2021-04-21: The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind -- Might & Magic in a More Actiony Package

This is the 2nd longest post I've written so far. I considered trimming it but you know what? It's fitting for such a massive game.

Morrowind was a game I played as a wee thing and got nowhere. It took forever to get anywhere, it took forever to figure anything out, and the beginning of the game is spattered with frustration and death as your hit rate in combat weaves between 5% and 50% depending on what you're fighting. I typically got far enough to experience Cliff Racers before eventually getting into a situation where I spend 5 minutes missing one with my attacks, barely chew it down with a wisp of health left, take three steps, and get beset by another and die. That's typically when I gave up.

As an adult, having finished some really slow placed games with frustrating bootstrap experiences like the original Might & Magic, Septerra Core, and Inindo, I figured maybe I could get somewhere this time around. I always loved the massive, open world Morrowind promised. I just couldn't play in it because I built wrong, went the wrong places, or wanted to do the wrong things.

This time around I had a short list of grievances I wanted to address, and sought ways to address them before starting off on my adventure. Most of the fixes came in the form of mods that made the game behave more like later TES installments. So yes, I didn't get the true Morrowind experience, but I know that experience. The pain points I sought to fix...

  1. Your base movement speed is glacial for the miles and miles of ground you must traverse in the game.
  2. Starting out, combat is a painful RNG nightmare because of the number of factors that go into chance to hit.
  3. You can't see as much of the amazing world as you should be able to thanks to a claustrophobic view distance.
  4. It's difficult to enjoy the magic system when you need to either constantly rest or chug Magicka potions.

The recipe I concocted to fix these issues, after doing some reading is this: OpenMW with some settings tweaked to push back the fog and load more geometry around me, granting me approximately a quadrupled view distance over vanilla. Then a trio of mods to change numbers without changing any of the actual experience of the game: one to tweak movement speeds, one to provide a small amount of Magicka regeneration, and one to remove hit chance from combat calculations.

Did this fundamentally change the game from the original dev-intended experience? Yes. Did it make it easier? Yes, and far more than I expected it would unfortunately. Do I still feel it was necessary for my enjoyment? Absolutely. If I were to do it again I might instead opt to drop the movement speed and hit-rate mods and instead console hack my Speed to 100 right from the start and my weapon skill to something suitable. I think that'd be less jilting than just throwing out entire combat calculations and setting my movement speed to a flat, higher number.

So that's a thing, but all in all I feel it boosted my experience even if it made things slightly easier than I'd hoped. Gee, that's a lot of preface for this post isn't it? Let me shut up about that and get into the meat of things.

Morrowind was such a big deal when I was a child. It was a huge, beautiful world where the devs bragged that every single object was placed by hand and everything carefully scripted and populated with quests and things to do around every corner. That's.... mostly true, I found. It takes some digging to find that love and care though.

The opening definitely doesn't answer many questions about the plot or setting. You're a prisoner on the mainland, held for some undefined crime, or maybe no crime. Maybe you're a political prisoner. Or maybe you're in protective custody. Who knows? It doesn't matter. I took a soft roleplay approach to my playthrough and decided I was a burglar, spy, and information broker who got wind of the wrong info and tried to sell information on the movement of the Blades. A couple of deft string-pulls later, I'd been framed for a murder. Made it all the more complex when I ended up working for the Blades, but we'll get there shortly.

I went into this with a pretty good idea of what I wanted to be. I'd be a sneak, a vagabond, but not a pickpocket or a killer. I'd be able to go places I wasn't supposed to go and grab things I wasn't supposed to have, but I'd have scruples about taking life especially via dishonorable means like stealth archery or magic, and an aversion to trying to pinch anything directly off a person due to the risk involved. This turned out to work mostly well for my playstyle and the game's limitations. Mostly.

Character creation takes the form of processing as you're released on the coast of Morrowind and left to your own recognizance. You're not really told why, just that the Emperor has pardoned you, and that it is requested you make a delivery to an Imperial agent a town over. The "paperwork" you fill out details your race (which provides your stats, certain skill bonuses and a small creche of abilities you can use natively), five major skills, five minor skills, and a birth-sign (which provides one or two more abilities or stat buffs). That's it, and it's not very well explained what a lot of this even means.

I was able to reverse engineer at least that you leveled Major skills faster and untagged skills slower, and I knew that every level required 10 skill point raises in Major or Minor skills. Also worthy of note is that Morrowind has a soft level scaling in place that adds new foes to the pool of available monsters as you level up. While it's not as dire as Oblivion's scaling system, it does add a small onus to get it right.

