Abandoning The Main Quest In Oblivion

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Oblivion’s main quest wasn’t unusually long, bad, or difficult, but it’s rare to actually find someone who bothered with it. The overbearing waffle of the introduction didn’t help, but I think it’s mostly that we just don’t want a single, long main questline in open world games. A primary story that’s the same for every player sits awkwardly in a game about freedom and customisation, and Oblivion’s sits more awkwardly still if you attempt it as the wrong class or at the wrong level.

You could have no main quest, but that might feel aimless or trivial. Even if we don’t do it, the existence of a main quest gives purpose to the world.

So what if the main quest was split up and woven into the guild questlines? People actually do those, because you can pick one that makes sense for your character and suits your style of play. In the case of Oblivion’s demons-invade main plot, each questline could have three key missions where the guild business brings you into contact with the invasion:

  • One in which you first discover the demons in the course of your work.
  • One in which the escalating invasion directly affects the guild and becomes a priority.
  • One in which you find and kill a Daedric Prince and end the invasion.

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Luckily, the guild questlines are already structured into three neat groups of quests. These special missions could come between each group, like this:

Fighter’s Guild

  • Five quests for Burz gro-Khash in Cheydinhal.
  • Main Quest 1: you’re hired to investigate the disappearence of a small expedition of travellers. You find them all slaughtered, and follow the trail of blood to encounter a single Dremora, who you kill. The guild are disturbed, but want more info.
  • Five quests for Azzan in Anvil.
  • Main Quest 2: a portal opens near Chorrol, and the overwhelmed city guard enlist the Fighter’s Guild to help their defense. In the aftermath of the battle, the Blackwood Company move in and exploit the lack of Imperial presence to take over the town and extort its citizens.
  • Five quests for Modryn Oreyn in Chorrol against the Blackwood Company, culminating in their termination.
  • Main Quest 3: a portal opens outside the Imperial City and you, as guildmaster of the Fighters’ Guild, are called to deal with it. You lead a team of the key guild characters through to face a Daedric Prince. It’s almost impervious to your attacks, but Modryn has brought some confiscated Blackwood Company Hist Sap for you as a last resort. Drugged up, you’re strong enough to kill it and end the invasion.

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If you haven’t got far enough in any other guild questlines at that point to have encountered invasions during them, it’s not made clear to you at this point that you’ve only truly quelled a quarter of the demonic forces about to break through to this realm.

Once you have, you’re sent to see Raminus Polus at the Arcane University who explains their mystic types had feared as much: that the prince you vanquished was one of many. From there, the other guild questlines would unfold as if they were your first, each woven into a demon invasion of a different part of Cyrodiil, each of which is ultimately stopped in a style befitting that guild’s unique talents. It’s a bit redundant to say things like that in vague terms, so specifically:

Thieves’ Guild

  • Four quests for Armande Christophe in the Imperial City.
  • Main Quest 1: a wealthy home is found half-destroyed, its valuables ripe for the picking. During your escape, you brush witht he daedric forces that destroyed it.
  • Three quests for S’Krivva in Bravil.
  • Main Quest 2: creatures start appearing near Anvil, a prelude to a portal opening. You have to get Hieronymus Lex and his best guards reassigned to that city to better protect it. (This is the same as S’Krivva’s fourth quest, only the context and motive are different.)
  • Four quests for the Gray Fox, gathering esoteric artifacts to use in the theft of an Elder Scroll.
  • Main Quest 3: The Scroll details how to close an Oblivion portal, but the Empire were refusing to consult because it involves dark magic. The method requires a filled Black Soul Gem to be brought to the heart of the Oblivion plane, so you have to locate and steal one, then sneak your way into hell itself to collapse that realm, killing the Daedric Prince inside.

