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Josh Sawyer: Balance and Utility

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#1
Hormalakh

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I didn't see a thread about this here and I thought you guys might find the following information interesting, since it is about Project Eternity. Our good friend, Infinitron, asked Josh Sawyer a question on his formspring and he answered with a video.

The question was,
"When you write about how all classes in Project Eternity should be "useful", what does that mean? Does it mean they need to be equally powerful and "balanced"? If so, what dos that even mean in a single player, party-based RPG?"

Here's his answer:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGv_-a8GBhY

The conversation continued in chat and here was what was said:

Q: You didn't address the "party-based" part of my question, though. _Should_ players even care how well any individual character in the party performs compared to another as long as the party as a whole manages to perform its tasks adequately?

Also, FYI, the reason I write "balance" in quotes is because I'm not sure the definition of balance you're thinking of is the same one most people think of when they read the word "balance". Balance of what? Power? Usefulness? Choose your words carefully.

A: Yes, they should still care because if there are weird imbalances in the party that are assumed to be solved with a "correct" party composition, that implicitly suggests "incorrect" party compositions. It's pretty common in D&D groups to "need" a healer.

Arguably in BG2 there are places where you absolutely need an arcane spellcaster. I think that limits potential party compositions and is not a benefit to the player.

I think we should move away from class designs that shove classes into a niche that have little/no overlap with other classes and then make content that effectively demands you have a character of class x/y/z to move forward.

From my perspective, it's actually not important if the player doesn't care about individual class balance. But I'm the designer, not the player. I can't see any benefit for myself or players for me to *not* consider balance and utility in their design.

Q: Re: "Correct" party compositions. See, thing is, that was kind of a part of the core D&D experience for a lot of people. Assembling the crew, like in a heist flick. Gotta have the healer, the mage, the tough guy. You'd carefully "hire" for each position.

What about what I'm suggesting would stop you from making/building that party?

Q: Presumably, your balancing of the classes would change them in such a way that the familiar dynamic of the classical D&D party would be irrevocably altered. Everybody would be sort of healer-ish, everybody would be sort of fighter-ish, etc. No diversity.

Not if drawing outside of traditional lines is an optional activity. Want to build a wizard who wears no armor and stands in the back with noodle arms while the huge full plate fighter pounds on dudes' faces and the rogue scoots around backstabbing? Cool

Q: Moreover, you might wish to consider that the traditional distinct classes had a sort of elegant simplicity to them. You've no doubt seen how every first-time player goes and rolls up his first Human Fighter. And not a Half-Elf Fighter/Mage/Thief.

I might be getting a bit theoretical here since this is hardly an issue for me, but the traditional classes also had a secondary function, serving as a kind of additional difficulty setting. Fighters were for the beginners, mages were for experts.

Nothing will prevent you from building a simple, straightforward, low-maintenance fighter (if you want to) in PE.

Q: Oh, I don't doubt that. But of course that leads to the question of whether this great freedom and flexibility in character development will inevitably lead to poorly balanced combat encounters and other content. The most important type of balance.

Inevitably? Come on.

Q: Heh. I share your optimism! Unfortunately I can't say the same for everybody I know. You know, it would be great if you or somebody else at Obsidian could tell us a bit more about how you guys design and balance individual combat encounters in your games.

[Source]: http://www.formspring.me/JESawyer
--------------------------------------

So, what do you think? Let everyone know. But, please please please please please please please please keep the conversation on-topic. If you're going off on tangents, just start a new thread.

Edited by Hormalakh, 13 December 2012 - 06:58 PM.

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#2
Hormalakh

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I'll start with my own thoughts: at first I was extremely skeptical about the implementation of this design choice, as I thought it was moving too far away from the IE spirit and just basic D&D cRPGs. But, after thinking about this a little more rationally, I think that this doesn't bode too badly if implemented correctly.

I've said before that Josh is good at finding problems inherent in the previous games and trying to come up with innovative solutions to them. My main concern is that too much innovation, that hasn't been proved by many years of gameplay, can seem interesting at first, but is also highly risky because of the many unknown variables. When theorizing solutions, there will always be aspects of the design that the designer will never see that the users can/will exploit.

Ultimately, this can lead to less interesting gameplay (or it could lead to more interesting gameplay), but it's a risky decision to make. Too much innovation in solving old problems can come back and change the experience to something that smells nothing like the old one.
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#3
Dream

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A: Yes, they should still care because if there are weird imbalances in the party that are assumed to be solved with a "correct" party composition, that implicitly suggests "incorrect" party compositions. It's pretty common in D&D groups to "need" a healer.

