Without factions providing a framework for the many stories told within Skyrim, quests would be random and purposeless. It is easier to remember a task given by a member of Thieves Guild or the Grey-Manes, than one given by some random NPC character in a no-name town. With the former, there is often a story behind their request, a reason to push forward. When done well, we become emotionally invested in these characters and their problems. We help them because we care about the outcome. It is why we decide to help Fralia Grey-Mane find her son or kill Grelod the Kind of the Honorhall Orphanage when given the chance. We believe completing these tasks balance the scales of justice.
When done poorly, the factions become a bore and their quests a chore. Players who do complete the questline do so out of obligation or the need to gain access to certain gear, spells, or abilities that will enrich their roleplaying experience. Although, sometimes they are so bad that the player abandons the faction altogether. I’m looking at you Bards College.
Within Skyrim, there are a few joinable factions that are so poorly done they cause us to look upon other, non-playable factions with an envious eye. Other times, a non-playable faction is so poorly constructed we’re are glad they won’t allow us to join their ranks. However, one thing is certain; it is the factions who drive much of the narrative in Skyrim.
Last note: SPOILERS AHEAD
15 Best: Dark Brotherhood
Hands down, the Dark Brotherhood is one of the best factions in Skyrim. Not only do you get to be a badass assassin, but you also gain access to Cicero, and the Dark Brotherhood initiates who are arguably the best followers vanilla Skyrim has to offer without purchasing DLC. Unlike many other faction questlines, when you become the leader this ragtag group, it does not feel rushed or awkward because the storyline is well-paced and the Dragonborn actually proves their worth.
In addition, players gain the ability to use Spectral Assassin and acquire the Ancient Shrouded Armor set—which, when fully equipped, gives players full poison resistance, muffled boots, a 35% increase in bow damage, and doubles the damage dealt by one-handed sneak attacks.
Finally, you get Shadowmere. Who doesn’t want a horse that emerges from a black pool, will probably never die, and always has your back in a fight?
14 Terrible: Blades
The Blades sound good on paper. The faction has served all of the previous Dragonborn’s, so it is only logical that they protect you as well. However, they are in a rebuilding phase and could use a little help with recruits. The Dragonborn obviously can’t join them. Instead, they can provide the Blades with up to 3 followers, who each get a sweet set of armor and a new place to live. They also provide the Dragonborn with the locations of dragons to hunt.
The Blades seem noble right up until they demand you kill Paarthurnax, or lose their help. So, now serving the Dragonborn is conditional. So, just to be clear, they want you to kill the dragon who defeated Alduin, the Blades’ supposed target, in the past and currently helps the Dragonborn to defeat him again. However, you can summon Ohdaviing, an actual evil dragon, all you want.
13 Best: Greybeards
Like the Blades, the Dragonborn cannot join the Greybeards because they exist to serve him. They are a bunch of old guys who are trained in the way of the voice, and their leader is Paarthurnax—a freaking dragon! Peace is their motto. They follow the Way of the Voice, a creed which preaches the Thu’um should only be used to worship the gods.
After the peace negotiations between the Stormcloaks and the Imperials, the Blades will demand that you kill Paarthurnax for his old war crimes. Their argument isn’t convincing. Paarthurnax is a joy to talk to and went against his dragon nature to try and convince other dragons to follow the Way of the Voice. Not to mention, the Greybeards teach the Dragonborn Words of Power and help them find new ones.
Never bite the hand that feeds you.
12 Terrible: Companions
As one of the few factions without internal strife, the Companions had the potential to be so much better than they were. All of the elements were there: Aela the Huntress, a great follower and potential wife, lycanthropy, the free training, and the Nord Hero Weapons. Kodlak was a true mentor and father figure for many of its members, making his death one of the most poignant moments in the game. This is especially true afterward, when Aela agrees to help cure him despite her belief that lycanthropy is a blessing.
However, the questline ultimately fails to be impactful due to its short length and poor pacing. For a group that was skeptical of your abilities, they trust the Dragonborn far too quickly, allowing them to join the Circle after only a couple of quests and Harbinger after a few more.
It never really feels like the title is earned.
