Returning To Skyrim: Mod Time

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I always intended to return to Skyrim. While I spent a lot of time playing it not long after release, and wrote several posts about it here on this blog, there are lots of things I never did in the game. I joined the Thieves’ Guild, but not the Companions or the mage’s College of Winterhold or any of the other factions in the game. I explored many parts of the province of Skyrim, but never set foot in two of the cities. And not only did I not tackle the game’s main storyline, I never even battled a single one of its supposedly infinite dragons. I’d planned to start again with a new character, but decided to take a break first, and then never seemed to have the time to go back.

Eventually I realized that if I didn’t play it again soon, I never would. I’m not sure exactly why I made that decision now; with the remastered Special Edition of the game releasing next month, it would seem to make sense to just wait for that, but it seemed like a bigger deal for the console versions of the game. On PC, the new art isn’t a huge improvement over the original, and there are already a slew of graphical tweaks and enhancements available from the mod community anyway. Plus, I wasn’t sure I liked the golden cast over all the new screenshots. A harsher, whiter light seemed more appropriate for the wintry land of Skyrim.

So I decided to just go for it, and start playing now. But this time, I planned to use a lot more mods.

Mods are user-made modifications, which can do anything from tiny cosmetic changes to updated graphics to new game systems to entirely new standalone games (like the recent Enderal). For my next Skyrim character, I was inspired by this guide, which lists a bunch of mods that add survival elements into Skyrim, making cold temperature a real threat and requiring players to prepare properly for extended journeys. But that guide is already out of date. Here I document my own modding, mostly based off that guide but updating it and adding a few other things. Plus a bunch of troubleshooting I had to do.

First off, when I reinstalled Skyrim (which automatically included the official High Resolution Texture Pack this time!), it remembered the mods I’d used before and automatically loaded them for me. I didn’t have many. One is just a simple mod that made my character walk at the same speed as everyone else, eliminating awkward situations where I was asked to follow someone and had to do so in short spurts instead of just walking naturally. Another mod tried to force the special finishing moves in the game to only happen in first-person view, since it was jarring having the game suddenly switch to third-person all the time, but it no longer seems to work (more on this later). I had SkyUI, of course, as it’s an essential improvement to the game’s inventory and magic interface. Finally I had a mod called Realistic Colors and Real Nights, which tweaks the color scheme for Skyrim and makes dungeons and nights a little darker. I planned to replace that last mod with something new based on recommendations in the guide I’m following.

Unfortunately, Skyrim did not remember all the tweaks I made to the .ini files. Fortunately I had anticipated this eventuality, and, before uninstalling the game after I stopped playing last time, I made backups of my .ini files. Strangely, however, using my backups now did not seem to fix the ugly in-game shadows that I found so annoying. This led to more googling, and revealed that in the intervening years users had done lots of testing and made much clearer guides for what all the .ini settings do. This led me to a bunch of other tweaks. It also revealed that I should leave depth of field enabled, since it’s used for underwater effects and other things. Usually I dislike depth of field, since it makes certain parts of a scene look out of focus, which I find maddening. If I’m looking at something, it should be in focus; eyes do not work like movie cameras. In Skyrim’s case, however, the effect is not overused like it is in some games, and seems limited to things like views underwater or through heavy rainstorms. In those cases, the blurring actually looks nice, since it simulates conditions where it’s hard to see. So I’m actually glad to have it back.

Still, none of this fixed the shadows. My original edits were the right ones to make, but it wasn’t sticking for some reason. It wasn’t until much later, after I’d been playing for a while and got my character to level 14 or so, that I tried tweaking the shadow settings again and they suddenly worked. Go figure.

Anyway, after getting my .ini files sorted (except for those shadows, which I fixed later), it was time to install some mods. The first step was to make sure that I had the latest version of the Skyrim Script Extender, or SKSE. Before, I had to install this separately and then make a special shortcut to run Skyrim, but it was worth it since it let me use SkyUI which is so much better than the default interface. Now, it turns out SKSE has been added to Steam and I could install it and forget about it, safe in the knowledge that it would always auto-update to the latest version. Now I could install some mods that use the extra functionality from SKSE. Last time, I’d only used mods from the Steam Workshop, which are nicely integrated into Steam and therefore easy to install. But not all the mods I want to use are available in the Workshop, so I had to set myself up to use Nexus Mods instead.

