Specialization in Role Playing Games

This is a post idea I’ve had for a long time. My initial thought is this: lately I feel like there has been an increasing move towards specialization in characters in role playing games (RPGs). Meaning that before you often had characters who needed to be able to handle a multitude of situations, need to be able to heal and do damage and take a hit – all in one character, or all in each character.

However, that has been decreasing of late. Instead, we see the rise of roles like Tanking, Healer, and DPS. You see it in party-based online situations especially, and with the rise of MMORPGs, there’s a lot of this going on online and in big-name games people are putting a lot of time into. However, a further place you see this happening was in Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, which was built to in many ways play like an MMO.

So I will look a bit at both of those – MMOs and D&D 4th Edition – but what really has me thinking about this is that I now have an even better case study. the Final Fantasy games. In Final Fantasy XIII, they hit the most specialized that they ever have; however, in breaking away from that in Lightning Returns, they are moving back to a place where you have far more control over customizing your character. So have we hit the far extent of the trend? Are we moving back away from specialization? That’s the question I will close with!

The Rise of Specialization

I see a couple of major factors leading to this. One is simply the rise in MMOs – in the party setting of a massively multiplayer RPG, you have to fill a role, have to specialize and be good, for people to want to work with you. Especially strangers – friends might be more forgiving.

The other major factor I see causing this rise in specialization matters even more, and is I think the reason why the first point matters, why it’s happened. And that is the introduction of modern tanking mechanics, of taunts and aggro generation. These effects give the players a large amount of control over the actions of the computer-controlled opponents.


The majority of my MMO experience was with World of Warcraft, but I played quite a bit of Final Fantasy XI as well, and have been eyeing many of the other MMOs that have been coming out since. A lot of people are looking ahead at the Elder Scrolls Online, for instance. Anyway, my points ahead are mainly based on WoW, but you’ll likely see parallels to other MMOs.

The first effect of the rise of Tanking is it makes the programmers’ jobs easier. They only have to come up with so complicated of an enemy; in the end, the expectation is that they are going to be doing most of their attacks on a Tank character. Then you just have to think if there are any reasons why they wouldn’t – say, area-affecting attacks, or reasons they would break away from the taunts, or thresholds for aggro. Do they attack the healer instead?

And that’s where you see the difference, that’s where the problem shows itself: the real strategy, in a magical world where someone is healing everyone else, is to kill the healer first. Often, healing actions generate more aggro and so the healer has to watch themselves. But a good Tank can help that out, but that requires even further specialization for the Tank. And, you don’t want the healer taking more actions and generating more aggro, or else they might die and then where would you be?

To compare this activity of the computer-controlled enemies, you only have to look so far as player-versus-player. In PVP, the human reaction is to go after the healing characters. In most PVP systems, it seems that the main Tanking abilities and stats also don’t seem to work the same. While you can Taunt a computer enemy to fight a Tank, you can’t do the same against a human opponent.

Even though it could make sense – it could at least change the opponent’s targeting, make them focus on you. Sure, a good player will see through that and be able to switch, but it’s the sort of ability that could save a player just long enough, or, at the very least, allow for some level of having the PVP world match the PVE world – the Player-versus-Environment gaming.

Instead, in PVP, you tend to see players not specializing nearly so much. They all want to have health and defenses for survivability – since no one is Tanking to protect them. And they all want healing, if possible, to save them. And they all, most especially, want to do a lot of damage. They also all want debilitating abilities if they can, the Crowd Control of MMO lingo. So you want to avoid specializing, and instead want to be a little ready for anything, as battles tend towards being grand melees that are chaotic, or small skirmishes where you don’t necessarily have a lot of backup.

What it comes down to is that for PVE you could almost reduce the game down to four classes total, to fit the four roles: Tank, Healer, DPS, and Crowd Control. Good thing no one would be crazy enough to do that, right?

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

Whoops, or, the leading name in tabletop roleplaying went and did this. In D&D 4th Edition, while there are many classes, they all fall into four roles: Defender (Tank), Leader (Heals), Striker (DPS), and Controller (CC). Sure, they provide suggestions for secondary sorts of roles you might fill, and there are ways to multi-class and make hybrids and customize in all sorts of ways… the system is still inherently built on the idea of these four roles.

