Older Scrolls: Daggerfall Is Twenty Years Old Today

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of one of the greatest roleplaying games ever made. Set in a world so vast that you could combine almost every open world game released since and cram them all into one of its regions, and allowing the freedom to buy real estate within that world, it remains one of the grandest games of its type.

It is The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall [official site] and I have loved it for two decades.

If Ultima VII didn’t exist, Daggerfall would comfortably be my favourite RPG. As it is, they both cater for very different aspects of roleplaying so can happily co-exist as my two favourite RPGs. Where Ultima can be about the experience of existing as a character in a relatively compact but fully functional world, where NPCs go about their business and the whole place operates like a finely tuned machine, Daggerfall is about the experience of losing yourself in a vast, dangerous and terrifying place.

Or at least that’s what it is to me.

One of the many wonderful things about Daggerfall, the second game in the Elder Scrolls series, is that it really doesn’t care what you do. Want to follow the main questline and uncover dark guild secrets, Daedric lore and gates to other worlds? That’s an option. Want to run around the wilderness, stumbling across dungeons and towns, and looting everything in sight? You can do that. Or at least you can try to do that. The guards and skellingtons might have other ideas. And what if you wanted to contract lycanthropy or vampirism? This game will absolutely allow you to be transformed into a werewolf and even a wereboar.

Daggerfall is sprawling, messy, often broken and occasionally boring. You might delve into one of the randomised dungeons [more on those here – ed] and end up trapped, unable to return to the surface because you fell down a hole that doesn’t link back to the main tunnel network, or lost on the wrong side of a flooded section that only allows one-way journeys to adventurers with limited lung capacity. Is it enjoyable to lose a couple of hours of progress (or worse if you forget to save on the way in) because a dungeon is actually impossible to navigate? That depends on why you’re playing, to an extent.

Later Elder Scrolls games have, to my mind, concentrated on building a character rather than being a character. While Daggerfall’s world doesn’t have the depths that my other favourite Ultima VII has, best seen in the ability to bake or make clothes without a crafting skill but with use of tools and resources in a logical fashion, it’s possible to own a property and become a fixture in almost any part of its world, which Bethesda reckoned was the size of Great Britain. While towns and wilderness areas usually lack any distinctive features, and the abundance of NPCs means that many are simply copies built around simple types, that allowed me to imprint my own stories in a way that I struggle to do when scenarios and places are already written.

But if I want to chase power and riches, I can do that as well. Daggerfall doesn’t restrict or guide, it allows you to exist and make whatever you will of its world. There are well-written characters and plotlines to uncover should you choose to chase them, and there are probably reasons to play if you’re excited about Elder Scrolls history and lore. That it’s been one of my favourite and most -played games for twenty years, and I have no interest whatsoever in those things is testament to the freedom that it offers.

Where Daggerfall really shines though, now more than ever, is in its grand ambition. It was a game that attempted, not always successfully, to incorporate Vampire: The Masquerade style undead tribes, political scheming, espionage and demonic infiltration, and, behind all of that, an RPG system that completely rewrote the rules of its predecessor. The Elder Scrolls series has seemed much more conservative since, even the beautifully strange Morrowind fare more focused and traditional in its goals. A fair criticism of Daggerfall would be a lack of focus, not only for the player but in its design.

Considering it’d struggle to stand out from a hundred other swords and sorcery RPGs if you were to glance at a screenshot or even the back-of-the-box feature list, Daggerfall’s greatest surprise is how experimental its design actually is. From those procedurally generated dungeons, which seem more like a product of 2016 than 1996, to the lack of guidance and sheer scale of the thing, which have little in common with almost any other RPG in existence, Daggerfall doesn’t just shoot for the moon, it shoots for the moons of Jupiter. It’s weird, unforgiving and often uncomfortable. But there’s a reason it has such a strong hold over those of us who love it – few other games can provide power trips, window shopping and claustrophobic horror side by side, and with a thousand other possibilities in between.

