Please read this first.

Welcome! This blog is devoted to considerations of morality in the The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Bethesda. Rather than a fansite, review, or walkthrough, it is a serious attempt to examine the game through a moral lens. Please note that the purpose of this blog is to discuss morality within the context of the game, not to determine whether playing the game is immoral in and of itself; the latter type of "discussion" tends toward tedium and inhibits, rather than promotes, a meaningful conversation.

If you have not visited this blog before, it might be helpful to read the posts labeled "Orientation," most of which are the first few entries in the blog archive (see right). These posts include a short introduction to this project, a content-specific author bio, and a few other pieces that explain key concepts relevant to this study. These posts are of particular use to those readers less familiar with Skyrim (or video games in general).


If you have visited this blog before, thanks and welcome back!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

No One Escapes Cidhna Mine

This quest, which is the follow-up to The Forsworn Conspiracy, presents a number of moral dilemmas and questions that extend well beyond the confines of the game.  Along with In My Time of Need, it stands as one of the best opportunities for robust consideration of moral agency in Skyrim, and gaming in general.

After my arrest in the Shrine of Talos, I found myself in a cell deep within Cidhna Mine:
This is one of the few quests that, once started, must be completed.
The Orc jailer informed me that I would have to mine in order to earn my freedom, so I got to work.  Having learned that the best way to deal with an unfamiliar situation was to talk to people, I began speaking to the various inmate miners in my area.  As it turned out, I happened to be in very close proximity to Madanach, the "King of Rags" and leader of the Forsworn.  I jumped through the prerequisite hoops, and was eventually granted an audience with Madanach in his private cell.

Neither my readings nor my various encounters with the Forsworn had prepared me for what happened next.  Madanach, far from being a madman or savage, articulately recounted his history of the Forsworn. Taken together, the history books and Madanach's lectures paint a tragic picture of a complex people:

Madanach the noble savage.
Long ago, there was a group of indigenous people who inhabited the land between High Rock (Bretons) and Skyrim (Nords).  While Breton by ethnicity, these people called themselves "The Reachmen" to distinguish their culture from that of their neighbors on either side.  What divided them from their Breton kin was their worship of the "Old Gods" -- an animistic religion that predates Divine worship.  Being a small ethnic group, the Reachmen often found themselves used as pawns in the struggles between High Rock and Skyrim for control of the silver mines in their mountainous homeland. At the time of the Great War, the Empire considered The Reach to be one of Skyrim's holds -- a fact that the Reachmen begrudgingly accepted. When the Empire "abandoned" The Reach in order to focus on fighting the Aldmeri Dominion, the Reachmen saw their opportunity to take back their land.  They ruled Markarth relatively peacefully for two years under the leadership of their king, Madanach.   

The Empire, now under the peace provided by the terms of the White-Gold Concordat, decided to take The Reach back from the Reachmen.  The deposed Jarl offered Ulfric Stormcloak and his men an exchange: retake The Reach for Skyrim, and Talos worship would be be permitted in Markarth again, in spite of the Concordat. Ulfric's brutal tactics, including torture and the killing of non-combatants, drove the Reachmen from the city; thus the Forsworn were born.
  ["The Markarth Incident", as the uprising and its end at Ulfric's hand have come to be known, was also the ember that sparked the Stormcloak Rebellion. Once the Thalmor discovered Talos worship in Markarth, they cracked down on anyone who violated the terms of the Concordat.  The Jarl was forced to arrest Ulfric ("The Bear of Markarth") and his men -- an act the Stormcloaks saw as the worst kind of betrayal.]

Madanach himself was captured and sentenced to die, but Thonar Silver-Blood, seeing a unique opportunity, intervened.  In exchange for allowing him to live out his life as a prisoner in Cidhna Mine, Madanach agreed to use the Forsworn as Thonar's personal strike force.  Thonar allowed Madanach to communicate with Forsworn operatives in order to eliminate Thonar's enemies and business rivals.  The King in Rags agreed to the deal; Thonar could protect himself from Nord rivals and Imperial curiosity, and the Forsworn could still  launch "terrorist" attacks against a select group of their Nord and Imperial oppressors.  Furthermore, Madanach would be alive to plan his eventual betrayal of the Silver-Bloods.  Such was the arrangement I had disrupted by helping Eltrys uncover the truth.

As part of my education, Madanach instructed me to find and speak to another Forsworn prisoner, Braig.  Briag's story was very hard to listen to:
You don't want to hear the rest of this story.
I was now faced with a twofold dilemma, the first part of which concerned my association with the Forsworn.  Now that I had heard more of the story, I could not dismiss these men and women as just another group of bandits or necromancers.  Even if their tactics could not be excused, their case still had merit.  If I could make a case for them with the Emperor, I would -- but that was not where we were.  Still, I wasn't ready to throw my lot in with a group of terrorists.  Moreover, I suspected that, as a Nord, the Forsworn weren't going to do me any favors once we completed our escape; this was a temporary alliance for a common goal, and nothing more.  It also occurred to me that Madanach's revenge was not going to end with Thonar; he would most likely continue his campaign of terror against the people of Skyrim, and I would most likely have to kill him at some point in the future, my sympathies be damned.

The second part of my dilemma was the "price of admission";  in order to prove myself to Madanach, I had to kill Grisvar the Unlucky, a thief and skooma addict that Madanach had identified as a snitch.  While I had killed quite a few bandits and necromancers by this point, Grisvar seemed more like a cowardly low-life than a threat, so I didn't feel justified in killing him.  Once Madanach ordered me to assassinate him, I began to look for alternatives.

