Oblivion:The Hardest Difficulty Strategy Guide
The Hardest Difficulty is set by moving the Difficulty slider on the Gameplay Settings page to the rightmost position. This increases the difficulty of the game and should appeal to those players seeking a challenge.
All that the difficulty slider actually affects is the amount of damage your attacks inflict on enemies and vice-versa. See the table:
|Difficulty||Difficulty Slider Position||Player vs Enemy Damage||Enemy vs Player Damage|
|25%||Halfway between leftmost and center||3.5x||2/7|
|40%||Ten clicks left of center||2x||1/2|
|45%||Five clicks left of center||1.5x||2/3|
|55%||Five clicks right of center||2/3||1.5x|
|60%||Ten clicks right of center||1/2||2x|
|75%||Halfway between center and rightmost||2/7||3.5x|
Note that it is possible to start the game at the easiest difficulty, obtain certain goals (e.g., Arcane University access, Master Skills, Grand Souls, lots of money), and then switch to the hardest difficulty later. However, this strategy defeats the purpose for those players looking for the most challenging role-playing experience offered by Oblivion.
- 1 Rules of the hardest difficulty
- 2 Living in the hardest Oblivion
- 3 Completing Tutorial
- 4 Completing Join the Mages Guild quest on the hardest difficulty
- 5 Tips for making the hardest difficulty too easy
- 6 Tips for playing the hardest Oblivion just right
- 6.1 The Main Skills
- 6.2 Equipping your Character
- 6.3 Game Progression
- 6.4 General Tactics
Rules of the hardest difficulty
As shown in the table above, one's character does 1/6 of the normal damage to enemies at the highest level of difficulty. This means that one needs six times the amount of hits to kill the same hostile compared to normal difficulty. Moreover, enemy attacks deal six times the damage to the player, killing your character in 1/6 the hits.
Summoned creatures are not affected by this penalty (i.e., a summoned skeleton will deal the same amount of damage to an enemy with the difficulty slider all the way up as they would with the slider all the way down). Moreover, no one is affected by difficulty but you. This can be used to your advantage, perhaps by luring enemies to City Guards, or using Command or Frenzy spells on enemies.
Living in the hardest Oblivion
The first thing to do after completing the tutorial at the hardest difficulty should be money making. Here are some common ways to become rich.
- Join the Mages Guild and sell them their own Alchemy apparatus. There are also expensive books, scrolls, soul gems and silver daggers in the various guild halls.
- Alchemy. Raid Mages and Fighters Guilds, harvest plants at farms (see Farms Locations List), or buy ingredients from alchemy shops. After making lots of potions, you can sell them one by one to quickly raise your Mercantile skill.
The second thing to do should be getting to the Arcane University to create custom spells and enchant items. Use pre-captured souls from soul gems found lying around the Mages Guild. Another alternative is to use the Frostcrag Spire plug-in and skip the Mages Guild altogether.
Unlike other RPGs, Oblivion is much easier at low character levels, as new levels only increase your Attributes. You get more Health, Magicka, Fatigue and Strength, Agility, etc. Therefore, you can increase your (minor) skills without increasing your level. This means that you may raise the damage you deal, based on skills, without increasing your level. In contrast, damage of your enemies is totally based on their levels, which scale with your character level. Moreover, weapons, armor and even base type of your enemies is based on your level. In a certain location, you will find a pack of Xivilai at character level 30 but only a couple of Stunted Scamps at level 1. If you need less challenge, it is possible to complete the game without ever leveling (This is only possible through the Clavicus Vile quest, which allows you to get the artifact needed for the main quest at level 1). This can be achieved by selecting all the skills you plan to use as minor skills, and never using your major skills so that you never level up. Some people would say this is just exploiting another weakness of the game and has little to do with gaming at the hardest difficulty level. If you like to fight level 1 creatures while your own abilities are already at level 30, then it is simpler to put the difficulty level at easiest instead, as this would give you the same effect. Then, the creatures will still formally be at about your own level, but very weak compared to you.
This section provides tips specific to getting through the tutorial on hardest difficulty; a more general walkthrough of the first quest is provided in the Tutorial article.
Remember when setting up your character's race that you will be able to change your race (and everything else about your character) at the end of the tutorial. Therefore, start by choosing a race specifically with characteristics that are useful during the tutorial. Many special abilities provide little or no advantage during the tutorial, for example those of an Argonian (Resist Disease, Resist Poison, Water Breathing): there are no diseases or poisons in the tutorial, nor is there any underwater tunnel. Once-per-day powers can be invaluable in the tutorial; some particularly useful ones are:
- Command Creature (Bosmer)
- Shield (Breton)
- Summon Ghost (Dunmer)
- Frost Damage (Nord)
- Shield (Nord)
- Adrenaline Rush (Redguard)
- Berserk (Orc)
Your first fight is rather easy with use of ledges to escape the attacks of the Rats. It is the one time during the tutorial that you are forced to face two opponents at once, and it is before you have acquired any armor. Be sure to rush in and loot the corpses of Captain Renault and the Mythic Dawn agents as soon as that battle has finished. The most useful weapon is Renault's Akaviri Katana, but she usually drops it when she dies, so finding it can be tricky. The rats will appear shortly after the Emperor's party disappears. After you've killed the first two rats, retreat out of sight of the hole to give yourself enough time to get fully healed. There is one more rat back there, and he will rush out and attack you before you are ready if he sees you.