Visually, it hasn’t dated particularly well – the flatness of the landscape is a real turn-off now, and an area in which that all important sense of scale is crushingly diminished – but Daggerfall is still worth experiencing, even if it’s your first time. If the screams of the skeletons don’t scare you away in the opening minutes, you might find yourself hooked in one of the largest and most liberating worlds ever built. It’s free and there are several fan projects keeping the flame burning.

I hope we’ll see its like again, whether in The Elder Scrolls world or another, but I’m happy to reach back across the decades until we do.

From this site

55 Comments

  1. karnak says:

    This game could have been the PERFECT RPG!! But…
    (and please, it’s been a very long time since I played it so my memory could be failing me and correct me, if wrong)

    …every time you left a dungeon (because you needed to restock on potions or something) the dungeon’s auto-map would reset.

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

  2. Gothnak says:

    Scariest game i ever played.. A dungeon full of lichs and me jumping every time i heard a door open sfx.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      That door opening sound was my youthful introduction to the concept of sound effect libraries. It shows up in countless TV shows and movies.

      Adam doesn’t mention it specifically, so I’ll add that Daggerfall Unity is a very active project by one smart person, and it’s completely open source now. Don’t expect a finished product, but it’s very promising.

      link to dfworkshop.net

  3. Quixote says:

    http://www.dfworkshop.net Looks promising!

  4. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    As much as I love the potential of Daggerfall, the bugs and vast nature of it always eroded my patience bit by bit until I gave up on it.

    Such a shame, because those first few hours or so are still great, as you stumble through the world trying to find your way.

    Also, you should have posted the intro video! I’ve always loved it, it’s from that C&C era of FMV: link to youtube.com

    • Sakkura says:

      The vastness of it was AWESOME and utterly blew my mind at the time. Even today it’s insanely huge.

      The problem was how samey places were. The tradeoff of procedural generation of a game world. You’d think NMS would have been able to refine that a little more in the 20 years since.

  5. Insidious Mental Pollution says:

    I agree, Daggerfall shot for the moons of Jupiter. Graphically it was butt-ugly even for it’s time, but the gameplay itself was all about possibility. I may have missed it in the article, but the music did a very good job of setting the atmosphere as well. The first time I arrived at a graveyard with the theme that played… it was chilling. 20 years later that memory reminds me how great it is when a game can just hook you and and not let go.

  6. K_Sezegedin says:

    Yeah I played this when it was released. I don’t remember having much fun with it but it was undeniably impressive. I did rather like how due to the soullessness of the procedural dungeon layouts, they felt like places that weren’t made for you. The numbers that generated them didn’t care about you or whether you were having a good time, and the hand of the designer faded into the distance.

    How cool would it’ve been if The Elder Scrolls had built on Daggerfall’s approach, refining the proc-generation of endless landscapes instead of going for the authored theme park approach of Morrowind->Skyrim.

    • frightlever says:

      “How cool would it’ve been if The Elder Scrolls had built on Daggerfall’s approach, refining the proc-generation of endless landscapes instead of going for the authored theme park approach of Morrowind->Skyrim?”

      Not very from my point of view. I’d FAR rather have the carefully constructed landscapes of the later games. There are Roguelikes if you want to run around cookie-cutter dungeons. eg Delver.

      link to store.steampowered.com

  7. FurryLippedSquid says:

    It’s official, I’m almost dead.

  8. geldonyetich says:

    Still the best* CRPG I ever played. My favorite bit about Daggerfall is the cities: moderately huge, always square, but with a staggering variety of colorful 2D NPCs with diverse societal roles. A highlight of my youth being stumbling across topless cortesians.

    * – If you’re willing to forgive the bugs** and general kludginess married to RPG mechanics a 16-year-old could have come up with in an hour.

    ** – I was playing Fallout 4 the other night, on survival mode, and I tried to access the computer terminal in the basement on the Museum of Freedom. The camera failed to align with the terminal and the game locked up. The legacy of Bethsoft bugs lives on.

  9. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    I remember begging my dad to take me to the mall that was over an hour away (instead of the one right by our house), because their Babbages had a PC running the Daggerfall “demo” which came out long before the game was anywhere near finished. There was no actual gameplay, just a gallery of monster and character sprites and a crude version of the character generator.

