The first decision you'll make is what race to play. You can play any race in any role, and a stealth character is no different.
start with +10 to lockpicking and +5 to light armor, pickpocket, restoration, alteration and sneak.
start with +10 to sneak and +5 to alchemy, archery, lockpicking, one-handed and pick pocket. They also have +15 damage (total of 25) to unarmed attacks, which can make for some excelent backup weapons if you get caught by enemies.
They also have night-vision whenever they want, but skyrim is a very bright place so it doesn't matter too much unless you get a mod that makes things darker.
start with +10 to archery and +5 to alchemy, light armor, lockpicking, pickpocket and sneak. If you want a simple start with better archery, he is a good choice.
start with +10 to destruction and +5 to alchemy, alteration, light armor, illusion and sneak. They also have a 50% resistance to fire, making them a great choice if you wish to play as a vampire (25% better sneaking never hurts).
start with +10 to illusion and +5 to alteration, conjuration, destruction, restoration and enchanting. They also have +50 starting magica (the same as 5 level-up points) and can regenerate magica quickly. If you're planning to use magic, this is a great choice.
start with +10 to heavy armor and +5 to block, enchanting, one-handed, smithing and two-handed. The main reason to go as an orc for a stealth character is his berserk rage power. This can be very useful on higher difficulties, since it doubles your damage output (and it affects damage with archery). Doesn't matter much for lower difficulties though.
The wood elves, Khajiit and Argonian are nice options for a better start with stealth skills.
Dark and high elves are great options if you want to use magic and can be nice with vampirism.
Orcs are great if you're playing on harder difficulties due to their racial powers.
The Short Version
- Archery and sneak will be your main focus early on, make sure you have the thief stone active (it affects archery) and get sneak attacks, the multipliers gives more sneak XP.
- When sneak reaches 50 you can start using daggers with x30 multipliers from the assassin's blade perk and shrouded/jester gloves. Don't be afraid to spend perks in the archery skill, it is great when you're force to do combat or in situations where the dagger isn't viable.
- Consider using illusion magic with muffle and invisiblity and get the quiet casting perk (50 illusion). Get the slow time shout and you can now do things you would be unable to do without it. Alteration can be nice if combat is an issue or you feel you need a longer duration on slow time.
- Smithing can be a good idea to invest into for later levels or higher difficulties. Stronger weapons and arrows can be invaluable on high difficulty and higher levels (can be skipped if you're below expert difficulty or you use alchemy).
Let's talk about skyrims stealth mechanic, for those that do not know how exactly it works.
- Staying hidden is based on various factors.
- Armor weight plays a big role in it. The heavier it is, the more noise it makes. Some people like to walk around naked to maximize their sneak effects, or just use clothes or robes.
- Sneak bonuses from the sneak skill, sneak perks and enchantments is also important.
- Muffle is very important and can be obtained as a spell or as an enchantment (the spell is stronger than the enchantment though).
- Line of sight, light and distance matters. Staying in the dark and/or out of an enemies field of view improves your chance of sneaking up on or past him. Staying far away also makes it harder for enemies to see you.
- Invisiblity can make sneaking incredibly easy. Either from potions, the illusion spell, the standing stone or the vampire power that make you invisible makes it very easy to sneak by enemies (especially when combined with muffle and sneak bonuses.
Bows, Crossbows or Daggers?
The assassin's arsenal of weapons (besides poison and fury spells) is archery and daggers. But what should you use?
The difference between bows and crossbows.
Crossbows (from dawnguard DLC) have significantly higher damage than most bows early on. Thus, they will do more damage and are excelent for sneak attacks! They are also ready to fire almost instantly as opposed to the bow needing to draw the arrow first. Finally, crossbows have a higher chance to stumble an enemy than bows do.
However, crossbows have a slow reload and they make more noise than bows, meaning more enemies may be alerted to you when shooting it and enemies might find you faster. They also slow you down while reloading it, making you less mobile than with a bow.
Which should you use?
It depends on what you're after, but more often than not it all comes down to preference, damage and ammo supply. You should always have at least 1 bow in your inventory just in case, but the crossbow and the bow are excelent weapons.
Should you use daggers?
Sneak below 50? No.
Sneak at 50 or above? Sure.
Daggers are very reliant on 2 things to be useful: Sneak attack multipliers and high enough sneak bonuses to be able to sneak up on your enemies. The dagger is faster and has more potential damage than the bow and crossbow, but it relies a lot on the x30 multiplier you get for daggers in order to do so. Its also silent, so enemies might take longer to notice something is wrong if you use a dagger as opposed to a cross/bow. Thankfully, it is easy to transition from archer to dagger with sneaking.
