Diablo III’s Skill System Explained, with Illustrations

As promised yesterday, here are some “new” “ninja” photos of the game skill interfaces, showing how things have changed as of the beta build preview at Blizzard Irvine two weeks ago. We discussed skills during the second DiabloWikiDiablo podcast over the weekend (coming on Wednesday) and since neither of the guests were quite sure what the new system was, I figured most of you guys could use some refresher as well.

  • There are now 6 skills usable at a time (down from 7). You get 2 to start with, and add another at Clvl 6, 12, 18, and 24.
  • There are no more respecs; you can switch between your active skills at any time. (There may be some limits put on this freespecing on higher difficulty levels.)
  • There are no more skill points. DiabloWikiSkills are either enabled or not; and their power scales up from Clvl, equipment, DiabloWikiattributes, passives, etc. Not points in the skill.
  • DiabloWikiTraits were (why?) changed back to DiabloWikiPassive Skills. They have no points either, and you only get to use 3 of them total, enabled at 10, 20, and 30
  • DiabloWikiRunestones were not enabled in the pre-beta demo, since they’re undergoing some randomized item mod retesting.

You see the whole system in this screenshot of the DiabloWikiDemon Hunter skills, which I compiled from two photos (hence the not quite matching in the middle).This is by no means the whole screen; the skill window covers about 2/3 of your display, with a bit of game action visible to the right. (How much varies by how widescreen your resolution is. There’s a cool comparison display of that in the wiki.) The assigned/usable skills are in the middle; when you select them from the full list (scroll down to see it all, in-game) on the right.

This new system is designed to ease players into the skills, and allow for a lot of early experimentation. Instead of 3 or 4 skills becoming active at once in a tier (as previously) you now get a new skill every level or two, and can try it out instantly thanks to the freespecs. Your 3rd skill slot goes active at 6, with the others coming at 12, 18, and 24. New skills become available every level or two until around Clvl 29, so in theory a player will have had a chance to try out every skill in the game by the end of Normal difficulty.

The three locks below the window show when the passive skills become available. They work much like the active skills, with a new passive coming on every other level or so. They can be switched in and out freely as well, but the first one isn’t usable until Clvl 10. In theory players will see the traits as they become active, read the tooltips, and start thinking about what they want to use as they level up. So by the time you get to 10, or 20, or 30, you’ll have decided which trait to enable. Plus you can switch them in and out freely, for experimentation.

We have fully-updated lists of all the active skills in the DiabloWiki.

Click through to see additional skill and trait passive interface images, with more informative captions.

Part of the DiabloWikiWizard passive skills menu can be seen here. There are around 20 passives per character (subject to change) which seems like an awful lot when you can only have 3 active at a time. Most of the passives in the pre-beta demo build were exactly the same as the traits we saw at Blizzcon 2010, and there were big gaps and disparities in how many passives each class had, so it’s obvious that development continues on this system.

You can see updated lists of all the passive skills in the game as of the beta build in the DiabloWikiDiabloWiki.net.

DiabloWikiFrost Nova is the first DiabloWikiWizard skill available, and here you see the tooltip.

DiabloWikiBlur is a Clvl 10 DiabloWikiWizard passive skill. Here you see the DiabloWikitool tip.

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65 thoughts on “Diablo III’s Skill System Explained, with Illustrations

  1. I was a bit put off when this was first announced but I’m really quite fond of the skill system now – I’m the sort of player that likes to try lots of different play styles and skill combos so I’m sure I’ll come to love it. I just hope they don’t screw up Runestones!

    • Yeah, I agree. One of my favorite things in D2 was rolling new chars, so I was pretty worried, but now I can experiment with rune stones and spend more time rolling HC chars so I think it will be a blast!

  2. I wonder what they will have the skill rune interface do to demonstrate to players that they rune doesn’t disappear when you switch skills (assuming that is true since they want us to be able to respec). You can see slot for the rune in the first pic. When you switch skills, will it just switch rune icons to whatever rune you have socketed in the new skill or no rune at all if that is the case?

