A Very Long and Rambling Post About Morrowind, the Elder Scrolls and Maybe a Little Jack Vance

I’m a huge fan of the Elder Scrolls games and have talked about them at length both here and on the comments over at Rumors of War when discussing things ranging from quest design to how to handle factions. I haven’t talked about them as much lately, because I felt like I’ve said most of what I’d have to say and I don’t want to retread too often. I also hadn’t been playing them much recently, so I haven’t had any real useful epiphanies about the Elder Scrolls to comment on. Until now…

I got into the Elder Scrolls through Oblivion. I played it on a friend’s box back in 2006 for a little bit. It was one of the most amazing and beautiful games I’d ever seen (c’mon, guys, it was 2006!); I had to get it! Well, I got it and I sunk more hours than I can comprehend. I’ve probably lost literal months of my life to this and other Elder Scrolls games. Eventually I played all 4 of the core Elder Scrolls games, and I could understand fans of Morrowind’s major issues with Oblivion.

Both Arena and Daggerfall are very much genre games. Arena was a straight-forward affair in which one collected MacGuffins from impressive locations to kill an evil wizard. In some ways, Daggerfall might be considered one of the watersheds of Post-genre fantasy, because it was one of the first games to really begin the shift toward the Orcs as noble savage paradigm that has become so commonplace and it did a lot with its in-game books, but other than that it was still very bog-standard fantasy with all of the typical factions of thieves, fighters, mages, assassins guilds and temples and such. There was a bit of strange that was creeping in by way of the cosmology introduced in Daggerfall and the short fiction included in-game, but for all intents and purposes, it was western style fantasy adventure. Oblivion is also a fairly straight-forward affair of western style castles, knights and heroes; the loudest complaints one heard about Oblivion were the sparseness of locations, the lack of extensive dialogue that was present in Morrowind, and the relatively normal and generic fantasy feel of Oblivion compared to Morrowind.

And yes, I’ve always agreed since I’ve had the chance to play it that Morrowind is one of the best fantasy settings of damn near any game ever made, but I may finally be able to articulate why it stands out the way it does and why Elder Scrolls fans have so much praise for it.

I’ve come back to Morrowind once again, this time because of the Vance I’ve been reading. I’ve yet to get my hands on much of Vance’s fantasy works, but I’ve now read several books in his Gaean Reach setting. They seem to straddle the line of science-fantasy, sometimes leaning a bit towards the fantasy and sometimes leaning away. For instance, the Gray Prince had some magical elements while The Dogtown Tourist Agency did not, though they take place in the same megasetting. Whether there is mystical and magical present or not, Vance’s worlds are all strange and alien places where one can have an exciting adventure through the unfamiliar. For instance, Miro Hetzel, the Galactic Effectuator, has a hard-nosed detective adventure on a desert world whose native populace is a barbarian race of lizard men who reproduce by fighting wars and laying eggs in the dead bodies. The story, outside investment & cheap labor paid for unethically, possibly illegally, being used to undercut manufacturing competitors, is mundane but the setting is uncanny.

Out of all of the Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind is the only one that feels very pre-genre. It could be set on a moon of Alpha Centauri for how bizarre it is. Reading the Gray Prince, The Dragon Masters and Galactic Effectuator had me thinking “My God, the Elder Scrolls could easily be set in the Gaean Reach post collapse!” Especially compared to the games that came before and after it, Morrowind’s elves are strange and incredibly alien, not to mention the Khajiit and Argonians… these races all feel like they’re straight out of sci-fi pulps! I’ve already talked about how the Dunmer Ashlanders of Morrowind bear a striking resemblance to the Uldras in the Gray Prince. And I’ll always think of Anne McCaffrey’s cat people of Doona with their rolling R’s when I hear a Khajiit mumbling about yummy drugs and friendship.

