I download Skyrim Special Edition's Survival Mode. It's several weeks old in Bethesda's Creation Club store now, but I wasn't interested at first. Certain mods had cobbled together a survival mode of sorts before. Mods, however, disable achievements, and anyone that's messed with mods before (I'm new to the mod game) knows that one mod isn't always compatible with another mod. Complications can arise in a game that already lives with more than its fair share of bugs.
But since the Creation Club's Survival Mode is official, achievements stay intact, at least. None of that matters to me, though, since I'm also using a random-start mod to spice up my first hours in game. Some days I just can't handle going through another vanilla start. I'll shoot myself if I have to be on that slow cart ride into Helgen one more time.
Survival Mode introduces a lot to a game that already has a lot going on.
There's no more fast travel system; nothing beyond the city carriages, anyway. Carry weight is cut in half; devastating for heavy armor wearers. You level up only during sleep; not mid-battle like I love doing. Clothing has warmth values; being cold reduces your health and penalizes picking locks and pickpocketing. Food now has a hunger level that it satisfies; being hungry reduces stamina and magicka. The wild creatures hook you up with more diseases, too. Good times.
I turn on Survival Mode. It should kick in the first time I step outdoors. Again, I use a random-start mod. I choose the “Surprise Me” option for where it actually starts me in game.
I open my eyes in a small barracks. An Imperial guard is in the room with me. He doesn’t say much. I sweep the room clean of gold coins, baked bread, salmon steaks, and Nord mead. Just a little something to keep me fed and warm on a cold winter’s night.
I pry open a barrel. Goat legs, potatoes, and bowls of salt. I throw it all into a cooking pot by the fire. I get two Legs of goat roast. Says it restores 220 points of hunger. I have no idea if that’s a full meal or only half-rations. The potato soup restores a whopping 380 points of hunger. That’s a lot of soup. The salmon steaks and sweet roll are only appetizers, restoring a measly 18 points of hunger. Hardly worth their weight in dough. I get that same amount of hunger sated from eating an apple.
I step outside. It’s cool but not cold. I’m apparently in Dragon Bridge. It’s a town southwest of Solitude. Dragon Bridge is named after its chasm-spanning bridge. It's carved of dark stone, with life-sized stone dragon heads in the middle.
The first person I talk to is mad that the Imperials are here. The other person is mad that the Imperials and the Stormcloaks are here. The soldiers have been taking up quarters in the inn, refusing to pay, says the Dragon Bridge resident. One of the soldiers raped his daughter. Stuff is getting dark. I suddenly realize I’m in first-person mode. I pull the camera back into third-person.
Not only did I select to be an Imperial at the beginning…
...I’m also some kind of Imperial soldier.
Considering the locals’ brazenly bad run-ins with the Imperials, I couldn’t feel less welcome.
But I will do my best at my Random Start job. I will patrol the town. Defend it from attackers. Talk to the townspeople. I will pay for my room at the inn, should I stay there, and I will make a point of not sexually assaulting anyone. That’s just a good rule of thumb, I don’t care who you are.
My stomach grumbles during my conversation with the first citizen that hates my presence. I start to grow fatigued during my conversation with the second citizen. Survival Mode has kicked in. It’s barely noon. I eat a loaf of bread. It’s not enough. I eat a second loaf of bread. There we go. Hunger satisfied.
Up the hill, along the road, a boy stops to talk to me. He’s too young to serve in the military, his dad says. But the boy will, at the very least, patrol the town. He moves on. His pet goat makes a baa sound and follows him.
Less than an hour later in-game, I’m feeling “peckish” again. As in, I’m a little bit hungry. Being hungry lowers my maximum endurance, the green bar at the bottom of the screen. I’ll survive, though. I’ve got a long ways to go. A long ways to go in circles. Around Dragon Bridge. The sweet roll will have to wait.
