Build Your Own Skyrim, Part 1: Fixing The World
Skyrim might not be broken, but it is a bit cracked. There's never been an open-world that didn't crumble at the edges of a simulation, and Bethesda's Nord land is detailed with a fine filigree through its stony butt. Patches will help, and Bethesda have done a lot of good work to keep the game ticking along, but with all those dragons stomping around, sometimes backwards, the mud has been loosened. Thanks to Steam Workshop, the act of modding Skyrim is phenomenally easy: all you need to do is select a mod in the system's list and it'll be integrated into the game. There's also a few from the venerable Skyrim Nexus as well. While we wait for both Bethesda or these guys to pack the mud back in place, there are a few tweaks you can make to the base game, gleaned from the Workshop’s finest fiddlers. They won’t be as fancy as adding monocles and top hats to mudcrabs – I’ll be getting to those in a later article – but they will strengthen Skyrim’s core and fix a few glaring errors and inconsistencies.
The biggest problem I have with Skyrim is the stupid UI. It’s a mess and doesn’t take advantage of a lot of the screen, or of the mouse and keyboard. SkyUI’s more appealing, tabbed, searchable interface (if you also install the Skyrim Script Extender) keeps the feel of Skyrim's while shaming Bethesda's awful partitioning of your inventory: the fonts are tighter, the interface catagorises everything, and you can arrange items by worth and magic by cost per second. It's embarrassing how much of an improvement to the base game this is.
I managed to not notice just how fiddly the followers were on my first playthrough, because I'd tell them to GTFO at the earliest opportunity: I'd rolled a Thief and focused on stealth, so I wanted to be alone. So when everyone was talking about Lydia and her tenacious stupidity, I smugly sat back. Modder 'mangue', however, decided to do something about it. His mod, Fixed Followers Lite, takes two main threads: it stops followers from respawning a low-spec hunting bow if you've given them a more powerful one to use. You can now remove the bow from their inventory and it won't return. It also ups the level cap of companions to 81, and adds a bunch of small tweaks to specific companions. Further updates hope to make companions less clumsy in dungeons. Follower Trap Safety does that, but FFL doesn't play nicely with other mods. If you want that and the hunting bow fix, here's a standalone mod just for that.
I love the aesthetic of the Skyrim map, but like the menu system I came to realise that it gets in the way of functionality. It's odd how a map can show you real-time details, like cloud cover or a dragon burning up, but miss out basic navigational information. It's a map without roads, which I think says a great deal about Bethesda's design choices in Skyrim. Over at Skyrim Nexus there are a number of fixes: A Quality World Map - With Roads comes in a standard and a high-resolution. It adds all the main and minor roads, and thins out the cloud cover, to allow you make use of the map as an actual map. There are a few additional add-ons to the base set that really improves the usage as well. Improved 3D World Map changes the movement of the mouse and keyboard, so you're never stuck attempting to angle the camera awkwardly, and Coloured Map Markers separates out the black and white map markers into different colours, making them much easier to discern. The final mod is in-progress, but it adds map markers for your followers.
One of the more annoying aspects of Skyrim is how unknowable enemies and companions skills are: I like knowing what I'm up against in order to make some tactical decisions, and I'm amazed there's no obvious or helpful way of doing so in the game. Detect Skills Spell is a book that vendors have for sale that'll give you the ability to quickly discern the strengths of NPCs: followers, animals, enemies and dragons. It's pretty essential if you don't want to run in and guesstimate what the next course of action is.
Find the horses a bit wheezy? Skyrim Speed lets you alter the global walking and running speeds for pretty much anything on legs in the world, including the player character. You can accept the defaults, or easily tweak them to your pace. When combined with Same Walk & Run Speeds from the same author you can have speedier game altogether, but with speeds matched to the character’s pace, so you won’t be outpacing a companion. Relatedly, but not really, Better Horses gives the you the one power the Dovakhiin is missing: dominion over the equine brethren of dragons... okay, it’s a mod that alters horses. It gives you a bunch of controls over the neighy buggers by adding a number of calls that'll summon them wherever they are, as well as making them unkillable and cowardly, to help with self-preservation. Again, these are really considered, really necessary tweaks. I mean, really, who was making Skyrim and forgot saddle bags?
One of the more interesting tweaks I’ve come across deals with cell respawn. Skyrim’s world is split into "cells", to allow the game to more easily shoulder the amount of content it need it only loads at any given time. Each cell has a specific amount of time it takes to start repopulating things. If you’re looking for a livelier time then Faster Cell Respawn will speed the world up a bit, repopulating cells after three in-game days. If that seems too speedy, there’s a slower version here.
One thing I tweaked, but I'm aware you might not want to, is lockpicking. I hate it. I hate everything about it. I've never managed to understand what it is they're trying to portray, and it's swallowed time and lockpicks aplenty as I've fumbled my tumblers. So, yes, this is a cheat, but it's made my life in Skyrim so much more pleasurable. I have no moral problem with cheating my way past a badly designed game mechanic.
So that's part one. Next week I'll be looking into how to rebuild the world with open cities and improved atmosphere. Feel free to suggest mods for this week's theme in the comments.