Skyrim Survival Diary: Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

There are lots of survival games, but there are also lots of games which could be survival games with the right mods installed. Over the course of Survival Week we’ll highlight a few of those games and i)write a diary of our experience playing with it ii) explain how to do it yourself.

I found Meeko sitting by the side of the road. He is one of Skyrim’s shaggy, grey wolfhounds that look as old as they do stupid. He saw me, turned around and ran into the thicket. I followed him through the trees, where he led me to a run-down shack. I looked inside and there, lying still and grey on the shed’s single rickety bed, was Meeko’s owner. He was dead. The mongrel looked to me, blinked in the cold and seemed to whine. All right then, I thought, you can follow me. It was a decision I never came to regret. Later on, Meeko killed a lot of people for me.

But more importantly, Meeko kept me warm in Skyrim’s deadly mountain passes. One of the mods I have installed is Frostfall, which gives the player a few extra things to worry about. Exposure can leave you freezing to death, while being wet means you succumb to the cold even faster. You have to keep yourself warm at fires and fill up on hot soups to keep your ‘exposure meter’ from dropping too low. Once, I tried to swim across a small, icy river and before I could get a fire going on the opposite shore I passed out from hypothermia. I woke up in a familiar inn, penniless, frostbitten and with this note in my pocket.

That’s Frostfall. Anyway, one of the lesser-known features of the mod is the effect companions have. You see, just travelling with a friend actually makes you feel warmer. In the wilds, Meeko the dog would sleep at the end of my bedroll and he really would keep my feet warm. That’s why having him around was so great. That’s why I was sad when he died.

Let’s go back. It was day one of our trip around Skyrim and the snow was falling lightly. I knew it was falling lightly because that’s what the latest Frostfall notification told me. “Light snow begins to fall,” it said. I was planning to do a circuit of Tamriel’s vast winterland by visiting each of the province’s four Orc strongholds, where I knew I would be welcome (I had been made an honourary Orc in one of these fortresses already, the remaining three were my destination). I was not going to use fast travel (I have disabled it with Frostfall) and I was not going to travel by horse or wagon. It was just me and Meeko and our own six feet.

I was also not the Dragonborn. Just an outlaw from a two-bit band of ambitionless thugs. The use of another mod has allowed me to follow a new life and live in a Skyrim without Dragons or Shouts. That might seem stupid to some people, but if I’m going to turn my game into the story of one dashingly average rogue, his loyal canine friend, and their survival against the elements, I don’t want everyone to keep calling said rogue by a stupid nickname. Besides, the name I have chosen is much better. (It’s ‘Muldoon’).

So there we were, sitting in Solitude, getting ready for our big adventure. I crafted all the things we would need to keep us warm and well-kept. A cloak, a tanning rack, a tent and sleeping bag, a walking stick, a torch, a lantern. I’ve also got 6 pieces of emergency firewood and a bunch of food and wine (alcohol temporarily staves off the cold). The gates of Solitude opened wide and we, the happy adventurers, were on our way. We were not long on the road when we stumbled on a ransacked caravan, complete with husband and wife corpse combo. In hindsight, this should have given Meeko and I the foreshadowing we needed to avoid what happened next. But no. We were not very good at divining cadavers.

The faithful animal companion of Hollywood always dies at the end of the movie, to popcorn-flavoured tears. The animal familiar of literature always dies during some climactic moment of judgement and sacrifice, in passages blazing with meaning and symbolism. Meeko died on the first day of a 10-day journey, after I accidentally skewered him with my scimitar. He had charged into Robber’s Gorge — a camp of bandits — and, in my hurry to keep by his side, I ran into the fray swinging extra hard, slicing not only his attacker but the dog’s own flank too. He flumped to the ground and I froze. Meeko was dead and I had not even travelled a mile. I frowned. And then I murdered the rest of the bandits.

I could have stopped and reloaded an earlier save, reanimating the mutt and trying to pretend nothing had ever happened. But imagine it. Every time those big, old eyes would have looked up at me I would have known. I would have turned away in loathing, hating this creature, this imposter, this Meeko 2.0. Who could face that? This is Survival Skyrim now, Muldoon. You have to live with the consequences. I left the bandit camp and carried on. The road ahead was lonely (and colder) for the loss of my friendly hound. I took step after lacklustre step until, thinking it would help ward off loneliness, I had the idea to keep a journal of all my encounters. This journal ended up 22 pages long. So for the sake of brevity, levity and sanity, I will inflict you only with this extract.

