Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How to Play Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - How to Play Skyrim

Previously, we talked about how to set up a new Skyrim game without mods.
In this post, we will discuss how to set up a game with a few core mods, and how to actually play Skyrim.

Yes, how to play Skyrim.

We're not going to talk about power-levelling or various exploits or in what sequence to do side quests to get your character powerful quickly. We're not going to talk about the opposite, either. We're going to talk about how to play Skyrim in a sane way.

Before we begin, mentally wipe away everything you have read about how to play Skyrim, especially any levelling tricks on forums and wikis. Honestly, they are rubbish.
Also forget about all the complaints you have heard concerning how the developers set up Skyrim. Contrary to what a lot of people think, it is NOT rubbish. If you focus on the main quest at Adept difficulty, you will actually have a decent time that is not so challenging that you constantly fail / get killed, but not a total cakewalk either, unless you are experienced and know cheap strategies or have foresight from having played certain quests before, etcetera... Remember that developers must create a game that caters to the lowest common denominator -- that is, someone who's never picked up a video game in their life. The problem is, the game can't evolve when you have. But that is not the developer's fault -- That's a consequence of the realities of marketing.

Principles
Before we get into a dissection of the game, we'll first talk about some principles and concepts and assumptions involved in the choices.

Real Time
By Real Time, I mean time in the real world, as opposed to time in the game. The game has accelerated time -- timescale 20 -- where 20 seconds ticks by even though everything appears to act in real time, and even though in real life, 1 second ticked by. If it takes you 12 minutes to make a sandwich, the game would have progressed 240 minutes, or 4 hours.
This concept is important to bring up because Real Time is precious. Do you really want to do something awfully repetitive for 2 hours of Real Time? When a strategy suggests your character sit around forging hundreds of Iron Daggers to level up Smithing, all that costs Real Time, and I recommend you think very carefully about whether you want to spend time doing that or spend time having an interesting experience adventuring about Skyrim.

Balance versus Overpowered versus Difficulty
Often there's talk about balancing races or whether certain ability combinations are "balanced" or not. Skyrim is a single player game, so any such talk is really a complete waste of time. What matters is your personal experience of the game. Are you having fun? If you like Bayonetta Automatic Mode where you basically press buttons to advance to a win, that is perfectly fine. If you like Dark Souls style constant-death mode, that is fine too. Neither is better than the other. What matters is that in exchange for your precious Real Time, you are having the experience you want.

Therefore, the only real consideration is whether something is Overpowered or not, relative to your game experience. When something is Overpowered, it tends to change the sense of difficulty/challenge you want in your game. When it skews your sense of a need/want for character development, that is a sign that something could be overpowered. When you think about how you want to develop your character, and what mods to add, this should be your consideration.
The vanilla difficulty settings provide damage multipliers are a a very clumsy way to deal with an overpowered game. There are subtler, more organic ways which we will discuss as part of this guide.

Like the previous Elder Scrolls games Morrowind and Oblivion, Skyrim can be a very easy game if you are ready and willing to exploit the vast number of options available to you. Which leads us to...

Choices
Skyrim has a ton of choices, enough to accommodate many hybrid play styles. Whether you want to be a straight fighter, straight mage, or something in between, you can, with varying degrees of difficulty and depending on what handicaps you are willing to take (sometimes subconsciously). If you are willing to drink a lot of potions, that is possible. If you refuse to use them because they feel like a cheat, that is possible too. Plus, you can raise or lower the difficulty to compensate for your expertise or chosen handicaps.
Therefore, guides that say you "must" or even "should" do certain things are suspect. They surely recommend something that is an advantage, but stick to the character you want to play -- stick to the game experience that you want to have and that will give you the most satisfaction in exchange for your Real Time.

Some of what I suggest will also be based on my personal choices and play styles, so think carefully before implementing them.

Difficulty Slider
You can play the game on Legendary difficulty right from the tutorial (escape from Helgen) if you know what you are doing and are willing to be cheesy. The problem is, you start having to use cheap tactics too often because you can barely to any damage to anyone (on Legendary). Even a backstab with your best dagger might not do significant damage. And likely you will be relying on a Flame Atronach not just as a tank/distraction but as a primary damage dealer. If you want to spend upwards of a half hour to an hour using guerilla tactics to kill a dungeon boss with toothpicks, go ahead and play on Legendary. Moreover, some encounters might even be outright impossible, such as Trolls that can regenerate as fast or faster than you can hurt them.
In the early game, a bandit of approximately equal level in a straight-up fight has a 50/50 chance against you. While this may feel reasonable, in the mid-game you will still have an unreasonably hard time hunting game animals like goats because the difficulty slider doesn't discriminate against what should or should not be harder.

Instead of turning up the difficulty from the start, use it to adjust to how much you have optimized your character. There are so many options out there that it is easy to become too powerful, if you take the time to find / develop / exploit those options. Once you do, you can turn up the difficulty. The difficulty slider in effect rebalances your game while letting you have all the powers and toys you can accumulate, if you like to play that way.

