Disclaimer: regardless of how thought-out an idea is, without play-testing it’s impossible to tell if it will or will not work in practice. Take the following for what it’s meant to be: a creative exercise. I do admit that I let myself get carried away, and as such, some of my ideas might seem overly complex and unnecessary. If you want to listen to our podcast on the Bethesda/Elder Scrolls formula specifically, click here for part 1, or here for part 2.
Magic is a fundamental aspect of The Elder Scrolls. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s implemented very well and it feels almost as though it takes a backseat to physical combat with weapons. An example of this can be seen with some spells existing only as a stronger version of another other, with only the damage and Magicka-consumption going up, essentially making the upgrade useless.
In this article, I go over some Main Changes that explores the use of Magicka and some quality of life improvements, go over a list of Status Effects, and finally take a look at what kinds of spells and Perks I have in mind in Magic Schools.
When compared to warrior types, mages seem to draw the short end of the stick when it comes to combat. Anybody who’s tried to build a pure mage character, or even hybrids for that matter, have faced the situation when they run out of Magicka barely a few seconds into a fight. While physical attacks will drain your Stamina fairly quickly, you are still able to swing your sword at the enemy even when that resource is drained. It doesn’t work like that for magical combat; if your Magicka is depleted, you can no longer fight, and that’s a problem.
So, I guess the question is, how does one remedy to this? There are multiple ways to approach this, but my take is thus: spells come in two variety, Weapon spells and Special spells. The former drains Magicka as you use them, just like normal attacks consume Stamina. When your Magicka is depleted, however, you may still cast these spells, but you do so in a fatigued state at 50% reduced damage (BURNOUT). Special spells are bound to the Special Ability mechanic talked about in Combat and Movement.
Magicka should also regenerate faster, particularly when in combat because it makes sense for energy reserves to refill faster when you are channelling Magicka.
When it comes to the concept of magic, I prefer if it’s regarded as this mystical force that carries with it the promise of great power. The Elder Scrolls, however, happens to be one of those fantasy worlds where anyone can use magic. This isn’t a problem in itself, but the issue with the Elder Scrolls is that you can simply spam out the fantasy equivalent of grenades willy-nilly. The balancing act required then to compensate for such firepower is to either make everything harder to kill or lower the power of the spell. In both cases, the magic doesn’t feel that awesome anymore; having to dish out fifty Fireballs to kill an Ancient Dragon bores both you and the Dragon to death. You might argue that the high Magicka cost of each Fireball helps to balance the flow of the game (or bore you even more), but really, how would you feel if you were playing a military shooter and you could just throw a technically infinite supply of grenades at your enemy? It would get old quick, is what would happen.
Then there are Shouts – which in essence is the Oblivion magic system. Shouts did try to address the banalisation or magic by giving you this new type of spell to cast from time to time, but it took things to a different extreme and just gave you one button to perform a ‘super move’ that triggered a global cooldown. In Combat and Movement I introduce the idea of Special Abilities. To replace the Shout system with it, spells will have to be split into two classes: Weapon and Special.
Weapon Spells would be the normal low-level spells that you can equip in your hands directly. That would be Flames, Frostbite, Fire Bolt, Ice Spike, etc. All the spammable spells that could more or less qualify as ‘magic weapons’ would classify as Weapon spells (thus the category name) though Restoration spells like the channelled Healing spell could go there as well.
Special Spells, on the other hand, are Special Abilities and thus cannot be equipped in your hands. They use the Ability Charge system of Special Abilities so they function a bit like grenades. Charges regenerate one-by-one, but you can make them do so individually through Perks. If you’ve run out of them, you will still be able to fight the enemy with your Weapon spells. This way, just like you swing a sword and occasionally perform a Power Attack as a warrior, so can you cast Weapon spells and occasionally cast a Special Spell as a mage.
If you have played Dragon Age 2, you will know of Sustained spells. These are simply toggleable effects that can be switch on or off, sometimes with respect to a cooldown time. They do not have a traditional Magicka cost but will instead reserve a portion of your total Magicka as upkeep unless they have the No Upkeep attribute. This essentially lowers the total amount of Magicka you can have, but through Perks or equipment, you can unlock an Upkeep Pool, which is meant specifically for Sustained spells. Instead of cutting down your usable Magicka, Sustained spells will first take up space on your Upkeep Pool, and only after that has been maxed out will they move on to your Magicka bar.
With or without the Upkeep Pool, you can decide what Sustained spells you want active and how much Magicka you are willing to sacrifice. Imagine you’ve been engaging a target from a distance with Fire Bolts but he is now within melee range – instead of just standing there and take a beating, you activate a strong armour spell with high Upkeep that will make you more resistant to melee damage. Since Sustained spells don’t drain your Magicka but instead lower its maximum, you will be reserving Magicka that was already expended. You may then retaliate with a close-quarter spell with a lower Magicka cost.
Sustained spells don’t have to be for mages only. Suppose you’re a shield-and-sword character with light armour that has no use for Magicka – learn a few Sustained spells and simply toggle them on and boost your character, allowing you to make use of a resource that you would otherwise have ignored. Personally, I find that spells that require you re-cast them all the time simply never get used in the long run as the routine of having to use them becomes tedious or you simply forget they exist. Sustained spells can be cast and you can just forget them.
