You’ve decided to step into the vast world of Skyrim modding but have no idea where to even place your toe. Well, that’s a perfectly valid problem. But don’t fret. I’m here to offer some pointers on where to begin, what to look out for and to even suggest some awesome mods that will noticeably enhance your Skyrim experience right at the outset.
First thing you should do is head on over to these sites:
The Skyrim Total Enhancement Project (S.T.E.P.) guide will give you a good general tutorial on what modding is and the important things you need to know BEFORE getting started. Remember that just like any other piece of software, Skyrim can become broken (for a variety of reasons) and it’s a bitch to have to re-install it since its tied to Steam. So make sure you know the risks beforehand. We’ll come back to S.T.E.P. a bit later.
Second, you should go and suscribe to this man’s YouTube video blog:
Nobody breaks modding down to the lamen end user better than Gopher, and his Skyrim MOD Sanctuary has been going strong for nearly three years. Not only will you learn a lot about Skyrim modding in general, but you’ll get to see first hand some of the fantastic mods that are available, how they work and what they add to your game. Gopher also usually includes installation tutorials on the mods he reviews (which helps if you’re installing manually or using Nexus Mod Manager).
Another good place to check out is the following Nexus forums thread:
There are some relevant conversations there although the thread was started over a year ago. It helps to gain as broad of an understanding as you can about modding your Skyrim game BEFORE wandering aimlessly into the abyss (like I did).
Please go and check out the aforementioned links. Take the time to watch a couple of Gopher’s basic modding videos, and pay special attention to the STEP:Mandate. I’ve found that there are basically two types of modders: those who are only out to enhance the flavor of the vanilla game and those who are out to mix those flavors with whatever they find to their liking. S.T.E.P. was created for those who fall into the first camp; however, it also provides a stable jumping off point for those of us who aren’t afraid to experiment and really mix it up.
If you really want to take full advantage of the mods that are out there and are willing to spend some extra time learning the ropes, then Skyrim Nexus is definitely the way to go. Not only are there ten times as many mods available on the Nexus than anywhere else, but all of the top mod authors and dedicated modders around the world use the Nexus as their playground and information dump. ANYTHING you need to know about running and installing particular mods can be found on the Nexus, and there is no better place to troubleshoot (and you will have your share of problems) than on the Nexus Forums and author pages. There is no censorship on the Nexus, so that already opens the door to hundreds of mods that you won’t find on Steam Workshop. The Nexus also has no size limits on the mods (Steam does), so some of the larger add-on or quest mods like Falskaar are only available on the Nexus. The Nexus uses its own mod manager that is somewhat integrated (depending on the mod author’s preference). The Nexus Mod Manager allows you to install, uninstall, categorize and organize all of your mods in one place. It also gives you the OPTION to update a mod, but doesn’t require the updates.
Then there’s Steam Workshop. I must admit that the Workshop has gotten better over the past year, and several mod authors that have proven their metal on the Nexus have ported some of their top mods to the Workshop. For the mods that are available on Steam, the modding process is much simpler and doesn’t require a lot of extra effort on your part. Steam’s simple mod manager is integrated, and each mod that you download requires a subscription (always free). You simply subscribe to a mod with the click of a button, and each time you run your Skyrim launcher, you will be able to choose whether or not you want to run the selected mods (you can choose to run Skyrim without any mods). There are two HUGE drawbacks with using Steam, however. The first is that any updates to the mods will install automatically at the launcher. That may sound like a nice convenience, but when it comes to modding, that SUCKS. Updates are usually the first thing that will render your mods as incompatible with one another. As we all know, Steam is already update happy, so it can be really frustrating when you have to wait five minutes (or longer) before every other play session for the automatic updates to run their course, some of which will almost assuredly break your game if you’re running any scripted mods (I’ll get into that later). The second problem with the Workshop as already mentioned above is that there is a size limit on the mods that can be posted. Some of the best and most complex mods created for Skyrim are quite large and thus not available on Steam Workshop. The SKSE scripting mod is also not available, so that’s yet another world of awesome and powerful mods whose door is shut to the Workshop.
With all of that said, the best place to start is S.T.E.P. The good people at S.T.E.P. will recommend that you use a third mod manager called MOD Organizer (MO). MO is by far the best mod manager, and I recommend that you follow the description link from the wiki to read why it’s the best. It does have a bit of a learning curve as compared to the Nexus Mod Manager, but it will save you hours of heartache in the long run by keeping your modding directory trees entirely separate from your main Skyrim folders. So if you ever need to revert back to pristine vanilla Skyrim, MO makes it easy. Also, MO allows you to store different mod profiles, and you’ll see the advantage to that once you become a bit more advanced with the modding experience.
Now you’re ready to start modding. The first thing you want to do is to layout a foundation for your modding, which S.T.E.P. refers to as the STEP:Core. Starting at the top of the 2.2.8 tutorial, you’ll download several software packages which you will then set up through MO. (NOTE: Although I agree with S.T.E.P. on a number of mods, there are some that I absolutely DO NOT agree with. However, if you choose to put all your trust into S.T.E.P., then you must download and install ALL of their recommended CORE mods and follow ALL of their instructions to the tee.) You will then proceed to download and install roughly 180 mods from the Nexus. You’ll need to go through ALL of them, one at a time. This may not sound like it would take that long, but it actually takes FOREVER. So make sure that you reserve at least a day or a day and half to create your working STEP:Core profile. You may also choose the “Extended” profle mods as you progress down the charts if you think you have a system that can handle it (S.T.E.P. gives you the recommended system specs at the beginning of the tutorial).
