Skyrim director’s cut: dawdling & dragons

, | Game diaries

I’m guessing that I smell like a wet dog. Worse than a wet dog, perhaps. It’s pouring in Riverwood, and the locals have had the good sense to get under shelter out of this rainstorm. Me, I’m out in it, dressed from head to toe in animal furs and probably smelling like the crotch of a quarterhorse. I can’t stay in from the weather today — if I don’t hunt, I don’t eat. If I don’t eat, my ability to stab things in the dark takes a big hit. It’s awfully hard to sneak up on people when my stomach is rumbling.

After the jump, a week in Riverwood

As I proceed through my second playthrough of Skyrim, I’m reminded that knowing some spoilers is almost absolutely necessary to get through the game the way I have it set up. As such, I want to make a point of saying that doing this with the game so heavily modded is a terrible idea for anyone preparing for their first excursion into the game. Let me give an example. If you’ve spent more than a few hours in the game you know that early on you’re pressed into service by the Jarl of Whiterun to help a contingent of his guards in killing a dragon. In a vanilla, unmodded game of Skyrim that’s no big deal. If I tried to do it here, though, it’d be certain suicide.

You see, I’m using an excellent mod called Deadly Dragons. Deadly Dragons solves one of the bigger balancing problems with vanilla Skyrim, namely that the dragons in the game — for as cool as they may look — are hardly the most menacing of monsters you’ll face. Until you fight some of the ancient named ones later in the game, many of the dragons in the early and middle sections of the game are far too easy for players to kill than seems consistent with the lore. (If four yokels with rusty weapons can dispatch harbingers of the apocalypse, said apocalypse’s imminency might be greatly exaggerated.) Deadly Dragons fixes that: it makes every tussle with dragons a life-and-death drawn-out struggle that requires you to pull out all stops from your arsenal in order to win. The problem, as you are probably guessing, is that Deadly Dragons doesn’t discriminate, and so that first dragon fight you’re led to in the game outside Whiterun is an almost impossible task for low level characters with starter weapons.

Knowing that, I’ve reduced my sense of urgency in Riverwood, the small village you first encounter after the opening sequence of the game. There’s a mine worth exploring nearby, and a nice quest that takes you up into the mountains to explore a giant barrow. There’s also tons of wildlife hither and yon, begging to be hunted.

Thus, while an unmodded game in Skyrim may have a player dashing off to fight a dragon by the second or third game-day, I’m spending the better part of two weeks of Tamriel Time out and about near Riverwood. I’m hunting anything that moves with my bow. I’m looking for more and better gear in the mine and the barrow. I’m also being mindful of my character — Twain’s his name — and the needs he has in the modded world I’m playing in.

For instance, a mod called “Frostfall” requires me to be careful about keeping Twain safe from Skyrim’s bone-chilling weather. Armor and clothing are rated for how warm they’ll keep you. If you get caught out in the elements at night, you’re wise to build a camp with a fire to avoid risk of death. Hopping off an ice floe for a swim in Skyrim’s frigid far north is a good way to end up dead in a matter of seconds.

I’m mindful of all this as I head up one of the mountains to where the barrow is. The more I climb, the more snow comes down. Thankfully, an encounter with bandits yielded a full set of fur armor, and so while Twain could be wearing leather that afforded better protection from damaging strikes by enemies, he’s probably smarter to be wearing furs that help him stay warm.

That’s ol’ Twain just before heading into the barrow. The picture shows a number of mods at play. Although depth of field provided by a mod called Dynavision blurs some of the snow effects, I’m using one mod called Quality Snowflakes to make the falling flurries more fluffy and real-looking. There’s also a mod called Get Snowy (which isn’t an Elmore Leonard novel) that you’re seeing. Notice how the snow has begun to cling to Twain there? That’s Get Snowy — it’ll add a dusting of snow to all players and living or dead NPCs when the flakes are falling.

One other mod that you can’t see in this shot is the newest one I’m using. It’s a fantastic creation called Wet And Cold. This ingenious mod does a couple of things. First, the wet part adds water dripping off characters and NPCS who are being rained upon, or have been recently. NPC’s in villages and towns seek shelter from rain, either in their homes, inside inns, or under overhangs. People who have to be out in the inclement weather wear hoods. As if that weren’t enough, the “cold” part of the mod turns the neatest trick. Wet And Cold adds visible breath to your character, NPCs, and most beasts when in cold areas.

Hopefully then the demands placed on a character by winter weather explain why Twain is running around in furs, and why being downwind of him while he’s hunting in that getup during a driving rain is probably not the best idea. That’s what I love about this playthrough of Skyrim I’m having, though. When I look at my guy in Riverwood, soaking wet in his furs, imagining how much he must reek occurs to me instantly. Up in the the frigid mountains, covered with a patina of fresh flakes with his breath coming in visible puffs, I almost get the shivers myself. With a game as ambitious as Skyrim, you’re going to see some odd things that will break any sense of immersion you might have fallen into as a player. We’ve all been there, right? Seen a horse or a deer go straight up into the sky, or seen a head of cabbage that seems to levitate off the ground rather than rest upon it.

My takeaway from playing Bethesda games going back to the original Elder Scrolls is that such oddities are part and parcel to the experience. You don’t get open world and all the freedom that these games promise without having that freedom occasionally cause something unanticipated to happen with the game code. Whether an Elder Scrolls title succeeds or fails rests upon its ability to pull you back in after you’ve seen the Matrix, so to speak. What I’ve tried to do with the mods I’ve added is to help that process with Skyrim by doing things that will put me as fully into this virtual world as possible.

Returning to Twain, he spends a good two weeks between Riverwood and Whiterun. I eventually have to send him to the city as exposure to the elements (and a bout of severe hunger and exhaustion) have left him with a disease called Ataxia that has sapped his movement speed to 25% of normal. Since I’m using a mod called Realistic Running Speed that already slows Twain down (no more half-day sprints across the continent like you could do in vanilla Skyrim), that he’s moving slow is really noticeable. After two days of eating and sleeping plenty he’s still sick , and so he makes the trek to Whiterun to be cured at the temple there.

Even so, I still don’t set the events in motion for the first dragon fight in the game until Twain is level 9 and armed with a decent bow and arrows along with a magic sword I picked up while exploring a bandit hold near Whiterun. Even with all that waiting, and even fortified with a handful of potions of fire resistance, I still have to reload a couple of times before Mirmulnir The Dragon has died. That sets in motion Twain’s dawning awareness of his whole Dovahkiin-ness, of course, and his summons to High Hrothgar to learn how to add shouts to his arsenal of toys.

Looking at the map, I can’t help but notice that Hrothgar is sort of on the way to Riften, and Riften is the home of the Thieves Guild, which is a faction quest I’ve not done and want Twain to experience. With Whiterun safe and sound for the time being, he’ll grab a room and a full meal and head out in the morning.

Next up: These may not be the mods you’re looking for…