    It didn’t matter. I also scooped up any magazine or CD-Rom that had any mention of the game. The promises and the hype was beyond anything I could imagine.

    Ironically, once the game came out to mixed reviews claiming a massive but bland world and endless technical issues, I didn’t even bother picking it up until a couple years later. My gaming interests in 1996 had moved on to things like Quake and Mario 64.

    I ultimately appreciated DF for what it was instead of what my adolescent mind hoped it would be. I guess kids these days are going through a similar thing with NMS.

  10. Distec says:

    My first foray into the Elder Scrolls series was Morrowind. Daggerfall has always intrigued me, but I’ve never quite gotten to the point of giving it a try. I’m concerned I might bounce off it pretty quickly without some of the more modern concessions that have been made since. But now I’m committed to giving it a try.

    I know there’s a few fan projects to reimplement the game in a more modern engine, but I’m not really sure where any of them stand or if they’re at all suitable for a fully-featured playthrough.

  11. Gothnak says:

    I do remember one epic randomly generated quest to get an artifact… I had to find a dungeon, venture into it to find a witch, this took ages. Met the witch, who told me to go to a town to kidnap a child for her to sacrifice. I went to the town, kidnapped the child from some knights, fought them, went back to the dungeon which was now half underwater (even scarier) and regenerated so she wasn’t in the same place.

    I then took about another 2 hours to find her and deliver the kid. Total quest.. 6-7 hours. She gave me the artifact, a bloody awesome shield. I was playing an assassin so couldn’t equip it…

    That, my friends is Daggerfall.

  12. ResonanceCascade says:

    Crazy! It doesn’t feel a day over 25.

  13. Sin Vega says:

    One of those I’ve tried to get fully into every other year or so for about 10 years. My main dislike is the dungeons, I just find the whole idea of trudging around the same one for days on end incredibly tedious, especially when you get to the point where you’re throwing away stuff you picked up earlier in the dungeon to make room for stuff later in the same one.

    Still huge though. And its character creation system is probably the most liberal one in history, you can do pretty much any crazy thing with it, even if it does cost you. Want a character who can’t use anything made of metal but who heals in sunlight? Do it. A mage who can only cast spells when in darkness? Go ahead. I’d love to see another game do that with today’s technology, when it’d be easier to take advantage of it. But then, I’d love to see more games challenge the Elder Scrolls at all.

  14. Michael Fogg says:

    Actually tried it a few weeks ago, the version that somehow ended up in my GOG library… so in the tutorial dungeon I splatter a rat with my hammer wielding Nord warrior, then a flying gargoyle, then some assassin dude shows up and kills me with 3 hits. Am I doing something wrong? Maybe missed the copy protection?

    • Insidious Mental Pollution says:

      Nope, that’s pretty typical for Daggerfall. It can be slightly cruel in the way that many 80s RPGs were.

      • Michael Fogg says:

        But is this the effect of random dungeon generation? So I can restart to reseed the game and end up with something more managable?

        • Heroes182 says:

          Nope – that one dungeon is actually scripted.
          Your example isn’t even the worst case scenario – depending on your starting equipment, there’s a very good chance the flying imp will be completely immune to anything you’ve got! (Iirc it can only be damaged by enchanted weapons or silver+ materials)

          I think those initial rooms are trying to set the tone for the world, something about choosing your battles…

          • Chaoslord AJ says:

            I think the ebony dagger was the best starting gift for this reason. Also it’s the best weapon you get in a long time.

        • dashausdiefrau says:

          The first dungeon is there to escape not to fight.

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            This one’s got it down.

            A level 1 character in Daggerfall – barring some pretty serious gaming of the character creation mechanics that you absolutely won’t have the knowledge to pull off on your first character – is not powerful enough to tackle dungeons. Period. You just can’t. Yet the game starts you in a dungeon. The entire point seems to be to teach you that sometimes you’ll need to cut and run. Going into it as a modern gamer you have to do some pretty serious mindset-reconfiguration to understand what the game expects of you, especially as it doesn’t outright explain it.

