Modding Skyrim to Perfection

I’m a great fan of The Elder Scrolls games. Morrowind was the first role playing game I ever played, the first game I ever modded, and for a long time, my undisputed favorite across all genres and flavors. Then came Oblivion, which was the first game to keep me obsessed for a thousand hours and the first game (or any form of entertainment) that had me write fanfiction. It’s no exaggeration to say that these games changed my life, and I don’t mean just my “gaming life”.

So it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine that I had great expectations from Skyrim. It was to be larger, prettier and better than its predecessors in just about every way imaginable – and mostly it didn’t fail to deliver. Yet, even though I got it immediately upon release and tried playing it twice, I couldn’t get into it, and I never finished it.

It is only now, with more than a hundred mods installed, that I’m finally able to enjoy Skyrim the way I always hoped to.

Alternate Start – Live Another Life

Alternate Start makes it possible to start the game without starting the main quest. It might sound trivial, but it is in fact the biggest game changer among the mods I have; it’s the mod that saved Skyrim for me.

Alternate Start: escape your prison!
Alternate Start: escape your prison!

See, it is exactly the way Skyrim begins that put me off when I started it in the past. The idea that an anonymous convict of arbitrary background and morality, who escapes execution by pure chance, is then immediately and implicitly trusted to appear in front, influence and act in the name of local nobility/authority, lead the nation through a civil war and embark on the path to godhood tailored exactly for the task of saving the world from the obligatory threat of imminent destruction, all in the first few hours of playing — just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. Not after seeing that “epic” can be done without such crap just fine in games like Gothic, Dragon Age and The Witcher. The beginning of Skyrim is so rife with the worst sort of idiotic genre stereotypes that it was impossible for me to get into it later.

But with the beginning removed — it’s a totally different story. With Alternate Start, you get to pick one of a number of starting circumstances for your character, covering everything from being a landowner to being left for dead by bandits. Depending on what you choose, the game places you at an appropriate place in the world and supplies you with appropriate starting funds and equipment. You can then happily play through what seems to be at least 75% of the game content that’s virtually untouched by the main quest. That’s a lot! Quite astonishing, when you think about it. I played for nearly a hundred hours this time around before I even contemplated starting the main quest, and found practically nothing missing. And when eventually I did start it, it seemed nowhere near as stupid and jarring as it was originally, given that my character was a person of some renown already, so the blind trust and the assumption of extraordinary abilities made a bit more sense.

Definitely a mod I can’t imagine playing this game without; in fact, I can now well imagine playing it again, just so I could try out some other Alternate Start.

Immersion mods

These would be various mods that make the game more realistic, life-like and in theory, more difficult. The value they have for me is making different phenomena already present in vanilla game make more sense. In no particular order:

Hypothermia introduces exposure effects such as loss of stamina, temporary skill penalties, increased likelihood of contracting diseases and eventually, loss of health and death if you spend too much time in cold or wet weather without adequate protection. In vanilla game, I suppose this would come down to clothing and armor, but it so happens that there are two excellent mods that add variety and even more realism to the situation:

Cloaks of Skyrim adds a wide selection of textile and leather cloaks in all the colors of the gritty Skyrim rainbow, that can be crafted, bought or found throughout the game as loot and on NPCs, including some well-placed unique pieces. And then there’s Winter is Coming, that does the same with amazingly beautiful fur cloaks. This one in particular adds so much atmosphere to the game, it’s impossible to imagine playing without it.

Winter is coming: fur cloaks and hoods
Winter is Coming: fur cloaks and hoods

Together with these I must also mention FootprintsWet and Cold, and Wonders of Weather, which add various weather-related effects, from visuals of footprints in the snow and foggy breath in the cold, to a tangible decrease of movement speed when in a snow-storm, that make Skyrim winter an impressive and rounded experience.

iNeed — Food, Water and Sleep makes it necessary to eat, drink and rest on a regular basis, and introduces various temporary effects on both sides of the spectrum of taking good and poor care of your character. With so many food and drink items, and even cooking recipes present in vanilla game, a mod such as this deepens immersion by making all that clutter useful. But more importantly, it adds a whole new layer of inventory and time management; you can’t just go on for three game-days roaming through some dungeon, or ride for days and nights from one end of the world to another without a moment’s respite.

