Interview with AstionM
Here's a huge interview with loremaster and creator of the huge up and coming lore-based mod, The Dragon Break. He has agreed to talk with us in a huge interview about himself, his mod, and Elder Scrolls lore.
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Below is a fourteen question interview with Astion, modder of The Dragon Break.

TESFU: When did you start playing TES games, and what got you into them?

My first foray into The Elder Scrolls series was with Morrowind in 2002. I was thirteen, then, and despite my young age I was already an avid RPG fan. My favourite game at the time was Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, which I adored for its immense scope, its intricate story and the lore of the Forgotten Realms universe. I still regard it as one of the greatest games ever made – it’s one of those RPGs that really suck you into the plot; in playing it, you assume the persona of your character, and become the fulcrum of events in the story. This is what defines a good RPG for me. In recent years, mass marketing, multi-platform compatibility and focus on next-gen technology over story, depth and lore has made some people forget that the purpose of a Role-Playing Game is to play a role.

I bought Morrowind off the shelf when it was first released. I had never heard of the Elder Scrolls series before then, so I didn’t really know what to expect. What struck me about the first few minutes of gameplay was how unlike the world was to anything I had seen before. Stepping off the prison ship was jarring to my sensibilities. Up ahead was a small town of shacks and plaster houses roamed by villagers and guards in steel armour. To the left was a fetid marsh filled with macabre, twisted, vine-choked trees, and off to the right was a massive insect with a hollowed out shell standing next to a cliff. Seyda Neen was a juxtaposition. I had no frame of reference for it, and it was so far outside my comfort zone as to be almost frightening. I didn’t quite know what to make of it at first.

My first few game hours were spent wandering around in a daze. I explored the Bitter Coast, venturing into a couple of ancestral tombs and fending off mudcrabs and Kwama Foragers, and nearly jumped out of my skin when Tarhiel the Flying Bosmer plummeted, screaming, from the sky. I discovered the Ascadian Isles with its plantations and Netch flights, and spent some time in Pelagiad in a more familiar clime before moving on to the monolithic city of Vivec. Vvardenfell was alternately pleasantly familiar and utterly alien. Never before had I been so immersed in a gaming experience, nor have I ever been since.

TESFU: As an avid lore-purist, what makes you so intrigued by Elder Scrolls lore?

Astion: At the end of the day, lore is a very subjective thing. It means different things to different people. My own attitude towards lore changes pretty much constantly, depending on what state of mind I’m in. When I’m in “immersion mode”, lore takes a back seat to the world itself, acting more as a backdrop than anything else. As an immersion player, I try to find meaning in everything I see in the games, and lore provides some of that meaning. When I focus my attention on lore, itself, I am usually outside the games – either on the Elder Scrolls Forums’ lore board or browsing The Imperial Library.

I suppose what intrigues me most about lore is that the very idea of lore is malleable and protean. Lore seems to extend outside the confines of the game world and onto the Internet, where lore scholars discuss their theories and where writers such as Michael Kirkbride and Ted Peterson occasionally change the landscape of lore by posting new material and revealing old secrets. The bridging of this gap makes the definition The Elder Scrolls’ universe rather blurry, and there have been many debates on what exactly lore is, which never yield unanimous conclusions. Some tend to draw the line at the threshold of in-game lore… but since lore exists in the artist’s mind as well as in the game, I prefer to consider it on a larger scale.

To summarise: in my more deterministic mindsets, lore resembles a vast riddle, the answer to which is obscured or even unknowable, but which I enjoy pondering anyway. In my more impressionistic mindsets, however, The Elder Scrolls becomes a work of high art, full of nuances and subtle beauty, composed of both a reflection of the “real world” and the original impressions of its creators.

To me, The Elder Scrolls is a pastime, an escape, an inspiration, and a case in the study of logic, philosophy, culture and sociology. That the developers have been able to pack so much profound content into so relatively small a package continues to astound me. In fact, calling The Elder Scrolls “a game” almost does its creators an injustice, because it is so much more.

TESFU: What is your favorite section of Elder Scrolls Lore and History, and what about it makes it so interesting?

Astion: That’s quite a difficult question to answer, seeing as most aspects of lore are intimately interconnected and inextricably so. If pressed, though, I would have to say my favourite areas of lore are metaphysics and mythology.

Elder Scrolls metaphysics is unique in that divinity can be explained in terms of logic, and has an almost scientific cast. A prime example of this is the primordial interplay of Anu and Padomay, which created Akatosh and the rest of the et’Ada. Is it not logical that a combination of Stasis and Change would render a progression of events, or time? This is an example of what theoretical physicists term “elegance” – it makes intuitive sense, it holds up to theory, and is beautiful in its own way.