Heading down the hill on the chasm side of Dragon Bridge, I cross paths with a town soldier. He gives me the old line about how he used to be an adventurer like me. Something something, arrow in the knee. They should’ve sent a poet.
The man that runs the mill says—before we even exchange pleasantries—that I can start chopping wood to make a little money. I might just do that. The Random Start mod put me into a soldier’s boots, but it doesn’t even pay me a soldier’s wages. He’s currently using the wood chopping block, though. I don’t push him out of the way.
I warm up next to a big fire the miller has going. The weather is warm already, so I’m comfortable as is. Being cold negatively affects picking locks and picking pockets. Not exactly in my job description. But being warm helps you move at a regular pace. Being cold slows you down. I cool off as I move away from the fire, but the ambient temperature is still rather comfortable in this part of Skyrim.
I cross the Dragon Bridge. It’s as impressive as it is ancient. It’s also uneventful. Not a wild animal in sight. I head back to the barracks for an afternoon nap. The nap refreshes me. It refills my magicka bar.
The adventuring life is calling me. These guard patrols won’t keep my interest much longer. I’ve talked to the two citizens (plus the boy and his goat), and there’s not much more to learn here in Dragon Bridge. I scour the barracks for every last bit of food and alcohol I can carry. Not sure the Random Start mod will miss me if my soldier abandons his post and goes AWOL. But we’ll see.
I wander west, upriver of Dragon Bridge. There’s nothing. Then there was an ancient but modest henge of stones. I chased butterflies and drew my sword for the first time to stab an aggressive skeever. I took its tail. Skeever tails can get whipped into a potion, but they won’t satisfy hunger, peckish or not.
Further west I see three wolves huddling together beneath a rocky crag. My stomach growls. I draw my sword for the second time after chowing a salmon steak. It feeds me an almost perfect portion. I advance on the wolves. I circle strafe them, swinging my Imperial sword. I forget that I can block with my shield. But I make short work of the wolves. I take the pelts from all three. One of them gave up a red garnet as well. That will go nicely with the lack of wages I make as a soldier.
The sun sets and the sky turns the color of smoked salmon. I run back to Dragon Bridge. After a full night’s sleep, I leave for Solitude to seek fame and fortune there. Hopefully they won’t look at me weird, with my Imperial armor with this crazy red diamond and golden eye Penitus Oculatus badge in the middle of the chestplate. It’ll be fine.
I kill two mudcrabs and plan to cook them up in butter later. A slaughterfish glitches and chases me onto the land. I stab it and take the scales for some future potion. It’s 7:00 PM. The air gets chilly. I cross the river. Thankfully the water is not freezing.
I take a seat on a wooden bench, warming myself by the miller’s fire. He and his wife leave. Tired, thirsty, and hungry, I follow the miller and the miller’s wife. They retire to the Four Shields Inn. I warm up comfortably again by the inn’s big central fire.
Ready for adventure, I hit up the innkeeper for food and drink. I won’t be coming back to Dragon Bridge for a spell. I buy up everything I can afford. Four apple pies. Cooked beef. Seared Slaughterfish. Another sweet roll. A delicious-looking venison chop. I add another bottle of Nord mead to my virtual keg. I’m now carrying six pounds of liquor to keep up my stamina. Never been one for potions. Sure, I’ll use them to save my life, but I prefer to get my hit points from a cooked meal. Survival Mode has me worried about food more than I’m used to. Now I’m burdened with a week’s worth of food.
Before I head back to the barracks, the innkeeper tells me about the jarl’s men stopping by and putting out a bounty to clear the bandits out of a cave. Somewhere on the frozen north coast of Solitude. The three piles of salt she just sold me go into a few bowls’ worth of apple cabbage stew that I cook up back at the barracks.
It’s getting late. I’m tired. And, technically, I don’t have any duties to fulfill. I go to bed hungry, but will eat a healthy breakfast. Most important meal of the day and all. I grab the bed closest to the hearth and catch a full nine hours of sleep.
