Deconstructing Fallout 3: Difficulty Curve

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When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements.


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Fog of war stifles exploration and strongly encourages player to discover locations through dialogue

From a design perspective, one of Fallout 3’s biggest hurdles was managing the difficulty curve in an open world. Fallout and Fallout 2 addressed this by placing Vault 13 and Arroyo in the far north while crafting a narrative that relied on unlocking the location of new, more difficult settlements. In terms of structure, these games also benefited from a timer, discouraging players from exploring the vacant wasteland in favor of following the story.

Fallout 3, on the other hand, placed Vault 101 in the center of a fully explorable, fully lootable wasteland. Because there’s no urgency to follow the story, players are encouraged to march off in any direction from the start. As players can reach any location in the Capital Wasteland within 40 minutes, the developers had two options:

  1. Make a difficulty radius in which the center of the map has the easiest enemies and skill-checks while the edges of the map have tougher enemies.
  2. Make most of the wasteland accessible to any player with any build at any difficulty while sprinkling in a few difficult skill checks and tougher enemies.

Overall, Bethesda went with a cross between the two. Difficult enemies are basically relegated to corners of the map, but its inconsistent. Harder areas have harder skill checks, but most ruins feature at least one difficult science or lockpick opportunity.

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The overall dungeon difficulty can be broken into three categories based on enemy type:

  • Easy: Raiders, ghouls, ants, roaches, bloatfly, mole rats, dogs
  • Medium: Mirelurks, low-tier robots (protectrons, robobrains), mutants, radscorpions, Talon Company
  • Hard: Yao guai, deathclaws, high-tier robots (mister gusty, sentry bot) Enclave soldiers

While human enemies receive equipment relative to the player’s level, creatures have leader variations such as giant radscorpions, mirelurk kings, and glowing ones who add some much-needed spice to enemies with biological weaponry. Basically, you have three tiers of infantry (base, veteran, elite) for three tiers of difficulty (easy, medium, hard). Despite the apparent enemy diversity here, players still wanted more (after all, combat is the core of Fallout 3’s gameplay) which is why add-ons like Mart’s Mutant Mod are so popular.

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The Broken Steel DLC addressed this shortcoming by adding feral ghoul reavers, albino radscorpions, and super mutant overlords. These enemies appear when the player has reached a sufficient experience level, adding some variety to normally easy and medium dungeons by essentially adding randomly generated mini-bosses. Fallout 4 would develop this even further with power armored raiders, Skyrim-style enemy tiers, and mutating enemies. The base game of Fallout 3, however, overwhelmingly adheres to the easy, medium, and hard tier structure, with the player rarely witnesses interfaction/interspecies battles. One major exception is The Enclave, who bridge this gap with mind-controlled deathclaws (bringing top-tier melee power to an otherwise ranged army).

So how are these three dungeons tiers spread out across the wasteland and how does that effect pacing? Let’s take a look at a map. I’ve circled “easy” dungeons in green, “medium” dungeons in yellow, and “hard” dungeons in red. Mutant and Talon Company camps are marked with yellow stars. Enclave camps (only appearing after the “Waters of Life” quest) are marked with red stars.

Difficulty Map

Using this map, we find that most of the Capital Wasteland falls under the easy difficulty tier. Indeed, only the top left and the bottom right of the map fall within a medium-tier wilderness zones. You’ll immediately notice that while there are medium-tier wilderness zones, there are no hard-tier zones. There are 5 permanent hard-tier zones in the base game: Yao Guai caves, Deathclaw sanctuary, Old Olney, Fort Independence (hard-tier enemies, but won’t attack unprovoked) Raven Rock (only for a quest and you gain hard-tier allies midway through), Jefferson Memorial (only for a quest and you have hard-tier allies). The National Guard Armory and National Archives may also fall under hard-tier, but tiered robot enemies spawn based on character level.

Notice that two of those locations, the locations with ranged hard-tier enemies, are only for quests and the player is accompanied by heavily armed NPC allies: sentry bots and The Brotherhood of Steel respectively. So that leaves three permanent “difficult” dungeons, all of which are filled with melee enemies, either yao guai or deathclaws.

