Sunday, February 2, 2014

Spirit of Excalibur: Won*

All hail Constantine, whose reign will last about eight months before the island is flooded with Saxons again--this time permanently.

In my last post, I indicated that each scenario requires a lot of trial and error before you figure out exactly what you're supposed to do and find the optimal path through the scenario (yes, even with the hints provided by the manual). This turns out to be true of the game as a whole. Namely:

  • If you don't begin building certain characters early in the game, they'll have a really tough time in the endgame. Baudwin, for instance, needs a "faith" score of at least 19 to use the Holy Grail (yes, it's a magic object that you "use"), and the only way to get it that high is to have him spend a bunch of time cooling his heels in a church early in the game.
  • If you don't collect all the reagents (or if you consume them) in the first few scenarios, you won't be able to get past certain obstacles in later scenarios. The chief offender here is "holy water," which you need to defeat at least one demon late in the game, but which the manual encourages you to spend healing characters.
  • If certain characters die in early scenarios, you won't be able to complete later scenarios at all. I don't see any way to win without Lancelot, Nineve, Bedivere, and Merlin.
  • If you don't find certain key quest items in early scenarios, they will be unavailable in later scenarios. Completing the game thus involves visiting a bunch of obscure locations at times when it seems like you have more pressing things to do than explore.

I thought this was a nice shot of the cathedral at Canterbury. It's too bad it didn't exist at the time.

I managed to get through Scenario Three, but I got lost in Scenario Four because of all the issues above. Frustrated, I consulted a walkthrough to help with my re-play, which accounts for the asterisk next to "won" above.

As the third scenario began, I had almost all my knights assembled at Camelot, and a giant was standing outside, demanding that some knight defeat him in one-on-one combat before he would allow anyone to leave. Melehan and Morgolon were coming down from the north with another huge army, and I needed to get my knights back to their castles so they could marshal their forces. The giant was magically protected and killed every knight who engaged him, and it was clear I needed magical equipment to defeat him. The only characters outside of Camelot were Lancelot, Nineve, Bedivere, and Dinas.

Two major points of irony in this speech: First, someone is explaining to Nineve where to find Excalibur. In most sources, it was her damned hand that caught the sword in the first place. Second, "only Lancelot has the purity to tread in Arthur's steps." Lancelot had a longstanding affair with Arthur's wife and caused the Round Table to go to war. Sure, he was repentant, but that still doesn't grant him "purity."

To win this scenario, I adopted the same technique I had to use for all of them: split up my characters, have them fan out and explore every town, castle, abbey, and other location on the map, and note what resources were available at each place. Then, after a few "trial" scenarios like this, I could start to piece together an optimum path for the "real" completion of the scenario.

It transpired that Tintagel castle held a magic helm and shield that had belonged to Arthur. But these only protected against the giant's attacks; they didn't hurt him. A marauding Cornish warlord named Andred had some Gauntlets of Power. Even though he had an army, I found that he would respond to a challenge for one-on-one combat, and Bedivere or Dinas could defeat him if they wore Arthur's helm and shield and got lucky with the combat rolls.

Andred does some trash-talking moments before Bedivere hands him his own intestines.

(Andred is a nod to the Tristan legend. He is the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall. Although in the earliest sources, he is a noble knight and good friend of Tristan and Isolde, his character degrades through multiple adaptation until he becomes a sniveling toady, always tattling on the lovers' meetings. He usually dies in some ignominious way towards the end of the story.)

The final piece of the puzzle was Excalibur. I had to cast a "Charm" spell on a bishop to get its location in a lake north of Oxford. A monster guarded the lake, and Lancelot wasn't capable of defeating it without the magic equipment, so I had to have Bedivere kill the monster, then have Nineve approach the lake and cast "Summon Undine" to get the Lady of the Lake to present the sword.

. . . and that Bedivere himself threw into this lake just a few months ago.

(This whole episode made me a little uncomfortable from a legendary perspective. "Undine," a water spirit who appears in Renaissance legends, is foreign to the Arthurian mythos, and Nineve herself is usually given as the Lady of the Lake. Bedivere is the one who hurled Excalibur in the lake in the first place, so he should have known where it was. And the whole purpose of tossing it into the lake was to await a future king, not pull it out again for some random giant.)

Lancelot is the only one capable of using Excalibur, but I had trouble timing things so that he could have all the other magic items, too. When a character "uses" (equips) a magic weapon, armor, or shield, it permanently grafts on him. You can't "unuse" it and then trade it to someone else. Some knight needed to be wearing the helm and shield to defeat Andred, but I couldn't get Lancelot all the way across the map fast enough to do that. If Bedivere retrieved those items and used them, he couldn't later give them to Lancelot. In the end, I had to live without Lancelot using the magic armor, and instead just sent him to the giant with Excalibur and the Gauntlets of Power. It took a reload or two, but I was able to defeat the giant.

One of my unsuccessful tries.

Prior to this final combat, though, there were several interludes in which yet another knight would go out of Camelot to try to defeat the giant. He would inevitably die, so I had to keep clicking the "withdraw" button to get him to flee from the fight before this happened. Unfortunately, this cost him "nobility points." Better than dying, I suppose.

