Pillars of Eternity interview: Josh Sawyer on world-building, magic, psychic warriors and more
PC Gamer: What’s it been like creating such a rich fantasy world completely from scratch?
It’s very time consuming. When someone wants to know anything about the world, you have to figure out what the answer to that is. There’s no source book you can fall back on. It all needs to be made up when it’s needed, and even anticipating what people will need to know can be difficult. World-building can be exhausting, but it’s also satisfying to make the choices you want about the setting you’re making.
PC Gamer: Is someone at Obsidian in charge of keeping track of all the lore you’re writing to prevent contradictions and inconsistencies?
Josh Sawyer: Ultimately I’m the person who’s the chief regulator of lore, especially when it comes to the history of the world, the cultures of the world, and things like languages. That’s the sort of stuff I’ve been involved with on the project since the beginning, so I wound up being the caretaker.
PC Gamer: Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate and Torment had very distinctive settings. How would you describe the look and atmosphere of Pillars of Eternity’s world?
Josh Sawyer: We’re trying to capture the look of games like Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate, where it looks a little less overtly fantastic and a little more realistic. In a lot of cases we looked at 2nd Edition D&D art by people like Larry Elmore, Keith Parkinson, and Clive Caldwell. Not always, but their style tends to be a little more dressed down than fantasy is today, with colour palettes that are a little more subdued. So we’ve tried to go for that kind of a feeling, so that when a person looks at our game it really does look like a high resolution version of the classic games that have inspired what we’re making.
In terms of the overall tone of the world, I’d say that we do want it to feel like a fantasy world, but we also want it to feel believable. We want it to feel like a place where people are actually living, and it’s a world that’s in the process of change. One thing I really wanted to avoid was the kind of cliche of a fantasy world that’s stuck in perpetual dragon times, where the golden age has long since passed, and inexplicably for the next ten thousand years everyone is still going to be using swords and casting spells. So I wanted to have a setting that felt like it was in the process of a transition, which creates a lot of conflict for the characters in the world, and hopefully that produces rich storytelling material.
PC Gamer: How varied will the geography of the map be? Can you describe some of the different regions we’ll get to explore?
We want to avoid having a bunch of areas that look very samey, and so we’ve tried to make it so that there’s a sense of progression, going from gothic and renaissance architecture areas in the country, into a bustling city, and later on into a forested ancient kingdom. Then for our dungeons we have gothic castles and ancient temple ruins. We’re just trying to make it as diverse as we can while still feeling like a coherent world.
PC Gamer: There are two large cities in the game. What can you tell me about them?
Josh Sawyer: The first big city that we made is called Defiance Bay, and that’s the bigger of the two cities. It could be compared to a city like Baldur’s Gate or Athkatla. It wouldn’t be thought of as modern, but it’s a more contemporary type of city. It has renaissance-style architecture, it’s very cosmopolitan, it has a lot of regular trade and traffic, it’s a port city. It has a number of big districts full of quests and characters you can interact with.
In contrast to that, Twin Elms is the second big city. It’s somewhat smaller, but still pretty big. It has a very different look and feel to it. The people who live there have built on top of ancient ruins, and their architecture looks more Anglo-Saxon, from the 9th or 10th Century, with a lot of wood used. Very different shapes and a different feeling to the environment. The culture is different too. It’s a much more religious community overall. Religion and temples pretty much dominate the lives of the people who live there. The artists and the designers did a really good job of creating two communities that are very big and have a lot of content in them.
PC Gamer: How will players be able to traverse it besides walking?
Josh Sawyer: It’s pretty much just walking, but we do have a world map much like the Infinity Engine games. We wanted to make a world where if you want just explore from the edge of the map to another map, you can do that. There are a lot of opportunities in the wilderness where you can go from map to map by going to the border and seeing what’s in the next zone. But as time goes by and you want to rapidly travel, we do have the classic type of Infinity Engine map where you’ll click on an icon on the map, and it’ll tell you how long it’ll take to get there, and time will elapse. You might get fatigued, or it might be night or morning when you arrive.
PC Gamer: I’m intrigued by the cipher class – what can you tell me about how they work in combat and how they fit into the lore?