Arguably in BG2 there are places where you absolutely need an arcane spellcaster. I think that limits potential party compositions and is not a benefit to the player.

I think we should move away from class designs that shove classes into a niche that have little/no overlap with other classes and then make content that effectively demands you have a character of class x/y/z to move forward.

From my perspective, it's actually not important if the player doesn't care about individual class balance. But I'm the designer, not the player. I can't see any benefit for myself or players for me to *not* consider balance and utility in their design.


While I get what he's saying I think the better solution would be to not design any situations that would require a certain class. As long as all the classes can dish out comparable damage then I don't see much of an issue with having them be vastly different mechanics and game play wise.

Not if drawing outside of traditional lines is an optional activity. Want to build a wizard who wears no armor and stands in the back with noodle arms while the huge full plate fighter pounds on dudes' faces and the rogue scoots around backstabbing? Cool


Except because of the proposed stamina/health and lack of healing mechanics playing this way will force you to rest far more often than if you spread out the damage taken through the whole party. This sort of group dynamic relies on a healer being present to keep that huge full plate fighter alive and kicking.

I've said before that Josh is good at finding problems inherent in the previous games and trying to come up with innovative solutions to them. My main concern is that too much innovation, that hasn't been proved by many years of gameplay, can seem interesting at first, but is also highly risky because of the many unknown variables. When theorizing solutions, there will always be aspects of the design that the designer will never see that the users can/will exploit.


This is essentially my biggest worry as well. It's possible Obsidian comes up with some amazing and brand new combat system, but it's just as likely (perhaps more so) that all these grand designs will end up falling flat in the end.

Edited by Dream, 13 December 2012 - 07:22 PM.

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#4
Zenning

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My Two cents.

First, I think this has more to do with, what I've heard called, competitive imbalance. Its the idea that you don't need to make every type of character good in every situation, but just that the situations, and tactics for any particular style of play are all viable. And I think that's what Sawyers really getting at. Sure there may be an optimal build, and some character combinations and skill choices/class choices might be more viable than any others, but that at no point will one particular skill, or style of play be completely dismissible.

As for the idea of too much innovation being too risky. Well, first I think that his design philosophy isn't new. It's a philosophy showing up in a number of games, like Alpha Protocol, Dark Souls, Dues Ex, Dishonored and others I can't think of right now. I haven't really seen it implemented in a old fashioned RPG yet, so I'd love to see how it works. That, and I believe that all these developers understand their craft enough to know whats too much, and whats too far.

Finally, yes, P:E is meant to harken back to the old days of IE games, but I think somebody else put it best. "P:E isn't supposed to be making a game from the past today, its about bringing those old games to the present". So I'm looking forward to these new changes.

Edited by Zenning, 13 December 2012 - 07:25 PM.

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#5
Tamerlane

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I'm all for everything he said, though I admit I might just be hypnotized by the early success of his development beard.
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#6
Umberlin

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While concerns are understandable, toward the unknowns of what the developers are attempting . . . I find something else to be concerned about. It's not what Obsidian are doing that I find of concern, it's the fan views of every last thing they're doing. The amount of negativity toward almost every single aspect, toward almost every single decision, is going beyond simply questioning. Questioning would be fine. It's this outright certainty some people have that one aspect, another, several or all of P:E is inherently wrong or flawed or what have you that's starting to get on my nerves.

It's nice to see people voice their concerns, and to see Obsidian respond to them, of course. Still, in short I agree with his response to one of the questions here:

Inevitably? Come on.


The questioner is so certain, and so certain based on . . . what? I share Sawyer's disbelief in the above quote. More and more people that think they know more about the game the Developers are making, than the Developers themselves, despite having next to no information on the game made public yet.

Edited by Umberlin, 13 December 2012 - 07:26 PM.

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#7
Hormalakh

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You're mistaken Umberlin, the original interviewer was playing devil's advocate when asking those questions.

As for your belief that all gamers are against the developers in their decisions, I would say that just as there are many gamers who invested in this game, there are opinions. Many of them agree with the decisions made and many disagree.

As for "knowing" what the developers have decided, we can only go on what they've said and try to rationalize scenarios that exist. But I'll be the first to admit that I can't ever know exactly what Josh is explaining until after I've played the game. Thus, my acceptance of his proposed solutions with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Edit: Unneccessary filler.

Edited by Hormalakh, 13 December 2012 - 07:59 PM.

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#8
Zenning

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Inevitably? Come on.


The questioner is so certain, and so certain based on . . . what? I share Sawyer's disbelief in the above quote. More and more people that think they know more about the game the Developers are making, than the Developers themselves, despite having next to no information on the game made public yet.