Some players advise tagging ten skills you'll never use so you can max your real skills and still be level 1. I find that cheaty. I went with the ten skills I felt would define my rogueish character: Short Blades, Sneak, Security, Acrobatics, Athletics, Light Armor, Speechcraft, Mercantile, Marksmanship (for throwing knives; I was eschewing bows) and Armorer (for sharpening my own blades). For roleplay reasons I rolled this as a Brenton (who is typically known more for magic than thieving). This turned out to be a smart play as it covered weaknesses I wouldn't have covered otherwise, giving me a boost to magic stats and letting me focus on martial ones entirely.

So you're discharged from the Sedya Neen Excise Office and told to eventually drift up to Balmora, about a quarter of the island north of you, and deliver some papers to an Imperial agent therein. You don't have to, and in fact probably should not for some time. Sedya Neen has a few quests right off the bat to ease you into the game and, if you're not modding like me, you'd find the area around Balmora to be quite arduous without some points in a weapon skill under your belt.

Despite being a hole in the wall with about eight buildings, Sedya Neen does well to establish the opening game loop. Every NPC is carefully designed and has things to say about each other, there's a few jobs to be had to get you rolling, and a few things to just stumble onto in the swamps immediately outside town. It starts off this sense of wonder that ends quickly and leaves you venturing forth to find more. Sedya Neen also sits isolated in the interconnected mesh of quests and stories; a unique thing in a world that doesn't hesitate to send to wandering to and fro. The only link elsewhere is the request from the Excise Office to head to Balmora... eventually.

Sedya Neen is positioned on more or less the direct southwest tip of Morrowind. It has the easiest foes and quests and from there, as you move north and east, things get harder. Balmora's a jaunt to the north but closer still are Hla Oad to the north west and Vivec to the east. If you don't want to roll straight into the plot yet you can go wandering and likely accidentally find these. Hla Oad is a hole in the wall fishing village much like Sedya Neen but Vivec... Vivec is a problem.

Vivec is more or less the capital city of Morrowind. It consists of nine massive arcology-like buildings sitting over the ocean, with bridges between them. Each building is a pyramid with four levels and each base level is as big as Sedya Neen itself. When moving at start-of-game speed it can literally take fifteen minutes to walk from one side of Vivec to the other. Nevermind every canton (as they call each building) looks identical and it's almost impossible to find your way the first time. I dislike Vivec strongly, which is a shame because practically every major quest arc sends you there eventually. It's just that big and central to everything. Still, Vivec is a good place to go to get a ton of quests and get involved in guilds.

A side-note here: I played Elder Scrolls Online somewhat recently. I 100%ed the Vvardenfell DLC (Where Morrowind is). Vivec in ESO is a million times more competently arranged and structured, and also lively. Vivec of Morrowind, being an indoor city, has these giant cantons you wander around to look for your door, and the outside is complete desolate and without life. It's so drab and boring compared to the Vivec of ESO. But I digress.

Once you've set forth from Sedya Neen you can do literally everything in the game before starting the main plot. There's dozens of quest arcs to go find, guilds to join, great houses to join and rise in the ranks within, dungeons to just explore of your own accord (though delving in some of them can break future quests-- most of the time the game's good about that however). You can wander in a random direction and just find something to do. However the best approach may be a measured one where you at least see what's on your plate with the main plot.

Balmora is a proper city; not as big and empty as Vivec, not a hole in the wall like Sedya Neen. It's big enough to get confused and lost but not big enough to get bored walking across it. Your contact is in the far corner of the city, and on the way you pass several guilds, the Hlaalu great house chambers, some interestingly named businesses with NPCs inside that can start quests. You might not make it there before you get distracted and that's okay.

When you do make it, however, the main plot quest chain feels like a normal guild quest arc at first. Your contact is a member of the Blades who has a particular interest in the prophecies of the natives of the island. He recruits you as a Novice of the Blades and sends you to gather some information on the prophecies, all the while refusing to tell you anything about why you were sent to Morrowind to report to him. This opening salvo of plot quests seems to be structured more to force you to learn how the various fast travel systems work and take you to some far flung towns to get them on your map and possibly pick up some quests to send you exploring in some new locales.

If you didn't take fast travel from Sedya Neen or Vivec to Balmora, you'll definitely have to learn about it here. The walk to Balmora isn't bad. The walk to some of the places you get sent in the first plot quests, first guild quests for the guilds in Balmora, and house quests is grueling even with my modded experience. Vanilla you just wouldn't make it, especially if you dove right in and are still level 1-3.