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Mage’s Guild:

  • Seven ‘recommendation’ quests.
  • Main Quest 1: Your final recommendation quest involves a summoning spell that unexpectedly brings forth a Dremora. It slaughters a guild member before you can bring it down.
  • Four quests for Raminus Polus.
  • Main Quest 2: Your research for Raminus on Black Soul Gems suggest they might have caused the Dremora’s appearence. You’re tasked with replicating the event, which backfires and briefly sucks you into Oblivion.
  • Seven quests for Hannibal Travern further investigating Black Soul Gems and Necromancy.
  • Main Quest 3: The Necromancer King you kill at the end of Hannibal’s quests was responsible for the dimensional breach. You use his staff to intentionally summon a Daedra Prince to this realm and take him on, with your guildmates.

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Dark Brotherhood:

  • Four quests for Vicente Valtieri.
  • Main Quest 1: an early target turns out to be a Mythic Dawn member, and Daedric creatures spill forth as he dies.
  • Four quests for Ocheeva.
  • Main Quest 2: Lucien believes the Mythic Dawn have infiltrated the Brotherhood, and charges you with rooting out their agent the only sure way, as in The Purification.
  • Seven dead-drop quests after Lucien sends you into hiding.
  • Main Quest 3: The Mythic Dawn agent is alive and has been tampering with your orders. When you’ve rooted him out, you’re made Listener and entrusted with what the agent was after: a perfect blade capable of slaying even a Daedric Prince. The Night Mother can transport you to his realm, but he can only be killed if caught unawares.

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Dedicated players may ultimately do all four questlines, and a final Main Quest chunk ought to wrap them up and confer a final reward. But most people would probably play the same amount of Oblivion as they already do. The point is not to try to make players see more of the game’s content, but to turn missed content from a negative thing to a positive thing.

Right now it’s a negative thing because people get bored with the long linear quest, or struggle with it because it’s not for their class, or don’t want to do the standard thing. They don’t know how much they’re missing, and they feel indifferent or even guilty about missing it.

If it were split, the stuff you don’t end up playing is just paths not taken, and the more of them there are the more meaningful and personal your choice feels. Spending masses of time and money on content most players will never see is inevitable when making an open-world game. But if it’s structured in many strands rather than one long line, unplayed content can have a positive effect on even the players who don’t play it.

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36 Replies to “Abandoning The Main Quest In Oblivion”

  1. An interesting and very playable sounding take on the Oblivion questline, but I cant help but wonder what the ramifications of focusing on one particular guild questline would be. Would that result in the princes from the other guild storylines eventualy invading? Also where would Martin and kvatch come in? at that tantalizingly undescribed “Final main quest chunk”?

  2. Jim: I think you’d probably want to have mention of Martin sort of woven throughout the rest of the game, rather than meeting him so directly – the things you do in the guild quest lines would tell you more about him until you do hit that final quest chunk and actually meet him / fetch him / escort him.

    This is actually a really interesting take on how to present a central story to a player in an open world game, it could even be adapted to games in more modern eras such as GTA4 by allowing you to work through the main quest via individual gangs, rather than visiting each gang / mission giver in turn (which is essentially how it works out in GTA). It’s surely worth something modding the hell out of oblivion to make it happen!

  3. I’m not an oblivion expert so forgive me if any of these seem a little silly to ask/suggest. How would you be introduced to the guilds? Where would your entry point into the world be?

    Could you start in the prison once again, but rather than the whole “Follow the Emperor” shennanigan you have to break out on your own, and your method dictates what guild you’d be guided to? Bludgeon the guard and tank your way out? Fighter. Hide in a dark corner and sneak out when the door is opened/pickpocket the guard for the keys? Thief. Magically open the lock? Mage. Then I don’t know, see a guard asleep leaning next to the bars and strangle them for the Dark Brotherhood? However, I do realise all of these options somewhat preclude a “good” way to do things, and punishes those who build an allround character.

    Which reminds me, how easy is it to build a character suitable to do all four guilds in one playthrough?

  4. I’d scrap Martin entirely – in my version, it’s Mannimarco Necromancy experiments that have brought the Daedra through. I don’t like the heir/amulet/dragonfires elements because it takes three abstract McGuffins, related in a mysterious way that doesn’t make sense to the player, just to explain that hey, demons are invading! Bethesda, more so in Morrowind than here, are sometimes guilty for conflating number of mystical objects with depth of plot.

