Pillars of Eternity is a party-based RPG styled closely after the Infinity Engine games of old. It uses Unity rather than the Infinity Engine, but otherwise shares a great many similarities regarding real-time-with-pause combat, stat-based character builds, gloriously unguided quests and the like. Such things can be overwhelming, so this Beginner’s Guide hopes to get you started on the right track and help you enjoy the game.

If the names Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment or Icewind Dale bring almost tangible memories of non-stop 20 hour play sessions rushing back into your brain-space, you won’t have a great need of anything here. Some of the miscellaneous control stuff under “Improve My Quality of Life, Then” could be useful, but the rest of Pillars of Eternity will probably just slip back on like a comfy pair of socks.

Right, Tell Me How to Min-Max Every Single Class

That’s not going to happen here, sorry. For a start I’m not all that great at divining the one true game-breaking path for RPGs.

But the main reason is that Obsidian will be releasing a balancing patch for Pillars of Eternity on launch. Any super amazing skill exploits I learned during pre-release play (when I’m writing this) will almost certainly be rendered useless or out of date.

This piece is strictly quality of life stuff and helpful pointers about combat, party management and early quests for those who haven’t really played an Infinity Engine style game before.

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If any of your characters end up dressed like this, you’re doing very well.

Improve My Quality of Life, Then

Okay! The tutorial will fill you in on most of this, but just in case you miss it, or forget, or something.

D is the default key to double the game’s speed. You’ll want to do this when running around or through an area you’ve already been.

Tab is the default key for highlighting interactive points of interest on the screen. Use this a lot. It’ll highlight herbs out in the wild, and pots, chests and other containers in dungeons. It can bring up other useful things as well, like walls you can climb to reach other parts of the map.

Pillars of Eternity has user-definable hotkeys, too. It doesn’t really make a big deal out of this at all, but they can be awfully handy.

To set a hotkey, just hover the cursor over your chosen spell, or ability (or whatever) and press the key you want to use. As long as the key is not in use for some other purpose, it’ll become the hotkey for your chosen thing. To remove a hotkey, just hover over the same ability and press that same key again.

I’ll mention more quality of life stuff as the article progresses to more specific topics.

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It’s kind of hard to see, but that’s me hot-keying Fan of Flames on F1.

Help, I Don’t Know Which Difficulty Level To Select

If you’ve ever played an Infinity Engine game (Planescape, Icewind Dale etc) or non-Infinity 90s RPG titles like Arcanum at some point in your life, Normal should be your minimum choice. Anyone who warmed up for Pillars of Eternity with a recent run through one/all of those classics can probably just go in on Hard.

Harder difficulties give you different enemy encounters (ie; on Easy you run into a small wolf, on Hard it might be two fully grown wolves or a bear, or something.) It’s possible to switch between Easy, Normal and Hard during a game in progress, so you can always bump it up or down a notch.

If you’re totally new to all this, start on Easy. Then bump it up if you feel things are going a bit too smoothly.

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It’s fair to say the difficulty level can be customised like crazy.

‘Path of the Damned’ is the only difficulty you have to commit to right from the start, and that’s for nutters with a death wish. Trial of Iron can be selected from the start with any difficulty level and gives you a single save file. If your main character dies in Ironman, it’s game over. Not recommended for beginners, for obvious reasons.

The ‘Expert Mode’ checkbox explicitly disables some helper features, so that’s not recommended for newbies either.

Alright, Now Tell Me What Class to Play

I don’t know, which one appeals to you? That’s kind of a glib answer, but you’ll honestly have a better time if you’re playing with a Class you gravitated towards rather than one some guy told you to play “because Rangers are best” or whatever. (Note: Rangers are not best, or worst.)

If you want to hit things in a traditional way, maybe go for a Fighter or Barbarian. For more eclectic punching, you could go with a Monk.

Wizards, Druids and Cipers all have spells-a-plenty if that’s what you’d prefer. Chanters kind of have them too, in a more esoteric way.

Priests and Paladins are your buffers (bonuses to self and others in combat,) Rangers shoot people from afar and Rogues are your high-damage, low defenses stabbing types.