Once set up, Nexus Mods are just as easy to manage as Steam Workshop mods, but they offer a higher level of customization. It seems most mod authors prefer Nexus Mods and there are many mods that are only offered there. Getting this started takes a little effort; one must sign up for an account and install the Nexus Mod Manager. But once that was done, things were easy. Simply find a mod on the Nexus website, click “download with NMM” and it automatically loads the Nexus Mod Manager to download and install the mod, letting you tweak settings and load order as needed. Plus, it works fine in combination with mods from the Steam Workshop, so there’s no need to rely exclusively on one or the other.

I came to Nexus Mods for the mods by Chesko. He has a series of survival-focused mods that slot neatly into Skyrim without altering too much, and which have a healthy respect for the lore and worldbuilding that Bethesda put into the game. The anchor for these mods is Campfire, a camping mod that lets player build campfires and craft (or buy) camping equipment like tents, cooking pots and more. It’s a prerequisite for Chesko’s more famous mod, Frostfall (named after one of the months of the in-game calendar, just as the official Hearthfire DLC is). This mod models the dangers of being cold and damp, monitoring a player’s exposure in the harsh conditions of Skyrim. Players must wear warm clothing or armor to protect from the cold, and be careful to dry off when wet (by, for instance, building a campfire). The ambient temperature varies depending on one’s location in Skyrim. In warmer areas, it’s more important to keep dry in the rain, and certain clothing and tents are better for this, but in the snowy northern holds or at high altitude, warmth is the main concern.

Skyrim is also colder at night, which works nicely with another mod I installed, Realistic Needs and Diseases. This mod adds hunger, thirst, and tiredness to the game, so my character will need to eat, drink and get enough sleep. Cold nights are therefore a great time to build a campfire for warmth, use it to cook some dinner, and use a tent to get some rest. The mod also changes the way diseases work in the game, increasing the chances of being infected if sleeping in “dirty” places like bandit lairs, and provides a few new ways to cure diseases, including eating certain healthy foods. I like the idea for this mod, as I was in the habit of having my character eat meals and sleep at night when I first played, even though there was no in-game reason to do so (beyond a small “well rested” bonus). It also runs on in-game time, so it’s OK to slow the timescale to allow for longer days (I use a setting of 7.5, meaning one real hour is 7.5 in-game hours; the default is 20). Apparently, Chesko is working on his own needs mod, to be called Last Seed (in keeping with the month naming theme), but it’s not released yet. From what I’ve seen, the plan is to have a different design that focuses more on rewards for staying in good health rather than punishments for not eating or sleeping enough. It sounds cool, maybe I’ll be able to try it out (possibly with another new character?) sometime soon.

Next, since I’m planning on trekking through harsh conditions, I install Climates of Tamriel, which adds a whole bunch of new weather effects, including some spectacular sunsets. I also install Wet and Cold, a cosmetic mod that provides visual effects when people are wet or cold, including visible breath incold weather and even ice and frost clinging to clothing. Lastly, I get rid of Realistic Colors and Real Nights in favor of Realistic Lighting Overhaul, as recommended in the guide.

I start playing, but don’t really get to see the mods in action until I make it through the tutorial section at the start of the game. At this point, I realize that most mods aren’t even on. In recent versions of SkyUI, mods can be adjusted from the in-game mod configuration menu, which is hugely helpful. I activate Campfire and Frostfall, and everything seems to go smoothly. I head in the direction of the nearby village of Riverwood. A message appears on the screen, informing me that I see dark clouds on the horizon. Soon enough, it starts to rain, and it’s not long before my character is drenched. Fortunately, Riverwood isn’t far, and I manage to make it to town and dry off by the fire in a friendly resident’s home.

I try using their cooking pot and realize that Realistic Needs and Diseases has overhauled the food available to cook. Generally, they require more ingredients to cook, and offer varying levels of satiation and often some bonus effects. I like this, as I enjoyed cooking food the first time I played and now there’s more incentive to gather ingredients for the more complicated recipes. Otherwise, however, the mod is remarkably low profile. On SkyUI’s Mod Configuration Menu I can change settings for everything, including rates are which my character will get hungry, thirsty, and tired, as well as rates at which food of various types will spoil, and I can set a single hotkey to check my status. This will briefly display whether my character is hungry, thirsty, tired, or drunk, before disappearing again and falling into the background. Audio cues like a cough or a yawn will indicate that I should check my status as my character has likely become thirsty or tired. Otherwise, it’s not intrusive at all.

