Finding The Grind In Skyrim

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The concept of “grind” appears often when discussing games, especially role-playing games. It refers to performing repetitive tasks, over and over again, for incremental gains, and typically derided as evidence of poor design that encourages “un-fun” behavior in players. I discussed the concept a little in my History Lesson post about Final Fantasy, as it is often associated with Japanese-style role-playing games, especially older titles. But grind can appear in any game. The Elder Scrolls series, with its concept of character skills improving with practice, could easily fall into this trap. Players could just sit around practicing magic or swordplay all day instead of actually heading out on an adventure. But I’ve never felt the desire to do this; the games offer so much to do, why not head out and do it, and train on the job?

So I was surprised that I not only found the one aspect of Skyrim that encourages grind, but fully embraced it.

Skyrim is the first game in the series to feature crafting. Well, unless you count mixing up potions in Oblivion or enchanting items in Morrowind, but I don’t. Crafting, referring to the act of collecting components and ingredients and fashioning them into new equipment, has become very popular in games recently, with mixed reactions from players. Many enjoy the process, but others lament that it has become so pervasive, or grate at hoarding all sorts of junk in order to make some shoes when they could be doing something more heroic or exciting. I think that, like any bit of game design, crafting can be implemented well or poorly. I’ve definitely enjoyed crafting in some games, like The Witcher 2, since it fit with that game’s emphasis on careful preparation before combat. Protagonist Geralt must gather alchemy ingredients and prepare certain potions before tackling certain foes, so why not extend that to gathering the pieces needed to fashion new weapons and armor? It definitely helped that each craftable item was unique, and that Geralt still needed to hire the services of a craftsman to actually make it. Plus, there’s plenty of stuff to find for those who don’t want to bother with crafting.

In Skyrim, there’s a new character skill called Smithing that lets players make their own weapons and armor (and jewelry). The Elder Scrolls games have a long tradition of tiered equipment, based on increasing quality of materials. Rather than finding fundamentally different weapons and armor as one progresses, one finds the same array but fashioned from, say, Dwarven alloys instead of steel. In the early games, this seemed like a way to save on development resources; in Daggerfall, for example, different tiers were the same exact items but with different colors. Later games helped differentiate the tiers more, but the conceit of improved materials remained. In Skyrim, characters can make equipment of different tiers with the Smithing skill, provided they can find the right materials (usually metal ingots).

There are a few problems with how Smithing works in Skyrim. One is that the materials are rarely any different from one another. Creating Orcish gear versus Ebony gear, for example, simply requires finding and mining the correct type of ore, bringing it to a smelter to make ingots, and then crafting equipment at a forge. There’s no functional difference, or any special artistry particular to a type of armor, despite hints to the contrary to be found in some of the books scattered throughout the province. The one exception is Dwarven equipment, which requires raiding Dwarven ruins, bringing back some of their scrap metal, and melting it down into ingots. This ties into the greater world wonderfully, but unfortunately Dwarven equipment is on the low end of the ladder, and by the time I had enough skill to craft it, I was already finding better stuff in my travels. Similar thought put into the other tiers of equipment would go a long way to fleshing out the crafting in Skyrim.

Smithing has some bigger problems too. It can only be done at forges and smelters, which can sometimes be hard to find. Also, characters can only craft the same items they can find or buy; there are no unique items to be crafted. So the only real incentive to craft equipment is the ability to improve it by increasing weapon damage or armor defense rating, which, as a simple boost, is not very compelling. If one focuses on Smithing, however, one can learn to make higher-tier equipment before it starts to show up in shops and treasure chests. Which brings us to the real problem: the only way to practice and improve the Smithing skill is to smith things. My character, Nhazki, can train her magical skills and proficiency with weapons while she’s out exploring the world and having adventures, but if she wants to get better at Smithing, she has to stop at a forge and make a bunch of stuff. Literally repeat the same actions over and over, without any greater context (e.g. exploring a cave) to add a sense of direction. It’s the definition of grind.

Skyrim’s perk system makes it even worse. Each skill has a number of unlockable perks that can be chosen once the skill has reached a certain level. These do things like add new types of attacks with certain weapon types, or decrease spell costs, or enable a zoom feature when using bows for better long-range accuracy. For Smithing, however, the perks are simply the ability to make each tier of equipment. Dwarven equipment is available at Smithing level 30, Orcish equipment at level 50, etc. And so the real reason to smith things is to train to make better things. Watch a skill bar slowly go up, until it ticks over to the next number. And occasionally, when reaching a new tier, a flurry of crafting, outfitting one’s character in a shiny new suit of armor, before starting the whole grind again for the next tier.

