For a beginning player, the first few hours of Path of Exile can be confusing. To anyone who has played an action role-playing game in the last twenty years, much of what developer Grinding Gear Games has put together will look familiar. Looks can be deceiving, though, and it doesn’t take long to realize that GGG has put a lot of hard work into bringing a unique experience for anyone courageous enough to give Path of Exile a try.
Courageous, you say? In contrast to a genre filled with games that hold your hand by providing stereotypical character classes with limited character choices, Path of Exile has a free-form design that allows players to mold a unique character from hundreds of skills. With that freedom comes the chance to make grave mistakes, leaving a player with little choice but to start anew with a fresh character.
Path of Exile is a game of layers, with each new layer adding a new facet to your character’s design. In this beginner’s guide, we are going to walk through the first few layers. With a clear understanding of how these first decisions fit together, we hope to make your first hours a more enjoyable time. Welcome to Wraeclast, Exile!
Choosing Your League
When you create your character, your first choice will be choosing which League you want to play. There are several choices, each one giving a slightly different experience, so it’s crucial to pick the right one for you.
The basic game mode for PoE, the Standard League has been around since the beginning. Other characters you come across in your travels may already be ultra-powerful. There is an established economy, and almost anything can be bought, for a price. A price you probably won’t be able to afford for a while.
Every few months or so, a new Challenge League starts in Path of Exile. These temporary leagues put all players back on a level playing field with level one characters and a reset economy. From there, it’s a race (take a leisurely pace if you prefer) to complete the main story and play through end-game content until the next reset. After the conclusion of the league, all characters are relegated to the Standard League for future play.
Challenge leagues are also how Grinding Gear Games introduces new game mechanics into Path of Exile. These can be anything from unique encounters to new crafting mechanics. At the end of the league, the new mechanics are usually transferred to the core game, though they can receive significant overhauls before their inclusion.
Both Standard and Challenge Leagues have a Hardcore option. In this pseudo-permadeath league, your character has but one life to live. All is not lost upon death; your character is merely exiled to the Standard League, never to be played again.
Both Standard and Challenge Leagues have a Solo Self-Found (SSF) option. While PoE can typically be played with little group interaction, SSF completely cuts your character off from interacting with other characters. No grouping. No trading. It’s just you against everything Wraeclast can throw at you.
Path of Exile keeps it simple when it comes to primary attributes. Any veteran RPGer could probably figure out the basics of the three attributes - strength increases your health and damage, intelligence increases your mana pool, and dexterity is a measure of your agility. Those descriptions are close but, to be more exact, every 10 points in an attribute will provide the following bonuses:
- Strength (red)- an additional five maximum life and a 2% increase to physical damage.
- Intelligence (blue)- an additional five maximum mana and a 2% increase to your energy shield.
- Dexterity (green)- an additional 20 points to accuracy (both melee and ranged) and a 2% increase to your evasion rating.
You down with RGB? Yeah, you know me!
Represented by the giant red orb on the bottom left of the user interface, Life is exactly what you would expect - it’s the amount of damage you can take before you die and is e. Some gear can boost your armor stat, mitigating incoming damage, and a high evasion rating will help you avoid damage in the first place.
You may be wondering how your energy shield fits into your defense? In Path of Exile, your energy shield is more than a magical barrier against incoming missile weapons or spells; it functions as a secondary hitpoint pool that must be drained before taking any damage to your life. Your energy shield may be a fraction of your life, but it automatically regenerates, making it a valuable resource.
Since a red orb represents your life, it’s easy to guess the large blue orb represents your mana. As you might expect, other than your weapon’s basic auto-attack, mana powers all of your combat skills, be they melee, ranged, or spells. But mana in PoE has more purpose than that. Some of the more powerful skills, like auras, require a portion of your mana pool to be kept in reserve, and there are even character builds that allow mana to mitigate damage. Mana is always in demand, so it’s a good thing mana regenerates after a short delay.
Along with the above stat increases, improving your primary attributes allows you to wield more powerful gear. Whether it be a new sword, armor, ring, or gem, each item will have a minimum attribute requirement to be equipped. Some of the most potent items in PoE will require multiple attributes to use, so be sure to keep that in mind as your character progresses.
If you recall, each primary attribute is assigned a color - red for strength, green for dexterity, and blue for intelligence. Your life pool is a derivative of your strength, so it’s also represented by red. In the same manner, mana is blue, and evasion is green. As we continue to delve deeper into character creation and progression, those three colors will continue to pop up, each time linking the secondary stat or ability to one of the primary attributes.
