Updated on August 20th, 2016 by | 3 Replies

The MMORPG holy trinity has been around for ages. For those unaware, the holy trinity is a paradigm of balancing combat around three roles: tank, healer, and damage. Its roots can largely be attributed to Dungeons & Dragons where a front-liner, healer, mage, and thief were necessary to succeed. Recent editions of D&D have somewhat moved away from that, and good dungeon masters can balance adventures to conform to all but the most bizarre parties. Yet, the MMORPG holy trinity has persisted well into 2016.

blade and soul combat

To be fair, it’s not a particularly bad foundation. Damage dealers make up the bulk of groups and just try to kill things as fast as possible. The tanks, with their massive damage mitigation, taunt enemies away from killing the damage dealers. Cleric types keep the tanks from dying.  Everyone gets a role and everyone gets to contribute. It’s also relatively easy to balance because damage, damage mitigation, and healing can all offset. The problem is that conforming to such a system stifles innovation. Players spend the majority of their MMORPG time in combat. It stands to reason then that combat in MMO titles should be innovative. Otherwise, why not play the top MMO games that already do a great job with the holy trinity?

The Holy Trinity’s Fundamental Issues

The lack of innovation that the holy trinity breeds forms the crux of my issue with the popular model. It’s simply been done to death at this point. I can only groan at class selection when I realize what fate awaits me. Regardless of which role I choose, I’ll get relegated to a one trick pony. I didn’t mind that for a time, but it’s dreadfully dull now. Even if it can be challenging at times to juggle aggro or play the heal bot, that doesn’t make it interesting.

What’s the alternative? That’s a pretty complex question, which is why so many developers are reluctant to leave what they know. Damage is clearly a necessity of combat (things have to die, right?), but in my mind decreasing taunty tank and healy priest roles is what will move us away from the holy trinity.

At their most basic level, healers and tanks both play support roles, and there are no shortage of support abilities. Examples of support abilities include crowd control, buffs, cross-class abilities that temporarily emulate other characters, and damage mitigation. For those worried about healing, it can exist perfectly fine outside of the holy trinity. Guild Wars 2 uses classes with familiar archetypes but without a holy trinity balancing mechanism. One of the ways in which they accomplish this is by providing every class a healing ability. I’m personally not a fan, but it works and is certainly innovative. Ultimately, Guild Wars 2 allows for a wider range of party compositions because of this. If everyone has priestly healing abilities then it eliminates the most common grouping bottleneck. That said, MMOs can also exist without healing (though I’m not aware of any developers who have been brave enough to try it).

guild wars 2 heals

For those seeking inspiration, an alternative support model already exists on a smaller scale. MOBAs like League of Legends and DOTA2 strategically necessitate a support role for their 5v5 matches. Some support characters can heal but many cannot. Supports fill their role with a variety of tools such as crowd control, shields, escape mechanics, buffs, and limited heals. Pure supports could certainly still exist in an innovative MMORPG, but I’d like to see these tools spread out across all classes. Ideally dungeons in such an MMO could be crafted so that adventuring parties will always have a weakness. This enhances replayability and creates genuine difficulty as parties must strategize how to overcome their collective shortcomings.

These shortcomings could be overcome by exploiting a new AI threat system that eschews generic aggro based taunting in favor of individual targeting methods. The current holy trinity system bases mob aggro solely on numerical taunt/damage/healing threats. This leads to limited ways for players to react and limited methods in how to compose parties. Instead, monsters should target based on their move set. For example, some enemies might focus on who’s closest, the lowest health character, a player activating a mechanism, the most recent spell caster, or even who is wearing shiniest clothes. Not only does this add flavor to drab monster AI, but it forces players to adapt to situations and play with an “out of the box” mindset. Bouncing aggro is suddenly an interesting mechanic for the entire party instead of just one player.

Typically, looking for tanks and healers stall out parties faster than a troll ninja looting an unequippable rare. Most players want to deliver damage, strike the killing blow, and loudly proclaim their hero status. Like in MOBAs, tanks and healers rarely get star treatment, even if their talent really saved the day. I know this is dangerous, but I want the onus of typical holy trinity tanking and healing spread across everyone’s shoulders.

