Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Bethesda Hates Mages: 12 Reasons Magic in Skyrim Sucks

Shamus Young | 25 Feb 2014 15:00
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I have a love / hate relationship with the Elder Scrolls games. According to Steam I've sunk almost 1,000 hours into Skyrim, and I played about that much Morrowind. But one constant in the last three entries is that apparently the Bethesda developers hate mages.

I first discovered this in Morrowind when I rolled a new fighter and killed my first foe in two or three hits. Then I rolled a mage and spent all my mana trying (unsuccessfully) to burn someone to death. Then I ran around in circles waiting for it to recharge, then spent it all again with more ineffectual "fireballs". Then I gave up and stabbed them to death with a knife.

It's not that magic is under-powered. (Although it is.) It's that all of the mechanics are actively hostile to the very idea of using magic for fighting. At the start of the game a fighter is only modestly stronger than a mage, but the longer you play the bigger the differential gets.

Morrowind and Oblivion both had a spellcrafting system, which let you design your own spells, which let you turn the broken underpowered magic into broken overpowered magic. That's nice, I guess. Sort of. But I'd rather just have some properly balanced mechanics than trying to balance the shortcomings against the exploits. And in any case, that system is gone in Skyrim and you're stuck with a feeble magic system unless you're the modding sort.

So how bad is it? Well...

Your ability to fight is tied to a resource.

Spells are fueled by mana. (Called "magicka", because this series pre-dates the concept of using "mana" to denote universal mojo power.) No mana, no spells. If a fighter runs out of stamina they can still swing their sword, they just can't use special attacks. But if a mage runs dry they are boned. They have to switch to melee, or run. Sure, lots of games use this setup, but the other games don't also have the problem of...

Destruction magic levels slowly.

Agonizingly so. Run through the same dungeon as a mage and then as a fighter. The fighter will get perhaps twice as many skill-ups on their primary weapon for killing the same collection of mooks. This means a mage will level more slowly overall, and more of their levels will come from incidental skills. So a level 10 fighter might have their primary weapon skill at (say) 50, while a level 10 mage will have their destruction magic at 30. The rest of the mage's skill-ups are in non-combat skills, which means fights take longer. And mages are less able to endure long fights than anyone else because...

Mage armor is complete bollocks.

A "proper" mage doesn't wear armor. But they do have various mage armor spells, which can raise their armor value to something reasonable (although still below what armored characters enjoy) for a short time. So you have to keep re-casting the spell every few minutes. Fighters don't have to worry about all their armor vanishing in mid-fight and leaving them vulnerable to an instant kill, but mages do. Imagine if fighters had their armor fall off every couple of minutes, it took them several seconds and a good chunk of their main combat resource to re-equip it, and doing so made sounds that alerted all nearby enemies.

Mages could alleviate this lack of armor by putting more points into health, but...

Mages have to spread their stats around.

There are three core stats in the game: Magicka, Health, and Stamina. If you're a fighter, you just need health and stamina. Health lets you live longer, and stamina lets you use more special attacks and carry more crap. But a mage needs both of those stats, PLUS mana. You can't skimp on health, or you'll die the moment someone looks at you funny. You can't skimp on stamina or else you can't carry as much loot, thus making you poorer.

You might argue you're not here for the loot and you just want to enjoy throwing fireballs around, but...

Magic is less satisfying to use.

A typical kill animation for a fighter has you hook your weapon around the enemy neck, yank them towards you for a head-butt, and then slam them to the ground for a spectacular finish. In magic, it just shows your character standing perfectly still while the enemy stands perfectly still and it holds that pose for a few boring seconds until it ends. They don't explode, or die screaming, or anything really cool. They just ragdoll. If you're lucky, the camera will be in a good spot and not inexplicably aimed at the floor. For fighters, a finishing move is a satisfying little show. For mages, it's just a break in the flow of gameplay, a five second interval where you stop playing.

And one of the reasons you don't look cool during a kill animation is that...

Mage robes are stupid and boring.

The late game heavy armors look impressive and intimidating. The late-game robes look exactly the same as early-game robes, with a slightly different color scheme. The "ultimate" robes in the game are the archmage robes, which look drab and vaguely hobo-ish, with an attached hood that prevents you from wearing a helmet.

Not that you want to play a mage into the late game, because...

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