After each quest, your contact recommends you go "Reinforce your cover story", which is code for "Go do some other stuff, numpty!". It's good advice. If there's side content you want to do, the best time to do it is "now". That holds true the entire game with one exception I'll get into shortly.

Eventually, after five or six quests of this, your Blades contact will tell you why you're on Morrowind: The Emperor believes you are the person of prophecy who will save Morrowind from the evils that are currently befalling it. Evils like a plague and a cult to Dagoth Ur: a more or less evil god who is promising to rid Morrowind of outsiders. Outsiders like the Imperial agents; so it benefits the empire if you can do what the prophecy claims. Once you're told that, the main story has truly started.

From there you're sent to every major governmental body on the island to try to get them to recognize you as the person of prophecy. There's seven: three great houses and four native "Ashlander" tribes. Each one sends you on a series of errands, and this segment of the game makes up a good half or more of the main plot. Inconveniently, during this time you're also rather unpopular with practically everyone who hasn't allied with you. Guilds and houses won't do business with you or give you quests, the people of Vivec will outright hate you. It's rather inconvenient for doing side content. Fortunately you get a big fat warning before you start this part of the quest and can pause it indefinitely if you want to play around some.

It's a cool segment though. As you move from group to group, you learn quite a bit about the political tensions on Morrowind and how the people think and act and operate. House Hlaalu is relatively easy to get behind you... if you have the gold to bribe the right people. House Redoran requires you to prove yourself with acts of valor. House Telvanni requires you to just kill any council member who won't back you. One Ashlander tribe is in a state of internal conflict and you have to help the peace-loving side win, another is nomadic and wants to settle down in a region so you must go make it safe for them. They have their own agendas and goals, and hence their own requirements to recognize you.

The purpose of all this? Once you've unified the literal entire island behind you, Lord Vivec, the god-protector of Vivec City, will summon you and reveal to you a way to defeat Dagoth Ur. That's it. All of this is to get Vivec's attention. More amusingly, I believe if you know the plan already you can just go enact it without Vivec's help (though he gives you an artifact that makes it much, much easier). The plan is to gather two legendary weapons and destroy Dagoth Ur's source of power in the volcano in the middle of the island.

Getting the weapons just involves going into two shrines in the middle of the island and finding them. One's just sitting on an altar of sorts within, the other is being carried by probably one of the stronger foes in the game. With both in hand you can move to the dead center of the island, enter Dagoth Ur's shrine, and destroy his source of power to kill him. For all the work you had to do to get Vivec to tell you the plan, executing it is about ten minutes of walking and three ten minute dungeons. Once you talk to Vivec, you're 95% done with the game. Vivec also lifts the pall of distrust between you and literally everyone that appeared when you started the prophecy quests, so if you're one of those people who wants to finish everything before beating the game, that's a good time to do it.

Shockingly, you don't get any credits or anything. You get a cutscene of Azura thanking you and telling you you are now free to do whatever you want, without the sword of Damocles of prophecy over you. That's it. You just walk out of the shrine and back to the game world as if you finished a normal quest. The main plot was never the main focus in an Elder Scrolls game, after all. From what I read, nothing really changes except some classes of diseased enemies disappear, certain weather patterns stop, and certain events that provided no plot value or open any doors can no longer happen (like being ambushed in your sleep by demons).

I ran back to chill with Lord Vivec and see what he had to say about Dagoth Ur being killed. Apparently as a result of smashing the MacGuffin, all the deities on Morrowind were rendered mortal. Vivec was amused at this more than distraught, being one himself.

Like Might & Magic, the plot isn't a lot. You do a lot of errands to get info and ingratiate yourself with the Ashlanders, assault a Dagoth Ur cult base, contract a disease, cure it, then prove yourself to be Fantasy Jesus to a bunch of tribes and houses before going to kill Dagoth Ur. However like Might & Magic, the point isn't the plot but the journey through it, and that journey is dotted with distractions and diversions aplenty.

Something of note is the concept of "Essential" NPCs. In Morrowind you can kill anyone (provided you have the numbers). No NPC is protected, there is no plot armor. You can even pick the lock on the door to Lord Vivec's chambers, stab him, and take his artifact for yourself. In fact, this is a developer intended "back door" if you accidentally render the main plot unfinishable by doing something silly like killing Caius or, more likely, some NPC you're not even aware is essential to the plot until it's too late. Here's how it works:

The entire plot up until meeting Vivec is intended to get you into Vivec's study so you can be told the plan and given Wrathguard, an artifact that'll let you wield the legendary weapons. If you kill a critical NPC and sever the plot thread that gets you here, you can still get in there by picking the lock. You just need a lot of Security skill or a very strong opening spell. Once inside, Vivec is there, but he won't tell you the plan or give you Wrathguard. What you have to do is pickpocket Wrathguard from him or kill him, and the plan is written in a book at the back of the study so you can see what to do even without being directly told. However you can't use Wrathguard without his instruction.

