• Tank/DPS/Healer for MMO character classes; and
• Defender/Striker/Controller/Leader for 4th edition D&D (and less overtly in previous editions)...
...came from somewhere, but they didn't inevitably emerge from player psychology. Players are all too happy to hop roles whenever they get the chance.
Stop! Sidebar time! It occurred to me that I should have explained something better yesterday. What I'm trying to get at the root of is why we wound up with the specific roles we wound up with. The fact that we wound up with roles at all...well, I regard that as inevitable, but it's interesting to ruminate on other role schemes we could have wound up with.
With that out of the way, let's get to it.
Another logical place to search for the root of the class roles is in the source material that inspired D&D and eventually Ultima Online, Everquest, World of Warcraft, and so on. Now, we aren't going to see lit characters called tanks, strikers, or whatever in the text. But we're looking for behaviors and attributes that match the character roles in D&D and MMOs. As we go on a role-seeking safari, here's what we're looking for:
• A really durable guy who occupies the attention of most of the opposition, yet provides only moderate "output" back at them.
• Conversely, someone who's more fragile but delivers most of the force applied against the opposition.
• Someone who heals other people. If that's insufficiently abstract, you can say "someone who rejuvenates others mid-battle," but really, if it's not actual healing, you're stretching.
For extra credit, you can look for examples of "crowd control," rendering the opposition temporarily unable to project its force (to borrow some good old maneuver warfare jargon). After all, that's (theoretically) an important distinction between strikers and controllers in 4th edition.
To start, let's go to one of my favorite places...
Hey, My Favorite Appendix! Appendix N!
Back when I was with Wizards, I wrote a bit about Appendix N of the 1st edition D&D Dungeon Master's Guide. You can find it here. Reread your beloved copy, or take it from me: You'll mostly search in vain for any sort of team-based exploits in those books. And you aren't going to see the roles except in contrast with each other. Elric and Conan just wade through entire hordes of enemy soldiers, but that doesn't make them tanks. Fafhrd is no less a striker (and no more a defender) than the Gray Mouser is. You'll see almost no battlefield healing--period--and precious little crowd control in the many fantastic battles in all those great Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Moorcock books.
Nor are you going to find those class roles in the literary influence that Gary Gygax always downplayed: Tolkien. As I've said before, Tolkien's greatest gift to tabletop and online RPGs wasn't dwarves, elves, and orcs. It was team-based adventures. But flip through Lord of the Rings. Gimli isn't tanking so that Legolas can do unfettered DPS. The more capable members of the Fellowship are trying to occupy the bad guys and keep the hobbits safe, sure, but their output is top-notch. Gandalf is no glass cannon, and he's not running around with d4 Hit Dice per level. When he mixes it up in melee, he's hardly fragile.
This shouldn't be surprising. Tolkien wasn't worried that every member of the Fellowship contributed equally yet uniquely to a battle. He wasn't sweating the intraparty balance issues; he had a novel to write!
You can make up D&D or WoW characters that look and behave like Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. But their in-game behavior is going to map to their class roles and they'll feel constrained compared to their in-book counterparts. (And the game versions of those three guys are going to need a healer--the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith aren't going to cut it.)
I really thought I'd find proto-tanks and proto-DPS lurking in the time-shrouded mists of 20th-century fantasy literature. But they're maddeningly elusive. You can find durable guys who like to stand in front of the bad guys and take punishment, sure, but they're usually swinging the biggest swords, too. Battlefield healing is almost nonexistent. And that's if you can find team-based battles at all; they're surprisingly scarce.
Let's Look Elsewhere
Some exploratory mining in other areas is probably warranted at this point.
• Superhero comics: The comic books of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s are a huge influence on D&D and gaming in general, mostly because gamers and game designers love 'em. And unlike most fantasy lit...hey! We've got teams! Lots of 'em!
Scratch the surface, though, and you don't get much evidence of tanks, DPS, and healers. All the pieces are right there for everyone to see (although healing is still hugely underrepresented), but the pieces aren't usually assembled into anything like gaming's class roles.
We've got lots of durable, armored, or otherwise invulnerable heroes, for example. They do an admirable job of attracting the attention of dozens of HYDRA mooks or whatever. Tanks, right? Nope--their output is usually top-drawer as well. It's just as accurate to call 'em freakishly durable DPS.
Try to apply the class role labels to superheroes, and you'll soon find yourself scratching your head. Some heroes are easy, but is Iron Man a tank or DPS? That's exactly the sort of question that'll launch a 20-page ENWorld thread. Take your pick among any of the invulnerable "tanks" in the Avengers: Hulk, Thor, Wonder Man. Same story--they're sitting at the top of the imaginary WWS meters. And where are all the healers?
(On the plus side, I'm giving myself ten points for working Secret Wars into this.)
It's worth noting that while I delved into my comic stacks to check this out, I can't claim to be comprehensive. But seriously, I found almost no consistent class-role behavior. Try it yourself! Take a two-year run of your favorite team comic and look at the big donnybrooks. Let me know whether you see a tank/DPS/healer strategy. Here's what I think you'll see instead. In a team-vs.-one fight, you'll see each good guy put in danger consecutively. A team-vs.-team fight will almost always evolve into a series of one-on-one or two-on-one matchups selected for dramatic reasons, not tactical ones. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)
The City of Heroes MMORPG, where the players are superheroes, has class roles called archetypes, of course: Tanker, Blaster, Controller, Scrapper, Defender. (Sound familiar?) But that's a comic book game, not a comic book. More on how CoH fits into things tomorrow.
Star Wars: Another big influence on pretty much anything gamers or game designers did in the 1980s. Watch the movies, and you'll see the Jedi engaged in tanking and DPS duties (and a fair amount of crowd control) interchangeably. A Jedi will stand in harm's way and occupy dozens of those roger-roger guys. But that Jedi is also the output. It's hard to extract any sort of class-role prehistory out of Star Wars (and in any case, D&D is older than Star Wars).
Music: Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, Raising Sand