INTRODUCTION TO MODDING

IN THE BEGINNING...

Once upon a time there was a young boy. This young boy was a member of his school’s chess club, he was a nerd and he had big dreams. His name was Todd Howard. His destiny… was to become the Game Director of Bethesda Game Studios.

(And also a meme.)

With the release of The Elder Scrolls III – Morrowind, Bethesda Game Studios (BGS) had created a classic, one of the early RPGs that would make history. The game director was none other than chess club nerd Todd Howard. Morrowind and the later Elder Scrolls and Fallout games were all built in BGS’ Gamebryo and later Creation Engine, which offered extensive mod support and were made available for anyone.

Thus, the modding community was born.

(By the way – the arguably best RPG built with the Gamebryo engine, Fallout New Vegas, was developed by Obsidian Entertainment, not Bethesda Games Studios under Todd Howard.)

In order to understand more of the drama and controversy surrounding BGS in general and the modding community in particular, as well as to get an idea of where things are heading, take a look at Gopher’s videos on the subject:

WHAT EXACTLY ARE MODS?

Mods are fan-made modifications that change or add to the original game. It is typically required for the game developer to upload a tool set or otherwise support modding. In the case of Bethesda, the official tool – the Creation Kit  is available to the public, and with it, users can do anything the developers themselves can. This is why Bethesda games have such a strong and large modding community.

Perhaps the most essential of all “mods” is the Skyrim Script Extender (or SKSE for short). It allows mod authors to dig even deeper into the engine with more scripting functions. SKSE is required for SkyUI, a major interface overhaul that also includes the Mod Configuration Menu (MCM) through which mods can easily be tweaked and configured (although not all mods have MCMs).

WHERE CAN I DOWNLOAD MODS?

The overwhelming majority of mods is available on the Nexus, a massive hub for mods supporting over 250 games. Unsurprisingly, Bethesda games – or more specifically, games built with the Creation Kit – are ranking at the top with tens of thousands of mods each.

Another host for Skyrim Special Edition mods is Bethesda’s own Beth.net platform, which includes a very rudimentary mod hub with a fraction of the features the Nexus offers. Most popular mods are available on Beth.net, and they can be downloaded through the in-game mod manager both on PC and console. While this may be interesting for XBOX or Playstation gamers, Beth’s modding platform and integration is so vastly inferior to the Nexus that it is simply irrelevant for actual PC modding.

Similarly irrelevant is the Steam Workshop for Skyrim SE, also hosting a number of mods that are available on the Nexus already either directly or through a usually superior alternative. Like Beth.net, mods installed through the Steam Workshop are simply dumped into your game folder with no way to properly manage them beyond installing / uninstalling.

TL;DR: Download mods from the Nexus. Steer clear of Beth.net and the Steam workshop.

There is, however, a handful of notable mods that are not available on the Nexus (or the other two sites), making them hard to find. One such mod is the popular Skyrim Realistic Overhaul (SRO), a massive 10GB texture pack covering nearly the entire game. SRO is only available on Moddb.com, another hub for mods which, of course, also has a Skyrim SE section.

Beyond that, there is also the infamous loverslab page / forum which is absolutely NSFW. The majority of Skyrim’s sex-related mods are hosted on loverslab, along with a handful of actual hidden gems.

And finally, there are a few mods like Interesting NPCs that have their owns sites and blogs. A number of (mostly sexy/skimpy) body overhauls, skin retextures, and new armour mods are also exclusively available on obscure Tumblr blogs, Patreon pages, or Asian/Russian sites, often paywalled.

SO WHAT ABOUT MOD PACKS?

No.

Here’s why.

Mod packs – collections of mods compiled and curated by other users – are quite popular in other communities, such as Minecraft’s. In Bethesda games, permissions have always been a very touchy subject, with a large part of mod authors granting no permissions whatsoever to edit or redistribute any part of their work. If you’re up for some particularly spicy drama, read up on the ModDrop fiasco.

Whether or not this is ethical, reasonable, or sensible I will not discuss here. Suffice it to say that “legal” mod packs are impossible to create for that reason. The word itself will cause most members of the modding community to instantly equip their pitchforks.

That is not to say that there are no mod packs. Over the years at least two big ones have emerged (which I won’t name or link to here), both based on “stolen” mods with no permissions to include or share them. Both have been known to be unstable and of low quality, not because of the mods they include but because they have not been properly patched and edited.

This means anyone wanting a heavily modded game is “forced” to learn how to do it themselves, which can be a lot of fun as well as a huge amount of work. That is why modding guides are a thing for Bethesda games.

Until recently.

NOT QUITE MODPACKS - AUTOMATED INSTALLERS

Along came… Wabbajack.

In early 2019, a tool by the name of Automaton appeared and was introduced on Reddit. You may by now have gathered that the overall modding community is a hornet’s nest just waiting to be poked. Naturally, drama ensued.

Automaton was the first concept of legal mod packs. It would read user-made configuration files to automatically download and install the same mods on someone else’s system to create an identical installation. This way, mods were still downloaded from their original sources (so that no files were stolen), but a setup could be recreated with minimal effort even by complete beginners.

While the original creator of Automaton took some time off personal reasons, one of his team members – halgari – emerged to present his own standalone alternative to Automaton: Wabbajack. Wabbajack could do anything Automaton could and more. It could download mods from other websites, more effectively set them up, and featured even more automation of steps in the creation of a modded setup.

Wabbajack has exploded in popularity throughout 2019 and defied the backlash from critics. It features several different installers for different games.

SKYRIM LE VS SKYRIM SE

The original 2011 released game – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – was re-released later as the Legendary Edition packaged with all three DLCs (Dawnguard, Hearthfire, Dragonborn). This version of the game is known as Skyrim LE, Classic Skyrim or Oldrim, built on an older 32-bit version of the Creation Engine.

In 2016, Skyrim was re-released in remastered form as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Special Edition, now based on an updated and improved 64-bit version of the Creation Engine with marginally better visuals and substantially improved stability. It is referred to as Skyrim SE and was released alongside the dreaded Creation Club but revitalised the modding scene in spite of initial doubts.

Now, some years later, the vast majority of mods have been ported over from LE to SE with most mods lacking an unofficial port being easily portable by the end user. The Skyrim Script Extender team returned for SKSE64 and Boris (author of the post processing FX injector ENBSeries) eventually moved on as well to port all functions over.

As of right now, with SKSE64 and SkyUI fully functional, most mods ported (or with newer, often better alternatives released), and ENBSeries almost on par with Classic Skyrim, there is no doubt that Skyrim SE is the way to go for modding.