The perfect mod list is a tricky business. There's no way to appeal equally to those who enjoy dressing like an anime character and those who like gritty realism. What I've tried to do is assemble something that largely sticks to the tone and setting of vanilla Skyrim, while improving and expanding it any way I can. I don't use all fifty of these mods myself (I'm not really into survival for example, so I don't use Frostfall) but the vast majority of them are part of my current install. Where there are a couple of competing mods I've tried to offer you the choice and explain the pros and cons of each one.
People are still modding Skyrim (one of our favorite RPGs of all time), and will probably continue to for years to come, so before we get started, here's a selection of recent updates in the Skyrim modding scene:
You're going to want to use Skyrim Nexus. To do that you'll need to download either Nexus Mod Manager or Mod Organiser. Nexus Mod Manager is slightly easier to use, but gives you less control over your mods and can be tricky if you have multiple clashing mods affecting the same files. Mod Organiser handles this much better. If you're only downloading a handful of mods, go for NMM, but if you're downloading a lot it's worth learning to use MO.
You'll also want Skyrim Script Extender (SKSE). This is a utility that is required for some of the more complex mods to work. Not every mod on this list requires it, but many do, including the essential SkyUI, so you're best of just installing it up front. Drop it into your Skyrim folder, and be sure to launch the game from the SKSE launcher instead of the usual Skyrim Launcher (you can do this from inside both NMM and Mod Organiser).
If you're installing a bunch of mods, you'll also want to look into LOOT (the replacement for BOSS, I love acronyms). Which helps sort your mods into a sensible order. You can do this from within Mod Organiser.
If you're interested in expanding your mod collection beyond this list, here are some useful resources:
Skyrim Nexus – The Nexus top downloads list is a little outdated, but useful. Their monthly hot files can uncover some gems, but include some very NOT SAFE FOR WORK material. Schlongs of Skyrim was on the front page once. You've been warned.
S.T.E.P —stands for Skyrim Total Enhancement Project. This exhaustive wiki includes some very useful technical tips, and links to lots of small useful bugfixes and such I didn't include here. It's heavily slanted towards enhancing vanilla Skyrim, with an eye toward realism.
Skyrim G.E.M.S. —stands for Skyrim Gameplay Enhancement Mods for Skyrim (yes they said Skyrim twice). This resource is more about expanding Skyrim by adding cool new stuff than enhancing vanilla. It's a good place to start looking for interesting extras.
Brodual —just about every mod on the Nexus has a Brodual video. The two brothers are constantly trying new mods and making spotlight videos. If you like their work, consider donating to their Patreon.
Boris Vorontsov's ENB mods are famous for adding improved post processing and lighting effects to make games like GTA4 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution look amazing. The Skyrim version is one of his best, because there's a whole community of modders dedicated to tweaking and adjusting it to come up with their own distinctive looks. To use an ENB for Skyrim, just download the default files from the ENB website, drop them into your Skyrim folder, then pick a preset (I recommend Seasons of Skyrim, Project ENB or K-ENB) and drop those files in too, overwriting anything it asks you to. Also make sure you add the line “bFloatPointRenderTarget=1” to your SkyrimPrefs.ini file, unless you want to see the sun shine through buildings.
Pure Weather: Nexus
For years Climates of Tamriel was Skyrim's go to weather mod, but now it has a competitor in Pure Weather. Pure weather is a more stripped down mod, offering only weather and exterior lighting, while Climates of Tamriel is extremely customisable. Other modders have added tons of tweaks, changes and extensions to CoT over the years, including foggy weather improvements, better storms or even custom ENBs built specifically for CoT's lighting.
Enhanced Lights and Effects and Realistic Lighting Overhaul are both virtual cinematography mods, repositioning Skyrim's light sources and editing effects for more pleasing lighting. The difference is in intent. RLO is all about realism, emulating natural light, and trying to make each scene's lighting as logical as possible. ELFX takes a more 'cinematic' approach: lights sources are still tied to objects, but their brightness might be boosted or lowered to create more dramatic effects.