11 Best: Thieves Guild
The Thieves Guild is the faction that keeps on giving. You may have to do despicable things, like framing poor Brand-Shei, but it’s totally worth being a lowlife when the questline rewards you with Nightingale Armor and Chillrend, the amazing leveled glass sword. Joining the Thieves Guild also allows the Dragonborn to bribe guards and sell stolen goods to a fence.
In addition, the questline for the guild comes to a satisfying conclusion. The player gets to kill that backstabber Mercer Frey, and instead of automatically being rewarded with the title of Guildmaster, they are forced to earn it. That’s right. The Dragonborn actually has to complete a handful of quests to restore the Thieves Guild’s influence in several other cities. Only then can they take the lead. Now that is how you tell a story.
10 Terrible: Imperial Legion
The entire Civil War plotline is underwhelming. Neither side is all that compelling and, what’s worse, the Imperials are so shortsighted that they don’t realize the Thalmor are deceiving and using them to keep the attention off themselves. They also lack a backbone. Signing the White-Gold Concordat, the document that ended the Great War, resulted in the ban of Talos worship and the abandonment of the Redguards in Hammerfell.
Also, if you recall, at the beginning of your adventure, it is an Imperial Captain who attempts to execute the Dragonborn without just cause—an obvious sign of corruption within the Empire. They don’t even respect the Dragonborn or understand the implications of having them fight for their cause. Instead, they order them around like a commoner off the street.
The Imperials may be the lesser of two evils, but that does not make them great.
9 Best: The Forsworn
I know. You probably hate the Forsworn. They are relatively strong and annoying as far as enemies go, but it is hard not to sympathize with them. They view the Reach as their ancestral land, and thanks to the Nords and the Empire, they lost control of it. Then, when they finally managed to take back Markarth, Ulfric—back when he was an Imperial soldier—and his men were hired by the Jarl to take back Markarth.
It’s too bad the Forsworn are not a joinable faction in Skyrim. They are the only faction with enough sense to oppose all political groups, and their cause is seemingly noble. Instead of choosing between the Stormcloaks, the Imperials, and peace, there should have been a fourth option to help the Forsworn regain Markarth and exact their revenge for the Markarth Incident.
8 Terrible: College Of Winterhold
The College of Winterhold is the place to be if you are playing as a mage. By completing the questline, the Dragonborn acquires the Archmage’s Robes and the Morokei Mask, both of which individually cause magicka to regenerate 100% faster. They also gain access to three followers, including J’zargo, who has no level cap.
The story is fun, and the quests are interesting. However, similar to the Companions, the main problem with this faction’s questline is its pacing, along with how unbelievably easy it is to join the college. The test to get in isn’t very hard and the player is never tested again— not even when they become the Arch-Mage. Speaking of which, you barely get your feet wet before you absolutely have to save the school and become its leader. A novice spell user can lead a school that teaches magic and no one will question it.
7 Best: Psijic Order
Before the College of Winterhold and Mages Guilds, there was the Psijic Order. The ancient order is credited with developing mysticism. In Skyrim, the Dragonborn encounters several members of the Psijic Order during the College of Winterhold questline. After the Eye of Magnus is safely removed from the College, it is revealed that the Order intended for the Dragonborn to become the Arch-Mage.
That is fine. However, Bethesda could have done so much more. Imagine if, after working hard as the Arch-Mage, the Dragonborn were recruited by the Psijic Order after mastering a school of magic. It could be a sub-faction similar to that of the Companion’s Circle or the Thieves Guild’s Nightingales. Alternatively, they could force the Dragonborn to prove that you are capable of handling the College’s affairs before they can take over.
That would have been so much more satisfying.
6 Terrible: Stormcloaks
Surely, you are wondering why both the Stormcloaks and the Imperials are listed as terrible. It’s simple. Neither one of these factions should rule Skyrim. However, even though the Imperials are as shady as any government, the Stormcloaks are just reprehensible. They hate anything that isn’t human, which makes it hard to sympathize with them (especially if you’re playing as a non-human Dragonborn). Spend a few minutes in Windhelm, and you will quickly see the extent of the Nords hatred, as the Dunmer live in squalor in the Grey Quarter and the Argonians are not even allowed to live within the city’s walls.
