Invent

How To Kill Your Dragon


Those born under the sign of the Thief can have a tough time with Skyrim’s fire-breathing serpents. But there is more than one way to slay a dragon…

Art: “Skyrim”
by Matt Rhodes


The most disappointing thing about Skyrim’s stealth gameplay isn’t the underdeveloped AI, nor the awkward detection mechanics. As an open-world-action-RPG hybrid… thing, it’s naive to expect Skyrim to have the quality of a pure stealth game, when it’s busy trying to be everything to all players. So, the most disappointing thing is the way in which Skyrim’s stealth gameplay dives with the same momentum that your character gains by gazing ever-deeper into the stars.

This is what happens when you try and sneak through a dungeon with a companion. Even Mercer Frey, with all his Thieves Guild training, continually triggers trap switches or wakes up the slumbering Draugr. And now it's shouting at me.

Let me back up a bit. I’m one of those people who, when they create a character in an Elder Scrolls game, always find themselves falling into the same thief archetype. A bit of sneaking, a bit of archery, stealing and tongue-wagging. Despite each title taking place hundreds of years apart, the boots I travelled across Cyrodiil in are the same boots that plod through the snow today. To me, The Elder Scrolls games are, in fact, stealth games. They might not feel that way to you, but that’s one of the beauties of the series.

My character sneaks everywhere he goes. If he had a poor posture stat, it would light up the heavens. His fingers are so fast that he can steal the clothes off the backs of townsfolk. Finding someone with enough gold to buy his stolen goods is far more of a challenge than the stealing thereof. And that’s a problem.

But it’s not the main problem. No, that would be the fact that my Sneaking skill is almost at level 100.

See, when a character is sneaking in Skyrim, their chance to be detected isn’t determined by light or shadow. Sound can play a factor, but it’s not long before a perk eliminates it as one. Detection boils down to the distance between you and the enemy.

At low levels, this is still pretty good fun. You’re actually observing the geometry of the environment and plotting routes to bypass guards. It’s nothing mundane, like hiding behind a box until they turn the other way. No, you’ll be diving into underground lakes, timing the moment to resurface and take a breath before silently sinking back down and wading to another refuge. With little means for silent takedowns at low levels, you’ll be exploiting the physics system by throwing pots and baskets to distract guards in order to sneak by.

The blind Falmer offer an interesting change of pace for stealth, relying entirely on sound and distance for detection.

Though the implementation of all this stuff is, as mentioned, not as solid as a pure stealth game, the fact that these objects and environments have not been created to specifically support just stealth gameplay, but all possible avenues of the liberating character creation system, adds to the illusion of a highly systemic – and, at times, rather emergent – stealth experience.

But it’s only by keeping you muzzled that physicality of the environment, the properties of the objects within, and the way the AI responds to disturbances, are brought to the fore of the stealth loop. Once the perks are ignited and the Sneaking bar begins to fill, that loop undergoes a catastrophic metamorphosis.

You’ll be able to perform sneak attacks that deal fifteen times the regular damage – or thirty times, if you have the equipment. For all but the toughest enemies, like dragons (actually… well, we’ll get to that) this means an instant kill. And that’s great, for it works as an appropriate analogue of the silent, melee knock-out. But getting to these perks means leveling up the broader Sneaking skill – the one that governs detection range. Add to that perks that reduce detection distance by certain percentages even further, and stealth gameplay becomes something that feels irrevocably broken – even within the context of Skyrim’s base mechanics.

My character is at a point where he can be crouched in front of an enemy, by the blazing light of a torch, all but headbutting their groin… and still remain undetected. All that fun stuff about avoiding guards? He just ignores it now, because he can roll like a caffeinated tumbleweed right under their noses. He has become too stealthy, and the mechanics have ceased to engage.

The holds and the castles feel like locations where stealthy characters would traditionally skulk. Towns full of people to rob and homes to ransack, and where the chest at the end of the dungeon is, instead, the deep pockets of a Jarl during Nordic naptime. Yet these locations are the first to feel broken when sacked by a high-level stealth character. Robbing the entirety of Whiterun rapidly becomes an exercise in repetition, not technique.

At low levels, it's nigh on impossible for a stealth character to take a dragon head-on. You need to retreat, and stay alive long enough to lure it toward some even more powerful creatures, who will hopefully help kill it off.

Skyrim is more than its capital cities, however. A vast world bridges them – a world I’ve often felt is a far more hostile place for a stealth character than the one within the walls of Riften. Polar bears, sabre-cats and great bloody dragons stand poised to tear you to shreds should you forget that you need to crouch outside, too. It’s within this world that the metamorphosis of the stealth mechanics gives way to more rewarding sneaking and subterfuge.

There really is nothing quite so thrilling as backstabbing a dragon. It’s something that’s only possible once the Sneaking skill is high enough – to the point where regular stealth activity feels broken. Sneaking up on the scaly bastards – the ones perched upon words of power, snoring ominously – is intensely terrifying. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t seem to properly account for these one-hit-kills, as landing the Sneak Attack awakens the dragon and causes it to briefly take flight before gracefully plummeting back to earth and promptly expiring. It’s disappointing that there is no animation, or some such substitute, that you get locked into for a dragon backstab, when those often play out for Sneak Attacks on regular foes.

Nevertheless, the whole thing smacks of Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain, rather than a boss fight from Turok. It’s within these encounters that Skyrim’s high-level stealth gameplay, broken in the realm of man, becomes something thrilling out in the wilds. Characters adopt the persona of a cautious, wisened beast-hunter, skulking around lairs, through trees and across mountains to hunt creatures much larger than themselves. As the monsters present a far greater threat, and display less predictable AI, than their human counterparts, the stealth loop returns to the basics that made it so engaging – your character, your mark, and your relationship with the environment.

