Unidentified Items

I recently got back into playing Morrowind (with boatloads of mods, of course), and a few days ago I finished and released a mod that I made called Curses (which you can download here from Morrowind Nexus).  What it does is replace most of the higher-end weapons you find (and inevitably collect a massive hoard of) with “unidentified” versions, which are worthless until you identify them by trying them on.  At this point you may be in for an unpleasant surprise as the item turns out to be cursed and then cannot be unequipped until you see a healer.

This got me thinking a bit deeper into the game design theory behind unidentified/cursed items, and how it might apply to other RPGs, including one that I might be making, hint hint.

Unidentified and cursed items have been a staple of video game RPGs for…  well, honestly, I don’t know how long.  It’s kinda hard to search for “which was the first game to feature unidentified items?”.  I do know, however, that they were in some of the oldest of roguelikes.  Roguelikes are honestly fascinating from the perspective of game design, because they seem to simply throw out any notion of “simplicity” or “elegance”.  In roguelike land, if you think it’s cool, you throw it in.  Games like that retain a large cult following despite essentially being a “game design katamari”, but that’s something to look at another day.

Anyways. Before the world of videogames, unidentified/cursed items were also in tabletop RPGs, namely Dungeons and Dragons.  There’s no special mechanic for it – it’s just part of the implicit “knowledge economy” that only really works for tabletop games.  The DM gives you an item, and they know what that item is.  You don’t know what that item is, so you could either figure out how to identify it, or roll the dice and use it yourself, crossing your fingers that it doesn’t kill you on the spot.

Unidentified items in video games essentially work the same way.  You kill a monster, that monster gives you an “unidentified thingy”.  The unidentified thingy might be awesome, or it might be terrible, but you wont know until you try to use it, or go out of your way to identify it.  From the perspective of the user, it shouldn’t matter whether the dice was rolled when the monster dropped the item, or when you use/identify the thingy.

Now, while it shouldn’t matter when the dice was rolled, it certainly can matter, and it can have big implications for how such a system is implemented.  Worst case scenario, the players catch on to the pattern and abuse it.

I used to play a lot of Runescape, and way back in the day, runescape had unidentified herbs.  Every herb in the game had an “unidentified” version.  With the same name and sprite, the player shouldn’t have been able to tell them apart.  Unfortunately, they would stack together when you put them in your bank.  If you had 20 of each unidentified herb, you could withdraw and identify only 1 of each, and you would know what each stack was.  Players would use this knowledge to scam each other, selling “all unid herbs 1k ea”, for example, and then hand you stacks of only herbs that were worth notably less than that.

Obviously, such a situation should be avoided, even in single-player games.  You could avoid it by instead “rolling the dice” when the item is identified.  This way, all unidentified herbs would be the same stack, and identifying them would give you a random herb.  Another way would be to have the same item with different “states” stack together, so the dice is still rolled when the item is first created, but it all goes into the same stack anyway.  In runescape’s case, you needed a different herblore level to identify different types of herbs, so you would likely need the latter implementation, but such a system requires that the inventory system be considerably more complicated.

I’ve probably digressed a bit too much…  Whatever.

So, back to the Curses mod I made for Morrowind.  It’s rather difficult to test a mechanic like this in a vacuum, so mods are really the best way to do so.  Unfortunately, even then,  you have to tackle with the fact that the game, ultimately, wasn’t designed with your idea in mind.  The best weapons in the game will never be unidentified, because the best weapons in the game are legendary relics that often have quests attached to them.  Because of this, as soon as you have a legendary-tier weapon (which honestly isn’t hard to get, even early in the game), there’s no reason whatsoever so ever use a randomly-dropped weapon.  That fact alone really hurts the practicality of adding unidentified weapons to the game.

The question stops being “is this axe better than the axe I’ve got now?”, and starts being “is this axe worth 50k, or nothing?”.  I would hoard weapons exactly as I did before, with the added step of identifying them before putting them into my hoard pile, and throwing them away if they were cursed.  The growth rate of my ‘so valuable it’s practically impossible to ever sell’ hoard has slowed, but ultimately it doesn’t affect my gameplay in any meaningful way.

I think there would need to be some major changes to the core game design before “unidentified” items would have a meaningful impact on gameplay and design, but I think it could certainly be done.  They have a much bigger impact on roguelikes, where everything is procedurally generated and the universe ceases to exist as soon as you die or win (usually the former).

How would I make unidentified items have a bigger impact on a story-driven, artist-created world like Morrowind?  I think I would start by mandating that every item the player ever receives, no matter where they get it from, is unidentified.  Even from quests, or NPCs, or epic adventures.  Essentially, treating the unidentified item itself as another layer to the random loot tables.

A “steel longsword” dropped by a bandit might have a 30% chance of being cursed and a 30% chance of being enchanted, but when Urist the Dwarf gives one to you for retrieving his favorite beard clippers, it can have a 0% chance of being cursed and a 50% chance of being enchanted.  Even legendary relics can behave this way, having a 100% chance of being enchanted and each possible variant having thematically-appropriate effects for the item.

This can improve replayability and pleasantly surprise some players, but to be fair any objective improvements that you’d get from these items being unidentified could be had simply by making the quest rewards random in the first place.

I think, sometimes, especially in the case of RPGs, it’s important to weigh choices between realism/immersion, and elegant game design.  The truth is, I don’t think that unidentified/cursed items could be considered elegant design, or a convenient solution to a notable problem.  It’s just something that you do because it’s cool and “immersive”.  For an RPG, that can be a very important factor.

I can think of a few points that could add to a system for unidentified items, and would give it some merit beyond simply rolling random treasure.

First, not all curses should behave the same.  In my Curses mod, I made it so cursed items can’t be unequipped.  This is a fine and very common example, but there ought to be some variation.

Second, and partly to facilitate the first, the effects of an item should not be immediately apparent once you equip it.  In the case of unidentified scrolls or potions, it makes sense to immediately know what you just drank, because the effects occur immediately.  For weapons and armor, however, you should have to actually use the item for a while and figure out for yourself what the item does, before the game outright tells you what it does.  This stops you from immediately throwing away a cursed weapon that can be unequipped, and also stops you from saving the game just before you get a quest reward and re-loading the game until you get the variation that you want.

Third, an item can be randomized beyond what magic is on it.  The physical stats of a weapon or piece of armor could also be randomized, though some sort of “point budget” system would need to be implemented to prevent significantly better or worse variants of the item.  These random stats can also be hidden from the player until they become more familiar with it.

Fourth, different means of identification should reveal different information.  “Detect Magic” can tell you if the item is magical or mundane, but not whether it’s enchanted or cursed.  A skilled blacksmith can tell you the item’s physical statistics, but nothing about how magical it is.

You’d need a fairly robust scripting and inventory engine in order to implement it in a satisfactory way, I figure.  Morrowind’s scripting engine is anything but robust, so I probably wont be going much deeper into my Curses mod.  I’d like to add some means of identification other than equipping the weapon to see if it bites you, and I’d like to add unidentified loot to more locations, but that’ll probably be it.  It was a fun little experiment that got me thinking.  It’s already got a handful of downloads on Nexus, so if some people enjoy it, that’s enough to make me happy.

Until next time.

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