With my Barbarian Nord, I completed the primary quest line for the Companions (still need to complete a couple radiant quests). Whiterun, centrally located in Skyrim, definitely provides the best base of operations for any warrior-like character, and it’s certainly no coincidence the first several missions in the Main Quest are focused around Whiterun and the Dragon Reach. I ignored the Main Quest altogether until I became the new Harbinger of the Companions. Then, with the awesome Aela at my side, I continued into the first leg of the Main Quest.
Note: Until you complete the “Dragon Rising” chapter of the Main Quest, you will NOT run into any dragons in Skyrim! It’s true. So you can run around the entire map while persistently leveling up your character, and you won’t have to worry about those ominous wings flapping overhead. That may take some of the fun out of it for a lot of adventurers, but personally, I don’t think any of my own characters would be taking on dragons until they were seasoned in their particular combat focuses. And since most of the beasts in Elder Scrolls games level up along with you, using this strategy is not exactly tipping the scales either way. It just sort of ensures you’re not dragon meat before reaching Level 5. At Level 17, my Barbarian was ready to take on dragons. She still might get flame broiled, but she would always have a fighting chance (and Aela at her side even gave her the slight advantage).
Like the others in the elite Circle of the Companions, my Nord partook in the sacred ritual to become a werewolf. Prior to her joining the Companions, she completed the Daedric Quest “Ill Met By Moonlight” to acquire the Ring of Hircine (make sure to get the ring BEFORE you contract lycanthropy). When worn, this artifact allows an additional werewolf transformation per day. However, there’s a loophole here to be easily exploited: after each transformation back into a human, you have to re-equip all of your items, including the ring. Each time you take the ring on and off of your finger, the daily power resets itself. So in essence, with the ring you can transform into a werewolf as many times as you want! Being a werewolf works great against single tough foes, but the disadvantage is that you can get teamed up on really fast when taking on groups. This can be particularly bad if you’re in a tight space (best to use your lycanthropy for outdoor battles) because it’s harder to un-group your enemies and to escape intense melee situations. Werewolf mode is always played in third-person, so it takes a little adjusting if you’re used to fighting in first-person. But if you have the space, you can launch vicious attacks and then quickly retreat using a quadrupedal sprint. This makes lumbering targets like Giants a breeze. Dragons are also in trouble when they bring the fight to the ground, although I usually found myself transforming back to human in the middle of a skirmish (annoying and potentially lethal). Also, remember that as a werewolf your health does NOT regenerate over time. This is another reason why you want to use fast and calculated strikes on your prey.
A great moment with the Companions takes place during the outset of the final mission in the quest line wherein you have to travel to Ysgramor’s Tomb in the farthest reaches of the north. The three toughest Companions–Aela, Farkas and Vilkas–all accompany you on this one, and you may choose to embark on a cross-country run with them from Whiterun all the way to the Tomb (half the map of Skyrim). They are in attack mode the whole time, so ANY enemies encountered during the journey are dispatched with extreme prejudice. My character being an equal badass, for the first time ever I felt like I was completely untouchable in an Elder Scrolls game! (There were some similar scenarios in Oblivion, but never where you had the company of three of the most powerful warriors in the game). Seriously, we could have taken on multiple Giants AND their Mammoth herd.
One of the things I wanted to be able to do before reaching Level 20 was to improve my magical weapons and items. To do this in Skyrim, you need the Arcane Blacksmith perk which is not available until a Smithing level of 60. So on top of my own leveling by smelting, smithing and improving weapons, armor and jewelry, I also tried to afford as many training sessions as possible with the Master Blacksmith of the Companions, Eorlund Gray-Mane. Like any master training, you can purchase up to five sessions per level. Each session raises that particular skill level by one. This can get expensive (especially at the higher levels), so make sure you have a money machine to keep the gold flowing (smithing, selling, exploring, etc.) To me it’s worth it because it saves a ton of time otherwise spent simply grinding out the levels on my own.
As mentioned earlier, I chose Aela the Huntress (Master Archer) to be my Skyrim sister-in-arms for my Barbarian campaign. If you’re a melee-based character, Aela is actually the perfect choice because she will provide ranged cover while you’re mincing meat. I use my own bow quite a bit, too (for a stealthy approach in many situations), so it’s nice to have master training in archery at my beck and call when I want to invest in some leveling. You can always use your companions as pack mules and/or upgrade their weapons and armor. I immediately replaced her hunting bow with a superior forged Dwarven bow and her iron dagger with a Skyforged war axe. I also gave her some better bracers and boots, although she probably didn’t need them considering her Light Armor stat was at 100. When using your companion as a pack mule, be careful. Not only can your companion go down in a fight, but there are random bugs in the game that may make the body disappear. This happened to my friend who had his companion carrying every last one of his hard-earned dragon bones and dragon scales. Because of that bug, he lost ALL of them. My advice is only to use your companion to carry important things when you are ready to fast travel back to a town or safe haven. If you have a home, all of your expensive items not being used should be kept in a chest or the like (as soon as you’re appointed Thane of Whiterun by the Jarl after completing “Dragon Rising”, you’re eligible to buy a house in that city).
When starting the line of Companions quests, there is a particular mission that proved pretty tough for my character (who at the time I believe was around Level 8). The quest “Proving Honor” sends you on an errand to retrieve an Orcish heirloom from a random location. I was not able to fast travel even close to that location, so I had to foot it most of the way. During the journey, I noticed I ran into three times as many enemies (some of them several levels above my own) as usual. After dying A LOT, I finally had to just make a run for it from a trio of high-level necromancers. Once to my destination, I proceeded into a cavern infested with Falmers (horrible creatures of the dark that drop down on you from above). These things were tough and once again after dying way too many times, I was finally able to get to the chest with the dagger at the end of the cavern. As it turned out, that was the whole point of the quest–basically determining if you could survive such a dangerous living obstacle course! I love little surprises like that when playing The Elder Scrolls 🙂