Friday, January 31, 2014

Spirit of Excalibur: If not Always the Letter

Morgan's castle is something out of Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings, not Arthurian literature.

King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, Camelot, Excalibur, and other people and elements in the Arthurian legends are so well-known that you wonder why there aren't more role-playing games in this setting. I'm aware only of this one, its sequel, Legion: The Legend of Excalibur (2002), King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame (2009), and the Dark Age of Camelot series of MMORPGs. 

Perhaps one reason has to do with the non-fantastical nature of the Arthurian mythos. The core texts are more concerned with quasi-historical events and interpersonal relationships than anything to do with magic or the supernatural. Dragons rarely make any kind of appearance. There are no armies of goblins or orcs, no undead creatures. There are a few notable exceptions, to be sure--we have the enigmatic Questing Beast, the occasional giant, and a few other bizarre creatures in Welsh legend--but usually Knights of the Round Table are fighting each other, not monsters.

The nature of magic is also a bit underwhelming to those raised on D&D-style fantasy. In contrast to what you might see in some television and film adaptations of the Arthurian legends, the original texts rarely feature stark magic. No one waves a wand or shoots fireballs. Merlin is more sage than mage, and his abilities are either unobservable (e.g., precognition) or nebulous. The mechanism by which he changes Uther's likeness to that of the Duke of Cornwall, for instance, is never explicitly stated. He might have just made a really good mask. The few supernatural elements that do appear front-and-center are generally spiritual--explicitly Christian--and not arcane.

Magic items are also quite rare. Excalibur is just an awesome sword; it doesn't raise the wielder's strength or do fire damage. Again, there are a couple of exceptions. In some texts, Excalibur's scabbard prevents the wearer from losing blood, for instance. There's the love potion that ensorcelled Tristan and Isolde, plus a fun subset of legends in which some magic object--a drinking horn or cloak, usually--tests everyone's faithfulness. In general, though, magic items are unique artifacts and not something you just pick up in a shop.

Setting an RPG in Arthur's Britain, then, requires either going against familiar high-fantasy RPG expectations or forcing Arthuriana into them. Spirit of Excalibur does the latter. Nineve and some of the knights are capable of casting named spells, and there are fearsome beasts on the roadways. (Episode Five promises to have Morgan le Fay flooding Britain with demons.) There are magic items to find and wield (e.g., "Gauntlets of Power") and potions to drink. I realize that you almost have to do these things when adapting for an audience bred on D&D, but it does remove some of the gritty realism of the original stories.

I'm pretty sure "gaunts d'poeir" isn't proper French.

In terms of characters, the game cleaves to the legend in some areas but not in others. The list of knights that become available to the player as the game goes on are mostly drawn from Malory, they're mostly still alive at the end of the book, and Malory's sources, at least, include a brief episode in which they participate in the war against Mordred's sons. The whole episode doesn't seem quite as involved and dramatic as what's going on in the game, but the game certainly isn't non-canonical in its overall plot.

There are some violations of tradition that wouldn't bother most players but do jar me a bit. The distribution of knights among the cities of Britain is nonsensical. Most are allies of Lancelot and ought to be in France at the time the game begins, not ruling places like Dover. Peredur shows up as the head of Wroxeter; he's the Welsh version of Percival and either ought to be in Sarras or not in a game derived from French versions of the legend. The portrayal of Morgan le Fay is a little cartoonish in its villainy; in the legends, her character, while often antagonistic to Arthur and his knights, is not actually evil. In most of them, she is Arthur's half-sister, and dutifully bears his body to Avalon after the final battle.

But all of these pale in comparison to the worst offense: when the player encounters Lancelot in Episode Two, Lancelot is in the midst of seeking the Holy Grail. The Grail Quest, which occurred some years before Mordred's rebellion, absolutely ruined the Round Table, and the whole lesson of the quest was that the Grail could not be retrieved or possessed--in fact, it was taken into Heaven at the conclusion of the quest. I can't imagine why Lancelot is out looking for the Grail in Cardiff.

