12 January 2010

Kili Rants... on class roles, and why DPS isn't just "meat in the room"

So one of the WoW blogs that I have read with regularity for quite some time now is John Patricelli's, amusingly titled The Big Bear Butt. Having been a feral druid, I find the image familiar, and I love his knowledge of feral druid-y things, as well as his smart and witty takes on things outside the game.

Yesterday BBB highlighted, via another blogger he reads, a guest post at World of Matticus from last week, full of brashness, ego and controversy:  Tanks and Healers Should Get the Biggest Rewards.

Tanks and healers are the most important classes for any group. Tanks set the pace of the group, the flow of experience and man the vanguard as they lead the team into battle. Healers mend the broken bones of their companions and keep the tanks a live – without the healers there could be no tanks and there could be no group. These are the two most important classes that exist in any MMORPG. But the DPS? They’re just meat in the room.
Now I've nearly always played a healer, and I've done my share of tanking as well - occasionally on my main, on my lowbie warrior pre-BC, my pally was leveled as prot from 40 on (and will be prot again when I'm ready to pick her up again), and on my feral/resto alt Kilikitty, who is strangely enough never kitty, but either bear or tree.

The reason my main is no longer a healer is that the guest blogger is correct - there is an enormous amount of stress and responsibility in raiding as a healer.  Toward the end of BC, it became apparent that with a few notable exceptions (i.e. Brutallus with its short hard enrage timer), Blizzard's usual method for ramping up the difficulty of raid encounters was to require more out of the dedicated healers.

Sunwell especially was brutal on the healing classes - sure, Kalecgos required strict attention from mages as well to deal with the curses, but as one of the few healers who could also decurse, every global cooldown was an exercise in assessment and instant decision making.  Do I cast a heal on myself?  Do I decurse the tank? Do I heal the tank?  Do I heal the mage so the mage can decurse the tank?  If I heal the mage, will the mage continue to DPS the boss and let the tank die?  Is anyone else healing the tank?  Oh yeah, and beyond that, having to be aware of portal timing and location, as well as keeping enough distance between myself and the rest of my group, and having range on everyone I need to heal.  It was severely stressful, and every wipe caused most of the healers to second guess every decision they made, except perhaps the paladins who were assigned to spam heals on the tank and ignore everything else, including their own health bar.

So yes, I switched to DPS because it was lower stress, and I was ready for a change... but let me tell you something.

Anyone who considers the DPS "just meat in the room" has never wiped to an enrage timer, or because sub-par DPS caused a fight to drag on so long that the healer ran out of mana or couldn't keep up with increasing damage.

True, most fights aren't designed that way these days - especially in 5-mans, where you get the majority of the Prima Donna Tank attitude.  Sure, a tank/healer combo can duo pretty much every group quest out there, and a good many 5-man dungeons to boot.  It may take a good while to kill the mobs, but they'll go down eventually.  DPS in those cases is not essential, to be sure, although unless the healer has excellent regen, without some DPS to shorten the fights, they may not be able to last until the mobs are dead.

Of course, with good DPS, in some cases having a dedicated tank or healer isn't essential.   Even the toughest group quests can be powered through without a dedicated tank, if there's a good healer, and with a tank and good DPS, you probably only need a hybrid DPS to toss a couple of heals now and then.   We had a well geared tank and 4 DPS combo run heroic Violet Hold without heals a couple of months ago - the ret pally kept Judgment of Light up, and I tossed a couple of HoTs after boss fights, and that was it.  Of course, that was a case of being seriously overgeared for the content.

But here's the crux of my beef with this post:

And raiding? That’s even more stressful. Not only do we even already acknowledge the importance of tanks and healers in this situation. We have Main Tanks and even Main Healers but who’s ever heard of a Main DPS before? There’s a huge amount of pressure to do these jobs right. Sub-par DPS can join a raid (even if it’s not desirable) but sub-par tanks cannot tank one and poor healers cannot heal one.

