Saturday, January 21, 2017

Writing Lessons from Video Games: Skyrim on Worldbuilding

The Elderscrolls: Skyrim is one of my favorite video games. It has nearly limitless gameplay with hundreds of quests, beautiful landscape, a moving score, and even the power to change the fate of your character. For those of you who don't know the game is set in the fictional world of Tamriel specifically in the country of Skyrim. Your character is the dragonborn destined to stop dragons from once again ruling the earth. The most impressive part of this game has to be the worldbuilding. It's extremely intricate, rivaling Tolkien even. Many of the details aren't even scratched in many novels I've read. There's a lot to cover in this post, but I'll try to be as concise, but thorough as I can.

Regions within a Country: When you have a country as big as Skyrim, it has to have some division, thus it's divided into seven holds: Eastmarch, Falkreath Hold, Haafinger, Hjaalmarch, The Pale, The Reach, The Rift, Whiterun Hold, and Winterhold. These are similar to states, provinces, or counties. They also allow the Kingdom to be divided in power so it may be more easily managed. Each hold has their own laws and even cultures of their own and remember all of this is within one country.

How this can be applied to writing: If you have countries large enough in your book to be divided, your characters need to keep in mind the obstacles and provisions each region can contain, whether that be geographically, politically, or culturally. 

Flora: Skyrim is so large that the Southern half is warmer while the northern half is snowy. Because of this the flora changes per region. In the Reach it is common to find juniper while in the Rift wild gourds and the Whiterun Hold tundra cotton. Some plants can be found in all holds such as snowberries can be discovered as long as there is snow. All of the fauna needs certain soils and environments to grow such as jazbay grapes need the acidic soil of the hot springs in southwest Skyrim. 

How this can be applied to writing: This is important to keep in mind when your characters need to find food or healing herbs. Sometimes what the environment provides is all they have. A good obstacle is one healing plant can't be found in the region they live in because it's too cold or too hot. Good knowledge a character can have is they know a certain type of food grows in this region that they could save him or her from starvation.

Dragon's Tongue
Fauna: Skyrim has a wide variety of fauna, like plants they're all found in different regions. Snowbears, snowfoxes, snow sabrecats caribou, and horkers are found in the north, while cave bears, elk, red foxes, sabrecats, and goats are found in the south. While mudcrabs, slaughterfish, rabbits, and salmon are common in most any region. Some of these creatures can only be found in specific places like trolls in caves or ruins and dragonflies over ponds, marshes, and lakes. This is important to know for hunting, needing certain spell items, and being aware of certain dangers. I can't tell you how many times I've had to hightail it when a sabercat out of my league has attacked me. 

How this can be applied to writing: These things are important keep in mind for your characters when they need food, furs, or even, like me in the game, to not get eaten by a wild animal. If your character is a trapper this is important for them to know where to find their game.

Food: Skyrim has a wide variety of food, all reliable on what their country can provide: leeks, carrots, cabbages, tomatoes, venison, apples, horse meat (gross but you do what you gotta do), garlic, horker meat, goat cheese, and milk. All of these items can be used to make dishes such as apple cabbage stew, elswer fondue, and clam chowder. All of these items can be found specifically in Skyrim, because this is what the country grows. Some treats include lavender dumplings, snowberry crossatas, and apple pies. 

In comparison, there's a colony called Solstheim which belongs to the neighboring country of Morrowind. Because of the resources they have their diet is slightly different like they eat horker ash yam stew and even their liquor is different. They have sujamma as opposed to Skyrim's Ashfire Mead and spiced wines. 

How this can be applied to writing: I believe food tells so much about the culture of a world. Cuisine can tell much about the environment and traditions. Keep in mind what your storyworld's environment can provide for food for the population.

Types of Races: Skyrim is full of different races: Nords, Redguard, Orcs (Orsimer), High Elves (Altmer), Wood Elves (Bosmer), Dark Elves (Dunmer), Kajiit (woot woot!), Argonians, Bretons, and Imperials. Nords are native to Skyrim and the other races have come either by military or are immigrants seeking a better life. Bretons come from Cyrodiil, Argonians from Black Marsh, and Dark Elves from Morrowind. 

