AFK_Weye Commentaries: Main Quest, Part 1
By Dwip April 3, 2019, 4:12 pm Comments (1) RSS Feed for this post

In this post I want to talk about the initial quest in AFK_Weye’s main questline, Death and Taxes, and its side quest, The Metal Box. I don’t plan on giving a blow by blow playthrough, so much as highlighting points of interest and design issues I find interesting at each stage. That is to say, if you haven’t played through, do that first, and anyway I’m going to be spoiling the whole thing along the way.

How to begin AFK_Weye actually occupied a great deal of my time in the early days. I knew I wanted the manor in, and I knew it was going to be a player-owned manor with buyable furniture. I also knew I didn’t want to go the usual route of just buying the place outright, because as house acquisition methods go, it’s one of the least interesting. So I knew there needed to be some sort of quest.

If I was going to have a quest, it was going to require a villain in occupation of the manor, which is where Maxentius Alosius and his crew come in. I didn’t want to use ghosts/liches like in Benirus Manor, and actual bandits/monsters seemed out of place in a suburb of the Imperial City, so a corrupt and evil landlord seemed a good idea. Besides the nice Robin Hood feel of killing the rich to house the poor, Max offers a way to have a before Weye and an after Weye – The before Weye is small, under populated, the people are disgruntled, and it needs some love. Once Max is out of the way, the player then gets the satisfaction of building up a bustling, prosperous town through their own efforts.

This where Hagal and Yrsa come in. I obviously needed some sort of catalyst to get the player unhappy enough with Max to take action, and a pair of newly homeless senior citizens seemed like the trick to doing that. Cruelty to old people puts Max squarely in the unlikeable category. Not much in moral ambiguity, to be sure, but sometimes it’s nice to have a monster to fight.

I put the two of them in front of the inn like they are fairly deliberately. Actually starting quest mods is something of a tricky thing. Oblivion itself can afford to be fairly opaque about it – wandering the world and discovering that one NPC in that village is half the fun, after all. DLC and mods can’t be so discerning – people want to get into the story, and if you rely on them stumbling upon that one guy way over there with the note, chances are the player will never see or play your mod, which is no fun for anybody.

This problem is why most of the Oblivion DLCs start with popup messages or are otherwise in your face, and why so many mods either do the same or have some NPC ambush you first thing or when you’re walking through the Imperial City Market District or some such. There is, however, an issue with both of those methods, which is that it’s annoying to get spammed with message boxes the second you exit the sewers on the one hand, and it’s really annoying to get ambushed by some NPC with a five minute long conversation and epic quest when all you really want to do is get over to Thoronir’s to sell some junk before finishing off that other quest you have going.

Thus, Hagal and Yrsa being in front of the inn. The advantage of AFK_Weye is that you pretty much know where to go to look for the quests (Weye), and by sticking them in front of the first structure most people are likely to see (the Wawnet Inn), it signals to the player that these folks probably have something to say. They also don’t ambush the player, which allows people to trigger the quest in their own time without being guilt tripped about it. But, when somebody is ready to start AFK_Weye’s quests, there are Hagal and Yrsa, standing piteously in front of the inn, ready to sob their hearts out to you.

That said, with the addition of more and more NPCs to Weye, it seemed necessary to direct people to Yrsa if you happen to, say, talk to Thalonias first. That’s why everyone in Weye will mutter about problems with various degrees of annoyance – eventually you’ll find your way to Yrsa, and off you go.

Too, a note about Hagal, and why he’s mute. There are a couple reasons for this. One, it helps out the sob story, and lets Yrsa be the strong (yet not strong enough) heroine of the family. In addition, it lets me let Yrsa do all the talking without the usual Oh, my spouse does all the talking, talk to them dialogue, which is kind of cheap. The last reason is simply that nobody had done a mute character to my knowledge, and I thought it would be an interesting challenge, which it was.

This first conversation is pretty direct – please talk to Max, we owe him money, can you help? Most of the time, quests like this are pretty simple – you go and find the guy, pay him some cash, maybe do a speech check or two, and you’re done with it. It’s something of a trope, usually with bar tabs. As we’ll see, though, Max is just too much of a dick to go for that, though it’s something of a storytelling failure of mine that I never really establish a good reason why that’s the case –he’s just sort of evil. Were I to do things over, I’d probably try to get more into Max’s landlord backstory – as it is, he’s just sort of there, being his bad self.

