The Altered Scrolls, Part 8: No Fair Fights

By Rutskarn Posted Friday Sep 25, 2015

Filed under: Elder Scrolls 113 comments

As I discussed last time, the series' abstract dice-rolling combats feltâ€"with the advent of more precise graphics and more engaging action-game contemporariesâ€"increasingly alienating and unsatisfying. There was always something reasonably abstract about a failed sword swing in a crudely-rendered 2D game, something that took the sting out of a wimpy failure, but players could now see that they were holding up their end perfectly; when they clicked the mouse, they saw their spear go right the enemy's bean, dead on the money. Hearing that damnable teeth-grinding whff that signaled a wasted attack felt like getting punished for something that was the character's fault, not the players'. As far as cardinal RPG sins go, creating a deliberate and hostile disconnect between player and character ranks highly.

Morrowind was just about the last videogame that hadn’t learned this lesson: if you're gonna roll dice, roll dice. Asking players to successfully perform a task and then rolling to see if it succeeds is just frustrating and obnoxious. This mishandling, compounded with the game’s rather stern beginning, makes for a very unpleasant and ragged start to the game.

This is the city of Vivec. It is inconveniently large and complicated, like many towns in Arena and Daggerfall. Unlike these towns it is designed purposefully and characterfully.
This is the city of Vivec. It is inconveniently large and complicated, like many towns in Arena and Daggerfall. Unlike these towns it is designed purposefully and characterfully.

There’s only one reason this combat is bearable at all, and it’s this: the game provides the tools to make failure rare or nonexistent. Let's talk about all the level scaling Morrowind didn’t have.

A working definition of the term level scaling: “the alteration or curation of available content, such as monsters, treasure, and quests, to reflect the present capabilities of the player character.” Level scaling is the most controversial issue pertaining to the Elder Scrolls franchise, and it absolutely deserves to be, because it is no exaggeration to say that it is the soul of each game. Level scaling is the single most important factor any open world RPG has to consider. Every Elder Scrolls game, when you get down to it, is showing the player a map and asking “Where would you like to go?” Level scaling dictates what happens when the player makes that choice. It affects every detail of every player's journey from the top down.

By and large, Arena and Daggerfall took the safe route. They waited for the player to point at a location, then shrugged, checked their level-appropriate encounter lists, and dropped in some appropriate monsters and treasure. It was a perfectly legitimate and straightforward approachâ€"they let the player go anywhere and made sure there was always a fair fight and a fair reward waiting there. The world was a big blank they filled in with the right stuff as the player went along, and it was hardly considered that it could be otherwise.

One of many podunk fishing villages. At least this one is a useful transportation hub.
One of many podunk fishing villages. At least this one is a useful transportation hub.

And then Morrowind came along. Morrowind‘s level scaling was perfunctory and practically invisible. It took an active and comprehensive disinterest in the player's level; players had to figure out an encounter was too tricky through trial and deadly error, and often treasure was set regardless of what would fitting or appropriate for the character’s level. The approach had a lot of benefits; the already-cohesive world felt all the more real because it felt objective. Caves full of high-level monsters were there whether or not players were bad enough dudes to go in and win fights in them. Morrowind also left a lot of really good, expensive loot lying around the place and was charmingly indifferent to the prospect of low-level players getting twinked out in high-end gear. Even first time players, if diligent and risk-taking, could come across windfalls that in any other entry in the franchise would be seen as wholly inappropriate.

Many of the most powerful rings in the game are just lying around in random no-account ancestral tombs. An enchanter found early on has hundreds of thousands of gold worth of equipment on her desk, and can be robbed blind within the first five minutes of gameplay if you know which shops to hit and which potions to buy. A pair of boots that increase speed by twice the maximum attribute value can be won in exchange for going on a walk with a traveler. The game didn't worry about giving players the “right” gear for their level, because why bother? What was the possible downside of a player being more powerful?

And that's where we come to the most critical consequence of Morrowind‘s laissez-faire approach: the death of the “fair” fight.

Level scaled games are obliged to worry about fair fights. Every combat is supposed to exist somewhere on a graph of “easy but not insulting” to “challenging but doable.” This is a very hard balance to strike, given the fact that the character build is entirely in the hands of a possibly uninformed/hyperinformed player; the absolute last thing any sensible designer needs to do is fuck it up by throwing gear around willy nilly. The ultimate failure of a system like this is presenting a fight that is neither respectably challenging nor theoretically possible, and unless strict regulation are instituted, high-level gear can snarl up the calculus.

Here's the thing, though: Morrowind doesn't give a shit about any of that. For a new player, almost every fight they could theoretically get into would be too hardâ€"picking a fight with anyone outside of the designated vermin-and-crappy-bandits zones is a recipe for disaster. Players are asked to just suck it up and deal with that, and that's a pretty stern demand to make. But there is a flipside: eventually, as a player advances, there will come a time when almost every fight is trivially easy.

The game's natural environments are variations on the theme of brown and ugly, with a few exceptions. Oblivion and Skyrim would have significantly more varied, if somewhat more conventional, natural scenes.
The game's natural environments are variations on the theme of brown and ugly, with a few exceptions. Oblivion and Skyrim would have significantly more varied, if somewhat more conventional, natural scenes.

When I finished Daggerfall, it's hard to say I actually felt more powerful than I did when I started. In the first dungeon I was killing rats with a couple swings of an axe. In the last dungeon I was killing atronachs with a couple swings of an axe. The monsters got bigger and tougher looking, but my effort remained the same. All my fancy magic items and treasure, too, existed only to help me break even with the ever-increasing difficulty of my foes.

But when I finished Morrowind, you can bet I felt different. I would punch enemies to death just because I could. I would let high-end enemies attack me just to watch in amusement as their own attacks fatally reflected. I could walk around knowing there was absolutely nothing I couldn't kill handily, and frankly, when I looked back on my feeble struggles with cave rats just a few dozen hours before, I felt pretty good about how far I'd come. I had gone from one end of the scale to the other

The game that sat back and watched while a crab effortlessly murdered me at level 1 was happy to watch while I meted out the same treatment to its final boss. You gotta respect that.

Morrowind was the first Elder Scrolls game to give the player this feeling of constant, objective progress.

It was also the last.



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113 thoughts on “The Altered Scrolls, Part 8: No Fair Fights

  1. Squirly says:

    I wish Bethesda would abandon level-scaling entirely. I don’t think they will, and I know why they do it, and Skyrim does a better job of still presenting you with difficult fights (like meeting the troll on the way up the 7000 steps during early levels, or enemies like giants that are not scaled afaik), but I miss the sense of progress and achievement that Morrowind gave me. Sure, it makes you hopelessly OP once you meet the last guy, probably because the devs figured they had to compensate for players who didn’t reach god-hood before they attempted to finish the main quest. But I would also argue that you don’t play Morrowind for the satisfaction of beating the main quest. You play it to experience a fantastical world, and in that regard it delivers wholesale.

    Anyway, keep it up, this is good stuff. Between this and Shamus’ ME retrospective, my sense of nostalgia is both on a high, and being tempered by some real truths.

    1. Sleeping Dragon says:

      I also dislike levelscaling in general. I can see why some people enjoy it for the constant challenge, and I can also see how actual DOWNscaling could prevent a player from getting stuck or helps limit/remove grinding for levels but I still preferred it when, if I had a problem, grinding my way through a couple of levels was an option, plus it felt like the levels were more meaningful.

      Plus levelscaling has it’s own slew of problems. For example while it makes it harder to get stuck if you rushed through content it makes it easier to get stuck if you made highly suboptimal build choices or if you’re simply less skilled.

      1. Squirly says:

        And the boredom. I don’t think I’m alone when I point to Oblivion as a case-study in level scaling gone awry. Taking on road-side bandits early on was the same as late-game. Going into an Oblivion gate presented you either with Flame Atronachs early on, or Storm Atronachs further down the road. Sure, one might set you on fire and the other would deplete your magicka with his lightning, but those effects were so minor overall (and still are in Skyrim) that ultimately it just boiled down to how much damage they could take and dish out – and that was almost wholly down to what level you were at.

        1. Groboclown says:

          I’m going to be the one voice in favor of Oblivion’s level scaling, only because of this one very funny moment I had. It made it all worthwhile.

          I intentionally did every single quest in the game except the main quest (never went near Kevetch or whatever it was called). By the time I entered Kevetch, my character was at the highest level with super blinged out gear. The city spawned all super high level daedra (level scaled enemies), which easily slaughtered the defenders (who were not level scaled). It made for the most brilliant, incredible, impossible fight. Only the main quest guy survived because he was marked as invincible. I can’t imagine trying to play that if the game was like Morrowind, and let him be mortal.

          Yeah, maybe wasn’t entirely worth the drudgery of level scaling, but it was amazing.

          1. Sleeping Dragon says:

            Firstly making the NPC essential is not directly tied to levelscaling, even though levelscaling can exacebrate the problem (since scaled mobs can make short work of NPCs that non-scaled ones wouldn’t).

