Elder Scrolls games are games of detours. I'm constantly putting off doing something fun and important because I'm too busy doing something more fun and less important. My most recent excursion was the Dawnguard expansion. Since this is a fairly stand-alone set of quests, and available for separate purchase, I figured it might be worth devoting a post specifically to that experience.
MINI SPOILERS for The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim: Dawnguard
I know I just called Dawnguard relatively stand-alone, but actually, it permeates the entire game in various ways both obvious and subtle. One important effect of simply installing the expansion is a significant increase in the incidence of vampire attacks. Lone vampires will periodically attack inside peaceful areas, including the major cities. As you progress through the expansion, the attackers will grow more powerful. I liked the sense of danger and unease that this added; even the strong walls of Whiterun can't protect you from enemies. However, be aware that, while the guards can generally take care of the threat (and, therefore, you don't need to be too involved in the fight unless you really want to), other NPCs are likely to be swept up in the conflict as well, and they are less likely to emerge intact. Some fairly-significant named NPCs, including a couple of shop-owners, were killed in my game. Actually, the thing that impressed me most about this was how resilient Skyrim's AI and scheduling system is. In many cases, when a shop-owner was killed, their assistant or another local would take over their role. So, while it feels like there was a (random) story impact from the attacks, it didn't permanently break anything important. (The one time I did re-load was when an attack in Whiterun killed Niranye, one of my reliable fences and thus one of the few people with enough gold for me to bother visiting.)
The quest kicks off when random conversations you have reference the re-forming of the Dawnguard. You travel to the far southeast of the map, east of Riften, to Stendarr's Beacon. You keep going farther than this, eventually finding your way into a new valley where the ruins of the old Fort Dawnguard lie. For some reason, you can't take your horse here, and the trek to the fort is fairly time consuming (albeit pretty). Later on, as the Dawnguard strengthens and expands, the fort grows bigger and better-looking, and eventually you can fast-travel right to the front door.
The Dawnguard is lead by Isran, a former Vigilant of Stendarr who was kicked out of the order for being too extreme. And he is quite extreme indeed: he hates vampires with every fiber of his being, and will stop at nothing to eradicate them.
Before I plunge into more plot details, here are some overall impressions on the expansion:
My favorite aspect of the expansion is a new companion you get, who is the only companion who I've actually enjoyed enough to keep as a follower for a long period of time. I don't think that you're required to always have her with you - you can ask her to wait somewhere, and I suspect that she'll just pop up when her participation is required for the story. But, she is actually fairly good at remaining undetected, has good magic, and can survive pretty well once you equip her. She can even raise the dead to follow, increasing your numbers even further.
The expansion adds a variety of items. The new areas include some new reagents. It also adds crossbows; I never used these (melee for life!), but from what I've heard, they're more powerful than bows and slower to reload. You can get enhanced schematics for crossbows and some other items. One enhancement was particularly helpful to me: Dragonbone weapons. In vanilla Skyrim, the most powerful weapons you can forge are Daedric weapons, which require going through the Heavy Armor path of the Smithing tree; Light Armor smiths can't forge anything stronger than Glass. Now, the existing Dragon Armor perk has been upgraded to let you also forge weapons that are slightly more powerful than Daedric, finally bringing light armor wearers (like me!) up to parity offensively.
You can become a vampire in the main game (which I accidentally did once; it's a kind of annoying process to cure), but in the expansion, you can choose to become a Vampire Lord. I didn't do this, but from reading the text on loading screens, it sounds pretty cool... you can fly, and cast spells, and reanimate corpses.
The expansion adds a bunch of new areas, some of which are HUGE! There's a single cavern which is larger than any other level I've seen yet in the game, and also some cool, creative new places, both indoors, outdoors, and otherworldly. One downside: the new areas seem a bit more crash-prone than the main game. I've had a grand total of three crashes in my months of playing the game, and all of them happened when I was in one of the new environments.
Okay, I think that's all I can say without going into some
Like I said before, Isran is a hard-core vampire-hater. I had actually wondered early on if they might really push this idea into some strong, morally-ambiguous directions. Like, if the story would indicate that his hatred of vampires had turned himself into a sort of monster, or overpowered his love of humanity. It never really does that, though... he's just a very tough man, but the end of the expansion makes it clear that he's a good guy.
