The Rules of Modding
This list was devised from a thread at the Official Forums, and the article updated slightly about six months after Oblivion’s release. Things have improved since then but it still might be a useful point of reference to modders of any of Bethesda’s games.
Modders post almost every day asking for advice on how to take the first steps towards modding. Many modders are intimidated at first with the idea of learning a new tool, and don’t think they can do it, when realistically it isn’t inherently any more difficult than – for example – designing a webpage: it’s easy to get started. Contributors include Casey Tucker, Kjon, Trey Leavens, Redwood Treesprite, deuxhero, Baratheon79, swrdphantom, Lady Rae, Sandman101, Fliggerty, Gren, Ghost_-_ruler, Nerra, ajeffreys, ginge13, Lud, Skinjack
Background – raising the bar
When Oblivion first came out, everyone was learning how to use the construction set, so it was inevitable that there would be a marked difference in quality between official content and fan-made offerings. We had seen, though, that the quality of Morrowind mods has improved exponentially over the years. As well as learning how to use the construction set, a community sprang up around modding, and the more experienced modders would mentor the younger ones, and a network of support would surround the modding process, with trusted beta-testers pointing out errors and coming up with suggestions, which in turn would improve the mods. Rigorous checking of mods would take place prior to release, and then they would be checked for GMSTs and obvious errors before being uploaded onto the hosting sites. (I certainly remember, for my own part, that Kagz refused to upload my mod because it had clipping and floating trees. I don’t think I have ever thanked him enough for instilling in me the importance of accuracy.) If errors were found post-release, the modder would promptly re-upload an updated version. Updates would also take place to add new content and improved features. The highest compliment a modder could receive was that the mod looked like it belonged in the game.
With Oblivion, however, there is less of a tradition of pre-release checking and any mod can be uploaded to some sites without any sort of moderation. This, of course, is convenient, but it allows mods to be made public that should have received further work. Because there are fewer mods that are error-free, there is less of an expectation that accurately made mods is the normal standard, so errors are rarely criticised or corrected. The overall quality of mods is therefore – at this time – considerably lower than we might hope for. Then again, it is constantly improving.
A number of mods have been released recently that have raised the bar beyond the acceptable standard of Elder Scrolls mods, creating many works that are genuinely excellent. As these superior mods come to the fore, it proves that the lower general standard is due to inexperience on the part of the modder rather than any inherent problem with the modding process. There are also problems when people are overambitious in what they can achieve, and then hype up projects that they promptly abandon. The other most recurring issue is the lack of tenacity people have when sharing their grand ambitions – too many threads ask the other forum-members to do all their work for them.
If we, as a community, follow certain guidelines, we can raise the general expectation of what a good mod should look like, which in turn will raise the standard across the board, and let us all enjoy the mods to their fullest.
The thread was on the Morrowind board, so it references TES3, but it applies equally well to Oblivion. So, without further ado, I present to you the collective wisdom of the Morrowind Mods forum:
1. Start small.
Many modders make the mistake of biting off more than they can chew. There’s a very good reason why most mods are small shacks in Seyda Neen – because they’re an excellent way to find your way around most functions of the Construction Set, with a quick pay-off and easy results. Once you’ve mastered the easy stuff, then go on to your epic total conversion.
2. Don’t cancel, shelve.
If you find that you really have taken on something that is overwhelming, there’s nothing to say that you have to finish it here and now. Just put it to one side and go back to it later on. Chances are that you’ll learn enough in the meantime to make it many times better when you finally do finish it. If you find that you don’t enjoy modding after all, don’t let your hard work go to waste – pass the mod on to someone else to finish.
3. If you build it, they will come.
Don’t even bother to ask if anyone is interested in your mod idea. If you think it’s a good idea, go ahead and make it. People might not be interested in the description of an idea, but any well-built mod will attract attention, and once word gets out that you have paid a lot of attention to detail and have put a lot of work into it, people will naturally want to see what all the fuss is about.
4. Don’t obey the lore, use it.
Morrowind lore isn’t some iron fist to beat everybody else over the head with. It’s just a description of a worldspace to ensure some consistency to allow people to imagine a functioning world. It’s a lot like adapting a book. If you copy it out word-for-word, the result may very well be rather boring, whereas if you change a few things that you felt were less than perfect in the source text, your adaptation might be all the better for it. Change too much, and you might as well not bother to use it in the first place. It’s a very good idea to familiarise yourself as far as possible with the information available e.g. at The Imperial Library. Only then can you make the decision as to how far you agree with the decisions Morrowind’s developers made.
