Path of Exile

Tenants of Good RPG Design

Content of the article: "Tenants of Good RPG Design"

Hey everyone. I've played a lot of PoE and decided to log and discuss the "Modern Pillars of RPG Game Design" any aspiring developer could use to make their games more like PoE's more-polished elements.

When I was much younger, my favorite games were turn-based JRPGs. I find a lot of those games I used to love very difficult to enjoy because they feel like… grinds. They were often rife with balance issues where grinding Experience for Level Up rewards trivialized content in a way that wasn't engaging or felt meaningful.

I appreciate the irony that Path of Exile is a "grinding game" and was able to shift my perspective. Which begs the question: Why? Here's my list of observations (in no particular order) that I now look for in RPGs because of this game. I also include a little bit of feedback at the bottom regarding End Game systems.

Approach Enemies, Begin Combat

This property originates from PoE's western ARPG legacy.

Notable JRPGs Dragon Quest / Final Fantasy are iconic of their "Random Encounters" that appear from nowhere and disrupt progress. JRPGs like Earthbound address this flaw by making turn-based combat avoidable by (literally) running away on the overworld environment. Ergo, you didn't engage in combat unless you decided to engage in combat, excluding boss fights.

Earthbound and PoE have this in common: Skilled players can run past encounters and face challenges at lower thresholds of Character Progression. It's a nice custom-difficulty layer that is fully controlled by the player, when bosses are balanced accordingly to allow this.

Modular Ability Modifiers

The concept of "Support Skill Gems" resonates with me a lot!

In Super Giant's Transistor there was a similar system where every ability had an Active / Passive / Support functionality that changed dynamically where the player chose to equip it in their inventory.

Transforming 20 skills into thousands of skills adds a huge amount of potential replayability. Executed well, this is a system that can make your 40 hour RPG a 500 hour RPG without making the player feel bad.

Multiple Levers of Character Progression

Character Progression in this context refers to the things that directly make your character have more defense, offense, utility, and speed during combat. It can also represent a character's identity. In Path of Exile this is done through:


  • Character Class (Passive Skill Tree Starting Location, Sub Class Options)
  • Skill Points for Passive Tree / Cluster Jewel Tree
  • Skill Points for (Sub Class) Ascendency Tree
  • Non-Passive Quest Rewards (Bandits, Pantheon)
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  • Character Items (Weapons, Body Armour, Rings, Amulet, etc)
  • & Setup: Resource Reserving Actions (Auras)
  • & Setup: Long-Duration Allies (Zombies, Golems, Spectres, etc)
  • & Setup: Automation (Cast When Damage Taken)

Reactive Skills

  • Equip & Perform: Flask Recovery / Flask Buffs / Flask Debuffs
  • Equip & Perform: Buff Granting Actions (Steelskin, Enduring Cry, Sigil of Power, etc)
  • Equip & Perform: Debuff Granting Actions (Curses, Wave of Conviction, etc)
  • Equip & Perform: Travel Actions (Dash, Frostblink, etc)


  • Join a party with other players and use MMO-like dedicated roles: Damage Dealer, Kill Stealer (Magic Find / Quantity / Cull), Curse + Aura + Charge Support, etc.
  • Make multiple characters with dedicated roles and alternate between them on the fly: Deep Delver, Speed Mapper, Single-Target Bosser, Legion Emblem Farmer, etc.

Multiple Levers of Damage Scaling

This one in particular is a nightmare to balance correctly, but is creatively liberating for the player when executed correctly. It's important to note that all sources of "more" damage in PoE are multiplicative (they're individual levers).

Consider some, but not all, of the balance levers on a skill like Storm Brand:

  • Increased <Tag> Duration (total hits per cast)
  • Increased <Tag> Damage (dps)
  • Skill Gem Level (dps)
  • Adds # to # Physical Damage (dps)
  • Adds # to # Lightning Damage (dps)
  • Adds # to # Cold Damage (dps)
  • Adds # to # Fire Damage (dps)
  • Adds # to # Chaos Damage (dps)
  • More Global Damage (dps)
  • More Spell Damage (dps)
  • More Lightning Damage (dps)
  • More Elemental Damage (dps)
  • More Damage vs Attached (dps)
  • Enemies take Increased Damage (dps)
  • Base Critical Strike Chance (dps)
  • Increased Critical Strike Chance (dps)
  • More Critical Strike Chance (dps)
  • Critical Strike Chance is Lucky (dps)
  • Critical Strike Multiplier (dps)
  • Chance to Deal Double Damage (dps)
  • Damage With Hits is Lucky (dps)
  • Damage Penetrates Lightning / Elemental Resistance (dps)
  • Gain % Non-Chaos Damage as extra Chaos Damage (dps)
  • Number of Brands Attached to an Enemy (damage / hits per second)
  • Increased Cast Speed / Activation Frequency (damage / hits per second)
  • More Cast Speed / Activation Frequency (damage / hits per second)
  • Increased Brand Attachment Range (area / potential targets affected)
  • Skills Chain (targets affected)
  • Create Additional Brands (targets affected)

