How Pillars of Eternity rewrites the rules for role-playing

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You shouldn't have to put in hours of study to roll up a great character, and games shouldn't hinge on your ability to guess what combination of skills designers thought make the most powerful archetypes. The team behind Pillars of Eternity knew they could do better. So they threw out the rules, and built their game from the ground up to be something better.

The first time I hit a dead end in a role-playing game came while playing the original Fallout. I forget where exactly, but it was after dozens of hours of play that my party ended up in the bowels of a dilapidated building somewhere in the wasteland trying to bust through a locked door.

It was at that moment, in that dirty digital basement, that I realized no one in my party had the right mix of stats or skills to move on. There was literally nothing I could do to get the damned door open, and my story just stopped. My only option was to grind that party for four or five whole levels, dumping all of my earned experience fighting radscorpions and bandits into lock picking.

Rather than bury all that time (and bottle caps) into potentially over-leveling my characters for that one door, I just started over.

But that character, that party that I left behind? There was nothing wrong with them. They were interesting. They were valuable. The game simply led them — led me — astray.

Anyone who's played a computer role-playing game is familiar with the pitfall of "trap builds" as they're called. So when the team at Obsidian Entertainment sat down to plan the design of Pillars of Eternity, one of their goals was to avoid just this kind of situation.

It wasn't easy, Obsidian's Josh Sawyer told Polygon, but the next generation of computer role-playing games deserved better. The result, Sawyer said, is a wholly unique and dynamic character stat and creation system. And it's out tomorrow.


There is perhaps no single studio in the world with more experience creating CRPGs than Obsidian. Their staff includes team members that worked on Fallout and Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Arcanum, Temple of Elemental Evil and Neverwinter Nights 2.

Pillars of Eternity is a new intellectual property, but it is not the team's first rodeo.

Project director Josh Sawyer is himself a veteran of Icewind Dale 1 and 2, as well as Fallout: New Vegas. If anyone can detect traps, it's him. As it turns out, there's more than one kind of trap build.

The one I ran into with Fallout was a trap inherent to the design of the game quest itself. Much more common, Josh Sawyer says, is the kind of trap that dooms a character to mediocrity.

"In Dungeons & Dragons... you can easily build a shitty character."

Dungeons & Dragons he said, the granddaddy of RPGs, is full of them.

"Third edition, even 3.5 has a lot of trap builds," Sawyer said. "There's just a lot of stuff in there where you can easily build a shitty character. If you don't have good system mastery, or if you don't plan your character out very well in advance, it's really easy to make a character where you don't get to take the feats you want when you want, or you don't get to take the prestige class at the level you want, which might offset your party by two or three levels, stuff like that. If you don't have the right stats, for instance, you just won't qualify for certain spells."

While the team at Obsidian were making a D&D-like CRPG, they weren't limited to the D&D ruleset. Some members of the team don't even like it anymore. So they made their own.


In building Pillars' ruleset, Sawyer says his team wanted to remove the need to min/max a character from the outset. That kind of planning, sometimes eight or even 10 levels out, takes away from the organic fun and natural process of discovery behind RPGs. Players want to grow with their character, not research them for hours or even days before they start playing. Min/maxing just isn't fun for everyone. So the team at Obsidian went a different way.

"For Pillars, we tried to avoid stuff that was heavily dependent on prerequisites. We've also done a lot of work on the attribute system, and revisions of the attribute system, to try to as much as possible allow people to build non-traditional characters."

What that means for players is that even seemingly strange combinations of skills and character classes have benefits over time and don't doom a particular build to irrelevance.

Sawyer used the barbarian class as an example. In any other RPG, a barbarian has some "no duh" stats and some "dump" stats.

Barbarians need to be strong, so D&D players might naturally put their best stats into strength. No duh. The tradeoff is making barbarians dumb, so again players familiar with D&D will be used to dumping a low number into that stat as a way to bury it.

