The Elder Scrolls

(EEMC) Hyac’s Mod List: Entry 2, NPC Appearance Overhauls & “Black Face Bug” Real Talk

Content of the article: "(EEMC) Hyac’s Mod List: Entry 2, NPC Appearance Overhauls & “Black Face Bug” Real Talk"

(EEMC) Hyac's Mod List: Entry 2, NPC Appearance Overhauls & "Black Face Bug" Real Talk

Reviewer's Specs: i5-4460 @ 3.2GHz | Radeon R9 280 w/ 3GB VRAM | 8GB of DDR3 RAM | Logitech G602 & MK320


Introduction – TL;DR

Let's talk about the "best" NPC Appearance mods! After that, let's talk about the most obnoxious but easily correctable bug you'll encounter in modded Skyrim: the dreaded "black face" bug.

Introduction

Last week's mod list was for mods I use to make the vanilla game's side quests a more enjoyable experience. This time, we're going to look at the mods I've chosen to make my game's NPCs look a little less like blobs and more like people, and why I chose those mods over other options available.

I'm also going to try and tackle the creation of a basic, entry-level walkthrough of the so-called "black face" bug: what causes it, how to fix it when it comes up, and even how to prevent it from happening in the first place — all without using the Creation Kit!


Have you had work done?

Since this list won't directly edit every single NPC in the game, we need a solid base to build on. Cathedral Player and NPC Overhaul gives us the best base we could ever hope for. Instead of editing NPC records directly, Cathedral's NPC overhaul collects assets from dozens of some of the community's best mods and combines them to replace almost every NPC-related mesh and texture file in the game. This alone makes every single character in the game look drastically better than they do in the base game, and because it doesn't include any edits to the NPC records themselves it does so with incredibly few to zero compatibility issues.

If you're just looking for a general improvement to every character in the game without worrying about plugins and NPC records then Cathedral Player and NPC Overhaul is absolutely the mod you want. There are alternatives out there, some of them pretty popular; but in my humble opinion those alternatives are dated and nowhere near as complete, polished, or compatible as Cathedral.

From here I use a very specific set of NPC mods to edit NPCs directly. My personal goal with this list isn't to make characters look "better". I'm not particularly interested in my NPCs looking more attractive, or more like modern people; my goal is to make characters look less like they've been procedurally generated, and more distinct — both in general and from each other.

  • I start this process with Enhanced Men of Skyrim, formerly Spiced Vanilla NPCs (which, for the record, I think was a better name), by saberlynx. It covers 70-odd NPCs, all of them male. Instead of taking a generic "make them better looking" approach, EMOS attempts to reconcile character appearances with their story and position while going to great effort to maintain the original vanilla aesthetic of each character.

  • Next comes the "Refine" series, by DylanJamesWasTaken. This author has covered almost 170 characters in his series, most of them spread between Whiterun and Markarth holds. The remaining characters are either Housecarls or directly involved in the Stormcloak rebellion story. Much like the other mods here, this series avoids diverging too drastically from the game's basic design. That means it compliments EMOS very nicely, and I'm very excited to see it continue.

  • I want to make a special note about the Housecarls Refine module. This one goes a little further in its edits than just their appearance: each of the housecarls now has more distinct equipment, and bestows their own unique perk when they travel with you based on the city they serve and the housecarl's individual personality and capabilities. It's a sadly under-explored aspect of follower mods, but I'm torn on it. On the one hand, I'd love to see every follower in the game get this kind of attention and expansion… but on the other I'd hate to see the series shift to just followers at the expense of a Riften Hold Refine, for example.

  • Now I'll admit that part of the reason I continue to use this last suite is habit — I've been using it since the Oldrim days, and just can't get used to other versions of some of its characters. But there's a reason for that: even after all this time, Bijin NPCs, Bijin Wives, and Bijin Warmaidens by rxkx22 are still second to none in striking a balance between attractiveness and realism in the too-few characters it touches (which between the three of them is 45 female NPCs). I had a legitimate crush on Bijin's version of Ysolda for the better part of a year, and no other mod has ever felt right for her since. This one breaks away a bit from my target of "Vanilla Plus"… but what can I say? I'm a complicated person.