Also, when the hole with the two rats has opened, retreat back up the stairs, jump upon the platform between the stairs, then to your left where the mythic dawn members emerged, the rats cannot strike you here, and feel free to use flare on them until they are both dead.
Sneak can be very valuable during the tutorial, both to allow you to take on just one opponent at a time, and to get the sneak attack bonuses. Sneak is also the one skill that you can effectively increase during the tutorial. If you don't mind staring at a dark wall for a while, you can spend some time sneaking in a corner just out of sight of a rat. Increasing your sneak skill to 25 is very useful, because of the increased sneak attack bonus: it becomes possible to kill a rat with a single blow. If you are planning to sneak, remember to take off your boots to reduce the chances of being detected. (Or you could spend even longer in a corner and get your sneak skill up to 50). A Bosmer (Wood Elf) may be useful in the tutorial because of the Marksman, Alchemy, and Sneak bonuses (+10 to all listed here = start value of 15).
Soon, you will come upon a well-lit room filled with bones. In this room are 4 rats. If you picked Bosmer as your race, cast Command Creature on one of the rats and retreat quickly (while in sneak mode). Hopefully your rat will have killed another before dying. If you are very lucky, they won't know you are there. If that is the case, retreat further and wait 24 hours, then recast the spell on another rat. If a rat spots you, exit sneak mode, and equip your katana. Due to the quick, successive nature of a rat's attack (will repeatedly lunge at you) it is very hard to hit accurately with magic or arrows. A few attacks and a power attack should finish off that rat. Wait 24 hours to regain your Greater Power. Re-enter the room and deal with the last rat. Be sure to take any armor and food before moving on.
To take on the goblins, you can take advantage of poisons. One 10 point Damage Health poison is provided, next to the mortar and pestle. Unless you have really bad luck, you should also be able to make a couple Damage Health poisons of your own, using wisp stalk caps and stinkhorn caps. Getting your Alchemy skill up to 10 before making these poisons really pays off: your damage health poison is twice as strong (2 points for 6 seconds) at alchemy=10 compared to alchemy=9. Getting your skill up to 10 requires making every other potion you can (you should have collected enough ingredients for two restore fatigue potions and one damage fatigue poison) and then eating about a dozen ingredients. Yes, the only ingredient you have in sufficient quantity to eat is rat meat, which has a mildly toxic but brief and passing effect when eaten (Damage Fatigue).
The final challenge in the tutorial is the goblin shaman. Be sure to take out all the other goblins before you get to the shaman, either through sneak attacks or by luring them out of the large cavern one by one. There are a few possible ways to deal with the shaman:
- Use their captive rats against her. Flare her once, run and pull the rat rope. Be sure enough of the rodents got to her just as she rounds the bend. They will start killing each other off, so use flares to even the fight to the rats' advantage.
- Just sneak past the shaman if you are good enough at this skill. Don't wear your boots, don't light your torch and walk instead of running to be more effective.
- A sneak attack with a poisoned katana can seriously injure the shaman; it is then possible to get in a few more blows/flares and kill her before she can kill you.
- Use the terrain for cover against the shamans fireballs and lightning shocks
Though potentially time consuming and dangerous, it is possible to repeatedly drag logs from the trap in the previous area back up the hill, which allows you to "re-arm" the trap. You can then lure goblins into the room and push the logs down the hill, killing the goblins. This is somewhat trickier to do against the shaman however, since she is able to attack from range and doesn't tend to follow the player up the hill, but instead waits at the bottom.
- Fighting with your bare hands on the hardest difficulty with 30 Strength is certain death, even against a rat. Starting with 50 Strength is recommended if you plan on melee combat.
- Without armor it is possible to go toe-to-toe using Flare with 1 rat or 1 goblin, but this exhausts both health and magicka.
- Always wait for 1 hour after every combat to have full magicka and health; also be sure to save. Wait 24 hours to recharge a once-per-day ability.
- Tougher opponents, such as the zombie, can be handled by running away backwards and hitting it with a Flare spell.
- Note that summoned creatures are not affected by difficulty, so they will hit your enemies with full strength. This is what makes Dunmer one of the possible races for completing the tutorial with their Summon Ghost power.
- It is possible to escape the reach of the rats and some of the goblins by jumping onto a raised area or by placing an object such as the crate with the Mortar & Pestle on it between you. The superior reach of a weapon, such as the Katana, should allow you to attack the enemies while sustaining a minimal amount of hits.
- After the first three rats, you can lure the remainder of the enemies in the Substructure towards the door to the Imperial Prison. The enemies will not follow you through the door, but if you exit and reenter the Substructure, you will have a brief period of time to damage them before the enemy discovers you, after which you can repeat the process. Goblins will follow you through doors, but will take a moment to do so; this moment can be used for increasing the distance between you and the enemy.
- Goblin archers will not follow you up the hill to where the push logs are located. If you don't activate the push logs, they provide great cover against the archers.
- Once you obtain a shield, efficient blocking is invaluable. Keep your shield down so you have free range of movement. Block immediately before your enemy hits you. You will take damage, but not as much. Also, your opponent will stumble, opening him up for a good few hits.
Completing Join the Mages Guild quest on the hardest difficulty
Most Recommendation quests are harmless, involving social skills or retrieving items, and involve little risk if you know what to do. However, there are three that require potentially deadly combat: Anvil Recommendation, Leyawiin Recommendation and Skingrad Recommendation.
Clever use of followers from unfinished early quests is one way of not having to deal with any of the actual combat yourself. The Jemane brothers and Martin are good, as is Erthor, only you need to drop him off to finish the Skingrad recommendation quest.
