The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part 3: Power and Level Scaling)

14 Sep


As I discussed last time, the series’ abstract dice-rolling combats felt–with the advent of more precise graphics and more engaging action-game contemporaries–increasingly alienating and unsatisfying. 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 to learn the 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.

Until, that is, the player outgrows failure. And here we come to the bold design decision that kept Morrowind‘s slog of a beginning from being an evergreen parade of suck.

The paralyzing thing about this series is that no matter how thorough I am, there’s always going to be more to talk about. Case in point: I nearly wrote this entire series only about the subject I’m about to explore, and this will be the first time it’s been brought up at all.

Let’s talk about level scaling.

Working definition: “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 fucking 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 approach–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.

And then Morrowind came along. Morrowind was the first TES game to look at where the player pointed on the map, check its notes, and have the guts to say: “Huh, that’s a cave of monsters ten times your level. And treasure that, if sold, could upgrade every piece of gear you own twice over. So what are you going to do about it?”

Not that it announced things so cleanly. Morrowind 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. Leading players weaned on the Daggerfall experience and unimpressed with the brutal difficulty of just about any early fight to conclude that the game had some serious difficulty issues and wasn’t worth further effort.

For those who stuck around, Morrowind‘s lack of level-scaling had a lot of really solid, practically unique benefits. For one thing, 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, beautiful consequence of Morrowind‘s laissez-faire approach: the death of the “fair” fight.

Level scaled games constantly 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 hard–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.

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.

Next installment: It’s the little things…


Leave a Reply


  1. Rutskarn

    September 14, 2014 at 11:33 pm

    (Before anyone says anything, yes–there are of course quibbles. Morrowind is not entirely disentangled from scaling, Daggerfall and Arena are not wholly comprised of it. But I’m speaking very accurately to their philosophies and to how it feels to play the games, I think–and I’m more or less right from a technical perspective as well.)

  2. silver Harloe

    September 15, 2014 at 3:45 am

    Thanks for clarifying why MW felt so different than other ES games, and other RPGs. Having played CRPGs all the way back to Ultima 2 and Wizardry, I had become somewhat accustomed to gating around higher level content. A few games were bold enough to gate just by positioning an encounter near the boundary. If you lived, you deserved to be there. But most stuck with the old standards: a bridge is out, there are no ships available, the guards turn you back, or an actual gate is gating off the places that will kill you outright, but also gating off the sweet lootz there. They aren’t level scaled, but they are still concerned with a ‘fair fight’ in a way MW is not concerned.

  3. Bryan

    September 15, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    At least two entries in the Gothic series did similar things, actually. Or at least, 3 did, and 2 was pretty close: Nothing in the world was off limits (except in 2, you couldn’t get to a couple of the other maps until you’d progressed so far in the main story, but the starting map was wide open), and there are absolutely monsters out there that will kill a starting character in one hit.

    (Black trolls were, I think, the biggest in both. Unless demons were bigger in 3; not completely sure on that. In 2 the dragons were tougher, but there weren’t any of those on the starting map.)

    Risen (the game that studio made next) was pretty wide open as well, actually. But then Risen 2 wasn’t open, because you didn’t have a ship until the mid game, and half of the game was on different islands. So they seem to be bouncing back and forth a bit on that. Not sure what Risen 3 is like, as I haven’t played it yet.

  4. Francis-Olivier(C0Mmander)

    September 15, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    I’m not sure I can respect this lack of fairness myself in game. Escpecialy that part about the final boss being easier than a rat.

  5. silver Harloe

    September 16, 2014 at 1:53 am

    to be fair, you kinda have to exert a little creativity to make the final boss easier than a rat.
    if you just gather the equipment available in the game, the final boss in MW is still a combat you can lose. but if you exercise the spell-crafting and/or equipment-crafting skills to maximal advantage, you can create stupid effects like “no one can ever see you to hit you”

  6. Sleeping Dragon

    September 16, 2014 at 5:12 am

    Yes! The power! The power to go back to every location and kill every NPC, every annoying town guard, every animal! I think every player of Morrowind eventually saved the game and went on a rampage in a town or two (which is much more satisfying than in Oblivion or Skyrim because no NPCs get up). The only thing that’s missing is the ability to destroy objects and terrain…

  7. Corpital

    September 16, 2014 at 8:05 am

    Final boss? Good old Daggy was never that mean.
    Now that one beggar in Mournhold in the Tribunal expansion on the other hand. Screw that guy.

  8. Tizzy

    September 16, 2014 at 9:11 am

    My introduction to “modern” CRPG’s was in the late 90’s: the Baldur’s Gate and Fallout series. Both of those did a great job of letting you go look for trouble anywhere, with the reward that went with it.

  9. Neko

    September 16, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Great post, sums up exactly why I love Morrowind: the transition from a nobody fresh off the boat to the reincarnation of a powerful badass.

  10. Naota

    September 17, 2014 at 12:23 am

    True story: Morrowind was the first Elder Scrolls game I ever played, and I did so on the Xbox. I don’t know where the disc came from, because I certainly didn’t buy it, but I remember plopping it in on a whim and marveling at the unearthly combination of unique scenery and hideously ugly NPC’s. I got through the introduction, eager to explore the open world in first person and do some adventuring. I bought a spear and some armour, then set out immediately.

    And then I too fought a crab.

    By the metric of any other video game series, this was no ordinary crab. It took me to the bank, emptied my account of human dignity, and gambled it away with other crabs while I watched. Armed with a spear of some sort and a bit of paltry magic -neither of which hit more often than once an eternity- I’m not sure it was even possible for me to overcome this horrid invertebrate taskmaster. And sure enough, I never did. The crab won.

