Skyrim

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Olivier Doorenbos

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OlivierDoorenbos

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About this mod

How to mod Skyrim (non-Special Edition). A quick step-by-step guide to performance-friendly modding in 2019. As simple and clear as possible. Includes a well curated mod list.

Permissions and credits
Changelogs
Note: this guide is for Skyrim Legendary Edition, not Special Edition. A Special Edition version of this guide is hopefully coming in mid-late 2020.

Introduction
This is a performance-friendly step-by-step guide to modding, based on over 1500 hours of researching and playing mods.

I wrote this because (in my opinion) none of the other guides are clear or concise enough for the novice modder. Most other guides are only suitable for people with unlimited free time and very powerful PCs. Many are bloated with some poor mod recommendations (outdated, unbalanced, not lore friendly, script-hogs, and too much adult-only content etc). Some guides (like S.T.E.P. guide) are very comprehensive, but unnecessarily complex for most modders.

So I felt the need to write a better, simple guide for novice modders (including those who don't have very powerful PCs), or those who just want to save time.

To keep this guide simple and performance friendly, I will only cover the essentials, so no ENBs and no bashed patches etc. The mods listed in this guide improve the look and feel of Skyrim without the use of either. And you can always try ENBs and mods that need bashed patches later.

Avoid unrealistic expectations:
          "Modding is easy and quick. Anyone can do it"
          "You can have 200+ mods installed that are 100% stable"
          "My 100+ graphics mods and ENB make Skyrim look epic, with no performance loss"
          "If you follow all instructions and use common sense, you'll never run into problems"

While the above statements are sometimes true, they are also very misleading. Modding takes time, is at best 99% stable, and will affect performance. Sometimes things go wrong, whether you carefully follow this guide or not.

Have you tried Enderal?
Enderal is a 1-click-install supermod for Skyrim. It is a great alternative if you don't have the time or energy to go through this guide.

Prerequisites (what you will need):
  • Skyrim and all DLC (or legendary edition) on Steam.
  • Your PC should be able to run vanilla Skyrim at max settings smoothly (for example: i3-3220 + GTX750ti + 8GB RAM).
  • Windows 7 or higher with UAC disabled (if you keep UAC on for security reasons, you must install skyrim to a directory other than "program files")
  • nexusmods.com free account, for downloading mods.
  • large amount of free time and perseverance.

A note about the screenshots:
I know these visuals are not very impressive, but they are still significantly better than vanilla, with nearly no performance loss.
Also note, I am not using a landscape texture pack in the screenshots. What you see is just the official HD DLC.


Preparing Skyrim for Mods
Before installing mods you must follow these steps:

  • Download and install Skyrim Legendary Edition
  • (optional) delete the intro logo video in
  •             C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common\Skyrim\Data\Video
  • Run Skyrim once - select "Play" in the launcher and exit from the main menu. (this is so the engine generates ini files).
  •         (if the launcher did not auto select "ultra" graphics settings, your PC may not be powerful enough for proper Skyrim modding)
  • On the steam front page, do a search for "SKSE" (Skyrim Script Extender), and install it.
  • now enable the SKSE memory patch:
  •             go to steamapps/common/Skyrim/Data, and create folder "SKSE".
                in new skse folder create "skse.ini" file.
                open "skse.ini" with any text editor and add the following lines:

                        [General]
                        EnableDiagnostics=1
                        ClearInvalidRegistrations=1

                        [Memory]
                        DefaultHeapInitialAllocMB=768
                        ScrapHeapSizeMB=256

