November 16

How to Mod Skyrim

Let’s face it: vanilla Skyrim is just okay. (This coming from someone with 5,000+ hours in the game. Not a typo.) In what has increasingly become standard practice for Bethesda, its 2011 mega-hit becomes a waaaaayyy better game when you mod the ever-living crap out of it. However, while the minimum requirements of the base game are quite low, heavily modded versions of Skyrim will require you to rock a pretty powerful (and expensive) gaming PC.

But how do you get started? Even with all the great tools and programs out there designed to make modding as noob-friendly as possible, it’s still a complicated process. Never fear—you’ve come to the right place. I currently have 292 Skyrim mods installed, and they’re all working perfectly—with one exception. For some reason, bows shoot way off to the left. Still trying to figure that one out.


The Golden Rules of Modding PC Games

Before we get into which mod management tools to use, there are four ridiculously important things you need to know.

🚨🚨🚨WARNING!!! CRITICAL INFORMATION AHEAD!!! DON’T SKIP THIS!!!🚨🚨🚨


Rule #1: Read Every Word of Every Mod’s Description, Every Single Time

I know, it’s tedious. Some guy created a mod that turns dragons into strippers and you just want to see Alduin in a G-string already. He wrote a 5,000-word description on the mod page and it’s mostly weird fan fiction. DON’T SKIP IT. Many, many mods aren’t really “install and forget,” even if they seem that way.

At least on Nexus, mod authors often get snippy with users, and it’s not always unjustified. The #1 reason this happens is that a user (sometimes thousands of users) didn’t read the mod author’s instructions, did something wrong, borked their whole game, and now wants someone to blame. Don’t be that person. Do it right the first time and save yourself a big headache later.


Rule #2: Always Back up Your Data

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway just to be sure. Before you make any changes to your game, make backups (for Mod Organizer, this is button #8 in the screenshot below; refer back to this screenshot anytime you see a number in red). All of the mod management programs out there for Bethesda games can do this for you, and you can also do it manually. You never know which mod is going to break your game, so you’ll always want to have a stable version to roll back to.

To minimize the inconvenience of creating backups ten times a day, I suggest installing mods in batches whenever possible. If you start up your game and something is jacked up, you can either roll back and go without the new mods or reinstall them one by one and isolate the problem child by a process of elimination.


Rule #3: Never Remove Mods Partway Through the Game

Well, almost never. With some exceptions, you should never uninstall or deactivate a mod after you’ve started a game with that mod active. If you’re 50 hours into a game and you really want to uninstall a mod, but don’t want to abandon your character, check the mod’s description page. The mod author may have listed a way to safely uninstall the mod mid-game.

Mods that only alter the game’s graphics or audio are usually safe to uninstall mid-game. In any other case, if you really don’t want to use a mod anymore, I strongly suggest that you leave it installed and just refrain from accessing its content. (Unless you think the mod is causing problems, in which case you should see the “Troubleshooting” section of this guide.) The best time to uninstall a mod is when you’re ready to start a new character.

Adding mods to an existing game is less likely to cause problems, but you should still check the description first.


Rule #4: Thank Mod Authors

Making mods takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort, even for relatively simple stuff. Most mod authors don’t even charge for their work—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay them in some fashion.

skyrim female character salute

If you like a mod, take 30 seconds to make a post thanking the creator. If you really like the mod, consider tossing them a few dollars. If you think a mod has promise but needs work, offer respectful suggestions and highlight what you like about the mod.

A little gratitude goes a long way. A simple “thank you” often means a lot more to a mod author than you might expect.


4 Steps to Modding Skyrim Successfully

Now that we got all those pesky rules out of the way, let’s talk about how to properly mod Skyrim without breaking anything or corrupting precious save files.

If you go by the book, the process is actually fairly simple and you shouldn’t run into much trouble. In case you do, however, we have a troubleshooting section below in which we address the most common problems that occur while modding Skyrim.


#1 Choosing a Mod Management Program

As of this writing, there are three popular mod management programs for Bethesda games and a handful of lesser-known options. One of the three big ones is Fallout Mod Manager, which, as you might expect, is designed for Fallout games. Most Elder Scrolls mods don’t support it, so that leaves two to choose from: Nexus Mod Manager (aka Vortex) and Mod Organizer.

Both programs will get the job done, but here’s my humble opinion, as someone who’s used both extensively: Mod Organizer is vastly superior in almost every way. This guide will assume you’re using Mod Organizer, but you should still be able to follow along if you’d prefer to use Vortex. Some features present in one program may not exist in the other, but the basic process is the same.

