Let’s Illustrate Morrowind Part 20: Glass Ceiling

Fault finally convinced the rogue wizard to pay her guild dues. One (hopefully) final volcano trek back to town and this quest is finally complete. Fault gets to keep half of the cash she collected as a reward and, of course, immediately gives it back to the guild in the form of training fees.

Fault’s conjuration skills and spell casting stats are actually looking pretty decent so she mentions she’d like to move up in the ranks of the Mage’s Guild. But for some bizarre reason it doesn’t work.

I double check the requirements: Int 30. Check. Willpower 30. Check. One guild skill at 40 and two at 10. Fault has Conjuration 43 and at least 20 in every other mage skill in the game. Why isn’t this working?

Wait a minute… let me double check the mage guild skill list…

Conjuration isn’t on the list?!

Well darn.

If you want to play with the Big Boys you've got to follow the Rules

If you want to play with the Big Boys you’ve got to follow the Rules

Let’s head over to the fighter’s guild then. I bet they’ll at least appreciate Fault’s story about punching a fantasy pterodactyl out of the sky…

Guess what? Neither spears nor unarmed fighting are included on the fighter’s guild official skill list.

I appear to have accidentally stumbled on a build that absolutely nobody is impressed by. Which is ridiculous because after all those careful near-perfect levels Fault is actually rather powerful for her level; but apparently not in a way anybody cares about.

Well bummer. At least Caius still loves us. What spy work does the emperor have for us?

Let’s Illustrate Morrowind Part 19: Crimes Against The Player

Fault hauls her most recent research notes back to Caius, who recognizes her skill at fetch quests and exposition listening by granting her the rank of Apprentice in the Blades. He then mentions it might take him some time to finish analyzing this most recent information and that if Fault wants to go off and do some adventuring now would be great time for it.

I just want to point out how really well done that is. Most open world games insist on pretending their main plot is super urgent which leaves players with a bad choice between A) Playing along with the plot and missing out on side quests or B) Breaking their own immersion by calling the plot’s bluff and doing side quests even though there’s an “urgent” problem waiting for them.

And it’s not like this is a hard problem to avoid. Just make sure your open world plot has a few natural breaking points where it would make sense for the player to go off and do their own thing for a bit. That’s all we really want.

Anyways, Fault figures it’s about time she gets on with her mage training and dumps a bunch of assassin loot cash to get some nice intelligence related skills. She also hints to the guild leader that it sure would be nice to rank up but apparently her growing magical prowess isn’t enough on her own: The guild master really wants those dues from that one rogue wizard we politely decided not to murder several updates ago.

So off Fault goes to brave the volcano once again. Making things even more interesting is the fact that according to Morrowind’s crazy leveling system Fault really needs to level up her unarmed skills before using too much magic and let me tell you punching a flying dinosaur bat out of the air with your bare hands is not an easy task!

Morrowind's combat system isn't exactly what you would call elegant

Morrowind’s combat system isn’t exactly what you would call elegant

Fault finally arrives at the cave of the evil mage tax avoider and is more than ready to beat her to death for the crime of making a protagonist cross through cliff racer volcano territory twice. But just to be polite I give diplomacy one last try and by a stroke of luck make a good enough impression that the mage agrees to fork over 2000 gold in late payments.

Which is nice because I really wasn’t looking forward to murdering someone over membership fees. We’re supposed to be the hero here, right?

Let’s Illustrate Morrowind Part 18: It’s Not Even Gold Plated

South of Pelagarius is the crypt Fault has been tasked to explore, which is fairly small and sadly lacking in significant treasure outside of the skull we were sent to find. Fortunately Fault gets ambushed by yet another assassin while exploring the tombs and those guys are basically loot pinatas. I am never going to resolve this subplot; it’s too lucrative.

I"m sure that skull is of great historical value, at least

I”m sure that skull is of great historical value, at least

Two interesting observations: I don’t know why but sometimes shop keepers will equip the armor you sell them. As a result half of the people Fault does business with are now dressed up like members of the Dark Brotherhood of assassins.

Second observation: I wonder if I’ve accidentally broken the assassin system? They seem to randomly appear every time you rest and I *think* they might be designed to discourage you from just resting every few minutes like potion-less Fault does. But they’re pretty easy to kill and worth a lot of gold so far from discouraging my play style they’re funding it.

Anyways, our mage guild contact tells us more about the cult of nizierth or whatever it’s called. Apparently there’s a local dark elf legend that one day a great hero will be reborn, cast down a bunch of false gods, kick all the outlanders out of Morrowind and generally make everything all better. This religion is technically illegal but since when has that stopped cultists?

