Monday, 22 October 2012

Skyrim Hearthfire diary: The Beginner’s Guide to Homesteading and Mass Murder

The air fills with the screams of the dying and the streets run crimson with the blood of the dead. As arrows whistle past me, I brutally hack through the neck of a Stormcloak soldier, and his head tumbles away like a dropped melon. My wife and companion, her sword coated with gore, sprints off to plunge her blade into the belly of a distant archer. High above, my summoned dragon wheels about in the sky, lands beside me with a crash, and spits a tremendous gout of fire onto several more city guards, setting a wooden walkway ablaze in the process. Amid the carnage, as I decapitate my next victim, a single thought rises in my head:
It didn’t have to be this way. I just wanted to build a house.

Meet Braul, my level 31 Orc, Dragonborn, leader of the Companions, savior of Skyrim, destroyer of The Dark Brotherhood, hero, and all-around swell guy. He’s powerful, wealthy, and owns several houses, but today he and his wife, Mjoll, are looking for something new, something much more than a house. They’re looking for a home.
With the new Hearthfire add-on installed, I fire up The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and begin playing in the fashion of anyone who has installed a Bethesda add-on: by sort of standing around in the world and wondering exactly how this new DLC will present itself in the game. I know I now have the ability to purchase land and build a home, and I know that when you buy stuff, it’s usually in a city or town, so I fast-travel to Whiterun to see if the DLC will pop in and greet me. Sure enough, a half-naked courier jogs up and hands me a note from Tekla, the Steward to the Jarl of Falkreath, inviting me to buy some land. I fast-travel to Falkreath, and while absentmindedly devouring the soul of the dragon I just I killed outside, I chat with her about the plot of land, and buy it for 5,000 gold.  She helpfully starts giving me directions, but I just run out of the room. Relax, lady, I just consumed a dragon’s soul in front of you, do I look like the kind of Orc who needs a lot of hand-holding?
I can eat dragon souls and chat about real estate. It's called multi-tasking.
A few dead bandits and one dead cave bear later, Mjoll and I reach our small plot of land northeast of Falkreath. Nearby, there’s a chest, a couple tables, an anvil, and a book called The Beginner’s Guide to Homesteading, which I don’t actually bother to read. Look, I’m the Dragonborn: I saved the world without ever reading a book or even letting anyone complete an entire sentence. I think I can handle building a small house without doing my homework. I use the drafting table to select the small house layout, scoop out the contents of the chest, which contains, somehow, enough stone to build the foundation, then hit my hammer a couple times on the carpenter’s bench. Just like that, I’ve got the foundation built.
I think this house will be just big enough to keep my spare armor in.
While admiring the shiny new base of my future home, I notice a nearby lumber pile, and beside it, a wood chopping block. Okay, I think I have this whole process figured out. You get iron, you whack it on the anvil. You get lumber, you whack it on the chopping block. Then you whack everything together on the carpenter’s bench. It’s a whack-based home building system. I start trying to whack my lumber.

Thing is, I realize I have I have no woodcutter’s axe with which to whack the lumber on the chopping block. How is that even possible? Oh, right, because I’m a wealthy, accomplished adventurer, not some poverty-stricken townie who needs to split wood for pennies. Even if I picked up a woodcutter’s axe at some point, it would have been sold by now, or dropped in some dungeon to make room in my inventory, or possibly thrown into the ever-growing piles of worthless junk that live on the floors of my many houses.
Well, how hard can it be to find a woodcutter’s axe? There are chopping blocks and lumber mills and stores all over the place. I fast-travel back to Falkreath, pop into the local shop, and find they are fresh out of woodcutter’s axes. Next, I try the nearest lumbermill, where I find a chopping block, but no axe. I visit Dawnstar next, where I talk to both the blacksmith and his wife, neither of whom carry the item.
Okay, this is taking a bit longer than I expected.

