Stripped down, every game that includes combat *is* a DPS game. Even MMO combat can do without tanks and healers but not damage dealers. The first role that gets cut from farm raids are healers (tanks are next).

Tanks and healers are an artificial institution; they are created by taking away means of self-sustenance and control from a more well-rounded or self-sufficient damage dealer. You only introduce them once games decide to slow down combat and/or make it more tactical or cooperative, the way it happens in traditional or round-based (J)RPGs that generally have specialist/trinity roles too or unit-centred games (RTS) or MMOs. Take away Link’s shield and a good portion of his HP, his buffs and potions on the other hand and transfer each to separate characters: you create a holy trinity Zelda! Now, which role is the central one? Which came first? Is any of them negligible?

Solving the DPS issue

Encounter design is one issue but hybrid skills are an even greater problem. The answer cannot be to increase hybrid abilities across the board – unless you would like to go down the GW2 path. GW2 came out making every class equally feasible and self-sustained with “tankier” and “healier” bits and pieces. Combat was criticized as zergy and lo and behold, few years in there are suddenly raids and traditional roles because players presumably want a role focus and more co-dependence to warrant cooperative play. Okay.

Likewise, Wildstar came out with an incredibly high bar set for everybody but especially its DPS. I have written about how this MMO in particular has pushed healers on the backseat and given DPS real responsibilities. How many have reached WS endgame and passed the nauseating attunement though? How many have said the dungeons were too hard and too unforgiving until stuff got nerfed and the game almost burned? Okay.

There is a common thread here: some players like specialized roles but still want “some” self-sufficiency. They want cooperative play but not the kind that makes you “carry” anybody. Different roles yes but god forbid they are not exactly the same in terms of difficulty or punishment. Oh man, tough times developers!

I want everything in MMOs!

I want everything in MMOs! (click to expand)

There’s hyperbole in all caricature and also a grain of truth. The above strip is my friendly (limited-skill) attempt at demonstrating this issue. Which is not to say that it is entirely unsolvable: I do in fact want better holy trinity encounters myself (either go big or go home). The radical solution?

  • Remove all damage dealing skills from healers and tanks
  • Remove all half-assed healing skills and crowd control functions from DPS

That’s right! You want a holy trinity, then get it for reals! Cooperation, shared responsibility, shared pressure, equal stakes, equal punishment – you have it! Never again finishing encounters without everyone alive and well. Also, no more hybrid solo time where everyone can quest on their own or level up, heck scratch leveling entirely (I concur with this post)! Proper cooperative MMOs are about grouping and it creates all kinds of balancing issues when they need to simultaneously serve as solo adventure parks and multi-player venues (and PvP arenas).

This is the only consequent move towards a holy trinity that respects its three roles equally. Do I want to play this game? Probably not for long. But I sure as hell would enjoy egomaniac tanks and healers shutting up about not requiring DPS when their own existence is based on intentionally crippling a more well-rounded character.

P.S. Once upon a time. Happy weekend everybody!


  1. Great post!

    The thing with the trinity is that for all its warts, it provides a structure for encounters and groups that people understand. So much so that you see it pop up even in games that aren’t designed for it (Diablo 3 has popular zero DPS support builds for groups, and people seem to love trying to make tanks & healers in D&D 3.5 where it’s suboptimal to do that, although there is a zillion ways to play that game and none are really wrong).

    If I go into a group, especially one with people I don’t know, and I’m slotted in as the healer. I know exactly what my job is. I know what everyone else’s job is. We don’t have to sit around trying to figure out who is going to do what – the game did it for us. I get abilities nicely keyed to what I’m expected to do. I mean, it’s absurdly unrealistic, but it’s been proven that it works. It lets good designers create some amazing encounters, which is harder when everyone is functionally the same.

    I don’t really have an issue with it, so I don’t have the same problems you do… except when I have to level a healer in a solo environment. The whole thing falls apart when the game says “take your character built to heal people, and go kill 50 dudes.”

    Wait, what? Why? Why can’t I hire a DPS to do it? That’s what they excel at. Why can’t I just do it myself as a DPS class? Why did you clutter up my healer with all these not very good DPS buttons in order to solve that problem that you created by making the only non-group activity “be a murderhobo”, and why is non-group activity required to progress in this genre?