I awaken fully rested; my magicka bar is topped off. I’m a hungry boy. I eat a leg of goat roast, a slaughterfish fillet, a loaf of bread, a sweet roll, and an apple pie before my stomach is finally full. I chase it with a bottle of Nord mead. That’s quite a breakfast. I step out into a chilly, partly cloudy morning. I turn my boots northeast to Solitude and to the bandit cave I plan to put to the sword.
I leave Dragon Bridge bright and early. By noon I’ve reached the outskirts of Solitude high on its gateway arch. Though I’m steeped in the swamplands, the water gets icy on the eastern side of the arch. For the first time, I’m very cold. My total health is reduced. I move 20 percent slower. And, of course, lockpicking and pickpocketing are 50 percent harder. Still no concern of mine, though.
I hop across the ice floes in the river, trying to keep my feet dry. I miss a jump. Dipping my boots back into the freezing water damages my health a little bit more. My health goes down as fast as if I was drowning.
Reading the weather is difficult. The day is completely overcast and rain begins to fall. But at least I see the sun symbol next to my compass, which means I’m warming up. I don’t know if the climate grows warmer here, as the northern ocean’s breeze blows inland, or if I’m just drying off from my earlier dip in the water.
This is literally “death by degrees.” The ceiling on my health is probably at 50 percent right now. Meaning, I can drink all the health potions I want, my health bar will still max out at 50 percent. This would be a bad time to get into a fight.
I’m hoping that this mission to kill a cave-dwelling bandit leader will produce some warmer armor. My Penitus Oculatus armor, with its 27 warmth rating, is insufficient to stave off the cold weather. I’m not even in a snowstorm, let alone the frozen hills. Yet my breath is foggy and my teeth chatter.
I spy horkers on the coast. I’ve been enjoying the occasional horker loaf—very filling—but I’ve never seen one up close yet. But now I’m seeing that there are three of them. A family. All of their tusks are very big. In my very cold state, I’m not willing to swallow my only healing potion for the sake of fulfilling curiosity. I move on. They’re slow, but effectively chase me off.
Without invitation, I board a vessel called the Dainty Sload. I don’t know, either. I think a “sload” is a pack animal in Morrowind, but I might be remembering wrong. Regardless of the name, an orc mercenary and a corsair wearing Hammerfell garb didn’t like me showing up unannounced on the quarterdeck. I put them both down then scour the goods on deck. Mostly barrels full of juniper Berries. They’re good for making weakness-to-fire poisons, that’s all I know. Not the most useful effect, at the moment.
A snowstorm drives me into the ship’s interior. The air is warm inside. Hallelujah: I find a set of fur armor, fur boots, and a fur helmet inside. Along with the corsair’s fur gauntlets, I might finally be equipped to handle this frozen north.
In total, my current Penitus Oculatus armor gives me a warmth rating of 71. That’s not out of 100. It’s more like an armor class, but against the cold.
The head-to-toe set of fur armor, however, gives me a total warmth rating of 131. Almost twice as warm. Best part is, its actual armor class matches my soldier’s armor.
I hear more sailors below decks. They won’t be happy to see me. But I change into my cozy new fur armor anyway. You can hardly recognize me. Which might be a good idea, since I abandoned my post at Dragon Bridge, anyway. Again, I don’t think the Random Start mod cares what I do, after I set out on my own.
I eat a loaf of bread, a sweet roll, and a bowl of cabbage soup. I’m full, but I have to kill these ne’er do wells downstairs. No reason. Except that the two guys on the ship’s quarterdeck didn’t exactly give me a skipper’s welcome. It’s not personal. It’s just Skyrim.
Thank goodness. They have a torch down here, the first one I’ve found. Torches can stave off the cold for a little while. Or so I’m told. The shipboard bandits hear me as soon as I take the torch from its wall sconce. The fight is on. Then the fight is over. They’re dead. Again, it’s just Skyrim.