The "main tank"/"main healer" designation is irrelevant.  In some guilds - mine for instance - the designations are never used.  We have one bear tank, an officer, who far and away outgears our other tanks, and he's a most excellent tank.  He does his job, he does it well, it's rare he misses a raid, and if anyone would be referred to as our "main tank", it would be him - but he's not.  During BC, one of our other officers played a warrior, and at the time he was acknowledged as "main tank", but those were different days, when there were bosses that some classes could not tank (Illidan, I'm looking at you), and good epic gear was harder to get.  We have not, as far as I can recall, ever used the term "main healer".  Healers are given assignments based on the fight's requirements and their own personal preferences and class strengths, and no one class or person is any more important than the others.

There is no "main DPS" designation because DPS does not need one.  Tanks and healers don't really need one either.  The "main tank" designation is more of a recognition that this person is your most skilled and/or geared tank, and will most likely be given the most demanding tanking assignments.  Designating "main healers" doesn't even serve that purpose, because different healing classes are best suited to different tasks.  On one fight, the most crucial healing task may be to spam big heals on the tank, in which case a paladin might be best for the job, but on the next fight, there will be heavy raid damage better suited to AOE healers, and the tank healer's job is less demanding.  It's just as valid to recognize the critical role played by the best DPS players in your raid, although the mechanics of different fights may give that honor to different people.  "Main DPS" is not a term people use, but you might as well, if you're going to say "main healer".

And yes, a group with skilled and geared tanks and healers can often carry sub-par DPS in a raid, but many, many raid encounters are designed with soft or hard enrage mechanics, and the majority of the DPS cannot be bad and still beat those bosses.  DPS players are a dime a dozen, and surely playing as DPS is less stressful than healing or tanking, but you will not get anywhere with a raid of 10 tanks and 15 healers.  You need the whole team, and the whole team needs to be acknowledged as important to the success of the group.

For instance - two nights ago, a friend of mine and I queued together for a random heroic.  He was a ret pally just gearing up to tank (geared enough for heroics, but only uncrittable at the time due to resilience from a couple of PVP epics), and I was playing my resto druid alt.  We queued and instantly got a group... for Heroic Halls of Reflection.  In vent I heard "oh crap...."  but instead of bowing out, he decided to see if he could meet the challenge.  He warned the group that he was a relatively new pally tank, and asked them to give that some consideration by giving him time to pick up mobs, focus firing appropriately, CCing when asked, and generally playing smart.  All was well for the first 4 waves of mobs, truly, but when the first boss came out we came to a realization - our warlock absolutely, positively sucked.

Greg tanked the fight like a champ, and I healed my little tree heart out, but the fight dragged on, the stacking debuff stacked too high, my heals did less and less, and eventually we wiped because of a lack of DPS.  We all ran back, except the lock, who eventually responded in party chat and said "sorry, was on the phone".   And Greg, more kindly than I expected, asked him if he was on the phone during the whole boss fight as well.  And linked the damage meter, with the lock bringing up the rear at less than 650 DPS.  To be fair, it was only in the triple digits because of the debuff that lessened the damage output in addition to my healing output, but considering that he'd only been doing 1200 or so on the trash waves, I'm going to have to say we only got that many stacks of the debuff because his DPS was so abysmal in the first place.

We votekicked the lock, who was replaced by a hunter from our server.  This hunter was one I knew of, and apparently the rogue in our group from another server had run across him before as well and not been impressed.  Truth be told, the hunter was no great shakes either, but he at least kept a reasonable level of DPS, and we were able to breeze through the rest of the instance.

Yes, DPS is a dime a dozen.  We were able to replace a horrible DPS with a mediocre DPS and finish a tough heroic.  Most content is simply too easy, or designed such that a group with some sub-par DPS can be carried.   That does not mean DPS should be considered as unimportant, or second class WoW citizens.

And as BBB points out in his blog post, the reason this has become a prevailing attitude is because of  WoW's encounter design that demands dedicated tanks and healers, and discourages hybrid specs.  You simply can't any longer have a hybrid spec that will serve to do more than one thing even close to as well as those who specialize, and in order to beat most encounters, unless you're overgeared for them, you do need to specialize.

John's suggestion, one that would certainly turn the game on its head, is to do away with dedicated tanks and healers entirely, and make every class a hybrid, able to perform whatever role the group needs, albeit in different ways.  Rogues evasion-tanking, priests bubble-tanking, etc., with different mechanics to cause threat and avoid damage...