    Healing and tanking functionally don’t work outside of a group. Once you commit to a solo game predicated on mass murder but say “you can be a healer in a group”, you’ve created a dynamic that doesn’t make any sense.

    1. Indeed, you were spot on about healers only being as good as their group requires them to be. As I tried to say here too, healers and tanks do not actually exist as natural roles unless you create an artificial environment and break down a character into separate skills.

      I don’t have a problem with it myself, although I clearly prefer non-trinity combat. The holy trinity has created a can of worms for MMOs that is frankly insane on so many levels, yet it’s popular for players who prefer role focus. That’s cool I guess…..but then I will argue that they should at least be consequent about it. 😉 Whiny tanks and healers should be deprived of their dps privileges, that simple.

  2. I’ve little to add but to say that I’d love to see a full-bore no-compromise enforced-trinity AAA MMO hit the market and see what happens to it. Make it a subscription game, just to stick to core principles.

    I suspect it would be educational.

    An “all grouping, all the time, no levels” game would be interesting, too.

    Great post, Syl!

    1. Indeed, it would be an eye-opener…..the opposite has been attempted to death but no MMO I can think of has truly respected the trinity, so hey maybe it’s time? 😉
      And thanks! ^^ I know you have less time for commenting these days, so it’s always a pleasure to see your name pop up in my comment sections! 🙂

  3. I started to reply and it became apparent that it was going to be far too long for a comment so it’s gone into my draft folder to be turned into a post as and when.

    Changing tack from what I was going to say, then, I’ll just say that DPS is not and never has been a role. It’s a function. Everything else derives from a misunderstanding of that.

    1. Yes, you know I do actually find that approach so much more interesting myself than trinity combat. I am more arguing by principle here – healers/tanks don’t get to whine about DPS to me as long as they both want a trinity (that enables them to be healers/tanks in the first place) but also ask to be self-sufficient enough to do dps on their own.

  4. Good post!

    I do want to say that I’ve played games where holy trinity was like what you described above and I didn’t last long. I actually enjoy classes that have hybrid skills (tanks and heals with DPS skills). But I’ve always gone for those weird hybrid classes I guess.

    1. I have 😉 I do personally like the GW2 combat, the old one anyway. I think non-trinity MMOs can work just fine if encounters are designed for them.

  5. Really, there are two things that differentiate DPS from ‘mummies and daddies’ in most modern MMOs:

    1) DPS is less of a pass/fail binary test – a tank is either good enough or it’s a wipe, ditto the healer, but a sub-par DPS just means the encounter takes longer, unless they’re so sub-par that the healer or tank gets overwhelmed or an enrage timer kicks in.

    2) There’s only one healer, so it’s all on him. Ditto the tank. There are several DPS so a crappy one can be carried to some extent.

    The problem is, there aren’t enough DPS slots to balance out the queue length given the relative appeal of the roles. To use WoW’s 5 person group as an example, queues would be the same for all roles if about 20% of people wanted to be tanks, 20% healers and 60% DPS. However, given the stress and responsibility involved in tanking or healing, well over 60% of players want to be DPS… so they queue. SWTOR only has 4 person groups so their optimal DPS ratio is 50%, making things even worse.

    Simple solution? Larger groups. Either this would allow for more DPS per tank/healer pair (getting closer to the actual ratio of available players), or it would make room for groups to have a second tank and/or healer. That would make tanking and healing less stressful, which should lead to more people taking the roles up, which would help with the situation. However, larger groups would take longer to form up for everyone, and there’s a risk that with more group slots players might (shock, horror) experiment with group composition, which would mess with the dev’s finely tuned encounter designs and result in players doing what they want instead of what they’re supposed to.

    1. It is not quite sub-par dps that make others’ life stressful, it is the obnoxious ones. The “if I pull and the tank fails to control the ensuing chaos, it is the tank’s fault for being low skill, if I die – whatever I did before that – it is the healer’s fault for being low skill” kind. I’ll choose an unskilled poorly geared player over an entitled pro any day.

  6. Whiny, useless, overrated (former) tank here 🙂

    “Remove all damage dealing skills from healers and tanks”

    Bad idea. It will be very easy for the dps to grief the tank and the healer then – just wait until there is a manageable number of mobs on the tank (so that they can deal with them themselves afterwards) and then sit back and enjoy the show.