Typically, after a journey through Skyrim to tackle a few quests (and explore some random locations along the way), I’d make my way back to the city of Whiterun and get to Smithing. Since Nhazki’s Smithing skill increases more when crafting expensive items, I’d take careful stock of the highest-value things I could make. First I’d craft a bunch of jewelry, since it’s lightweight. I’d check which gemstones I’d found in my travels, and which silver and gold jewelry I could make with them that would be worth the most money. Then I’d transmute any iron ore I’d found into the appropriate amount of silver or gold ore with magic (in the case of silver, stopping each time and dropping the silver ore on the ground lest the spell convert it to gold ore), then smelt it all into ingots and make lots of jewelry. Sometimes I’d need to buy more iron ore from the blacksmith first. Once that was done, I’d buy the blacksmith’s complete stock of ingots for the highest equipment tier I could make. This often made Nhazki encumbered, so she could only slowly trudge over to the forge to craft some weapons and armor. I’d sell it back to the blacksmith to get unencumbered again, then repeat the process with the other blacksmith, until I’d used all their ingots or run out of money. If I slept for the night in Whiterun, I’d repeat the process the next day after the blacksmiths had restocked their wares, before heading out again on my next adventure.

Usually I am not drawn to such obvious grinding in games, but here I happily partook. In fact, I also started the same process with the Enchanting skill, which similarly can only be trained by enchanting items over and over. It also requires running to the other end of Whiterun to get to an enchanting table, making my grind sessions even longer. To be fair, I never stayed in town for days and days at a time, repeating the process and then sleeping it off, even though I could have. But even my shorter grind sessions got really repetitive and boring. I’m not sure why I did it. My best guess is that it gave meaning to a lot of the items I’d find while adventuring. I could have simply sold gems and ore, but money in Skyrim is plentiful and therefore feels worthless. Using gems and ore for crafting let me spend them on improving Nhazki’s skills, which felt more meaningful. Honestly, though, a lot of it probably is the simple psychological reward of watching numbers increase. The same thing that game developers exploit in so many games, for which they are so often condemned.

Nhazki has now mastered both the Smithing and Enchanting skills, and it feels a little strange that the grind sessions are over. I also worried that, without the incentive to find or craft better equipment, much of Skyrim’s appeal would dry up. Nhazki not only sports a full suit of the highest quality armor in the game with a mace to match, it’s all enchanted such that her destructive and healing magic can be cast for free, her elemental resistance is greatly improved, and the damage she inflicts in hand-to-hand combat is hugely increased. Not to mention the fact that her mace will shock enemies and steal their health when struck. There is no way to get any better equipment than this, but Nhazki’s adventures are far from over. Will I still find forays into caves and barrows enticing, when the treasure within will almost certainly be useless to me?

To my surprise, the answer has been yes. It’s been great fun tearing through opponents with Nhazki’s souped up magical loadout, which feels like a fitting reward for all the work. And it’s also been nice having the freedom to focus entirely on adventure. I’ve found that simply exploring has been enjoyable on its own, without the constant reward of new items to hoard. I no longer feel the need to head to Whiterun periodically, instead feeling confident pitching my tent in the wilderness or stopping in other towns. But it does make me wonder what the game would be like if I’d ignored the Smithing and Enchanting skills. More challenging, surely, as my character would not be as well equipped. But it also would make treasure hoards more valuable; even before Nhazki mastered those skills, she’d gotten ahead of the curve and rarely found anything better than what she could make herself. I’m reminded of a story I read somewhere on the internet, where a player described playing Skyrim with a character who treated gold as worthless. He didn’t loot it from treasure chests, and never bought or sold anything. Everything he used was something he found. I find I’m enticed to try playing a character like that, to see how different my adventures would feel.

Given how little free time I have these days, and how many other games are vying for my attention, I doubt I’ll ever do so. Especially because Nhazki’s adventure is still not over. Next time I’ll write about how that’s going, and give an update on how all the mods I’m using have affected my experience. Stay tuned!

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