Writing about Skyrim is something of a challenge. Sit down and play it, and then when you stop you’ve missed lunch and dinner, and people are waking up to go to work. It steals your time. After investing over 200 hours into Skyrim, I think it’s about time I wrote something about it. Let’s talk about the Thieves Guild.
I had trouble joining the Thieves Guild, because nobody would tell me where to go or what I needed to do. I stole some stuff, got caught, went to jail, but nobody contacted me. That’s how things start in Oblivion; it’s a tad counter-intuitive that the Thieves Guild would seek out people who got caught, but whatever. I visited taverns in Whiterun, Windhelm, and Solitude, seeking out members of the Guild that I could talk to and join that way; to join in Morrowind, you just have to visit a Guild contact and do a small errand for them to prove that you can, in fact, steal things.
I guess things really have changed in the 200 years since Morrowind and Oblivion took place, huh?
A “Chance” Encounter
Turns out, joining the Thieves Guild in Skyrim really isn’t that difficult. Upon arriving in Riften, where the Thieves Guild is located, a man by the name of Brynjolf approached me. Having acquired a bit of wealth in my adventures—looting crypts, slaying dragons, and the like—he claimed that I was a thief and that it would be in my best interest to join him.
It’s a little strange that he assumes that my vast amounts of wealth came from theft. What if I were poor, what would he say? And how does he know how much gold I have on me? Furthermore, why doesn’t he just steal my gold?
No, it would be better if Brynjolf threatened the player. “You’re rich, so you’re going to work with us or else bad things are in store for you.” Alternatively, the game could track how much loot the player has stolen (there are statistics for it, after all), and if the have stolen a sufficient amount of loot then Brynjolf could say something along the lines of, “perhaps it would be mutually beneficial for us to work together.” If they hadn’t stolen very much, he could offer to take the player under his wing and show them the ways of proper thievery. If the player hasn’t stolen anything, then Brynjolf shouldn’t approach at all.
Anyway, Brynjolf’s first task for me is to steal a ring from Madesi, a local jeweler, and then plant it on Brand-Shei. Brand-Shei crossed the guild and now his business must suffer. This would be the perfect time for Brynjolf to say, “show me your stuff, freelancer.” This makes much more sense than randomly approaching strangers and roping them into guild business.
However, the way this quest is set up, the player is unable to fail. They can fail in the sense that Brynjolf is disappointed in them, but he still offers the player a place in the guild. This makes sense from a certain point of view: if the player fails and is trying to join the guild, then they would be locked out of it. Bethesda could have it both ways, and it’s a simple wording change. Brynjolf could say, “You’re a disappointment. If you’re serious about conducting business with me, then you can come find me in the Ragged Flagon. Get your act together and think about it.” This is much better dialogue than coddling the player and telling them that they still show promise.
Taking Care of Business
The Ratway is filled with bandits and murderers. I would have actually liked to have learned more about the people living in the Ratway. Who are they, and how did they end up having to live in the Ratway? What do they have to do to survive? Are these ex-members of the Guild? Unfortunately, they’re all generically named ‘Bandit’ so there isn’t any story to be told about them. They’re murderous sewer-dwellers, end of story.
Brynjolf approaches in the Flagon, glad that I was able to make it here. The tavern, boarding house, and pawn shop all owe the Guild money. We’re told that the Guild isn’t what it used to be—that it’s fallen on some very hard times—and thus the shops don’t really feel the need to pay up. That’s where I come in; Brynjolf’s first task for me is to go hustle the owners to pay up their protection money.
In the pawn shop, the objective is to rough up the priceless vase. This seems pretty inconsequential at first, but there is a serious implication here: There are some things in Skyrim that you can attack and they will break. However, this isn’t utilized to it’s full potential. Most often, it will just be walls of spider webs obstructing your path. During the Civil War, there are barricades that can be destroyed. There aren’t many other things that can be broken this way. It’s a good introduction to a feature new to Skyrim, but the feature is just under utilized.
Part of the Flagon is a large cistern, the true headquarters for the Guild. There are a few copies of a book written by Delvin Mallory about ‘Shadowmarks’, which are little scribblings carved into the environment by other thieves. If a building has something valuable inside of it, there is a mark for that. If a building is devoid of any interesting loot, then there is a mark for that as well. There’s even a mark for buildings that are under Guild protection, and should not be looted lest you be expelled from the Guild.