Some people just aren't happy unless a game tries to murder them at every possible opportunity, and for those people the chance to freeze to death in Skyrim must be mana from heaven. Frostfall is a sophisticated hypothermia simulator, forcing you to wrap up warm if you venture into Skyrim's frozen north. The amount of detail is amazing, every piece of clothing, including some from other mods, has a different level of warmth. Even the rising steam from a dwemer pipe can keep you alive. Just don't go swimming in Winterhold: it's a death sentence.
Skyrim has a lot of different kinds of snow. There's the snow that falls from the sky, there's the snow that's already part of the textures on objects, and then there's dynamic snow. Dynamic snow is the texture that's applied to objects after snow falls on them. The problem is that the original dynamic snow texture is far too bland, which means in a blizzard, everything gets coated with flat, unappealing white textures. Better Dynamic Snow forces the game to use your regular snow texture (or any replacements you've downloaded) instead of the rubbish dynamic snow one. It's a very small change, but it makes a huge difference.
Let's be honest: Skyrim's original UI is rubbish. It is slow, inelegant and quite frankly a pain in the arse to navigate. I haven't used it in years, because Sky UI exists. Simple icons let you know if an item is poisoned or stolen, plus the inventory can be sorted by value and weight or searched by text. More importantly, it also adds a mod configuration menu to the pause screen, letting you tweak and adjust compatible mods (including several on this list). This is the most essential mod you'll ever install.
Now that Bethesda have stopped patching Skyrim themselves, the fan made Unofficial Patch series has become more important than ever. The patches are run by a group of modders who constantly update them as new problems are found. There's also a variety of subtle tweaks, like making sure Brand Shei (above) eventually gets out of prison after you frame him to join the Thieves Guild, so you aren't robbed of his services forever. There's one for every piece of official DLC, including the official High Resolution textures.
Originally a part of Realistic Lighting Overhaul, Project Optimisation improves Skyrim performance by occlusion culling: which means not rendering effects you can't see. If you use a lot of serious lighting mods, like ENB and Realistic Lighting, then Project Optimisation can save you several frames a second. So I'd definitely recommend it if you're installing anything from the Lighting and Weather section of this guide.
One of the best improvements you can make to Skyrim is to change the 'uGrids to load' setting. uGrids define how many 'cells' of the world are fully spawned around you. A higher setting means a busier world. A lower setting means long distance textures pop in a lot closer to the player. Unfortunately loading more uGrids is very taxing, and makes your game less stable. This small mod helps stabilise your game so that you can get away with a larger number of uGrids (I recommend 7 or 11, but the picture above shows 13). You can find more in depth instructions for improving uGrids here.
It seems like a small thing, but Skyrim's dialogue and message controls are very strange. Often when you go to select a dialogue option you'll accidentally say something completely different by mistake. These two mods help fix this and make sure you'll always select the option you want. It's a tiny change, but one that will save you hours of frustration.
Vanilla Skyrim followers are a bit rubbish. They don't level with you, they don't learn new spells and they often fail to equip new items properly. So you're going to need a follower mod. AFT and EFF are the two main competitors (the third, Ultimate Follower Overhaul is no longer being updated and has become obsolete). Both include follower stats, better equipment useage, and 'sandbox' follow behaviour (wandering around nearby, like Dawnguard's Serana). EFF even includes a quick menu to allow you to command followers without jumping in and out of dialogue. Both mods also include horses for your followers, but I recommend using Convenient Horses for that instead.
I usually shy away from custom Skyrim followers because their voice acting is often jarringly awful. Hoth defies this expectation with some excellent (if rather American sounding) voice work that really sells the idea of a grizzled bounty hunter. He also sports an incredibly cool set of custom bone armour and can even offer you radiant 'bounty' quests as he follows you around.
Inigo is another custom follower that meets my standard by having voice acting that if not great, is at least as good as vanilla Skyrim's Khajit accents. This is good, because Inigo is incredibly talkative. He has hundreds of different remarks, many of them location specific, making him the most interesting and active Skyrim follower since Dawnguard's Serana.
