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Ultimate Skyrim guide: Which race is the best?

skyrim race guide

‘Skyrim belongs to the Nords,’ but it’s also home to nine other races, each with their own unique appearance, start-game bonuses, passive abilities, and powers. There are brutal Orcs, silver-tongued Imperials, High Elves brimming with latent magicka talent, and agile khajiit who can see in the dark and slash at opponents with their sharp claws. To add even further to Skyrim’s character set-up, there are also 12 standing stones that instantly offer (provided you can find them) another permanent unique ability: Extra carry weight, faster-leveling thief abilities, unlocking doors instantly, paralyzing your foes, or even resurrecting the dead. Couple these 12 stones with the 10 different races and you’ve already got 120 permutations from basically the start of the game.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Download
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If the hardest part of Skyrim for you is that moment at the start of the game where you get to customize your character’s appearance, this guide is most definitely for you.

Complete guide to Skyrim races

How does leveling work in Skyrim?

The leveling mechanic for Elder Scrolls V works like this: When you perform a skill, it increases in rank (ie casting Flames will soon level up your Destruction tree. This will not give you any new abilities or perks in Destruction. Instead what happens is that each time a skill goes up, you’ll get a tiny bit closer to another overall level for your character. Each time your character goes up a level, then you’ll get that extra perk point to be spent on whatever tree you like, as well as your choice to boost your character’s overall health, magicka, or stamina.

Restoration spells in Skyrim
Having 66 in Restoration doesn’t give you perks. It just means you’re eligible to choose them.

So you could cast Destruction magic all day and get a crazy high score in that tree, but without allocating perk points to Destruction, you’d never see any improvement in the skill. So what’s to stop players from swinging around a sword all day and putting all the perk points from leveling up into a totally different tree like Pickpocketing? The answer is this: Most perks in any given skill tree are locked until you have a sufficiently high level in that specific tree. If you never actually pickpocket you won’t have access to higher-tier pickpocketing skills, no matter how many perk points you have to spend; you’ll only be able to put those perk points into skill trees where you meet the prerequisite.


Why starting boosts can be a bad thing

This brings us to the good and the bad of going for those ‘race-based skill boosts’ you receive at the start of the game: On the plus side if you play a Nord and begin the game with a boosted 25 in Two-handed you’ll already have access to the first rank of Barbarian (+20% two-handed damage) and Champion’s Stance (two-handed power attacks cost 25% less stamina) as soon as your character hits level 3 – even if you haven’t even swung a two-handed weapon before. You’ll also be much quicker to access the many skills that require level 30 in the same tree: Limbsplitter, Deep Wounds, and Skull Crusher. In essence ,it’ll take you less commitment to the given tree before you can access the best perks, and you can get the good stuff sooner.

Two-handed at 16 isn't great, but at least it levels faster
Lower skills level up quicker, but won’t grant access to more powerful perks until you improve.

And now for the bad news: The higher up you get in a skill tree, the harder it gets to level up the skill. Break a few lockpicks with a lockpicking skill 15 and you’ll bump it up to 16. Mix a handful of potions at Alchemy level 20 and you’ll hit 21. But if you’re at level 87 with your Blocking, you’re going to have to block a lot of hits before it jumps up to 88. This means that if you pick a Khajiit as your starting race and have a 25 in Sneak, you’ll still have no perk points to spend at the start of the game, and it’ll actually take you longer to level up the skill than any other class. If you’re roleplaying as that Khajiit thief and all you’re doing is sneaking around a lot, you’ll actually end up being slower to level up than other classes, since your Sneak skill will take longer to level up than your other skills.

Only a versatile character will continue to level. It does nerf the role-playing feeling, though.
The higher your Sneak skill, the slower it levels. Try mixing up your talents to level quicker!

Bottom line: The skill that gets buffed by your racial bonus will have earlier access to stronger perks, but it’ll also level at a comparatively slower rate than your other skills. It’s pretty common for high-level characters with a niche play style to hit a level ceiling; if all you use is magic and your magic trees are capped at 100, those skill trees aren’t going to increase your level anymore.


Why you should make skills legendary

The solution to the above problem? Making skills legendary. As of Skyrim update 1.9, you can now make any perk tree that reaches 100 ‘legendary.’ This will reset the whole skill tree and remove any perks you had allocated to it.

The bad: You’ll lose all the bonuses and perks that you’ve been enjoying.

The good: Since the tree is now leveled down to where it was at the start of your game, you’ll be able to rise up in the ranks far faster, meaning your overall level will start climbing from this skill tree again.

Maxing out your blacksmith skill means crafting armor won't level you anymore
You can’t earn experience from doing skills that are maxed out.

You can make a skill legendary indefinitely, constantly resetting them back to their lowest number once you hit 100 again and again, so 1.9 effectively removes the game’s level cap.