Limitless Creativity

PoE became the multi-thousand hour behemoth for me because of the wide number of possible "Builds". Every new update adds (literally) thousands of new possibilities to explore. This is achieved through:

  • Synergy Between Skills (Essence Drain + Contagion, Warcries + Slams, Arcane Cloak + Archmage Spell, etc)
  • Support Skill Gems linked to Active Skill Gems. (Frenzy + Cast on Critical + Ice Nova, Totem + Arc, Bladefall + Unleash)
  • Notable / Keystone modifiers (Drastic behaviour-altering effects and powerful bonuses)
  • Unique Item modifiers (Damage Conversion, Access to debuffs like Ailments, Access to exclusive Active and Support Gems baked into the item, etc)
  • Unintended / Intended Synergies due to the extremely high amount of overlapping systems. Patching out these features is often controversial, and extremely memorable to those who first discovered it. (Worm Blaster, Permanent Ice Wall PvP, Permanent Stun / Freeze / Taunt, Full Damage Immunity, The Forbidden Spellcasting-Loop Build, etc)
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Lottery-Winning Jackpot Events

Extremely rare events determined by luck that drastically affect the start / remainder of a player's run. The items or events in question should have value that's immediately recognized by the player.

  • Obtaining useful items very early in a run like: Tabula Rasa.
  • Obtaining chase items (at all) like: Headhunter, Trash to Treasure Prophecy, Mirror of Kalandra, (most expensive) Voices Cluster Jewel, etc.
  • Getting that final part to drop to complete your first Metamorph
  • Obtaining the final item needed to finish a set of items being collected. (Divination Card artwork, Every Unique Item, Chance Orb Unique Items with Influence cosmetics, etc)
  • Torchlight fans swear by the inclusion of Fishing in their ARPG 😉

Multiple End Game Systems – Feedback

I believe the best RPGs live and die by ease of access to their end game systems, ergo, the type of content players enjoy spending their time. Having a variety of content is great, it tailors to a lot of different players with varying backgrounds and preferred playstyles.

PoE is divided into a "Leveling" and "End Game", the later begins at character level 68 of 100. Path of Exile has quite a few of these paths to explore, and some of them are better designed than others!

Great Examples – Almost Perfect

  • General Mapping in the Atlas of Worlds
  • "Juiced" Mapping (Delirium Orbs, Rare, Corrupted, Fragments, Sextants, Prophecies)
  • End-Game Boss Slaying (Conquerors, Shaper, Elder, Atziri, Grandmasters)
  • Simulacrum (Game changing rewards and challenging! Splinters are a bit tedious)
  • Legion Emblem (Game changing rewards and challenging! Splinters are a bit tedious)
  • Breachstones (The fast XP generation is desirable to players, but the stones can drop without splinters! Notice a theme?)
  • Exploring the Azurite Mines (Endless Dungeon! Tedious crafting unlocks. Somewhat scarce without help from other players.)

Good Examples – Moderate Adjustments Advised

  • Heist Blueprint Raids (Exclusive desirable rewards! Doors, backtracking, gearing ally complaints)
  • Raiding the Immortal Syndicate Safehouses (Desirable rewards! Tedious crafting unlocks.)
  • Raiding Incursion Temples (Outdated rewards)
  • Blighted Map Tower Defense (Somewhat scarce without trading. Outdated rewards)
  • Beast Hunting with Einhar, both in maps and at the Altar. (Captured ingredients are random)

Terrible Examples – Major Adjustments Required

  • Heist Contract Raids (Lacks Blueprint exclusive rewards. Doors, backtracking, gearing ally complaints)
  • Metamorph Boss Slaying (Very scarce without trading, Slightly outdated rewards)
  • "Uber" Labyrinth Enchantment Farming (Waste of time in non-trade environments)
  • "Uber" Labyrinth Trials to gain final Class Ascendency point. (Difficult for soft characters to complete, discovered at random. Class points are build enabling like Unique Items, it feels terrible that these are gated behind RNG and chores. Popular opinion – let us unlock these at Character Level thresholds.)
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Closing Thoughts

Thanks for reading! I love this game and everything it has taught me about myself. Met some great friends around the world, learned real-world economic skills, and I have many cherished memories. GGG has something amazing on their hands, it just needs a little bit more love and stability to hold us off until PoE 2.

Your earliest players are getting older every year, and they don't appreciate any and all tedium that contributes to skeletal damage to their fingers and wrists. You could, for instance, make emblems / breachstones / simulacums deterministically drop without splinters. Find a different superior use for stash tabs and your players will buy them!

If you stopped selling stash tabs for splinters (this is a good thing) I would much rather buy supporter packs instead. Especially if doing so could let us design a Divination Card, Unique / Replica Unique Item, Active / Passive Skill Gem, Keystone jewel, Ascendency Class alternative, etc.

: )


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