Mount & Blade: Warband is an old game to be writing about. But despite its age and flaws it remains surprisingly popular among fans of medieval jousting and RPG politicking. And with a sequel somewhere on the horizon now is as good a time as any to revisit that world, which is exactly what Brendan has done. Read on, serf!
At dawn I hear the sound of swords from my cell. One of my captors comes in and tells me they will consider my release if I pay them a hefty sum. I spit on his offer. That sound of clashing steel outside tells me everything - the castle is under siege, and I will be free soon enough, whether my captors want it or not. Besides, I would rather rot in this dungeon than give these dogs any of my hidden wealth. I have done terrible things to get all that coin. Terrible things.
And to think it all started with some stolen ale.
*wobbly flashback transition*
"This cargo of ale needs to be delivered to the tavern in Khudan," said the Guild Master.
"I'm your man!" I said (I was an excellent liar at the time) and duly took the beer into my inventory. Obviously, I had no intention of completing the job. I was on my way to a feast and I figured the revelers would love whoever brought them eleven barrels of premium lager. Obviously, I was very naive.
Mount & Blade: Warband is a strange game. It is part RPG, part strategy and part medieval combat action. I can't say I enjoyed my first few hours with it as much as I'd hoped - the fighting is clunky, the world is a disjointed mix of menus, maps, and battlefields, and everyone who talks to you says the same five sentences (although, to be fair, your own character is usually only capable of asking the same handful of questions). It is a "janky" game in every sense of the word. But the more I played, the more invested I started to become in it. A story was beginning to form and, oddly, I found that the characters and kingdoms of the world, far from remaining weird puppets, were actually reacting to that story.
So there I was, a gatecrasher for the dark ages. I appeared at the feast in Sargoth, land of the Nords, with my 11 barrels of ale. But when I tried to enter I was turned away. Filth like you, said the guard, has more chance becoming renowned in the tournament than getting an invitation to this feast.
Twenty minutes later I returned to the bouncer, covered in blood and bruises, having gone five rounds against axe-swinging madmen in the arena. Now was I allowed into the feast?
Right this way, sir, he said.
I'm not a good fighter, I should tell you. I'm a dirty fighter. I only got so far in tournaments (I came 2nd in this one) because I played a waiting game. I always let the other combatants cut each other up as much as possible before fighting them myself. In horseback tournaments, I always aim my lance at my opponent's horse first. When the animal goes down, the rider knows he is done for. I don't believe in chivalry.
One of the Jarls at the feast looks at me.
"Have we met?"
"No," I say. "I am Bawbeg McAllistair."
He asks me, since I "seem like a good fellow", to deliver a letter for him to someone, in some city in a kingdom to the south.
"Yes, yes," I say, taking the letter with disinterest. "I'll get on that right away."
I looked around the "feast". It was the most pitiful collection of pompous garbage people, standing around the fire, staring at the walls in silence. Many of the Jarls of the Kingdom where there, and the King himself, King Ragnar. There were no musicians. And not a single one of them was laughing or drinking or standing on a table declaring themselves the best dancer in the city.
And to think I brought 11 kegs of booze to these people. They were not worth it. I took thirty gold for "travel expenses" from Jarl Easy Mark, declared a passing admiration for one of the three women at the party, and promptly left. I won't be going back to Sargoth. Bunch of fucking killjoys.
* * *
The siege is broken. The sound of fighting outside my cell window has disappeared. What happened? The Khan's men should have taken back the city by now. Every day the guards come in and kick me around. Maybe they are related to all those merchants I murdered. Some people are so thin-skinned. That wasn't personal. It was just politics.
* * *
Eleven barrels of ale. There you go.
The tavern keeper looks at me. I like to think it is an expression of surprise, but that could just be the game's dated graphics. She gives me 260 denar for the delivery and I gleefully offer to buy a round for everyone who comes into the bar this evening. Just tell them it's from Bawbeg McAllistair!
"That'll be 1000 denar," she says.
The game's camera swings around to face Bawbeg again.
I obviously need more money. I have been poor since I arrived in this stinking land, fresh off the boat at Shariz, a town I would later learn has the highest robbery rate in the world. Maybe I should have stayed there...
I ask the tavern keeper if she knows about any work for an adventurous, trustworthy man like myself. The land is at peace, she tells me. If it's mercenary work you are looking for, she says, you will have better luck in another kingdom.
I leave the tavern and inspect my map. In M&B your map is an odd chimera of videogame cartography. You wander over it - a tiny man on a horse - while time passes from dawn to dusk. It has the feel of an world map from old Final Fantasies, populated by Crusader Kings' toy soldiers, criss-crossing armies on the march to whatever kingdom they're currently at war with. You can't just "enter" any patch of land and see what it's like, but you can explore villages, castles and cities. If you get into a battle out in the open, the land of the battlefield is generated based on where you are: snowy mountain, grassy plain, hilly forest.