I’ve been interested in ancient mythology – particularly that of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and pre-Columbians – since I was very young. In a fictional game world, mythology lends a measure of believability and a feeling of vastness to the universe. As is pretty much unavoidable, cultures in The Elder Scrolls have parallels in the real world, but they are presented in such a way that one can’t really compare them superficially to any one real-world culture. The combination of archetypes and original concepts is just enough to keep the experience fresh.

TESFU: Your forum scholar's article Dragon Break at Red Mountain has quite comprehensive and dedicated material. When writing a lore article, what do you make sure to include in terms of organization and content?

Astion: It all depends on what I’m setting out to prove, and my own personal writing style. I am a creative writer at heart and it is often difficult for me to write anything coldly analytical. As such, always include a measure of “character” in my lore articles. I usually write in the persona of my long running eponymous character, and often insert bits of suspense and tension in much the same way as I do when writing fiction. Sometimes I add a short narrative or two to add a bit of flow.

Of course, it is always important to argue reasonably, to draw clear conclusions and to site as many official sources as you can to support your argument. Nirn may be a fantasy universe, but the rules of logic apply there regardless... Except, arguably, when you’re deep into metaphysics, where you’re faced with the puzzling singularities such as the Godhead Dreamer and the schizophrenia of Akatosh and Lorkhan. A poster on the Elder Scrolls forums once said that “Ockham’s Razor applies in Nirn”. Michael Kirkbride was quick to add, “Unless you can tell a better story than Ockham”.

There is really no “right” or “wrong” way to write a lore article. It all depends on the stylistic and aesthetic tendencies of the author… as long as you argue your case just as you would debate anything IRL.

TESFU: Speaking of Dragon Breaks, obviously as many of us know; you are working on a mod-o-lore called The Dragon Break. Can you explain what you plan including in the mod? Also, can you please explain the fascination with these Dragon Breaks?

Astion: To summarise, The Dragon Break is a lore-based quest mod taking place shortly after the end of the main quest. It will see the return of a number of factions from previous Elder Scrolls games that weren’t present in Oblivion. It will also attempt to patch some of the more glaring oversights and omittances in lore. All of this will be delivered in the form of an in-depth, character-driven quest, complete with full voice acting.

Firstly and most importantly, the mod will be about quality storytelling. The plot will be largely character-driven, and will feature several compelling, emotionally complex NPCs. Secondly, the mod will be about lore. There will be several books added by the mod, all written by knowledgable lore scholars and in a similar style to the books in the vanilla game. We will be expanding on Bethesda’s own lore, as well as inventing our own derived lore. Nonetheless, we are striving to be as true to the “feel” of the vanilla game as possible.

Our foremost goal is to add a deep, complex story to the world of Oblivion, similar in style to the labyrinthine plots of Daggerfall, while encorporating stylistic elements from Morrowind. The mod will centre around the actions of three major parties; namely, the Alessian Order (an ancient monotheistic cult with origins in First Era Colovia), the Elder Council (the governmental system of Cyrodiil, composed of mystics and politicians), and a group of scholars who, through their research into the metaphysical effects of the Oblivion Crisis, become entangled in a dangerous conspiracy.

It is a rather ambitious project that entails a great deal of writing and conceptualising. For instance, we are developing the culture of the Colovian Imga which, while not canon per se, has been derived through extensive study of First Era history. As our canon goes, the Monkey Prophet Marukh, a prominent Imga who question elven rule, fled Valenwood with his followers in the early First Era, and settled in Colovia. There, he received visions of Alessia, the liberator-Queen of the Nedes, who later became the Imperials. Soon, Marukh had converted many Nedes to their beliefs, codified in the “Serminuxia”, or the teachings of Marukh. This saw the birth of the first sub-cults of the Alessian Order, which gradually grew into a theocracy which spanned the continent.

The mod will include several lore-related locations that were conspicuously absent in Oblivion, such as Hogithum Hall (the shrine to Azura where the Trial of Vivec took place) and the Alessian Monastery at Lake Canulus. Also, as something of an easter egg, the mod will also add an envisionment of Xanathar’s Imperial Library. In-game, the Library will feature as an actual Library in the Arboretum District of the Imperial City, which will contain every game book in Oblivion and a couple of select books from previous games. Becoming a library member will also be an option, and will allow the player access to other collections of the library… namely, a collection of fanfiction and fanlore on the Upper Floor, and a compilation of Forum Scholars Guild articles in the basement. The Forum Scholars Guild will also contain some of the articles’ author’s characters, also with full voice acting.

