Combat Roles

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Originally fully developed as an MMO concept[1][2], Combat Roles are a somewhat useful concept in designing individual combat systems. These roles have been imported into Tabletop games over the years, most notably by Dungeons & Dragons 4e.

In MMOs[edit]

The original trinity was:

  • Tank. The guy who goes up front, and absorbs all the damage from the monsters[3].
  • Healer. The guy who makes sure the Tank and Damage stay in combat, rather than dying or needing to retreat.
  • Damage. The guy who actually kills the monsters.

Further, the Healer and Damage generally get subdivided or modified a bit:

  • Burst, who does a lot of healing/damage all at once, but is usually fairly slow about it, DPS ("damage per second") who focuses on doing damage at quick bursts (and yes, "Healing Per Second" is a thing), and DoT/HoT, "damage/heal over time", spells and abilities which inflict status effects that do damage/heal continuously.
  • Area of Effect (AoE), which focuses on large groups and areas, as opposed to a Single Target specialist. Both have value, as sometimes you're fighting a horde[4], and sometimes you're fighting a singular big monster.[5]
  • Preferred distance: How far away from the enemy the character likes to stand. Usually, Tanks are up close, while Healers are further back (unless they're Off-Tanks themselves), with DPS varying between the two, although there are exceptions. For example, PvP games can have Ranged Tanks who, while they can stay out of the fight, can survive just about anything the enemy team throws at them; they usually have some trade-off to make them balanced.[6]

There are a plethora of side roles, usually one of the above with a little bit below, or two or more of the below:

  • The Off Tank, who could fill in for the Tank for a short while so he could heal or reposition.
  • The Buffer, who boosts his teammates' abilities. May sound useless, but most systems go out of their way to make Buffs valuable[7]. Likely to be combined with Healer, Tank, or Debuffer.
  • The Debuffer, who penalizes his enemies' abilities. Similar to the Buffer, but for enemies. Likely to be combined with Tank, Damage (frequently a DoT type), or Buffer.
  • The Petmaster or Summoner, who has a pet or pets, who are either an Off-Tank or extra Damage.
  • The Crowd Controller, or the Mezzer, who focuses on disabling monsters, particularly large groups, so that their teammates can focus on a few monsters at a time.
  • A few games have Area Denial roles (or, more frequently, monsters, especially bosses), who make an area inhospitable to their enemies. Rare in actual MMOs, because most MMOs have very weak AI systems[8], and thus such a role would make AI more complicated than it needs to be.
  • The Jack of All Trades (or just Jack), who can fill in for more than two of the above, usually at the cost of being good at any one. Usually, has a hard time, as the other classes are more valuable to a group, but as long as they have their own niche, being able to fill in for another in a pinch is still valuable.


One important concept to understanding the Tank is "Aggro": Monsters target whoever has done the most damage or healing nearby, but Tanks have abilities that either force monsters to attack them, or greatly increase their own Aggro rate without necessarily doing any damage or healing.

Aggro management is quite important in most MMOs, as most Healer and Damage classes are fairly fragile, and an Aggro system gives players a fairly direct and decent risk/reward system, realism be damned.

(See also the DISTRACTION CARNIFEX, which is a case of Real World Aggro management.)

As applied to /tg/[edit]

Traditional Dungeons & Dragons Roles[edit]

Traditionally Dungeons & Dragons has had four primary roles for classes to fill

  • The Martial, who provides consistent damage and survivability.
  • The Skill Monkey, who uses skills to overcome non-combat obstacles such as locks.
  • The Arcane Caster, who uses magic to control the battlefield, buff and debuff and also solve non-combat problems.
  • The Divine Caster, who uses magic to buff, debuff and remove negative conditions[9] and also solve non-combat problems.

These roles are typically filled by the Fighter, Rogue, Wizard and Cleric. This has even been enforced in a handful of instances, such as RPGA campaigns that lets a player use a pregen of one of those classes without penalty (applying all earnings to their “real” character) if no applicable class was present among the characters of the players that showed up for the game.