Ultimately, I want to kill the MMORPG holy trinity because I feel that developers fall back on that method instead of looking to create something new. We just end up with these rehashed combat systems that fall flat because they’ve already been done (and done better). The wole thing reminds me of a movie called Multiplicity with Michael Keaton. In it, he creates a clone of himself to handle time consuming chores. That clone then thinks the same thing and clones himself. This cloning saga repeats ad nauseam with each clone spawning as a progressively dumber version of Michael Keaton. That’s how I feel about holy trinity MMOs. Modern releases feel pretty dumb compared to older generations.

It’s unfortunate that MMOs cost so much to make. Publishers are less likely to take risks when so much is on the line. We can’t rely on indie studios to usher in innovation as they do with smaller scale projects. Killing the holy trinity might be a major risk, but there are definitely success stories. Blade and Soul and Black Desert Online, the biggest MMORPG launches in the West this year, have built a strong following without mandatory party compositions. In fact, I recently estimated Blade and Soul as one of the most played free MMORPGs.

Here’s to a future where innovation reigns supreme over the holy trinity’s mundane corpse.




3 thoughts on “Can We Kill MMORPGs’ Holy Trinity Yet?

  1. Eph

    “First, do no harm.” We should not kill the holy trinity model just for the sake of sheer novelty. As you’ve admitted yourself, it’s not a bad foundation and it works – which is more than can be said for most of the alternatives.

    Let’s take a step back and look at the more general model; namely, “the computer follows a certain pattern and players exploit the vulnerabilities in this pattern by using the tools provided to them”. It’s a widely used model for a simple reason: it’s fun. It feels good to make correct choices that makes a meaningful difference between success and failure. The holy trinity adds a specific twist: each role has the tools to deal with a specific aspect of the computer’s pattern – but not with all of them – so they have to rely on each other for mutual support.

    Now let’s look at what can go wrong when we change it:

    1) “No pattern”. Everything is completely at the mercy of RNG. Mobs run amok, incoming and outgoing damage is entirely unpredictable, so characters on both sides die or survive for no discernible reason. Needless to say, this is an extremely frustrating situation, since it removes player agency and makes their choices of tools irrelevant. If it’s an isolated encounter, players will hate it rabidly and avoid it as much as possible. If that’s an entire game, it’s going to be a very, very niche one.

    2) “No exploitable flaws”. If there is no way for the players to use their tools to influence the outcome, the AI might as well be a background environmental effect that drains a set amount of the player characters’ resources. It’s not as frustrating as the RNG-based model (unless it’s tuned too high – see next example), but it’s a very boring one.

    3) “No flaws, period”. A more extreme version of the previous model, the lack of flaws that could be exploited by players’ tools now means that the result of the encounter is always a failure. It can be useful as a gating/pacing mechanism (to keep low-level players out of endgame zones, to encourage grinding, to discourage solo players from entering group content), but a single instance of such a wall on the critical plot path will spell doom for your game.

    4) “Fake exploitable flaws/taking away tools”. Most suggestions on tweaks to holy trinity (including the ones you provided) tend to fall into this category. After all, it’s so boring when a tank in shining armour holds the dragon’s undivided attention while the spellcasters and archers rain fireballs and arrows on it. If we make the beast pointedly ignore the tank in favour of munching on cloth-wearing healers, or let it react to all the projectiles being thrown at it by becoming immune to magic and ranged attacks, it will make the game more exciting, right?

    Maybe, but most likely wrong, because it can very easily degenerate into models (1), (2) or (3) listed above.

    Remember: the base model is fun because it enables players to make a meaningful difference through correct choices and execution. Placing restrictions on choices can be interesting, but once we place the players in a situation in which they have no viable tools to work with, we take away their agency and the game stops being fun for them. For example, if a wizard can respond to a raid boss becoming immune to fireballs by switching to ice or acid magic, it’s fine. If the only viable response is to go AFK until the immunity fades, it’s not.

