The Thieves Guild is not the worst bit of writing in Skyrim. (I think I’d give that honor to the quest in Markarth where you have to deal with the Forsworn.) But I don’t want you to think I’m cherry-picking some halfhearted sidequest. This is a major part of Skyrim and a lot of environments, characters, and cutscenes are dedicated it This is a shame, because the Thieves Guild questline is a mess. It’s unnecessarily terrible, failing at multiple levels and attempting things that aren’t even needed. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning…
The introduction to the Thieves Guild is kind of strange. It’s not horrible or broken, but for the sake of setting this up I need to plod through these first few quests.
Brynjolf walks up to me, a total stranger, and says, “You’ve never worked a day in your life for all that coin you’re carrying around.” This is a really screwy thing to say to an adventurer. (I imagine running over mountains and fighting through tombs is pretty labor-intensive.) I guess he’s supposed to be insinuating that I’m naturally a thief, but he says this to the player regardless of what gear they have or how much money they’ve got. It’s also odd because you can’t steal for a living until you join the guild, because you have no way to unload stolen goods. He’s implying you’re a thief, when by definition you can’t be one yet. So no matter who you are, he’s flat-out wrong. It’s also odd to be approached to join the Thieves Guild. I get that the guild has fallen on hard times, but this still feels awkward.
I do a little job for him where I steal a ring from person A and slip it into the pocket of person B. I’m actually railroaded into asking why he wants me to do this. Apparently Bethesda thought everyone was too stupid to to untangle the threads of this thuddingly obvious frame-up. This is not the last time they will underestimate the intelligence of the player.
Once that’s over I do an initiation where I have to run around town and extort money from a few of the locals. Once that bit is over, we settle into the main plot of the questline.
I’m sent to Goldenglow Estate, a bee farm. Maven (the local crime boss) buys honey from the farm and uses it to make mead. The owner of Goldenglow has stopped selling his honey to Maven, and so I’m supposed to teach him a lesson by burning some of the hives and clearing out his safe.
When I rob the safe, I find a bill of sale inside. The owner of Goldenglow sold the property to a mystery person.
Dun dun dun!
Yeah, not exactly a nail-biting moment. At this point I was already feeling a little underwhelmed. Someone is engaged in a plot to reduce the margins on mead production for the local crime-lord?!? This is not exactly a tale of intrigue worthy of this sort of guild. It’s not theft. Heck, it’s not even illegal. This might work as some sort of “business tycoon” quest line, but for the Thieves Guild?
Next I’m sent to see Maven. The quest line has been building her up, talking about how important she is to the guild and how she has half the city in her grip. Fine, except once this quest is over she never comes up again. I don’t mind if the game puts in interesting “flavor” characters, but Maven is cutthroat in a very bland way, she never seems terribly important, and she’s not at all imposing. She’s just another map marker to chase down on your way to the end of the quest. Despite her build-up as some kind of crime boss, she comes across as a cranky dimwit. You don’t even meet her in an impressive office or estate. You meet her in an open hallway of the inn. She doesn’t even have a bodyguard.
Maven is a jerk to me, and then she sends me to see a guy named Mallus. He sends me to Honningbrew Meadery, which is is a mead distillery in the city of Whiterun. It competes with Maven. The owner of Honningbrew is about to hold a tasting for the captain of the guard, and my job is to poison the mead.
Okay, this is where the quest line starts to come apart. First of all, you have to put the poison into this mead tank:
Then walk next door where the tasting is taking place:
The poison I just planted next door is now in this small keg. Somehow.
Anyway, the captain of the guard takes one sip, and then instantly arrests the owner of the place, promising that he will spend the rest of his life behind bars. The Thieves Guild makes a big deal out of never killing their victims, but this doesn’t seem all that different than killing to me. I mean, I thought the point of the Thieves Guild was to act unseen, and to take valuables without hurting people.
You can murder a civilian in broad daylight and allow the guard to take you to jail for a modest span of time. (Or just pay a 1,000 dollar fine.) But inadvertent food contamination with no victims is worthy of life in prison? It’s a worse offense than murder, even though it might have been an accident or sabotage? And the Honningbrew owner never points the finger at me, the mysterious stranger who he recently allowed into the distillery? He pulled a fresh batch of mead from the vat and never saw fit to taste it himself first?
Then the captain of the guard tells Mallus to take over, and Mallus tells me he’s going to start converting the distillery to make mead for Maven.
Look, if the health inspector shuts down your McDonald’s, the police don’t come in and give the building to Burger King. Who owns this place? What’s happening here?
I check the books, and find this place was cutting a deal with the same mystery person who bought Goldenglow. I bring this information back to Mercer Frey, and he’s very concerned. He says they’re obviously facing an organized and well-funded enemy. He’s impressed with them.
Dude, are you kidding? We just made a fortune. This foe cut a deal with this distillery, but we did a bunch of nonsense and now we own it. (Or run it. Whatever.) They bought the Goldenglow bee farm, but now they don’t have anywhere else to sell their honey. They spent a fortune, and have nothing. This other party is not a criminal mastermind. (Hoo boy. Just wait.) They tried to legitimately compete against deeply entrenched organized crime, and lost everything before they made a single shiny coin.
Mercer says they were doing this to drive a wedge between Maven and the Guild. How would making mead accomplish that? If a bunch of people conspire to control all the beer in the city, and then someone else tries to sell beer, the conspirators wouldn’t necessarily turn on each other. They would probably work together to drive out the competition. That’s the whole reason they conspired in the first place.
Mercer, worried about this inept non-threat, sends me to see Gulum-Ei, the guy who brokered the property sale. After a bunch of screwing around, Gulum-Ei finally breaks down and tells me that the mystery client is Karliah. Twenty-five years ago she apparently killed the previous guild leader and then vanished. (Twenty-five years. Remember that.) Now she’s back and… trying to break into the mead business? Or something.
Karliah left a clue. She told Gulum-Ei that she was going “back to where the ending began”.
Mercer believes that this can only mean one place: The ruin where she killed Gallus, the previous guild leader. Mercer decides to meet me there so that the two of us can kill her.