In thinking about what I would write about Oblivion and why I sunk so much time into it, I ended up deciding to do a post first about the skill system in the game. Then I thought about Shamus, who blogs endlessly on video games, and did a quick search of his site. Turns out he wrote my exact post quite some time ago.
So, his post is worth reading, but I'm still gonna put my version after the jump. Heh, "after the jump." I'm so glad Blogger finally added that feature.
In Oblivion, you have a variety of skill sets used to take you through your adventure. At the beginning, you choose a "major" set and a "minor" set, the difference being that one group improves faster and influences your leveling. Your skills improve the more you use them; you swing a sword a lot, you get better at using it. Makes sense, right?
So when you raise your skills enough times from your major skill set, you gain a level (and associated attribute bonuses). This seems like an organic way to advance the game, yes? You use your skills, you get stronger.
The problem comes in the game's use of auto-balancing. At level one, when you kick in the door of a dungeon, you'll be attacked by rats and skeletons. At level 20, when you kick in that same door, you'll be attacked by ancient demons and . . . more skeletons. But they're really tough skeletons! Also, on fire. Did I mention that? It's kind of important.
Anyhow, this sort of thing is counter to how most RPGs work, with a static world where monsters are stronger in some places and less so in others. In that system, there are zones you just don't go to until you've played for while. You get your butt kicked by something at level 1, you come back later and stomp it with your level 5 boots. The plus to the auto-balancing system is that you can start off in a quest of epic proportions because the monsters will all be at the same level as you; in the alternative, you spend your first couple of days killing rats, finding lost kittens, and generally trying not to hurt yourself with your own sword.
It all turns, however, on skill selection and use. Let me give you an example which is suspiciously like my first character when I tried the game.
Let's say you want to play an archetypical rogue: Sneaky, steals everything that isn't bolted down, wears light armor, carries a dagger for those times when he's seen, silver-tongued . . . yeah, that's the ticket. So this guy probably doesn't fight much, does he? You likely sneak as much as possible to avoid the monsters, spend many nights stealing from local houses, and smooth-talk the shopkeepers to get better prices for the stuff you want to sell. Doing all of those things, you'll gain levels like crazy.
Except, eventually you have to fight something. It just can't be helped. And as soon as you do, you'll realize just how much you've been duped; you're now fighting monsters for which the designers have assumed that you've been raising combat skills. Except you have the sneakiness and charisma of a level 5 character but the health and combat prowess of a level 1 character. It's not a good place to end up, and I had to start that character over with one who used combat a little more frequently.
Of course, more silly is the type of "gaming" of the system it can lead to. It ends up paying to make your "major" skills all combat related, regardless of what your character concept is. This way, you gain power along with the monsters, and non-combat skills don't cause you to gain levels without increasing your power.
An even sillier method is to choose major skills you have no intent to use. While this means that your real skill set will increase at a glacial pace, you'll never gain a level. You could max out your skills and still be going toe-to-toe with rats and skeletons. You know, the non-combustible kind.
Another factor in this is the ease of actually leveling some of these skills. Some skills, like armor skills or sneaking, raise naturally; you get hit while wearing armor, you'll gain skill, you sneak around, you gain skill. Others, like harmful magic or a weapon skill, just require using them against monsters. Others are so easy to level that it's a joke; non-combat magic can be raised from the comfort of your chosen resting place. Just spam the "cast spell" button and you'll eventually have a level. Alchemy is similar; you can easily buy endless ingredients to make potions, and just sit and spam their creation all day long (and then sell them for a huge markup, at that). That's actually a good strategy; you can end up as a low-level character with potions that will last you the rest of the game.
Still, some of the skills are so painful to level that it amazes me Bethesda put them in at all. I'll save their discussion for another post.
Despite all the weirdness of this system, it was still compelling enough to get me to play several different characters.