At the start of the game you just pick your race and appearance.
There is a huge amount of tweaking that can be done, but to be honest you will probably be playing the game in 1st person and will hardly ever look at your own face, so what is the point!
I created my elfin looking Breton and was promptly thrown in prison for reasons unknown (I seem to remember starting the first Elder Scrolls game in prison as well - must be a character flaw!).
Both your appearance and race can be changed at the end of the tutorial if you change your mind, so need to fret.
All you skills start out with a score of 5/100 for now.
Anyway, I don't want to spoil the plot but let’s just say you end up crawling around under the prison.
Up first are some handy rooms where you gather some basic equipment and get taught how to use it - bows, swords, lock picks, torches, armour and shields etc.
Then it is basic combat training against the old RPG faithful (rats).
Next comes magic training (also against rats).
Soon you hit the "You are encumbered" message and are unable to move - no crawling around at nanospeed here - you go from full speed to stop just by picking a mushroom! Time to go into your inventory and drop all the crap you picked up. My advice is that if you are not wielding a weapon or wearing some armour - ditch it. Too heavy! Keep the interesting and valuable stuff. That Two-handed warhammer may be worth 60 Gold (on average), but it takes up 20% of your carrying space and by the time you hit a merchant your mercantile skill is so low you will be lucky to get 20 gold for it! Keep stuff you can use along with Gems, Potions and high quality loot (Goblin Witch's Staff etc).
Whilst you are running through the tutorial you will start to get a feel for the controls, which aren't bad - I switched jump and activate round, as they didn't feel logical at their default settings. I'll probably remap Block and Cast round for my Mage as well, as shields don't form part of my fighting style. Expect to whack a few chests or boxes instead of opening them though... They are indestructible so don't fret. Just try not to do that when attempting to initiate chat with NPCs! Note to self - look up the Yield Key again!
Wading into combat for my Mage involved a puny fire based missile spell. Targeting is a bit tricky when you and your target are moving, but I reckon that you will get the hang of it pretty quickly. Defensive spells will be the order of the day as you progress though, as being backed into a corner was a regular occurrence for me. Casting heal spells during combat is hard - Pre-combat Regen spells and Instant Heal potions on a hot key are another essential for the future.
Lock Picking has its own mini-game. Feel free to indulge in this all you like, but apart from "Very Easy" locks, you will soon find yourself hitting the "Auto Attempt" button. Why? At low skill levels the mini-game is too hard for Average and upwards locks and so hitting the Auto button may burn a few lockpicks, but you will eventually succeed.
There is another mini-game for Speechcraft, but that is out with my tutorial ramblings and I will come to it another time.
Eventually you get a bit more of the plot and get asked to pick a star sign (again you can change it later if you want). The Thief and The Mage seem good choices for a starter, with the others being more specialised.
Again the plot moves on a bit further and I accidentally nuke one of the "good" guards in a royal rumble. After the fight he walks over and tells me that it is a good job he likes me, but don't do it again! Nice touch I thought, but it was his fault for running into my line of fire!
Soon, the plot gets serious and only one good guy remains standing (apart from you). He nicks the best sword you have found so far (bastard!) and then suggests what class your playing style indicates. This is when you completely ignore the recommendation and click "Custom". Select your 7 major skills, your bonus stats and your focus type (magic, combat or stealth). You name your combo (or pick "adventurer") and then off you go. More on this in a sec.
Soon you reach a grate to the outside world. Time to do a hard save before exiting the tutorial. Why? This is the point at which you can completely respec your character, so being able to reload after deciding that you don't like your character after all is a major bonus. Otherwise you have to play the tutorial all over again.
To round this off, here are some pointers on skills.
The "obvious" thing to do would be as follows. OK - I want to be a thief. I shall pick the 7 stealth skills as my major skills (+20 starting point bonus), pick a focus in stealth (+10 point bonus) and pick a race like Khajit (+45 in assorted stealth skill bonuses).
Congratulations - you now have a really skilled level 1 Thief, but have just put a level cap on yourself of Level 42 (Max level is 53) and all your other skills stink!
How does that work? Ignoring a few skill ups obtained during the tutorial your skills start as follows:
7 Major skills at 25 and 14 Minor skills at 5.
You then apply Focus bonuses of +10 to all of one type of skill (Magic, Stealth or Combat).
You then apply racial bonuses of +45 across various skills.
You start at level 1 and for every 10 skill points you gain in your major skills, then you gain a level.
Your skills are all capped at 100.
Assuming that your Focus and Racial Bonuses are all in your Major skills, then you Max level is calculated as follows:
Starting Major Skill Total = (25 x 7) + (10 x 7) + 45 = 290.
Maximum Major Skill Total = (100 x 7) = 700.
Difference = 700 - 290 = 410.
Max no of Levels you can gain = 410 / 10 = 41.
Therefore max level = 42 (You start at level 1).
However if you start with your focus and racial bonuses all in Minor skills then the calc is as follows:
Starting Major Skill Total = 25 x 7 = 175.
Difference = 700 - 175 = 525.
Max no of Levels you can gain = 525 / 10 = 52 (rounding down).
Therefore max level = 53.
So there is a balance to be struck between being well skilled at Level 1 and not reaching Level 50+.
Every time you level up you get a bonus to your Health, Magicka and Fatigue scores and can increase three of your stats (just like in Morrowind).
The monsters in dungeons and the loot you get from chests is based on your level, so it is only at the high end that a power gamer might see a drop off in their abilities. Your Average Joe gamer won't ever notice the subtle differences.
So what did I do?
I am playing a Breton Mage/Thief (Spellblade).
My Major skills are all Stealth related apart from Destruction swapped for Acrobatics.
My Focus Bonus is in Magic.
My Racial Bonuses are mainly Magical.
The combo gives me lots of starting skills (All Major and some Minor) with scores of 20 or 25 (Destruction being 30) and allows me to progress my level (or not) by using non-combat skills like Speechcraft and Sneak, rather than being forced up levels by being hit or hitting things in combat. My Max level is still 53 as my difference score is 520.
I can progress my magic skills using training spells without it forcing up my level and hence can increase my survivability.
This was not me powergaming but was a pure fluke as I wanted a more balanced character at level one. Just lucky!
Well I will let you digest that and write more about Levels 1 to 3 later.
PS The game is great!
PPS Typos and Apostrophes corrected (thanks Serena)