I've recently undergone a journey of ambitious scope. I've already played almost 250 hours of Skyrim at this point, and honestly it's been awhile since I dedicated much time to the game. Now I have a bit of time for it now though, and I wanted to go back into it with a full mod rehaul spectacular.
Desired End Result: A more dynamic, in depth, and survival focused game.
First of all was the gameplay. While I'm a lot less down on Skyrim's combat than most, I still recognize it has flaws, and could be made better. I also have a lot of mechanics in mind that aren't a part of the game but that I'd love to see in the game to help me encourage to play a 'role' within the game. The role I was most interested in was a hunter type who could rely on himself to survive in the wilderness of Skyrim, but who took part in the events of the land. He's a warrior, but one who knows his way behind a bow and how to field dress game. A rugged, capable adventurer.
Secondly, I wanted to pretty up the game. There are a lot of great texture mods for Skyrim, but it's a bit of a balancing act in Skyrim because you've got to be careful not to go too crazy with them, and focus on the important ones. I have a very beefy PC but Skyrim still isn't the best optimized game. My focus for this stuff was improving the lowest points in Skyrim. Things like the shields and environment textures.
Thirdly, I wanted some new content to keep me going. I wanted new placed to explore, new characters to meet, and most of all new gear to play with. I despise anything that doesn't legitimately fit into the lore and tone and aesthetic of Skyrim. I avoid all of the anime bullshit and try to keep to stuff that looks less "special" and amazing, and more functional.
I'll go into more depth on how I achieve these goals on a mod by mod basis when I get into the actual list of mods you'll need.
Getting Started: Essential Tools
First thing's first, you need to go over to the Skyrim Nexus, the premiere source of Skyrim mods. Pick up the Nexus Mod Manager, another essential tool in modding Skyrim, which will help you more easily download and keep up to date your mods, as well as help you control load order (you need to do this if you plan to use many of the primary mods I will be suggesting) and even launch the game. Then, make sure you have the High Resolution Textures downloaded and installed. If you can't run the slightly better textures in that pack, you're not going to get much out of this list. It should be easy to nab this on Steam on the off chance you don't have it yet. You'll also need the latest SkyrimScriptExtender (SKSE) for most of the gameplay relevant mods, so make sure you have this installed first and foremost.
The Mods: Survival Gameplay
Frostfall is a pretty interesting mod that forms the core of my little "Survival module." It adds two major aspects to Skyrim: Cold Weather Survival and Sustainable Wilderness Living.
The Cold Weather half of the mod simulates various elements of surviving the frigid winds, deep snow drifts, and icy waters of Skyrim. It simulates the player's temperature based on certain variables. When the player is in a cold, snowy area they will receive greater exposure to the cold. And if the player gets wet, they will be even more vulnerable to the cold, especially if they have recently been submerged. Falling into the freezing waters of Skyrim is no longer a matter of casual fun. It becomes dangerous, bringing your temperature down rapidly and making it even more difficult to keep warm without a strong fire. Even the rain can hinder your progress in the wilderness, especially if you don't have a good cloak and hood to keep you dry. In fact, clothing and gear plays a large part in surviving now. You can't wander around in Iron armor for days and come out the other side. You'll freeze to death on the frozen tundra without warm clothing. Thick furs, heavy cloaks, and other insulating items of clothing are a necessity.
The Sustainable Wilderness Living aspect of the mod adds several mechanics around constructing and using a camp to rest, cook, and warm your haggard self. This in particular plays into the other mods in the Survival Module such as Needs and Diseases, as they all center around ensuring you keep well fed, parched, and have shelter to rely on. It brings a new focus on hunting and gathering because you need to have firewood and meat to survive.
The reason I love Frostfall is that it makes Skyrim feel like a place you have to survive, not a place you just sprint around to explore. It's very tense wandering around in the pitch black of midnight, almost unconscious from exhaustion and cold, hoping to happen upon a friendly camp. It also helps to solidify the sense of place. You find familiar hunting grounds, a good place to camp, fellow hunters to barter with. It's pretty awesome.
As the name implies, Realistic Needs and Diseases adds more "bodily functions" to Skyrim, primarily hunger, thirst, and disease. This mod is key to reinforcing the need to hunt and adding difficulty to survival.
Like Frostfall, RND is broken up into two chunks, and adds a number of mechanics to serve both elements.
