If, like many MMO fans, you’re planning on embarking on a Tamrielic journey in The Elder Scrolls Online next spring, you might be wondering whether single-player Elder Scrolls titles are worth a playthrough in the interim, especially if you’ve never dipped into them before. I’m a huge fan of the series, having started with Daggerfall back in the days of yore, and I still dabble in the games today. So for the interested among my readers and guildies, today I’ll briefly hit the big four (sorry, Arena) and then move on to modding recommendations for where I think you ought to start.
As much as I loved and obsessively played Daggerfall in its day, I’m sorry to say that it isn’t worth the bother. A skim-through of the main quest’s plot might be useful, but the sprite-based game has aged poorly, hasn’t been heavily modded to look acceptably modern, and is still riddled with game-stopping bugs. Additionally, the gameplay feels very generic and frankly empty by modern standards because of the randomly generated dungeons and quests. The guilds, for example, do not feature the cohesive story arcs to which Oblivion and Skyrim players are accustomed. On the other hand, it has boats, dammit, and boats are awesome.
When Morrowind launched in 2002, it just about reinvented the RPG genre. Not only was the game an impressively sprawling sandbox, but it abandoned Daggerfall’s more Roguelike, random elements in favor of more hand-placed content, and it did so in a setting — the province of Morrowind — that features swamps and dust-storms and dark elves and mortal gods and all sorts of creatures and places that are sadly alien to the fantasy genre. That said, it comes with significant problems that are frequently whitewashed by die-hard fans. Fortunately, mods can address most of them. I’ll get to them in a second.
It’s not truly fair to say that Oblivion is Morrowind’s vanilla cousin, but TES IV has a reputation among Morrowind fans for being generic, stock fantasy, in spite of the fact that it’s based on the capital province of Tamriel, one inspired by Imperial Rome, not Medieval Europe. It’s generic only by contrast to the bizarre (and probably unpublishable today) Morrowind. While eventually I’ll get around to a mod recommendation list for Oblivion, the truth is that mods aren’t critical; you can muddle through the base game without many mods if the story is what you’re after, and while it’s a smaller world with fewer questlines (just as Morrowind was smaller and less dense than Daggerfall before it), its questlines are actually significantly better designed and feel more like stories than random busywork or padding.
Finally, there’s Skyrim, deservedly called the game of the decade. TES V is set in the province of Skyrim, my least favorite imaginable destination. It’s all snow, alpine forests, dragons, and gruff Nordic types. While the setting is in my mind even blander than Oblivion’s and certainly less varied with plots that are easily as boring as Oblivion’s, pretty much everything else about the game, from graphics and quests to travel and combat, was improved significantly in Skyrim. Moreover, the game embraces its sandbox nature and includes perks like fully customizable housing and a marriage system. And did I mention it lets players explore a little slice of Morrowind? You just can’t get away from the classics.
So you should start with…
I suggest beginning with Morrowind as Daggerfall’s gameplay is not particularly compelling by modern standards. Like KOTOR, Morrowind is a highlight of the entire RPG genre; everyone needs to play it once. But I’m the first to admit it has problems that need to be modded away before you’ll be able to enjoy it without rose-tinted glasses. I’d like to discuss some of my favorite mods and recommendations for someone looking to give the game a serious look. I say serious because modding the Elder Scrolls games is not some fire-and-forget two-minute process as it is for something like Torchlight II. It frequently takes me days if not weeks to get my game set up. Hopefully, my insanity will kickstart your journey into the Dunmer province a bit more quickly than that.
WryeMash is the core tool you’ll need for modding Morrowind. You’re going to use it for four things: installing and uninstalling mods cleanly, redating mods to load in the correct order, cleaning your saved games, and merging conflicting mod entries. Your game will not work correctly modded if you don’t learn and use Mash. Alongside Mash, you’ll want to install Mlox, a simple user-maintained tool to analyze your load order (i.e., the order of your installed mods) and suggest changes you might not have thought of. Finally, MWSE is a script extender that allows you to use mods that require, er, extended scripting. It, at least, is simple; you just run the game through it. I talk more about how to use these tools in the video embedded below. Once you’ve mastered them for Morrowind, you’ll have a much easier time modding all of the TES games, so it’s worth it!