    Besides… so you agree that relatively few tanks and healers play PUGs because a PUG is typically a more stressful experience for them than for someone jumping on a damage dealer role, and that’s because “the way many encounters are designed to put more pressure on tanks and healers, with less unforgivable mechanics for DPS.” I would also like to point out (would you agree with this one?) that by the nature of the trinity, DPS have ways to make the tank’s and the healer’s life more stressful (mostly by pulling) without facing much consequences for themselves, they do it a lot (really dps who pull are way more frequent than dps who taunt mobs off healers and bring them to the tank), and they do it not because doing otherwise is difficult, but just because they find it more fun than sitting behind the tank. Then… you blame the “whiny” tanks and healers for not being excited to face this behaviour thus causing you long queues, and propose to make tanks and healers MORE dependent on the dps to amend the situation. Really?

    1. I don’t think anyone would argue that removing dps abilities from tanks and healers would be done in a vacuum. Encounter design would have to be readjusted to take into account that the role of a tank is solely to act as a focus and crowd control, with much more passive mitigation and control as a substitute for that damage they lose. Similarly with healers, the loss of any real damage would require a bit of crowd control and threat-dropping abilities.

      I hate to keep referencing WoW, but it’s the game I’ve seen change the most with regards to tanks-as-damage-dealers philosophy. Tanks used to be built around mitigation and threat generation. If you looked at their talent trees it’s filled with mitigation and threat-generating talents. The dps they brought to play was typically really low, much lower than now, and if an enemy were to turn on a dps or healer, most times you would be looking at 3 hits to a death if the character was engaging in content-appropriate activities. Couple that with healers having to worry about resources, and dps players did matter. Sure, a dps could cause issues by not pulling their weight, but even with these changes to tanks and healers I think you could mitigate those as long as you had an in-game culture that respected the time those dungeons would take, because expecting a tank to engage in mitigation and group control would require longer fights to be both engaging and not so easily overcome.

      That’s the bigger issue now though, most games aren’t designed around 2+ hour dungeons as at-level or at-gear content. I think we can even go as far to say that WIldstar (over?)tried that and look where it got them, so there’s probably a good chance that what most people are really looking at is one of those more deadly forms of nostalgia. The ones that kill games and companies.

  7. What I find interesting is how this maps to TBC, Wrath, and Cataclysm in WoW.

    DPS in TBC had jobs; CC , Buffing , Interrupting, to name a few. This created a situation though where if one job was perceived to be less useful or had less of an impact, say cc over buffing, it meant that dps jobs were tiered for desirability. In comes patch 3.0 and tons of cc with it, some level of class-specific buffs too, yet little did we know that repentance and hex were pvp/soloing abilities and not dungeon/grouping abilities. Two years later they address those complaints (along with a hoast of others) with more difficult dungeons, with no other end-game content for the majority of players, and indirectly killed any semblance of dps jobs outside of damage.

    In TBC, raid-grade warrior tanks had most of their damage scaling reduced as they traded damage for mitigation stats on their armor and weapons at the beginning, followed by slower accumulation of non-mitigation stats, and I don’t know how many times I was asked by a healer to go out and help farm mats on a dps character. With the drop of Wrath though you’ve got strength in nearly the same amounts appearing on tanking items as you do the primary stats of other class’s weapons, signaling a willingness to make tank’s dps effective, even if lower, in group content. It isn’t until Cataclysm is over though that healers are even given the option to dps in group content, even though mana regeneration has been fixed enough that soloing is no longer as bad as it was during Vanilla and TBC. It’s interesting to see dpsing as an option for healers though, kind of the flip side of what Elemental Shaman T5 was all about.

    Anyhow, interesting to see the shift over time, especially in comparison to Bhapuss’ similar post on the subject.

  8. Sorry for a late response; unfortunately I don’t have much time to read and I didn’t want to dishonor your well-written post by reading it too quickly. 😉

    I’m curious about a thing: How does a game honor (or not honor) the trinity? The problem I see with trinity is it doesn’t scale down (or even up, but that’s partially due to all the encounter characteristics we came to accept but are not parts of trinity), so everyone would have to join a party of proper size? It may work, of course, although probably in a lobby-based game – after all, the game needs to be able to help you find or fill a group.

    Just thinking “loud” here but it’s a big change too, to make it work, maybe even as big as finding a new model to replace the trinity…

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