So they don’t inherently force the DM – who does not function quite like a computer in most cases – however, they do each lend themselves to it. The Tank can make it so an enemy has consequences for attacking someone other than themselves, such as a free attack against them, or reducing the damage done. This is built off the “Marking” system which is like a taunt, but mostly just reduces the enemy’s chance to hit by two. Which then depends entirely on the dice for how effective that is… But, in driving the decision of the DM for who to attack, it can have more implications.

The healing effects also don’t rely nearly so much on a direct ability used by the healer for a specific amount; most of the healing is instead based on people tapping into their innate internal reserves, their “healing surges,” and each character has a value for this.

For damage, sure, everyone can do plenty, but the Strikers all have some sort of inherent class bonus that can generally let them always do more base damage. Or else, you’re doing something wrong.

And the Controller does plenty of damage too, but often as area damage rather than specific target damage. In many ways, these sorts of classes were the most interesting in previous editions of D&D – wizards with their huge spellbooks, Druids with so many options at their finger tips. Everyone else just kind of swung swords around. So it is harder to really narrow down the Controllers now, to match up with the other character roles, which have majorly stepped up in this edition.

That was the positive effect of trying to be like an MMO – every class in 4th edition is interesting, and every round you’re using some power with interesting implications or effects, rather than just swinging a sword or shooting a bow.

And I think all of this variety worked pretty well, too. We are playing a campaign right now in D&D 4th Edition, and I am playing a Swordmage. This class is a Defender, so I am supposed to Tank; however, I do so with magic that makes it so I reduce damage done… to characters other than myself. So at first, I was getting beat upon, while my friends were fine… I figured out I needed to almost stay back, let someone else actually “tank,” and reduce their damage. Has worked far better. So while I am officially the Defender, I am not necessarily the Tank. So they made it not seem like you were playing only four classes in only four ways – which was my fear, and probably a lot of other peoples’ fear.

However, D&D 4th Edition does have a bad rap, and it has not been widely accepted. Instead, lots of people still play D&D 3.5, and lots have moved to Pathfinder, based on 3.5So where did 4th Edition go wrong? If not in the specialization, then in implementation: there were expectations of far more online support than ever materialized. The game is built on a grid, but no leading grid software has arisen. The characters are built on these power cards with really specific formulas for how they work and do damage. Honestly, the game system would have lent itself to becoming an MMO, or any number of video games, and I haven’t seen it happen at all.

Case Study – Final Fantasy

The Final Fantasy games have stayed interesting through all of their iterations by having a different system between each game. Well, that and different characters and stories and all. But the focus here is on the system.

Early Final Fantasy Games

The early Final Fantasy games tended to work off of a job system of some kind – either with you able to select and change jobs, or with the characters highly specialized with a job.

Usually in the games, you would get the jobs a bit at a time. The early ones were usually the most specialized and basic: Fighters, Black Mages, White Mages, Thieves. That sounds like a basic D&D party as well.

However, later on, you usually got much more complicated, varied, and hybrid sorts of jobs. One of my favorites is the Red Mage – the epitome of the non-specialized character. Wielding sword and shield, and casting offensive spells, and healing spells. Ready at a moment’s notice for what you need.

You also did a lot of your defending by putting people in the “back row” – out of immediate melee combat, and doing half as much melee weapon damage but taking half as much as well. A number of other party-based RPGs used similar systems of “rows,” with ranged people surviving by being in the “back” with the heavy hitters up front. That’s how “tanking” worked in those sorts of games: anyone might get hit, but the effectiveness was different depending.

Later Final Fantasy Games

When you hit Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, all of a sudden, the characters are even more versatile, with lots of options. And even more, I tended – and I imagine others did as well – to not specialize them, to have everyone have healing spells, everyone doing damage. You couldn’t choose who the enemies attacked, so everyone needed defenses to survive combat.

Final Fantasy X and XII followed this as well, with their large skill trees that everyone could work their way around and through, learning all sorts of abilities, getting all sorts of stats. Ready for anything as well.