I can tell you right now that “Fores New Idles in Skyrim” (FNIS) is a horrible mod to deal with, and if you follow all of S.T.E.P., not only will you be installing it but there are at least five other mods that are entirely dependent upon it. One of them, “Dual Sheath Redux,” is pretty cool, but it’s incredibly difficult to get it to work flawlessly AND I guarantee you it will break your game later on. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Either way, STEP:Core/Extended is a great start because the majority of the mods are essential. So even though you’re downloading a lot of data, it’s mainly 1-2k graphic replacement data that is not going to be running a lot of background scripts in your Core experience game. Script-based mods are like tiny little programs in and of themselves that are always running in the background, and some of them can cause major compatibility issues with other mods or simply screw up your game for myriad other reasons. That is not to say that you shouldn’t run script-based mods. Some of the best mods out there are script-based, including the SKSE-based mods that allow all of the great user interfacing with the Mod Configuration Menus (MCM – most SKSE-based mods now integrate a UI menu which allows the user to configure aspects of the mod in-game). However, you should be wary of “script-heavy” mod profiles as they can cause a host of issues with saved Skyrim games later on.
That said, you also don’t want to go too crazy with the hi-res texture and mesh replacer mods as many of them give you the option to go big. Unless you’re running a very high-end rig, I would stick to 512×512 and 1024×1024 textures for the most part (1k-2k). Remember that Skyrim is a big place, so when you replace one texture in hi-res you’re really replacing hundreds or thousands of textures that could really eat up your VRAM and affect performance.
If you decide to go through the whole list and follow ALL of their instructions, you will need to go to the S.T.E.P. Nexus page to download and install the patches. These patches, provided you didn’t skip any mods, will allow your Core mod set to better detect and work with one another once they are in their proper load orders. I believe that you are instructed to run BOSS before you install the patches. BOSS will automatically arrange your mods in proper load order (for the most part). You will then also have an opportunity to clean some of the dirty files with another program called TES5Edit (refer to S.T.E.P.)
I give the team behind S.T.E.P. high praise for what they’ve accomplished. It also happens to be an ongoing project that receives constant updates according to what’s new on the Nexus, so the STEP:Core tutorial is usually pretty up-to-date.
In addition to the ones that made their list that I don’t agree with, however, there are some other mods that I am quite surprised have not been adopted as part of the STEP:Core/Expanded package. I will list those here, and I HIGHLY recommend that you install them as either part of the Core/Expanded profile or most definitely as part of a custom pack profile.
1) Immersive Armors by Hothtrooper http://www.nexusmods.com/skyrim/mods/19733
If you’re at all a fan of variety, then this mod is a MUST. It ads over 50 new sets of completely lore-friendly craftable armor to Skyrim! The armors are all based directly off of the vanilla armor sets and compliment AMidianBorn’s Book of Silence textures quite nicely. W.T.F, S.T.E.P.?
2) Immersive Weapons by Hothtrooper http://www.nexusmods.com/skyrim/mods/27644
Go Hothtrooper! Same as above, except adds tons of new weapons.
3) Player Headtracking by Maegfaer http://www.nexusmods.com/skyrim/mods/23600
This one might not seem so obvious, but once you install it, you’ll never be able to play Skyrim again without it. It’s so simple yet SO immersive. Basically, the Dragonborn (in third person) will always turn his or her head in the direction of whoever or whatever has his or her attention, whether a talking NPC, a corpse on the ground or a dog walking by. The mod is SKSE compatible and has full MCM integration so that you can control how sensitive you want the headtracking to be. It really makes a HUGE difference.
4) Cloaks of Skyrim by Noodles http://www.nexusmods.com/skyrim/mods/12092
Just like Immersive Armors, it’s completely lore-friendly. Add some variety to your life, Dragonborn, and accessorize!
5) Nerevars – Cloaks of Skyrim Ultra HD v2 by tesmorrow http://www.nexusmods.com/skyrim/mods/46885
Then go and install some HD replacer textures for your cloaks! You can thank me later.
Finally, I should address the question that’s always on a lot of players’ minds who are eager to mod: What about the “nude” and “sex” mods?
Yes, there are quite a few of those kinds of mods if you sign in as an adult on the Nexus. Personally, I think the sex mods are a joke, and are not really meant to be part of any Skyrim game that you plan on putting a lot of time into. Sex mods are meant to be novelties, and they are usually heavily scripted and not very compatible with working mod sets. So if you have to, install one, get it out of your system, and then move on. Or save yourself the trouble and go watch any number of Skyrim sex-themed YouTube videos.
Some of the male and female mesh and texture replacers, on the other hand, are actually very good and quite compatible with many mods. I still think some of them are a bit ridiculous for the Skyrim world, but to each their own. The three most popular are: CBBE, UNP and Nude Females. I’m not a fan of CBBE which basically just makes your Skyrim women look like buxom Japanese anime dolls. Nude Females is sort of silly because all it really does is allows for a woman’s private parts to be exposed while maintaining the vanilla textures (which looks plain bad). Of course, there are male mesh and texture replacers that are similar. My favorite, and the one that I currently use, is the Dimonized UNP Female Body. Using the athletic settings and coupled with the Mature Skin Texture (separate mod), my female characters look like toned, ass-kicking warriors (NOT super models or porn queens). You may not even want to venture into this territory, but if the vanilla character meshes and textures just don’t do it for you, know that there are some nice options available that you can mess around with to find the right “look.”
So there you have it. I’ve been meaning to write this post for the last year, and I apologize that it’s taken me so long to get around to it. If you have any questions about modding as you go along, please don’t be shy and give me a shout. I’ll do my best to answer them or at least point you in the right direction.
And here’s to finding a stable and lasting mod set!