    Thought about character class shoving you in a specific direction, but decided I’d rather leave that element of the game as is: open. You start in jail, you’re released, your Quest Log says “Find work at one of the guilds”.

    Focusing on one questline wouldn’t cause the other invasions to happen unhindered: the three stages of each are triggered by you taking the quests that brings you into contact with them. It should be suggested in background chatter that Daedra are invading all over Tamriel.

    …and I just got your name, Jim. Jim Stacey, right?

  5. I guess it makes a lot of sense because people who like quests do the guild quests, and those are all suited to specific set of skills (ideally). It makes sense that something happening to the world would infiltrate every part of it.

    You could even have a timer going that triggers alternatives to any quest available at a given time. It could depend on level, even, although that’s probably a bad idea.

    I’ve never completed Oblivion, despite doing every guild’s quest line. I got bored of the plane of Oblivion, it was too harsh.

  6. It’s pretty simple to build a character that can do all the guilds in a single play through – some might say depressingly so!

    I think even with this method of intertwining the main quest with the guild quests, you’d still need some form of basic set of introductory missions – though rather than throwing you into the story, it might get you to the main city (assume that the dungeon is in a fairly remote place, have the quests give you a brief tutorial as they guide you to the city) – once at the city, behavior of the right sort will get you introduced to the relevant guild, or in some cases, just flat out turning up and asking at the guild house (fighters and mages).

    The only really important bit is that you allow experienced players on further play throughs to turn down the introductory quests and just get on with it, making sure that if any form of bonus xp or equipment from the tutorial is also made available to them if they want to take it.

  7. @ Pentadact:
    Actualy i didn’t have a particular character in mind when I made the name up, I just liked the alliteration. I have often been asked if I’m inspired by, Related(!) or am(!!)
    Jim Stacey From Morrowind

  8. I am one of the ‘few’ who did the main quest, and i thoroughly enjoyed the story element of it. Plus the ending was rather cool, and Sean Bean voiced Martin – how could you deny a character that Sean Bean voiced!

    Great Game in all, but I tired of it. Felt like an inverse Deus Ex in almost every resepct e.g – Loads of paths to take, but not that many ways of travelling those paths. I suppose it wasnt really my game.

  9. This sounds like a lovely way to improve the game. Why are you not being head-hunted by designers yet? Or did I miss that?

  10. I forced myself to do the main quest, which was probably my least favourite part of what is my favourite game. The ending was pretty sweet, though. I only got into PC Gaming a couple of years ago and was totally enchanted with Oblivion, and still play it now. The modding community is great, too.

    Anyway, this is an interesting idea. I think it would be a huge improvement over the uninspiring original main quest. I’d really like to see someone more skilled than I mod it in. I finished the Dark Brotherhood and Thieve’s Guild, which were both brilliant and interesting, weaving the main quest into the guilds is an awesome idea. I’d also do away with the starting in a jail cell thing, which was a little too rigid roleplaying-wise in my opinion.

  11. It’s horribly contrived when a game tells you, like Oblivion does at the start, that your character is ‘The One’ or ‘Destined For Great Things’. If you’ve bought a game like Oblivion you know already that, unless you’re Chris Livingstone, it’s going to involve some sort of adventuring, and there might just be some heroism involved. It also undermines the sense of a wider world happening independently around you when you’re so awkwardly at the centre of everything. It makes much more sense for the Guilds to step up to the threat as it becomes more and more serious.

    I really like the idea in the Fighters’ and Mage Guild quests that you’re just one among your many compatriots, becoming gradually drawn into the overarcing conflict. Showdowns when you’re fighting among allies are awesome.

  12. Personally, what I really would’ve liked to see from Oblivion is something that Morrowind notably lacked: more dynamism from the world, specifically relating to the story.

    Most of the tasks along the main questline in Morrowind are either intelligence or organizational tasks. The first half is Caius sending you around to find out stuff, while the latter half involves going around and organizing all the political bodies in Vvardenfell into something resembling an effective resistance. And then there’s the endgame, where everyone storms Red Mountain.