Those are just very general descriptions, though.

If it helps your decision, the first proper (outside of tutorial) companions you can recruit are a Wizard and a Fighter. You get a Priest shortly after that. There are no Monk, Barbarian, or Rogue companions at present (in future, who knows.)

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I picked a Druid, because they can turn into a bear and still cast spells.

The six Pillars of Eternity base stats of Might, Dexterity, Constitution, Perception, Intellect and Resolve are actually flexible enough for you to make pretty non-traditional characters (say, a Barbarian with high Intellect, because that stat also gives wider areas-of-effect on abilities.) You’d have to go out of your way to make anything bad.

For those just starting out, Obsidian have been helpful enough to mark the most important stats for each class with gold stars (and fairly important ones with silver.) To play safe, boost the ones they suggest for each class.

All the Race and Culture stuff is up to you. Again, go with what appeals. There aren’t any correct or incorrect choices here, nor any super-bonuses that’ll make it tougher or loads easier. Pillars of Eternity is designed around making things like big burly wizards pretty viable. You’ll be fine. Take your time, and go with your heart.

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Some basic combat positioning. Fighter is keeping the wolf occupied, while Wizard gets it in a spell cone.

Can You Teach Me Anything Useful About Combat?

Yes, yes I can. This is an area where direct advice is very handy. Real-time-with-pause combat in these games involves positioning, strategising and plenty of toggling pause on and off.

My first recommendation would be to visit the ‘auto pause’ section of the options screen.

This is where you can tell the game to pause under certain conditions, such as a party member being low on health or endurance. I’d suggest checking both of those, along with pausing when combat starts, when a hidden object/trap is seen, and if a foe has ‘extraordinary defense.’ Go with the ‘Combat auto-slow’ option too. This is on by default on Easy, but I found it useful for other difficulties. It’ll slow down the real time portions of the combat.

Consider switching various others on or off as you experiment more with how combat works.

Before you even get into combat, you want to be prepared for it as best you can. Putting your party into Scouting Mode (Alt key by default) will allow you to sneak up on some enemies. That means you can pop off a spell, or a gun-shot, or an arrow to initiate the combat and deal some early damage.

Each party member has a quickslot bar for items like consumables. If you have food or potions, stick them in here before a fight kicks off.

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The button with the bandit mask can also activate Scouting Mode, if you don’t fancy pressing Alt.

Formations are also important.

Pillars of Eternity has a few default ones to play with, and you can create two custom ones as well. As a general rule, put the guys you want to be getting into melee combat at the front, and your more fragile characters towards the rear. Drag portraits around on the main screen (bottom left) to arrange them in order. It can be a good idea to have a couple of formations; one for outside, open areas, and one more compact one for the confined dungeon-type corridors.

Keep in mind that your casting characters will often need a line of sight, so even if they begin at the back they’ll need to be able to get into position once a fight really gets going.

Your party members have two health ‘pools.’ Endurance is the more immediate of the two, and the one you’re likely to run out of first during a fight (resulting in a character being knocked out until the combat’s conclusion.) Loss of Endurance can be tracked by the character portrait being progressively grayed out from the top. Use potions, spells or passive type abilities to keep it topped up.

Health itself is the green/yellow/red bar on the character portrait. If this falls to zero, your character will either be ‘maimed’ (until you can rest) or killed outright. Some of this stuff can depend on your specific difficulty settings.

Pillars of Eternity uses an ‘engaged to the enemy’ system that’ll be familiar to people who’ve played other turn-based or tabletop games before. Once you’re close enough to an enemy, you’re kind of stuck together in battle. If either attempts to leave, the other gets a freebie hit as they disengage.

To use this to your advantage, make sure your most durable ‘tank-like’ characters are luring in as many enemies as possible into their engagement zones. This is very important for protecting your more vulnerable party members. There are even abilities and levelling up paths which specifically give fighter types the skill to engage and hold more enemies at once. It’s so important I’ll repeat it: use your high endurance characters to keep enemies ‘stuck’ in place.