Morrowind is a world of towering mushroom trees, giant insect egg mines, multi-thousand year old fortresses inhabited by squatting wizards and devil worshiping cults, spells and scrolls named after the wizards who wrote them, magic users experimenting with new spells with fatal results, ancient magics beyond the comprehension of even the most powerful contemporary wizards, and cities made from the dead husks of extinct giant desert crabs. And this world is full of petty rivalries, slave trades, smugglers, mundane organized crime, blue collar workers, desert nomads, librarians, farmers, potters, peddlars and petty thieves. It’s wild and crazy anything goes heroic fantasy pulp! And to just make things a little bit meta, there are heroic fantasy pulp stories to be found and read IN GAME. A few in game books are simple flavor and not much to talk about, but some of the multi-part novellas, such as A Dance in Fire (15,487 words), the Wolf Queen (11,944 words), The Real Barenziah(18,188/22,534 words), 2920: The Last Year of the First Era (20,779 words), or even the much shorter Bone (3,158 words) are worthy as stand-alone entries in the genre. They inform and are informed by the game’s strange world which was first informed by influence of several pulp heroic fantasy/sword & sorcery writers; there’s very little of the Tolkienesque tradition found here, and even less of the Dragonlance/Forgotten Realms post-genre influence on the setting.

So it is quite understandable that fans who were awed by the wild and pulpy world of Morrowind would be disappointed by relatively bland world of Oblivion, especially for those who HAD read the various in game books that described the Imperial province as a terrifying jungle filled with Burroughsian white apes. To make matters worse, while fighting relatively mundane enemies in a fairly samey fantasy setting, we get things like the in-game sequel to A Dance In Fire, The Argonian Account (7,039 words), which tells tales of mysterious and festering swamps where inhabitants travel around via the slow-working digestive tracks of fast-burrowing swamp worms… REALLY WEIRD STUFF! And you find yourself wondering “Why am I riding a horse from one generic copy-paste castle ruin or limestone cave to the next when before I was poking around weird haunted steam-punk dwarven ruins and ancient alien elf-fortresses from the 1st Age?” Locations that were referred to and relevant to the in-game fiction often appeared nowhere in game, with two whole cities missing, but that could be more easily overlooked had the game’s tone continued to reflect that which was established by the prior game and the game’s own in-world accounts of itself. The world in the books about the game’s world made you wish that you were playing there instead, even though the world in the books was supposedly the game’s world.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t able to articulate my thesis as well and concisely as I’d hoped to, but I made a try of it, by golly!

Anyway, I said I was going to criticize Morrowind as well as praise it, and I still intend to do so.

Awesome setting aside, Morrowind suffers from a major problem in the form of a lack of urgency, largely due to its game world’s static nature. The Camonna Tong is ALWAYS in the middle of some scheme whose trigger is never pulled, the Great Houses are always just on the verge of some big conflict, the Thieves Guild and Fighters Guild are always on the brink of a big intrigue, and nothing ever happens until the player actively engages those factions’ story-lines. Which isn’t a HUGE problem in itself, but it becomes an issue when nothing happens AFTER the player has engaged those story-lines. Dagoth Ur is scheming and his sleepers are hanging around, but they don’t DO anything, and Dagoth Ur is literally waiting for the player to come visit and kill him. Morrowind lacks a dynamic world, and therefore the player has no impetus to do more than dick around at leisure. This is slightly different from Daggerfall which would have certain quests running in the background, and all known quests, once engaged, became time sensitive. But that Telvanni spy that Ranis Athrys wants you to out is going to be there hanging around not doing anything until you out him, and if you never out him, it’s not like he actually does anything.

