Today, Bethesda is re-releasing their excellent role-playing adventure Skyrim. It’s a massive game, with hundreds of hours of exploration, magic and mayhem.
Editor’s note, 10/28/2016: This post was originally published almost five years ago on 11/11/2011. In fact, it was one of the very first “before you start” tips posts we ever ran! It’s been a hell of a half-decade since then, and today Bethesda is re-releasing an updated version of Skyrim on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. We’ve updated this list in honor of that, removing some of the less helpful tips from the original post (“Play on PC with an Xbox 360 controller??”) and adding some additional pointers based on our subsequent years with the game. - Kirk
Before you can get to all of that, you’ve got to start the game and make a bunch of decisions about how, exactly, all those hours are going to play out. No big plot spoilers in here, because while most of you know the story events of Skyrim, there really are people out there who haven’t yet played. Here we go.
Don’t worry if you haven’t played earlier Elder Scrolls games.
Skyrim picks up 200 years after the events of the last game, Oblivion, and while it still takes place on the continent of Tamriel, it tells its own unconnected story. There are references to the stories of past Elder Scrolls games, but any important plot points are laid out by other characters and by text during loading screens.
Don’t lower the difficulty—some fights are supposed to be hard.
The game defaults to “Adept” difficulty, which I’d say is just about right. The enemies don’t level according to your character in Skyrim, so often, especially in the early goings, you’ll stumble into an area that’s out of your league difficulty-wise. A few of these even happen on the road to major story quests. That’s okay! The game is supposed to be hard, and it will force you to level your character and improve your skills until you can take on the challenge before you.
Don’t worry which ancestral stone you choose at first.
Right near the beginning of the game, you’re given a choice between three ancestral stones: Thief, Mage, and Warrior. Whichever one you choose causes skills associated with that class to improve faster than other skills. Keep in mind, however, that there are 13 ancestral stones like these lying around Skyrim, and while you can only have one active at a time, you can change whenever you want. They’re not permanent. You’ll have time to decide which style of play suits you over the course of the game. There’s no need to agonize over the decision at the beginning, since you can always change your mind.
On PC, there’s a quicksave button, but on console, you’re going to have to remember to save your game often. The gameautosaves whenever you rest, sleep, or go through a door into a new area (basically anytime the game shows a loading screen), but it doesn’t ever save anytime in between. It’s possible to wander Skyrim for an hour, find some good stuff, and then be killed by a mammoth and lose all your progress. Which reminds me…
Don’t piss off the mammoths.
Don’t piss off the giants, either.
Well, unless you want this to happen to you.
Travel with a friend.
Hirable companions have been an option in several of Bethesda’s games, but they feel more usable in Skyrim than ever. When you get your first companion (likely in Whiterun), take her with you on difficult quests. It’ll make your life a lot easier. You also may notice that in the five years since this game came out, she’s become something of a meme. Enjoy it.
Try using a shield.
One of the best things about Skyrim is that you can play it however you want—magic, melee, ranged, or some combination. That said, I’m finding the physical combat to be more enjoyable and a touch deeper than ranged combat. I’ve always played Bethesda games as a sneaky archer, creeping into a room and using my stealth damage-bonus to give people the old one-hit-kill. But in Skyrim, it finally feels too unsatisfying. Bethesda veterans know what I’m talking about, the old “backpedal and fire arrows while getting your face eaten off” strategy. Given Skyrim’s improved melee combat, it’s worth giving shield combat a try. Also shield-bashing is really fun.
Stick to first-person perspective in combat.
When it comes down to it, Skyrim’s 3rd Person is really still best for exploration, if it’s good for anything at all. In combat, you’ll want to stick with first-person, partly for gameplay reasons, and partly because the chaos of first-person makes the combat seem more impactful and exciting than it actually looks in 3rd-person.
Don’t spend your gold on equipment.
Right off the bat, you’ll find several vendors willing to sell you things. (Or really, they’re willing to buy all of the suits of armor and extra swords you’re carrying around.) Don’t take the bait! Save your money, since you’ll find loads of the basic steel and iron weapons lying around, as well as enough arrows to build a large arrow-fort.
