AFK_Weye Commentaries: Kerrach
By Dwip April 8, 2019, 8:45 pm Comments (1) RSS Feed for this post

Moving on from the main quest, this time we’re going to discuss AFK_Weye’s most beloved sidequests and location, Down in a Hole, Beneath Your Darkest Fears, Freedom For My People, and the dungeon of Kerrach.

Down In a Hole

So, there’s a lot going on with this quest, Breakneck Lair, and Kerrach after it. And we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about Elahai for a moment. Weye, of course, needed a magic vendor since I was adding everything else in, and because that’s a fairly high powered sort of thing, I wanted to stick it behind a fairly high powered quest, which also serves the purpose of giving Thalonias a quest (at the time his only one) and fills in some of his backstory. Thalonias himself, you will recall, is a giant Morrowind callback, so it made sense to stick his quest up in those deserted mountains northeast of Cheydinhal.

Elahai will go on to become one of the central figures in Weye, with roles in a bunch of quests, pretty much because I enjoyed writing for him and kept finding excuses for him to do stuff. We’ll get to those later.

One of the things I wanted to make sure of with Elahai’s quest is to make it accessible from the get go. You don’t ever need to have talked to Thalonias in order to stumble into Breakneck Lair and free him, you can just do it. I’ve never been a big fan of dungeons that stay locked up until a quest starts, so I made sure to make it something you could just run into out in the world.

That said, I’ve always wondered if maybe I wasn’t a little too hardcore with the goblin ambush aboveground. It’s a lot of fight for some random path in the middle of nowhere, and I might choose to do it differently were I to do so again. Also fading in the goblins right in front of the player is pretty amateur hour, but in my defense this was pretty early in my quest designing day.

As to the dungeon itself, I should state right up front that Breakneck Lair, along with Kerrach after it, is very much a response to Oblivion’s other dungeons. I set out to make the sort of dungeon I wanted to play, with the sorts of features I wanted to see. I was pretty explicit about that in my 2010 post On Valve Level Design where I break a lot of my design decisions for the dungeon down. I’ll paraphrase some of that here.

The first principle was using varied types of environments – fort ruins inside a cave, for instance. Oblivion pretty much never did any of that, and I thought it would make for a very interesting dungeon if I did so. Why is half of this Imperial fort buried underground and why is it on top of an Ayleid ruin? I don’t know either because I never got around to explaining it, but it sure is a lot more intriguing than some random cave with a couple of ogres and a mountain lion in it, isn’t it?

The second thing I wanted to do was attempt to make use of vertical space. This is pretty difficult in a game like Oblivion (versus a game like Fallout) because it’s a lot harder to fight guys with swords on different levels versus guys with guns, though you can put in some guys with bows or magic. Thus, Breakneck Lair features three (or four depending on how you count it) different levels all wrapped around this one giant tower. You can fight goblins on different levels, and though it’s not entirely perfect, it’s a lot of fun to stealth around sniping. I think I did the concept a bit better in Kerrach, but it’s not bad here.

Another thing I wanted to do was better use of traps. Most traps in Oblivion are horribly obvious, which makes them all too easy to simply avoid. Some of the traps in Breakneck Lair, on the other hand, are pretty tough unless you’ve got good vision. There’s one at the beginning that usually gets me, and I made it. I also tried to make it so you could use some of the traps to murder goblins, though I’m not entirely sure how successful I was with that. I can envision a different central chamber with more goblins and a log trap that falls on top of them, for instance. That could have been very fun.

The final thing I wanted to do with Breakneck Lair is set up Kerrach, which by design was a totally hidden dungeon with no connection to the outside. The bottom chamber with the Ayleid architecture and the reveal of the dremora goblin chief was supposed to be a shock to the player, and a tease that something much greater was going on beneath the surface. If I did my job right here, and comments have led me to believe that I have, people that have seen this room should be extremely intrigued as to what awaits them deeper in.

As a final note, it’s extremely gratifying to me that the things I’m talking about in that post I linked and here are all things that are present in like, every single dungeon in Skyrim. That’s not to say that Bethesda took their cues from me, of course (I wish), but they really got better at dungeon design in the intervening five years, and it really shows.

I got there first, though. Nyah, Todd.

