Picking Your Race in Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls series is well known for its plethora of race options: four kinds of elves, four kinds of humans, and two kinds of animal people. So which one should you pick for your next Skyrim character?

The answer, is of course, it depends on whether you’re trying to min-max and get the most mechanical benefits out of your character, and on what you idea of your character is. This guide will help you with both, going over the mechanics of each race and give you a paragraph of lore for each race.

skyrim races dragon fight 1

For the most part, all of the races in Skyrim are interchangeable. In previous Elder Scrolls race choice mattered a lot, and picking one that didn’t suit your build could make the early game much harder than it needed to be. Those days are long gone. In Skyrim you can be whatever you want to be and your non-standard characters won’t be punished for it. Despite this, there a handful of things to keep in mind:

  • Altmer, The Elder Scrolls version of High Elves, are the only race that start with a bonus to any of Skyrim‘s three stats. All characters start with 100 points in each, but Altmer start with 150 points in Magicka. Altmer also start with an extra spell: Fury. This might save you some gold early on, but it isn’t a big deal.
  • Bretons, The Elder Scrolls version of Half-Elves and fantasy Medieval European stand-ins, start with 25% constant Magicka resistance. This is traditional for Bretons in the series, but unlike in previous installments this bonus isn’t a big deal. Bretons also get the spell Conjure Familiar for free, which might save you a couple hundred septims early in the game, but otherwise doesn’t matter.
  • Dunmer, The Elder Scrolls version of Dark Elves, start with an extra spell: Sparks. This doesn’t matter because every character gets this for free in the opening sequence. Dunmer also have a 50% resistance to fire, which won’t come up often enough to pick a Dunmer because of that alone.
  • Argonians can breathe underwater. In previous installments this didn’t matter much, and it matters less in Skyrim because there is no underwater combat and not much underwater exploration.
  • Khajiit do an extra 15 points of unarmed damage, which matters a lot if you’re trying to make a unarmed character work in Skyrim, because the game doesn’t have an unarmed skill.
  • Redguards have a 50% resistance to poison, the Bosmer have a 50% resistance to poison and disease, the Argonians have a 50% resistance to disease and the Nords have a 50% resistance to Frost. For the most part this doesn’t matter, but it is more useful than what most races offer. It’s arguably a negative for Argonians and Bosmer, if you want to become a vampire.
  • Imperials find slightly more gold in chests, but this doesn’t matter in the long run because your Dragonborn will be flush with cash in no time.
  • Orcs start out as clan friends of Skyrim’s Orc strongholds. Arguably, this makes them a worse choice if you want to see the dialogue that other characters get when they gain that status.

Every race has an ability that works on activation. You can use those abilities once every in-game day. Constant effect abilities, such as all damage resistances, are always active.

Every race also starts with bonus points in specific skills. If you’re trying to min-max you’ll probably want to pick a race with a bonus to hard to level skills like Enchanting, Smithing, Alchemy, or Speech. Just like in Oblivion, all characters start out with Healing, a basic healing spell, and Flames, a basic fire attack spell.

  • +10 Illusion
  • +5 Conjuration
  • +5 Destruction
  • +5 Alteration
  • +5 Enchanting
  • Highborn: Regenerate Magicka faster for 60 seconds
  • Highborn: High Elves are born with 50 extra magicka.

– Fury: Creatures and people up to level 6 will attack anything nearby for 30 seconds.

Altmer get a bonus to all of the magical skills-including enchanting. With that and their 50 bonus magicka points, Altmer are arguably the best race in the game. Especially because they don’t have the magic weakness as in previous titles.

skyrim se altmer

Altmer are the High Elven natives to the Summerset Isles, a large archipelago off the coast of Tamriel. It is their histories that reach back furthest into the past and their mythologies that tell the average citizen of Tamriel the most about the earliest days of the world.

According to the Altmer everyone was a god in the beginning place. This changed when Lorkhan, traitor to all gods, convinced some to create the world. With the world came death, and Lorkhan was executed for his crimes. The chief of the Altmeri pantheon then ascended pack into the heavens and left a tower to show the Altmer how to get back themselves. This is Crystal Tower, sometimes called Crystal-Like-Law.

As you can read in the in-game book series Rising Threat this tower was destroyed during the events of Oblivion, and its destruction paved the way for the rise of the Thalmor and the creation of the current Aldmeri Dominion.

The Thalmor currently run Altmeri society and they have a grudge. They have a grudge against Tiber Septim, who used an ancient Dwemer war machine bought from the gods of Morrowind to conquer their island. They have a grudge against the Empire, who stole sovereignty from the Altmer for the first time in history. And they have a grudge against the world, a prison of pain and death created by the devil oft worshiped by humans.

