Brendon "Crown" Morris has fought, killed, and died a martyr, all for his right to duel without interruption. Little is held sacrosanct on Chivalry 2’s battlefields. There’s a reason Torn Banner Studios' Alex Hayter describes the medieval first-person-slasher as a “bar fight”. Fish kills are memorialized. Noble fools die forgotten.
But specially designated duel servers, where players partake in one-on-one combat, offer a refuge from rogues and scoundrels, away from the roar of trebuchets and the maddening squawks of cruelly-lobbed murder chickens. No hard rules are in place. Instead, conduct is honour based. Such honour is fragile, however...
On the fateful day Crown was martyred, he had been merrily dueling for an hour when a “half dozen dudes showed up and started griefing.” Following a few unsuccessful attempts to votekick, Crown gathered a knightly entourage to mete out justice on the mangy curs, “hunting them down as they spawned.” Exhausted, they persevered (“fueled by boredom”). At last, succour arrived: a moderator, wielding the legendary banhammer, in response to a call someone in chat made when the griefers first arrived.
“We all got banned for like, 3 hours. Good to know there was a developer willing to come help; even if I got banned too,” says Crown.
Ok, so, “martyrdom” may have been a bit of a grandiose term for a three hour ban. Still, we honour his sacrifice. I’ve been fairly obsessed with Chivalry 2 since the beta, and the first thing I learned about the duel servers was the importance of the Flourish emote. A quick key tap, and your metal-clad maestro will perform some elaborate weapon-specific twirl. The idea is that you find an unoccupied player and flourish at them; a response in kind is an agreement to duel.
“It’s more of a hangout space even when there’s still copious amounts of killing involved.”
I love this because it's such a simple, performative roleplay tool that - like Deep Rock Galactic’s iconic Rock and Stone salute - draws you in further to the game’s world. I love it most of all because the game doesn’t tell you about it. It’s not even a mechanic, per se, just a code of honour you pick up on. An initiation ritual, disseminated through the community like a Two Point Hospital virus that makes everyone think they’re a valorous knight. Quixo-matosis.
“There's no hard rule to use it; it’s just something that organically happens, I suppose by way of a word-of-mouth tradition,” says Hayter. “It becomes kind of like a playground game; sure, you could play outside of the rules or do something non-collaborative, but to have fun, the best tactic is for you to use the same code of conduct.” Crown says it's also cool to see how the game's contextual voiceover lines and emotes are used in smaller servers like duel servers. “It’s more of a hangout space even when there’s still copious amounts of killing involved.”
As an unofficial gamemode, I can’t help appreciate the ghost of symmetry between these developer-approved but community-run duel servers and Chivalry’s own origins as a Half Life 2 mod. Still, they’re not what the game is built for, at least not primarily. While the core fighting allows for complex dances of feints, parries, and ripostes, they’re most often utilised as tools for chaotic crowd control, or 1vX. In many ways this feels intentional, to set Chivalry 2 apart from its contemporaries. Or contemporary, anyway.
The dislike ratio on Chivalry 2’s 2019 announcement trailer survives as a graven image to disgruntlement, a salty statuette erected in protest by a community that had already crowned Mordhau as Chivalry’s heir. Two years on, and Mordhau has garnered a reputation for requiring new players to invest a casual thousand hours of play and a hearty goat sacrifice just to perform at a below average level. In Chiv 2, you can learn to score more kills than deaths in the space of an afternoon. It’s still got bite, but it’s much more lunchtime pub punch-up than Queensbury rules. Rucks first, duels second.
“Ultimately Chivalry 2 is trying to be a “stress ball” game,” says Hayter. “When you pick up a giant keg and chuck it at someone’s noggin, even if you don’t kill them, it’ll still put a grin on your face.”
For Crown, who runs competitive ladders for Rocket League and Chivalry 2, the lack of true balance doesn’t spoil the fun. “Combat isn’t balanced to support duels in any way, and that’s more than okay. Preserving the thrill of fighting multiple enemies should come first.”
Hayter brings up a key mechanic - the held parry - as crucial to give initiates breathing room, allowing them to survey the battlefield and assess their options. Skilled players can still kick, punishing over-defensiveness, but the held parry offers players a chance to “turtle up and learn to read what their opponent is doing.” Through this, says Hayter, players can grow “more fluent with the game’s combat language, and know how to speak it in return.”
“In massive group fights people won’t be forming a queue to fight you 1v1,” says Jackblade, from clan server Emerald Coalition. And nobody in Chivalry expects this, “Unlike in For Honor.” Jackblade tells me that it’s refreshing to not worry about being accused of lacking sportsmanship just for taking the initiative. Like, for example, cutting someone’s arm off with a rusty spade while they’re distracted.
This is another advantage of duel servers, of course: if you cordon off a special area for gallantry and fair play, it leaves the other game modes open for all the backstabbing and bread hurling a metal-plated murder bastard could ever want.
Still, duels remain a niche gamemode. Is this noble act a sputtering candle, kept alight by a few gallant souls, then? According to Hayter, it sounds like they could have a bright future. He mentions “competitive smaller-sized game modes,” in the works, hints at more on duels in the future, and says that mod support is being looked at, too.
There is, of course, one unanswered question that I must ask. “Vlad the Impaler vs. Ivan the Terrible,” is Hayter’s response when I ask about his dream duel match-up. “You've got one madman addicted to impaling people and another who is powered entirely by anger and rage. I'd mostly just enjoy their confusion about the whole 'you've traveled in time, now fight!' aspect.”
“Saladin and Richard the Lionheart,” says Jackblade. “From what I know, they were great leaders and even respected each other. Yet they never crossed blades in a duel. I feel like we’re missing out.”
In case you’re wondering, mine is Maggie Thatcher vs the Cyborg Whale from the 1979 Godzilla Power Hour episode The Cyborg Whale. In the sea. Also, I suppose Thatcher can have a Gundam. But like, one made out of cardboard toilet paper tubes.