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There are six difficulty settings in Skyrim:

  1. Novice
  2. Apprentice
  3. Adept
  4. Expert
  5. Master
  6. Legendary

How do these affect the gameplay?

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I've noticed quest rewards differing from those posted online - I suspect the difficulty affects those as well. –  Yamikuronue Nov 14 '11 at 14:15
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4 Answers

up vote 30 down vote accepted
+100

According to the UESP, the difficulty level affects the damage you deal and the damage you receive:

Difficulty | Damage Dealt | Damage Taken
-----------------------------------------
Novice     | x2           | x0.5
Apprentice | x1.5         | x0.75
Adept      | x1           | x1
Expert     | x0.75        | x1.5
Master     | x0.5         | x2
Legendary  | x0.25        | x3

Based on this, there are a few things you can extrapolate as the difficulty level increases:

  • Skills based on damage increase more slowly, and in turn, the slower you level up (thanks yx.)
  • Followers can be knocked out, and in turn, killed, more easily
  • Your effective health decreases
  • Enemies' effective health increases

Possible note: Skills aren't based on damage, they are based on hits. Increasing the difficulty means that you have to hit each enemy more times, which speeds up skill growth. This is very noticeable when you increase the difficulty as my one-handed increased about 6 levels after 2 dungeons

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Wouldn't your last point imply that the level cap is different depending on the difficulty? –  StrixVaria Nov 14 '11 at 11:10
    
@StrixVaria I don't follow. It would just mean lower difficulties would hit the level and skill caps faster. –  user3389 Nov 14 '11 at 11:52
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@TomWijsman Not sure on what you're basing that modifying friendly fire damage doesn't make programming sense: it's a pretty common tactic in RPGs, particularly in BioWare games like Dragon Age. –  user3389 Nov 14 '11 at 13:09
4  
I'm kind of disappointed at the poor AI in this game, I hoped that turning up the difficulty would improve it, its a shame it won't –  z ' Nov 14 '11 at 13:35
2  
Well the slower leveling speed point is still correct since a lot of skill improvements are damage based. If you deal less damage, you will gain skills at a slower rate. –  z ' Dec 8 '11 at 19:07
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One thing I noticed is that at lower difficulties, when your follower uses a charged weapon, the weapon does not expend charges. At higher difficulties, it does, and so they start to require constant maintenance.

For example, I gave my follower a sword with +20 fire damage. Played a while on adept, and after hours and hours of use, its charge never went down. Same with staffs.

Knocked the difficulty up to Master, and the charges depleted so fast that we couldn't get through a single floor of a dungeon. It's gets pointless to equip enchanted equipment or staffs to your followers - just becomes another soul-hungry mouth to feed.

I think charges also don't deplete at the expert difficulty. Not sure. Haven't checked.

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I have it set to Adept, and the same zombies that I one shot killed with no problem at level 1 are now kicking my ass and shot killing me at level 20. I think the game does level matching, and if you don't develop the right fighting attributes the game gets insanely hard even on medium settings.

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Slightly true. You do need to invest in the right perks. But you can "waste" a lot and it still won't be insanely hard. For example I'm level 40 and have all the Smithing, most of the Enchanting and most of the Speech trees and still don't run into too much trouble. And I'm a mage. It does depend on the dungeon though. –  Coomie Dec 13 '11 at 1:56
    
Wait till you meet a boss, like a Master Vampire. Those already have 2x the HP and damage (just my rough estimation) compared to average monsters. I eventually gave up after reloading 40 times and went back from Expert to Adept. I hated it, but I figured the game difficulties are just very crudely done. It isn't skill to manage to kill something by landing 10 blows without ever getting hit once, it's just luck. :( –  faB Dec 14 '11 at 12:57
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To add to this answer:

Patch 1.9 adds a sixth difficulty level: Legendary. It reduces damage dealt by the player to x0.25 and increases damage taken by the player to x3.

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protected by Community Jan 18 '12 at 12:38

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