How this can be applied to writing: When you have so many different races, think about why the races are in a country not their own. Did they flee a war? Were they stationed there? Are they criminals in another country?

Changed Races: Races can also change possibly by magic. Snow Elves or Falmer were once a beautiful race, but because of a deal made with the Dwemer, they're original form is nigh but extinct. 

How this can be applied to writing: Have you thought of a race being turned into monsters or maybe a monster being turned into something good? How would they effect the race as a whole or other races for that matter?


Extinct Races: However unfortunate it that it is, sometimes races cease to exist like the Dwemer for instance. They were dwarves who made technological advancements far beyond other races. But one day they disappeared and no one has seen them since, but they have left their ruins and machines behind as evidence of their existence. 

How this can be applied to writing: Have you ever thought of having an extinct race? How would that effect your story world?

Dwemer Ruins

Cultures: Every race has a different culture. Orcs believe that only a chief of their stronghold should be able to marry, Kajiit are nomads, and Altmer believe they are the superior race. Their culture defines their personalities and attitudes toward others. But there are also those who don't want to follow tradition. 

How this can be applied to writing: How do cultures affect your characters?

Orc Stronghold

Prejudices: One huge problem in Skyrim is definitely racial prejudices. Kajiit are often not even let into cities because they're believed to all be thieves. Jarl Ulfric only allows Dunmer to live in the slums and other nords abuse and even murder other races that aren't Nords. The Dunmer in Solstheim call the Dragonborn outlander because the player is the only person not their race in their city. As a Kajiit player, I had a lot of people call me "sneakthief" when my character had never even stolen, just because of my race. 

How this can be applied to writing: What rumors have been spread about other races? Do some races believe they've superior? Has a leader persuaded his people to hate other races?

Dunmer in Winterhold

Languages: Most of the races in Skyrim speak the same language, but their names imply of their different regions. Dragons speak in their own tongue as do Draugr and Rieklings. The dragon language has to be my favorite, because they believe words mean power and these words become thu'ums which is magic used with their voices. Because of this all of their names are three syllables aka a thu'um such as Paar-thur-naax and Al-du-in. 

How this can be applied to writing: Language can be very personal for a culture. The language can have words that another language does not, words that express certain emotions that other languages do not. Some languages can hold magic. The idea are limitless. 

Dragon Writing

Names: Skyrim characters' names vary by their origins. Kajiits have Arabic sounding names because of the deserts, Argonian names are a bit Native American, and Nords are heavily Scandinavian-based. Another interesting thing is the dragonborn comes across a character named Brand-Shei which is an Argonian name, because that character was raised in Blackmarsh instead of Morrowind. Names, especially unusual, names can add a certain authenticity to a storyworld.

How this can be applied to writing: How much thought have you put into your characters' names? Have you thought of having different names per race or culture?

Weaponry: Each race in Skyrim makes their weapons with different designs and metals. Elvish weapons are sleek and avian and made of moonstone and quicksilver, orcish are jagged and made of orichalum, and Falmer are made of chaurus chitin which are creatures that live deep beneath the earth. People make weapons out of the materials available to them and different designs can say much about the culture.

How this can be applied to writing: Do your races' weapons designs differ? Do they use different metals?

Gods: Skyrim has a pantheon of nine gods: Talos, Zenithar, Julianos, Dibella, Mara, Akatosh, Arkay, Kynareth, and Stendarr. Each of these different gods represent different parts of a native Skyrim. For example, Arkay is the god of death and burial and Mara is the goddess of love. Many people in Skyrim have devotion to a particular god, but many swear by all nine. 

Other countries also acknowledge similar gods, but many are called different names such as Akatosh is also called Auri-El. Sometimes gods are considered false such as Talos is not considered by some to be a true god, since he was once a man. People of the Skaal which are an offshoot culture of Skyrim only believe in one god.