Unlike most RPGs, where your class defines your role and abilities, classes in Path of Exile are much more open-ended. All classes share the same passive skill tree, though they do have different entry points into this giant web. As you acquire skill points from leveling or quests, you are free to choose any path you wish through the various passive skills and buffs, effectively molding your character as you go.
There aren’t any class restrictions on equipment either. Armor, weapons, and other gear choices depend more on what skills and abilities you plan to incorporate in your build than character class. Experienced players use this freedom to create unique character builds but, at least in the beginning, new players would be wise to follow a more classical RPG approach. To aid new players, each of the seven character classes is linked to at least one of the three main attributes, creating an automatic synergy between a class and a specific playstyle. Their starting position in the skill web further strengthens this synergy between class and playstyle.
Before choosing your class, know that all characters share some basic attributes. Each character starts with 50 life, 40 mana, and 53 evasion rating. Regardless of class, characters also gain 12 life, 6 mana, 2 accuracy rating, and 3 evasion rating per level.
Marauder (32 STR, 14 DEX, 14 INT)
The Marauder is the quintessential melee brawler. The Marauder often wields two-handed weapons, doling out heavy physical damage while their heavy armor mitigates incoming attacks.
Ranger (14 STR, 32 DEX, 14 INT)
Equally comfortable wielding a bow at a distance or getting up close and personal with light blades, the Ranger relies on speed and accuracy to win the day. Cumbersome armor only slows them down, so Rangers don lighter armor that boosts their evasion rating.
Witch (14 STR, 14 DEX, 32 INT)
Witches are the last of the classes focused on a single attribute and need only a wand to unleash their deadly spells. Specializing in poison, curses, and raising undead armies to do her bidding, Witches rarely need more than light robes and their energy shield to survive encounters.
Duelist (23 STR, 23 DEX, 14 INT)
Duelists are proficient with swords and other light weapons, blending both strength and dexterity into a balanced fighting style. Light armor is all the Duelist needs; why worry about absorbing damage if your nimble feet keep you out of a blade’s path?
Templar (23 STR, 14, DEX, 23 INT)
Just as likely to unleash a torrent of elemental fury as they are cracking open a skull with their sceptre, Templars are the champions of the battlefield. Templars can effectively wield two-handed weapons but often prefer the added protection of a shield instead.
Shadow (14 STR, 23 DEX, 23 INT)
To the Shadow, the end justifies the means. Using traps and mines to control the battlefield, the Shadow quickly unleashes a flurry of blows with their daggers or claws before retreating into the darkness.
Scion (20 STR, 20 Dex, 20 INT)
A blank slate, the Scion’s balanced attributes pair perfectly with her starting point smack dab in the middle of the skill web. It takes experience to craft a character without any archetype to follow, and for that reason, the Scion is the only character class that is not available to new players.
Passive Skill Tree
For many, Path of Exile’s passive skill tree (further referenced as the web or tree) is probably its most defining aspect. It’s likely the most daunting, too. At first glance, it’s an overwhelming mess of circles and lines, lacking any of the structure skill trees from other games provide. When you finally sit down and start to dissect it, though, you’ll begin to decipher its mysteries.
Path of Exile’s iconic skill tree - a kaleidoscope of power.
Gaining Skill Points
There are only two ways to gain skill points in Path of Exile. The first is leveling your character by killing the vile creatures of Wraeclast. Each level grants you a single skill point, so at level 100, you will have earned 99 points.
The second way to get skill points is as a quest reward. All of these rewards are part of the main storyline and are spread relatively evenly throughout all ten acts, so there’s no way to collect them early in your adventures. Twenty-two quests reward you with a skill point upon completion. One of the quests has multiple solutions, so depending on your solution, you will finish with 22 or 24 points in addition to the 99 earned through leveling.
Skill points can be used immediately or saved for later use. Although there isn’t any inherent bonus to saving points, it can be helpful to have a few unspent points to help shore up any weaknesses in your build as they arise. You will earn 20 refund points to reclaim spent skill points. You can’t do a full character respec, so be sure to use your skill points and refunds wisely.
Pieces of the Pie
The skill web has three major zones. Each third focuses on one of the main attributes. The northern third focuses on intelligence and magic, the southwestern third covers strength and melee combat, and the southeastern third encompasses dexterity, ranged combat, and evasion.
At the center of the web, you’ll find the starting point for the Scion, surrounded by skills from each of the three main attributes. Just outside of this interior hub, you will find the starting location for the other six classes. The three classes focused on a single attribute - the Marauder, Ranger, and Witch - sit at the center of their attribute’s sector. The hybrid classes begin in their corresponding spot along the intersection of their dual attributes.
