Is there a tabletop, pen-and-paper RPG system that The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is based on?
Yes and no
There is no Elder Scrolls tabletop RPG that Morrowind is based on, but it is still based indirectly on a particular tabletop RPG and a certain setting: RuneQuest and Glorantha.
The connection is in the person of Ken Rolston. As Lead Designer, Rolston was the creative mind behind large portions of the mechanics and lore/setting of Morrowind. Before working on Morrowind, Rolston was a tabletop RPG writer and the line editor for the roleplaying game RuneQuest III. A long-time fan of the game beforehand, he worked on RQ III when it was owned by Avalon Hill. Prior to RuneQuest being owned by Avalon Hill though, it was the game that powered Chaosium's setting of Glorantha (as RuneQuest II).
Ken brought his experience writing and designing for RuneQuest and Glorantha with him when he left the RPG industry, and found himself as Lead Designer of Besthesda Softworks' major new title The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. Prior to Morrowind, the Elder Scrolls games were much more D&D-ish — like every other CRPG made before.
Many elements of Glorantha and RuneQuest show in The Elder Scrolls games mechanics and setting. To fans of both the TES games and universe and of RuneQuest and Glorantha, the connections are glaring. Some of them are exactly the same, like the percentile skills divided into four groups of 25.
Setting wise: The lack of or non-standard portrayal of typical fantasy races, the detailed and unusual cosmology, the porous barriers between the world of the gods and the mortal world, a focus on deep historical lore and historical figures as the driver of the setting, deeply-explored racial and cultural conflicts and tensions, the barrenly unique and non-European landscape and society, the presence and even style of the Empire from the continent's centre occupying the country — all of these are elements of Glorantha that are mirrored in large and small ways in Morrowind.
Mechanics wise: The skill-based advancement, percentile skills divided into four levels of competency of 25 points each, the ubiquity of minor magic and the way everyone (even “fighters”) can cast at least a few small spells, guilds and political factions as a major route of mechanical character advancement, piecemeal armour, crystals as sources of power, the focus on PCs' stories being myth-entwined world-changing heroes, skills advancing by being used, being able to find skill trainers scattered around the world — these elements of RuneQuest II/III mirrored in the game mechanics of Morrowind.
The major element of Morrowind's character system not taken from RuneQuest is that RQ doesn't bother with levels — you just improve your skills and get better that way. This isn't surprising though: Morrowind doesn't really need levels except for the game to figure out how tough to make your enemies, so adding it to Morrowind's character system was a design convenience. In RuneQuest, the GM can judge the difficulty of your enemies more intelligently, and so RQ has no need to assign PCs an arbitrary level and doesn't bother. (Arguably, Morrowind also included levels because video gamers expected a CRPG to have levels, since every other CRPG did, and it was a marketing decision as much as a design one.) Another minor difference is that in RQ, you don't really (or really need to) improve your non-skill ability scores like you do in Morrowind.
When I first started reading about RuneQuest and Glorantha, I had already been a long-time fan of the Elder Scrolls universe, and I knew nothing of the relationship between the two. Reading Glorantha's “bible” — The Guide to Glorantha — I kept noticing how similar it was to my favourite video game setting. Later I read RuneQuest II and was struck again by how it seems like a twin to the mechanics of the TES games. Only then did I learn of the Ken Rolston connection and it became clear — these weren't mere coincidences at all, they were deliberate homages and imitation-as-flattery design choices. Morrowind seemed like it could be a setting almost perfectly designed for RuneQuest II/III adventuring because it was designed with RuneQuest in mind, and the setting seemed like an alternate-universe version of Glorantha because is was.
Morrowind is both its own original creation and also an adoring love letter to Glorantha and RuneQuest. If you're looking for the tabletop origin of Morrowind, you'll find it there.
Morrowind was not based on any particular tabletop RPG. There are elements of Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, Vampire: The Masquerade, and possibly RuneQuest, as well as any other tabletop RPGs the development team happened to have played at the time while developing Morrowind and its predecessors, but these aren't the basis for the game. Its direct basis was the previous game in the Elder Scrolls main series, Daggerfall. The level design was also heavily based on the previous spin-off game in the Elder Scrolls series, Redguard, which was released between Daggerfall and Morrowind.
Arena, the first The Elder Scrolls (TES) game, was constructed more-or-less from scratch, but had some influence from various tabletop games. It was originally intended to be a combat simulator, with players fighting in literal arenas as a team, but was later converted to an RPG.
(What was the main inspiration behind the the first TES chapter?)
Julian, Vijay, and I were all long-time pen-and-paper role-players, and fans of the Looking Glass Ultima Underworld series, which was certainly our main inspiration. There was another game that came out while we were working on Arena called Legends of Valour, which was a free-form first-person perspective game that took place in a single city. It got pretty pitiful reviews and not many people bought it, but I really had fun with it. It's completely forgotten nowadays, but I probably logged more hours playing it than any other game.1
This is also seen in an ad for Arena.
Inspired by such games as Ultima Underworld and the unheralded Legends of Valour, Arena was now seen as a massive first-person RPG -- the game that recreated the pen-and-paper RPG experience -- be who you want and do what you want.2
The same ad confirms the world of Tamriel was based on a Dungeons and Dragons campaign the development team played in. As far as I know, it was a homebrew world, not published by anyone associated with D&D.
