Cheating May Make Daggerfall Better.

So Rowan Kaiser did a thing about RPG combat. It was pretty good, and one of the things that he highlighted was the “responsiveness” of the combat in the first two Elder Scrolls games: Arena and Daggerfall.  It’s honestly one of the best bits of both games; you move the mouse, and your weapon moves along with it. Different strokes have different effects, so you get a tactical element of choosing the best attack for the job, and the one-to-one correlation between what you do with the mouse and what the character does.

Move mouse. Swing sword. Cleave gobbo.

At its best, that’s what Daggerfall is really about: having an RPG where everything correlates. That’s especially true when it comes to scale. The towns are huge. The cities are monstrous. The region is mindbogglingly huge; it’s something like 65,000 miles square. When you go into a house or building, it’s either just as big on the inside, or even bigger. No game before or since has really done this. Even Arena never went THIS far.

That goes for the dungeons and caves and towers and whatnot too. They’re beyond monstrous, so much so that it’s pathetically easy to get lost. In fact, one of the most universal instructions you read about Daggerfall is that you must get the teleport spell before anything else, if only so that you can make your way back to the entrance. The dungeons are so huge that it’s distinctly possible that you’ll get utterly lost in one of its dungeons. For good. GAH.

Basically all you see of the whole kingdom.

It also means that, in a very real sense, you never really engage with Daggerfall’s size. You never, ever travel from town to town. You fast-travel everywhere. Cities? Fast-travel. Villages? Fast-travel. Dungeons? Fast-travel. You never go exploring, you never stumble across things, you never have random encounters, none of that. You have this entire gigantic continent-sized gameworld that you NEVER, EVER SEE. You just teleport from place-to-place.

Arena was different; you literally had to fast-travel because of the way the game was structured. Each town and city was its own separate area. If you tried to run from one town to another, you’d just loop back around. Not with Daggerfall. You COULD travel. But you’d be mad to try.

Same goes for those huge dungeons. Unlike Arena, where exploring dungeons was fun and rewarding, exploring in Daggerfall is an ordeal due to the inability of the designers to put in a mapping system that actually works. 3D maps just don’t WORK. They’ve never really worked—developers and players both have known that since the first Descent—and Daggerfall’s maps are no exception at all. I find myself more lost after using the map than I was before. But since the only other indication of where the hell I am is the wall and ceiling textures of the dungeon “block” that I’m in, and since the organization of the tunnels doesn’t have the pleasing block-based density of Arena, I’ve found that I just don’t want to go into them in the first place. Sure, wandering through those halls can be appealing, but it’s nowhere near as fun as Arena or the more focused post-Morrowind games.  Just the thought of slogging through more of Orsinium is keeping me from firing up the game in the first place.

So what’s the other option? What can fix this?

I’ll tell you. CHEATING YOUR ASS OFF.

Not even talking about “trainers” or third party hacks or whatnot. Oh, no. Not even talking about third-party maps. (As if such things existed. Arena maps are ubiquitous online, but Daggerfall? Not a chance.) The last patch of Daggerfall includes an amazing cheatmode within the game itself. Here, I’ll just quote the Readme file:

  • 1 – Sets your MaxSpeed to 1200 (6x the normal value).
  • CTRL-F1 – Activate all maps on the fast travel map. This can be useful if somehow a location is no longer on the map.
  • CTRL-F4 – Invulnerable mode.
  • ALT-F11- If you fall into the void, pressing this will take you back to the previous object you were standing on. This can help you get out of the void when you fall into it.
  • [ and ] – If you’re in a dungeon, these keys will cycle you through the various quest locations. Be careful though that you don’t beam into a location that is occupied by a monster. You will be trapped inside the monster. Also, some locations are high enough to pop you into the void when you beam to it. This can be useful if you fall into the void or can’t find the quest item you’re looking for.
  • -and = – These keys raise your reputation and your skills.

A lot of these are Hail-Marys from a dev team that clearly didn’t have any other time to spare fixing Daggerfall’s endless bugs, providing players means by which they can rescue themselves. Others are obvious cheats, like invulnerability, or seemingly-minor things that actually completely break the game, like the rep and skill boosters.

(Neither seem like a big deal until you realize that absolutely everything you do in the game serves to increase either a skill or reputation level.  There are precious few “quest chains” beyond the main one; the quests only serve to raise your reputation with some faction or another about five points or so. And skills determine everything in this game. Attributes are poor cousins in comparison. So, yeah, press the hyphen or equals button at your own risk.)