It may not look like it but Path of Exile’s skill web is structured. Three generally circular rings create an inner, middle, and outer road around the web. There are also roads snaking out from the inner portion of the web to the outer edge. These main roads are the backbone of the skill web and the quickest way to reach distant nodes. There are other paths linking the rings together, but they require passing through more nodes, thereby using more skill points. Each course of travel through the web has its benefits, so odds are you will use a mixture of pathways as you level your character.
The primary pathways bring some structure to the Passive Skill Tree.
Each of the small nodes along the main roads of the skill web grants your character ten attribute points. These nodes generally correspond to the sector’s primary attribute, though a small portion will be aligned with the other two attributes.
Along the middle road of the web, you will also notice pairs of larger attribute nodes. These nodes grant thirty attribute points each and always consist of the non-primary attributes of that sector. With these nodes, you can easily boost your secondary attributes with a minimum number of skill points.
Singularly, attribute nodes have a negligible impact on your character. When added together, though, they provide a substantial boost to your character’s attributes.
Big or small, Attribute Nodes can add up to major stat boosts.
With over 1000 skill nodes, trying to locate a specific buff can be difficult. We already discussed how the skill web is split into three sections, and just identifying which section you are in will give you a rough idea of what type of skill nodes you will find. Thankfully, just like the network of roadways we identified, there is a method to the skill node madness that will help separate and locate specific skills.
If you zoom in on a section of the web, you’ll notice that most of the skill nodes are grouped on small disks, creating clusters that have one or two links to the main roadways. Many of these clusters have an icon in the middle that tips off what types of buffs it holds. For example, a flame icon represents fire buffs while a bow icon predictably denotes a buff for bow attacks.
Each cluster consists of basic and notable nodes. Basic nodes - the small, barely indistinguishable circles - add a small buff or two to your character, like a minor mana increase or increased elemental damage. In many RPGs, this type of node would typically take up a single spot on the skill tree with multiple ranks allowing you to add one or more points before moving further up the tree. Instead of stacking, Path of Exile places multiple basic nodes in a cluster, effectively requiring a total investment to reach the larger prize on the other side.
That prize, the larger node with fancy trim, is a notable node. These nodes can simply be a larger version of the basic nodes before it or a unique node with its own set of buffs. Regardless, the notable nodes always impart a considerable boost to the character, making them an essential part of your final build.
Basic Nodes lead to Notable power.
As you browse through the skill web, you’ll notice some clusters have medium-sized nodes with fancy frames but lack an identifying icon. These particular nodes allow you to slot in jewels that you’ve acquired during your adventures. Jewels come in various types and sizes, and all of them will enable you to customize your build further.
Jewel Sockets can have a radius of effect.
You probably noticed that not all nodes are positioned inside clusters. Their ornate frames signal that they are more powerful than nodes found in the clusters. These Keystones can significantly alter certain aspects of your character. Their power comes at a cost, for each keystone has adverse effects to balance the power gained. Creating character builds that maximize the benefit while minimizing the disadvantage is your goal.
Keystones can be a quid pro quo affair.
Before we transition from passive skills to active skills, it would be wise to cover armor and weapons basics. It was already mentioned that all gear is usable by any class, but there are minimum level and attribute requirements for each item. The stat requirements to use an item are generally aligned to the benefits it awards. For example, a dagger would require dexterity to wield and provide buffs to dexterity-based skills.
Items come in four tiers - basic, magical, rare, and unique. As you go up the tiers, the number and potency of modifiers an item convey increases. Regardless of rarity, all weapons and armor in Path of Exile have gem sockets, though the number and color of sockets will vary from piece to piece. Therefore, basic items with the correct sockets needed for your build are just as coveted as rarer items with powerful attributes.
The last thing to consider when determining whether an item is valuable or not is whether the sockets are linked. Many gems will boost the power of another gem, but only if their sockets are linked together.
Link your gems together to unleash their power!
Along with its massive passive skill tree, the handling of character skills and abilities is another way GGG has differentiated PoE from the rest of the ARPG crowd. Skills in PoE come in the form of gems. These gems are slotted into sockets on your weapons and armor. Changing your skills is as simple as removing a gem and replacing it with another.
Just like your character, gems gain experience and level up. Whether they are used or not, all slotted gems earn 10% of the experience your character gains. Most gems have a maximum level of 20 and grow in power with each level. The minimum attribute levels and mana used to activate them also increase as they level up. Keep this in mind when swapping out gear, as a change in your character’s attributes can render a gem unusable.