Recently Dither of Rumors of War came up with a simple classification system for plots:

Event: Urgent and Important
Quest: Important but Not Urgent
Affair: Urgent but Not Important
Rumor: Neither Urgent nor Important

To be truly engaging, a game world needs to have all of these types of plots. Morrowind’s biggest issue is that it lacks Events, and the Affair types are Rumor’s in disguise, because any sense of urgency is artificial. Telling the lady with Corprus disease to leave Vivec or catching the murderers who have killed the pilgrims and Ordinators in Vivec may seem urgent – you may even be told that dealing with it is urgent -, but you’re left entirely to your own schedule to handle them with no alteration of outcome if you delay or expedite accomplishing them. The effects of lacking Events and Affairs in Morrowind are exacerbated by the fact that you have an in-game calendar, a day and night system, and a track of how many in-game days have passed. The calendar was used to more effect in Daggerfall, wherein holidays and demon summoning days fell on specific dates that had in-game effects, and, as mentioned before, all quests were on time-tables ranging from around a week to a month. As far as I know, Morrowind is the ONLY core Elder Scrolls game in which the day and night system have only cosmetic effects on gameplay (with, perhaps, the exception of the sneak skill).

Oblivion really does not handle this much better, though if anything, certain bugs that lead to non-flagged NPCs accidentally killing themselves or something do give certain things a sense of urgency. For example, getting enough money to buy the best house in the game before the guy you buy it from falls off the castle bridge and dies. But one of the jokes I read once was that never starting the main quest was the responsible thing to do, because, with the exception of Kvatch, Oblivion gates won’t start opening up until you’ve given the Amulet of Kings to Joffre.

Daggerfall managed to convey urgency at times, particularly in certain stages of the game, because quests would run in the background that would send assassins and monsters after you until you finished or began certain quests, though these were infrequent. With Morrowind, they were virtually non-existent. The adventure hook to entice the player to explore the Tribunal content aimed to create this effect – an assassin from the Dark Brotherhood would interrupt your sleep and try to kill you – but ultimately fails because the moment you mention the attempt on your life to anyone with that as a topic, you’ll never be attacked by them again. On one hand, if the attacks were pressed until you actually dealt with the quest line and confront Helseth’s Lieutenant about it, there would be a greater sense of urgency. On the other hand, I could see how it would be damn annoying to have to go and briefly interact with high-level expansion content at low levels just to stop getting attacked every couple of days.

Without that sense of urgency and change, however, Vvardenfell begins to feel dead, especially after months of in-game playing to the point at which you’re the head of multiple guilds and are the elf-pope. Around that point, you kill the god Vivec and stuff him in a soul gem because why not? No one is going to notice or care. And then you start killing everyone because no one can stop you and you’ve finished most of the interesting quests anyway. Then you realize, walking around an empty Balmora, that nothing really feels that different.

For your game world to feel dynamic and real (tabletop or otherwise), you need to have things going on, stuff that can be potentially missed by your players. I tend to use what I call quantum content; things stay in stasis until players have interacted with them. Once they’ve seen something, it’s set in motion and they need to either deal with it to resolve it or somehow it’ll resolve itself. You can’t put everything in real-time, because then you’ll have to keep track of everything doing stuff and killing each other in a dungeon that your player may never even explore. But once your players know a princess is being held somewhere, they’d better get off their ass to save her, because one way or another, she won’t be there to save for long.

Another Long and Rambling Post About Elderscrolls Games

I’ve gone back to some Morrowind for a bit. I have a character who’s now up to level 40 or something, has 100s in all stats except for luck and is, for all intents and purposes, a god.

While one of the biggest problems I have with Morrowind is the ‘static’ nature of game world, especially in terms of things going on after you’ve finished a quest arc, I find myself going back to it over and over. There are some truly awesome and epic missions in the Tribunal Temple arc, particularly those out of Ghostgate, where you’re asked to make forays into the heart of godforsaken and accursed badlands of Red Mountain and retrieve lost relics of the temple from the hands of Dagoth Ur’s minions. But once you finish those last quests, you’re told “Congratulations, you’re the Patriarch now. Goodbye!” and your involvement with the Temple is effectively ended, save for the massive boost in faction/individual relationship ratings.

That part of your character’s life is ‘done’ so you can go on to do the next thing. “But I’m the pope of the dark elves!” I wish that had a bit more bearing on the game, I guess.