Look at how many Enclave camps are around the Megaton area. This gives good/neutral characters the illusion of a larger Enclave army while evil characters living in Tenpenny Tower may hardly notice them. The Enclave camps enforce the narrative of invasion and their increased difficulty and enemy/equipment variation offer something more for the late-game player. The problem is after the Enclave appears, player will spend far more time exploring the far left side of the map for story quests (specifically the area between Little Lamplight and Fort Constantine), but there are hardly any Enclave camps in what should arguably be their territory.

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Now look at the map again and notice the placement of the medium zones. Because only the top left and bottom right corners generally fall under medium-tier (due primarily to super mutant enemies), you can almost cut a diagonal line of easy-tier from the bottom left to top right. Why is this?
I think it has to do with the pacing of quest placement. From Megaton, right at the start of the game, you receive three of the game’s 16 marked quests. Players may stumble upon an additional quest, “Big Trouble in Big Town”, while completing the first three quests. “Big Trouble in Big Town” actually has a really nice pacing because it serves as a difficult encounter for the low level “Megaton bubble.”

Because nearly 1/5 of quests are given in the game’s first town, they all have to be accessible to low-level characters. Just look at “The Power of the Atom.” But another problem with “Power of the Atom” is that low-level characters must be able to claim their reward after destroying the game’s central hub. This means that the path between Megaton and Tenpenny Tower must have low-tier enemies so as not to alienate players with nowhere to stash their loot.

To extend the idea of a “Megaton bubble” and quest-area bubbles further, look at Rivet City, which contains two marked side-quests and two story quests. These quests, again, have a nice pacing to them as they send players into medium-tier environments during the middle of the story. We don’t really see this same pacing with the final hub, the Citadel, because it has no side quests. The Citadel is connected to five of the game’s 10 story quests, but these final quests hold the players hand because, again, the storyline is designed to be completed by any player, with any build, with any equipment, at any level, at any time.

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Look at the map one more time and you’ll find another location that sticks out as having poor geographical pacing. Old Olney is a tight quarters deathclaw dungeon in the middle of an easy-tier bubble. It rests between The Republic of Dave (a community made from a handful of low-level characters), the Temple of the Union (a community made from a handful of low-level characters), and Vault 92 (a quest location populated with medium-tier enemies).
The problem of Old Olney’s unique location is exacerbated by its surroundings; on numerous occasions I’ve seen wild deathclaws wander into The Republic of Dave and slaughter the entire village. In my opinion, for the purposes of pacing, Old Olney should have been the center of a medium-tier environment, like Deathclaw Sanctuary, rather than a high-level stronghold in the middle of a peaceful region.
What I don’t understand is why the other two corners of the map don’t have medium-tier bubbles with difficult strongholds as this would leave designated zones of difficulty.

In all of this, it’s important to remember that there is another kind of difficulty: skill checks. While enemy tiers determine if the player is capable of reaching the end of the dungeon, skill checks determine the loot they’ll bring back. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Fallout 3’s skill checks are very poorly geographically paced.

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Let’s take a look at some of the game’s recorded lockpicks, as per the Fallout Wiki. You’ll immediately notice that Megaton has four “Very Hard” locks and an additional “Hard” lock. This is an example of good pacing. Megaton is the central hub of the Capital Wasteland and, in most cases, the player’s most visited location. It’s actually a good idea to pace the unlocking of Megaton itself because it gives the player a small motivation in upgrading their skills to unlock known goodies. Additionally, a few of these Megaton’s locks can be opened by finding keys.

However, look at some of the game’s other lockpick opportunities. Many low level locations (Grayditch, Dukov’s place, Minefield) have a “Very Hard” lock. I understand that in an RPG not every location and piece of loot is accessible to every character. However, even if you created a character who only exists to pick locks, you’d still never level up your skill in time to align with your exploration.

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So you come back to Minefield at 100 lockpick skill to find…junk food!