That's how it's been done for generations, but in Pillars there is another way. The team at Obsidian got rid of the strength stat, and replaced it with something called "might."

That's just how it's been for generations, but they found another way.

"In Pillars of Eternity, might is the stat that governs all damage," Sawyer said. "It governs damage for spells. It governs damage for weapons. All sorts of things. So if you want to make a character that is focused on damage, it doesn't really matter what sort of damage you're doing. You want a higher might.

"But the trade off is another stat, for instance intellect. Intellect gives you bonuses to all durations with anything that you do.


"A popular build is actually the high-intellect barbarian, because barbarians have an area of effect skill called ‘carnage' … and the higher your intellect is, the bigger your area of effect gets. So you can wade in and really hit a lot of enemies."

A highly intelligent barbarian is still a powerful barbarian in Pillars, it just relies on a different aspect of the character's class to excel. Sawyer says those kinds of organic, divergent skill sets are all over his game — strong but clumsy rogues, dumb but mighty wizards — and they're all viable.

More importantly, Sawyer said, these builds aren't obscure classes buried in expansions or the many "splatbooks" that follow the launch of traditional tabletop role-playing games. Players stumble upon these kinds of non-traditional builds on their own instead of having to dig for them.

For a game with 11 basic classes, in reality there are many, many more waiting to be discovered by players over the course of play.

But what about my party in Fallout? No amount of adaptive, divergent, new-age stats finagling was going to get me through that blasted door. To help players out of these kinds of traps Sawyer and the team at Obsidian did something slightly unconventional.

In addition to adding named NPCs to your party — additional characters that can be found and hired through the course of play — at any time parties in Pillars can run off to the nearest tavern and hire a brand new mercenary. For a nominal in-fiction fee, players can create a new character from scratch.

Need help picking a lock to move on? Go roll up a lock-picking ninja named Bob, pay him 250 coppers for his time, and leave him by the side of the road when the work is done. Or turn him into a beloved part of your own party.

"You can have six total characters in your party at one time," Sawyer said. "But, if you don't like them or … whatever, and you want to do what you want to do, you can just go to any tavern or to your stronghold and you can hire an adventurer.

Need a particular set of skills? Then hire a custom-built professional.

"That just allows you to make other characters, and as you get to a higher level it allows you build higher-level characters to go with you. They're always built at one level below you."

Beyond letting players augment their party with specialists to get them over the hump in a certain section of the game, it also allows players to build out their own personal dream team.

"If you want to make a trick party, like the holy-warrior party of paladins and clerics? You can do that. I like six wizards. It's just fun. Whatever sort of weird, goofball group that you want to make, you can do that. And that's very much something that we wanted to support."

Pillars wants to work with players to create a dramatic story within its unique world. In order to do that, the ruleset needs to bend but not break. It needs to be a resource for the player, and not a source of frustration, to contribute to the story and not hold it back.


"I think a lot of D&D-like games, including D&D in many editions, if you build a non-traditional character you've built a bad character. So we've really tried to say no to that idea. There's a way you can play that high-resolve character, that high-perception wizard, that whatever. You can play that character in a way that maximizes the benefit of these stats.

By enabling the player through stats, not limiting them, Sawyer hopes the role-playing elements of Pillars will rise to the surface.

Pillars of Eternity says yes to players where other CRPGs have always said no.

"Role-playing-wise, when you're using those stats in conversations, it feels like a natural extension of what you built. It's very important to us. And goes to why you can build whole parties. If you want to build a crazy gimmick party that's really fun, rather than say, ‘Well, if you didn't build the characters this way, or if you didn't include a priest in your party, or if you didn't actually have a fighter, if you didn't have a rogue, then you can't do any of these things!'

"We'd rather say yes, you can do these things. These characters can't do these things as well as others, but you can still play them and there's still something that you do very well that other classes don't. That's been our philosophy — to give players the sort of style and appearance of a traditional D&D game, with much more forgiving mechanics for how you build and use them in the game."