Thursday, September 3, 2009

Roles: Where Do We Go From Here?

First, for the aid of those who don't like reading from the bottom, here are the previous posts in this little miniseries:

Part 1: The roles in D&D (defender, leader, striker, controller) and WoW (tank, healer, DPS, and a side order of crowd control) aren't inherent in player psychology.
Part 2: You can't find proto-roles in the fantasy literature that inspired D&D (and thus WoW) or in other relevant cultural touchstones like comic books or Star Wars.
Part 3: Tanks emerged in D&D because magic users could not survive low level gameplay, and in a cooperative game like D&D, everyone contributes to keeping that guy at your table happy.
Part 4: Healers emerged because magical healing was so important to keeping a D&D party active and engaged in the ongoing narrative, but that magical healing was available from only a handful of the original character classes (the cleric, mostly).

Second, some disclaimers:
• I wouldn't dream of arguing against the notion of roles in any game that involves small-group cooperative efforts. When I say, "there's nothing inevitable about the roles we got," that's very different than the (probably bogus) assertion that "there's nothing inevitable about roles."
• Other games are going to have other roles. A lot of the skillcentric tabletop RPGs of the 1990s had specific roles for the skills (flying a starship, computer hacking, etc.) that were crucial to the setting. The tabletop wargames I'm fond of certainly have broad "roles" you could assign to each of those cardboard chits. I'm mostly interested in roles in D&D and WoW because a) I've played them a lot; and b) they cast an awfully long shadow in their respective game genres.

OK, So Let's Talk Alternatives
If the roles we wound up with trace their origin to specific design decisions Gary Gygax made in the 1970s, then...can we do other things? (Assume a fantasy context here for the tabletop RPG or MMO in your head.)
Sure you can--but realize that you're heading to the deep end of the design pool. That basic tank-healer-DPS trilogy controls your overall pacing, it largely determines what the monsters are doing at a given point in goes on and on. Those roles touch almost all the other mechanical elements of the game. The flavor of your classes (or however you define a discrete batch of character abilities) is rooted in those roles.
But you know what? If Gygax did it, you can too. My buddy Toby and I came up with the skeleton of a pretty good alternative over a lunch at a brewery a few weeks ago. (Someone might pay me for it, or I'd just lay it out here and now.) Look at how humble the roots are for tank-healer-DPS.

But Should You Come Up With Alternative Roles?
That, I think, is the real question. The role setup we've got is a double-edged sword--and I mean that in the truest sense of the word.
Say you're designing a new MMO intended for a niche within the existing MMO audience. Should you build your game with tanks, healers, and DPS?
Yes. You want people to grok your game quickly, and if new players can slide into roles they're already experienced with, they'll thrash around less during those critical first few hours. And those roles are a ready-made tool for assembling small groups of strangers. Converting thousands of strangers into a cohesive community is really what the first weeks and months of an MMO is all about. It's a readymade social convention that most people already know--even if they don't know anything else about your crazy new MMO.
No. The roles we've got are looking a little shopworn, and there's not infinite design space inside the tank-healer-DPS triangle. Especially outside the swords-and-sorcery genre, the roles don't speak to the source material.

Future Roles
A lot of MMOs (and tabletop RPGs for that matter) are going to launch in the next couple of years, many of them outside the fantasy genre. Here's what I hope: Those games that have crazy-mad innovations that are pervasive throughout the game--you guys stick to the roles we've got, just to provide a solid vantage point for us to see all those crazy-mad innovations you made.

The rest of 'em: Come up with new roles! Don't make me be a superhero healer or a "tank" for the rest of my infantry squad. (I'm willing to be a literal tank, however.) Make me something that's organic to the game I'm actually playing, not just something I've been for decades. Every time you force me into the same role structure without a damn good reason, I'm gonna shed a tear like the Indian who finds trash on the roadside.

And when you're playing a new game: Don't let us designers off the hook on the whole "role" thing! Demand roles that make sense mechanically and stay true to the source material.

Out of Context: Shugo Nom Nom Specialist--too silly?
Music: Fugazi, 13 Songs


  1. Dave.

    Really nice to see you writing again. I'm going to my very first D&D 4e RPGA event tomorrow!

    I think we have to have different roles, because people play games for different reasons, yes? I'm thinking of Bartle player types. But isn't the broader question how can a game appeal to different playing styles?

  2. I agree we have to have different roles, but I'm not sure Bartle player types map directly to tank-healer-DPS _character_ least in D&D and WoW. Presumably a player's Bartleness doesn't change much over time, but players happily bounce from character role to character role without much dissonance.

  3. I think that the 4E concept of the "controller" came *this* close to actually adding a completely new role to the equation--if only it had managed to define itself just a little more strongly. The problem--although whether it's a problem beyond this specific context is debatable--is that the controller is trying to be two things at once. It's the guy who causes damage over a wide area, and it's the guy who literally manipulates the other participants in combat. I think, if it had gone further toward the latter and farther away from the former, it would cease to be a DPS subset, and could actually have carved out and defined its own niche. Now, whether that would've been better for the *game*, I can't say. There's certainly a place for the guy searing the arm hairs off everyone in the room, and conceptually, I can understand why that was lumped in with the guy who shapes the battle with walls of force, stuns the enemy, and teleports allies hither and yon. Does that connection outweigh what could have been, if the controller were entirely its own entity? I dunno, and honestly, I hadn't even thought about it until reading this. I think it's interesting, at least.

  4. Hi Dave Noonan!

    I am really enjoying this series. After reading all the posts, here is one alternative role scheme I have come up with: dealing with different sorts of obstacles. For example:

    1. Good against different sorts of foes. The classic elemental rock-paper-scissors is one way. To use 4e terminology, different roles could predominantly target different defenses (so a Dominator or Trickster would target Will and be good against dumb enemies, a Precision Striker would target Reflex and be good against heavily-armored but slow enemies, a Mauler would target AC and be better against lightly-armored foes, etc.). The distinction between Striker and Controller is already sort of like this (single-target DPS vs. area-attack DPS) but I think it could be expanded.

    2. The "Skill Niches" you mention in an earlier post (Strong Guy, Face Man, Techie Guy, etc.) work very well for some genres. E.g. if you wish to infiltrate a facility, the Face Man talks to the guards while the Stealthy Guy sneaks past and plants a device rigged by the Techie Guy to disable the front gates just as the Crazy Guy drives the truck through them and the Shooty Guy leaps out and starts killing people.

    3. Environment-based roles, like Woodsy Guy, Urban Guy, Dungeon Guy, Sailing Guy, Extraplanar Guy, etc. Whenever you are in that environment, the person with that role takes the lead.

    That last one highlights a weakness with all of these "obstacle-oriented" roles: individual role effectiveness is very sensitive to encounter composition. If the entire encounter takes place in a city market place, trying to solve a mystery by talking to people and fighting ninjas, then that is terribly imbalanced in favor of Urban Guy, Face Man, and good-at-hitting-swift-ninjas-Guy.

  5. Thanks for this great article series! I hadn't quite thought of the roles like this before, but I've noticed, too, that while I like to play similar character "types", I rarely play the same role. Interesting.