The Vortex approach to load order sorting
Why can I not manually adjust my plugin load order by dragging and dropping like in other mod managers?
To answer that question, let us focus on what the end goal of any sort of load order management is: to create a stable setup.
The drag and drop approach
Dragging and dropping plugins freely is one way of achieving a stable load order and likely the main way many veteran modders of Bethesda Games (The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series) will have employed in the past. The downside of this approach, however, is that it requires knowledge of mods, plugins, the way they interact, and ultimately: the mod content itself.
To determine a working load order is a lengthy process that requires research into mod descriptions, forum posts, and at times even into the plugins themselves via external tools such as xEdit.
While this may be fine for experienced veterans, newcomers or intermediate modders might find it daunting and often difficult to decide where to drag a given plugin.
Further, mod authors will often be overly cautious in their recommendations regarding where their plugin needs to go in the load order and simply opt to tell users that it needs to load last. However, except for extreme fringe cases, there is generally no need for a plugin to load dead last in the load order. All that matters is that it loads before/after other plugins that conflict, or otherwise interact with it - which to determine requires knowledge about both plugins in question.
Given the sheer volume of available mods, it is inconceivable that mod authors could possibly test their plugin against every other existing plugin, let alone account for future plugins.
Lastly, it is also possible that information provided by a mod author or someone compiling a working load order at one point is simply outdated and no longer accounts for the most recent versions of plugins by the time you read about it.
Ultimately, without knowing about the mod content, the edits a given plugin makes etc. you are fighting an uphill battle in creating a stable load order with drag and drop.
The Vortex approach: automatic load order sorting combined with custom rules
With Vortex, on the other hand, you are delegating load order management to a powerful tool: LOOT - the Load Order Optimisation Tool - designed to automatically sort your plugins in a sensible way. Not only that, but LOOT will also alert you to issues in your load order such as missing patches (patch plugins) that you need in order to make two or more mods compatible with each other.
Without LOOT, you are relying on your own knowledge of mods and plugins in order to determine, which mods need patches in order to be made compatible, which mods need to load before one other, but after yet another mod etc.
In essence, LOOT is a curated masterlist that is constantly being updated by mod authors and knowledgeable users alike. You can think of it as a load order management tool powered by the combined load order related knowledge of thousands of users.
In the vast majority of cases, you will be perfectly fine with relying on LOOT to sort your plugin load order automatically.
In very rare cases where it might be necessary, however, you are still able to override LOOT by applying a custom rule for a plugin to e.g. load before another plugin even though LOOT decided on the reverse order. Please note, that by doing so you are essentially saying “in this case, I know better than LOOT and this plugin definitely needs to be loaded before/after that other plugin”. In those cases, you can create a custom rule to accomplish the same thing as with manual dragging and dropping of plugins. The difference, however, is that custom rules are more flexible.
Drag and drop
Let’s say we have a plugin load order, and we know that “Example Plugin 1.esp” has to load before “Example Plugin 2.esp” (= “Example Plugin 2.esp” needs to load after “Example Plugin 1.esp”).
To accomplish that with drag and drop, we would drag “Example Plugin 2.esp” and drop it in the position after “Example Plugin 1.esp”. Relying on this system and manual load order management, however, means that we will keep those two plugins in load order position 20 and 21 for the foreseeable future. There is, however, no technical reason neither for the two plugins to remain in those exact two slots nor for “Example Plugin 2.esp” to load right after “Example Plugin 1.esp”. Remember: all that matters is that “Example Plugin 2.esp” loads somewhere after “Example Plugin 1.esp”.
In the rare case that Vortex/LOOT will not automatically sort a plugin correctly, we would simply create a custom rule to override LOOT like in the example below.
And that’s it. This custom rule will ensure that “Example Plugin 2.esp” will be loaded after “Example Plugin 1.esp”. Whenever your plugins are sorted now, this rule will hold. It does not mean that both plugins will necessarily stay together (which is not needed) or that they won’t move in relation to other plugins (which is technically irrelevant), but it will ensure the correct load order relationship between those two plugins.
Custom rules / manual load order manipulation
We have established that both, the traditional drag and drop as well as the custom rule approach allow you to manipulate your load order manually when needed.
However, only very rarely should this be the case and you should be able to mod your game with very few custom rules like in the example above.
To give you an example, in our own heavily modded installations of e.g. Skyrim Special Edition with ~250 mods installed via Vortex, we did not have to create a single custom rule to create a stable setup.
Manually tinkering with your load order should be the absolute exception, not the rule. It also makes it a lot harder for people to help you troubleshoot any potential issues you might experience, as a load order that has been manually created via drag and drop is more prone to errors.
To sum it up, given our years of first-hand experience with not only modding various games, but with actual development of mod managers and mod management tools, we have arrived at the conclusion that the best way to reliably come up with a stable load order is a combination of automation and the rare, exceptional custom rule, rather than the previously established drag and drop system as a base for load order management.
We appreciate that your opinion(s) may differ, and we have heard many of you express opposing viewpoints. However, after evaluating the input we received, we found that this reaction is often down to the user in question simply being accustomed to the established drag and drop system, rather than an actual, technical reason.
Ultimately, we want to move towards a future where load order optimisation is entirely automated and constantly enhanced/maintained by our community of millions of modders, rather than taking a step back to the previously established drag and drop system. If you are in doubt, please consider giving the automatic load order sorting Vortex provides a shot and you might discover that it takes a huge load of work off your shoulders.
If you do encounter an actual technical issue with the automatic load order sorting, please, consider contributing to LOOT directly and do not hesitate to inform us providing concrete examples of plugins that are being sorted in the wrong order via our Vortex support forums.