In practice, these four classes are wildly imbalanced against each other (The Martial has no part in non-combat challenges, the Skill Monkey has only limited combat applicability, and the Casters both have a great deal of both.), the exact division of duties falls apart even with more typical classes (A Wizard and a Ranger together have the skill points to handle most mundane skills without sacrificing their ability as a caster or martial, many divine casters can smash heads as well as, if not better than, typical pure martials ect.,) and hybrid characters work weirdly in the doctrine. Still, despite the issues present, the four roles are considered reasonable as rough guidelines for party composition.

These roles would be referenced in Magic: The Gathering starting with Zendikar Rising in the Gather Your Party mechanic, presumably so it can be reused for Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. With this mechanic, cards gain more power for every one of the classic roles (Soldier, Rogue, Wizard and Cleric) you have summoned. The cards with this mechanic shown in the previews are less than impressive, but maybe the full set will be less trash (or have some degenerate infinite loop).

Dungeons and Dragons 4e's Named Roles[edit]

Dungeons & Dragons 4e included four explicitly spelled out and named roles that overlap with the MMO nomenclature, so we'll use some of the vocabulary from above. (Since 4e's terms have been used outside of Dungeons & Dragons, we're including it at the same level as everything else, rather than as a subnote of D&D.)

  • The Defender, essentially the Tank, with a small region of Area Denial interrupting anybody who tries to attack anybody but him, since 4e lacked an Aggro system.
    • Class differentiation within the role was usually based on how they stopped monsters from attacking others.
    • Examples from the original PHB: Paladin (for a more Leader-leaning Defender) and Fighter (for a more Striker-leaning Defender)
  • The Striker, a Single Target Damage/Debuffer type.
    • Class differentiation within the role was usually based on what kind of damage, how they dealt it, and how close they could get to their opponent.
    • Examples from the original PHB: Rogue, Warlock, Ranger.
  • The Leader, a Healer/Buffer, who usually also did Off-Tanking.
    • Class differentiation within the role was usually based on how much of those three the class could be (the Warlord favored Buffing/Debuffing, while the Cleric favored Healing, e.g.).
    • Examples from the original PHB: Cleric, Warlord
  • The Controller, who did Area of Effect Damage, Area Denial, and Crowd Control-focused Debuffing. The most poorly defined of the four in the initial book.
    • Class differentiation within the role was usually based on very little, as Controllers were all based on "the same as Wizards, but slightly different in some way".
    • Examples from the original PHB: Wizard

The DMGs also introduced enemy roles as well, giving you some basic archetypes for what kinds of enemies you can face. Each has some common traits that can be exploited to your advantage.

  • Artillery monsters were those who relied entirely on their shooting attacks, whether it was a bow and arrows or casting fireballs, sometimes covering AOE. That said, they suffered hard in melee.
  • Brute monsters were walking walls of muscle, dealing lots of damage with each swing and chock full of HP to tank player fire. That said, they tended to have poor defenses and likely wouldn't be able to attack multiple enemies at once.
  • Controller monsters were like Controller players. They focused a lot on debuffs and area denial at short range. This made them capable of standing up in melee, in odd contrast to players.
  • Elite monsters weren't so much of a proper role as they were a variant. Elites tended to be beefier versions of existing monsters, made more dangerous but giving more XP upon death.
  • Lurker monsters aren't consistent foes, but when they show up, they hurt. Usually they have either some way to evade any attempts to catch them through something like invisibility or have something like a rogue's sneak attack in order to deal extra damage on an enemy they have combat advantage over.
  • Minion monsters are the absolute weakest of the lot. They have 1 HP as a rule and thus will die to even a stiff breeze, but won't die from any damage if an attack misses. Usually these are the most numerous foes to go against.
  • Skirmisher monsters are very mobile, making them somewhat similar to Lurkers. Usually they'll jump in while their target is stuck fighting something more dangerous.
  • Soldier monsters are your analogues to Defender players. These tend to have really good defenses and attack bonuses but didn't tend to do the most damage. This makes them very good distraction monsters.
  • Solo monsters weren't a role so much as they were a state. Beefier than even elites, these tended to be monsters so powerful that encounters centered around them had to use them as an encounter of their own. Of course, throwing enough players at them still overwhelmed them.
  • Leader monsters were effectively the same as Leader players. Their role focused more upon the buffing aspect of leaders, whether by boosting stats or by letting allies attack out of turn.

