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The Must-Have Mods of Skyrim
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Date: Apr 17, 2012
Section:Misc
Author: Joel Hruska
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Introduction to Modding
It's only been five months since Skyrim hit store shelves, but the amount of work done on the game by both Bethesda and an army of modders has been enormous. With the Creation Kit now in the wild for several months, we've rounded up some of the best mods available and brought them for your consideration. We'll also walk you through the modding process and how to get started.

ProTip: If you re-map the "F" key in Skyrim's key bindings, the new key to assign a favorite is "A." This isn't explained or listed anywhere in game; we found it by accident.

What Makes a Mod 'Must-Have?



There are literally thousands of Skyrim mods available, ranging from small adjustments to NPC dialog or tone of voice, to expansive projects that alter core gameplay and introduce new spells and visual effects. We've prioritized mods that showcase the technical capabilities of the PC, provide a more balanced game experience, fix bugs, and improve Skyrim's UI. In some cases, particularly when it comes to customized post-processing filters, there is no definable "best" -- just the question of what players prefer.

The mods in each section are listed by the scope of their changes rather than being ordered from best to worst. A mod that changes the behavior of one NPC would be farther down the page than a mod that lets you play as Pinkie Pie, from My Little Pony. We've also noted which mods change gameplay and which do not.



Admit it: You thought we were kidding.

How To Get Started:

There are two basic ways to get started with Skyrim mods, and two main websites devoted to user-created content. If you bought the game through Steam, you can use the Steam Workshop. Login, Click on "Community," then "Workshop," and you'll see two games listed: Team Fortress 2 and Skyrim. Installing mods is as simple as clicking on "Subscribe" to a product that you want to download. Steam offers mods both individually and in collections.

The other method is to use the Skyrim Nexus website and the Nexus Mod Manager it offers. The Mod Manager offers players more control over how and when mods are loaded, as well as an organization function that automatically arranges mods in the order necessary for them to load properly. This last option is extremely useful for play testing and bug-fixing and it's what we primarily used for our own evaluation.

Skyrim Nexus has more mods available than Steam's Workshop as of this writing; a number of the projects we recommend aren't yet available on Steam. If you're interested in trying our recommendations via Steam, we've collected all of the available mods into a single package; available here. For the moment, Skyrim Nexus is a better option, though Steam's one-stop-updating is rather handy.
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UI and Bug Fixes
Unofficial Skyrim Patch - By Kivan & Mod Team



What it is: It's the Unofficial Skyrim Patch! (Currently v1.02 is in beta)
What it does:: Fixes things. Lots of them.
Does it change game balance?: Yes (indirectly)
Performance Impact: None
Download Location:  Steam / Skyrim Nexus

The Unofficial Skyrim Patch (USKP) is a collection of hundreds of bug fixes to virtually every aspect of the game. It adjusts item textures and meshes, fixes quest bugs, and cleans up errors in the game's skills, perks, and text. While some of these changes do impact game balance, virtually all of them are clearly bugs -- the Ebony Blade and Headsman's Axe, for example, were both treated as 1H weapons when it came to Perks, despite being 2H.

Virtually all the substantive changes were made because other in-game evidence indicated previous implementations were broken. This mod also contains a fix for the 'Invisible Hunting Bow' problem (most followers will refuse to equip even a vastly better bow in the vanilla game and would stick with a hunting bow that couldn't be seen/removed from their inventory.)

This mod is at the top of our list because it's the one we recommend you install, even if you eschew every other option. The developers have indicated that they'll remove fixes from the USKP as official versions are implemented. Until that happens, the Unofficial Skyrim Patch is the best way to clean up a staggering number of errors, from items that can't be upgraded correctly to randomly floating objects.


SkyUI - By SkyUI Team



What it is: Skyrim UI modification
What it does: Makes the game more playable (really)
Does it change game balance?: No.
Performance Impact: None
Download Location:  Steam / Skyrim Nexus

Skyrim's default UI is a questionable piece of work. It's not so bad at the beginning of the game, when you have virtually no gear, but it quickly becomes cumbersome and effectively impossible to organize. Items are displayed in alphabetical order, period. There's no ability to sort by weight, type, status, enchantment, or item value — and no searching. This makes it impossible to quickly manage things like encumbrance (the weight of your equipment); the only way to see item weights is to manually look at each and every item.


The default Skyrim UI is on the left; SkyUI is on the right

SkyUI fixes all of this. Its spreadsheet approach breaks items down by category and offers the option to sort them by various characteristics including weight, value, value/weight, damage, and armor. You can also search via direct text entry.