            Even once you understand that your objective should be escape and survival, rather than killing everything that moves, it’s no easy feat. That dungeon is as huge as the rest of them and there ARE powerful enemies specifically placed between you and the exit (I originally typed a little bit here about what enemies those are, exactly, but then I realised it’s more fun to find out for yourself).

            Persevere. Experiment. And save liberally. There are several viable routes to the exit from where you start, some obvious, some hidden. The exit looks like a blackened archway with a skull in the bottom corner – you can see one in the screenshot in the article. When you eventually make it out of that dungeon you’re pretty much free to do whatever, and when you DO eventually decide to head into another one, you’ll be far better prepared. (Probably not prepared ENOUGH, but still…)

  15. Foosnark says:

    Ah yes, Daggerfall.

    The game where, for the grave sin of accidentally arriving in a town from the wilderness after curfew, the guards murdered me.

    Or rather, said half of an “uh” and swung a sword, thereby crashing the game.

    I had a much better time (and in fact, a lot more time) with Morrowind.

  16. Captain says:

    Ah yes, 20 years ago, poor little me, entering the city of Daggerfall for the first time. Beautiful snowy night, the lit windows of the building in the dark give it a beautiful ambiance. Walking through the gigantic city that’s probably bigger than all cities in a single modern TES title combined.

    Suddenly hear a strange sound. In the distance I notice two small red dots, floating in the air, odd….
    “VEEEENGEAAAAAANCE” it suddenly screams at me, I jump in my seat. A wraith floating towards me. In Panic I run, try to climb and after a few unsuccessful attempts scramble onto a roof of a nearby house. Below me the ghostly apparition is still screeching. I used my well trained speed and acrobatics to bound across Daggerfall’s rooftops, desperately searching for an Inn, the only place that would still be open. During my panicked traverse I see more ghostly figures in the streets. Finally I spot the sign and lit windows of a tavern. I leap from the rooftop and make for the door. I get inside, cheerful music playing, people sitting in the common room, a bartender, a half naked courtesan standing in a corner.
    Nothing follows inside, but I can still hear the wailing and screeching of the undead haunting city streets. Not going out there again, gonna take a room for a night and then head to the castle during the bright day and find out what the hell is going on in this city. But at least now I know there was a good reason I was sent here….

    Sometimes I’m surprised of the vivid memories I still have of this game. It was insanely ambitious.

    Funny enough, about a year later a quite famous post apocalyptic role playing game was released. I enjoyed it quite a lot, but I kept thinking “man imagine this was first person like Daggerfall, and with the guns and all…”
    Little did I know that one of my absurd fantasies would eventually become a reality in my life time :D

  17. Nick says:

    One of he most memorable games of my childhood, its use of sound is possibly its greatest assest in terms of atmosphere. The noises of monsters nearby were chilling… then the soft crunch of snow underfoot when you made it outside from the starter dungeon, combined with the beautfiful music was a truely enchanting experience. I still love every piece of music in this game, from riding down a street to a shop, to waiting till said shopped closed to easily steal anything worthwhile.. to the cheery, warming tune when you entered an Inn, it was just fantastic. Its possibly the most emotive midi music I have heard and I played a metric shit tonne of games in that era.

    It suffered from garbage dungeons with horrible map generation and, on top of that, an almost unreadble automap to try and find your way through them, which is a terrible shame because without those horrendus issues, I would still be playing it, some 18 years since I first did, because it just captures certain feelings and excitement so well.. and has such a broard scope of possabilities, which are mainly let down by the horrible random dungeon generator and automap. If those weren’t so godawful, and it didn’t crash the fuck out of your PC whenever it felt like it, it would be the best PC RPG ever made, easily. Even its storyline is really good, it just branches into horrible dungeons you’ll never get out of. Which is a real shame as the overland political stuff is great, its just delivering letters and whatnot, but it feels important and actually gives you a choice as to how to proceed, based on your own judgement.