The entrance to the only escape route could not be picked; even if I still had my lockpicks (along with the other gear the guards took from me), the gate required a key, which Madanach alone held, or so I gathered from the note I successfully pickpocketed from him.  The key itself was nowhere to be found -- not in Madanach's personal inventory nor anywhere in his cell.  Therefore, even if I wanted to try the route alone, I couldn't.  I was, quite literally, stuck:
Sorry, Grisvar.
I followed Madanach's orders, joined the escape and together the Forsworn and I fought through giant spiders and long-forgotten Dwemer automatons to a secret exit into Markarth.  Before we emerged into the city, not only did I get all of my gear back from one of Madanach's followers, but I also received enchanted Forsworn armor from the man himself, in thanks for assisting the escape.  Once we got outside, Thonar and several of the Markarth city guard were on hand to greet us.  A fight quickly broke out, and before long, Thonar and his men were dead.  Fortunately, the battle took place in the wee hours of the morning, while most of the citizens were still in bed. 
From a moral perspective, I had a great deal of trouble with this quest.  While I sympathize with the Forsworn, I cannot abide their practices, neither military nor religious.  The best possible scenario would most likely be for the Empire to negotiate with the Forsworn to establish a secure homeland for them while fairly compensating the Nords who probably be displaced by such a move.  I don't normally think it wise or just to haggle with terrorists, but it seems clear in this case that the Empire in general, and the Jarl of Markarth in particular, created the Forsworn through their inexcusable treatment of the Reachmen.  I have also not forgotten that Madanach ordered me to kill a non-violent man in order to prove myself to him; I might agree with his condemnation of the power structure in The Reach, but I resent him using my relatively powerless situation in order to manipulate me as he had been by Thonar.

My ambiguity became most obvious during the battle between Madanach and Thonar.  Because I could not fully support either side, I did not participate in this battle at all, preferring to stay on the sidelines and make sure no innocent Markarth citizens got pulled into the fray.  Although I hated Thonar for his callous and deadly manipulation of the Forsworn, I could not tell if his guards were crooked men in the employ of a corrupt buisnessman (like those in the Shrine of Talos) or honest peacekeepers protecting what they thought was an important citizen, and so I did not want to engage them.  Furthermore, while I hated Thonar enough to kill him, I was not keen on helping the Forsworn spill more blood in Markarth.  While this particular Forsworn "cell" might continue to see me as friendly, I wanted nothing to do with terrorists after we broke out.

After completing  No One Escapes Cidhna Mine, I did some research on other approaches, and I discovered a few disconcerting facts about the way Bethesda set up this quest:
  1. Madanach's key does not spawn as an inventory item unless you kill him.  In other words, the only way for me avoid killing Grisvar would be to kill Madanach and take his key.  One problem with that scenario is that Madanach's crimes, as grievous as they are, seem to be a direct result of Ulfric's (and, by extension, the Empire's) injustice toward the Reachmen.  Like Ulfric, Madanach comes across as an honorable leader making unjust decisions on behalf of his people, rather than as a self-serving criminal.  I will kill him in the future if I have to, but I'd rather not.
  2. An additional concern is that, had I killed Madanach at any point before we exited the mine, Thonar would have rewarded me with an enchanted item of his own.  I would not have enjoyed receiving anything, be it equipment or thanks, from such a scumbag.  Although I did not wish to help the Forsworn in their fight, I was glad that they killed Thonar.

In this quest, Bethesda forces the moral agent to make some unpalatable decisions.  Even if the player sides with the Forsworn completely, they will never stop attacking the PC in random encounters, and they are not a joinable faction.  Even if the player sides with the Silver-Bloods completely, the PC still has to break out of their prison.  Moreover, there is no peaceable solution to this quest; the only way to avoid killing Madanach or Grisvar is to stay stuck in the mine, thus suspending the game indefinitely.  Therefore, the situation presented in this quest incorporates many of the features of a true Kohlbergian dilemma: it is dichotomous, and there is no creative way out; the player is forced to violate at least some moral precepts in order to complete the quest.

By now, the parallels between this quest and current issues in geopolitics should be readily apparent.  The Forsworn's physical appearance reflects some stereotypes of Native American garb, which only highlights the similarity of their plight ("foreigners in our own land") and religious practices ("the Old Ways") to those of their real-world counterparts:
The Forsworn of No One Escapes Cidhna Mine
Their tactics and rationale raise the question of the legitimacy of terrorism -- a very present debate in the Middle East, where some governments are considering bringing members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the negotiating table.  Another facet are the obviously Celtic names of the Forsworn characters, which evoke the Troubles of Ireland and tentative reconciliation between the IRA with England.  Because the Forsworn feel familiar but only exist as fictional constructs in a computer game, the player can engage with them and fully consider them without all of the baggage of the player's own real-world political views -- a remarkable achievement for a game.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful and well presented observations.

    I grew bored playing an amoral, stealth based character in Skyrim and decided to try a run as a Nord paladin, or as close as Bethesda would allow.

    Markarth presented the hardest moral dilemmas for strict roleplay of this character in forty levels of play. First, I was forced to kill a Vigilant of Stendarr at the whim of a Daedric Prince (the Vigilants being the closest Skyrim offers to a paladin order). Then there came the challenge of escaping Cidhna Mine in a morally acceptable way.

    I spent over an hour searching for alternatives before reluctantly accepting that the best I could do was to provoke Madanach's target to attack me first so that the leader's cronies would do the dirty work of killing him. This still left a sour taste.