Dedicated healers? Do away with them as well.
Give every class a mix of healing and damage spells. Every class would be hybrid DPS/Healers.
You could choose to specialize in DPS or heals, the same as any other hybrid, but the capability of tossing heals would still be there, just like the Shaman, Druid and Paladin.
If you change the dynamic, tune content so that the DPS are mostly responsible for healing themselves, and working together to toss the tank a heal or two but mostly work together to control and kill the mobs.

While this changed dynamic would turn the game on its head to the point of it being nigh-unrecognizable, it does hold a certain appeal for me. 

I came to this game from a text MUD, and was somewhat disappointed when I could not create a character that was anything close to my main there - a half-elf bard.

Bards on TorilMUD were almost, but not quite, a rogue - we could stealth like a rogue, and lockpick like a rogue, and wield rogue weapons (my stabby little glaives were bequeathed to me by a rogue friend, as items were not soulbound in this game).  We even got the same backstab attack.  Since there weren't damage meters, it's hard to say for certain, but I'm sure that our damage output was nothing like a rogue's, and we couldn't sneak up on enemies and one-shot assassinate them like a rogue could (albeit only once a day).

But we also provided group auras of a sort with our songs - we could sing while attacking, songs that provided a constant stream of healing, or an aura that increased our entire party's damage, or one that regenerated mana...  We could forego using an offhand weapon and play an instrument instead, and increase the effect of our songs while still attacking with our main hand weapon.

You could have multiple bards in a party, but only one song being sung at a time - if a second bard accompanied the first, it would also increase the power of the song, allowing both bards to dual wield and do more damage, or adding instruments to provide even more powerful effects.

A typical session of grinding - analogous to trash packs in WoW - would have a single bard in a party with a warrior and perhaps a DPS class or two - and the bard switching between songs:  Song of Offensive Harmony (to increase the damage done by the group) until people need heals, then Song of Healing until everyone's topped off, then back to Offensive Harmony or Song of Renewal if you're low on mana, as singing is a constant mana drain.

During a larger group raid, bards would most likely be singing Healing until there's a lull to regen mana, or if the clerics have it well in hand, an offensive song.   There were also songs to slow the enemy's attacks, reduce casting time for your group's spellcasters, and do single target or AOE damage (probably less effective than a mage class spells, but nice for soloing).

I loved my bard, and got pretty good at her, but going through it in my head I can't see how WoW could implement the bard class with the current encounter dynamics without them being either severely underpowered, or severely overpowered.  With the current dedicated tank/healer paradigm, if you used a bard as a healer, the healing song would need to be extremely powerful to keep a tank alive during heavy damage... or you couldn't use a bard as the group healer, and just make use of the healing song as an additional low level AOE healing boost like Healing Stream Totem, Judgment of Light, LOTP or Vampiric Embrace - with a dedicated healer, this would be pointless, and although other songs could be quite useful indeed, it wouldn't fill that different of a role than a ret pally aura or enhancement shaman totems.

But if the paradigm shifted?  If every class had healing spells and abilities that self-healed or AOE healed while doing damage?  If boss fights weren't about mobs smacking one person really hard while another person does nothing but spam heals and dispels?  I could see room for a bard class there, in a party with a dedicated tank taking relatively steady damage, and everyone else doing damage as well as using some sort of utility spell or talent to heal, whether with a constant stream of healing or an occasional bigger heal to top off the tank.

Even without a bard class, I find that idea intriguing.  I don't mind healing, really, or I wouldn't have 3 level 80s with healing offspecs (or main spec, in the case of my priest).  But playing whack-a-mole with little green bars all night, and being one of a handful of people who automatically get blamed when someone dies (OMG HEAL ME YOU NOOB)?  That gets tiresome.  Let the rogue who jokes about bringing his bandages when the group needs a healer come along and toss a heal or two, in addition to the ret pally keeping up Judgment of Light and the enhancement shaman dropping Healing Stream and using the occasional GCD for an instant heal.  Of course, feral and balance druids, as well as shadow priests, would probably need some adjustments because of the necessity of dropping forms to cast a healing spell other than healing with Imp LOTP or VE, causing a greater DPS loss due to the extra GCD to shift back into form, and costing extra mana.

But it's got possibilities.  It could work, as it did with our Heroic VH party, so long as the encounter design allows it to work for groups that don't overgear the content.

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