With the giant gone, the knights automatically fanned out of Camelot to their respective strongholds. There were two problems with this:

1) The knights kept running into each other on the road. The game would ask if I wanted to "join forces." Not understanding the implications, I kept saying "yes," which changed two knights going to get two armies to two knights going to get one army. I later realized that I had to say "continue on" every one of the billion times this option came up.

2) Once they had their armies, the knights hit the road again--but for Camelot. The problem was, Melehan's army was headed for London. I had to keep finding and re-directing them.

Even with the most optimal use of time, this section was tense. In my best attempt at the scenario, Melehan reached London when only a few armies had arrived. They were enough to temporarily repel him and allow the rest of the armies to get there. Once they did, I had more than enough to kill the sons of Mordred for good. And unlike in the original legends, Constantine didn't violate the sanctity of a church to slay them.

Getting my armies to London just in advance of Melehan reaching the city.

Throughout this scenario, random groups of bandits were roaming southern England, burning every city they came to. At first, I tried to deal with them, but when you send a single knight into an army, it inevitably slaughters him without even bothering to give you a battle screen. Ultimately, I just had to ignore and avoid them. The cities they burned were magically re-built by the beginning of the next scenario.

In a real strategy game, in which you derive income and resources from each city, this would have some kind of negative effect.

Scenario Four was a bit easier, or at least more leisurely. It starts off with rumors of disturbances in the Forest Sauvage. These turn out to be a demon capable of turning people to stone. Meanwhile, a large group of Saxons begins a march on Camelot.

Lancelot and Nineve come upon a petrified king.

I say it's more leisurely because the Saxons are quite easy to defeat with the armies already at your disposal, so most of the game consists of a few characters (in my case, Lancelot and Nineve) wandering around the map, trying to find out how to defeat the demon.

The last major army-based battle occurs in Scenario Four, and it's absurdly easy.
 
The scenario is also punctuated by a group of magical knights roaming the roads. Lancelot, with Excalibur, seems to be the only one capable of defeating them, so I found it was best just to keep everyone else at Camelot.

Lancelot handles some "fey knights." In this case, "fey" means "otherworldly" and not "effeminate." I assume.

In the end, the only way to defeat the demon is with holy water or through a spell called "NOMED NOMMUS" ("summon demon" backwards), but first you have to find him, which requires a spell called "POINT OF EVIL." In both cases, only Merlin is capable of casting the spells, so you have to both free him and get his spellbook from Archbishop Dubric of Canterbury. (He appears in the original legends as the bishop who crowns Arthur and marries Arthur and Guinevere.)

 
Merlin is imprisoned in a cave on the coast, and you get its location by talking with various villagers. Once you find him, Nineve can free him with a "Fascinum Laxis" that first appeared in Scenario Two. This is one of those objects that if you lost track of it before the current scenario, you're screwed.


When freed, Merlin rails against being imprisoned by Morgan le Fay, another jar to canon. In no original legend does Morgan imprison him; this seems to have been introduced in the film Excalibur as a way to conflate the characters of Morgan (called "Morgana") and aspects of the Lady of the Lake. In the legends, it's Nineve herself who seduces him (or simply falls in love with him), steals his power, and imprisons him, and her actual motivations--as well as Merlin's participation in his own "imprisonment"--form one of the great mysteries of the Arthurian cycle. She doesn't seem to be a villain in other respects: she raises Lancelot, gives Arthur Excalibur, and serves him in a number of capacities throughout his reign. It's interesting to see how modern authors and filmmakers deal with this paradox.

Let's talk briefly about magic in this game, because it was only in Scenario Four that I got a handle on it. Between Nineve and Merlin, we have a variety of spells. Most of them require reagents to cast, and there are a limited number of reagents in the game. Some are only available within certain scenarios, meaning that if you don't pick them up then, you won't have them for the spell-heavy final acts. "NOMED NOMMUS" is Merlin's uniquely necessary spell in that it's the only thing other than holy water that kills demons (and killing demons takes a lot of holy water, which is in limited supply). It uses belladonna, and only six or seven sprigs of belladonna exist in the game. If you don't find all of them, you're in trouble.

This is a bad time to discover that.
 
You find some of the reagents at Camelot and other key locations, but most of them you get from alchemists and herb sellers. The game's trading mechanism is extremely awkward. The seller never specifies a price or anything. Instead, you use the "bribe" command to give the seller a certain number of gold crowns, then use the "request" command to ask the seller for one of his or her items. If the bribe was high enough, you'll get the item. Otherwise, you have to bribe again. Gold mostly comes from a fixed pool at Camelot at the beginning of the game. I spent a lot of the last two scenarios having random knights courier funds around Britain to those who needed them. 

Buying herbs through the odd process of "bribing" and "requesting."

Magic also requires magic power, and especially in Scenario Four, when Nineve is going around casting "Disenchant" on all the people turned to stone, it depletes quickly. You can restore it by casting "Repletion" while in Stonehenge. This is something I needed the walkthrough to tell me; the manual doesn't mention anywhere the uses of "Repletion" or the specific need to be in Stonehenge. I did a lot of shuttling between various places and Stonehenge in the final two scenarios.