Some absolute psychopaths people mod their Bethesda games manually, by deleting and overwriting files one by one. If you have the knowledge to do that successfully, you definitely aren’t looking at this page.


#2 Initial Setup

If this is your first time modding Skyrim, I highly recommend doing it on a fresh installation of the game. Delete the game from Steam if you’ve played it recently, then reinstall it and create a new character after you’ve installed some mods. It’s often (though not always) a bad idea to add new mods to an existing save file.

When you first install Mod Organizer, it will ask you to tell it where Skyrim is installed. Browse to the appropriate directory (which should be C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common\Skyrim Special Edition unless you’ve changed it), and confirm the installation.

Note that Mod Organizer installs separate instances of itself for each game you want to mod, so don’t panic if you can’t figure out how to switch to a different game. Just click the “Instance Selection” button in the upper-left corner (#1) to start modding Oblivion, Fallout 4, or what have you.

Also note that Skyrim and Skyrim Special Edition are completely different games with different mod pages and different Mod Organizer installations. There is NO compatibility between them. Skyrim Special Edition has fewer mods than the original Skyrim (referred to as “Oldrim” by modders), but it’s steadily catching up, and it’s far, far more stable. For that reason, I recommend going with Special Edition if you have it.

One of the best things about Mod Organizer is that it doesn’t actually overwrite any of your vanilla game files. (Vortex does.) Instead, MO creates a virtual directory, stores your mods there, and loads them “on top of” whatever vanilla game files they modify, leaving the original files intact. This makes restoring backups much easier and makes it nearly impossible to permanently break your game (although it’s always possible to break a particular save file).

The next thing you need to do is download and install Skyrim Script Extender (SKSE). Get the Oldrim version on Steam; get the Skyrim Special Edition version here. To install the Special Edition version, just unzip the archive and follow the instructions in the readme file. In either case, be sure to close MO before installing SKSE.

If MO doesn’t automatically recognize that you’ve installed SKSE by displaying “SKSE” as a valid option in the launcher box (#5), then you’ll need to manually set it by clicking on the launcher box, selecting “Edit,” browsing to the skse64_loader.exe file in the “Binary” field, specifying the Skyrim Special Edition installation directory in the “Start In” field, and finally clicking “Add” to save the settings.


#3 Download Some Mods

Alright, you’ve got MO all set up. Now all you need are some mods.

Nexus is the largest site for Skyrim mods by far. If you can’t find a mod there, it probably doesn’t exist. (There’s a separate site for the really weird sex mods, but we won’t link to it here. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll find it—we believe in you.) When you find a mod you want to install, simply click “Download with Mod Manager” on its file page and grant MO permission to automatically handle Nexus mods when it asks. That’s all you should have to do.

Every time you download a mod, check the description page to see whether it requires SKSE.

Type of ModDoes it require SKSE?
Purely visual texture replacers/overhauls Probably not
Music and sound effects replacers/overhauls Probably not
Weapon and armor packsProbably not
Major system overhauls (Ordinator, Better Vampires, etc.)Probably
Quest modsMaybe
UI modsMaybe
Custom races/powersMaybe
Cheat modsProbably not
Animation packsMaybe
City/landscape/house modsMaybe
NPC modsMaybe

Protip: I recommend tracking every mod you download by clicking the “Track” button on the Nexus page. The next time you reinstall Skyrim or want to play it on a different computer, you’ll have a list of all the mods you’ve downloaded. (You can untrack a mod if you don’t want to save it anymore.)

Once you download a mod, it will appear in your “Downloads” tab in MO (#4). To install it, double-click it and it will appear in your “Installed Mod List” (#2)—but it’s not ready to use yet. Some mods will guide you through a setup wizard and ask you to select various options. If you’re ever unsure about something or don’t recognize acronyms that are being thrown at you, it’s usually best to select “N/A” or “Don’t install this feature.” After installation, you must add each mod to the “Plugins” window (#3) by checking its box in the “Installed Mod List” (#2).

Special note about ENBs: ENBs are graphical enhancement mods that can affect any number of the game’s visual aspects, including textures, lighting, and weather. You CANNOT install ENBs with mod managers—they must be installed manually. Check the mod’s description or readme file for detailed instructions on installing and configuring that particular ENB.