            save and close

  • create a folder where modding resources will be installed (outside of skyrim's directory but on same drive). An example: "C:\Skyrim Mod"
  • download and unzip Tes5Edit to your modding folder.
  • clean "dirty edits" from Bethesda's master files (this makes skyrim more reliable):
  •                   open tes5edit, double click on update.esm, in left pane right-click update.esm and select [Apply Filter For Cleaning]
                      wait till done, then right-click update.esm and select [Remove "Identical to Master" records], confirming "yes" when prompted
                      wait till done, then right-click update.esm and select [Undelete and Disable References]
                      wait till done, close tes5edit, at prompt select Update.esm and check backup, then press OK.
                do the same for Dawnguard.esm, and then do it AGAIN for Dawngurad.esm,
                do the same for Hearthfire.esm, and Dragonborn.esm (no need to do twice for these)
                (make sure the new cleaned (smaller filesize) esm files are in Skyrim\Data, the originals are in Data\TES5Edit Backups)
         You may want to backup these "cleaned" esm files so you don't need to do it again in future.
  • Note: before installing "Mod Organizer", I recommend you edit graphics settings in the default launcher to your liking, as once MO is installed, you will have to edit graphics setting inside MO using a much more complicated interface (tools menu > 'configurator'). Any changes made in the default launcher will not work when using MO.
  • install MO - "Mod Organizer 2" in your modding folder. Also note: MO uses a virtual file directory system, so any utilities you may end up using must be run from within MO as shown with LOOT below. Also any ini file tweaks must be done inside MO as shown further down.
  • open MO, press the spanner "configure" button, select workaround tab and click "back date BSAs"
  • download and unzip LOOT - "Load Order Optimisation Tool" to your modding folder.
  • To integrate LOOT with MO, press the "modify executables" button in MO (looks like 2 cog-wheels). In the blank title field type "LOOT", in the binary field enter the full path to the LOOT executable. example: "C:\Skyrim Mod\LOOT.v0.8.1\LOOT.exe". Now press the "Add" button, then close that window.
  • In MO, select "LOOT" from the drop down menu next to "RUN", and press "RUN". In LOOT press "sort plugins" (the button looks like a cellphone reception coverage icon). Observe that no warnings show asking you to clean the master files using tes5edit, as you have already done that. Close LOOT.
  • From now on, you will always start skyrim from within MO by selecting "SKSE" , and pressing "Run". Note: if you do not start skyrim this way, any mods installed through MO will not work!
  • (optional) in MO, press "tools" button (looks like puzzle pieces) and select "ini editor". Edit/add the lines shown below. All of these are optional tweaks, but highly recommended. (be careful, any careless mistake or typo can cause severe problems)
  •      Note: the skyrim ini files in your "My docs" don't work with MO. Only edit these ini files in MO.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
SKYRIM.INI:
[General]
fFlickeringLightDistance=8192                 (fixes indoor light pop-in)
[Display]
fDecalLifetime=256.000                          (makes blood splat on ground stay longer)
iPresentInterval=0                                  (OPTIONAL! - disables v-sync for lower input lag, but causes screen tear. limit fps to 60 (in RTSS) or it bugs out)
fDefaultWorldFOV=76                              (good compromise for wider view, higher values can cause clipping problems)
fDefault1stPersonFOV=76
fSunShadowUpdateTime=0.000                (less irritating updating of shadows as sun moves across sky)
fSunUpdateThreshold=0.200
[Combat]
f1PArrowTiltUpAngle=0.7                         (reduces how much an arrow overshoots where you aim)
f3PArrowTiltUpAngle=1.5
f1PBoltTiltUpAngle=0.7
f3PBoltTiltUpAngle=1.5
[Controls]
fDualCastChordTime=0.02                       (reduces chance that a mouse click is not registered when using a weapon, but narrows dual wield click window)
[VATS]
bVATSDisable = 1                                   (OPTIONAL - disables slow-mo kill cam, but is glitchy in first person view, 3rd person kill animations still play ok)
[Weather]
fSunBaseSize=150                                  (reduces how much the sun incorrectly penetrates through solid objects)
fSunGlareSize=150                                 (if using ELFX weathers, this reduces 1st person view sun glare if it was too much)

SKYRIMPREFS.INI:
[General]
fDefaultFOV=76
[Display]
bDrawLandShadows=1        
fMeshLODLevel1FadeTreeDistance=6144   (fixes irritating transition from low detail tree to high detail tree)
fMeshLODLevel2FadeTreeDistance=4096
fTreesMidLODSwitchDist=8192
iMaxSkinDecalsPerFrame=100
iMaxDecalsPerFrame=250                        (allows more blood splat on ground at same time)
[Controls]
bMouseAcceleration=0                            (likely a placebo, but does not hurt to use it just in case it makes the mouse slightly more responsive)
[Trees]
uiMaxSkinnedTreesToRender=200            (fixes irritating transition from low detail tree to high detail tree)
[Launcher]
bEnableFileSelection=1
[Water]
iWaterReflectHeight=1024                      (improves reflections in water)
iWaterReflectWidth=1024
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Installing Mods General Info
Remember to launch Skyrim from within MO by selecting "SKSE" and pressing "RUN".
(optional) You should first play vanilla skyrim till you exit the tutorial dungeon (Helgen), and then make a save. Use this save when testing new mods.
Most mods will be obtained from the nexusmods.com website. Before installing a mod, it is recommended you read it's description page.