    As Madanach himself says, "There are no innocent onlookers in this struggle, just the guilty and the dead."

    1. Thank you for reading and for your response.

      I've avoided the term "paladin" in describing my character, but that is essentially what I'm running as well. My blogging is far behind my playing, so I have yet to write about my adventures in Riften with the Thieves Guild. I'm curious: has your Nord paladin joined the Guild, and if not, will you?

  2. No, I avoided the Thieves Guild. My closest run in with them was while searching for Esbern in the Ratway. I passed through the Ragged Flagon, briefly pausing to bribe the barkeep for information.

    Guiding principles here were: not attacking non-aggressors, even suspected outlaws, and having no problem throwing money at people in the cause of justice.

    I did however get attacked by the Dark Brotherhood which left me the sole, deeply unpleasant route to tracking them down and eventually wiping them out. I balanced this as a good thing in the end, if dishonourable in the means.

    1. I have almost completed the Thieves Guild questline. I started with the dual intentions of finding Esbern and learning about the Stones of Barenziah, and ended up getting pulled in to the story. I'll write about it more extensively later, but without giving anything away, I can say that the Thieves Guild is more Thomas Crown than Tony Soprano -- sure, they're a bunch of thieves, but their preference for non-violent (by Skyrim standards) methods and adherence to a code of conduct made the decision to join them morally palatable.

      The Dark Brotherhood, however, is another matter entirely. Like you, I have decided to wipe them out after being targeted, but I haven't moved on Kill Grelod the Kind beyond talking to Aventius Aretino; that encounter disconcerted me enough to induce a serious bout of procrastination. I know I'll probably complete than initial quest, but beyond that, I still don't know what I'll do.

  3. Thank you for this, Todd. There is definitely some aspects of this game that bothers me a lot. When I was ordered by the Daedric Prince to kill for him, I did nothing. I was still staring open-mouthed at the screen when the Vigilant of Stendarr attacked me, and Lydia killed him. After that, I am VERY reluctant to do other people's dirty deeds. I now have a choice between leaving another quest undone, ore killing Madanach (I lose sympathy quickly when they want you to murder on a whim).

    1. Thanks for your comment. I know what you mean about doing others' "dirty deeds." Although I enjoy the fact that Bethesda doesn't let me find a "third way" to weasel out of dichotomous moral conflicts, it still bugs me that I can't just chose to fail a quest like Boethiah's Calling or Lights Out. Having quests in my journal that the morality of my RP won't permit me to finish is really started to irk me.

    2. There's a couple of mods I know that can help with this (avoiding being given quests one isn't interested in, I mean): Quest Eraser, which allows the player to do what it says, and the similarly self-explanatory The Choice Is Yours. On another note, this blog is the coolest thing since sliced bread.

  4. Hello Todd, just happened to see your blogs and found it interesting to view the game in a morality perspective. I started Skyrim about 6 months ago with three playthroughs the first one is done; 1. Khajiit, stealth based sniper with dual wielding, do everything necessary to make my character powerful, turns out very overpowering even at master difficulty. 2. Breton, 1H heavy armored knight, positive effects magic, this one I tend to only do what's morally correct and comfortable to do and it makes the game much more challenging and found out my mind is more "in" to the game. 3. Third one is High elf, necromancer, and to be morally "opposite" of my knight.

    What's morally comfortable to me is very close to Todd's decision as:

    1. favoring the Imperials more than Stormcloaks even though I felt that Ulfric is much more charisma than Tullius

    2. Perfer to help the Forsworn rather than the Silver-Bloods even though I don't really like both.

    3. Distaste of the Thalmor even though I found that many players like the Thalmor.

    About the Thieves Guild, found out that they aren't that evil as what the Riften citizens say.

    I left Paarthunax alive, will feel really bad to kill him, how about you?

    1. Thanks, ninjadead, for your response. It sounds as though your playthroughs have embodied the three main portions of the moral alignment spectrum: the neutral Khajiit sniper, the good Breton knight, and the evil Altmer necromancer. I'm curious about the three moral decisions you listed -- did you make the same three decisions in all three playthroughs?

      Regarding the Thieves' Guild and Paarthunax, I must admit that my blogging has fallen far behind my playing, so even though I have finished all of the major questlines, I have yet to write about them. I know what you mean about the Thieves' Guild; their presence actually helps to regulate crime and thereby reduces the activity of more dangerous criminals such as bandit gangs. As for Paarthunax, I too let him live; after all he did to help defeat Alduin, killing him seemed unjust, despite the arguments of the Blades.

  5. Hello Todd, sorry that my last reply didn't appear and I just knew it, so now I'm typing it again. I finished reading all your journey up to this date already. All my 3 playthrough made different decision:

    1. The khajiit joined every faction to see how they can benefit, completed only Thieves guild. Joined the Dark Brotherhood just to get backstabbing gear, the mages' college just to get the Ice Form shout to make easier escapes when being detected. For the civil war just felt like "non of my kitty business" only registering with the Imperials and arranged peace at the table.

    2. The Spellsword knight joined and completed the Imperials because they have less attitude of "kill kill kill" than the Stormcloaks and I believe that if Skyrim united with Imperials it helps better in eliminating the Thalmor. He also became a werewolf and harbinger of the Companions, destroyed the Dark Brotherhood, spared Sinding to get Hircine's ring. This knight also joined the Dawnguard faction and became a vampire hunter equipped with wolf armor, undead killing sword from Meridia and crossbow.