I didn't just find the Holy Grail sitting on a table, right?

Perhaps I'm talking so much about Arthurian lore because I don't really want to talk about the game, which I don't really like. Spirit of Excalibur is difficult and exhausting, forcing you to play each scenario multiple times to achieve an optimum outcome, and even then you might have lost a character, or forgotten to pick up an item, that turns out to be vital in a later scenario. At the beginning of a scenario, it has no compunction letting you send the wrong character off to the wrong side of Britain, with the wrong equipment. You do your best to complete a scenario only to realize two hours later that you were doomed the moment you left Camelot and sent Baudwin east instead of west.

It's possible that players of a different bent will like the mechanic, with the campaign/scene dichotomy, but I don't. I didn't like it in War in Middle Earth, either. I don't mind fielding massive armies in epic battles outside London's walls, and I don't mind exploring castles and bribing individual peasants to give me keys, but I don't like doing both simultaneously.

Melehan appears in the north and begins his slow march. Scrambling around to get everything in place before he reaches London is a key dynamic of Scenario 2.

Scenario Two begins with a large army of Saxons on the march to London, which you don't yet control. A rumor of an army amassing in Scotland, though it starts the scenario, is less pressing than stopping this Saxon threat. Once you defeat the Saxons, Melehan's army begins its march in the north and starts burning cities on the way to London.

Defeating the Saxons at London leaves it under Constantine's control.

To contend with both, you must raise armies, send them to London, and unify them under a single commander. Two armies are already available at Lincoln and Leicester, thanks to the events of the first scenario, and two more can be found in Dover and Arundel (both relatively close to Camelot) by solving a couple of quick quests. These are enough to defeat the Saxons. To win the battle against Melehan, you need to find and rescue Lancelot.

Hector rescues Lancelot. Hector is Lancelot's brother, not his "friend," though maybe Lancelot can't tell because of the visor and all.

After you do, a bunch of armies belonging to his allies suddenly become available.

I direct armies to London to await Melehan.

This description sounds easy enough, but it took me about nine tries to get it right. The relentless march of the Saxon and Scottish armies imposes a time limit on the scenario, and you really have no clue as to what direction to go when the scenario begins. There are innumerable ways to screw it up. Some examples:

  • Arundel's armies become available once you rescue an abducted maiden from a Saxon named Cynewulf. But he moves fast out of Arundel, so you have to choose one of your fast knights to catch up to him before he maxes it all the way back to the main Saxon army. After some experimentation, I was able to accomplish it with Lavain.
  • Dover's quest is to defeat a demonic creature wandering around outside, which requires a particularly strong knight.

Constantine fights a . . . something.

(Dover is oddly ruled by Palomides, one of my favorite characters from the legends. As a Saracen, he's out of place in Britain, but he still manages to find a seat at the Round Table. His story is characterized by his doomed love for Isolde. He was a strong, courageous, and noble knight, and in a fair world, he might have had a chance with her--if not for that pesky love potion, which of course he doesn't know about. He just has to sit there and watch the love of his life constantly and inexplicably pining for some vainglorious jock.)

  • To find Lancelot, you first have to get a clue from a peasant in a hut (which requires some exploration, which you don't have time for). Then, you have to go to Glastonbury to speak to Sir Bors, only Bors (having thrown off his armor for friar's robes) is bitter at the Round Table and won't talk to a knight. Fine, I thought the first time; I'll send Nineve. But it turns out he won't speak to her, either. You have to send the priest, Baudwin, who is the absolutely slowest-moving character you have. You basically have to start him heading to Glastonbury from Camelot as soon as the scenario starts if you want to find Lancelot in time.

I get it. It's 'cause I'm a woman.