    I guess a Daggerfall remake with a non-shit and broken dungeon generator would be my ideal game. Which will never, ever happen sadly, so I’ll just live with fond memories and that wonderful music.

  18. GeoX says:

    Yeah, I played a bit of this back in the day. I remember seeing a world map before playing and just having my mind BLOWN by how massive it all was, and thinking it was the coolest thing EVER. But then I started playing, and I dunno. All those hundreds (thousands?) of towns sure were samey, with samey houses and samey NPCs with samey dialogue. And the randomized quests were pretty damned samey too, and while they may have been innovative, the randomized dungeons were none too interesting. I really WANTED to like it, but I just couldn’t make myself.

  19. mercyRPG says:

    Daggerfall had the best zombie moans in a Bethesda RPG ever! Unfortunately its leveling system was total crap. I could retreat into a room and cast spells and level up quickly – this made no sense -, on top of this designer born idiocy when I got to a dungeon high level monsters – Vampire Lords & stuff – greeted me, where previously were rats..

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      It’s always bugged me that people point at Daggerfall’s levelling system and go “because you can game the hell out of this in a boring and unsatisfying manner, it’s broken and should be fixed”. No. If you can take that route, but it’s boring and unsatisfying, then why are you DOING it? Do what’s fun for you – y’know, the primary selling point of any Elder Scrolls game, regardless of how well the game in question does or does not allow that – and if a particular method of gaming the system isn’t fun, don’t do it. It seems ridiculous that people get offered greater freedom in how they play their character and their response is “but that means I can cheat in a way that isn’t any fun for me whatsoever”.

      • Sin Vega says:

        This has bothered me more and more in recent years, as it strikes me as a major risk of open betas and ‘early access’ and etc, etc. I tense up a little when I see developers shutting down good design because a few people might choose to game it and ruin everything for themselves.

        It’s probably not as serious a problem as I feel, but it still troubles me.

        • Heroes182 says:

          Mark Rosewater (head designer of Magic: the Gathering) does a podcast where he sometimes talks about game design in general, and he discussed this behaviour. There is a type of player who *will* feel compelled to go and do the unfun thing, and then blame the game “forcing” them to do it… Something about feeling like they’re getting the best value for their investment by tricking the game into giving them something they’re not supposed to have (or not have yet, or as cheaply, etc). Of course, ironically they end up getting the worst value for their time!

          • Someoldguy says:

            I’ve never had any problem with it. Would-be knights trained in the courtyard, hacking away at the posts, bashing the quintain, jumping and riding and endlessly sparring to be ready for war. Modern athletes train their sport endlessly before turning up at a contest and putting in a superlative performance at their first major appearance. It makes a damn sight more sense than the hackneyed RPG trope of handing a young proto adventurer a bronze shortsword and letting them get better hewing down an endless supply of not terribly challenging enemies.

      • Premium User Badge

        gritz says:

        I disagree. When a developer puts a system in a game, it’s incumbent on them to make sure that the optimization and mastery of that system doesn’t come at the expense of fun.

        If it’s more optimal to build your character by staring at a wall hitting a button over and over than to go out adventuring, your system sucks.

      • Chaoslord AJ says:

        I love it to bend the game systems until they break. Overoptimizations lead to average games like Diablo 3 where creative playing is discouraged (it’s a slot machine after all) and the devs know above all what’s fun and what’s not.
        Morrowind you could fly permanently fully invisible shooting arrows or play naked with a dagger for a challenge. It’s called freedom.

    • Nick says:

      “I could retreat into a room and cast spells and level up quickly – this made no sense”

      So pretty much exactly the same as every Bethesda game since.

  20. bill says:

    I always loved the trailer
    link to youtube.com

    Antonin Dvorak’s Suite in A Major, “American Suite”, Op. 98b. It’s the final Allegro movement.

  21. Heroes182 says:

    Tbh, I never had a problem with “broken” dungeons.

    This never happens with main quest dungeons (as far as I know), and when it does happen, well… Maybe that quest is not for you, y’know?

