Fully designed, built, scripted, and polished a unique time-based content mod for Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. This is the breakdown of my design process and workflow.
- Designed: A custom content mod that enables the player to travel through time. Players explore the past and present versions of a new dungeon and use a unique item to solve and complete the quest.
- Built: Two versions of the same dungeon. One version of the dungeon is the present (old, eroded, decrepit Nordic ruins) and one version is the past (revered, thriving, pristine Nordic temple). New NPCs, enemies, items, and story elements were created to fill out and populate this new adventure. Built using Bethesda’s robust Creation Kit engine.
- Scripted: A fully functional time-traveling effect for a current world item (The Dragon Priest Wooden Mask) using Bethesda’s scripting language Papyrus. The functionality allows the player to put on the mask (almost anywhere in the dungeon) and be teleported through time to the exact same location in the past. Removing the mask takes the player back to the present. I also scripted many triggered events and story-telling moments through-out the quest.
- Polished: The dungeon is fully lit, meshed, and populated to immerse the player in the comprehensive world Skyrim creates as well as to lead them intentionally to best complete the quest. Intentionally escalated combat encounters give the present dungeon a great feeling of danger and hostility, while a bustling daily schedule of priests, guards, cooks, and serving girls gives the past dungeon life and warmth and gives players additional challenges to overcome.
The Time Traveling Mask
When creating the Mod I chose to use an existing mechanic in Skyrim, the time-traveling wooden mask. This item plays a small role in collecting and returning the Dragon Priest masks. The player reaches Labrynthian and discovers a wooden mask in front of a destroyed Dragon Priest Shrine in a small barrow. Wearing the mask teleports the player back in time where they can access and use the not-destroyed-yet Dragon Priest Shrine. Removing the mask returns the player to the present. The core concept of the mod utilizes this mechanic of time-travel. By giving the player the freedom to travel between past and present I am giving them twice as much area to explore, twice the loot, and the second ‘time dimension’ allows for the creation of harder puzzles.
Making the Mask Work
The concept of using a mask a time travel mechanic necessitates the mask being equipped and unequipped frequently. In order to avoid what would become a very painful loading screen every time the mask was equipped or unequipped (due to loading two different areas) the past and present versions of the dungeon needed to be inside the same cell (Bethesda’s Map files). So I built the dungeon in it’s entirety then duplicated everything and lowered it so I would have two dungeons, exactly the same, one on top of the other.
The next issue was to figure out how to teleport the player between both dungeons in the same position and facing the same direction. To get a good idea I looked at the Bromjunaar Sanctuary where the wooden mask originally is used to teleport the player back in time. The concept was simple enough, putting the mask on sends the player to a marker placed inside the sanctuary, removing the mask places the player at another marker in the original location. This worked fine for the small section that Skyrim has the player use the mask but for my dungeon I would need the player to be able to use the mask potentially anywhere in the dungeon, not just a conveniently placed marker. So I pushed the concept further but used the same principles.
Time Travel Markers
I needed an easy way to add the time travel markers to any room and any type of area (for potential additions to the mod) so I use two different markers. The first is a simple marker named “Time Travel Marker” which has no special properties other than it’s name. The second is a very common and universal “XMarker” built into the Creation Kit and is used simply to mark a specific point. Each room (or general area) has one Time Travel Marker and then filling the room are XMarkers that are evenly spread out. Each room in both versions have the same layout of markers.
All of the XMarkers in a room are linked (via each object’s LinkedRef) to the Time Travel Marker in the same room in the other version. This is true for both time versions, so all XMarkers will be linked to a Time Travel Marker in the other version of the dungeon.
Every time the mask is equipped or unequipped the script does the following:
A: It finds the closest XMarker to the player and stores the XMarker’s x and y coordinates.
B: Then it moves the player to the Time Travel Marker that is linked to the XMarker.
C: Now that the player is in the other time dungeon the mask sets the player’s position to the XMarker’s x and y coordinates, moving the player to the same area that they used the mask.
D: Lastly the mask searches again for the nearest XMarker (now in the new time zone) and moves the player to that location. This is to account for any new geometry that might be in that location, so that the player doesn’t end up in a table, or buried under rubble, or inside of an NPC.
Having two versions of the same dungeon (past and present) posed two issues, first, it needed to be designed to lead the player to specific moments and set pieces as well as allow for the main mechanic of Skyrim, exploration. Secondly, it needed to feel as though it was a fully functioning temple and inhabitable place. In order to create a dungeon that addresses these two issues I started by designing the temple as a space to inhabit, a space that NPCs could live and work in.
After paper design the dungeon was blocked out with basic geometry of all rooms and hallways. Next I began blocking out what rooms would be inaccessible in the past and which would be inaccessible in the present.
While living guards, priests, cooks, and serving girls populate the past version of the dungeon, it’s the undead Draugr that fill out the present version of the dungeon. I’ve used the combat with the Draugr to pace the progression of the present dungeon and lead the player to explore the depths of the dungeon. There are six combat encounters that escalate in difficulty and also define the importance of each room.