Bethesda introduced a system that allows players to destroy scenery and a system that informs the player via symbols. If these two systems were combined, then there could be false walls, weak structures, and other things that the player can attack and destroy; these would all be marked so that the player knows that these things can be interacted with, so that they don’t have to Fus Ro Da every wall of every building just to find some goodies. Skyrim’s biggest draws are story and exploration, yet there is a missed opportunity here. Bethesda could have expanded upon the exploration by offering players more things to discover than what will eventually just become a landmark on their map.
Loud and Clear
Anyway, returning to the Flagon, Brynjolf has me talk to Mercer Frey. Frey is the current guildmaster. He then points me to Goldenglow Estate, which is a honey farm. The Guild is backed by a woman named Maven Blackbriar, who owns a meadery. Goldenglow provided Blackbriar with the honey used to produce her mead, but honey shipments have since stopped.. The Guild was in charge of keeping the shipments flowing. Thus, this trouble with Maven’s business is trouble for the Guild.
The job is simple: break into Goldenglow Estate, investigate why Aringoth (the owner of the Estate) stopped doing business with Maven, and send a message by destroying some (but not all) of the bee hives; the hives are another instance where the player can interact with (destroy) the environment, and they can do it with fire.
There are a few options for infiltrating the Estate. It’s on an island, and front door (a bridge and gate) is locked. Vex, Guild infiltrator extraordinaire, suggests that I go through the sewers. The sewers which are booby-trapped with oil and skeevers. My method was much more effective, which was to swim around the island and climb up the western slope. Additionally, I assaulted the island at night, which increases the effectiveness of sneaking. Nothing can go wrong with this plan!
Aside from my companion, of course. Companions are very bad at sneaking and being stealthy. So as I’m sneaking through the mansion, the guards are all investigating the sounds my companions are making. My companion, alerted to the sound of someone being suspicious, then runs into combat. What I had intended to be a non-lethal infiltration quickly turned into a grand murder spree, all thanks to my companion. See, in Oblivion, there is a blood price for killing people on a job, because we’re thieves and not murderers. After 200 years and a change of region, it would seem that standards have slipped dramatically. Skyrim has improved stealth mechanics over Oblivion, but what is the point if the Thieves Guild quests don’t require the player to utilize these mechanics? There is no need to role-play a thief here. Hopefully, this quest is the only one that doesn’t require stealth. After all, the angle here is that we’re exacting revenge on Aringoth. He stopped paying the Guild protection money, so I’m just killing his hired guards to show him what happens.
Anyway, it turns out that Aringoth sold the Estate to another buyer, and so will not be sending Maven any more honey. The Blackbriar Meadery is very profitable (or so we’re told), so whoever the buyer is must be exceptionally wealthy themselves. Additionally, money was spent on hired mercenaries, which cuts the Guild—Maven’s lap dogs—out of the picture as well.
This document acknowledges the sale of Goldenglow Estate and all property, assets and materials contained within. Payment of the property has been made in full by Gulum-Ei as an agent on behalf of the buyer. All dealings with the Thieves Guild in Riften is to cease immediately. To deter any possible retribution for this act, you are to take immediate steps to protect our assets in any way you see fit. I think you’ll find that the Thieves Guild is far more bark than bite and will likely avoid Goldenglow Estate rather than thin their already dwindling numbers.
Good luck and may this be the start of a long and lucrative partnership.
Upon returning from the Estate, Frey has me meet with Maven personally. One of her former competitors, a man by the name of Sabjorn, has suddenly become a thorn in her side. Seemingly overnight, he established the Honningbrew Meadery. This worries Maven, so she wants me to take care of it. She wants to know where the capital to fund the business came from, and she wants Sabjorn cut out of the picture. Mead is a very profitable business, and Maven would prefer to retain her monopoly on it.
By this point, it’s pretty clear how the quest line is going to play out. Maven is a very dirty business woman, and this line will expose just how greedy and corrupt the wealthy are. Extortion, framing, subterfuge, and blackmail, all set against the backdrop of investigating Maven’s various competitors. This is going to be a different kind of Thieves Guild than the ones we see in Morrowind or Oblivion!