(Bors's piety is, perhaps, a nod to his status as one of the successful "Grail Heroes" in the Vulgate/Malory version of the legends. Galahad succeeds in the quest because he's basically Jesus Christ; Percival succeeds because of his innocence; and Bors succeeds because he passes a series of dogmatic tests. The Grail Quest culminates at Corbenic, where Galahad, Percival, and Bors participate in a mass while Lancelot is allowed to watch from a distance. Galahad and Percival go on to Sarras and ultimately die, while Bors returns to Camelot to recount the adventures.)

  • But before the party seeking Lancelot can get to Glastonbury, a maiden pops up and asks for help rescuing her imprisoned sister. If you decline, you lose significant "nobility" points, so you have to accept. Only you don't want to accept with Baudwin, because he's useless against the evil knight and he doesn't have time to get all the way to Lyonesse and back anyway. Thus, even though your intelligence is specifically that Bors won't speak to a knight, you have to send a knight to Glastonbury first to run interference on the maiden's quest, then send Baudwin behind him.

I certainly didn't mind killing this guy. What a jackass.

  • Bors tells Baudwin that Lancelot has gone to seek the Holy Grail in Escavalon (which, according to the game map, is southern Wales). To figure out where he is, you have to break into a study in Cardiff and study a map. To get into the study, you have to get the key from the castle's steward, who is inexplicably a few cities away in Caerwent. To get his location, you first have to bribe a peasant woman outside Cardiff. In both cases, you have to have thought to give the knight in question some money from the castle's treasury. It took me forever searching around Wales for Lancelot to think of bribing the woman.

At this point, you can bribe the castellan for a key, or kill him and take it off his body. The latter results in a loss of "nobility."

Once you reach the castle where Lancelot is being held, you have to fight consecutive battles with five guards and then a necromancer. I found that only the best knight could win this battle, and even then I needed some potions that I had to have brought from Camelot way back at the beginning.

Amidst all of this, there are a couple dozen other locations to visit if you like, some with clues, some with random combat against challengers, some with items like spell reagents to buy. Again, it takes a lot of experimentation, trial, and error to find the best path through the scenario, and the "best path" means sending the right people, with the right equipment, in the right directions as soon as you leave Camelot.

Well, thanks. That was helpful. Glad I stopped.

It is possible to win against Melehan without Lancelot and his armies, but given that the scenario is called "The Return of Lancelot du Lac," my guess is that it screws you up in later episodes if you do. Also, I couldn't do it without losing a bunch of named knights and characters, and my suspicion is that you generally want named characters to stay alive. I've been reloading if they die. The game is hard enough without that.

The one-on-one combats depend far too much on luck. Sometimes, one of my knights will enter combat and die instantly, only to defeat his enemy without taking a single wound on a reload. My battle with the necromancer holding Lancelot was the hardest. He casts spells continually, preventing you from getting in an attack. Basically, I had to keep reloading until my knight was able to shrug off the first barrage of magic missiles and actually get close enough to hit him.

Army combats are a little more deterministic. As you fight, the game scrolls methodically through each of the individual units on the field, determining how much damage they take or how many soldiers they lose. I've seen very little variance in these figures no matter what tactics I adopt in battle (and there really aren't that many). After each round, you're given a chance to withdraw, at which point the attacker marks time for a few turns before attacking again. Even though I could have defeated the Saxons the first time, I used the option to withdraw three or four times to prolong the invasion so I had more time to find Lancelot in advance of Melehan's march.

My huge army takes on Melehan's forces in the final battle of the scenario.

As I found out the hard way, having multiple armies in the same city accomplishes nothing if they're not unified under the same commander. Otherwise, only one of them will fight in the battle. Unifying them is harder than it sounds. When you bring an army to a city where another army already sits, it gives you the option to "join" them, but only if you don't "stop and talk" first. If you do the latter, then you have to send the army out of the city and re-enter to join it to the first. Second, some knights always challenge each other to a duel, so you never get the "join" option. This was especially true of Bors. I wanted his army for the battle against Melehan, but he wanted to fight practically every knight in London. I spent a long time juggling various armies around, sending them in and out of London--all while Melehan was marching relentlessly towards me--before I gave up and decided I needed everyone else more than Bors. Overall, the process of managing parties is too annoying.

