The Dovakiin's Easy Mode

I really was hoping not to start over again in Skyrim, but given that I'm running two new add-on expansions and a whole new host of mods, I have doubts to my old save game viability.  I loaded up my furthest-along-yet-still-working-character, pretty much a mage with no qualms about wearing heavy armor, and encountered a courier running around in his loincloth and a non-animating bear that slid around on the ground like a stuffed bear on invisible wheels.
Yeah, it'd probably be for the best that I start over.

So I opted for a sword-and-boarding (one-handed, block), heavy armor wearing warrior who does his own smithing, and I'm encountering very smooth progress.  Too smooth: this is easy mode.  Smithing guarantees me both cutting edge armor and weapons, granting me plenty of physical damage and physical damage resistance, and my Breton's natural magical resistance takes care of the non-physical aspect.  Is he an unstoppable juggernaut?  Well, the rare higher-level bandit is able to do enough damage I may need to quaff a health potion or two but, in practice, I've been able to stockpile a lot more potions without using them than my other characters.

So my Skyrim Snit continues in the form of a catch22.  If I play a physical juggernaut configuration, progress is easy, but the game is kinda boring because it's trivial in nature.  If I play a less direct character, such as a sneaky assassin or a mage, progress is slowed by needing to play carefully and the occasional death and reload, and this leads to the boredom of slower content consumption.

Perhaps the stone that tips the scale is that I seem to be encountering more quests relating to being sneaky than I was expecting.  Two residents of Whiterun want me to sneak something for them.  Even The Companions, the supposedly-unsneaky Fighter's Guild equivalent of Skyrim, has me doing a sneaking mission.  On the other hand, it's not as though my juggernaut character is unable to sneak: there's spells, enchantments, and potions that make doing this possible even without the benefit of the sneak skill.  However, this conflict is enough to instill doubt in the decision to stick with him.

Finding My Preferences

My first Skyrim character (now sealed away in a saved game that crashes upon loading) was grown naturally.  I sided with whatever I preferred at the time while playing him, as the developers themselves intended.  In a way, this could be seen a psychological test of sorts, your first Skyrim character being an unbiased answer.

Many of those decisions I stick with for all my characters:
  • I take all three of the trade skills (alchemy, enchanting, and smithing) because there's little reason why not, they're helpful regardless of your character build.  Much like my experience in Dungeons of Dredmor, I find that being able to collect and refine items into other items introduces some additional depth on the inventory level, which I like.
  • I take conjuration because (contrary to destruction or illusion) it is a relatively effective skill to have even when facing end game foes: your character may be a deadly combatant in and of themselves, but it never hurts to pull an additional two Dremora Lords out of your pocket.  That, and it's cool.
The rest of the skills taken by my original character are a point of contention for me, and here's where my alternate characters will vary:
  • Archery, or some other method of doing damage?  The notching of the shaft and hurtling projectiles of death from afar in Skyrim is very satisfying.  However, while cosmetically cathartic, it's archery that initially ruined the game for me.  The trouble emerged in the end game where, through a combination of trade skills and skill perks, I had a bow capable of doing about 400 damage per shot, which became about 1200 damage if it was a sneak attack.  I was able to kill even the mightiest of dragons and clear out whole forts of belligerents before they even noticed me.  How boring!   Perhaps the only damage method immune to the effect would be destruction magic or bound weaponry that cannot be smithed, but is it worth giving up the fun of possessing, enchanting, and smithing weapons to avoid a faulty balance in Skyrim's end game?
  • Light armor, or some other form of mitigation?  I originally went this route because I did not want to be weighed down by heavy armor but knew that recasting alteration-based shields constantly was bound to get annoying.  I think I do prefer to have armor, and I do not even particularly mind if it's smithed: I'm not looking to die, just not to have my opponents go down without an entertaining fight.  In the long run, the choice of armor is a pointless comparison, as picking up the conditioning perk from heavy armor reduces the weight (and possibly sneaking impact) of heavy armor to zero, you can even get a birthstone to do it for you right away.  Light armor's viability comes into play when you consider that eventually you will reach an armor point cap regardless of what you use, especially with smithing, so there's no reason to shun it over heavy armor.  The influence of enchanting mostly mitigates the advantage of unique armor sets, so armor is wholly a cosmetic choice.
  • To sneak, or not to sneak?  Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of aggroed enemies, or avoid taking arms against the sea of spawns and, by sneaking, avoid them, or kill them in their sleep, to fight no more?  Honestly, this bastardization of the Bards' words is hardly necessary: I do so love to eavesdrop on my enemies custom dialogues that I know that sneaking is a strong preference, the only problem emerging when I can't endure a toe-to-toe fight because I spent too much time focusing on being a good sneaker and not enough time focusing on being good in a fight.
There's just enough wiggle room there to introduce the catch22 illustrated above: go physical offensive/defensive heavy, the game is trivialized.  Go physical offensive/defensive light, the game is slow.  Neither solution is wholly satisfactory.