Once you’ve downloaded a mod or fifty and activated them in the “Installed Plugins” window (#2), click over to your “Plugins” tab on the right (#3). Find the mod you just installed and click the checkbox to activate it. Now the mod is installed and ready to use, but don’t launch the game just yet. If there are other mods you’d like to install, do so now by repeating this process. Don’t move on until you’re satisfied with what you’ve got.

skyrim macho man randy savage mod

*Disclaimer/Exception: If you’re new to modding Bethesda games, I suggest installing mods in batches of 5 or so at a time, then launching the game to test them out before installing more. If you’re installing a gigantic mod like Ordinator or Frostfall, it’s safest to install and test those one at a time.

Protip: If you think you’d like to play different Skyrim characters with vastly different sets of mods, that’s what profiles are for. Click the “Configure Profiles” button in MO to create and save a certain set of mods. Create a new profile to restart MO with a blank slate and save a different set of mods.


#4 Test Your Mods

Once you’re ready to test your new mods, there’s one last thing to do: Click the “sort” button on the Plugins tab, just under the tab itself (#3).

skyrim saiyan mod

You see, MO and Vortex load your mods one at a time according to their load order, which is the number displayed under the “Mod Index” heading in the Plugins tab. (Note that these are hexadecimal numbers.) A mod which is lower in the load order will override any mods above it that modify the same files. It’s almost inevitable that, at some point, you’ll have different mods making changes to the same files, but that’s not necessarily a problem. Mod authors know this and account for it whenever they can.

Many patches exist that make two or more particular mods play nicely together. It’s always worth checking the “Files” tab of each mod on Nexus to see if it has any patches for any other mods that you use. If not, the mod author will often have advice on the description page for where to load their mod.

Anyway, back to the sort button. It does just what you’d expect—scans all of your active mods and rearranges the load order to minimize conflicts. Be sure to re-sort your load order anytime you add or remove mods. Never manually adjust your load order unless you know exactly what you’re doing and why.

Once your load order’s been sorted (be patient—it may take a minute, especially if you have a lot of mods), you’re ready to test everything out. Launch the game from within MO using either the base game launcher or SKSE. If you have at least one mod installed that requires SKSE, you’ll need to use the SKSE launcher. Select the appropriate launcher from the drop-down menu (#5) and click “Run” (#6).

Test your game for at least ten minutes or so. If you’ve installed mods that add new areas, visit those new areas to ensure they work correctly before making too much more progress in your save file. Once you’re confident that everything is working correctly, shut down the game, return to MO, and create a backup (#8).

skyrim got mod

Protip: In order to use the console (accessed by pressing the “`~” key) to manipulate objects or NPCs from a particular mod, you’ll need to know the relevant reference number (RefID). This is always an 8-character string of letters and numbers, but mod authors provide only 6 of them. This is because the first two digits correspond to the mod’s position in your particular load order. If you want to give yourself a sword from the “Immersive Weapons” mod, you’ll need to find its position in your load order—let’s say it’s “1E.” So if the sword’s 6-digit ID is “00437a”, you would type “player.additem 1e00437a 1.” (The “1” is the quantity you’re adding.) There’s a useful list of Skyrim console commands here.


Troubleshooting

⚠️ Important note: Whenever you suspect a problem with a mod, leave the in-game area before you start troubleshooting it. If you’re having problems on the world map, save your game in an interior cell that does not come from the mod that’s giving you problems, and vice versa. Saving and loading your game in areas where you’re having problems can make the problems worse.

skyrim game error prompt

There are hundreds of mod-related problems that Skyrim players experience, but a solid 80% of them are covered by the following six questions. The remaining 20% of problems are far less common and usually much harder to diagnose, so we won’t address them here. (We’d be writing a book at that point.) If you still have problems after trying these basic troubleshooting tips, seek help on Nexus or on the bethesda.net mod forums.


Skyrim Mods Causing Crashes

First, let’s look at the most common modding-related issues: crashes that completely ruin your gaming experience.

“My Game Immediately Crashes After Launching It”

You most likely have a critical conflict between two or more mods. If you forgot to sort your load order, do that now. If that doesn’t work, carefully check the description page of each mod to see if it’s incompatible with any other mods you have installed. It’s also possible that a mod may be outdated or contain critical bugs. If your game was working fine previously, try reloading a backup (#7). Alternatively, try disabling mods one by one until the game launches successfully.

“My Game Crashes in Certain Areas or When I Perform Certain Actions”

If the conditions that cause the crash are consistent, you most likely have one particular mod causing problems. Take note of where you are and what you’re doing when the crash occurs. If it happens when you try to cast a spell added by a mod, that mod is likely the culprit. If the game crashes in a certain area, see if any of your mods change that area in some way.

Disable the suspect mod and see if that solves the problem. If it doesn’t, and if you’re sure that no other mods are making changes to the area or action in question, restore an earlier backup.

