Missing Masters

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A "mod" is a package (archive) of related files that make some change to the "vanilla" (unmodded; as delivered by the publisher) game. Within a "mod" package can be a number of "asset files" which add to or replace the existing vanilla assets (meshes, textures, sounds, animations, XML files, etc.), and one or more "plugin files" that tell the game about the existence and use of the new assets and where they are placed in the game. The "plugin" files are the only ones that appear in the "load order", which determines the sequence in which the game engine loads them into the game from the "top" (lowest numbered) to the "bottom" (highest numbered) position in the sequence. "Plugin" files have one of two possible file extensions: ESM and ESP. There is generally only one ESM file, but there may be any number of ESP files (including none). The ESM files are loaded first, and are considered "masters" to the ESP files that depend upon them. You should find all of your ESM files at the top of your "load order".

(For the technical distinctions between an ESM and an ESP, see this ESP vs ESM wiki article. Remember that the capabilities of "Construction Set" tools vary by game but the concepts related to the same game engine endure.)

The Issue

A "master file" is one which must be present for another plugin to be able to utilize it's resources. The files which require some "master file" are known as "dependencies", because they "depend" upon the assets of the "master". Typically these "masters" have an ESM file extension, but this is just a general guideline. A file is technically considered an "ESM" because it has that flag enabled in the file header, which is normally not visible to the player. Thus an ESP file can have the flag enabled and be treated as if an ESM file to include loading with other ESM files at the top of your "load order". In addition, an ESP file from one mod may be required by another ESP, in which case it is also considered a "master" even though in all other respects it is "just an ESP" and may appear lower in the "load order" ... but still should be above any dependent plugins.

The game engine requires that a "master" be loaded before a "dependency" or it generates an error. Usually this results in a "Crash To Desktop" (CTD). If a "master" file is missing when the game starts, this CTD can occur during or even before the "loading screens" are displayed. If you get as far as the game's main menu once it has finished "loading DLC content", you are not dealing with a missing master file problem.

"Dependency" files are supposed to include a list of their "master" files in the file header. This list can then be read in turn by tools for sorting the "load order", such as LOOT. Some plugins are "patch files" which modify other plugins. They depend upon the presence of the other plugins to effect their changes, yet may not have them as "direct masters" or otherwise included in their list of "masters". These "indirect masters" may need to be manually identified and either added to the plugin's list or that information provided to the sorting tool. If they are not included, the sorting tool cannot determine the proper file relationships, which leads to CTDs and plugin conflicts. Therefor it is important to check that each active plugin has all of the "masters" related to it also active and identified.

Programs and Tools


Finding which masters that a plugin depends upon are missing is fairly simple. However, first you must disable your "bashed" or "merged" patch and enable any plugins they deactivated. (See the S.T.E.P. Guide to Merging Plugins which covers both the "bashed" and ""merged" approaches to "patch files".) Otherwise you may get much of your "load order" considered as "masters" simply because part of the plugin you are concerned with is in that patch file, and indirectly requiring all the other plugins included in it.

  1. Open your 'xEdit' tool (i.e. FNVEdit). A "Master/Plugin Selection" window will be displayed.
  2. Right-click in any blank space of that window and a "context menu" will be displayed, overlaying the list of plugins.
  3. Choose the "Select none" option. This will "uncheck" all of the displayed plugins in your "load order". The context menu window will close, and the "Master/Plugin Selection" window will refresh with all the check-boxes "empty".
  4. Now scroll down the list of plugins and enable (Left-click in) the checkbox of the plugin you wish to check.
    Note that ONLY one plugin should be checked.
  5. Left-click on the "OK" button at the bottom right of the window.
  6. 'xEdit' will automatically load all the required masters of that selected plugin, and will report an error if one is missing from your "load order".

When the "background loader" is finished (message in the right-hand pane at the bottom of the "Messages" tab), in the left-hand pane you should see all the masters referenced by the plugin, along with the plugin name itself (which will be listed last).

Notice that an ESM file can have other ESM files as masters as well. An ESP plugin may require other ESP files in addition to ESM files as masters. This is especially true where a "patch file" is concerned.

When a "missing master" error is reported, it can mean one of two things. Either the file is not active/installed, or the name is not what is expected by the plugin. In the first instance, you must install or activate the missing plugin. In the latter instance, you may need to add or change the new name of the "missing" master.

Changing the name of a "missing master" most often occurs when a "merged" version of the master plugin has been created to reduce the number of active plugins required. The content is now in one instead of several files. A typical example of this is an "All DLC" version using one merged file instead of one for each of the individual DLCs. The plugin is still looking for the individual DLC files as masters.

  • Select the plugin file. A "context menu" will be displayed.
  • Right-click on "Add Masters", and check the boxes of all the plugins listed. If a merged plugin is replacing a number of individual plugin files, then uncheck those it replaces instead.
  • Left-click on the "OK" button.
  • Select the plugin again. A "context menu" will be displayed.
  • Right-click on "Sort Masters". This will sort them to match their current sequence in your "load order". Generally experienced mod authors have their "patches" for other plugins with the correct/expected load order in them already, so consider their sequence carefully before you override their expectations. Record their load order and carefully test the result of resorting.
  • Exit the tool and save. When you exit the tool if there were any changes made to the plugin it will automatically display a "Save Files" window and list those plugins that changed. Select (highlight) the ones you wish to save and Left-click on the "OK" button.
  • Reload the plugin following steps 1-6 above, and check it for errors.

If there are unresolved references then the plugin was made badly and cannot be fixed automatically. Perhaps you can get this kind of missing information added. GECK/CKIT will do this exact same error checking if you load and save the plugin in it (though possibly only with the tool's "Powerup" addon).


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