One of the things I wanted to establish about Max is that he’s a pretty paranoid guy who’s got something going on a little more extreme than strong-arming aged peasants for a little bit of cash. At the outset, I did this via the guards, of whom you see Aethor and Milos Dranilu guarding the manor itself and Kalzi escorting Max around. All of them come off as pretty tough bad dudes, and this is all to reinforce the idea that Maxentius Alosius just isn’t a very pleasant guy.

As an aside, all of these guys gave me no end to trouble in the early (and quite often the late) days. Early versions of AFK_Weye had serious issues with various guards going berserk and trying to kill people in the streets, which I eventually narrowed down to just Aethor in 1.21 and eliminated entirely in 2.0. Too, Kalzi’s follower AI was never the best, and I spent forever and ever trying to get him to follow Max in a natural way, which only ever partially succeeded due to limitations within Oblivion.

Back to the paranoid thing, the last thing about talking to Max here is that it’s actually fairly hard to get to him – his manor is always locked, and people will try to kill you if you just go in. You pretty much have to wait until he travels to the Imperial City. That’s pretty paranoid for a citizen of Cyrodiil, though I also did it simply because I hate the mechanic of just waltzing into some dude’s house to have a chat. So, you get to talk to him in the street.

Of course, simply talking to Max doesn’t get you very far – there wouldn’t be much of a plot if you could just pay him off and leave. So, you have to figure out another way, but what? Just going back to Yrsa and having her suggest another solution isn’t a whole lot of fun, so I decided to do a scavenger hunt around Weye for the person who might have a solution. That could get pretty annoying if this was in a large city like the Imperial City or Skingrad or what have you, but Weye is pretty compact, so you’re not chasing a ton of people over a ton of land for ages and ages. This is just a brief little interlude that has the side benefit of introducing you to even more Weye NPCs and possibly picking up a few side quests along the way. Ultimately, the idea is to stumble upon Thalonias for the information about the ledger, thence to Lucius for the idea to break in and then talk to Publius Candidus.

The reasoning here is that if you just walk in and kill everyone, it would get you arrested like it would anywhere in Cyrodiil, or killed by the guards. But Maxentius is corrupt, and because he’s corrupt he’s probably bribing the Imperial City Watch. That’s going to set up further intrigue down the line once we get to Property Rights, but at this stage I just wanted to establish Thalonias and Lucius as competent characters in their own right, introduce Publius Candidus, and drop the idea that these people all have history with each other – they’re not just static people hanging around the game world, but Lucius and Thalonias are actually friends who take meals together, and Lucius knows some ex-Legion guy really well.

The ledger theft portion of Death and Taxes has actually undergone the most changes of probably any quest in AFK_Weye, and for good reason – for my very first quest, Death and Taxes is a pretty ambitious effort compared to the usual dungeon raid – it has a lot of steps, many of which lend themselves to very freeform ways to complete the challenge, all of which need to be done well to give the player some choices.

To illustrate, the way the ledger theft worked in the 1.x versions of the mod was that the player had to sneak up behind the door guard, whoever that was, pickpocket the key (there is an alternative, which I’ll talk about later), unlock the front door, sneak past everyone, up to the top floor, retrieve the ledger, then come back the way they came. There was a pretty non-trivial chance of making the entire manor aggressive and having them all try to kill you, which could get exciting but was somewhat planned for.

For 2.0, I decided that just wasn’t good enough – what if you weren’t a good thief? Why couldn’t you just assassinate Max instead of going through legal channels? If he’s dead he can’t evict Hagal and Yrsa, can he? So, I did a few different things. I made it so you can flat out kill Max, and depending on how you do it, you’re either going to get hunted down by his minions or those same minions become bandits in the wilderness who you can encounter later. I also added a balcony and a climbable tree just for people who weren’t all that good at thievery. Just to liven things up a bit, I also added a fairly nasty trap to the book that summons the guards when you pick it up and possibly paralyzes you. I don’t want to make things TOO easy, after all, and sudden guard appearance does get the blood flowing.

The other thing about all of this business with traps and guards and defections is that I’m trying to think ahead to the final battle at the end of Death and Taxes, as I will explain shortly.

The point here is that it really pays to think through your quest design. Are you railroading the player too much? Does the route you’re sending them actually make sense? What if they want to do it some other way? I talk a lot about this elsewhere, but I really see three and possibly four ways that any quest should be able to be completed:

  1. Through killing everyone;
  2. Through stealth;
  3. Through dialogue (which can possibly have several versions);
  4. Through magic (which is usually versatile enough to mimic the other 3).

You’ll notice that these map themselves relatively well to the main character creation choices Oblivion gives you, and that’s because the ideal is to give any given character type the potential to play through a given quest by being themselves as much as possible.

