A Tale of Two Exploits: Skill Perks and Character Leveling in Skyrim
Oblivion had bandits in glass armor. Skyrim has master craftsmen. The most annoying gameplay balance issue in the Elder Scrolls series seems to have shifted from leveled mobs to character progression. Is character progression in Skyrim 'broken'? Are some skill trees too powerful, and others too weak? Should leveling some skills level your character, and make leveled enemies stronger, while others don't? Is it a gameplay issue, or a role-playing issue?
While everyone and his mother will disagree with me on this one, I think the problem that afflicts character progression as it relates to leveled mobs in Skyrim is almost unavoidable. And while Bethesda's approach to the problem of character leveling in Skyrim isn't perfect, it's not broken either.
Now, before you all unleash your fiery onslaught, let me state up front that I don't think this is a role-playing issue but a game design issue. I won't tell you you're not playing the game right, and I won't tell you that it works fine if you just role-play. You've heard those answers before and they're not helpful. If the game lets you do it, and doing it breaks the game, the issue is with the game, not the player. You may be surprised to hear that I agree with you on this because I'm such a huge role-playing nerd myself, but it's true.
Here's the situation:
Character Progression in Skyrim
As it stands, leveling in Skyrim works like this: you use a skill and sooner or later you gain a level in it. If you gain enough skill levels, regardless of which skills you gain them in, your character gains a level. As soon as your character gains a level, all of your enemies gain a level, too. (Actually, that's not entirely true. Enemies don't necessarily gain levels, its just that your character draws enemies from lists that have more powerful enemies in them.)
Now, from what I can tell surfing the forums an unnatural number of hours, there are two chief complaints against Bethesda's skill progression system as it stands. The first is that certain skills, or combinations of skills, can be leveled in such a way that they give the character an unfair advantage over enemies and make the game too easy. The culprit here is Smithing, or rather, a combination of Smithing and Enchantment with some Alchemy thrown in. The second complaint is that certain other skills, or combinations of skills, can be leveled in such a way that they give the mobs an unfair advantage over the player and make the game too hard, thus 'gimping' the player.
I'll address each of these concerns in order.
Problem One: The Crafter's Dilemma
Crafting skills permit a play mechanic known as 'grinding'. In other words, they can be leveled up with little or no cost or effort on the part of the player.
To level up a combat skill, you have to go out and fight something, and risk getting your butt handed to you on a wooden platter. To level up a crafting skill (Smithing, Enchantment, and Alchemy) you stand in front of an object and press level up. (Okay, so I simplified this a bit, as you do need to acquire resources to create objects, but in general it is much easier to level these skills than non-crafting skills.)
What happens with grinding skills is that certain types of players assume that, since it's included in the game, it's an accepted form of gameplay. The argument is: I'm following the rules the developers give me, so they'd better have some sort of system of checks and balances in place to make sure that the mechanic works and that I can't abuse it.
Let me reiterate: these people don't want to abuse the system. They want an enjoyable, challenging, and immersive experience just like everyone else. When they sit down to craft some weapons and armor and realize that all they need to do is make hundreds of iron daggers to max out their level in Smithing to get the best items in the game they feel cheated. Logic dictates that they should pursue the cheapest form of leveling and, unfortunately, when that logic isn't met with any resistance from the developers, an exploit is born. In this situation, is the player or the developer at fault?
Well, in this case, much as I love Bethesda, the crafters have a point. Players shouldn't have to choose between logic and immersion. Frankly, every one has different priorities and for some players the cost of sacrificing logic to gameplay is just too high. It wouldn't have been hard to implement a system that prohibits craft-spamming, so it's absence is a noticeable flaw in the game's design.
You can argue (as millions of role-gamers do) that if they don't like it, they don't have to do it, but that isn't really fair. Many of these people stumbled across this exploit by accident, or by intentionally testing the system (as I believe, you are expected to) and when they realized they could get away with it, their immersion and enjoyment of the game suffered. Even if they were ignorant of this possibility before venturing onto the forums, was it their fault that the mechanic failed them and robbed them of some of their enjoyment in the game? Is this somehow different than a role-gamer's disappointment in the fact that some other mechanic (say, marriage, for example) has somehow failed them? Rule-gamers are justified in throwing this argument back in the faces of role-gamers who complain about every lost role-playing opportunity.
But how does this exploit affect character progression as it relates to enemy scaling in Skyrim?