            Secondly, I hear what you’re saying about the encounter ending up fun but for me combat eventually became something of a slog since, while I had pretty good staying power, I don’t think my damage increase was quite in line with the enemy HP increase, possibly an effect of a build. Basically what happened was that even a basic geeba encounter became a matter of me and the mob whaling at each for half a minute or more while staring into each other’s eyes.

        2. Loonyyy says:

          The other horrible thing with the Oblivion level scaling is that for less hardcore RPG fans, who went with jack-of-all trade approaches, like I did on my first run, you get slaughtered later when your level outstrips your combat ability, and the game levels enemies past you. Which means that later you’ll have to try to rebalance the game through the difficulty settings, and it’s a mess.

          I only survived trolls in Oblivion at all by glitching.

          Morrowind has a similar effect, in that it’s easy to miss how to optimise your combat class, but it balances it out with the opportunity to approach combat with a few extra tricks, potions, levitation, and a lot of the magic artifacts let you take on enemies you really have no chance against.

    2. Raygereio says:

      I wish Bethesda would abandon level-scaling entirely.

      Levelscaling and dynamic difficulty adjustment in general has gotten a bad name amongst gamers due to games like Oblivion or Homeworld 2. But those games’ problems weren’t DDA. It was (very) badly implemented DDA.
      DDA is but one tool of many in a developer’s toolbox. And like with any tool, the end result of the job can be of poor quality if the toolwielder has a brainfart and tries to put a screw into a piece of wood with a hammer.

      Okay, I’ll stop before that metaphor gets too tortured. But I hope you get my point. DDA can be right. It just shouldn’t be applied constantly. Have strict limits. And shouldn’t solely be about raising numbers like health and damage.

      But I would also argue that you don't play Morrowind for the satisfaction of beating the main quest. You play it to experience a fantastical world, and in that regard it delivers wholesale.

      The problem with that is that a game can have a wonderful setting for you to explore. Can have an excellent story to experience. Can have amazing characters for you to interact with. But if the game has shit gameplay then all of that means nothing.
      I mean, I never got to experience that fantastical world you speak of, because for me Morrowind was a mess of frustration and tedium. Personally I think a game’s first and foremost goal should be that it’s fun to play. A game’s developers can have other primary objectives certainly. But then at the very least the gameplay shouldn’t be awful.

      1. WWWebb says:

        The quality of gameplay is going to depend on what you expect the “game” is. If someone looked at Morrowind and expected the game to be a sword-n-spell slinging action game, they’re going to be really disappointed.

        As a “role-playing game” where the gameplay is building a character, the skill system succeeded like no other. You didn’t do one thing (kill monsters, complete quests, get wealth, etc.) in order to do something else (get better at magic/fighting/sneaking/etc.). Playing a role made you better at playing that role. If you discovered a few hours in that you didn’t really like that play-style as much as you thought, the game was perfectly fine with you abandoning those skills and learning new ones. I’m sure that NONE of my builds were optimal, but that didn’t matter because, unlike in almost every other game, those builds were unquestionably MINE and not something imposed on me by the designers.

        I had hoped that Oblivion would go even farther, scrap the “levels” notion completely and just leave you with skills.

        1. Raygereio says:

          I don’t want to pull a Neil Polenske here but in case you are actually trying for that kind of argument, let me be clear:
          I thought Morrowind’s gameplay was bad, not because I went in expecting a hack ‘n slash action game.

          I didn’t have fun because I don’t enjoy trial&error gameplay, which is what exploration boils down to at low level. I didn’t have fun because I finding grinding a tedious affair, which what leveling yourself boils down to. And I didn’t have fun because high level combat in Morrowind is a Aedradamned clicker game.
          Any preconceived notions I may or may not have had about Morrowind gameplay did not factor in.

        2. Yes. Saying that the gameplay should be “fun” is semantically null because everybody finds different things “fun”. Focusing your game around making “fun” gameplay is actually a recipe for disaster and will lead you down the path of a focus-tested disaster that’s “designed” to appeal to “everyone” but is actually bland and pointless.

          Almost every game I’ve ever really LOVED has had phenomenally wonkus gameplay. I wouldn’t say that the wonkiness made it a better game, per se, but it didn’t ruin the game for me, either. Not even close. Games with “balanced” or similar gameplay are generally a tedious snoozefest that are long on repetition and short on complexity. I’ll take a complex mess of weird quasi-broken INTERESTING stuff over a streamlined focus-tested two-note “experience” any day. And I’ll probably play it in a bizarre medium way that isn’t exactly nonfunctional but isn’t exactly optimal either. But I’m fairly experienced in the Way of the Cheese so I can (usually) make it work. I’m happy that the game lets me play the way I want to. I’m aware that this can be hard on the Cheese Neophytes, so I’m fine with it if there’s something spectacularly easy and broken that THEY can play and be happy.

          The gamers I have absolutely no patience for are the ones who devote themselves to breaking a game and THEN complain that it’s “too easy”. Those broke-ass builds are in there for the baby cheeses to use, lazybones. If you think you’re “good”, then play something HARD like a REAL gamer. And if you won’t, the “easiness” of the game is purely self-inflicted. Figuring out how to break the game isn’t “good” play. It’s lazy and cheap.

          1. Raygereio says:

            Saying that the gameplay should be “fun” is semantically null because everybody finds different things “fun”.

            So? Games aren’t designed to please everyone.
            My comment should be viewed with context. Said context being that I replied to someone who seemed to imply it’s okay Morrowind was poorly balanced and had shitty gameplay, because it had an interesting setting to explore. I stand by what I said: If you have a game with bad gameplay, then it doesn’t really matter that it has other redeeming factors. It’s a bad game.

            I suppose I could have said “A game’s first and foremost goal should be that its gameplay is well designed, so that someone whose ideas of enjoyment coincide with what the game’s developers intended to invoke with the gameplay, has fun.”. But that’s pretty much the exact same thing as “fun to play”, only with way more words.

            Edit: Just to be on the safe side. I wasn’t trying to be snarky towards you. I agree with the general gist of what you’re saying. This was more of a “I don’t think you quit got what I was trying to say”-type post.

            1. Loonyyy says:

              I’m pretty sure that they’re not replying to your second comment, but the post by WWeb, so you’re a bit off base, and needlessly hostile.

              Games aren’t designed to please everyone. So what? On what grounds at all does that preclude criticising a game based on one’s own tastes.

              And then you proceed to miss the point entirely: A lot of people did find Morrowind’s gameplay to be fun. It’s not “shitty gameplay”. I guess Morrowind just wasn’t designed to please you. That’s a really unsatisfying response, and just shuts down discussion.

              For a lot of people, the gameplay of Morrowind is NOT the kinetics of combat, it’s the exploration of the possibility space made by the interacting systems. It’s not even the setting (Which wasn’t what Snow’s comment was about). It’s that there is fun exploring that system, even when that system is flawed. Which entirely contradicts your frankly absurd conclusion about “Is a bad game”, which completely ignores the subjectivity that was already invoked. Congratulations. You don’t like Morrowind. Now you know exactly how the other people you’re talking to feel about Oblivion.

              The issue that’s being elucidated about the levelling and scaling is that it precludes these systems, it precludes this exploration, and removes this style of play. Morrowind is not kinetically pleasing, it’s frustrating swinging and hitting nothing, but Oblivion is unsatisfying, because the encounters have no weight, and no thought to exploring this system. Which many find boring. For me, Oblivion ONLY has the setting to rely on, because the gameplay is made perfunctory by the levelling. It’s either on the sweet spot of balance, or your messed up your class and it’s impossible.

              The idea is not to expand on this idea of “fun”, but to explain how there is fun in this style of play, because frankly, it’s becoming less common, and in particular, Morrowind was an aberration in TES in this regard.

              For me, working out Morrowind’s combat was fun. Fun was it’s first demand. When I go back and replay it, I’m exploring new angles at the same system. Every encounter is a puzzle. Whereas, say, for a fairer example, Skyrim doesn’t hold that same appeal, because the way the levelling works there lends itself only to the kinetics of combat, which gives an immediate satisfaction, and is fairly simple to come to grips with, but offers no further depth down the line.

              Ideally, it’d be nice to see these other systems worked on, and improved on, rather than simply stripped out, so that we can play less broken Morrowind’s, but the desire for balance, and simplicity, tends to make these things less common in big releases, so it is a very really problem for people who enjoy these style of games, and tends towards these games often being quite broken, and never really improved on.

