This post originally appeared on the UESP blog: here.
Of all the new features introduced in TES V: Skyrim, the one that has UESP’s active editors simultaneously wriggling with delight and squirming with horror is “Radiant Story”.
At its most basic level, this seems to be a way of avoiding the problem with some quests in Morrowind and Oblivion where you could screw them up by doing something before you got the mission. The previous games handled this in several different ways, depending on how much work the developer realised was necessary / was prepared to do. In Morrowind’s Alof and the Orcs quest, you got the chance to continue if Alof was dead, but had to work out everything for yourself. That’s fair enough. On the other hand, you could never complete Oblivion’s Acrobatics Master Training quest quest if Torbern was dead when you received it. Another way of dealing with the problem was to make certain characters “essential”. In Morrowind, killing one of these people gave you a nasty message that basically said you were screwed and should reload an earlier save: in Oblivion, you simply couldn’t kill such NPCs, which could lead to incredibly useful allies or incredibly irritating enemies if things went wrong.
Another problem, mainly with Oblivion rather than Morrowind, was that you could completely clean out a dungeon only for some NPC to tell you that you needed to go there, whereupon it suddenly filled with foes. A great example of this is Hrota Cave, which is totally empty until you begin the Den of Thieves quest, at which point eight assorted thieves move in and suddenly everyone in Anvil tells you they’ve been there for ages. The alternative, of course, is to completely lock up a location until the related quest begins (e.g., Anga and Pale Pass).
From what’s been revealed so far, Skyrim’s solution sounds rather elegant. If, for instance, you kill Joe the barman, who was supposed to give you a quest, Joe’s family might be able to offer you the quest instead – obviously after making you jump through a few hoops for killing hubby/daddy/illicit lover/whatever. Similarly, if you’ve already been to Scary Dungeon, which would normally be the location for the quest, the game will relocate it to Mysteriously Empty Mine – nearby, but which you haven’t visited. Presumably if you’ve already visited everything the game will set the quest in the dungeon you visited least recently, and if you deliberately run around all the nearby dungeons before getting the quest to find out what happens, a giant boxing glove on a spring flies out of your computer and punches you in the groin for trolling.
This isn’t going to solve everybody’s problems. A worryingly-large number of people on UESP’s talk pages complain that they’ve killed everybody in the world and can no longer complete a certain quest. Tough. If you’ve killed not just Joe, but Joe’s children and wife, his closest friends, his less close friends, and anybody who ever even glanced in his direction, then you’ve missed out on the quest and it’s your own fault.
Presumably there’s some kind of limit as to where quests can be located. Again, we don’t know exactly how Skyrim’s dungeons are going to work but to use an Oblivion model, it wouldn’t make much sense being asked to retrieve a rare magical tome from a monster dungeon just because you’d been to all the mage/necromancer locations in the area. Has the engine progressed to the point where all previous inhabitants can be switched out and replaced with more appropriate ones? If so, add one more problem to UESP’s list… Another way of handling this would be to have the potential quest-giver say something like “Well I heard a rumor about a treasure in some local cave but it seems somebody went in there recently and proved it wrong.” if you’ve looked into all the obvious locations, then have another line for when things have respawned.
At the start of this post I implied that Radiant Story was going to be a big problem for UESP but I got lost explaining what RS is and haven’t really explained the problem yet.
The main problem is ease of description. Daggerfall offers several random quests: for instance, some publican in a tavern somewhere will ask you to do X at nearby dungeon Y. Our pages on such quests aren’t really very helpful, since they can’t tell you where to find X or how to accomplish Y. With Morrowind and Oblivion, most quest pages are filled with detail not just on X and Y, but on how to avoid tricky monsters M and N, where to find powerful treasure T and how to screw quest giver G for most cash. The trouble starts when everybody adds their own personal favourite methods. Until recently, most quest pages were festooned with loads of pointless notes about methods, cheats, hacks, oddities and so on. Most of those have been ruthlessly (but usefully) pruned, but now imagine what it’s going to be like when even the quest-giver and location aren’t fixed.
To summarise: it looks like we’ve got a lot of challenges ahead when it comes to writing the quest pages. As Bethesda tell us more about what to expect, we may be able to start honing in on the options. Whatever happens, UESP will provide the best content possible – however long it takes!