Don’t put me in the Arena without telling me how to fight!

I first started playing The Elder Scrolls games with the release of Morrowind in 2002. While that remains my favorite game in the series, I’ve enjoyed each successive numbered title as well. To be honest,  The Elder Scrolls has been the only Bethesda franchise that I have consistently enjoyed (my wife prefers the Fallout games). That’s good enough for me, though, as these games alone would take up a disproportionate amount of space in any attempt to formulate my own Favorite Games list.

Despite the above, I never played any of the older Elder Scrolls titles. I’d known about Bethesda’s free release of the first two games in the series, but years passed without any effort to engage. After all, there is always a stream of new releases, and my backlog of games is already enormous as is.

That said, I decided to fool around with Arena this weekend. I don’t know exactly where the initiative came from, but it happened. After downloading the game and the DOSBox emulator, and then spending way too much time learning how to operate said emulator (it’s actually really simple), I loaded up the game. I watched the opening cutscenes, I rolled a character, I got out of my prison cell…and then I encountered a rat and discovered I had no idea how combat worked. Not the most intuitive system.

So that ended my first play attempt. But it didn’t eliminate my interest. I started digging through the trusty ol’ UESPWiki and downloaded the PDF scan of the manual that was also available through Bethesda. Now I at least know how combat works! And with that, I hope to make another attempt at Arena this upcoming weekend.

The manual itself is a fascinating document. It could practically double as a player’s guide for a tabletop RPG, so complex are its system details, complete with charts and breakdowns of stats and a small bestiary. This is appropriate, given how clearly the original Elder Scrolls game pulled from tabletop RPGs. In VJ Lakshman’s designer’s note, this inspiration is directly acknowledged:

Remember the old pencil-and-paper RPG’s? The limits of your adventure were only defined by your own imagination. The dungeon master didn’t force anyone down a particular path (if he knew what he was doing) but instead allowed the players to explore the world he had created . . . . A good DM had lots of imagination, and all the answers. The players provided the adventure.

In The Elder Scrolls, we have strived to put the fun back into role-playing.

Lakshman also takes on the simple binary of “good vs. evil” used frequently in fantasy games, making it clear that The Elder Scrolls‘ aversion to obvious moral systems and its willingness–or maybe even giddiness–to allow breaking of traditional moral codes have been part of the franchise since the very beginning.

Interestingly, Lakshman also states, “[The world of Arena] is a place where those of you who love combat and spell casting can earn fame and fortune by proving your prowess in battle.” Combat has been essential to later games in the series, although those later games also generally allow for alternative paths, often through the use of stealth, illusion magic, or simple persuasion. But here it is clear that the further that the games have gotten away from a focus on combat, the further they have drifted from the original focus of the game. And I think that’s better; I’ve always preferred roleplaying to systems exclusively focused on combat or stats (though, of course, even combat is a form of roleplaying).

The manual alone’s given me a considerable bit to think about before I even dig into the game.

If you’re interested in playing Arena too, you can download the game through Bethesda’s Arena page, and you can get the game manual here.

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