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!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Thieves' Guild (Under New Management)

After taking on the mantle of the Nightingale and defeating the traitorous Mercer Frey, I was tasked with returning the Guild to its former glory by re-establishing its reputation all across Skyrim.  In order to redeem the Guild and earn the title of Guildmaster, I would have to pull off a series of at least 20 small jobs, followed by four larger capers in The Reach, Whiterun, Haafingar, and Eastmarch.  Each job presented its own moral dilemma, which I navigated with varying degrees of success.

Small Jobs

The Bedlam Jobs: These jobs required me to steal at least 500 gold in loot from a given city.  I managed the Bedlam jobs by choosing morally acceptable targets (those who are rich and/or loathsome, such as Erikur) or by replacing the stolen items with items of equal or greater value. The first method played into my habit of passing judgment on NPCs in order to rationalize my actions; the wealthy wouldn't miss the loot, and the reprehensible deserve the inconvenience.  The second method allowed me to create a "no harm, no foul" arrangement with myself in order to assuage any guilt I might feel.  I used both methods for other types of jobs as well.

The Fishing/Heist Jobs: In both cases, the contract was to steal a specific item from a specific person or business.  I tended to favor the "acceptable target" method for the pickpocketing jobs and the "replacement" method for the safecracking jobs.  My logic here was that the items on an NPC were probably of personal as well as monetary value, so replacement would not be acceptable, and I would need to reject any targets from whom I could not justify stealing (see above).  Businesses, on the other hand, are interested in monetary value only, so replacing the stolen items made sense.

The Numbers Jobs: Because there are very few morally acceptable target businesses, these jobs presented a unique problem: on the one hand, forging a business's ledger cannot be "balanced" with a replacement, but on the other, it was heavily implied that the forgeries would only be used to hide Guild activities (as opposed to stealing from the business itself).  Furthermore, I noticed no ill effect of the forgeries on the targeted businesses.  With no good method of balancing the crimes or measuring their long-term impacts, I completed only a few of these jobs.

The Shill Jobs: Similar to A Chance Arrangement, the Shill job required me to plant a stolen item in a random person's house.  Since there is no way to balance this kind of crime, I only did a handful of these, and only if the target was morally acceptable (such as Bolli).

The Sweep/Burglary Jobs: These jobs presented the biggest hurdle for me because they came with a ludonarrative twist.  Both job types required me to steal specific items from a house, so I used the same "acceptable target" and "replacement" methods as in the Bedlam jobs, but I noticed that the items I stole spawned in the house only after I accepted the job.  In other words, if I entered, say, the Atheron residence before taking a Sweep job, none of the target items would be there.  The items only exist when I agree to steal them.  The game does attempt to deflect the ludonarrative dissonance (usually Vex saying something about the target house having recent bought or inherited the item(s) in question), but after the fifth or sixth job of this type, it becomes rather difficult to make a moral investment.  If the items don't exist until I agree to steal them, then there is no real moral question.

Larger Capers (a.k.a. City Influence Quests)

Imitation Amnesty (Whiterun): This quest required me to forge a prison registry in order to provide a new identity for "Arn," a war-buddy of Olfrid Battle-Born.  The moral dilemma is that Arn is apparently wanted for a capital offense in Solitude, but was brought in on a public drunkenness charge in Whiteun.  The new identity will allow Arn to serve his time in Whiterun on the minor charge, then go free.  While my previous forgeries simply allowed the Guild to operate discretely, this one would potentially set a serious criminal free.  There were several complicating factors to consider:
  • Olfrid never reveals what the charges are, nor whether Arn actually committed the crime.  Given the events of Unbound, I am well aware that the Empire sometimes plays fast and loose with the concept of "capital offense"; apparently, trespassing and horse stealing fall under that category alongside high treason.  Without knowing what he supposedly did or if he even did it, I had very little way of determining whether sneaking into Dragonsreach to alter an official document was justified in this case.
  • As the load screens are fond of pointing out, each hold tracks its crime differently.  Therefore, a crime committed in Haafingar might not warrant extradition from Whiterun.  The fact that Solitude specifically asked Whiterun to be on the lookout for Arn suggests that this is an unusual case -- perhaps involving the war...
  • ...on the other hand, Olfrid is a staunch supporter of the Empire, so it's unlikely that he would want to cover up anything treasonous.
  • Unlike the small jobs, this job cannot be turned down and replaced with a similar, more palatable one.  Failing this quest would prevent me from becoming Guildmaster.
I agreed to take the job.  Without additional information, I was not convinced that the crime was justified, but as I pointed out in that last bullet, there was a larger picture to consider.  Unfortunately, during the job, I discovered a letter which revealed that Arn was wanted for murder.  Now I had a real problem: do I allow a man charged with murder go free?  The revised considerations:
  • I still could not be certain that Arn was guilty of murder.  I knew this argument was losing ground by the minute, but I also knew from previous experience that killing an enemy whom the Hold Guard doesn't recognize as an enemy can result in a murder charge. 
  • Taking leadership of the Guild was still my prime motivation for taking the job.  The letter does not change that.
I went forward, despite my misgivings. I really compromised my moral stance this time, and it did not feel good.

