Pic of the day: Catboy fanservice! Mrrroww! Eh?
Of the four Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion may well be the best balanced. It is generally agreed that magic was overpowered in Daggerfall and underpowered in Morrowind. In Oblivion you can reach your goals by magic, by weapons and armor, or by sneaking. Or any combination of these; but specializing gives certain benefits earlier in the game.
My first character was a hybrid class, relying on heavy armor and conjuration magic. I had great fun playing for quite a while, but eventually my curiosity got the upper hand and I decided to try a sneaky character. And so Catboy was born. He is a Khajiit, one of the two animal races in the game. (I guess technically humans are animals too, and the elves are not very different. But they don't have tails. Khajiiti look like humanoid cats or perhaps tigers. There's also a reptilian race, the Argonians; more about them another day, I hope.) Each of the playable races in the game has its own benefits, and a Khajiit is inherently more sneaky, as is good and proper for a cat person. They also have a hand to hand bonus thanks to their claws and feline reflexes. I capitalized on this, giving him both sneak and hand-to-hand as primary skills. I also gave him marksman, the bow skill.
Sneaking gives you a bonus or critical hit. It is "only" double damage early in the game, but increases to triple damage as your skill goes up. For close-range damage the bonus is up to six times, quite deadly, but you have to be exceptionally skilled to get that close, or use magic all the way. (And even then some creatures have magic that sees through illusion magic, as is good and proper.) Sneaking up to bow range however is fairly easy. You can begin practicing that in the tutorial dungeon, and the sneak skill rises pretty fast in the beginning. Sneaking is particularly effective at night or in dark places like abandoned forts, dungeons and elven ruins. The towers of Oblivion are also largely shadowy places, although not all places equally. This becomes important, as the hellish pocket universes of Oblivion play a big role in the game. At least the way I play the game, and they did give it the name after all.
The problem is that sneaking is not much help out on the road, and there is a lot of unfriendly wildlife and highway robbers there too. The game is programmed in such a way that you mostly meet opposition around your own level. The rationale is that if the level difference is too large, you would avoid them or they would avoid you. It is of course really done to maintain a gameplay that is neither too frustrating nor too boring. (You can also adjust this somewhat yourself using the difficulty slider.) Your level is decided by how much you improve your primary skills. Once they rise ten times, you gain a level, and so do your opponents from the next encounter onward. If your skills are combat related, this makes perfect sense. You get better at fighting, and so do they. But if you improve your sneak skill with ten points, this helps you nothing out on the road in bright daylight. So you are effectively one level weaker than your opponent for each 10 sneak skill you gain. In the dark, however, your odds do improve by sneaking. I guess coding the game to consider this would make it more complicated than today's machines could handle. Or perhaps more than today's programmers could handle. The game definitely grew harder in daylight as Catboy leveled up.
Marksman has a similar problem: Combined with sneak skill you get off a great first shot, but after that the bow does less damage than other weapons, and it cannot be used with a shield (though you can change to a shield fairly quickly during battle). Once you're cornered, your sneak and bow skills are not much help. Luckily blocking and hand-to-hand still work, but it was still rather unpleasant.
Rumor has it that when your sneak skill approaches the maximum, you can walk right up to high-level enemies and take them down with a single attack. Especially hand-to-hand, which supposedly becomes very deadly at high levels. I have not come that far with Catboy, and probably never will. It was interesting, but being a sneaky person does not come naturally to me. (I tend to avoid them in multiplayer games as well, as I just don't feel comfortable with striking from the shadows.) Also one of the main benefits of sneaking is that you make a good thief, but I never do that. My real-life distaste for this activity carries over to the game.
So I eventually made a third character more typical of me. But that's for another day, as I will have to introduce two other awesome user-made improvements to the game.
What I can say from my limited experience is that sneaking does indeed work, at least for Khajiiti. But specializing in it does carry a drawback in all other fights.
Visit the archive page for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.