Well, according to the experienced crafters, being able to spam crafting and level it to very high levels with minimum interaction from enemies allows you to create the best armor and weapons in the game very early on. Once you've leveled up these skills to high enough levels, you can, like Iron Man, become practically invincible and the game loses its challenge. Not only has the crafting mechanic disappointed them by its lack of robustness, but their discovery has also led them to disappointing gameplay. Is it their fault that the game has been robbed of its challenge, or the fault of the developers? Is it a game design issue, or a role-playing issue?
The problem can be resolved through role-playing. You can always choose not to take advantage of the crafting system to spam out the best gear early on. You can choose to use it sparingly or not at all. Many players are doing just that. (And most role-gamers wouldn't even deign to sully their hands with the exploit.) But the fact remains that it's there; it's in the game as a possibility, and, like shorter skirts and fast travel, it's a hard temptation for many gamers to resist. Considering how easy it would have been to fix (eg. minimum levels imposed on materials, maximum iterations on the number of uses per day, declining experience gains over time for identical items, restricted experience gains that only reward players for crafting at a suitable level, etc.), and how much it would have improved the experience for a large number of gamers, it seems to be a design issue, plain and simple.
As I will show, however, this issue does not exist in isolation. It is part of a larger design that, while not essentially flawed, is in need of further elaboration.
Problem Two: The Pickpocket's Dilemma
On the other side of the coin, you have skills that debilitate your character the more you use them. Players who are fond of playing thieves and rogues are aware of this issue: level up your lockpicking, pickpocket and speech skills and you may find, much to your chagrin, that your character is now mercilessly slaughtered on the field of battle. Congratulations, you have effectively gimped your character in combat.
The reason why this happens is because leveling any skill will work towards leveling your character, even non-combat skills like Speech and Smithing, and every time your character gains a level, your enemies gain a level, too. But why would developers design a game this way? It seems like a bad design flaw to penalize players who choose to specialize in non-combat skills and only balance the game for combat-oriented characters.
The reason why leveling any skill makes enemies harder is because every single skill will improve your character in some way. Even the 'soft' skills like Lockpicking, Pickpocket, and Speech will give you access to additional gold and equipment. While the gains may be small, over time, they will noticeably impact your character's ability to master any challenge. The devs can't say: "well, we're only going to make enemies harder if you improve your combat skills, not stuff like lockpicking or pickpocket" because improving these other skills does make your character stronger. They make it possible to open more chests, steal stuff from NPCs, find more gold and magic items, barter down prices to buy better gear, and, if you have the right perks, strip enemies of their weapons and put poison in their pockets. All of these things make you better at beating enemies, if not directly, at least indirectly, and even if it isn't as efficient as dropping perks into combat and defense it is still an advantage. Over time, if you allow these skills to improve, and benefits to accrue, without any kind of cost associated with them, you will notice an increasing gap between the power of your character and the challenge presented by enemies.
It boils down to this: if it gives you an advantage, even a small one, it has to cost you something. If you give a player a skill that gives him an advantage and you make it a zero-cost skill it becomes an exploit. All of a sudden, burly warriors are hanging up their battle axes and picking up lutes, maxing out their pickpocket and speech skills to steal or buy every advantage they can before going out into the dungeons. Hopefully, you see what the problem is here. It's a little like the crafting exploit, but now it applies to stealth. All of a sudden, you'll have players offering advice on the forums like: "Hur, don't level up your one-handed skill because that will make all the enemies tougher. Just spam your lockpicking and use the extra gold and magic items to get your character better gear. It's stupid that Bethesda would design a game that rewards you for leveling up pickpocket and penalizes you for leveling up combat." You see the dilemma?
If you don't provide a cost for every skill, any skill that doesn't have one is going to become an exploit. People will go around spamming lockpicking and pickpocketing and speech skills to gain the extra gold, deck out their characters and faceroll mobs who are not prepared for the challenge. And the crafting skills, if not leveled along with combat skills, will become an even worse exploit than they already are. Can you even imagine how unbalanced that kind of game would be? "Look at my master smith/thief decked out in dragon armor and ebony swords with a million gold and 700 potions of healing. This game is so stupid because I can kill anything with one hit. Bethesda really dropped the ball on this one." Even with the current leveling system this kind of build is almost within reach, so removing leveling from non-combat skills is only going to make it worse. At least as it stands, on lower levels, while the player is still learning his craft, there is some challenge to the game for non-craft-spammers.
What the developers need to do, then, is not remove leveling from certain skills but give those skills additional ways to circumvent combat.
The solution to these problems is not, as some suggest, to remove these skills from the game. Nor is it to remove the cost of certain skills. The difficulty of enemies can be scaled relative to the perks that the player chooses, but, as we'll see, even that has problems.
The solution is to balance the rewards with the penalties. Not to scale them relative to combat skills, but to make them worth having.