I zip over to Solitude, where I know the blacksmith stocks everything under the sun, but he doesn’t have an axe for sale, either. I scour my memory, trying to recall every place any character of mine ever chopped wood. I teleport over to Windhelm, searching the stores and the streets, and still, no axe. Irritated now, I back travel to Whiterun, arriving in the middle of the night, and stand stock still in the middle of town, letting the hours slither by until the stores open. Ulfberth, in Warmaiden’s, has one of every bladed weapon in the world but, again, no axe. Outside, Adrianne doesn’t have one either. I sprint over to Belethor’s General Goods. He has goods, general ones, but no axe to sell me.
I step outside, fairly angry now. It’s been almost an hour of gaming and I can’t find this most basic of items anywhere. Then, I hear a thunk, and my eyes narrow. Was that the sound of the door closing behind me? It almost sounded like… I hear it again. Thunk. Ah-ha! That’s the sound of someone chopping wood! That is the very thing I myself would like to be thinging!
I sprint around the entire building, finally finding someone using a woodsman’s axe on some logs. His name is Sigurd, and he’s got the woodcutter’s axe I need. I try to engage him in conversation, but he does not stop chopping wood to talk to me. I try interrupting him by poking the chopping block repeatedly, but, without my own axe, the stump does not deem me worthy of halting him. I’m ticked off. This simple non-Dragonborn citizen is chopping all the wood he wants, while I, the hero of the land, stand there helplessly, unable to disrupt him. My patience is at an end. My fast-travel gland is exhausted. I decide I’m not leaving Whiterun without Sigurd’s axe.
Just the fabled Dragonborn, come to watch you chop wood. No need to feel nervous.
I see two options. I can wait patiently for a few seconds for him to finish, and see if he leaves the axe behind when he walks away. Or, I can use the ancient skill of magic shouting to encase him in a block of ice, and see if he drops the axe. After carefully not thinking about it for even a millisecond, I bellow cold angry dragon words into Sigurd’s face and he flops to the ground, trapped in a prison of my ice yelling. Now, I just need to search the ground to see if he dropped the axe when he froze.
No problem, except: problem. Mjoll, loyal wife that she is, interprets the sight of me screeching ancient dragon curses all over Sigurd as a sign that I felt Sigurd was some sort of threat, draws her sword, and starts trying to slash his inert, helpless body into ice cubes. This in turn convinces a bunch of nearby Stormcloak soldiers that Moll and I are some sort of psychopaths bent on freezing and chopping up the innocent civilians of Whiterun.
Officers, please! Sigurd started it by having a thing I wanted.
Sigurd breaks out of ice jail long enough to stand up and helpfully die, so I take a break to examine his fresh, cold corpse. No axe in his inventory. I start scanning the ground for it, which is a little hard to do carefully when one solder is stabbing you and another is shooting arrows into your face. Exasperated, I start swinging my axe. My two-handed, hand-crafted, flame-enchanted Ebony battleaxe. Yes, the irony is as thick as Sigurd’s dead, frozen torso, as this entire search for an axe has been conducted with an enormous axe strapped to my back, an axe the game deems capable of cleaving dragons to death with a single blow yet somehow not appropriate for the splitting of logs.
If the game won't let me chop wood, will it at least let me build a house from corpses?
Happy to have an outlet for my annoyance, I wade in and start cutting soldiers into flaming chunks. Four or five dead Stormcloaks later, I’ve managed to carefully look around Dead Sigurd, but there’s no sign of where he stashed his axe while he was dying horribly of ice magic and sword lacerations. Citizens are running around in alarm, and more soldiers are arriving. Filled with rage, I batter and hack at them. I! Just! Need! An! Axe! I screech, in time with every blow of my axe, which must briefly confuse the soldiers before they die from axe wounds. We make our way to the gates, step outside the city, and are greeted with arrows from archers in the battlements and walkways. I’m far too annoyed to run up and kill them all in person, or even to ready and aim my bow. Instead, I use magic to summon my pet dragon, and a few moments later he appears and begins cooking soldiers alive with his flame breath, setting wooden structures on fire in the process.
This seems an appropriate response to a store not stocking axes.
So, yeeeeeah. Things may have gotten a little out of hand. I’m now using magic to summon an ancient dragon to kill soldiers simply because I can’t find a common lumber-related tool. It’d be easy just to restart everything from an older saved game, before all the death happened, but I’m in a black mood now. I will find an axe, Skyrim, if I have to turn this world, and its inhabitants, inside out. Once all the soldiers are dead, I consult my map again. Farmhouses. They’re all over the landscape near Whiterun, and I begin stalking them, one-by-one, like some kind of horror movie boogeyman, letting myself in, rifling through the inhabitant’s personal belongings, then killing the farmers and rooting around in their body cavities. I come across one poor dope foolishly chopping wood as if it’s not a crime punishable by death, and get enraged all over again. Like Sigurd, he manages to use his last moments of existence to somehow hide his axe somewhere it cannot be found. Then, in another farmhouse, I find a woodpile with an axe laying across it!
This is not the axe you're looking for. Move along.
Wrong kind of axe. The game is mocking me. Is this how you want it, video game? Fine. I can do this all day.
I do this all day. I become even more vicious: instead of searching their homes first, I immediately kill anyone I see, loot their bodies, then look through their foyers and bedrooms almost as an afterthought. I search my map feverishly, picking out farms and homesteads, visiting them, and hunting for axes among the blood-splattered remains of citizens whose only mistake was not devoting their lives to stockpiling standard woodcutting tools. How many have to die, Skyrim? How many have to die so I can build my house?
Theft is hardly a moral issue at this point.
Finally, finally, I visit Solitude Sawmill and break into the owner’s home. At last, on a shelf in the back of the house, I find my prize: a woodcutter’s axe. Unfortunately, an enormous armor-plated Orc breaking in, rifling though cabinets and drawers, and stealing an axe while not making any attempt at stealth is somehow noticed by the home’s keen-eyed inhabitants, and they start running around and freaking out and Mjoll has to calm them down to death.
Back at our homestead at last, the screams of my victims still echoing in my ears, I chop some logs before returning to the workbench and noticing the instructions don’t actually say anything about chopped logs. The house needs only sawn logs. Which I already had a bunch of on my log pile.
I didn’t need a woodcutter’s axe after all.
Ah ha ha! Ah ha. Ah, hum. Um. Sorry? My bad? Guess I should have read that book or maybe briefy glanced at the on-screen instructions or something, instead of not doing that and spree-killing a couple dozen people with my wife and pet dragon. Turns out, the true irony wasn’t that I was axe-murdering people for want of an axe, but that I didn’t need an axe in the first place. Home ownership, right? The perils, the pitfalls, the trail of dismembered bodies.
I quickly and sheepishly build my house. Mjoll, to her credit, says nothing about the mass murders we just committed for no reason. The finished house is small, too small to hold my possessions, my spare weapons, or my deep shame over dozens of pointless murders, so I immediately start working on an expansion, though I find I need some more iron to complete it. Luckily, there’s a vein of iron right next to the house. I walk over to mine it.

Pickaxe, huh? Well. How hard can it be to find one of those?

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