Backseat Game Designer: Crime in Skyrim

In my post yesterday on “5 Things I Don’t Like About Skyrim” I listed The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim‘s crime system as the main area where I think improvements need to be made in The Elder Scrolls formula. In this post I aim to explain how the current system works, to explain what’s wrong with that system, and to suggest some possible alternatives that I think would be much better than what we have at the moment.

Crime in Skyrim works on a “bounty” system which scales with the gravity of your crime; for example, you get a 5 gold bounty for trespassing and a 1000 gold bounty for murder. When you have a low bounty town guards might comment that you look familiar when you walk past them; when you have a high bounty they will attack you on sight. Sounds good so far, right?

The next bit is where things get stupid. When you’re caught by a guard after committing a crime you’re given three options: pay the bounty, go to jail, or resist arrest. Going to jail is a big deal as it lowers your skills, so that option is pretty much permanently eliminated as feasible (well, you are able to attempt to escape from jail, but it’s just easier to pay the fine). Resist arrest isn’t much use either; you’ll still have your bounty, making whatever particular town you were caught in unusable. It’s only really useful if you’ve got a load of stolen goods which you want to stash somewhere before turning yourself in.

Therefore you’re going to be going for the third option most of the time: paying off your bounty. And when you pay off your bounty you get a blank slate – your past crimes are completely washed away. Guards who were trying to hack you into tiny pieces just a few seconds before treat you like an old friend. In one mission I had to try to murder the most important character in the entire game. Well, you’d probably think I should be executed for that, right? Wrong! I had to pay the guards 1500 gold, and then I was let off the hook and nobody ever mentioned the incident again. You could probably stab someone 10 times (they’ll survive if they’re wearing armour… or if you’re really bad with weapons :P) – and as soon as you’ve paid off your bounty they’ll turn around and invite you to a lovely tea party, all your previous attempts at grievous bodily harm happily forgotten.

The guards should set up a system of credit: “Pay 10,000 gold now and get 10 passes to murder”. It would be much more efficient. And that’s what crime in Skyrim is all about: efficiency. When the only consequence of crime is financial, it becomes a solely financial affair. You don’t want to get caught because it’s cheaper. You’re not a criminal, you’re a businessman. That’s not a good crime system.

How could this part of the game be improved? I have a couple of ideas.

I suggest that the crime system should be based on identities and disguises. If anyone ever used the Cowl of Nocturnal in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion they’ll know what I’m talking about. When you wore this Cowl everyone thought your character was someone else – the Gray Fox, a notorious master thief. Guards would all attack you on sight when you were wearing the Cowl, and any crimes you committed while wearing it were attributed to the Gray Fox; take it off and the guards wouldn’t suspect a thing.

This Gray Fox alter ego wasn’t available to you until near the end of Oblivion. In contrast, I think that this system of multiple identities and disguises should be one of the central systems in the game. Think about it: how do the guards know who you are if your face is covered? How do they link the man in steel armour to the assassin in dark robes? They shouldn’t be able to. You should be able to wear disguises to fool the guards.

Providing these disguises could be a primary function of the Thieves Guild. Go to the Thieves and they’ll set you up with a nice set of beggar’s clothes (for a sizable price of course – they’re thieves after all) so you can travel the poor parts of town incognito. You can get fancier disguises for larger sums of money. Maybe they could even provide you with falsified documents and corroborated backstories. And if they have some highly placed contacts in a town, well, slip them a nice bit of cash and they might even play along with your little ruse.

The Speech skill would be highly involved with this process. The guards might not recognise you immediately if you’re dressed as a beggar, but if they’ve talked to you before then they might work it out from your voice and mannerisms. The Speech skill could affect how well you can fool them; basically it determines your skill as an actor and how well you can perform different roles. Someone with a high Speech skill could convince even their close acquaintances that they’re someone different; someone with a low Speech skill would be seen through immediately.

This system of false identities would allow for a much more realistic crime system. You can now be wanted in a city and still be able to play the game because you could sneak into that city disguised as someone else. Act suspicious though and the guards might start investigating you. If you’ve been engaging in a little bit of serial killing in a city then the guards would step up their duties and there would be more patrols and random spot-checks of people. Tightened security might involve thorough screening at the city gates – necessitating the use of secret Thieves Guild entrances into the city (also for a hefty price!). If you’ve really been naughty then the guards might even start shutting down those too.