That leaves two options: Either ignore what is obviously rare loot or mark locations with very hard locks so you can come back at a higher level. If you ignore the loot, you’re missing out on something the developers wanted you to find. If you come back later, you’re exploring an already vacant dungeon just to discover a single piece of loot. Neither option bodes well for pacing or player enjoyment and the hacking minigame is subject to this same dilemma.
The original Fallout games overcame this issue by making skill checks tied to the relative difficulty of the location, allowing players to attempt the lock pick regardless of skill, and adding the lock pick item (with its own tiers based on location). Disallowing players an opportunity to attempt the lock without the proper skill is a bad design move for everyone. FO1_Lockpicks

What we see with Fallout 3’s bizarre difficulty curve is a result of Bethesda’s take on pacing and world design. If you look at their other open world titles, namely the Elder Scrolls, you start to see a pattern. Oblivion had the game’s main hub, Imperial City, in the center of the map. Skyrim had the game’s main hub, Whiterun, in the center of the map. Fallout 3 follows this trend by having Megaton, the game’s main hub, in the center of the map. This style of map design gives the player a sense of scale by allowing them to march off in any direction from the start of the game.

Fallout and Fallout 2 on the other hand didn’t really have a main hub. Ironically, the Hub from the first Fallout is a medium-tier area; you’ll find no plasma rifles or power armor there. Fallout 2 required the player to engage in political intrigue, encouraging constant travel between NCR, New Reno, and Vault City to complete trade agreements. All of this is the result of pacing based on tiered equipment and a timed storyline. It doesn’t mean that Fallout 3’s map design is inferior, it just means Bethesda approached it with a different design philosophy, one that fits their standard of huge explorable worlds.

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What do you think about the pacing Fallout 3’s difficulty curve? Too easy, too hard, or just right? Tell us in the comments!

Deconstructing Fallout 3: Story Quests

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When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements. We’ll start with the story quests.


Story Quests

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Escape! This mission is similar to killing tunnel rats in the original Fallout. It’s a simple way to teach players about combat, choices, lockpicking, and hacking in a tight environment. However, I think there was a lot of missed opportunity in this quest. There’s no opportunity to sneak around enemies as their bodies physically block the exits. There’s no opportunity to barter with the security guards. The Lone Wanderer must kill (or possibly flee) men he’s known for 18 years without a second thought.
The options outside of the combat are pretty weak as well. Both the key and terminal password to the Overseer’s office can be collected without so much as a speech check.  The reason I consider that an issue is because in the main game keys (and especially computer passwords) aren’t commonly found. They’re usually stolen (if they exist at all). In this one quest, arguably the most important quest for teaching the player how to move through the world, the player is not required to play either of the unlock mini-games.

Skills used: Combat skills (limited to small guns,melee weapons,unarmed)
Optional Skills: Lockpick, Science

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Following in his Footsteps: This quest is surprisingly long for the early game. It involves traveling from Vault 101 to Megaton, through the DC Metro, a literal warzone, and finally engaging with a character who will either help you or ask you to complete a side quest.
This quest also has a lot of choices to it. You need to get information from Moriarty. To do this you can…

  • Go on an unmarked quest for Moriarty (with an optional speech check)
  • Coax the information out of him with a speech check
  • Hack into Moriarty’s terminal
  • Break into the cabinet where Moriarty keeps the terminal password
  • Convince Moriarty’s employees to tell you the computer password.

I wish all of the quests had this level of detail. That’s a ton of options just to get some basic information. On the other hand, this raises an observation about Fallout 3 as a whole. Almost every problem is solved with either combat, lockpicking, hacking, or speech.
After finding information on dad, the player is introduced to the DC subway system. This is a natural step forward as the DC ruins can only be accessed through the metro. Then we’re introduced to super mutants and the Brotherhood of Steel.
Although it was certainly fun to nuke a giant super mutant early on, I wonder if the game overplayed its hand by giving access to endgame weapons and enemies too early, even if it did establish the Brotherhood’s role.
Fallout 3 keeps a few end-game weapons lying in plain sight. The problem is these are always in poor condition, making them no better than weapons the player is already using. Although it’s true items can always be repaired, it requires either a duplicate item or a merchant. Except the majority of merchants aren’t very good at repairs. Indeed, the best repair merchants are caravans, but only after the player has sunk significant investments into their businesses.

Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Lockpick, Science, Speech
Optional Perks: Lady Killer

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Scientific Pursuits: This is another long quest. Unfortunately, this quest has no choices, no speech checks, no locks, no hacking, or any kind of player agency. Aside from the detective work (which is solved merely by following the guidance arrow and talking to a marked NPC), the real quest here is to find dad.
Scientific Pursuits merely leads the player to a central hub, a dungeon, and then out into the wasteland. There are no twists or turns.You don’t even need to convince Dr. Li to help you as she recognizes you immediately.

Skills: Combat skills

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Tranquility Lane: Perhaps the most famous quest in all of Fallout 3. If you’re speedrunning this is actually your second quest. In terms of narrative, this is a bit silly. The Lone Wanderer escaped the vault just a few hours after dad, but in that time dad has already gone to Megaton, downtown DC, Rivet City, Project Purity, and then back across the wasteland to Smith & Casey. This is needed to move the story forward, but it means all the detective work up to this point was pointless in comparison to exploration. On my first play though back in 2008, I accidentally found this quest simply by exploring the wasteland. Aimlessly walking through the wasteland is literally faster and more effective than hours of detective work.
Tranquility Lane itself is pretty well structured, but in this instance it is because the game takes place in an enclosed environment and includes a large cast of fun characters. Bethesda’s Fallout games are known for their exploration and freedom, but I’d argue the best quests are those that occur in tight environments. Because Tranquility Lane occurs on a single street, the options are nicely interlaced and tightly focused.latest.jpg
Unfortunately, your choices don’t matter. The quest asks you to engage in sadism without any accountability. You don’t need to be sly or cunning. You don’t have to fake someone’s death. Tranquility Lane’s residents will just respawn.
There’s no reward or skill requirement for creative kills. You don’t need to use the science skill to reprogram the Mr. Handy. You don’t need lockpick or sneak to sabotage a marriage. The only way to use your character is a single optional speech check.
Of course there is also the failsafe puzzle, allowing players to bypass this quest without even speaking to Betty. Although this is the “best” ending, it is also the least interesting as the puzzle is merely trial and error. Anyone can figure out the failsafe in two minutes.

Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Speech

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The Waters of Life:
After finding dad and returning to Rivet City, you’ll be asked to clear a dungeon (if you haven’t already). Dad will then ask you to perform some remedial maintenance. These repairs don’t actually require the repair skill. Now the late game officially starts with the introduction of the Enclave and power armored enemies. The issue here is the Enclave soldiers only attack in pairs. There’s no sense of danger, especially since their power armor can be penetrated with low-tier weapons, which you’ll have plenty of after clearing out the super mutants.
Toward the end of the quest, Dr. Li’s assistant, Garza, requires medical attention. This can be solved, not with the medicine skill, but by handing over medicine or completing a speech check. Again, this is a huge missed opportunity. In terms of narrative there is no reason for Garza to have a heart condition. This never comes up again and Garza has actively told the player to ignore him up to this point. If instead of a heart condition Garza had been bitten by a ghoul or been shot in the gut, it would have opened an opportunity to use the medicine skill. Instead, nothing happens. Garza serves as a disposable annoyance.

Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Speech

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Picking up the Trail:
After the introduction of the Enclave and the reintroduction of the Brotherhood of Steel, the player is asked to find a G.E.C.K. To do this, they must go through Little Lamplight, a village full of…interesting characters.
To gain entry, the player must either save children from slavery or have the Child at Heart perk.
Saving the children requires either a small sum of money (2000 caps), using the science skill, or destroying a main hub. The only reward for saving the children is entry to Lamplight which, again, can be just as easily achieved with a perk.
Once inside Lamplight, the player is tasked with either going through a tunnel full of mutants or bypassing the combat encounter with an average (50) science skill. Both options lead to the same room. Merely entering the next dungeon, Vault 87, completes the quest.