How this can be applied to writing: Do some of your races share the same god? Do they call that god by a different name? What do the gods of your pantheon represent? 

Skyrim Pantheon Shrines

Cults: Cults are a little different than religions since they primarily circle around one person or thing. In Skyrim's definition this is worship of daedric princes. Some of these are inherently evil such as Clavicus Vile, Hircine, and Boethiah, others are good such as Meridia and Azura, and some fall in a gray area like Malacath. 

Most of these followers are fanatical or live in secluded areas. Often their practices are sinister such as Hircine followers have an obsession with the hunt and this can often mean the hunt of innocent people.

How this can be applied to writing: Have you thought of having cults in your story? Are they sinister?


Shrines and Temples: The gods and daedric princes have shrines and temples built in their names. Solitude, the capital of Skyrim, has a temple devoted to the nine deities, statues of Daedric princes are scattered about Skyrim, and there are specific temples to different gods in cities such like the Temple of Kynareth. At these temples you'll find people devoted particularly to that god. At the shrines, you'll find offerings of gold, weapons, flowers, pearls, and gems depending on the god. More sinister deities even have sacrifices. 

How this can be applied to writing: Do you have shrines and temples in your story world? What sort of people go there? Are they used in festivals and rituals?


Sacred Objects & Locations: Many of these gods and daedric princes have items that are blessed by them and locations where people believe they are closer to these deities. For example Meridia has blessed a blade called Dawnbreaker which is sacred to her. The Tree of Kynareth is a sacred plant that people believe is blessed by Kynareth herself. Dragons are considered a symbol of the god Talos and their bones and scales are used to build Talos shrines. 

How this can be applied to writing: What objects are sacred to your religion's gods? Do they have sacred locations? How can these be incorporated in your story's plot?

Tree of Kynareth Sapling

Legends: With myth come legends and the world of Skyrim is chock full of them. You can find loads of books depicting the different legends of the past, some coming with interaction with gods some not. The Legend of Red Eagle is one where you find Red Eagle's special blade and use it to unlock his tomb. 

How this can be applied to writing: What legends does your storyworld have? 

Afterlife: I didn't really think of how crucial it is to know about your characters' view on afterlife until I gave some real thought about this game. The Nords believe that when they die they will feast for eternity with Shor in Sovngarde. Some particular Nords yearn for this and are afraid they won't reach this afterlife. For example Kodlak is a werewolf. Werewolves are products of Hircine and will join him in the eternal hunt when they die. Kodlak wants to be cured so he can instead go to Sovngarde.

How this can be applied to writing: Afterlife affects how your characters live whether they believe in an afterlife or not this is very important for you to figure out. What do they believe will get them to an afterlife? Do they believe in a heaven and hell? Do they believe in incarnation or joining with nature? 


Rulers: Skyrim is a large country that is ruled by a king, but is also under imperial rule. However, one king can't manage the vast expanse of Skyrim, so jarls are assigned to rule each of the seven holds of Skyrim.

How this can be applied to writing: Depending on the size of your country, that will depend on how your country is broken up to be ruled. The US has the President but then has senators for each state and mayors for each town. How does your storyworld's government work?

Jarl Balgruuf the Greater of Whiterun

Foreign Relations: Skyrim interacts with many foreign countries such as Cyrodiil, the Empire's capital and the Thalmor who are part of the High Elves. These interactions have to do with trade and sometimes with enemies. 

How this can be applied to writing: How does your country interact with other countries? Are they peaceful or warlike? Do they trade with other countries? What imports and exports to they have?

Treaties: No country really wants to deal with war if possible. To be honest, wars cost a lot of money. Wars have drained countries of their resources and put them into insurmountable debt, crippling economies. Therefore if a war can be avoided a country will do it. That's why treaties such as the White Gold Concordat are made. This treaty was made with the Thalmor to outlaw the worship of Talos, but to keep the peace with the high elves or altmer.