The most effective setup
Start using archery together with sneaking and sneak attakcs and keep using it until you get your sneaking to level 50. Grab sneak improving perks and archery perks, join the dark brotherhood and get their armor and get the sneak attack multipliers. Once you reach 50 in sneak and can get the x15 multiplier for daggers, you can start using them for kills. In the meantime, you can keep your archery skills for when you need to use it (or stick with archery and ignore the daggers if you prefer).
A room full of enemies, a strong boss, dragons etc. can be nearly impossible to successfully kill using a dagger, but your archery is far supperior than your lowsy dagger for general combat. This makes you deadly at both close and long range, and makes you able to deal with a lot of situations. And we haven't even talked about crafting perks or magic!
Alchemy, Enchanting or Smithing?
These are purely optional, but can be worth considering if you want to advance your characters maximum potential or you just like to min-max your damage/performance.
Alchemy: It's amazing!
Alchemy is amazing for a stealth character. Fortify your sneak, fortify archery or one-handed for more damage, invisibility potions, apply deadly poisons to your weapons for a cleaner kill and so on. If you're willing to grind up your alchemy skill, you can become incredibly powerful.
The trick is knowing what ingredients to look for and where to find them. I personally never use alchemy, but I know how powerful its effects can be. Listing all the ingredients that you want to get is going to take too long, so I'm just going to link the wiki page for alchemy and you can do your own re-search.
Enchanting: Is great!
Fortify archery, one-handed and sneaking are the main enchantments to consider. Never under-estimate the damage difference, especially for higher difficulties and later levels. By just dis-enchanting gear as you play the game you can get enchanting to 50 by doing almost nothing. Mage standing stone will speed up the process and stronger enchantments will give you more XP.
Smithing: Can be nice.
The armor bonuses are fairly irrelevant since you're rarely taking damage once your sneak gets up and you'll be drowning in enchanted gear, but smithing can be nice for your weapons if you feel you need more damage. Tempering weapons ads a flat amount of damage, so a high smithing can practicly double the damage of many daggers (which is great news for your x30 sneak multiplier) and the ability to craft more powerful arrows for your empowered bow is just icing on the cake. It is far more useful than enchanting, thats for sure.
Magic can be great for a stealth character. Illusion and alteration can be very useful, conjuration is a bit situational and restoration and destruction are pretty meh.
Illusion is great.
The muffle spell (apprentice) makes your footsteps more quiet and gives easy source for illusion XP.
Invisibility (expert) does what it says. Go invisible for 30 seconds and become far harder for enemies to see. Sneak up on enemies, sneak by enemies, use when you get spotted by enemies and stab them from an un-known location, it is great. You can also get the same effect with potions. Though you should remember that practicly any interaction will break the invis (checking inventory of loot or bodies, picking locks, casting spells, shooting an arrow etc.
Calm/pacify spells are great as a plan B. Get spotted by enemies and don't want to fight them head on? Calm them with a spell and get a free sneak attack (or sneak past them)
Finally, the quiet casting perk (50 illusion). Makes all spells, shouts and powers silent to NPC's. Especially if you want to use some great shouts like slow time or you just use magic a lot, this is a must have perk.
Alteration can be nice.
Flesh spells give free armor and XP for level-ups, magic resist and paralyze. The main reason to go alteration though, is for the stability perk (70 alteration) increases duration of alteration spells by 50%. However, it also affects various shouts and effects, including the slow time perk.
Conjuration isn't that great for a stealth character unless you get spotted frequently.
It is great as a plan B since you can summon atronachs and get fairly powerful weapons. Theres also the bound dagger spell, but without the quiet casting perk it makes noise and can get you spotted. Not to mention how you need to head to Solstheim and do some quests in order to get it, and you can get 2 excelent daggers from quests with ease.
However, the bound bow (adept) is an excelent weapon, and since you can get it as early as level 1 if you know where to find it, it can make conjuration investment worth it.
Destruction and restoration aren't worth investing in as a stealth character.
Destruction spells do not benefit from sneak attack bonuses and generally requires a lot of potions and/or enchanted gear to be useful.
Restoration isn't going to be used too often since you're not likely to fight much once you get your sneak up to around 50+, not to mention that the novice healing spell has the best health-to-magica-used ratio of the healing spells (drop a perk point into novice healing if you use it often, nothing wrong with that).
Factions and Guilds
Now, let's talk about joining the interesting guilds!