I quickly pick up one of the first quests in the game, which involves crossing the river and climbing a small mountain to find and deal with a bandit gang holding out up there. But it’s still raining, so I decide to spend the night in town first. When it’s still raining in the morning, I decide to just go for it. I know from my last character that this place isn’t far, so hopefully I’ll be able to make it before exposure becomes a problem. My character is drenched before long, and as she climbs the mountain she gets colder and colder. She runs into some bandits, but they’re not the ones she’s looking for; these ones have merely taken up residence in an abandoned watchtower. While looting their stuff, my character starts freezing. These bandits don’t have a fire built and I lack the supplies to build my own, so I have to keep moving. When I finally reach my objective, my character is freezing to death. There are bandits guarding the entrance, even in this freezing rain, so I frantically fight them off. I have to get inside as soon as possible. My character’s skills have all suffered due to, you know, freezing to death, so it’s a miracle she’s able to fell the guard. Someone else is shooting arrows from somewhere, but I don’t care. I run inside the barrow. There are two more bandits inside, but they’ve built a fire! I rush them, spewing magical fire from my left hand and taking desperate swings at them with the mace in my right. My character guzzles healing potions to stay alive. Eventually the bandits fall, and I’m able to warm up by their fire. A much closer call than I expected. I have an easier time later on, when I’ve found warmer armor and supplies to build campfires to keep warm and dry. But I love the tension that Campfire and Frostfall add to the game. They can be ignored while exploring dungeons and doing similar adventurer things, but really spice up travel through the countryside.

Later, after it had rained for three straight days, I began to suspect that I had an incompatibility problem with my mods. I’m not sure exactly what it was that fixed it, but I think it’s related to lighting mods. As I played, I began to be dissatisfied with Realistic Lighting Overhaul, and looked for something to replace it. While I like the idea of dungeons actually being dark, Realistic Lighting Overhaul makes everything TOO dark. Including houses. When I first arrived in Riverwood, I was invited into someone’s home and sat at the table discussing my situation with him and his family. Except I couldn’t even see them in the gloom. I’d installed Chesko’s Wearable Lanterns mod so I could have a light source for exploring dungeons while keeping my hands free for fighting, but I found myself using it while inside inns and shops just as often as in dungeons, which seems a bit silly. I consider going back to Realistic Colors and Real Nights, but looking at screenshots and videos of it now I find I’m less impressed by the changes to the color palette. So I tried using Climates of Tamriel’s optional indoors and dungeons settings. These darken things, but not as much as Realistic Lighting Overhaul. The problem is that Climates of Tamriel accomplishes this by simply darkening the screen, which means my lantern and torches are less effective at lighting things up. That somewhat defeats the purpose of making dungeons darker. On the plus side, fiddling with these mods seemed to fix the weather problems and I began to see weather other than rain, which is good. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid any more weather issues after that.

I still wanted to tweak the lighting, so I did more research into lighting mods. My friends, I have been down the rabbit hole. There are tons of mods changing lighting, each with its own fervent adherents, and much of the information available online is out of date, since most mods have undergone numerous changes and updates over the years. It seems the most popular are Realistic Lighting Overhaul (which I’d already discounted), Enhanced Lights and FX, and Relighting Skyrim. Enhanced Lights and FX looks promising, but the author only provides it for the Legendary Edition of Skyrim (i.e. for those who own both the Dawnguard and Dragonborn official DLC). I haven’t played nearly enough Skyrim to justify spending $40 on expansions, just to get some cool lighting now. It’s frustrating, since the mod used to work for Skyrim without the DLC, but that version is no longer available. So I take a look at Relighting Skyrim.

At first, I’m disappointed, as it looks very similar to the unmodded game, i.e. very bright. But I begin to appreciate the subtle things it does. Mainly, it moves light sources to correspond to actual light sources in the game. Unmodded, lights often come from the middle of a room rather than from the burning braziers on each side, for example. The fix is not easily noticeable but actually looks quite nice. And eventually I realize that I appreciate actually being able to see. Dungeons are still a bit bright for my tastes, but I still have to resort to my lantern on occasion, and for towns it simply makes sense that interiors are bright enough to navigate. Most players seem to use Relighting Skyrim in combination with another mod called Enhanced Lighting for ENB, but I’m not sure why. Comparison shots of Enhanced Lighting for ENB versus the unmodded game showed improvement in some cases, and worsening in others, to my eyes. Of course, all of these lighting options are matters of personal preference, so players must make their own decisions.