Dammit, Bors! We have bigger fish to fry.

Scenario Two ends with Melehan's defeat. Even though he "dies" on the combat screen, the game notes cryptically that his body isn't found among the dead. The scenario ends with a cutscene in which Morgan le Fay, I guess the "big bad" of the game, upbraids Melehan and Morgolon for their failures.

Really? A bare midriff? The woman has to be about 75 by now.

A few other notes:

  • Characters gain "combat points" for successful one-on-one combats, "nobility points" for doing good deeds, and "faith points" for spending time in abbeys and churches. These are the only methods of "character development" that prevent me from designating the game not-an-RPG.

Lavain gains a nobility point and a combat point rescuing the maiden from Cynewulf.

  • If Constantine dies, the game immediately ends. Anyone else can die, and the game continues, although I suspect this can place you in a "walking dead" scenario for later chapters.

If Constantine dies, Britain enters the "Dark Ages." I'm pretty sure this happens anyway.

  • You can search defeated knights for a few bits of gold. I haven't found much use for gold except bribing people for information.
  • I haven't experimented much with magic. Nineve is capable of spells like "Defend Spell," "Charm Spell," and "Shield Spell," but these use up reagents and magic power (of which she only has a limited amount per scenario). I've found it most useful to keep her with the main army and cast "Healing Spell" on heroes that suffer wounds. Each hero can suffer four wounds before dying.

Casting a spell in the midst of combat.

  • Some of the cities just feature outdoor screens where you can talk to a resident. Others have castles, monasteries, or other buildings you can enter and perhaps explore a couple of rooms. Usually, they're empty except when required by the plot.

  • The armor the knights wear is colored based on their "nobility" rating. The lighter the better.
  • The scenarios end when you've accomplished the main goals. You can't linger and explore after the main threat is over.

Episode 3 begins, whether I want it to or not.

  • In this (DOS) version, the music is okay, but it's so relentless and repetitive that I've been playing with the sound off. I don't think there are any other sound effects.
  • I'm not in love with the controls. The mouse is extremely sensitive, and clicking in slightly the wrong area can cause you to lose whatever submenu you're in.

Scenario Three opens with the arrival of a giant at Camelot. He stands outside and challenges anyone who wants to come out and fight him. This is a common Arthurian trope, most notably in the "Beheading Game" series of stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As I soon discovered, he's unbeatable (he has magical protection and won't take a single wound), and unlike the Green Knight, he doesn't just laugh and go away. He keeps standing there demanding victims. The only way I've found to spare my knights' lives is to withdraw immediately at the beginning of combat, but this makes them lose nobility points. Meanwhile, Lancelot and Nineve are approaching Camelot from one direction and Bedivere and Dinas from another (I don't know why they were even away). Anyone who reaches Camelot immediately dies at the hands of the giant, so I have to send them somewhere else.

Nineve ineffectually casts spells while Lancelot lies dead in front of the giant. I think I need to reload.

Melehan has arrived from the north with another huge army, and he immediately sacks and burns York before starting a march south. And a party of bandits is raiding and pillaging the east. None of my knights can leave Camelot and go command their armies until I deal with the giant. I can tell I have a long session of trial-and-error ahead of me before I can figure out how to navigate this one.


  1. Summon undine! Wow, I haven't heard the word undine since I played Runequest back in the early 90s. Runelords could get an allied spirit which could take the form of an undine depending on which deity you worshiped.

  2. Undine is also the Water Elemental in Secret of Mana.

    This game sounds completely unforgiving, transforming it from a strategy RPG to something closer to a puzzle game.

    You are SO close to Ultima VI, I'd be so tempted to give this game the boot just to get there faster, but given your personal interest in the subject matter I have a feeling you'll be seeing this one through to the end.