The Dainty Sload (Haafingar): This job was morally challenging in and of itself.  I was asked to plant illegal drugs on a dishonest ship captain -- definitely gray and grey morality, but palatable in the context of the big picture: only bad people were being hurt.  The real obstacle was minimizing the collateral damage to the captain's crew; labeled as "Corsairs," the only so-named NPCs in the game, I could not just exterminate them as bandits, even though that is most likely what they are.  I therefore decided to Sneak through the whole thing in order to avoid any unnecessary deaths.  I did, however, opt to pick Sabine Nytte's pocket for the Balmora Blue; stealing from one criminal to frame another seemed justified to me.

Silver Lining (The Reach): Because this quest involved simply retrieving a stolen item from bandits, it was the easiest one to complete from a moral perspective.

Summerset Shadows (Eastmarch): Although not morally complex (wiping out a rival, murderous clan of Altmer thieves), this quest does tap into some other aspects of my playstyle.  As I have pointed out before, I take pleasure in killing Thalmor agents, but not all Altmer are Thalmor.  The Summerset Shadows, while not an official part of the Aldmeri Dominion, strike me as the criminal echo of the Thalmor; unlike other bandit clans, they are comprised of only one race.  Their apparent racism transforms their simple criminal  brutality into an aid to the Thalmor cause.  I would have gladly taken this job, even if I weren't a member of Guild.

The Ceremony: After completing all of the quests in this line, I was named Guildmaster, thereby cementing my control of all of the joinable factions in Skyrim.  I am still not sure if all of the steps along the way were morally worthwhile, but I will stand by my choices.
The Guild restored.


  1. First of all, I've only just recently discovered your blog, and I'm enjoying reading it. Keep it up!

    Second, will you be doing the Dark Brotherhood Storyline? And I mean actually joining them, not destroying them

    1. Thanks for your kind words!

      As I've said before, my blogging is way behind my playing. Very soon after I finished the Thieves' Guild, I decided to destroy the Dark Brotherhood. My next playthough will probably be from a different moral standpoint, so I will likely join them next time around.

    2. No prob.

      I hope that you'll blog about that as well.

      What's next on your "morality" play through?

  2. From here, if you like to use your imagination, I would say that a good guildmaster would make make something of a "steal from the rich, give to the poor" system, you know? If you've played oblivion, a good guildmaster also helps the beggars in the city, and pays them to be his eyes and ears. The thieves guild has the potential to really help skyrim, or really hurt skyrim, in the sense of fighting the thalmor

  3. I was sympathetic to the Thieves' Guild from the start because I remember them from Morrowind, where they were more or less unabashed good guys (in contrast to their bitter rivals, the Fighters Guild, who were being subverted into mere thugs - there was a questline that involved countering this takeover somehow, although I forget the details).

    In Morrowind, the guildmaster would tax you with missions that actually involved returning stolen property to its rightful owners. It was all very odd, and I'm not sure how they made a profit out of it, but still.

    Did you play Morrowind? For me it's still the best of the Elder Scrolls games. No voice acting = *thousands* more lines of dialogue. Plus you don't have the issues with the recycled voices and lines repeating themselves over and over every time you get too close to a guard.

    1. Actually, Skyrim is the first (and so far only) TES game I've played. I tend to get really into one game at a time, only moving on when I'm "done" with a title. Perhaps, if there's "world enough, and time," I will go back and play some of the earlier titles.