And in some ways it does. Once you’re a faction leader, members have a hard time refusing you things. Maybe the fact I was grandmaster of the Morag Tong made a fetch quest for some Telvanni shlub easier since the Morag Tong guy was all “Oh, hey, sure, have this thing.” I don’t know. It could’ve just been a personality check to begin with. I do like that being the Dark Elf Pope means that your underlings don’t murder you for heresy when you go around claiming to be the Nerevarine. But it does say a lot about the weight and worth of the rank of Patriarch of the Tribunal Temple when Vivec tells his own pope to screw off and not bother him if the main quest hasn’t started. Man, the theological implications!

I’m actually saving wrapping up the Mages Guild arc, partly because I like having that arc open ended, with everyone I run into at the halls pleading for me to replace Trebonnius, but also because I want to do his last quest. The one where he asks you to murder all of the Telvanni mage lords. And I’m doing the Telvanni great-house arc to become the head of the Telvanni first, because murdering all of the other Telvanni mage lords seems like such a Telvanni thing to do. I just hope I won’t have to kill Divayth Fyr; for some reason I find him one of the most likable characters in Morrowind, even if he’s a bit of a creep. Most people are playing politics for religious and world domination; Fyr just wants to cure an incurable disease.

I like Morrowind and keep coming back to it, I think, because it FEELS like a big world, and the towns FEEL like towns. Small towns, sure, but you always have the sense that they are, in fact, communities and places, not just for existing for the adventurer’s benefit. I think part of how it does this is by having lots of places that just aren’t really worth going. Yeah, the hero PROBABLY isn’t going to check out the various small houses, homes, hovels or apartments in a town, because there’s nothing THERE except for the basic implements of living for its inhabitants. But those places ARE there, which gives the towns more depth and a realistic feel. I’ve never checked out the (albeit very small) residential part of Northeast Ald Ruhn, but IT’S THERE! And the fact that the town is big enough to have a part that I can say “There’s a part of town I don’t go to” makes it feel bigger than it really is. Like some of the Canton’s of Vivec; there’s stuff there to do and check out, even if there’s nothing that would ever really prompt you to go there.

Even though Morrowind is, landmass-wise, a smaller world than Oblivion, it feels larger because of how it handles these town and random NPCs. Having a dozen or more people who can answer (from stock responses) 10 or more questions, for some reason, feels better than having a dozen people who have one very specific thing to tell you each, because if that thing that they tell you isn’t relevant, and that person isn’t a questgiver or merchant, you find that you’re asking yourself ‘was this person not fully implemented? Was there a dummied out quest where this person was relevant?’. That’s the way that half the characters in the imperial city feel. But some dude who is out hoing in his field, I am happy to see him out there hoing and am okay with the fact that he doesn’t know much relevant to me but can tell me a handful of generic things about the region around his farm. Keep rockin’, farm dude! The plethora of irrelevant characters makes this okay, because they’re there to make the world feel populous, and it does! But in a sparsely peopled game like Oblivion, if there is a farmer, and all he has to say is “I’m a farmer, these are my fields!” I feel let down; he is taking up valuable space that could be occupied by someone who could give me a quest!

Another irony is that Vvardenfell feels so much less ‘ruined’ than Cyrodiil. I mean, yeah, I get that things must have been bad under the Pretender, but Cyrodiil a lot of times feels more dead than alive. ALL of the forts are ruined. Lots of super ancient elven ruins are everywhere. In most cases, any place with that many ruins would have long since cleared them away and used their materials to build new and better structures. You’d think that the great and mighty empire would’ve at least engaged in some sort of renewal program, rebuilding and fortifying what forts they could, demolishing those that were too far gone and using them for materials. The immediate answer that comes to mind as to why they haven’t done this is that there just aren’t enough people. The imperial legion consists of maybe a dozen guys patrolling the highways. There’s no WAY they could actually man the ruined forts. Heck, the best the entire province could muster to stand against an extra-planar invasion force is two or three dudes from each city. Contrast this with Morrowind. While the Velothi towers are technically ‘ruined’, many of them are in excellent structural shape, and several are home to as many as a dozen people. In fact, you’re more likely to find a these towers peopled by wizards or retainers of great houses than monsters or brigands.

