Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (PC) Rough Draft

I was a big fan of the first game in the Elder Scrolls series, Arena, which came out in the early 90s. A real big fan, I beat that game at least 10 times, and pestered the Bethesda Softworks support guy on GEnie until I managed to weasel my way into beta testing Daggerfall, the 2nd game in the seires. That didn't last long, they kicked me out (long story), which soured me a bit towards that game and the Elder Scrolls for several years. Not just the fact of being kicked out, but also due to the knowledge of the features that were cut from the game.

But eventually I picked up Morrowind. I liked it, but in many ways, felt like a very empty game. A bit world, full of people, but very shallow people. You could barely interact with them, and the plot was not the most involving. But it had a lot of cool places to explore.

I was not planning on getting Oblivion right away, but a combination of getting caught up in the hype and seeing it on sale led me to buying it shortly after the release date.

Let me start off by saying that the graphics are the best I've seen in a PC game. Just amazing. Gourgeous. Even on medium hardware like mine it just looks nothing short of wonderful. If you want a game to show off your hardware, this is it. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

The basic of character creation have largely stayed the same since Arena, but have been simplified a bit. Your character has several attributes rated from 0-100, generally starting around 40 or so, and skills starting at 0 to 25 or so. You get to pick which skills start higher by picking a class. Leveling up a character is almost reversed from most RPGs - you level up when your skills have increased a certain amount, not the other way around as in D&D.

There are only 21 different skills, the least of any Elder Scrolls games. There's basically now only two types of melee combat skills, "Blunt" for axes, staves and what not, and "Blade" for swords and daggers. (There is also "Hand to Hand", but that is largely useless since you need magical weapons to hit many critters). Similarly, there's now only 2 different armor skills, "Heavy" and "Light".

One of the funkier aspects of the Elder Scrolls series is just how leveling works. Basically, you level up when your major skills go up ten points, but your attributes go up when your minors skills go up as well. So you have to be very sure to use your minor skills a lot in balance with your major skills, so when you level up, your attributes will improve a lot as well.

This has always been tricky, but in Oblivion it's even trickier, because of the fewer amount of skills and because you can only train (that is, buy skill improvement) 5 times per level. Which is only enough to get a small attribute increase.

Making sure your attributes go up is very important, because they determine things like how much you can be hit before dying, how much magic you can cast, and how much you can carry. If you just improve by the minimum each level (which would be 1 point), you'll have a very weak character.

So this is something of a problem area. People new to the series will struggle with it, and even Elder Scrolls veterans will have some problems with the new twists in Oblivion.


In a lot of ways, the Elder Scroll series has been a lot like that old space trading game Elite (except on a planet, of course) - you have a huge world to explore, and can mostly do what you want, but there is also a plot line to follow if you want.

In that respect, Oblivion is just like its predescessors. However, gameplay has been streamlined somewhat - the world seems smaller. You can easily walk from one town to another in a few minutes, while in Morrowind it was a major trek. It's impossible to miss any sort of place in Oblivion, because you have a big huge icon on your compass leading you to them.

While this is okay, it's also something of overkill. It takes away from the sense of wonder, and make you feel more like AAA member than an adventurer

Another big part of the trouble is that your opponents and the loot you find are basically tied to your character level. Both in the plotline quests and in the ruins you explore on your own.

This solves one of the problems of Morrowind - in that, after reaching 20th level or so, you were tougher than just about anything. However, this isn't that satisfying either, because you now don't have much of a motive to go exploring - you won't get anything great in terms of loot if you are lower level, and if you are higher level, you can get great loot from just about anything.

I also miss some types of dungeons. For instance, Morrowind has ruins of the ancient dwarves, who used technology. Their ruins were fascinating, sort of steampunkish. This sort of has something similar, ruins of the ancient elves, but they are much starker and cleaner, not nearly as atmospheric. Also as far as I can tell, no wrecked ships. And dungeons seem smaller.

The storyline reminds me a little of the original game, you also had to save the Emperor in that, but combines that storyline with that of Doom. Basically, the world has been invaded by Demons from the plane of Oblivion (thus the name of the game), which is more or less Hell, who have started coming though gates.

Most of the quests involving the main story line either involve going through one of these gates and closing them (which is basically like Doom, you go through the gate, follow a path, kill everything, then at the end, hit a stone and boom it's closed), or fetching an item for the new Emperor.


As I said way at the begining, the graphics in this are probably the best I've seen on a PC. Many times you'll stop and look at the landscape and just say "Wow!". Despite the cliche, I really don't think I could do justice to the graphics in a 1000 words.

Unfortunately, that beauty does not extend to the inhabitants. For whatever reason, pretty much everyone in Oblivion was hit repeatedly by a giant sized ugly stick. This has always been true in past games, but this really takes ugly to a whole new level. There is also something of a mismatch between their heads and their torsos.

Also strangely, no one has any facial hair, except 5 o'clock shadows. But even stranger, most of the women also have them.


For the most part, the sound is excellent.