The difference is significant enough that we recommend SkyUI to any Skyrim PC player. It's not often that we'd say a user interface mod makes a game more fun, but this one does.

Headbomb's Better Sorting - By Headbomb



What it is: Skyrim UI modification
What it does: Sorts items more effectively
Does it change game balance?: No*
Performance Impact: None
Download Location: Not Available on Steam / Skyrim Nexus
* -- The mod can to change the weights of various in-game items, but this is a secondary function.

Headbomb's sorting mod organizes items in a more logically consistent way. Objects are sorted by type, followed by name -- arrows are "Arrow - Iron" and "Arrow - Elven" as opposed to "Iron Arrow" and "Elven Arrow." By default, Skyrim uses different names for potions that do the same thing depending on whether the pot is self-created or bought from a vendor. Headbomb's mod distinguishes whether a pot is bought or made via an asterisk, but renames them both the same thing -- "Fortify Marksman."

Potion strength is indicated by a number rather than a word; a "Potion of Minor Healing" becomes "Restore Healing - I." This sort of approach won't appeal to everyone, but it makes inventory management a good deal simpler than it is right now.
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Putting the War Back in Skyrim
Warzones - Civil Unrest - By MyGoodEye



What it is:
A project to create an actual civil war in Skyrim
What it does: Creates dynamic battlefields in multiple locations in-game.
Does it change game balance: No
Performance Impact: Varies
Download LocationNot Available on Steam / Skyrim Nexus

One of the most disappointing limitations in Skyrim is its portrayal of the civil war between the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks. The age and limited capabilities of the Xbox and PS3 made it difficult for Bethesda to model any sort of significant combat.

As a result, Skyrim is a remarkably peaceful place, even when a civil war is supposedly tearing it apart. Warzones changes this by implementing battlefields where the various forces are busy trying to slaughter each other. Who fights who is a function of Warzone and where you are in the main quest; we've seen clashes between Imperials and Stormcloaks, bandits and both of the main factions, elves and bandits, and Stormcloaks against undead.



The battles are more skirmishes than full-fledged invasions -- we'd wager the average conflict is between 10-15 NPCs -- but even this adds a sense of immersion that's sorely lacking in the original game. The various factions will engage third parties like dragons or giants if either puts in an appearance, which can lead to some rather awesome dragon fights.

While Warzones isn't meant to impact the game's storyline or quest completion in any way, the author notes that it's possible that the mod could make it more difficult to complete certain objectives and that the battlezones may not perfectly align with the comments various NPCs make about the war. Having experimented for a number of hours, we think the chance of a problem is minor and that the benefit more than outweighs a bit of odd lore.

We consider this to be one of the most important Skyrim mods when it comes to adding value to the PC version of the game. Even without true battlefield simulations of 100-200 individuals, Warzones makes Skyrim feel like a land at war in a way that the vanilla game simply can't.
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Graphics and Sound
Graphics mods for Skyrim can be split into two categories. The first class of graphics mods are post-processing and shader modifications. These change Skyrim's visual style but don't alter the meshes and textures of objects and effects. There are a huge number of post-processing mods for Skyrim -- this is one area where it's much more a question of what you, the player prefer rather than an issue of better vs. worse.

With that said, we've got an easy favorite.

Skyrim Enhanced Shaders FX - By Tapioks



What it is
: A shader/post-processor mod for Skyrim
What it does: Changes game lighting, offers FXAA, additional effects
Does it change game balance? No.
Performance Impact: Minimal
Download Location: Not Available On Steam / Skyrim Nexus

We've picked Skyrim Enhanced Shaders (SKES) out of all the available shader mods because we genuinely like it best -- but also because it offers superb documentation. This makes it a great post-processing modification for those new to the idea who want information on what various effects do and how they can be adjusted.

In the screenshots below, default Skyrim is on the left, Skyrim Enhanced Shaders ENB mode is on the right.



The mod is distributed in two forms, the default modifications (and the one we recommend) and a "Vanilla Plus" mode that's a more modest variation on Skyrim's standard visuals. It also includes a series of optional effects, including a DOS Game "8-bit style" that renders the game in a manner reminiscent of pre-3D accelerated Might and Magic titles, as well as an FXAA injector and a texture sharpening option. The entire mod can be toggled on and off via Shift-F12 without restarting the game. It's also distributed in a 'Performance Friendly' version for those with more modest computers.

 
 

We've played the game in all day/night modes and in a variety of dungeons. We prefer the color balance and special effects of the Skyrim Enhanced Shader mod in all cases.