Looking back at that question, you're completely right. Why would someone automatically assume that freedom will lead to poorly balanced game? I mean look at Alpha Protocol. You could go completely nuts in how you developed your character, wear any equipment you could afford, and go through any encounter (Except some boss jerks) in however you'd Like. Its the exact same thing with Dishonored, Dark Souls, and Dues ex again, and none of those games were unbalanced. Once again, sure this total freedom type of gameplay hasn't really been implemented in a straight up Tactical RPG (Although its been experimented with in a number of JRPG's, although I have a bad feeling that bad things will happen if I bring them up, or admit to playing them), that doesn't mean it won't work.

#9
Lephys

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While I get what he's saying I think the better solution would be to not design any situations that would require a certain class. As long as all the classes can dish out comparable damage then I don't see much of an issue with having them be vastly different mechanics and game play wise.


This is a very good point, but one thing overlaps the other a bit. If no situations require a certain class, then that class must either not possess drastically different utility skills (like healing as opposed to non-healing) from other classes, or it must possess skills that are essentially useless.

Stealth is a good example. If you never need the stealth of a Rogue to overcome anything, then his ability to be uber-stealthy when other classes cannot is basically reduced to a just-for-fun mechanic. Same with dedicated healing. If you put dedicated healers in a combat system designed for groups without healers to be perfectly viable, then the healer's role is going to range from nothing all the way to "make combat ultra-easy, because we could've done this without you."

Except because of the proposed stamina/health and lack of healing mechanics playing this way will force you to rest far more often than if you spread out the damage taken through the whole party. This sort of group dynamic relies on a healer being present to keep that huge full plate fighter alive and kicking.


Unless the system is designed so as to allow the player to rely upon the mitigation of incoming damage (through dodging, blocking, and disabling of the enemy dealing the damage). Obviously it could be done crappily, but it's just a matter of balancing a different set of factors that happens to not include healing numbers.

Edited by Lephys, 13 December 2012 - 08:10 PM.

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#10
Umberlin

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As for your belief that all gamers are against the developers in their decisions


I have no such belief.

The ones I'm talking about are people I've actively had to reply to, in some cases, actual people, and no lack of them. Not an imagined mass. You've actually taken part in some of those discussions. You should know.

I'm not on about people for questioning. I even said questioning is good. I'm not on about people for going on what they have. I'm on about people acting like they know more than they do about the game, and, even worse, like they know more about game development than the developers (and I can quote some of these whackos). Worse, some of them, far too many in fact, screaming doom and gloom about every aspect of the game from party mechanics to concept art to character to classes and so on and so forth and on and on and on . . . it just gets on my nerves.

In short, if what I'm saying doesn't apply to you, or someone else, than I'm not talking about you or someone else. I'm talking about the people these things do apply to. They know who they are. I know who they are, and you've even taken part in conversations with some of them. I'm not on about the people that just want to discuss things.

You're mistaken Umberlin, the original interviewer was playing devil's advocate when asking those questions.


My point was the reaction in the answer to the questions, regardless of the intent of the questions. I even outlined that, at the end.

Edited by Umberlin, 13 December 2012 - 08:02 PM.

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#11
Lephys

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The questioner is so certain, and so certain based on . . . what? I share Sawyer's disbelief in the above quote. More and more people that think they know more about the game the Developers are making, than the Developers themselves, despite having next to no information on the game made public yet.


Totally with you. It's one thing to say "Based on the only possibilities I can imagine up right now, I'm not super sure they'll be able to make that work." But, it's another entirely to say "THAT IS DEFINITIVELY STUPID!" to something that's simply a different system. Most of the objectioneers just mentally slap the proposed change into an old game (that's obviously designed with-OUT the change in mind) and use that as a basis. If you're lucky, some of them might actually toss a handful of new possibilities out there before then deciding that they've spent more time working out possibilities than the entire development team has thus far.

#12
Hormalakh

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I'm not on about people for questioning. I even said questioning is good. I'm not on about people for going on what they have. I'm on about people acting like they know more than they do about the game, and, even worse, like they know more about game development than the developers (and I can quote some of these whackos), Worse, some of them, far too many in fact, screaming doom and gloom about every aspect of the game from party mechanics to concept art to character to classes and so on and so forth and on and on and on . . . it just gets on my nerves.


Yeah, I had to re-read my response to you and change it because I wasn't responding to what you were saying. I do agree with you that the hyperbole and "knowing" is unneeded. I have partaken in some of it myself (not necessarily here on this forum, but ... that's another discussion).

