There is an old, established tradition of folktales about outlaw heroes. In Britain we have Hereward the Wake and Robin Hood. The US has Davy Crockett and Wyatt Earp. And in China, there’s an entire genre of writing called Youxia (literally “wandering vigilante”) devoted to stories of men who travel the country writing injustice and protecting the weak. But is it possible to live this way in Mount & Blade 2? To eschew the feudal trappings of land and power in favor of a life spent on the road fighting against injustice? Yes. To roam the woods, waiting to slay the rich, lazy and powerful? Also yes, but to a lesser extent. And only after one lot of preparation.
The first part of our journey begins with the birth of our hero. Bannerlord’s character creation offers a fun twist on the math of standard RPGS. Instead of building a hero, I create a backstory. The first step is choosing your home country. I choose Battania, a clan-based culture from the heavily forested northwest corner of the map. I have a feeling I’ll be spending a significant amount of time chasing bandits – or, just as likely, escaping regal retaliation – so the woodsy terrain improvements the faction provides could be useful. When things get spicy, I can go back to the nearest bush.
I spend some time tinkering with my hero, trying to create an inspiring leader, but honestly it feels forced. This is a folktale. I have to trust fate. What right do I have – a gentle, human man, sitting at a PC – to create a leader who will change the fate of entire continents? I conclude that true heroes are not designed; they are generated automatically. I give myself three rolls of the randomization dice. The first resembles a racist sausage roll; the second one is so boring I can’t even remember it. It’s my last role. I have to stick to the result no matter what. The die is cast, and apparently I’ll be playing as a husky parking attendant of a Robin Hood-themed family attraction. I’m not sure I’d follow him to the ticket machine let alone battle, but fate has chosen.
My hero’s origin story determines his abilities. As an Englishman, the idea of outlaws is inseparable from bows, so I lean towards choices that will improve his ranged combat. I am also improving his driving skills as I expect him to run away a lot. I also need a banner. I want an image that terrifies the hearts of evildoers. Something that says “justice tempered with grace.” Instead, I get distracted halfway through the creation and choose a smiley pink fish on a teal background. I have a feeling the shame of being beaten by a leader whose pennant resembles the board for a gentrified chippie will be an added punishment. The final choice is his name. The game suggests Mengus, a title that sounds like a Greek word for the sod above your asshole, and who am I to argue? Mengus Cromm rides, the world shakes.
Actually, the world will have to wait. Because while Mengus Cromm does indeed drive, he drives alone. Bannerlord starts me off with enough money to recruit a decent stack of soldiers, but I feel some reluctance to surround myself with mercenaries. Instead, I recruit a small group and spend some time harassing outlaws to hone their skills. To be honest, this doesn’t feel magnificently heroic. It’s like learning how to cage fight by kicking homeless people while they sleep. But Mengus of Clan Cromm has a higher purpose and his army needs training. And anyway, if they didn’t want to be chased across the map by heroes, they shouldn’t have called themselves marauders.
I win a few battles and realize I need to refine my self-imposed rules to really get a sense of who Mengus is. First things first: Mengus doesn’t take prisoners. At least he doesn’t, unless they’re worth something. I realize this reads like he kills everyone he captures, but this isn’t the case. Prisoners are released because I slow down when I drag them around the map. My only concession is that I decide to recruit my first prisoner, almost as if pinning my kid’s artwork on the fridge. His ascension through the ranks of my merry gang will be a reminder of my humble origins and of Mengus’ legendary benevolence.
When my troops start to level up, I decide to focus on ranged combat. There are a number of reasons for this. First, it feels more outlaw-y. Second, I’m a stinking coward. Years of playing Total War as Dwarfs and the English have made me obsessed with the idea of thinning the enemy’s ranks long before they reach my line. If the battle ends without anyone having to swing a sword, even better. Unfortunately, I feel like Mengus himself is the weakest link in my otherwise flawless battle plan. If I don’t shoot my own men in the ass, I’ll send arrows flying harmlessly over the enemy’s heads. My new, less heroic plan is to wait for my troops to attack, find a nice safe flank, and fire arrows at the meatiest part of the enemy line. Hopefully they leave that part out of the folk songs.
Grain and thunder
It’s now around that I’m making some decisions about the kind of work Mengus does. He’s not a base mercenary. He only takes jobs that are morally enriching. Protecting desperate villagers from wandering highwaymen is okay; supplying sheep for a trader is not. Accepting these missions from village leaders will give me enough coins to upgrade my outlaw gang, buy horses, and stock up on provisions. This also leads me to another decision about my clan: I want them to be deliciously chubby. Mengus apparently likes to party. I make sure we always have grain, fish, butter, olives and beer. We may live like bums, but we eat like gentlemen.
