Deep dive with Pillars of Eternity project lead Josh Sawyer: The full interview
In November I abandoned the fog-ridden streets of San Francisco and took a trip down to sunny Southern California to visit Obsidian. Below, you'll find over an hour of discussion between me, Project Director Josh Sawyer, Executive Producer and Lead Programmer Adam Brennecke, and Lead Producer Brandon Adler about Project Eternity Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian's throwback to '90s CRPGs. If you stumbled into this by accident and you'd rather just read a summary of the information, you can find that here.
We start with that liveliest of topics: rules.
You’re not using a D&D rule set. How are you going about designing a rule set for Eternity?
JOSH SAWYER (JS): Well, it’s very important that overall the game plays and generally feels like a D&D game of unspecified edition. I’ve been playing D&D since ‘85...so there’s a bunch of editions and a lot of changes in there, so capturing the spirit of that can be elusive. I want people to feel like if they have characters that they love playing—we’re not going to be able to do this for everyone, but generally speaking—if you’re like, I want to play an elf who’s super good with a bow, I want to play this dude who’s like this or whatever, you can make that sort of character who fits into this world. The character you made in BG or BG2, you generally can make that sort of character here.
I want to key in on specific things that people are like “I really want this sort of a thing, I really like this sort of a thing,” I’ll make sure we can accommodate that. When it comes to specific mechanics of how like attack resolution happens, how armor works, all that crap, I’m much more—calling it crap is really good in an interview—I’m much more practical about that. I don’t want to use convoluted stuff because the older rules were convoluted. I’d rather make unified mechanics that when you learn them they’re consistent across the board, easier to learn, easier to understand as they scale over the course of the game, because that’s—a lot of the things I felt—when I was working on the Infinity Engine games the things that would bum me out would be seeing—we’d see this on our boards too, people talking about how they or their relatives or their friends would try to play these games, they’re very enthusiastic, they like the idea, and the rules were an obstacle. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to learn the rules, but there are so many of them, they’re so specific, they’re so convoluted, and trying to make more unified mechanics—
Adam Brennecke (AB): And it’s really easy to make a bad character.
JS: In the old games, yes. So we would like—a good way of saying this is if you want to make a character that totally fits the archetype of the character you conceive, like let’s say you say, “I want to make a character who’s a wizard and that character has a high intellect”—in our game it’s intellect, not intelligence. Or if you say “I want to make a rogue,” and the rogue has a high dexterity. Those are great characters! They work great. They might not work exactly how you think they’re going to work, but they’re good characters. You make a fighter with a high strength—also a good character. Doesn’t exactly work the way you think it might, but it’s a good character.
If you play against type. If you’re like, “I want to make a muscle-wizard. It has a high strength and a high con”—that’s also a very good character. If you want to make a fighter with a high intelligence and a high resolve, that’s also a good character.
Might not be the most optimal character, but it’s not a bad character.
It’s not impossible
JS: No, it’s not impossible. You get something. Every class gets something out of the ability scores. Every class can work with given arrays. There aren’t weird, like, “FYI: after ten levels this character’s not going to be viable.”
So it’s just about doing stuff like that to make people feel like, “Go into it, there’s no hidden gotchas, make the character you want to make, and if you find it’s not quite playing the way you thought you’ll be able to adjust and you’ll be okay. It won’t always be optimal, and we’re not trying to make everything perfectly balanced. The goal is to say, “Don’t not consider it.”
We have to consider, what if someone wants to make the foxing idiot wizard or the weakling fighter? They’re going to have some problems, but whatever you dumped—if you dumped this and jacked something else, you’re going to get something else neat out of it. And hopefully what that turns into is not just a worse play experience, but a different play experience. Because I jacked these stats, my character veers into this other play style, so I have to play him a different way.
Can you dual-class?
JS: No, no multi-classing.
But there are set classes?
JS: There are set classes, and then we also allow...our talent system will probably be the last thing that we devise because it’s for filling in the gaps and extending the classes. Much like 4th edition D&D we want to allow people to take talents that can give a character the flavor of another class so they feel like they have those hybrid or blend forms.
Are the classes race-restricted?
JS: Nope, that goes into the same thing I was talking about before. If someone wants to make an Aumaua wizard or they want to make an Orlan paladin or whatever...you know, elf...I was going to say ranger but of course they’re going to make an elf ranger. Whatever combo they want to make, that’s cool. The races are all going to have their own benefits and drawbacks, and that’s another thing that could adjust how you play rather than making it like, “Oh, this is just a shitty character to play like this.”
How many options are you going to give up front to create a character? In Baldur’s Gate even just creating a character can be daunting, you have so many options.
JS: Part of that has to do with how it’s presented. We’re actually doing our character creation screen right now and for most of the D&D games I’ve worked on it’s a very similar presentation. You get a stack of things you’re going to go through and you go through them one at a time and it’s on a black screen—it’s like navigating a bunch of GUIs. Not super cool, really. Whether or not it works, it’s not super engrossing. It’s not like, “Oh man, I’m gonna foxing get into this game! I am ready! Bunch of GUIs.” It’s super boring.
We’re trying to do something that immerses you a little bit more in the world, sets the scene a little bit more. As far as how things are presented, we’re trying to make them more isolated so when you’re picking them you’re not seeing like, “Oh my god, I have to go through this huge...” It’s more like, one at a time, “What do you want the sex of your character to be? And what do you want the race of your character to be? What do you want the class of your character to be?”
And it’s introduced in a way where simple things branch out, and none of them are really dependent because we don’t have class requirements for attributes, we don’t have race restrictions or anything, so as the person goes along they shouldn’t feel—unless they just change their mind—they shouldn’t feel like, “Oh, I made a bad guy! I need to backtrack!” Unless you’re just goofing around and you want to do that, that’s fine. But the thing is made in a way where you’re not going to be chewing your fingernails the whole time thinking, “Oh god, what am I going to do?”
How many times am I going to re-roll my stats?
JS: Zero times because we don’t roll for stats. We use point-buy and it’s really straightforward.