But the High Elves are more complex than the simple caricature people think of when they imagine Thalmor inquisitors and death squads. Many Altmer work everyday jobs in Skyrim and in a fit of irony the first act of Thalmor aggression towards the Empire was assassinate the High Elf regent that ruled it in place of an Emperor. Then there is the Psijic Order, a group of monks often at odds with the Altmer government.

  • +10 Lockpicking
  • +5 Restoration
  • +5 Alteration
  • +5 Light Armor
  • +5 Sneak
  • +5 Pickpocket
  • Histskin: Recover health 10x faster for 60 seconds.
  • Resist Disease: 50% resistant to disease.
  • Underwater Breathing: Breathe underwater.

Argonians possess the unique natural ability to breathe water, but this is nothing that people of other races cannot replicate with a potion or spell. Their other abilities are lackluster, and they don’t have skill bonuses in hard-to-level skills.

skyrim se argonian

Argonians are the lizardfolk of the Black Marsh, a vast and forbidding swamp which no one has ever truly conquered. Their history is little known and in their native language, Jel, there is no concept of time.

Argonians are said to be the descendants of swamp lizards which licked the narcotic sap of the Marsh’s intelligent Hist trees. Some blamed Argonian shamans for the Knahaten Flu, others blame those mysterious trees they worship.

Even recent events are but a rumor. During events of Oblivion many Argonians felt the need to return to Black Marsh, and once their it is said they successfully fought of the demonic invaders that ravaged Tamriel during that time and that the Daedra were even forced to close the gates lest the Argonians launch a counter-invasion.

But the Argonians have not always risen to such heights. For much of history the Marsh has been the target of Dunmer slavers who stole Argonians from their homes to work the fields of their new Dark Elven masters.

But the wheel of history always turns and after the Oblivion Crisis Argonian armies turned north and conquered large parts of Southern Morrowind, and freed slaves wherever they went.

  • +10 Archery
  • +5 Alchemy
  • +5 Light Armor
  • +5 Sneak
  • +5 Lockpicking
  • +5 Pickpocket
  • Resist Poison and Disease: 50% resistant to poison and disease.
  • Command Animals: Make an animal an ally for 60 seconds.

Bosmer skill bonuses and abilities are nothing special.

skyrim se bosmer

The Bosmer, or Wood Elves as humans often call them, are the people of the high forests of Valenwood. Where exactly the Bosmer came from is contentious-Altmer say they are the descendants of early Aldmeri colonists that went native and weird in Valenwood’s endless thicket.

Bosmer, on the other hand, maintain that they came out of the primordial ooze shapeless and without form. Their chief god Y’ffre bound them to their forms, but only so long as the the most sacred law of the Wood-Elves is kept.

This is known as the Green Pact, and it’s law dictates that no Bosmer may ever harm a plant of the Valenwood. For this reason traditional Bosmer are strict carnivores, and by reputation, cannibals. If the law is not held then the law-breakers will begin to lose their form and become a mass of claws, teeth, and death.

This has only happened a few times in history, in events known as the “Wild Hunts.” Only invoked when Bosmer leadership believes the existence of their people is at stake, the Wild Hunt has produced some of the most vicious and unkillable monsters in Tamriel.

skyrim races guide wood elf 1

History holds a special place for the Bosmer for another reason. When the first Bosmer kings united Valenwood under their rule they celebrated by changing the calendar, and so began the First Era. In the Fourth Era, when Skyrim takes place, Valenwood is ruled by the Aldmeri Dominion.

Though the Bosmer did not suffer from debilitating disruptions the Khajiit faced, the time since Oblivion has not been kind to them, and their holy city of Falinesti long located atop a great walking tree has stopped moving. It’s only done this a few times before and it is a bad omen of times to come.

  • +10 Conjuration
  • +5 Alchemy
  • +5 Illusion
  • +5 Restoration
  • +5 Alteration
  • +5 Speech
  • Dragonskin: Absorb 50% of magicka from hostile spells for 60 seconds.
  • Magicka Resistance: 25% resistance to magicka.

– Conjure Familiar: Summons a Familiar for 60 seconds wherever the caster is pointing.

The stereotypical Breton is a wizard or a politician, and with their bonus to both Speech, Enchantment, and their magic resistance they’re a race definitely worth looking at twice.

skyrim se breton

The Bretons of High Rock are the children of the Altemeri Direnni that colonized the country in the unthinkable past, the Nord invaders that conquered it, and the human natives that wanted to be left alone. Perhaps it is because of this history that Bretons have never gotten along.