“My Game Crashes Under Seemingly Random Conditions”

The cause of this problem is often very hard to identify. The most likely causes are memory leaks, mod conflicts, and scripts that are executing incorrectly.

Memory leaks are much more common in Oldrim than in Special Edition, but Skyrim is notorious for using RAM inefficiently, and Special Edition does suffer from the same problem to some extent. Search Nexus for “memory leak fix,” “increase memory allocation,” or “ugrids to load.” Try installing mods or tweaking your skyrim.ini file (in Documents\My Games\Skyrim) if you find descriptions of symptoms similar to your own.

To see if the problem is related to a particular mod, try disabling mods one by one. This is tedious and time-consuming, especially if you have tons of mods, but it’s often the only way to home in on the answer. (Not all mods can be safely disabled on existing save files. Check each mod’s description page for advice on this matter.)

If this problem cropped up suddenly (or gradually worsens over time), try reloading a much older backup. If an older backup or save file works fine, you may be experiencing “save bloat.” Navigate to Documents\My Games\Skyrim\Saves and sort your save files by date. If you notice that your save files steadily get bigger over time, you’ve unfortunately fallen victim to one of Skyrim’s oldest and most infamous problems.

Sometimes this problem is related to mods, but it’s been known to happen in vanilla Skyrim as well. Sadly, there’s no reliable fix for this. You’ll most likely have to start a new character—perhaps with fewer mods.


Skyrim Mods Causing Increased Load Times

“My Game Works Okay, but It’s Taking Longer and Longer to Save and Load as I Continue in the Same Save File”

You most likely have too many save files. By default, Skyrim doesn’t automatically delete old saves, so over time, you’ll end up with hundreds or thousands of them. Navigate to Documents\My Games\Skyrim\Saves and delete all but your 5 or 10 most recent saves. (If you have multiple characters, be careful to do this for each of them and not to accidentally delete all of the saves associated with a particular character.) Consider using a mod like Simple Auto Save Manager to prevent this problem in the future.

skyrim modding wetrigger error prompt

The other possible explanation for this problem is ‘save bloat’, which is addressed in the previous question. Hopefully, this hasn’t happened to you, because it’s not really fixable in most cases. 😢


Skyrim Mods Causing FPS Drops

“I Have Unacceptable Frame Rate Drops or Severe Graphical Glitches”

This problem has several possible causes. First, check the requirements of any graphics mods or ENBs you have installed. Many such mods can be extremely taxing on your hardware, and you may not have the horsepower to run them smoothly. In that case, if you really, really need to play Skyrim with the mod in question, upgrading to a better gaming GPU might be the answer.

It’s also possible that a script-heavy or poorly optimized mod is doing too much math for your CPU or GPU to keep up.

skyrim mod error gray face body color mismatch

Mods that change the game in significant ways (such as Frostfall, Ultimate Combat, and PC Head Tracking) are likely to require lots of resources. Try disabling them or rolling back to an older backup without those mods and see if performance improves.


Skyrim Mods Causing Texture Issues

“I Have Purple, Ghost-Like Textures, Missing Textures, or Giant Exclamation Points in My Game”

skyrim mod purple face glitch and crashes

You most likely have a conflict, or a mod was installed incorrectly. Make an educated guess about which mod the missing or corrupted texture belongs to, then check that mod’s description and file pages. You may be missing a required patch or the mod may have special load order requirements that MO’s automatic sorting function can’t account for.

Try disabling the suspect mod and reloading the same save file (but be sure to travel to a different area and save there before disabling any mods).


Happy Modding!

If you’re not careful, modding Skyrim can become a full-time job. The more time you’re willing to devote to teaching yourself, the more successful you’ll be. If you run into problems that you can’t solve right away, try Googling them or asking for help on Nexus. Over time, you’ll gradually accumulate more and more knowledge. In just ten short years, you could be a Skyrim modding expert!

Also, make sure to check out these great Skyrim mods we reviewed once you learn how to install them.


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About the author

Tim White

Tim is a freelance writer and assistant editor for The Objective Standard. He lives in Phoenix, AZ, which is a questionable decision in light of the fact that he's paler than an Irish ghost and thinks 75°F is too hot. He has logged 5,000+ hours in Skyrim. No, that's not a typo, and no, he's not embarrassed by that fact, even though he definitely should be. He still uses his PS1 and has something like a hundred board games (and one corgi).

His favorite game of all time is Final Fantasy X because of its strong advocacy of individualism and free will, both of which are widely misunderstood and undervalued in today's culture.