If you prefer to go alone, here is one path through these quests for a mage-type character.
In the Leyawiin Recommendation you basically need to kill all who are alive or undead in an old fort. Let's do it using minions. Pump your Conjuration up to 50 before you leveled up too much. Remember, that your enemies scale in level with you. At Level 50 Conjuration you may summon Flame Atronach, Dremora, Headless Zombie or Skeleton Guardian. Any one of them may kill any level 1 Marauder. Cast one from a corner then watch them die. This may be done with regular Skeleton, Zombie or Scamp too, but will require more time. You can get past most of the undead and people in the fort by sneaking and using invisibility potions. You may not be able to sneak past the imps in the last room, and cannot avoid having to fight the rogue Mages Guild member on the way out.
If you cannot get your Conjuration up to 50 before level 4, you're going to need a different tactic. Pump up your Illusion to 50 and purchase Shadow Shape (invisibility) from the Bravil Mages Guild. This will help you avoid serious trouble. By level 5, the Marauders have become extremely strong and it's going to be much more difficult to rely on a conjured creature. Illusion will let you sneak by everything except the last fight with the rogue mage. For this you will need some strong poisons and a couple of summoned creatures. My advice is to get Conjuration up to 50 by level 4 and complete all the quests for the guild at that level.
Sometimes the enemies become smart and attack you instead of your minion, so you'll need a backup tactic. For example in open places you may jump to safe stones, if you practice Alchemy use potions of invisibility, if you are rich buy the staff Apotheosis (about 5k gold in Imperial City Market).
In the Skingrad quest you can kill all of the zombies on hardest setting without laying a finger on them. Use an invisibility potion (or sneak if you have it high enough) to run past them to Erthor. He's afraid to leave his small cave, but that doesn't mean you can't lead the zombies, one or two at a time, to him. Just walk back out until you get the attention of a zombie and run back to Erthor and hide behind him. He will handily kill them. Don't bring too many at once or he will go unconscious and the zombies will look for other targets, i.e., you.
Tips for making the hardest difficulty too easy
100% Chameleon is arguably the most useful enchantment to have. It allows you to run by enemies undetected. It also allows you to attack anyone without consequence (other than rise in your murder tally, a point in infamy, and therefore lower disposition towards you). If you are confident in your combat skills, you can do Meridia's Daedric Quest, which will grant you the Ring of Khajiiti. The ring grants you 35% Chameleon. Otherwise, find empty Grand Soul Gems and turn them into Black Soul Gems, Grand Soul Gems pre-filled with Grand Souls, or high-level Sigil Stones with which to enchant your armor. An interesting note, if an enemy starts to attack you and you equip your enchanted armor, he will stop targeting you altogether, and as such his attack will not hit you.
Use Spell Stacking to create super-powerful damage spells. This technique requires being able to cast a long chain of spells upon the same target. You may notice that your foes don't want to just stand and wait while you are killing them. So this technique still requires a good tactic for implementation. Be creative! Distract enemies with summons, approach them sneaking from behind, try cast-on-target chains, or try adding paralyze for 1 second to every spell. Also, try adding invisibility for 5-10 seconds on self to any spells to keep from being detected; paralysis doesn't work on many foes and it still won't stop any nearby enemies from killing you.
If you are playing without patches, you can also use Spell Stacking on Self to create super-powerful fortify spells. Any type of fortify effect can be magnified in this way, but the two most useful effects, especially when playing at hardest difficulty, are Fortify Health and Fortify Magicka.
- Note: This has been corrected by the Oblivion 1.1.511 patch.
This technique is very cheap, but is still very useful. You may practice it from the very beginning of the game, since all you need is Alchemy apparatus and access to farms and villages, where you may collect needed ingredients. It is well suited for almost any role-playing class and is well balanced by Bethesda unlike in Morrowind.
When you drink two potions at the same time the second one does not replace the effect of the first one but adds the effects together. Although you may drink no more than four potions at a time, their effects will stack with magic buffering you already have. This can provide great life boost, lots of magicka for Master level spells, complete magic absorption, reflection or resistance, maximum shield effect, insane fortification of any attribute, 100% chameleon, and many other useful things.
To reduce the limitations of the "4 potions cap", experienced alchemists can combine up to four effects in one potion.
Master level of Alchemy with Master Equipment is recommended, but even Novice Alchemy and Equipment can be used to create useful potions.
Among the assassins of Tamriel, Alchemy is very popular for making strong poisons. Negative effects may be stacked on your enemy like positive effects are stacked on you. One example is using "Burden + Damage Strength" poisons with a bow to immobilize your target for a long period of time. Damage Speed is also a very handy poison, as it can permanently slow down very tough enemies to a crawl or to a complete stop. Many enemies will even be pacified and stop attacking when their Speed is reduced to zero.
Combining an original collection of potions and poisons specifically for every quest is a good and fun role-playing strategy.
Tips for playing the hardest Oblivion just right
In order to succeed at Oblivion at the hardest difficulty, you need to use the right skills and know the right people. Some skills are exceptional, as they aren't affected by difficulty, and some are awful, since they are crippled. Tips on how to increase all skills are provided on Increasing Skills. There are also many ways to get allies to fight by your side. Since they aren't hurt by difficulty settings, they are just what you need to get through the hardest of quests.
