I mostly was trying not to be upending the ‘vanilla’ directions given in the story, to just see what that would lead to [. . .] it seemed like saying yes to certain dialogues would put me on the ‘bad’ track as is typical in many games. - perhaps this is an incorrect approach and I should just say yes to whatever and just let things happen - I didn’t do this because I already felt a bit too much like a “person holding a weapon at all times” in that world and wanted to be thoughtful as much as the game suggested and permitted.
This one is less true of Elden Ring then its predecessors: it seems intended that you do all the side-quests in one go, and then you can pick your ending from a list at the end. Even the one case that seems like an exception to this, ultimately isn’t. This is probably a concession to the sheer size of the game, that therefore even fewer people will want to replay it in totality: there are multiple, large unique areas behind the quests; but I agree it weakens the sense of roleplaying and there’s no real way ahead of time to know that Elden Ring differs in this.
I may be misremembering, but I felt the “questlines” in earlier games were generally more closely embedded in the flow of the game proper and specifically where the player was geographically.
Dark Souls 3 had the most obtuse quests before this, with flags based on having talked to certain NPCs or summoned them for specific fights. Thing is, that always has a hard geographic element because boss fog-doors associate beating certain bosses with accessing certain areas, especially in the linear DaS3. I mentioned in Elden Ring NG+, I deliberately stretched the limits of how far you can go from the beginning of the game, and even that doesn’t ‘break’ quests but it does make them a lot harder to follow, because “where is this person now?”
However, I do think it’s designed well to guide you if you are playing anything like the critical path that will be taken by a new player: I played slowly, and exhaustively, and found everything except for “Boc”. For instance:
I really enjoyed the look of the orange spell folks, and hence tried to figure out how to engage with the associated key items, but couldn’t because I had just missed the first instance of talking with the associated NPC.
Finding this NPC has numerous clues, such as the spectral figures twisted up in madness nearby each of her locations, the prominent motif between Frenzy and eyes, and the Grapes having a direct instruction in their item description, and late game, after the capitol there is another NPC who will remind you there’s this quest you might have missed. Nor does this lock you out: you can go back and do the whole quest from the beginning at the very end of the game, because it’s so generous about that.
I sympathize with the pains about respeccing and feeling your character doesn’t matter: I am that summon with “lore-friendly” names, who bemoaned the Dark Souls 2 censorship filter blocking out “knight”, with save data filled up rangers and pure support clerics and more. But respeccing has been in since DaS2 and the overwhelming majority of players use whatever hodgepodge of equipment works to ‘beat the game’, so I only expect my self-restraint to limit this. And Elden Ring benefits from having strong Sorcery: it’s common in multiplayer to end up without trying in a crew of heavy melee, light melee and magic-user, and that’s fun.