OK, but what is ENB, you might ask? After all, the mod seems to indicate that it’s primary function is for use with ENB. That’s a good question, and it’s difficult to find a good answer anywhere. It seems like ENB should stand for something, but I was unable to find out what it is. The best explanation I found is that an ENB is a type of graphical mod, based off the work of a specific modder, that is available for many different games. Even just for Skyrim, there are tons of ENBs available, and they change all sorts of things about the visuals, including adding entirely new visual effects. I’d heard about these mods the first time I played the game, and I’d already decided that I wouldn’t dabble in them. Not only do I wish to respect much of the art design that went into the original game, I also realized that picking the perfect ENB would be an never-ending endeavor. Plus, they often cause a significant hit to performance. I’ve upgraded some of my hardware since playing the game for the first time, but I’m still using the same aging processor, and do occasionally get drops in my framerate while exploring outdoors. Adding an ENB on top of that might reduce performance to unplayable levels.

So, my final decision was to use Relighting Skyrim for indoor areas, and keep Climates of Tamriel for the weather effects (a sidenote: for some reason, installing Relighting Skyrim from Nexus Mods didn’t work, so I grabbed it from Steam Workshop instead). I’m still using Climates of Tamriel’s optional setting to make nights darker, even though I suspect it uses the same method which would also make any of my own light sources dimmer. I haven’t spent much time exploring at night, so I haven’t yet decided if this is a problem for me or not. I should also note that in the process of my research I learned of many alternate weather mods championed by those who dislike Climates of Tamriel. One of the most popular is Purity, but after studying a video comparison, I decided that I’d stick to Climates of Tamriel. It seems to be a better match for the unmodded visuals of the game, plus it has a really nice skybox and beautiful sunsets, not to mention a huge number of new weather effects. Purity adds its own new weather effects, however, and I might try it out for a future run through the game, when I’ve seen more of Skyrim and might welcome a more drastic change to the visuals.

I do, however, decide to install Pure Waters, one of the mods that make up Purity (the latest version is exclusive to Purity, but an earlier standalone version is still available). This mod has been around for a long time, existing even when I first played Skyrim. At that time, I felt its changes to the way water looks were too drastic, and would make the land start to look out of place. I didn’t want to end up installing endless texture replacers for every part of the landscape. But now I find my opinion has changed. The default waters look OK in screenshots but Pure Waters looks much better in motion. And it doesn’t seem to affect performance at all. I also grab the waterfalls add-on to improve the look of the waterfalls in the game.

At this point I am mostly done, except for a few smaller mods. I get a few more of Chesko’s mods, including his Lore-Based Loading Screens and Simply Knock, a mod that lets players knock on doors of locked houses to see if anyone is home. I also grab his fishing mod, Art of the Catch, although I haven’t done much fishing so far. For fun, I install his Reflection mod, which brings back the inspirational level-up messages from Oblivion and Morrowind.

Lastly, I tackle the issue of the finishing moves in the game. I really dislike when they force a perspective switch from first-person to third-person, especially for ranged attacks, and the original mod I got for this purpose no longer works. At first I simply disabled these effects in an .ini file, but this solution is less than ideal since it also cuts out some of the first-person finishing moves and it seems to really mess up when dealing a killing blow to dragons. Finally I discover the VioLens mod, which is the ultimate finishing move mod. From the SkyUI Mod Confiruation Menu, I can manually set when different types of finishers occur, and importantly set the camera to “smart”, so it will only trigger first-person moves when playing in first-person and only third-person moves when playing in third-person. It’s perfect!

That’s what I have for mods at the moment. Oh, except for a small mod that removes quest markers from the in-game compass. I’m mostly satisfied, although my character recently became a werewolf and I was disappointed to discover that the game forces a third-person perspective while in wolf form. I’m going to try it like that for now, to see what the unmodded experience is like, but I have my eye on the Enhanced Camera mod, which wold not only allow first-person perspective while a werewolf, but also while doing various crafting activities. It also would let me look down to see my character’s body, which is a nice touch. Maybe I’ll add that later. It’s also worth keeping an eye on Chesko, who is still working on mods like Last Seed and updates to Frostfall and Campfire.

I’ll be sure to write about any other mods I happen to add as I play, as well as other thoughts I have during my new adventures in Skyrim. Stay tuned.

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