I’m debating whether it’s a good idea to allow Sustained spells to be cast on NPCs, using something I call Adaptive Targeting to switch the spell’s targeting parameters from affecting the Player to an NPC. If NPCs can be affected, the Sustained spell will deactivate if they stray too far from the caster or if the caster re-casts it on them. This point deserves more brainstorming, though the only surefire way to know if it’ll work is through play-testing. In my mind, it could work, but there’s also this part that tells me that it’s far more complication than it’s worth.
One spell that players seem to miss above all else is Levitation. Available only in Morrowind, that spell allowed players to, essentially, fly. While something of the sort can be modded into the game (like the case was for both Oblivion and Skyrim), I’d argue it should exist in the base game itself, the reason being that if the spell exists then developers would have to design the world with it in mind; what’s best about exploration than to discover cleverly hidden secret passages and areas and easter eggs? Other spells that would enrich the wanderlust that comes with an open-world game would be things like teleportation (Dishonored’s system is particularly good), summoning a mount to your side, or even shapeshifting, allowing you to briefly assume the form of a creature that can go places you normally couldn’t (rat sneaking through small cracks, ghosts sliding through bars, etc). Having all of these options could make designing levels quite challenging, but having some at the very least would enhance gameplay.
Fun shouldn’t stop with exploration, however. Strictly speaking, I wouldn’t consider magical unlocking a ‘fun’ use of magic, but it does provide fun in how you develop your character. As is stands right now, any and all unlocking has to go through the archetypal Rogue class skill, Lockpick. A studious mage that lived his entire adult life in the confines of an academic institution would likely have little time to learn the art of the thief. This limits roleplaying possibilities, forcing mages to become adept with lockpicks if they don’t want to miss out on all the locked loot. Magical unlocking and other utility spells of that nature would make pure mage classes a viable choice that can get access to all parts of the game purely by specialising in magic. Keep in mind that a ‘pure mage’ doesn’t mean they know all the spells or have mastered all the magical disciplines. It means, for example, that they can learn to open locked chests if they invest in the relevant magical discipline as there are many. Other spells of that nature would be Invisibility, Throw Voice (not as a Shout) and Possession (again, Dishonored is a great example).
In the hopes of maybe reducing the sheer number of summoning spells available, it might be a worthwhile idea to use submenus (like a radial menu) to allow the caster to pick what exactly he wishes to summon. For instance, if you wish to conjure to your side a Fire Atronach, cast a general ‘Summon Atronach’ spell, which pauses or significantly slows down the game and opens the radial menu that contains all learned types of Atronachs on it (it doesn’t have to be a radial menu, but the idea is you cast the spell and then proceed to a selection table). Then you simply have to pick one, which resumes gameplay followed by your chosen Atronach springing into existence. What options are available will depend on the Conjurer learning about said creatures through Spell Tomes, books, by defeating one, etc. Similarly, runes can be created just like that, opening a submenu to tell the game what spell will be bound to it.
Atronachs are only one kind of creature, however. Conjurers have access to much more, and they each have different power levels, so to balance things out, the Conjurer will have a number of ‘summoning slots’ available. Atronachs will take up only one slot, whereas Daedras take up 2. Creatures like Wolves would take up 0.5. The number of slots can be increased by Conjuration Perks, up to a maximum of 3 – this means that a master Conjurer would be able to control a small army of 6 Wolves, excluding Perks that don’t affect the summoning slot limit.
Below is an example of what the radial menu could look like. Slide the divider left to see how to pick what effect a rune will have, and right to see how to pick an Atronach type.
Wait, don’t leave, hear me out. Having your spells fizzle out and die, or worse, backfire, is definitely an unpleasant experience. What if instead of restricting certain spells to certain skill levels, you can still learn it, but when you attempt to cast it, there’s will be a chance for you to fail at spellcasting? To put this theory in practice, imagine you have this spell that requires a skill level of 75 Alteration, but you’re only at 50. Instead of the game flat out preventing your from learning the spell, it gives you the ability to learn it, but now everytime you cast it, there’s a chance that you will expend your Magicka without any effect. The chance to fail will depend on the skill difference of the spell’s requirement to your current level as a percentage, so for the above example, there is a 25% chance of Spell Failure. This enabled a high-risk, high-reward playstyle for the mage archetype.
There’s nothing bad with the current way that you learn spells in an Elder Scrolls game, but like I explain earlier, I want magic to feel important. Simply buying them from the local trader in some small village (cough cough Riverwood) diminishes their seriousness. The alternative I suggest would be to make spells learned through a separate ‘Perk’ menu designed especially for learning new spells. I say this under the idea that the player character in the next Elder Scrolls is a Shezarrine. That method of learning spells would be akin to an amnesiac slowly regaining lost knowledge.
Of course, changing something that fundamental to the Elder Scrolls series could be met with a lot of negative reactions, so perhaps this system could be relegated to only a few spells that only very powerful individuals can wield. This would be similar to how only Dragonborns and those that have dedicated their lives to The Way of the Voice can learn Shouts.