Mount & Blade and chainmailed thuggery

So, one of the things that Mount & Blade does pretty effectively is separate chivalry from social ethics.

One of the basic things about the game is that it’s about cavalry; every simulation misrepresents, and M&B’s misrepresentations systematically favour heavy cavalry. Unless you’re carefully tuning an army for more strategic play, you’ll probably end up with an army primarily composed of knights. NPC armies, on the other hand, are generally more balanced, so a great deal of your time will be spent leading cavalry against infantry. Unless you’re fighting in a dense forest on very steep ground, this tends to be something of a massacre; it’s TH White’s version of medieval warfare, wherein well-nigh invulnerable nobility kill each others’ peasant levies for a few hours and then compare scores. (The line between named and unnamed units reinforces this; the latter can die, the former will merely be knocked unconscious and maybe imprisoned for a while. On the other hand, class is fairly fluid; named characters can be from peasant backgrounds, and unnamed peasant recruits can level up into unnamed knights.) And there are some specific things that really draw your attention to this.

Final Dogpile. Although troops in M&B have morale, it doesn’t affect their behaviour within a battle; it’s more important for effects outside battles, like desertion and movement rate. Similarly, an army can surrender, but only between phases of a battle (and there’s no incentive to do so; for the general, fighting to the last man is no worse an option than surrender, since you’re captured and lose all your men either way.) What this means is that the last few minutes of a fight usually involve your entire army mobbing one or two enemy soldiers. If the last enemy is cavalry, this feels like a spirited chase, even though the guy plainly has no chance; if he’s infantry, however, it’s pretty nasty. Aftwerwards, the victory celebrations – lots of guys waving weapons over their heads and roaring in exultation – feel very kill-the-pig-ish.

Looters. Looters are the requisite Pitifully Easy First Fight. They are, plainly, the dregs; they tend to attack you with rocks and cudgels and butcher knives. They frequently lack shirt and shoes, in the snow. As a class, they’re clearly refugees and outcasts from the interminable wars that your class (the people with armour and horses) exists to perpetuate, scraping out a living on the detritus of those wars. The idea is that a first-level player and a handful of raw recruits can dispatch them with a little effort. Later, however, when you find yourself leading sixty chainmailed juggernauts in a thundering charge against a dozen or so shirtless stick-wavers and pebble-chuckers, you may not feel particularly noble.

Peasant Women. In addition to wandering bandits, there are groups of basically defenceless villagers who travel about from villages to towns. They’re small – usually about ten people. Bandits routinely attack and capture them; you can fight off the bandits as they attack the peasants, or defeat the bandits later on and release the prisoners. The thing is, you always have the option torecruit freed prisoners.

This means that sometimes you’ll come across NPC armies that include a handful of Farmers or Peasant Women. The Farmers are not very distinctive – they look similar to raw recruits. So occasionally you’ll be cutting a swathe through a crowd of infantry and you’ll spot a girl in a long dress, barefoot, running along with the soldiers and waving a knife or a sickle or something. About two and a half seconds later one of your fellow-heroes will sweep past and kill her with a bastard sword. She will scream.

(In theory, Peasant Women can level up, eventually becoming the formidable Sword Sister heavy cavalry unit; in practice, you only get Sword Sisters on the battlefield if the player makes a conscious effort to cultivate Sword Sisters. The simplest way to do this is to attack and capture Peasant Women yourself, then get them on your side with the Recruit Prisoners option.)

Then there’s a couple of quests. In one, some serfs are fleeing the rule of an oppressive lord and you’re tasked to drive them back to their village. In another, a lord tasks you to collect taxes from his fief; the peasants always grumble, and often you and some of your buddies will have to charge into town and beat some troublemakers into submission with quarterstaves. In both cases, you can show leniency, but doing so gives you suboptimal results; the lord will be pissy at you, you’ll get less money out of it, and the minor relations boost you get with the village doesn’t help you all that much.

And then, of course, you can loot caravans (useful) and raze villages (less useful, but NPC armies do it a lot for some reason.)

The game offers a morality of sorts in the form of hero companions, named NPCs who form part of the player’s army and level up like PCs. As usual in CRPGs, some of them like each other and some of them hate each other, but they also object to certain kinds of behaviour. This seems to fall under three broad categories: care of one’s own (keep your troops paid and well-fed, don’t let them take heavy casualties), honour (don’t flee from combat, don’t abandon quests) and mercy (don’t loot villages, do assassin quests or the aforementioned capture-serfs quest.) There are conspicuous gaps; nobody objects to raiding caravans, or selling prisoners into slavery, or attacking peasants from an enemy nation in order to press-gang Peasant Women into future Sword Sisters. (None of which is inconsistent with defending the good name of nobly-born ladies in trials by combat.)

It is possible, of course, to avoid most of this unpleasant behaviour, and there are plenty of more benign quests. Nonetheless, it’s fairly clear that your raison d’etre is to fight. There’s one quest where you conspire with a guildmaster to forge peace by eliminating some warmongering nobles (either by capturing and imprisoning them, or with bribes.) The trouble is, if your kingdom ever finds itself at peace, you’re out of a job, reduced to chasing the occasional bandit. No sieges, no more pitched battles against long odds. Booooring.

You can, once you’ve earned yourself a fief, manage it by building stuff for the peasants. This is expensive, takes a long time and is not enormously rewarding; it’s a very simple ‘build this for X denars’ process without any feedback.

The other place where morality is exposed is in civil wars. When you’re trying to recruit a lord to a pretender’s cause, you can give various arguments – justice, legality, self-interest, expediency – for why your puppet is preferable to the current monarch. Lords have their own preferences, but you have to be fairly consistent or they’ll notice you’re playing them. As far as I can make out, however, these expressed values are merely that; oh, they reflect lord personality traits that will sometimes make them a little bit more or less grouchy with you, but this is pretty minor and it certainly doesn’t stop any villages getting razed.

All this holds together pretty well with M&B‘s early-medieval Eastern European fantasy, which eschews magic and monsters and lacks any central justifying plot. (Another value system that might plausibly have got mixed up in here is Christianity, but this is mostly backgrounded; some dialogue refers in passing to God, and the Mongol-alike Khergits occasionally get called heathens, but it’s not very prominent at all; I don’t think the heraldry in the unmodded game even includes any crosses.)

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