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Once you’ve battled a particular enemy a few times, their stats will be listed here. Wolves have decent Reflexes, but low Will.

While we’re on the topic of damage and being damaged, learn the four different defense types. They are Deflection, Fortitude, Reflex and Will. Hovering over an enemy in combat (once you’ve battled a few and learned about them) will show you their defense stats in each area, in the order I just listed. They also have pretty sensible icons if you forget (Reflex is a little foot with wings, for example.)

Basic weapons tend to target Deflection, but spells will mention which defense they go up against. If you’re fighting a weak-Willed foe, hit them with that type of attack.

Enemy types can also be fairly intuitive. If you come across some fire-based creatures, freezing spells will do the trick as you’d expect.

Speaking of spells, pay attention to whether that Area of Effect (AoE) type you’re about to cast says it affects enemies or affects everyone. Friendly fireballs can really mess up your battle plans. If your AoE spell says it will hit everyone and shows two ‘rings’, then allies stood within the outer ring part will actually be safe.

You should also pay attention to spell ranges. If the casting icon has a pair of feet on it, this means your spellcaster will have to move forward before unleashing his or her magical prowess. You may not want them to do this.

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A spell well cast, there. Lots of foes hit, and no friendly fire.

Learn which of your abilities are ‘per encounter’ and which are ‘per rest.’ Spellcasters have a limited number of spells at each level that they can cast before needing to rest. Certain other combat abilities are ‘per encounter’ and refresh much more often.

Finally, pick your battles. Pillars of Eternity is an RPG that will sometimes allow you to go to areas you aren’t really prepared for. Optional side-dungeons tend to be this way, so if you’re finding yourself getting severely beaten it may just be time to try something else for a bit.

Help, I Tried An Optional Side-Dungeon and Now I’m All Beaten Up

That’s okay, it happens! This just means it’s time to rest your party up.

There are two ways to do this: find an inn, or make camp in the open with one of the limited campfire consumables you can carry. Early on in the game (beyond the tutorial section, you’ll know when that ends,) your best bet for resting up is the Black Hound Inn in Gilded Vale. It’s in the south-west corner of the map and offers at least one cheap room.

The same location sells campfire items, as does the blacksmith building in the center-east(ish) of the same area.

Pillars of Eternity is pretty generous about where you can make camp. At one point I was having a restful snooze in the corridor of a castle keep I’d just infiltrated. Almost everywhere seems to be fair game for marshmallows and ghost stories, so just give the camping button a try if you need a rest.

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I can’t remember if the Common Room STARTS for free, that probably only happens after helping them out.

As far as managing the campfire supplies goes, I’ve found that a good rule of thumb is that if your casters are running low on spells at around the same time as your party is needing to rest, you’re managing things well.

If you run around for too long without resting at all, your characters will start getting fatigued. This has pretty negative consequences on your character stats, so try to avoid it whenever possible.

Exploration and Miscellany

I’ve already mentioned the Scouting Mode option (Alt key,) but it’s worth noting again how helpful this can be for exploring unknown areas. It’s possible to uncover enemies (by sending out a lone scout with high sneaking skills if you wish) and then avoid them for a later encounter.

You get a very limited number of experience points from actually killing enemies, which cap out once you’ve learned all you can from them. Fighting isn’t always a necessity.

Sneaking about also allows you to steal stuff. Pillars of Eternity’s NPCs will be pretty pissed off if they see you taking stuff from their house (and you’ll get a hit on your reputation,) but if you’re out of sight and in Scouting Mode, it’s quite possible to pilfer a great many things.

Remember to explore dungeons and maps thoroughly. Just because you’ve found an exit or where you need to go, it doesn’t always mean you’re ‘done’ with that area. There could well be some lovely loot or a side-quest lurking in that fantasy fog of war.

To discover a location for the first time, you need to head towards it from a previous map (ie; if something undiscovered is to the east, you need to go east to find it.) Once discovered, you can leave from any point of a map and fast travel there.

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This map will be filling out a whole lot more over the next 60 hours.

Can I Have Some Specific Guidance On The Early Map Areas? (With Minor Spoilers)

Sure thing. This is the most spoilery section, but I’ll try to keep it minimal.