    3. The necromancer is intended to do the opposite to the zknight, as he finished the Stormcloaks quest with fullfilled bloodlust instead of the love of Skyrim and Talos, although tried to join the Thalmor but not possible. completed the Mages and Dark Brotherhood questline. Found out that most Dark Brotherhood targets are harmless buddies, so fun as this character's evil viewpoint, how this character gets through combat are to conjure Daedra, zombies and use illusion to stir everyone into chaos, some few backstabs with conjured blade. This character is also a severe-stage vampire, master murderer, and a Daedra puppet, got artifacts from at least Boethiah, Molag Bal, Namira, Sanguine, Sheogarth, Mephala, Vaermina although many aren't that useful for this type of character. For Cinhda mine, he ended up killing Madanach and everyone in prison.

    There is a very interesting playstyle I recommend but haven't tried it yet: Finishing the main quest with ZERO kills.

    1. As usual, my blogging has fallen severely behind my playing. I completed the main quest (as well as the Dawnguard and Dragonborn DLC main quests) a while ago, and have just begun a new character with a different ethos from that of my first. As the school year draws to a close, I should be able to get "up to speed" on the writing so that I can offer, as you have, some comments on contrasting playstyles.

      I have often thought about your "zero-kill" fourth option. At first glance, I think it would be very difficult to accomplish. One would have to rely entirely on a combination of stealth, followers, and illusion magic to pull it off, and even if one succeeded, significant moral questions would still remain. For example, if my follower kills an NPC, am I morally culpable for the death? I don't know how the game counts follower kills, but even if doesn't attribute them to the player, I'm not sure that there is significant difference between killing an NPC and allowing your follower to do it for you.

      What do you think?

  6. I'm glad I found this blog, it's interesting to compare and contrast play styles. I'm trying to mold my own character in a similar fashion.

    This was an interesting quest for me as well. I remember encountering Thonar's wife and disliking her pompous attitude, so I pickpocketed her before meeting him. However, during the subsequent Forsworn attack, the magic involved left her turned to ash. It seemed so awful that I felt compelled to offer to help Thonar in spite of my dislike for the man and his practices. A little guilt can go a long way. Of course, then he had me framed.

    Regarding Grisvar, I feel it's worth mentioning that you don't actually have to kill him at all. At least, I didn't. All I had to do was tell him "Madanach says 'hi,'" and he instantly panicked. From my perspective, I was merely trying to awkwardly segue into a discussion regarding this predicament with him. However, he must have known already that he was low on the food chain, and took my merest approach as a death sentence. He attacked me without provocation, and one of the other miners killed him for me. I didn't even have to raise my hand against him, but that was good enough for Madanach.

    But I felt much the same way as you regarding the Forsworn. During the battle spilling into Markarth I simply stood back and walked amongst the carnage unfolding all around me. Corrupt guards, righteous but vengeful terrorists... After all I'd been through, wandering around in a resigned, disinterested malaise seemed the only appropriate response.

    But I wanted to see Thonar, to witness his fate myself. It felt right, though I wasn't sure I even considered him an enemy. I found him on a stone staircase... what was left of him, anyway. By some quirk of fate, he was left a mere pile of ash, like his wife.

    I suppose it was poetic, somehow, but I was in no mood to think too hard on it. By then I just wanted to get the Hell out of Markarth.

    1. Your solution makes a lot of sense, and I wish I had thought of it. However, I think I would still resent Madanach for his manipulation; even if I hadn't killed him myself, I would have set his death in motion, since Madanach obviously knew Grisvar's reaction would be to attack. Strange as it may seem, I think I'd rather choose to do the wrong thing than be manipulated into doing it by accident.

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments!

    2. Hey, it's a thoughtful blog. Thanks for giving me something neat to read and think about. You're building a great character, and great stories for him! I hope I see more of your tales of adventure. Is good times.

  7. I had already decided on what I wanted to do before I was even captured. No matter what past provocations there had been, the foresworn had gone over the line by consorting with evil, and the life of their leader was forfeit. By using the foresworn as his own private enforcers to support his own corrupt empire building,Thionar Silverblood also had earned a death sentence. Trying to pin a crime on me was just the method of execution...
    So upon entering the prison, I talked my way past the Orc guard, spoke briefly with Madinach (after checking in his pockets that he wasn't carrying the key to escape), then killed him from sneak with a bound bow. Of course, after that, the key WAS in his pocket, so I snuck out through the ruins, met Thionar and received his thanks, then silently murdered him using a forsworn arrow after he gave me my gear back. Total casualties: 2. No innocents involved, and I found the final end of Thionar to make poetic sense as well. Free advice to plotters and schemers everywhere: Never screw with a high level Dovhakin

    1. I like your solution, but I still can't get past the injustices suffered by the Forsworn. Would they be "consorting with evil" had they not been oppressed in the first place? I suppose we'll never know.

    2. When you find the 3 gaurds in the talos worship room that frame you, kill them too. Another gaurd then comes in and arrests you afterwards anyway, but at least you killed the worst of the gaurds.

  8. I'll just say it here, but I had no sympathy for the Forsworn, and especially not Madanach. Yes, they were driven from their home, and yes, Ulfric and the Empire dealt with them harshly. But they struck first by taking Markarth when by the sounds of it they were previously tolerated, so everything that happened they brought on themselves. Not to mention the indiscriminate violence against anyone that isn't one of them - an act of xenophobic intolerance that surpasses anything the Stormcloaks ever did.

    They are for all intents and purposes just a group of bandits. The only difference is that bandits want your money and have to kill you to get it, and at least they limit themselves to only passing travellers. The Forsworn just want to kill everyone, with a particular emphasis on nords, and they don't stop with the people that pass near their hideouts. They actually go into cities and assassinate people. Unlike bandits, nobody is safe from the Forsworn as long as they're around.