Yet, perhaps the solution is simpler than I initially thought.  Maybe no choice is necessary, as the game balance is loose enough to fudge my way into getting everything on the menu!
  • If I truly want to avoid how smithing breaks end-game weapon balance, that's a personal choice on my part, and I could either avoid smithing weapons (a temptation I doubt I could resist) or just avoid using smithable weapons (relying instead on spells or bound weaponry for damage).   
  • If armor is a cosmetic choice, I think I'd prefer heavy armor, as daedric looks rather awesome, though some light armors are not without similar aesthetic appeal.  
  • I like sneaking, so I should sneak, and stop balking at the fact I'm sneaking while wearing full daedric plate.  The game designs themselves would seem to condone this, as they introduced several means to circumvent any issues with sneaking in heavy armor.  I don't need to worry about investing much perks in it, nor do I necessarily need to perform sneak attacks, depending on my choice of tactics.
This leaves only one tangent to have qualms about: the choice of primary skill related to doing damage.

Damage, The Main Faultline Of My Cognitive Dissonance In Skyrim

If I'm avoiding ruining the end game for myself with smithed weaponry, I'm left with the question of whether I should go with bound weapons or destruction magic.  Conjuration alone is not going to cut it, as conjured pets have a mind of their own and I need a means to deal with foes who get in my face.  Unfortunately, I can't do both archery and destruction magic, because they have the same purpose in the game (inflicting damage) which introduces a lot of conflicts:
  • The game adjusts the difficulty with your overall skill points, so picking up a bunch of skills that do the very same thing and whose potency do not stack is a direct reduction of your potency versus the escalating difficulty.  You'll eventually catch up in the end, but the mid-game balance can become very awkward.
  • Perk points are at a premium, especially early-to-mid game, so it's wise not to spend them on redundant things you'll never use.
  • There's not really a need to switch between multiple attack methods in a fight.  A bow works just fine up close, and there's little need to have your destruction spells out if you're already inflicting damage via another means.
So, even though I'm sure I would enjoy the added variety to have magic and archery (and even melee, while I'm at it), a choice does need to be made.

End game destruction magic is clearly less overpowered than smithed weapons, as this demonstration establishes.
Although, to do as poorly on Shadowmere as he did here, I think that horse has some heavy magic resistance.

In terms of overall potency, once you remove smithing from the equation, the difference between destruction and archery may be smaller than you know.  Destruction magic has an upper hand in area of effect potential, and does not necessarily even need to cost mana to use once you have the right enchantments.  Yet, even a smith-proof bound bow can actually do more single target damage per second once you factor in a good base damage, archery perks, the direct archery skill level influence (which can be boosted above 100), and a final deadly 3x multiplier for a sneak attack.   It's this same multiplicative property that makes smithing weapons so overpowered in the end game.  Without smithing, both methods of doing damage are well-balanced enough you can't pick a clear winner from sheer effectiveness alone.

I'd have a better chance of choosing when regarding the two skills in terms of gameplay mechanic.  Destruction-borne magical damage carries mana overhead (at least initially, prior to enchanting influence) but has a variety of spectacular effects and a powerful area of effect influence.  Archery is more of a precision device, the pros being a better range (due mostly to projectile speed) and compatibility with sneak attacks.  Destruction does magical damage, archery does physical damage.  They may both involve slinging projectiles, but they have a very different means to go about it.

There will be no easy, sweeping answer, not in terms of the potency of archery versus magic, not in terms of how either skill plays.  I can't even side with a "gut" reaction here, as the notch and release of a summoned bow and arrow is every bit as satisfying to me as unleashing the Skyrim equivalent of the Kamehameha wave
However, at the moment, I've been able to nitpick my way to wanting to side with Destruction magic:
  • Because I'm avoiding smithing my weapons, it's easier to imagine a mage who prefers to stick to his spells than a weapon-user who prefers to stick to bound weapons.
  • Sorcerors, heavy-armor using magic users who avoid using weapons, are actually in the Elder Scrolls canon, and are the closest thing the Skyrim has to a fantasy mystic, which is always a cool concept.
  • If I don't have any archery skill/perks, it removes the temptation to switch over to a smithed bow later on.
  • As I already know I'm taking conjuration, I've already got physical damage covered (via the Dramora Lords I can get at later levels) so I might as well have my Dovakiin slinging magical damage.
I'll still have doubts. 

Dragon shouts, per usual, will sit by the wayside; as a spell-like effect there's not as much place for dragon shouts when you're busy slinging spells as there would be if your hands are busy holding a two-handed weapon.  (Fortunately, there are still quite a few shouts that work well for me.) 

I'll have to cheat in my entrance exam into The Compansions, as even hitting Viklas with a summoned weapon triggers the, "We don't brook that magic junk here," response, despite my being a heavy armor wearer.

However, in terms of finding "the most satisfactory" solution, this is probably the best I can do... at least until I find something critically wrong with playing a Sorceror in Skyrim.

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