I have created and played a few characters in Skyrim and have very much enjoyed all of them...until now. Recently I set out to roll a thief. However, I am finding that playing as a low level thief is exceedingly difficult for multiple reasons:

  • Your sneak skill is obviously quite low.
  • You lack sneak-enhancing gear (and decent gear in general).
  • Any encounter involving more than one foe is...challenging, if not near impossible.
  • Low armor and generally low damage output (especially once spotted).

The discussion around thief survivability when it comes to squaring off with dragons is, in some ways, my question in microcosm. However, the answers to that question are only useful if you are able to reach your first dragon encounter. I am beginning to think that playing as a thief is, in fact, more viable once your character has a few levels under his or her belt.

Is there a trick to surviving as a thief from level one, or is drudging through the first 10-15 levels just a necessary evil on your quest for ultimate thiefdom?

4 Answers 4


Core Skills

If you start with pure stealth and neglect your weapons/armor, you're not going to survive long - your stealth-hit damage is controlled by your base weapon damage, and without a high enough base weapon damage and some armor for survival, you're likely to be toast quickly. At low levels stealth is not terribly effective at hiding you, either.

Instead, you want to start by getting your 1-handed, archery, and light armor skills up. This isn't as challenging as it seems, since at early levels enemies aren't that difficult to dispatch. Draugr crypts are good for this sort of thing - once you know how to spot "active" Draugr, you can hit them before they wake to get a very high damage guaranteed stealth hit, which levels your Stealth and weapon skills very quickly.

Complimentary Skills

I also highly suggest that every thief prioritizes learning Alchemy, as being able to heal yourself cheaply is very important. Poisons and other alchemy results (ie, invisibility) are also critical. There are abundant ingredients in the fields around Whiterun that should get you started along this path. You can also rob the alchemists in towns to build up your potion and ingredient stocks, which will offset your low health in battle.

As I mentioned, your damage is based on your weapon damage, so being able to up that cheaply with blacksmithing is also a clear plus. Any time you can level this skill, you should think about doing so.

Illusion magic can make you more stealthy by muffling your footsteps and eventually making you completely invisible. Conjuration magic is also a good one to level, as you can summon Atronachs to tank/distract for you. The college at Winterhold is your one-stop shop for everything magical.

Early-Game Strategy

You can join the Companions in Whiterun early, which will give you the ability to take warrior "tanks" along for the ride in many early missions. Their sneak skill is poor, so they will tend to blow your cover if you try to do these as a thief at higher levels. At low level, they're probably around your skill level, so it's less of a disadvantage. Since you're not likely to care about the quest rewards, you can start this early and use it as a stepping stone to higher levels and better skills.

Honestly, your first dragon fight isn't that hard - you can mostly hide in the shadows and plink away the dragon's health with arrows and so forth while the Whiterun soldiers do most of the tanking. I'd almost suggest going and getting it over with, and even going to High Hrothgar early - dragons are much easier once you have the shout you learn by following the main quest.

A few levels in...

Once you've gotten a few levels under your belt, head over to Riften and begin the Thieves' Guild questline. I don't recommend completing it until you're pretty significantly leveled (the quest rewards are level dependent), but you can at least start it to get some base gear for efficient thieving. The vendors and quest givers in the guild hideout are also quite useful for low-level thieves.

From here you've got a lot of options, and what you tackle next mainly depends on what strikes your fancy.

  • 3
    Thanks for the detailed and well thought out response, agent86. It seems that the path to a skilled thief is perhaps more gradual than some of the other play styles, at least toward the beginning of the game anyway. Good point about using magic, although that seems a bit less "theify" to me. Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 1:54
  • 2
    @nsturdivant, I've only really played thieves, so I don't know if it's faster to play other ways. It never really seemed that slow to me, though. Adding a bit of magic might be slightly out of character, but I always thought of myself more as an intelligent master thief rather than a common cutpurse. Other master thieves you encounter will use invisibility (spells?), for instance. (And they certainly use alchemy/poisons!) When you get to a certain point in the Guild questline, you can choose a skill, and a couple of these seem ripped straight from the Illusion school.
    – agent86
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 21:16
  • 1
    ridiculously complete answer +1 point for great thieving justice! Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 7:02
  • It's been a while, but IIRC a good way to power-level your sneaking early on is to sneak back and forth around "sleeping" draugr. Also, the "muffle" spell makes it ridiculously easy to raise your illusion skills if you just cast it whenever you've got some mana to burn.
    – Darien
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 7:12

You can start The Companions questline to gain the ability to become a werewolf. When you need to fight, just use the power and transform; kind of like having two game plays in one character.


I have played many times as a thief, and a few as other classes, but through how much I've played, I noticed how I like to focus more on Speech, I know it seems a little wierd but I like it. Another big one to do is archery, for me it heavily relies on sneak, and it gets the job done. Nsturdivant may seem a bit out there with magic, but it really does help. You just have to know how to use it. Anywho, great guide for beginning thieves. Thumbs up!


I think conjuration is probably best if you can afford good spells from the people at the a college of Winterhold. There is three bound weapons, a sword, bow, and battlaxe which are pretty effective towards the beginning of the game.

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