Alternative entrances to towns and disguises would let you actually be a wanted criminal in these games. I think that would be a lot of fun to experience and role-play, and you’re simply not given that option with the current game systems.

What I’m proposing is a crime system with consequences. It wouldn’t simply be a case of paying off a bounty, akin to a businessman paying off his creditors. If you were caught for a crime you would have to pay a fine – but the guards would remember you. It would be like being on bail, and your bounty would slowly decrease over time or with good actions. Commit any further crimes, though, and you’d be in extremely serious trouble – probably a forced jail sentence at the very least.

If you were really bad then you would be sentenced to execution. Now, this seems like a bad idea because, well, your character would be dead and your game would be ruined. However, there could be multiple systems in place in case you ever got stuck in such a nasty situation. Maybe your friends could try to bust you out of jail. Maybe you could save yourself by seeking asylum by joining some religious order (or something like the Night’s Watch from A Song of Ice and Fire). These options would be extraordinary, and you could only use something like the asylum excuse once.

(On a side note, there actually is execution in Skyrim. The game even starts off with your character about to be executed. Whatever you did before must have been really bad, because even if you murder hundreds of innocent people you’ll never be so harshly punished again.)

Getting people to bust you out of jail could be linked in with awarding favour for quests. Do a lot of quests with the Dark Brotherhood and you’ll earn a lot of favour. You could spend this favour on getting one of the assassins to help you out with a tough mission or difficult piece of crafting. Or, if you’re arrested for execution, you could spend that favour to get them to stage a jailbreak.

The auto-save system in The Elder Scrolls is really good, and should mean that nobody’s  game is permanently ruined by their head being chopped off. You’d lose maybe 10 minutes play time. That would be fine; make sure the players are well informed about this potential consequence of their actions and there shouldn’t be any real issue. “HEY IF YOU GO AROUND DOING ILLEGAL THINGS AND YOU GET CAUGHT YOU RISK BEING EXECUTED. GOT THAT? EXECUTION! NOW YOU KNOW!”. They could link this punishment system in with the beginning of the game (imagine starting the game with an execution…!) so that the player could have no excuse for not being aware of this potential result of his/her actions. A crime system with real consequences would actually make the game more exciting and immersive.

The possibilities for interesting quests based on these new systems are endless. The Thieves Guild in particular would be really enhanced. You could have quests based on creating new identities for clients; on uncovering the true identity of a rival crime gang leader; on using false identities to infiltrate different organisations. Imagine a quest where, while you were undercover in the town guard, you were given the job of rooting out a notorious thief in the town – but little does the guard captain realise that the person he is sending you after is actually you! Fooling him would make for a really fun and interesting quest.

So, these have been some of my suggestions for how the crime system in The Elder Scrolls series could be improved upon. What do you guys think? Please comment if you think my suggestions are good/totally absurd, and if you have any suggestions that are good as well. Or maybe you think the crime system is fine as it is. Let me know! – Kevin

8 thoughts on “Backseat Game Designer: Crime in Skyrim

  1. Liking the idea of Disguises.
    It’s definitely something I’d like to see added into the game. Perhaps some of the uber mod creators out there could look at doing something like this. I can’t see why it couldn’t be done as the Creation System should be just as powerful (hopefully even more so) as the old Construction Set.

  2. Ye i agree with the disguise idea. I think they should adopt some of the assassins creed crime features too. There could be wanted posters around that you can remove to lower the alert level.

    • That’s a really good suggestion! I think that Bethesda definitely has a lot to learn from the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Hopefully the next game will be able to use some of its innovations.

      Another idea I had was that by doing enough good deeds in other Holds the Jarl of the one you were wanted in might eventually decide to offer you a pardon.

      Or they might just decide to send assassin’s after you 😉

      • The assassins that come after you is another disappointment I think. They are supposed to be all stealthy, but they just attack you head on during your journey.

        They are also not that difficult to fight. They should be epic battles of equal skill, so they are people you will fear.

        • Lol they’re not tough?? I dont know which diffulty you’re playing but on master difficulty they’re one step below dremora lords

  3. good one ” youre not a criminal youre a businessman” I liked that I sugest they might take stuff from you, just before excecution so that you know this is the last step or something! cheers

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