The Dragon Break, itself, started as a plot device that was used to explain the multiple endings of Daggerfall in Morrowind’s context. Daggerfall had many seven endings. Each ending saw the Player siding with a major faction in the Iliac Bay through presenting them with an object called the Totem. The Totem was an artefact originally used by Tiber Septim to control the Numidium, a massive golem, which he employed in order to conquer Tamriel and found the Third Empire.

In Morrowind, the Numidium was revealed to have been the Brass God, a creation of the Dwemer, the Deep Elves who were the original inhabitants of Morrowind. The Dwemer are portrayed as an agnostic race of scientists and mechanists, who nonetheless had an acute interest in the nature of the divine and the profane. The Anumidium project was, in fact, an attempt on the part of the Dwemer to transcend the mortal world and to become, in a sense, divine. Thus, when the Numidium was activated by the Imperial agent in Daggerfall, the presence of a walking god on the mortal plane caused time to warp and, paradoxically, for the seven mutually exclusive timelines to become simultaneously true.

Whenever a new God apotheoses, a Dragon Break occurs. However, there is some conjecture as to whether the Break is caused by the apotheosis or the apotheosis is caused by the Break, although I myself prefer the latter interpretation. The concept of a Dragon Break heralding an apotheosis can be extrapolated to other events in Elder Scrolls history… the ascent of the Tribunal or Mannimarco, for instance.

The Dragon Break is a complex subject, and like many other Elder Scrolls mysteries, I doubt it was ever meant to be fully "explained", so far be it for me to try. However, in short; the Dragon Break is a story element that, with the aid of the imaginations of the developers and fans, took on a life of its own.

TESFU:  Will someone who does not know much about lore be able to learn as they go along in The Dragon Break, or is it intended for hardcore, knowledgeable players?

Astion: Since the main quest in The Dragon Break will draw on some of the more esoteric concepts in Elder Scrolls lore, and seeing as the mod’s backstory will be heavily influenced by the lore and styles of the previous Elder Scrolls games, the mod will definitely be geared toward lore veterans and dedicated fans of the Elder Scrolls series as a whole, as opposed to the influx of newcomers introduced to the series by the more mainstream Oblivion.

However, this is not to say that players new to The Elder Scrolls will be left in the lurch. Much of the mod will be dedicated in bringing new players up to speed in the areas of lore that the mod deals with. That being said, I am a firm believer in the “being pushed in at the deep end” method of learning, and as such, the players will be exposed to advanced lore no matter their experience.

In short, players will be able to choose the extent to which lore is integrated into their experience. Lore in The Dragon Break – official, derived and invented – will be ample. If you choose to make the lore the focal point of your experience, you have that option. However, the mod is not only about lore, but also about good storytelling, complex characters and in-depth plots. As such, if you prefer to use lore to augment your experience rather than to drive it, the mod will still have plenty to keep you busy.

TESFU: You seem intent on having voice acting in this mod, is there a main reason?

Astion: There is, indeed. My decision to have full voice acting in the mod is largely due to my purist tendencies. I never use a mod if it overtly alters the game world to such an extent that it loses its initial “feel”. I like mods, and use almost a hundred, but they’re all relatively small addons which enhance the game experience rather than changing it into something other than Bethesda’s vision. As such, all my mods aim to complement the game while keeping the original intact.

At the same time, however, depth of character is a high priority for me. Truth be told, I prefer Morrowind’s system of text dialogue. It’s more versatile, is more friendly to modders, and in effect works just as well... and, naturally, it leaves more to the imagination. Oblivion’s full voice acting isn’t very conducive to depth, as it was necessary to cut dialogue short to save on disk space and on voice actors’ fees. In addition, Voice acting is also difficult to implement properly, especially in a freeform world, and in my opinion Bethesda did not succeed in doing so. Apart from the rather odd conversations one hears between NPCs, much of the voice acting lacks motive, emphasis and heart.

With The Dragon Break, we are trying to reach a compromise in an attempt to have the best of both worlds. All mod dialogue is written in great depth as if the system were text-based, but is somewhat more character-centric than Morrowind. Coupled with the ability to create scripted sequences in Oblivion with relative ease, I am trying to make a truly cinematic experience of The Dragon Break. No expense will be spared.