A lot of people are just antsy because they want an awesome game. As for getting on your nerves, it's been noted. Don't take this stuff too seriously (I should be telling myself that...) :)

Edit: And now I'm breaking my own rule!

Edited by Hormalakh, 13 December 2012 - 08:05 PM.


#13
KaineParker

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I think the best balance is where some classes' OP abilities are limited(like concentration checks and spells per day for casters). From what I can tell, that is what Sawyer is going for with class design in PE. I also like the idea of removing encounters or mechanics that require the player to have one particular class in their party(like a locked gate only a rogue can unlock, an opponent whose mystical protections can only be removed by a mage, etc.) and instead providing many ways to overcome an obstacle and removing certain spells that made someone invincible and could only be dispelled by a very specific spell.

#14
Dream

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This is a very good point, but one thing overlaps the other a bit. If no situations require a certain class, then that class must either not possess drastically different utility skills (like healing as opposed to non-healing) from other classes, or it must possess skills that are essentially useless.

Stealh is a good example. If you never need the stealth of a Rogue to overcome anything, then his ability to be uber-stealthy when other classes cannot is basically reduced to a just-for-fun mechanic. Same with dedicated healing. If you put dedicated healers in a combat system designed for groups without healers to be perfectly viable, then the healer's role is going to range from nothing all the way to "make combat ultra-easy, because we could've done this without you."


That's essentially what I was referring to though (what is a game if not a giant just-for-fun mechanic anyway). Every class would be able to accomplish things in unique and fun ways, but no situation would call for any single class. Now I grant that this could lead to a rather bland game, but then the obvious solution would be to design encounters with multiple ways to approach them (each way unique to a certain class).

On the other hand, the more I think about it the more it sounds like I'm describing issues inherent with a single character RPG (which is why games like that usually don't have a "healer" class) because, lets be honest, who actually played BG2 with a group that consisted of a PC fighter, Minsc, Korgan, Sarevok, Mazzy, and Keldorn.

Unless the system is designed so as to allow the player to rely upon the mitigation of incoming damage (through dodging, blocking, and disabling of the enemy dealing the damage). Obviously it could be done crappily, but it's just a matter of balancing a different set of factors that happens to not include healing numbers.


There is always that, but the impression I got from "huge full plate fighter" was the kind of archetype that stands there and soaks up damage (while getting topped off by healers) while the glass cannon rogues and mages do their business. In that situation the group's longevity is limited to that fighter taking 4x (or whatever they settle for the final ratio being) his health in stamina damage before they're forced to rest, and realistically that point would come much sooner to avoid the risk of the fighter getting smoked mid battle.

#15
Umberlin

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Yeah, I had to re-read my response to you and change it because I wasn't responding to what you were saying. I do agree with you that the hyperbole and "knowing" is unneeded. I have partaken in some of it myself (not necessarily here on this forum, but ... that's another discussion).

A lot of people are just antsy because they want an awesome game. As for getting on your nerves, it's been noted. Don't take this stuff too seriously (I should be telling myself that...) :)


Understandable. :p

#16
Zenning

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That's essentially what I was referring to though (what is a game if not a giant just-for-fun mechanic anyway). Every class would be able to accomplish things in unique and fun ways, but no situation would call for any single class. Now I grant that this could lead to a rather bland game, but then the obvious solution would be to design encounters with multiple ways to approach them (each way unique to a certain class).


I don't get how having a number of unique ways to get through an encounter depending on your party layout would lead to a boring game?

... lets be honest, who actually played BG2 with a group that consisted of a PC fighter, Minsc, Korgan, Sarevok, Mazzy, and Keldorn.


Switch out Sarevok with Aneomen, and you've described my first group through the game... It was painful, but fun!

Edited by Zenning, 13 December 2012 - 09:01 PM.

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#17
Dream

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Switch out Sarevok with Aneomen, and you've described my first group through the game... It was painful, but fun!

So even with 6 fighters (one being an off healer) you were able to succeed in a game with "places where you absolutely need an arcane spellcaster." If anything that drives home the point that JS's desire to balance everyone to be able to do everything (combat wise) seems a bit unnecessary (perhaps he's underestimating how creative and adaptive players can be).

Also, I don't get how having a number of unique ways to get through an encounter depending on your party layout would lead to a boring game?


You misunderstand, I was simply providing an idea to anyone who may have felt my original suggestion (no specific class would ever be required for any situation despite all the classes being vastly different) would lead to a boring game.

