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I am a cowardly, sneaky thief I am..

For the sake of role-playing purposes, I plan to max out on Speech, Sneak and Illusion.

This is a smooth-talker character that likes to watch people bash each other's head out in a fight he himself kindled.

It's mostly fine against people that are always hostile, but what I wonder is, how do I make the little peaceful ones to attack me first, so that I can slay them without being penalized?

In short, is there such a thing as self-defence in the world of Skyrim?

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I believe even if you cast some sort of fury spell on them, you are still responsible for starting the fight, thus you still get a bounty. Interested to know if there are any other methods :) – theorise Dec 15 '11 at 9:40
Never tried it, but maybe if you just punch them (with bare hands) it will start as brawl (no bounty) then they might get mad and attack you "for real". – Shadow Wizard Dec 15 '11 at 12:50
@ShadowWizard Punching someone still counts as hostile behaviour which results in my being the one to have "started it". – DrFish Dec 15 '11 at 12:53
up vote 6 down vote accepted

If you have the poisoned perk from the Pickpocket skill tree, you can reverse pickpocket frenzy poisons in the NPC's inventory which will cause them to attack others nearby.

I haven't personally tested this so I am not sure if this gets you a bounty.

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It doesn't if it's unseen. You'll need to be careful not to hit the other people caught up in the fight though, and to finish your target off before the frenzy fades - not accepting the inevitable 'yield' in that circumstance is a hostile action! – LessPop_MoreFizz Dec 15 '11 at 18:00
This is how I generally kill friendly people. I usually like to not just give them the poison but also give them a nice enchanted weapon so they can do more damage before the guards or I kill them. I tried to experiment with making a poison that caused frenzy and fortified 2h and fortify stamina or health but even with just fortify 2h it was declared as a potion and the person would not drink it, even with the Poisoned perk. – MaskedPlant Dec 15 '11 at 20:05

If you mean like regular civilians, if you attack them you'll get a bounty, I don't know of any way to avoid this apart from luring them away from other people before doing it.

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