Let’s Illustrate Morrowind Part 17: Tougher Than Nails

Fault’s first mission for the Blades was a breeze. For her next mission Caius wants her to go talk to a Mage guild orc and get information on the cult of the Neverine, which seems to believe a mysterious stranger will one day show up and unite all of Morrowind. That sure sounds like protagonist territory but let’s not jump to conclusions.

Of course, the orc won’t tell us anything until we do her favor by heading to a certain tomb near the town of Pelagrius and retrieving a certain engraved skull. Being a spy sure involves a lot more dungeon delving than I imagined.

Still, all that money we got from pawning millennia old priceless artifacts is burning a hole in Fault’s pockets so it’s time to be sneaky. Hello Mrs. Fighter Guild armor trainer, I would love ten cheap levels worth of Medium Armor (an endurance skill). And what’s that Totally-Not-A-Thief Trainer hiding in a seedy bar? You can turn the rest of my cash into five levels of acrobatics? Please do.

Fault then bunny hops her way to Pelagrius (it’s not grinding, I had to walk their one way or another), gaining just enough ranks in acrobatics to earn a near perfect level up. Once again our stupid Athletics skill ruins everything but not by much.

Great news though! Between training and adventuring Fault has been slowly but steadily gaining levels and while none of them were “perfect” I did at least manage to always get +5 endurance and the stat was finally maxed out during this level up on the path to Pelagarius. Fault has achieved perfect HP potential!

I think I have a terminal case of Min Maxing...

I think I have a terminal case of Min Maxing…

Two other big benefits. First, no longer needing to raise endurance means all the training money we used to spend on that can go into boosting other stats, like maybe our pathetically low and unwizardly intelligence.

Second, endurance skills are now “Safe”. We can’t earn any more points of endurance so it doesn’t matter how much or how little we use endurance skills. That means we can freely use our spear whenever we want without worrying that we’re splitting XP. This makes the game significantly less stressful and more fun.

Let’s Illustrate Morrowind Part 16: This Game Has A Plot?

At this point in the game Fault’s two options are to either trudge through the cliff runner infested volcano AGAIN in order to shake down a mage who’s late on her guild payments OR to meet back up with Caius and maybe find out what exactly is going on with this whole plot thing. You know, the plot where the Emperor granted Fault her freedom but in exchange experts her to become a member of the Blades.

Hardly a choice at this point. Caius it is!

So after casually swearing featlty to the emperor’s secret police Fault gets her first assignment: Head own down to the fighters guild and convince a certain member to tell us everything he knows about the “Sixth House”, which apparently used to be a major political power in Morrowind until it rebelled and was destroyed.

Of course the guy won’t tell us where it is until we bring him an ancient dwarven puzzle box from a nearby ruin. But that’s fine. Adventuring is a lot more fun than running messages back and forth between informants anyways.

Morrowind dwarves leave behind these wonderful brass and stream labyrinths full of miles of pipes and tons of mysterious artifacts and strange machines. Adds a nice steampunk vibe to the setting and further helps the game stand out as “not just another generic fantasy”.

That has to be some kind of OSHA violation.

That has to be some kind of OSHA violation.

Most dwarven ruins are also full of tomb raiders, which gives me a chance to try out a new custom spell I threw together at the mage’s guild. You see, having to individually cast multiple bound weapon and armor spells means Fault tends to get hit an awful lot before she’s ready to fight back. But the custom spell system lets you mix and match abilities leading to the new “Armor Up” spell that gives her three pieces of deadric armor and her daedric spear all in one expensive but fast cast!

As a possible downside it still only counts as one spell for purposes of skill growth meaning conjuring is going to go up even slower from now on but we promised not to care about that.

For something we do care about though: One of the bandits had a nifty looking swashbuckler shirt on him and Fault is now 50% more high fantasy than ever before!

But before we grab the puzzle cube and head back to town I’d like to point out an interesting and cruel trick these ruins play on poor adventures: Most dwarf artifacts are very valuable but also very heavy. If all you see is that a certain gear is worth 100 gold while ignoring the fact it weights 50 pounds you might soon find yourself barely able to walk.

Mission complete our contact hands over some documents and further foreshadows that the sixth house is probably going to be an important plot point.

Let’s Illustrate Morrowind Part 15: There And Back Again And Again And Again

Fault has finally finished up her latest Mage’s Guild quest and can now hike back through the volcanic waste to the safety of town. Unfortunately a dust storm has moved in and the cliff racers have advanced to bombarding Fault in groups of twos and threes. There also appears to be a pack of small dinosaurs between Fault and the safety of civilization.