    Also, any idea on what “basic attacks” in the Drain Power passive is?

  3. “Some limits on freespecing”?  Please use my idea of time-related, capped skill bonus based on the number of hours you keep one skill in a slot without changing it…

  4. This system is looking awesome – I’m so glad they didn’t just use the systems from D2.

    Aren’t they playing around with making runes neutral until you equip them, in which case they bond to that spell? As I understood it, you could still swap it out or in, but it would remain a ‘Magic Missile Split’ rune for example, with random affixes.

    I’ve seen the ‘basic attacks’ elsewhere on skills – I’d also like to know what they are? I assumed melee attacks, but possibly not.

    • If you look at the passive skills pages, there are a lot of unclear wordings. A couple of traits refer to “rockets” and say that runestones create the effect. It sounds like “projectiles” but apparently it’s slightly different somehow. And as you point out, “basic attacks” when speaking of a mage’s skills is a bit WUT?

      As I mentioned in the post, the passives were clearly just recently switched over from traits, with the same names in many cases. Ironically, the various blizzcon demos had traits that were clearly just switched over from passives, with old wording on many of them as well. Seems like the devs spend little time on passives (compared to active skills) and even less on updating tooltips.

      That seems to be a common thing; I remember viewing HGL during its development and before a couple of press events Bill Roper told me he’d been up until the wee hours the night before, going over the tooltips and skill descriptions since the functions had been changed repeatedly, without the tooltips getting updated to match. And yes, Bill was like the CEO and project lead, but I guess none of the programmers or devs making the changes could write.

      • As a software developer I can safely say that there is nothing more repulsive than writing documentation.

        • Which is one reason I miss the game manuals with significant fiction content, whether it was a summary of wars within the burning hells or a description of a terran marine’s life expectancy.  Stuff sounded fun to write.

        • As a gamer/general software user, I can safely say that there’s nothing more repulsive than horribly constructed/lack of documentation.

      • Where’d you see the rocket thing? Was it JudgeHype? I saw that too.

        French has two words for rocket, and the one he chose tends to mean the seeking kind, not the engine kind.

      • I’m pretty sure that “basic attack” means using your equipped weapon without any skills. So hitting enemies with your sword or shooting them with your bow or wand is considered a basic attack.

      • Well, Seeing as Frost Nova has a !!12!! second cooldown, I can understand a wizard using basic attacks.

  5. wow some of the passives are very boring – i hope they change stuff up – for more interresting gameplay.
    i mean the barbarian alone has 4 passives which either increase critical strike chance or / and critical strike dmg thus the bonus of these 4 passives multiply with each other (3 of those 4 anyway) –> and a cookie cutter solution is born.
    i hope they really come up with better passives which actually alter the way you play …
    not all passives are that boring i like ~30% of them quite alot but the other ones :/

    • another point which just came to my mind … werent Traits / passives meant to be very meainingful
      i mean back when passives were still traits , we had about 30 trait points i mean just look at the traits section of the wiki
      1 trait point made a huge difference and we had about 30 of them instead of 3 total i mean the attribute boosts alone were 20% PER POINT ; that amoiunts to very significant costumization : i mean every stat could have been 100% more valuable or traits which were presumably equally strong to those attribute boosts,
      and now we get what , 20% percent more vitality ? 10% elemental dmg reduction ? 10% more fury ?
      wow those 3 passives will totally change how i play this game , they will probably revolutionize my game- experience – i would probably not even notice those 3 passives (for example) if i only had like ~1 week of game experience…
      that being said iam very dissappointed with the current design. the choice of your passives seems only marginally significant . i would go so far to say , that i would be able to play EVERY possible passive combination in a viable faishon if i just changed my way of playing the game _slightly_. if i noticed the difference at all.
      i have the theory that they want to streamline Character costumization so thourughly , that in the end, only the items really matter, and if items are the only thing that really matters in the game , they become very desireable right ? and if they were very desireable – one might say that people would pay real money for them right ?