Divided into hundreds, if not thousands, of competing fiefdoms, duchies, and kingdoms war and conflict has been the defining trait of the Bretons’ Byzantine political world. High Rock is a land of knights and wizards, scheming rogues, and treacherous viziers.

Despite it all Bretons have proven to be one of the most influential races in Tamriel, and the most loyal provincials to Cyrodiil’s Empire.

The chaos of High Rock calm once, during an event known as the Warp in the West. During this time the chief kingdoms of High Rock and northern Hammerfell vied for control of the Numidium, the device used by Tiber Septim to conquer the High Elves, and it’s activation shattered the fabric of time.

Simultaneously every major faction in the Rock, as well as the Kingdom of Sentinel in Hammerfell used this device in a myriad of different timelines, causing them all to become a confused jumble. At the end of it only two major kingdoms existed on High Rock’s southern shores, both of which proclaimed loyalty to the Empire – which also activated it.

  • +10 Destruction
  • +5 Alchemy
  • +5 Illusion
  • +5 Alteration
  • +5 Light Armor
  • +5 Sneak
  • Resist Fire: 50% resistant to fire.
  • Ancestor’s Wrath: For 60 seconds, enemies that get too close take 8 fire damage per second.

– Sparks: Lightning that does 8 points of shock damage to health and magicka per second.

Dunmer are the most well balanced race when it comes to skills, which unfortunately means they don’t have anything special.

skyrim se dunmer

The Dunmer are the descendants of the Chimer, Altmer who heard the call of their Daedra and Lorkhan worshiping prophet Veloth who took his followers to the east, to Morrowind. There they lived harsh and violent lives, and often fought with each and the Dwemer – Dwarves – who already lived there.

Then the Battle of Red Mountain came. Spurned on the blasphemies of the Dwarven Tonal Architect Kagrenac’s attempt to harness Lorkhan’s Heart the war divided Chimer society.

At the end of it the Dwarves disappeared, the Chimer became Dunmer, and three new gods emerged from the volcanic ash-wastes.

These gods, the Tribunal, replaced the traditional Daedra worship of the Dunmer people and built a temple which helped the poor and harshly rooted out heresy – particularly anything that had to do with Nerevar, the Chimer war leader.

The Dunmer organized themselves into five houses which constantly bickered, fought, and slaved. This fighting, as one might expect, led to their undoing.

The Tribunal gods stole their divinity from the Heart of Lorkhan, and with the awakening of one other that did the same the Tribunal were unable to offer much resistance when Tiber Septim came a knocking.

skyrim races guide dark elf 1

Instead of fighting bartered with him, and traded the Dwarves’ last blasphemy in exchange for peaceful absorption into the Empire. But even the time of the Tribunal must end, and in the waning years of the Third Era it did.

A devil rose from underneath Red Mountain and the only way to stop it was for a destined hero to unbind Lorkhan’s Heart and make the Tribunal mortal again. This led directly to an asteroid annihilating the city of Vivec, one of Morrowind’s largest cities, and to Red Mountain’s eruption that continues to this day.

Dark Elf refugees fled to Skyrim, where they have not been treated kindly – especially in Windhelm.

  • +10 Restoration
  • +5 Destruction
  • +5 Enchanting
  • +5 Heavy Armor
  • +5 Block
  • +5 One-Handed
  • Voice of the Emperor: Calms nearby people for 60 seconds.
  • Imperial Luck: Imperials find more coins.

Imperials are legendary for their Speech skills but they also have a nice Enchanting bonus that is quite useful.

skyrim se imperial

The Imperials are the people of Cyrodiil and have ruled Tamriel for most of the past 600 years at least. Originating from the many slave-tribes of ancient Cyrodiil the Imperials through off the chains of their Elven masters seized their own destiny as the masters of the world.

Until quite recently this was working out for them. But the sad fact is that The Elder Scrolls series is mostly about the Empire they built falling to pieces.

Today it is but a shadow of its former self, fighting its former provinces for its very existence. There was the war with the Aldmeri Dominion, and now there’s the current conflict in Skyrim.

Despite this the Imperials won’t go down without a fight. From the high mountains of Colovia and the fertile valleys of Nibenay the Imperials forged a continent spanning empire – three times in fact! The first was the Empire of Alessia, and later, the Alessian Order.