              1. MichaelGC says:

                Might be missing a few things too, there. Raygereio is specifically talking about the case where someone already doesn’t like the gameplay. That’s not so much shutting down discussion, as just setting up a subsection of it. However, without that initial misunderstanding, as I see it, we might not have got the other stuff you say, which I for one found pretty interesting. So, it all worked out in the end, I say! :D

                Hmm, less-broken 2015-tech-level Morrowinds… *sigh*

                1. Loonyyy says:

                  Let me be clear. By shutting down discussion, I meant “Games aren’t designed to please everyone”. Which, while true, is a meaningless tautology, and doesn’t change the value that a person’s opinion may hold. It’s particularly bizarre on this site, the main claim to fame of which is Shamus’s opinion on games, which is quite often displeased by something, even something that pleases others. It’s needlessly spiteful when someone is talking about features that they like, and would like to see expanded upon, especially when those are in the minority, to argue for a majority viewpoint, and it’s not fair to put words in someone’s mouth to do it, argue down to them, and say that they want what they explicitly say they don’t, and dismissing opposition with “Games aren’t designed to please everyone”. I really want to see more games like Morrowind, especially since just through numbers, we’re bound to get something less broken, so I’m heavily in favour of talking about those things that work. In particular, I’d love to see the depth of that sort of system and world, separated from the dice-roll swing-and-miss mechanics (Which is the game you end up playing if you exploit the game’s many enchanted objects, which is how my jack of all trades character got through, even when he couldn’t survive direct combat).

    3. Michael says:

      I could be wrong, but I think Alduin’s level is = the player’s *1.5 or *1.35. I know that’s the case with Miraak in Dragonborn (he level caps at 150, I think).

      Giants start at 18, but I think they scale up to about 30. I’m not sure there.

      If you wait to start the main quest, the frost troll can actually end up as an easier fight than the critters you’ll encounter going up the mountain.

      1. topazwolf says:

        Yeah Alduin’s level 1.2 times the player to a maximum of 100 and a minimum of 10. Though he always has the same gear and in general uses the same attacks so it’s pretty much just a data point. And besides his final fight is always trivial to beat.

        Giants however have a locked level of 32.

        Miraak is actually a tougher opponent than Alduin since he is 1.1 of your level and goes from 35-150. Karstaag the frost giant is probably the hardest fight the average player of Skyrim will face since he is level 90. Though he is still pretty easy to kill with certain builds.

        1. Michael says:

          Yeah, to be fair, with Skyrim, level mostly matters for calculating health and checking gear tables. Against human enemies, it’ll also determine (in combination with their class) what their skills are. Though I don’t think NPCs can get perks based on their level, and that needs to be codded onto the NPC directly. It also effects monster attack damage (specifically the quality of the unobtainable gear they use to actually execute their attacks), but that’s really just gear tables again.

          1. Raygereio says:

            Though I don't think NPCs can get perks based on their level, and that needs to be codded onto the NPC directly.

            In Skyrim you cannot apply perks to a non-player’s RefID on the fly.
            What you can do instead is apply a perk to NPC’s or creature’s BaseID. And make that perk have different effects depending on the player’s level.

    4. Bropocalypse says:

      I think there’s room for middle ground, here. Level scaling doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. You could for example, level scale only certain areas or dungeons. Or you could have level scaling apply in a more sporadic way. Or you could apply the scaling in such a way that it increases only the level of certain monsters, so you can slaughter some and tangle with others. You could even apply any or all of these concepts mixed in with each other, or not at all, all within the same game. I think it would be neat to have a dungeon where you go in, easily smite a few of the baddies, have to work a little to deal with a couple, and then have to run away from a big bad beastie lurking somewhere inside. This disproportionately bad monster could also be carrying especially good treasure, acting as an incentive to try and kill it anyway or simply come back later.
      There’s room to experiment, is what I’m saying. If there’s arguments to be made in favor of level scaling(which there are) AND arguments to be made in favor of NO level scaling(which there are as well), then there’s really no reason why a developer can’t try compromising with it.

      1. Incunabulum says:

        Skyrim does something similar – dungeons are supposed to be locked to the level you *first* enter them at (in addition to having a minimum level).

        So you could jump into a dungeon with a minimum level to far above yours, get chased out, and come back later to clear it out.

        FO4’s scaling give areas a min and max level and the mobs within vary based on player level – but they’ll never go below that min or above that max no matter what the player’s level is.

        This, for a *long* game, is a good thing as it extends the ‘challenge’ (if you define challenge as solely combat related as most do) of each area – that starter areas aren’t trivialized right away should you have to do back to them.

        As for Morrowind – that had level scaling too. Not necessarily in dungeons, but in the main worldspace. You go from fighting rats to guars after a few levels.

        Unfortunately the cliff racers never go away.

        Oblivion was simply the worst implementation of level scaling in these games.

        1. Trix2000 says:

          I hope you meant FO:NV, because FO4 is what’s coming out this year.

          1. Incunabulum says:

            No, I mean FO4 – its level scaling system was talked about during the E3 demo in Jun.

            Rubberbanding it was called.

            1. MichaelGC says:

              It’s not going to work – I mean, 200-yr-old rubber bands’ll just snap right away.

              1. Daemian Lucifer says:

                No way,we used to make them to last 200 years ago.Just like our noodles,cereals and soda cans.

    5. Hal says:

      Skyrim does have the level scaling, but it’s not as smooth as in Oblivion. That is, enemies plateau, and weaker enemies can (and do) still appear around the world. This makes it possible to be god-like against bandits as you wander the world, because the bandits still max out at level 20.

      The larger problem for level scaling in both Oblivion and Skyrim was the effect of gear. The enemies might be scaling upward, but gear wouldn’t, not consistently. In Oblivion, for example, those road-side bandits wearing fur armor at level 1 were wearing glass armor at level 30. However, the town guards joining you for Oblivion gates at level 1 were still wearing the same crummy chainmail armor at level 30, too, making them really ineffective companions.

      Skyrim had similar issues, all things considered, but magic was the primary scaling problem (one I won’t rehash.)

      1. Jeff says:

        In Oblivion, after I spent a good many play sessions focusing on finally getting a full suit of Daedric gear, a bandit ran up to me in full Daedric armor demanding I had over pocket change.

        1. Michael says:

          Well, to be fair, that’s what the player does in Oblivion. Work up full Daedric, and then wandering around murdering people for pocket change. It’s only fair to think you’re not the only one doing that. :p

    6. Abnaxis says:

      The best justification I’ve come up with (recently) for level-scaling–ESPECIALLY in Bethesda games–is that it’s easier to remove with modding than it would be to shoehorn in. There are plenty of mods out there to overhaul both Skyrim an Oblivion so scaling is gone, but I doubt you would see any mods that could implement leveled lists from scratch if the underlying mechanisms weren’t already implemented in the engine.

      I pity the poor bastards who bought either game for consoles, though.

      1. Hal says:

        I started with Skyrim on the 360. It’s not a bad experience, to be sure, but it definitely suffers from the absence of mods.

  2. Sleeping Dragon says:

    I thought Morrowind had limited level scaling for certain areas, especially in the overworld, through monsterlists? Or am I misremembering it?

    1. Michael says:

      No, that’s correct, it does. Also in dungeons. It’s leveled lists are a bit less, “accommodating” than other games in the series. So you’re far more likely to encounter enemies that are far too powerful for you early on. It also has a lot of hand placed, non scaling stuff, and I think there’s a mechanic where leveled lists can pull lower level monsters.

      But, from going back into it recently, I was rather surprised by how much was actually handled by leveled lists, compared to what I remembered.

      1. nerdpride says:

        All the good loot sits in the world, either as a quest reward or laying on a desk. The only thing I can think of I might really want out of a list are some grand soul gems.

        This made me think of a no-artifact challenge run. I think it would be really boring and slow actually. One of the artifacts I can think of is really good for all the to-hit rolls that you’d like to not miss. It requires a little out-of-the-way trip to get it, but worthwhile early on IMHO.

        1. Michael says:

          On that subject, the Ebony Shortsword up by the Hlaalu stronghold’s site been a recurring favorite of mine.

    2. Decius says:

      Yeah, but in the overworld the levelled lists were things like “Cliff racer; diseased cliff racer; blighted cliff racer”. It was more to show a gradual degradation of wildlife health than to balance the encounters.

      1. Syal says:

        I thought diseased and blighted creatures were mostly based on how close to Ghostgate you were.

        1. Sleeping Dragon says:

          Again, if I remember correctly, and Michael above seems to confirm it, both the statements are true. There were areas (and dungeons, but I’m talking about overworld primarily) were higher tier mobs would spawn by default, or start spawning earlier but I’m relatively sure the areas were you were likely to encounter the Kwama larvae (or whatever those bug things were called) would later on spawn adult Kwamas.

          Generally I’m more okay with list scaling than with just bumping up mob stats, it feels okay that I can now face a tougher mob but that the same mob is still taking me ages basically defeats any good feeling I get from levelling up my character.

        2. Michael says:

          They might, but diseased start showing up at five levels after a critter first starts appearing, and, blighted at ten. It’s possible the leveled lists account for where you are in the world, but I don’t think so. At least not in the base game.

          Just, fair warning, those numbers might be a little off, since it’s been awhile since I actually dug into the .esm.

