The Skyrim Journal: Cloak and Dagger

It was a combination of extreme boredom and the nagging itch to level up in something that drove me back to the wilds of Skyrim for one more adventure. I’ve spent the past week or so with an entirely new character, and in the process, tried to get a different perspective on the game I’ve pretty much talked to death already.

This was my third such venture. My original character, a beastly Nord barbarian, got all the way up to level 40, clad himself in Daedric armor, and was the savior of the land from world-eating dragons, master of every guild and collector of every Daedric artifact after a hundred hours. My second effort, a female high elf mage, got less playing time, as I grew tired of the cumbersome spell switching process, and once I discovered how easy each school of magic was to level exploit, I got bored quickly when all my stats shot to a hundred in an hour or two.

The  third time around, I was picking the final third of the class tree: stealth. But not only that, rather I wanted to approach the game with an entirely new perspective, throwing quest objectives to the wind and wandering around the massive world simply content exploring all it had to offer. It’s a way to play the game that goes against my very nature, as I normally am a devourer of quests so I can get my log as clean as possible, so I thought it would be a good exercise.

My new character was a male Imperial, and in the “adventurer” theme, I tried to make up a backstory for him as the game doesn’t provide any. He was a highly trained Imperial assassin who trekked up to Skyrim to hunt down a Nord who killed his wife and child. He joins the Imperials and becomes their go-to hitman for hard targets, but this soon bores him, and he begins to explore the land looking for fame and fortune of his own. I may have just made most of that up on the spot, but you get the idea.

Like this guy, but with a beard. People with beards are sneaky.

I quickly learned there’s one skill that goes with stealth more than any other, archery. If you think you’re going to be skilled enough to start creeping around slitting people’s throats with daggers at level one, you’re going to be in for a shock when everyone sees and hears you coming from a solid fifty yards away. Rather, archery allows you to level up stealth quickly by landing shots from the shadows, and you’ll soon learn that it’s almost completely necessary for the class.

But that’s not a bad thing at all. Creeping through the game a stealth archer is an incredibly fun way to play, and I would argue much more so than blundering through as a melee fighter mashing the trigger as you’re being hacked away on all sides by Draugr. The same goes for switching through five different spells in the menus while attempting to play a competent mage.

Sneaking requires a certain degree of skill and patience (at least in the early stages of the game) and there is something explicitly satisfying about taking down an enemy in a singular shot from your bow. Clearing an entire room using this process is even more enjoyable.

Archery isn’t half bad as an open combat form either. It’s incredibly difficult at first, as you’ll need to stick to the shadows to avoid death, but once you unlock better light armor perks, and bow abilities like stagger and critical hit, backpeddling against even mammoth foes like giants or bears or uh…mammoths,  it’s a perfectly viable form of combat.

Used to be terrifying, now target practice.

That said, archery is not without its immersion breaking aspects. As it’s almost impossible to take down truly tough boss enemies like say, Dragon Priests in open combat, you’ll have to do a weird dance of shooting them from stealth, running away until they stop looking for you, and repeating the process about twenty times in total.

But it’s even weirder when you’re trying to take out a room of enemies. You’ll shoot one directly in the head, and he’ll say “is someone there?” with an arrow shaft sticking out of his eyebrow as he and his buddies look for you. After a while, they’ll deduce that “it must have been the wind” and he’ll go back to swigging his pint of mead, arrow still firmly entrenched in his brain. Or if you did manage to  kill him on the first shot, his buddies will mill about in casual conversation as his body is slumped into the campfire. Metal Gear Solid, this is not.

Eventually, going stealth seems to be a bit overpowered, particularly with archery. If you get enough perks, and enough equipment, even at only level 25, it’s an exceptionally rare occurrence that I’m spotted, much less killed. My stealth skill is so high that I can literally be a few feet away from an enemy without them noticing me, and with my bow skill, they can’t touch me as they stagger backward so often with each shot. I can only imagine what it’s like when you reach level 100 in each and your arrows start to fully paralyze and stealth can cause your foes to lose sight of you during open combat.

The fact is though, I’m pretty sure all three classes are overpowered at higher levels, and really, I don’t know if that’s something worth complaining about. Yes, my warrior cannot fall below 75% health as his armor rating is through the roof. My mage can summon two storm atronachs and have a martini while they kill everything in sight. And now my assassin can drop a room full of guards before any of them even finish their beer. But really, when you spend all your time completing every impossible quest and training yourself to be the best warrior in the land, SHOULDN’T the enemies eventually feel like cake to you?

If anything COULD hurt me in this, I’d want my money back.

The “adventuring” aspect of my new character taught me a lot about the game. I decided to pick only one guild to do the questline for, and I chose the thieves as it would help my stealth skills, and the Dark Brotherhood would have me killing the Emperor, which went against my Imperial loyalist nature. It’s a lot more believable to only become master of one guild, as conquering all four just seems plot breaking. I ditched the main questline entirely after my first dragon kill, and instead have spent my time exploring literally every cave, tomb and fortress that comes across my compass.

It is somewhat gratifying to not be lead around by the nose with an objective indicator. With a map this massive, this game was built for exploring on your own, and being constantly locked into a quest can make even the wide open world seem restrictive.