      • Look at the values in the tooltips. The fact that they’re colored green is a dead giveaway that they will scale, either with character level or items, so the huge bonuses previously seen on traits may still be possible to reach.

        I agree with you however in that most of the currently known bonuses are quite boring and they don’t really change someone’s playstyle. It’s really strange, since going by what Jay Wilson said at BlizzCon 2010, the current system is exactly what that they were trying to avoid with traits. I hope they come up with more exciting trait (I’m boycotting the name “passives”, it’s dull and lacks flavor) bonuses until the release of the game.

        • well maybe green numbers are only green because they are key parameter. and often happen to be scaleable with level ( in the new current system).
          but for the games sake i hope that iam wrong , and you are right Oo

    • I like the idea of stacked passives…it lets you either triple down on pure damage or diversify for other effects.

    • I think a lot of that; the passives not having very big bonuses, and there being a lot of boring ones, is due to them just switching from traits.In that system characters were going to have 8 or 10 of them, with multiple points in most. Hence the bonuses didn’t have to be that big or distinctive, since you might have 5 x 20% increase.

      I think the devs must be redoing the passives even as we speak; probably combining similar ones and upping the bonuses on all of them since we only get 3 now. It seems weird to have 20~ to choose from when you can only enable 3 at once. Probably there should be like 8 or 10 passives, with multiple bonuses from each. +dmg and crit %, instead of just one or the other; that sort of thing.

      • I think it might be better to pick one, then use gear to pump up the other stat (in regards to crit and pure damage). Same goes for flat vitality and defense. We’ll see how it plays out.

      • i`d just wish they would go more out of there way (of straight forwardness) to encourage “oddball” passive combinations, and real experimentation, i mean they removed so much costumization and gave nothing in return,
        i mean for example what about something like sub-passive-skills –
        let me explain we have about 20 passive skills per class and can have 3 at a  time (with my “concept idea” 10 are very reasonable )
        sub passive-skills or traits or whatever you wanne call them ,should be based on what passive skills you have chosen (kinda like runewords in d2)
        the first and the second, and the second and the third passive skill should form one sub passive skill each.
        so in the end game each class has 3 of 10 passive skills  and 2 of 10 “sub-passive”-skills with such a system you could encourage all kind of crazy :O , and even a seemingly “lame” passive-skill combination could turn out awesome because of the subpassive skills – eg stuff which could never be found on items for that matter.
        i mean currently i just dont see any of the effort and promises they made when diablo 3 was all fresh announcend.
        they currently just count on us being satisfied with flashy combat and item”hunt” (see what i did there hee.hee… -____- nvm.)
        i mean i just dont see myself playing this game for as long as i played d2.
        we havent seen much of items yet – but what we have seen yet… is kinda lame – in d2 we had oddball items which made entire builds possible (i admit a lot of broken ones too)
        i just hope they still have some kind of trumpcard up their sleeve …

  6. So there is basically no customization left?

    I like the idea of changing specs/skills up and being able to wield many skills, but I also like “building” characters and trying certain skill builds to find effectiveness. Maybe it is the math geek in me.

    They say it’s for simplicity, but I can’t help feeling that they are trying to allocate most of the customization to be done through rune stones and equipment, so they have another “type” of item to sell on the RMAH. I hope I’m wrong.

    • If you actually did the math and came out with something different than the pre-existing build guides, then you are a pretty rare duck.

      I would guess that most people – whether or not they read the build guides – came to nearly the exact same conclusion about skill point allocation: max A, B and C, 1 point in A, B and C and all the rest here and here. 

      There really wasn’t a lot of thinking to do, so allocating skill points became more of “I get to press the red button because I levelled!”

      I liked pressing the button too and my first reaction to this change was, “Hey, what’s the point of levelling then?”, but when I got to thinking about it, it was just a button, not a decision. The current system allows for more customisation because you get six skills (or seven if that skill switch button is still in) that are should all be viable active skills, rather than one or two overpowered skills, a back up one-pointer and a couple buffs/debuffs.