The game does a decent job of encouraging such behaviour, with regular Radiant Quests to clear an area of beasts, or assassinate an actual dragon. The rewards and progression for doing so are never as great as those found in the main quest or the three guilds, so it requires an element of self-direction on the part of the player. But the alternative, for a purely stealth-focused player such as myself, is to tire of the simplicity of regular stealth gameplay and leave the world of Skyrim to be snowed under.

Skyrim is the first Elder Scrolls game that offers its stealth gameplay a place to go after it inevitably breaks. And the series always offers peak experiences to players who make their own fun within; stealth gameplay in Skyrim requires that and just a little extra effort to sustain momentum. My original goal of becoming the richest man in Skyrim eventually diminished, as pickpocketing became too easy, and fencing the goods too hard. But that still kept me entertained for – according to Steam’s statistics – fifty-four hours. So the conceit of a little self-direction is one I’m more than willing to make, as it makes the journey of my character from penniless pickpocket to a slayer of titans no less fascinating. Give yourself over to the world and your character, and Skyrim can offer a dangerously absorbing stealth experience.

Daniel Hindes

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4 Responses to How To Kill Your Dragon

  1. By tetracycloide, January 24, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    Having just finished Skyrim I would swear that field of view matters for visibility while for sound it’s just proximity. It’s also much easier to sneak outside at night but I’m not sure if that’s because light maters or if time of day is a factor in the detection formula. I would also swear that light matters too although not in the ‘light vs. shadow’ sense as much as a ‘proximity to light source’ sense. Once you have 100 sneak and max out the perks I would agree that stealth is broken since it’s like you’re cloaked all the time. I found that disappointing so I elected to get only 1/5 in the 5 tier sneak perk. Even with only 1 point once my character became a vampire and got the vampire passive bonus to sneak detection chance stealth remained fairly trivial although not to the point where you could sneak up to someone’s face in broad daylight without them seeing you. Not with stealth alone anyway…

    One thing you did not touch on at all is magic. There’s an entire school of magic devoted toward ‘stealth’ in the game aptly called ‘illusion magic.’ With absolutely no perks spent in sneak or illusion it can render the character completely invisibility with an invisibility spell and completely silent with a muffle spell. The entire left half of the sneak tree seems a complete waste since with these two spells any character can accomplish 90% of the purpose of those perks without costing any perk points at all. The video above with ‘shadow warrior’ would work exactly the same way with invisibility on the left hand except you could literally stay invisible the whole time with carefully timed casts.

    That’s the bad news. The good news for illusion is that Fear, Frenzy, and Calm are all present and, with the right perks, work on practically everything making for a crazy fun way to progress through areas. Combined with perk that makes casting silent they each provide unique tools for stealthing through areas. Instead of throwing items to distract guards why not drive one of them crazy so he attacks his friends? Or convince them all that you’re really a nice guy? Or simply scare them away?

    Another possibility for stealth combines destruction magic and illusion perks. With quiet casting keeping casts silent the AI must rely on the light created by casting spells and trajectories to locate the player which is usually enough for ice and fire spells. For lightning spells, however, there’s zero travel time so the AI can’t react to the spell hitting them fast enough to see where the player is casting from. Bolts of light that strike from the shadows and fade to quickly to track can be quite satisfying. The novelty can wear off quickly however when the AI starts to break down and just stands still, out in the open, spinning around looking for a target while bolts of lightning lance them over and over until they die.

    • By Daniel Hindes, January 25, 2012 at 1:02 am

      Field of view does matter for visibility, especially at low level. But I found that once I levelled up enough, the detection distance was reduced to the point where it felt as though field of view was not an issue. There’s also the perk that makes it so that “running and walking does not affect detection”. I wasn’t sure if this meant whilst crouched (and being able to toggle speed with Caps Lock, on PC) or if it meant I could just walk past guys without crouching into sneak mode. Either way, it’s kind of like a permanent muffle spell.

      That said, the stealth magic does sound fascinating. I’ll admit to roleplaying a bit of a Garrett archetype (Magic? Ugh, get it away from me) but now I’m keen to go back and try a new character that uses this stealth magic. The mind affecting ones would be great, too – would it be possible to play through with nothing but Fear, Frenzy, Calm and other Illusion spells? Can you Calm or Frenzy a dragon?

      Light sources when casting puts my mind toward ideas for really interesting magic-based stealth games. ‘Tis a pity about the destruction magic, though.

    • By tetracycloide, January 25, 2012 at 7:12 pm

      It’s possible but you’d have to avoid combat with daedra, automatons, and undead for a while until illusion and the character progressed far enough to get the perk that allows illusions mind control spells to work on those enemy types. Illusions spells also have a very binary nature where a spell either works or does not work, there is no in between. So if you don’t have a high enough spell and the right perks to successfully cast a mind altering spell on your target nothing happens at all. It’s one of the easier skills to level, however, since invisibility and muffle are self targeting so getting it to 100 and grabbing all the perks necessary for it to work as often as possible isn’t super difficult. I’ve never tried casting it on a dragon but I think it works on them too. Might be a long while before other things in the area killed it for you though.

  2. By oj, June 14, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Luckily there’s a couple of mods that try to fix stealth and some actually work pretty well. Some projects inspired by Thief also popped up and I honestly hope there’ll be a Thieve’s Arsenal as in Oblivion, which was the dream come ture for any thief fan.

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