Passive Skill Systems

Passive Skill Systems have been an integral part of many of our favorite video games over the years; it provides a method for you to customize your character as they grow in the game world. Currently in the ARPG space we have passive systems such as: Diablo 3’s Pick 4, Path of Exile’s Massive Passive Web and Grim Dawn’s Constellations. Each of these play to different strengths in their respective games, but we felt they all had some room for improvement. I’m going to walk you through the process that we went through to make our passive skill system and go into some details on how it works.

Creating our Passive Grid was a very long process and it is still going through minor evolutions to this day. We had many long discussions about every aspect of it and I’m very happy with the result. Since we already have many skill trees to play around with in the game, we wanted to avoid the classic WoW style talent trees. We needed something that would work well with our class evolution system where a Mage needs to be able to take points in a Passive Grid that will turn into either a Spellblade or Sorcerer Passive Grid and still make sense. We also needed something that will keep us out of ‘tree hell’ and still have interesting decisions to be made when building your character. We were looking for the easy to learn difficult to master style passive system.

Early on in development we had players placing attribute points into their character sheet, much like in Diablo 2. This worked well at first but we began to feel like it was too straightforward of a system and would end up creating a golden path. Without any interesting decisions to be made, we scrapped the system. Players will have to get attribute points elsewhere. Now, putting attribute points in the passive nodes seemed to make each node either boring or too busy. We still weren’t set on even having a passive system at this point.

Let’s talk about what makes a really good passive system for a moment. I’ve mentioned the biggest thing already, interesting decisions. We also wanted our system to be intuitive, deep, and fit on one screen without having to zoom way out. Interesting decisions come from restrictions. If you are making a lightning mage and you can put points into all the things that say you do more damage with lightning abilities, that’s not an interesting decision. If you must choose between dealing more damage and hitting more enemies with your chain lightning ability, that’s a more interesting decision. By restricting players from taking everything that’s good for their character, we can create interesting decision points.

To make this system interesting and deep we have created a set of axes (plural of axis) that cross a grid of nodes. You begin by investing in any axes of your choosing using axis points, building outward from the center. As you do the outward points on these axes connect to form a polygon shape in the background. All nodes which are touched by this shape are available to be selected when you have node points available.

Making a system that is intuitive and deep isn’t an easy task. During testing with our system, we have found that it was hard to understand the system with only one axis point, because the first point makes a less noticeable impact. But when the first few points are given as a lump sum, it was much easier to understand. When players have a chance to see the area of available nodes take shape and are given a choice of multiple nodes to pick up right from the start it works quite well.

To keep the passive system on a single screen without a massive zoom we have created a unique Passive Grid for each class. This allows us to craft unique and exciting nodes for each class and reinforce class identity. Class identity is one of our guiding design principles and you will hear about it again. You might find similar abilities on multiple grids but no two nodes will ever be the same.

The two extremes end of the spectrum of how people use a passive system are: “What’s the best thing for my character that’s available to me right now?” and “Let me plan my entire build out to get the absolute most out of this possible.” I believe that we have succeeded in making a system that both types of players, and everyone in between, can interact happily with. Players who are just taking what looks good right now will end up making characters that can interact with almost all the content of the game and have fun doing it. Players who really put time into planning out their passive grid perfectly will have a difficult puzzle to solve on their hands and I expect that it will take them a long time to get their build just the way they want it.

We are still developing the systems to make the nodes that we want to have implemented in the grids, so the nodes that are available in the current build are mostly placeholder nodes. With the current design, you will receive a node point on every 5th level and an axis point on each other level. Most players will probably experience end game content around level 75-85. This means that most players will have around 16-17 node points to work with. Quest rewards might increase this number. With so few points to use, we need to make sure that each one is impactful and build shaping. We will be avoiding nodes that just say +10% damage. Instead, you will get to pick from nodes that look something like these:

Versatile Cryomancer: 25% increased cold damage if you have cast a lightning skill recently.

Ward Caster: Gain ward equal to your intelligence when you cast a spell.

Long Winter: +3% cold resistance for each minion within 15ft.

Berserk: +15% move speed and +5% damage taken.