Ulfric is a terrible person. He is power hungry and a bit of a cheat. He challenged Torygg to a duel, knowing the high king would be no match for his Thu’um. Also, like the Imperials, he and his army treat the Dragonborn like an ordinary person.
5 Best: Dawnguard
The Dawnguard DLC added fresh new content to Skyrim along with two new factions, the Dawnguard and the Volkihar Vampire Clan. The Dawnguard exist to kill vampires and to stop the faction led by Lord Harkon from blotting out the sun. After all the last thing that the world needs are vampires that can operate during the daytime.
Joining the vampire hunters gives the Dragonborn access to Fort Dawnguard, where they will find master trainers skilled in Restoration, Smithing, Heavy Armor, and Archery. Players also gain access to 6 potential followers, including two adorable husky war dogs, and a multitude of spells (particularly those targeting the undead), armor and weapons—the crossbow is particularly useful. Oh, and did I mention that players can hire Armored Trolls as temporary followers? It’s great being a Dawnguard.
4 Terrible: Vigilants Of Stendarr
The Vigilants of Stendarr seem badass, but in reality, they are a watered down version of the Dawnguard. Instead of exclusively focusing on vampires, they mainly hunt Daedra (along with werewolves and other abominations). You would think a faction that spends most of its time hunting Daedra could easily take on a vampire. Unfortunately, they cannot, as most are slaughtered when the Volkihar attack the Hall of the Vigilant.
The slaughter forces one if its members to ask the Dawnguard, the true masters of vampire hunting founded by former Vigilants, for help. This is what happens when you wear Amulets of Stendarr without carrying shields to benefit from the blocking buff. Also, everyone knows you can't take on vampires without crossbows.
May Stendarr’s mercy be upon them, for the vampires have none to spare.
3 Best: Volkihar Vampire Clan
The Volkihar Clan is a vampire faction led by Lord Harkon, the primary protagonist of the main questline. Harkon has no tolerance for vampires or mere mortals. He’s a jerk and ultimately betrays the Dragonborn. However, you don’t join the Volkihar for Harkon’s wisdom; you join to become a Vampire Lord.
Vampire Lords have their own skill tree with eleven available perks—including the ability to summon gargoyles or to fully restore their health by killing an enemy with a power bite attack. Couple this with the Ring of the Beast (grants user 100 extra health points and increases claw damage by 20), the Ring of Erudite (grants user an additional 100 magicka and speeds up magicka regeneration), and your Death Hound followers and the Vampire Lord is nearly unstoppable. The Dragonborn also gets to call Castle Volkihar their home.
2 Terrible: Bards College
The Bards College is the worst joinable faction in Skyrim. One would expect the College to teach the Dragonborn songs or how to play different instruments. Just imagine being able to join Sven as he sings “Ragnar the Red” or serenading your beloved during your wedding ceremony. But no, Bethesda just phoned this one in. Although others refer to the Dragonborn as a bard, we all know the sad truth about their lack of talent.
The Bards College also doesn’t have a dedicated questline, which means there isn’t much of a story. The teachers at the College take one look at you, see you are the “adventuring type,” and decide to exploit your talents by sending you on fetch quests to retrieve instruments. Instead of teaching you how to play, each teacher will raise all the skills under each archetype (Thief, Mage, and Warrior). It’s better than nothing.
1 Best: Thalmor
Why waste your time dealing with the squabbles of men when you can be the puppet master instead? Everyone knows the Thalmor are the real threat, but they are too preoccupied with each other to do anything about it. It is the Thalmor who wished to eradicate the worship of Talos. It was also the Thalmor who captured Ulfric Stormcloak during the Great War and released him so that he could further divide the Empire. As we all know, that plan was successful.
In addition, the Thalmor are pretty cool. Members get to wear stylish robes and, since they are high elves, spellcasting comes easily to them. At the very least, it would be great for Altmer players to be able to be agents for the Dominion. They could lurk in the shadows, inciting incidents instead of seeking to resolve them.