Support Roles

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And now for something completely different…

A popular mechanic for many games is a class system, giving a sense of variety and tactical decisions. Each class excels at a certain role, applying the principle of specialization of labor.  In theory, this specialization also allows for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts – after all, specialization of labor is absolutely integral to the basis of civilization and the manufacturing revolution.

There is, however a tension between classes, as classes can fall into two general categories: Soloable roles and Support roles.  The Soloable class is often the Fighter, able to take a hit and dish out a solid blow.  They don’t need anyone else.  Support classes tend to be things like the Tank (indestructible, low damage output), the Artillery (massive damage output, glass jaw), and Utility (low damage output, fragile, but dirty tricks).  A support class trades core competencies for greater aptitude in other areas.  Depending on the precise system, Tanks and Artillery are semi-soloable, with Tanks being slightly more soloable inclined.

Leaving us with Utility.  While Tanks and Artillery get some of the Support stigma, their value is readily apparent, as is their soloability. Many Utilities are capable of soloing, but they lack the survivability and damage output to do it as fast and successfully as soloables.

Many people dislike Utilities, whether it be playing with them or playing as them. People of course appreciate healing effects, but that usually means that anyone with healing talent is reduced to “Healer” regardless of other competencies. Or “Useless,” if their healing isn’t terribly effective.

Utility tends to work behind the scenes – their role is “make the others feel more awesome.” They trade in making allies more powerful or making enemies weaker. They also tend to be extremely good at this, to make up for their terrible offensive and defensive capabilities. This tends to be a thankless job in many settings, as fanfare is delivered for striking killing blows or making phenomenal saves.  Everyone cheers for the Quarterback, while the Linebackers, at best, are praised as a unit.

As a general rule, then, it tends to be a certain class of people that gravitate toward Utility roles. The stage crew often gets as much satisfaction from a successful play as the lead roles. The editor takes pride in turning a gifted author’s work into something readable and less fraught with cliches. These are people that don’t seek – and often don’t want – the spotlight, though they do appreciate the occasional shout-out, or even just a nod of appreciation. Interestingly, many of those naturally inclined toward Utility actually find themselves bored by the more Soloable roles – Utilities often take a wide-angle approach to a given situation, while Soloables take a narrowly-focused, more personal role. If someone’s used to being a chessmaster, they resent becoming a single piece, even if that piece is the Queen.

Which leads to a growing trend, which is somewhat distressing – the attempt to “fix” Utilities.

From a demographic standpoint, many more people want to be Soloables than Utilities. As stated, they find Utilities worthless, frustrating, or simply a headache. So people petition the designers to make the Utilities more soloable, because they want variety in their choice of soloables. The designers are then compelled to increase the soloability of Utilities, consequently weakening their utility.

Examples of this abound throughout games. In Team Fortress, the Medics are fragile and have relatively weak attacks. This is balanced by allowing healing to be counted for assists, as well as providing them with the only submachine guns in the game. In City of Heroes, Controllers had their hard controls weakened, in exchange for “containment” – an ability that dramatically increases their damage output. These are relatively good examples, as the classes remain Utilities, but aren’t quite as helpless when they’re alone.

For a less beneficial example, we turn to an unfortunate example – unfortunate because it already gets enough grief on the internet as it is.  I am, of course, referring to Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, or D&D 4E (and the coming 5E). In previous editions, there was quite a range of power level, especially if you’re talking about everything falling under the d20 umbrella. Generally, there was a balance between Utility and Soloability, with the ever unavoidable exceptions, and many of the less combat-capable were extremely useful outside of combat. Alternately, their value in combat was less for their own combat capabilities and more for making their allies better.

But that was not to remain the case. As one of the most popular D&D memes is “Bards Suck,” the designers decided to start from the perspective of the Soloability proponents. Thus, all classes were developed to be nearly interchangeable with balance – different classes meant slightly different flavors, but everyone worked in a relatively similar manner. Healing was reduced to a short-term concern, an d particular effort was made to ensure that no class would be a “heal bot.” Control effects were lumped together with light artillery – maintaining perhaps the greatest degree of utility, but still focusing heavily on damage output.

There are largely three problems with “fixing” Utilities. The most obvious drawback is the fact that there are people that truly enjoy and desire Utility play.  “Fixing” utilities simply drives them away, as the implication is that they’re not really wanted. The second issue is similarly apparent – at best you end up with a variety of fruit-flavored fighters, at worst you end up with Frankenstein’s monsters that aren’t very good at anything. Finally, you have the intangible – the primary role of the utilities is to make their allies feel more powerful. When utilities are weakened, it can lead to everyone feeling less powerful.

So, even if Utilities aren’t your thing, let them live. There are people who love staying out of the spotlight, especially when they can do more from out there. Besides, it’s more civilized. Utilities allow for a team to work together – a group of Soloables is simply soloing in tandem – there is much less need, desire, or appreciation for cohesion.