    "Terrorists" is the perfect word for them, and they lost all right to complain about persecution or ask for sympathy when they started attacking civilians. I summoned a bound sword, killed Madanach and all his followers, and I never looked back.

    Though, in retrospect, I do really regret not killing Thonar as well for his role in all this mess. I let him walk away after giving me that ring, and I really shouldn't have.

    1. Let me say first that I appreciate your thoughtful responses as well as your kind words about the blog itself. That said...

      While I concede that the Forsworn have resorted to terrorism and therefore hurt their legitimacy, I have to take issue with your account of their history. Far from striking first, they had been warring for centuries with the Nords and the Empire over The Reach, a land to which they make a legitimate (though not incontestable) claim. Depending on one's reading of "The Bear of Markarth" and "The 'Madmen' of The Reach," one could argue that they were not "tolerated" as much as subjugated. What we see as terrorism, they see as guerrilla warfare to reclaim their homeland and redress the crimes committed against them.

      As far as attacking everyone and anyone, I can only examine my own experience. Margret was an Imperial spy, not some random citizen. The attack on Thornar's house was a targeted assassination attempt on a corrupt official. The Forsworn attack me all the time, but I'm a Nord Legionnaire, so I don't know if they treat everyone like that or not. In random encounters, I have only seen the Forsworn battling Stormcloaks and dragons. I just haven't seen them attack as indiscriminately as you seem to have.

      At the end of the day, I'm still going to kill every Forsworn I encounter because they are always hostile (outside of Cidhna Mine). But I still wish I didn't have to.

    2. Perhaps I am oversimplifying their history as a whole, but the key issue here is Markarth. As far as any history I can find says, Markarth was never theirs, and in fact it was settled by Tiber Septim and the fledgling Empire, the first recorded inhabitants of the city since the Dwemer left. The Forsworn had no prior claim to Markarth, but they still attacked it and took it over despite all the people already living there. Built by the Dwemer, rebuilt and made successful by the Empire, and inhabited by Skyrim nords. They had no right.

      And the Forsworn are always hostile. Don't forget, before you join the Legion or the Stormcloaks, the Dragonborn is for all intents and purposes a civilian, as I was when I first encountered them, and that doesn't stop them from attacking. It doesn't even slow them down. They do this regardless of player race, even if the PC is a breton, so they don't even have the excuse of mistaking you for one of those two. And even if that weren't the case, there is also a random encounter (tried to insert a link there and I'm not sure if it worked from the preview) in which you can find them attacking a travelling merchant.

      They're scum, pure and simple. Unfortunate scum with tragic backstories, mind you, and probably not deserving of Ulfric's treatment of them, but I've little tolerance for them and I shed no tears for having to kill them. They started this war and complained when they lost it. They're like Stormcloaks, only minus the virtues and with a whole bunch more vices.

    3. The way I read the history is as follows:

      1.) "Bretons are the original settlers of the Reach and once held ownership over the land there."(
      2.) The dwemer disappear in 1E 700, thus abandoning their stronghold in Markarth.
      3.) The Reachmen are established enough by 1E 1030 to have divided the land among ten kings, one of whom attempted to repel the Empress Hestra ("The Legend of Red Eagle")
      4.) "The natives of the Reach, a people of mixed Breton descent, assumed control of the city and the surrounding lands until the time of Tiber Septim, when the Nords came to power and subjugated the natives." (

      None of this excuses their crimes, but I think it's worth noting that the Reachmen were clearly in possession of the Reach after the Dwemer and before the Nords.

      Allow me to clarify one other point: as a player, I know they are always hostile, but if I am role-playing a Nord Legionnaire, my character would not have first-hand knowledge of Forsworn reactions to other races (unless he witnesses them).

      I do, however, find your anecdote of the attack on the traveling merchant hard to ignore.

    4. In possession of the Reach, yes. I will grant that. I'd even go as far as to say that they still control a good portion of it now, given that there isn't much to the Reach outside of Markarth itself, with certain exceptions, and the Empire can hardly police the entire hold.

      However, I can't seem to find the source that says the Reachmen previously inhabited Markarth before their hostile takeover. It says so on UESP, but the in-game books never say that according to their text displayed on the same wiki. Maybe there's a line of dialogue by a character somewhere that says that?

      Either way, I'll need a source before I believe that the Reachmen were running a functional city out of that ruin before the Empire came along. Even in the fourth era they're essentially a barbarian tribe, so I have a hard time believing that they could ever establish an actual city. Which is why I think they didn't. I think that's all the Empire's work. The oppression and stealing of land that they're complaining about I think refers to the Empire claiming ownership over the hills and surrounding countryside. In other words, everything except Markarth, which I can find nothing to suggest was ever anyone's but the dwarves' and the Empire's.

      And while your role-playing explanation does make sense, remember that such a situation never happened to me. In my playthrough and first encounter with the Forsworn, they had no such excuse, and I never forgot that.

      And I think that's the key difference between us. You were able to look back on your first encounter and say, "Oh... Them attacking me makes more sense now." For me though, even once I'd learned everything about them, looking back all I could say was, "Yeah, but you still attacked me for no reason, and I'm not even the only one. So you're still just bandits to me."

    5. Excellent points, DannyJ. One quick question: does Madanach's eloquent monologue in his cell do anything to complicate your picture of the Forsworn a barbarian tribe, or are you using a more nuanced meaning of the word?