That's it. That's my chosen suite of NPC appearance mods. But that short collection hardly justifies being called a "mod list", even a mini one. So I'd also like to talk about the other NPC mods I've used and what I liked about them. The reason I no longer use them is the same for each of them: the Refine Series is more extensive, and I wanted to avoid the time and effort of combining too many different appearance mods in one go.

  • Northbourne NPCs of Whiterun and Falkreath by Southpawe are an exceptionally designed pair of mods. They go deep, covering every unique NPC in their respective holds. They're just a hair too far away from the "Vanilla Plus" design I'm personally aiming for currently, though. And I mean this literally — the faces are great, but the hairs bump me a little with one or two of them being just ever so slightly too clean and salon-ready for my taste.

  • If you're looking to be impressed everywhere you turn at just how attractive the people of Skyrim are, then Pandorable is the author you want to see. Her work on NPCs from the base game covers 85 female NPCs, so it works perfectly alongside Enhanced Men of Skyrim. Her Dawnguard and Dragonborn modules are less gender-specific, covering (as near as I can tell) every unique NPC introduced by those DLCs. They're not the style I'm aiming for with my current load order, but they are head and shoulders above anything else I've ever used for the beautification of Skyrim's characters.

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Won't somebody please think of the children?!

So, real talk time: Skyrim's kids are ugly. And boring. And ugly. Like potatoes with limbs. You look at a child in Skyrim, and you just know there's literally no way a single one of them could possibly "grow up" to look like any adult Skyrim NPC. I fear for Skyrim's future, when it comes to be ruled by this new race of potato-sapiens. So what mods do I use to fix it?

  • Well, for the longest time I used RS Children Overhaul. It was the mod for child NPCs in the Oldrim days, and is still the most highly endorsed mod when you search "children" on the Nexus. But in my humble opinion RS takes the problem I noted with vanilla children — that they could never possibly grow up to look like adult NPCs — and overcompensates. They look much better… but they still don't look like they could ever grow up to look like their parents.

  • The mod I use for children is Simple Children, which absolutely lives up to its name. It works in much the same way as the Cathedral NPCs overhaul: by replacing the assets the game uses to "build" the characters in-game rather than editing their appearance manually. Children are now more expressive and individualised, and more importantly actually look like people.


Summary

Strengths:

  • The fact that these mods combine to cover so many NPCs, added to the fact that they're designed with a "vanilla friendly" aesthetic, leads to a consistent and immersive experience across the province.

  • The perks given to the player for bringing the housecarls along with them is a mechanic I'm stunned we haven't seen more often in Skyrim modding. It's so simple and elegant an improvement that it feels like it should have been part of the base game all along — and that's the best kind of mod, if you ask me.

Opportunities:

  • Being packed into BSA archives is a mixed bag in my opinion. In general modding practise, assets should almost always be packed into archives if possible, especially for larger mods; but this can lead to compatibility issues for users who don't know how to extract and overwrite them, which is a more common practice for NPC mods than others. I'll discuss this a little more later on.

  • While I deeply appreciate the perk system being implemented by the newest chapter of the Refine series and am excited to see it continue in future entries, I hope the author doesn't leave the rest of the game's characters behind to focus on followers alone.

Performance:

  • There are no performance notes for this one — if you can run the vanilla game, you shouldn't notice an impact with any or even all of these mods installed. My specs are included in the article header. They're decidedly mid-range.

Conflicts:

  • Due to the way that NPC edits are contained within a single record for each NPC, any mod that makes any edits to any of the affected NPCs will conflict. Fixing such conflicts with NPC records was my first step personally into a greater understanding of xEdit as a whole, though, and I'd like to take this opportunity to help others resolve the most common and overt of NPC conflicts: the dreaded "black face" bug.

  • The plugin for Simple Children requires a small bit of xEdit cleanup if you're using USSEP (you 100% should be, by the way) to avoid infinite loading screens. A detailed guide to this process can be found here.


