Note: Last updated March 6th, 2013
Winter is coming. It’s the motto of House Stark but it’s also the excuse I gave myself to dive back into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I sunk just under 200 hours into the game back in 2011, most of it when the mod scene was just starting to take off. Needless to say, as solid as the “vanilla” experience is, I didn’t want to experience the same game all over again. Thankfully, mods have always been a huge part of the Elder Scrolls franchise. I’d been bookmarking “best [insert arbitrary number here] Skyrim mods” articles, but I also knew it’s very easy to break things despite ease-of-use advances like Steam workshop or Nexus Mod Manager (NMM).
The following is an in-depth guide to mods for Skyrim, building out and enhancing the experience, and goes past hitting the subscribe button on Steam Workshop. Mason, an avid member of the Splitkick community, has provided invaluable help in assembling this list, and he’s also been the strongest voice in my ear for taking a careful approach when modding. As convenient as Steam Workshop is, auto-updating mods plays havoc with compatibility, overriding of textures, and can potentially brick your save game altogether. What we’ve tried to strike here is a balance between simplicity and safety.
Table of Contents
- Tools and Preparation (starts below)
- Patches and Minor Fixes
- Weapon and Armor Textures
- World Textures
- World Additions – Cities and Housing
- Weather and Lighting Mods
- ENB Guide
- Character Generation and Textures
- Gameplay Overhauls
- Script-Heavy Mods
- UI and Map Mods
- The Essential Mod List
- Getting This Crazy List to Work
Tools and Preparation
Install Skyrim if you haven’t already. Download the free High-Resolution Texture DLC from Steam. Decide right now if you’re going to purchase and install any of the official DLC, as doing so later will break a lot of things. I am using none of the existing DLC, but most mods are compatible with at least Dawnguard if not Hearthfire as well. I highly recommend using this guide with a brand-new playthrough, as we’re going to be changing a lot of things in the course of things.
Start the game launcher from Steam at least once. While still in the launcher, set graphics options to at least the “High” preset (many of the mods won’t work properly otherwise). Drivers have been optimized so much since launch that mid-range systems (e.g. cards higher than GTX 560/650Ti, Radeon HD 6800/7800) can handle even the “Ultra” preset. If you plan on using an ENB (something we’ll be covering in the next update), many of those require disabling the Anisopteric Filtering (AF) and FXAA. This varies depending on the ENB mod you select, but it’s generally the case.
At this point it’s worth mentioning graphics performance. So far I’ve tested this melange of mods on a system using an i5-2500K overclocked to 4.0GHz and two different graphics cards: a GTX 570HD (1.2GB VRAM) and a Radeon HD 7770 (1GB). The lower-end Radeon definitely struggles at points, with dips as low as 16fps, so I’d be careful which versions of the later texture mods you install. That said, it’s still playable on the lower-end card and infinitely better than the default game. If the Radeon was staying in my system permanently I’d go back and change some of the mod versions I used but it’s fine for the short term.
We’re going to use several different programs to create our ideal Skyrim. The most important one is the Nexus Mod Manager. Also necessary are BOSS, TES5Edit, and Wrye Bash. Go ahead and download those right now to save a step later. If you don’t already have WinRAR or 7Zip you’re going to need either of those as well for extracting and creating archives manually at some points.
Please note: this list is presented in a specific order for a reason. Many of the mods serve as a foundation which later ones partially override. If you queue up a bunch of downloads from Nexus at once, be sure activate them in the prescribed order. Activating mods is relatively straightforward, which involves clicking on the mod, then hitting the “activate mod” button to the left.
Unless otherwise noted, say “yes” when NMM asks whether to override a previous mod. That said, when it says “you have a previously installed version of this mod, do you want to override the previous (or something to that effect)” what it normally (98% of the time) means is you have a mod with a similar name previously installed. Somewhat counterintuitively, you have to say “no (install normally)” to overriding for the update or patch to install properly.
A word of warning: partly because of the way Nexus throttles download speeds for free accounts and partly because of the sheer number of steps, this exact process took me a few hours (and close to six including troubleshooting). Consider breaking down and getting a premium membership if you want to help support the community. If you don’t want to take as much time or effort, I’ve assembled a TL;DR “shortlist” of mods here.