Pillars of Eternity is about a month away from release, so with the game mostly finished I got the chance to sit down for one last, lengthy chat with Obsidian’s Josh Sawyer to talk expansion plans, sequel rumors, why PCs are amazing, fast/slow mode, Big Head Mode, Gothic castles, and why Might affects the damage inflicted by a pistol.
All that and more, below.
Side note: While Sawyer talked, Obsidian’s Nick Carver was playing through some optional sections of the game for us, so if you see any references to “that hero” or the like, just assume it’s Sawyer referencing whatever was on the screen at the time. Also, I have no idea what the official spelling is for some of these areas and characters. I guessed. Sue me.
Setting the stage
Josh Sawyer, Obsidian (JS): One of the areas we’re showing right now is Radric’s Hold. Radric’s Hold is encountered within the first couple of hours of the game. You can tackle it immediately. You can wait and come back. There’s no level-scaling or anything so you can do it in whatever order you want.
It was important for us to have these grand-scope, very cool 2D environments. This is a Gothic Castle. One of our designers was like “Can we please just have one Gothic Castle?” so we decided to make Radric’s Hold. It is actually a dungeon. You can use some diplomacy as you go through it. You can use stealth. You can use your skills in different ways. First, though, we’re going to try and just barge our way in, which is one way you can do it.
It is a real-time with pause combat system, so at any time you can pause the game. You also have a lot of auto-pause options. A lot of players prefer to have things set up ahead of time so if a character goes down, something happens, it’ll pause right away so they can give new orders.
Fast Mode and Slow Mode
JS: In a big battle like this where there are a ton of combatants you can also go into a “Slow Mode.” Slow Mode doesn’t run at half speed, it runs at 2/3 speed. It’s just enough to bring the speed down so things become a little bit easier to follow, a bit easier to manage. You don’t have to quite micro and pause so much.
Not only do you have a slow mode for combat, but you have a fast mode that’s good for exploring quickly—usually re-traversal. Exploration is a big part of the game but re-traversal is also a big part of the game that’s not necessarily super-enjoyable. Fast mode helps you book it through there.
The final word on classes
JS: There are 11 different classes. This is all part of the Kickstarter campaign. They all play very differently.
We did design the game so you don’t have to have a nuclear party. You don’t need to have a fighter, a rogue, a wizard and a priest if you don’t want to. You can make gimmick parties, you can make a party that’s all paladins or all rogues and wizards. Whatever you want. It is designed so the game will be viable and completable no matter how you built your party.
This party that we have right here—all of these characters are companions except this one, which is the main. She’s a rogue. There’s a fighter. That’s Khana, a chanter or bard. That’s Durance, the guy who looks like an insane Rasputin. He’s a priest. That’s Aloth, who is a wizard. And the last one is the Grieving Mother, who is a Cipher. In this case we do have a nuclear party. The way we set up our companions is to cover a wide set of classes. If you just sort of go with inertia you will end up with a nuclear party. But even so, we didn’t want to design the game in a way where you required that.
If you don’t like these guys, you don’t have to take them. In fact, you can even make your own additional characters that are just Adventurers and add them to your party. You can also play solo if you want, although that’s incredibly hard.
You’ll notice every character [Nick] is playing has some active-use abilities. We did try to make sure that if you wanted to make a character that’s very active, even one that’s traditionally fairly passive like a fighter, you did have lots of active-use abilities.
However it can be a lot to manage six characters like that, so you can also build characters that are almost fully passive. You don’t really have to manage them a whole lot. You can plant them in a location, say “defend that” and they work pretty much fine like that.
FIghters are probably the most passive in terms of how you can build them. You can build up their defensive abilities so they lock people down when they come near, you get a lot of defensive bonuses, they regenerate damage over time, and they have a consistent progression of damage. So if you want them to stand in a location, not die, and do consistent damage? They’re great.
You can also build them to be very active though where they’re doing crowd control, they’re knocking guys away, things like that.
There’s nothing I would say “Don’t play this if you’re a beginner” because when you start out you’re only managing your own, single character. I think we progress in a way where it’s pretty easy to manage. But I will say that rogues and monks tend to be, of the melee classes, much more active. And especially rogues are much more fragile, and can get screwed up very fast.
JS: We really put a lot of effort into our stat spread. We’ve tweaked and tweaked and retweaked this over time. For instance, the Might score increases damage and healing for everything. You might say, “Dude, why should Might affect the damage of my pistol?” and I say, “Shut the $#&^#& up.” The point is that it’s good for any class that wants to focus on that.
Intellect increases the area of effect and duration of any ability you use. You don’t need to be a wizard or anything like that.