    6. Again, I'm generalising by saying "barbarian," because they invoke that kind of feel. Their clothing, the way they live, their penchant for violence. They have a kind of barbarian motif, if you ask me. And like the barbarians, they're not really known for building great cities.

      Madanach though? He complains about injustice while totally oblivious to everything he and his men have caused. He takes no responsibility for his own actions, choosing only to chastise the player for theirs because they killed Forsworn agents while searching for answers. The question that needed those answers, I remind you, was "Why are the Forsworn murdering people in the city?"

      You ask Braig whether he thinks his story justifies the Forsworn's actions, and he say that the only anger he can justify is his own. You can't ask Madanach the same question, but his answer his obvious. In his mind, it completely does. His people were mistreated, and therefore he has free reign to terrorise everyone in the Reach that isn't a Forsworn. And he seemingly sees no irony in this.

      I don't care how eloquent he is. He's a hypocrite and he's not worth my time.

  9. An RPG as a Rorschach test. Who would have thunk it. I think it is rather strange to be judging characters set in what seems to be a brutish Dark Age world, where violence seems to be commonplace. There don't seem to be any angels in this realm, just less blood-sodden mortals.

    Examine the situation here... indigenous Bretons have been put into the olive press by a corrupt Nordic over-class, who in turn are kept on a leash by the Thalmor. Nobody comes out of this smelling of roses, least of all the Markath Nords.

    In view of the fact that the Davohkiin was tossed in prison by corrupt guards at the behest of Thonar, I can't muster any sympathy for the Markath guards, or the Silverbloods. The fact that they blithely killed Elythyrs in the Temple pretty much confirms everything alleged about them by the denizens of the mines.

    But mind you, it is not the violence which gets me, it is the cynical way the Bretons/Forsworn have been used by the Silverblood nobleman for his own political scheming. All the turmoil, the innocents in the jails, the dead families, the unrest in the city... for the whim of one man.

    I sided with Madanach simply to even the playing field. He was a violent bastard (even though I don't see a problem in killing snitches... the necessary chore of any successful insurgency from Michael Collins to the French Resistance), therefore I felt no need to join in his massacre of the guards of Markath (it was at night, thankfully), just took in the spectacle.

    But then again, who am I to judge the Forsworn for their tactics? Who is going to help them? The Empire? The Davohkiin? For better or worse, they only can count on themselves. Their indiscriminate attacks make them an unattractive guild to join, but considering the Silverblood jackboot stamping away at their faces, I would not get in the way of their struggle. They have the right to struggle, and fail,or Daedra-willing, win. They probably see no other option. You could wish they acted like Robin Hood, but the storybook Robin Hood was aspirational fictional character... Most real life resistance fighters (like William Wallace) were not very polite or gentle.

    1. I could not have said it better myself, Terian Flows. Thank you.

  10. I've been reading this blog for a few hours now, i'm glad someone bothered to relate his morale-challenging experience of Skyrim. I hold great importance to the moral dilemmas i come across in this game, and the Forsworn question was the most painful decision i made.

    I killed Madanach, much like DannyJ, because i felt their fight caused more pain than good. However, there are two arguments that i think would ultimately justify the choice.

    1. The Forsworn don't represent ALL the pre-Nord inhabitants of the Reach. Some have blended in the population, forsook their ancient divinities and tried to forgive these invaders and the Nords in general. The Forsworn, far from helping them, actually attack them if it can pressure the jarl.
    I take for account on this matter the invasion of Kolskeggr's mine, or the raids against the one in Karthwasten whose owner will tell you if asked. I remember at least one of the owners to be a native.

    I would add to that their dark cults. I cannot close my eyes on their reverence for the hagravens. Now i know they are in a difficult position and trying to gather the means to defeat these invaders, what bothers me is that it's part of that ancient culture they are fighting to preserve (unless you see any other trace of dark rites from the ancient time they are still using). I mean, aside from being the only residents in Karth (oh great, another Stormcloak group !). Because they could have taken other dwemer ruins, but no, it's Markarth or nothing.

    2. Even if you were to approve of their fight, well they are just like the Stormcloak, weakening the region to the benefit of the Thalmor ! When you know that they were ready to sign a treaty with the Empire (read it in an in-game book) and that the leader of the particularly heinous assault was Ulfric, i really see the Thalmor's influence in the matter. And there too, there is the ones who rebel and those who decided not to fight. That's why i summon a sword in front of Madanach, and without any regret, chop his head off. Another man of power unable to see the bigger picture. Once again, i wish he would tell his people to try blending in rather than going the path of destruction.
    Oh, great king, here will end the tale of your people's tragedy. Know that your life i will take in stead of Grisvar's, for the sins of the Bear weigh not upon his soul.

    1. You make a number of excellent points, Jean-Baptiste, but the one that really stands out to me is the fact that the Forsworn attacks help the Thalmor more than anyone else. Like Ulfric, Madanach cannot see that continuing this fight will likely end with his people being ground under the heel of the Dominion, right alongside the Nords. Imagine what would happen if the Stormcloaks and the Forsworn gave up their internecine battles and turned their weapons on the Thalmor instead!

    2. Unifying Skyrim, as you think the Dragonborn's goal is, yes, that'd be good. It looks to me like it's too good to be true.
      After a quick search on Google, i found this :
      Which says that after Skyrim, the Forsworn ally with Daedric forces. So, while they suffered, the argument of their dark ancient worships is still enough for me to eliminate their clans.

    3. Actually, The Elder Scrolls Online is set in the past (Second Era), so there's still hope!

  11. Yes that's true, thank you for correcting me. I noticed only now.
    I'm just searching too hard to find the canon ending of skyrim.