The B Team: Nexus
Here's an interesting thing about Skyrim's followers: due to the duplication of voices, each follower has a lot more lines available to them than they actually use. Some followers, like Mjoll, have lots of remarks for different locations while other characters with the same voice actor don't have access to those lines. Follower Dialogue Overhaul unlocks a lot more dialogues, making every follower a lot more talkative. The B Team uses these new lines to make several existing NPCs into fully fledged followers. Finally giving you the opportunity to hang out with Talos worshipper Heimskyr or famous Whiterun snob Nazeem.
There are a lot of horse mods for Skyrim, but this is the best. Once installed you can adjust your horse's speed, summon your it from a distance, gather ingredients while riding, have mounted conversations and quickly dismount in combat. More importantly it's also the best mod for getting your followers to ride with you, especially for Serana, who gains a burning undead demon horse that freaks me the hell out every single time she uses it.
Guards in Skyrim are total arseholes. They constantly belittle you, even when you've saved the world several times over. This mod helps fix that. It seems Bethesda recorded a lot more dialogue for the guards than most players will ever hear: high level compliments, for example, are only rarely used. Guard Dialogue Overhaul rejigs this whole system. Rarer comments become more common, while those you're sick to death of gradually phase out as you level up. Soon that awful 'arrow to the knee' line will be but a distant memory.
Ever noticed that Skyrim's Imperial army is a no girls allowed club? Oh sure there are female named characters like Legate Rikke, but the actual rank and file soldiers are always male. These mods both edit the list of models that town guards and Imperial soldiers are randomly drawn from, adding some women into the mix. Diverse Guards also adds in several different faces for the male guards, while Legionettes adds a handful of male elves into the army. Pick one based on your preference for pointy ears.
Immersive Patrols is my favourite way to add more life to Skyrim. It creates a series of patrols for Skyrim's different factions: Stormcloak, Imperial, Thalmor, Dawnguard, Bandits, Skaal, Redoran, Reavers and Rieklings. Plus travellers and merchants between cities. These factions wander the world, moving along pre-determined routes. Occasionally these routes intersect, resulting in two opposed factions fighting to the death. Imperials and Stormcloaks regularly clash at designated warzones, with the survivors either reinforcing or taking control of the nearest fort. It adds a tremendous amount of life to Skyrim's conflict, and generates far more of those emergent clashes I love about Skyrim.
Skyrim's citizens have always had something of a deathwish, frequently responding to dragon attacks by running outside and trying to punch the scaly monster to death. This usually ends in them getting eaten. For those of us who don't want to lose key NPCs to suicidal behaviour there's Run For Your Lives, a simple mod which instructs vulnerable NPCs to run the hell indoors when a dragon arrives. Tougher customers, like town guards, potential followers or college mages are unaffected, so you can still see Savos Aren destroy any dragon silly enough to attack Winterhold. When Vampires Attack is exactly the same thing, only for Dawnguard's vampire attacks.
Wet and Cold is about making sure that Skyrim's NPCs actually react to the weather around them. The simplest change is that it allows snow to stick to monsters and NPCs (creating the beautiful scene you saw in that Frostfall pic). But it also changes NPC behaviour and clothing depending on the weather. Rain will cause them to equip hoods and cloaks, or get inside out of the wet, while snow will force them to don furs to keep warm. Appropriate items from other mods like Frostfall and Immersive Armours will even be integrated into this system. There's also a Dragonborn mod that forces NPCs to equip goggles and bandannas in ash storms (pictured above). Recently Isoku also added a 'holidays' version of the mod, which will make NPCs gather together for celebrations based on various holidays based on Elder Scrolls lore.
Cabal is one of the most talented texture artists on the modding scene, and eventually intends to retexture just about everything in the game. Right now Cabal's mods represent a grab bag of different landcapes, creatures and some stunning armour and weapons. I love the black and gold take on elven armour, which fits Skyrim's Thalmor far better than the classic gold look. The downside is that while Cabal is a talented artist, his mods aren't especially well organised orpackaged. The Book of Silence is supposed to be a best-of collection, but currently some parts are missing and others require hotfixes. You might need to spend a while browsing Cabal's mod collection to get everything, but trust me, it's worth it.
Modder Vurt has a single purpose in life: to give you nicer looking plants, and Skyrim Flora Overhaul is their magnum opus. The trees are more luxurious, the grass is longer and the flowers are prettier. With even special new plants hand placed throughout the world. You'll want to set “iMaxGrassTypesPerTexure” (yes you have to spell Texture wrong) in your Skyrim.ini to get the full effect, but trust me, it's worth it.