But those square brackets? And the Maxspeed trick? THOSE are different. I tried them both. They’re both fixes for the proportion problem, and I found that they could easily be used to change the experience, and arguably make it better, but without breaking it.

The square bracket trick is the more straightforward of the two. It gets you around the gigantic, baroque, and often frustrating arrangement of the random dungeons. Trying to slog through those dungeons is such an annoying, endless, irritating task after a while that it’s a pretty big disincentive to bother with Daggerfall questing at all. It’d be much like if you couldn’t quicktravel on the main map: it’d seem immersive at first, but after the first three hours or so, you’d just want to get the stupid trip OVER with. Sometimes, you can’t even get to where you need to be at all! It’s equal parts daunting and frustrating, and the immersiveness is lost.

You can't possibly know how much I miss Arena's maps.

The bracket trick quickly and effectively solves the dungeon design problem. You teleport to where you need to be, get what you need, and then teleport out. Sometimes it doesn’t work properly, and you discover you still need to travel there. That’s almost better, though, because you know roughly where you’re supposed to go. That’s never a problem in the other Elder Scrolls games; Arena’s “level” based dungeon design meant that you were generally looking for the way down or for the central part of the lowest level, and the later games were linear enough that you could have a decent idea of where you needed to go simply by looking at where you’d been. Daggerfall has neither of those; you don’t know ANYTHING about these dungeons. By porting to where you need to be and then porting back to the entrance, you can figure out where you need to go and work from there.

You can also theoretically skip some truly ridiculous and arbitrary door-and-switch puzzles, too. “Handy” isn’t the word.

The trick really helps with my engagement. Even if I’m teleporting around, I can still do what I need to do, grab what I need to grab, and fight what I need to fight. It’s not like I use the trick right off the bat; there are enough rewards for exploration that it’s worth exploring the dungeons even when I DO know the final goal. Heck, sometimes I’ve ported to the target and then worked my way back to the entrance. You still get that sense of exploration of an unknown environment, but with a sense of purpose and heading.

Fast-move is subtler, but even better, due to it granting the possibility of avoiding teleportation. When I enabled fast-move and left town, I found myself moving quickly enough that I could plausibly get from settlement to settlement in Daggerfall without fast-travel. I could just travel on my own to where I wanted to go.

It was like a revelation. All that space between the towns and dungeons and cities and whatnot actually meant something. Sure, it was obviously procedurally generated, and mostly amounted to a bunch of triangles on the ground, but it actually meant something! It gave that sense of space, of exploration, of environment that’s at the heart of the whole Elder Scrolls series. I wasn’t teleporting, I was traveling! Same reason why you have the whole “gryphon taxi” thing in World of Warcraft. It gives you that sense of place.

Here’s a Youtube clip showing what it looks like:

Don't mind the graphics. 'twas 1984.

Funny, though—it reminded me most of Elite. Not sure if you remember that old space travel/trading series, but its big gimmick was that you could travel around a whole big section of the galaxy. Of course, the distances would be forbidding even with lightspeed travel, so the series had a time dilation button that let you speed up time in the game and move faster. I preferred that to the whole “warp point” structure of later games like Wing Commander or Freelancer; you really got a sense of the immense size of the environment you were exploring.

That’s how this “cheat” felt to me. it felt like I was speeding up time to move from place to place, so that I could explore this vast environment without spending a significant chunk of my life riding from place to place.  That one-to-one representative scale finally works.Actual travel between settlements makes it pretty clear that they’d never really intended for players to do this. It’s honestly hard to FIND the settlements; unlike Arena, there’s no map outside of town for some reason, and the worldmap just doesn’t cut it.  Daggerfall’s designers clearly expected you to quick-travel from place to place, just as they expected you to wander through randomly-generated dungeons for ages upon ages. It’s too late for that to change, but these cheats really show what might have been.

That’s why I’m not sure that they are cheats. Okay, sure, the invulnerability one is, as are the skill and rep buttons. But the speed booster and dungeon teleporter really feel more like modification, rather than cheating. It’s like downloading a mod for Skyrim that makes destruction magic better at higher levels, or adds in proper scaling versions of those early channeled fire and lightning spells. (Both of which are mods I use.) They fill in a gap in the game’s design. It may not be the same game, but it’s quite probably a better game, that more closely fits the feel of the thing.

So, yeah, if you do play Daggerfall, and have been wise enough to get the final official patch, go into the z.cfg file and add the line “cheatmode=1”. Then, at some point, head out of town, push the “1” key, see the parts of the game that you’d never have thought were there, and maybe think about what might have been.

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