So why do I say it’s ironic? Well, Vvardenfell is JUST NOW being recolonized for the first time ages, and most of the structures are from the 1st age. But there are enough people in Vardenfell to actually fix up these places, fill them with furniture, and hang out there, which really lends to a feeling that there are LOTS of people here in the world, as opposed to ‘here is a thoroughly ruined castle’s underworks that is now inhabited by brigands with bedrolls.

Another thing I like about Morrowind is the abundance of tombs. I’ve written lots about tombs and undead and necromancy here, and Morrowind has the best handling of haunted tombs of any setting. The tombs are mostly small, often don’t have a lot of significant treasures other than those left as gifts to the ancestors. The guardians are ‘undead’ magical construct created by the tombs’ families made for the purpose of discouraging tomb robers. These are made from the bones of ancestors, so it is the family’s ancestors protecting their tomb with the magic of the present and past working together. I remember there was also some discussion of the ‘ash pits’ and the idea of mixing together the ancestral remains to strengthen the bonds of family after death, and part of this somehow tied into the creation of the ghost-fence. But what’s important to me is that they are not haunted in the traditional sense.

In Oblivion, and the world of Cyrodiil, to add to the feeling that you’re in a dead world, it seems like every place is haunted. Ruined forts, caves, and elven ruins are, more often than not, crawling with undead. Rotting zombie corpses, skeletons and aethereal undead are all over the place. These aren’t constructs created magically and put in place as sentinels, these are things that are appearing because all of the places in cyrodiil are reeking of death and evil. The reappearance of Mannimarco could explain this to some degree, but a lot of the places aren’t touched by the necromancers; they’re just haunted. I know that part of this is probably so they could create ‘undead’ as a levellable creature type, but it definitely contributes to making Cyrodiil feel like a place where the dead significantly outnumber the living.

Man, I’ve really gone overboad and in all directions in this post! So, what lessons can be drawn from this? Population can make a world feel more ‘real’; we don’t interact with everyone we see each day, but the fact that we see them and they are there gives us our impression of the world, and when that is missing from an imaginary world, we notice. Having more ruins than towns in a kingdom gives the feeling of a ‘dead world’, especially if we’re expected to believe that kingdom ISN’T in ruins. Especially if that kingdom is CROWDED with ruins. Most stable kingdoms, if able, will repurpose old structures or will demolish them to recycle the building materials. Having a kingdom that is filled with as many ruins as Cyrodiil will give the impression that the kingdom lacks the resources or manpower, very likely due to depopulation, to reclaim or recycle older buildings. Lastly, I say give the dead their own places. It’s fine to have haunted caves and castles now and then, but tombs are a great and consistent place for undead to lurk. Wherever they are, though, give them a good reason to be there! It shouldn’t just be ‘because it’s an evil place’. Your world deserves more depth than that. Heck, even feel free to use my ‘magic as chemical runoff’ model.

(apologies in advance for all of the ES proper name misspellings that I may not get around to correcting).

Generic Dungeons and Some Oblivion Inspiration

I’ve recently been playing a lot of Oblivion, continuing the adventures of Mr. Pants. I just finished re-running the Shivering Isles expansion, and Mr. Pants has has returned to Cyrodiil to continue his misadventures in the great green fishbowl. Since his return, not a lot exciting has happened. At level 5, he was impressively able to kill Umbra and take her stuff with the help of a handful of clanfears (nothing like being able to send a demonic raptor dinosaur thing after low-level enemies) and finding a nice ledge to shoot down at her from. But that’s really been about it. I’ve run through a couple of the generic dungeons, and the dungeons of Shivering Isles only serve to reinforce how generic they are.