Now that we’re done that business, let’s get into the game’s races:


Nord:

Skyrim belongs to the Nords!
This hammer? A bandit’s one-way ticket to Sovngarde

Led to Skyrim by the great warrior Ysgramor, the Nords are the indigenous peoples of Skyrim. Regardless of your race, you’ll be seeing many of these tall, fair-haired fighters as you travel the frigid north lands of Tamriel – usually as soldiers, mercenaries, blacksmiths, and Stormcloaks. In terms of lore it makes a lot of sense that players would choose a Nord for their Dragonborn; Skyrim is your homeland, and the Civil War quest line will carry extra weight since it’s your own culture and politics at stake. In fact, the default player character is a Nord and that’s the race showcased in the game trailers:

Skill bonuses at the start:

  • +10 Two-Handed (starts at 25)
  • +5 Block (starts at 20)
  • +5 Light Armor (starts at 20)
  • +5 One-Handed (starts at 20)
  • +5 Smithing (starts at 20)
  • +5 Speech (starts at 20)

Passive:

The Nord’s passive ability is one of the best in the game: A permanent 50% resistance to all frost damage. This goes for an enemy’s enchanted weapons, frost spells (of all types!), and most notably dragons that use frost breath (all non-DLC dragons use either fire or frost, so you’ll be able resist many breath attacks simply by virtue of being a Nord).

Power:

The Nord’s Battle Cry forces opponents to flee for 30 seconds – another handy ability, especially at low levels when it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew. Battle Cry can be life-saving if you find yourself flanked by multiple tougher enemies, or caught off-guard by a fast animal early in the game.

Nord uses battle cry
Run for the hills!

While this isn’t as strong as the counterparts in the Illusion school (ie Fear or Rout), having this tool at your disposal from the very start of game makes it arguably more useful in the long run.

Summary:

If you’re looking for a classic hack and slash experience in Elder Scrolls V, and like the idea of running around Skyrim swinging a greatsword or an ebony warhammer, the Nord will be able to max out that perk tree sooner. The +5 bonuses to Smithing, One-Handed, Light Armor, and Block also push the Nord into a more martial direction, giving you more versatility with any and all things that involve getting up close and personal with your melee weapon. If you like to dabble in sword-and-board One-Handed and Block tree, but want your primary focus to remain Two-Handed, then the Nord is your best bet. Warhammers boast the strongest base damage of any weapon in the game, so be prepared to pummel your way through many a Draugr crypt or bandit camp.

Recommended Standing Stones:

Nord or Redguard or Orc?

In terms of stats and bonuses, the Nord is very similar to the Orc and Redguard, but there are a few key differences if you can’t decide which is better for you: All three classes are skilled at Block and One-Handed, and the Nord and Orc both get a bonus for Two-Handed. The Redguard doesn’t get a bonus for Two-Handed at all, and of the three only the Orc gets any bonus towards Heavy Armor at all.

Ulfric leads the Nords of Skyrim
Join the Stormcloaks to keep Skyrim out of the Empire’s hands

The Redguard also dabbles in magic, getting bonuses in Alteration and Destruction. The Nord gets those bonuses in a couple thief trees instead – Light Armor and Speech. It’s all kind of splitting hairs, however; the bigger consideration is their racial abilities (check the Redguard and Orc sections for more specific comparisons). The Orc becomes a melee tank, his Berserker Rage ability granting him both protection and buffed damage for a full minute. The Redguard instead regenerates Stamina quickly and resists poison, making for a pretty versatile combination.

If you can’t decide between the three, your best reason to pick the Nord has to be the 50% frost resistance. Don’t forget that with proper enchantments you can easily make that a 100% frost resistance, and still have enchanting slots to spare.

Nord vs frost dragon
Nords fear no Frost Dragon

If you want a primarily martial class that best matches the story and location of Skyrim, and who rocks an extremely high resistance to frost magic, go for the Nord.


High Elf:

A Thalmor patrol
What’s that? You want to taste arcane lightning?

The leading faction of the powerful Aldmiri Dominion, the High Elves call the Summerset Isles their home. If playing a powerful mage strikes your fancy, look no further than the High Elf. They boast the most bonuses toward magic of any class in the game, and can also call upon their Highborn power to quickly regenerate their magicka – something that gives them an edge no matter how far into the game you are, or how high a difficulty you’re playing at.

Skill bonuses at the start:

  • +10 Illusion (starts at 25)
  • +5 Alteration (starts at 20)
  • +5 Conjuration (starts at 20)
  • +5 Destruction (starts at 20)
  • +5 Enchanting (starts at 20)
  • +5 Restoration (starts at 20)

Extra spell:

High Elves are granted an additional spell at the start of the game: Fury, a low-tier Illusion spell that forces enemies to fight each other. While it may not help against higher-level opponents, dual-casting this (once you’ve unlocked the perk) can be a great way to deal with multiple enemies.

Fury
Cast fury. Munch popcorn. Rinse, repeat.

For the High Elf this is particularly useful early in the game when you have less health and no bonuses to martial or thief trees.

Passive:

High Elves begin the game with Fortify Magicka, a 50-point bonus to their magicka reserves. This boost of extra magic may not sound like much, but early in the game that one extra firebolt or chain lightning spell can really make all the difference. Furthermore, if you’re planning to be a vampire and take the Necromage perk in Restoration that 50-point bonus increases to 62. You might not even find a magicka pool bonus that good in enchanted gear, especially not early on in the game.

Power:

The Highborn ability will regenerate magicka 10 times faster than usual, giving you a crazy +1000% magicka regen. If spells are the guns for the High Elf, this power regenerates your magicka so fast that you’re practically firing with a bottomless clip. Note that this does not make your spells stronger, nor does it increase the size of your overall mana pool.