    It took Oblivion on the PC to summon me back to the Elder Scrolls series, but even from that briefest stint among the giant mushrooms and silt-striders I wondered where it had all gone when faced with Cyrodiil’s all-consuming fantasy template monotony. I’m not sure if that’s a damning indictment of Oblivion, high praise for Morrowind, or both, but it sticks quite firmly in my memory. I’ve always wondered just what happened between the two games that cost the art direction so dearly.

    On the other hand… the NPC’s hideous potato-skin mask faces stayed just about the same for quite a while to come. I suppose there’s always that.

  11. The Rocketeer

    September 17, 2014 at 5:40 am

    One thing I’ll say in defense of magic is that you know what your spell failure chance is, as opposed to physical skills where your chance to hit an opponent is a mystery and varies greatly by their armor.

    If you’re any good with destruction magic, you should start with at least one spell that you can’t fail at casting, at least at max stamina, and enemies that can resist your magic are, in my experience, pretty rare.

    Of course, just like being a physical fighter, eventually you run into something that you just aren’t cut out to beat in any possible fair fight. And, greatly to Morrowind’s credit, you don’t have to fight fairly. You can be an incredible asshole to your enemies and steal victories they richly deserved through contrived means.

    It never gets old.

  12. Skye

    September 17, 2014 at 6:25 am

    Alright, hands up if you spent your first half an hour of Morrowind dying to mudcrabs.

    I’m ashamed to admit it was something like an hour and a half for me. In my defense, it was also my first console videogame and I spent a lot of time looking straight up into the sky.

    I’m not sure I can call this a bad thing, on balance. If I’m ever feeling down, I can get into a good mood pretty much instantly by loading up one of my endgame characters and skooshing the little wretches for a while. It’s getting close to a decade since that first time, and my desire for mudcrab blood is not even close to slaked.

  13. RCN

    September 17, 2014 at 10:41 am

    That’s also the reason I always liked Might & Magic. In earlier M&M titles, there were always powerful monsters keeping you from the good areas, but the game by no way held you back with more tricks than that. By visiting the temple and donating generously, they would bless your party a good 5-10 levels above your current power, allowing you to slaughter the gatekeepers and make a run for the loot (not to mention the XP rewards would probably bump you a couple of levels as well). Sure, sometimes you also had to use certain spells to progress, like Water Walk or Ethereal Walk, but you could get early access to those spells with some creativity.

    In later Might and Magic titles you were free to run around and avoid the gatekeepers altogethers to get explore the world. I remember how Might & Magic VI even TEACHES you how to do it in the initial area. In a relatively harmless island, there’s an obviously dangerous cave with a Red Dragon in it. Even with the Fire Resistance altar outside of it, that’s not something you can take head-on until you’re a few dozen levels in, but you can never get back to this island. However, there’s plenty of loot lying around his cave and the game is basically begging for you to go around and take it. (It is also possible to kill the dragon, if you really want to. His random loot is probably to contain one really good drop for a starting party, but it takes real commitment to do it right… or cheesing it off with the real-time combat and a bit of luck, but I ignore the real-time combat).

    There’s also the fact that you can hire NPCs who can cast Fly, a mid-game spell, right from the start. They grant you 2 hours of flight per day (by exchange, they take a sizable part of your loot, but it is very well worth it in the early game). The spell gives you incredible amounts of freedom to explore each area at your leisure.

    Other part that I remember cheesing my way into was going into the tunnels of Nighon. It is a very powerful barrier with Minotaurs right out the gate (very, very powerful monsters). Or, you can buy a couple scrolls of Invisibility, or even a wand if you’re lucky, and just stroll right past all the beholders, demons and minotaurs infesting the tunnels to get to the high-level areas beyond. And then use the flight NPC to loot all the area in relative safety.

    The only area it doesn’t offer the same freedom as Morrowind is on the opportunity to cheese the game with custom spells and equipment. You COULD enchant equipment, but it would only get a random enchant (that you could sell for profit, with the right skills) and it wasn’t that powerful (even at Grand Master). You COULD however cheese it a bit with Alchemy, by making potions with effects way above and beyond the power your spell casters could ever hope to reach. It was kind of amazing how a Power 70 Stoneskin and a power 70 Heroism could make encounters easier, if you needed. Unfortunately, potions could only affect one character at a time and were, by their nature, consumable.

  14. RCN

    September 17, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Be mindful that I use the term “cheese” more in the sense of “taking use of the freedom provided by the game for an advantage” than “completely and utterly breaking the game for a few laughs”.

  15. Humanoid

    September 17, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    That was MM7, but yeah, some crazy times to be had with it. I didn’t go on with it though once it suddenly morphed into an A-10 Warthog simulator, strafing down Titans with my gatling laser blasters.

  16. Bubble181

    September 19, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    Totally unrelated comment: the roll-over text for 20sided has a typo.

  17. Cuthalion

    September 20, 2014 at 10:06 am

    This makes me want to run a game where I plan out the entire region and its inhabitants ahead of time.

  18. Macfeast

    September 27, 2014 at 3:20 am

    Getting your ass handed to you because you happened to enter the wrong dungeon was quite the humbling experience… but returning many levels later with better equipment and repaying the favor? Priceless.

    I remember the first time I randomly ran into one of the Sixth House bases. I looked around the place nervously, a little spooked by the atmosphere, and then went “nope” and bolted as soon as I noticed that the single spell of an Ascended Sleeper – who I only saw through the darkness for but a brief second – had nearly killed me. But then, I came back much later and wiped the floor with him, and boy, did that feel like an achievement.