#18
Zenning

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So even with 6 fighters (one being an off healer) you were able to succeed in a game with "places where you absolutely need an arcane spellcaster." If anything that drives home the point that JS's desire to balance everyone to be able to do everything (combat wise) seems a bit unnecessary (perhaps he's underestimating how creative and adaptive players can be).


That required a massive amount of save scumming, and what was pretty much me abusing specific gameplay mechanics (Like bottlenecks at doors, and the fact that Mind control only affects one warrior at a time). It was not really a viable method, viable in this case meaning something that can succeed in under a non-trivial amount of time, and with little meta-gaming.

You misunderstand, I was simply providing an idea to anyone who may have felt my original suggestion (no specific class would ever be required for any situation despite all the classes being vastly different) would lead to a boring game.


I still don't understand why that would be boring. If my rogue handles a situation in a completely different way than my Cipher, or my warrior, and I am able to complete the segment with any of them, than I'd think that'd be fun.

I should not have to need exactly one rogue, one cleric, and one cipher in order to beat every part of the game. Instead, I should be able to use my party composed of what ever classes I feel are the most fun, or most useful, and successfully beat any segment of the game. Maybe not as easily in some segments than if I had that particular class that is most suited for those situations, but still able in a trivial number of tries.
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#19
Dream

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I still don't understand why that would be boring. If my rogue handles a situation in a completely different way than my Cipher, or my warrior, and I am able to complete the segment with any of them, than I'd think that'd be fun.

I should not have to need exactly one rogue, one cleric, and one cipher in order to beat every part of the game. Instead, I should be able to use my party composed of what ever classes I feel are the most fun, or most useful, and successfully beat any segment of the game. Maybe not as easily in some segments than if I had that particular class that is most suited for those situations, but still able in a trivial number of tries.


The argument I was anticipating was that if a game was designed with both very unique classes and situations that can all be handled by said unique classes then the fights would have to be generic by design so as to accommodate for the massive difference between the classes. Personally I disagree with that assessment and envision something akin to what you describe (no situation would require any given class, some may be easier with a given class but never impossible without).
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#20
Lephys

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That's essentially what I was referring to though (what is a game if not a giant just-for-fun mechanic anyway). Every class would be able to accomplish things in unique and fun ways, but no situation would call for any single class. Now I grant that this could lead to a rather bland game, but then the obvious solution would be to design encounters with multiple ways to approach them (each way unique to a certain class).


I understand that a video game is essentially just-for-fun, but it is not a single mechanic. I only meant that a mechanic, within a game, that must interact with and make sense in the midst of a field of other mechanics, needs to contribute more than pleasantry in its existence. Also, that, by designing a game that doesn't figuratively put class-specific obstacles in your way (completely optional stuff like locked chests with 50 gold and a potion in them, aside), you have to address the fact that those class-specific abilities have been drastically reduced in purpose. Otherwise, it's sort of like taking a headphone jack off of an MP3 player, but keeping the headphones. You can still put them in your ears, if you just like headphones, but they don't really serve a function within the system anymore.

In other words, if you remove the necessity for dedicated healing to remove the restriction of party builds to need one, then, by definition, you're no longer taking more damage in any single battle in the entire game than is able to be managed by a party simply relying on their base health pools and other combat abilities. Therefore, if you take THAT scenario, and toss in a healer, everyone's immortal. So, you'd have to address the healing skills in some way, or remove it as well. You couldn't just leave healing exactly how it was when the game was designed around fights needing healers or you'd have a problem on your hands.

That's all I was getting at. You take a weight off of one side of the scale, and the other side moves as well.

There is always that, but the impression I got from "huge full plate fighter" was the kind of archetype that stands there and soaks up damage (while getting topped off by healers) while the glass cannon rogues and mages do their business. In that situation the group's longevity is limited to that fighter taking 4x (or whatever they settle for the final ratio being) his health in stamina damage before they're forced to rest, and realistically that point would come much sooner to avoid the risk of the fighter getting smoked mid battle.


It's understandable that you thought of that scenario, specifically, because that's how it's been in so many games. But that was Josh was trying to point out, I think. That, you can still have a heavily-armored tank who soaks up damage without relying upon a healer for the damage mitigation. Having heals reverse incoming damage is only one way of mitigating damage.

I'm not even saying get rid of heals (which, I know that's been talked about, but I honestly don't know if they just mean Health, or if they mean for Stamina, too) completely. But, like you said, design that eliminates unnecessary class restrictions is a good thing, and eliminating those restrictions requires touching up related mechanics. But, healing isn't the only thing that can allow a full-plate knight to survive a battle. We're just in the habit of relying on it, thanks to long-standing RPG design.
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