That said, the story might change depending on the decisions you make. That is by far my favorite aspect of Dawnguard: unlike nearly all other quests I've played so far in the game, there's actually a meaningful choice you get to make in this quest, which can have an effect both on the gameplay and on the plot. After helping Isran by investigating an ancient vampire lair, you rescue Serana, a very old (but, of course, still young and beautiful) vampire who possesses an Elder Scroll. I agreed to take her home to her father, a powerful vampire lord who leads a large but secretive clan of vampires on an island to the west of Skyrim. Once there, he asked me if I would like to be rewarded for my rescue of his daughter by receiving the gift of vampirism. As noted above, this form of vampire sounds way more fun and useful than standard vampirism; unfortunately, as noted in a previous post, it also would have required me to become incredibly ugly, unlike the somewhat fashionable form taken by normal vampires.
I assume that, if you accept his gift, you would probably still do most of the remaining quests, but would then be operating out of the Volkihar castle instead of Fort Dawnguard, and working for Lord Harkon instead of Isran. As it went, though, I left Volkihar, and continued working for the Dawnguard. Several quests that I think are optional allow you to recruit new members to the Dawnguard, and further quests you do for them seem like they may upgrade their arsenal. If so, then that may help with the final battle at the end.
Eventually, you are reunited with Serana, who returned to Fort Dawnguard in secret and is trying to win over a highly reluctant Isran. Unlike almost every other NPC in the game who I've encountered so far, Serana is fun and interesting to interact with. She's voiced very well, knows interesting things, is unsure how she feels about certain issues, and can be influenced to some degree based on your actions. I was very friendly and kind to her, and while she can be a little stand-offish she did seem to value our bond. (I don't think she's marriageable, though that may be because I was already spoken for.)
Most of the remaining quests are the standard Elder Scrolls fetch-and-return type of quest, but they're set in interesting environments and have some interesting lore around them that make them more bearable than they would be otherwise. Over time, you learn that Valerica, who is Serana's mother (and Harkon's wife) had deliberately imprisoned Serana and her scroll in order to keep her away from Harkon. Serana gradually fills you in on her family history. At the beginning, she, her dad and mom all seemed to get along well, whatever that means for a vampire family. However, her dad came across a prophecy that turned into an obsession for him: a ritual that could be performed to blot out the sun and allow vampires to freely roam throughout the world at all times. His wife disapproved of the attempt to fulfill the prophecy. Vampires had existed securely if secretively alongside humans for all of history. Coming out into the open, she believed, would only inspire humans to unite and launch a total war against the vampires, a war that the vampires could very well lose.
Serana has been out of commission for millennia, but decides to re-unite with her mother in order to figure out the next steps. Together, you infiltrate the castle, and discover a secret wing that Serana's mother had created. Inside, you find journals that show what she was up to: she intended to thwart Harkon's plans by placing the pure-blooded vampires he needed beyond his reach. Serana had already been ensconced in an ancient temple, and now the mother would retreat into the Soul Chamber.
Remember how one of my favorite parts of Dragon Age: Origins is the trip to the Fade? Well, the next part of Skyrim is a little like this, but instead of being populated by the spirits of the dreaming, it's populated with the spirits of the dead. Actually, I really liked this section since it finally provided some lore around the opaque "soul gem" mechanic that's been present in every Elder Scrolls game that I've played. Basically, whenever you want to enchant an item, you first need to get a special type of gem. Next, you must cast "soul trap" on a living creature. Then, you must slay the creature, and their soul will be trapped within your gem. Finally, you use the filled soul gem to enchant your item, destroying the gem (and presumably the soul) in the process. More powerful enchantments, such as a long-lasting levitation effect, would require a more powerful soul, such as that of a human; weaker enchantments, like a small fire effect, can be obtained from smaller souls, like those of peaceful animals.
Well, this part of Dawnguard finally describes what's really going on here. Enchantments are done by powerful entities who live in or beyond the Soul Chamber, and enchanting is a form of bargaining: the enchanter offers a soul, and the beings reward them with an enchantment. They have similar offerings for necromancy as well: if you agree to a bargain with them, they will let you raise beings back to a temporary form of life.
Serana's mother was a necromancer (and, evidently, Serana is one as well), and so she was acquainted with these sorts of bargains, and secured a place for herself in the Soul Chamber. Most of the beings there, though, are the souls of the dead, who presumably were used in some ritual or other.
After reacquainting with the mother (and, in my case, restoring my soul), I acquired her Elder Scroll. Next, we found a Moth Priest to help us translate them. I'm pretty sure that the moth priests were in Oblivion as well, since the term sounds very familiar, but I remember practically nothing about what they did in that game. Here, the priest offers some initial help, but then goes blind, leaving you to complete the translation yourself. Along the way, you learn the secrets of the priesthood (turns out that there are actual, physical Ancestor Moths flapping around), and visit a surprisingly beautiful hidden glen where the moths congregate.