Sadly these are not impossible odds because that would justify giving up. Instead they are merely really frustrating odds and I lack the words to describe the immense relief I felt when I finally emerged from the storm and found myself back in familiar territory and only a few minutes away from town. This is the sort of feeling that you just don’t get in more recent RPGs with fast traveling back to town.

Today's drawing brought to you by clumsy overuse of the sand cloud brush.

Today’s drawing brought to you by clumsy overuse of the sand cloud brush.

It’s actually an interesting design problem. The more you punish your players the more relief they will feel when the punishment stops and the more triumph they will feel when the overcome challenges. But push it too far and people just get frustrated and leave before the payout. And since everyone has different levels of frustration tolerance and victory payout there really is no way to do this “right”. You just have to decide what your audience will probably like and go with it.

Anyways, we go chat with the local head mage and while she’s happy we killed one illegal mage we aren’t given the option to pay the dues of the second mage out of our own pocket. Apparently it’s less about the money and more about enforcing the fact that guild rules must be followed or else.

So the guild is tough and wants us to play enforcer. That’s fine. What isn’t fine is that this means we have to head out into the volcanic wasteland of cliff racers again!

That doesn’t sound super fun so instead let’s take a break to sell all our expensive loot from killing those high level orcs and buy some more training. Stabbing all those volcano monsters has naturally raised Fault’s spear skill quite a bit so she only needs a few levels there to guarantee a +5 endurance next level. Then she gets a few levels worth of training in alchemy to make sure she get’s a nice intelligent bonus and finally triggers a level up with a single level of one of her unused spellcasting skills.

Sadly the end result is still one of the two common types of “bad” levels: The wasted level. I did get both +5s I wanted as well as the traditional +1 luck but I also had a lot of extra skills I had leveled and now those points are going to waste without boosting any stats. A few levels like this aren’t too bad since there are more than enough skill points to level most stats to 100 and then some, but make it a habit and you might find out it’s become impossible to max out one of your stats because you already leveled all the related skills to 100.

Let’s Illustrate Morrowind Part 14: Should Have Taken A Left At The Temple Of Doom

So… Fault’s next attempt to navigate the volcanic wastes leads to a fairly promising looking ancient ruin that unfortunately isn’t’ full of rebellious mages but instead a trio of heavily heavily armed orcs. How heavily armored? About twelve quick loads worth. But I eventually figure out how the combat system works and scrape by with a victory. There’s some extremely good armor to be had off their corpses, which would be great if this was a normal run but still isn’t too bad since that means more cash for Fault’s training budget.

So that's what happens when you turn the resolution all the way down...

So that’s what happens when you turn the resolution all the way down…

There is also a profane alter to some Daedra Lord or other complete with an offering of several gemstones. Best to leave them alone though since touching them summons a powerful demon.

Having now found two places that aren’t her quest Fault finally gets lucky and stumbles across the cave where the fee dodging ex-guild mage is hanging out. Fault lacks the persuasion skills to get any money out of the mage and is instead flippantly told to pay it herself. I always appreciate when a game lets you buy your way out of a financial problem so I agree to give it a shot.

A little further north is the second mage, an ex-Trivani bad guy of some sort. Fault can’t persuade him either and he doesn’t have any interesting alternate solutions to offer so it comes down to mortal combat. The guy is probably a better wizard than Fault but starting a fight at conversational range gives a big advantage to spear wielding amazonian Nords and so the foe was vanquished in the name of what I hope was justice.

Let’s Illustrate Morrowind Part 13: The Worst Part Of The Game

Fighter’s Guild quest finished Fault heads back to Bolera, cashes her corpse loot and spends all of her gold on nine levels of spear training and a single level of heavy armor. It’s then time to finally get around to the Mage’s guild’s request that we enforce guild rules on that pair of lawbreaking mages.

The only problem is that I always seem to get lost following the quest’s directions and instead wind up wandering around the outskirts of an active volcano. A rat infested active volcano, although that isn’t so bad since punching a second rat to death let’s Fault level. It’s even a near perfect level with +5 endurance, +5 speed, +1 luck and a mere +3 in wasted agility. See, with a little planning you can get great levels even while actively adventuring with a sub-optimal class.

Anyways, I double check the quest instructions and decide I need to head deeper into volcano territory. I then promptly get attacked by a cliff runner, a man-sized dinosaur bird bat thing. Fault can reliably stab them to death with her demon spear at the cost of maybe 1/8th of her health. Unfortunately she seems to get attacked by a new one every twenty seconds or so which makes exploring the region a pain.

