Let’s not mince words, Pillars of Eternity is punishing, especially if you aren’t used to the quirks of real time, round based combat systems or are familiar with how to exploit all the interlocking systems to become a god. And no, Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age Origins will not prepare you for it by virtue of their relative ease and 4 character parties.
There are a lot of unspoken rules and tactical concepts you should follow (or at least be aware of) that games in this genre never teach. In this Pillars of Eternity Combat Guide, we cover the basics of combat necessary to make the game much less frustrating after the tutorial. With Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition launching consoles, now is the perfect time to brush up on your tactics. We also have a Trophy Guide you can check out.
Pillars of Eternity Combat Guide
Read what all the stats do by hovering over them in character creation. Pillars of Eternity uses an unusual stats system with the goal of making every stat useful for every class, and knowledge from other systems doesn’t transfer very well. (For example, might determines both physical and magical damage dealt as well as the strength of healing abilities that character casts, so it’s important for all damage dealers and healers of any class) If you’ve already built your character, don’t be afraid to re-spec at a tavern to make your character work more like you want them to.
Pause often. The battle plays out in real time, but a lot is happening in any given second so you should pause and quickly assess the situation before you give any character an order. If you don’t, you will often find the character you intended to help or enemy you wanted to target is dead or unsafe to target by the time the character actually does what you told them too. As you get more experienced and understand what’s going on more readily this becomes less necessary but is still a good idea.
Formations are probably the most important single aspect of combat in Pillars of Eternity. You’ll almost never stay in formation for very long once you enter combat (though you should usually try) but don’t let the ease of the tutorial dungeon fool you, if you start combat in a bad formation you will be overwhelmed and you will die, often, even on easier difficulties and in easier fights, and even if you survive you’ll blow your healing spells and supplies much faster than you’d like and make dungeons much harder.
The simplest (effective) way to think about your formation in Pillars is in a 3 row system. You have a front row for your most durable characters, a second row that’s for the squishier melee dps you don’t want being targets as much, tankier casters, and anybody who focuses on flanking, and the back row is for ranged characters who won’t survive any real enemy attention.
What formation you use and where specifically in the formation you put each character depends on what class they are, how they’re built and what they’re wearing, As example, here is one of my typical formations and why each character is where they are. Note: The front line is facing you.
On the front left (the one with the silver shield) and front right We have the tanks in their heavy armor. One is a Paladin, the other a Fighter. The reason for the space between them is because I want that front line to catch as many enemies as possible, and that A shape allows 2 or 3 extra (melee) enemies to be targeting my front line, while only allowing 1 to attack the second row. Unless an enemy spell forces them apart (at the risk of significant damage,) they almost always stay in a position just like that, facing the enemy group.
On the left side of the second row is a cypher, which is a magic using class. It’s worth mentioning, many of her spells require her to target an ally and then impact the space between her and the ally or immediately around the ally. She is extremely squishy and almost never stays in that spot once the battle starts, but the reason she’s there is because she’s dual purpose. If it’s possible and relatively safe she’ll go around the back of the enemies and pick off enemy casters using twin daggers and casting spells at one of the tanks to damage everything between her and said tank, but such opportunities tend to disappear quickly so it’s important that she be close enough to take advantage of the opportunity at the start of the battle. If that’s not possible or if it’s unsafe she drops back to the 3rd row and uses a bow while casting crowd control spells (mainly paralysis) and waits for an enemy to get between her and a tank, or for one of my casters to summon something behind enemy lines so she can target that. In the middle of the second row (with the fancy hat) is my chanter, who is a chanter and the parties damage caster. She is where she is because of the yellow circle. That’s the range of her primary damage ability, so she needs to be close to the tanks if she wants to hit anything. She is also well armored and while she doesn’t have a lot of hp, she is fairly unlikely to get hit, so she serves as a way to stop enemies simply running through the hole in the front line without any real risk of her having to fight more than one enemy at a time. She also stays in roughly that position unless enemy area of effect attacks (usually spells) force her to move.
Finally there is the 3rd row. On the back left is the wizard, and on the back right is the cleric. Really where these 2 are doesn’t really matter much as long as their target is in range and they aren’t in harms way. In battle they usually end up standing somewhat farther back so they don’t get caught in spells targeting the front 2 lines, the reason the start so close is so they’re in range of the group buffs the cleric can cast at the start of the battle, though if push comes to shove and enemies get past the first 2 lines the cleric (the tankier of the 2) has a sword and shield to hold off enemies while the wizard and/or the cypher kill it.