Lancer Roles[edit]

Lancer includes five roles that apply to both player mech frames and enemy mechs. While enemies are rather clear-cut in their roles, player mechs tend to have roles that can overlap with each other.

  • The Artillery is a long-ranged variant of the striker. Because of how prevalent guns are on mechs, mechs in this category usually have ways to guarantee that their shots will make their impact.
    • Frames usually differentiate themselves on what particular weapons they tend to favor and how they manage their ranges.
    • Examples of Artillery Licenses: HA Barbarossa, SSC Monarch
  • The Controller usually has the best options for tech attacks of the bunch. This allows them to debuff enemies very quickly, though they could also have some means of area denial that makes moving past them quite difficult.
    • Frames usually differentiate themselves in how they decide to hamper their enemies, either directly or indirectly.
    • Examples of Controller Licenses: SSC Dusk Wing, HORUS Minotaur
  • The Defender usually has some means of area denial or protection for others. They also usually have ways to bolster their reactions so that they can more easily halt enemies from attacking their allies.
    • Frames usually differentiate themselves based on how they manage to either shield allies or block enemies.
    • Examples of Defender Licenses: HORUS Gorgon, HA Saladin
  • The Striker tends to focus more on up-close warfare, whether or not it involves going into melee. They also tend have options for minor debuffing.
    • Frames usually differentiate themselves on what weapons they favor and how they intend to stay within the ideal range for their weapons.
    • Examples of Striker Licenses: IPS-N Blackbeard, HA Ghengis
  • The Support has means to bolster allies, whether it's blocking out negative status effects or augmenting allies.
    • Frames usually differentiate themselves based on how exactly they boost allies
    • Examples of Support Licenses: IPS-N Lancaster, SSC Swallowtail

Outside of 4e[edit]

Both the MMO and 4e nomenclature for roles are sometimes used by /tg/, since the terms are somewhat well defined.

There also exist a few roles that MMOs and 4e don't have names for, notably:

  • The Skill Monkey, who is usually fairly pants in combat, but good at something else that makes him useful.
  • The CoDzilla, who breaks game balance neatly in half with as many self-buffs as will fit.
  • The That guy, who annoys the rest of the group to no end.
  • The Rules lawyer, whose nitpicking over semantics makes the DM break down and cry.

(Admittedly, those last two are more "kick out of the gaming group" roles, but still...)


  1. Well, originally originally, in wargames and actual war, but this article is currently pretty much purely about RPGs and similar.
  2. There was some discussion in tabletop RPGs, but game balance is much more noticeable in video games than in tabletop RPGs, in part because the base idea of "balance" is different.
  3. For the purposes of this article, all enemies, human or not, are called "monsters", just to keep things simpler when a "is the enemy of my enemy my friend?" situation comes up.
  4. And so the multiplicative effect of AoE is useful
  5. And thus, the multiplicative bonus of AoE is lost, leaving you with a fairly weak spell that doesn't do much.
  6. For example: "Tanky ranged damage dealer who takes forever to set that damage up" or "Can survive a surprisingly long time taking damage, but is slow to move, so if his teammates don't take down his attackers, he's fucked"
  7. And anybody who's played a incremental game like Cookie Clicker can tell you that multiplicative bonuses that stack can get small numbers really big really quickly.
  8. For somewhat good reasons; AI systems cost a lot of computing power, and don't deliver much to the player experience for that expense.
  9. And heal, but in multiple editions, most blatantly third, it's often noticeably less effective than using your spells and time to kill the enemy faster so they deal less damage overall and thus gets left out of the duty description