There are two types of gems - Active Skill Gems and Support Skill Gems. Many of the story quests will reward you with a choice of gems suitable to your character’s class. There’s no need to worry about missing out if you aren’t playing a stereotypical class; there’s a vendor at each hub that sells all the gems you didn’t pick, and in Act 3 you will get access to all the gems available as rewards, regardless of your class. Gems can also be found in the loot dropped by slain creatures or by completing special encounters as you play.
Active Skill Gems
Active Skill Gems are what give your character their magical abilities. Socketing as many active skill gems as you can certainly give you a wide array of abilities, but most character builds only utilize a handful of active skills. Of your active skills, only one or two will be your primary damage dealers, with the rest providing mobility, short-term and persistent buffs, the ability to summon minions, and other utility abilities.
Active Skill Gems can bring the pain.
Support Skill Gems
Support skill gems will take up the remainder of your gem sockets. These gems do nothing on their own, but they impart additional effects and buffs to any active skill gems in the chain when placed in a linked socket. If multiple support gems are in the same chain, only the highest-level gem will provide support; the others are ignored.
Nothing on their own, Support Skill Gems layer on extra effects.
Your First Character And Beyond
You’ve selected a league, picked a class, have an idea of what skill gems you want to focus on, and possibly even have a rough idea of particular skill nodes you wish to add as you level up. The world is your oyster, right? Perhaps, but we’re going to cover some of the fundamentals of that world so you can hit the ground running.
You Wake Up On A Sandy Shore
Starting your adventure on a deserted beach is probably the oldest trope in RPG history, and it found its way into the story of Path of Exile. Be sure to explore every inch of that desolate beach, at least your first time through. It gives a quick introduction to combat in Path of Exile, along with some starter gear for your chosen class.
Once you’ve cleared the beach, it’s on to Lioneye’s Watch, which serves as your first sanctuary in Wraeclast. You’ll return here often to initiate quests and receive rewards for finished ones. You’ll also find vendors who ask for exorbitant prices and offer a pittance for your treasure.
Lioneye’s Watch is the first hub, but it won’t be the last you encounter on your journeys. Each of the ten acts in PoE’s story will start in a new hub. Each hub has several amenities to help you along your way:
Your stash is precisely that - a place to store your loot. It also serves as communal storage for all of your characters of a particular league.
Each hub has a waypoint that is activated upon your arrival. Unlike portal scrolls that create a temporary teleporter between your current location and a hub, these waypoints are permanent. Some zones also have waypoints to discover, each one adding to your fast-travel network.
Crafting And Currency
With all the loot that drops in PoE, it’s easy to miss that none of it is gold or silver coins. PoE skips coins and instead uses all those shards and orbs filling up your inventory as currency. Different gear will net you different orbs from a vendor. There are even item combinations that can be traded in for a specific return.
Orbs are also used to craft and enhance gear. There is a random nature to improving your current equipment, so it is best to wait until you are well along in your character build before using any orbs.
Copper, silver, gold, and platinum? That’s too easy for Path of Exile.
There's too much loot flying from fallen foes for you to pick it all up and port back to town to sell. Sorting through everything on the ground for the special pieces worth keeping is time-consuming too. Fortunately, there are loot filters to help you identify the good stuff.
It's possible to create your own filter but new players will find it much easier to grab one of the community-made filters. I prefer Neversink's loot filter. You can download the source code on Github or use the customizer at FilterBlade to create a personalized filter to fit your current needs.
When you’re feeling a bit lonely and want to group up, head to the hub’s notice board. Each hub has a separate board, helping you to find groups in your approximate area and level.
Live And Learn
Odds are, unless you follow one of the many character build guides out there, you’re going to make some critical mistakes building your first character. You’ll be playing along just fine, feeling pretty good about how easily your character has cleared the first few areas. Then, out of the blue, you’ll get wrecked over and over by a boss encounter.
Don’t worry. It happens to us all at some point. With each new playthrough, you’ll learn something new, and pretty soon, you’ll be finishing off the last boss fight of the main storyline and hitting all the end game content long before the league resets. You’ll start to find new synergies between your passive skills, active skills, and gear that make starting a new character to take on new Challenge League mechanics a process you love.
We’ve done our best to explain the basics of Path of Exile. There are still many things that we haven’t covered, but divulging too many secrets would take away part of your adventure. It’s up to you to forge your path from here. Good luck, Exile!