The Main Skills
The only way you're going to survive the hardest difficulty without outright cheating is to use skills that aren't hurt by the difficulty settings or are so powerful that the difficulty won't cripple them. These skills are: Illusion, Conjuration, Alchemy, Mysticism, Sneak, Security, Speechcraft, Mercantile, Athletics, and Acrobatics. These skills are going to be your bread and butter in top difficulty Oblivion. If you plan on being a rampaging force of hell, be sure to learn these skills well. You aren't going to get very far without them.
Illusion is an enormously useful skill for playing Oblivion on the max difficulty. Every single spell lends itself to keeping you out of harm's way. It's complex to play an illusionist well, so here's some detailed info on using the different abilities you'll have.
Calm: Block just won't cut it on the highest difficulty. When a good enemy can kill you in 1-3 hits, block will only give you an extra 2 or so hits to survive. If you are surrounded, block is not going to save you at all. Calm is one step above blocking. It will force just about any enemy to stop moving and yield combat. An enemy who isn't attacking you isn't hurting you. Any number of creatures can be calmed at the same time, allowing you to pacify even an army. Don't be afraid to blast wide area calm spells around allies, as it isn't an assault.
Command Creature or Humanoid: Expensive, yes, but very deadly. Afflicted targets will act like conjured creatures, fighting for your side. In fact, it is even better, as you are not only adding to your own numbers, but also taking away from the numbers of your enemies! No one else suffers the difficulty settings, so these allies fight on a level field with everything else. You can also use short term command spells for free sneak attacks. Just charm an enemy, get in 2-3 sneak attacks, and charm them again. That's 12-18 free attacks that you wouldn't get otherwise!
Demoralize: Forces enemies to stop fighting and run for the hills. It works on just about everything except undead. Anything that isn't fighting you is a blessing at the highest difficulty, making demoralize a powerful spell. Running enemies are perfect bait for ranged attacks and free hits. However, allies can chase them around and cause all sorts of trouble. Be careful when using long duration demoralize effects, or on fast runners like trolls.
Frenzy: The opposite of calm, frenzy is an incredibly cheap spell to use. Enemies will go berserk, often attacking each other instead of you. This is your ticket to defeating large concentrations of enemies. Be careful casting this on your allies, as you don't want them killing each other or you! Cast an invisibility spell as you start a large frenzy, and enjoy the show. Frenzy won't work on creatures, so you'll need to find another tactic for them. Frenzy is also a great spell to enchant onto a bow with an area of effect. Use the bow to frenzy a group of enemies (especially useful for bandits) and then cast Invisibility on yourself. You will be left with only 1 enemy to deal with and can then conjure up some help - never getting your fingers dirty except for the initial shot.
Silence: The bane of spell casters. You can't go wrong with this. Magic can be particularly deadly at the top difficulty, making silence the perfect spell to use against casters. The strongest of magic users tend to have slow movement or weak melee, giving you a great advantage against them.
Paralyze: Actually, compared to the other abilities, it's not that great. Paralyze is expensive, many enemies are immune, and you don't learn it until you get a high illusion skill. (You can also craft paralyze spells if you have paralyze as a result of the lover birthsign) However, that doesn't detract from when it is useful. Paralyzed enemies will fall down and take a few seconds to stand up. This leaves them as an open target for any allies you have. It also gives you a few seconds of breathing room. Save paralyze for the enemies you can't defeat any other way. Note that you can create a custom spell for Paralyze that lasts only a single second. However, that 1 second is enough to make the enemy drop and have to get up. It's as effective as a 2 or 3 second spell but much cheaper.
Night-Eye Can you see me? Night eye allows the player to temporarily see in the dark. Khajiits & Vampires have this as a lesser power. However, Illusion also offers it as a spell that lasts around 30 sec. So get it. This spell is essential for knowing where everything is. You can't afford to bump into a random barbarian or mercenary in the middle of a dungeon because A) you're screwed, because now you must fight whether you want to or not B) You lose your only real edge; discretion. That means no sneak attacks with your bow, so your damage multiplied giving your opponent a higher chance to survive. Creating a custom night-eye spell that lasts around 60+ seconds or equal to your invisibility, will allow you to cast the Night-Eye then the Invisibility so you can see without losing your invisibility.
Invisibility: The cream of the crop, this spell was saved for last. No one can hurt you if they don't know you're there! Invisibility is actually a pretty cheap Illusion spell to cast, considering the benefits that it gives. You can get a free sneak attack, run straight through dungeons to the treasure, and avoid just about everyone who means you harm. Use short term invisibility spells to evade and dodge around enemies and get tons of free hits, or long term spells while you have a big frenzy spell (or allies) to do the work for you. It's much more fair than using a cheap 100% chameleon effect, because you are unable to act without breaking the invisibility. You'll need 50 illusion skill to learn your first invisibility spell, but you can also pick it up as a greater power if you have the Shadow as your birthsign. You can also get a similar power from the Jone Stone if your is at least 10.
While not removing most challenges like 100% Chameleon does, some will find that even Invisibility will make things too simple. It's perfectly possible to play without it, if you're looking for a more hardcore challenge.
Conjuration is your combative skill. There are no skills above this one in terms of fighting. Turn Undead spells are great for early-game dungeon diving. Mastering Conjuration early on is recommended, as high-level conjures don't scale with enemies, meaning that until the enemies catch up, you will be at a significant advantage. Summon: This is just what you need. Summon provides you with a creature of your choice, to fight by your side to the death. These creatures are not hurt by the difficulty settings, so they'll fight on a level field with everything else. Summon is exceptional early in the game, when you have no ability to fight and no allies to help you. You will only need to buy 3 or 4 summoning spells throughout the game. First, you should start off with Skeleton, then upgrade to Dremora. When you reach expert level, buy a Frost Atronach and as you hit conjuration mastery, buy a Summon Xivilai spell. If you have Shivering Isles installed, buy a Summon Voracious Hunger spell in Crucible. It should be noted that conjured creatures large in stature will be slower, and may not be able to move through doorways or caves.
