After six years holed up in Eagle's Nest, Bolrag the Orc dusts off his war axe for one last quest. One of my earliest characters in Skyrim he's a smooth-talking thief, handy with both sword and bow, who came to this corner of Tamriel with no real goal. After visiting every city in the land, dusting up some dragons and lockpicking his way to the head of the Thieves Guild, he spends his days pottering around his new home on a peak overlooking Whiterun.
But a group of travelling mages seeking shelter on their way to the College of Winterhold got him thinking about his relationship with the arcane arts. An unfortunate incident as a child means he's never tried to cast a spell—never has, never will—but the mages spoke of the college with such wonder, and of its Arch-Mage with such respect. Bolrag longs for the bracing winds of the north, the sweeping views, and above all the glory that would come with a new, lofty title. Could he become the most influential wizard in Skyrim without using spells?
After a long ride north, my first task is to get past Faralda, who's basically the college bouncer. Instead of asking for ID, she demands I cast a spell, which of course I won't. Alternatively—and this is where Bolrag's years of sweet-talking come in handy—she can be persuaded to let you through if your speech skill is high enough.
Bolrag has a silver tongue, as well a perk that makes persuasion 30% easier. Crucially, he's also wearing the Amulet of Articulation he got from becoming leader of the Thieves Guild. Its enchantment means persuasion attempts almost always succeed, no matter your level, and Faralda is sufficiently impressed to lead me into the heart of the college.
I'm thrown into my first lesson with Tolfdir, a doddering teacher who constantly repeats himself. He wants me to cast a ward spell to block his fireball, and even teaches me the spell when he realizes I don't know it. I can imagine my classmates' smirks as I step up in heavy orc armor, clearly unprepared. But they don't account for my choice of shield: Spellbreaker, which Bolrag picked up long ago from the Daedric Lord Peryite. The shield projects a ward when held, and Tolfdir's flames die against it, extinguishing the smirks.
Next stop is Saarthal, where I'm asked to hunt down some artifacts and end up triggering a trap by snatching an amulet. The only way out is by blasting through a cracked wall. Pick a spell, any spell, Tolfdir says, which of course I won't. But after flirting with the main quest long ago, Bolrag does know how to shout very loudly. "FUS," he blurts, and the wall crumbles. Do shouts count as magic? Perhaps, but they're certainly not spells, and smashing a wall with your voice is much cooler than a blast of ice.
Delving into Saarthal, I'm reminded how tedious this questline can be. It's a string of fetch quests in dungeons, some of which feel like an endless series of repeating corridors. You face some tricky enemies—no match for my modded Eastern Dwemer war axe—but it's generally a parade of low-level foes who fight in roughly the same style.
That's never truer than in the Dwemer ruins of Mzulft, where I'm soon spelunking in search of the Staff of Magnus. Mzulft feels like the same Dwemer chamber copied and pasted, the same mechanical spiders jumping out from behind the same golden pillars every 30 seconds. After a brief interlude in a Thalmor camp I meet Paratus, an Imperial that leads me, painfully slowly, to the Oculory, where I'll learn the staff's location.
He tells me to blast a crystal with ice and fire spells to heat and cool it, changing the way it refracts light to reveal a hidden map. I don't know any such spells, but I plucked a Staff of Frostbite from one of the mages I murdered earlier. A few blasts to the crystal does the job, and leaves Bolrag contemplating whether wielding staves counts as using spells. He (and I, for the sake of this role-play) decides it doesn't, and continues with a clear conscience.
On my return to Winterhold I discover—shock horror!—that the Arch-Mage is dead, likely at the hand of Ancano. It's supposed to be a twist, but it's blindingly obvious that Ancano is a baddie from the moment you meet him. With his snide comments and general loitering, he may as well sport a moustache that he twirls while cackling. I'm tasked with defending Winterhold from an attacking force, which is just 10 wisps of magic that waft around the town. The hardest thing about the fight is getting them to stay in one place long enough to smash them with an axe.
The next test of my no-magic approach comes in the Labyrinthian, which the Imperial Paratus revealed as the location of the Staff of Magnus. The outside is probably my favorite spot in the whole questline.
Inside I slay a dragon before, once again, running through a series of corridors. There's an awkward moment where I'm supposed to use a fire spell to get through a frozen door. Scrambling through my inventory, I realise I don't have a suitable staff, prompting a quick exit. "Back in a sec, lads," Bolrag says, and rides off to Dawnstar as if he's just popping to the corner shop.
After the quick shopping trip it's plain sailing through the rest of the quest. With the aid of many potions I fell the dragon priest Morokei and head back to the college for what is perhaps the most anticlimactic final fight of any Skyrim quest ever.
It's time to kill the meddling Ancano, and I'm flanked by Tolfdir as we storm the college. I use the Staff of Magnus to break down the giant magical barrier, use it again on the Eye of Magnus, and then Ancano puts his fists up. He's a tough cookie but, perhaps due to a bug, he's focused solely on Tolfdir, despite the old man laying paralysed on the floor. I stand behind Ancano, hacking at his back until he too falls.
And that's that: I am the Arch-Mage, and I haven't cast a single spell (sort of).
I've always thought this questline felt incomplete, and playing again only reinforces that view. The Psijic Order pop up to hint at a grand conspiracy that never really materializes, and after a slow build up, the whole middle and end feels rushed, as if the designers realized they were running out of time.
But Bolrag doesn't care about all that. Slumped in a comfy chair in the Arch-Mage's quarters with a bottle of mead, he can't help but feel content. Master swordsman, master thief, and now a magic-less master mage. Something to chew on for the next six years in Eagle's Nest.
Thanks to GameFAQs member sPK2 for the inspiration.