This build came from several converging ideas - the lack of quality Nightingale builds in the group, few assassin-type builds with a truly thrilling playstyle, wanting to explore further in a few concepts touched upon in other builds, and the fact that I have not seen a single build using a one-handed weapon and nothing in the offhand! This guy's potential only grew throughout my playthrough as I discovered new combos, and even though I didn't think using a single one-handed weapon would be viable on Master without healing or Alchemy, it very much is! Note that Thieves Guild spoilers will follow; read at your own risk. With that out of the way, I present:
The Nightingale Swordsman
The Nightingales. A secretive order selected from the elite of the Thieves Guild bound to the Mistress of Shadows, Nocturnal, the Nightingales are charged with defending the Twilight Sepulcher, the Temple of Nocturnal, against any threats. In exchange for their services, Nightingales are granted an impressive array of powers and equipment from Nocturnal to use as they see fit - and the Swordsman utilizes many Nocturnal's gifts to their full potential. While many other rogues around Tamriel count the bow and dagger amongst their closest friends, the Swordsman uses a single one-handed blade with unmatched skill. He is also a expert sneak and illusionist, often causing misdirection and landing a devastating surprise attack before entering the fray. Like many close combat fighters he knows how to parry with a blade and can use lighter armors to protect himself from blows. Smithing helps the Swordsman improve his weapons and armor, increasing their effectiveness.
Race: I chose to play as an Altmer, as their +50 magicka boost and +10 Illusion boost, along with the starting Fury spell, meant it was easier to get my Swordsman started. Redguards' skill boosts and daily power synergise well with the build. Orcs, with their Berserker Rage ability, are an excellent race for any melee build. Khajiit, Dunmer and Argonians can also make serviceable Swordsmen with their skill boosts.
Stats: I recommend leveling 1/2/2 until you reach 180 base Magicka, then level 0/3/2 from then onwards.
Stone: I suggest the Lord Stone. As a close-quarters fighter in light armor, any armor bonus is welcome.
1. Major Skills
One-Handed: As the name suggests, the Nightingale Swordsman is a master of one-handed blades. These weapons allow him to strike with an excellent balance between speed, reach, and damage. Key perks here are pretty much everything except the axe, mace and dual wielding perks - with Critical Charge being very important!
Sneak: As a Nightingale, the Swordsman is a master of stealth. Sneaking through an ancient ruin, stealing valuables from a wealthy citizen's home, or delivering sudden strikes from the shadows on interlopers into the Twilight Sepulcher - all of these are within the Swordsman's area of expertise. Key perks are Backstab and up to Silent Roll.
Illusion: The Illusion school of magic is a great asset to any rogue - it can cause distractions, turn enemies against each other, and improve stealth capabilities. I prefer to avoid above Adept rank - a dual-cast spell from a lower tier increases its magnitude by 220%, including bonuses from effect and enemy specific perks, meaning that even a lowly Fury spell, when dual cast, can affect many enemies in Skyrim. Muffle combined with the Nightingale gear and Muffled Movement in Sneak allows for completely silent movement. Another major benefit of the Illusion school is that Quiet Casting affects Shouts, which is included in a few Special Moves later on. Key perks are up to Apprentice Illusion, dual casting, and up to Quiet Casting.
2. Minor Skills
Smithing: The Swordsman can improve his weapons and armor. Due to the Swordsman's endgame equipment not being affected by smithing perks, only Steel and Arcane smithing are key.
Block: As a close-quarters fighter, the Swordsman needs to be able to effectively block and avoid attacks. With the Quick Reflexes perk, this is easier than ever, with time slowing to a crawl when you block during a power attack. Within this time the Swordsman can either perform a quick bash, or with practice, a dodge and counter. The slowing effect stays active for a short time after lowering the block, and as the defender still retains their full speed, they can use this time to sidestep and deliver an attack of their own! Key perks are just up to Quick Reflexes. Later on the Bash perks can be taken also.
Light Armor: Lightly armored means light on your feet - but also easier to hack in two. The Swordsman should take full advantage of the mobility granted by his light armor - while the armor can and will save the Swordsman's life, it won't stop heavy-hitting attacks from two-handed weapons and bows. Key perks are pretty much everything - due to the emphasis of not getting hit, this skill tends to level quite slowly!