The basic mod download and install process:
  1. - On a nexus mod page, go to the download tab and click "download manually" for the file you want. There is no need to "extract" or "unzip" the files.
  2. - In MO, press the "Install a new mod from an archive" button (first button top left of window).
  3. - Select the file you downloaded and press "open", then "OK".
  4. - Once all files have been copied over, find the mod in the left window of MO and click the check mark box to activate the mod.

Load order and conflict theory
Skyrim's game engine loads mods (plugins and other files) one by one in an order you control. If two mods edit the same thing, the mod loaded later will overwrite the change made by the other mod, thus taking priority. This is called a "mod conflict". As you install more mods, conflicts become inevitable. Most conflicts are harmless or only cause small problems, but some can cause serious problems, so you should be aware of them. Many problematic conflicts can be made harmless or "resolved" by changing the load order.
To avoid conflicts, try not to install mods that seem to do the same or very similar things, and always check the mod's description page on nexusmods.com for any "conflict", "compatibility" or "load order" information.

Automatic load order sorting:
After installing new mods, click the "sort" button in MO (above the right window). Alternatively you can launch LOOT (from within MO) and run the "sort" function in LOOT which is more up to date. Both methods will sort most mods correctly and ensure most conflicts are not problematic.

Manual load order sorting:
Sometimes the auto-sort function gets a few items wrong, so you may need to make adjustments manually afterwards.
In MO, the right window controls the order mod plugins are loaded. The left window controls the order other mod files are loaded. Mods at the top of a list are loaded first, those at the bottom last. Mods that only have a plugin file (.esp file) are sorted by the right side window. But a texture mod may not have a plugin, so it can only be sorted using the left window. Mods that have both plugins and other files are primarily sorted by the right window, but also the left sometimes. In MO you can see if a mod conflicts in the left window if it has a small yellow lightening bolt icon next to it. If you then select one of these mods, some other mods in that list light up as red or green. Red overwrites the selected mod, green is overwritten by the selected mod. (Note: This shows file overwrite conflicts but not other forms of conflicts). The official DLC (like dawnguard and dragonborn) tends to get overwritten, this is not a problem. Other overwrite conflicts are usually not a problem, but you should be aware.

Manual sorting is done by dragging and dropping mods up or down.

Sometimes MO makes a left window sorting suggestion. It is usually best to follow it.

If this all sounds rather complicated, you're not alone. This is a fact of life for the Skyrim modder.

If you install the suggested mods listed later in this guide, I have listed some manual load order adjustments for you at the end, so you do not need to figure them out yourself.

Other notes:
If subscribing to steam workshop mods, first open the vanilla game launcher, wait for messages at the bottom to confirm mods are up to date, then close the launcher, and run MO to sort/activate if needed. Workshop mods in MO will show up as "Unmanaged:" and "Non-MO". This is fine, they will still usually work.

note: some mods need to be repacked before installing. If this happens, "unzip" the downloaded mod and remove any duplicate esp files from the download. Then put everything in a "data" folder and re-zip that. Install in MO from the new zipped file. (if this happens and you are unsure, google it)

In MO, some warning messages can be ignored, but if the large warning triangle in the top right corner lights up, pay attention!
    note: after much activity, sometimes MO shows out of date warnings that can be resolved simply by quitting and restarting MO.

When in game, many mods have a MCM (mod configuration menu) that can be accessed from the game's system menu after loading a save.

Still here? You are now ready to start installing mods. You can skip down to the "Suggested mod list" section of this guide.



Changing Mods During a Playthrough
You can usually install new mods during a playthrough without any trouble. But, always first make a new separate save file, making sure you never overwrite it from now on. This is a backup save you can revert to if anything goes wrong. (also called a "clean save", but this can have other meanings)

It is best to avoid uninstalling mods during a playthrough, but you can usually still do so without problems. Just be aware there are risks. This is because save files contain data from mods, even after those mods are uninstalled. This can sometimes cause problems that range from minor glitches to permanently corrupted save files. The risk depends on the type of mod. Graphics mods, non-scripted mods, and mods that don't have an esp file are usually safe to uninstall. Quest mods tend to have moderate risk, while heavily scripted gameplay overhauls are the most risky to uninstall.
If you are updating a mod during a playthrough, the same risks may apply.

