Bonus Post: He’ll Give You The Shirt Off His Back

I wasn’t planning to write any more about Skyrim, but talking about Skyrim’s thieves guild questline reminded me of one of my more absurdist Skyrim experiences, and I feel the need to share. I don’t have anything analytical to say about this, so I’m not counting it as one of my normal weekly posts. At the same time, it’s a funny story. If you haven’t played Skyrim, I feel sorry for you I don’t know how much this will mean to you; feel free to skip this one if you want.

So, let’s set the stage, and then I’ll tell the grand story of how—against all odds—I infiltrated the Brinewater Grotto, in perhaps the most ridiculous way possible.

In one of my first playthroughs, I decided to play a sneaky character on hard, with the goal of avoiding as much combat as I could. I was good at sneaking, picking pockets, talking my way out of trouble, picking locks, and basically nothing that involved a stand-up fight.

Pretty early on, I stumbled onto a bit of an exploit in the way training works. When I paid someone to train me, they kept the money I’d paid right in their inventory. This meant that I could pick their pocket and immediately get all my money back. What’s more, even if I was the only one in the room, they’d never connect the dots or realize their money kept getting stolen. By becoming good enough at picking pockets,FN 1 I could pay someone to train me, pickpocket my money back, and repeat the process again and again.

Doing this not only made me better at whatever skill they were training me in, it also made me way better at picking pockets—I got a ton of practice. So, by finding the right trainer, I could get trained in whatever skill they knew and build up my skill in pickpocketing at the same time. I used this strategy to become a master at sneaking through the shadows, opening locks, and talking charmingly—not to mention picking pockets, of course.FN 2

The only downside to this strategy is that Skyrim levels your opponents with you: the higher your level, the harder enemies you’ll face in combat. Since I’ve used this strategy to level up my pickpocketing  and sneaking skills, the enemies out in the world are dramatically overleveled compared to my combat ability. So, basically, having used this strategy, I’ll be in great shape so long as I avoid any situation that forces me into direct, head-to-head combat that can’t be avoided through sneaking.

. . . Yeah.

* * *

With that as background—the story of Brinewater Grotto: here I am, this fancy, sneaky pickpocket, working my way up the thieves guild ranks. I can barely stand up to the rats in a fair fight, but that doesn’t matter—my whole objective is to avoid a fair fight. I’m good enough at sneaking that this usually isn’t a problem, and I advance rapidly. I reach the point where I’m asked to figure out who is behind the meadery “scheme.” It starts out beautifully: I’m told that I need to talk to this middleman, and—thanks to my smooth tongue—I’m able persuade him to give up the info without much issue.

But then, unexpectedly, I have the strong intuition that he’s hiding something, and that I should follow him.FN 3 Following him provides the perfect opportunity for me to show off my newly trained sneaking skills. I tail the guy away from his office, through the town, and down to the docks (where non-employees aren’t allowed). Everything is going wonderfully, I’m stalking him from the shadows, easily avoiding the few guards patrolling to keep troublemakers like me out. He never has a clue that I’m watching from behind some crates as he reveals a secret entrance to a hidden tunnel out from the docks.

I tail him down into the tunnel, and find myself in this massive and annoyingly well-lit labyrinthine grotto beneath the cliffs. It’s cold, and damp—and full of torches lighting it up like the noonday sun. I’m trying to keep sneaking, but I’m supposed to navigate these narrow, well-lit tunnels and I keep getting spotted. Each time I’m spotted, the guards turn to fight me; since I have the approximate combat abilities of five-year-old pretending their flashlight is a lightsaber, I die a quick death each time.

Spotted once, sliced to pieces with a sword, die, reload. Spotted again, cut down with an axe, die, reload. Spotted yet again, run through with a spear, die, reload.FN 3 Die, die, die. Reload, reload, reload.

No matter what I do, I just cannot sneak past these guys. And winning a fair fight is obviously out of the question. The smart thing to do would be to give up on this quest and to start it again later. But I’ve already invested quite a bit of time in tailing this guy, and I’ve got a stubborn streak a mile wide, so I’m not inclined to quit that easily.

I decide to get creative. I can’t fight these guys honestly, but what if I sneak up on them and stab them in the back? I experiment with this a bit, and step one works pretty well—I’m able to sneak up to them just fine, even if I can’t sneak past them to save my life. But my combat skills are so underleveled that even when I start the fight by stabbing them in the back, they’re able to make short work of me.

I’ve saved up a couple of perk points, and I play around with giving myself some extra combat abilities to try to level the playing field. I try getting better with bows. No good. Swords, no help. Armor, they still kill me in just a couple hits.

I decide to get really creative. What am I good at? Sneaking, but this is too well-lit to put that to much use. Opening locks, no help here. Talking, but these guys are in the stab-first-ask-questions-later mood. And . . . picking pockets. Hmmm.