Each NPC is considered individually and evolves with his or her own unique personality, and back stories are written for each so that the voice actors have plenty of input for their characters. When the completed script is sent to the voice actors, I work very closely with them, coaching them on various aspects of the scene and the character so that the best possible result is achieved. Voice actors are artists, too, and always add their own flair and twists to their characters, which together with seeing the story come alive before my eyes has made the creation of NPCs and the writing of quests the most enjoyable part of my modding experience.

The only flaw in this system is I have to rely on amateur voice actors from the Elder Scrolls community. The levels of experience of prospective actors varies greatly, and there are many limiting factors, such as the quality of the actor’s microphones. As such it has been necessary for me to turn some hopefuls away, often simply because of the static in their voice samples. Supply is especially short on female voice actors and older voices.

I’m always on the lookout for good voice talent… so if you’re reading this and you have a decent microphone, some acting skills (or even just aspirations), and a passion for good storytelling, I would be delighted to receive a PM from you on the Elder Scrolls Forums. smile.gif

TESFU:  Do you wish to share any progress on your mod, and how close it may be toward a release?

Astion: The Dragon Break is a quite a large project, and since I have largely been working on my own, it is still quite a long way from release. In addition, I’m afraid that much of recent development has taken place in the “guts” of the game – scripting, AI, and such – and as a result there hasn’t been much to show for the past few months. But progress is steady, if somewhat slow.

However, I believe that I can announce that the mod is quite close to making its “second debut”, including an appreciable media update. There have also been a couple of exciting developments with regard to the development process itself… I have recruited a small team of writers who have a similar appreciation for Elder Scrolls lore and storytelling, and we have been quite busy conceptualising various aspects of the mod. Their identities will be revealed in due time… although chances are, if you’ve been following the mod’s progress, you know who they are already.

In addition, there are plans for forums and a website in the works. They should be launched officially in the next couple of weeks.

TESFU: What mods have you previously released for Morrowind and Oblivion?

Astion: I have no publicly released mods for Oblivion, although The Dragon Break is not my first foray into the Oblivion CS. I have created many retextured items for personal use, some of which will be included in The Dragon Break. I was planning a smaller lore mod called The Arms of the Ansei several months ago, comprising of a small quest to obtain a full set of Redguard Na-Totambu Orichalc armour, but it petered out for lack of inspiration and Redguard voice acting talent. The armour itself, though, is complete.

However, I was a rather prolific Morrowind modder back in the day, releasing many small add-ons to the game, mostly consisting of new clothing, armour and weaponry. I released a couple of texture and replacers as well, including one for Daedric shrine statues and one for precious gems. I dabbled in house mods, creating several empty purchasable houses for use with the popular Morrowind Crafting mod, which allows you to furnish your own home.

As is the fate of many modders, many of my projects failed due to over ambition or lack of inspiration. Arguably my largest project was The Towers of Uvirith, an attempt to expand Tel Uvirith into a fully functional city, which was unfortunately never completed.

My most well-known mod is probably The Ebony Blade, a lore quest mod (my first one) which added a puzzle dungeon and the eponymous sword at the end of it. I also collaborated in other capacities with several modders in the Morrowind Summit (now PES) modding community.

TESFU:  Are there any other modding projects you are currently working on? Any lore articles?

Astion: I’m afraid not… The Dragon Break is very nearly a full-time occupation, and demands more or less all of my attention. However, I have recently been accepted into the Tamriel Rebuilt project as a modder, and I hope to contribute in various small ways, including texturing and writing. I’m also currently trying to get some experience in the voice acting department, and I hope to contribute my voice to both Tamriel Rebuilt and Silgrad Tower.

Before The Dragon Break consumed all of my time, I was planning two articles; one a treatise on divinity and metaphysics, the other an overview of the events of The Shivering Isles. These projects have, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside, although I have already done quite a bit of writing on both.

Funnily enough, I still have quite a couple of smaller “lore articles” in the works… ironically, though, they are all for The Dragon Break itself and will likely not be published online. However, that’s assuming that they don’t take on a life of their own and expand beyond the scope of the mod, which may indeed happen, considering the wayward tendencies of my mind.

TESFU: What is the hardest thing for you to make/do as a modder?

Astion:  I’m pretty much a jack of all trades and usually get the hang of any area of the CS if I put my mind to it. I’m a writer, cell designer and a texturer, first and foremost, but I can voice act and script as well. I am a proficient enough modeller, but still struggle with some of the finer points, especially when it comes to dealing with raw GameBryo (.NIF) files and their properties.

Some of the more arcane aspects of modding – such as animation – are still a mystery to me, although I hope to learn. That being said, I do have many stumbling blocks.