The above images highlight the room bounds as well as enemy placement, the volumes that trigger their attacks and also section off each combat encounter (labelled A – F). The green arrows show the general direction players will be entering each area.
A. Two Draugr are lying in wait in sarcophagi beside the platform in the middle of the room.
- There are three volumes that are placed, one outside of each door.
- As the player enters (from any direction) and moves forward they trigger the encounter.
- Both Draugr are easy-difficulty, melee units that attack the player from the front.
- The battle is 2v1 and gives the player time to react and repel the attack but the message is clear, this dungeon is dangerous and they need to watch where they go.
- If the player appears in the room via time traveling, then as they leave the ‘horseshoe’ triggers they will hear the sarcophagi open and the Draugr roar, engaging them in combat.
B. Shortly after the first combat encounter the player must escalate either set of stairs beside the center piece in the Main Hall.
- At the top of each set of stairs are more sarcophagi with Draugr inside.
- As the player reaches the top of the stairs they trigger the sarcophagus to open and a Draugr to emerge.
- If the player moves forward (to get to the top of the stairs and engage the Draugr on even ground) they will trigger the large volume in the middle, opening the other sarcophagus.
- This makes the fight 2v1 again but this time they will be between two enemies.
- The left staircase (top in the image) is lit with torches and is a clear path. The Draugr at the top is a hard-difficulty, heavy, melee unit giving the player much more challenge than the two easy units from A.
- The right staircase (bottom in the image) is unlit and is semi blocked but still accessible.
- At the top is an easy-difficulty, ranged Draugr which is much easier to deal with for the player and to reward them for taking the path less traveled is a chest with loot beside the sarcophagus.
- Ideally the lit staircase leads the player to the more difficult melee Draugr, triggering the ranged Draugr to take shots at them as they struggle to gain combat advantage again.
C. Here the player has earned a small rest from escalating combat. Combat zone C is the Antechamber and can be traversed without engaging any enemies.
- On either side (top and bottom in the image) are urns and pots for the player to loot. Since every Skyrim player gravitates to the prospect of loot, they will inevitably move towards them.
- Visible beside the urns and pots are more sarcophagi with Draugr inside.
- Moving close to either side triggers the Draugr on that side to emerge.
- These fights are 2v1 with melee Draugr and should be fairly easy for the player to deal with. I’m just making the player work for the rewarding treasure.
D. The Dining Hall is the location of combat zone D and is meant to make this hub area dangerous. Since the Dining Hall marks the beginning of the second section of the dungeon, the combat is spaced out.
- There are three volumes spread around the room that trigger a single melee Draugr (of varying difficulties) for each trigger.
- The first volume (on the left in the image) must be crossed if the player wishes to explore the rooms and hallway on the right (bottom of the image).
- Triggering this volume causes the Draugr behind the player (top left in the image) to become active and attack.
- The second volume (middle of the image) will be crossed if the player moves towards the other end of the Dining Hall.
- This triggers the Draugr at the far end to attack the player. This Draugr is a hard difficulty enemy.
- The closeness of the surrounding area doesn’t allow for much maneuverability so the player will need to engage this enemy head on or try to move to the other side of Dining Hall.
- The last volume (right in the image) is very close to the Draugr that it triggers (bottom right in the image).
- There isn’t much for the player to explore in this section of the Dining Hall (aside from a small window into the hallway that leads to the Storage Room) but if the player backs into this area while trying to fight one of the other Draugr then the intensity is doubled by the addition of another enemy.
- The player will most likely be time-traveling a few times in this room as they explore both time zones.
- The three Draugr are not connected to the same event in order to provide a bit of longevity to the potential combat here.
- Depending how the player explores the Dining Hall in both time zones they will experience the combat zone differently.
E. The combat takes another small dip in escalation here in order to give the player some potentially needed supplies in preparation for combat zone F.
- There are three side doors in the Upper Quarters Hallway as well as the door to the Captain’s Quarters at the end of the hallway.
- Combat zone E is the encounter on the first door on the left.
- Players will most likely move towards this door first (as it’s the most well lit and also the closest) only to find it locked with an easy difficulty lock.
- Unlocking this door immediately opens it and wakes a single hard difficulty melee Draugr inside the small room.
- The combat shouldn’t be too difficult for the player but it leaves two impressions. First, it sets up the expectation that there could be more Draugr in these side rooms and second, the loot inside this first side room (health potions, other skill potions, and some financial loot) should indicate that something bigger is coming.
- Ideally the player should now approach the remaining side doors a bit more cautiously.
F. The final combat encounter in the present takes place inside the Captain’s Quarters.
- The key to gain entrance to the Captain’s Quarters is held by one of the guards in the past.
- Once inside the Captain’s Quarters in the present there is a sarcophagus in the middle of the room.
- The quest item the player is looking for is in an alcove to the left of the sarcophagus upon a pedestal.
- Moving towards the pedestal the player will enter the volume and trigger the Draugr Captain Artos to rise from the sarcophagus and attack the player.
- Draugr Captain Artos is a modified Draugr Warlord who can use magic, shout, and is a very difficult melee enemy.