At this point, I needed to find a Kingdom at war. It was time to pin my colours to a mast. I had learned that you can be a thief and a scoundrel and it would only earn you a pittance. Being a mercenary - that's where the real money was at. And what better place to become a state-sponsored raider than the grand and terrible steppe, the land of Sunjar Khan.
The Khan was a jovial enough man. But he had no time for the little people, and to him I was certainly that. I would not command any of his armies but I could be of help to the nation in other ways. Harm my enemies, said the Khan, and I will consider your request for vassalage. I left the capital and looked at the ten men I had gathered. Peasants scraped from villages across the world. Hungry, badly equipped, poorly trained, bald.
Across the border, the kingdom of Swadia flexed its muscles. Armies with hundreds of cavalry patrolled the villages, banners of their heavily-armoured Counts raised high. My band was not a raiding party. It was a walking piñata. And the only things to drop out would be farmers with low morale. I had to find another way to destroy the Swadians.
A smarter way.
* * *
Prison is quiet. My muscles, I am told, are wasting away. I pass the days and hope this does not mean my skills and attributes are losing points, like in Elder Scrolls. The Khan's men still have not come for me. Maybe this whole thing was a mistake. Killing those merchants, raiding those villages, slaughtering those farmers. I mean, my friends did try to warn me.
No. It was necessary. And, more importantly, it was fruitful. I wonder what Count Tredian is up to these days? I wonder if he knows what he's done. Probably not, the man is an idiot.
Then again, he's not the one in jail.
* * *
I met Count Tredian in the middle of the night, as he crossed a field in Swadia. He had no reason to distrust me. After all, I had no official affiliation to the Khan. He took me aside and said he had a task for me. The peace with the Vaegir didn't suit him. If one of their villages or caravans were to be "interrupted" by a gang of Swadian troops, then the Vaegirs would be forced to declare war. Of course, the King probably would not approve. But the King does not have to know.
"An excellent plan," I said. "Count me in."
When I returned with the news that a caravan had been attacked and a few Swadian corpses had been left behind, he thought I was an excellent fellow and gave me 500 denars for the trouble. Then, he asked me to do it again, this time to the Nords. I left with 29 Swadian men. I came back alone.
"They definitely think it was Swadia," I said to Count Tredian, thinking of the trail of Swadian cadavers I had left leading back here, like breadcrumbs.
"Brilliant work," he said, stuffing his face. We were at a feast in Praven, the Kingdom's capital. I peered about the room. While all these lords were chowing down, I had been out killing farmers and burning down villages. Yet as much as things were going to plan and as much as I had done for the Count, I still had to defeat dozens of combatants in a local tournament just to get into this boring feast. Stuck-up jerks.
Meanwhile, the King was mere metres away from us and if he knew that we were continuously conspiring to create severe diplomatic incidents, I can't imagine he would be pleased. But Count Tredian, my new best friend, was adamant that the upcoming war would be total.
"The peace with the Sarranid Sultanate ill suits me, Bawbeg," he said. I could already guess what he was going to ask me to do. I left the feast hall and gathered another round of Swadian fodder.
That's when Ymira came to me. Ah, sweet naive Ymira.
* * *
You don't meet many people in prison. Except the jailers who come in every now and then to kick you in the ribs or offer you another deal. And I would hardly call those dogs "friends". But maybe Ymira was my friend. And maybe Marnid was too. And maybe Bunduk, that sly watchman. Maybe they were all my friends.
But where the hell are they now?
* * *
In the taverns of Swadia, I'd sometimes hire a mercenary crossbowman or a swordsman to complement my gang of battle fodder - the troops I would purposefully leave behind or order to remain on the field covering my own retreat. But now and again you come across named characters who have their own story, who'll join you just for listening. Ymira was one of them.
She had fled her home after her father arranged a marriage to a creepy old man. Now she was part of my entourage. I threw away her dress and gave her decent armour and weapons, and bought her a sturdy horse. When I met Marnid, a bankrupt trader without a denar to his name, I invited him to join my crew and got him suited up too. He was now my war accountant. And then there was Bunduk, a veteran city watchman who had been insulted and demoted by his superior, a snot-nosed brat who had been appointed Captain only because of family connections. I liked Bunduk. He had the right idea about the aristocracy:
But when we started to attack the farmers and villagers of the Sarranid Sultante, almost every one of my close companions came to me, individually, to voice their concerns.