As an Imperial, I use the Voice of the Emperor ability. It calms the last corsair. He sheathes his weapon. In a most dishonorable fashion, I attack him anyway. He draws his sword again, deciding that the Voice of the Emperor isn’t worth listening to if it’ll cost him his life. I drop the corsair to his knees. He begs for mercy. Strangely, I give it to him. I sheath my own sword. The corsair crawls around for a moment, gets back on his feet, then attacks me again. Then I kill him. I gave him mercy. Then I took it away.
I sleep the night on board. When I head back out the next morning, snow blows past me from inland. I’m told the air is treacherously cold. That’s a new level of cold I haven’t seen yet. But my new fur armor holds up. Despite the treacherously cold weather, I’m still deemed comfortably warm. No minus points to my health. Much better than if I was still in my soldier threads.
Whoops. I’m chilly. My health bar starts draining. It’s gotten too cold. But I’m near the Solitude Lighthouse. I head up the spiral staircase. Tall logs burn brightly at the top. I cozy up to the fire, but nothing happens. It’s apparently a fire that doesn’t operate like regular fires, as far as Survival Mode is concerned. My health is still going down. I run back inside the lighthouse, which doesn’t warm me up either.
Now I’m freezing. A thin sheet of white coats my fur armor. My breathing is ragged. I’m shivering.
I find shelter further inside the lighthouse, behind a loading screen door. But the khajiit lighthouse owner isn’t having it. He just keeps repeating, “You need to leave. You need to leave.” I consider sticking around, but he’s all like, “Hey! You need to leave.”
So I leave. I head back out into the treacherously cold weather. My hit points are still draining. I’m maybe down to 50 percent again. My top running speed is barely more than a jogging pace. If I can reach this Broken Oar Grotto, where my target is clammed up, I’ll have to thaw a little bit before collecting the bounty on the bandit leader and their gang.
I’m not going to make it. The path stops at a rocky cliff on the water’s edge. I’m not jumping into that water. It’ll be too cold. But there’s another grotto here. I head into it. Perhaps the storm will blow over by the time I clear out this place.
Nope, it’s cold in this grotto, too. I don’t get any colder, but I sure ain’t warming up. Three horkers slowly chase me around inside the grotto. I get up onto an unreachable ledge (unreachable for them) and chase them away with a destructive fire spell shooting out of my right hand. My left hand holds a torch. Not sure if that staved off any further damage from the cold.
Next morning I make my way to the bandit grotto. I warm up by a fire outside the entrance. I can see far across the northern sea. Inside the Broken Oar Grotto, the leader paces back and forth among a slapdash fortress made up of deconstructed ships. I fight off bandits one at a time. It’s not my style, but I start getting good with a bow and arrow. Two times the normal damage from a sneak-attack arrow is something I can’t ignore at my low level.
I take a nap or two as I come across fur sleeping bags on the floor. I level up twice in the amount of time it takes me to make it through the bandit-infested grotto. The final fight against the bandit boss is a game of cat and mouse. I put an arrow into his leg or shoulder, then run for cover. If he sees me, I dive into the water. The water in the grotto is warm, so I don’t freeze to death. The bandit leader isn’t fond of the water, though, and he keeps his feet dry. I game the system. Arrow, arrow, dive in the water. Climb out when the leader tries to find another path to get to me. Arrow, arrow, dive in the water. Eventually it works. Good ol’ Bethesda RPG wonkiness. The last arrow takes him down. Though I received the mission from the innkeeper in Dragon Bridge, the reward apparently comes from some fellow in Solitude.
I make my way to Solitude’s Blue Palace. I find it funny that there’s hanging moss inside the otherwise spectacular Blue Palace. I take some without thinking. There is a guard standing right next to me as I take it. He’s mad. He collects a gold piece as a fine and throws me into the brig for a night, I guess. Next morning, I head back into the Blue Palace. The guard that arrested me earlier this time tells me to head to Angeline’s Aromatics if I need potions. Or something. I move on.
