I know I'm the zillionth post on covenants, but there's one angle in this conversation I haven't overly seen talked about and I felt it warranted its own thread for discussion. This isn't about needing 4 of every class, or having to swap for content types or having to swap for certain bosses, nor having to make a decision without getting enough time playing with the abilities, or some abilities just being poopoo in the overworld, or some covenant abilities being great for one spec of your class and awful for another, or anything like that — those are all valid arguments worth exploring, but I would like to avoid this post derailing into those. Many people smarter (and better at the game) than me have covered those topics. I'd like to exclusively focus on the idea of covenants as an RPG choice.
Ion has said the decision to lock covenants is a product of wanting to really introduce a "weighty, RPG choice" back into the game. He's likened covenants to sub-classes. I don't think either claim rings true.
The latter is still subjective, but I think easier to grapple with: 2 active abilities (one of which is shared across all of your fellow "subclass") and 5 passives don't add up to a subclass. Perhaps this is my own bias and my standards for this are arbitrary, but I would expect a subclass to change my gameplay more than covenants do. I'd expect a subclass to have somewhere between 1/3rd and 1/2 of the amount of gameplay attached to it that a class as a whole does — perhaps spec is the better word to use here. I expect a subclass to impact my gameplay about 1/2 as much as a spec impacts my gameplay relative to a base class. Again, this might be an arbitrary definition on my part, but I think when you look at other games that allow multi-classing or subclassing, this number feels about on the money for what expectations should be.
Now, for the former: I initially bought in to this claim, that locking covenants was creating a weighty RPG choice — and I think in the context of the covenant abilities not existing, I'd still agree with that.
The part I get stuck on are the active abilities though. I've tried for the life of me to figure out where Ion is getting this post-character creation commitment idea from. Maybe someone else can help me see what I'm overlooking, but I genuinely can't think of an RPG game that has done what he's referring to here. When I think of great RPGs — pen & paper or digital, modern or historic — I can't think of many that have had any roleplay elements tied to combat (in terms of your character's look/worldview/etc.) decisions, or combat-style tied to roleplay above and beyond class, if you view class as a roleplay decision (it's at least, in part, an identity decision).
If, in D&D, you chose to play an Oathbreaker Paladin, you still play like a Paladin. It's sort of there for the players that want Paladin combat but don't want to be a goody2shoes. I don't remember my guns or abilities changing in Mass Effect based on my Paragon or Renegade points, and while sure, getting bit by a vampire in an Elder Scrolls game changes your abilities, you have ways of reverting that should you desire. If I choose to go around murdering folk willy-nilly, my core gameplay doesn't change. The Wticher, Final Fantasy, Fall Out — none of these provide examples of roleplaying decisions changing combat significantly (barring the decision to do something like a pacifist playthrough or something like that). I guess you could maybe argue that sometimes how you have to approach fights changes in FF based on what party levels you prioritize and level up? Pokemon, if you RP'd as a bug catcher the entire time, would I guess require some different strategies for tackling encounters (though again, your core gameplay isn't really going to change). These all feel different to me though than what Ion is referring to.
I've seen games add flavor based on character creation choices — Necromancers in ESO, for example, get some flavor text and some of their spells are illegal to cast in towns (guards will aggro you if you use them and put you in jail). That's not a choice I'm making post character creation though, it's part of the core fantasy of being a necromancer in ESO. I'm reluctant to really call that a roleplaying decision, it's just part of the class, but again, that's still a decision being made AT character creation.
When it comes to covenants, there's deep lore implications for your choice, unique mounts, transmog, and titles. In fact, by nearly every axis of character identity, covenants provide a meaningful choice. Kyrian does not look like Venthyr does not look like Necrolords does not look like Night Fae. The characters I interact with change, the spaces I occupy change, the way I look changes, the way my name presents changes, my interactions with the world change. All of these things are meaty choices to make on their own merit.
When I think of RPG elements, that is what I think of.
When you tie combat changes into the choice though, I'm now stuck having to figure out what I value more in the game: combat or roleplay. By making the choices exist along both of these axes, I have to prioritize one if they don't align for me — as someone that enjoys pushing higher keys, Mythic raiding, and the arena, I don't feel like I have much of a choice. I certainly engage more in combat than I do in roleplay in WoW — so I ignore 95% of what the content covenants have to offer PURELY because what buttons I push matters the most to me.
And that sucks. That's an anti-roleplay choice. It makes no sense to me (I am sure, with some effort, I could make it make sense to me) that my Monk would be a Necrolord, and yet for Brewmaster it looks like it's between that or Kyrian for my options, and I just have no interest in the Kyrians.
The fantasy of the Night Fae is highest for me on my monk, followed by the Venthyr, but in both cases I'm limited by what appears to be a very weak covenant ability via the Night Fae and an amazingly boring covenant ability in the Venthyr. My gameplay would be more fun under the Kyrians or Necrolords, and so I'll continue using the same transmogs I always have, begrudgingly push through narrative content as needed for progression, and move forward because even though neither covenant is my preference for my monk, those are the covenants that look like they have the best gameplay for him.
The current system asks me to actively IGNORE the roleplaying side of covenants.
If I am lucky and the gameplay I want for my spec/class happens to align with the RP choice I would like to make, then hooray, I've won the lottery. But in many instances for me, this just doesn't look like it's going to be the case.
The locking of covenants certainly does make the selection a choice, but an RPG choice? I don't think so.
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