    Maybe the fighters guild will have to find an Argonian to find that severed head at the bottom of the submerged dungeon or whatever.

    I wouldn’t want to fix *dungeons*, just maybe add a way to tell quest givers “sorry, not gonna happen”.

    • Someoldguy says:

      If you never opened a dungeon door, stepped forward and fell through the floor into the void, I’m amazed. Hard to spot these deadliest of pit traps.

      • Heroes182 says:

        Well yeah, but that’s an actual clipping bug. Most of the complaints are about dungeons being too long, easy to get lost in, or having impassable* sections. That’s the “broken-ness” I am referring to.

        *To some characters. Water breathing/levitating/etc characters can pass through just fine.

  22. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Oh, god, that fucking staircase. I know that staircase. I think I could still find my way out of Privateer’s Hold with my eyes closed.

    There was something beautiful about gaming before the internet was really a thing. Not only were vampirism and lycanthropy in the game, but you were given no warning beyond some apparent flavor text in books mentioning them as diseases and bad dreams when you’re first infected. All of a sudden you’d transform (or in the case of vampirism, you’d croak and wake up in a random dungeon/tomb, which was also cool) and a whole new dimension of gameplay you hadn’t even expected to exist was opened up to you.

    It’s too bad that Bethesda has forgotten how to make RPGs. They used to be quite good at it.

  23. Someoldguy says:

    I loved this game so much and did eventually complete the main quest line as well as rising to senior ranks in a bunch of guilds. Glitching through the walls of a dungeon and falling into the void every now and then was a pain but the experience of living in a world where you could take so many different paths was great. Sure, the towns looked samey but that’s true of many parts of our world, too. My flatmate enjoyed spending hours walking from town to town and just seeing what he could encounter, just to marvel in the open world nature of the game.

  24. leftiness says:

    Daggerfallsetup is an installer for Windows. Fully patched. Limited fiddling with dosbox. Checkboxes for including community-made bug fixes

    link to wiwiki.wiwiland.net

    I tried the Unity project recently, too. Pretty cool. Lots of quality of life stuff. Click and drag the map. Use your scroll wheel on menus. It’s not done, though. No custom classes. Can’t talk to any NPCs. Looking forward to it.

  25. Little_Crow says:

    I played Daggerfall with a friend on his Packard Bell PC all those years ago.

    I still remember the sense of anything being possible when we realised that the levitate spell could be used while riding a horse and cart.

    This immediately led to the creation of ‘Evil Santa’, adorned in a red robe on his flying horse and cart breaking into every building possible.

  26. gingerbill says:

    Daggerfall is my favourite TES game and the one I played the most. There were so many surprises and cool things in it. I got so excited when I became a werewolf.

  27. carewolf says:

    Ah the game where I had my best heist ever. Not being level-locked or scaled, it simply has shops for higher-end characters with all the good stuff, but where you can not afford anything at a low level. I had bought my first big horse-pulled wagon and got my hands on high end unlock spell-scroll. So I cased an armor shop with a lock low enoug for my single scroll. Used it, ran in, hauled ebony and daegon armors until my new wagon was full, and then ran as hell as I was chased by hundreds of city guards screaming: Halt Halt Halt Halt Halt!

    I had to take a ship to another country and could never return to neither the city nor the country of the city, since I was a wanted criminal, and I probably broke the plot. Still best heist ever.

  28. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I played it endlessly in the nineties. Nevermind you had to use a bootdisk, it had endless loading times, crashed after around two hours and corrupted save games from time to time. I had a batch file to backup the savegames ready.
    I especially liked the spell maker and the character creation. The largest open world space I ever played (mostly empty), hundreds of places. I do like Morrowind better trading size for handcrafted gamespace but Daggerfall was an ambitious game from that mostly unknown company Bethesda.

  29. fdel says:

    I loved Daggerfall, loved morrowind too but the Daggerfall freedoom hugeness was awesome.
    What to say about murdering a envoy and latter discover you started a war!!!!
    Now its all so simple so Duh. Tiny scope beautifull gfx 1 inch deep.