All the spoken text in the game is actually voiced by actors. This would be neat, except I think there are only I think 4-5 actors for the NPCs. For women, there seems to be a British lady, a woman who sounds like Agnes Skinner from the Simpsons (the Principal's mother) and sort of a gravelly voiced woman.

Somewhat oddly, the 2 non-humanoid races talk like Jackie Mason. Which is funny. But you just don't normally thing of lizards or cat people as talking like that. But then again, Dr. Zoidberg does, and he's a lobster.

Final Thoughts:

It's a good game, but at the same time, it still is quite shallow. Sure, there are lots of little quests. But all of them are quite linear - basically go someplace, kill everything, get the item and return. The main plot line is almost entirely linear as near as I can tell and you really can't affect the outcome one way or the other. In this day of games like Knights of the Old Republic where you can play games taking a different "path", this feels awfully restrictive.

So I don't think the game will have much replay value. Sure you could play it again. But it will play exactly like it did the first time. Sure, you could try with a new class, but with only 21 different skills, there's not a lot of variety.

Also, while you at least feel acknowledged in this game, your relationship with NPCs still feels very shallow.

All in all, while it's a fun game, it's not much of a evolution over previous games in the series. The only major change is the graphics, gameplay is basically the same, if somewhat simplified. In fact, so simplified, in many ways it feels more like a FPS than an RPG. But still very fun and thanks to the amazing graphics, very immersive. So I give it an 8.

Hyboria's Fallen - Pirates, Thieves, and Temptresses (Final)

Hyboria's Fallen
Pirates, Thieves, & Temptresses

When the Conan RPG first came out a couple years ago, I was originally excited, but that excitement turned into disappointment due to the poor quality of the editing of the main rulebook. While the problems were later fixed in a 2nd printing (the "Atlantean" edition, which owners of the original could buy direct from Mongoose for a 2% discount off MSRP as a way to make things up), it basically turned me off the RPG. And Conan, for that matter.

But then earlier this year, I had to spend a lot of time waiting in a doctor's office, so I ended up buying the last two Conan compilations (and the Solomon Kane one). That really got my Conan juices flowing, so I decided to give Mongoose and Conan a 2nd chance*.

This product is pretty much what the term "splatbook" was coined for (for better or for worse); basically it's a class book for the Conan RPG aimed at players (as opposed to GMs), full of extra information on two of the classes from that game, the Pirate and the Thief, and introduces a new core class, the Temptress.

Although to the product's credit, it doesn't fall prey to the excesses that gives the "splatbook" a bad name - that is, badly thought out rules or overpowered stuff. In fact, while there is a lot of crunch, it's not so much new stuff, a lot of it is really just multi-classing advice with some minor tweaks.

A new core class

One of the things I didn't like about the original Conan was that it seemed to be lacking some core classes (ie, the ones that characters can start with and go to 20 levels). This introduces a femme fatale sort, the "Temptress", in the first section of the book, which is not one of those that I really thought was missing, but does seem present in the Conan stories.

Mechanically, the Temptress is close to the Thief class, but has a slightly worse hit dice (d6). Most of its special powers revolve around seducing or manipulating others through their use of their wiles.

It's probably a bit weak in a normal style campaign, but would be quite useful in one full of intrigue. Though frankly, I can't say that I've gamed with many players that could really role-play one well, in fact, the mere thought would make me shudder a bit, but that's one of those your mileage may vary things.

I think I would have liked to have seen the magical attack bonus at a higher rate of progression, because seemingly it's a natural class to build a seductive witch sort with (along with the magical class, Scholar).

How each class fits in each region

Basically, there's 30 pages covering each major region/culture of the Hyborian world and how each class in this book (ie, Pirate, Thief, or Temptress) fits into that region or culture. Quite frequently it sort of cleans up a problem in the original Conan rulebook, pointing out the various countries that have no access to the ocean or large rivers and thus unlikely to have pirates. (Though that didn't stop the guy in Dodgeball...)

This section is a bit dry, but it does do a really good job of helping you picture what sort of person a character from that given place would be like.

Secrets and other abilities of the Fallen.

Another 10 pages or so goes into various personalities or roles that a character of a given class might have or play. For instance, for the Pirate, at one end you have the "Dread Pirate", made famous by a certain pirate named Roberts, compared to a swashbuckling sort of Errol Flynn.
Temptress has a lot of examples, no less than 12, ranging from "Farmer's Daughter" to "Paris Hilton" (er, "Slut") to "Black Widow" to "Gold-Digger", plus quite a few more. Thieves also are given good coverage - "Bandit", "Forger", and the amusing sounding "Goniff".

Conan has a statistic to track reputation, and characters have to pick what sort of reputation they have (usually an adjective) which describes the effect that reputation has on people. The core book had some, this introduces several more. Some don't seem too appealing to take, for instance "Fallen" gives a penalty to Diplomacy but only a bonus to Gather Information (Most in the core book give bonuses to 2-3 skills without a negative).

There's also a new "Code of Honor" (I think so, it seems to be, it doesn't say explicitly it is) for a player to take, "Honour Among Thieves"

New ways of using some old skills, for instance, Gather Information can be used for "Pillow Talk" and Disguise can be used to apply cosmetics to improve appearance.

