The Holy Trinity is a classic staple of MMORPG combat design. Largely championed by games like Everquest and World of Warcraft, the Holy Trinity consists of three basic parts which form the core of any group-based PvE encounter. First, you have the ‘tank’ which absorbs damage, second, you have the ‘healer’ which counters damage, and finally the ‘DPS’ (Damage Per Second) which deals damage. There are many advantages to maintaining a trinitarian approach to MMORPG game design, but I feel that one particular member of the trinity needs to be completely replaced, namely the DPS.
When most MMO gamers look back at the Holy Trinity now, they are probably more inclined to view it strictly from a modern post-Warcraft perspective. This presents a serious issue because it often means a strict glossing over of the most important aspects of of the trinity in Everquest and even early World of Warcraft: there were more than three necessary roles to perform.
Initially, the term Holy Trinity was meant more as an expression of the core of a well-built group. In that sense, it referred to the necessary components to successfully navigating a dungeon. However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t other very important and very necessary roles. You also had characters that supported the group and made things go more smoothly by employing buffs and debuffs. Crowd control has always been an important element. Even things like Pulling in Everquest often ended up being a specific role that could be facilitated best by certain classes (like the Monk). Also, while probably not quite as developed, it was possible to have roles that performed secondary healing and secondary tanking to aid the group’s core roles.
Even more worthy of note is that while damage dealing was definitely important, in Everquest you would probably slot in a strong source of crowd control (say an Enchanter) before you would a strong source of damage. However, World of Warcraft split up the crowd control role among most of the classes, and focused the third leg of the trinity on damage much more specifically. This is the single greatest design mistake I believe WoW has made, and one that needs immediate rectification if we are to continue forward with the Holy Trinity design approach (and I fully believe we should).
I definitely understand moving away from Crowd Control, especially as WoW developed more and more PvP. Crowd Control can often make an encounter feel far more trivial than intended, after all. It is also difficult to design active systems of Crowd Control that don’t are still fun, which often leads to crowd control that is either too passive (set it and forget style Sheeping and Sapping) or requiring constant refreshing (and thus constant player focus). I would never hope to return to a Crowd Control-centric model, though I do believe that Crowd Control is an essential part of MMORPG gameplay that should be celebrated rather than marginalized.
DPS is not an essential part of MMORPG gameplay, though. DPS is largely the absence of something better to do. If you focus your game on it, you are focusing the game on a role that generates its own necessity through selfishness rather than through performing a team-oriented role. In doing so, WoW moved everyone toward an obsession with damage meters and gear spreadsheets, creating an overpopulated sub-group of MMORPG players whose sole purpose was not to aid the group, strategically assist in an encounter, or perform something resembling a group activity. Instead, their purpose has always been the pursuit of bigger numbers in the hopes that irregardless of actual victory, their name is at the top of the charts.
Even worse, DPS makes the already questionable reliance of your average MMORPG on incremental stat increases even worse. Yes, Tanks and Healers do have some rather stringent gear level requirements, but those requirements have definite plateaus where more stats don’t necessarily result in a far easier encounter. In contrast, a strict focus on higher and higher numbers means that DPS has no real plateaus since any increase in damage, however small, is an increase that is necessary to obtain to maximize the role.
And finally, with the scattering of utility and crowd control near-equally among all of WoW’s classes, the Holy Trinity becomes even more honed in and specific. This leads to each individual role being much more important than its earlier WoW and Everquest cousins, since other roles are eventually distributed as purely secondary class functions. Thus, WoW has only intensified the necessity of DPS since its launch, which evident in encounter design, given the amount of encounters that require certain levels of overall raid damage performance (as opposed to Healing or Tanking).
MMORPGs should inherently be about a team-based experience. That doesn’t mean I want a return to the days where no one could solo and PvP came down to long, boring stints of being disabled entirely. In fact, I think the average skill of MMORPG games has increased given the amount of far more complex abilities and encounters present in the modern MMORPG, which means that deeper combat is necessary. I feel that we’ve reached a point where Utility classes akin to the Bard and Enchanters of old can finally take their rightful place as the third leg of the Holy Trinity in place of DPS.
In this new world of complexity, we can make tanks and healers more appealing through far more active gameplay and change MMORPG staples of buffing, crowd control, and debuffing into their own package.
The Tank would focus on maintaining threat levels through decent damage while also protecting the party through a priority-based ability setup that looks far more interesting than macroing taunt and calling it day.
I’d want to see more Healers dedicated not just to countering damage but also in assisting its mitigation through more temporary, immediate measures (such as shield abilities). Maybe even add in another element of sustainability as far as Healers fueling more than just Health.
And finally, a Utility role focused on temporary disablement (crowd control ranging from brief stuns to interrupts and slows), on temporarily enhancing the abilities of other party members most in need through a far more active approach to buffing, and on significant and meaningful debuffing. Imagine something close to the Kinetics specs in City of Heroes that often had very powerful, but also very short term effects ranging from increased damage to increased speed.
In all three cases, dealing damage would be a secondary role. In a sense, it would be the back up thing you did if your primary role wasn’t necessary at that particular moment, or it would be something that highly skilled play could utilize in between maintaining their primary role’s purpose.
I believe this change would add new and necessary levels of depth to a stagnating but necessary feature of standard MMORPG gameplay. I fully believe that we do not need to rid ourselves of the Holy Trinity, we just need to recognize what it does wrong and fix it. DPS, in my view, is the primary thing it does wrong. I believe a pure Utility role is the answer to that wrong and one that would not hinder greatly a game’s ability to provide both a meaningful PvE experience but also a meaningful PvP experience.
I think WoW has more than proven that DPS, when it is allowed to run amok and control your entire design process and community mentality, is a terrible thing. Everquest at least indicated that deeper, more strategic designs were possible while still holding true to a Holy Trinity-esque design. It is time we as gamers start asking for more innovation – the kind that will leader to deeper and more impactful combat. The kind of innovation that doesn’t sacrifice traditional, and time-honored MMORPG gameplay for horrible action game elements. It is time we got our Bards back.