This was a concept I didn’t wholly understand when 1.x was under construction, and didn’t really grasp until 2.x rolled around, hence the addition of ways to better stealth and kill your way through. It’s still not perfect, of course, but this is a computer game and not a tabletop RPG, and no designer can account for everything, though you should try.

But what about dialogue? Well, let’s talk about that.

I always knew that I wanted an alternate way to acquire the key, pickpocketing being what it is, and, as a side benefit, make the eventual final fight a little bit easier by removing one of the combatants. Thus, I made it so that if you’re paying attention when you talk to Thalonias, he’ll mention that Milos Dranilu isn’t actually as bad as the rest of the guards, and that he can be talked to sometimes, when he’s in the inn having a drink. Get him to like you (generally via Speechcraft), and he’ll actually defect, giving you the key and quitting Max.

As we’ll see later, the decision whether or not to spare Milos here has plenty of ramifications down the road. Milos is a much more important character than he might appear at first glance, and figuring out that he can in fact be kept alive is something I wanted as a reward for observant players, or something to make them go Hey wait, I wonder if you can actually do that… if he gets killed, and offer some replay incentive. I’ve always enjoyed the sort of game that lets you affect the world like this, and wanted to have some of it in my own work.

Speaking of rewards for observant players, picking up the key next to the ledger allows one into a locked room on the middle floor of the manor with a dead man and a mysterious metal box. This is a short little side quest that got added in AFK_Weye 2.2 called The Metal Box, and has mostly to do with establishing Gaius Verres in a shadowy way earlier than he normally gets introduced, and ties Max to some pretty creepy guys earlier than the major plot revelations during Property Rights. Depending on which way one chooses to go with it, this quest either makes Verres significantly tougher or significantly weaker by giving him or denying him a fairly powerful spell.

Why do this? Primarily as foreshadowing, since I didn’t really think I was doing a good enough job beforehand setting up the key players and the role Max was playing in everything. Previously, there was a revelation later on that yeah, by the way, Max is pretty evil. Well, now we know he’s up to something, because there’s a dead guy in a cage in his house, and that guy you deliver the box to definitely looks like a vampire.

Speaking a couple of years after the fact here, I was probably being a little bit too coy with the Max/Gaius Verres connection. The Metal Box is an easily skippable side mission that probably should have been more front and center than it actually was, and had I been planning the whole thing from the beginning rather than in stages (remember that I wrote Death and Taxes fully two years before any of the other quests originally) I probably would have done things differently. While planning and working on your quests in stages has its benefits, this kind of haphazard not-quite-good-enough rewriting like Death and Taxes got is one of the downsides.

Now, once the player has the ledger, I could have gone a few different ways with it. I could, for instance, have just had the player hand off this evidence of Max’s crimes to any of several pre-existing Legion characters, or to Lucius in order for him to pass it along. Instead, I chose to have the player give it to Publius Candidus.

There a few reasons why. First, most or all of the existing Legion/Watch characters either have bigger fish to fry than Maxentius Alosius, are utterly corrupt, or both. Second, the Legion/Watch as an institution is presented as being very corrupt and very political organization, an aspect heavily explored during the Thieves’ Guild quests and something that’s already been alluded to during Death and Taxes. One of the themes of AFK_Weye, though I rarely thought about it in that way, was the justification for heroic adventurers subverting the legal institutions of the realm and meting out their own sometimes extralegal judgments in the shadow of more legitimate means.

Enter Publius Candidus. Most obviously, he fills the role of the honest man you can trust to help you out. He’s also meant to emphasize the political angle to this drama both explicitly (it’s mentioned several times that his role is to give you cover with the Watch for murdering a bunch of people) as well as implicitly (the only reason you’re getting any help at all is because Publius and Lucius are friends from way back).

From day one of Death and Taxes, I envisioned that the quest was going to end with you in a showdown with Max and his bodyguards, both because I felt that there needed to be some sort of climactic fight (if not necessarily a boss fight per se) and because fights with multiple combatants using a variety of weapons and magic wasn’t really being done at the time I wrote the quest and I thought it would be cool.

That having been decided, I ran into the immediately obvious problem that Max and four bodyguards was going to be a whole lot to deal with for a lone player. There were a couple of ways I could have gone about resolving that, but as I’ve already discussed, the way I chose to solve the problem was by adding various points during the quest narrative that allow the player to kill or peel off some of the bodyguards prior to the fight. That way, it’s possible to have wildly different outcomes here, from desperate running battles through the manor to a cakewalk.