Alessia led the slaves of ancient Cyrodiil to freedom and the Order conquered most of the human lands that then existed and forced them to follow its own peculiar religion. After the Order fell the Imperial’s traditional religion, the Eight Divines, was restored and they eventually found a new hero figure to lead them to glory.

This was Reman Cyrodiil, an Emperor who conquered most of the world, attempted to invade Nordic underworld, and apparently had parties that the demonic god Sanguine was invited to. His Empire fell apart to, and its long collapse defined the Second Era.

Eventually a new ambitious warlord united Cyrodill and conquered the world: his name was Tiber Septim. With the conquest of the Altmer and the Aldmeri Dominion Tiber Septim announced the beginning of the Third Era.

That era only ended with the sacrifice of his last living relative at the end of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Throughout the entire period Tiber Septim was venerated as Talos, the Ninth Divine, and Father of the Empire.

Things changed when the Aldmeri Dominion attacked, and won. Talos worship is now illegal throughout the Empire, and it’s causing a bit of a stir.

  • +10 Sneak
  • +5 Alchemy
  • +5 One-Handed
  • +5 Archery
  • +5 Lockpicking
  • +5 Pickpocket
  • Night Eye: Improved night vision for 60 seconds.
  • Claws: Khajiit claws do 15 points of damage.

Your skills bonuses aren’t great, but that alchemy bonus could be useful if you get into potions and the 15 points of unarmored damage are vital to and hand-to-hand character.

skyrim se khajiit

The Khajiit are the many-formed cat people of the divided land of Elsewyr. In Skyrim they look exactly as they did in Oblivion, but in previous titles they appeared in a variety of shapes and size.

This is no accident: the Wood-Elf looking Khajiit of The Elder Scrolls I: Arena were Ohmes. The cat-tailed Khajiit of Daggerfall were Ohmes-Raht, while the bow legged Khajiit in Morrowind were Suthay-Raht. All of these form differences relate to the central of Khajiit culture: their lunar deities Jone and Jode.

The phases of the moon influence of the forms of newly born Khajiit kittens, and people born in the same litter can grow up to look very differently. Some Khajiit even look the same as house-cats! Though those individuals cannot speak non-Khajiit languages, the armies of Elsewyr use them to devastating effect – just look at the report in the in-game book Mixed Unit Tactics.

In the lands of Skyrim Khajiit are mistrusted as duplicitous foreigners and thieves, while their homeland of Elsewyr struggles under the occupation by the High Elven Aldmeri Dominion.

Shortly after the events of Oblivion the Khajitt king and high priest, called the Mane, died under mysterious circumstances and has not reincarnated into a new form.

Worse yet, during this time the world’s two moons disappeared to devastating effects on all Khajiit during the years they were gone. In the chaos Elsewyr split into its two traditional kingdoms of Anequina and Pellitine.

Because the Nords in Skyrim mistrust those few Khajiit that have come to their land they are forbidden from setting foot in any of the game’s major cities. Fret not, however, as this will have no impact on your Khajiit character.

  • +10 Two-Handed
  • +5 Smithing
  • +5 Block
  • +5 One-Handed
  • +5 Light Armor
  • +5 Speech
  • Battlecry: Target flees for 30 seconds.
  • Resist Frost: 50% resistant to frost.

Nords are often thought of a little more than violent barbarians, but they do have a quite handy bonus to Speech.

skyrim se nord

Nords are the people of Skyrim, and you’ll be seeing more of them than anyone else. The came to Tamriel in the early ages of Tamriel fleeing the frozen wastelands of Atmora. They first settled in Saarthal, which Skyrim’s ancient Snow Elves destroyed. After this they hid, regrouped, and bade their time.

When the moment was right they launched a war of extermination against the Falmer. Today they only survive in fairy stories and, according to rumor, in the darkest depths of Dwarven ruins. Their wars did not stop there, however, and the Nords continued their fight against elves.

They conquered large parts of Morrowind, home of the Dark Elves, and High Rock, home of the Bretons. It is said that many unspeakable atrocities were committed against the latter for the sole reason that the Nords mistook Bretons for Elves.

skyrim races guide nord skaal 1

This couldn’t last forever and eventually the Nords turned on each other. Their empire collapsed and despite attempts to reclaim it they never did so. During one of these attempts to show power in northern Tamriel, and to reclaim the still-beating heart of their dead god – even the Nords most sacred art failed them.

This art, the Thu’um, would henceforce only be practiced by the Greybeards, a reclusive order of monks in the center of Skyrim. They dedicate themselves to pacifism and meditation, and when a new Dragonborn comes they guide that individual down their path…

Skyrim will often tell you that Nords hate magic this shouldn’t dissuade your budding Nord mage. After all Shalidor, the most famous and powerful human wizard, was a Nord.