Day three

  • The fish soup has cured me of my illnesses. I leave town without even speaking to anyone. Sweet dreams, Dawnstar! On the road out, the Frostfall notification tells me of incoming weather fronts. It reads: “A furious snowstorm draws near.” It’s probably nothing.
  • Attacked by more wolves.
  • An Old Orc stands in the blizzard by the roadside surrounded by bear carcasses. He complains about wanting a “good death”. In Orc society, simply laying down to die is dishonourable and pathetic. You must die in a good fight. And since I am an honourary Orc, I understand his request. We fight and he dies well. Praise Malacath, Orc brother! You have made your tribe proud this day! I stoop down and take his gold.

  • I am freezing again, with snow-blinded vision. But the Nightgate Inn materialises on the roadside. I’m glad to see the innkeeper, but not so glad that I don’t steal all the potions in the building. The only thing I buy is some more Fish Soups. I warm myself by the fire and then leave.
  • Attacked by wolves.
  • I drink some wine to keep my body warm (but not too much). Soon I find a pitched tent and a crackling campfire by a picturesque waterfall. Ah, the great outdoors!
  • Wolves.

If you plan to make a similar journey with these mods (see this article) I can tell you that your two best friends in all of Skyrim will be Fire and Fish Soup. Unless you have a dog by your side, in which case, you will have three best friends.

When I arrived in Riften, late at night on my fourth day of travel, I got horrendously drunk. The Realistic Needs and Diseases mod which governs your hunger, thirst, tiredness and illnesses, also tracks how much alcohol you consume. I went into the Bee and Barb, Riften’s scummy tavern, and drank. I drank until the people said I looked ill. I drank until the room looked like the inside of a bottle of Irn Bru.

I passed out for four hours and came to again, only to find everyone else still supping. I went outside to get some fresh air but, obviously, the town was under attack by vampires. I fell over on my way back into the inn.

The next morning I woke up thirsty, famished and unable to move. My hangover had combined with some Bone Break Fever I had neglected, and this created a crippling disease that left me too aching to carry anything. I gulped down some fish soup, which struck me as a terrible hangover cure, and went outside. A courier handed me a note. It was Mid-Year Day. Unable to face another night of debauchery, I left town and carried on my Gran Torino of Orc strongholds.

By the sixth day I had made it to Falkreath and there was only one Orc stronghold I hadn’t visited. (The stronghold of Largushbur was wet and under a giant’s siege. The stronghold of Narzulbur is unremarkable and easily robbed). I estimated one or two days more travel and that would be it. I didn’t count on meeting Barbas.

I had been actively avoiding quests and favours the whole way along my journey. Laughing in the faces of the citizens of Dawnstar, scoffing at the requests of Riften reprobates. But when talk of a dog hanging around the road outside Falkreath reaches my ears, I am hooked. Part of me foolishly thinks Meeko might still be alive. But of course, it is just Barbas. I didn’t remember him from my first dander through Skyrim’s frosty wastes. So to meet a dog that looked identical to my old friend Meeko was a nice surprise. The only difference with Barbas is that he…er… well, he talks. He is a lost pet, the wiseass dog of demon fame, who wants to go on a little quest to be reunited with his old master — a daedra called Clavicus Vile. I cannot refuse. What can I say? I am a sucker for those stupid dog eyes.

Twenty-four hours later and I am stumbling back into Falkreath, exhausted, hungry, cold and riddled with mild vampirism. Barbas’ master did not want him back. Instead, he asked us to go on some ridiculous journey halfway across the province. As much as I love these dumb hounds, I was not getting THAT sidetracked. With fast travel off, that is a whole other adventure. The good news? Barbas is still by my side and will be until either I ask him to leave or until the daedra’s quest is done. (I will never do this quest).