Josh Sawyer: It took a while to figure out how to use them. Initially the concept was in line with a traditional psychic or psionicist character. They’d spend a lot of time focusing and intensifying their power on targets, and building up power over time. In practice that didn’t really feel good. You’d assign the cipher to do something, and to get the most out of them you’d have to not do anything with them for a while, and that didn’t feel very enjoyable. So we made them more active.
They have a unique mechanic where, unlike other casters, they have a point system. It’s called focus, and you can think of it as them having spell points. They need to use focus to use their powers. The way that they get focus is by doing damage to enemies with melee and ranged weapons. So what you what to do is send your cipher into combat with traditional weapons to build your focus. When it’s maxed out, their inherent damage bonuses get turned off because their focus is full and they can’t drain any more. This pushes the player to use their spells and abilities until they get to the point where they feel like going back into melee and ranged combat.
So for the person playing the cipher, it’s about managing their character both as a traditional weapon combatant and how they use spells. They focus on single targets, using status effects and effects that jump from target to target. Unlike other casters, ciphers always have to have a target. They can’t target open ground. That’s because of the lore of the class. They use the souls of other people, or souls trapped in machines and things like that. That creates an interesting mechanic for them, because they can’t just target the middle of the ground with an AOE attack. If they want to use AOE they have to target an individual and use them as the focus.
As far as the lore in the world goes, ciphers are a relatively recent discovery. They occurred naturally in one of the cultures, the Glanfathins, who live in that second city, Twin Elms. They’ve discovered these latent mental talents, and they were feared for a long time because people didn’t really understand, and they didn’t understand, how they were able to do what they did. In recent times, because this is an age of discovery, they worked with animancers, who are researchers into soul magic and soul technology. They were able to figure out a lot of new techniques that help them expand their abilities and learn to master them. Some people still regard ciphers with a lot of suspicion, and they’re definitely a new thing in the world.
PC Gamer: As for the more standard RPG classes – rogue, wizard, fighter, etc. – will you be changing them in any way, or are you sticking to D&D tradition?
Josh Sawyer: We’re making a game that is in many ways fueled by nostalgia, so I don’t think people would be thrilled if we turned everything on its head. But there are a lot of shortcomings in the traditional way those classes were set up. For example, in the old games, fighters, as a class, had very little to do actively. They were valuable, and they could do a lot of damage, and take a lot of damage, but there wasn’t a lot to do with them. So giving them more active use abilities and a more significant role in combat that feels more distinctive was something we really wanted to do. They have more modal abilities now that they can switch on and off for various benefits. They’re still relatively low maintenance, but we did want to improve them somewhat.
Similarly, rogues – or thieves if you go all the way back to 2nd Edition – were a character class that felt like they existed only to do stuff with skills, and their role in combat was very minimal and difficult to pull off in a lot of circumstances. So in our case, skills are things that are open to characters of different classes. Much more so than they are in 2nd or 3rd Edition D&D. Rogues aren’t as tough as a fighter or a barbarian, but they are extremely high damage characters in combat. 4th Edition D&D also took the same position with them. So when you compare them to the classic Infinity Engine games, their roles are gonna be shifted a little bit, but not just for the sake of being different. They’re being shifted so that if you want to play that character, you’re going to feel that they’re really viable in combat and out of combat.
PC Gamer: How would you compare the combat system to the Infinity Engine games, both in terms of similarities and differences?
Josh Sawyer: We want it to feel very similar overall. We want the feeling of how you select, how you command, how you control your characters, and the sorts of decisions that you make to feel familiar. We’re not using rounds, though. That’s one of the biggest things. That’s a holdover from tabletop gaming, and it’s understandable why it exists there, but we’re not making a turn-based game, we’re making a real-time game. So all of our times and actions are measured and used in units of real-time, and it should feel like it flows a little more smoothly, instead of waiting around for a guy to hit his round. But in terms of how you manage those guys, how you choose your gear, how you use your spells, it’s the same.
Some of the things I focused on eliminating are things that felt like really repetitive actions that didn’t necessarily make the game more fun. The older games, including the games I worked on, relied heavily on something called pre-buffing. So in a lot of cases you’d have, say, three casters spending four to six rounds before every fight dumping a bunch of spells on your characters to get them into combat shape. Not super interesting. We wanted buffs to stay in the game and still feel powerful, but now there’s an opportunity cost for them, meaning they can only be cast in combat. So you can cast your crazy haste spells or blessings or prayers or whatever, but you have to do it in the context of the combat, because instead of them becoming a sort of no-brainer thing you do just out of habit, it should be something you choose to do in the context of a battle. If you choose to cast that buff spell, you’re choosing to cast it instead of a fireball or a lightning bolt. Ideally we want the choices you make to be tactical decisions made in the moment.