It’s not a perfect 1-to-1 where you can build whatever you want and there’s no trade-off, but if you want to build an idiot muscle-wizard, which is very important to me, you can. If you want to build a brilliant fighter, that’s also a very viable character. If you have an idea for a cool character we don’t want to say “No, that’s unrealistic.” We want to say “What’s a way we can support that and make it fun?”
We only have five non-combat skills in the game. We did that because we wanted to make sure each skill got a lot of use, regardless of who had the skill. Aloth is very focused in Lore. Lore is great in conversations for your main character but it’s also what’s used for reading scrolls. Yes, you can make a fighter that just reads scrolls all day long. It’s not a restricted skill. Nothing is a restricted skill. You do not need to have a rogue if you want to disarm traps or be stealthy. They’re better at it! But it’s not a requirement.
Let’s say you wind up with six characters that have the Mechanics skill jacked up. Because you’re &%^#%ing crazy. You jack them all up. Every character can plant one trap at a time, and the Mechanics skill will increase the accuracy and the power of that trap. So if you want to make the trap-laying party? You can jack everyone’s Mechanics and go out and place all that.
If you jack everyone’s Lore skill, they can all use scrolls. If you jack everyone’s Survival skills, all potions will last longer and all food items will last longer. We tried to make sure every skill has some usefulness if you have some overlap or redundancy. It’s frustrating to build a character and then someone joins the party that has the same skillset and you’re like “Well, thanks dude. That’s useless.”
On friendly fire
JS: (To Carver) Show one of Aloth’s AOEs. You can see there are two radii for that. The inner circle is completely friend-or-foe. Everyone will be hit [by the spell]. That border area? That’s a bonus from his intellect, and that area is foe-only.
So you can throw a fireball and if something falls in that outer ring, if it’s an ally they won’t be hurt. That’s a way we allow those spells to scale without, “This gets bigger but my party gets hurt more easily.”
JS: Guards will call for help. They won’t run away but they will call for help. And you do have to be careful about where you choose to engage them. You can actually take on individual guards by themselves, but there are patrollers so you might have adds, and when you have those adds they might shout and pull guys from behind them. You kind of have to watch.
We tried to make sure every map did have some patrollers on it because even a few of them can really change the dynamics of how fights play out.
Read on to page two for more information on expansions, tabletop Pillars of Eternity, Big Head Mode, and more.
On experience parity
JS: We went back and forth on this a number of times and there were lots of people crying about it, so we had to be careful about how we did it. Initially we only gave quest XP. You got experience from doing quests, you didn’t get it from killing monsters.
A lot of people were really mad about that. But we also didn’t want to make that situation where “I did the stealth route. I got less XP than everyone else.” Or “I did the stealth route and now I’m going to go back and kill all the things I passed the first time around.”
So what we do is: We have a bestiary, and it unlocks more as you kill more monsters. You get XP as you unlock it, but when you’re done with an entry you don’t get any more XP for it. So as you go through the game you do get combat XP, but you stop getting XP for a given creature way before the point where you’ve exterminated all of them in the world.
It does make you feel like you get rewards for it, but it’s not encouraging you to slaughter the entire population of the world. Hopefully that does give a nice balance so if you choose to circumvent a group of monsters that’s okay because you’ll still get that XP somewhere later in the game.
There is not a complete pacifist route through the game. We do try to have lots of options for either talking your way through or sneaking your way through. But it’s not like Fallout. Tactical combat is a core part of the game, like we said from the beginning. Making it so there’s a big emphasis on not fighting seemed contrary to the roots we’re trying to emulate.
It can be a great reward for the type of character you’re trying to build though, so we do try to have some of that. And a pretty large amount of it, actually.
JS: We can enchant any piece of armor. You can enchant unique items you find. You can enchant regular clothing. A lot of people want to be able to continue upgrading their items throughout the game, so our enchantment system actually allows you to keep going.
You can add attribute bonuses, proofing (which is a defense against a certain type of damage). All of this is designed so unique items stay unique, but if you want to just extend their basic power, they can keep up. If you find your favorite sword, or “This armor has such a cool history and appearance but it’s terrible now,” you can use the crafting system to keep upgrading it.
Each mod has a certain cost to it and you can only have so many on any piece.
JS: Different difficulty levels, what we do is actually change the composition of fights. Instead of just scaling stats, which is kind of boring, we say “Now when you come in here the creatures are moved around and there are different creatures present.” That’s true of the whole game.
JS: This is another scripted interaction where you can take grappling hooks and ropes and a lot of other traditional adventuring items…
[Ten foot pole?]
JS: Everyone keeps asking! Early on there was a ten-foot pole. After a while we were like “Hey designers, where are you using all the adventuring items?” And we went through it and we were like “Nobody’s using the ten-foot pole.”
[Because nobody ever uses the ten-foot pole! That’s the whole joke!]
