On the Holy Trinity, Roles, and Role Playing


Like many of you, I played AD&D before I ever touched Warcraft. My introduction to the world of fantasy gaming wasn’t through computer games, but through traditional pen and paper RPGs, and that pretty fundamentally shaped how I approached the genre. You start with the character first, and then figure out how to express them in game terms, and the same idea could often be realized through different classes with different results.

Swashbucklers are an easy example to use; you could choose to make them more combat-orientted, and so choose a Fighter (or later a Warrior). Or you could make them more agile, more daring, and make them a Thief – or later even a Bard. I didn’t like Swashbucklers so much in a fantasy setting, though – I loved playing Scouts. Masters of concealment and ambush, highly sought after by military forces – oh yeah, that was my thief. Or a serious archer with woodsman skills? Ranger, maybe a Fighter, depends on if “archer” or “woodsman” was top in my mind for the character. The great thing is that I could do this and still have a fun game  – one campaign was me playing a stealthy ranger with 3 PC thieves, which meant that our adventures were high on espionage, intrigue, forgery, politics, diplomacy – and the occasional assassination via archery.

Computer fantasy games never had that kind of flexibility. I remember Bard’s Tale (in various editions) and Dungeon Master allowing me to make parties of characters of different classes, but they weren’t really characters – I think my Bard’s Tale part was named entirely after X-Men? – because their classes defined them. This was certainly better than earlier fantasy video games like Gauntlet, where it really didn’t matter which of the 4 characters you took on – all it determined, really, was the look of your avatar and what it shot. “Elf, don’t shoot food.”

I liked to play the Elf. “Elf is about to die.” “Elf needs food badly.”

One of the (many) things I liked about AD&D was that there wasn’t a sense of roles you needed to fill to make a group. There were some things it was nice to have – always great if someone wanted to play a healer! – but it wasn’t like someone would say, no, you can’t run this dungeon without a healer. Play smart, play creatively, and group comp didn’t matter. This was, in part, because the GM could tailor the adventure to a specific group, but it was also because the assumption was that you didn’t need a damage soaker and healer for encounters. Some classes might be better suited towards a specific environment or situation, and some might fare better or worse against specific enemies – ask me about my sorceror who had a bad run-in with some undead and considered becoming a paladin – but by and large, class choice wasn’t an obstacle.

I didn’t really play much 3rd edition AD&D – it was almost all 1st and 2nd – and I know that this changed later on. But from what I saw, in those 10 years or so where I really played the game, was that you could make just about any character concept work. Game balance might be a different matter entirely – but the idea of tanks, healers, and damage dealers never really came into my fantasy games.

And then came Warcraft.



Even after three years of playing WoW, I still don’t really know what to think about threat annd the holy trinity of DPS-Tank-Healing. I mean, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense if you posit intelligent opponents. It’s the fundamental flaw of Warcraft PvP. But it’s the foundation of the game, this idea that for an encounter to be challenging, it requires players to form the triumvirate and work within it, suspending disbelief and requiring some mental gymnastics to believe that this superpowerful being your group is facing wouldn’t go right after the healers, or the mages and warlocks, and instead will doggedly beat on the few people in front of it who are most able to take the punishment.

This is not a new topic. I bring it up not because I’m making an original critique of WoW’s holy trinity, but rather to contrast it with the original AD&D skirmisher style, and to get that contrast in your head while talking about roles in WoW.

I read Matthew Rossi’s Ol’ Grumpy post today about roles and this contrast came immediately to mind. I thought about those days of being a Ranger and how, sometimes, that meant I wanted the bad guys to focus on me for a bit because I was the “warrior” of the group. I think at the time it was mostly because I had the most hit points, not because I could take it any better than the rogues! But then I also remember games where my Magic User was the one who took the brunt of a dragon’s attacks, precisely because he specialized in defensive magics!

These are two very different ways of designing encounters, and designing classes for these encounters.

Part of me wants to say that the roles themselves are the issue, that the AD&D skirmish model is “better,” but I don’t think that part of me is being fair. That kind of model requires a deft touch and human intelligence – or really good AI – to make it work. Epic boss fights are possible, I suppose, with enough mitigation and damage swapping, but it would look a lot different than what we have now. And it’s certainly not a model that is worth scrapping an entire game platform for – instead, this kind of change is something that will take place over iterations of games, not within a game itself.

So if I accept roles as being part and parcel of my computer gaming experience, then I’m left with how characters fit into those roles, which flips me right into Matt’s article and how roles conflict with those concepts, and how some classes are able to fill multiple roles, while others cannot.


Are my WoW toons more like AD&D characters or Gauntlet characters?

At first blush, that seems like a good distinction to make. Is Cynwise like a sorceror or a half-elven fighter/magic user (conjuration spec), or is she like the Wizard? Is she a unique concept with a class describing her, or is she just a Warlock?