I’ll assume you made it through the tutorial and are in Gilded Vale. Your first two companions can be picked up here pretty easily. Aloth (an Elf Wizard) is by the Black Hound Inn in the south west of the map. If you sort out his little problem with the locals, he’ll join up with you.

Rest at the Black Hound Inn and then head back to the delightful tree decorated with dead bodies, speak to the obvious person there, and then look slightly to the south to find Eder. He’s a Fighter and can now be recruited (you can talk to him a bit before doing the other stuff, but he won’t join you.)

Congratulations, you now have some friends! If you have the gold for it, and fancy making a companion of your own from scratch, the Black Hound Inn lets you hire ‘adventurers’ to join your party instead of the pre-made chaps.

Some early quests I would recommend are the one which begins at the Windmill in the north-east corner of the map, and the search for the Black Hound’s chef (talk to the barlady in the Inn – you’ll want to go to Valewood, immediately north of Gilded Vale.)

In Valewood, you can probably take on the bear in the northern cave. It can be a little tough at early levels, though. Defeat it, and you’ll have a reason to re-visit a chap named Nonton. He hangs out in Ingroed’s house in Gilded Vale.

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In case you were in any doubt where Ingroed lives.

If you’ve bought (from the Gilded Vale blacksmith) or found a grappling hook, there’s a section in the south-east of Valewood guarded by three wolves where you’ll now be able to climb up and reach a corpse for some goodies.

Once you’ve done some or all of that, go and have a chat with Aufra in Gilded Vale (western side of the map) and then head down the southern road to find Anslog’s Compass. Or perhaps head east to the Black Meadow to retrieve supplies for the blacksmith.

The side-quest in Gilded Vale to clear the temple of Eothas is a pretty tough one. You’ll probably want to save that until you have more companions and your main character is a higher level (three or four) – especially for the lower floor.

Oh, it’s also wise to have someone in your group with a Mechanics skill of 4 or 5 before heading to the quest at Lord Raedric’s keep. You’ll thank me for this.

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Fuck you too, kid.

Should I Be Better Prepared For Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity Now?

Indeed! Enjoy the game, and I hope this article has provided some useful advice.

More Pillars on IncGamers:

An interview with Obsidian’s Josh Sawyer on the eve of launch.
Impressions of the game after 20 hours.

Peter Parrish


  1. In all honesty, if someone actually has the same questions as the bolded ones heading each section of the article, he would be better off playing something like Mass Effect, not an actual RPG.

    1. True, but we may still hope to win them over to a decent game genre 😉

    2. Please enlighten us, how mass effect is not an actual RPG?

      1. Uh, because it’s a third person shooter. Linear gameplay, fake choices, shallow character development and streamlined mechanics. And abysmal writing aside, it’s just an action game with *very* light RPG elements, on the same level as, say, Dead Island.

        1. This may come as a shock to you; but not every RPG has to include isometric tactical combat. ME is a third person shooter with linear, but immensely fun gameplay. This doesn’t mean that it can’t also be a RPG.

          That so called “abysmal writing” includes a great sci – fi universe with a deep lore, great characters that interracts with the player and each other, and a story that forces you to feel personaly involved.

          Your choices do matter by the way. You cannot change the ending and story progression directly; you are going to save the galaxy no matter how you play it. But are you going to be a knight in a shining armor? A womanizer? Or a badass comander who is ready to crush everything in his path to save the galaxy? The world reflects these decisions perfectly. And this what makes ME not just a RPG; but a good one.

          So how a great story driven RPG that I -and many others- gave countless hours of gameplay is on the same level with Dead Island?

          I’ll never understand why people hates BioWare just for the sake of hating…

          1. First, why would you assume that I think RPGs can only be isometric? Where does that come from? My favourite RPG is Gothic 1. Google that and tell me how isometric that is…

            You said it, ‘ME is a third person shooter with linear, but immensely fun gameplay’… ‘fun’ part aside, does that make it an RPG? No.