PC Gamer: Will you be able to combine spells and abilities in any interesting ways?
Josh Sawyer: Those aren’t explicitly built in like hard combinations. In most cases it’s situational. A big one is that rogues get sneak attacks and backstabs, but they get it from a wide variety of conditions. If the target is blinded, stunned or prone, all those things allow a rogue to immediately sneak attack on them. A lot of different characters can inflict those status effects, including the rogue. Fighters can knock down targets, druids have spells that can paralyse. So instead of being combinations of effects, it’s mostly about looking at how each of the classes can be maximally effective, and then using the general abilities in classes to bring out the best in those characters. A rogue can do a lot on his or her own, but other classes can also coordinate with them to create neat effects.
In other cases, it’s mostly about using the different characters’ abilities to manage battle spaces better. The fighter has an ability called Defender which allows them to kind of act like flypaper. Something that was a big hassle in the Infinity Engine games was that characters couldn’t really be sticky. It was very hard to get an enemy to stop moving. Often that was a big deal, because if a fighter made a beeline for one of your squishier characters, especially casters, you were in trouble. But now you have to think about where to position them, to maximise their benefit for casters, rogues, and other characters that might not be able to take a beating.
PC Gamer: Party combat is a big part of the game, but you’ve also said it’s possible to play the game solo. Do you think this will be fun, or is it for masochists only?
Josh Sawyer: It’ll be hard. I’m sure people will find certain classes and builds that will make it easier than others. Especially once you’ve already played through the game, and you have the metagame knowledge, it becomes a lot easier. I think the enjoyment comes from the fact that it’s a unique challenge on its own. Some people will say, I don’t know how to play through this whole game with a priest or a wizard, but I’m going to figure out how to do it. It will be pretty challenging, especially at certain points. We’re planning to use a sliding experience system, so if you have a single character they’ll gain levels more quickly than if they were with an entire party.
If you don’t want to have six characters in your party you can have four, or two, or you can just go by yourself. We’re not discouraging this, but also the combat isn’t balanced around it. You can try it, but we’re not going to spend time figuring out if it’s viable to play through the whole game with a single character. It should be possible, but we’re not putting a lot of time into it.
PC Gamer: How do the Trial of Iron and Path of the Damned modes work?
Josh Sawyer: Trial of Iron is a classic iron man mode. Regardless of other difficulty settings, this gives you one rolling save. If a character dies, it’s just one game state that continues on. So if your whole party dies, then that’s pretty much it. You’re completely wiped out and your save is deleted. We’re not going to put a tonne of effort into enforcing that, though. It’s a game of honour for people. It’s for people who want to take on that challenge for themselves.
Path of the Damned is similar to the old Heart of Fury mode from Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter. When we place our encounters in the game, we have different sets of creatures for different levels of difficulty. So if you’re playing on easy there will actually be fewer and less difficult creatures in a given area. If you turn on Path of the Damned it enables all of those creatures at once, so you’re dealing with all of the creatures from hard, medium, and easy, and you get nothing more for it. [laughs] It’s just really hard.
PC Gamer: How will companion characters interact with you as you play? Could certain actions make them leave the party like in the Baldur’s Gate games?
Josh Sawyer: Whenever you get a companion, we try to insert them at a point where it makes sense for them to go with you, and there’s something they care about that somewhat aligns with something you’re doing. They have an interest in what you’re doing, and they want you to help them with their stuff. This allows us to have a quest arc and a story arc for them. Something they actually care about and want to accomplish and resolve. But we’re trying to avoid ‘gotcha’ moments where you’ll make a choice and a companion will leave you.
There are certain things that you can do, though, that will irritate a companion to the point where they’ll leave, just because it makes sense for the character. In Fallout: New Vegas, if you have Veronica and you go butcher the Brotherhood of Steel, I don’t think many people are surprised when she doesn’t want to stick around with you. So we’re doing stuff like that. If you fundamentally go in opposition to something they really care about, they’re gonna take off. It does happen, but they’re not fickle. They won’t just leave suddenly at the drop of a hat.