The Dark Brotherhood
The assassin faction can be tricky to join, I played for over 200 hours before I ever realised there was one, and that was because I got attacked by a random encounter and googled it out of curiousity.
If you want to join the dark brotherhood, head to windhelm (east on the map). Use a horse carriage (from whiterun, for example) and head on in. You can talk to an in keeper about rumors or walk around the city and hear about it as random dialogue. You'll hopefully hear about Aventus Aretino doing something shady. That, or just head over to his house.
Talk to him and do what he asks. Once you're finished and turn in the quest, you'll soon get a letter with a black hand and some text. The tricky part now, is to go to sleep. This is what kept me from finding them, as sleeping is skyrim is almost as pointless as the "no achievements if you have mods" policy Bethesda is doing these days.
Anyway, you'll be tasked to do some things. Do the thing and follow the quest and congratulations! You're now part of the brotherhood!
The questline gives many great bonuses: Gold, great armor sets for assassins, night-terrors about speaking and listening to an old hag and one of the more entertaining characters in the game. Not to mention a pretty sweet dagger to stab people you don't like!
The Thieves Guild
The thieves guild is far more straight forward. Head to Riften (can be done while you're helping Aventus) and you'll likely be approached by Brynjolf. He'll tell you about a little something, you do the little something and then he wants you to do more little somethings. Congratulations, you're now a thief (I guess).
You get some cool armor, great source of easy money and some pretty good gear. It can also help to bribe guards incase you've gotten a bounty in one of the holds.
Dawnguard or the Vampires?
When it comes to chosing sides in the dawnguard DLC, its fairly simple. Do you like magic, being a vampire and a gothic castle ripped straight out of an edgy teenagers wet dreams? Go with the vampires.
Do you like sweet armor, crossbows with an unlimited supply of arrows, feeling alive and being able to praise the sun? Go with the dawnguard.
P.S. The remaining factions (companions and mage guild) are optional, nothing wrong with joining, nothing wrong with ignoring them. If you need to know where to find them, the companions are located in whiterun, the big longhouse near the Jarls place, kind of hard to miss.
The college is practicly the only thing in Winterhold, it is also kind of hard to miss.
Vampire or Werewolf?
Both the vampire and the werewolf have benefits for a stealth character.
makes you 25% harder to detect, increases the power of illusion spells by 25% and gives you night vision, a weak calm spell and a long invisiblity power. Very useful, and stealth compliments a vampire greatly. The weakness to fire and the crippled regeneration can be annoying to deal with though.
Being a werewolf
gives you an ace up your sleeve if you find a boss or a group of enemies that kick your ♥♥♥ too much. Since the werewolf is like a high leveled warrior character with maxed out dual-wielding and massive health and stamina, he is a great compliment to your terrible combat skills due to your armor never getting XP and your health being less than ideal to priorotise.
Sadly, he gives no bonuses to stealth, but he does give you a solid plan B.
Armor and Clothing
Let's talk about gear. Naturally, you should join and get the armor from the thieves guild and dark brotherhood. They have good armor, nice enchantments and are free.
The thieves guild armor
has a lot of upgrades, usually small jumps with slightly stronger enchantments. The best (and arguably the easiest) upgrade is the blackguard armor from the dragonborn DLC.
After joining the thieves guild, head to Solstheim (if you don't know how, do the "the way of the voice" quest and you'll get a quest marker afterwards) and speak to Glover Mallory, the smith in Raven Rock (the first town you arrive at). Mention the shadow mark on his door and he'll give you a fairly easy fetch quest. Complete it and he'll give you access to his thief stash including the blackguard armor.
The armor has good armor stats and the full set will give you +50 carry weight, 40% better lockpicking and pickpocketing and 25% better prices. It is a great set and can be obtained early on.
The shrouded armor
can be upgraded by continuing the dark brotherhood questline until you get the "breaching security" quest where you need to kill Gaius Maro. Completing the bonus (kill him close to a major city) will give you a token that you can redeem from Olava in whiterun for her to see your future. She'll mention an old assassin resting in Hag's end and you'll get a quest marker towards it.
This area has forsworn, witches and a hagraven so it might be a bit challenging, but the reward is a set of armor with 35% better archery, 100% resistance to poison, muffled footsteps, double melee sneak attack damage and a very good armor stat. If you're using archery, the set is worth getting for the hood alone.
The jester set
is the dagger assassin alternative to the shrouded armor. It is more risky but hot damn is it powerful. It also has an upgrade available soon after you find the set. It can be found during the dark brotherhood quest "the cure for madness" and is located in the Dawnstar sanctuary, on a table to your left close to the entrance.