Un-Cancel your Skyrim!

Introduction 2: Electric Boogaloo

The "black face" (or "grey face" or "dark face", if you wanna use a term with less baggage in 2020) bug is the most common type of NPC conflict reported here on Reddit or on the Nexus, probably because it's the most readily apparent conflict in-game. It's a hard bug to miss! It's also a problem that lots of newer or less experienced mod users find intimidating to resolve — I know that was the case for myself, anyway. A lot of the advice commonly given to resolve the issue is either incomplete or intimidatingly technical, and as a result I simply avoided NPC appearance overhauls entirely because they conflicted with far too many other mods I deemed "more practical". It wasn't until I spent some time in xEdit trying to resolve an issue with my beloved Serana that I became comfortable doing the same for other NPCs, and I learned that it's actually not as complicated as it might seem.

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For the record, I'm using Mod Organizer 2 and feel that it is by far the superior mod manager for Skyrim. The process described below should be helpful regardless of your mod manager, but the exact actions required may be marginally different. If you're trying to do this without a mod manager, then Stendarr preserve you.

The thing is that at its core, there's only ever one possible cause of the black face bug. Every time, 100% guaranteed: the facegen data for the NPC doesn't match the head part and face morph edits the game is loading from your load order. Now there's some terminology in here that doesn't mean anything to many neophyte mod users, so let's parse those terms and figure this out.

What Does It Mean?!

While there are exceptions, the vast majority of mods that edit an NPCs appearance do so through the use of a plugin. This plugin tells the game what the author wants the NPC's face to look like: the length of their nose, the shape of their eyes, their hairstyle, and every other minute detail of their appearance. These details can be found in xEdit under the Non-Player Character section of the plugin. There will be a record for the edited NPC containing lots of information, not just data controlling their appearance. But their appearance will be dictated by the groups of mesh pieces and numbers under a section called "Head Parts", and everything that follows. Everything before the Head Parts section determines aspects of that NPC other than their appearance: equipment, AI packages, any scripts that may be attached to them, etc.

The information in the plugin is only half of what's needed, though. Just like with a weapon or a piece of armour, the game needs a matching mesh file — the collection of vertices, edges, and faces that make up a 3D object in a video game — to display these changes in-game. The shape of this mesh is determined by the numbers contained in the .esp created by the mod author. In Skyrim, meshes are in .NIF format. This mesh also has embedded within the file paths to the skin, scar, etc. textures used for the character too, without which the mesh will display in its bare purple state in-game. Skyrim uses .DDS files for textures. Collectively, these mesh and texture files are referred to as "facegen data".

When the shape of the mesh being loaded by the game doesn't match what the game expects based on the plugin it's using, the NPC shows up in-game with a dark face as the game tries to reconcile conflicting data. This can happen for a few reasons. Maybe the author forgot to include the facegen data their plugin wants. If that's the case, you will need to open the Creation Kit and generate them yourself. More commonly, however, that data is simply being overwritten thanks to the way Skyrim loads assets.

Pack It In, Boys and Girls

There are two ways to package assets for a Skyrim mod. The first is the way that Bethesda uses for the base game, and which is used by larger mods such as Legacy of the Dragonborn or Beyond Skyrim Bruma: in a proprietary archive, similar in principle to a .RAR or .7z archive. The other is more commonly used by smaller mods: as loose files, organised in a specific file structure that mirrors what would appear in a BSA archive. Both forms have their advantages and disadvantages that are beyond the scope of this article, but have been discussed at length all over the internet. I won't go too deep into that here.That's what she said.

Assuming two mods contain conflicting files and are packaged the same way, either install or load order can be used to determine which one's assets will "win" a conflict: if both are using BSA archives, whichever one is loaded last will win; if both are using loose files, whichever mod is installed last will win. But no matter what order you install them or load their plugins, a mod that uses loose files will always overwrite a mod that uses an archive. This is highly relevant for NPC mods since mods in the category seem roughly evenly divided between the two types of packaging.