    1. Talking about upcoming games, I honestly don´t see "Lords of Doom" as a RPG, Elvira was scraping the barrel but this game is similar but has, as far as I remember, NO Stats whatsoever.

      So it kinda goes against Point 1 and 2 in your "What makes a RPG" List to the right :P

      Guess it fits more in the area of The Trickster, what do others think?

    2. Cool. I'd love to be able to trim down the list a bit.

    3. It looks similar to Circuit's Edge, which bucks some trends of Adventure games (it isn't only inventory puzzles), and incorporates character statistics and random battles from RPGs. It's not quite adventure enough for that genre, and fails in many ways to maintain its RPG credentials with static characters that don't grow.

      Still, with Chet's criteria Circuit's Edge would still get some play time (and a blog post or two) because it was statistic based combat and a non-puzzle based inventory (weapons and skill chips). I'm not sure how Lords of Doom fits in those categories (seems to have combat and inventory).

    4. Oh Lords of Doom does have combat but your chars do not have stats as far as I know (Gurer ner gjb uvqqra fgngf, bayl puneyl vf pnyz rabhtu gb fubbg gur Jrerjbys Ybeq naq Ina Uryfvat pna svtug Qenphynf Zvaq nggnpxf.).

      There isn´t even any tactic to it you just operate Weapons on the monsters until they die (Gubhtu fbzr ner jrnx ntnvafg pregnva jrncbaf).

      It´s not a bad game, but when I wake up in the middle of the night sweating because I need a RPG fix this isn´t a game I would think of ... AT ALL xD Elvira was kinda scraping the bottle already (imo and the last post kinda showed it).

    5. agree that lords of doom doesnt meet the rpg criteria.

  3. Re: magic items in Arthurian legend. I seem to remember from the (probably completely Bowdlerized) stories from my childhood that Morgan le Fay sent a messenger with a cloak for Arthur, but he commanded her to put it on first and when she did it burst into flame. Oh, and didn't she turn herself to stone to hide when she stole Excalibur's scabbard? As I say, this is from reading kids books, so I'm not vouching for their veracity.

    1. Good memory. That did happen, in the Post-Vulgate Suite de Merlin and Malory. But as I said, magic items are rare and used as major plot devices.

      To be fair, this game doesn't have a LOT of them. I shouldn't have suggested that it was out of touch with its sources in that regard.

    2. Those copycat medievalists! The cloak story was probably a retelling of the Greek myth of Medea. That one featured a poisoned robe as a bridal gift. (By the way, the German word "Gift" means poison - I learned that during a D&D game. :-) ).

  4. Apparently "poeir" means power in early medieval French and the word "gaunt" came into English from old French. Of course, I have no idea how grammatically or syntactically correct the "gaunts d'poeir" construction would be in old French.

  5. Indeed, I have a hard time trying to come up with an example of a mythological figure that just used magic because it was an ordinary thing to do. In greek mythology, magic was always founded on the acts of gods or demi-gods. The same is true for norse mythology. In fact, our standard fantasy settings, the worlds of D&D, Tamriel, Azeroth and the like, are something completely different in this regard. Magic became one craft among many there. Maybe it's because the real-life myths usually take place in semi-historical times. For example, we cannot rule out that there was an Arthur, or that there was a war against Troy, but did it happen the way the writers say? We don't know what's true or not. And often our written accounts of myths were created centuries after these myths supposedly happened. So these old stories already had time to turn into legends. I guess, the further one goes back in mythical chronology, the more magic appears, because older legends had more time to grow even more legendary, which is why fantasy worlds are always in a state of decline. The past was great and magical, the future will be grim, the elves will go to the west, the dragons are all dead, the last unicorn and so on and on....Magic as a symbol of all we don't know vanishes with cultural progress. But then I guess the "realistic" view makes for bad games, as this one seems to be. So it's better to take off the historic corset and give people more freedom (with magic).