    1. Actually, I've been thinking a lot about the canonical ending of Skyrim lately. If Bethesda develops a TES VI, they will have to decide who won the Civil War. I don't think they can "Warp in the West" their way out of it, the way they did with Daggerfall.

  12. Thank you for a wonderfully written blog, as well as all the comments previously. I am rather new to Skyrim and I surely was not prepared for this kind of moral dilemma presented to me in the game! It's a really pleasant surprise to find your blog when I tried to google what other players do in this quest.

    I have stopped playing the game at the moment, because I am not sure what to do next. There are two other reasons, apart from Thonar is highly despicable, that make me want to take up Madanach's offer: 1) Braig's story; 2) My PC is relatively low level and I am not confident of fighting my way out. However, it is really difficult for me to "side" with a terrorist, just as in real life. Helping Madanach would plunge Markarth into chaos due to terrorism, and it just doesn't help even though I can kill him later, the damage would have been done by then. Also, I simply can't believe a ruler who retort to using terrorism will be a good ruler. I think I will mull over it a little bit more, but I am pretty sure I will try and kill my way out of the mine.

    Finally, it's really good to know that there are plenty of gamers who are willing to put thoughts into what's happening in the game, instead of just saying "it's just a game" and move on simply doing what need to be done.

    1. Thank you for your comments and compliments, Wesley. A few points to consider as you decide your next move:

      1.) You might be able to assassinate Madanach without altering the rest of the Forsworn, so as to avoid "fighting your way out."
      2.) If you do kill him, though, do you really think the next Forsworn leader will be any less likely to employ terrorism as a tactic?

      I'd be interested to know what you decide -- please write back when you have a chance.

  13. I too, play as a Nord, one that takes on each quest through with the aim of improving Skyrim as a whole, while preparing himself for his inevitable battle with the dragons. He sees the civil war as unfortunate, but leans towards the Stormcloaks. As a proud Nord he sees it as contemptible to lie back and allow the Thalmor to walk over their culture, even if the Empire is just doing it to buy time to lick their wounds. His choice was solidified upon finding the Thalmor message that indicated it would be equally undesirable for the Stormcloaks to break Skyrim free of the empire as for the empire to quash the rebellion. The only time he finds himself uncomfortable with his choices is when confronted with brash racism on the behalf of Stormcloaks.

    While I found Madanach and his cronies sympathetic, I found their actions (and the forsworn as a whole) unpalatable. I played along with their escape, allowing Grisvar to be slaughtered by Madanach's men, and followed them through the tunnels. The moment Madanach and his men returned to me my standard equipment, my Nord's blade went through his gut. He went outside the tunnel to end the now-weakened Forsword breakout with little trouble, and was thanked by Thonar for his assistance in dealing with the King in Rags. Still appalled by Thonar's methodology, it wasn't long before Thonar found himself stalked by an assassin in the night, and an arrow found itself in his heart.

    My jack-of-all-trades isn't afraid to get his hands dirty if it means a cleaner world (from his perspective - and admittedly, my own) in the end.

    Body count - A group of forsworn and a corrupt member of a powerful family.

    I should mention that I actually managed to save Margret. Though it was made easier since I have a nasty habit of following the nigh-infinite number of sidequests before any main quests, I was at a fairly unreasonably high-level when taking this on, too. 61, I believe. I actually carry a bow almost always at the ready with the slow-down time perk so I can make any nick-of-time saves like that (due to my frustration with the tendency of the first Vampire attack in whiterun to cost poor Adrienne her life - also the reason the first major questline I completed was the Dawnguard one!)

    Thanks for the interesting read, by the way. Glad to have stumbled across such a thorough examination of the choices presented, even if you don't always catch them all (much like most of us, I imagine). I'm also glad I'm not the only one who actually wrestles so much with the morality of my in-game choices.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, and thanks for reading.

      Question for you: given your stance on the Civil War, I'm curious about whether you see any parallels between the Forsworn and the Stormcloaks. After all, aren't both fighting for the preservation of their religious liberty and cultural integrity?

  14. Me? I shanked Madanach with a Bound Sword and snuck out without another casualty. When Thonar approached me at the end, I shot him in the face. I got my revenge against Thonar, prevented a terrorist from organizing murder and rape, and only three people died. (Sorry, Eltrys.) All in all, I regret that I had to kill Madanach, but hey, it'll prevent more deaths.

    1. Fair enough, but in simply killing Madanach, do you think you had any real impact on the actions of the Forsworn? It's not as though they stop attacking after he's dead.

    2. Unfortunately, you unwittingly killed EVERY prisoner in the mine. If they are not killed after Madanach is killed, the game makes them simply drop dead when you've escaped. The assumption must be that they noticed and turned hostile, and the developers didn't want them waiting there to murder you if you were ever imprisoned again. I wouldn't contemplate the moral aspect of this, though, as it's the result of a programming quirk rather than a logical consequence of your actions.
      Might I ask how only three people died? Madanach, Thonar, and Eltrys make three right there. How did you avoid killing Weylin without Margret dying, and how did you avoid the confrontation with Nepos the Nose and his servants?

  15. I actually found this one fairly straight forward for Aure, although largely for selfish reasons.

    I didn't get to Markarth until fairly late in my first play through (though still before Paarthurnax). By that time, Skyrim was more home to her than High Rock ever was. She was thane in more holds than not, she was married with and adopted families, and she had loyal allies all over the country. And while she hadn't ended the civil war, she wasn't going to allow more violence to erupt across her home, especially if there was any chance it would reach her family. Plus there was more than a little element of revenge for all the times she got attacked by Foresworn.