The other way I obviously could have gone was to give the player an ally in the form of Publius Candidus. I explicitly chose not to do this, primarily because I had a great deal of hate for the way Oblivion handled followers in combat. Later, I undermined my own decision making by having Publius tag along during Property Rights, a decision that seems off to me some 5 years later. Were I to go back and do it again, I would probably do both things – make the bodyguards able to be eliminated AND have Publius Candidus as a sidekick during the big fight.

To wrap things up, I’d like to return to points I made earlier, namely these:

  1. Death and Taxes was an impossibly large and complex quest for the first quest I ever wrote;
  2. Thinking the various permutations through took a great deal of time and effort, possibly as long as all the other main quests combined;
  3. Failures and shortcuts during the conceptual process led to various later hacks and additions that did not always mesh well with anything else.

To demonstrate, allow me to offer this step by step list of decision points:

Step 1: Player enters Weye

  1. Does the player talk to anyone but Yrsa? Redirect them to Yrsa. Go to step 2
  2. Does the player talk to Yrsa? Go to step 2

Step 2: Player talks to Yrsa

  1. Does the player accept the quest? They need to talk to Maxentius. Go to step 3.
  2. Does the player not accept the quest? Abort. We’re done here.

Step 3: Player talks to Maxentius Alosius

  1. Max won’t help the player. Player talks to people until finding Thalonias. Go to step 5.
  2. Max won’t help the player. Player decides to kill Max. Go to step 4.

Step 4: Player decides to kill Maxentius Alosius

  1. There were witnesses. Milos Dranilu deserts, everyone else tries to murder player. We’re done here.
  2. There were no witnesses. Milos Dranilu deserts, everyone else turns to banditry.

Step 5: Player talks to Thalonias and learns about the ledger

  1. Player learns about Milos Dranilu and decides to talk to him. Go to step 6.
  2. Player decides to break in some other way. Go to step 7.
  3. Player says Forget this! and kills Maxentius. Go to step 4.

Step 6: Player decides to talk to Milos Dranilu

  1. Player convinces Milos to desert and give up the key. Yay! Go to step 7.
  2. Player fails at Speechcraft. Boo! Go to step 7.

Step 7: Player breaks into the manor

  1. Player says Forget this! and kills Maxentius. Go to step 4.
  2. Player pickpockets a key to get inside. Go to step 8.
  3. Player uses Milos Dranilu’s key to get inside. Go to step 8.
  4. Player uses the tree to climb up and break in. Go to step 8.

Step 8: Player snags the ledger

  1. Player says Forget this! and kills Maxentius. Go to step 4.
  2. Player gets in a fight with guards. Less of them to kill later. Go to step 11.
  3. Player gets away without issue. Go to step 11.
  4. Player decides to go find the metal box room. Go to Step 9.

Step 9: Player finds the metal box

  1. Player gets in a fight with the guards. Less of them to kill later. Go to step 11.
  2. Player gets away without issue. Go to step 11.

Step 10: Player decides what to do with the metal box

  1. Player opens the box, fights the skeleton, gets the stuff inside. Go to step 11.
  2. Player opens the box, fights, gets stuff, delivers anyway, gets in another fight. Go to step 11.
  3. Player delivers the box, makes Gaius Verres stronger several quests later. Go to step 11.
  4. Player does nothing with the box. Nothing happens. Go to step 11.

Step 11: Player talks to Lucius Decimus and then Publius Candidus

  1. Publius tells you to arrest Maxentius and company. Go to step 12.

Step 12: Player goes in to arrest Maxentius Alosius

  1. Player killed no guards. This is tough. Go to step 13.
  2. Player killed or deserted one guard. Go to step 13.
  3. Player killed or deserted two guards. Go to step 13.
  4. Player killed or deserted three guards. Go to step 13.
  5. Player killed or deserted all the guards. Yay! Go to step 13.

Step 13: Player killed everyone who needed killing

  1. Publius Candidus cleans things up, and we’re done here.

The point I desperately want to stress here, and I’ll come back here once or twice later, is that it really pays to think through and plan and flowchart your quests before you start writing them, because coming back to try and patch new content and paths into them later isn’t a whole lot of fun. If this is your first time at Quest Writing Club, try picking a simpler and more linear quest to learn on.

That having been said, I’m rather proud of Death and Taxes. It’s not perfect – I wish I would have written it originally to have more coherency within the larger overall storyline, and I could have handled a few things better, but I set out to write a non-linear quest with branching possibilities in the vein of Paranoia, the quest with Glarthir in Skingrad. I like to think I succeeded.

Next time, we’ll talk about taking possession of the manor and how its various bits and pieces work.

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April 5, 2019 at 3:47 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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