At the same time, Final Fantasy IX and X-2 harkened back to the earlier games, with the characters having job classes again and being more specialized. However, these were seemingly deliberate callbacks to the previous games.

But then, in the midst of it all, there was Final Fantasy XI, an MMO, and the specialization took off in earnest. Tanking was a major aspect, especially because you only got appreciable experience by working in a party, and by fighting enemies quite a few levels ahead of you. The fights were long and slogging, and there was lots of damage that needed mitigating, healing needed, and much need for DPS. Specialization took hold for Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy XIII Series

So then, there was Final Fantasy XIII. Maybe the most specialized game system I have ever played. The characters moved through Paradigms, not quite classes. The Sentinel, a Tank who does nothing much other than sit and take damage. The Medic, who can heal but do nothing else. The Commando and Ravager, who move their way through a system of damage-dealing. And the Synergist, who buffs up the party; and the Saboteur, who debilitates the enemies.

Six roles, so even more specialized than what we see in other systems. Often healing type characters also provide buffs (something to do in-between healing), and DPS or Control characters do the debilitating. And the Tanks can usually at least do some damage. One of the most boring things you could do in Final Fantasy XIII was take control of your Sentinel; then you stood there waiting for incoming damage.

In Final Fantasy XIII-2, they kept this six-role system. They made it interesting and more fun by giving you a variety of specialized monsters to fill your third party spot. Still, the hyper-specialization.

But then, we bounce back. Their most recent game, Lightning Returns, or Final Fantasy XIII-3, has dropped these roles, while keeping many of the abilities. Instead, you get ability crystals, which effectively work like the Materia of Final Fantasy VII. You have a limited number of slots on each of three outfits to equip them.

However, you can, for instance, have a defend ability on each garb – after all, they all use sword-and-shield. And there are not any direct healing abilities or buffing abilities, so you cannot specialize as a healer, or Synergist-type, and you can focus a bit more on the damage and defense.

This feels like they are seriously backpedaling from the specialization of the previous two games. Are we hitting the edge of RPG specialization? Are we going to see things swinging back towards more well-rounded characters?

Closing Thoughts

So I’ve talked about a lot, and this has ended up much longer than I initially thought it would. Thanks for reading this far! Let’s consider a few of the observations I have from this.

  • Job systems tend to start with specialized as the basics, and move to hybrid once you’ve learned the system. So in other words, the current trend in heavy specialization and limited roles in RPGs means that we’re reduced to the “basic” sorts of game play, instead of anything complicated or advanced. We’re taking some of the fun and strategy out, and I for one am about strategy with my gaming!
  • We love open-ended games. Take the success of something like Skyrim: the exploration, the character who has to survive all opponents and situations (and dragons!), the open-ended questing. Able to use any armor or weapons. Now there’s the Elder Scrolls Online, which is going to carry a lot of this over into the world of MMOs. Yes, there are classes, but you can still learn the various skills, use any weapons or armor, and that is exciting. Will this change the fate of MMOs? I guess we’ll see.
  • We love intelligent opponents. PVP has been such a successful part of MMOs because we enjoy facing off against intelligent oppoents. And an intelligent opponent is going to go after healers and ignore low-damage tanks; so maybe you need the heavily defended healer-tank! But anyway… it would be great for the PVE parts of the game to more closely resemble this. This is a fantastic challenge for game developers – a way to make the games of the future. Maybe not easy games, but then, I don’t know that I go to games to walk all over them. Do you?
  • Heavily specialized systems don’t necessarily do well. Whether we’re talking about Final Fantasy XIII or D&D 4th Edition, the heavily specialized games don’t necessarily do well. While there was a lot of specialization in WoW, my Warlock did both damage and debilitation, had crowd control, and even had some handy options for backup healing – especially with Health Stones for PVP, so everyone could do a little more healing when they needed to! They kept the game interesting by not making people too specialized, and giving options – and increasing those options – for having alternatives.