I spend the next few days doing honorable quests and chasing outlaws across the map like a terrier chasing a squirrel. Merchants thank me for keeping the roads safe when I visit the cities. Perhaps not the intent of my noble deeds, but a useful by-product nonetheless. However, not all my searches are successful. I agree to train some troops for an endangered village, but my archers are so good now that my new recruits barely get a chance to connect pitchforks with bandit flesh. They take weeks to level up, and by the time I send them back I feel like I’m returning a broken kettle out of warranty.
I’m also swayed by a classic “rescue my daughter” quest – Mengus is a sucker for a damsel in distress – but it turns out she was just on the run from her overbearing father, Haretheos of Tarcutis. I decide to do the noble thing: I let her escape to live with her new husband, while I run away from all consequences and flee to another province. I had no intention of going back to Tarcutis anyway.
It is now around that I find myself in a difficult position. My merry band is small but well trained. Tough enough to take on most bands of bandits, but still too weak to attack the fat, contented merchant caravans that stagger across the land. So to collect enough coins to grow my troops, I make an industry of plundering the marauders. I spend days harvesting criminals and selling their stuff to cities and towns. If I can double this with bandit quests, even better. Mengus is all about efficiency. After weeks of chaos, fighting and partying, I have enough gold to assemble a small but dangerous force. I buy piles of horses to increase my speed so I can chase even more bandits – and I’m starting to feel good about my place in the world.
However, there is turmoil on the horizon. Sexy turmoil, in a heavy coat of mail. I meet the woman who could one day become the love of Mengus’ life. For reasons I don’t understand, Megenhelda of the Dey Tihr intervenes in a fight against a hilariously small group of bandits, bringing her eighty-three strong army to a fight against five raiders. It’s cruel. I can hardly see where the enemy is among all the allied troops. And, apparently, nothing ignites Mengus’ enthusiasm quite like a vulgar display of martial might. He’s been beaten. More importantly, this proximity gives Mengus the chance to try his legendary charm on a member of the aristocracy. If a lowborn hero falling in love with a rich lady isn’t the stuff of folk legend, then I don’t know what is. We talk about everything Megenhelda loves: generosity, mercy, courage and a cheeky bit of rogue. The most amazing thing about all of this is that it’s going alarmingly well. We promise to meet again.
Forest in peace
One of the many cool things about Bannerlord’s intricate, reactive world is that I can look up Megenhelda in the game’s encyclopedia – essentially like crawling into her Instagram – and find out who her friends and foes are. A secondary plan then begins to form. I’ll find out who they hate the most and build an army big enough to harass them. Or, more accurately, find out who her weakest enemy is and pound their heels like an aggressive dog. It turns out she has a grudge against a small faction called the Brotherhood of the Woods. They are like a dark mirror of my own warband: a group that began by robbing the rich to give to the poor before turning to theft, violence, and extortion. They are considerably more powerful than me, but if I can nibble on their powers, maybe Megenhelda will notice me.
I manage to find one of the leaders of the Brotherhood’s armies, isolated and alone. But it’s risky. Their force is more than twice my size: 59 soldiers against my measly 26. But the good news is that they are poorly trained, not as well fed, and their captain, unlike me, is not strengthened by his love for a rich stranger. I take the high ground, line up my troops and have Guldrimand of the Brotherhood come to me.
It’s a massacre. Guldrimand falls before he reaches my line and my troops at a distance destroy his troops. My infantry barely has time to intervene. My mighty pony falls during the battle, but I otherwise escape unscathed. I win my first major victory, killing or wounding their entire army and losing only one soldier myself. It’s a victory that will earn me a big slice of fame, as well as a serious morale boost for my army. I capture Guldrimand, whom I can ransom for a meaty 1,000 gold.
Most importantly, however, the surrounding towns and villages are now safer and Mrs. Mengus takes a little fancy to my heroism. There’s a stark irony in the first wealthy lord I ransom as a heroic outlaw gone rotten, but it’s a lesson Mengus of Clan Cromm won’t soon forget. You die a hero, or you live long enough to be captured by a horny Battan farmer eager to impress a woman he’s only met once. Sit the fuck down, Ivanhoe. There’s a new folk hero in town.