That said, the regen bonus will apply no matter how much magicka you have, which can make for some insanely powerful late-game builds where you can practically sling expert-level spells repeatedly for no cost. And that’s before you get the aforementioned vampirism, Necromage perk, or any gear that increases magicka regen or reduces spell cost.

Summary:

When you think High Elf you probably think crazy Destruction magic, and you should. But don’t forget that the High Elf actually gets a higher starting bonus to Illusion, and are the best early-game illusionists you can play as, with a higher bonus than either the Dark Elf or Breton. While the Illusion tree doesn’t do much in the way of damage, keep in mind that early access to illusion spells means you can cast fear, frenzy, and calming spells much sooner than other races. How useful is that? Remember that both the Nord and the Imperial get daily abilities to frighten or calm (respectively) nearby enemies.

High Elf destruction
Fire fixes everything

With higher skill in Illusion, an increased mana pool, and the Highborn ability to regenerate magicka, the High Elf can do the same thing, and do it an unlimited number of times per day.

Recommended Standing Stones:

High Elf or Dark Elf or Breton

These are the three best mage options in the game, and choosing between them can be difficult. Remember that the Dark Elf resists fire (and this game has lots of dragons …) and the Breton resists 25% of all magic, while the High Elf has no innate resistances to spells or conventional weapons. Considering the High Elf’s passive abilities and power, you might think of them as more the stereotypical ‘glass cannon’ mage, able to dish out more damage with spells more reliably than other races, but unable to really take a hit.

Pick the High Elf if you want to play a mage, and don’t care so much for the other skill trees; they’ve got bonuses in every magic tree, but don’t get them anywhere else.


Argonian:

Sneaky: Check. Stabby: Check
Thieves and assassins favor the lethal lizard

The reptilian Argonians are explorers, thieves, assassins, and can be fairly competent mages as well. Their ability to quickly adapt to varying types of combat and resist disease with their handy histskin ability allow them to shrug off debilitating debuffs that would plague early-game adventurers. Argonians are also able to breathe underwater, making them capable of aquatic escapes, ambushes, and long-term navigation of submerged grottos and caves. All this is really just icing on the assassin cake, however, as Argonians make for an excellent choice for any thief playthrough, with bonuses in practically all rogue trees and the highest starting bonus for lockpicking of any race.

Skill bonuses at the start

  • +10 Lockpicking (starts at 25)
  • +5 Light Armor (starts at 20)
  • +5 Alteration (starts at 20)
  • +5 Pickpocket (starts at 20)
  • +5 Restoration (starts at 20)
  • +5 Sneak (starts at 20)

Passive:

Argonians are unique in that they are the only race with two passive abilities: Resist Disease, and Waterbreathing. Resist Disease offers a 50% resistance to irksome ailments like Ataxia, Rattles, Droops, Rockjoint, or Sanguinare Vampiris. Is this helpful?

A little.

Contracting these diseases is very infrequent, and curing them is as easy as praying at a city shrine, so Resist Disease is not the reason to pick the Argonian. Still, cure disease potions can be pricey for early-game characters, and if you’re out exploring far from a city, suddenly catching Sanguinare Vampiris can turn your dungeon crawl into a race against the clock.

https://www.reddit.com/r/skyrim/comments/1g1bdz/wanted_to_make_a_scaryintimidating_argonian_thing/
An Argonian vampire still isn’t really a step backwards …

Waterbreathing can be handy for underwater ingredient harvesting, and can even be life-saving during certain quests where rising water levels are a factor, such as The Path of Knowledge (Dragonborn) or the end of Blindsighted. If you’re playing a thief or assassin build (and if you’re an Argonian, we’d suggest you do) the ability to breathe underwater can also open up unique avenues or angles for either ambush or escape, particularly during select Dark Brotherhood quests. Still, Waterbreathing can simply be acquired as an Adept-level Alteration spell or brewed as a potion, making this significantly less useful in the mid-late game.

Power:

If you’re unimpressed with the Argonian’s two passives, you’ll be happy to know Histskin is one of the better unique powers. With Histskin the Argonian can regenerate health 10 times faster than normal for a full minute. The health restored is based on a percentage of your health per second rather than a number of points, meaning that this ability will be helpful to you even if you have a ton of health.

histskin is cool
“Histskin saved my life.”

This facet makes it a lifesaver throughout the game. Combine this with equipment or potions that regenerate your health and you’ll be VERY difficult to kill. One neat trick is to activate Histskin while casting Equilibrium (which restores magicka at the cost of health) to restore magicka sans penalty and quickly boost your Alteration skill.

Summary:

Argonians are strong contenders for the best thief builds in the game, with their high Sneak and Pickpocket skills giving them early access to useful perks like Muffled Movement, Backstab, and Light Fingers. Best of all, Argonians are unparalleled at picking locks, able to unlock the Apprentice Locks perk from the start of the game (though you still need to spend two perk points to activate it). Lockpicking is something that every race will wind up doing frequently, so if you want that mini-game to be easier from the get-go choose the Argonian to speed things along.