Pickpocket is clearly designed to be used as an out-of-combat ability. The idea is that I’ll pick pockets in town, stealing items as I brush past villagers. But I notice that—just as there’s no rule that a dog can’t play basketball—there’s nothing explicitly saying I can’t use these abilities in combat. And there are two pickpocket perks that seem like they could have a combat application: they let you “pickpocket” equipped items and armor. They’re at the very end of the skill tree, but I’ve already gotten all the prerequisites.FN 4  So, I grab these perks and see if I’m allowed to use them.

And they totally work in combat!

Here’s how my first fight goes: Hiding in the shadows, I lurk around, waiting for a guard to have his back to me. The guard I’m facing look a lot like this guy, just less angry since he hasn’t spotted me

Skyrim bandit
Representative bandit

Then I sneak up behind him, strip him of every item in his inventory, right down to his underwear. Specifically, I take his armor (the leather kind with lots of fiddly straps—it looks like doffing it would take about five minutes, even with the full cooperation of the wearer), the boots he is standing in, the sword he is waving around threateningly, and the helmet off his head.

At this point, he’s standing there nearly naked (and cold, I’d think—this is a underground grotto, after all!), still not having noticed me in the slightest.

There’s another guard in the distance, and I’m worried that he might wander over and spot me—I definitely can’t fight them both. So I slink back to the shadows and hide out while the two guards keep patrolling. The two pass each other, and make passing comments, as one does. Somehow the newfound near-nudism of the first guard doesn’t rate a mention. After a minute to two, the second guard has patrolled away again, and I’m back in action.

I sneak back up, equip my best weapon, and then stab the underwear-clad guard in the back. He nonchalantly turns around, and starts punching me in the face. Between my heavy armor and expensive weaponry, I’m valiantly able to overcome his half-naked flailing (just barely—I’m really underleveled for this quest.)

I repeat this process for every guard in the whole grotto: sneak, strip, retreat, wait, fight-an-unarmed-guy-in-his-underwear.

And that’s how I got through the entire cave. One naked fight at a time.

SMBC comic

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5 thoughts on “Bonus Post: He’ll Give You The Shirt Off His Back”

  1. I had thought that difficulty (easy/medium/hard) in Skyrim just changes the damage ratios; that is, the harder you set it, the less damage NPCs take and the more they deal.  You might have just been making the game unnecessarily difficult for yourself by cranking up the difficulty and playing a non-combat character.

    Also, you’ve basically described my first playthrough of Oblivion (where the level scaling was far more unforgiving than Skyrim.) Classic rogue archetype. I’m walking the road on a quest heading west when a troll wanders right across the path and beelines for me. I try to attack him, but my gear and my skill with said gear was insufficient; he was literally regenerating health faster than I could damage him. And since he was much, much faster than me, running away wasn’t an option, either.  Due to some . . . poor decisions regarding save game slots, I ended up having to start over from scratch with a new character.

    1. Oh, and related to your story, one of my favorite ways to kill someone in Oblivion was reverse pickpocketing. You enchant a hat to deal fire damage to you when you wear it, then you sneak it into the NPC’s pocket. The AI inevitably causes them to put it on, and you get to watch as they self-immolate.

    2. I had thought that difficulty (easy/medium/hard) in Skyrim just changes the damage ratios; that is, the harder you set it, the less damage NPCs take and the more they deal.  You might have just been making the game unnecessarily difficult for yourself by cranking up the difficulty  and playing a non-combat character.

      That’s absolutely right. I had a paragraph about the very odd choices that Skyrim/the Elder Scrolls games make with regard to the difficulty slider–their way of handling it dramatically affects the balance between different strategies. To the extent that one of the best ways to play on the hardest difficulties is to lean illusion spells and make your enemies fight each other. Which is also a very boring/non-empowering way to play.

      I knew all that, and still played a non-combat character on hard. I’d previously done the same thing in Morrowind (which didn’t have the difficulty slider when it came out, but introduced one later), and it was a lot of fun. It meant that I spent the first half of the playthrough running from anything resembling a fair fight, but then I was able to build up enough cash to train extensively and break the game enough to win against the nearly-insurmountable foes I’d faced earlier. It was a really fun way to play.

      But it was only possible because Morrowind didn’t level foes that aggressively, had a ton of non-combat quests to keep you going in the mid-game, and had a lot of ways for the player to break it by the end-game (training wasn’t capped at 5/level, most notably–if you had the gold and could find the trainers, you could learn alll the skills).

  2. I of course don’t know just how your experience went, but if you were following the exact path your target was taking, you were not supposed to be able to sneak past. It was balanced so that you couldn’t go that way with any reasonable sneak level.

    There’s an entire separate path through the cave – it starts in a tunnel through the warehouse crates, and at one point involves swimming between two ladders. It parallels the route your target is taking, and keeps you largely out of sight of the guards (and in a much darker area). At that point, it becomes a matter of watching the guard timing for when the two paths cross, and trying to figure out exactly where that second path is.

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