As always, the following information stems from conventions and other public playthroughs and so is subject to change before the game goes live.
One of the quintessential elements of an Elder Scrolls game is the player's ability to pick up nearly any weapon and be able to use it. Of course, you never start out as an expert, but variety is the spice of life in Tamriel. And your weapon skills determine most which role you play in a group. From what I see, ESO offers healer, tank, and DPS roles as well as a mezzer thrown in for fun. Those roles are divided into six different weapons lines: one-handed and shield, two-handed, dual-wield, bow, destruction staff, and restoration staff.
One-hand and shield allows the player to take damage as well as taunt. Two-handed plays the heavy-but-slow melee-DPS role. The dual-wielder hits a single target hard and fast. A bow wielder also hits hard and fast but stays at a distance. The destruction staff deals multiple types of AoE damage. Lastly, the restoration staff heals.
ZeniMax has mentioned that tanking in ESO varies slightly from the traditional way of tanking. Most of the time, a tank's job revolves around holding the attention of the mobs then taking the brunt of the damage. In ESO, the idea isn't always to hold a mob's attention but rather to reduce the damage taken by other team members. As of right now, we are aware of only one taunt ability granted by one-hand and shield: Puncture. But there are a number of abilities that stun or reduce the damage output of an enemy. It possible that a player will need only one taunt because there are no cooldowns on abilities, but Puncture is not an area taunt. That tells me that other roles will get hit by an aggroed mob.
Of course, the armor skill lines revolve around defense, but they also help determine how effective your character is in a specific role. But aside from helping further narrow your group role, each armor skill set focuses on a specific energy pool. Heavy armor, naturally, focuses on your health pool. Its passive abilities reduce the amount of damage taken, increase healing, and increase health regeneration. Medium armor concentrates on the stamina bar. Besides increasing the stamina regeneration, the armor also reduces the cost of dodging and increases movement speed while you're sprinting. Lastly, light armor focuses on the magicka pool. Players wearing light armor will have reduced cost on spells and increased regeneration of the magicka pool.
Although slightly less flexible than the weapon skills (which can be swapped on the fly), a player's armor can be changed while not in combat. Before a given fight, a player can don her heavy armor and become a tank, or if the fight needs only one tank, then she can flip on her medium armor and do melee DPS more effectively.
As you might have guessed, however, not every weapon works well with every armor set. This will not stop you from using a restoration staff with your heavy armor, but you will notice a sharp decrease in your effectiveness as a spellcaster. In fact, I'm not sure that I would accept a spellcaster in heavy armor into my dungeon crawl unless the idea were to carry that person through to gear him up.
Once you choose a class at character creation, you're stuck. You cannot change from Sorcerer to Nightblade no matter how much you beg the Divines. However, each class allows flexibility by giving players three possible areas of expertise. For instance, Sorcerers can pursue Storm Calling, Dark Magic, or Daedric Summoning. Besides the classic trinity that the other skill trees exemplify, the class skill trees add crowd-control to the areas of focus.
Unfortunately, the way the class skill trees are laid out makes certain classes more effective in certain roles, even though in theory any class should be able to take on any role. For instance, the Dragon Knight's Draconic Power tree gives that class gap closers, heavy defensive cooldowns, and health regeneration, all abilities that a tank should have. But if you take a jump over to the Templar skill trees, you will notice that none of those trees would be helpful in tanking, even if the Templar is wearing heavy armor or carrying a one-handed weapon and shield.
I wholeheartedly believe that your choices should matter, even the choices you make at the very beginning of the game. But I also believe in giving people realistic expectations. Yes, there is a lot of flexibility in ESO's progression setup, but that doesn't mean that everyone will be able to do anything as the progression video might have led us to believe.
Before I go, I want to hear your thoughts on ESO progression. What do you think about the way it's handled? Do you think there could be more flexibility? Do you think there is too much? Are you going to try some odd combinations like a Sorcerer Daedric Summoner tank? Let me know in the comments.
Each week, traverse the treacherous terrain of Tamriel with Larry Everett as he records his journey through The Elder Scrolls Online, an MMORPG from ZeniMax. Comments are welcome below, or send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. He promises to keep the arrow-to-the-knee jokes to a minimum.