I feel this is the "correct" way to use the difficulty slider. Often people complain the game is too easy. But it is meant to be that way most of the time. The world is large enough that you don't need to be bothered every two minutes by making every encounter with a wolf or a mudcrab into a life-threatening struggle. Maybe in the early game, but that gets tiresome quickly. By level 20+, you should be focussing on stronger enemies and moving smoothly through the game, with the occasional tough boss encounter. Weaker enemies will still appear so you don't lose your sense of your character having improved. Stronger enemies appear occasionally and your focus shifts to them. Meaningless random encounters become low-threat diversions.
This philosophy to encounters is similar to the one adopted by Dungeons & Dragons in the 3rd and 4th editions, where encounters have roles and are scaled so that the story keeps the hands-on excitement but also keeps up the pace.
What many people don't realize is that Skyrim intentionally starts you as a hero. Despite the humble prologue, you are NOT meant to be just another commoner in the same way low-level bandits are. All encounters between you and your mission objective are meant to be surmountable without significant effort because the emphasis is on story. This is why Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion introduced the concept of Fast Travel, which a lot of people hate because they want "realism". What they forget is the savings in Real Time when you just want to advance the story.
If you insist on playing on Legendary difficulty right from the start, however, there is nothing wrong if you like that frustrating experience (or the experience of succeeding by being creatively crafty or knowledgeable about the game).

Alternatively, instead of using the clumsy damage multipliers of the difficulty slider, you can adjust your starting character. At level 1, you have 100 Health, 100 Magicka, 100 Stamina. You can use the console command player.setav Health 50 for example, to reduce the starting values closer to what a low-level bandit has. This raises the difficulty, but still allows you to use tactics to compensate, and it also keeps the effect of damage reasonable as you can still sneak attack and expect them to die, and you don't have to dual cast Fire bolt twice just to kill a deer.

Yet another way to increase difficulty is to increase the level contribution of skill improvements. The Community Uncapper allows you to easily do this by changing the INI file settings.
When you improve a skill, it adds a certain amount of progress to attaining the next character level, which in turn causes the game world to increase in level and it unlocks more dangerous enemies. If you increase the amount skills contribute to levelling, you would get a higher level than normal with less skill -- theoretically less competent, but facing tougher opponents. (To slow down the rate at which you level, you can use Community Uncapper INI settings to reduce the rate at which you train skills.)
A less organic way of doing this is to just jump your character level. At level 1, use the command player.setlevel 10 and new game areas will be generated or reset at level 10, although you otherwise have the stats of a level 1 character.
The main drawback here is that some things are level-dependent instead of skill dependent, such as the level of your summonned creatures. You may end up relying on this loophole too much.

Character Creation
Characters are made by choosing sex (which really has no bearing on the game, possibly deliberately so) and race. In previous games there was also a step of choosing profession where you picked starting skill bonuses, but in all likelihood the developers saw that players were doing so much modding and custom builds that this was essentially cosmetic anyway.
The only real choice here is Race. As mentioned before, any talk of balance is really rubbish -- Ignore all of that. Some people might say Bretons and their 25% Magic Resistance are overpowered, but that sort of talk is a waste of time in a single-player game. What matters is the experience you want to have playing the race. Each race is supposed to have distinguishing traits that make playing them a different experience.
Racial bonuses to skills are largely irrelevant as the bonuses are small and ultimately you will end up mostly levelling those skills that suit how you play the game anyway. Also, since skills all cap at 100 for all races, any sort of bonus doesn't truly distinguish your race. Only your appearance and your powers do.

As for powers, many powers also only weakly distinguish your character. A Breton's 25% Magic Resistance will top at 85% like everyone else's, and getting to 85% Magic Resistance in Skyrim is fairly easy anyway. What is more of a distinguishing factor are weaknesses, but those have been removed in Skyrim. If you like to change the Timescale to 1 (or some other value significantly less than 20), then daily powers are also basically worthless since the duration between re-use then becomes very long.

Your race and appearance has basically no significant in-game effect compared to choosing some other race or the other gender. This in effect releases you from too many complications involved in the choice. But you will be staring at this character a lot, so you may decide to choose solely on that.

Once you have selected the cosmetics of your character, Standing Stones are the next layer of character customization. When your character gets out of Helgen, you may want to short-cut getting to the standing stones by using the console command TMM 1 to enable all map markers. When you are done, use TMM 0 to hide all map markers (including the ones discovered previously), so doing this early in the game is better.

Playing the Game

Money
You can stand around chopping wood as much as you like, then haul the load to be sold to the nearest timber mill. This means unlimited money, albeit very slowly. There are two ways to handle this:
  • Short-cut it: Use console yourself in a lot of money with the command player.additem F 100000 (in this case it gives you 100000 gold).
  • Don't do it: Why spend your precious Real Time chopping wood? Do a little for crafting supplies or to get a little bit of spare cash, as it was probably intended.
Carry Weight
The only real reason to want more encumbrance is if you are a hoarder. As mentioned before, any sort of money shortage is really illusory. As for adventuring, you can just throw things away except for a few potions and you will still do fine, unless you have taken on deliberate handicaps or turned up the difficulty a lot.
If you want to hoard things, instead of messing around with carry weights, just get a portable storage mod such as GQ Storage. You won't even need a buyable home.