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The Value of Art

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Taken by itself, my previous post seems to imply that art, and all experience, essentially, is nothing but a subjective matter.  Essentially, it seems to promote a solipsistic understanding of reality, or at least  an unsatisfying Kantian of phenomenological understanding.  Therefore, I’m going to address another important element of art – the intrinsic value.  Without intrinsic value, everything is entirely subjective.  Michael Bay’s movies (generally) cause an enjoyable experience, so they are good.  Applying hedonic calculus, we potentially reach absurdities such as Transformers 2 being objectively better than Casablanca, because more people have had an enjoyable experience from the former.  Similarly, the Big Mac is a greater artistic achievement than the Mona Lisa.

As formerly established, I am using art and author in an extremely broad sense.  “Art” is “something that is crafted,” be it a sentence, a painting, a sculpture, a tool, a house, or, any (crafted) object.  The author is the person(s) that do the crafting.

The value of the art can be measured on the basis of the function of the art.  The function is – essentially – an interpretation of the art.  The function is generally understood to be the interpretation based on the author’s intent, but this is not necessarily the case.  Art can be directed toward any function, just as it can be interpreted in any manner.  As an interpretation, some functions fit better than others.  This is usually stated as “X is a [value] Y.”  A pillow is a terrible hammer.  Breakfast is an excellent way to start the day.  A coat is a serviceable blanket.   These judgments measure the validity of the interpretation.  For art as it is more generally understood – books, films, painting, sculpture – the function is often more complex, or simply directed to a higher end than basic utility.  They are often understood in terms of catharsis, paths to self-knowledge, or analogies providing context, among many other functions.  This leads us to the second prong of determining the value of art – the nobility of the function.

“Nobility” is a loaded term, but one I feel appropriate for the discussion.  In this case, I associate “nobility” with something I believe to be uncontroversial – Maslow’s Hierarchy.  Essentially, the higher up the hierarchy, the more noble the function.  This nobility functions as a sort of “multiplier” of value.  Something that is nourishing is inherently good, but not as good as something that elevates the soul.  Something that is harmful to the body is not nearly as bad as something that harms the soul.

Applying this nobility, we have a meal set before us.  If the meal is nutritious, it is good, particularly in that one functionality.  If the meal is a still life, it is bad as a source of nutrition, but is of a higher value than the simple meal, as it engages the audience at a higher level.  Following Maslow’s hierarchy, we should not reject the lesser art, as we need nutrition to survive, and we cannot appreciate the more noble needs while the baser remain unmet.

This leads us to where the judgment gets particularly nuanced – art that affects the different hierarchies in variance between the positive and the negative.  If you skip dinner and stay up late to read a book, the experience of the art is bad for you on the baser level, but, for the sake of the argument, it is assumed that the experience of reading the book fulfills more noble needs, creating a net good.  It is acceptable, at the least, to occasionally forego the baser needs for a more noble occupation, though continued neglect of any need is itself bad.

Another example, let us consider the MMO – the Massively Multiplayer Online game.  These games generally encourage factionalism.  On the positive side, you have a kinship with your faction, fostering friendship, even a sense of family, as well as building esteem in your respect for self and others.  But factions also encourage division, and a loss of respect for others.  The value then becomes a question of the function.  If a player plays a MMO to “pwn n00bs,” it is much more likely that, though he likely builds he own self-esteem, it comes at a loss of respect for others.  If, on the other hand, one plays for the sense of camaraderie and competition, he will build up on many levels of needs, with few needs being neglected or harmed (except, of course, those pesky bottom rung needs).

But this then turns from objectivity back to subjectivity, or at least, it appears so.  We then return to the nature of “interpretation.”  You cannot judge art without interpretation, as art cannot be experienced without interpretation.  Michaelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and thousands of other works of great art can be interpreted in a base, prurient sexual manner.  According to art critics, anything vaguely rectangular, triangular, or circular is sexual in character.  A meal can be appreciated for flavor or appearance as easily as nutrition.

So we must judge art in light of a certain function, and make that function clear in our judgment.  Furthermore, it is best to judge art by its most common function (the cultural reception), or perhaps its most fitting functions.  A butane lighter is (generally) a terrible painting tool, but people assume that a terrible butane lighter is one that fails at the most fitting functions of a butane lighter – creating sparks and producing flame.  The nature of this judgment is probably best recognized among film.  Schindler’s List is a terrible feel-good movie, but it is recognized that the function of the movie is catharsis, not feel-good, so people consider it a good movie, not a bad one.

So, in conclusion, the value of art lies in comparing the function (interpretation) to the object, to determine applicability.  Then, after determining the proper function, is should then be judged on its nobility.  A filling meal is good, but not great.  A sublime feast that changes how you look at the world is great.  Junk food may be on balance bad, but entertainment designed to fulfill base desires at the expense of your faith in humanity is terrible.