The Steam version of the game is fully patched with all of the official patches, so you won’t need those, but you will want the Unofficial Morrowind Patch, which fixes even more bloopers. The most up-to-date stable version is by BTB (first link on his site), else there’s a newer beta on the official forums too. Additionally, you’ll want to run the Morrowind Code Patch; it directly edits and patches the game with a whole bunch of bug fixes and options, making many smaller mods obsolete, preventing crashes, and adjusting the game for large monitors and modern PCs. And of course, don’t forget the Official Plugins: You don’t really need them all, but if you want the complete experience, you may as well. I do recommend enhancing the official AoE Arrows plugin with the Particle Arrow Replacer, though.
I’m not going to recommend the Morrowind Graphics Extender (or XE version) to newbies, but I feel obligated to note that it exists. It’s responsible for all of the gorgeous modern Morrowind screenshots floating around on the interwebs, but it’s a pain to set up and configure perfectly, and it creates stunning lag to go with those stunning vistas. Moreover, the distant view it provides makes the game world feel small. It’s absolutely worth it if you have time and patience in abundance. If you’re just wanting a playthrough and not a permanent sandbox to play in, skip it. It’s far easier to mod textures and meshes and avoid distant land and fog snafus. The thing I miss the most when playing without it is gorgeous water, and I can survive that.
Of course, there are zillions of texture mods out there, and you don’t have time for those. So to a newcomer, I recommend the massive world texture overhaul known as the Visual Pack along with the Texture Fix, Mesh Improvements, and Correct UV Rocks. If your rig can take it, I’d also suggest Vality’s Bitter Coast and Ascadian Isles mods with BTB’s fixes, all of Vurt’s landscape replacers, and the Grass Mods for your flavor of MGE or lack thereof; these will cause some lag and can be skipped, especially the grass, but they lushen up the world quite a bit and can all be used sans MGE. (If the grass lags you too much, just take it back out — I can’t run Vurt’s or the grass mods on my laptop, for example, even though my desktop shrugs them off.) Windows Glow and its expansion, on the other hand, will add a spark of light to windows throughout the game without much framerate loss.
Finally, I have a few personal recommendations for texture mods to overwrite some of the Visual Pack: Kel’s Hlaalu Retex, Korana’s Magical Mournhold, Signposts Retextured, Luminous Atronachs, and pretty much anything by Connary, though it might take you time to go through it all. If you’re lazy, the Visual Pack is a faster solution that covers the basics.
If vanilla Morrowind’s characters looked terrible in 2002, they look repugnant now. We can fix that. First, you’re going to need Better Bodies, Westly’s Better Body Textures, Better Beasts, and the Animation Compilation; these will fix the basic bodies and animations with little effort. Next, install Westly’s Meshless Head Replacers to beautify NPC faces and hair; Plangkye’s Almalexia, Westly’s Vivec and Azura, and Jiub’s Dagoth Ur to touch up some of the main NPCs; and Westly’s Master Head Pack to freshen up your ugly mug. (Mel’s Hair offers a nice extra complement of hair, too.) You might also consider Westly’s Races. They aren’t strictly needed, but some of them are beautiful and not completely lore-breaking, like the M’harjaan and Half-Elves and Half-Orcs. The Akavir race comes with an additional shop full of very nice clothing.
I won’t recommend too many gear mods as I’ll assume you are playing for the story and not for dress-up. I, however, am playing for dress-up, so at minimum, I install Westly’s Fine Clothiers of Tamriel, which has a huge amount of quality clothing for both genders. There’s a nice mod that brings FCOT’s clothing to Tamriel Rebuilt NPCs, too. Then there’s Westly’s Alakazar’s Lamp, which is actually a large fantasy-Arabian-themed and totally lore-breaking pocket home, but I keep it around because it includes two massive shops selling high-quality clothing, armor, and weapons. Finally, there’s Hilgya the Seamstress and its expansion, which provides another nice bundle of clothes for both genders. Obviously there’s lots more, but this is a solid start to some of the nicer items available that shouldn’t unbalance your game (as most armor and weapon mods do).