Scratch at that a little more, and I think that it becomes a bad distinction, because the two poles of the spectrum are actually the same thing. Both AD&D characters and Gauntlet toons existed in a game where their roles didn’t really matter. The Elf was interchangable with the Valkyrie; I could play a D&D campaign with all Fighters, Rangers, and Barbarians, and still make it work. It didn’t matter if they were pen and paper characters or video game characters, despite their apparently huge difference in flexibility – when you got down to it, your character choice didn’t restrict you from playing part of the game.

This is where Warcraft gets weird. I mean, it’s just weird. You have all the trappings of a fantasy RPG – characterization, race selection, class selection, fantasy setting – but class choice matters more than any other choice you make about your character. It determines what roles you can play in the game and how you play them. As much as it irritates me to be called “tank” or “healer” in an instance, or warlock or warrior or priest or shaman by some PuG, it’s actually a pretty fair assessment of the situation. I’m not Cynwise, mercenary spellcaster from Northshire, responsible for the Morshan Ramparts disaster. I’m the ‘lock in the instance or raid. The distinctions and subtleties fall away in an MMORPG.

I’ve said this before, but I think it’s illuminating to look at what you can change in a pen and paper RPG versus WoW. In WoW you can change your race, your gender, your faction. You can change from a giant Tauren to a pint-sized Gnome, an alien spacegoat to a werewolf. But you can never change your class. You can change what you are, but not what you do. This is backwards from regular RPGs, where you can pick up additional classes (though it may be easier or harder depending on the system), but changes to your character mean that you’re making a new one. Character continuity is essential.

This ties directly into roles.

We choose our characters based upon a lot of reasons – the flavor of a class, the look of a race’s animations. Maybe we have a character concept we’re trying out, or we just want to do something that amorphously “looks fun.” Each class is different enough that perhaps something about it clicks with us, where we understand it and it’s effective and it makes us feel powerful in game. The flavor of a character is important, otherwise we’d all be playing pink cubes with player inputs and special abilities influencing other pink cubes. The world and setting is important.

But because of the Holy Trinity, the choices we make for flavor reasons have a real impact on gameplay. So, to experience other parts of the game, we have to either discard that character and make a new one, or hope that we chose a character class that allows us to do those other things.

(I’ve gone this long without mentioning the term ‘hybrid’. But that’s what this is about.)

This is the rub, I think, of the holy trinity, and I don’t think it’s a solvable one. As soon as you say, encounters are designed to have three specific roles, one of two design choices are necessary.

  • Inclusionary Design: all classes can fill all roles.
  • Exclusionary Design: some classes cannot fill all roles.

It doesn’t matter the extent or breadth of the exclusion – as soon as you make the choice, be it for flavor or game balance, that some classes are not going to be able to fill all the roles in the game, the game is exclusionary and conflict will result. The conflict will be simple, manifest in a similar pattern every time, and will be insoluble.

We’ve seen all this with WoW. Faction-specific classes, hybrid tax, class/role superiority in PvE or PvP. And as long as classes are exclusionary, we’ll keep seeing it.

The argument is simple.


  • Classes should be able to perform about equally well in the roles they are able to do. In this case, the advantage is the hybrid’s, since they can perform multiple roles, giving them flexibility.


  • Some classes will have a distinct advantage over another in a given role, due to increased DPS, healing, utility, CC, damage avoidance and mitigation. The advantage will be to that class, which is the only situation in which a pure DPS class could be advantagous to play to offset the lack of flexibility.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too with the Holy Trinity. You can’t have roles and roleplaying in the same game without them coming into conflict. If you want classes to have a specific look and feel, different playstyles, then players will naturally choose between them. This is good! If I wanted to play Gauntlet again, where it doesn’t matter which controller I grab, then I’ll play Gauntlet! I don’t, so I play Warcraft, where I’m a pretty good Warrior and Warlock, a passable Resto Druid, and should really put in some more time to learn how to be a better Priest (because 5 mans taught me jack and shit for how to really play the class.)

I enjoy all three roles of the Holy Trinity. I’m surprised at how much I enjoy healing and tanking, to be honest, and I’d like to do them all on one character.

Since I didn’t happen to choose a class that could do that when I started, I’ve had to roll several more so I could enjoy those parts of the game. That’s okay, I guess, though I think it’s sad that choices which were made for playstyle and flavor have such a dramatic impact.

I don’t think this is a solvable problem under the current system. Even adding more roles to different classes, of breaking the Pure DPS model and letting everyone be a hybrid – only moves the line between full hybrids and partial hybrids. If you give Warlocks, Rogues and Hunters tanking trees, and Mages a healing tree, you may make players happier – but all you have done is move the line from Pure/Hybrid to Two/Three Role Hybrids. DPS spec heavy hybrids, like Shaman, Warriors, DKs, and Priests now face off against Paladins and Monks.

