Skip to main content

How to make Skyrim a survival game

You Will Survive

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.

You may have already read my Skyrim survival diary and if not, why not? It sees me struggling to ward off frostbite with wine and adopting the game’s most lovable dog just to keep my feet warm. If you want to plod through the winter wastelands of Skyrim's Tamriel with the same ‘survival mode’ in mind yourself, these are the mods you’ll want to add. Most of them come from a single source, the Nexus modding community. Before you grab them, it is best to have their Nexus Mod Manager installed, as well as something called SKSE. (You will also have to register to join the Nexus community to download these files). Getting all this architecture in place is a minor frustration compared to the improvements you’ll see in the end. It will be worth it when you find yourself freezing to death under a rocky outcrop with no wood to start a fire.

Actually, that sounds awful.


This is THE survival mod for Skyrim. If you only get one mod from this list, get Frostfall. It is a detailed bundle of survival mechanics centred around staving off hypothermia. It is one of those rare mods that is so deftly woven into the game it makes you wonder why it wasn’t included right out of the box. In fact, it is so universally admired by Elder Scrolls fans, you’ve probably already got it.

Frostfall adds a simple ‘exposure’ meter and random bouts of bad weather, like blizzards. In heavy snow you will get cold very fast, penalising you with lower stamina and health regeneration. Some parts of the map will be colder than others (the mountain of High Hrothgar and the Northern Coast are devastatingly freezing) but even in Skyrim’s milder climates the cold still bites when it rains. Rain will make you wet, causing the cold to gnaw away at you even faster. Falling into icy water leads to a crazy Bear Grylls style scramble to get a fire going, as the cold starts to sap you of all energy.

Freezing to death is a perpetual threat. The only way to avoid it is to use Frostfall’s camping and survival skills to harvest firewood, craft fires, and cook hot soups to eat in your hastily-made fur tent. The constant dread of exposure adds so much to the game, it is embarrassing to think back on the time you played without it. It is easy to relearn your love of Skyrim’s world when stumbling across one of its isolated inns complete with roaring fire can actually save your life.

Wet and Cold

This is partly an aesthetic mod but some features add a little bit extra to that sense of a harsh and freezing wilderness. Wet and Cold adds visual effects like steamy breath from people and creatures when outside, or snow that settles on all characters’ body (and melts away when they’re close to a fire or other heat source). But it also has a few more meaty tricks. When travelling in a severe rainstorm or a blizzard, the player’s vision will become blurry, making it even harder to see enemies or landmarks in the distance. Taking shelter or keeping your head down will stave off the effect. Meanwhile, strong winds will cause a 15% reduction in movement speed. This combined with Frostfall makes getting caught in a snowstorm an actual problem, instead of being a simple atmospheric detail as in vanilla Skyrim. NPCs will equip cold weather gear when it gets chilly, as well as heading straight home in a blizzard, with the exception of Nords, who stand about with their shirts off, chopping up logs. Because every Nord is as hard as a big box of frozen nails.

Realistic Needs and Diseases

There’s a lot of food in Skyrim. Meat and veg, loaves and fruit. Not forgetting, ugh, sweet rolls. But none of it really feel like it matters. My first playthrough of Skyrim saw me munch on a few lettuce leaves, just to hear the sound effect, then completely neglect any future meal time. Realistic Needs and Diseases not only solves the pointlessness of foodstuffs but also the relatively forgettable sleep and disease mechanics of the original.

With this mod, going too long without a hearty meal will have a huge impact on your health and stamina regeneration, as well as making it harder to sneak and attack effectively. If you ever get to the ‘Starving’ stage, your carry weight will drop -50, reflecting the dwindling ability of your emaciated body. Thirst has a similar effect, while also sapping you of magicka in various ways.

As if all this wasn’t worrisome enough, you’ll now contract some of Skyrim’s horrible diseases from sleeping in unclean places like bandit camps or near animal dens. And if you don’t sleep at all? Exhaustion will leave you slow, weak and dumb - unable to learn as your skill improving rate drops as far as -75%. This mod is worth getting for the food and drink alone. The realism is unnerving. Drink too much alcohol and you will black out and wake up 4 hours later. Drinking herbal tea will give you +10 speech for 300 seconds. Astounding.