Crafting and 'soft' skills present two different problems, however, so I'll deal with each of them separately. Let's return to the issue of craft-grinding.
Solution One: Nose to the Grindstone
The problem with the crafting skills is that the rewards the player receives for indulging in these activities exceeds the challenge presented by them. In the case of crafting, this is a somewhat more difficult issue to resolve than combat or even thieving skills.
Combat skills are relatively easy to balance because the player only receives experience for using them in combat. There is always challenge and risk associated with their pursuit. The same can be said for thieving skills, which require the player to proceed cautiously and navigate hostile and potentially dangerous environments. The rewards that players receive for using these skills are always earned.
In the case of crafting, it is not so simple. The player literally levels up just by using the menu. As the menu is not (or at least should not, intentionally, be) an appropriate obstacle for the player, the 'challenge' presented by crafting is almost exclusively relegated to the realm of scavenging and shopping. Needless to say, these do not present much of a challenge.
The result is that, by collecting or buying materials the player can quickly grind their crafting skills to the point that they can fashion for themselves the finest weapons, armor, and potions available in the game without leaving the relative comfort and security of the main roads and settlements. This is very convenient if you happen to be role-playing a blacksmith, but not very balanced. Should a smith, who has crafted for himself legendary weapons and armor, be allowed to defeat a warrior who has spent the same amount of time honing his skills against draugr and trolls?
As the challenge cannot be (nor I think should be) presented in the act of crafting itself (seriously, who wants to have to actually swing a hammer in a mini-game to level their Smithing skill?) the challenge must be imposed externally, from without. Arbitrary skill thresholds imposed on item use (eg. must be level 30 to use a glass sword that you've crafted) may appear to solve the problem, but create worse problems instead. Who wants to be told when they can use an item that they've found in a chest in a dungeon? It's a form of meta-gaming imposed by developers that just ruins immersion by destroying the logic of the game world. Why should a mechanic designed to prevent a smith from grinding affect my warrior who has no intention of learning how to craft?
Better solutions exist. Diminishing skill gains from repetitions are sensible and workable and similar alternatives can be found but I think the key to solving this problem is to tie the player's ability to external challenges. If you impose something like a diminishing skill gain, it doesn't solve the problem, it just takes the player longer to grind. If you make the player work for the skill, in the same way that thieves, warriors, and wizards have to work for their skills, you will re-integrate the crafting skills into the game in a satisfying way. Because the crafting menu does not pose any inherent challenge, however, that challenge needs to be imposed externally.
The best way to do that, as far as I can see, is to force the player to learn these skills from NPCs, who will require them to complete objectives. For example, say that the player wants to learn how to craft elvish weapons and armor. Provide three trainers: one who works for the Stormcloaks, one who works for the Imperials, and one who is neutral. The trainer requires the player to craft a number of weapons and armor to supply troops (Stormcloaks, Imperials, or mercenaries). In order to complete this objective, they must travel to a mine to receive the supplies, thwart rival factions seeking to acquire the supplies themselves, return to the smith and fashion the equipment. The player will have to use the materials to supply the best weapon/armor ratio and the result of that smithing will determine the success or failure of those troops. If the trainer is satisfied with the quality of the player's work, they will train the player to use the new material. At this point, if the trainer is knowledgeable, the player may repeat the process with another material, requiring the player to travel to receive new supplies, fashion new equipment, etc. Using this technique, the quality of the weapons and armor available to the player are scaled closer to the player's level. Another way to say this is to make crafting guild-based. It should be easy to see how this same mechanic can be applied to enchanting and alchemy.
Solution Two: Stealing Your Way to Victory
The problem with crafting skills is that they are too easy to level and become too powerful too quickly. As we saw in the previous section, one solution to this problem is to impose pacing through quest design. Stealth skills (lockpicking, picking pockets, speech), on the other hand, suffer from a different problem: they are too weak. The solution is similar, but not identical.
Lockpicking is not, as many suggest, a 'useless' skill tree. Is it useless for combat? Yes, almost entirely. But the lockpicking skill isn't designed to solve combat problems but lockpicking problems. The problem with Skyrim is that there aren't enough meaningful challenges.
Is a perk that makes it easier to open locks a good perk if you spend a lot of time opening locks? Yes. Is a perk that gives you greater rewards for opening those locks a good perk if opening locks is what you enjoy doing? Probably. If my primary objective in Skyrim is to role-play a thief, and my chief pleasures come from avoiding detection, picking pockets, disarming traps, and picking locks, then it makes sense to reward my play style. Even if it isn't that hard to pick a lock, making it twice as easy by giving me a perk is still a useful convenience that makes my game more enjoyable, shows character progression, and rewards my role-playing with an enriched gameplay experience. Does the lockpicking skill have to be rewarding to me as a warrior? Not at all. Not unless I happen to think that the world should revolve around combat.
