I’ve mentioned before that I think it is a bad idea to bring the D&D d20 system to a computer game.
The one in Oblivion is really just a more polished version of the same system that was used in the previous Elder Scrolls game, Morrowwind. It’s a good system in a lot of ways. I’m going to nitpick it here, but I need to start by saying that despite all my little problems with it, the system is really one of my favorites.
How it works is this: There are a bunch of skills in the game. There are skills like using bladed weapons, bartering for goods, pursuading others via speech, repairing weapons and armor, using destructive magic, using lockpicks, etc etc. There are maybe twenty or so such skills, each with a rating between 1 (totally inept) and 100 (master). The more you do something, the better you get at it. So, the more I stab people with my sword, the better I get at it and the better I am able to use a sword.
Filling up the red bar for a skill will cause you to gain a level of that particular skill.
This works really well. Since there are so many, you get rewards quite often. It’s rare that ten minutes will go by without getting another level in at least one of these skills. So these modest rewards come at a steady pace. If you’re in the wild you’re getting levels related to whatever sort of combat you might be doing. In town you are developing merchant and speechcraft. And you are always getting levels in things like athletics, which advances by simply running around. The metaphor makes sense. I mean, that’s how life really works: You get better at things by doing them.
You choose seven of these skills at the start of the game to be your “major” skills. These seven are linked to your character class. They are your defining skills. Once you get ten levels in any of your major skills, you will go up a level. So, if I’m a fighter then five levels of using a sword and five levels of heavy armor will cause me to go up in character level, which gives me more hit points and improves other aspects of my character. That’s a little confusing at first, but it still works well.
So much for the good news. Now for the bad.
The monsters in this game are spawned according to your character level. If you’re level 1, then all you’ll meet are rats and little goblins. If you’re level 20 then the world is full of Dremora lords and other massive, formidable beasts. This is the very opposite of a self-balancing system, and it is a very ugly solution to the problem of challenging the player.
The problem is that the difficulty of the game is now controlled by how well you comprehend this leveling system and how well you apply it. If you hang around town plying your speechcraft skills until you gain ten levels of speechcraft, you will gain a character level. Aside from a smattering of hitpoints, you aren’t any tougher than before, but every monster in the world is. If you decide you don’t like combat so much and focus on trade / speechcraft / alchemy / etc, then you will make a character who is great at doing “in town” stuff but who is helpless in combat. The monsters will level right past you and the game will be unbeatable. Since the stuff shopkeepers have for sale is also controlled by your level, then you can’t make up for your weakness by buying better equipment. You’re just screwed.
In fact, the game more or less punishes you for leveling. The monsters always get tougher as the game goes on, even for a well-developed character. Those rats at the start of the game go down in one hit. By level twenty, you are going to be trading blows for a while to bring down a Demora Lord, even if you have an optimized character with great equipment.
So my strategy for a while was to avoid leveling up. I just chose seven major skills that I would never use. So, as long as I never use blunt weapons, heavy armor, a shield, and a few other things, then I could stay level two forever. This worked, but it turned out to be a very dull way to play the game. Also, as the main campaign progressed, I ran into certain parts that simply required me to be a certain level to proceed. Bah.
As it stands, very few new players will want to play the game on the default difficulty. The game can be brutal and unforgiving to people who don’t plan ahead when making their character at the start of the game. The difficulty bar isn’t a “easy, medium, hard” choice, but a free-moving slider. At the default position (in the middle) I died quite a bit, and I was being careful about how I developed my character. I’m sure a newbie who just let their character evolve naturally (that is, not optimally) would have a much tougher time, and may have a hard time beating the game at all. I have no idea what the upper end of the difficulty slider is for. Who in the world would turn it up?
This is a rotten problem to solve. The problem is twofold: First, the game is freeform. In most RPG’s, you move from one area to the next, with the difficulty climbing as you proceed. But how do you handle this when the game is non-linear? The character can wander freely around the map, so where do you put the tough monsters so that they don’t stumble upon them by accident, before they are ready?
The other problem is that the character development system is so flexible and so varied that my level ten character is going to be very, very different in power from someone else’s. The difference between the expert who plans his character’s development from the start and the casual player who just lets it all happen is pretty big. This is good, because of the freedom it gives the player, but bad, because the game has no idea what sorts of monsters you can really handle.
So the game gets out of balance and the player is expected to go in and nudge the difficulty slider up and down as they go.
I might have another post that attempts to solve this without taking away the freedom of the game. I’m still thinking about it.
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