I collect the paltry reward. Even at my low level, I can tell that I’m getting stiffed when he hands over only 100 gold pieces for my efforts. That’s about 10 gold per bandit, by my reckoning, and they were tough men. Whatever. I take the money.
But before I leave the Blue Palace I decide to follow rumors regarding some enchanted cave. Wolfskull Cave. It’s apparently cursed with all sorts of witchery. The sitting jarl in Solitude sends soldiers to bolster Dragon Bridge’s numbers.
I sprint back to Dragon Bridge, eager to see what an increased soldier presence will do. Dragon Bridge is already sick and tired of the civil war and all the soldiers—from both sides of the civil war—piling through, eating up their food, sleeping in their beds, and “having their way” with their daughters.
I reach Dragon Bridge in the dead of night, a torch keeping me slightly warm on a cool, clear night. At least I think it keeps me warmer. I can’t tell. I must’ve beat the other soldiers here. Unless they went straight to Wolfskull Cave.
But it’s late. Though I’m no longer in my soldier armor (I’m clad head to toe in animal furs) I risk heading back into the barracks. There’s a cooking pot I can use. I step inside. The same soldier pacing the room as before doesn’t even look at me as he shuffles past and off to bed. I head for the cooking pot at the hearth fire. I stir up a couple dozen bowls of the heartiest meals I can muster: 12 bowls of apple cabbage stew, and 12 bowls of potato soup. I must have quite the Tupperware set tucked into my arrow quiver.
I check my food stores. Between all the soup I just cooked, the sweet rolls I’ve come across, and the animal roasts I’ve cooked before, I’m now packing somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 pounds of food. That’s probably sufficient, I decide. I mean, I’m a hungry boy. But all my food weighs almost as much as my entire suit of fur armor. Again, that’s probably sufficient.
I’m unwilling to sleep in the barracks. I’ve left that life behind. And I know the local inn could use the money. I head there for a good night’s rest. I’ll head up into the mountains to Wolfskull Cave at dawn. Hopefully there won’t be a blizzard anywhere between Dragon Bridge and there.
I wake up a bit hungry. For breakfast I eat some baked potatoes and nine loaves of bread. I set off for Wolfskull Cave, the sky blue, the air comfortable.
I take a left up into the mountains. The comfortably warm air grows chilly. More and more snow begins to cover the ground. A mountain goat startles me as it runs out of the bushes. It inadvertently heads in the direction I’m going. I see two sets of standing stones. I must be going the right way. The goat then (again, inadvertently) leads me right into a two-skeleton ambush. They charge at me with ancient Nord weaponry. They shatter to bony pieces from my hunting bow’s arrows.
Those were the first skeletons I’ve seen. Must be a sign of the witchcraft taking place up here, as suspected. The air becomes officially chilly,my hit points get nudged down a bit, and snow begins to fall in earnest. There’s the cave entrance. I go in. Since I didn’t see an extra contingent of Solitude soldiers in Dragon Bridge, I thought I’d see them up here, responding to the rumors about Wolfskull Cave. But I see them in neither place. I get my axe and shield ready, then head in alone. The cave is very warm. Lots of green moss grows along every surface. Suddenly I’m peckish, a little hungry. Only an hour or so after my breakfast of baked potatoes and 10 loaves of bread, I scarf another loaf of bread to tide me over. I’m a growing boy. And there are some witches that have overstayed their welcome.
* * * * *
Since I started this piece a couple weeks ago, I've been unable to wrench my way out of Survival Mode. I love it. I absolutely love it. It's refreshed Skyrim in a way I couldn't have expected. After six years with this game, I was hunting for something (anything!) to pique my interest again. Survival Mode, coupled with a brilliant random start mod, has been everything I could hope for in restoring my interest in Skyrim. Yes, Skyrim is probably one of my top two favorite games of all time, and I can't even think of what number two would be. But for a survival-game lover like myself, it's been wonderful. Dying from exposure, starvation, food poisoning,