How this can be applied to writing: What treaties have your countries made to keep the peace?

Talos Prophet
Wars: In Skyrim, there is a war between Ulfric Stormcloak and the Imperials, because Ulfric murdered the king. Ulfric justifies this saying the king was unjust and corrupt. The Imperials have retaliated to stop Ulfric from taking over Skyrim and kicking the Imperials out. In the game, you're allowed to participate in this war with the side of your choosing. You can work your way up the military ladder and you fight in assaults on bases. The war has divided Skyrim in half. Some believe Ulfric is right, others believe the Empire is right. This causes more discord than just that displayed in battles.

How this can be applied to writing: If your country is fighting a war, for what reason is it being fought? Did one side murder a ruler? Is one side trying to stop the other from taking other? Is one side helping another country?

General Tullius
Crime: Skyrim is fraught with crime whether it be thievery, murder, prostitution, and even drugs. All of these can be met with charges. If you commit a crime, a bounty is put on you. The drug called Skooma actually causes an upset in the city of Riften because workers are getting so addicted to it that they're paying all of their wages to get more. One of your quests if to find out who's dealing it and stop them.

How this can be applied to writing: What crime does your storyworld have? Does it upset the economy? What are the penalties for the crimes?


Currency: Skyrim's currency is called "septims," named after Tiberius Septim who began the empire. I found this fascinating since I hadn't thought of naming a currency after a ruler before. 

How this can be applied to writing: Have you thought of naming currency after a ruler? What is your currency called?

Resources: Resources can make or break an economy. Towns are often centered around resources because that's how their make money whether it be lumber, mining, or crops. If a town loses this primary resource that can be devastating to an economy. Ravenrock's primary ebony mine dried up and this plummeted the towns growth. People were out of work and started drinking. Morrowind started withdrawing funds because they saw this economy as an unworthy investment. It isn't until the dragonborn helps someone find more ebony that the town is saved. 

How this can be applied to writing: What resources do villages in your world circle around? What would happen if they lost this resource?

Types of Magic: Skyrim has an elaborate magic system divided into seven types: destruction, restoration, alteration, illusion, enchanting, alchemy, and conjuration. Each of these types have different sorts of spells like destruction spells allow you to shoot fire out of your hands, restoration allows you to heal yourself and others, alteration allows you to fortify your armor, illusion allows you to enact helpful spells such as detect life, conjuration allows you to summon atronachs to fight for you, enchanting imbues magic into your weapons, and alchemy allows you to create helpful potions. These spells are learned through spell tomes.

How this can be applied to writing: How does your magic system work? What types of spells can you learn? Can anyone learn them? How are they learned?

Alchemy/Healing: You can gather many ingredients in this game to make all sorts of potions. In the game, you can go into a potion shop to get a cure for a disease or health potions if you're injured. Or you can buy ingredients to make health potions such as mushrooms, flowers, or even animal parts. If you're really sick, you also have the option of going to someone with restoration magic to get better.

How this can be applied to writing: How does your country's health system work? Do they use potions, magic, doctors?

Price for Magic: As Rumpel says, "All magic comes with a price." In this game, the most common price is magicka which is an innate energy inside your character. Spells cost so much magicka and you can become drained. You can either restore it with magicka potions or wait for it to regenerate. However, the Ash Guardian spell requires a certain item called a heartstone. Each conjuration expends this item. If you don't have this item, the Ash Guardian will go rogue and start attacking you. 

How this can be applied to writing: What prices does your magic cost? Life force? Fatigue? An item?

You made it to the end! I know this was a mammoth of a post (hardy har har Skyrim joke), but I hope it gave you lots of food for thought for your storyworld. Skyrim has really made me reevaluate my fantasy worlds and take them to new depths. I hope this post can help you do the same.

My character Twybor Taumaer using Dragon Aspect

Have you played Skyrim? Have you noticed these writing aspects? What video games have you noticed have good worldbuilding? Let's geek out together!

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