I’m not saying “use this specific formation,” I’m giving you an idea of the types of considerations you should use to determine your formation. You could just as easily give the wizard a whole lot of self buffing spells and have them up in the 2nd row doing melee attacks with a long reach weapon like a pike or a staff or have the chanter use a pair of self buffs to be really good with bows and put her towards the back. You could only have one tank but have 2 somewhat durable melee DPS and have a V shaped formation with the tank at the tip. You could have mostly/entirely melee characters and have an “n” shaped formation so you can flank and team up on as many enemies as possible (and maybe create a big obvious pack of enemies for a wizard to hurl spells into without fear of enemies moving or hitting allies.)
Targeting priority is huge in Pillars of Eternity. You can have all the DPS in the world, nothing is going to save you if apply it in the wrong places at the wrong time. In general, enemy wizards, druids and cyphers need to be crowd controlled or killed first, along with any monsters that can cast especially nasty stuns like mind control, paralysis or petrification. If you don’t stop the casting fairly quickly they’ll cripple, disable or outright kill your front and secondary lines very quickly, which is basically the end of the fight. Next, you want to deal with clerics, archers, and any other ranged attackers. The reason for dealing with clerics should be obvious (they heal and buff their allies which makes the recipients much harder to deal with) but the reason to go for ranged attackers is because they have high DPS, they can (and do) target your second and third lines without having to deal with the front line first, and (like mages) they die quickly so a little effort on your part results in a big DPS loss for the enemies. You go for enemy melee DPS and tanks last, because they’re most easily dealt with by your own tanks.
So, the general kill order for enemies is Wizards/Druids/Cyphers/monsters with powerful disables > Healers/Clerics> Archers/other ranged attackers> melee attackers. This applies even if the melee attacker is crazy strong (as happens with a couple bosses) because it’s still going to take them longer to kill your tanks than it will take a wizard to petrify your tanks. It’s not a hard fast rule, if leaving a melee attacker alone for a few seconds while you kill a cleric means your own cleric dies then deal with the melee attacker first, it’s just what you do in an ideal situation.
Disabling or crippling opponents is more valuable than outright killing them in Pillars of Eternity. Why? It’s faster. It can take 20 seconds and several spells to kill an enemy, it only takes one to blind or paralyze them and make them more or less incapable or hurting you for between 5 and 20 seconds, and it also makes them easier to kill. Because of this, it’s better to CC dangerous enemies and then kill them, rather than trying to kill them while leaving them able to fight back.
Enemies sometimes will flee lingering AOE spell effects (like a cloud of ice that blinds them) sometimes even breaking engagement with one of your party to do it. This means you can do things like cast spells at the side of your front line to damage/disable enemies there while also discourage attempts to move past the front line and go for more fragile party members.
HP & Endurance
HP and Endurance are different. HP is how long until the character dies and it can only be recovered by resting at an inn or using camping supplies (which you should have on you at all times and use sparingly,) Endurance is how long until the character is knocked out and it is what spells heal. This is especially relevant for tanks, because tanks tend to both have self healing and be the target of most of your clerics healing spells, so it’s entirely possible to go through all of your tanks HP and have them die in a single fight if it’s long and difficult enough, which would be very bad news because death is permanent.
I Need A Healer
Always bring a priest, either the one they give you or one you hire from a tavern. The game is technically beatable without one, even at the higher difficulty levels, but I strongly advise against trying until at least your 3rd or 4th play-through.
Know the difference between per battle and per rest abilities, and balance your class and ability choices accordingly. If you have your cleric use all their spells in 3 short fights casting CCs they won’t be able to heal when a difficult fight happens, but while a paladin can heal twice each battle they can only heal 1 person at a time and only twice where a cleric could heal multiple people 7 or 8 times in one fight if they really needed to.
If you follow these priniciples laid out in this guide, you will find yourself not only surviving the in depth combat of Pillars of Eternity, but actually thriving and enjoying it. Thoughts on the tips laid out here? Have any of your own to share? Do so in the comments!