          1. Decius says:

            Some areas have lower floors; inside the ghostfence overworld pre-victory, for example, monster lists are set as though you were level 10 or 15 IIRC, even if you were lower. As you leveled up, the apparent effect was that the dangerous creatures formerly found only in the ghostfence start to range further out, the deadra appearing near ruins got more aggressive/tougher/numerous, and you got better at handling them. Meanwhile the dungeons remained the same difficulty, and you got better at handling them. Eventually Vivec gets tired of the spreading blight and ash and asks the PC to fix it, even if they’ve actively worked against the prophecy (for example, killing off the people who need to grant a title). Or there are a a handful of ways that the PC can screw everyone, like breaking into Vivec’s chamber and killing him, then taking the artifact and figuring out how to use it without the instructions.

  3. Da Mage says:

    This. This is the reason Morrowind is such a great RPG. In most games you are told you are the most amazing godlike character, in Morrowind it not only tells you (or not, depending if you want to believe the myths), but lets you be godlike.

    And yet, it is not afraid to ask “Are you a bad enough dude?” and then when you try, slap you down and tell you to try something else. And yet, if you beat some big challenge, the game will often reward you with amazing items and artifacts….that in turn allow you to attempt bigger challenges.

    Morrowind has level scaling, but once you hit level 20, you have finished all the level scaling, and further challenges are all hand placed. There are many treasure troves in the game, many not quest related, and all that stops you getting it at level one is a big baddie or some such. This all leads to the great feeling of being able to freely explore and find artifact level items… of which is just outside the starting town and guarded by a simple ghost.

    This is the part of the game that made it so engaging, and yet was also completely abandoned in future Elder Scrolls.

    1. Macfeast says:

      Having the game tell you “sorry, you’re not a bad enough dude”, only to return later and tell the game “actually, I am more than a bad enough dude, step up your game”? Very satisfying.

      1. Victor McKnight says:

        I would argue this is also a reason people like the “Souls” series games. When you first start Dark Souls, even the early undead enemies are hard fights. But as you level up, things get easier (sort of). By the end, you can strut like the half undead god you are through many areas. Its so satisfying. And yet, some areas will still test you.

        That same sense of accomplishment is absent in most level scaling games, and that makes me more than a little sad.

        1. Orillion says:

          Souls is a very different beast. Morrowind lets you try. Dark Souls punishes you for trying, and doesn’t let you try again unless you’re willing to give up all of your souls and humanity.

          Basically Morrowind can appeal to people like me because the consequences of trying something crazy are, well, inconsequential.

          1. Mattias42 says:

            I strongly disagree with this.

            Dark Souls punishes you for being stupid about trying strange stuff, not just trying strange stuff in itself.

            If you go try punching a dragon to death with 100 K souls on you, its your own fault for not investing those souls into darn near anything first. Gear, spells, levels, arrows…

            All things there’s no way to lose once acquired. Not even by death.

            And well, once you’ve lost your blood-puddle twice the only cost for a retry is the travel time to try again.

            Heck, in that one way I’d actually say its a more forgiving series than TES since they use the more traditional ‘Game Over’ screen. You forgot to save before your weird experiment and you might lose hours of progress. That never happens in the soul’s series unless your, again, do something stupid like running around with hours worth of souls on you, and do the same mistake twice in a row.

            1. IFS says:

              And then the game also gives you further ways to avoid losses, like rings of sacrifice (which can even be repaired in Dark Souls 2 so that you never lose souls or humanity beyond the souls required to repair the ring). Dark Souls provides tons of ways to approach a situation cautiously, and generally speaking rewards being prepared over rushing in without any plan, that preparation includes preparing for losses by spending souls while you have them.

        2. IFS says:

          I’d certainly say this is a big part of what I enjoy about the Souls series, although for Souls its not just limited to getting more levels and better gear as you also learn as a player. Those undead in the first area? Yeah they’re really tough when you first pick up the game, but once you have better gear you can just one shot them and laugh off their attacks and it feels great. Then you start a new game and go back there without that equipment and you find you know how to fight them and how to avoid their attacks and that feels great as well. It’s hard for me to describe how good I felt on my second playthrough of Bloodborne defeating bosses that had given me a lot of trouble on my first playthrough in only one attempt.

          To bring this back to Morrowind, Morrowind doesn’t necessarily reward player skill (see the whole player character disconnect Rutskarn mentions) but it does reward player knowledge. Both the Souls series and Morrowind leave things relatively unchanging both in level scaling and in terms of where you can go to do what, and they are much more enjoyable because of it.

        3. watermark0n says:

          That’s not really true. Even at high levels, low leveled enemy’s can easily gank and kill you if you’re not paying attention. Levels honestly don’t really have much of an effect in that game, they make it slightly easier but the main thing is you getting personally more skilled in fighting enemies in the battle system. Dark Souls isn’t about becoming a God, quite the opposite in fact, there is always something right around the corner to humble you and bring you crashing down to Earth.

          In Morrowind, in contrast, it’s basically all a numbers game.

    2. Michael says:

      I thought the main game capped at 30, and the expansions pushed a bit higher? I mean, granted, it’s been a long time, so I could be wrong about that.

      EDIT: On the scaling. Morrowind’s level caps vary by race and class (and time spent in prison), but end up in the 80s, IIRC.

      1. Da Mage says:

        Level cap is basically infinite as you can always go to jail, loose skills and re-level up. If you aren’t gaming the system like that, a natural level cap is anywhere from 60-80.

        However, in terms of random loot and random enemies, you’ll be seeing all the highest level stuff by level 20 (though many lists top out much lower). But by the time you reach level 20, levelled loot won’t be very useful, so you don’t tend to notice it much. It’s also why smuggler’s caves become a gold mine for empty Grand Soul gems in the late game.

        1. Decius says:

          Not that Grand Soul gems are of any use late game, when you are wearing a full kit of artifact gear, have a few more artifacts that you can switch out for circumstances, and have made a couple of artifact-level pieces using the Star of Azura and the souls of gods.

    3. Fnord says:

      I’ve never really understood this objection, because even in level-scaled games I frequently end up feeling significantly more powerful at the end than at the beginning. I mean, there are occasions where it gets screwed up, but it certainly seems possible (and more common than not, in fact) to calibrate the level scaling so I still feel like an nigh-invincible badass in the end-game.

      Oblivion screwed up level scaling, beyond a doubt. But it’s not like you suddenly get Morrowind’s exciting world to explore when you turn off level scaling in Oblivion (I know, I’ve tried).

      1. watermark0n says:

        I know what you mean. I felt basically invincible by level 20 in Skyrim.

  4. 4th Dimension says:

    I LOVED the fact that I could become half GOD in Morrowind solely through my efforts and using and abusing of it’s systems, like enchanting. Also the start isn’t half as bad if you know to make a half decent melee character (Redguard FTW!) and stick to the Fighter’s guild and such quests in the beginning until you get you are able to stand on your feet. In fact despite ES being lauded for exploration, I don’t even remember going into caverns much unless I was on a quest. And if you follow a quest line you are usually given mostly fair fights.
    I also never left the port city by going dirrectly North through those swamps, because you are directed by the NPC’s the other way around.
    Do I need to restate that I LOVE being able to out level a particular annoying enemy and be able to make “BOSS” fights trivial that way.

    Now that the visuals are mentioned, they neve clicked for me. People claim how Morrowind was nice and grand and such, but for me the visuals were always kind of bland and brown, which wasn’t helped by the fact that grass and shrubbery was nonexistent and half the time everything was drenched in brown due to the annoying ash winds.

  5. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Morrowind was just about the last videogame that hadn't learned this lesson: if you're gonna roll dice, roll dice. Asking players to successfully perform a task and then rolling to see if it succeeds is just frustrating and obnoxious. This mishandling, compounded with the game's rather stern beginning, makes for a very unpleasant and ragged start to the game.

    Or,if you are going to use both player skill and dice rolls,make it so that a miss looks like an actual miss.Many shooters do this,by increasing the size of your crosshair due to your characters lack of skill,or you running,or jumping,or whatever.Your bullets can still miss,but you at least know where they went(somewhere in this general circle area).In melee combat,you could achieve this by having the enemy dodge/block/parry at the right moment,or your weapon hitting somewhere other than just the center of the screen.

    1. Michael says:

      Though, rather obviously, Morrowind was not the last game to learn this lesson, as Alpha Protocol exists.

      Ironically, with ranged combat, even Fallout 3 and New Vegas are somewhat guilty of asking you to do a task and then rolling the dice with ranged combat. Or alternately spending a regenerating resource to let the game just roll dice for you.

      1. Raygereio says:

        When you aim in Alpha Protocol, you’ll get a crosshair that exactly tells you in what area the shot can land.

        I’ll give you FO3 and F:NV. That said: there are mods that add a dynamic crosshair that shows you the accuracy information the vanilla game hides.

        1. Victor McKnight says:

          The first Deus Ex is still my go to for how this is done right. You can’t aim, and your crosshair’s size and the speed with which it contracts is based entirely on skill stats, but your own shooting skill also matters in combat. At the beginning of the game, JC is a terrible shot with most thinks except a pistol. But the end you are running around at augmented speed pulling of head shots. Its great.

