The Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks are warring factions in Skyrim. The player must choose to side with one of these groups, helping them win the civil war and assert complete control over Skyrim. The decision is not an easy one and therefore requires much deliberation.
One of the best things about jumping into a new RPG is the world of choices and decisions the game is about to bring your way. Thus, allowing you to create a character that truly represents who you are as a person. Therefore, this character can act out all the fantasy tropes you love, whether that is fighting your way through countless enemies in search of gold or dancing in between bouts of dragon fire.
This is where Skyrim truly shines by allowing its players an authentic open-world experience wherein they can become anyone they want, whether that is some kind of noble knight or dark, hideous assassin.
One of the most important decisions that this installment of the Elder Scrolls series presents to its player is who they will side with during the ongoing civil war, which is ravaging the isle of Skyrim and robbing peace from most of the province’s civilians.
This decision is not to be taken lightly; as with any decision a player character makes in an Elder Scrolls game, whichever faction the player chooses to side with does come out on top and, therefore, will lead to significant changes in the province’s landscape for many years to come—affecting the lives of not just the soldiers involved but their families and the inhabitants of the settlements who allied with either faction.
Therefore, with this decision being such an important one, it is only fitting that the appropriate amount of information is available to you, the player character; therefore, this guide will help you through the process by showing you motivations behind each force and why they believe themselves to be in the greatest interest of Skyrim and her people.
Also, this guide will outline which faction the player should choose from a more self-centered point of view, displaying which side will indeed give the player the best role-playing experience. With all this in mind, let’s get right into it!
How Did We Get Here?
I don’t know about you, but every time I boot up a new action RPG, there always seems to be some ongoing war between the forces of evil and good, therefore making the decision of who to support a relatively easy one, depending on my mood that is.
However, Skyrim doesn’t make this decision so simplistic for its players; the developers clearly cared about developing war with nuance with valid arguments on each side, allowing the player to find either side in the right depending on many factors.
However, if we truly understand the conflict raging in Skyrim, we must have a little history listen first. Not only to give context for the state of things as we find them in Skyrim but also to display some of the more critical motivations for each side in this war.
The Great War
After the events of the Oblivion Crisis, the Empire was a shadow of its former self. After all, they just spent a great deal of money, lives, and therefore strength on keeping a Daedric prince from taking over the entire world, sacrificing the last true heir to the throne as they did so. This was, therefore, the perfect time for the Third Aldmeri Dominion to wage war on the struggling Empire.
The Aldmeri Dominion, an Elven Supremacist government, also known as the Thalmor being a powerful union of Altmer, viewed the world as their and thus wished to wrestle control away from the Empire. Thus, asserting the races of Mer over Men, bringing forth a new Merethic Era.
As the war raged on, it was clear that the Empire was simply not strong enough to win the battle. However, the Dominion did not like the troop losses they experienced either, thus bringing the two factions to a table with the hopes of ending the battle. This diplomatic meeting concluded with the signing of the White-Gold Concord.
The White-Gold Concord is a document that looked a lot like the Treaty of Versailles from World War 1, except that instead of the Germans getting the wrong end of the stick, it was the Empire. The Dominion knew that the Empire was not fit to continue fighting their might.
Therefore, they held the once-powerful system over a barrel and got themselves almost everything they could have asked for, creating a deal that heavily favored the Altmer. Some of the more startling concessions made by the Empire to the Dominion were the outlawing of Talos worship within the Empire’s holds and the disbandment of the Blades.
- The civil war in Skyrim officially started in 4E 201. However, many say that it really began after the Markarth incident in 4E 174.
- The disbandment of the Blades by the White-Gold Concord makes the player character a criminal after they join with Delphin and Esbern is the main quest.
- The Concord also forced the Empire to give up land in the south of Hammerfell to the Dominion.
The Factions at Play
The Imperial Legion
If like me, you grew up playing Oblivion and marveled and the grand power and opulence of the Empire throughout that game, you might have been a little surprised to boot up Skyrim for the first time all those years ago to find the Empire a mere husk of its former self.
The grand superpower of Tamriel has well and truly decayed and shrank in power and size by the time Skyrim rolls around, and this is the very symptom that leads to the great war over Skyrim.