      As for your comment on the RMAH, I don’t know. The newly proposed rune system sounds to me to be precisely designed to increase the number transactions. I personally don’t mind real-money transactions, but I think the way Blizz chose to do it was not the best idea out there both in terms of gameplay and perhaps for their own profit.

  7. I really wish Blizzard would have left some room for skill selection for levels above 30. They deliberately made it such that anyone who finished normal difficulty would have maxed out all their skill slots. And with auto stats, is there anything left for us to do beyond level 30? other than to decide which skill runes to use?

  8. Great post, thank you.  Though, seeing this, I still wish new passives opened up at the end of the later difficulty levels (one each level completion) to give us something to work towards after hitting 30.

  9. Do any of you know if passive skills will scale like their active counterparts? They unlock when you reach a certain level, but get a bit more power with every level you gain. Can someone confirm that?

  10. Flux, is this the only way we can select our 6 spells now? Or is the other way still implemented (clicking on the spell slot in the main UI and then selecting a new spell from the popup – like in the 2008 gameplay video)?

    • This is the new/only system. You’ll click a skill on the main scrollable list on the right, its gets a check mark and appears in one of your 6 slots in the middle of the display. skills once enabled that way automatically appear on your 1234 LMB RMB options. You can drag and drop the icons there to put them in the order you like. Move RMB to 3, move 4 to RMB, etc.

      • Oh nice! thanks. I actually like that way moreso than being able to swap them in and out in the main UI.

  11. I like how the skills system is lining up. I like that I’ll probably be able to have any number of options through the base skills then that much more with the runestones. It makes the game that much more enjoyable (to me) if say you have a group of 3 WD’s and each one is using different skills and rune combinations. I’m pretty stoked for this game. It couldn’t come out soon enough. Hehe

  12. So, I’m in a dungeon full of fire enemies, I switch to skills that better fit the place, such as ice skills
    Then next, I’m into another dungeon which enemies come in big clusters, so I then switch to area of effect skills
    Basically, I switch to the skills that best fit the location I am
    So much for customization
    I remember when making a character in D2 actually required thinking, when decisions actually mattered
    This is the way of the future, the dumbing down and casualization of every game

    • In some sense I agree, I want customization, but they say that it comes in through rune choice and maybe they’re right. I just want to note one thing: do NOT pretend that D2 had a good skill system! In many ways it really was terrible!

    • Don’t you think that it would be far less time comsuming to build a character that can deal with all sorts of encounters instead of swapping skills all the time. Besides, Blizzard has clearly stated that they will mix up the encounters alot to make you use alot of different skills. There wont be any location where one type of skill will dominate all like in d2 where some areas had mostly fire immune etc.
      Also you would need different runes and gear to support each buildtype unless you go for a very generic gearsetup which will work with most builds. In that case you will probebly lack some killing power anyway.
      Finally, we dont know when and where we will be able to swap skills. They might limit this in some form in later difficulties and such.
      Sure, as you say, you probebly could change skills for different locations but Im not sure how much you would actually gain by doing it. I think Blizzard will prevent this behavior if needed.

    • That’s something we talked about on the 2nd weekend podcast (coming tomorrow). What’s to prevent a char from just switching to the best skills for every dungeon? Fire in this one, cold in the next, arcane after that, etc.  Especially consider that for aboss fights; won’t everyone just figure which skills are best for Diablo, Belial, etc, and then always switch to those before the showdown?

      So do the devs have to design every big encounter to have so many multiple components and aspects that all types of builds are challenged? I like the idea of characters having some identity, and being good at some things and suck at others. You learn to deal with your build’s strengths and weaknesses, and if you clean up on small ankle biters then you struggle against big single targets. Etc.

      Not the case in D3. At least not in normal difficulty. Hopefully they’ll put some limits on freespecing in NM/Hell/Inferno, at least requiring a trip back to town, or some kind of cooldown on skill switching.

      • adding a trip back to town just means more downtime. but to do better, people will do it. So it makes it easier but wastes time.