Enhanced Lights and FX
Enhanced Lights and FX

Combined with Enhanced Lights and FX,  which, among other wonderful things, makes nights a lot darker (dark enough to make travel impossible in bad weather), the need to sleep soon imposes a certain diurnal tempo that feels very natural and appropriate. I set up iNeed so that I need a drink of water roughly 3 times a day, something to eat roughly 2 times a day, and get tired once a day, at which point I’ll either rent a room in an inn (making the inns useful as well!) if I’m in a settlement, set up my tent and start a fire (that I can use to cook food and keep Hypothermia at bay!) provided by the excellent Camping Lite if I’m outdoors, or roll out my Craftable and Placeable Bedroll if I’m in a safe spot in a dungeon or inside a friend’s home. It just works so well together, I wouldn’t dream of playing the game any other way.

Interesting NPCs

Interesting NPCs adds more than 250 new, unique, fully voiced NPCs to the game, many of whom offer quests or can be brought along as followers. I’m usually suspicious about fan-added dialogue, even more so if it’s voiced, but this trailer convinced me:

 

Not all of it is that good. Some voices are too quiet, some are accented too heavily to ignore, and some are over-acted. But these are the exceptions; as a rule, the only way to tell an NPC is mod-added is from the number and complexity of dialog options (vanilla Skyrim keeps it quite simple in that regard). From what I’ve seen so far (and I’ve met quite a few of them), the writing is impeccable, the dialogue often gets genuinely interesting, and the acting is as good as or better than what vanilla  game offers. While not a mod I couldn’t live with, it’s certainly an excellent and valuable expansion.

Inconsequential NPCs

Inconsequential NPCs, on the other hand, adds a large number of unnamed, nondescript, entirely stereotypical NPCs of the sort we’re used to seeing in other games in the genre: Patrons, Merchants, Mercenaries, Hunters and so on. True to what their titles suggest, these NPCs have appropriate AI and follow logical daily schedules, but typically have nothing to say to you – and that’s just as well. They make the city streets and inns look busier and the occasional encounters make the wilderness less lonely. It’s a great expansion that does much for the atmosphere despite being manifestly inconspicuous.

Lively Followers

In vanilla game, various NPCs that you can either hire or otherwise get to follow you and help you fight (to wit, “followers”) have a very single-minded AI: they go where you go an fight when you fight. When you stop to, say, trade or talk to someone, they will just stand still interminably and do nothing at all, which gets old very quickly. Lively Followers fixes this by giving them a slightly more complex AI that kicks in when you’re either standing idle, or tell them to wait for you. With the mod, they will explore the environment and interact with it in (mostly) appropriate ways. If there’s a place to sit, they will do that; if there’s a fire nearby, they will warm their hands, and if there’s a cooking spit, they will stir the stew! Sometimes they will interact with objects that aren’t really meant for it; for example, if they come across an altar, they will… preach, or something that looks like it. And their patrolling sometimes gets in the way. But these are very minor annoyances that don’t really bother me. The shear amount of life this mod infuses into recruitable NPCs is more than worth it, especially since I almost never travel alone.

Open Cities

Like vanilla Oblivion, vanilla Skyrim hides its cities inside walled-off separate “worlds” that you travel to through load-doors much like when you enter and exit an interior. Open Cities (by the same brilliant modder who authored the mod with the same name for Oblivion) changes this by literally copy-pasting the entire city-worlds into the main game-world, so that you can enter and exit them without loading. It may sound like a simple, perhaps even a silly thing, but the impact it has on gameplay and the whole experience of the game is huge, and needless to say, overwhelmingly positive.