    Except no one else actually does anything. Even when NPCs specifically talk about how, say, “The Ordinators and the Buyant Armigers are going to stage a massive series of raids inside the Ghostgate to provide a distraction for your attacks,” you don’t ever see any of that being done.

    . . .

    What I would’ve liked from Oblivion is, well, that. Instead of your quest being to find a way to singlehandedly stop the invasion, all of the Main Quests (and most of the side quests, considering bloodthirsty Daedra pouring out of gates everywhere is sort of the most important thing anyone has to worry about) would involve mobilizing the various disorganized, leaderless, or otherwise ineffectual factions against the threat. The death of the Emperor’s thrown the central Imperial government into disarray, the Mage’s Guild is divided nearly in half by the banning of Necromancy, the Fighter’s Guild’s dealing with a rival mercenary force interfering with their work, and everyone’s got the Radiant Dawn infiltrating and sabataging and generally making things more difficult.

    Faction quests would, basically, result in carving out little pockets of safety where your organization’s set itself up. It would remain VERY UNSAFE outside of these pockets. As you do more work for each faction, you start to secure more of the region. Main Quest stuff would be factfinding that greatly helps these efforts: finding ways to predict where gates will open, finding ways to close gates permanently, and eventually finding a way to stop the invasion all together.

    . . .

    This wouldn’t necessarily have to involve difficult-to-program procedural armies, and lots of AI fights, and whatnot. But things like more of the world changing: villagers huddle behind locked doors and guards on rooftops take potshots at anything moving that comes near would turn to people walking about normally once you’ve finished a quest to secure the area. The number of guard patrols along walls or roads would increase if you did something to finally get them organized. Cities would be cluttered and grimy when they’re under siege, and daedra would randomly spawn in alleys . . . which sufficient guard coverage would stop. Out in the wilderness, you’d start to see distant gates collapsing in a flash of light once soldiering parties start to get the knack of taking them down on their own. Once you figure out how to close gates permanently, they wouldn’t respawn.

    Things like that.

  13. Just a correction I think you should do. Instead of a blade imbued with the powers to kill the Deadra Prince, I think the game would be able to see which type of weaponry you’ve used the most, and give you an imbued weapon accordingly. That way, someone thats been fisticuffing there way through the game doesn’t have to learn how to stab things.

  14. What would stop a warrior from working his way through the Dark Brotherhood until he has to sneak into the Oblivion plane and instead just slashing his way through?

  15. Noc: Great ideas man. I love that completely. I think if Morrowind was some kind of quest to do good water, and Oblivion tackled the problem of trees, maybe they should start on more endearing NPCs for ES5. They did a better job for F3, but even Zelda makes you care more.

    LaZodiac: “Interesting… I’d dismissed this page, but seeing you fend off that ogre… apparently there’s an artefact, and ancient and powerful Frying Pan of the Nine, deep beneath the forests of Anvil.”

  16. I think one of the things you’ve got to be careful of here is that each questline has to reflect the guild involved. One of the things that irritated me most about Oblivion was that the Thieves Guild rarely did any actual thieving, and sent you on dungeon crawls instead, unlike in Morrowind where it was more about sneaking into houses and pilfering stuff.

    What I’m saying is, you’ve got to make sure the introduction of the demons doesn’t just make everything a big fight. The Thieves Guild should focus on sneaking through a gate undetected and stealing a soul gem or something, rather than fighting a prince.

  17. @Dante: Looks to me like Tom did a pretty good job of taking each guild’s respective skills into consideration. The Thieves Guild, for example, ends with sneaking a Black Soul Gem into a plane of Oblivion and then hightailing it out of there before said plane collapses.

    I think that’s the part of a potential redesign like this that most excites me — the opportunity to use your character’s skills in a meaningful way. My time as a kleptomaniac in Morrowind (just couldn’t enjoy Oblivion, sadly) meant most of my thieving was purely for personal benefit, when sneaking skills and the like could have been worked into the storyline in a way that adds another dimension to the profession.

    I never did make it far into Oblivion’s main quest, so forgive my ignorance, but did group battle ever factor in at all? The idea of tackling something with your guild mates is a pretty exciting one, which makes me wonder why Bethesda didn’t capitalize on it. Engine limitations, perhaps? Weak AI?