For stats, the jester set (and its upgrade) gives 30/35% better sneaking, 12/20% better prices and more one-handed damage, muffled footsteps and double melee sneak attack damage. On top of that, the set only weighs 3 weight all together, maximizing your sneaking potential! The downside is that it has no armor rating, so fighting is less effective (though you can always switch do different armor if thats needed).
If you are using magic
, consider using robes with cost reduction and increased magica regen. around level 30 you can buy master robes with 22% cost reduction and 150% magica regen from the teachers in winterhold (though the base price is around 10 000 gold per robe with low speech). However, its low weight makes it more useful for general stealth purpose and the enchantments can make magic leveling and using much easier.
Naturally, you can/should get the best robes you have access to when you decide to use magic and buy them if you can afford it.
The nightingale armor
is a more combat focused set than an assassin or stealth set, but its worth talking about. It is obtained during the thieves guild questline but it should be mentioned that it is leveled and you'll have to wait until level 32 before getting it if you want its power to the maximized. It is a great set though, a level 32 set will give you +40 stamina, 50% frost resist, 25% better lockpicking and one-handed damage, muffle footsteps and 17% cost reduction for illusion spells.
The armor rating is pretty good too, it is great for a combat character using light armor and one-handed but not as good at the ancient shrouded armor or jester set for a stealth/assassin character.
Side-notes: if you're using the muffle spell (which is twice as powerful as the enchantment from boots, oddly enough), the boots can be swapped for other things like carry weight, better sneak or weapon damage. Same goes for the other pieces, the sneak attack bonus from various gloves do not do anything for an archer character, and archery damage do not do anything for a melee character. Not to mention how useless poison resist generally is.
If you find some nice enchanted pieces or enchant something yourself, go ahead and use it. Especially if it is better than what you already have (obvious, I know, but stil worth mentioning).
If you feel theres more that should be mentioned, feel free to leave it in the comments.
Well, it more or less ends with the 2 best daggers in the game.
The blade of woe
is obtained close to the end of the dark brotherhood questline. It has a base damage of 12 which is the highest of any dagger tied with the dragonbone dagger. However, due to a bug in the game, the blade of woe can be upgraded further with smithing than the dragonbone dagger and is thus more powerful. It has a lackluster enchantment with less than 10 charges that steals 10 health (beyond useless) but its raw damage and unique looks makes it worth getting.
is another great option. With 11 damage (same as a daedric dagger) it has plenty of damage, a unique look and a 1,98% chance on hit to instantly kill the target (with infinite enchantment charges). The dagger can be obtained at level 20-21 at the earliest by heading to the museum in dawnstar and doing the quest given by the curator to retrieve the broken pieces of the dagger (you usually get a letter telling you about the museum).
is arguably the best bow (it deals the most damage, at least). It is obtained during the thieves guild questline, but it is leveled and you must be at level 46 or higher to get the most powerful version. At level 46 it has a base damage of 19 (same as a daedric bow) and has a unique enchantment that does 30 frost damage and 15 shock damage for a total of 64 base damage (and thats without archery or destruction bonuses). As mentioned, it is leveled and is thus a late game bow but hot damn is it powerful.
is a great bow as an anti-undead weapon or a utility weapon if you're a vampire. It is obtained at the end of the dawnguard main questline. It has a base damage of 13 (same as an elven bow) and deals 20 sun damage to enemies hit. This is trippled against undead, dealing a total of 73 damage to undead!
on top of that, sunhallowed arrows shot at undead with this bow deal even more bonus damage (can't find a source for how much) and if you shoot it at the sun, it creates sun-beams around you (similar to the stormcall shout) that damage NPC's. As a vampire you can use bloodcursed arrows to deny the suns negative effects on you for the rest of the in-game day.
The stalhrim bow
is nice if you want to enchant it with frost damage since it gains a 25% increase. It has a good base damage of 17 aswell.
Daedric and the bound bow
are also nice options. The daedric bow has good damage and can be smithed and enchanted as you see fit (and can be obtained early-ish if you grind up your smithing or conjuration skill).
The bound bow is the conjuration variant of the daedric bow. With the mystic binding perk it gains the same damage as a daedric bow. On top of that, it has no weight and every time you cast the spell, you get 100 bound arrows. These do 24 damage, the same as a daedric bow.