Beneath Your Darkest Fears/Freedom For My People

As creators, we tell ourselves that we love our babies equally. But we have our favorites, and Kerrach is mine. Judging by reactions, it’s a lot of other people’s as well, so let’s talk about that some.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Kerrach is basically my thesis on high level dungeon design, hidden away at the bottom of a sidequest dungeon. That’s pretty weird, but like I talked about in Down in a Hole, I think it works pretty well – tease the player, get them intrigued, and then hit them with things they’ve never seen before.

As far as it goes, I think the intro to the Kerrach dungeon accomplishes that. Ayleid ruins in lava caves isn’t something you really ever saw in Oblivion dungeons, much less fighting several dremora at the same time to get across a crumbling and trapped bridge. One of the things I wanted to emphasize in Kerrach was the use of mass combat, which I didn’t think had really been done very much in Oblivion previously. If I was going to have a high level dungeon, I wanted to fill it with challenging, novel combats that people weren’t used to.

I also thought it would be a really cool idea to give the player a vantage point to watch their soon to be ally and quest-giver the King of Kerrach fight some dremora. Again, this sort of thing wasn’t much done in Oblivion, though it is straight out of the Valve games I’m sort of cribbing from here. Skyrim and Fallout will later do this sort of thing, but in Oblivion? Not really.

A lot of the inspiration for the quests here comes from a sidequest in Baldur’s Gate 2 where the player meets some ancient followers of a dead god who are bound by pact to serve until the end of time, but they’re tired and pretty much just want to die now that none of this matters anymore. Of course, I switched things around here – As the ghosts will make clear, Kerrach pretty much brought its own destruction down on itself, and kind of earned what they got – the Ayleids were never a fluffy bunny rabbit sort of race. Still, though, at some point maybe being tortured for eternity is a bit much.

As quests go, Beneath Your Darkest Fears is pretty straightforward. Find the two MacGuffins needed to progress forward, then kill the bad guy. Simple. For a dungeon crawl like this, you don’t necessarily need very much, and unlike a quest such as Forget Me Not with a lot of NPCs and a lot of exposition, most of the emotional heavy lifting is done through environmental storytelling, with the big beats saved for the beginning and end with the king.

The devil is in the details, of course.

Sometimes we do things for the sake of balance that we wouldn’t otherwise do. This bedroll is here because without it there isn’t anywhere to sleep in all of Kerrach, which I thought was unnecessarily harsh considering how long of a dungeon crawl it is. Of course, it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense for a thousands of years old bedroll to be sitting here, and had I thought it through a bit harder I might have rigged up one of those stone Ayleid beds somewhere, but that’s the benefit of hindsight.

The very first glimmer of what would become Kerrach happened one day when I saw very clearly in my mind a ruined Ayleid city surrounded by lava. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, and it took a lot of effort to make that vision a reality, but I wanted to see some Ayleid ruins in lava, so I made it happen. The power to make our dreams reality is unspeakably rewarding.

This is actually the second version of Kerrach I constructed. The first version was…slightly more primitive.

Those are all various Oblivion boulders, rotated and moved to create a giant cave. That was ok for the 1.x versions of Kerrach, but it had a lot of problems – those boulders are very high poly, and that many of them was enough to bring the computers of 2009 to their knees. Not so great, but I didn’t much have the skill to deal with it at the time. By the time 2.0 rolled around, however, I was able to construct a new set of cave meshes in a weekend that not only cut down on the poly count, they looked better. I could still stand to do some work on the island, but for the most part it works.

In both versions, the overlook here is doing a couple of useful things. All of the main areas of the city are immediately obvious, as well as providing a visual spectacle. In addition, it will soon become obvious that the player will need to fight through a fairly large number of dremora, which will be previewed shortly down the stairs.

The second quest for Kerrach, Freedom For My People, is meant to provide a bunch of little side objectives as the player meanders through the various areas of the city. It’s also meant to give a little bit of characterization to the Ayleids of Kerrach – as I said, they’re not nice guys, but they’ve still suffered a lot, and maybe changed a little bit. Take this guy, for instance: he’s in the Buroseli, which is some sick twisted Ayleid torture dungeon. So there’s some karmic justice that he’s being tortured forever. And yet.