Risks when uninstalling can be minimised by following the below procedure, which uses the "Save game script cleaner" found on nexusmods.com

The correct mod uninstall procedure:
  1. - If the mod has an MCM menu with an enable/disable mod button, use that first to disable the mod.
  2. - Save the game (preferably in a vanilla interior location). Quit Skyrim.
  3. - Uninstall the mod(s) in MO (right click on the mod name in the left window and select "remove mod...").
  4. - Start Skyrim and Load the save. Select "yes" when the warning message about missing content appears.
  5. - Save the game again. Quit Skyrim again.
  6. - Load the "Save game script cleaner" tool. Near the top right corner press "open", and select and open your save file.
  7. - Press "FixScriptInstances", then "Delete all #", then "Clean other", then "Del. broken actives", and finally "Clean formlists".
  8. - Press "Save as", save the new file, then close the tool.
  9. - Start Skyrim and load the new cleaned save file. Continue playing as normal.

Be aware that the script cleaning process itself can cause some mods to malfunction, but this is very rare, and I have never encountered this.
This procedure can also be used when updating mods, but always check with the mod author for any specific update instructions.
If the script cleaner does not fix a serious problem with a save file, the only remaining option is to revert to one of your backup saves.

Installing and uninstalling quest mods during a playthrough:
If you intend to play through a large number of quest mods in a single playthrough, it is a good idea to only install a few of them at the start of a new game, and then install others only when you intend to play through them. After finishing a quest mod, you can either leave it installed or consider uninstalling it using the above uninstall procedure. This approach provides a more balanced and stable experience than having a huge number of quest mods installed at the same time. It reduces the chance of mod conflicts, and troubleshooting problems is also much easier.

As a real example, I have a 1000+ hours savegame on which over 60 different quest mods were installed as I played through them. After finishing each mod, I either left it installed, or used the uninstall procedure, or on rare occasions when the mod was unstable, reverted to the most recent backup save (rather than risk future instability with a contaminated save). Despite 1000+ hours of playtime, and uninstalling over 50 quest mods, my savegame remains quite stable and is about 25MB large.

But if you are the type of player who starts a new game every other week, then you do not need to worry about any of this.


Suggested mod list
These were carefully selected for best performance, stability, production quality, lore friendliness, and gameplay balance.
(no script hogs, no adult content, no bling, no OP magic/weapons, and no hardcore mods etc)
This list only incudes mods that I personally use and trust. Some very popular mods are absent for this reason.
This mod list is not an "ultimate mod compilation" for the elite few with beast PCs, but rather a strong general foundation for the average modder.
All these mods together total about ~15GB of data.

Bug fix mods:
Unofficial Skyrim Legendary Edition Patch
Unofficial high resolution patch (if you use Bethesda's high resolution texture pack)
Crash fixes
Bug fixes
Better MessageBox Controls
Better Dialogue Controls
Fuz Ro D-oh
(optional) Load Game CTD Fix (you only need this if you have CTDs when loading a savegame)
(optional) Leave Combat (a cheat power that can be used to fix "stuck in combat mode" bugs)

Interface mods:
SkyUI
Enhanced Camera
Immersive HUD - iHUD
moreHUD
Display Enemy Level
Even Better Quest Objectives (includes patches for "Cutting Room Floor" and "Enhanced Follower Framework")
(optional) Consistent Sensitivity (actually an SSE mod, but it works fine in original Skyrim)
(optional) Floating Damage
(optional) Another sorting mod-2018
(optional) AH Hotkeys (also get "controlmap" on it's download page - needed for spell autocast functionality)

Graphics mods:
Realistic Waters Two (if waterfall animations feel too fast, you can delete the meshes/effects folder in the mod)
Static Mesh Improvement Mod - SMIM (select lite performance option if your PC is weak)
Improved NPC Clothing (this overwites some SMIM files)
Enhanced Lighting and FX - "ELFX" (recommended: "Enhancer" and "Weathers" modules) + Unofficial ELFX SMIM ENB fps patch
Leanwolf's Better Shaped Weapons
Enhanced Blood Textures
Lorkhans Vision - Night Sky V2 (low saturation version recommended, even if not using ENBs)
Special Edition Fragrance
A Quality World Map and Solstheim Map
(optional) Detailed Cities (adds some trees and clutter to all cities. very lightweight and highly compatible)
(optional) No Menu and Loading Smoke (seems to speed up loading times slightly)
(optional !!!) Mitigate HDR Eye Adaptation and disable Bloom (incompatible with all lighting/weather mods, unless you use the Tes5Edit script patch version to merge it with your lighting mods - a guide on how to do this is included on the mod page)