Above all, however, it is usually difficult for me to recreate my vision for a mod accurately in-game for various reasons, including limited stock tilesets, as well as constraints on my time which hinder me from creating my own. I know that, if I took my time and went to great pains with design, I could realise my vision very accurately indeed… but this would result in a less than reasonable development period.

And while we’re on that subject, it’s difficult for me to make a tradeoff between detail and timeous completion, since I’m a nit-picker at heart and pay far too much attention to detail.

TESFU:  Do you have any advice for someone new to modding, who may want to learn the ropes?

Astion: The CS can seem like a daunting tool for beginning modders. It certainly did for me when I started modding for Morrowind. But the truth of the matter is that the CS is actually a very simple, easy to use tool and, as long as you’re meticulous and observant, you can master it fairly easily. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Learn the ins and outs of the program as you go. Learn its limitations and possible work-arounds. It may seem like a lot of work, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it becomes like a puzzle that is very rewarding to solve.

Planning is an incredibly important part of creating a mod… and of any large undertaking, really. Make sure that the concept looks good on paper and is well fleshed out in concept before trying to implement it in the game world. This is especially important if you plan on making a mod that will enhance or change many aspects of the world. Knowing exactly what you want to do before setting out to do it is essential to realising your vision to the fullest possible extent.

There are several third party tools that can greatly facilitate the modding process. The quintessential modding tool is Wrye Bash, which I find especially handy for NPC creation because of its nifty Face Import function. It can also aid you in making sure that your mod is compatible with other popular mods. In truth, the things that Bash can do are legion, and far too extensive for me to list… but it is a truly indispensable asset.

Finally, remember that modding is a creative and enjoyable undertaking! Recognise that, as a modder, you are also an artist. Take pride in your craft. Load up the game for no other reason than to admire your own handiwork. Sustaining a mod’s impetus is very important, especially for large projects, and the best way to do this is to continually renew your own enthusiasm.

TESFU:  Who do you hold in high regard in the Elder Scrolls community, whether they are loremasters, major modders, or something entirely different?

Astion: There are some members of the community who recognise The Elder Scrolls series for what it is – a form of art – and who can adapt and interpret lore in new and fascinating ways. More often than not, they are loremasters, although not necessarily so. Sometimes, they are writers. Sometimes they are modders. They are all artists, to some degree or another. They make me proud to be a member of this community and, by extension, their peers. It’s not really necessary for me to mention any names – you know them pretty much instantly when you see them. I also admire those modders who go out of their way to add detail to their creations, and who take pride in their work.

I must also mention my constant friend, Vee. She and I have done a great deal of writing and roleplaying over the years, and her own takes on lore never fail to amuse me. I quote: “Peryite sucks. No one remembers him for anything. He’s just the other Princes’ doormat who makes the coffee and does the photocopying.”

TESFU:  What other hobbies do you have besides TES?

Astion: I’ve been playing video games since I was very young indeed (about three, actually), and as such I spend a lot of my “me time” in front of my computer, trapped in one virtual world or another. I have a very broad taste in computer games, but I am a particular fan of RPGs, Real-Time Strategy games and First Person Shooters. My favourite game series is the Myst cycle, as they are the only games I have come across so far to rely solely on the player’s immersion into the game to drive it, and contain some of the most beautiful environments I have ever seen. I enjoy atmospheric games, such as the Tomb Raider series and the spectacular Homeworld RTS series. My favourite RPGs are Morrowind, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura and Deus Ex.

I am also a very avid reader and devour fantasy and science fiction novels at a slow and regular rate. I am a particular fan of Orson Scott Card’s Ender cycle, Anne McCaffrey’s Chronicles of Pern, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, Stephen Baxters’ Behemoth trilogy, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, anything by Terry Pratchett and Mervyn Peak’s gothic tour-de-force, The Gormenghast Trilogy. Occasionally, I dabble in non-fiction that interests me, such as Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods. I also enjoy reading short stories, particularly those by Roald Dahl.

Music is another of my many passions. I have been a member of the Univerity of Pretoria Youth Choir for the past four years and sing as a low bass. I’m also a guitarist, and am learning to play both classical and modern rock styles. A cursory glance at my playlist: Amon Tobin, Deep Forest, Zero Seven, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Axiom Ambient, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, Michael Manring, Mr Bungle, Pat Metheny, Scott Henderson, Steve Vai, and the South African guitarist Mauritz Lotz.

Also, like anyone my age, I love hanging out with my friends. I’m also an avid moviegoer and amateur cinema critic.