With the scrolls translated, you finally understand the prophecy. It's tied up with Auriel's Bow, an ancient artifact; it is dedicated to the Sun-God, but if it were corrupted and turned against the sun, it could destroy it. Harkon is pursuing the bow, so you need to find it first.
Entering the endgame now, I initially needed to run through a series of quests that felt annoying, but then was swept away by their grandeur. Throughout the game, you've encountered Falmer, twisted and blind Gollum-like creatures that live in the deep abandoned places below the earth. [Etymological note: in the Elder Scrolls universe, the suffix "mer" is used to denote elves. You'll occasionally hear the phrase "men and mer", meaning "humans and elves." Most of the elves are self-evident: Altmer are high elves (roughly analogous to Tolkien's Noldor elves), Bosmer are wood elves (akin to Tolkien's Sylvan elves, like those of Mirkwood), Dunmer are dark elves (kind of like D&D's Drow, though they look nothing alike and don't live underground). More interesting, though, are the other races ending in "-mer". The most obvious is the Dwemer, the mysterious ancient race that dwelt underground and built technological marvels before vanishing. Dwemer are dwarves, and Dwemer are elves, so in this universe, dwarves and elves are the same thing.] Falmer are the corrupted descendants of the once-proud race of Snow Elves. Snow Elves used to live on the surface of Skyrim, but steady conflict with the Nords gradually pushed them underground, where over generations they turned into the Falmer.
Aaaaanyways... late in the game, you actually get to meet one of the two remaining Snow Elves in the world. He's the keeper of the Bow, and sends you off on a quest before he'll give it to you. The quest is to visit all 5 cisterns to draw sacred water for a sacred urn. I groaned. That's exactly the kind of busy-work quest I hate. And, indeed, the first cistern was a pain to reach, through a tedious (though, granted, great-looking) cave. But! After that, it opened up, into an absolutely massive new outdoor environment. I wandered around, absolutely stunned at the towering mountains, crashing frozen waterfalls, massive sheets of ice (with dragons bursting through!), and more. There were relatively few enemies in this area, other than an exciting two-teamed fight against dragons. There were also almost no quick-travel points, and no horses, so I was glad for all the Stamina I'd invested in throughout the game.
A couple of these cisterns were hard to reach, and required navigating through caves that weren't indicated on the maps, but that made it all the more rewarding once I finally completed the sequence. I had the water, then confronted the other remaining Snow Elf and learned the truth: he had invented the prophecy in the first place, in order to lure a pure-blooded vampire into his lair. Unbeknownst to his former compatriot, he had been infected with vampirism, and abandoned by their god. His revenge would be to use the pure blood of the vampire to kill his god.
This fight was pretty fun. It went through a couple of stages in a frozen throne room, against several waves of enemies, and then led to a climactic battle against the vampiric Snow Elf on a high parapet overlooking the hidden vale. He was pretty tough, but fortunately I have Mehrunes' Razor, so even the toughest enemy will fall if I'm sufficiently determined with my blades.
We checked back in with the good snow elf, and he rewarded us with Auriel's Bow. Serana said that it was time to finish it and kill her father. I was all, like, "Really, babe? You sure you want to do this?" And she was all, "Yeah, man, whatever, it's cool. Just... just leave me alone for a little bit, kay?" So we skedaddled back to Fort Dawnguard. Isran flipped OUT when he saw the bow - I guess it's now a famous vampire-killing artifact or something? - and announced the immediate assault on Harkon's castle.
The finale was a lot of fun. Everyone shows up at the gates and charges in, yelling and shooting and killing. There's a running battle through a couple of rooms; most of the vampires are using magic, while the Dawnguard primarily relies on weaponry. The Dawnguard cleaned UP - granted, I'm a powerful person and I was on their side, but still, I was pretty surprised to emerge from the fight without a single casualty on our side (unless you count a war troll, which I don't). Again, I'd like to think that the strength of our side was due in part to the side-quests I'd done for them, but I can't say for sure whether that's the case.
Isran was all pumped up on testosterone after slaughtering a complex full of vampires, but for some reason he and the others didn't want to help me with Harkon, so Serana and I entered his throne room by ourselves. This led to some more juicy plot-related stuff, with Harkon making it quite clear that he'd willingly sacrifice his daughter to achieve his dream of a dark world. I also got to declare my affection for Serana, leading Harkon to denounce her. He gave me a final chance to hand over Auriel's bow - which seems really weird, since we hadn't said two civil words to one another since I had first returned Serana home - and then the fight began.