JS: So we cut the ten-foot pole. Because it wasn’t being used.
[Can players mod back in the ten-foot pole?]
JS: I’m sure they will.
JS: We don’t have a lot of [mod] tools. We’ve tried to be very open with how our files are structured and how our file formats work. People have already been making mods in our backer forums and stuff like that, especially UI mods because holy ^$&^&#% everyone has a different opinion on how the UI should look. So people have done a lot of really cool mod work already. As much as we can support mods, we want to, but it is Unity so some aspects of it are black-boxed.
[Last time I talked to you, you said probably no new maps because it’s really hard. Is that still true?]
JS: It is really hard. Maybe they’ll be able to find a way to do it, but right now it’s still a very difficult process even for us. I shouldn’t say it’s difficult for us, but it’s a very time-consuming, multi-step process to get stuff in.
[How hard would it be for people to take the maps you’ve made, rip all the characters out, and put new stuff in?]
JS: Much easier. People inserting their own content will probably be a lot easier than someone creating something from scratch. Easy is relative, but I think they could do that. People have already messed with our conversation files and stuff like that. A lot of our conversations are just in XML format, so they’re easy to open up and [imitates typing].
On expansions and sequels
JS: They’re going to be extensions of the main game. We are making an automated save for you, it’s actually called the Point of No Return Save. So if you complete the whole game and you’re like “Oh %#&^, the expansion came out,” great. Load that save, you can go straight into it, it’s fine. It’s something connected to the main game but its own separate storyline, and you take your normal characters into it. We’re in the very early stages of planning it.
We have to see exactly how it integrates in terms of location and how it shows up on the map, or whether it’s its own separate world map. But we have a ton of locations. Baldur’s Gate was about 100-110. Baldur’s Gate II was 200-and-something? Ours is 150. Pretty big. It’s a long game, even if you play just the crit path. If you play all the stuff it’s a very long game.
[Are you looking at save imports for a sequel too?]
JS: We’d very much like that. People like the idea of taking their characters on a long, epic journey. Even going back to the classic RPGs, it was nice to bring your character in and keep going with it.
Contrary to what someone interpreted what our CEO said, we’re not working on a sequel at all yet. We’re not even really talking about it except to say “That’d be cool. Hope people like this game.” But we do think about, if we were to make a sequel we do want the player to be able to bring their character from this game, come over into the next game, and of course reflect the choices they made in the previous game.
On pandering to the PC
JS: Because it is PC-focused, we can say Mouse and Keyboard. Yes. You play the game this way. Someone asked about consoles last time, I said “$&$^&# no.” You’re not going to do that. This is a very—it’s not actually an RTS but it is RTS-like.
If you actually go back to Baldur’s Gate, that was based on something called Battleground Infinity that was an RTS. Then they said “Eh, it’s a D&D game” and it worked out pretty well. Being able to make it a PC-focused game means we can stick to a mouse and keyboard set-up and focus on that sort of combat that’s more RTS-like and more true to a PC experience.
On Beamdog and Baldur’s Gate
JS: That’s cool! I thought the Enhanced Editions were really nice updates for the old games. It was really cool they came to tablets. As one of the main designers on Icewind Dale, seeing the BG2 kits in there destroy all the balance kind of made me a little sad. The BG2 kits are really powerful and Icewind Dale was kind of balanced around one thing.
But it was still really cool to see it with all the tech upgrades. Trent Oster obviously has a long background with the Baldur’s Gate series, so it’s cool they’ll make more.
On tabletop Pillars of Eternity
JS: We have talked about it. The way I always look at that is…every once in a while I go into a gaming store and I see like, ” Diablo 2: The Role-Playing Game” and I’m like “Did people buy this? I guess someone did.”
As people who work in the computer game space, making a game like this, we can bring something. These games weren’t being made for a very long time, so we could bring something back that was missing.
But making Pillars of Eternity into a tabletop game, it’s like “Hey dude, D&D exists. Pathfinder exists.” I don’t personally know what—we’re ripping off tons of D&D and Pathfinder things to make this—what would we really bring to the tabletop environment that would make people go “I’ve got to have that game.”
I’m cool with us doing lore books and novellas and all that. A standalone tabletop game? I think the tabletop designers that are out there making their own systems or working within existing companies are doing a great job. I wouldn’t rule it out, but would people really play this? You could play in the Pillars of Eternity world and just play D&D or play Pathfinder and it would probably be fine.
And lastly, on Big Head Mode (yes, it’s in the game)
JS: It’s always been a dream of mine to work on a game with big head mode.
That’s it! Pillars of Eternity releases March 26 for PC/Mac/Linux. Be sure to check out our previous two deep-dives with Sawyer if you’re craving even more information. You can find those here and here.
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