Pillars of Eternity preview: on character classes and freedom from Dungeons and Dragons

Phil Savage at

Josh Sawyer, project director of Pillars of Eternity, is talking about how the game has progressed in the year since its Kickstarter campaign. “When I walk around the office and I see people playing, unless you get up close it looks like they’re playing an old Infinity Engine game. It has the look and I think the fundamental feeling that went into those games. So by that measure I think we’re doing pretty well.”

If you’re making a crowdfunded game, you never have to be bashful about your nostalgic intentions. Eternity was funded on the strength of its isometric RPG heritage. Josh was lead designer on Icewind Dale II, and the development team contains people who previously worked on Planescape: Torment. Unlike those games though, the setting and systems are no longer tied to Dungeons & Dragons, allowing its creators to address some of the key frustrations of tabletop adaptations.

“Combat rounds can be very limiting,” Sawyer says, referring to the way that the Infinity Engine handled fights through a series of six-second intervals. “We’re doing something else, in the spirit of a fully real-time, continuous, purely time-based system.” The aim is to make combat more engaging rather than having sprites ineffectually hacking away at each other, waiting for a dice roll to connect.

Supporting this is a flexible class system. So whether you’re a fighter, wizard or monk, you’ll be able to wear armour. The trade-off is that armour-wearing characters are slower to cast abilities, which isn’t a problem for the lower-maintenance fighters but less desirable for the more micromanagement-heavy magic users. These balanced class mechanics open up more interesting party compositions, with followers being picked from either specific in-world characters or your own creations.

Obsidian isn’t giving away much about the plot, only that your created character is caught in the middle of an ‘incident’. This causes a series of consequences that build into your story. Vague – but it’s a character arc designed to give the player options. “We want to let the player feel like they have a lot of control over where the story goes, who they help, who they punish, and what the ultimate resolutions of major story points are,” says Sawyer.

Expect plenty of choice in how you deal with individual encounters, too. Sawyer uses the example of guards protecting a sacred dungeon you need to explore. “You can trick them, talk them out of it or intimidate them,” he says. “But the default is to just walk up to them and kill them.” It’s good to have options.