Though the Argonian lacks any bonuses to combat abilities, a high Sneak skill can still award high damage bonuses to stealth strikes, giving them an advantage when striking from the shadows with a dagger or bow (or striking from the river’s edge). Their Alteration and Restoration bonuses mean Argonians can double as decent ‘spellswords’ as well, getting earlier access to more potent healing spells, wards, and damage-reducing spells such as Oakflesh, Stoneflesh, or Ebonyflesh.

Recommended Standing Stones:

Argonian or Khajiit or Wood Elf

The Khajiit and Wood Elf are the other contenders for the top thief race, and they both have the advantage of Archery bonuses. This gives them an early edge with higher ranged combat damage, but the Argonian is the only race of the three to have any bonuses in magic trees. Couple this higher skill in Restoration and Alteration with their innate Histskin ability and you’ll quickly discover that the Argonian has superior early game combat survivability to either the Khajiit or the Wood Elf.

Shadowscale
The Dark Brotherhood is a haven for the wayward Shadowscale

Pick the Argonian if you want to play a ‘Shadowscale’ type build who strikes from the shadows and undersea grottos of Skyrim, picks locks with ease, and can turn into a downright health regen tank when the need arises!


Wood Elf:

Anvalad Legolas!
What do your elf eyes see?

Another excellent contender for the ‘best rogue’ crown, the Wood Elf has the same bonuses to Light Armor, Sneak, and Pickpocket as the Argonian. Where the Wood Elf reigns supreme, however, is from a distance with a bow. If you want to play Legolas in Skyrim, look no further than the Wood Elf. Much like the High Elf excels in all skills pertaining to magic, or the Orc specializes in the martial trees, the Wood Elf has bonuses solely in the thief trees, making him a ‘pure class’ for any rogue build.

Skill bonuses at the start

  • +10 Archery (starts at 25)
  • +5 Alchemy (starts at 20)
  • +5 Light Armor (starts at 20)
  • +5 Lockpicking (starts at 20)
  • +5 Pickpocket (starts at 20)
  • +5 Sneak (starts at 20)

Passive:

The Wood Elf race gets the same 50% bonus to Resist Disease that the Argonian receives, but is also granted that same 50% resist against poison, a more common threat. That said, poisons typically aren’t too scary in Skyrim (unless you’re dealing with Chaurus or Frostbite Spiders), so this again isn’t the real pull to playing a Wood Elf.

chaurus hunter
I take it back! I love poison resist!

Power:

Command Animal you’ll likely find more helpful. This ability allows the Wood Elf to make any animal his ally for 60 seconds. That could be something as docile as a rabbit or deer, or something as powerful as a bear, Frost Troll, or even a mammoth.

This can be just as easily accomplished with the Animal Allegiance shout, but again the value is higher when you consider that the Wood Elf can do this from the start of the game. Forcing a mammoth to fight an enraged giant is an easy way to bring down the creature, and a great way to harvest early grand souls to then power your armor and weapons.

Summary:

The Wood Elf is the master of stealth archery, one of the mightiest builds in the game. As such, the Wood Elf will probably wind up solving most of his problems from a far distance. Besides their Resist Disease and Poison passives, the Wood Elf has little in the way of protection, however, so it’s wise to take full advantage of your Sneak and Light Armor bonuses to keep mobile and out of view.

Don’t forget to use your thief skills in tandem, either; pickpocketing and lockpicking mean that you’ll have easier access to more powerful weapons early on, even if your wallet doesn’t allow it. You will probably want to invest extra time and perks into your lacking Smithing and Enchanting, however, as both will help to increase your damage and survivability.

Recommended Standing Stones

NOTE: In case you’re wondering, yes Archery benefits from the Thief Stone, not the Warrior Stone, even though it’s listed as a fighter ability.

Wood Elf or Khajiit or Argonian

Of the three rogue races, the Wood Elf is the most pure, meaning that his bonuses are solely focused on the thief trees (except for Speechcraft). Argonians and Khajiit are both more competent when going toe to toe with warriors, but this by no means implies that the Wood Elf cannot survive cannot survive. Be sure to stay on the move and hidden, or encased in upgraded light armor and you should be more than fine. Also, don’t forget that a stealth arrow hits harder than practically all other attacks. Here’s how:

Stealth arrow = OP
Aim for the knee

The stealth archer is one of the strongest builds in the game

The stealth archer might be the most powerful build in Skyrim, and the Wood Elf is built to reach that pinnacle faster than any other. How is this the strongest build? A legendary-smithed dragonbone bow does 147 damage, which you can then enchant (or dual enchant) to do extra magic damage. Then you can increase your overall damage with all bows by enchanting your armor. After that, you can use dragonbone arrows to maximize the damage of the arrow itself. The Sneak perk Deadly Aim will triple your damage when firing from a hidden spot, and the Archery perks Overdraw and Critical Shot cause over twice that damage. Slap on some deadly poison with your Alchemy skill (to which the Wood Elf gets a +5 starting bonus as well), and you’ll be able to one-shot pretty much any enemy in the game.

If you want to play a thief build but still have the potential to deal massive amounts of damage when you get the drop on enemies, the Wood Elf can’t be beat. Make your first shot count! Then duck back into the shadows while your opponents search fruitlessly for you.