Each axis point provides specific stats that will help shape your character. For example, the Mage axes will give you things like: Ward Retention, Health, Increased Cast Speed or Increased Critical Hit Chance. While Primalist players bonuses such as: Increased Damage, Increased Minion Damage, Health Gained on Kill and Health Gained on Potion Use.

Each axis forms a quadrant with another axis. This quadrant will be generally themed to reflect the intersection of these two axes characteristics. So, the quadrant which is enclosed by +Strength and +Minion Damage will have nodes which are generally themed around those playstyles. This does not mean that all good damage dealing nodes will be in that quadrant at all. It just means that you’ll find several nodes that might play off damage increases from one or the other. There will always be nodes you want to go get but just can’t quite reach.

Please note that all values and specific numbers referenced in this document are prototype values and will change before the final build of the game. The screenshots from the game also represent grids that will be populated much more before the game is released.

I’d love to hear what you guys think of this system. It’s a huge one and I’m really excited to see what people think once they really can sink their teeth into it.

This was definitely our most intensley debated system internally and I was afraid that we wouldn’t come to a conclusion that all parties agreed on before this. Very happy with the positive feedback we’ve received from this version of the passive system so far and with the improvements around the corner I’m confident we’ll have a system ARPGs players can pick up quickly, has depth and interesting choices, and allows for very distinct playstyles. Great writeup, Mike!


Most of the nodes on the Passive Grid are placeholders because we haven’t finished developing the systems for more complex nodes. We definitely agree that making the nodes interesting in their own right is important!

We also have lots of UI improvements and explanations coming up which should help explain this and other systems more fully. And there will certainly be more dev blogs coming, stick around!

Thx for the detailed explanation, looks really promising !

Nice write up Mike!

Something talked about in the first part was the “golden path” I feel like you’ll have that no matter what system there is in place. With that said D2 kind of danced around this and made it a little more difficult to golden path there attribute system with requirements on certain items. They even had requirements on skills internally but decided to forgo that on release of the game. Maybe taking a page out of D2s book could help even more with obfuscating the golden path or at least making it more difficult to do by having impact more than aspects of the game. Interesting decisions don’t have to be locked only to the passive tree, maybe they could be mixed in with itemization or complete other systems.

As a side note something I really disliked about Grim Dawn was it’s questing for points. It could feel like you were moving to slow and so your decisions while rare and therefore somewhat meaningful never really meant anything because by the time you got to making that choice you’d already out leveled or out geared all the content. In the end I entirely forgot about the system and just ignored it completely.

PoE’s skill forest does my head in and I feel like most individual choices have such a small impact I just don’t care and only want to golden path to the big circle at the end that some site told me to go for.

D3’s passive system is maybe the worst. Attributes aren’t intractable at all and have nearly no impact(lets be honest they basically don’t have an attribute system). Passives have a lot of impact but with no wall to change them out or requirements for each passive you just follow a cookie cutter guide and hold mouse 1.

If I had to chose between existing system I’m more on the golden path of D2 system. As long as respecs are a thing you can get what you need at any given time and then slowly progress into min-max by the very end game.

I feel like the goal shouldn’t be to stop golden pathing completely, rather to make it difficult because of other systems, ei gear requirements active skill requirements. In all the system in place as of now looks amazing

You’ve got some really good insights in there Darkquake. Most of your attribute points are going to come from 2 places, passives and gear. We aren’t creating the system with no golden path as the primary goal. I think that as long as there are multiple things that you really want and you can’t get all of them then it’s going to keep things interesting. I’m sure that general builds will emerge. My hope is that people can put their own flair on those builds and still have fun with them. I can tell you the exact perfect amount of stats for 99% of all D2 characters with a very simple formula and that makes their attribute system a low point in character customization. Skills are a pretty similar story. The way you customize your character to make it your own in D2 is through gear. We are absolutely going to have fun and interesting gear decisions that will play very heavily into your build.

So much of these systems are still theoretical because we are actively making the systems to support them still.


Thank you so much for explaining everything and for the effort. Can’t wait to play it.

The Passive Grid featured in the game’s pre-alpha demos, but has not been carried forward into our alpha test. I’m going to lock this thread to avoid any confusion.

The thread’s locked status failed to carry over from our previous forum.

@Mitch has posted a Developer Blog on the Passive Grid being replaced here.