Skyrim HD - 4K/2K Textures - By Nebula



What it is: A replacement project for the majority of Skyrim's textures.
What it does: Updates the game to look like something built for modern PCs
Does it change game balance? No
Performance Impact:  Varies
Download Location: Not Available On Steam / Skyrim Nexus


Bethesda's HRTP textures are on the left; the Skyrim HD versions are on the right

Skyrim HD (SHD) is a comprehensive update for game textures that improves enormously on the 256x256 and 512x512 textures Bethesda used in the original game. SHD's textures are noticeably more detailed than even Bethesda's official High Resolution Texture Pack (HRTP) and there's more of them.

This last is more important than you might think. While Bethesda's HRTP did improve on the original game, adding better textures in some areas but neglecting others makes the contrast between the two even more jarring. We've put together several comparisons between the HRTP and SHD below -- in all screenshots, the HRTP is on the left, SHD is on the right.



The HD Skyrim mod also uses normal maps to add the illusion of height

The one caveat to using SHD is that there's a performance hit for doing so. The mod is offered in two formats; a 4K maximum resolution and a 2K 'Lite' version. Bethesda's average texture size is ~1K, so even the Lite variant offers twice the detail. It's also possible to use both the SHD and HRTP together

Static Mesh Improvement ModBy Brumbek



What it is: An improvement pack for many of the game's smaller objects
What it does: Makes said objects look better -- often by making them round
Does it change game balance? No
Performance Impact:  None
Download Location: Steam / Skyrim Nexus



This mod might look like small potatoes -- but it actually does a lot more than just fix the ugly spuds. Here's a few more comparison screen shots; the overlaid comments are the work of the mod's author, Brumbek. Click to enlarge.







This mod is compatible with the Skyrim HD project and the Enhanced Shader mods discussed earlier this section.

Specialized Smaller Mods Worth Your Time:


The "Improved NPC Clothing Mod" can be used to further enhance game clothing. Left is the HD version, right is the mod

If you're looking for smaller projects that focus on more specific targets, we've got some recommendations there as well. There's a few too many of them to break out for individual discussion, but all of them are useful.
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Crafting
Complete Crafting Overhaul, Smithing Perks Overhaul, Weapons & Armor Fixes - By Headbomb




What They Are: A set of three complementary mods that fix a great many bugs to Skyrim's smithing
What They Do: Each repairs a specific section of the game.
Do They Change Game Balance:  No*
Performance Impact: None.
Download Locations:
Weapons & Armor Fixes: Not Available On Steam / Skyrim Nexus
Complete Crafting Overhaul: Not Available On Steam / Skyrim Nexus
Smithing Perks Overhaul: Not Available On Steam / Skyrim Nexus

*-- These mods makes certain changes to crafting capabilities that has a small impact on game balance.

This set of three mods addresses a major problem with Skyrim's smithing -- specifically, it's buggy as heck. According to the mod's author, roughly a third of the game's weapons and 31% of its armor is bugged. This means recipes meant to be in-game aren't available, some weapons require incorrect materials, and some items use the wrong skills for calculating damage.

These three mods impact game balance, insomuch as they enforce consistency across recipes and materials, as well as allowing the crafting of some items (arrows) that could previously only be purchased. The changes, however, make logical sense. If you want to craft Thieves Guild specific gear, for example, you'll need to join the Thieves Guild. Want to make Markarth-style armor? Become a Thane there.

This mod also adds the ability to craft arrows and adds an ingredient to smelting steel (charcoal). In order to ensure a supply of charcoal, firewood can now be "smelted" to create it.
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Gameplay & Balance
Unlike the rest of the mods we've covered in this article, the projects discussed here will change game balance. We've emphasized mods that improve the game's scaling at higher levels without distorting it or ruining the overall experience by making things too easy.

Enhanced High-Level Gameplay - By Eric



What it is: A mod that significantly improves high-level monster scaling
What it does: Most Skyrim monsters don't scale past 30. This mod fixes that problem.
Does it change game balance?: Yes.
Performance Impact: None
Download Location: Steam / Skyrim Nexus

Skyrim monsters are designed to scale alongside the player as you gain levels, but only to a certain point. Past lvl 30, the majority of monsters stop scaling, which makes the game much easier as time passes. Increasing the game's difficulty can help address this, but only to a point; 'Expert' difficulty makes monsters do 1.5x damage while you do 0.75x, 'Master' difficulty means mobs do 2x damage while you're stuck at 0.5x.

This works for a little while, but eventually you'll outscale it as well. The 'Enhanced' mod adds mobs that scale to lvl 45-60, with new names to differentiate them from the standard types. Regular bandits become "Bandit Elites," it's now possible to encounter bandit wizards (as one example), and loot tables were slightly tweaked to reflect higher levels.