The world used for Arena was Tamriel, the fantasy world created by a few members of the staff for use in their weekly D&D campaign.2
Daggerfall made a lot of changes to Arena. The most notable from an RPG mechanics perspective were transitioning from the "kill monster, get experience, level up to gain power" mentality to the "use skills, level them up, better skills makes you powerful" mentality, and allowing custom classes to be created by picking your own primary skills, advantages and disadvantages. These systems were influenced by GURPS with the addition of advantages and disadvantages.
Julian and I had decided to go with a skill-based advancement system rather than Arena's kill-the-monster-and-advance system, so each of the classes had been assigned different skill sets. Given that, it made sense to allow players to create their own classes assigning their own skills. Then, thinking about GURPS, we added additional bonuses and special abilities and disabilities that the player could assign.1
There were also more RPG aspects added, like the ability to buy houses and a ship, or become a werewolf or vampire. Oddly,
turning into a vampire and a werewolf and buying boats and property and all that stuff were essentially "Easter Eggs" in the game. We didn't mention any of that in the manual or in previews... They were just things to reward the player if he kept on playing...3
Other than the class changes, Daggerfall's updates weren't necessarily based on anything particular, though there are elements of Vampire: The Masquerade and the Dungeons and Dragons campaign the team was playing.
(The games and literature that influenced you when writing it?)
Daggerfall was written continuously over a course of two years, so whatever I -- or Julian -- was reading or playing at the time probably had some influence. I think, for example, The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas influenced the quest where the player had to find the missing Prince of Sentinel. The pen-and-paper game Vampire: The Masquerade influenced the idea of vampire tribes throughout the region. We actually ran a Dungeons & Dragons campaign while creating the backstory for the game, some of the stories of which ended up in quests and books.
I don't think any computer games influenced Daggerfall very much ... Computer role-playing games weren't very interesting while we were working on Daggerfall. I can remember playing the latest King's Quest, Doom, and Sam and Max Hit the Road while working on it, but I can't say they had any profound impact on the story or design.1
As SevenSidedDie elaborates in his answer, one of the major writers for RuneQuest, Ken Rolston, became lead designer for Morrowind. A number of internet forum posts note similarities between Morrowind and RuneQuest, so it's likely certain elements of the computer game are based on Ken's experiences with the tabletop game.
However, given that most of Morrowind's design choices are just modified versions of what already existed in Daggerfall, it's a very large stretch to say Morrowind is "based on" RuneQuest.
We do see that the adventure game Redguard, which also had Ken Rolston on the team, influenced Morrowind's level creation. Arena and Daggerfall were largely procedurally generated, which allowed them to be enormous, but bland. Morrowind was hand-crafted, which took enormously more effort and only allowed a small island to be built, but has much more detail and nuance.
We had the goal of creating it all by hand, using similar techniques that we used on Redguard, which most of the team had just finished. Both Arena and Daggerfall had been created using algorithms that randomly built the world's areas. Doing this by hand was an enormous task that took us close to 100 man-years to create.4
As it came out after Morrowind, Oblivion obviously didn't influence the previous game. However, we still see elements of the Ultima franchise here.
"Ultima VII is still my favorite game," says Todd Howard, executive producer of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series. "It's hard not to look at Oblivion and see the Ultima influence."5
Morrowind is the third major game, and fifth game total, in an epic computer game series. Each game takes a lot of its systems from proceeding games, then modifies things based on contemporary knowledge to make the newest game better than the previous games.
It's clear that Morrowind ultimately has contributions from numerous tabletop games, video games, books, and other sources. But it would be very disingenuous to say Morrowind was based on a tabletop RPG.
1 Archive copy of Ted Peterson Interview I. Peterson was the lead designer for Arena and Daggerfall. Unfortunately, the original article was lost with Gamespy's demise.
2 Wayback Machine archive of an Arena page on TheElderScrolls.com. This is part of an official 10th anniversary promotion by Bethesda.
3 The Imperial Library, Ted Peterson Interview.
4 Wayback Machine archive of a Morrowind page on TheElderScrolls.com. Also part of the 10th anniversary promotion by Bethesda.
5 Chasing D&D article on 1UP.
The Elder Scrolls: Arena was a pretty generic port of a D&D-ish fantasy to a computer game. It lacked almost all of the unique aspects that have come to be part of The Elder Scrolls.
According to Michael Kirkbride, if memory serves, most of the lore was written by he, Ken Rolston,1 and Ted Peterson2 between An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire and The Elder Scrolls Adventure: Redguard, already with an eye towards The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Obviously, even The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall prior to that effort was much less generic than Arena.
But ultimately, the closest thing The Elder Scrolls has to a tabletop forebear is D&D itself, and everything not found in D&D was part of its own development over the course of many years.
My source for this is the large amount of time I once spent on Bethesda’s forums discussing The Elder Scrolls. I am basing these statements on what I can remember of forum posts by Michael Kirkbride and Ted Peterson.
Whose work on Paranoia may be better known on this site.
Namesake of Sheogorath.
Unlike other RPG games like Bioware's Neverwinter Nights, which is based off of Dungeons & Dragons 3.x, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is not based off of any particular RPG. It was designed wholesale to meet the needs of the computer game.
There are persistent internet rumors that the first game in the series, The Elder Scrolls: Arena, was based off of a homebrew AD&D campaign setting. There are a number of similarities between the two. For instance, both Arena and AD&D have attributes, but no skills. Arena also has armor that provides negative AC in a system pretty much exactly like THAC0.
However, I haven't been able to find a definitive statement from the developers confirming this inspiration or that the system was deliberately modeled after AD&D.