Climates of Tamriel,
Realistic Lighting Overhaul and Wearable Lanterns

I’m bunching these mods together because they all address the issue of ambiance. Climates of Tamriel adds a fetric muckton of weather effects. This is for the visual side of things - beautiful auroras, cracking thunderstorms and frosty clear night skies. If you’re going to play survival in the mountains, you at least want that distant, bruised sky to look appropriately menacing.

Realistic Lighting Overhaul is a different beast. It has had, for me, probably the most dramatic effect on the way I approach combat in Skyrim. This is because it re-jigs the lighting so that naturally dark or poorly-lit areas ARE ACTUALLY DARK instead of blueish. Oh my god. You have no idea. With RLO switched on, dungeons, caves and old ruins become a totally new challenge, requiring you to bring a torch with you down almost every hole. This slow creep forward with your flame held up is almost Dark Souls II in its nature, especially in the early game when you are still a bit weak.

If you don’t have any source of light going into one of Tamriel’s dingy death traps, don’t worry. RLO has another nifty (read: stupidly realistic) feature. Your character’s eyes will grow accustomed to the dark -- at a rate much slower than vanilla Skyrim would like. This is so the mod remains in line with the ‘Realistic’ in its title. You should be sure how much you want this. As the creators have noted: “In real life it can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 1 hour for a human to adapt to drastic lighting conditions.”

Understandably, this may frustrate some, which brings me the third mod of the lighting trio. Wearable Lanterns does exactly what you expect it to do. It allows you to equip a lantern and strap it to your belt, so that you can still use your off-hand when dungeon crawling. A good compromise for those who want the atmospheric dark but still want to carry their comfort shield into a cave full of spiders.

Alternate Start - Live Another Life or Skyrim Unbound

Oh man, these Elder Scrolls games love making you the hero. Well, frankly, I’m sick of it. And by the looks of it so were these modders. Live Another Life sticks with the well-loved Elder Scrolls trope of starting your game in a prison cell but expands your character creation outwards to allow you a choice of 13 new beginnings. Will you be a wandering sailor who arrived in Dawnstar on a rotting longboat? Or maybe you’ll be the wealthy landlord of Karnsdale Farmhouse. Whatever you choose, you will start with a different inventory, far away from that the game’s original opening at Helgen. I like this because it allows you some more time to be a nobody, just wandering Skyrim on your own whim, trying to make ends meet. However, you can stumble across the main quest, giving yourself the pesky title of Dragonborn once more.

Skyrim Unbound offers the same sort of deal as Live Another Life but with a bit more customisation. You can turn dragons on from the beginning while turning off soul absorption and Shouty Walls, effectively removing the main quest altogether, while still keeping dragons as an enemy. Technically speaking, these aren’t really ‘survival’ mods but it does help lend the game a survivalist slant if you are just some shmuck shipwrecked on the rocky shores outside Solitude, as opposed to the all-powerful prophecy-bastard of legend.


That’s the main course covered. But what about desserts? NO. No desserts for you. You are starving to death, remember? Oh, all right. Here are a few morsels which, while not being essential to a survival run-through of Skyrim, do help to lend it a little extra authenticity (or usability in some cases).

Immersive Patrols - adds patrols from Skyrims various factions. Sometimes they cross each other and get into fights. You can stand back, watch, laugh and rummage through the pockets of the dead when they are done.

Run For Your Lives - makes citizens behave like actual humans when faced with the terrifying threat of a dragon or other scary creatures. Instead of taking out their small stabby knives and trying to kill things, they run away and lock themselves up, leaving only guards to fend off the beasts.

SkyUI - super popular mod that declutters and improves Skyrim’s notoriously unwieldy UI.

Sounds of Skyrim - The Wilds - adds extra sound effects into the wild landscape so you can die of exposure while listening to the poetic call of the Loon.

A Quality World Map - With Roads - makes the world map much more readable by adding detailed roads and blowing away some fluffy, annoying clouds.

You can read more Survival Week articles over here.

Read this next