5. Think about why it wasn’t there to start with.
Linked to the above, before you make your mod you should consider why it doesn’t already exist. Is it not in the game because it is glaringly inconsistent with the worldspace envisaged by the devs? Such examples might be mogs or Star Wars models. That doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy them in your game, but it does mean that you should consider either using those in some sort of Total Conversion (TC) or semi-TC with a non-lore environment. Alternatively, you’d have to accept that the nature of your mod will limit the number of people who are likely to enjoy it. Whilst the vast majority of mod-users are willing to stretch their imagination quite some way to accommodate new additions to the Morrowind world, there are some things that no amount of weasling or counter-weasling* will fix. Conversely, there are a great many things that the devs didn’t put in because they ran out of time and money, such as horses – or things that reasonably ought to be in Morrowind, such as facilities for cooking and hygiene, but the devs didn’t think they were strictly necessary. These latter things are widely encouraged and used and should definitely be considered.
6. Show, don’t tell.
Got a mod in the works and want help? Rather than starting a thread with a long list of demands on things that you would like other people to do for you (which invariably makes you look like you’ll do absolutely nothing for yourself), spend a good few days doing the groundwork and then upload a number of screenshots. Give a detailed description of each, outlining your vision and exactly how you are going to make it work. Then ask if anyone is willing to help you, and give clear directions of precisely the type of help you will need. Most modders are working on their own projects, and few will part with more than a few hours of their time unless they are exceptionally impressed by your efforts and ideas. You have to prove that you’re willing to do at least 80% of it yourself before anyone will chip in with the remaining 20%.
7. …Everybody’s got one.
Most ideas have been thought of before. That doesn’t mean that your mod idea has necessarily been made before, but in advance of starting a thread it’s a good idea to check out other mods that are available, and seeing if your mod has been made. Even if it has, that’s no reason not to make it, but you should make sure that your mod is individual enough to make at least some people want to download yours in preference to the other one. It also means that there is little premium on ideas – starting a thread with “I have an idea” will usually be countered with, “So what? So do I!” The value in your idea only comes when you actually start to make your idea happen. That said, it’s a very good idea to note your ideas down in a notebook. That way, when someone has a thread with a similar topic to your idea, and asks for suggestions, you could contribute your ideas to that thread, and between you make something truly special. Or, better yet, the in-progress thread could be yours, as you’ve begun to turn those scribbles into something people are going to play.
8. Share, and share alike.
This community thrives on its communal attitudes to resources. If you have a script or model that others might want to use, don’t keep it all to yourself. It’s by putting all these things together that the sum exceeds its parts. Each scripter contributes a line, or each modeller contributes a .nif, and pretty soon there are a dozen mods much more impressive than they would have been if each modder had kept things to themselves. Think about Necessities of Morrowind or all of the companions based on Grumpy’s scripts to see that sort of collaboration in action. To see how those resources have been used in so many ways to make so many totally unique mods is testament to how you don’t lose anything by sharing, and everybody gains. Remember to credit people, though, and follow the instructions in the readme. Not only is this courteous and encouraging to the donor-modder, but it allows people to contact them with any questions.
9. Read the readme.
People don’t just write documentation for the sake of their health. Readmes and tutorials are written for the sole benefit of the person reading them. That means you. They usually contain vital information on usage, installation, known issues, contact details, funny little quirks, features and permissions. Tutorials may look daunting at first, but it’s the same way that everybody else learnt. It’s not like we went to Modding School. Very few modders have any kind of computing background. So, if they tell you to read Morrowind Scripting for Dummies (MSFD), it’s because it’s very important that you do so.
10. Take it easy.
It’s not all going to come at once. Of course MSFD and the other tutorials make your eyes go funny the first time you read them, but have you ever sat down and read Wikipedia all the way through? Of course not! You just went to the bit you wanted to read, and then maybe read the article next to it, and so on. It’s best to get MSFD in Word format and use CTRL+F to find the bit you’re looking for. I read it cover-to-cover for the first time a few weeks back, and I’ve had it ages. The other thing, of course, is to look to see what’s already been done, especially in the existing game. Most common scripting functions are contained in existing Morrowind scripts – it’s just a matter of copy-pasting them into a new script and tweaking them a little. The key is to start off small and simple and then build up from there. Your first mod should take no more than a few hours at most. However cranky we sometimes get, all of us here at ESF are willing to help fellow modders because it benefits us when you finally release your mod. Remember, it’s a hobby, not a chore, and if it all feels like a bit much, then go outside and get some fresh air and come back to it another time. It is, after all, only a game.
