The traditional Fantasy MMO includes the Holy Trinity archetypes: Tank, DPS, Healer. From a cooperative standpoint, the Trinity works very well. A class to take damage, a class to deal damage, and a class to heal damage. From a PvP standpoint, there also appears to be fairly equal rock-scissors-paper effect. Healers outheal Tank damage, Tanks outlast DPS damage, and DPS can kill the Healer faster than they can heal.
However, the traditional Trinity has three flaws. The first is that it requires a specific group composition in order to work. Three Tanks? Sorry. Three DPS? Sorry, again. Encounters designed around the Trinity need all three parts in order to work.
The second flaw is that Tanks and Healers are at a disadvantage when soloing content because they don’t deal much damage. This one is particularly nasty because it offers a slippery slope as Tanks/Healers complain about their solo viability. A developer who caves on that issue and increases the damage dealt of the Tank/Healer, decreases the importance of the damage dealer. And equally important if your game has PvP, it can quickly make these classes too powerful.
The third flaw is also in the elegance of the design. The rock-scissors-paper thing is only fun when you are the rock and they are scissors. If you are the scissors, and all you see are rocks, you aren’t going to have much fun in PvP.
Jack of All Trades or Specialist
The solution to all three of these flaws is pretty straight-forward: Acknowledge these flaws exist and then proceed to ignore them.
No system is without tradeoffs. Ultimately, you really only have two choices. A bunch of Jack-Of-All-Trades where everyone is the same, or specialists in specific areas. Once you allow the specialists, you open the door for all the class balance issues and cries of ‘overpowered’ that accompany it.
This is because without designing everyone as exactly the same, the perception will be that they are never exactly equal. Ironically, even when they are equal. This is the conundrum in introducing “classes” or “careers” or “specialization” in a game.
The only solution to that problem is to embrace your design decisions and keep your vision as fair as possible. You need to accept that not all people will be equal in all situations.
In skill-based games, you DO specialize because you make choices about what you are going to do. As an EVE pilot, everyone starts out by specializing in a specific ship or types of ships. In Darkfall, your playstyle and what abilities you choose to use makes you better at THOSE abilities. If you don’t use magic, you’ll simply never be good at it.
Although, in both of these games, it’s possible for a very advanced player to learn everything. In effect, you can become a Jack of All Trades (Master of EVERYTHING) by leveling up all skills.
This strikes me as a flaw in this type of system.
In my mind, there should be more severe tradeoffs. And they shouldn’t be easily reversible. Specializing in Magic should mean that you sacrifice Non-Magic Stuff. Casters should be powerful, yet frail and weak. Melee should be tough as nails, but have no magical aptitude or protections.
In fairness, Darkfall has some tradeoffs. Wearing plate makes it harder to cast spells, but it doesn’t make it impossible. And at the extreme end, some skill choices completely cut you off from using some schools of magic. But that’s a fairly extreme example and not one that you are forced to make. And it doesn’t really stop someone good at magic from benefiting from having high melee skills (able to soak damage).
But I digress and I don’t want to nitpick specific games. I think what I’m trying to get at is that I like semi-permanent choices. I like players to have roles. And if you choose a role, in fairness, everyone else shouldn’t be able to benefit from the things that should be unique to your role.
I think there are two types of role-based specializations. We are all intimately familiar with the first concept. Classes. You choose a class, and that class defines your role.
I think what I like better is the concept of Skill-trees. Basically, you make role-based choices through your skill selection. The concept here is that you are presented with a skill fork in your character progression. You may choose either fork, but doing so eliminates the skills provided to you in the other fork. Choosing Melee, in this scenario, would remove the Magic fork from your available career progression path.
It seems to me that these types of Tree forks provide the Role defining characteristics that I like, while still allowing people the flexibility to choose a non-standard bundle of traits (rather than a Class).
Again, Darkfall has these types of forks in the magic shools, but that’s not much different than choosing to either use an Axe or a Sword. Such forks need to be made much earlier and have a bigger impact on how they define your actual role. Rather than just the flavor of the damage spells and debuffs.
So circling back to The Holy Trinity, I think these would make some good fork choices. You can either Tank, or DPS, or Heal. You can’t do all three well. If you choose more DPS forks, you are easily killed. Choose too many Heal forks, and you can’t kill or be killed. Choose too many Tank forks and you can take a lot of damage but can’t DO anything else.
Now obviously, we could complicate it by having more Role choices. Magic or Physical? Range or Melee? And so forth. Choosing the Physical path eliminates the Magic fork (and healing). Choosing the Magic form eliminates the Physical fork (and tanking). And so on and so forth.
My vision here is that this is still a skill-based, rather than level or class based game. The difference is that your skill choices are semi-permanent forks where your decision impacts your future progression. These choices, rather than a class, determine your in-game skills. For example, one choice could be “Advanced Constitution” or “Advanced Dexterity”. Choosing “Dexterity” increases your physical DPS, but sacrifices your ability to resist damage (“Constitution”).
Anyway.. just my $0.02 as an Armchair designer..