    All in all, between the terrorist mastermind and the broken, old man, it wasn't much of a choice.

    I did ease my conscious, by having her control her dragon urges and not slaughtering the rest of his men, hoping cutting off the snakes head would be enough.

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  18. Just wanted to thank you for the thoughtful and compelling blog.

    I'm using the Alternate Start mod. My Nord grew up in Rorikstead, learning to shoot a bow before she learned to read. She proudly defended her hometown from wolves, bandits, and the local Forsworn with equal impunity. Now, years later, she is about to start the Markarth story and have her eyes opened about these savage daedra-worshippers. I've put it off due to being unsure how to play it. Most likely, after reading the comments here, and since she's gained a fair amount of political experience, she'll take the long-term view of the FS playing into Thalmor hands and take Madanach down regretfully after hearing him out. She says rites over humanoid dead, and will do this for Madanach in case it puts his soul at rest, wherever savage souls go. (She's superstitious and more than a little self-righteous.)

    It's tempting to have her fully sympathize with and free him, as a turning point in her view of the world, though...we'll see. Thanks for the discussion here!

    "Marta of the Reach"

  19. Todd Rooney. Your article is so well written. I literally did my play through of that quest exactly, step by step, like you did. No exaggeration. I killed Frisbee, only after looking for an unfindable escape route. After the escape, I stood by the side lines also and watched as the forsworn killed thonar, and the city guards which I hoped were corrupt ones as well so that the bloody trail of victims from the battle was at least justifiable. And in my play through, fortunately this all took place in the pre sun rise hours, eliminating the threat of any civilians getting wounded or killed. At the end I was left feeling bad for killing grisvar and feeling like I would eventually have to kill madanach in a future encounter.

  20. Honestly, I have no sympathy for the Reachmen. They were full-on citizens of the empire, entitled to all of the rights and privileges therein, but they chose to rebel and conquer while the Empire was fighting off a force that would have butchered them without qualm.

    I don't approve of what Ulfric did to take back the Reach (I find him morally repulsive for that and many other reasons), but as the many free Reachmen currently living in the Reach show, it was not a resist-or-die situation. They could have peacefully surrendered and lived on as Empire citizens. They chose the bloody path and the brutal slaughter of innocents. I have no sympathy for them or their king.

    Also, the 'religious freedom' they want is the right to worship the mostly murderous, treacherous, and outright evil Daedra princes. I respect the Stormcloaks wanting to worship Talos (I kill any Thalmor inquistators I find leading prisoners), that's entirely different from the vile cults that most Daedra inspire.

    On the other hand, the Silver-Bloods seem responsible for much (if not all) of the misery and corruption in the Reach. Thanor murders, intimidates, and steals for his wealth and power. He is entirely reprehensible.

    So, getting into the actual quest, I killed all three of the original guards, then killed the reinforcements as they were clearly corrupt as well (or why else would they be guarding the entrance while the crime was pinned on me). Then, I ran to the mine, expecting to quell a growing prison riot/revolution only to discover that even the ordinary guards were targeting me. I saw the plot rails and went to prison as requested.

    There, I met with Madanach and found that eloquent speech or not he was still a savage, killing out of rage and spite rather than towards any actual progress. I listened to Braig's story and, to me, it sounded like obvious propaganda. Braig, despite claiming to have no allegiance to the Forsworn, only tells es it when Madanach commands? Also, it didn't make sense. Why would anyone kill his daughter just because she asked for mercy? Even assuming the Silver-Bloods were in charge of the trial (the Jarl seemed like a very good guy) at worst they would have sent her to the mine as another worker, not murder her outright. It sounds like a story designed to invoke sympathy, told by a man who does it only when his King commands to new inmates. It seems clear to me that it was a ploy to gain my loyalty.

    I went back to Madanach and when he told me to kill a man who didn't deserve it, my choice was clear.

    I killed Madanach, took the key, and escaped. I expected to briefly be a fugitive before finding the evidence on Thanor that would vindicate me.

    I was very surprised to find Thanor waiting for me, rewarding me and erasing my crimes. Of course, getting me a pardon did not excuse his murders, conspiracy, and greed, so I killed him shortly afterwards in the treasury house.

  21. I don't know if you still monitor this blog, given its age, but I've just stumbled upon it and have found it quite interesting.

    One thing I wonder: when you'd done this quest, had you done the Temple of Dibella quest in Markarth? That quest involved rescuing a young girl, the future Sybil of Dibella, from the Forsworn.

    My first character, a Breton battlemage, had sided with Madanach for most of the reasons that your character did; however, my second character, a Nord spellsword, had literally just rescued the little girl from the Forsworn redoubt, and was therefore unsympathetic to the Forsworn cause. (My Nord character never did get so far as to hear the Forsworn man's account of his daughter's death; upon meeting Madanach, he asked what she wanted, and when she answered with "Revenge," Madanach attacked her immediately. She was more than happy to dispatch him with a bound sword.) Even if she had gotten to the point of questioning Braig, I don't think it would have made any difference; both sides are pretty awful, but the immediate fact of having an innocent girl abducted and held in a Forsworn prison cell overrode any big-picture moral concerns for my character.

    (Also, an interesting side note on the game: I'd left Markarth to go rescue the little girl right after killing Nepos and his Forsworn. If you go to meet up with Eltrys before handing her over to the priestesses of Dibella, the guards don't throw her into Cidhna Mine with you. I suppose that even the corrupt Markarth guards have their limits.)