    1. D&D took magic from being something special or a gift from the gods and turned it into a mundane activity. After D&D people's minds were never the same.

    2. It's interesting. Chaosium's Basic Roleplay magic book had descriptions of the shaman, cleric, and wizard worldviews. The shaman deals with spirits, and the cleric deals with gods, but the wizard holds that the supernatural has rules that can be learned and can be controlled.

      No traditional view of the supernatural held this (reading anthropology, 'magic' is usually the evil counterpart to religion, and frequently the other tribe's religion), but there is a view that states that the universe has impersonal rules that can be learned and utilized--the modern scientific worldview.

      In short, wizards are technologists of the supernatural. This is seen by their prime requisite being Intelligence, rather than the more 'spiritual' Wisdom. Gary Gygax probably didn't know what he was doing at the time, but he changed the way we think about magic in fantasy.

      Additionally, the idea of wizards as complementary to fighters and thieves (which helps make the game more fun, since everyone has a different role to play) basically means that a 'balanced party' *must* include some spellcasters, so magic becomes a lot more common, since if you've got magic your enemies usually do, too, in order to balance things out.

      The irony is that Gygax was a lot more revolutionary than he thought he was being at the time, and it was all by default.

    3. "Indeed, I have a hard time trying to come up with an example of a mythological figure that just used magic because it was an ordinary thing to do."

      Kalevala is chock full of magic-slinging characters to the point that nearly every named character is a sorcerer of some sort and nearly everything is done with magic.

    4. This is an older post, but I think this dicussion is really interesting. What I really enjoy about King Arthur (mostly the Boorman film, with which I am most familar) is that the supernatural elements are very much in the background and "nebulous," as Chet said. I feel that most other mythology has a very extensive and elaborate understanding of how the supernatural works- often the pantheons and hierarchies of spiritual power are laid bare. In Arthurian literature, however, there seems to be a lot of mystery- a few obscure magic items, a few weird creatures, and Merlin and Morgan. How they do it, where it comes from, is never really explained or elaborated on. This adds a great deal of mystery to magic that is taken away when you have the ability to cast "The Shield Spell," or "Magic Missile." I think SFG's point that wizards are basically using scientific method to control the supernatural is a great one, but is generally handled clumsily in D&D. I love Baldur's Gate (playing it now!) but memorizing your three fireball spells for the day kind of takes the power out of the idea. I think the Ultima series does a great job of finding a compromise, with the reagent system, the language system, and runes on scrolls (not to mention colored potions, as opposed to "healing potion!") to maintain an atmosphere of mystery while still remaining practical. And however you all feel about Ultima 8, I think the use of ritual magic is a great alternative to the trivialized spellbook ("Get your spellbook! Get your spellbook here! 50 gold for a spellbook!")

      Alexander's analysis is spot on- I think that mystery surrounding magic taps into an important question that myths are supposed to answer for us- "where do we come from?" Or a more specific question, "how did we stop becoming creatures of the wild, and start becoming 'civilized'?" The fact that in Excalibur, magic is fading away in the face of Christianity, suggests that maybe we will never know the answer; the modern world has already erased our connection with the ancient past.

    5. "Magic fading away in the face of Christianity" is an interesting theme in Excalibur and some modern works. It's not really prevalent in pre-20th century Arthurian literature except in a meta-sense in which authors literally replaced pagan themes with Christian ones.

      I wrote a screenplay once for an Arthurian saga, trying to reconcile historical and fantastical adaptations of the legend. In a prologue, during Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain, the old Celt god, Bran the Blessed, channels all his magic into Excalibur and buries it into a stone, removing magic from the realm of men.

      The main part of the story starts very gritty and historical, in the context of the Saxon invasions and whatnot. But when Arthur draws the sword from the stone, he releases all the ancient magic, and it immediately transforms the situation. Arthur, just a warleader, becomes "king." His warriors become knights in shining armor. His stick fortress becomes Camelot. The alteration in reality is so powerful that they're not even aware it's taken place; to them, things have always been this way.