- The room is circular allowing the player a bit of maneuverability and if the player needs time/space to heal they can exit through the door and Upper Quarters hallway should give them enough space to put some distance between them and Artos.
- Captain Artos will chase the player down until the battle is finished.
Combat in the past: As the player explores the past all guards are neutral to the player. Engaging in combat with any guard (or other persons in the past) will alert the guards and they will become aggressive to the player. The guards are a mix of easy to medium difficulty, melee and ranged enemies.
The Living Captain Artos: If the player enters the Captain’s Quarters in the past they will be confronted with the living Captain Artos. The Captain will be aggressive in questioning the player’s purpose in the temple/fortress. It is possible to persuade Captain Artos to relinquish the quest item and allow the player to leave but most answers will lead to the Captain becoming aggressive and alerting the rest of the guards. The living Captain Artos is a modified Nord Bandit Boss making him a very difficult melee enemy.
The entrance marks the first place the player may use the mask to travel to the past and therefore needs to show the contrast of both time periods and set the expectations of how the time travel mechanic will function. This area was made into a guard station/vestibule for two reasons. First, to give the player a small explorable area in which to experiment with the mask and secondly, to allow for three separate entrances into the Main Hall.
The present (on the left, above) is designed and meshed to represent the same feeling and aesthetic as the rest of Skyrim’s Nordic dungeons. There is also a deep blue tone (using the Creation Kit’s lighting templates) that was chosen to be the opposite of the past’s lighting template as well as to create a feeling of stillness and death. The past (on the right, above) needs to feel alive and vibrant while still maintaining the aesthetic of Skyrim’s Nordic living spaces. The lighting template is a warm, soft orange light and there are more light sources giving a sense of daily upkeep. The presence of living people also makes the past feel more alive as their movement contrasts with the stillness of present. The grate in the floor is a trap to protect the entrance to the dungeon and can be accessed from the Main Hall.
The Main Hall is the center piece to the dungeon. Designed to tie together the story of the mod and the time travel mechanic, they player enters the Main Hall and is presented with detailed scene depicting a shrine to the Dragons. The center piece is detailed in both the present and the past allowing the player to encounter it for the first time. This also encourages the player to use the mask (instilling the habit of using it as a mechanic to traverse the dungeon) to check out what the Main Hall looks like in the other time period. The present version of the Main Hall is also the first combat encounter for the player. Two Draugr emerge from sarcophagi to engage the player.
The Main Hall may be entered from three entrances. The main door is connected to Entrance and there are two side doors leading to small room to access the trap from the Entrance and the other side door leads to a treasure room.
The Treasure Room can only be accessed from the present. It is designed as a reward for the explorer playstyle. The door that connects it to the Main Hall is locked with a Master lock (requiring 100 lockpick) but the room may be found by exploring a tunnel path from the trap in the entrance.
The image on the left shows the door from the Main Hall. The image in the middle shows the same view in the past, two Nords are busy with the construction of the Treasure Room. Finally the image on the right shows the interior of the Treasure Room as discovered from the tunnel path.
The Dining Hall marks the second half of the dungeon and acts as a hub room. From this location the player can explore the areas of the dungeon that contribute to the function (story specific) of the dungeon. There are four side doors that lead to a storage room, the blacksmith, the sleeping quarters, the kitchens, and the Captain’s quarters. These areas are small branches off of the Dining Hall. Skyrim’s quest GUI removes any chance of error for players to miss their objective which also removes any ability for designers to be subtle about where they place final objectives. The hub style of the Dining Hall is meant to add some more immersion and subtly by allowing the player to explore the living space as well as proceed to their quest objective.
The door at the far end of the images is locked and requires a specific key to open it. I’ve kept this door in the dungeon for any future additions. The original concept had another major section after the Dining Hall that lead into a sort of magical laboratory.
Upper Quarters and Hall
The Upper Quarters is the second story level of dorm-style rooms for all the staff and guards that inhabit the dungeon. In the present these rooms have been turned into final resting places for the guards and are home to more Draugr protecting the ruins. In the past these rooms have clues about the NPCs that inhabit them and other treasure. At the end of the hall is the door to the Captain’s Quarters which is locked and requires a special key to open. The key is held by the guard outside the door (in the past).
The Captain’s Quarters are home to the Captain of the Guard, Artos. Captain Artos serves as the dungeon’s boss, both in the past and the present. Environmental story-telling is fundamental to Skyrim so a good look around Artos’ room says much about him.
Blacksmith and Kitchen
These two areas can only be accessed from the past. Making these areas past only encourages the player to use the time travel mechanic again. As a reward there is loot (both money and items/ingredients) as well as some minor lore surrounding the dungeon.
The Blacksmith (on the left) is caved in in the present. In the past the player can visit the Blacksmith and his apprentice as well as find some weapons that have a slight increase in damage and value compared to their Steel counterparts. The Kitchens (on the right) are flooded in the present. Visiting them in the past grants the player a wealth of ingredients as they find the Kitchens fully stocked. Here they can talk to the cooks and serving boys to find out gossip/information about the guards and particularly the Captain, Artos.
I will be updating this page as I create more WIP content.