Deadly Dragons: - By 3Jlou



What it is: A mod that makes dragon fights much more challenging
What it does: Modifies dragon behavior/stats; adds new craftables (optional)
Does it change game balance?: Yes (Varies)
Performance Impact: Minimal
Download Location: Not Available on Steam / Skyrim Nexus

Vanilla Skyrim's dragons are a bit of a push-over past level 25-30. Deadly Dragons addresses this by implementing resistances (Fire dragons are now highly resistant to fire, frost dragons to frost), they are much more difficult to stagger, and deal substantially more damage. At Master difficulty and with Deadly Dragons set to 'Hard' (presets are Normal, Hard, and Hardcore), a blast of dragon fire will kill you in 1-2 seconds if you've got no resist gear or other buffs.

The mod's settings can be tweaked from within the game; players have the option of adjusting dragon difficulty, setting Followers to Essential (undying) to prevent them from being sniped by dragon fire, and changing how frequently a random dragon encounter occurs.

Note: This mod also includes a number of new items to craft (the mats drop from the dragons themselves.) We have not evaluated this section of Deadly Dragons; the new craftables can be de-activated from within an in-game menu.

Balanced Magic: - By Mysty



What it is: A magic scaling / performance mod to improve magic in the end-game.
What it does: Changes magic perks, damage, and mana cost.
Does it change game balance?: Yes
Performance Impact: None
Download Location: Not Available on Steam / Skyrim Nexus

We hate to sound like broken records, but magic scaling is another area where Skyrim's vanilla design leaves much to be desired. Unlike melee players, who have a full range of item upgrades and useful stat-boosting magical enchantments, useful caster enchants are few and far between.

In the vanilla game, virtually the only useful caster enchant is "Reduces Mana Cost of Spell School (Destruction, Restoration, etc) by X%." There are no weapons that boost spell damage and +Mana/Mana Regeneration abilities are of limited use -- one of Skyrim Vanilla's rules is that your mana regenerates at 33% base rate when in combat.

There are no magic sneak attacks or power attacks. Unlike melee players, mages are also dependent on mana for both offensive and defensive capabilities, which makes stacking mana cost reduction enchants the only viable strategy at higher levels.

In the author's own words:  This mod attempts to address these issues without making Mages overpowered... the best spells should not necessarily do as much damage as well smithed, enchanted, and poisoned weapons would. If you want to be incredibly overpowered, this may not be the mod for you!"

Spells and perks have been redesigned to accommodate a wider variety of play styles

This turns virtually every fight into the same ritual of spanning spells and chugging pots. Balanced Magic also introduces some penalties along with its changes -- mages who wear armor now incur a % increase to mana cost for each item (Heavy armors are more expensive than Light).
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Audio
Sounds of Skyrim

 

What it is: An "expansion pack" of sound files for outdoor and dungeon environments
What it does: Improves the auditory experience
Does it change game balance? No
Performance Impact: None
Download Location: Steam (Wilds), Steam (Dungeons)  / Skyrim Nexus (Both)

Sounds of Skyrim (SoS) is a mod that adds a variety of subtle sound effects to the game. Tramp through the forest and you'll hear birds singing, while shrill Falmer voices and the sound of distant hammers echoes through a Dwemer ruin. SoS makes the game feel much more immersive.

In the videos below, the frequency and volume of the sound effects have been boosted to allow for quicker playback. In-game, the effects are appropriately integrated into the background of the game.





Wilds and Dungeon are the first in a planned series of three mods; Civilization will be released later this year.

Also Recommended:

Another small mod that's worth downloading if you'd like to enhance the game's audio is the Immersive Skyrim Thunder Mod. This project synchronizes thunder and lightning strikes and adds new thunder/rain sound effects.

It's available here (Steam) and here (Skyrim Nexus)
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Conclusion
Vanilla Skyrim is a great game on its own, but it's limited by its console heritage. The mods we've recommended work together and, in the process, transform the game into something much closer to what it could've been if PCs had been the primary developer target instead of consoles.



This article barely scratches the surface of what's already available. There are mods that create entire new classes of spells, introduce the same sort of Hardcore mode found in Fallout: New Vegas, or showcase weapons, armor, and monsters from other classic fantasy games. There are serious mods and silly ones -- the screenshot above is taken from Uncle Sheogorath's Really Helpful Hints and Tips, which replaces all standard in-game hints with useful advice from the Daedric Lord of Madness. (Steam / Skyrim Nexus)

If you've got favorite mods of your own, drop in and share them. If you put Skyrim aside because you were frustrated with some of its console roots, give it another try with some unofficial and official updates.



My Little Pony played us in -- we'll let LMFAO play us out. Happy gaming!


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