    2. Abnaxis says:

      I don’t know…you can roll dice, they just can’t be pass/fail dice, and you need effective feedback for the dice.

      I put a similar reply when you said it before, but basically you could accomplish a statistically identical (i.e. over many “hits” resulting in the same mean DPS with the same spread) by varying the damage dealt instead of rolling pass fail. Heck, even when it comes to pass/fail, players are plenty willing to accept a random “critical hit–and the only difference there is that instead of doing zero damage with a “whiff” when you fail, you deal sub-optimal damage and miss out on the *DING* of a critical when you “fail.”

      The problem with Morrowind isn’t that they rolled dice, it’s that they did it in an obnoxious way.

    3. Incunabulum says:

      Or,if you are going to use both player skill and dice rolls,make it so that a miss looks like an actual miss.

      Heh, this is actually a common complaint on the FNV forum (Steam) – people upset that the shooting mechanics aren’t ‘tight’ and bullets go everywhere.

      And you have to explain (yet again) that FNV is an *RPG* and not an *FPS* and that its your *character’s* skill that is being used to shoot, not *yours*.

      You’ll never be able to please everyone – a lot of the ‘problems’ with game mechanics are really due to your preconceptions going in. Having played Morrowind when it first came out, along with being familiar with TT mechanics and cRPGs in general, I never found the ‘No fair! I *hit* him!’ combat to be fustrating – I understood that it was based on the character’s abilities and not mine. But someone coming in later or without that familiarity would be expecting a visual hit to be a hit – and then complain when the game converted what should have been an obvious hit into a miss.

      And its why I’m afraid FO4 will do away with that sort of thing outside VATS to appeal to the FPS crowd – they’ve already got a ‘weapon wheel’ implemented – and outside VATS its likely to be if the player makes the shot, its a hit – even if the character barely knows to put the pointy end facing the enemy.

  6. Angie says:

    Morrowind is my favorite RPG ever, and the (mostly) lack of level scaling is why. There’s a bit of it — places in the islands where there are mud crabs early on have cliff racers five or twn levels later — but for the most part, areas are whatever level they are, and it’s up to the player to explore with some caution. I loved that. I enjoy the early game a lot, and have started a lot of characters, experimenting with different builds. For the first ten or twelve characters I started, I found something new each time in the area right around Seyda Neen, something I hadn’t run across before. That’s awesome worldbuilding on the part of the developers.

    I liked figuring out, over multiple games/characters, the best ways to find money and equipment, where I could explore and how to do that without getting my face bitten off, trying different paths and having different experiences. Knowing that the monsters wouldn’t always be right there with me in every area is absolutely a feature, not a bug. It makes the sandbox part of the game work, and makes it next to impossible to completely screw up your character build. If you need to spend more time practicing something, you can; it might take you longer to level one character over another, but it’s never impossible. Unlike a couple of Might and Magic games (which I also generally enjoy) where you can I got to a point once or twice where I’d killed all the monsters I could handle, and the next area up was slaughtering me whenever I tried. My only options were to go back and start over with different characters, or his Rest, Rest, Rest for enough months (?!) that the low-level area monsters respawned. Yuck. Morrowind never had that problem.


    1. Matt Downie says:

      I made a (presumably bad) character in Morrowind, found I couldn’t beat the weakest critters I could find, so I gave up. What could I have done to become stronger?

      1. Syal says:

        You can always pick flowers and sell them, then use the money for training. Or use them for alchemy; homebrewed potions sell for more than the ingredients to make them. If you’ve got Alteration as a major skill, or Acrobatics or Athletics, or Sneak or Lockpick, those can all be trained from the safety of town.

        Or just be really patient; every landed blow increases weapon exp, and the harder it is to hit with it the more you gain when it lands.And if you can pick a fight near a door, you can tank some hits, go rest, and level up your armor classes that way.

        And don’t fight scribs, those things will murder you early on.

        …Although it’s probably easier to restart and make a character with about 40 in one weapon skill, either axes or swords are best. Then you only miss about half the time and the damage you do will actually be enough to kill that stuff.

        1. Trix2000 says:

          Yeah, that sounds like a lot of (non-intuitive) trouble just to have a reasonable experience at the start.

          1. Rutskarn says:

            It is. It unreasonable, poorly designed, and a sucky way to get people into the game.

          2. Syal says:

            Well, the intuitive thing to do is start over with higher weapon skill. If you don’t want to do that and you can’t survive fighting anything, your options are very limited unless you know the game well enough to get cheesy.

            Although I did forget about skill books; you can go to the library and read all the books, and you’ll come out better at stuff. That probably won’t solve the problem but it’s definitely something to be doing whenever you can.

        2. Benjamin Hilton says:

          I remember in my first play-through spending all my money on new clothes in Seyda Neen and the realizing I didn’t have enough to pay for the silt strider. I had to beg borrow and steal to scrape together the money to travel. It was inconvenient for sure but it stuck with me because it made the world seem so real. The rules of the world existed before I arrived, and they weren’t going to bend to acquiesce to me.

      2. Nidokoenig says:

        Do odd quests, delivery, investigation, talking, steal things, and earn enough cash to buy some training in your combat stats. A spell of Drain Skill for three seconds will make it cheap as chips to get trained up however far you like.

        Find an armourer and weaponsmith who doesn’t have line of sight to their wares, or make a powerful Chameleon for three seconds spell, and steal far better equipment than you should be able to get.

        Find something powerful and kite it towards a guard, take his armour when he dies.

        Grab plants at random, steal an alchemy set, make potions to buff yourself.

        Buy all the sujamma you see but can’t steal, chug four for every fight and batter enemies with 200+ Strength. When it wears off, your magicka will be at max again.

        If you have points in Restoration, you can buff your stats and skills with Fortify spells to get over the initial hump. This will require a quick trip to Mournhold or Solstheim for Fortify Skill, or a missed vendor.

        Enchant a weapon with 1 point of Levitate for four seconds on target, or enchant something that isn’t quite as silly.

        Damage spell at on touch range, enchanted on an amulet, as powerful as you can make. Casting cooldown is zero, so run up to someone and machine gun them.

        Apply what you may have learnt to a new character.

      3. Viktor says:

        Pick a melee-based male race, make a class with a weapon skill and armor class that the race specializes in(not spear, bows, or medium armor) for major skills, and toss the rest of your skills in utility stuff that looks cool. You should be able to get through the early game well enough like that.

        1. nerdpride says:

          I like taking spears. Best to get endurance first for maximum health, and there are more misc skills to get for agility or strength or whatever. Fatigue is nice too. Plus it simplifies leveling later on when endurance is maximum. You can train a misc skill to still get x5 in that attribute on levelup.

          I tend to start getting luck early on too since it takes so long.

          1. Syal says:

            Medium armor isn’t a bad starting stat either, since it also builds endurance and you can steal a full Ordinator set immediately upon getting to Vivec.

            1. Nidokoenig says:

              If you have all the official mods, a shop in Balmora has a set of Adamantine armour and no line of sight to the chest. Not taking medium armour or spear as a major means training them will be cheap, so train your primary combat skill to earn the level up, train an endurance skill, and take five points in each stat and one in luck. Or just use a drain skill spell to make training cheap regardless.

      4. Vivi says:

        Huh. I really can’t remember EVER having major problems surviving fights at the start of a new character. Maybe it’s matter of having all the proper patches? Plus, the Rational Wildlife mod really is a must – keeps healthy animals (except some mid-level predators like alits) from attacking the player without provocation, just like non-rabid animals in the real world would stay away from humans under most circumstances. And of course, I don’t start the game without at least one non-obscure weapons skill and an armor-wearing skill in the Major Skills section. That just always seemed intuitively sensible to me. Usually, it’s short sword (and maybe bows) and light armor for me, because I’m a pack rat and need to cut down on gear weight. (Once the fights get too easy with those, I give my character a mid-life crisis / career change and start with heavy armor / long sword / combat magic, so that I can then do different guild quests and will be able to use the nice Tribunal artifact gear or make my own enchanted daedric armor.)