There are two main areas of Kerrach before one gets to the central spire: the Buroseli and the Ageasel. The Buroseli, which this is one of the first chambers of, is sort of my meditation on traps and platforming in dungeons. I’m not a big fan of platforming, so I wanted to see if I could do it in a slightly more palatable fashion. By breaking it into short chunks I think I succeeded fairly well, but mileage may vary. As for the traps, I’m still pretty proud of that big chunk of stone that crumbles into the lava in this picture. It’s pretty fiendish.

The Rending Spire, the second half of the Buroseli dungeon, is an attempt to do something interesting with vertical space and Oblivion towers. On the whole I find it only partially successful – this bottom level with the blades and elevator and the dremora certainly looks really cool, but the combat mostly involves dremora or you falling off of the ledges into the pits to each side. As I recall, I was limited heavily by geometry and trying to fit that elevator in, but I’m sure I could have done something better.

The upper half of the spire was designed to be a close quarters arena with a very dangerous melee opponent and environmental hazards (the elevator usually ends up going back down, leaving a giant pit in the center). For the most part, this works fairly well, and much more successfully than its counterpart in the Ageasel, which we’ll discuss shortly. Provided the Master Torturer doesn’t fall into the hole, it’s a very tense combat, especially for ranged characters, which is exactly what I wanted it to be.

Where the Buroseli was about platforming and traps, the Ageasel is about puzzles, the largest of which is what we in the MUD community used to call a warp maze. Ten years after the fact, I’m still not entirely sure that this was a good idea – warp mazes were always controversial at best and hated at worst, and I think the Ageasel confuses more people than the rest of the mod put together. Still, I think the different environments both add to the ambience and make it work.

One thing that doesn’t work particularly well, however, is this lightning trap stone room in the second chamber. It’s extremely high damage for what it was designed to be (a little bit of harassment), and the nature of the portals will funnel characters back through here multiple times, potentially causing them to deplete many of their resources. I probably should have lowered the damage or found a way to turn it off.

There’s some irony to this dremora summoning circle in that it’s entirely possible to skip it – you can progress to the fourth chamber by turning around and going out the same portal you came in, without needing to fight anything. The other devious bit is the summoning circle in the middle will actually summon more daedra if you walk across the runes. This gets most players at least once.

I forget the source that described the Ayleids as wrapping incredibly devious ways to kill you inside of incredibly beautiful things, but I wanted this little garden to convey that. A green, tranquil garden, untouched by Oblivion, where deer romp around in peace.

And then the deer try to kill you, because of course the deer are going to try to kill you.

One of AFK_Weye’s most frequently asked questions is “Where do I get the ritual scroll for that ghost in the Ageasel?” It’s right over here by this bench. I swear it wasn’t supposed to be that hard to find, really it wasn’t. I think one of the deer likes to die over there a lot, which probably doesn’t help people find it, but there it is.

The actually most frequently asked question of AFK_Weye is, however, How do I solve the runestone puzzle in Kerrach? So let’s talk about that for a bit.

It’s genesis came from me watching an anime called Otogizoshi wherein the heroes find magical stones attuned to the five classical Chinese elements, which just so happen to work really well in an Elder Scrolls context. In the anime it was possible to align the stones for either beneficial purposes or malevolent ones, which I thought was a really cool idea, so I stole it wholesale.

The second layer of the puzzle was adding a series of tablets laying out the proper order of the stones…written in ancient Ayleid. Which won’t really help you, unless you properly figure out the central tablet, which helpfully gives you two of the five. Of course, it’s written from the perspective of the dremora mage you just killed, so doing it the way he says is beneficial just summons more daedra.

Yeah, it’s overly complicated, probably a giant pain in the ass, and even I use the walkthrough whenever I play, but I’ve always liked this puzzle. In a lot of ways it’s the true boss fight of the Ageasel, which is probably fitting.

