Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On Modding Skyrim

I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim pretty much since its release.  I’ve been modding Skyrim for almost as long now too.  Over the years, I’ve had good mod experiences and bad mod experiences, as many PC gamers probably have had as well.

Now that Skyrim’s Special Edition was released recently, it opened up the ability to mod the game on console systems, mainly for Xbox One and PS4, though the Nintendo Switch will have Skyrim SE as well, although I don’t know the status of modding for that one.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer some guidelines for Skyrim modding based on my own experiences.  Note that all of these recommendations and observations are based on my own experience.  My hope is to impart that experience to you, not to create a set of hard rules for modding Skyrim.

On Mod Additions, Deletions, or Updates

The first guideline, which is really a rule, is that you must never, ever remove a mod from your mod list in Skyrim for an existing playthrough.  There are small exceptions to this, but 99.9% of the time, your mod list is locked in and the game engine is incapable of dealing with the removal of a mod.

So before you start adding in all kinds of crazy mods, keep this simple fact in mind: removing mods from Skyrim breaks your character saves in the long run.  This is not the only thing which breaks character saves, but it is the big one.

Installing a new mod into an existing playthrough can also be dangerous, but much less so.  Unless the mod author explicitly states that you have to start a new game, which is rare, adding a new mod in the middle of your playthrough is okay.

Updating existing mods is also okay and less dangerous on an existing playthrough.  Some updates, though, are basically like removing and adding a new mod.  Sometimes mod authors do a full overhaul of their mods, changing the scripts, data, etc., and this effectively means it’s a new mod.  But generally, updating a mod is harmless and usually done so to fix bugs.

If you are adding a new mod or updating existing ones, then you should do it when your character is in a safe place, like a player home (Breezewood is my go to location).  This ensures that any changes made are correctly handled on the outside and that you have a good save point in case you screwed up something.

Please note that all of the above guidelines can be ignored when you have a mod package which does not have an ESM or ESP file.  If your mod package does not contain any of those file types, it is perfectly okay to add, update, or remove the mod and it will have little to no impact on your game.  Usually, those mod packages deal with the meshes and textures of the game.

Catagorize Your Mods To Avoid Conflicts

One of the biggest problems for Skyrim modding is that many mods will conflict with other mods.  Mod conflicts usually are the reason for many of your problems in a Skyrim playthrough.  Sometimes it’s as harmless as objects overlapping.  Other times, it can cause game crashes.

The trouble with these kind of errors is that they are hard to diagnose and report to the mod author.  Usually, a player has their own unique mod list and even when that is made apparent, it is difficult to pinpoint.

To avoid these issues, you need to make sure that you have only one mod which covers a certain aspect of the gameplay.  For example, if you want a mod that improves horses, you should only use one of those mods.  Or make sure that one set of features doesn’t overlap with another set of features in another mod.  If there is an overlap, then you are probably going to cause a conflict, which will break your game.

Many mod authors are really good about listing compatibility issues with their mods.  What the good ones tend to do is list other related mods and indicate if they are supported by the one they have created.  In general, if the mod you are checking for compatibility isn’t listed or mentioned, I would assume it’s not compatible.

Note that mods which add items that are in leveled lists usually don’t have problems integrating with each other, especially with the right tools.  So you have multiple weapon mods or spell mods together in the same mod list.

Often times, you’ll find that mod authors will write compatibility patches to work with other mods.  Use these to resolve mod conflicts.  As an example, I like to use the Elemental Destruction mod that adds in spells for Earth, Water, and Wind elements.  I also use Ordinator, which overhauls the perk system.  Since the Elemental Destruction needs to create new perks, it will conflict with Ordinator.  There is, however, a compatibility patch which resolves this problem and I install that patch as well.

I’d say about a third of my plugins (ESP or ESM files) are compatibility patches.  This may not be case for you, but I’d be willing to bet that most heavily modded playthroughs have a similar percentage.

In general though, try and keep one mod per category.  Have one that modifies vampire playthroughs.  One that changes werewolf playthroughs.  One that overhauls the perk system.  One that modifies shouts.  One that modifies follower mechanics to make followers more viable.  One that modifies horse mounts.  One that adds new creatures.  You get the idea.

Always Have a Core Mod Line-Up

While a lot of Skyrim mods are great additions, make sure you have a set of core, must-have mods and try to keep that list short.  For console players, this is irrelevant as you cannot create mod profiles, but for PC users this is fundamental.  Both Mod Organizer and Nexus Mod Manager allow you to create mod profiles, which gives you flexibility in your playthroughs of various characters.

Your core mod list should not include mods which would be useless to other characters you are playing as.  For example, if your character playthrough is never going to become a vampire, then don’t install a vampire overhaul.  You’re just wasting space and adding unnecessary scripts into your game.

I’d recommend that your core mods include the Unofficial Skyrim Special Edition Patch (fixes hundreds of bugs), The Choice is Yours (eliminates quests you won’t do), and Static Mesh Improvement Mod (makes 3D great again).

Mods by authors Arthmoor, EnaiSiaion, and kryptopyr I highly recommend, save Open Cities as that one has too many conflicts.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

Finally, I recommend that you play the game.  Don’t get bogged down in your mods, don’t fret over new mods which look better than what you’re playing with, and don’t worry about adding in too many features.

One of the problems I have is that I want to make Skyrim into more of an RPG.  Previous Elder Scrolls games had many more features, you see, and this game lacks a lot of that functionality.

I’ve heard a lot of hardcore players complain about this.  I have witnessed firsthand the numerous features that were in Daggerfall.  From banking to court trials to complex character creations, that game had a lot to offer and Skyrim has maybe 30% of its features.  I understand the frustration but, as a professional software developer, I also understand the need to get a mostly working product to market.

Mod authors have added many of the more popular lost features back into the game, but Skyrim will never has as many features as Daggerfall did, no matter how many mods you cram in there.

The point is to just simply get the mods which make a really good game even better and run with it.  Spend no more than a few hours modding Skyrim and then play the game.

Final Notes

As a PC gamer, I use a lot of tools to mod Skyrim.  Mainly I use Mod Organizer, because it allows me to address many different mod conflicts which other tools lack, and because I can create many character profiles without having to uninstall mods.  This allows me to seamlessly switch between playthroughs.

I also use LOOT to sort my mods.  It generally does a good job, although sometimes the load order isn’t what it should be.

I use Wrye Bash to create a bashed patch.  This is critical, in my opinion, as it resolves a lot of potential conflicts.

I also use xEdit (for Skyrim SE, it’s called “SSEEdit”) for cleaning plugin files and creating a merge patch.  The merge patch provides some fixes to conflicts which Wrye Bash misses.  This is for advanced users though and I don’t reconmmend it for beginners.  Besides, if you keep your mod list low, you don’t need to do that anyway.

So that about covers my basic guidelines for Skyrim modding.  With these guidelines in mind, go out and make Skyrim great again.