I told each of them to get back into line and ignored their warnings. The plan was working. Soon three kingdoms would be at war with the Swadians and the Khan would have them on a platter. Chaos like the kind we sowed was what made wars winnable. If a few serfs had to die so that the Khanate could stomp all over its enemies, so what? Besides, the spoils from every village we razed were making us insanely rich - velvet, honey, furs, olives, spice - I didn't have room in my inventory for all the loot we were collecting.
But the Sarranids were not going to take this rolling over. One of the caravans we attacked was backed up by cavalry too strong for my foddertroops to fend off. Ymira was wounded and the rest of my mercenaries had been killed or knocked out. The battle looked desperate. I was the only one left against, I guessed, 16 enemies.
I turned around on my horse and remembered my tournament days. Take down the horse, and the rider will follow. I circled the mob, taking out one man, then another... when I counted again there were probably 11 men.
Then there were six.
And then: there were none.
I limped back to the nearest city with my wounded in tow, feeling like a fucking giant. The battle had taken a half hour. None of my companions had died, and that was the important thing (although, I don't think your companions can die). As for all the dead Swadian footmen, I didn't care. When I walked into the tavern, complete with IRL aching hands, some drunk picked the wrong moment to start a fight.
I stuck my spear in his belly and gave the mercenary at the bar a few hundred denar to follow me. He agreed.
* * *
In prison, time passes in an unusual way. Everything on the map speeds up, you see armies and caravans whizzing by, like some kind of medieval time-lapse footage.
Now, I can see the purple legions of my old masters, coming to reclaim the city - the city of Halmar. The Khan's men are here. Outside the walls, hundreds of tribesmen are gathering under the banners of the Khanate, getting ready to begin the siege.
Halmar. What a dive. I can't believe I fought for this place.
* * *
When I finally left Swadia, I took my best men and women with me and rode for the steppe. That manipulative warmonger Count Tredian had nothing left to offer us. But he seemed happy where he was, preparing for a hellish war on multiple fronts. Yes, he'll enjoy that. Although, the King might be a bit surprised.
Meanwhile, I arrived at Tulga, the capital of the Khanate and once again pledged my sword to the Khan himself, who again told me I was not renowned enough to be his vassal. I seethed. Doesn't he know what I have done for him!? I went straight to his right hand man, the Marshal, Brula Noyan and offered my services. He was more welcoming than his chief.
I marched out of the capital and collected as many tribesmen as I could - 49 good men - and marched out to join the war parties. I could not wait to head back into Swadia. Imagine the look on Count Tredian's face when he sees me across the battlefield, surrounded by Khergit troops, adorned in Steppe armour.
The Marshal's troops were no longer heading to Swadia. Our orders were to move south to defend Halmar, which was under siege by the Sarranids. I knew first-hand how tough even a caravan of Sarranids could be. What would an army be like? We stopped outside the city limits and I considered my options. I could take my 49 men and high-tail it. We could probably make a lot of money raiding caravans and living out of the forest. Or I could join in the defence of the city and earn the Khan's respect. I looked at the odds and pondered. Then, I joined the fray.
It was glorious.
We fended off the first wave of Sarranid's. The second wave. The third wave! We fought like tigers, like demons, like really angry bees. The first assault crashed against our shields and failed. The second assault began, the men's morale was sky high. Listen to me, men! There would come a time when Khergit men surrender, but it is not this day! This day, we fight! This day, we show no mercy! This day, we --
Then an archer punched me in the head and I fell off the parapet.
When I came to, the battle was lost. I was surrounded by Sarranids and thrown into the city's dungeon.
And now I will wait. Until the Khan's men come back for me. .
* * *
I am free. And I am standing in front of the man who has rescued me. Karaban Noyan led the troops that won back the city of Halmar and finally secured my release. I've caught up to him on horseback to see what he has to say. Hopefully, I have earned some renown among the Khergit people. After all, I fought to defend their city. They've got to respect me now.
I am speechless. I watch in dejection as Karaban Noyan rides off toward the Sarranid lines. Maybe the Khanate is not the place for me.
I mean, for us. Because Ymira has joined me again. Somehow she survived the siege. And Marnid, my war accountant, he too has found me on the plains of the steppe. But where is Bunduk? Where is my old class warrior? I fumble around in the game's notes and character list to see what has become of him.
Hmm. "Whereabouts unknown"? He could be anywhere in the world then - and 4 out of 6 Kingdoms are unfriendly to me. They might even attack me on sight. Perhaps it would be best to forget about my old companion and ride straight back to the Khan, grovelling for his forgiveness, and conning all his vassals out of money and ale.
No. That's the old Bawbeg. That's pre-prison Bawbeg.
I get Ymira and Marnid armed with the best gear I've got and steer our horses back towards Halmar, back towards the front lines. We are going to go find our friend. Screw the Khan! Screw the Sultan!
Here's to the doom and downfall of all high-born lords and ladies!