The Elder Scrolls Online Character Progression 101

Learn what light armor, destruction staves, and vampirism have in common in this overview of how the character progression system works in The Elder Scrolls Online

Following my recent trip to the ZeniMax Online studios, I was speaking to a good friend and colleague about my experiences with The Elder Scrolls Online. Barlow is one of those people who tends to skip past the surface level stuff and cuts right to the heart of things. Most people have been asking me about big picture stuff, such as whether or not the game is fun (it most certainly is) or how much control I had over my orc’s eyebrows during character creation (far better than the average for an MMO). Barlow, however, only had a single, burning question that he simply had to have answered posthaste.

“How deep is the character progression system, and will I still give a crap about my character by the time I hit max level?” he pointedly inquired.

The first part of that question is relatively easy to answer, at least for me.

“It’s probably one of the most comprehensive character progression systems I’ve seen in a modern MMO.” I replied.

The second part can be tricky, because it can mean different things to different types of gamers. For example:

  • If Barlow were a hardcore min/maxer, he’d probably want to know if the game left some room at the top for fiddling with various configurations. In this regard, Elder Scrolls Online would certainly offer an endgame he’d find plenty of interest in.

  • If Barlow were part of Bartle’s “achiever” group of online gamers, he’d want to have new things to complete or achieve specific to his character even at the level cap. Again, TESO scores high marks here.

There are plenty of other examples I could cite, but I also know Barlow perhaps better than he knows himself. What I suspected he was really asking is “Will Vampirism factor into character progression in any way?”

If you haven’t already heard the news, yes, vampirism will indeed play a role in TESO, and even comes complete with its own progression tree similar to those for armor, weapon, or class. While the team at ZeniMax prefers to keep any more details than that under wraps, I did at least get to see proof that such an advancement tree exists.

Getting the big stuff out of the way, Barlow's questions began drilling down into how progression will work, and why I consider it one of my biggest takeaways from my hands-on time (not counting getting to see first-person view or alliance battles in all their glory).

TESO Khajiit Town

TESO Character Progression 101

While each individual component of the progression system in The Elder Scrolls Online is easy to grasp, once you begin to consider all of the interconnected parts of what will constitute an overall character build in TESO, you'll get a better feel for why the game sets a new high water mark for progression systems in an MMO.

The following will each play a pivotal role in how you ultimately shape your character:

Armor Type

You can choose to wear light, medium, or heavy armor, or any combination of the three. Each type has a unique advancement path, including a number of powerful passive abilities. The way the passives work is that you'll typically need to have a certain number of pieces from that class equipped to gain any associated benefits, or some might even require you to have 5 or more pieces from an armor "set" to kick in. So the trick here is to balance the benefits from each individual piece of armor with any passive skills you'd gain by shifting in one direction or another.


As with armor, you're free to equip and level up any weapon tree you choose. While I spent my hands-on time focusing on the destruction staff with my sorcerer, I also tinkered with using a bow instead. Each gave me access to different basic and charged mouse attacks, and skills independent from any class-specific skills.

Weapon Swaps

Similar to Guild Wars 2, starting at level 15 you will be able to swap between two different weapons or weapon sets with a simple press of the tilde (~) key. Doing so will automatically swap out your mouse attacks and active hotbar skill sets. It won't factor in equipped armor, however, so you'll need to remain conscious of the role it plays or how it will impact your skill activation resources.

Class and Race

Even though anyone can equip and advance in any of the available armors or weapons, your choice of base class and race will still matter, and give you access to some specific active or passive skills that you may consider to be most beneficial based on your overall character concept.

Skill Synergies

Skill synergies are essentially a social combat mechanic that factors in both a starter and a finisher. You could almost think of this as a unique iteration on systems like EverQuest 2's Heroic Opportunities, or Guild Wars 2's cross-profession combos. In a nutshell, you or another friendly player can use certain skills that will already be powerful to begin with, and then someone else can opt to react to that skill, transforming it into the "awesome mode" for that particular skill. Invoking awesome mode will expend valuable combat resources, however, so it will typically be a tactical decision whether or not you choose to use them. Still, I'm a massive fan of game developers factoring in meaningful social combat interactions like this, and applaud the team at ZeniMax for their implementation here.

Damage Types

Certain weapons, such as the destruction staff I used on my sorcerer, will produce different results based on variants of the base weapon type. While the progression tree will remain the same, my skills would produce different results based on whether I stuck with my starting fire staff, or switched to one focused on lightning attacks instead.

Morph Points

All active skills level up independently based on active use in combat. While it introduces a heck of a lot of progress bars to keep track of at any given time, it also allows you to advance specific skills based on your personal combat style. Once you've leveled a skill up five times, you'll reach a morph point that allows you to refine how that particular skill functions. This allows you still retain a certain degree of uniqueness even in a system largely based on the concept that all players have access to most of the same build choices once you've progressed far enough.


While crafting won't necessarily have any inherent combat bonuses, it's still another progression system that will factor into your overall character advancement. You'll be able to advance in each of the five trades - alchemy, armorsmith, weaponsmith, enchanting, and cooking - but will only have a limited number of points to spend so will ultimately only be able to master one of them.

TESO Khajiit

But wait, there’s more!

As you can see, there are a lot of progression paths that you can pursue, mostly in as much depth and in whichever order you choose. The more things you unlock over time, the more choices you’ll have for how you want to play a single character.

Part of how it all works is the skill point system. Similar to earning trait points in other games, your character will earn one skill point each time you level. These can be spent to unlock new active or passive skills from the available lines. Since you’ll only earn a set number of points this way, ZeniMax has added its own take on how skill points are earned in a game like GW2.

As you’re out exploring, you’ll come across sky shards, and collecting three of them will unlock a single skill point. In each zone there are 15 different locations where the sky shards can spawn, and only one will be active in the zone at any given time. If you find and interact with one, chances are you’ll have to explore a bit more to find the next.

While it may sound as though it could end up being a total crapshoot as to whether or not you stumble across any of the shards, I ended up finding three within roughly an hour of gameplay, so enough to earn an additional skill point. I would suspect that the frequency of how quickly this occurs for the average player will be tweaked throughout the beta, but the system worked pretty well on the whole. The only potential negative is that it may end up working out similar to harvesting nodes in most MMOs. You may spot it first, but the player with the faster mount may beat you to the shard and gank it before you have a chance to claim it.

Any Questions?

After providing Barlow a rough draft of the above info, he still had even more questions on how the progression system works. While I shudder to think that some of you might be anything like Barlow, I can understand that MMO gamers are a passionate bunch and love to learn new details about favorite in-development titles.

If you have any questions not addressed here, be sure to drop a comment and I’ll do my best to answer them. If not, I should also note that we’ll have an exclusive interview focused on character progression hitting the site in the near future.

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