Open Cities: gates of Windhelm
Open Cities: gates of Windhelm

For example, without Open Cities, you can’t ride your horse through city gates — you must dismount and leave it behind because the load-doors won’t transport horses. This becomes more than an aesthetic consideration when coupled with the ability to load some of your stuff on your horse, thanks to another must-have mod, Convenient Horses. I shudder at the thought of having to take all the treasure I wish to sell off my horse in front of the city gates, then sloooowly walk encumbered all the way to some merchant within the walls, and the way these things work, perhaps do it several times per visit. The horror!

Open Cities: Whiterun from above
Open Cities: Whiterun from above

From the workshop of the same author comes a whole series of inconspicuous expansions for several smaller settlements as well: Shor’s Stone, Ivarstead, Darkwater CrossingKynesgrove, and an office for the Provincial Courier Service. I can’t even say without looking at the detailed descriptions what exactly these mods do, except that they add houses and other establishments expected in Skyrim towns; this might seem like a rather lame recommendation, but it is in fact the greatest compliment I could give to a mod of this sort. These mods blend with the original game so perfectly you won’t even notice they’re there. Which is actually the point of modding a game in the first place, at least in theory.

Cosmetic mods

In this final category are the many, many mods I run whose sole purpose is to make the game look prettier. I have numerous mods that improve meshes and textures, character skin, hair and apparel, flora and fauna, ground and mountains and the clouds themselves! It would take me as much text as I’ve written so far just to enumerate all of them with the most superficial descriptions, so I’ll just leave my entire list of mods here for anyone interested.

A screenshot from my game.
A screenshot from my game.

Mods I made, or wish I could make, on my own

Skyrim is several years old already, and with the excellent Creation Kit and a huge community of modders inherited from Oblivion and Morrowind, there are very few things that can be imagined that haven’t already been modded into the game.

Among such things is, oddly enough, mounted spellcasting. I’d pay real currency for a mod that does it, since it’s well beyond my modding abilities, and it’s a very jarring thing to miss. There’s no obvious reason why it wasn’t implemented in the same official add-on that introduced mounted combat. It’s hard to think of a sillier thing than dismounting your horse to cast the candlelight spell, then mounting again, just to repeat the whole thing a minute later when the light goes out. Sorely needed!

Another thing I’d like to have is a mod that lets you send your followers on simple quests. Say I finish some task for an NPC who lives far away, and all I have to do to complete the quest is report back to them. What I’d like is to tell my trusty housecarl to go and deliver the report in my stead. I have a vague idea how one would go about achieving this, and it might not be impossible for me to do, but I’d have to dig pretty deep into the Creation Kit, and I’m not sure I’ll have the patience and energy for that any time soon.

An even simpler thing that I know how to do (but haven’t gotten to doing it yet), is to expand the vanilla room-renting system so that a room in an inn can be taken not just for a day, but for a week or a month, or three. This could include a safe storage chest and a key to the room, so that random NPCs wouldn’t march in and out of it at will whilst you sleep (the way they do now).

The two mods that I’m actually working on are both connected to lighting. The first one, “Streetlights”, aims to add lights with plausible sources (lanterns, torches and the like) to town and city exteriors that lack them, and save them from the total darkness they drown in at night thanks to other realistic lighting mods I’m running. This is a braindead simple mod and it’s well under way. I may even release it some day.

Streetlights
Streetlights

The other one, “Hearthfire Lights and FX”, is an effort to enhance the lighting in player homes introduced by the official add-on Heartfires, so that the meticulously arranged and extremely useful interiors of these homes would look at least somewhat like the rest of the game, that’s been modded with the abovementioned other realistic lighting mods. This has proven to be more of a challenge than I’d anticipated because these homes are quite huge, and there are only so many light sources the engine can handle without going stupid. However, I hope to get it done with the help of some not-so-trivial scripting.

Heartfire Lights & FX
Heartfire Lights & FX

In a way, modding Skyrim is a game of its own. It took me a couple weeks of research and many trials to decide which mods work for me, and to set them all up to work as advertised and not destabilize the game (too much). This was just as fun and exciting as finally diving into the game itself, and I remain on the lookout for new mods to make my Skyrim even better.

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