Conjured creatures are not affected by difficulty, and even if they have the same amount of health and damage, they will still take and deal six times as much damage as you do. However, this also applies to friendly NPCs that anger it. A non-essential follower may easily aggro your conjure, so summon another one to make sure that your conjured creature doesn't turn on your follow and kill him/her.
Turn Undead: Undead can be a tricky bunch. They can come in large numbers, be reanimated constantly by necromancers, and are resilient to many powerful illusion spells. Turn Undead provides you with the best weapon against undead- fear. Undead will turn tail and run away, abandoning their masters and leaving you unscathed. The spell is very cheap, so you can make powerful and wide area effects with it. Be careful with runners of course, as allies can chase them into traps or other rooms full with undead. Try not to make the spells last too long, make them strong enough to give you the advantage without causing trouble. In general, you or your conjure can attack a turned undead three times before it becomes hostile again, so one viable strategy is to create a low-duration, low-cost Turn Undead spell and repeated cast it, causing the undead to never fight back.
As mentioned before, Alchemy is simply very powerful. Even at the max difficulty, a poison can still pack a good punch, and potion effects are way stronger than any normal difficulty character will need. Plus, you will have access to just about any effect you can imagine. Alchemy is the key to your personal power and survival, making it a key skill in a max difficulty game.
Be sure to check out the Alchemy page. There is a ton of info there on this complex skill.
A character who avoids combat stays alive. It doesn't get simpler than that. Sneak is very useful for when you don't have your Illusion skill up to par yet, and you'll have plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the powerful sneak attack bonuses. Plus, the omnipresent glowing eye lets you know if you have anything to worry about. The eye cursor has been criticized for breaking immersion, but at highest difficulty you can't afford to not know if anyone can see you.
Other Skills Unaffected By Difficulty
Security: Thank goodness that difficulty doesn't hurt the security skill! You won't be getting any good treasure without it.
Athletics: If you want to defeat anything on your own, be prepared to do a LOT of running. If you want to flee, be prepared to do more running. Your running speed is the same regardless of difficulty, but you'll find that it's more important than ever to keep your distance. When you level up, make sure to increase your Speed, or carry Fortify Speed gear, spells or potions.
Mercantile: You won't be doing as many dungeons on the max difficulty, so be prepared to squeeze every penny out of the stuff you have.
Speechcraft: At least your relations with other people remain the same. Speechcraft isn't really any more special at top difficulty, since most of the things you get have to be done through quests.
Acrobatics: Being able to leap high may be a good way for you to escape from danger if you are in a tight spot.
Mysticism: Mysticism has a very useful spell to offer on the hardest difficulty: Detect Life. Knowledge is power, and Detect Life lets you know where all your enemies lie. You can't afford to have anyone get the jump on you at the max difficulty. Learn detect life, and get it on your gear if you can. The rest of Mysticism isn't really needed, and is too expensive to use on a regular basis. While the school in general isn't really affected by difficulty, you'll notice the imperfect protection of Absorb/Reflect Magicka is a much larger liability than before. Enchanted weapons can make good use of the Soul Trap ability.
Restoration: There's no point in healing yourself for 10, when you're getting hit for 100. However, restoration is very useful for healing your allies, as they don't take extra damage from the difficulty settings. During large, multi-NPC battles like the Defense of Bruma, a 20 point AoE heal can keep your allies alive and kicking far longer than normal. Restoration also gives you access to Resist Magic, a very powerful method of protecting you from the hard hitting spells you'll encounter. You can also fortify your allies so they can deal with tougher enemies.
Marksman: Once again, the difficulty settings bring this skill to its knees. However, unlike the melee skills, it's much harder to die at range. Plus, the benefits of high end marksman skill lend themselves well to a high difficulty game. The zooming scope is very handy for long range poison attacks. The knockdown and paralyze effects require no special effort on your part, and give a distinct advantage to yourself and your allies. While you're sitting back and letting your pets do the bulk of the work, you may as well get in a few free hits. However, if you are using a bow enchanted with Weakness to Poison, you may want your target to remain standing to make the following poisoned shot easier, which means keeping Marksman skill below Expert level.
Alteration: When each dungeon is a large ordeal, you won't be loading up on too much treasure. Don't expect to get much use out of your Feather spells. The Shield spells are handy for enduring a few more hits, but it's nothing that Illusion can't help you avoid altogether. With the increased duration of combat, you may find that powerful Water Breathing/Walking effects are more handy than before. Water Walking can be a good way of escape if there is a body of water nearby and a good way to get a free kill if your enemy is stupid enough to chase you into the lake. All in all though, Alteration isn't really useful for a top difficulty game.
Block: At low skill levels, no way. Blocking simply won't deflect enough damage to keep you alive. You need to keep yourself alive by avoiding or controlling your enemies, not enduring them. Very high skill levels of block will stop more damage, but you're definitely going to be hurt a lot if you miss a block.