The first half of the equation is the "Needs" part of the title. Your character will get exhausted without sleep, or intoxicated if you overdo the ale. You also need to eat or you'll starve, and suffer the consequences of an empty belly. But to make things easy for you, the mod adds a lot of new recipes, making food much easier to come by as you will usually be close to a source of food, instead of having to seek out one of the sparse ingredients of vanilla Skyrim. But food wasn't the only thing to get attention, beverages see a boost in variety and thirst is another metric you need to keep track of. You'll be able to fill your waterskin at the river if you have need, so it should be easy to keep your thirst at bay.
Playing into the other half of the mod, (Diseases) food also ages, meaning that it can spoil if you've kept it in your pack for too long. On top of food spoiling, the diseases of Skyrim have been rehauled, and become much more serious. When you first come down with an illness, the symptoms are easy to cope with. But as the disease progresses, the effects will become difficult to live with. With luck, all you'll need is some rest in a real bed with a warm fire and stew in your stomach. If that doesn't do the trick though, you'll need to resort to science, or magic to cure what ails you.
Hunterborn is a great mod to pair with Frostfall and RND, giving a lot more depth to the actual activity of hunting, which is great because it's something end up doing a lot more of with hunger factoring into your wellbeing.
Normally in Skyrim, hunting is pretty simple. You shoot the deer, and then you might get something from doing that. Like, a ring! But with Hunterborn, loosing that fatal arrow is the simple part. From there, you have a number of options depending on your situation. If you have a camp nearby, you can pick up the carcass and transport it to your camp where you can dress and butcher the animal. You can also harvest organs and the like from animals, and skin the pelt. Once you've gotten what you need from the animal, you can dispose of the remains.
This makes hunting much more active and requires that you do more than just "Hit X" to get everything you can out of the animal. But it also means that you'll be able to harvest realistic amounts of what the animal has to offer, instead of hoping you'll get some meat this time.
Another added bonus is that the mod expands upon the alchemical and culinary fields in Skyrim, adding recipes and ingredients to the game, many of which cater to the hunter in all of us. Hunterborn is an excellent mod for any marksman/ranger type, but fits in with my character as well.
SkyTEST is pretty to explain but is still a really great mod, which further enhances the player's encounters with the wildlife. It focuses mostly on the behavior of the critters of Skyrim, making them a little more interesting, dynamic, and organic.
With SkyTEST, predators stalk their prey, creatures seek sources of food, and even socialize amongst themselves.
Mods: Gameplay Balance
Skyrim Redone is, as the name suggests, an overhaul of Skyrim's base mechanics. Many people had issues with Skyrim's combat and perk system, but for me this is more about giving a more tactile experience. This makes combat more demanding, engaging, and dynamic.
I won't get into the details of it, if you want to read up on the mod's page you can do that, it goes into great depth there.
Locational damage is a pretty no-nonsense kind of mod, but it goes a lot further than you might expect. This isn't as simple as damage based on headshots.
Not only are there an entire fourteen separate "zones," from limbs to necks to faces, but each zone has unique possible effects when hit, sometimes even based on what is hitting the zone. Some effects only happen when a bow is used, other only if a bash attack, and other still require a heavy weapon to be used. This gives the player a lot more to do in combat, making things much more intense, engaging, and dynamic.
This is a very handy mod to make the economy of Skyrim more sensible and less exploitable. It increases the amount of coin a shop owner might have, and plays with the costs of items to be a little more logical. Very handy if you plan to make a living in Skyrim.
The creator of the mod claims that the prices are being changed based on the values of base materials and demand and more, meaning every item is worth what it's actually worth.
The Mods: Immersion
This is one of, if not the absolute best, way to fix Skyrim's ridiculous nights. While most solutions use post processing, Darker Nights actually reduces the light in the world, avoiding the image destruction of other options.
There are a number of different version as well, allowing you to get the flavor you prefer.
Its sister mod, Darker Dungeons is an interesting mod, but because it acts upon every interior in the game, some of which end up far too dark (especially inhabited buildings like inns and shops and homes) so I wouldn't suggest that one unless you really really want it. I find Skyrim does fine at keeping interior darkness at an appropriate level, so I'm not using it with Darker Nights.
This one is extremely simple to explain: Cities are no longer instanced, meaning you can walk right through the gates and around the strongholds of Skyrim without a loading screen. It's a small but very awesome touch.