After a point however, it does start to get a bit repetitive, as even if you’re clearing a dungeon where a quest WOULD be (and almost all of them are), the essential elements are missing if you’re not actually ON the quest. I can’t count the number of times I went through a ruin, killed a boss, opened a chest and then stared at an empty pedestal where some mystery object was supposed to be sitting. Without actual objectives, each location is roughly the same process of killing enemies, killing a boss, finding a chest, and leaving. The existing quests might not produce the most compelling story, but at least they give you SOME reason to do what you’re doing. As noble as adventuring for adventuring’s sake sounds, it does kind of get boring quickly and after forty hours and fifty or sixty dungeons cleared, I’m once again bored.

I did like the stealth playstyle better than the other two I chose, and exploration does have a certain charm to it. I don’t think it’s the worst thing to ditch the main quest, but at least acquire some side ones to give your wandering some purpose.

Alright folks, I’m officially done now, I promise.

At least until the DLC comes out.

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  1. Yeah stealth is always a lot of fun. It was in oblivion too but it wasn’t nearly as good. The best way to level up sneak is with sneak attacks. The cheapest way is in high wrothgar, just keep hitting the kneeling greybeards with an iron dagger. A less cheap way is to look for sleeping draugr on the walls of nord ruins. The ones with armor and can’t be searched are actually alive, they aren’t always scripted to wake up so sneak attacking them is a nice way to level up sneak. I haven’t been able to get into the magic in this game. I planned to make a mage with my first character, a breton. But I just didn’t like how magic functioned. I mean it’s much improved, but I think it was a combination of being so much less powerful and the inability to make your own spells that turned me off to it. He became your standard warrior instead and is quite the tank, took him up to level 75 legit, then used the ogma infinium glitch to get the remaining levels. I also have a kahjiit and a nord. My breton used the most magic out of the 3, the other 2 don’t use it at all really.

  2. I hope you have it on master difficulty by now! I think I’m about to switch as I’m almost at 50. I just became capable of the 30x backstab damage and it still doesn’t get old watching the close up shots of my character slitting the throats of her conjured Dremora Lords when they outlast their use. I think there may be some leftover anger issues from Oblivion there…

  3. I love playing stealthy, however I never used archery at all. As Dimitrios stated above the quickest way to level up is sneak attacks, which eventually become the best attacks you can deal in game after a little questing and using perks. My character currently can deal about 1500 damage on one sneak attack using the perk that ups your dagger attacks by x15 and the gloves you can get from the Dark Brotherhood that increase sneak attacks by x2. And that sir is how you stealth assassinate a dragon.

  4. I don’t normally like the sneaky types, but recently I’ve tried it and it was really fun. I find though, as stated, stealth is either garbage or epic.

    If you want a really quick thief build, go with Ralof at the beginning of the game. Once you down the Imperial soldiers (and grab their stuff), Ralof tells you to look for a key to get you back the locked gate. That’s your queue to backstab like he owes you lunch money. He won’t attack, and can’t die (much like the Greybeards).

    I decided enough was enough at level 65 sneak, starting out the first gate at a sweet level 9. And from there I went on to murder many, many people and steal pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed down.

    Good times!

  5. I did stealth for my second charactor (Redguard warrior was the first) and I have to say I’m having a lot more fun doing all of the quest with stealth in mind. For a while (when my sneak was only around 50 and backstab was only at about 6x damage or so), missions that I would normally just run in and bash heads on became tough, drawn out experiences. Several times I almost felt like I was playing Splinter Cell as I watched the guards go about their patrol patterns and tried to time all my sneak attacks as to not get caught (especially since my character routinely died in physical altercations).

    I used some glitching to get my first character up to uber stats, but my thief is being grinded the old fashioned way, and honestly it’s made the game harder and a lot more fun.

  6. It appears you have discovered what I like to call Skyrim inception, or role playing within a role playing game. It is a very fun way to play the game because there are endless possibilities with the imagination. My character eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He likes to get at least 8 hours of sleep every night but gets up early if he knows he has a big journey the next day because he would like to get to his destination before nightfall (It is much safer to travel during the day). He wears pajamas to bed and doesn’t wear armor while swimming lest he drown. He likes to wear fur armor in the mountains for warmth and while he’s traveling he’ll wear something with a pouch so it looks like that’s where he keeps his stuff. Right now he’s not rich enough to buy a house but he has too much stuff to be lugging around all the time. So after some deep exploration he found a shack with a bed to sleep in and a safe container to store his possessions. (Alchemist Shack). I haven’t started the main quest yet so I don’t have to be annoyed by dragons. The shack is very secluded so he likes to stay in Riverwood from time to time with his friends. He is currently saving up for a house by chopping wood, mining, and doing odd jobs for people.

  7. You would think that the makers of Skyrim would have put in a kind of “found quest” system so that when you battle through a cave or dungeon and find a relic the quest reverses and you need to find the guy you could have spoken to to tell you to get it.

    I totally agree that making your own imaginative character design is a great idea, but I also prefer to have character options that allow me to enact that in the game. It’s no point me saying, here’s my assassin character he’s a stone killer and have no way of differentiating him from my cowardly criminal murderer character that uses the same weapon.

    What would be best, to me, would be a play style where you actually go into the world and learn skills and abilities from NPCs, so your character would be genuinely nondescript to begin with, but could expand in any way you chose.

  8. With the Assassin’s blade perk (15x dagger sneak damage) and the shrouded gloves from the dark brotherhood that 2x all sneak damage, plus the muffle spell to move silently, I can one-hit-kill a giant using my glass dagger (legendary) when level 48 (ish).
    That doesn’t sound too impressive, but with a potion of invisibility I stealth killed an elder dragon in 3 hits.

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