So are the heavily specialized games going away? Is the face of tanking going to change? I kind of hope so. Yes, you tend to fill a “role” in a party – but you should really be able to fill a backup capacity as well. When things go south, you need to be ready. And for run-of-the-mill encounters, everyone really just kind of needs to do damage and survive well enough. So I am excited now, as I start looking at Elder Scrolls Online – I will admit I haven’t looked at it much before today! – and thinking about the options, alternatives, and things I could do. If well executed, this may be the WoW breaker, and may shape the RPGs to come.


6 responses to “Specialization in Role Playing Games

  1. Very interesting post. I didn’t really think about the type of characters I tended to choose in video games (when given specialization as in RPG / MMO) until I played SW:TOR, which remains so far my only MMO experience as I never really got into any other.

    I remember “messing” up and going for the supposedly healer specialization of the imperial agent and let’s say that I was grateful for respec so I could be a DPS as I suck at being a healer. I find it important that there is room for more than one role only. I had interest in playing all classes in that game, and in the end I didn’t like tanking much better than healing anyway, so I found a way to go for DPS no matter what, even if there were some surprise when gathering in groups.

    I really enjoy reading about the case studies of Final Fantasy games, as I haven’t played a new (err… recent) one in forever.


    • I as well tend to play games by trying to play a lot of different characters, different roles… I create new characters often, and the template or skill trees for characters even more often. Specialization makes this boring as well, because to super-specialize, there’s usually a “best” build… and that’s boring!

      Thanks for making it through a blog post that ended up far longer than I initially intended!


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  4. Very interesting post though I don’t necessarily agree with the author. I think specialization in RPG’s, especially MMO’s is kind of inevitable and a simple recognition that people tend toward certain strengths and weaknesses and that we need each other. One of our greatest strengths as a species has always been our ability to self organize and work together and accomplish things that a single individual never could. But, that being said, there are those rare individuals who we tend to venerate particularly here in “The States” who “go their own way” and “do it on their own” and are remembered for it and so I think there’s a tendency by some like the author to feel like they need to be able to do it all, or at least be able to “do a little bit of everything”. And there is some truth to the feeling that we shouldn’t be completely unable to do anything but “this one thing”, I don’t think specialization is such a bad thing. I mean, why else do we play RPG’s and MMO? If we don’t play “co-operatively” we may as well just be playing a solo video game like back in the bad old days of arcades, Nintendo, and Atari. Right?


    • I mean, it makes more sense in the MMOs, for one thing. And even there, often you have classes where you could choose to be less specialized, and then when you’re at the high end, playing with parties, you need to optimize and specialize because others are covering your lacking abilities. However, that sort of design seemed to bleed out into things like single player games or social tabletop games, like I referenced here.

      This article is from 2014, so since then we’ve seen a move already a step or two back from some of the extreme specialization I talked about here. Even the later Final Fantasy XIII games, for instance, stepped back from the extreme specialization of the first game. D&D 5th Edition came out and stepped way back from the MMO feel of 4th Edition. Things like that.

      For current thoughts… my current RPG is Mass Effect Andromeda, where each of your skills branches, giving you options to explore increasing its damage, utility, how good it is against enemy defenses, adding effects like shield restoration… I have tended towards trying to specialize each of my characters just a little, but it’s straying towards “strong” rather than being super specialized. Also, you don’t control those characters; you do control the Pathfinder who, very specifically, has the ability to change which “class” they are playing mid-fight and have a new setup of abilities. So specialized… but also not. It’s a hybrid that’s felt pretty good, and which I honestly haven’t taken enough advantage of!

      Meanwhile, for a TableTop example, I’ve gotten into the game Warmachine/Hordes, and in building armies, there’s a tension between the perceived “intent” of the game, which is balanced all-comers sorts of lists, and the optimization that comes from skewing hard into some sort of specialized role. As a major balancing factor to this, the game tends to allow you to have two army lists, and before playing a game, players see each others’ lists and each choose a list to play, and reveal at the same time. That way, it’s harder for those skews to completely stomp an opponent, as you can at least choose the army you hope will deal best with what your opponent is playing. Maybe that’s by using a specialist, and maybe that’s by using a balanced list.

      I think, in other words, that this tension probably always exists, but that we’re currently swaying away from some of the extremes of specialization!


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