Instead you have to find an NPC that can attune you to the artifact, at the cost of a massive amount of maximum health. This is a black diamond route that you need to reach level 30 or so to even attempt (I finished the game at 24), but it's there if you screw up. If you manage to kill the one NPC that can attune you to Wrathguard? Well then you're probably boned. I heard you can technically wield the weapons without Wrathguard but it causes a ton of damage per second so it's doubtful you'd survive. Maybe in a speedrun.

I found it neat that the devs put in an emergency hatch for if you screw up, kill a critical NPC, and then don't realize it and save. The game flat out tells you, mind, but maybe you're playing Ironman mode or something. Come to think of it, that sounds kind of fun.

So as for my Brenton Vagabond, aside from becoming the hero of prophecy and saving the world, she also got rather involved in the Thieves Guild, stole a whole lot of stuff, and became the Grandmaster of House Hlaalu. The house quests seemed a bit lopsided, really. I'd gone in with the plan to join House Telvanni, but as it turns out you have skill requirements to progress even within the houses, and I didn't have the right kit for it. A shame, I felt my character wasn't cut out for Hlaalu and their Imperial-loyalist politics. Really, Hlaalu seems to be pushed kind of hard just like joining the Blades is (in fact, joining the Blades is mandatory if you don't backdoor the storyline).

The house stories tend to be about infighting and internal politics. A lot of bribery, cloak and dagger stuff. Most of Hlaalu in the path I took was about rooting out corruption in the employ of a lecherous but honorable councilman. It was actually rather easy to rise to the rank of Grandmaster; far easier than the guild quests and main arc. I think I only engaged in a total of nine or ten House Hlaalu quests to get there. I wouldn't have joined any house, but they're how you get player housing. Granted you can just move in to someone else's house, but that introduces other complications like flagging anything you store in there as stolen.

As for Hlaalu being oversold: their seat of power is Balmora, where you put down roots to start the game 95% of the time, their required skills fit pretty well with any martial character while Telvanni requires specific type of magery and Redoran requires knight trope characters, and their plot threads intersect the main plot more often than the others due to their Imperial loyalty. I feel their presentation is a bit lopsided vs the others.

Hlaalu is one of the few times I felt railroaded by the game. Notable others are being forced to kill a Telvanni councilman who refused to support my recognition as the hero of prophecy and there seemingly just being no other option, and being unable to choose to support House Dagoth despite there being hints that maybe you could. All in all I'll take three or four examples of plot fiat forcing my hand through an entire forty hour game.

Other complaints, aside from what I modded to fix? Cliff Racers. Cliff Racers are the blight of Morrowind for certain; so much so that future TES games make reference to a legendary hero who rid Vvardenfell of them in a tongue-in-cheek nod to their overabundance. The overworld has a pretty narrow band of foes to fight as it is, maybe a dozen different types of enemy over most generic biomes in the world and Cliff Racers hold the distinction of being able to fly over obstacles to get to you. As a result they appear far more frequently than is acceptable in some places. As I was heading up to the Dagoth shrine to end the game, I managed to assemble a pack of a dozen of them following me at once.

Stealth is also really jank. Your sneak skill is checked about once a second when sneaking, and one failed sneak will make NPCs notice you. If they're aggressive they'll attack and you can't go back into stealth. If they're not, they'll notice you for awhile then forget about you. Regardless though the failure chance is really high for "One failure means you're under attack". You need magic to supplement your stealth to make it effective, stretching your points even thinner than they would be without.

Finally the leveling system is pretty unintuitive. I explained it a bit above: ten skill points is a level, but in addition you gain stats based on what skills you raise. Every stat can offer you anywhere from +1 to +5 and you can pick three offerings to take each level. These offerings are based on the governing stats of the skills you raise. You need ten points in a stat for +5. That means if you want three +5s in each level, you actually need to gain 30 skill points: 10 in tagged skills to get the level and 20 in untagged skills of the attributes you want. It's kind of tedious and led to me spending a ton of cash on skills I'd never use to guarantee +5s.

That's really about it. It was a very solid experience from beginning to end with a few notable bumps. After Morrowind I'm tempted to roll straight into Oblivion, but I need to do a lot of research into how to mod out its level scaling. I hear that one's a real problem and I have absolutely no qualms about fixing it myself.

tags: elder_scrolls, rpg, game_writeup