Breton:

Breton battlemage
The Breton is master of might and magic

The blood Men and Mer flows through the veins of the Breton, making them a ‘mixed race,’ a cross between human and elf. The result is that the Breton is heavily steeped in magic, though in different ways than the Dark Elf of High Elf – a mage class with a twist. Though the Breton receives no bonus towards any martial skills, their passive talent often makes them suitable for the role of a ‘battlemage’ or summoner.

Skill bonuses at the start

  • +10 Conjuration (starts at 25)
  • +5 Alchemy (starts at 20)
  • +5 Alteration (starts at 20)
  • +5 Illusion (starts at 20)
  • +5 Restoration (starts at 20)
  • +5 Speech (starts at 20)

Extra Spell:

Bretons also begin the game with the Conjure Familiar spell to emphasize their familiarity with the Conjuration tree. The spell summons a spectral wolf to follow the Breton for 60 seconds, and attacks any hostile targets with you. Useful? Not very. But it can provide a decent distraction, give you a good opportunity for a sneak attack, and doesn’t require a corpse to cast.

Passive:

Magic Resistance is one of the better passives in the game, granting all Bretons a 25% resistance to any and all magic. This offers them protection against enemy spellcasters, but also any instances of fire or frost (remember this game has dragons?). They block frost half as well as a Nord, but also block fire half as well as a Dark Elf. Neither of those other races can block lightning at all.

The Breton can.

Enchanting gear to block fire or frost will further this buff, and it’s quite possible to achieve a complete immunity to both fire and frost with the Breton, making him invulnerable to nearly all dragon breath attacks in the game.

Power:

If their innate 25% resistance to magic wasn’t enough, Dragonskin is the Breton’s active ability that allows him to additionally absorb 50% of all magicka that hits him. Even a low-level Breton with no gear to resist magicka can then negate 75% of harmful spell effects, making you much more capable of fighting enemy mages, staff-wielders, or even give you an edge against dragons. This power does not simply protect you against magic; you’re actively absorbing that magicka into your own pool!

Summary:

The Breton’s outrageous magic defense makes him a great candidate for either a mage play style or a mage-killing warrior who laughs in the face of spells. Use conjuration early on to draw melee attackers away from you, and hit them with your spells from further away. Sew chaos by adding a well-timed illusion spell to the mix and sit back and watch as a crowd of frenzied bandits go at each others’ throats while your summoned storm atronachs take pot shots at them.

Recommended Standing Stones

Breton or High Elf or Dark Elf.

The High Elf is the pure mage of the bunch, and the Dark Elf is the master of Destruction magic while still boasting more versatility than the High Elf. So why would you choose the Breton? In this case, it’s not the bonuses that make the call; it’s the racial abilities. The Breton’s magic resistance coupled with Dragonskin mean he’ll be able to take hit after hit from enemy mages. From there he can choose to retaliate with his own spells, or go at them with a sword. Of the three, the Breton is the one that most screams ‘battlemage.’

Absorb enemy spells like Bishop from Marvel

While any class is able to do this, Dragonskin and the innate Resist Magic make the Breton a prime candidate for one of Skyrim’s coolest builds. There’s a perk under Alteration called Magic Resistancce that will eventually allow you to block 30% of a spell’s effect (though you’ll only need 20% since Magic Resistance caps at 85%). At 100 Alteration, you have access to another perk: Atronach. This grants 30% spell absorption.

Absorb energy
Your magic is delicious.

Together that’s an 85% resistance against literally all magic, and some of that overflow is being absorbed into your own mana pool. Stack on the Agent of Mara effect and either the Lord Stone or Atronach Stone and soon you’ll be trying to catch enemy fireballs with your face; they won’t hurt you and will simply grant you more magicka.

Play the Breton if you want a versatile mage build who isn’t as much of a ‘glass cannon’ as the other mage races.


Dark Elf:

Neloth looks angry
“You don’t need fire in Skyrim.” – No One Ever

If the Breton is the ‘battlemage’ then the Dark Elf is the ‘shadowspell’ or ‘spellsneak.’ You guessed it: They’re a combination of mage and thief. Offering a solid balance of stealth and magical talent, the Dark Elf is an excellent ‘trickster’ class, weaving illusions from the shadows or darting in and out of combat with light armor and a poisoned blade. But when the gloves come off the Dark Elf boasts the highest starting bonus to Destruction magic of any race in the game, and blocks flame attacks as well as any Nord blocks frost.

Skill bonuses at the start

  • +10 Destruction (starts at 25)
  • +5 Alchemy (starts at 20)
  • +5 Alteration (starts at 20)
  • +5 Illusion (starts at 20)
  • +5 Light Armor (starts at 20)
  • +5 Sneak (starts at 20)

Extra Spell:

The Dunmer also receives Sparks at the start, giving them an alternative close-quarters magic attack to Flames which all classes start with. As with all lightning spells, Sparks deals damage to both an opponent’s health and their magicka reserves. Casting this on enemy mages will stunt their ability to retaliate with spells, highlighting the Dark Elf’s edge in combat casting early on in the game.

Dark Elves start with Sparks
This message approved by Emperor Palpatine

Passive:

Just like the Nord’s Resist Frost is one of the most useful passives in the game, the Dark Elf’s Resist Fire is equally useful for the same reasons. This grants a 50% resistance to fire which, as you might guess in a world plagued by dragons, is quite handy. This fire resistance applies to enemy spells, flame weapons, and of course fire-breathing dragons. While it won’t guarantee complete protection against them, it does make it far easier to equip fire-resistant gear that caps off your protection.