Audio mods:
Audio Overhaul for Skyrim 2 (install this mod after all other mods so that it's installer can auto-detect which patches are needed)
Better Animal Footsteps
(optional) Irish Flute Bard
(optional) No Combat Screams

Gameplay and other mods:
To Your Face - Sensible NPC Commenting (SKSE)
D13 Faster GET UP STAND UP animation
No Spinning Death Animation
Realistic Ragdolls and Force
Guard Dialogue Overhaul
The Choice is Yours
Immersive Citizens (includes patches for ELFX)
Immersive Horses
Protect your People
Diverse Skyrim
Player Headtracking
Richer merchants - With perks support
High-level Loot Rarified (actually an SSE mod, but it works fine in original Skyrim)
Realistic AI Detection (if in doubt, get the "lite" version)
Better Stealth AI for Followers
Combat Behaviour Improved (fixes enemy attack animations so you take damage mid-swing rather than at start of swing. makes timed block viable)
Realistic Melee Range
(optional) Wildcat - Combat of Skyrim (I recommend you disable the injuries system)
(optional) Simply Stronger Dragons (much safer than "deadly dragons" mod)
(optional) Isilmeriel LOTR Weapons Collection
(optional) Campfire (you need this if you use a survival mod like "Hypothermia" or "Frostfall")
(optional) Hypothermia, and Hypothermia Plus (compatible with "Campfire". More realistic, reliable, and customisable than Frostfall. Be sure to enable the camera shake effects)
(optional) iNeed - Food Water and Sleep (you can lower the game timescale in it's MCM menu)
(optional) Extensible Follower Framework (you can also get the "EFF Patch" on the "Interesting NPCs" mod page. Note: mod followers can only be dismissed with the command wheel if using this patch)
(optional) Skyrim -Community- Uncapper
(optional) Timing is Everything
(optional) Encounter Zones Unlocked
(optional) Paarthurnax Bypass
(optional) Carriage and Ferry Travel Overhaul
(optional) Death Alternative - Your Money or Your Life
(optional) No Auto-Aim

Quest mods to install at game start:
Cutting Room Floor
Interesting NPCs
Beyond Skyrim: Bruma
EasierRider's Dungeon Pack
Lucien
(optional) INIGO
(optional) Immersive World Encounters

Quest mods you may want to install later, one-by-one, when you intend to play through them:
Note: a recommended player level is suggested for some of these quest mods if they are unsuitable for low level players.
(optional) The Cheese of Ages
(optional) MediEvil - Hero of Gallowmere (has an alternate game start function, so is not compatible with other alternate start mods)
(optional) The Forgotten City
(optional) Clockwork (level 20+)
(optional) Carved Brink (level 20+)
(optional) Helgen Reborn (keep this mod disabled till you finish the game intro sequence at Helgen. level 30+)
(optional) Wyrmstooth (not available on nexusmods, but you may find it with a google search. level 30+)
(optional) Moon and Star (level 30+)
(optional) The Shire (level 40+)
(optional) Hammet's Dungeon Packs (level 40+)
(optional) Falskaar (level 50+)
(optional) Voyage to the Dreamborne Isles (level 50+)
(optional) Darkend (level 50+)

(go to the article section of this mod page for a more extensive list of recommended quest mods, sorted by suggested player level etc)
(also, for an even longer list of reviewed quest mods, scroll to the bottom of my Realistic AI Detection page. some are not recommended though)


Load order tweaking:
Now run LOOT to sort your mods. Then adjust the load order of the following mods if necessary (since LOOT sometimes gets it wrong).
These manual adjustments are based on mod author instructions and my own testing.

special ed fragrance        right at the top, after Update.esm but before the official DLCs
detailed cities                 after unofficial patches but before everything else
ELFX (main esp)              before 3DNPC    
3DNPC (interesting npc)   load before immersive citizens
Immersive citizens          after interesting npcs
ELFX enhancer                 load after immersive citizens
realistic melee range       after any combat mods like wildcat
consistent sensitivity       after any combat mods like wildcat
better animal footsteps   load after audio overhaul 2
realistic ai detection       as close to bottom of load order as possible


Done!
You can now start playing (or install more mods).
Go find Lucien, Inigo, and Rumarin (three of the best custom followers with the largest amount of dialogue) and start adventuring!