      Most of the rest of the saga proceeds in this more fantastical setting. At the end, when the dying Arthur relinquishes Excalibur, the reverse happens. The noble king in silver platemail becomes a shaggy-haired warrior in tattered leather; the beautiful, flowering countryside turns into dreary marsh as magic fades from the world at last.

      I thought it was an interesting way to handle magic and reconcile the different themes in the legend. Alas, I never finished it.

    6. So what you are saying is that in twenty years when a screenplay by an unknown writer turns into the smash hit if the year, I'll be one if a select few who then will know the writers secret identity. Excellent.

    7. I know I'm years late here but that sounds incredible. I don't think I'd interpret it like you meant it, but like it was co-written by Himmler and Alan Moore, you know? Society as a magic trick, love it or leave it.

      This discussion is really interesting to me because I've been reading about the relationship between spirituality, magic, and science. It seems like wizardry or whatever was a real thing that encompassed nearly every thing people didn't have either a firm grasp of, or strong religious beliefs about. Which is a lot-- there's stage magic, cold reading and tall tales in there, but there's also philosophy, psychology, medicine, all kinds of trade knowledge, abstract thinking and systemic understanding that are just a measuring stick away from biology, chemistry, etc.; "hard sciences." Gunpowder went from sorcery to craft to science as people understood it better. The fantasy version of magic, as an idea, is trite compared to that, but as a game mechanic it can capture the spirit of it, transcending the hit dice and logic gates to speak to concepts and experiences. I think?

  6. How does the shift work between the scenario battles and controlling individual knights? Is it time or turn based?

    The inability to do and explore everything reminds me of Valkyrie Profile (PlayStation 1 game), which has a number of locations to visit during each chapter, but there aren't enough action phases to visit them all. Getting the optimal ending requires a lot of foreknowledge, selecting locations in a certain order, and creating specific items (although I don't think you ever get locked out of completing the game for choosing some paths over others). Getting the best ending requires either guide or playing through multiple times to determine the best recruits, equipment, and story line. Back when I first tried playing it the number of choices crippled me so that I gave up on playing the game. I'd probably have done the same with this game. Good luck on getting through it.

    1. I'm not sure I fully understand your question. For most of the game, you're directing individual knights across the map, and when they come to locations of import, the game switches to "scene view" and you control them on an individual screen.

      Battles only occur when two ARMIES come in conflict, at which point the game automatically takes you to the battle view.

    2. Ah, I see. I thought the game handled everything in a round. So an army battle could be happening and it'd play out for a couple turns, and then knights not in battle would take a couple actions on the world map. I misunderstood the description, sorry about that.

    3. I probably didn't describe it very well. Sometimes I forget that you're all just seeing static screenshots and not the actual action of the game.

  7. To kill the giant you need a holy hand grenade.
    On the surface of things the game looks reasonably good,
    why do you say its not fun to bribe the man for the key AND to amass armies?

    1. I don't like it when I'm in the groove of one mechanism of gameplay and the game suddenly hijacks me somewhere else. SOE seems composed too many disparate elements, none of which it does particularly well.

    2. You're gonna hate the sh!t out of Birthright then.

  8. The design sounds a bit similar to Lords of Midnight, but that was more forgiving and the controls didn't get in the way.

    Obviously this is more ambitious story-wise, but the elements of quests happening simultaneously with battles, and signing up allies who sometimes disliked each other, was present in LOM.

  9. When I was a young boy I couldn't understand why my father didn't like Super Mario Bros. It was exciting. It was challenging. The graphics were great (for the time). The music was catchy. It even had dungeons (I've always been a fantasy nerd).

    So I asked him one day, "Dad, how come you don't like Super Mario Bros.?"

    "Well, son, I like to play video games. I don't like it when they play me."

    My young mind didn't quite grasp the concept. "What do you mean?"