Light Armor and Heavy Armor: You aren't going to get very far with these skills, not when you can die in a few petty hits. While armor doesn't exactly hurt, you'll have a difficult time getting these skills up while staying alive. You simply won't have enough opportunity to train them. However, the benefits of high level armor skills will save you a few units of encumbrance, and a Journeyman will still have good efficiency with their spells while wearing armor. It is generally far more effective mid-to-late game to not use armor at all. Focus on getting your Speed attribute up. You don't deflect enough damage to use armor effectively, so it is best to dodge it.
Armorer: Difficulty doesn't change how much damage your armor takes. But since you can't afford to take hits, don't expect your armor to get too badly damaged either. As always, the high level benefits are nice, but don't expect to get them without really forcing your skill up or paying a lot for training. Armorer can be trained without taking damage by using Disintegrate on your equipment or firing several arrows into the ground and repairing the bow. However, since you can only afford to take the best loot, and it is rare that you ever buy anything (as custom spells and enchantments are much more effective than store bought), going to a blacksmith to repair your armor shouldn't even dent your gold reserves mid-game, and especially not late-game. However, recharging is a different story, as it costs 1 gold per charge. For powerful weapons, like Mehrunes Razor, it can cost huge gold expenditures to keep the weapon up to snuff. The Razor has an average of 8000 charge, and consumes 80 per hit. That means that if you go to a merchant for recharge, you will spend near 100 gold for every time you hit something.
Destruction: This skill is crippled at the top difficulty. It's only useful for :getting through the tutorial sewers. It's a big enough magicka drain for normal difficulty users, so forget it here. That is, unless you use the spell stacking technique mentioned above, but that makes things too easy for some. Note that it is possible to still use this school to give an advantage to your conjured creatures. If you can weaken the enemy's armor and weapons at a distance - even just a little, your conjured creatures will last longer. You can also use that same technique to squeeze in some Armorer training from the damaged weapons and armor. The various weakness spells can also help your summoned Atronachs and spectral summons (Ghosts, Wraiths, etc.) do more damage when they attack. With Weakness spells being some of the cheapest in the game Magicka-wise, it's a good idea to aid your allies as much as possible for those times when you cannot afford to be in the fray yourself.
Blade, Blunt, and Hand to Hand: A max difficulty game cripples these skills badly. Don't expect to be a raging solo barbarian, you're simply going to get creamed. Sneak attacks will still be somewhat useful, but it will be hard to get enough of them in to kill a foe. You might want to use a dagger to deliver poison if you find yourself in close combat, but that's about it.
As you can notice, all 3 endurance skills are very difficult to use at high difficulty. But in order to get your endurance, and thus your HPs up, you HAVE to use them at least a little. Same thing with the strength skills. It's a good idea to spend your training money on these skills, so that you won't die repeatedly trying to get them up elsewhere. Otherwise, the individual skill pages and the Increasing Skills article provide tips on how to increase these skills.
Equipping your Character
It's important that your character has the gear that you'll need to survive. Some items have amazing power on the max difficulty, and yet others will provide leaps and bounds to your survivability. There are several ways to go about arming yourself, as detailed below.
Weapons of Conjuring
Since conjuring is so powerful on the max difficulty, it only follows that additional sources for conjuring will be as well. Many of these items are accessible at low levels, which is just what you need at those vulnerable times.
Skull of Corruption: This artifact will summon an evil clone for 30 seconds on the afflicted target. The evil clone will go into a frenzy, and its first target is usually the cloned enemy he spawns next to. What better way is there to level the playing field? Just be warned that the corrupted clone will be hostile to you as well. Exercise some caution, as you can get yourself killed. The staff takes such a low amount of energy to use, it should be easy to keep charged. You can get it at level 5, from the quest at Vaermina's shrine. You'll have to clear a dungeon full of Daedra to complete the quest, so make sure you're loaded on poisons and the appropriate skills.
Sanguine Rose: Like the Skull of Corruption, the Sanguine Rose will spawn an enemy next to the afflicted target. However, the Sanguine Rose will instead spawn a random Daedra to fight for you. This is great at the low and medium levels of the game, as the spawned creatures are usually leagues above what you're fighting. However, you won't do well when this artifact spawns a puny Scamp to stop a rampaging Daedroth. The staff takes considerably more energy to get the job done than the Skull of Corruption, so it can be tricky to keep charged at times. This staff can be picked up at level 8, from the quest at Sanguine's shrine. This quest can be done with no combat at all, which is great. You may suffer some jail time though.
Staff of Worms: This staff will reanimate any corpse to fight for you for 30 seconds. You can't get much better than having an ally who's on par with his enemies. There are only two problems with this staff- first off, you need a corpse to begin with. Make sure you don't die in the process. Secondly, this staff will be VERY difficult to get. You have to go through all of the Mage's Guild quest line! More specifically, you must Confront the King.
Wabbajack: This zany, crazy item will turn any one creature into any of eight others, from sheep to ogre. Early in the game, this can be dangerous. There's a high chance that you'll change something into a creature that is way beyond your level. Late in the game, it's the other way around. If you strike a top end creature with this, they have nowhere to go but down. This artifact can be had already at level 2, from the quest at Sheogorath's shrine. Unfortunately it doesn't work on humans, so don't count on turning a bloodthirsty Marauder into a grasshungry sheep.
Weapons of Control
While not only referring to the command spells, Weapons of Control refers to any effect which helps control the course of combat in your favor. Some good effects include as 1sec paralyze, short duration demoralize, silence, or a short duration command. Most weapons with control effects are only available as random leveled loot; one exception is the Mage's Staff of Paralysis. You can create lots of useful enchanted weapons of this kind at an enchanting altar, and with some variants of sigil stones.