        This just looks like 1 character can do anything, u just change ur skills on the fly and items.
        So there is no point in making more than 1 character of anytype anymore… I used to have a few barbs just for different builds / weapons. But now we just need lots of bagspace to swap items and we can carry on. I can see this killing replayability.

        • No one is forcing you to switch between the skills. Just play with your 6 and try to make the most of them in the game. I know, that I will not do that swapping circus. When I will be familiar with all the skills, I’ll choose 6 of them and continue my journey through Nightmare/Hell/Inferno and etc. without changing them. So the availability of skills is really no problem for me in case of replay-ability.

  13. The passives system, with its low-bonus passives, the heavily-delayed beta, and also the overall lack of polish in the skill interface….all of this gives me hope that whatever they showed at the media meet was very incomplete and quickly hashed, and is under another round of frenzied overhaul now.

    The only new system I really liked was the solid 10% hit to (most probably)max durability aka. WOW. That is one great WOW system put to good use. It finally puts a “cost” upon dying…you will always dread item loss and it will make you want to stay alive above anything.

  14. Sounds better than expected. But what does level up mean now besides some automatic stat increases? (Besides the lvl 6, 10, 12, 18, 20, 24 and 30?) Waht about all the other levels..wasn’t it supposed to be meaningful and thus they removed lvl 99?
    They should just tell that lvl 60 is there because of the expansion style which will allow us to go to levl 70 instead of telling us stuff.
    Lets see how it plays out though

    • A level up would increase the power of all of your current skills. “Waht about all the other levels..wasn’t it supposed to be meaningful and thus they removed lvl 99?” I see this as a pretty empty argument, take d2 for example. Level a lvl 90 char hits 91… you put 1 point in the final skill that you’re maxing and likely 5 stat points into vit (maybe dex if you’re blocking). The new system just clicks the buttons for you but it essentianly puts a point into EVERY skill.

  15. If you read carefully I am saying nothing about making respeccing anything but free.  I am bringing up the idea of rewarding committing to a skill as a nod to those old diablo II junkies who still cling to outdated ideas like unique and permanent character builds. not a big reward, just a decrease in cooldown by 5% or something.

  16. Flux quotes the 10/20/30 thresholds for passive skills, but notice in the screenshots there are no glowing level reqs over those skill slots. I wonder if they haven’t changed these to be quest rewards? Maybe one for each difficulty? That would be cool.

  17. Yeah, traits need a little more polish. I like play influencing wildcards like Opportunity, Glass Cannon and Black Ice, and especially Ritual of Blood. Those are what the majority of traits should be. Sure, they should throw in the flat attribute increases for the n00bs to take, but that should be the bare maximum. Of course, it will be up to the professional theorycrafters to figure out which traits are better than the flat attribute increases; and that’s difficult b/c it’s hard to “math out” play tactics sometimes. Spreadsheets work best on “tank and spank” kinds of fights where you stand in one spot. In Diablo, this should be very, very rare.

  18. So, forgive me if I missed this..but

    How do the Passive Skills scale up now without points? Do they gain power as you level up? Or is it just now a matter of getting gear that compliments the Skills you have chosen?

    Can someone clear this up for me so I understand? Thanks.

    • Since they all seem to be flat percentages, they already scale up w/ gear and level. They’ll make a bigger impact at higher gear/character levels.

  19. This game is sounding more and more like GuildWars.  Free respecs, various resource types that power certain skills, maxxing out your char mid-game with nothing more to do other than get better equipment.
    I played a ton of D1/D2 and a medium amount of GuildWars.  Parts of the GuildWars system were cool.  I played a tank, and it was interesting to have some attacks based on mana, some based on another resource, and trying chain things together effectively (one attack could fuel the next).  Tailoring your look through armor die was pretty neat too.  However, I was really bummed when I realized that, mid-game, I could not really improve any more in terms of leveling.  The only avenue open for improvement was better gear.  I was also never tempted to make another character of the same profession, since I could try all variants with my one character.
    Hopefully the rune system and other things make D2 more interesting than Guild Wars in terms of character development.