Relighting Skyrim is one of my favorite graphics mods for Skyrim because it has one of the most dramatic effects and on one of the most important parts of an engine's quality in my book: lighting.
This mod adds actual light sources where they previously had been missing, and also makes some light sources cast shadows that had not done so in vanilla Skyrim. It's probably not something you'll usually notice when it's there, but you notice when it isn't so I consider this an important mod, especially if you have mods like Darker Dungeons.
This is a simple, but very effective mod for my goals with modding skyrim. It allows you to have much greater control over the HUD and when its various elements are on screen. I use it to keep as little on screen as possible at any given time to add to the immersion of the world. No more HUD elements cluttering my view as I trek through the tundra or forests of Skyrim.
Travel by Boat adds a number of docks and boats around the rivers of Skyrim, allowing the player to use a more contextual "fast travel" to get around Skyrim. I mostly like this because of the added objects in the world, but I was also hugely drawn to the real time ferry along the coast of Skyrim. It's that kind of stuff that really gives me a kick.
The Mods: New Gear!
These two great mods add a ton of gear to the game, making the enemies far more varied in their gear and giving you a lot more toys to play with! And the best part? It's all lore friendly.
No silly Final Fantasy swords that look like they were modeled and textured by a 13 year old, just a lot of high quality gear that fits into the world, while still doing a great job of expanding on the weapons and armor of Skyrim.
Weapons of the Third Era is a Morrowind inspired weapon pack that adds a little bit of old school Elder Scrolls flavor back into Skyrim. If you're lucky, you just might might happen upon some weaponry imported from the marshes of Morrowind!
JaySuS Swords focuses, obviously, on bladed weapons, which I like for a couple of reasons. For one, most of the swords in Skyrim are a bit on the fancy side of things.
Swords seem like they should be the most common weapon you see in Skyrim, so I like this adding to the chance you'll see a sword in someone's hand instead of an axe or mace.
JaySuS swords have a very realistic feel to them, and they fit very well with the not so vaguely Viking tone of Skyrim very well. There are a few quirks that I'm not a huge fan of like references to the crusades which obviously didn't occur in the universe that takes place in Skyrim, but it's mostly just on the pommels of swords so you don't ever really notice it.
The armor in this set is not only pretty great, but also serves to add just enough flair here and there. After all, it's only realistic that highborns and jarls and emperors would have finer armor sets than those adventurers and soldiers bear. It has some nods to other worlds, but in this case I'll let it slide because it actually fits in the aesthetic without being overbearingly from-another-world-y.
Shields don't get a lot of love in Skyrim. There aren't a ton of em, and a lot of them have pretty piss poor textures. Luckily, I have a few fixes for both. Skyforge Shields adds a few pretty awesome looking and of course very lore friendly shields intended to mirror the style of other Skyforge items.
This is a good mod that adds some flair to your character and also gives some neat functionality in the way of added carry capacity. This adds a ton of new bags and pouches and straps and doodads to add a lot of cool details to your character and to help you carry more gear.
This armor looks pretty awesome, and fits pretty perfectly my idea of what a loyal servant of some dark and malicious deity would earn in through their service in Tamriel. It may be a bit too spectacular for some, but I think it looks too awesome to pass on.
Another mod to buff up the selection of shields, this adds a number of new Round Shields to the game with over 50 patterns to add some variety to the gear the inhabitants of Skyrim carry.
Cloaks of Skyrim is pretty obvious, but one of my favorite mods to add to the feel of the world: adds cloaks! And not only that, but it interacts in really awesome ways with Frostfall. Skyrim just makes more sense with cloaks, and I'm surprised that they weren't in the game to begin with!
Plus, you look badass with a cloak!
The Rest: Minor Mods and Fixes
Here I'm going to list all of the smaller mods that don't impact the gameplay. For the most part, they are visual mods. For those that have multiple quality levels, I'm pretty much always just picking the highest version.
I'll probably add the Gear Visuals up top with pictures and all that because they really are essential in my opinion, vanilla gear looks pretty terrible. But this list needing to have links took forever and I don't have the patience to continue with this today. That change and the full install guide should be up tomorrow by about 6PM PST. After that I'll consider doing a big screenshot gallery and a video of me showing the basics of how this collection of mods has changed the way I play. Which may or may not be cheesy and "lore" friendly. But will almost certainly involve green screen silliness at some point.
Nuska Real Skin for Women - Currently unlisted :(