They're annoying to fight, impossible to run from and make a horrible squawking noise. There's a reason there are multiple mods focused around removing them from the game.

They’re annoying to fight, impossible to run from and make a horrible squawking noise. There’s a reason there are multiple mods focused around removing them from the game.

Fault is eventually forced to take cover in a nearby cave only to be swarmed by a shambling horde of zombies, some of which can even cast magic which seems rather unfair. There isn’t even any really good loot in the area, just a bunch of profane alters and the incessant whispering of the damned.

But Fault can apparently sleep through anything and takes the opportunity to recharge her mana so she can summon spear her way through more Cave Fliers on her quest to follow the extremely vague instructions of her Guild master.

Let’s Illustrate Morrowind Part 12: Ambush Backfire

Our new rule forbidding stat grinding in favor of actually playing the game has renewed Fault’s sense of adventure so she pops on over to the fighter’s guild and gets a job to head north to the town of Caldera and eliminate four Trevali (or something) agents that have set up camp in a cave near their mines. I’m really not sure what Trevali is but both the fighter and mage guild seem to agree they’re bad news.

Along the way Fault gets attacked by a giant bug and after all the rousing physical exercise of last update decides it might be fun to practice her unarmed combat skills. In Morrowind unarmed attacks apparently damage fatigue instead of health and can only kill enemies once you’ve beat them into unconsciousness first. This takes quite some time and in the process Fault gains five levels of unarmed skill. Clearly this is a bad fighting style but a great way to level!

Minor foe finally pummeled to death Fault arrives in Caldera and heads to the villain’s hideout. The first thug is hiding outside. You can even talk to him but he sneak attacks you if you mention Trevali. Or at least he tries to sneak attack you. Fault had the good sense to summon her demon spear ahead of time and is able to counterattack immediately.

There's a reason most video game protagonists keep their weapons out at all times and it's not just because that's easier to animate.

There’s a reason most video game protagonists keep their weapons out at all times and it’s not just because that’s easier to animate.

After that it’s into the mines where the other three rush you all at once. It’s moderately difficult but the only real difficulty was killing them all before Fault’s summoned weapon disappeared as having to recast bound spear or bound helm in the middle of a fight would be deadly.

Let’s Illustrate Morrowind Part 11: Are We Having Fun Yet?

Last time I bored most of you to death by explaining exactly how to manipulate the Morrowind leveling system to make sure you get perfect stats.

Now as you might suspect constantly worrying about accidentally earning the wrong skillpoints for your build does drain a lot of fun out of the game, a problem they probably could have solved by just letting you boost all of your stats when you leveled instead of picking just three. Instead the just gave up on stats entirely come Skyrim which may have been a step too far in the direction of less frustrating gameplay. Oh well.

Also, my misunderstanding of whether or not minor skills influenced leveling means Fault is now stuck with the number one worst skill for carefully planned builds: Athletics. This skill slowly levels up every time you move, making it almost impossible to predict when and where you will level up.

To try and counteract this I send Fault to the fighter’s guild and have her spend most of her cash on ten levels of training in heavy armor. She’ll probably never use it but it’s an endurance linked skill that qualifies her for a +5 bonus next time she levels up. I then send her down to the dojo and through the miracle of the auto-run button have her jog in place in the corner while I go off and play Monster Hunter.

Just smile and nod at the protagonist and try not to make eye contact.

Just smile and nod at the protagonist and try not to make eye contact.

By the time I come back she’s just about to earn her tenth level of athletics, triggering another level up and letting us bag a perfect level: +5 endurance, +5 speed, +1 luck and with no skill points wasted. Nice.

I then start planning how to best raise endurance and int again by alternating between spear training and conjuration practice only to realize that I’m not having any fun. This is supposed to be a game of mystery and adventure, not a giant virtual pet training sim.

And that is ultimately what’s wrong with the Morrowind leveling system. It makes you so worried about learning the wrong skills at the wrong time that you’d rather hang around in town grinding skills with busy work instead of going out into a dungeon and risking a stray point in the wrong armor skill.

So new rule: No more skill grinding. It’s boring for me as a player and boring for you as a reader. Besides, Fault already has near perfect endurance and that’s the only stat that really needs to be carefully manipulated. Everything else is realistically just fine with +3 bonuses per level and I think I can pull that off by just being smart about how I play and saving up cash for hiring the right skill trainers at the right moment.