The Nightingale Swordsman strikes from the shadows with deadly results
3. Demonstration Video
The Nightingale Swordsman has a relatively small but deadly array of equipment. A quick note before we get into specifics - the Nightingale equipment is leveled, so select a version based on what level you plan on playing to! I've included UESP links in the text below.
The Swordsman has two blades which he uses in different situations. The Blades Sword (right) is used for general combat. As Steel Smithing affects it, it will always have a higher base damage than the Nightingale Blade, making it more effective for sneak attacks, and removes the hassle of having to recharge. One can be acquired without starting the Main Quest from Fultheim in the Nightgate Inn. The Nightingale Blade (left) has a powerful Absorb Health and Absorb Stamina enchantment, making it ideal for longer, tougher battles. The quick attack speed lets the Nightingale make the most out of the Absorb Health portion, and the Absorb Stamina makes for almost infinite power attacks and bashes.
For Armor, the Nightingale set is obviously our armor of choice, offering well rounded boosts to the Swordsman's skills. Linwe's Armor, which can be acquired through a Thieves Guild sidequest, is a fitting substitute until the Nightingale set is acquired.
As for other equipment, I recommend a Destruction ring for increased charges on the Nightingale Blade, and the Gauldur Amulet for a well-rounded stat boost.
The Nightingale Swordsman uses the Nightingale Blade to land a killing blow on this Bandit Chief
5. Special Moves
Requires: Quiet Casting, Whirlwind Sprint
Jumping from shadow to shadow, the Nightingale moves unseen and unheard.
With Quiet Casting, Whirlwind Sprint doesn't make any noise. Good for moving around quickly during stealth, avoiding enemies, or quickly closing the gap for a sneak attack.
Requires: Critical Charge, Silent Roll
Leaping from the shadows, the Nightingale closes the gap on their target and delivers a devastating blow.
The core move of this build. Once the Silent Roll perk is unlocked, you can trigger Critical Charges off it, leaping swiftly and silently over a long distance to deliver a sneak attack. The Critical damage increases your damage up to about 7x, with Bladesman perks further increasing that (as they increase the damage done by criticals). The Swordsman needs to estimate distance carefully so that he doesn't run into his foe before striking, as this alerts them!
Dance of Darkness
Requires: Critical Charge, Silent Roll, Muffle, Agent of Shadow
The Nightingale picks off foes one by one, disappearing completely between each strike.
By far the most ridiculous stealth combo I've found, this allows you to quickly decimate large groups of enemies with nearly no threat of retribution. Cast Muffle, activate Shadowcloak of Nocturnal (the Agent of Shadow ability), crouch, and decide on your first target. Hit him with a sudden strike, most likely slaying him instantly (worked for me on most enemies, and I was playing on Master), and immediately crouch again. You're now completely silent and invisible - as far as your foes are concerned, you've simply winked out of existence. Select your next target and continue until you run out of foes!
5. Playing the Nightingale Swordsman
The way you roleplay your Swordsman is really up to you. I played mine as a cold and calculating type, carefully planning before he acted. Having a look through a house during the day before breaking in at night and stealing, surveying the surrounding area before pouncing on a seemingly lone foe, and using spells to move enemies into position. If there was an opportunity for combat (outside a town of course) he took it, eager to further improve his swordwork.
In combat, I opened with some Fury spells to soften up foes, and then moved in closer by sneaking around or Blinking over. When I saw my chance, I dived in with a Sudden Strike, taking down one target, and then battling it out with the rest. The best way to stay alive is to not get hit, so remember to have your enemies fighting each other as well as you, and avoid attacks by dodging, blocking, and staggering your target through power attacks and bashes. If you do need to heal just down a potion or two, or consider getting out the Nightingale Blade for its absorb effects.
These Bandits are no match for the Nightingale Swordsman's bladework
Overall this is a build I had loads of fun with, a powerful assassin that's still awesome when not in stealth. As many of you know I detest the sneak-archer playstyle, and dual daggers aren't so good when enemies get onto you. With a sword, you're still proficient in melee combat, and aren't overpowered in stealth! I really enjoyed the fast paced feel of sneaking around - since swords make noise when you swing them, it was a race to take down as many guys as possible before being spotted, and the Sudden Strike really helped with that. I was surprised myself how viable this was on master - if you do play it, I hope you have as much fun as I did!