  • +10 Heavy Armor
  • +5 Enchanting
  • +5 Smithing
  • +5 Block
  • +5 Two-handed
  • +5 One-Handed
  • Beserker: You take half damage and hit twice as hard for 60 seconds.

The Orc bonus to both Smithing and Enchantment makes them one of the better races, as far as starting skills go.

skyrim se orsimer

The Orcs are the hated and scorned pariahs of Tamriel, the continent where the The Elder Scrolls series takes place. Though technically elves their elven name, Orismer, literally means pariah folk and they have been shunned, attacked, and hunted throughout their history.

Throughout the ages they have often gathered in the tall mountains between the lands of Skyrim, High Rock, and Hammerfell to build their Orsinium. Without fail the Bretons or Redguards or both have burned it to the ground. Despite early Imperial propaganda speaking of Tiber Septim’s “legendary hatred” for the Orcs, today the Orcs are among the greatest supporters of the Empire he founded you could find.

Many, tired of their stronghold lives, joined up with the Imperial Legions which gave them a sense purpose and belonging. The Empire has returned the favor, and both recognized the Orsinium before this one, and helped the Orcs build another when it burned down.

skyrim races guide orc 1

In early Elder Scrolls titles Orcs were little more than wandering monsters. Things began to change in Daggerfall, which features the founding of the previous Orsinium, but they did not become playable until The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. In both Morrowind and Oblivion game mechanics heavily encouraged Orcs to be violent bruisers, capable of dealing and taking damage with those games’ weapons and armor skills.

This is still true in Skyrim, but your Orc can be anything. Indeed, the most prominent Orc in the game is an overprotective librarian.

  • +10 One-handed
  • +5 Destruction
  • +5 Alteration
  • +5 Smithing
  • +5 Block
  • +5 Archery
  • Adrenaline Rush: Stamina regenerates 10x faster for 60 seconds.
  • Resist Poison: 50% resistant to poison.

Redguard skill bonuses are nothing special, but their Smithing bonus could save you some time.

skyrim se redguard

Redguards, known as the Ra Gada in their native tongue, are a the native people of Hammerfell, who came to Tamriel from the Far Shores of Yokuda in a flurry of fire and steel in the middle of the First Era. According to legend Yokuda was once a large and verdant land, but bloody conflict between the Ra Gada and the “Left-Handed Elves” brought ruin upon.

The Redguard swordmasters were great, and apparently could cut so sharp they could “split the Atmos.” The war led to Yokuda sinking beneath the waves, and the Ra Gada sailing away forever.

Redguards are one of Skyrim‘s four human races, and like the Nords they have a long a proud sea faring tradition and live and harsh foreboding land. Unlike the Nords, however, the Redguards fought Empire when it came to their home.

After the Imperial conquest a successful Redguard revolt on the isle of Stros M’kai forced the Empire to renegotiate the terms of Hammerfell’s conquest.

Redguard culture is divided into two houses. Those descended from the first “warrior-wave,” or earliest Redguard colonists in Hammerfell, are called the Forebears. The other house, the Crowns, are the descendants of subsequent migrants, usually related to old Ra Gaga nobility.

The Crowns and Forebears have often fought and killed one another over their perceived differences, and this division allowed the Empire to conquer Hammerfell. Those times are long gone, however.

The recent war between the Empire and the Aldmeri Dominion forced the Empire into a peace the Redguards could not live with, and so they fought on. With naught but grit and steel the Redguards forced the Dominion into a separate peace.

Today Hammerfell stands tall and proud, and bows before no overlords. With their independence won, the wind at their backs and the HoonDing – the Redguard god of “Make-Way” – to guide them, the Redguards have their future secure.

Hopefully this run-through of the many races of Skyrim will help you decide which one your next character will be. What will you pick?

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Ian Magruder
Ian Magruder

A long-time lover of video games, Ian has played them since he picked up Pokemon Red at three years old. A history grad student, fantasy fan, and daily jogger looking for the next game with great characters, fantastic gameplay, and a well thought-out setting.

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CJ Hill
CJ Hill(@zenoxx19981)
9 years ago

Thank you for all your help this is very helpful advice im think imma choose the two handed weapon race which is The Nord

Shane Scarbrough
Shane Scarbrough
Reply to  CJ Hill
9 years ago

You’re very welcome CJ — glad the Skyrim Fansite could be of service. Now get out there and slay some Dragons with that duo-wielding Nord of yours 🙂

3 years ago