Skyrim’s ancient capital returns - Inside a first-time modder’s quest to turn an infamous ruin into a magical city

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Skyrim's 'The city of Bromjunaar' mod.
Credit: Sdougiss on Nexus Mods.

“I was doing another mage playthrough in 2019 and when I was sent to the old ruins of Bromjunaar, I was struck by the layout of it all,” says Skyrim modder Sdougiss, describing a visit to the dungeon of Labyrinthian.

“There was clearly an intention to convey the fact that it was a city before,” they continue, alluding to the Elder Scrolls lore regarding the location which would come to inspire them to learn how to make Skyrim mods from scratch, “but unfortunately it would seem that Bethesda didn’t do anything else to differentiate this place from all the other Nordic ruins in terms of more unique assets.” This desire to see the colossal ruin nestled in the mountains south of Morthal regain some of its past glory led Sdougiss to search the sections of Nexus Mods dedicated to the game's various versions for a mod that could do just that.

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“To my dismay, there weren't any extensive mods published at the time (that could) fill out this role.” says the modder, adding that given the massive amount of Skyrim mods uploaded to this and other modding sites on a daily basis: “I was dumbfounded to see that no one had tried to tackle this need.” Having concluded that they weren’t alone in their wish to see a mod bring some life back to Labyrinthian, Sdougiss was left with only one option: “Frustrated and with an ever-growing desire to see something done, I set out to make my own mod, with my own vision.”

Table of Contents

Enrolling in the college of modding magic

A mage studying in the city of Bromjunaar.
Credit: Sdougiss on Nexus Mods.

While this mod would eventually come to fruition as ‘The city of Bromjunaar’, in order to create it, Sdougiss was faced with the task of learning how to make Skyrim mods from scratch. While this is a task they acknowledge to be less difficult for someone to accomplish today than it would have been in the initial years following the game’s release, it was still a daunting proposition.

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Having digested all of the information they could about the game’s creation kit from the YouTube tutorials of creators like Darkfox127 and 401 Gaming, they delved into working on the mod. “I was bumbling into the unknown and I had to be very cautious with what I added and removed from the game” says Sdougiss, adding: “Even with all the help on the internet, I still had to figure some aspects out on my own, and I spent many weeks working on several problems.”

Some of these issues were simply part of the learning process for beginners, with Sdougiss recalling: “It’s only when I was doing a full playthrough of the College of Winterhold (questline) that I realised that there were structures floating in the sky outside Whiterun. I was very confused when I saw that these structures were in fact all the base game objects that I had so carelessly deleted while working on the mod.”

However, a few were made more tricky as a result of the location they’d chosen for the mod, with Labyrinthian serving as the staging ground for the major base game quest ‘The Staff of Magnus’, which serves as the penultimate adventure in the College of Winterhold faction questline. This meant there was a lot of essential data surrounding the location that had to be kept intact and incorporated into the mod, while also ensuring that it didn’t get in the way of Sdougiss’ vision for the exteriorly-based settlement they were building, with the modder revealing: “I think I must’ve spent two weeks just working on the path that two children use when they are playing around the city.”

Thankfully, using tools like SSEEdit to “clean” the mod and increase its stability helped to solve these problems, as did dedicating a lot of attention to the navmeshes the game uses to separate its exterior map into controllable chunks. Sdougiss identifies the latter as being the trickiest thing they had to manage, saying: “I had to spend so much time making it all work together by aligning each line perfectly with others and testing it out in-game.” They also cite the tedium of this process as a possible reason other modders might have chosen to avoid the using area of the map containing Labyrinthian for their projects.

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Stop! You violated the lore!

A statue of Shalidor in Bromjunaar.
Credit: Sdougiss on Nexus Mods.

Naturally, this wasn’t an option for Sdougiss, who’d settled on transforming the exterior of the ruin into a functional town inspired by the lore surrounding its past as Bromjunaar, an ancient city theorised by in-game scholars to have served as the capital of Skyrim during the ancient days when the dragon priests you fight in the game were still living people. While they’d conceived the mod mainly as a way to try and improve the game’s College of Winterhold story, which they describe as “a rushed questline where players are catapulted into the Arch-Mage position without any requirement (of) magical expertise”, the idea of working on a location that’s been an Elder Scrolls staple since 1994’s The Elder Scrolls: Arena also weighed heavily on their mind.

Rather than brushing over the need for an explanation of why the crypt would suddenly morph into a settlement again several thousand years after its abandonment, Sdougiss instead delved into the lore surrounding it and devised a means for that to take place. “The ‘bridge’ between the old lore and the new (lore) added by my mod,” says the modder, “was found in the character of Shalidor, the legendary immortal mage that created the city of Winterhold with a ‘whispered spell’, which was exactly what I needed to justify the sudden (appearance) of a whole city in a dusty ruin.”

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Established information on the site also factored into the practicalities of creating the mage-themed outpost Sdougiss had their sights set on making a reality, with the modder saying: “I certainly felt a great deal of pressure to try to design the city with the old lore in mind and had to scrap many versions of it before settling on a mixture of new and ancient architecture.” They also add: “I had to make the city feel grand and mysterious, inviting and isolated, magical and mundane. Trying to balance it all was challenging and I always had to keep in mind the original lore of the city (in order) to build upon it and not replace it.”

The 36 lessons of Skyrim modding

Some mages hanging out in Bromjunaar.
Credit: Sdougiss on Nexus Mods.

Having now successfully delivered a working version of Bromjunaar to the nexus, Sdougiss’ advice to others considering giving Skyrim modding a go is simple: “Never, ever give up. You might think that the work is too much to do for one person, but if you address each aspect of it individually you will be able to progress in a more productive way.” That said, they don’t recommend trying to work through any burnout the creation process might cause, adding: “If you feel the inspiration beginning to lack, don’t hesitate to take a break from it all, spending all of your time thinking about it can make your mod stagnate or go into a direction you don’t want.”

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Regarding strategies that helped them deal with these inevitable moments of frustration, Sdougiss says: “If you ever feel lost, do not despair, there is always someone that went on the same path that you are going down on (and) you only need to search for what others have done before.” Another useful idea they recommend is to: “Make a mental map of your work and try to address each aspect separately so as to not feel overwhelmed, it will make the process a little bit easier on you.”

Above all else, Sdougiss suggests that the current state of Skyrim modding means the path they took from player to modder something that, while taking a lot of work and dedication, is attainable for everyone, saying: “Anyone can mod, and Bethesda games are an excellent way to get into it. Since there is such a massive mod-maker community, you will always find supporters for your work.”