Realistically, if I'm playing as a thief, I'm going to do my best to avoid combat. Why is that? Because a thief has no right to expect to be on equal terms with a warrior in face-to-face combat. Not only does that defy logic, but it invalidates the choices of players who choose to play a warrior. If any character build is equally powerful in combat, then there is no advantage to investing perks in combat skills. By allowing thieves and mages to excel at melee combat, you make combat skill trees redundant. The player, on successive play throughs, will not notice the benefit of improving their combat skills. If enemy difficulty is scaled to the player's perks, if they start as a thief and then decide to invest in combat skills later, they will encounter the unusual experience of finding combat more difficult than it used to be. This is exactly the problem that players are trying to avoid by moderating the way perks are currently leveled but it is even more counter to reason than finding combat more difficult after leveling crafting and stealth skills.
Clearly the solution is not to make these skills more 'combat able'. Nor is it to remove the cost of acquiring their perks since, as we've seen, this reduces these skills to the level of exploits.
So what is the solution?
Simply put, the solution is to provide characters who use these skill trees with better opportunities to exercise them. Conversely to the crafting skills, I don't think that this purpose is necessarily best served by adding quest-related content to the game. Rather, these mechanics need to be integrated better into normal gameplay. Throwing a chest with a trap on it in a dungeon isn't good enough (though it helps). Entire areas of a map need to be made inaccessible to anyone who isn't a thief. Put in lots of locks and traps to reward players for not breaking their lockpicks, create stealth challenges or pickpocketing challenges, and include a multitude of additional Speech test options and these perks no longer seem useless, but interesting, they will add to the number of options that players have when playing the game. Is there some inherent reason why I can't talk my way out of a fight with a bandit if I have a high Speech skill? Or why I can't unlock a passage that allows me to avoid a direct confrontation with a powerful enemy?
The point is that these skill trees and their associated perks were never meant to serve as a replacement for combat skills. From their inception they were seen as tools that gave players the option of circumventing combat. Certainly Bethesda has made some effort to accommodate this kind of gameplay, but it clearly isn't enough. 'Redundant' or 'useless' skill trees are not a product of poor game design or poor gameplay balance, but an optical illusion created by an absence of opportunity. The solution here is not to do away with these trees, then, or to make these skills free, but to give the player a chance to use them.
So Now What?
If you've stayed with me this far, then you know that I don't believe that there are inherent balancing problems associated with particular skills, or that the existing leveling mechanic in Skyrim is essentially flawed. Rather, the problems that do exist exist owing to a lack of content which provides a proper context for employing these skills and for introducing the player to the pleasures of a non-combat experience. These problems can be corrected; they could even be corrected to some degree through the addition of content in DLCs; but even if they are corrected, a correct implementation will not necessarily satisfy players who expect all skills to lend themselves to the sole objective of killing things.
And that's why I said that the problems with this mechanic are almost inevitable: a correct implementation can't provide skills that satisfy both a combat and non-combat objective equally. That's because the experiences that these different skill trees provide are incommensurable, as they are in real life. Choosing a non-combat perk over a combat perk is always going to result in an imbalance in favor of the enemy in combat. If it doesn't, there is no cost, and if there is no cost, it is reduced to the level of an exploit.
If it doesn't result in this imbalance, then combat perks lose their meaning; they are neutralized in the interest of preserving the status quo between the player and his or her opponent. You can't solve this problem by making combat perks even better, because then the game is too easy, and you can't scale the difficulty of opponents down to adapt to a non-combat player without throwing away the balance that exists between different character builds. (In fact, down-scaling enemy difficulty to account for less combat-oriented character builds is the equivalent of Oblivion-style level scaling, only applied to perks instead of levels.)
What you can do is add content. You can add options that make choosing these perks meaningful and worthwhile investments for players who want to experience a different type of game. Give thieves a world where they can thieve. Give craftsmen, merchants, and healers a world where they can ply their trade and they won't mind the added challenge. In fact, they'll relish it. Is it more exciting to sneak into the lair of a powerful enemy who can easily destroy you if you're detected, or an enemy that has been down-scaled to your level in combat? If you can take him, why fuss around with all the sneaking? Just kill him and be done with it.
The mechanic as it is, is good. Most of the time, it works. But like any tool, in order for it to work well, and to work consistently, you need to supply it with the right materials. Skyrim's unbalanced perks aren't a product of broken mechanics, but of missed opportunities.