Power:

While Resist Fire is obviously useful, Ancestor’s Wrath is a bit less so. The power is identical to flame cloak, dealing 8 points of damage per second to anyone in melee range. The ability lasts for a full minute. While limited, the power does have a few uses: Enemies caught on fire will take additional damage from all other sources, meaning that if you’re attacking with a sword, axe, or mace, you can pop on Ancestor’s Wrath to slightly boost all your melee damage.

flame cloak but weaker
Punish melee foes who get too close

Additionally, the flames will deal higher damage to undead targets such as skeletons or Draugr, making it a good mainstay when exploring crypts or Nordic Tombs.

Summary:

The Dark Elf is a great build if you’re hankering to cast some Destruction magic. The race receives the highest bonus towards the tree of any class in the game, and with the added bonuses toward Sneak, Light Armor, and Illusion the Dark Elf can quickly sabotage enemies from far away, remaining undetected. Quiet Casting under the Illusion tree is an excellent choice, as it allows you to quietly snipe with projectile spells from clever angles.

Lurking about with a high sneak, Quiet Casting, and maximized rune spells is a uniquely rewarding experience. And don’t forget that increased damage perks for elemental spells (like frost or shock) also increase the damage of corresponding weapon enchantments. This makes the Dark Elf a terrifying Light Armor dual-wielder when using enchanted melee weapons (we recommend dual daggers).

Recommended Standing Stones

Dark Elf or Breton or High Elf

The Dark Elf approaches magic in a different way than either of the other mage-angled races. While the High Elf is the ‘pure mage’ and the Breton is the ‘battlemage’ the Dark Elf marries the two worlds. His maximized Destruction bonuses can put him toe to toe with even the most magically adept High Elves, and his Light Armor proficiency and fire resistance make him capable of holding his own in a fight comparably well (albeit differently) than the Breton.

Dunmer sunset
Can we stop and remember how awesome a magic assassin is?

If you want to play a more subtle, versatile mage with an emphasis on stealth gameplay and powerful Destruction magic, the Dark Elf is the race for you.


Imperial:

The Imperial guards Solitude
Help lead the Empire in quelling the Stormcloak rebellion

Diplomats and traders, the Imperial race is skilled with magic and might, much like the Breton. Unlike the Breton, Imperials receive more bonuses towards early-game martial skills, and have completely different special abilities. Another versatile race that can effectively cross-class with proper perks, the Imperial can fight, charm, loot, and sling spells with the best of them.

Skill bonuses at the start

  • +10 Restoration (starts at 25)
  • +5 Block (starts at 20)
  • +5 Destruction (starts at 20)
  • +5 Enchanting (starts at 20)
  • +5 Heavy Armor (starts at 20)
  • +5 One-Handed (starts at 20)

Passive:

Imperial Luck is one of the more interesting passive perks in the game. It grants the Imperial a 100% chance to find up to 10 more gold in any urn, chest, cabinet, corpse, or an NPC’s pocket. But how useful is gold in Skyrim? By late game, most players find they’ve more gold than they know what to do with. The bonus is really only useful if you spend the money earlier on: This will allow you to purchase more powerful spells, weapons, armor, and potions sooner than other races.

Skyrim hoarders
“I’m a casual looter.”

Forward-thinking players might also spend this early gold on crafting parts or alchemy ingredients, then level up Speechcraft, Smithing, and Alchemy quicker than other races who need to scrounge for those same supplies. Leveling up these more ‘grind-heavy’ skills will bump up your character level significantly quicker, meaning you’ll be able to throw more perks into your boosted martial or magic trees.

Power:

Voice of the Emperor can calm any humanoid target and has a 100% success rate. You might think this is weak when compared to other racial powers like Highborn or Berserker Rage, but you need to consider the various applications. Voice of the Emperor boasts more versatility than either aforementioned ability, and can be used in or out of combat for varying effects. If you’re outnumbered by angry soldiers the power could save your life; opponents will sheathe their swords and walk away from you as you lick your wounds.

Out of combat, it can help you lure targets into a false sense of security. When their suspicion drops and they turn away, reward them with a dagger in the back. Very useful on Dark Brotherhood missions, or when trying to shake the attention of a hold guard.

Summary:

The Imperial is an excellent choice if you know how to play the markets of Skyrim. While they receive no innate bonus to Speechcraft, their excess gold grants the Imperial early access to expensive crafting items like ingots, soul gems, enchanted gear, or rare alchemy. Alternately, you could save up and spend that money on a house (Breezehome can be unlocked early on in the Main Quest, and costs 5,000 gold. The house is in Whiterun right next to a bustling market district, meaning trade opportunities are abundant).

Skyrim Paladins destroy Draugr crypts
The Imperial masters restoration and one-handed to become a mighty paladin

As for mid-late game builds, the Imperial plays an excellent paladin class, wielding heavy armor, one-handed weapons, and the highest proficiency in Restoration magic of any race. Dawnbreaker should be a priority, as should enchanting items with fire, Soul Trap, or Banish Undead. This will keep you well-equipped for Skyrim’s many Nord Crypts, draugr caves, and tombs. Line your pockets with all the expensive loot you can carry, then go on a market spree back in town!