PC Gamer: Does the game use any kind of morality or reputation system?
Josh Sawyer: Not so much morality, but definitely reputation. It’s more about the relative opinions of people in the world. It’s actually very daunting, but we have a big reputation system that tracks the sort of stuff we had in previous games, like your factional reputation, or your local reputation. Much like Fallout: New Vegas it’ll track both positive and negative actions, so you can have a good, bad, or mixed reputation, and people will respond to that in different ways.
We’ve also added something that’s going to be really cool, and give nice feedback to the player, which is personality and disposition reputation. You know how in RPGs you often get the option in dialogue to be the sassy jackass? Then you get a line that comes after that, and that’s it. It’s gone and forgotten forever. But with our disposition system, if you’re a sassy jackass, that’s like a marble in the sassy jackass jar, and it just keeps filling up over time. So it actually tracks these micro expressions of personality. So if you’re repeatedly really aggressive with people, telling people to shut the fuck up and tell you what they know, you’ll get a reputation as a bold person. Some people do respond positively to that because you don’t take shit from anyone. Other people think you’re an asshole. They’ll be like, “Oh yeah, you’re that super hot-head asshole.”
So the idea is that you can make the sort of alliances you want in the way that you want. So you can ally with a group of characters that could be thought of as the good guys, but while you’re doing it you’re a cruel, mean-spirited asshole. Or you could ally with a group of guys are who are kind of terrible, but you’re really diplomatic, you’re polite, you’re merciful, and you’ll let people go. You’ll actually get reputations for that stuff, and my hope is that it makes ordinary dialogue choices feel more important, because they’re not just throwaway lines or fluff. They’re partially fluff, but they also have mechanical backing behind them. As you meet other characters in the world they’re going to take notice of it, so it feels like if you choose to be a certain type of character, the world reacts to that. Not in a comic way, but in a way that seems to be fitting.
PC Gamer: Memorable party characters are a big part of why people love Infinity Engine games. Do you have a favourite of the Pillars of Eternity companions?
Josh Sawyer: Well, there’s the one I’m working on now, Pallegina. We like to write our companions relatively late in development because it gives us time to react to stuff in the world. She’s cool because she has an interesting character arc and conflict. The game takes place in Dyrwood, which is a super European setting, and feels kind of like the Dalelands from Forgotten Realms. It’s very continental European, and it’s full of regular dudes and ladies going about their business. But one of the nearby countries, the Vailian Republics, are kind of like black renaissance Italians who have colonised this area. So her character is from that culture and she’s sworn to protect her homeland. But she thinks she can do it in more effective ways than she’s being told to.
Visually, she’s an interesting character, because she’s godlike. The godlike in this world are kind of like the planetouched in Forgotten Realms. She has aspects of a bird as part of her features. So she has feathers growing out of her face, and golden bird-like eyes. She’s very striking-looking and interesting, and she’s just been really fun to write. We have a lot of cool characters and a bunch of different writers are working on them, so it should be a neat mix.
PC Gamer: What kind of fantasy RPG standards or cliches are you trying to avoid or subvert?
Josh Sawyer: I just try to avoid doing things that I don’t personally like. For example, the class balance stuff was done because I’ve made a bunch of these games, and I’ve been playing D&D for most of my life, and I keep seeing very strong trends towards behaviour that I don’t think makes players happier. It doesn’t give them as much choice as the systems claim to give them, and I think we can do a better job. If someone wants to make a brilliant, weakling fighter, that is a build that is viable in our game, and it’s rewarded within the conversations and the fiction of the world. That’s not something that’s really true of playing Dungeons & Dragons.
If you want to make a muscle wizard, who is mighty and powerful and a stupid idiot, you can do that. Mechanically what happens is that you’ll do a lot of damage, but their durations and areas of effects will be very small. Then in conversation they’re total idiots. [laughs] You can bully people and you can pick them up off the ground and slap them around. It’s not like I’m setting out to subvert stuff. I play tabletop games with a lot of people who have really great ideas for characters, but mechanically they’re shitty characters. So when I try to fix that stuff, it’s not because I think it’s inherently better, but that it gives more opportunities to players to create more diverse characters, and feel rewarded for doing so.