This page details an overview of Armor, Resistance & Absorption mechanics in Skyrim, including how you should pair them to make a powerful defensive build.
Armor, Resistance & Absorption Mechanics in Skyrim
As with any build, you’ll want to gain a decent amount of health as a buffer for taking any type of damage. However, investing primarily in health while ignoring armor rating and other resistances is a bad idea. After all, if you can mitigate incoming damage of various types, your health will benefit as a consequence. There are several resistance statistics which reduce damage; physical damage is mitigated by your armor rating, while elemental resistances and magic resistance combine to help you weather elemental damage and magic damage (there’s a lot of overlap between the two). In addition, you have magic absorption and various other perks that help deflect damage, but this section will focus on helping you understand armor rating, magic resistance, elemental resistances and magic absorption.
In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, determining your damage resistance was pretty straight-forward; you had an armor score, and that was how much damge you resisted from every attack, capping out at 80%. In Skyrim, the damage resistance cap is still 80%, but now you have this brute number hidden behind a fancy armor rating stastistic.
The more/better armor you have on, the higher your armor rating. Due to how damage resistance is calculated, however, the more pieces of armor (including a shield) you’re wearing at once, the lower the armor rating score you need to hit that magical 80%. If you’re wearing four pieces of armor (helmet, armor, gloves, boots) and a shield, you only need an armor rating of 542. However, you won’t always have a shield equipped - dual wielding, casting spells and archery are all aspects of the game that interfere with this. The more common number to shoot for then (and the overall goal put forward in this guide) is 567 - the armor rating you need to reach to hit 80% damage resistance with four pieces of armor and no shield.
When you consider how much you can improve armor via the crafting skills (Alchemy, Smithing and Enchanting) it’s fairly easy to hit this mark. For example, four pieces of Dragonscale Armor can get you up to 1000+ armor rating with only one perk invested into Agile Defender. Even lesser suits of armor can reach the cap, especially when properly upgraded, with a few extra perks thrown in. In any case, the number to aim for is 567, so keep that in mind.
Elemental resistances come in three forms; Fire, Frost and Shock. Nords start out with a 50% resistance to Frost, while Dark Elves (Dunmer) start out with a 50% resistance to Fire. Unfortunately, given the limited number of items that can bear these enchantments (boots, ring, necklace, shield), most characters will have to settle for 56% (the maximum amount you can get from enchanting your own gear) in each, which is well shy of the 85% maximum. Fortunately, however, there are other ways to shore up your resistances, as detailed below.
Magic resistance is more straight-forward than armor rating, coming in straight percentages. There’s only one type of magic, too, and since most sources of elemental damage are magical (including dragon breath!), magic resistance is your best defense against elemental attacks, too. The effects are cumulative, meaning that if you hit the cap of 85% magic resistance you’ll have that much damage reduced, then the remainder will be further reduced by your specific elemental resistance, where applicable. So, if you take 500 damage from a source and have 85% magic resistance, that’ll be reduced outright to 75 damage. If you then have 56% elemental resistance that’ll be further cut to 33 damage. That 500 damage doesn’t look so scary anymore, does it?
Unfortunately, magic resistance is even harder to enchant on your gear than elemental resistance, applicable only on shields (which you won’t always be using), rings and necklaces, and in inferior magnitudes than elemental resistances. However, there are other sources, the best of which is Breton Blood, which grants Bretons a permanent 25% Magic Resistance. On top of this you can permanently get 15% magic resistance from the Agent of Mara active effect, obtained by completing the quest The Book of Love. The Lord Stone will further grant you 25% Magic Resistance while active, bringing your passive total up to 65% if you’re a Breton, or 40% if not. In the Alteration tree you’ll find the aptly named Magic Resistance perk, whose three ranks can bestow you with a total of 30% magic resistance, although it’ll cost five perks in total to acquire this.
Altogether this allows Bretons to get the magic resistance perks in the Alteration tree and enjoy a passive, permanent 70% magic resistance, which is frankly good enough for most encounters, especially when paired with some elemental resistances. All other races will need to supplement their magic resistance scores with the Lord Stone.
Magic absorption is a bit of an odd statistic, mostly because it’s poorly-worded in game. For example, the “Atronach” perk in the Alteration tree reads “Absorb 30% of the magicka of any spells that hit you”. Fair enough, you might think: so if a spell that costs 30 magicka hits you, you’ll absorb 10 magicka, right? Well, no. Instead, this effect has the stated chance to negate all damage from said spell, and if successful, it’ll add the full magicka cost of that spell to your magicka pool. Atronach’s 30% magic absorption is nothing less than a 30% chance to negate any spell. Best of all, it’s calculated before magic resistance and elemental resistance, providing a third aegis protecting you from nasty spells.
This sounds all too good to be true, and that’s because it is. Unfortunately, it’s rather uncommon. You won’t be able to enchant it onto gear, and there are only two ways to get it more or less permanently; the “Atronach” perk, and The Atronach Stone. Still, these effects combine to give you 80% Magic Absorption, which is damn near proof against most magical effects in the game, and in combination with a high magic resistance score and elemental resistances, it’ll make enemy spells almost a non-issue.