  20. PS: If you have a Wii and want something fun to play until D3, I highly recommend Monster Hunter 3.  It looks simple on the cover; grab a giant sword or axe and start hunting giant dragons.  Not that that wouldn’t be a good game by itself.
    But MH3 has a lot of complexity and depth.  It is basically a sequence of boss battles, and it is *hard* to beat some of them.  The weapon and armor system is very complex with lots of trade-offs.  You never find weapons and armor while adventuring.  You find components and have to craft them.  Most of the time (through the offline campaign) you feel underpowered and have to use a ton of battle tactics.  Monsters have different resistances to elements, slash, crush type attacks on different parts of their bodies.  Using this weapon with this element?  Target the tail.  etc. etc.

  21. As posted earlier, the 12 second cool down is crazy. Is that really how they are going to work? Will this change as you gain levels, like less cool down time?

    • Oh, man… These are numbers – they’ll most likely change. They probably change a lot. The reason why they have a relatively long cooldown on frost nova is to make it a utility skill not damage skill. You find your Wizz in the middle of the giant mob party – frost nova – they freeze, you escape and hit them with for example magic missle which has no cooldown at all.

      • Yeah, 12 seconds isn’t all that long when you look at similar crowd-control skills in other PvP games like DotA and similar Aeon-of-Strife clones. All Blizzard is doing is raising the tactical requirements for D3’s PvM gameplay, which is a good thing, IMO.

        The lack of skill customization after level 30 aside from gear (including Runestones) really bothers me though. I’ve always been more interested in playing with builds than with item farming, which is why I’m a fan of the aforementioned PvP games. Now it seems like if I don’t invest significant time (or money!) into farming for runestones I’m going to have a very motley collection of characters. 🙁

        • It’s not really ‘raising the tactical requirements’, though, is it? It certainly isn’t allowing us to define our own tactics, it’s practically forcing them on us. We have little option but to use some of these spells in a certain way because there are more restrictions on them. If Blizzard wanted each player to find tactical niches then they would have fewer restrictions. To make Frost Nova a utility skill, one simply needs to give it a high cost and low damage output, with the effect (freezing) the most powerful aspect of it. I suspect that quick resource regeneration may be one factor explaining why cooldowns have been tacked on – there does need to be some limiter

  22. I hope they give passives that give bonuses to specific weapon groups for the barb. With the current ones there doesn’t see to be any reason to not dual wield or go sword and board, 2-handers are left out.

  23. I can bet my life, they have stopped freespecs by now and are doing something new, but equally crazy.

    I must say one thing though. Unlike the Starcraft II team, the Diablo team is brave. Very brave. Despite all the half-baked things we see right now, I really respect their decision of not just remoulding the old game, but trying to consciously fix each and every thing that was wrong with it.

    Look at the history. Their resource systems weren’t working for 2 years, they’ve fixed those and now the new resources are awesome. They were confused about runes, they finally decided to change every skill with every rune. Look how amazing that feels now. Now, the skill thing is not working awesomely, so we’re seeing craziness at work, but I trust the end result will be awesome again.

    Even if it is not, I think the Diablo team has shown that Bliz is not just about spit and polish, that experimentation and innovation are not dead at Blizzard. Something I felt strongly after I played SC2.

  24. On one hand im wondering what the customization will be like after level 30.
    But on the other, when I want to make a whirlwind barbarian for example, on d2 it was only effective after putting in 10-20 (?) skills in whirlwind. So I didn’t have my ‘whirlwind barbarian’ before around level 40-50. From 1-40 you have to use skills you actually didnt want to use. I like the fact that you CAN have the character you want, at level 30. 

    I still think it is fun to try other builds after 30, trying if one skill fits the other better etc.

    Edit: actually, you didnt have the character you wanted untill endgame…

    • Exactly. It was not uncommon to see naked characters in your baal runs because they cant use the gear they want untill lvl 60-70. a lot of people diddnt actually start playing untill they were high enough to wear the gear they had saved up. Seems really dumb now that I look back, though it was awesome at the time.

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