S.M.I.M. is a mod about the little things. Little things like potatoes, benches, plates and barrels. When Bethesda created Skyrim they created a truly enormous world, but they understandably had to skimp on some of the fine detail. As a result a lot of the minor clutter objects in Skyrim are blocky and rough. Thankfully in the last two years modders have had time to try and fix some of those flaws. S.M.I.M. replaces the meshes and textures for these objects, smoothing them out, upping the resolution and helping them to fit into the world.
Let me tell you a story. Once there was a mod called Realistic Water, made by a modder called Isoku. Isoku eventually got burnt out with modding, and so handed Realistic Water over to another modder called SparrowPrince. SparrowPrince expanded and improved Realistic Water into Water And Terrain Enhancement Redux (winning my personal best acronym ever award in the process). Then Isoku returned to the modding scene and created Realistic Water Two, which expanded on Realistic Water, even using some modified features from W.A.T.E.R. Both offer some things the other doesn't, Realistic Water Two has bobbing ice and some lovely contrast between stagnant and flowing water, but W.A.T.E.R. throws in water plants and animated rowboats. Generally I go with Realistic Water Two, but the more tech savvy might want to consider using the Skyrim Mod Combiner to get the best of both worlds.
There are hundreds of Skyrim mods to improve the appearance of NPCs. The trouble is that most of them are rubbish. There's a huge saturation of glamour models, anime hairstyles and nude mods, that it's a real chore to find something that actually fits the tone of Skyrim. But fear not! I have ventured through the forest of lizard dongs (seriously people never view the adult section of Skyrim Nexus) and brought you this! Xenius Character Enhancement is a collection of small tweaks, improvements and high resolution textures that will make your Skyfolk look better without clashing with the original art style.
You spend a lot of time in Skyrim fighting draugr, so any mod that adds more undead is bound to have a big impact. This one adds several new draugr and skeleton types of wearing bits and pieces of tattered armour. Each enemy type has a different fighting style and level of toughness based on what they were in life, whether they're skeletal knights, undead Thalmor or even a high level Lich. It's a simple, lore friendly way to add a lot more variety to your enemies. You won't need this if you're using Immersive Creatures, as they're bundled together.
There are a lot of excellent retexture mods available for Skyrim, but the sad thing is that you can only ever use one at a time. Automatic Variants exists to correct that problem. It allows Skyrim to randomly choose different skins from a pool of variants, so each animal looks unique. Because of the nature of this mod, it's a little complicated to install. First download Automatic Variants, then download any texture packs you want to use (I recommend Bellyache's animals). Drop the texture pack into the folder, then run the AutomaticVariants.jar file to build the mod, which goes last in your load order. Every time you add new mods or skins, be sure to build the mod again.
Bellyache is well known for doing some lovely animal textures, but this mod is a bit different. Instead of just textures (you can get those here) Bellyache has created several individual dragons, each with its own abilities and territory to control. They're been carefully placed so that they shouldn't overlap too often with vanilla dragons, and you shouldn't have to fight both at once. There is one caveat however: if you're using an alternate start mod, you'll notice some of these Dragons appearing very early in the story, before you've even had your first dragon fight outside Whiterun. So you may want to wait until you've gotten to that point in the main quest before activating the mod.
If you're tired of fighting Skyrim's vanilla creatures and don't mind dubious canonicity, then check out Immersive Creatures. Modder lifestorock has assembled an astonishing 2,500+ new creatures to populate Skyrim with. From goblins to crocodile demons to dragon-people to strange bug things I don't quite understand. There's even a dwarvern mechanical dragon! As you might have guessed, this mod is not for those who want to keep things 'lore friendly' (they should try Armoured Skeletons instead) but if you don't mind that sort of thing, Immersive Creatures is a great way to ensure you're always surprised by Skyrim's monsters.
Play Skyrim long enough and you'll notice that the difficulty drops off sharply at later levels. The problem is that a lot of standard enemy types don't have high level variants. The toughest Bandit, for example, is level 25, not much of a challenge when your Dovakhin gets past level 30. High Level enemies contains hundreds of new enemy types, ensuring that basic enemies remain a challenge well into the endgame.