Recommended Standing Stones

Imperial or Breton?

With both classes having ample opportunity to run a powerful battlemage build, what’s the deciding factor between the two races? The Breton has early-game boosts to four magic trees, while the Imperial has only three. It’s also much easier to ‘magic tank’ with the Breton, given his innate resistance to enemy spell effects. Of the two, however, only the Imperial actually gets bonuses to martial abilities, getting bonuses in Heavy Armor, One-handed fighting, and Block.

Legate Rikke has no use for your corpse
Fight for the Imperial Legion, based in Solitude

The Imperial can potentially level up faster due to increased gold/grinding, and can therefore fill in his perk trees faster than the Breton. If you’re a veteran Skyrim player and know your perk trees well, you’ll likely have more early-mid game success choosing the Imperial over the Breton. Mess up and Voice of the Emperor will always be your safety net.

If you want to play city-dwelling spellsword who comes back from epic adventures, arms laden with loot to sell, and pockets brimming with gold, the Imperial is your race.


Khajiit:

The cat has a hard time living away from the sands
The Khajiit is hurled far from the desert home of Elsweyr

Excellent thieves and assassins, the Khajiit are the feline species of Tamriel, using night vision and sharp claws to bolster their roguish play styles. Recognizable by their cat-like features, and sly accent, Khajiit are typically nomads and wanderers. The rarest race in the province of Skyrim, they’re more often found in traveling caravans or as hired assassins from faraway lands.

Skill bonuses at the start

  • +10 Sneak (starts at 25)
  • +5 Alchemy (starts at 20)
  • +5 Archery (starts at 20)
  • +5 Lockpicking (starts at 20)
  • +5 One-Handed (starts at 20)
  • +5 Pickpocket (starts at 20)

Passive:

The Khajiit can use her claws to deal 15 points of damage with unarmed attacks. This is the highest unarmed damage in the game, and grants a tiny bonus to early-game damage if you don’t want to use a melee weapon. While this slight bonus to unarmed damage isn’t useful for long, the Heavy Armor perk Fists of Steel will add the gauntlets’ armor rating to your base punch damage. This makes unarmed combat more viable for the khajiit, and it feels pretty epic punching your way through a bandit camp …

Power:

Night Eye allows the Khajiit to see in the dark for a full minute, and is the only racial power that can be used indefinitely over the course of the day. This can prove useful if diving deep into Skyrim’s dark, murky rivers and grottos (cats hate water!) and can also help you navigate dark caves and crypts, or dimly-lit houses during thief missions.

Summary:

The Khajiit has bonuses to unarmed combat, but also earlier access to perks in Archery and One-handed, making them capable in a fight with or without a weapon drawn. While they receive no bonuses to armor, they have the highest Sneak in the game, meaning you’ll quickly be able to spend perks on keeping out of sight. Don’t forget the benefits of Alchemy either; the stacked sneak attack bonus from a dagger hit coupled with a potent poison can quickly take down even high-level enemies.

An unsuspected strike from a poisoned dagger is also a fast way to navigate Draugr dungeons without alerting the place and setting the entire horde against you.

Recommended Standing Stones

Khajiit or Argonian or Wood Elf?

The Khajiit favors a play style similar to that of an Argonian or Wood Elf, capitalizing on sneak attacks, pickpocketing, and lockpicking. Of the three, the Khajiit is the best at Sneak specifically, which is necessary when pickpocketing, stealing from chests, or when attacking from a hidden location. Since all thief abilities benefit from a high Sneak, the Khajiit is the best race to play if you plan on spending most of the game hidden in the shadows.

Sneaky khajiit is sneaky
Stick to the shadows and strike with a dagger

They’re also the only race of the three to have bonuses in both Archery and One-handed, earning them earlier access to useful martial perks should the need arise.

If you like the idea of sneaking through the dark with Night Eye, stealing the dagger out of a guard’s pocket and silently killing him with it, then the stealthy Khajiit will sate your murderous cravings.


Orc:

The Orc is a hard-hitting melee tank, his great axe a swinging pendulum of death.

The Orc is the race of warrior and blacksmiths, and when it comes to melee combat “no one bests an orc,” as you’ll hear time and time again during fights against them. Arguably the greatest warrior race in the game, the Orc dives headfirst into battle clad in heavy armor swinging an axe or a hammer at all who dare get in his way, pummeling his foes to the ground with relentless lethality.

Skill bonuses at the start

  • +10 Heavy Armor (starts at 25)
  • +5 Block (starts at 20)
  • +5 Enchanting (starts at 20)
  • +5 One-Handed (starts at 20)
  • +5 Smithing (starts at 20)
  • +5 Two-Handed (starts at 20)

Power:

The Orc is the only race that does not get a passive ability, but frankly they won’t need one if you time your Berserker Rage well. Berserker Rage does two things: blocks 50% of all incoming damage (as long as it’s not magic), and allows the Orc to deal double damage for a full minute. What makes this ability so amazing is that it’s simply always useful in combat, no matter what level you are, how much armor you have, what you’re up against, or how much damage you deal without the buff.

Early in the game, reducing incoming damage can keep you in the fight longer, and later on, it’ll have you knocking dragons down from their mountaintop perches, glaring down at them with your blood-stained hammer in hand as raw adrenaline courses through your veins.