  4. It's so depressing, thinking about what you did during your playthrough. The stormcloaks would be thinking "yea! Eastern skyrim is free! our land has returned to it's magical nature! The rivers are free from imperial filth, the trees are free from imperial meddling, the wildlife has come back in abundance!" and then you take over those towns and have imperial soldiers garrisoned in those towns, where widowed women and orphaned children have to look at the very men who killed their fathers, day after day. Then you help the thieves guild to come back to power, and pretty soon the poor among skyrims people will be missing expensive family artifacts, orphans will wake up to see pouches missing from their pockets. Skyrim will go from the once honored culture of warriors to a culture of shrewd, ruthless, paranoid individuals always checking their backs, and stabbing others in the back as well. Those who are left will no longer have the will to fight the thalmor. This is the consequence of siding with the empire and the thieves guild together.

    1. The "widowed women and orphaned children looking at the very men who killed their fathers" - and mothers, remember, both ermies are equal opportunity employers - part of your vision is just as true if you side with the Stormcloaks. Personally, I can't bring myself to support either side in the civil war. I've decided they're in a standoff position at the moment, neither side shows any sign of actually making a move on the other unless I intervene, so I can keep my hands clean by ignoring the whole mess.

      As for the Thieves' Guild: there's plenty of crime in Skyrim that's nothing to do with the Guild, and there's absolutely no basis for imagining that if the Guild were utterly destroyed, then the crime rate would go down. What the Guild does is to offer what amounts to a code of honour. As Lord Vetinari puts it: "Since you're going to have crime anyway, it's better to have *organised* crime."

    2. Matt, while I really appreciate the depth of your role-playing, the way you've filled the lacunae that Bethesda left flat-out ignores some of the major facts of the game. My Riften is far from the Dickensian hellhole you describe. The rivers run clean, the trees and wildlife flourish, and order has been restored. The Imperial presence brought an end to the war that was helping to create those widows and orphans -- a war the Stormcloaks started, I might add. Now that I run the Thieves' Guild, I can direct their activities to more useful and beneficial ends, rather than allowing Mercer Frey to bleed the city dry. And while I wouldn't necessarily have chosen to make Maven Black-Briar the new Jarl, I can at least take comfort in the fact that I have deprived her of her two main weapons (the Guild and the Dark Brotherhood). As I've said before, she may be corrupt, but she's competent, which is more than I can say for Laila Law-Giver.

    3. Late, I know, but it quite annoys me when people don't understand that the Nords as a people are divided by this war, and that there're many Nords on both sides. In fact, the Imperial Guards mentioned by Matt are actually Nords. There's a reason why everyone calls it a Civil War, not "War for Nordic Independence", even though the latter name would be just as valid, in a way.

      Part of the confusion comes from the fact that the word "Imperial" as a noun in TES before Skyrim had only one meaning, referring to the main ethnicity of Cyrodiil, but in Skyrim it has gained another meaning - "Supporter of the Imperial Legion", and, in fact, in-game the latter meaning is seen much more often. Even despite the fact that there are heaps of Imperial-aligned Nords in the game, both named (Rikke etc) and generic (every Imperial Soldier on guard duty in cities), people have trouble recognizing this.

      Even I got confused on one occasion, though - I thought that Brina Merilis of Dawnstar is of Imperial ethnicity, making her the only non-Nord potential Jarl. She's actually a Nord born outside Skyrim.

      I also had a brief moment of surprise when I realized that Maven Black-Briar is a Nord, even though I never actually thought of her as being of some other ethnicity.

    4. Good points about race and the shifting of the "Imperial" designation. I know what you mean about Maven; to be honest -- and I'm well aware how racist this sounds -- Maven acts a whole lot more like an Imperial than a Nord anyway.

    5. I read on a wiki that in the earlier games (Arena and Daggerfall specifically), the "Imperial" race isn't playable, due to Cyrodiil being very much of a melting-pot. The excuse/explanation was that it literally wasn't a race in itself.

  5. To add my own belated two cents, I like that there's no clear cut good guy or bad guy in the civil war; Ulfric and Tullis are both well-meaning, flawed leaders of two imperfect factions who both want the best for their people. Even if you side with one, the other isn't vilified in the process, which is great.

    That we can look at the myriad of ideological and moral perspectives in Skyrim, including through the spectrum of views from specific races (i.e. Argonian, Khajiit, Dunmer), is very interesting, and makes the roleplay worthwhile.