You see, the Imperial Legion, very likely stylized after the Roman or British empires, are losing control of their vassals around Tamriel and will, therefore, fight tooth and nail to keep a hold of each territory it still has. However, this obsession over keeping a hold over their lands is not one solely born out of human lust for power; it is also due to fear of the Aldmeri Dominion.
You see, the Legion views the Aldmeri Dominion as the greatest enemy to their continuance within Tamriel and fears that losing Skyrim and her mighty Nordic soldiers will inevitably lead to the Dominion launching an all-out war over the remnants of the Empire, a war that, without Skyrim, they would easily win.
The Stormcloaks, on the other hand, present themselves more like freedom fighters than another classic medieval army. Their sole wish is to push the Empire and their control away from the shores of Skyrim, thus allowing Skyrim and her people to make decisions for themselves and allow the isle to prosper under native rule.
This opinion is only supported by the continued decaying of the Empire and the evident corruption which seems to be destroying the organization from the inside. You see, Skyrim and her people are mostly of Nordic descent; this, therefore, means that they have a huge affinity for the God Talos, a former Nord man who was raised to deictic status after his many great deeds.
However, after the signing of the White-Gold Concord, their beloved hero was simply ripped from them, the worship of said God now being a punishable offense in their homeland. Of course, they were not going to take this lying down. Therefore, civil unrest began.
This unrest ultimately culminated in the ‘true sons and daughters of Skyrim,’ rising and rejecting the control of the Empire over them. One such ‘true son’ was Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak, who decided, in a fit of anger, to depose the Empire-appointed high king of Skyrim, Torygg. Therefore, this decision by Ulfric leads to his killing of High King Torygg and the formation of the Stormcloaks.
- The Empire’s Skyrim forces are controlled by General Tullius and his second in command, Legate Rikke.
- High King Torygg’s death is debated throughout Skyrim; some say Ulfric murdered him by using the voice unfairly, others state that he simply one an agreed-upon and honorable fight.
- The Stormcloaks have every reason to hate the Dominion also, but their primary issue is with the Empire.
Who Should You Pick?
Realism in Role Playing
Suppose you are one of those players who likes everything to align perfectly within your RPG experiences, with no logic faults or unlikely scenarios rearing their ugly heads. In that case, you really should consider the morals and real-world implications that go along with joining either one of these factions.
The most important thing to consider in regard to this when picking a faction is what race you have already selected for your character.
It should be no surprise to anyone that the Stormcloaks are racist in their world views and how they would like Skyrim to be constituted, preferring a strong Nordic homeland completely dominated by said race and culture.
Now, this is not me saying that to join and fight for the Stormcloaks is a racist undertaking, of course not; however, should your player character be an Orc, or even worse, an Imperial, you have to recognize that you will never get the recognition, praise, or rank in this army as you would fighting on the Empire’s side. That is simply how it is.
On the flip side of this, then, should you be playing the game as a true Nord who loves Talos and everything he stood for, then, of course, you should probably join the Stormcloaks. On the other hand, the Empire is perfect for anyone who has picked an alternate race to the Nords.
This army has tons of diversity throughout and can be seen to promote and hold people foreign to the shores of Cyrodiil in high regard and rank.
It is also important to note that should the player choose an Elven race at the beginning of the game; the in-game canon would suggest that the proper choice in this civil war would be the Stormcloaks. This is due to the faction’s evident racism towards these races and because the Aldmeri Dominion wishes for the Empire to lose control over this province, thus weakening them further and making any other future conflicts a certainty in their eyes. Therefore, to represent an Altmer properly, a role-playing gamer would choose the Stormcloaks.
The quests that the player has to take part in within this civil war are mostly very similar in end goal and enjoyability. Therefore, many players do not make their faction decision based on this thread alone.
However, I am not too fond of one aspect of Stormcloak’s main questline, and you might feel the same. You see, throughout the questline for the Stormcloaks, it will become evident that the player must help Ulfric and his forces attack the Legion’s largest center of power outside of Solitude, this being the settlement of Whiterun.