Let’s not forget enhancements to the default wearables. Layer together Expanded LeFemm Armor, Better Clothes, More Better Clothes, Better Clothes Tribunal, Better Clothes Bloodmoon, Ice’s Robes, and all of Darknut’s clothing, weapon, armor, and creature retextures. All of those will essentially ensure the textures and meshes for wearables are up to snuff. Just make sure you install them in reverse order so that the ones you like the best overwrite the others (the video above explains).
I have a few recommendations to buff up the antique interface. For a start, you can completely change the look of the UI with Arukinn’s Better UI, Oblivion Parchment UI, Bloodinfested’s Simple UI, or Dark UI Redux — I’m liking Arukinn’s lately. Lovely Loading Screens swaps in some gorgeous player-made Morrowind art that’s a lot more compelling than the fuzzy defaults (you’ll want to delete those defaults, though, or they’ll keep showing up — they’re under the “Splash” folder!). Then I recommend Better Dialogue Font and Vurt’s Scrolls and Menubook to make the text and menus and popups look better. Next, improve all the inventory icons in the game with the Ultimate Icon Replacer and the Magic Border Icon Replacer (I like Vortex). Finally, if you find yourself wrangling an inventory of keys, try Flig’s Keyring to sort them all off into a separate bag.
Because I’m not using MGE on my laptop to trick out my graphics, I have plenty of free CPU cycles to spend on other immersive bits, like new landmasses and NPCs that make the whole game feel more alive. These aren’t strictly necessary, but they do improve immersion. For example, I keep permanently installed the latest release of Tamriel Rebuilt, a massive player mod attempting since 2002 to reconstruct the Morrowind mainland with locations, NPCs, and quests, one chunk at a time. I use Creatures XI (the Semi-Lore version) to add more monsters to the world, along with a combination of Animated Morrowind and its expansion, Starfire’s NPCs, Proper Ladies, and Hold It to add more and more colorful NPCs to the world (that combination really makes the game feel alive since in vanilla there aren’t very many NPCs wandering around). These are a smidge complicated to set up, but it’s worth it once you wander past a dude sitting on a well strumming a lute. You’ll find a lot of mods out there revamping whole towns, but many of them conflict, so I prefer More Detailed Places as an all-in-one solution (it’s more like the types of town mods you’ll find in Oblivion and Skyrim, too).
Consider also the Less Generic NPC compilation mod, an attempt to create more NPCs and flesh out the generic ones in the game. Since these new quests and dialogue will sidetrack you from the core game, you could easily skip this bundle if completion is your goal, but I do highly recommend Pax Redoran at minimum, at least if you join that house. If you’re going House Telvanni instead, try Uvirith’s Legacy and Rise of House Telvanni for further depth.
On the topic of immersion, I want to highly recommend Necessities of Morrowind and Morrowind Crafting. The former adds modular, customizable, not-too-hardcore hunger, thirst, and sleep scripts to the game, while the latter adds a gigantic crafting system. Neither is strictly necessary, and neither really helps you absorb the game lore, but both make the game feel even more sandboxy and world-like than it already is.
Julan Ashlander Companion is the best player-made mod I have ever played for a video game, full-stop. I’ll probably devote an entire article to it someday, but in the meantime, get it. The mod heavily enhances the main questline with brilliant writing, keeps the game from seeming so damn lonely, and provides multiple friendship and romance options (whatever way you swing, you’ll be happy). I also recommend Companion Jasmine and Comes-By-Road Companion. Jasmine is better developed than Comes-By-Road story-wise, but both include modern scripting that you cannot find in more famous but antiquated companion mods. Finally, there’s Princess’ Caius Romance, which is not strictly a companion mod but does enhance a key contact in the main questline with a much-needed romance subplot. (Note: Spoilers in the mod description.)
Unless you become a high-level mage, your travel options in Morrowind are limited to walking and riding silt striders in a travel network that will have you pulling your hair out in about 20 minutes. The other core TES games all feature some form of instant travel, so I never feel particularly bad about installing travel mods in Morrowind. First, grab Mel’s Teleport Plugin, which will allow you to mark and recall to locations throughout the world once you’ve been there. Then I highly recommend Antares’ Scout Services; it allows guild scouts in local cities to “guide” you to all of the out-of-the-way places in the game for a fee. You could also just add more destinations to the silt striders and boats if you prefer that vanilla experience. Depending on how cheaty you’re feeling after that, I can recommend Tealpanda Teleport Ring and Teleporter Mod Revised for automatic teleporting to cities and important locations. If time is meaningless to you and you insist on walking everywhere, at least consider Cliffracer Extinction and Less Aggressive Critters to reduce interruptions on the road.
