Exile, Part 2: Getting Skilled


Path of Exile
 is the best dungeon crawler in the world right now.
In Part Two we delve into the unusual Skill Gem system and all its implications.


Most RPGs happily follow the Dungeons & Dragons model by having you pick a class and unlock their skills as you level up. Path of Exile has a drastically different approach. You collect skills in the form of gems that must be embedded into your equipment before you can use them. You collect and possess these gems as if they were any other little trinket; you can even trade them with other players or buy them from vendors for a little cash. You can have multiples, and each can have different quality ratings and levels. Yes, your gems level up independently of you. It’s weird.


Skill Gems come in three flavors: red, green, and blue. Red gems require more Strength to use as they level up, and they can only be placed in red Sockets, which tend to appear most frequently in heavy armor. There’s a natural synergy between Strength-heavy skill gems and the heavy plate armor you’d expect a brutish warrior to wear because of their tendency to have red sockets that can accommodate red Skill Gems. But this is just the most obvious approach. Nothing is stopping you from getting enough Intelligence or Dexterity to use those blue or green Skill Gems in your
warrior character; it just isn’t as convenient. You may wonder what the point is of decoupling skills from classes. That’s because it opens up a world of possibilities. It also makes everything easier to balance.

There are 7 classes to choose from in Path of Exile, and they each reflect an obvious optimization route. They are the Marauder (Strength), Templar (Str/Int), Witch (Intelligence), Shadow (Int/Dex), Ranger (Dexterity), Duelist (Dex/Str), and the Scion (Int/Dex/Str). There are no items or skills exclusive to these classes, so the real reason to pick one over another is because they’ll have access to different things more quickly. Vendors will sell a Witch different gems than a Duelist, but both of them can use any skills if they have the sockets and the stats. Would it be optimal for you to do so? Not usually, but because raw gems that haven’t leveled up have extremely low stat requirements it can be an interesting to mix and match them.


Mix and Match

I’ll give you an example of what I’m working on with my current character. Here’s a chest piece I’ve got equipped and the gems socketed inside. As you can see it has 4 sockets and all of them are connected by those lines. Sockets that aren’t connected don’t have the option to be supported by anything, but those connected to multiple others has a chance of being supported by more than one! Therefore, connected sockets become exponentially more useful the more you can get. That’s a challenge, and plays into the currency/crafting system we discussed before.

At the bottom of the image you can see an example of a Skill Gem I’m using and a Support Gem that’s helping it…

Because my Shrapnel Shot is an “attack” and Chance to Bleed has that tag, they’re compatible. It doesn’t matter that one is green and the other is red. Those colors dictate where they can be placed and what kind of stats they demand, not whether they are compatible with each other. The other skill, Rain of Arrows, also benefits from Chance to Bleed because it’s in the same group of connected sockets and is also an attack. Both of these skills also benefit from the other Support Gem, called Stun, which simply increases the stunning effect of the attacks. If I had a support gem related to “lightning”, “area of effect”, or “bow”, those would also work with my Shrapnel Shot because it has all four tags.

Importantly, Support Gems increase the Mana cost of skills they’re helping, so they can become problematic if you have — for example — three gems supporting a single skill. You can always find ways to make that work, but once again this is likely to restrict your options in other places.

My plan with this build is to cause a lot of bleeding with ranged attacks, allowing me to run away and watch enemies health deplete over time. In Path of Exile bleeding actually hurts enemies more while they’re moving around, so using ranged attacks allows me to back off and continue to do damage as they’re forced to run after me — painfully. This is a fun strategy in itself, but without Support Gems it would be hard to get bleeding consistently on all of my attacks. The added stun is good for interrupting spell casters, etc.


Skill Forest

The real important thing about making my self-described “Bloody Archer” build to work is my selection of “Passive Skills” which greatly enhance the effect of bleeding on enemies. Passive Skills are always the juiciest part of building a character. If you’re not creative you can just pick whatever seems most useful at the moment and see where you end up, but if you’re a diabolical madman with a trick up your sleeve you can chart a very unorthodox course. Keep in mind that unlike Skill Gems or items, however, each point you invest in Passive Skills are semi-permanent, forcing you to commit.

This isn’t my Bloody Archer, but a random example of how the tree looks. The highlighted nodes are active, and each was earned from either a character level or an earned Passive Skill Point.

There are big and small nodes. The bigger they are, the more impressive their function, to the point where some of them can totally rearrange how things like Life and Mana work. Want your arrows to do the most damage at point blank range? You can do that. My build has +100% bleeding damage on enemies because of the nodes I’ve picked, and there are still more I’m aiming to reach soon. We’ll see if it remains viable at later stages of the game.

It’s not supposed to be obvious what the best options are, and that’s what keeps hardcore players occupied for so long. The gear, skills, and passive points you combine can lead to crazy and innovative builds that devastate even the highest end badguys, but they can also be tragically flawed and constantly struggling to compensate for their weak spots. Slowly testing ideas and figuring out new strategies is worth it, just as the currency/crafting system is.


Making It Big

Actually, I lied before. There’s a very important way in which classes are totally different from each other, and that’s their Ascendancy options. As you progress through the game you’ll have the option to partake in trials and tribulations that test your character’s worthiness to “Ascend” to a specific class specialty. Each class (except the Scion) has three Ascendancy Classes to choose from, and these will dramatically define what your character is best at. Below is a picture of the Gladiator specialty for the Duelist class:

Knowing that this is part of your character’s future, you may want to plan accordingly.

Looking at the options of Duelist specialties, for example, I can already see that my Bloody Archer will not be optimized for bows specifically, but will have powerful options when it comes to bleeding effects, which is perfect for me. There’s nothing in the Duelist Ascendancy classes to help out archery, because he’s mostly a melee weapons guy, but the Passive Skills are a lot like Support Gems in that they’re compatible with anything that matches the tags. Check this one out…

Sooner or later, Path of Exile will tempt you into becoming a crazy man counting every passive point and theorizing the MAXIMUM DESTRUCTION route. What you’ll find, when you finally go down this road, is that it’s fun to be obsessed. You can play the same content over and over again with different characters, builds, and strategies because you’re basically performing scientific experiments the whole time. Other dungeon crawlers won’t offer you this because they hold your hand. And it’s not like there’s a small amount of content to play through, either. Including the end game system of the Atlas of Worlds, there’s a supreme level of carnage to be waded through.



Building a character is a sort of alchemy in Path of Exile. It’s part science, part luck, and a lot of experimentation. Rather than feeding you easy options for optimizing, you quickly find yourself wondering what else you could be doing to maximize your effectiveness. I’ve had many instances where one simple adjustment has almost doubled my damage per second, or given my defenses a boost big enough to endure the next wave of hardships. Getting rid of interesting Skill Gems that don’t quite pull their weight anymore, or replacing a Support Gem that no longer meets the needs of the current plight, can free up your equipment’s sockets — which in turn makes it easier to swap them out. Bloated character builds are always struggling to find better pieces of gear (weapons and armor) that still have the maximum number of connected sockets in them, but these are not easy to come across. So you’ll be using a piece of armor that’s 30% worse than what you could be using simply because you can’t find a new version that also has the sockets you want. A lean and efficient build can be more flexible in this regard, updating more frequently.

The beautiful and bespoke interplay between crafting, difficulty, equipment, Skill Gems, and the Passive Forest makes for a worthy challenge. The D&D model is not the only game in town.

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