11. “Good enough” is not good enough.
If you went to see a local band, and the singer kept singing out of key, you’d think they weren’t very good. If you went to a club and the records were scratched, you’d accuse the DJ of being careless. Everyone winces when they see an obvious mistake in the local newspaper. In short, we don’t tolerate sloppiness and laziness in other people, so why inflict it on people who download your mods? You might be in a rush to get your mod out as quickly as possible, but if there is clipping and floating rocks, the likely reaction is that people will quietly uncheck it after the first run-through. Do you really want all your hard work to go to waste? No? Then spend that extra time walking through it ingame to check that everything is in its right place. Better yet, ask a friend to check it over for you – fresh eyes are usually the best to hunt down those stray floating trees.
12. Be consistent.
Consistency is important for the players. It’s best to be consistent with the gameplay of Morrowind unless your mod specifically improves any one aspect of gameplay. It’s also best to be consistent with yourself – that means your scripting style, methods, storyline, etc. Not only does it help you, but it helps those who are playing. If there is a means of doing things the same way it’s been done throughout the entire game, with little to no sacrifice to gameplay or FPS, then do it that way.
13. Stealing is Stealing.
Spoofing, Borrowing, and Adding. Bad things with which to never mess around with. As many of us have played Morrowind and millions of mods we can recognize when something smells funny, or is blatantly stolen. As a new modder you need to understand we do not offer a pardon or second chance system, ripping another artist’s or modder’s work is regarded as a very serious offense, and a simple “I didn’t Know” or “I’m sorry” doesn’t do any good. Remember, Get Permission. Always, Get Permission. Don’t Ever steal another modder’s work.
14. It’s your game.
Morrowind is a SINGLE PLAYER GAME. In the end, it is each individual who determines what goes on in their game. Feedback and constructive criticism can make your mod even more enjoyable for you. Many times others will point out something you missed or may not have thought about. You don’t have to cater to every idea or request if you don’t want to, but keep an open mind and offer alternatives if possible. You’ll find many a great mod with alternate settings/content.
15. What’s in a name?
Calling your readme “readme” is a sure way to upset any player with a dozen other readmes called “readme” in their Data folder. It’s best to call it something unique and related to the mod – “Impressive Manor Readme” – so that it won’t overwrite other files and will be easily identifiable. Ditto naming textures or meshes that aren’t intended to overwrite the game’s own textures and meshes – it’s best to prefix these with your own initials or unique identifier to avoid conflicts with other mods. In other words, “Rosewood_Swirl.tga” might overwrite another file, but (using Redwood Treesprite’s example) “RTS_RosewoodSwirl.tga” is less likely to cause conflicts.
16. When it’s done …
Your first mod might not be of the standard you expect. Don’t be discouraged by this – many modders don’t even use their own first mods! Once you get something worth releasing, don’t expect to just put it on a site and call it done. Sooner or later, as your skills develop, you may decide that you could have done something better, or you’ll get an idea for some neat new feature you want to add. Avoid posting release dates – In pretty much every case I can recall where someone has done this, something has happened to throw it off. (Naturally, after pushing yourself to your limits to meet a deadline, you either have to take a month off modding, or have a nervous breakdown. It’s probably better not to set a deadline.) The best response when someone asks for a release date is something along the lines of “When it’s done”.
17. Never Say Never.
You think that some talent of modding is beyond you? Just wait, maybe one day you’ll find that after you experiment and fail enough times that you start to get the hang of it. Try and try again, I guarantee that you’ll hate what you create more than you like it, but you can learn if you work at it.
Don’t think you’re going to be great at everything right away. You’re not going to be able to master the CS or photoshop after two days of use. This caused me a lot of stress and took a lot of the fun out of modding for me at one point. Just take it slow and steady, soon you will have the talent to do bigger and better things. That kinda goes with the don’t build a city on your first try. Don’t offer “your services” to make people models or textures or whatnot, you will get overwhelmed. That kinda goes with my last point, I did it and screwed up big time.
I was told repeatedly that MW can never have more quick-keys, or that you’ll never be able to cast spells without getting your hands “ready.” Let’s see, I can go on an on about things they told me couldn’t happen that I managed to pull off. And I’m no genius or anything, I just took the time to learn what scripting (and external programs!) can do.
18. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
The entire idea of this forum is for sharing ideas and getting to know fellow modders. If you aren’t up to the task at your current skill level, ask others for help. We don’t bite, well maybe some of us. While some may ridicule you, almost everyone will help you either directly or indirectly (directly as in do it for you, indirectly as in give you hints or lead you to a good tutorial).
19. Good enough isn’t good enough (part 2).
Cleaning one’s mods of dirty references and GMSTs, putting together a proper Readme with a proper title, and taking care of all the little niggling details makes a huge difference in the end. It just can’t be stressed enough.
20. Love Thy Poster.
…Cherish, praise and reward the likes of Gayla, Pseron Wyrd, Denina, et al. The thoughtful and genuinely helpful feedback they provide will inspire you to improve your mods, making them better for everyone. Before giving feedback of your own, take a look at the posts (or PES comments) by these people and notice just why their ideas are so welcomed. (*sigh* I just realised… When PES was Morrowind Summit, there was a feedback-on-the-feedback system, so that ‘helpful’/’unhelpful’ comments could be voted as such. The most constructive commenters quickly became evident, so when someone like Quatloos had over 1000 ‘helpful’ votes, you knew to pay close attention to his remarks.)
21. Save, and save often!
Back your work up. It only takes a couple of minutes, but it could save a lot of pain if you get an HD crash. What I do is to put mine on a disk, or external hard drive, in case something goes wrong.
One of the most important aspects of modding, aside from modding for yourself, is saving your work often. Having multiple saves of a mod at different stages of construction could save a lot of bother if something should go wrong. Also saving your work to various locations on and off your computer is key to safeguarding your success of completing your mod.
22. Try to discover why your mod idea hasn’t been done before.
For example, it is possible to have real-time silt striders that would take you from city to city, but the implementation is so nauseatingly difficult that no right-minded person would bother, which is why it hasn’t been done. That said, if it really is worth doing, then it might not be impossible at all – c/f Infinite View Distance and Wrye Mash, which were the outcomes of very, very boring computer-theory threads. Well, boring to non-programmers, anyway.
23. If your mod doesn’t work, it might be for no good reason.
The UESP Wiki lists some of the nastier pitfalls, such as the fact that the 34th variable of any one type point-blank refuses to work, for absolutely no reason. The Morrowind game engine was quite clearly written by Sleepers after one too many doses of Uncle Sweetshare’s Treats. Keep the UESP Wiki bookmarked so that you can refer to it any time you’re banging your head against a wall, wailing “I don’t get it! I’ve done nothing wrong!”
24. Know Thyself
Find out what kind of modder you are; do you prefer to work on your own or as part of a team? Are you best at small tweaks and fixes or long projects? Do you prefer to add to existing vanilla content or create your own? What aspect of modding are you best at – world-building, dialogue, scripting, texturing, meshing? Try to play to your strengths, and do what you enjoy most.
On the flip side to that; try to move out of your “comfort zone” and try new things and learn new skills. Remember: all modders are learning all of the time. So once you’ve got a certain aspect of modding covered, why not try to incorporate a related skill? (Or using your existing skills in a new way).
25. Is it me?
One of equal worth would be to post rules for mod-users; i.e. DO NOT automatically assume that the mod creator screwed up the mod when making it. DO assume that you’re the idiot who put didn’t put the meshes etc. in the appropriate files. DO read the readme. DO NOT keep asking “Is it done yet?” (I get enough of that from my seven year old.) You get the idea.
As for rules for modders: Do not ask Skinjack for models unless you can handle the FPS hit without crying like a little girly-man. Actually, that does bring me to my point. Be aware that high poly models, exquisite texturing, and too many items in a cell will affect your fps and really annoy people like me that don’t like slideshows. Not everyone has an ubercomputer. On the other hand, ooooh…. pretty, pretty, shiny, shiny.
26. Read the pinned threads before posting.
Any thread that is pinned to the top of the forum becomes instantly invisible. Everybody knows this. However, everbody also knows that these invisible threads hold the answer to your question.
27. Be a rebel
Feel free to break any rule (except for the stealing one) if you truly believe it will improve your mod.
28. Have fun!
*Counter-weasling – the practise of making up your own lore to contradict what was obvious weasling in the first place. Example: Famous Bethesda weasel – “There are no horses on Morrowind because the native plants make them sick/the Elves eat them.” Counter-weasel (from Mournhold Expanded): “Well of course they tell you that, but really it’s to evade the extortionate import taxes they put on horses here.” Any serious modder should practise the art of counter-weasling.