I’m not going to recommend physical or magical combat mods because I’ve yet to find a bug-free way to save Morrowind combat. You just have to go in knowing that the combat is not going to be satisfying and that you’re playing for a different experience. But the rest of the magic system can certainly be helped, especially alchemy. Start with BTB Sorted Alchemy and Tealpanda Alchemy Essentials to sort your potions more logically and freshen up some of the graphics. If you plan to use herbalism, pick up Graphic Herbalism to speed up and add visual cues to harvesting. Arcane Archery is a lot of fun if like me you play lots of archers who dabble in magic. Try F.I.M.’s Better Spell Effects and Magic Sound Effect Replacer to improve the sound and look of spells; Pluginless Noglow will remove the ugly saranwrap shimmer from magical items. Slightly more cheaty is SM Toggle Spells, which turns some common spells like night-eye into simple toggleable versions (do you really want to keep casting water breathing repeatedly? Didn’t think so.). Finally, remember that magicka doesn’t automatically generate in the vanilla game, so Simple Magicka Regeneration might make the game less annoying.
Vanilla Morrowind actually provides several potential homes to the player; you can kill a guy and simply move into his now-empty house, you can rent inn rooms, and you can eventually build a compound to show off your factional power. There are probably thousands of player-designed housing mods out there — the Modding History Archive alone has over 1000 — but let me recommend just three small and non-lore-breaking housing mods that I keep around for every game. Balmora Apartment provides a one-room space with a bed and storage above the home of your primary contact for the main quest, making it useful for newbies especially. Wolverine Well House is a lovely atmospheric home inside a well (here’s an edit that fixes the containers). And Real Furniture provides a shop where you can buy most of the furniture and deco items in the game to stock whatever home you do end up acquiring. You could use Real Furniture or Morrowind Crafting along with a multi-house mod like MC Houses, MC Abodes, or Homes to Let to decorate lots of houses for your character. I’ve released a few house mods myself, but they’re best for more advanced characters unless you don’t mind being overpowered.
What I’ve omitted
I usually go for as clean an experience as I can muster to avoid complications and crashes, which means I’ve left off tools and mods you might consider essential. For example, as I noted earlier, I am not really touching combat, distant land generation, or wearables like armor and weapons. I didn’t include anything for vampires or werewolves as I don’t play them. I ignore Bloodmoon because I never go there. I didn’t mention a character generation mod because if you’re a newbie, you ought to start normally anyway (but Chargen Revamped is what I’d recommend for later toons). I avoided Vivec (the city) overhaul mods because I’ve never found a combination that is stable enough for me to feel comfortable telling a newbie to try it. And so on.
I also avoided recommending a character advancement overhaul. Though I recognize Morrowind’s leveling system is flawed, I don’t usually work my characters up so far that it affects me. For those who know they want to corral the leveling and stat process, Galsaiah’s Character Develoment mod leads the pack, but careful skilling-up with an eye toward how you can game the leveling system works just as well. For example, though you can make a lot of money skilling up as an alchemist, doing so without simultaneously leveling combat skills can mean weakness in battle and insufficient stats.
Finally, I know there are mod compilations out there that purport to be easy, one-click installs. They’re a seductive and terrible idea for a game as complicated as an Elder Scrolls game. There’s one guarantee in an Elder Scrolls game: At some point, it’s going to need troubleshooting, and you’d probably better know how to do it. If you install Some Internet Guy’s huge compilation of other people’s mods, you won’t have a clue what you have or where to start when (not if!) something goes wrong. So avoid those. Sometimes long division really is better.
A few more bits to consider
I hope my mod recommendation list and my video tutorial have been helpful, and I’d love to hear Morrowind stories and mod suggestions and screenshots (Screen Shot Enable=1 in your .ini file) from readers!