Now, I accept that, depending on which side the player chooses, you will also have to attack either Solitude or Windhelm; these cities do not really mean as much to me as Whiterun. After all, this is the city where most players have their first house and possibly children.
Let alone the fact that Jarl Bulgruuf is nothing but helpful in getting the player on his way to the Greybeards and defeating Alduin. Therefore, to attack this city out of mere hatred for the Empire does not sit right for me and has often turned me off of picking the Stormcloaks during my playthroughs.
At the end of both of these factions’ quests, the player will see the group, unlucky enough not to have been selected by the Dragonborn, fall into obscurity and ultimately end up a shadow of their former selves, holding only small camps out in the wilderness of Skyrim.
- The player does not experience many differences in terms of quests depending on which faction they choose. However, you will attack Whiterun with the Stormcloacks and then ultimately Solitude. In contrast, you will attack Windhelm with the Legion.
- If the player is not playing as a Nord, it does not make much sense to play with the Stormcloaks, who are often racist towards other races in the game.
- If the player is role-playing as an Elven patriot, they will therefore have to side with the Stormcloaks as they ultimately weaken the Altmer’s main enemy, the Empire.
Fighting the Aldmeri Dominion
Should the player find themselves in a tough spot making this decision, maybe thinking about the consequences of the war could help a great deal.
For example, should the player decide to choose the Stormcloaks, the logical conclusion is that the Empire would eventually be forced to withdraw all ground troops from the region and head on back to Cyrodiil, licking their wounds all the way.
This would mean that Skyrim and her people could eventually get back to the worship of their mighty Talos and rule themselves again. However, by defeating the Empire and sending them packing, one almost ensures their defeat when the Aldmeri Dominion decides that the White-Gold Concord is not enough for them anymore, and they want all that the Empire has.
Eventually, then, the Empire would ultimately fall to the power of the Dominion, and that entire region would be under the control of the Altmer. It then would probably not be long until the people of Skyrim find these Altmer at their back door, banging and demanding to be let in.
After all, they are a fascist, Elven Supremacist organization, and history has taught us that fascists never really stop wanting more and more power, especially when they see all other races, even Nords, as beneath them.
Therefore, if they come calling over in Skyrim, there would be nothing the Nords could do to defeat them. Thus they would eventually become just another vassal state under the Dominion’s control, either in a similar or worse state of control than the Empire had them under.
The other side of this coin would see the player help the Empire, thus shoring up their hold in Skyrim and considerably bolstering their strength for when the next war with the Dominion raises its ugly head.
However, I will concede that it is not on the people of Skyrim to ensure that the Empire stays afloat; it is simply not affair to expect these people to accept Imperial rule simply so they can one day defeat the Aldmeri Dominion, after all, to this point, this Dominion has done nothing wrong to the people of Skyrim.
However, there is no doubt in my mind, or the people of the Empire’s that the Dominion would one day come for Skyrim, thus placing her people between a rock and a hard place. It is also important to consider that the most hated implication of Imperial rule in Skyrim, the banning of the worship of Talos, is not something they actually wished for their people.
It is a rule brought in under pressure from the Dominion, an action forced by the Dominion’s strength and the Empire’s weakness. Therefore, it is not really the fault of the Legion for this heinous act of bigotry, but the Dominions.
So, in regard to the Aldmeri Dominion and the future of Tamriel, I suppose it comes down to whether or not the player character believes that Skyrim has a part to play in the battle between these two forces or not. Whether Skyrim should support the Empire and therefore hope to ensure the Altmer’s downfall or whether they should simply look out for themselves and remain as isolationist as they can for as long as they can. Not an easy decision but one I definitely have to make during every playthrough.
Now, I know some of you will detest the inclusion of this aspect in a decision guide concerning the fate of the entirety of Skyrim and maybe the whole of Tamriel. However, I know you are simply lying to yourself if you do not recognize that the aesthetic of these warring factions does nothing to sway your opinion in regard to whose faction you’re going to support. After all, we all want the coolest armor in the game; there’s no shame in that fact.
In my opinion, there is no better aesthetic than that of the heavy armor one receives after joining the Imperial Legion. Even as a light, stealthy and nimble character build, I always choose the heavy armor build because it simply looks the coolest and is closest to what actual Roman soldiers would have worn in the real world, in my opinion anyway.