Time Records Can Be Re-Written

Let's say you want to use both Whiterun Hold Refine and Bijin Wives. The former uses a BSA archive, while the latter uses loose files. There are five combinations of install and load order you can have with this setup, but in every one of them the game will use Bijin's loose file facegen data — so effectively, install order is irrelevant. That means there are two relevant load orders:

  • You load Bijin Wives after Whiterun Hold Refine. In this case, the game will use Bijin Wives' plugin to decide what conflicting NPCs should look like. Because the game will use Bijin's facegen data no matter what, it will match the plugin being used and you will see no black face bug on conflicting characters.

  • You load Whiterun Hold Refine after Bijin Wives. In this instance, the game will use WHR's plugin information to decide what a character should look like but will use Bijin's facegen data. Because the two don't match, you will see the black face bug on any conflicting NPCs.

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Therefore, the easiest way to avoid the black face bug due to conflicts between an appearance mod that uses a BSA and one that uses loose files is to make sure that the loose files mod loads after the archived one. But what if you wanted to use the archived mod's appearance for an NPC instead of the loose files mod? Maybe you like WHR's version of Ysolda better than Bijin's. But loading WHR second doesn't give you the appearance you want, it just gives her a black face!

To accomplish this you'll need to crack open the BSA archive and pull out Ysolda's facegen data, then overwrite the loose files mod with your newly extracted ones. These files are located in meshes/actors/character/FaceGenData/FaceGeom. From here they'll be sorted by whichever plugin the NPC comes from; for characters in the base game, they'll be in a folder named for one of the master files: Skyrim.esm, Dawnguard.esm, Hearthfire.esm, or Dragonborn.esm. Specific facegen meshes are named for the character's base FormID, which you can determine very easily by finding the character in xEdit or by finding their page on UESP. Ysolda's would be 00013BAB.NIF. Don't forget the matching texture file! It has the same name as the mesh, just a different file type. Ysolda's would be 00013BAB.DDS. Find it using the same file path as the mesh, but replace ‘meshes' with ‘textures'.

So now you have the BSA mod loading first, then the loose files mod, and you have a pair of plugin-less loose files that you've installed over the loose files mod's files. You launch the game, find Ysolda… and her face is still all dark and messed up.

Remember, we're loading the loose files mod (Bijin) after the archived one (WHR); so it's using Bijin's plugin, but WHR's facegen data. You need to move WHR's edits after Bijin's without moving the entire plugin; if you do that you'll fix Ysolda, but end up breaking everyone else. The quickest way to do this is to find Ysolda in the NPC section of WHR's plugin, right-click on her, choose "Copy as override into…" and either move this record into your general compatibility patch (ie your Smashed Patch) or create a new plugin for all your NPC edits.

Doing this will now mean that the only mod now editing Ysolda is Whiterun Hold Refine. Any other mod that edits other aspects of Ysolda, like her combat behaviour or her daily routine, will be replaced in-game with your appearance mod and will need to have its records carried forward into your compatibility patch. To do this, look through the entries in Ysolda's record above the Head Parts entry. Compare the information in each column to the column on the far left (Skyrim.esm), to determine which mods are changing which elements of the character. Most of the time, you can safely combine as many non-appearance edits made to a character as you want. But don't try to combine edits from multiple appearance mods, of you'll need to regenerate your facegen files with the Creation Kit.


Summary

The bottom line is that the easiest way to avoid the black face bug from the get-go is to find a simple, uncomplicated list of appearance mods that have as little overlap as possible. I've found the best way of doing this is to choose an author whose work you like and use only their mods.

But with the information provided above you should be able to fairly easily layer multiple NPC mods to get the final result you want, limited only by the amount of time and effort you're willing to put into the process.


Final Thoughts

Have questions about the black face issue that this review doesn't help with? Is there a more comprehensive set of NPC appearance mods out there I haven't tried? Did I miss any mods that work well with the ones I'm using? Please let me know!

Skyrim belongs to the Modders!

~ Hyac

Source: reddit.com

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