This actually ended up being probably the most interesting fight I've had in the game so far. Harkon is very powerful: he has both melee and ranged attacks, can summon a large number of undead, has a large health pool, is apparently able to regenerate health throughout the fight, AND, in the most innovative twist, can transform himself into a cloud of bats to teleport between locations. At the start of the fight, I focused on taking down his skeleton summons and letting Serana focus on him. Then I heard her shout "Use the bow!" Huh. I was carrying Auriel's Bow, which appeared to have some vampire-slaying capabilities, and I had invested in some Sunhallowed Arrows. As I've previously noted, I have entirely focused on one-handed melee weaponry in the game; but thanks to the Elder Scrolls design, I CAN use any weapon, I just don't have special perks for the others. I figured, "Eh, why not?", switched to the bow, and started firing away.
The fight was very long, but quite satisfying. My Skyrim fights typically either end instantly (if I can attack someone from stealth... a 30x backstab multiplier with a dual-wielded power attack of Legendary Mehrunes Razor and Blade of Woe can one-shot even a boss), or very quickly (if I am repeatedly doing that power attack to their face). Well, with this fight, Harkon flits around so quickly that I wouldn't have been able to melee him successfully. As it was, I still missed a good chunk of my shots, but each one that landed took a small yet noticeable chunk out of his health. When he was near the chapel window, I was able to fire through the window into the sun, which did an even more powerful sun-based attack. Whenever Serana seemed to be getting swarmed by the skeletons, I would shoot them to get her out of it; the Sunhallowed Arrows seem to do area-of-effect damage, with both a fire effect and extra damage to undead, so a few shots would eventually take the beasties down, and I could then re-focus on Harkon.
Eventually, he fell, and I won! Isran finally deigned to enter the battlefield and praised us for our work. He begrudgingly acknowledged all the aid Serana had provided, and invited her to join the Dawnguard. She said she would be happy to, unless... unless I wanted her around? Well. Turns out that I did! I don't know how long it will last, but I've been pleased with her as a companion; she can hold her own in a fight, and doesn't bring me into too many unnecessary fights, and has a nice, soft-spoken but insightful approach to the world. (We'll see how long this continues - I think she's marked as "essential" during the main Dawnguard quests, so she merely falls unconscious if her health falls to zero. Presumably, she is now a standard follower, and can die for real. I may send her back to Fort Dawnguard to stay safe if she seems too vulnerable.) She's also just a kind of interesting follower to have around; she'll tinker with nearby alchemy labs, sharpen her weapon on a grindstone, and do other random but visually engaging things.
Oh, yeah: for the record, I've equipped her with my best random castoffs. I've kept her default vampire armor, since it seems pretty powerful, but have added legendary enchanted glass boots and gloves. I had her in a legendary elven helmet for a while, but eventually took it away since I didn't like the goofy look; I replaced it with a Circlet of Destruction, which should make her offensive magic cheaper to cast. I also give her every Staff I come across. She SEEMS to use these; I check her inventory every once in a while, and see the charges gradually dropping. I've also tried giving her soul gems, both filled and empty, but it doesn't look like she will recharge her own equipment, which is too bad; instead, I'll grab her staves once they completely expire and sell them off.
I was chatting with Serana shortly after, and was surprised to see that a new conversation option had opened up to chat with her about being cured of vampirism. We discussed it, and she's going to give it a try! I'm curious to see what happens - whether her appearance will change, whether she will lose any powers, if her personality and dialog will shift to something new. She is thousands of years old, so I do wonder if she'll simply crumble into dust. We will see!
On the whole, the Dawnguard expansion has been possibly my favorite major quest line in Skyrim thus far, right up there with the Dark Brotherhood story and the Thieves Guild. It gets at some interesting lore that helps shed a bit of light on mysteries that run through the entire Elder Scrolls series; it provides some nice item upgrades that apply to the entire game; it introduces some absolutely vast and gorgeous, huge new areas; and it has some very interesting new NPCs, including someone who is BY FAR the best companion I've had in any Elder Scrolls game. (Still not as good as a Bioware companion, but hey, we can't have everything!) It's definitely worth picking up. Now, as I FINALLY turn to the main quest line in Skyrim, I just hope it doesn't feel anti-climactic after Dawnguard...