            The fake ‘choices’ you used as example are just that, fake. You can LARP the game all you want, sure, but the game’s actual mechanics don’t support them, as in, there’s no real impact in the gameworld. Example: You play as a ruthless, collar-grabbing X-TREME Shepard so you decide to kill the Rachni Queen. It doesn’t matter, because BioWare star writers just pull up a clone from their asses in the next game. Some great choices there, eh?

            And why, oh why do you think criticizing a BioWare game automatically translates into ‘Y U HATIN MAH BIOWARE!!’ Typical BioWare fanboy. FYI I thoroughly enjoyed BG1, BG2, KOTOR and Neverwinter Nights.

          2. Martin ;

            I do not need to Goolge Gothic I.

            Of Course ME’s being a 3rd person shooter doens’t make it a RPG.
            But it also doesn’t mean ME is not a RPG.

            I also am not saying ME is flawless. But it certainly doesn’t deserve such harsh critisism imo.

            And no, I am not a fanboy.

            cleaner1 ;

            I completely agree on your words on these new “RPG” games.

            I am not saying “ME is the best RPG ever” I think ME is a pretty decent RPG and it certainly is above games like Dead Island, Borderlands… etc.

            P.S. Yes it is, thanks for noticing 🙂 I particularly love this one. Here you go;

          3. ‘Of Course ME’s being a 3rd person shooter doens’t make it a RPG. But it also doesn’t mean ME is not a RPG.’

            Of course, point of view is irrelevant, I don’t know why you needed to clarify that. What makes an RPG are, as I said alrady, its mechanics, the way its systems work. You wouldn’t call a regular street car with some race parts a ‘race car’, would you? The same way you wouldn’t call a race car with some regular street parts a ‘regular street car’. Some ME’s RPG elements are very light (like different combat specializations) and others outright irrelevant (like dialog choices)

            About the Dead Island comparison, I also had a ton of fun with it (in co-op, single player sucked) and put it quite a few hours in it. So? ME having a more elaborate story doesn’t magically make it an RPG. Story in an RPG is always a good bonus but not a prerequisite, since there are plenty of good RPGs with crap or directly non-existant story (Temple of Elemental Evil, Ultima Underworld, Icewind Dale 1 & 2, etc, etc)

            You may or may not be a fanboy, but you sure sound like one when you interpret analysis of ME as ‘BioWare hate’.

            End of rine.

        2. You are dead right.

      2. What most people forget these days is that just because you level up in a game, ‘unlock’ stun ammo and put a couple points in meaningless stats doesn’t make a role playing game. Do something for me: filter for RPG on Steam and take a look at all those games branded something they never were. Dying Light, Ori and the Blind Forest, DBX, Payday 2…really?

        I played all three ME games and they were a really fun, engaging experience. Still, the game is a linear TPS with some really barebone character progression – hardly constitutes an RPG in my book. Martin’s excellent example, Gothic, is truly a masterpiece when it comes to role playing games as you can literally do whatever you want, as long as you can bear the consequences. Best example is probably Gothic 3, which I probably completed around ten times over; on my recent playthrough I could still manage to find places and ways to go forward I have never seen or experienced before.

        I’m not saying either game is better as it is only a matter of taste, but I think it is pretty obvious you cannot compare the two when it comes to exploration, complexity, character progression and decision making.

        (PS. Is that a picture of the God Emperor? Never seen this particular one before)

    3. Maybe you don’t remember the first RPG you played. Mine was about when I was 13 and I can see a kid that age having some of these questions as a newbee to the genre…so I’ll say, fantastic article, Peter.

      1. My first RPG was, I think, Dark Sun 1. Internet wasn’t a thing back then and I didn’t have any problems.

        1. Maybe you are the exception. Usually 12-13 year old kids can have some trouble with complex mechanics. Internet has nothing to do. If you are as old as me, there was no internet in the old days.

      2. Arcanum. After that I found Baldur’s Gates and Fallouts. Granted I still played them like moron half the time.
        But not until today have I ever started over. When I get home I’ll make new character in PoE. I just couldn’t get into monk for some reason.

  2. Being a newb to this type of RPG this guide should come in handy, thanks !

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