There are a lot of good armour mods available on the Skyrim Nexus, but there are a lot of bad ones too. Thankfully Hothtrooper has taken the time to sift through the over the top spikefests and gleaming chain bikinis and bring you a huge collection of great looking lore friendly armour, including some he made himself. The armours are then sorted and assigned to various NPCs and randomised loot lists throughout the game. You can even turn individual armours on and off through the mod configuration menu (you did install Sky UI, right?) giving you full control over what items actually appear in your game. Nice work Hoth, now could you implement something similar for the (less well curated) Immersive Weapons? Ta.
Fancy installing some extra storage on your plate mail? Then Bandoliers is the mod for you. It adds a whole range of pouches, belts, potion holders and water bottles that can be stuck on top of whatever clothes you're wearing in several configurations, boosting the variety of armours no end and giving you the look of a serious adventurer equipped for a long journey. But it's mostly for playing dress up. I love playing dress up.
Warmonger Armoury is another compilation mod, this time by Batmanna. It adds a ton of great looking new armour, clothing and weapons to the game, including some using DLC equipment (something Immersive Armour lacks). Once again these items are carefully distributed around the world, given to specific NPCs and added to randomised equipment lists. It lacks the fancy configuration options of Immersive Armours, but the designs are every bit as good. I recommend installing both.
If you're using some of the lighting mods I recommended earlier you'll notice that nighttime is Skyrim has gotten much darker. Spells and torches can help, but warriors who want to use their off-hand are out of luck. Chesko's Wearable Lantern mod sorts out this problem, letting you clip a light source to your belt, front or rear. Companions can also carry the lanterns, and will automatically douse them when you enter sneak mode, acting as your own portable night light.
Skyrim is full of unique items with fascinating lore behind them, but unfortunately very few of them have the looks to go with their backstory. InsanitySorrow's Unique Uniques adds new textures and meshes for several of the game's most characterful weapons, giving you a great excuse to bust out Dragonbane again.
For those who are sick of snowy mountains, Moonpath to Elsweyr offers two brand new environments, lush jungle and barren desert. This quest mod takes you to the Khajit homeland of Elsweyr, making a strong case for setting the next Elder Scrolls game there. Unlike Falskaar the Elswyr added by this mod isn't a fully explorable continent, but rather a series of locations you can visit in your airship. Did I mention you get an airship? You get an airship. Plus you can install an add on mod to get a talking tiger for a follower. Best mod ever.
Falksaar made a lot of headlines when it came out a year ago. It's a massive 'DLC sized' continent created by a young modder as an audition piece for Bethesda. So how does it hold up? Well the island itself is certainly impressive, comparable in size and scope to Dragonborn's Solstheim. While it doesn't have the exotic locations of Elsweyr, it does present them as a single, seamless location. The downside is how linear it can be, with locations locked off until you've passed a certain point of the main quest, or quests that force to follow NPCs because you can't open doors or throw switches yourself. Still the continent itself is worth exploring. Just be prepared to download a bunch of compatibility patches if you're using lots of other mods.
Wyrmstooth is the other new island mod, the one that never got as much publicity as Falskaar, but remains a cult favourite amongst Skyrim modders. It starts at level 10, when the Dragonborn is commissioned to slay a dragon on the island, and the plot unravels from there. Right off the bat Wyrmstooth hands you a narrative hook, something both Falskaar and Moonpath lack, an actual reason to explore this new place. Plus it ties itself neatly in the Skyrim lore of Dragons and the Dovakhin. Personally I prefer it to Falskaar, but there's no reason you can't install both.
Helgen Reborn is a huge quest mod that centres around rebuilding and ruling the town of Helgen, also known as “That place that got burnt down at the start of the game. You know, the one you immediately forgot about afterwards". Following the quest will lead you to creating a ragtag bunch of misfits to act as the town guard, while the city itself slowly expands around you. I could explain more, or you could just read Chris' Mod of the Week article on it. As a small note: you may wish to disable this mod until after you've completed Skyrim's opening sequence, as mods that change Helgen can often mess up the intro.