Crafting Skills
You actually don't need the crafting skills since the potions, weapons, and armour you can get or buy keep pace with your level. For these skills to be of any real benefit, you need to get the perks that will let you greatly exceed what you can already buy and loot. IF you want to do this, then focussing on crafting skills to raise them is necessary.

If you find that crafting skills seem to improve too slowly, there are various approaches:
  • Occasional training. For example, every time you are in or near a town, you could fast travel to the blacksmith for supplies -- instead of completing stopping your adventuring just to do this repeatedly in order to advance your Crafting skills and thereby fill your Real Time with mindless repetition.
    • If you have Complete Crafting Overhaul, you can make Hearthfire DLC home construction items such as locks and hinges even without having purchased any plots of land. This is a nice way of steadily accumulating what you need for your eventual home, and at the same time steadily improve your Smithing skill.
  • Change the levelling rate so that you gain a multiple of the skill XP you would normally get. There are various ways to do this, but the Community Uncapper provides a very easy way by editing INI files (which are just text files).
  • Increase the opportunities for crafting skill XP. GQ Crafting XP lets you earn Smithing XP from the Smelter and Tanning Rack, and Alchemy XP from the Cooking Pot. If you are using Complete Crafting Overhaul, this function can also be enabled from that mod.
  • Use a console command to increase the skill. E.g., player.SetAV smithing 100
    • SetAV sets a skill to the specified level, without providing any contribution toward your character's level. To get a level contribution, use player.IncPCS smithing (or whatever skill you want to raise). IncPCS increases a skill by 1 level each time it is used.
    • If you have the Community Uncapper, then the next level is 101, which can be a sizable levelling contribution and therefore inflate your character level.
    • If you do not have the Community Uncapper, you will lose all the potential levelling contribution from advancing the crafting skill affected. You can, of course, use the levelling reset option in Skyrim, but that defeats the purpose of getting a high score in the crafting skill to begin with.
Alchemy
One of the problems with Alchemy is that it is useless in the early game, considering the potions and poisons you can get. And you get so many of those that Alchemy is pretty much irrelevant.

Smithing
Taken to the extreme, theoretically you could spend the start of the game just getting smithing supplies to raise your Smithing skill to 100, then craft the best gear you can make before stepping out into any danger. If you wait long enough in Riverwood (spending your time chopping wood for money, probably), you can get Ebony Ingots from the Riverwood Trader and Daedra Hearts from the Sleeping Giant Inn, meaning you can eventually walk out of there at level 17+ in a full set of tempered/sharpeend but unenchanted Daedric gear. It is a bit easier to do this in Whiterun, as you have access to more traders there. For those less patient, orichalcum ore starts to appear at level 14 so you can start out in orcish gear if you prefer.

Probably the best approach to Smithing is to first realize that it isn't all that important. You will generally be able to find gear appropriate for your level. Even if you do not, remember that free money is there for the making, so you can shop for the gear you want. Even if you can't get exactly the gear that is the best for your level, the difference won't make much of a difference at all after all the other options you have, including potions and healing magic and sneak attacks for enormous damage.

Levelling
Contrary to what people think, the game levels your character far too quickly. Your progress to levels 10-15 is extremely fast. Things don't slow down till around level 30, so that can be considered a soft level cap. You can progress further to level 81 and beyond, but really, once you are around level 35, you will have obtained such resources that only a significant encounter (say, 1-2 dragons and no usable cover) will be of any real threat. Past level 35, your experience will largely be the same if not easier, except for specially crafted enemies or situations involving several strong enemies -- therefore levels past 35 or so become rather meaningless. For this reason, level 35 can be considered the true level cap -- and you get to it far too quickly.
By quickly I mean that you have raced through the sense of progression in the world. Suddenly the world becomes basically static with nothing new to see. (Although some people like that because they feel an evolving world that uses kids gloves on you through your lower levels is unrealistic.)

There are various ways to slow down levelling. One is to change the rate at which skills level or at which they contribute toward character level.
  • The Community Uncapper and SkyTweak can do this.
  • Using these tools, you can also disable certain skills from contributing to your character level, such as Lockpicking, Pickpocketing, and Speech.
  • You can increase the rate of certain skills like Block, Light Armor, and Heavy Armor because if you play well, you won't get hit that often, and as a result you will have a harder time levelling these skills.
If you find yourself at too high a level, you can reset your character to level 1 or to a lower level, and then let the game world refresh itself to the new level. This way, you do not have to start a new game and thereby lose all your quest/story progress. See this post on tools to completely reset your character in Skyrim.

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