    It gets twice as bad if we have a role-based model and try to hamfistedly shove players into a role that they don’t have the tools for. If a mob lacks an aggro table and instead prioritizes healer/DPS characters based on their hair color, it instantly makes the game less fun for both the tank (whose enitre arsenal of tools becomes completely useless) and the targetted player (who doesn’t have the necessary mitigation/control abilities that make tanking fun).

    5) Finally, there’s a “No roles” variation of the base model that foregoes the extra complication introduced by holy trinity. You still have an exploitable AI pattern, but now everyone has all the necessary tools to handle it (be it survival/healing abilities or mobility for dodge-based game with telegraphed attacks). It reduces social interdependence, which can be both a blessing and a curse, but that’s a subject that goes beyond this topic.


    In regards to the tabletop comparison: pretty much all pen-and-paper games are fundamentally turn-based simply by the virtue of the DM/GM being able to pay full attention to a single player at any given time. MMORPGs, on other hand, are real-time video games with continuous engagement. Making a player passively spectate for 5 (or 30) minutes before getting their turn in the spotlight is fine for a D&D group, but completely unacceptable for a MMO.

  2. The Bro Post author

    Thanks for thought provoking rebuttal. You made some great points. The most prominent one I agree with is how chaotic the game can become without proper structure. The holy trinity provides that structure so in taking it away, something else must replace it. It’s a challenging, and my post was to cite examples that could springboard such a change rather than create such a system. That would be much more involved.

    Where we seem to differ on is how we define meaningful decisions. While we both agree they’re important, I don’t believe the holy trinity breeds meaningful decisions. The vast number of encounters force linear decisions based on player role. The tank manages aggro with a rotation of abilities, the healer heals wounded and keeps buffs up, the mage uses their highest DPS cycle. I don’t find that interesting. The game is effectively saying “this is how you need to play, and if you do otherwise it’s wrong”. Decisions that mandate following a guidebook are not meaningful in my eyes.

    There are number of factors a ‘replacement system’ must adhere to that the holy trinity excels at. Monsters must have patterns to exploit, I agree. Determining how to exploit the pattern is the foundation of strategic/tactical play in cooperative encounters. Outside of good raid bosses though, monsters in the holy trinity system all execute the same patterns. It’s at the point where MMO vets have “done it all”. In order to make combat more interesting, monster AI must execute diverse patterns. This is fundamentally incompatible with the traditional holy trinity.

    In your example about the wizard switching to ice or acid magic in response to fire immunity, there should be more to it than just switching to ice or acid. Otherwise, it’s another linear decision. “Does my ice or acid tree do more damage? Ice. OK, I’ll use that.” Meaningful decision making is more nuanced. For example: attacking the dragon with ice does the most damage but triples aggro, while attacking with acid weakens defense but harms allies in melee range. Of course, that’s not incompatible with the holy trinity, but hopefully it highlights what I’m hoping to see. Gameplay (in my opinion) should be about trade-offs. There shouldn’t be an obvious right answer, but in the case of the holy trinity there almost always is.

    Again, creating a working, fully fledged system would be extremely time consuming. Hopefully an example will better demonstrate the path that I’d like to see an “anti holy trinity” game traverse. Perhaps enemies could come with patterns players can research (werewolves go after the most damaged). Then, instead of tanks using taunts to keep them off squishies, they use local crowd control that werewolves are weak against (tripping, stunning), or uses a zone of control to slows them, or could physically block them if collision detection is on. Squishies could get healed to stop the aggression or use mobility to escape abuse the werewolves’ blood thirst, leaving no allies harmed. Supports could be used to facilitate that escape through speed buffs or teleports.

    To be fair, it’s not really that the holy trinity needs to die. It’s the traditional holy trinity. I want interesting decisions that vary between encounters. The taunt/heal/dps synergy breeds variants on the same decision tree rather than sprouting entirely new trees that an alternate system could create.

  3. Pingback: Exploring MMO Group Roles Beyond the Trinity – Gamer

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