The final Orc stronghold, Dushnik Yal, lies another day to the west. Recovering at Falkreath for the night, I have time to think. The first time I played through Skyrim, I did not have half as good a time. The survival mods add so much that I would petition for any Elder Scrolls lover to try them out. But what I think really improves the game is the restriction on fast travel. In vanilla Skyrim, when somebody gave me a quest, I would instantly accept and, without thinking, just teleport to wherever. I rarely cared about what I was doing (the amount of dry characters don’t help much) and I was running on the fumes of an XP binge. In this run-through, however, when I am asked to do a quest I do the following things:

Back out of the conversation
Take a look at my map
Are you fucking joking?
Okay. Okay. Deep breath.
I’ll do it.

It feels momentous, looking at the distance between places and knowing that it will be a long slog there and back, through the cold. Instead of a videogame hop, skip and jump, it becomes a proper journey. An actual quest. I can look at Barbas’ moronic doggy face and know that the detour to the cave full of vampires was worth it.

Two nights later, the hound and I are standing in the Orc stronghold of Dushnik Yal. The longhouse fire blazes and the Orcs have all drawn their weapons. I have just punched the Chieftain’s favourite wife in the face.

It started when I walked into the stronghold, soaked to the bone, and went straight into the longhouse to dry off. The wives were having an argument with the Chief over who was his favourite. I didn’t care. I spoke to a strong-looking Orc called Ghrobash the Iron Hand, who was sitting at the table and eating. He was a former traveller. “There’s a freedom the roads give you,” he said, “that the strongholds do not.” I valued this attitude and, as per Orc discourse, I insulted him. A brawl started — only between the two of us — and during the scuffle I accidentally swung too hard and cracked one of the Chieftain’s wives in the head. Meeko would be sad to see that, in the past ten days, my swing had not improved. The Orc tribe encircled me and I was promptly killed.

I eventually bested Ghrobash the Orc without assaulting his clansfolk and, being the honourable sort, he wanted to come with me on my journey. But according to my own Grand Tour, the journey was already over. Although, I supposed, there was one more thing I could do before I could call my own travels complete. One last stop before calling it a day.

Epilogue

Meeko’s burial was not going as well as I had hoped. I realised this as I was carrying his corpse out of the bandit fort where he had died ten days earlier. I dragged him unceremoniously toward the nearby river. His body swung and bobbed, and all the time his eyes were wide open, his dog face regarding me with a dumb, happy grin. When Barbas, the Orc and I had found Robber’s Gorge empty of all bandit bodies, I was worried Meeko’s body would have disappeared as well. But there it was, lying exactly where I remembered, completely alone. Barbas had sat down next to it, I like to think out of reverence. In reality, his AI follower mind did not even register his precursor’s existence. The Orc, likewise, stood idle and bored. But at least he had offered a small comment as we entered the gorge. “Smells like blood,” he said.

My first idea had been to cremate Meeko. The heat from the resultant fire would keep us from getting any colder and I would be able to say that, even in death, this faithful companion kept me warm. I dragged his body over the campfire, but of course, bodies don’t burn like that in Skyrim. It looked ridiculous. So I pulled him off again and started trekking toward the river, holding the body ahead of me, where it began to swing uncontrollably, like a heavy, furry pendulum. I soon reached the riverside, where I paused. I needed to place Meeko as close to the middle of the river as possible, so he would not fall limply on the riverbank. I reared back and swung forward before letting him go. This was supposed to give him a small measure of momentum. But this too did not go to plan.

Meeko’s body flew upwards, as if it had been volleyed from a trebuchet, and I stared in terror at his spinning, airborne corpse. Thankfully, there was still enough lateral distance to the botched throw that he ended up in the water. His body splashed into the cold and began drifting downstream, where it lodged against a rock and refused to move any further.

I sighed. Ghrobash was splashing about on the banks for no discernable reason. I decided I was not going to get another bout of frostbite trying to fish a dead dog out of a fast-flowing river, even if it was old Meeko. I went back to Robber’s Gorge to warm myself up. The journey was over. I had nothing left to do.

The sound of barking reached me and I looked to Barbas, sitting nearby. But it wasn’t him. This barking sounded fainter, further away. What the hell? I stood up and walked to the edge of the wooden palisade — the wall the bandits had used as an archer’s post. Looking downward, into the gorge, I saw a patrol. Five Dawnguards were wandering through the pass. Among them, a single gorgeous husky. They were heavily armed but they didn’t see the need to draw their weapons.


