The beauty of Skyrim’s sandbox is how it makes pretty much any play style viable. Sure, you can embrace your destiny as the Dragonborn and save the realm from Alduin the World Eater. But it’s just as easy, and in fact encouraged, to ignore that path and make your own stories. Whether you want to play as a pacifist, an illusionist, a pugilist, or a mudcrab, the game will support just about any character you have in mind — and often without having to use mods. I’ve been playing this game regularly for over a decade now, and I’m still finding new ways to experience it.
My latest discovery is how much fun it is playing Skyrim as a hunter-gatherer. That is, a simple Nord who lives off the land, foraging, fishing, and hunting rather than adventuring. I don’t delve into crypts, battle monsters, or take on dangerous quests. I wander the wilderness, pick flowers, hunt deer, catch fish, and get to bed at a decent hour every night. It’s a surprisingly engaging, and incredibly relaxing, way to engage with Skyrim’s world. You just have to come up with a few rules to give your playthrough some structure, else it can feel aimless.
First, I install the Live Another Life mod and choose the ‘I am camping in the woods’ option. I suddenly find myself in a forest near Riverwood decked out in some basic fur armor, and my non-adventure begins. There’s starting gear in a nearby sack, but ignore it and decide to make my own way. I walk to Riverwood and chop firewood, selling it to a lumberjack named Hod. I raise enough money to buy a hunting bow and a quiver of iron arrows: a first step towards self-sufficiency. In my head my character is a loner who never relies on the help of other people.
I also have the Camping mod installed via the Creation Club, which lets me set up camp pretty much anywhere in Skyrim. Campsites come with a simple bed, a wooden lean-to, a fire for warmth and cooking, and also act as handy fast travel points. I chop some more firewood and buy a few pieces of leather from Alvor the blacksmith, which allows me to craft Camping Supplies, the item needed to set up a campsite. I install Fishing too, giving me another way to make money and forage for food. All these mods are available on console if you own Skyrim Special Edition.
With a bow, arrows, and camping supplies, I’m ready to begin my life as a hunter-gatherer. I hike to the tundra surrounding Whiterun and set up camp. It’s not exactly a feather bed and silk sheets, but it’ll do. The sun is sinking below the horizon, so I turn in for the night. I’ve set a rule for myself that I have to sleep every night and try to eat three square meals a day. I could install Survival Mode to go deep into role-playing a hunter-gatherer, but I’m essentially doing this to relax, not to worry about contracting deadly diseases, breaking limbs, or freezing to death.
The next morning I wake up early, have breakfast, and set off into the wilds. There are plenty of elk, deer, foxes, and mudcrabs in the tundra surrounding Whiterun, and I spend some time hunting them with my bow. It’s hard work at first because my archery skill is so low. It takes 3-5 arrows to take an elk down, which is easier said than done when the first one makes it flee. But I stick at it, and as my archery skill slowly levels up I gradually become deadlier with the bow. Soon I have an inventory full of pelts, meat, antlers, and other stuff I can either eat or sell.
I visit Whiterun, sell my hard-earned spoils to some local merchants, and use the gold I earn to stock up on arrows. I also buy some salt for cooking meat, then it’s back out into the tundra for more hunting and gathering. As well as hunting wildlife I pick herbs and flowers, catch insects, and enjoy a spot of fishing. It’s an incredibly peaceful way to play Skyrim, exploring the wilderness, interacting with the environment, and immersing yourself in the incredible ambient sound design. The level of craft that went into building this world is still hugely impressive 10 years on.
Inevitably, as beautiful as it is, I eventually get bored of this part of the world. I’ve spent a few in-game days here now and the landscape is becoming a little too familiar. But that’s the great thing about being a nomadic hunter-gatherer: I can go wherever I like. I return to my camp, break it down, and decide it’s time for a change of scenery. The lush autumnal forests of The Rift seem like a good bet. I could walk, but I pay the carriage driver outside the Whiterun stables to take me there instead. Not very self-sufficient, I know, but c’mon, it’s a long-ass hike.
I set up a new camp in The Rift, with new wildlife, flowers, fish, insects, and other natural resources to harvest. The mountainous landscape is a nice change from the flat plains around Whiterun too. This is pretty much the extent of my hunter-gatherer playthrough. I move from place to place, enjoy the landscape, and use nature to keep myself fed, armed, healthy, and happy. My archery skill keeps increasing, making hunting easier and more fun. I have no grand objective other than enjoying myself, which is a refreshingly simple, low stakes way to play Skyrim.
The variety in the game’s map makes a nomadic playthrough especially rewarding. Each hold has a unique personality, with its own climate, terrain, and atmosphere. I recently moved my camp to the wind-battered northern coast, where there are big, blubbery horkers to hunt and amazing light shows at night when Skyrim’s equivalent of the aurora borealis comes out. It’s a slow-paced, largely uneventful way to play the game, but that’s kinda the point. I’m enjoying it precisely because very little happens. Sometimes it’s nice to just hang out in a world like this.
The trickiest part of this playthrough is avoiding excitement. Skyrim is a game that is constantly trying to lure you into an adventure, and it’s easy to stumble into a quest or a bandit lair while hunting. You’ll be chasing a fleeing deer, only to accidentally run into some enemies or an NPC with a tempting quest. But trust me: resist. Put yourself in your hunter-gatherer’s fur boots. Would he fight a skeleton or go exploring in an abandoned mine? Nah. He’d be out of there in a flash, because he’s a normal person. Remind yourself of that if you want to stay true to the character.
As for what I’ll do next, I have a few ideas. I may invest some of my gold into a property; perhaps Breezehome in Whiterun, which is relatively affordable for a working class guy like me. It’ll be handy having a base to store items, rest, and cook. I could even get married or adopt children if I had a place of my own. But I think I might miss the nomad lifestyle. The freedom of being able to break my camp down and build it somewhere else is the key to keeping this playthrough interesting. Settling down might ruin it. For now, I’m happy to just ramble frivolously in the wilderness.
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