The Storm Spire is the second half of the Ageasel, and between it and the Rending Spire the less successful of the two. And here’s the thing about that – aesthetically, the Storm Spire is cool as hell. It’s this crazy tower floating in space, with spooky white lights, bolts of lightning crashing down at you, and a perilous spiraling climb around the tower to get to the top where you fight the boss…

…who then promptly falls off into the void and dies about 9 times out of 10. So that’s kind of a failure. Actually that’s a lot of a failure. With a larger arena (and stairs you could actually walk up instead of jumping, oops), I think this could have been a really awesome area where you would have to dodge the boss as well as lightning strikes and probably a storm atronach, but I never quite got it there. Ah well.

Also I’m not always a big fan of shortcuts to the dungeon exit, but I probably should have added a portal back to the start of the Ageasel just so that death stone room didn’t kill you after all your hard work. Live and learn.

There are a couple of things I wanted to do with the Spire of Shattered Hopes. First, I wanted to reinforce the idea of the dremora takeover by replacing the central Ayleid spire with an even larger daedric one. On top of that, I wanted to play around with the spire concept, because I always felt Oblivion didn’t do much with the Oblivion realm concept. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I certainly tried.

Thematically, I wanted the player to feel that they were going deeper into darkness and evil the further they made it up the spire, from twisted garden to twilight to nearly pitch black darkness until you felt like that guy. Kind of subtle, but I wanted to do something slightly outside the norm.

It’s important from time to time to offer the player some room to appreciate what they’ve just come through. This little moment, when the player emerges from the Spire of Shattered Hopes back into the city to replace the pommelstone provides that. Also, I wanted an excuse to use some of Oblivion’s animated effects, because they were very cool for the time and most dungeons just didn’t bother.

I didn’t necessarily set out to do it this way, but the fight with Asharkalz at the Throne of Destruction is possibly the hardest fight in the game in a lot of ways. Asharkalz is an absolute tank with high resistances, a beefy weapon, and is absolutely a match for the unprepared player. His only weakness is a subpar ranged attack, which means I usually end up kiting him around the level while I pump arrows into him. I find this tense and exciting, but I’m sure mileage varies.

Yeah, I spent way too much time making the evil throne look super badass evil. Fun fact, you’re supposed to be able to loot the rubies out of the skulls, but the collision is apparently kind of messed up and you can’t. I swear it used to work.

In any event, the whole Throne of Destruction was my attempt to do something a little different from the usual Oblivion realm boss fight, with a bunch of weaker enemies at the bottom of the spire to wear you down a bit before Asherkalz ripped your head off. I’m not entirely sure if I succeeded, but it turns out Oblivion spires are kind of hard to work with.

Once I figured out how to actually script cutscenes, I knew what needed to happen at the end of Kerrach. This entire sequence, from delivering the Heart of Kerrach to the King to the King sending his people to their long awaited deaths, is meant to give a proper emotional payoff to what has perhaps been several hours of dungeon crawl and questing, as well as rivaling anything else in the game for sheer power and spectacle. Thanks to some excellent voice work I think it works quite well. In fact, the voiceover here was such a success it led to dreams of voicing the entire mod, which I’ve discussed at some tragic length previously.

As a creator, there comes a certain point where you become somewhat bored with even the best ideas. You’ve playtested them to death, you’ve seen everything they have to give you a thousand times, and you’re just ready to be done and get it out the door.

Kerrach has never done that to me. Even at my most burnt out, I could always look at it and say This is going to be SO COOL. There are some things I could have done slightly better, some things I could tweak and mess around with and improve, but at its core Kerrach is what I wanted it to be – a really fun high level dungeon crawl with a variety of challenges. The quest is among my favorite, and even now that ending cutscene makes me feel a certain something.

While we’re here, let’s talk about my process for a moment. I run on scratch paper. Those sheets are covered in design notes, bug notes, random ideas, and who knows what else. Despite the seeming randomness, there is a method – note the map of Breakneck Lair with every enemy plotted out including patrol routes, and on the other side you can see a bunch of Kerrach notes, including a 3D view of the entire Spire of Shattered Hopes, a diagram of the Ageasel warp maze, and a diagram of the two different solutions to the runestone puzzle. It’s chaotic, and I couldn’t tell you what a lot of it means now, but it does work.

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April 8, 2019 at 8:48 pm

[…] Part 1 History, Part 2 Main Quest, Part 1 Weye Manor Main Quest, Part 2 Main Quest, Part 3 Kerrach Side Quests […]

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