The men and the dog passed us quietly and undisturbed, and it gave me a strange amount of satisfaction to know that, thanks to Meeko and I, that regal husky would not be attacked. They disappeared down the road and, save for the fire, everything was quiet. There were no more bandits at Robber’s Gorge.

You can read more Survival Week articles over here.

40 Comments

  1. paranoydandroyd says:

    That was a surprisingly awesome read. Nice work. I love me some emergent stories.

  2. Anders Wrist says:

    I honestly couldn’t imagine playing Skyrim again, without all the survival oriented mods that I’ve come to cherish. Frostfall really is a must for me.

    • Monggerel says:

      “I honestly couldn’t imagine playing Skyrim again”

      I’ll drink to that!
      *drinks*
      *alone*

    • Person of Interest says:

      Is it possible to complete the primary questline and important sidequests with the survival mods installed, or do they make those things excessively difficult/tedious?

      • Anders Wrist says:

        I know that you can set up Frostfall so that your exposure (to cold) doesn’t increase during conversations. I also think they exempted High Hrothgar’s yard from the normal exposure rules, since you’re doing a lot of waiting around there at one point during the main quest.

        If you find it too tedious at some points, you can easily disable it in the mod menu (if you’re using SkyUI, which you really should be).

      • Vin_Howard says:

        the primary questline is already excessively tedious?

  3. GameCat says:

    Alcohol doesn’t rise up your body temperature, it’s just fucks with your temperature perception, like mint toothpaste. Don’t drink when it’s cold, it makes more harm than good.

    • Crane says:

      Actually, it can have one dubious benefit.
      One of the reasons alcohol makes you feel warmer is that it acts as a vasodilator, causing your blood vessels to widen and increase the flow. This means you get better bloodflow in your extremities like fingers and toes. As such, drinking alcohol in freezing conditions may help you stave off frostbite.

      The downside though, is that this means your blood is cooling faster, and you’ll go into hypothermic shock and die sooner.

      But if you’d rather not live without your toes, then drink away my friend!

    • Earl-Grey says:

      Exactly, you and I are pedants of health and safety.
      -if pedant means “not soft in the head”.

      When you are exposed to cold your blood vessels start to constrict, to restrict the blood flow and thereby conserve heat.
      Alcohol makes your blood vessels expand, especially the ones under your skin; the ones right next to the thing thats trying to kill you; the cold.
      Nice warm blood that then gets pumped out into your newly dilated blood vessels; making you feel warm. Then the blood gets chilled and goes on to lower your body temperature. THEN YOU DIE.
      -Unless you’re sitting next to something hot, like a big warm fire, then get plastered and perform carnal congress with any consenting warm blooded creature you have at hand.

      EDIT:
      Hmmm, beaten by miss or mister Crane above.
      Must remember to refresh before commenting.

      EDIT some more:
      Hadn’t considered the prevention of frost bite through alcohol. You live you learn, it seems.

  4. Lipresume says:

    Maaan that was awesome to read, Proud to be a gamer

  5. drinniol says:

    I tried to get by with no fast travel and the scenic carts mod, but that shit was too buggy. I was sad.

  6. evenflowjimbo says:

    I don’t know if it was Dual – Combat Realism or the RND mod [maybe both] but I drank two wines and ran along a cliff only to fall to my death … and it wasn’t even that high up!

  7. Bodylotion says:

    Usually I try to play games like Skyrim and Fallout without fast travel, it can be a pain in the ass sometimes especially when you have to walk the same paths again. I also do not really like to play with companions in these kind of games, it feels like i’m cheating especially in Skyrim the companions are so overpowered and most enemies attack your companion. The Fallout companion system is a little better since they can die.

    Bethesda should’ve added a hardcore mode in Skyrim though. I’m sure there’s some kind of mod that adds the hardcore mode to Skyrim and i’d like to try it combined with the frostbite mod.

    • Rizlar says:

      Followers in Skyrim can definitely die. Like Meeko in this article. :'(

      I’ve never used fast travel in Skyrim either. Realised how much better it was when playing Oblivion, never looked back. The best way to play TES games seems to be picking a goal and then going for it within the rules of the world. Otherwise it’s too easy to get distracted by every quest giver and their mother asking you to do shit for them.