Druids will remain the most flexible choice of all.

Whether your choice will be the best choice, of course, will depend on which way the pendulum swings, and which class is on top this month. Because no matter what, an exclusionary model will have a right choice, and a wrong one. There will be an optimal class to have rolled for what you’re trying to do, and hopefully, that’s whichever one you picked.


I’m trying to make sure that I’m not complaining about my lot as a former Warlock player. Just like my AD&D experience, it shaped my views on the Holy Trinity, protecting me from the pressures of healing and tanking but also preventing me from experiencing it without another character.

The experience left me somewhat bitter and jaded about the whole idea of roles within the game, to be honest. Why should I be locked in to only DPS roles? Why should I have to roll another toon if I wanted to heal or tank? I didn’t know what those things were when I rolled my first class of toons, and now I have to go roll another one? Put aside my main to go do these things? Is this fair?

But in the process of rolling those alts, I came to see the other side, too. Why should I be penalized for rolling a class that can tank? Why should my DPS spec be worse just because I can heal, too? How is that fair?

Both positions have a point. How is it fair?

And the answer is, it’s not. No matter which way you look at it, it’s not.

Warcraft has an exclusionary class and role design philosophy. That’s okay, it adds interest and spice to the RPG part of the game.

But it also presents an insoluble problem for class balance. And we, as players, have to deal with the fallout from that problem – constantly shifting class abilities, utilities, and balance.

(Even Druids! They can’t escape it, either!)

This isn’t all about being on top of the charts, or having the most utility, or the best tank.

It’s about how our role playing choices set and limit our roles within the game.

As long as Warcraft requires tanks, healers, and DPS, and classes have to choose between them – this is one of those problems we’ll have to deal with.



Filed under Cynwise's Field Notes

11 responses to “On the Holy Trinity, Roles, and Role Playing

  1. Poneria

    Perhaps because I played games with set classes but basically the customization you get with D&D — that is, I knew about feats and skill points, if not the actual combat play of D&D — so I don’t have a problem with my warlock always being ranged. I see it as an attribute of the game. If I want to play D&D, by golly, I can go play D&D. I don’t see the point of wondering why WoW can’t be more like D&D when WoW is not supposed to be D&D.So I end up in this thought of “I see your point, but I still don’t think it’s a quote-unquote problem.” :|I don’t see it as being locked into being a lock (ahahaha lol). If I want to tank, I have my tanking toon. If I want to heal, I have my healing toon. They are all personalities and I have strong roleplay / story connections to each of them in my mind, but I can still choose which to play.I just. I don’t know. I don’t get the “but what if I want to tank on my warlock?” It’s like asking, “but what if I want to play soccer with my hands?” It would just not be soccer to me anymore if you played with your hands.

  2. JD Kenada

    As a fellow D&D player (now Pathfinder by the way, which I honestly think is the best pen & paper system currently) I understand exactly what you mean and some days I still try to play my toons that way. It’s also why every toon is a character, not just an avatar. I do things different with each one of them. As for the Holy Trinity, I think this is where Guild Wars 2 is getting some justifiable hype as they are removing that required mechanic from play. Now of course, the game is in beta (I think) so we’ll have to see how it plays out, but they are recognizing that system isn’t the be all and end all of MMO’s. You’ll be able to toggle between support, crowd control…and damage if I recall correctly. You’d have to check the webpage and their YouTube videos for a more proper explanation on the system, but it definitely intrigues me as I feel very much like yourself in that I should be able to play whatever role I want rather than be cookie cuttered to one (don’t get me wrong either, still enjoying the WoW).

  3. doone

    @PoneiraThat’s her point in the article: despite WoW being derived from classical RPGs, it differs in that you’re locked into *roles* once you choose your class. Whereas in traditional D&D, you can either fill any role or there’s no specific roles necessary to fill.My first thoughts were that maybe the classes/roles were designed so exclusively to encourage grouping. But that doesn’t seem a very strong reason. As you pointed out, table-toppers played together all the time without the game forcing interdependence. Yet there it is. It’s possible that was a reason.As game design goes, it’s probably infinitely easier to restrict player choice. And this is almost a trademark of Blizz. They want to very, very strictly define all game parameters and build strong walls where players cannot go beyond. I’m sure it helps with development time and such. Then again, there exist some really elegant solutions to character development complexity. Perhaps it was a technology factor as well.

  4. Tesh

    What’s most annoying about the WoW model is that class decision is made at character creation and is immutable. If you get into raiding after four+ months and find you’d rather play a different class, you’re stuck. That’s just bad design, I think. It’s a delicious time sink, though, all the better to acquire that sweet, sweet subscription money.

  5. supremelydisappointing