Summary:

The Orc excels as a warrior and literally all of their bonuses fall into this category except for one: Enchanting. However, Enchanting is a way to boost the damage you dish out with your weapons and a good enchanted suit of armor will keep you protected. Orcs have the highest bonus with Heavy Armor, and with the proper perks assigned, they can tank like no other race, particularly if the armor is properly enchanted. Play either a steadfast sword-and-board with a mace, ax, or sword and a strong shield in the other hand, or charge in headfirst with a great-ax or warhammer. Watch as groups of enemies try to swarm over you and wind up face-first in the dirt.

Recommended Standing Stones

Orc or Nord or Redguard

If you’re looking for a pure, unadulterated melee build, the Orc trumps both the Nord and Redguard. He does this because that’s pretty much all he can do (or at least that’s all he’s got bonuses towards). Nords have a more niche resistance against cold and have a few bonuses in tertiary skills such as Speech or Light Armor, but if you’re looking to melee tank the Orc is your guy. As for the Redguard, he’s got more agility, making him a different approach to the fighter play style altogether.

Orcs in heavy armor are a fearsome sight
“This mine is mine. Get out!”

If you’re looking for a hands-down melee experience in Skyrim where you are a juggernaut of strength and a warrior powerhouse bar no other bonuses the Orc should be your top choice.


Redguard:

Redguards are great for a dual-wield run
The Redguard is a wicked whirlwind of sword and spell, a deadly dance of scimitar and stamina

Skyrim’s Redguard is “the most naturally talented warrior in Tamriel” according to their in-game racial description. Play your cards right and this can be true. While the Orc is a raw tank race, the Redguard is a bit more classy, with the highest One-handed skill in the game and a smattering of bonuses towards Archery, Block, and Destruction. They are also able to perform an Adrenaline Rush during combat (or out of combat if you’re looking to sprint more effectively) that speeds up their stamina regeneration, allowing for more heavy strikes. Like the Argonian and Wood Elf, the Redguard also boasts a 50% resistance to poison.

Skill bonuses at the start

  • +10 One-Handed (starts at 25)
  • +5 Alteration (starts at 20)
  • +5 Archery (starts at 20)
  • +5 Block (starts at 20)
  • +5 Destruction (starts at 20)
  • +5 Smithing (starts at 20)

Passive:

The Redguard can resist 50% of poison just like an Argonian or Wood Elf, which at face value seems like a disappointing missed opportunity for such a unique race. However since the Redguard is more likely to engage in close combat than the other two races with the same ability, it will arguably serve him better in the long run. Come face to face with a frostbite spider early in the game, or a swarm of chaurus, and you’ll be happy to have it.

Power:

If Resist Poison was a disappointment, Adrenaline Rush will more than make up for it. While Highborn regenerates a High Elf’s magicka pool 10 times faster and Histskin does the same for an Argonian’s health, Adrenaline Rush boosts the Redguard’s stamina regen by 1000% for a full minute.

Redguard in frenzy mode
You don’t need much stamina to do a heavy swing …

How is this helpful? In Skyrim, you only need a very small amount of stamina to inflict a heavy attack (hold down the attack button). Adrenaline Rush regenerates a Redguard’s stamina so quickly that you’ll be able to unleash an endless chain of power attacks for the duration of its effect. You’ll be able to break blocks and stagger larger opponents, not giving them the chance to regain their footing or catch their breath.

Summary:

The Redguard is a fast and agile warrior, best covered in light armor and often dual-wielding, given their unrivaled bonuses in the One-Handed tree. Since you can hit so fast with the Redguard you can potentially have a mid-late game build with two legendary double-enchanted swords. Put your perks in One-handed and you’ll be dealing lots of damage with your sword early on in the game.

Alik'r in Whiterun
“Have you seen a Redguard woman?”

If you don’t want to go for dual-wielding, we recommend sinking points into Block, as the Redguard gets a bonus for this as well. You can also use Destruction and Alteration to throw more damage on your weapons, hit targets further away, paralyze your foes, and throw Stoneflesh or Ebonyflesh on before jumping into the fray.

Recommended Standing Stones

Redguard or Orc or Nord?

Of the three classes, the Redguard is the only that receives no bonus towards armor. This might make him seem like the weakest of the three defensively, but this is not the case. Like the Orc and the Nord, the Redguard gets a bonus towards Smithing, so could easily craft and enhance armor with the same efficiency as the other races. The Redguard takes on a different approach to the warrior playstyle, favoring speed, swift strikes, a tactical push of magic, and a flurry of dual blows. The Redguard requires a little more finesse than the other warrior races, but once you get the rhythm down you’ll be able to make combat look like an artful dance of sword, spell, and stamina.

Redguard vamp is scary
Redguard vampires can use Adrenaline Rush to negate the stamina penalty for being in the sun

Play the Redguard if you want an agile fighter who can outmaneuver and outperform heavier, bulky melee opponents and surprise mages with spells of their own.

And that’s a wrap! Hopefully, this guide has helped you to figure out which race you’ll be playing on your next run through Skyrim. Let us know your favorite race in the comments below, and if there’s a particular build that we didn’t mention on this list, definitely share it with us! In the meantime, guard your knees from stray arrows, and happy questing!

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