Descent into Madness was one of the highlights of Richard Cobbett's Week of Madness diary. Take a nap in your bed in Breezehome and you'll be transported into the realm of Sheogorath, where two nations called Madness and Dementia are engaged in an eternal clash of the crazies. Each side offers a different, hour long questline full of puzzles and riddles, all set within a bizarre, dreamlike landscape.
Melee fighters in Skyrim can block, parry, shield bash and counter, but mages are limited to mostly spraying each other with destruction spells until one of them falls over. Magic Duel fixes that. When you and another mage fire spells at each other, there is a chance you'll be locked into a duel, putting the world around you into slow motion as you try and push back your opponent with your magic death beam. It's essentially the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire turned into a minigame.
You are going to be seeing EnaiSiaion's mods a lot in this section, as they're one of the premier magic modders around. Apocalypse adds 140 new spells to Skyrim, most of them pretty well balanced. These aren't just 'spray lightning/fire/cold until someone dies' spells either. There's a whole variety of cool summons, disabling effects and unusual attacks available. Combine with Magic Duel and to make playing a classic Wizard far more fun.
Skyrim's Dragon shouts are cool, much cooler than regular magic. The best fighter/mage in Skyrim is frequently just an ordinary fighter who yells a lot. Thunderchild expands the Dovakhin's magic vocals with a bunch of cool new shouts. Yell until you teleport, shout ghosts into existence, holler until the earth quakes or just scream so hard you open up a black hole.
Dwemertech is a set of spells, a bunch of new items and a big quest all in one. Elder Scrolls lore says that the Dwemer were a scientific race of Elves who vanished long ago. Here the Dragonborn encounters a small group of Dwemer scientists who survived the cataclysm and are trying to bring their people back. This is obviously a big deal in Elder Scrolls canon, so lorehounds might want to give it a miss, but others will enjoy a chance to mess about with the Dwemer's unique science based magic.
Skyrim has bound weapons, so why not bound armour? At least that's what Foster XBL thought when they made this mod. The result is a set of spells that summon super cool translucent mage armour made of purple fire. I can't really add much more at this point. Just look at it. It looks amazing.
Immersive Animations adds dozens of little touch ups to Skyrim's existing animations, plus a few nifty new ones. It's also compatible with Dual Sheath Redux, allowing for all sorts of nice animations for having your shield on your back, or sheathing two weapons at once. Of course to do that you'll also need Maximum Skeleton, Fores New Idles and whole bunch of compatibility patches. Sufficed to say you can fall down a rabbit hole here, so I only recommend going down the Dual Sheath route if you're really confident in your modding skills.
Like Skyrim's face stabby kill move system? Then you want The Dance of Death. Bethesda left several unassigned kill moves lurking in Skyrim's code when the game was released, including some very cool shield bash kills. The Dance of Death re-enables them and re-organises all kill moves so that they're gradually unlocked as you earn perks. It also includes a full menu that lets you control the rate of kill moves. You can even set everything to 100% if you fancy blowing off some steam by instantly decapitating everyone you meet.
The Elder Scrolls games have a perennial problem with magic animations looking a bit rubbish. Things aren't as bad as the Morrowind days, when Wizards looked like they'd escaped from pantomime, but it isn't great. These two mods replace the mods for casting, removing the hunched over posture in favour of a straight backed, imperious stance. I prefer Mystic Knight, which is geared towards fighter/mages, though New Animation has some spectacular looking high level spells.
Zweihander is a set of new animations for two handed weapons in Skyrim. The big selling point is the idle animation, which sees you resting your sword/axe/hammer on your shoulder Cloud style. There's lots more than that though, with animations for running, turning and even a leaping overhead strike included. It's all customisable too, so you can mix and match new and old animations, even having different ones for male and female characters.
Belt Fastened Quivers moves all arrow quivers from the back, where they often clip through things like backpacks or cloaks, down to the waist, adding new animations for the new position. It was originally made as part of Frostfall, so if you're using that, you don't need the standalone mod. If you aren't, however, it's still well worth getting just to stop your arrows from clipping through the items from Immersive Amours and Wet and Cold.