        At the start of the game, I usually go find the bosmer’s stash (AFTER giving him back his ring), the dead Icarus guy (the jumping scrolls sell pretty well) and the murder victim in the swamp (killing a few crabs and kwama on the way), loot the lighthouse and the tax office’s storage area (opposite the door you use to leave the military office at the start; you need a decent lock picking skill) and, with that gear and/or stuff bought “on credit” with the tax money from the corpse (I only report the murder later when I have enough money to hand over again), I then go to loot the bandit cave (hard but do-able at this point, if you go slow enough to take the enemies out one by one). Which usually gives me enough money to buy the best light armor you can buy until you find Ghostgate (i.e. chitin), all the useful spells on offer in the starting town, and transport to Balmora – if I’m feeling too lazy to walk there. Once in Balmora, I empty all the outside containers (DON’T try this in a Redoran town!), join the guilds to get the free stuff and better prices, and then do newbie in-town / flower-gathering quests and brew food-based potions until I can afford the basic set of alteration/mysticism spells and enough guild training to level up to about lv. 5 (looting the house of the murdered noble also helps, and leaves you with many empty boxes and urns to store your alchemy ingredients). For essential gear I usually buy a health-restoring light shield or helmet at the temple (saves A LOT on health potions), the cheap stamina-restoring amulet if the enchanter has it on offer, and maybe pick up the semi-artifact Sword of White Woe hidden in one of the guard towers, if I have character build with long sword skill. Then I start doing dungeon crawl quests or the main quest (or just go pick up the artifact rings if I’m just prepping a character for a new questline / land mass mod).
        With the Tribunal addon installed it gets even easier, because it’s still relatively easy to give the death of a thousand cuts to the assassin sent to kill you in your sleep if you’re on a low level (IIRC, he only gets good weapons if you’re on a medium level when you install the addon), and he has a set of light armor that’s ugly, but much better than anything but glass armor. With that on, you’re almost invincible in fights designed for low-level characters (i.e. animals, not daedra).

        1. Vivi says:

          With a recent character purposefully built to royally suck at fighting at the start, I skipped the bandit cave and didn’t steal anything (for roleplay reasons), handed over the tax money immediately, and still managed to buy basic gear and get to Balmora without any problems by selling mushrooms and herbs gathered around the silt strider and lighthouse (and the Icarus scrolls, keeping the guy’s robe and hat for myself). I think I didn’t take part in a single fight with that character until after doing the low-level Mages Guild quests in Balmora and affording some basic Fighters Guild training with the help of Caius and my own potion selling. I did relent on the lawfulness of my character after the first few levels, though, reasoning that slave/drug-smuggler caves and ancestor tombs are fair game (after all, these guys profitted from the labor of my Khajit ancestors to afford all those fancy grave goods).

          I can report that it’s perfectly possible to gain high rank in House Redoran without ever dying once, even if you started out with a character ‘pre-destined’ to be a thief / monk – but who desperately wants to be a mage instead. The fighting skills were almost completely developed in-game, not at the start.

    2. RCN says:

      Might & Magic X was like that (in that there was absolutely several ways you could screw your character creation and then there was nothing you could do about it because the monsters didn’t even respawn). But I feel like all Might & Magic games followed a formula of “You can cheese as much as you want, and you feel your party is getting more powerful as you need to cheese less and less”.

      In M&M VI-VIII, for instance, there are almost no encounters you can’t beat with bows and back-pedaling, even if you’re horribly under-optimized. It feels cheesy as all hell, but it is possible. Even if that’s giving you trouble, EVERY area has a couple of wells and altars giving you buffs tailored to the area you’re in, making the encounters easier (several important areas usually offer the incredibly powerful Day of the Gods, and even if that is lacking an altar with Bless makes a lot of difference). And in case the area doesn’t have an altar, you can just donate to the local temple and they’ll buff you with all the relevant spells to increase the force-multipliers of your party (Bless, Heroism, the works). If all else fails, you can hire an NPC who can cast flight and just air-raid all melee monsters into oblivion (or even better, use turn-based combat and dodge the attacks of ranged monsters while you should be technically frozen in place).

      I’ve got pretty far on both M&M VI and M&M VII when I was under 10 years old and frankly a complete spaz at video games thanks to these tactics. I only got stuck when I couldn’t advance the main quest anymore because I simply didn’t KNOW what the main quest was.

      Most of these are also valid for M&M I – V (especially because Lloyd’s Beacon is a MUCH more low-level spell in those games, so you can always leave one in something like a +20 levels well). But it feels good to transit from “I need the town’s bishop to ward and bless me with half a metric ton of relics and drink from the Fountain of Awesome in order to tickle these skeletons” to “I can obliterate these skeletons without even breaking a sweat”. I think Might & Magic is one of the franchises to best bestow this feeling of advancement from all RPGs I know. They love, for instance, to mix up some monsters that were boss-tough several levels ago as simple mooks of a current dungeon.

  7. topazwolf says:

    You forgot to mention how the only time the game ever cared about your skills was in guild advancement. To be arch-mage you actually had to be good at magic, which is a system I want them to bring back. Because hitting things to become the arch-mange of Winterhold always felt wrong to me. And besides, it is good to force players to actually use thief skills, fighting skills, and mage skills in the game.

    1. Michael says:

      Didn’t Oblivion have skill prereqs to rank up in guilds (except for The Blades), or am I remembering that wrong?

      1. topazwolf says:

        No. You can become leader of every guild without ever reaching expert level in any skill. And you will since Oblivion’s level scaling makes the most sensible thing to never level up.

    2. Lachlan the Mad says:

      I really need to do a Skyrim playthrough where I become Archmage without ever casting a single spell. The only part I haven’t figured out yet is the “how to use a ward” tutorial, but it’s possible that you might be able to bypass that using the Daedric shield which summons a ward. Every other “mandatory” spell casting point can be overcome with Dragon Shouts.

    3. djw says:

      I agree 100%.

      There is a mod that changes this for the Companions called:

      Enhanced Skyrim Factions: the Companions

      It adds skill thresholds that must be met to trigger the three major portions of the quest line. It also adds a requirement that a certain number of radiant quests for the companions must be completed before the triggers fire as well. Both requirements are configurable within the mod. This enhanced my immersion quite a bit. If I could find similar mods for the other factions I would start a new play through right now.

      1. Michael says:

        Not exactly what you’re looking for, but there is a Thieves’ Guild Requirements mod that puts prereqs into even being invited in. Again, they’re customizable, but you need to have stolen a number of items, have a sneak skill above a threshold, and picked some pockets. Again, all configurable.

  8. Hermocrates says:

    I think you put it best during the Skyrim season of SW: in Oblivion, you constantly feel like you’re a schmuck barely managing to kill the rats in someone’s storeroom; in Skyrim, you constantly feel like you’re a demigod kicking Dagoth Ur’s butt in Red Mountain; only in Morrowind do you feel like you can actually progress from the former to the latter (paraphrased, obviously).

  9. Andy says:

    That first lowbie moment of walking in to Druscashti (Hey, look at this cool creepy ruin! Let’s check it out!) and getting my face ripped off by a chick in full Ebony armor – Priceless!

  10. KingMarth says:

    I’m reminded of the 4th edition of D&D, which has good and bad elements of level scaling. On the bad side, since you gain a bonus equal to half your level on all attacks, defenses, and skill checks, your numbers are increasing partially on their own over the 30 levels of the game, but since all monsters use the current level in their own stats for attack and defense, you’ll always be around a 60% hit rate. Further, the base game provides a list of skill check difficulties by level, so it is implied that even with skill checks the world levels with you – you’re better at balancing on tightropes as you level, but the tightropes also become more difficult. The numbers increase over time, but you need to basically read the design notes and know exactly what level is under consideration to know if that +17 to hit or 23 AC is awesome or horrifically outmatched.

    That said, there are the tools to make players feel like they’ve truly advanced. One of the simplest is to use the same type of monster at many different levels, starting them off as a solo (5-monster equivalent) threat, then an elite (2-monster equivalent), then a normal monster, then a minion (1/4-monster, down in one hit), then possibly as far as difficult terrain. At each point the monster’s level and damage-per-attack has increased to keep up with the accuracy treadmill, but since each instance of the monster is responsible for a smaller proportion of enemy hit points and actions in an encounter, after a point you can be literally walking over those fearsome trolls/giants/etc that you had once needed your entire party working together to bring down. As for skills, it’s recommended to not just use the listed skill difficulty but to ground in the world that the sort of things you face at higher level are actually harder, so your 25th level character isn’t just balancing on a tightrope but instead balancing on a strand of angel’s hair threading through a soul-blizzard.
    Compounding this is that players do get more abilities as they level, and the sort of synergies and interactions you get at high level start to throw all semblance of difficulty out the window when played by the book, so I hear.

    1. Hal says:

      Every RPG has this element to it; D&D 4E was just more explicit about how those elements interact in the system.

      That is, at level 1 you fight groups of level 1 goblins. At level 10, you don’t fight more level 1 goblins; that wouldn’t be entertaining for anybody.

      Same thing with skill checks. At level 1, picking the lock on a simple door might be moderately challenging. At level 10, it’s trivial; that’s why the GM should be presenting other challenges that will keep pace. So the GM doesn’t ask you to roll unlock the simple door, but he does ask you to roll to open the arcane lock on an ancient treasure hoard.

      The point is that most RPGs handle this by narratively skimming over challenges that would previously had to be resolved mechanically, if they’re even presented at all. The mechanics are there to resolve situations that include risk and uncertainty. Everything else could seem like a waste of time for everyone at the table.

      1. Matt Downie says:

        D&D 5th edition, I understand, does a reasonably good job of making it still fun to fight ordinary orcs at higher level – but you can take on a much larger number.