    "Well, Super Mario Bros. trains you to press specific buttons in a specific sequence at a specific time in order to be successful. The game is playing you. I prefer games with multiple solutions where my choices matter."

    It was a formative conversation and probably contributes greatly to my preference for RPG's and strategy games.

    Spirit of Excalibur sounds a bit like a game that is playing you, Chet. :^)

    1. That's a good way to look at it. I never like games in which every player faces essentially the same game.

  10. King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame is much closer to being Total War with fireballs than it is to being a role-playing game. It does meet your criteria by having the commanders be Knights of the Round Table with gear and XP, but doesn't play like one at all.

    I like it, but can't recommend it due to something similar to the loading rumba Spirit of Excalibur forced on you. It also has tiny CYOA sequences that can do wonderful things to the atmosphere. Fighting a sidhe army is just generic fantasy, but it's another thing entirely when you can first find an ageless child, who says "Stay on my island for three years and serve me, and I will clear the minds of their slaves," then visit the monks, who say "Give us the taxes from this province for ten years, and we will bind their spells," and then meet with the sidhe queen, who says "Bring me five hundred boys under the age of five, and we will leave you in peace."

    Yeah, the game doesn't stick to the low-magic setting, either.

    1. Despite your non-recommendation, it sounds like a reasonably interesting game. Too bad I won't get to it for a while. I like the sound of those role-playing choices.

  11. Chet, you might not particularly like the game or want to write about it, as you say, but I find almost prefer reading what you have to say about Arthurian legends anyway!

    1. I agree with Equlan. These two posts so far on this game have been two of my favorites on this blog precisely because of Chet's knowledge of the source material. Keep it up, Chet!
      - Richard H.

    2. Glad to hear it. I originally considered leaving out all that extra stuff, so I'm glad it worked.

  12. Speaking of themes that don't (but should) get enough love from the RPG genre:
    1) 1,001 Arabian Nights (so far only "Al-Qadim", "QFG 2" and, arguably, "Circuit's Edge" & "Prince of Persia")
    2) Chinese Wuxia (plenty by Chinese developers but only "Jade Empires" by and English one)
    3) Celtic, Welsh and Nordic settings
    4) Native American settings (so far, only "Aztaka" barely fits the theme)
    5) Egyptian settings (I think only "The Stone Prophet" and a small segment of "Waxworks 2" fits)
    6) Modern Day settings (I really hope to see one that uses the D20 Modern rule-set).

    1. I agree. It would be nice to see any of these in a well-told game. When I was playing one of the Assassin's Creed games, I was thinking how awesome it would be to explore the same territory in a Skyrim-like RPG. There are a billion historical contexts that would be glorious to explore in a first-person game, and I can't see why they'd be much harder to model than the typical fantasy game.

    2. I think a large part of the problem is that game inspiration is incestuous. The biggest inspiration for new games is older games. You don't see a lot of AAA games drawing from outside sources heavily, and when they do, they mostly go to the movies. Now there are some very solid exceptions (Bioshock is based on Ayn Rand, among other things. Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light are based on the Metro 2033 by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, I strongly suspect Mass Effect draws from Larry Niven and David Brin. Oh, and of course there are lots of Cyberpunk games. Sadly, while there are lots of "steampunk" games they are all just aesthetics and no literary influence at all.)

  13. I played this game many many years ago in the 1990s and found it as frustrating as you did.

    I could never get past chapter 2, and indeed, could never find Lancelot. I don't think I was ever close to finding him.

    One game however, I did manage to beat Melehan's army despite not finding Lancelot (I just managed to get everyone I could to London and held the line there). Unfortunately, I don't think the game liked that and just declared afterwards I'd lost even though I'd won the battle.

    A frustrating game that really could've been much more with better controls and a few hints as to what to do and where to go.

    1. Looking over this entry, I don't remember the game all that well--it's been almost a decade--but I seem to remember that it offered the open world of a strategy game with the plot linearity of an adventure game. The combination definitely did not work well.


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