Skyrim’s life simulation aspect means that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction…most of the time. I mean, sure, if I was a giant minding my own business, I’d get annoyed if some humanoid in a weird horned helmet started hitting my leg with a butter knife, but I don’t think I’d send him to space with one fell swoop.
Seems a little unnecessary, to be honest.
This overreaction holds true with most other Skyrim game mechanics, but none more so than when you manage to get a bounty placed on your head. One minute you’re the Dragonborn, the Chosen One who will defeat Alduin, then suddenly, you’re Tamriel’s Most Wanted, the bane of every Hold Guard’s existence, and all for, I don’t know, stealing an apple or some other inconsequential thing.
In Skyrim, clearing your bounty can be done in a few ways: you can declare yourself as Thane (for higher-level players), you could go to jail (who wants that, though), or you can pay your bounty. None of these are ideal, but let’s talk you through them anyway:
How Bounties Work in Skyrim
First off, let’s understand what Bounty is: In Skyrim, a bounty is placed on a player if and when they’re caught committing a crime; it doesn’t matter if you picked a pocket or murdered a civilian, if there is at least one witness (be it person or domestic animal…yeah, pets can rat too), a nominal bounty will be placed on you. Bounties are Hold-specific, which means that if you commit a crime in, say, Markarth, it won’t carry over if you visit Whiterun.
When a player has a bounty on them, any guard within that Hold will try to arrest you. Depending on your Speech level, you can try to talk your way out of it: barring a certain level of speech (which is why Nord’s are Skyrim’s best race for talking your way out of trouble), however, you’ll be given a few choices:
- Resist your arrest, either by running away or killing a guard (the latter being not only unethical but also not advised)
- Pay the Bounty (which, depending on the severity, can either be a few coins to a few thousand)
- Go to jail (like that’s ever an option, but more on that later).
Resisting arrest by killing guards isn’t advisable, unless you’re a high-level player with great armor and skills, but even then, it would still be difficult, considering that killing a Hold Guard won’t just increase the bounty but also cause the game to spawn as many guards in your area as possible. But hey, if you’re ok with murdering a few dozen guards, then by all means. Otherwise, keep it in your sheath.
To avoid getting a bounty in Skyrim, you could kill all the witnesses that saw you commit the crime. If it was out in the wilderness or outside of a city, this is fairly easy (at least, if it’s easy on your game conscience, you murderer). But take note: if you leave the Hold where you committed the crime before killing off witnesses, you won’t be able to come back to kill them.
Another note: if you kill a witness in front of another witness, you’re going to have to kill them, too. And if you kill them in front of other witnesses…well, you see where I’m going with this. If you do this in a Hold, you might just be forced to kill off all the NPC witnesses, which is a huge body count depending on the city. Not only is this ethically questionable, it might also affect future encounters with that NPC, not to mention affect your quests (NPC’s don’t look kindly on criminals, after all).
If you commit a crime in full view of a Hold Guard, there’s a very big chance that they’ll start attacking you. You could stop this attack by sheathing your weapon; however, this doesn’t always stop the attack. Another way is to leave the city and re-enter at a much later time. Depending on the severity, this could make guards less hostile towards you, or even negate the bounty that was placed on you.
Stop the guard response to a crime you just committed. If you committed a crime in full view of a guard, they may start attacking you. You can prompt them to stop attacking by putting away your weapon.
A final note: sometimes the Jarl of the Hold will send Bounty Collectors to try and arrest you out on the road. This happens if you’re bounty is above 1,000g. The difference between Bounty Collectors is that they have jurisdiction over all of Skyrim, and not just the Hold where you committed a crime. Bounty Collectors are usually heavily-armored Nords, so a High Elf player in Skyrim might have a harder time resisting these Elder Scroll Dog the Bounty Hunter wannabes.
How to Get Rid of Bounty in Skyrim
Now that you have a price on your head, here are a few ways to get rid of your bounty in Skyrim:
Pay it Off
The easiest, most non-violent, but ultimately expensive, option, paying your bribe is a sure-fire way to clear your bounty. BUT, a few notes:
- Make sure you have enough money to pay your bounty! If you lack the right amount, guards might get hostile.