Skills: Varies
Optional skills: Combat skills, Science
Optional perks: Child at Heart

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Finding the Garden of Eden:
Tasked with finding the G.E.C.K., the player must simply clear a dungeon. Along the way, they will find a friendly super mutant named Fawkes who tells the player the G.E.C.K. is in a radiation chamber. The player can optionally kill Fawkes with a hard (75) science skill. After clearing more of the dungeon, Fawkes or the player collects the McGuffin, completing the quest. Aside from loot containers and fluff hidden on terminals, this is a straightforward combat quest.

Skills: Combat skills.
Optional Skills: Science

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The American Dream: This is essentially where the gameplay of Fallout 3…falls apart. Trapped in a base full of dehumanized armored enemies, the player should face a challenge here. Instead, the President of the United States murders his best soldiers, supposedly some of the last unmutated humans on Earth, just to help the player navigate the Enclave’s base. The player then enters into a dialogue with the President. The Lone Wanderer can either:

  • Use speech to convince the President to kill himself.
  • Use an average (60) science skill to convince the President to kill himself.
  • Cause the President to kill himself with an item
  • Just walk away

The player is given the option of helping the President secure a future for non-mutated humans, but it has no effect on the gameplay or narrative of the base game. Enclave soldiers will continue to be hostile even as you are working for the President himself.
In terms of gameplay, the bigger issue here is at the end of the quest. Since the player is more likely to encounter Enclave camps, they need a weapon to fight squads of armored soldiers. In the beginning of the quest, that was achieved through robot sentries. In the wasteland, Fawkes is the player’s best weapon. Because Fawkes’ default weapon is a powerful gatling laser with unlimited ammo and the mutant himself is nearly indestructible, the player never has to worry about getting in a difficult firefight.
Arguably, this removes the player’s agency from the game. Combat encounters are no longer challenging, they are merely a question as to whether or not the player will earn a kill before Fawkes cleans house.

Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Science, Speech

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Take it Back! The big finale. A charge led by an iron giant, a squad of elite Brotherhood soldiers, and (optionally) a near-invincible super mutant with a gatling laser. The problem here is that Liberty Prime is unstoppable. He has no weak point, he requires no protection, and he can disable force fields on his own. The robot does all the work, never running into a conflict that requires human assistance. The player has zero agency in the game’s climax and is reduced to little more than a walking camera.
Once inside Project Purity, there’s a few more Enclave soldiers, but Fawkes will make short work of these. In the grand finale, the last boss of the game can be defeated by telling him to “just walk away.”

Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Speech


If you’re keeping track, the main story only includes options for the following RPG elements:

Mandatory: Combat skills
Optional skills: Lockpicking, Science, Speech
Optional perks: Lady Killer, Child at Heart

Here is the overarching issue with Fallout 3’s main quests as a whole: There are no rewards. Without any incentive to continue the story, other than moving the plot along, there’s no reason to do things the hard way.
There’s no reason to save children from slavery if you can just use Child at Heart instead. There’s no reason to go on a side quest for Moriarty when you get the same reward (possibly more XP) for breaking into his filing cabinet. There’s no reward for torturing people in Tranquility Lane (other than the player’s own amusement) because a better ending can be achieved more quickly.

Alternate solutions to story quests just skip content. There aren’t long lasting decisions. There aren’t hidden items. There aren’t store discounts, perks, or access to special weapons. In the entire story line, the only reward for completing optional objectives is…the Tunnel Snakes outfit in the tutorial mission.
Fallout 3’s story is a treadmill, giving the illusion of choice and movement while shuffling the player between locations. By the last mission, it doesn’t matter how many enemies you’re facing or how powerful they are, because the player has invincible allies armed with super weapons.

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The biggest problem with the main quests is they are designed to be completed by any player, with any build, at any level, at any time. That means every enemy and mandatory skill check in the storyline must be tailored to a Level 2 Character. It’s why Tranquility Lane doesn’t rely on skill checks at all. The result is a bare bones story that doesn’t make use of all the RPG elements Fallout 3 or the Fallout franchise has to offer.

How could Fallout 3’s story quests have better integrated S.P.E.C.I.A.L, perks, and skills? Tell us in the comments!