Instead, save your money to spend on training, which allows you to get out of the low-level dregs a bit faster, while improving your combat prowess much more substantially than a purchased weapon.
In the early goings, buy health potions whenever you can.
These are worth your money—health potions can be applied immediately in combat, unlike the finicky healing spell you begin with. When you’re in a pinch and getting hammered by a particularly ugly troll, you’ll want to have four or five minor health potions in your inventory. They’re not too expensive, so buy them whenever possible.
Level up abilities by using those abilities.
Skyrim’s leveling system works differently from, say, the more recent Fallout 4. You level up by doing things. Get into a fight with your sword, and you’ll level up your one-handed fighting. Pick a lock and you’ll level up lockpicking. That means it always pays to do things, even if you don’t “need” to. See a lock? Pick it! You can also exploit this system by, say, sneaking past people over and over and over to level up sneaking.
Don’t ignore crafting and enchanting.
At first, you’ll probably wind up focusing on getting more gold, better gear, and a tougher character. Don’t neglect crafting and enchanting, however. Crafting is a great way to make money, since you can easily turn cheap components into much more valuable weapons and then usually sell them to the blacksmith who’s right there. Enchanting, particularly higher level enchanting, is an easy route to making some of the most powerful weapons in the game.
There are so, so, SO many sidequests in Skyrim, and in the grand tradition of Bethesda open-world games, a lot of them are better than the main story quest. If someone gives you a quest, go do it.
Make your own stories.
In fact, some of the best Skyrim stories aren’t written by the game’s developers—they’re written by the player. Skyrim is a big sandbox simulation, and if you want to pick a weird way to play the game, you definitely should. Want to rob from every NPC in Windhelm? Want to be a trader who never gets into fights? Want to do something much stranger and more creative than that? Go for it. Really role-play. Push it as far as you can, and see what the game lets you do.
Join all the factions.
There are several guilds and factions scattered around Skyrim. The companions, the College of Winterhold, the Dark Brotherhood, and so on. You can actually join all of them at first, though eventually you’ll have to choose between the Stormcloaks and the Imperials. For the most part, though, just go ahead and join whatever groups you want to join. They all give you missions and help you develop different skills. In particular...
Do the Dark Brotherhood storyline.
This is an Elder Scrolls game, so you know that the Dark Brotherhood storyline is going to be the best faction sidequest. That is indeed the case, so when you’re feeling up to it, seek out the Dark Brotherhood (they’re in the woods near Falkreath) and do some killing.
Don’t fast travel.
As you open up the map, it can be tempting to fast-travel your way around Skyrim in order to quickly complete quests. Resist the urge if you can. Fast traveling can leave the game feel chopped-up and disjointed, while walking or riding from place to place reinforces the grandeur of the open world. Which, when it comes down to it, is basically the point of the whole game.
Install some mods.
Skyrim is a modder’s paradise. The vanilla PC version of has so many mods it’s hard to keep them straight. The new remastered edition has fewer mods, though it’ll only be a matter of time before the Skyrim Nexus has a bunch of new versions of the old classics. If you’re playing on Xbox One, we’ve assembled a list of the best mods for you to install.
Don’t forget that you’d rather be playing Morrowind.
It’s nice to have a remastered version of Skyrim, but let’s not pretend we wouldn’t all have preferred Morrowind Remastered instead.
Skyrim is a game about wanderlust. It’s easy to get pulled in by the story and wind up skipping around the map in pursuit of the next mission checkpoint. If you’ve never played, try to avoid letting that happen. Instead, turn off your mission notifications and simply wander off in one direction. See what you find. Wander just for the sake of wandering.
Skyrim is encapsulated by that moment when you’re walking down a path towards an objective and suddenly, you notice another path off to the right. Where does it lead? To a cave, a bandit hideout? Some magical stone, some lost artifact? Something altogether more interesting and dangerous?
Only one way to find out.