- If you’re going to bribe the guards as part of the Thieves Guild quests, carry extra gold, otherwise, your quest might fail.
- Store stolen goods in your chest. If you’re arrested and you pay the bounty, all stolen merch will be confiscated from you. You’ll know an item is stolen if it has the word “Stolen” in red in front of its name in your inventory (yeah, real subtle).
If you have a bounty and you want to pay it off, simply go to the city where you committed a crime. Again, depending on the crime, you’ll either have to approach a guard and talk to them, or you’ll have a welcome committee waiting for you once you enter.
Either way, once you make contact with the guard/s, simply speak to them and choose the “You caught me. I’ll pay off my bounty” option in the dialogue box. If your bounty is less than 10 gold, the guards will usually just let you go after a couple of snarky remarks and confiscating your stolen goods. Anything above 10g, however, and they cart you off to jail. Yes, you still go to jail if you pay your bounty, albeit with a reduced ‘sentence’.
If you’re in the Thieves Guild, however, and you’ve done at least one or two Guild jobs in that particular Hold, the Bribe option will be available to you. It costs a bit more than paying your bounty BUT it comes with a couple of perks:
- You don’t go to Jail
- You keep all stolen goods
Go to Jail
Alternatively, you can refuse both paying your bounty and bribing, and just going straight to jail. Again, same concept as before: if you go to jail, all stolen goods will be confiscated, but at least your gold balance remains the same. Same process as well as above: just go to a city where you committed your crime, guards will approach you, only this time, choose the “I submit. Take me to prison” option in the dialogue box.
(on a side note, prisons are one of the places where you can get straw in Skyrim, in case you have the Hearthfire DLC installed).
Once you’re in jail, all your items will be taken from you and put in a chest. Stolen items will, of course, be confiscated permanently. Once you’re in your cell, you’ll have two options:
- Serve your time
- Break out
Both options have their pros and cons:
Serve Your Jail Time
Pretty straight forward option. Just sleep in your jail cell and the next time you wake up, your sentence would have been served. You’ll then be taken to the front of the prison, given back all your items, and then set free with a clear bounty. Unlike the real world, Skyrim doesn’t make you quarry stone or clear roads or anything like that; just sleep in your cell and justice will be served!
Take note, however, that serving jail time will incur penalties to your character level, so keep that in mind next time you feel like being an honorable Dragonborn.
Of course, if you don’t feel like staying cooped up in the big house…
Break Out of Jail
Breaking out of jail won’t cause your character level to decrease, but it won’t clear your bounty (and, in fact, might increase it). To break out of jail, simply lockpick your way out. Once you’re out of your cell, find the ‘evidence chest’ where all of your items are being kept and recover them.
Take note, however, that you’ll have to sneak out and avoid guards. A runaway convict will be met with aggression. Another note: all the prisons are guarded by Hold Guards, except for Winterhold, which is guarded by Frost Atronachs. So keep that in mind next time you try to break out of a mage prison.
Declare Yourself as Thane
Probably the most Boss option of the three, if you’ve been made Thane of a particular Hold, you can use this new high-falutin’ title to get yourself out of trouble. But please note that you actually have to be the Thane of the particular Hold where you committed your for this to work, so make sure you finish the Thaneship questline of that Hold.
Again, this will only work if you’re the Thane of the Hold where you committed your crime: being a Thane in Riften won’t mean squat to Hold Guards in Falkreath.
Another note: declaring yourself Thane to clear your bounty only works under these conditions:
- You’ve never used it before (declaring Thaneship to clear your bounty in Skyrim only works once)
- Your bounty is under 3,000 gold
To use this option, simply speak to a guard and choose the “I’m the Jarl’s Thane” option in the dialogue box. Again, you can only do this once: if you try to use it a second time, the guards will simply arrest you.
Of course, the best way to avoid a bounty is to avoid committing a crime, but where’s the fun in that?