The average non-quest related dungeon in Oblivion is 1-4 levels of cave, mine, castle or elf-crypt. There is a specific “type” that is randomly drawn from based on your level, and generic randomly spawning chests. Nothing to write home about. There are a few non-quest places that have a little bit of flavor, like Goblin Jim’s cave (a generic goblin cave that has a crazy naked dude who lives with goblins) and the elven ruin that was destroyed by some sort of flood, but for the most part, there’s not a lot going on and you’re not going to find anything of interest.

Shivering Isle, on the other hand, with a few exceptions, has some interesting and rewarding stuff even in dungeons that aren’t quest-related, some of which would be a great inspiration for some table-top games. Now, I can’t remember their names, but a few descriptions should suffice:

-A family tomb that has become an obsession. I’ve always said that I’m fascinated with cursed and haunted tombs in RPGs, how they began as normal tombs and what the transition ot a cursed/haunted tomb must have been like. One of the most interesting Shivering Isles dungeons, Ebrocca I think it is called, is a look at a tomb that is nearing the end of its transition from normal family tomb to crazy cursed haunted tomb. The patriarch of a family has become obsessed with building his family tomb so that it will stand for all time and be a sanctuary for the family dead forever, so he fills it with all kinds of traps and apparently curses as well. His relatives have expressed concern, the tomb is far too dangerous for the family to actually visit, and the traps and curses actually lead to the death of a number of said family members. To top it off, the crazy patriarch has made himself immortal so he can guard the inner sanctum of the tomb for all time.

-A cult of poets have found an awesome ruined subterranean amphitheatre and had a great idea: kidnap people, give them anything they desired, and then have them compete in poetry and playwriting. Of course, the people who are kidnapped are all in a panic and think that they’re going to be forced to fight each other to the death. Instead of asking for the luxuries the cult are willing to provide, the prisoners ask for weapons and end up trying to kill each other. The cult of poets panic and hole themselves up, hiding because “oh, god, these people are crazy and are going to kill us!”.

-A young man convinces his wife to leave the big city behind and go live in a cave. Not just any cave, but a wonderful, beautiful cave that has everything they’d ever need! Unfortunately, the cave is lonely and the wife wants to leave. Eventually, the young man relents and lets his wife go off to return to the city, but she gets hurt and killed trying to flee a dangerous animal in the cave. Now, in the game, you only find the woman’s corpse, and the husband is programmed to immediately attack, so as far as that goes, it’s a set-piece and is a little disappointing in how it plays out, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile for some inspiration.

These would make for GREAT adventures, or at least offer a lot to pull from. The vanilla Oblivion dungeons, though, can’t help but make me think of the Labyrinth Lord Gibbering Tower, which is a non-descript ruin with some rather vile monsters and no worthwhile reward. The best way to win is to avoid the place completely.*

Now, it is time for the irony of this ‘generic’ dungeon complaint to show itself. I’m setting aside Mr. Pants for a bit to start playing Elona again.

*:Gibbering Tower, it should be noted is one-page dungeon and a con-module.

Mr. Pants

I recently fell into a fey mood and felt the desperate need to:

Play Oblivion

a.As a Khajit

i. Named Mr. Pants
ii. Dressed in the finest imperial fashions

b.Who is a lordly swashbuckler

i. using ONLY a Cutlass
ii. wearing NO Armor (see also dressed in the finest imperial fashion)

c.Leveling up only when necessary

i. Stupid Anvil Mage’s guild quest
ii. Stupid Dark Brotherhood
iii. Stupid Dark Brotherhood
iv. Stupid whatever is going to make me level up next

I wish there were an “unarmored” skill like in Morrowind. Eventually I’ll probably enchant my fancy clothes for some shield bonus. Meantime, I’m trying to stay ‘under-leveled’ to where I can handle just about anything with only my blade to defend me.