At the start of the game, you have no hope of surviving a direct confrontation with most things. You simply get beat around too hard, while not doing enough damage. Late in the game, however, there are a few things you can do to boost your ability to endure melee up to very respectable levels. While you shouldn't expect to take on 4 trolls and laugh it off, you will be able to survive a good number of hits. It'll help take off the pressure to avoid every single enemy you come across. You'll need to already be well established within the game before you can get your personal survivability up. Here are some things to look for:
Remember that the difficulty slider affects only the damage output. Enemy and friendly AI remains completely unchanged. Use this to your advantage. Wolves still attack in the same predictable jump and head shake pattern. Mages still have perfect aim with their spells. Marauders still spam power attacks. Cougars can still fly. If you are playing Oblivion at the highest difficulty, you should have racked up enough hours to predict your enemies' every move.
Armor: At the highest armor rating (85%), you will only receive 15% of the 6x hit damage. Imagine playing normal difficulty with 10% armor, and this is what you'll get at top difficulty with 85%. Getting this amount of armor is very difficult. You'll have to avoid much of combat, so your heavy/light armor skill is going to remain pretty low.
You have 9 equipment slots that can carry personal enchantments: 5 armor pieces, a shield, 2 rings and an amulet. Once you get access to enchanting, outfit 5 or 6 pieces with 9/10% shield. This will give you a 45-60% shield enchantment, and your armor can take you the rest of the way to 85% protection. If that doesn't cut it, do a 7th. Having more than 85% protection doesn't get you any extra benefits.
At mid levels and beyond, Sigil Stones will come with powerful armor or elemental shield effects. It takes three pieces of 25% fire shield armor for 75%, and your armor rating will bring the rest to 85%. It'll only take two enchants if your armor is tough enough. There aren't any particular pieces of high armor enchants to look for, it's all random leveled loot.
Reflect Damage: This is a tricky one, but a good one. Reflect Damage is a second layer of protection on top of armor. Not only does it protect you from melee damage, but it will bounce the damage back to the enemy as well! With a good layer of Reflect Damage, enemies will kill themselves faster than you ever could. Reflect Damage has no cap, so 100% Reflect Damage confers complete immunity to physical damage (not counting traps, arrows, or enchantments).
Resistance to Weapons: Yet another, third layer of melee protection. Only random loot and vampires have this property. No spells or potions are available, and on top of that, it is disabled at both the spellmaking and enchanting altars. Because it is extremely difficult to get this value up, it is not as useful as the other two properties.
Sooner or later, you may be struck by a spell that you can not avoid or stop. An important thing to protect yourself is to have a plan for surviving magic spells. There are several approaches to this, so take any one as your favorite.
Resist Magic: Quite possibly the easiest to get up, this effect is much like armor. It'll absorb a constant percentage of power from all hostile spells and effects that hit you. Get your resist magic to 80% or higher, and magic won't be much of a concern anymore. Unlike armor, this protection goes all the way up to 100%.
Reflect Spell: Hostile spells aimed at you have a percentage chance to reflect back, injuring the caster instead. This is more difficult to raise. You can't enchant gear with Reflect Spell even if you have a high Mysticism skill, but some unique gear comes with high amounts of reflection, making 100% Reflect Spell possible. Be warned though, that spells can only be reflected once. If an enemy reflects one of your own powerful spells, you will not be able to reflect it back again, and could be hurt badly.
Spell Absorption: Hostile spells that hit you have a percentage chance to be absorbed and turned into magicka. If you have the Atronach birthsign, you are halfway there. Custom enchantments are only possible using sigil stones (up to 15 points); this effect is disabled at the enchanting altar. This path is best for Atronach characters. Other characters may find it too difficult to get this high enough to matter. You can create potions with the effect, though.
Individual resistances aren't worth the effort. You'll get better results from the global effect of Resist Magic, as it protects you from elemental damage as well (fire, frost, shock).
This section will detail what you should expect and plan for as you progress through the game.
You just got your freedom, and the world is your oyster. Only this oyster has razor sharp teeth and poisoned claws.
- Your conjured creatures will be your shield and your sword. Use them as meat shields, and re-conjure them when they die. Try to progressively buy better conjures, as your Skeleton will not be enough to handle most enemies after level 2.
- The in-game Illusion spells will barely protect you past level 4-6, giving you little time to get into the arcane university. Work through those Mages Guild recommendations as quickly as possible.
- Keep a stock of damage health or multiple damage potions handy for tougher enemies. If your conjured ally needs help, toss some poison into the fray. Otherwise, feel free to stick back and pelt away with your weapon of choice.
- Most fights are expected to be 1v1 or 2v1. In large fights such as the siege of Kvatch, practice causing chaos with mass usage of demoralize and calming effects. Chaos is far more effective than swinging your petty toothpick.
- Be extremely careful of enemies that can kill you in 1 or 2 hits, which is most of them. Only Rats will stop giving you trouble early-game. Even Mudcrabs have a good amount of health up until mid-game.
- A simple damage health poison can severely hurt most creatures. It takes some time, but stick back and let the poison work. However, most poison will be worthless until you get your Alchemy skill up and find the uses for more and more ingredients. However, one way to bypass this is to go here, find a good recipe, and then acquire the components in-game.
You have faced some foes, cleared a dungeon or two, and are just beginning to make a name for yourself among the people and gods. Don't get cocky.
- Magic is a serious threat at the midgame. If you don't keep yourself safe(meat shields work well), or get your resistance up, you can find yourself toast. Some spells can kill you in 2 hits if you aren't careful.