  18. I finished Oblivion’s main quest, but I actually had to cheat my way through the planes. I literally noclip’d all the way to the top tower, put in the orb or whatever it was (I actually forgot), noclip’d out.

  19. @Matt: There isn’t a whole lot of group battle in Oblivion, because the small amount that there is is insanely annoying. For my computer at least, there is massive lag, and I’d constantly be accidentally hitting and killing my allies, forcing me to reload (because I felt bad. And incompetent). Plus the archers would be shooting me the whole time.

    But despite that, I may be in the minority, but I really enjoyed Oblivion’s main quest. And the problem with the ideas above is that you then couldn’t do all the guild quests after the main quest, which is what I mainly ended up doing.

  20. My brother had to build a character specifically for the main quest, this character ended up rich beyond his wildest dreams, the floor of his bedroom in Skingrad littered with rare artefacts and armour yet to find a place upon the walls.

    But it screams poor design that you have to make a character for the main quest, I find your idea much closer to an ideal solution.

  21. I built a nice thiefy-rogue type character, but spent most of the game running from wildlife and standing on big rocks firing arrows at things. So yes, I also abandoned the main quest (somewhere after getting Sean Bean to safety). Getting through Chorral was ridiculous because I was levelled too high thanks to their (fixed in Fallout 3) levelled enemies system.

    On the whole I disagree that a long central plotline is that bad, because within it – in theory – you can play in a fairly flexible way (although big stompy types did better than waifs like me), and I enjoy developers who put real length and content into their games. The long-form central narrative is what *should* give devs the most opportunity to really say something interesting.

    Splitting the game off into guild-sized chunks would either create too much work or less actual story content, per guild, and it would mean playing every guild in order to experience the core story (not everyone actually wants to be a mage or create a mage type character).

  22. Great post Tom. I’d play this and I think it would probably be much better than vintage Oblivion. It would be cool to see other similar posts about other games you’d change like this.

    Keep up the good work!


  24. Heh, fair point. I could probably do a lot of this, without voice acting, but the end result would require people to start the whole game again and replay mostly familiar quests just to get my point. If I’m going to put a lot of time into proving my theoretical prattling – which I am keen to – I want it to produce something people can try easily to see what they think.

  25. I like this idea – especially the fact that it restores Mannimarco to being a relatively central character, rather than just the underwhelming final boss of the Mage questline. A returning character deserved better.

  26. Rob – You don’t actually need to be a mage character to become archi-mage , I created a thief-assassin oriented character , at first it was just for the fun of being in the dark brotherhood and the thief guild , I did every quest , been promoted to leader to both , then after wondering aimlessly for a while cause I simply dislike the oblivion gates , I just hate em , dunno why , I decided to aim to be leader to all guilds and grand champion of the arena , it took me 2 hours , with my thief-assassin character to slash my way in the arena , I was lvl 12 and didn’t even bothered to block or backstab or even shoot arrows and the best a NPC did to me was downing me to half my life ( i was in light armor ) , then I did the fighter guild , there again took me little time to slash my way throught every quest , didn’t even bothered to sneak kill the mobs , then with a no talented mage , I can heal minor wounds and open very easy – easy locks that’s it , I became archi-mage very easily ….

    So you don’t even have to create a character specificaly made to do the guild quests , any character with enought sneak and lockpicking will do them all easily ( or open lock spells )

  27. stop buying GMO foods from the supermarkets… stop taking vaccines and flu shots…. the American and European Government are SICK EVIL WAR CRIMINALS who inject toxic chemicals and poisons into our food supply

  28. The main quest does give you a major reward in finishing it through and through. The much coveted Imperial Dragon Armor was my tantalizing motive for playing through, and was pleasantly surprised when I found myself enjoying the story. The only thing that I would kick Bethesda in the shin for, was that ridiculous two week wait period. Thanks for the thought of realistic armor crafting time intervals, but I’ll take my well earned prize on a silver platter in a day or two please.

  29. The main quest is just one way to give the player something to do. If they devoted their time to creating more features, it could be an even greater game.

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