        In D&D 3.X, that tended not to work – the orcs couldn’t hit the fighter’s AC and the wizards could annihilate them with a single fireball. And even if it was balanced, a battle against twenty enemies was incredibly slow to play out.

        In something like Skyrim, it might be quite fun to take on a horde of twenty low-grade enemies and cut them all down, but your frame rate would probably collapse on the systems it was built for.

        1. Hal says:

          The “larger number of foes at higher level” thing can backfire, though. This is partly because “large number of foes” is a different kind of challenge from “small number of powerful foes,” but also because fighting large numbers of enemies in a table top game can devolve into a slog. Too many enemies can be just as tiresome as a single “Big Bag o’ HP” enemy.

    2. TMC_Sherpa says:

      I liked 4th a lot. I think the biggest flaw was putting the character builder behind a paywall but that’s probably a discussion for a different post.
      The math is the first three books was elegant if ultimately very simple. Most of the time, regardless of your level, you need to roll a 10 or better. Done. +23 to your rolls? Great, you probably need a 33 (well, 30-35 probably but whatever).

      Unfortunately the power creep was frick’n nuts.

  11. Abnaxis says:

    I never finished the game, however, my wife “won” the main quest–without ever even meeting uncle Cauis. She just stumbled accross Dagoth Ur by exploring, he muttered some nonsense about Nerevar that didn’t make any sense, she beat him down and some credits rolled.

    On the one hand, it was probably the most anti-climatic final boss fight I’ve ever seen. I mean, she literally tapped me on the shoulder saying, “Uh….I *think* I beat the game? Maybe? Who’s Dagoth Ur?” followed by some Googling.

    On the other hand, you *have* to respect a game that will let you do that.

    1. Hal says:

      How is that possible? If you show up without the two MacGuffin items, you shouldn’t be able to destroy the Heart of Lorkhan, and I’m fairly certain he respawns repeatedly if you destroy him but not the heart.

      1. Syal says:

        I’m trying to remember if the credits roll even when you do it right. You get a cutscene I know, but I don’t remember credits.

        1. Abnaxis says:

          So, this wasn’t even me playing and it was at least six years ago…

          But from memory, she picked up the MacGuffins while exploring. They’re actually fairly nice weapons which are supposed to kill you while you wield them unless you do the main quest, but she had some trick to tank the damage

          And there’s some cut scene that plays. That was literally the point where it was like, “oh, I guess that Dagoth was important or something?”

          1. Hal says:

            Huh . . . I guess it IS possible.

            So, if you “screw up” the game somehow, like killing an important NPC, the game gives you this dire message about the world being doomed and such, but they left in a pathway for actually finishing the game still; presumably, it’s something you’d only figure out on a second or third play through.

            In any case, to wield those items, you’d need a bracer which can only be found on Vivec, a putative god in the main city. Without it, those MacGuffins kill you. How she managed to skip that without the bracer is beyond me, but I guess it’s not impossible, especially since the MacGuffins aren’t very far from Dagoth Ur.

            1. Hector says:

              You actually don’t need Wraithguard, and here’s why:

              They don’t kill you instantly. If you keep healing or just equipment them only as necessary, you can easily do the necessary bit without even minding the damage. There’s a speedrun of the game in something like seven minutes using a level 1 starting character (and no alchemy tricks).

              1. Syal says:

                Yeah, speedruns are down to like four minutes.

                Also there’s not just one way to get around the doom message; there’s actually tiers to the main quest, and for the most part failing one tier lets you skip to the next one, and there’s the special questline if you’ve actually failed the final tier.

                Didn’t think someone could accidentally beat it though.

              2. Abnaxis says:

                I’m actually pretty sure you can avoid the damage entirely with 100% Magicka Resistance, kind of like how you can use those one boots with high enough resistance. Again, going vaguely from memory, I remember those weapons being “powerful, but drains your health some while using them” (her resistance wasn’t 100%, but it was absurdly high enough to make the health damage a trickle instead of a death sentence). If fact, I remember Dagoth Ur being a whole lot like the Cahmel’s Gaenor fight….

                And it’s not like she wasn’t deliberately going around murdering Dagoths. I mean, they were high-level enemies with good loot. But it wasn’t actually connected to the main quest–they were just there, so she killed them.

                1. Abnaxis says:

                  Upon review, I find that Cahmel did not, in actually, defeat Gaenor. No, his end was much more pathetic than that, at Gaenor’s hands.

                  I don’t know why I remembered it differently. Repressed memory, I guess.

                  Still if he had actually managed to cheese his way to victory as he intended, I guess that would have been a lot like the fight with Dagoth Ur went–characterized by cheesing some of the utterly broken systems of Morrowind (specifically, magicka resistance and alchemy) for a well-won victory against a nominally superior foe.

    2. John the Savage says:

      That’s both amazing and hilarious. I remember spending over an hour just trying to find the last dungeon, and I had a marker on my compass pointing the way! To hear that somebody just blundered their way in is the kind of thing that makes me laugh uproariously, but the laughter gradually turns into sobbing.

  12. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I really dont get the reason behind pairing increasable stats with level scaling.If you want to have an appropriate challenge for the player no matter where they go,make it so that their character is static.If you really want to also include some sort of power up mechanic,make it so that they can get new weapons,tools and abilities.You know,the metroid way.But if you want to have a fluid character for your player,one that grows over time,then dont level enemies along with them.It just makes the whole experience pointless.You need to see your growth if it is to have any worth,and you cannot see it if everything you face presents exactly the same challenge.Its really simple,so I dont get why bethesda constantly struggles with it.

    1. Syal says:

      They even have an easy, lore-friendly compromise; make the Daedra level with you and leave everything else static.

  13. psivamp says:

    Oblivion had amazingly poor level scaling.

    It was easy to outpace it in the early levels and, after a point, your levels were no longer meaningful and gaining levels was a bad idea. I severely outpaced the scale rate until about level 25 when I capped my combat-relevant skills. From there to the 40’s was a slow decline from unkillable to ineffectual. At 25, I feared nothing. I could hit anything with a poison arrow and watch them die before my eyes. At 40, if I wanted to fight a random encounter, I had to abuse item duplication and kite things for tens of minutes.

  14. SoranMBane says:

    My first time through, I beat the final boss of Morrowind by accidentally tricking him into falling in lava (I levitated in order to reach the Heart without getting killed, and Bethesda AI took care of the rest). Somehow, that was significantly more satisfying than Skyrim’s bombastic exploding-dragon-god ending ever could be. I saved the world with awkwardness.

  15. Trevel says:

    I think it might have helped that I’d been playing roguelikes around when I first played Morrowind…

  16. Jonathan says:

    And that’s why I hate level-scaling.

    Homeworld was a great game; after the first 4 levels, I’d learned enough that I started over and actually had a decent fleet. I was punished for that by facing more and harder enemies. I quit and haven’t touched it since.

  17. John the Savage says:

    I find it really interesting to compare Morrowind and Oblivion in regards to those two lessons (player-input vs. dice rolling and level-scaling), both against each other and with a game that seemed to learn both lessons better than either game: Dark Souls.

    Ruts will probably say that Oblivion learned the lesson of having player input matter, but the controls were so jankey and unwieldly that it barely made a difference (anyone who has ever tried to use the “disarm” move knows what I mean). On paper, Dark Souls has pretty much the same control scheme as Oblivion (shields, movement changing which attack you throw, shields, guard breaks, and of course, shields), but the controls are so tight and satisfying that if you miss an enemy or throw the wrong attack, you KNOW it’s your fault and not the game’s. Likewise, Morrowind threw out level-scaling in favor of a tangible sensation of getting stronger. But again, Dark Souls raises the bar: Morrowind makes you feel that your attacks and character are getting stronger, but DS makes you feel like you, the player are getting stronger. Leveling up makes your character stronger in both games, but it barely matters in DS, since the far more important growth is in your skill at playing the game. It’s a feeling that would be rendered impossible without the both lessons sticking together like glue.

    1. Rutskarn says:

      Close. It’s more like Oblivion learned the right lesson and then made its combat an awful garbage pain in the ass all the time and I hate it.

    2. Michael says:

      Ironically, or not, I’ve actually found leveling a character in Dark Souls has a far greater effect on your ability to survive than a lot of players seem to give it credit for.

      Higher level characters remain in combat for less time, because they’ve been raising their damage stat. The longer you remain in combat, the more likely something will go wrong, and you’ll get smeared across the walls. So, leveling does actually mitigate that.

      As with a lot of games, once you know exactly what you’re doing, you can bypass the crutch of leveling to some extent. But that’s true of a lot of action focused RPGs, not just Dark Souls.

  18. Zaxares says:

    I have always, ALWAYS loathed level scaling in RPGs. To me, it always felt like it was defeating the purpose of my adventuring (outside of seeing the story and getting to know party members). No matter how much I levelled, the game would always match my foes to my perceived power level, and adjust the loot to match. As Rutskarn mentions, at the start of the game I was fighting orcs and killing them in 3 hits, and at the end of the game I was fighting orcs (or maybe Orc Champions, or blue-skinned orcs) and killing them in 3 hits. NOTHING HAD CHANGED.