There's just a couple pages on thieves' guilds, which is something of a disappointment, since that was one of the main reasons I bought the book. There are rules for fencing stolen items.

One of the neater things the Conan RPG adds to basic d20 is a lot of new combat maneuvers - this adds a dozen or so sneaky or acrobatic ones and a few ones for characters who use a whip.

There's also a couple of pages of new spells. Some of these are for the "Sea Witchery" and "Weather Witching" sorcery styles which is apparently described in a book I don't have, the Pirate Isles book.


The last 50 or so pages of the book (from page 74 til the end) are on multiclassing. Basically different combinations of the classes in this book (Pirate, Thief, Temptress) with other Conan core classes to create new "archetypes".

For instance, a Pirate/Barbarian combo is called the "Corsair", a Pirate/Noble combo a "Sea Captain", Temptress/Pirate combo a "Siren", etc. Some are more creative than others, for instance, the "Pirate/Scholar" combo is a "Sea Chanter".

Besides just a table showing how the level/class progression would be if a character takes this archetype, there's also generally some variant powers/abilities that can be swapped in.

For instance, the above mentioned Sea Chanter can gain the ability to chant to help the crew row longer. The Siren can take a couple different singing powers (power is too strong a word, really, not magical, just improved vocal control).

Generally speaking, these are pretty decent abilities, but may or may not make up for the stuff lost in the normal class levels due to multi-classing. (That is, generally in d20, there's a really good power at the 20th level in a class, or some nice goodies at higher levels, though it depends on the class).

There are a lot of these combinations. 23 by my count. Most are simple double combinations (ie, Thief/Scholar), but one, the Dervish, combines 4 classes - Nomad/Temptress/Barbarian/Scholar. That also has so many different replacement abilities that it might have been better off it's own core class.


Unlike the other Conan RPG books I've seen, this is in black & white. It still uses the rather silly margin art from the original Conan book featuring the topless woman whose bosom not only defies gravity, but seems to be made of some sort of material that is repelled by gravity, as it is pushed up, not down, as she leans over. Despite her bosom being a product of some sort of super-science, her picture (and the rest of the margin art) doesn't translate well to black & white.

The interior art is okay, but often looks a bit smudgy.

Final Thoughts

While not even close to being essential, it is fairly handy if you plan on playing a character one of these characters (though I'm not convinced many gamers would play the "Temptress" well and see the below caveat about the Pirate). It has some usefulness to a GM, but it would have been nice if there were more detailed stats for the archetypes for use as NPCs.

My complaints are mostly twofold: First off, it's mentioned on the back blurb and on the web page for it that it has "details of Hyboria's crime families and thieves' guilds.". That's misleading at best, because that gets 2 whole pages, one subject of which is dealt with by the book simply saying that there are no thieves' guilds in Hyboria (or the world of Conan in general). Basically by using the term "guild" in it's medieval sense. Obviously when you use the term "Thieves' Guild", you don't mean a trade union that basically has a monopoly on that craft, but something far looser.

Secondly, regarding pirates, it mentions a whole lot of rules and such from the book on the Pirate Isles. IMHO, rather than simply refer to that book, it really should print them here. This is supposed to be the class book for pirates, so why should a player have to buy a regional sourcebook to get that information? Definitely not as useful for a potential pirate player as it possibly could be.

Still, I give a B, for a 4 for content and a 3 for style.

* Though that was not to last long, because I ordered a couple Conan books from a certain alternative to, and while they charged me for it, they never bothered to send one of them to me, while the other was sent to the wrong address and returned to sender. That combined with a really lousy Conan module (the Terror of Nahab) turned me off Conan again.

OGL Note:

Much like the original Conan book, Hyboria's Fallen apparently borrows OGL material from Fading Suns d20 without citing it. Judge for yourself:

The Savor-Faire social feat from Fading Suns d20 (from 2001)

"You have a certain flair, dashing style, elan, or bravura that marks you as someone special"

Then the pre-requisites for the feat are given, then the text continues:

"Everything you do is done with style, whether it be entering a room and turning heads, carving your initials into a tapestry with your rapier, or even savoring a meal at a banquet to impress your host."

The Savor-Faire special ability from the Temptress class in this book

"The temptress has a certain flair, dashing style, elan, or bravura that marks her as someone special. Everything she does is performed with style, whether it be entering a room and turning heads, carving her initials into a tapestry with her rapier, or even savoring a meal at a banquet to impress her host."

Again, this is likely because the Mongoose "Power Class - The Noble" - borrowed OGL material from Fading Suns d20 and did properly cite the OGL for it, but when the Conan used the "Power Class - The Noble" for some of its classes, it never copied the OGL from the original source. I believe I pointed out this in my Conan review and on the Mongoose message boards, but since they are still doing it, am mentioning it again. (And to those who say it's none of my business, "Nyah!")

I've done my best to check the other sources listed in the section 15 of this product to see if they were the ones which mis-cited Fading Suns d20. But they don't seem to be the origin.