In Morrowind, it was possible to permanently kill NPCs who were involved in the main story. This would result in a message basically informing you that you had broken the world and to reload a save if you want to make progress. In Oblivion, this was changed so that important NPCs were "knocked out" instead of killed.

In Skyrim, is there any (outside of console or game file editing) way to permanently kill an important NPC or can I go on a killing spree relatively care free?

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    It's been confirmed that shopkeepers and such will stay dead - not sure about key characters. Back up your save and have a go ;) – Jarrod Mosen Nov 11 '11 at 0:49
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    Another great question title. – Maxpm Nov 11 '11 at 3:49
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    YOU HAVE BROKEN THE INTERNET. Please restore a backup to continue. – badp Nov 11 '11 at 7:13
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    I was just about to roll the title back before OrigamiRobot did, but see meta.gaming.stackexchange.com/q/821 for some prior discussion on the subject. – user821 Nov 11 '11 at 12:06
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    You can go on a killing spree, however your "karma" will make passing through certain areas a pain, since guards will essentially chase you before you even know which side you're on. – Tor Valamo Nov 12 '11 at 3:38

Important NPCs are invulnerable, like Oblivion.

You might close off some smaller sidequests, but the folks necessary for the main story (for instance) have a tendency to be "incapacitated" from "killing" blows.

So feel free to go nuts.

Interestingly, NPC allies behave a little different, even if they are non-essential (and thus ripe for killing). When they get reduced to below 0 health, they revert into the "yield " state, which usually means enemy NPCs stop focusing on them to come after you instead. If they get hit while in this state, they will die.

Additionally, you cannot put them into this state - your attacks will directly kill them.

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    You heard it here folks, the Gaming.SE mods support mass murder. – Wipqozn Nov 11 '11 at 0:56
  • Must have been a combo then, as my follower, Lydia, got pwned by some orcs and seemed pretty dead. Even kicking her didn't wake her up. – David Yell Nov 14 '11 at 16:17
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    I was assaulted by thugs as I was leaving a dungeon and fled to a high spot to use my bow. I was distracted by a circling dragon and when I looked back my follower (Lydia also) seemed to be dead and the thugs were right on top of me. I would have died at the last second but it seems Lydia regained consciousness, looted a staff off one of the dead thugs and started shooting lightning bolts up the mountain to my aid! Epic. – deizel Nov 23 '11 at 23:46
  • @deizel Ah, so Lydia can be useful if: you leave a dungeon with some orcs thugs outside, a dragon is circling the area, she dies, you kill one of the orcs thugs that happens to have a staff on him AND you almost die. Good to know. – Kevin Dec 4 '14 at 15:07

You can't permanently kill important people, they only become temporarily incapacitated when badly hurt. I just confirmed it on the XBox 360.

I was walking along with an important NPC and we attacked a Giant. The Giant practically one-shotted him and kneeled down in agony while recovering.

So while they aren't blown unconscious into a ragdoll like in Oblivion, they are incapacitated while they recover.

The recovery takes around 10 to 15 seconds, so if you're relying on his power (like I was...) his demise into recovery mode really hurts you as the monsters stop aggroing him and focus on you instead.

  • Do note what Raven Dreamer said: you (the player) can permanently kill important people yourself. – Konerak Nov 13 '11 at 13:27
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    @Konerak: No you can't. Important NPCs do not die, they are just incapacitated. Rolled back to my previous answer. – Only Bolivian Here Nov 13 '11 at 14:36
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    @Konerak Read Raven Dreamer's whole answer. He's talking about non-essential allies. – Daniel Beck Nov 13 '11 at 14:44
  • There's "Protected", people only you can kill, and "essential", which nobody can kill without mods. – Gloweye Oct 4 '19 at 8:46