    I much preferred RPGs like Baldur’s Gate where every map had pissant foes you could swat down like flies, some more difficult encounters scattered here and there, and usually one or two TOUGH encounters that you might be able to beat if you were very skilled (or very lucky), but which you could always come back to at a higher level.

  19. The fact that Bethesda includes widespread level-scaling in their games indicates to me that they really have no longer have any idea how to make an RPG. I don’t know if there was a departure of certain individuals from the company, but after Morrowind they completely lost the plot.

    An RPG differs from other games in that you are not playing as yourself, but you assume the role of your character, who is defined separately from you. This why RPGs have stats, such as skills, attributes, perks, feats, and so on, because these define your character, separating his abilities from yours, and allowing him to succeed or fail independently of the player. When outcomes are dependent on player skill instead of character skill, then there is no character, there is only you, or rather, an avatar for your skills, your abilities. And at this point, you’re not playing an RPG, but some other genre of game.

    Now look at Skyrim. Your character is defined in some ways – race, gender, a handful of skills – but the game fails to notice:

    – In Morrowind, if you tried to pick an extremely hard lock with a low Security skill, you weren’t ever going to be able to open it. In Skyrim you can open even the hardest locks with no Security skill if you’re good at the lockpicking minigame. Player skill trumps character skill; an abject failure for an RPG.

    Skyrim goes out of its way to demonstrate the racial tensions in the region. You hear that “Argonians have it rough” in Windhelm, and when you actually visit said city, you find that the Argonians are relegated to menial dockside labour. When you enter the city, you see a Dunmer woman being harassed by some Nords. Windhelm is also the centre of operations for the Stormcloaks, whose “Skyrim is for the Nords!” act has an uncomfortable element of “Ausländer raus!” racial superiority to it.

    Except that Argonian PCs won’t have any more difficulty going about their business than a PC of any other race. A High Elf doesn’t find it any more difficult to join the Stormcloaks than a Nord. No one will so much as wonder if they might by a spy for the Thalmor. In fact, you can play as an Altmer and stroll into Windhelm wearing Thalmor robes with no repercussions; in Fallout: New Vegas, this would have turned everyone hostile.

    And despite all the racial hostility in Skyrim, apparently its inhabitants are super tolerant when it comes to choosing spouses, as none of them care whatsoever about your race or gender.

    – A character with no magic skills can become archmage of the College of Winterhold. A character with no Stealth skills can become head of the Thieves’ Guild. A character with no fighting skills can become Harbinger of the Companions. Your skills simply aren’t important as far as the game world is concerned, doubly so because nearly every enemy in the game scales with your level. To be fair, it’s not as egregious as in Oblivion where at high levels bandits would be sporting full Daedric armour with thousands of gold, but it’s still nigh-omnipresent. Go through a cave at low level and it will be filled with mere “Bandits.” Go through the same cave at higher level and it will be filled with “Bandit Plunderers” who look exactly the same but are much tougher. And whatever loot you’ll find in that cave will be scaled to your level as well, and it will likely be worse than whatever you can craft yourself. This makes exploration pointless!

    – The game does not react to your actions. “Hey, thanks for bringing back my Golden Claw, mate!” says the shopkeeper. I swipe it the second his back is turned and he’ll still compliment me about finding it for him. I can murder the emperor of Tamriel, then join the Imperial Legion, where I’m required to swear an oath the man I just murdered (compare this to FO:NV, where people would recognise if you had killed Caesar. They’d even remark on the irony of it all if the Courier was a woman). And if I stick with the Legion, I get promoted to the rank of Legate, yet Imperial guards will still brusquely dismiss me when I try begin dialogue with them. And apparently, no even in the Companions has even heard of me, even after I’ve slain Alduin.

    So after all this, if the game doesn’t care about the character I’ve created, and instead gives the same experience to everyone regardless, and doesn’t care about the actions of my character, then I cannot in good conscience call Skyrim and RPG, because my “role” is totally meaningless.

    1. Kalil says:

      Yah, my favorite clothing-related silliness in Skyrim was definitely swearing my oath to the Empire while wearing the robes I took from the emperors corpse. It certainly did make the world seem rather 1d, though…

      Skyrim was a really flat world that tried to convince you it was deep with superficialities.

      I wonder, on the development side, whether they didn’t have different writers writing different quests and events and dialogues, thus precluding the kind of interconnectedness that would have actually made your actions feel consequential.

    2. jawlz says:

      I don’t entirely disagree with your overall points, but I will say that in terms of The Elder Scrolls, Morrowind is really the exception to the rule for most of them. Broadly speaking, in terms of level-scaling, racial interactions, etc, Oblivion and Skyrim have more in common with Daggerfall than they do Morrowind. I know many say that Oblivion and Skyrim are a departure, but if you’ve played Daggerfall, you know they’re more a return to the previous way of doing things. From your post:

      Level-scaling – Daggerfall is ALL level scaling. With maybe 1 exception, *everything* is scaled to you – equipment, enemies, quest rewards, etc.

      Lockpicking – scaled in Daggerfall too, with the additional note that any lock you can’t pick, you can just swing at with your weapon over and over again until it opens.

      Racial Tension – Outside of a few people noting your race (i.e. ‘Guards! Kill this [charname-race]!’), there’s no difference in how others respond to you.

      Skills needed for guild advancement – Daggerfall is actually better here, and closer to Morrowind. You need a minimum skill to join a faction, and then increased minimum skills in order to advance.

      Game doesn’t react to your actions – Honestly, I didn’t really feel that *any* of the TES games reacted very much to my actions.

      Now, in some ways there was more emergent gameplay in Arena and especially Daggerfall than in Oblivion or Skyrim, inasmuch as there was just such an enormous world to explore. But on the whole….. Oblivion and Skyrim weren’t Bethsesda getting worse and worse – they were a return to what they had been doing before Morrowind came out (for better and worse).

  20. Smejki says:

    I love that Fallout: New Vegas, unlike F3, did very similar thing. There were preset hi/lo danger zones and additionally it was used as a story pacing tool. That’s very Gothic-esque but without the unpleasant feeling of completely static world and tightly directed playthrough. I love this approach but only few can pull this off well enough.

  21. Thomas Steven Slater says:

    The game sryth does good things with level scaling.

    1. Most of content is not scaled in anyway. However the writing in the game makes it so that he if the foe had absolutely no chase of really hurting you the game skill feels almost exactly as exciting. In a game with real time action it would be almost impossible to maintain that air of danger. I guess in that case they could change the game to react to you to competely destroying everything. Have enemies die in awesome graphical ways (fallout did this well) and have those foes actually react. If you cleave 3 bandits in half with one blow the rest of the camp should surround right now, after that they just give the player all the loot they would have dropped in you’ld have killed them or you can hand them over to whoever passes for the law nearby (even give the player at choice of who to hand them other too), or now can just execute some or all of them.

    2. No matter how powerful you are the foes can still get you come of the time. Masses upon masses of the easiest combat with still wear your character down.

    3. There are small optional sections of the game that either deliberately scale nor can just get progressively harder and harder until the character if all the best everything money can buy have to bow out.

    4. Many of the quests have and option right at the start to choose to scale it or not. In most cases not scaling will make it much easier and slightly less rewarding. Other games could benefit from just giving the players the choice, it’ll only really work for instanced areas or to apply to the whole game at the start (and changable at a few rare places).

  22. Vivi says:

    I stongly disagree with your assessment that Oblivion has a more varied environment than Morrowind. Morrowind had at least 5 distinctly different biomes (6 if you’re counting snowy Solstheim), each with their own flora and fauna, and even weather, to a certain degree. There were flower-and-giant-mushroom-dotted pleasant fields/grasslands; rainy, swampy forests; wilder, endless-steppe-type grasslands; dusty, dried-out-mud semi-desert wastes with much more hardy, thorny shrubbery; and the mountain with its ash storms, burnt tree trunks and lava flows. All surrounded by a coastline with some really fanciful rock formations. In contrast, as far as I can remember from my one play-through, Oblivions basically just had your standard Central European temperate biome. Green meadows/fields, green forests, and… uh… evergreen forests? And maybe a bit of snow somewhere on the mountains towards Skyrim? Aside from the relative lack of variety, this feels rather boring and generic if you live in that kind of landscape in real life. At least they could have kept the tropical jungles of Cyrondil mentioned in the lore.

  23. Jabberwok says:

    I mean, no level scaling was the standard for classic CRPGs, and I definitely prefer it that way. Seems to me that the way to fix any ‘problems’ that arise from not scaling difficulty is better quest and world design, not fudging the numbers. Or on the higher end, even altering the systems that create the power curve players are on, to avoid situations like enemies taking 0 damage from attacks for no apparent reason.

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