- Weak hitters, such as mages and petty vermin, can still pose a nasty threat. Strong hitters like scamps, clannfear, and barbarians will rip you apart in seconds.
- Never EVER endure pain. Always stop it. Use demoralize, turn undead, calm, paralyze, and decoys to stay out of trouble. You can do wonders with an invisibility spell that only lasts a few seconds.
- Your conjured creature is going to start falling behind. 1v1 battles can be a problem, and 1v2 battles are going to be very painful. Get the Skull of Corruption or Sanguine Rose, you'll need two guys on your side to even the odds.
- Be prepared to go through poisons and restore magicka potions by the bucket-load. Harvesting such a large amount of ingredients will become a chore. Don't fret. As you get better at control, you'll find yourself using potions/poisons less and less. You may also want to visit alchemist shops whenever you pass by town, as Mercantile isn't affected by the difficulty slider - which means ingredients are still relatively cheap.
- The enchanted chest in the Arch-mages room can be useful for rare or dangerous to acquire items, Spidal sticks and Harrada for poisons and Flame Stalks for restore health potions
- There can be several fights where you find yourself getting hopelessly outnumbered. Practice the use of command spells. Aggressive fighters like clannfear or barbarians make powerful allies. When victory is yours and the spell fades, you still have your own conjured creature (or two) to fend him off.
- You can still hide all your strength on your person. Use stealth to avoid battles you don't want, and only bring out your forces when you need to fight. But, don't get yourself cornered between your opposition and what you left behind you.
- Try to find exploits or other components that immensely help you out. Exploits like 100% Chameleon, Reflect Damage, or Reflect Spell.
- It is imperative that you start to optimize for late-to-end game. Enemies will only get tougher. Find areas where you are lacking and improve on them. If you find you are always out of Magicka, get your Intelligence up. Focus on Intelligence, Willpower, Agility, and Speed. These will be the most useful attributes for you.
You have fought many battles, completed many quests, and have gained great power. Your ultimate rewards are out there waiting for you. It's just a matter of time before they're yours.
- Be a leader among your forces. Rally the weak, "recruit" temps, calm the impatient, heal the injured, and break the enemy's will to fight. Don't be a fighter yourself, that's what you have goons for!
- You have no need to hide now. With the right tricks and tactics, you can find your way through any normal encounter.
- You now have several options for advancement. Perhaps some of the endurance or strength skills have slacked long enough, and you need to get those up. Maybe you want to get yourself magic immunity, and be gone with those troubles. Maybe you'd rather focus on physical defense, or magic enhancements. It's really up to you, as you'll have some slack to play with.
- If you manage to beat the Dark Brotherhood and Mages Guild quest lines, you can have six people following you at once- five apprentices of the Arcane university and one murderer from the Dark Brotherhood sanctuary. On some versions of the game you only get 1 mage apprentice at a time to follow you, but it can be helped by not completing certain quests to keep more followers.
Also, if you have the Wizard's Tower plug-in and have completed the Knights of the Nine plug-in, you can get a knight and a Frost, Flame or Storm Atronach with you. And if you're playing in and have beaten the Shivering Isles, you can get two powerful bodyguards to follow you as well.
- Restore Magicka potions will be very handy for the large amount of spell options at your disposal. As you get more efficient at managing your battles, you'll only need to stock a decent supply on hand.
- Keep your conjuration spells up to date, so that you can always get a decent summoned fighter at your side.
- Make sure you have a good Charm spell as well! If you anger one of your allies, you might need a Charm to have him yield.
- Whether you do or do not have an army following you, you will be encountering more and more multi-NPC battles, and positioning is everything. It is important that you stay in the battle and heal your allies if you do not have a healer in the group. Also, even if you do have lots of followers, be sure to summon a creature to help them out. However, don't summon a creature who takes up lots of magicka, as if your allies become hostile to it, you'll need to summon another.
- Use your allies and enemies as meat shields. On the hardest difficulty, every bit of damage will severely hurt you. Even end-game, some mages might still one-hit kill you.
- Conjuration is the most important skill you will ever use. In addition to summoning an ally (meat shield), and damage dealt or taken by it is treated as if it was at normal difficulty.
- Try to get 100% chameleon as soon as possible. It is the most useful enchanment you will ever have. Namely, only environmental and AoE damage can hurt you. You can sneak-attack over and over. If enemies are scripted to attack you, they will never do non-AoE damage. Their attacks will go through you. However, one downside is that your summoned creature will not attack enemies unless they are hostile, and unless scripted, they are never hostile while you have 100% chameleon. To fix this simply hotkey one of your enchanted items and toggle it to start a fight.
- Early-game, use potions liberally, and collect every ingredient you can find. Mid-game, either use potions or restoration spells, which ever is stronger.
- Late-game, assuming you have 100% chameleon, you will pretty much never take any damage. If you do, use restoration spells, as your loot will be weighing you down and potions are finite and weighted.
- Save after every encounter. Wait after every encounter.
- Both early-game and late-game, Speed is more important than armor. The damage reduction gained from armor will rarely make enough of a difference. Its mitigation is so unsubstantial that dodging the attack completely is almost always the best way to go.
You have been there, you have done that. You have won. Congratulations! Maybe there's some piece of a collection you've been wanting to finish, or a skipped quest that needs doing. But that's nothing compared to what you have been through. You laugh in the face of an armada's opposition, as you bring your army of 8+ soldiers to bear. Even when vastly outnumbered, proper use of skills always turns the tide in your favor.