The Stormcloak uniforms, on the other hand, are a little bit lackluster, presenting little in terms of style or individuality. After all, they are simply the guard uniforms of Windhelm but with a little bit of extra detailing. They are also incredibly similar to the armor worn by the guards in the other holds, save for a little change in the color scheme.
Although, I will recognize that this is then flipped on its head once the player advances enough through the ranks of the Stormcloaks and gains the right to wear the uniform of a Stormcloak officer. This full set of armor, granted after completing ‘The Battle for Fort Snowhawk’ quest, sees the player dawn a bearskin cloak equipped with studded gauntlets and boots and a unique cuirass which is seemingly inspired by ancient Nord tradition.
With this piece of armor in mind then, the player will enjoy the aesthetic while serving for either side, eventually. However, it is essential to note that all of the Stormcloak armor given to the player until the completion of the quest mentioned above is genuinely lackluster.
- The Empire has a much greater chance of defeating the Dominion with Skyrim under its control.
- Ulfric does not like the Dominion either and often speaks to his hatred of the Thalmor throughout the game.
- The Stormcloaks are better for light, and sneaky character builds, whilst the opposite is true for the Empire.
There is not much to say about the rewards the player character receives when siding with one faction over another. This is because the games developers have intentionally balanced the factions in this regard because they did not want the player punished for not selecting one faction over another. Also, I am sure they did not want players to ignore this moral and ethical decision over the heads of a cool-looking sword or gold reward.
With this being said, there are some differences in the rewards given to the player. First of all, should the player be pursuing a rather sneaky or assassin-type player character build, the Stormcloaks might be your best friend. This is due to the faction’s penchant for providing light armor to their soldiers and, because of the reward, Ice Wraith’s bane.
This potion is given to the player right after completing the quest, ‘Joining the Stormcloaks,’ and it is a great tool for such a character build. However, it is also important to note that should the player be high enough rank, when siding with the Legion, instead of poor-quality swords as a reward from General Tullius; the man will eventually grant the player some cool Daedric weapons.
Apart from these minor differences, there is not much separating the rewards granted to the player by the heads of each faction; however, should you choose one faction, the resulting quests and battles will eventually lead to the deaths of those in charge of the alternate faction, thus allowing the player to loot their armor after their death.
This means that should the player should side with the Stormcloaks, for example. Eventually, you will be able to acquire General Tullius’ armor.
Question: Can I quit the Stormcloaks?
Answer: After the Dragonborn has sided with the Stormcloaks or the Empire, they will have one more chance to change their mind after acquiring the Jagged Crown. Should the player collect it for the Stormcloaks, they can take it to the Legion and effectively switch sides. This is the last time you can change.
Question: Can you join the Stormcloaks and the Imperials?
Answer: The Dragonborn can only join one of these factions as they are directly opposed to one another, and therefore the game requires one side to come out on top with the player’s help.
Question: What happens to Whiterun if I join the Stormcloaks?
Answer: Eventually, Ulfric will order the player to help take Whiterun. After doing this, the Jarl, his stewards, and housecarls will flee to Solitude, wherein they can be found in the basement of the Blue Palace.
Question: Can you become the High King in Skyrim?
Answer: The player cannot become High King of Skyrim, even if you side with the Stormcloaks, and Ulfric is thus free from the crime of murdering Torygg; he never ascends to the throne during the events of the game.
Stormcloaks or Imperials Decision Guide: Conclusion
So, there you have it, a complete guide to one of the most important questions you will need to answer in Skyrim. Should you side with the Legion or the Stormcloaks? In my opinion, there is no right or wrong choice here.
However, I would always choose to side with the Empire simply so that the Aldmeri Dominion does not grow in strength across Tamriel. However, the effects of the Dragonborn’s choice regarding the Dominion are not yet cannon, so all of this is merely educated speculation.
Thus, one way or another, the decision really has no right or wrong answer yet. With that being said, though, hopefully, this guide will help you make the best decision possible with all the information required at your disposal. Whatever faction you decide, make sure to keep adventuring and watching for those stray arrows!