Like many computer fantasy RPGs, The Elder Scrolls franchise has a lot in common with tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons – classic western fantasy creatures, character levels, classes, etc. In particular, the setting of the Elder Scrolls games, introduced in Arena and Daggerfall and greatly fleshed out in Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim, was strongly influenced by tabletop RPGs like RuneQuest and their unique innovations when it comes to building fantastical worlds for RPG players to explore.
Tamriel, the main setting of the Elder Scrolls games, is a place of classic western fantasy adventure, where enterprising heroes can carve their mark into the land with swords, spells, and the right choice in a dialogue tree. In every Elder Scrolls installment, there are dungeons to raid, evil overlords to slay, demons from Oblivion to banish, hapless townsfolk who need a hero’s aid, and town guards who will descend upon any would-be thieves like a horde of furious locusts.
At the same time, the Elder Scrolls games have a bunch of uncanny details and hidden bits of lore to fascinate players who look a bit deeper, like the steampunk robot-infested ruins of a Dwarf civilization that accidentally deleted themselves from reality, capricious demon-princes who thrive off madness and secrets, multiple moons made from the corpses of gods, and heroic kings and queens who ascended to godhood by realizing they were living in a simulation. These examples of Elder Scrolls world-building owe much to the tabletop RPGs Bethesda designers were fans of, some familiar and some obscure.
In a Polygon interview with the designers of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, concept artist and writer Michael Kirkbride mentioned that the first two Elder Scrolls games – The Elder Scrolls: Arena and The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall – were based off a homebrew setting for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign a group of veteran Bethesda designers ran as a hobby. Details of what happened in this D&D campaign are unfortunately scarce; still, by looking at the gameplay and setting of the first two Elder Scrolls games, a few reasonable conjectures can be made.
The homebrew D&D setting that inspired The Elder Scrolls: Arena most likely introduced the continent of Tamriel and its distinct nations – places like Skyrim, Cyrodiil, the Summerset Isles, Morrowind, Valenwood, Hammerfall, Black Marsh, etc. The unique pantheon of deities and devils created for this homebrew campaign were probably also translated into the deities of the Elder Scrolls settings – benevolent “Aedra” like Zenithar or Atakosh, and more sinister “Daedric Princes” such as Mehrunes Dagon or Sheogorath. Finally, the character classes players in every Elder Scrolls game but Skyrim (Thief, Warrior, Crusader, Spellsword, etc.) are clearly inspired to a degree by D&D‘s own class system.
Tunnels & Trolls, published in 1975, was one of the first serious competitors to Dungeon & Dragons in the fantasy tabletop RPG genre. Compared to D&D, Tunnels & Trolls had much simpler and easy to grasp gameplay mechanics (pioneering, among other things, the idea of casting spells by spending magic points) along with more whimsical gameplay.
Ken Rolston, one of the designers who worked on The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, specifically cited Tunnels & Trolls as an inspiration for the open-world storytelling seen in Morrowind and other Elder Scrolls titles – games where players can ignore the main story for as long as they wish and hare off in any direction to discover what’s over the next hill.
In their interview with Polygon, Ken Rolston also cites the RPG RuneQuest as a common img of inspiration for creators Michael Kirkbriede, Kurt Kuhlmann, and Todd Howard as they worked on the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Mechanically speaking, RuneQuest’s pioneering use of character skills, which increased in potency the more players used them, is a clear inspiration for the broad list of evolving skills seen in Skyrim and other Elder Scrolls games.
Narratively, RuneQuest‘s intricately crafted fantasy setting of Glorantha – a mythic Bronze Age world with heroes who ascend to godhood, hi-tech dwarves, and cultures with alien values – inspired Morrowind‘s designers to tinker with standard western fantasy tropes of previous The Elder Scrolls titles and emphasize the “weird” in their game’s environment and backstory – hence the domesticated bug monsters, magical robots, living gods, and carapace armor.