In short, the bound bow is a weightless daedric bow with infinite daedric arrows. I have never and will never stop preaching about how amazing it is. You can get it as early as level 1 (and even cast it) if you know how to do it.
The steel and dwarven crossbow (if you side with the dawnguard instead of the vampires) are great early to mid game weapons. They do a lot of damage and you can buy a lot of bolts from the merchants in the dawnguard castle. They get outclassed by strong bow+arrow combo's, but they stay strong for a while anyway.
Since there aren't any unique jewelry that gives significant bonuses for a stealth character beyond some magic oriented rings, I'll instead talk about useful enchantments either for enchanting yourself or finding as loot.
Sneaking, one-handed, archery, smithing, alchemy, spell cost reduction, magica/stamina, magica/stamina regen, shout cooldown (amulet of talos), fire, frost and shock resistance are all useful stats. Smithing and alchemy boost if you want to increase your potential power with these attributes, weapon damage if you feel you need it and other stats if you feel you need it. Armor and health isn't a big prioroty since you shouldn't be doing much fighting, but magic resist will help you against tougher enemies you likely can't sneak kill such as dragons, dragon priests etc.
Obviously, you choose what you want to use.
Combat Tricks and Shouts
Reborn reminded me about dual wielding daggers and I thought I may aswell talk about some combat strategies for a stealth character.
While using daggers, you have more or less 3 options for how to use them.
Spell + dagger
This is a fairly traditional setup. Dagger in your right hand, spells such as muffle and invisibility in your left hand. It works well and has nothing wrong with it. Using favorite quick-casting (select an item or spell to favorite, then hover over it in the favorites menu with Q and set it to the 1-9 keys) lets you go through your spells and equipment fast and effective.
Dagger + dagger
AKA dual-wielding daggers. When playing on higher difficulties or you have trouble 1-shotting enemies with your daggers, this is a very good option. The attack speed perk in one-handed makes it easy to quickly deliver the 2nd or 3rd attack to finish off your enemy, or to combo into killing several enemies. If all else fails, the dualwield power attack (hold both attack buttons at the same time) will usually guarantee an enemy's death.
Dagger + one-handed weapon
This is more focused on having a backup weapon if you get spotted and have to fight, but I may aswell mention it. Using your dagger in your left hand means that your other weapon will attack much faster and it gives you something to defend yourself with without needing to go through the draw animation if the enemy finds you. Not something I normally use, but its worth mentioning.
Arrows hitting more or less anything will alert enemies and make them look around for you. More often than not, they will follow the sound of your arrow when they can't see you and this can be used to your advantage. With either an arrow, a bolt or the throw voice shout you can bait an enemy into the open for an easy clean shot. However, hitting an enemy and not killing them can lead to them finding out where you shot from and they'll come for you (even if they can't spot you).
Poison damage is affected by sneak attack bonuses. If you put a poison that does 30 damage to health on a bow and get an x3 multiplier, the poison will do 90 damage instead. I do not know if effect durations such as paralyze and weakness to elements is affected by this, but its stil worth mentioning. If you want to bump your bow damage, poison can often be the way to go.
Conjuration is a great plan B
If you get spotted, conjuration is an amazing plan B (I mentioned this earlier, but I may aswell mention it again). The bound weapons have great base damage and the summoned creatures make for excelent meat shields and fighting buddies, especially if you use archery. The magica costs for conjuration are fairly low too, so you can afford it easy. If you fail at sneaking too much or you want to go for a more combat focused character, conjuration can be a good choice.
Calm and fear spells are like a reset button
For illusion, you can use calm and fear spells as reset buttons if you get spotted. Calm spells are best for dagger users since they will just stand around and move slowly if at all, leaving them wide open for a free sneak attack.
Fear is good for archery since they won't snap out of it instantly if you hit them unlike calm.
If you want to use shouts besides aura whisper and throw voice, you'll need the quiet casting perk from illusion. Honorable mentions go to marked for death and become ethereal. These shouts are worth getting on any character.
This is a stealth characters best friend. When you need to kill multiple enemies, just pop this shout and get far more time to aim and/or kill what you need to kill. The stability perk in alteration increases the duration if this shout, which is also nice.
If you want to be able to see enemies, this is a great shout. It reveals just about anything that is alive including dwemer automatons, daedra, undead and living. Its range is greater than the alteration spells detect life and detect dead. It is also more silent than other shouts though it can stil alert enemies a little if used too close to them.
Has a similar effect to shooting an arrow at a surface, baits enemies to where you aimed when you shouted. Has a short cooldown, great if you need to split up enemies or lure them to an easy stab or shot.