      • Yglorba says:

        Most companions in Skyrim can only die if you hit them (notice that’s what happened in this article.) Otherwise they go into a sort of “wounded” state when low on health when the enemy will not target them and they’ll take no damage from anything but your attacks.

      • fish99 says:

        Some of them are indestructible, any that have or are involved in quests basically, like Serana or Mjoll.

  8. Siimon says:

    Skyrim wasn’t for me, but I enjoyed this read. Thanks!

  9. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    You still have one last thing to you. You need to fulfill Barbas’ wish.

  10. CPKPreachaKilla187 says:

    If you like Skywind and you have a steam account (on RPS, everyone has a steam account), join the group link to steamcommunity.com

  11. Morph says:

    No fast travel is one of my main rules of open world games now, and it made Skyrim fantastic. I love the way you get to know the pathways and routes, and there is plenty of wildlife and random encounters to keep each journey unique.

    Thanks for the article, think I might have to be going back to Skyrim soon…

    • RedViv says:

      Gosh yes. A bunch of added random encounter and NPC mods, thicker flora and more varied wildlife, and disable fast travel. That’s the route I usually go. With fast travel and quest compass active, these games just turn into GPS blip search sims propelled forward by extreme tunnel vision, which is a shame when there are such nice vistas to discover.

    • Ex Lion Tamer says:

      Definitely making me want to jump back in. I loved the vanilla game with the same self-imposed “no fast travel” rule; I might have to give some survival mods a shot.

    • ludde says:

      Played without fast travel as well, for the majority of the game.

      It’s a shame though that these games are so designed around fast travel. I’d like to see less flailing about and more focus region by region. Y’know, when you’re on your fifth journey between Solitude and Whiterun for the one quest, it’s tempting to just go “fuck it”.

  12. Ex Lion Tamer says:

    Yeah, this was great. More Brendy on RPS is always welcome (although the excellent writing is starting to make my head spin, with all the extra posts and the partial Jim re-emergence and and)

  13. SanguineAngel says:

    These sort of articles are the reason I started reading RPS in the first place and this is one of my favourites. Nice work!

  14. Incanus says:

    Too bad even >53 mods installed didn’t make it a good game. For charity sake i will not even speak of bugs and crashes.

    What i love the most is the absolutely shitty combat and lack of balance of anything. The ragdoll syndrome is another source of fun, along with the crapy quests, the total lack of NPC personality or interest and the plastic textures.

    • fish99 says:

      Other than that though, you loved it?

      • Incanus says:

        I loved the fact that it sent me on the trail of better rpg, indeed!

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      …And it somehow took you 53+ mods to figure out you didn’t like it? I’m not sure I’d be telling people about that one if I were you…

      • Incanus says:

        Oh no, dear, it didn’t :-). I found it awful quickly. The inanity of the quests, the ugliness of the artistic direction (moaaar pseudo realistic plastico texturing) and the cheer imbecility of the combat made me wonder: what, for Thor’s sake, could i do with the money i invested in this pit of dullness?

        So i tried to mod it, to mod everything, desperately trying to transform it into a rpg able to carry this name. But no, even after 53 mods, i didn’t achieve anything.

        Ah well, not all the games can be good.

  15. disorder says:

    I played Skyrim around about release, of course; but I had a complication – I was kind of used to the ~ 200 mods I’d somehow crammed into oblivion without it crashing (not forgetting that one that convinces the executable to ignore unhandled exceptions rather than CTD). You know the kind; have to sleep, have to eat and drink and fast travel means a ring of athletics, if you find one. Mods that make it dark at night, mods that make more time pass in the wilderness (you need more food) – etc.

    I think the survival concept hadn’t really been a thing at the time. But that’s what I aimed and hacked and kludged together in Oblivion. Skyrim in (almost) vanilla state tripped all my senses that said, “yep, this is elder scrolls”, without offering much that I had come to like about how I’d setup its predecessor. It just didn’t really seem a gruelling challenge. The only thing I was damn sure of was that /this time/, I wasn’t using ES5 as a game development kit.

    It was fine, I loved parts of it but after I just got too strong a character on my first play through (and I’m sure I’m not that amazing a player), got bored. I never went back to it – though I am so very tempted, that I just might.

  16. GetSapped says:

    I’m for sure going to try out FrostFall, Also great job on the diary couldn’t have been better.