The fourth scenario ends at a ruin in the Forest Sauvage. I had to defeat six "fey knights" and the "Brown Knight" before facing the final demon, which Merlin killed with one casting of "NOMED NOMMUS."

Lancelot prepares to engage the demon, but he can't really do any damage, even with Excalibur. All the hard work is done by Merlin in the background.

The battles with the knights weren't particularly hard with Lancelot and Excalibur, but I needed Nineve with me to keep casting the healing spell between battles. At the end of the scenario, Constantine controlled all of Britain except for about 75% of Wales.

You'd think I could just go conquer the rest.

Where the demon was the final boss of Scenario Four, Scenario Five has demons all over the map, roaming from town to town, killing any knights that they find. There isn't enough belladonna or holy water to waste it on these random demons, so I mostly had to ignore them and watch my knights get picked off one-by-one.

As you explore, you constantly run into townsfolk who ask you to rescue various kidnapped maidens, royal youths, and the like, and if you don't accept the missions, your party members revolt. Since so much of the game relies on doing things in a specific order, I found that it's best no to talk to random people at all in this scenario.

Lancelot unwisely refuses to help a maiden.

The goals of the scenario are to collect intelligence on the location of Morgan le Fay's castle, rescue the demons' kidnapped prisoners (and get the rest of Wales to ally with Constantine), find the Holy Grail, and defeat Morgan. The walkthrough suggests, and I concur, that the best way to do this is to have one party rescuing maidens while Sir Bors handles collecting the Grail.

Another ruler confirms his allegiance to Constantine.
 
The Grail part is a two-step process of first finding a Ring of Joseph at a church called Holyhead on Anglesey, then heading across the channel to "Castle Anguish" in Ireland, where the Grail is behind a locked door opened by the ring. Without the walkthrough, it probably never would have occurred to me to use the ring as a way to open the door. Bors can't actually use the Grail in combat, so eventually Baudwin the priest has to take hold of it.

Actually picking up the Grail and using it in combat is as sacrilegious to a scholar of Arthurian literature as it would be to a Christian if Jesus Christ was an NPC who could join your party and shoot enemies with a crossbow.

(A few footnotes: the Ring of Joseph is an allusion to Joseph of Arimathea, the Roman soldier-turned-priest who, in the Robert de Boron line of Arthurian legends--including Malory--brought the Holy Grail from Jerusalem to Britain. Holyhead is a real Welsh city, though as far as I can tell, it appears in no Arthurian legend. Castle Anguish is named after King Anguish of Ireland, a character who appears in the Tristan branch of the legends. Baudwin is Malory's Baldwin of Brittany, a character who originally appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.)

The final battle at Morgan's castle was tough. There are a series of three dragons, three demons, and Morgan hereself. The dragons can be defeated in regular combat or with "dragonsbane," so they're not too hard. But even following a walkthrough, I was short a couple sprigs of belladonna when I hit the demons, and I had to use holy water for the last two. This left me with only just enough holy water to cast the final spell.

Slaying the final demon.

Morgan herself is a bit anticlimactic if you know what you're doing. She's undefeatable in normal combat, but if Merlin casts "NEGARE POTIS" (negates magic), it brings down her shields long enough for Baudwin to use the Grail. At this point, she is "sent to the Ninth Circle of Hell" and all her magic is undone.

Lancelot, despite being in the foreground, has no role in this final battle.

You get one final map of a unified Britain before the endgame screen that leads this post.

I can't begin to describe how wrong the game's treatment of the Grail is. As I noted last time, the whole lesson of the Grail Quest was that the Grail is not an object that mortal man can possess. The quest is far more about the journey than the object; it's about the trial and effort necessary to become the sort of person who should be allowed into the Grail's presence. Most of the knights fail utterly, many are killed, and those who even partially succeed are removed from worldly service. The Grail Quest is effectively ruinous to the Round Table. The idea that the Grail is just sitting on a shelf in Ireland, and that it can be taken and used in combat is frankly offensive to the original legends.

Some random notes:

  • The game's pathfinding is awful. Characters kept getting hung up on peninsulas or going in directions that made no sense. If I needed to cover a long distance, I would have to micromanage the individual stages of the trip.
  • Castle Anguish is at the extreme western geography of the game map. At the extreme eastern end is Calais in France, but there is never any reason to go to Calais.

It is a pretty town.

  • As I said in my last post, only the ability to increase combat, nobility, and faith points among the knights qualifies this game as an RPG in the first place. But since so much of the fighting is done by just a few knights--primarily Lancelot--you don't really have any incentive to build more than a couple of heroes.

This post is already pretty long, so I'll save the GIMLET for next time. I don't anticipate it doing all that well, mostly because of its limited RPG mechanics.

44 comments:

  1. Too bad. I guess, technically it might be an RPG, but essentially it's an adventure game dressed in an RPG's clothing. You NEED that certain object to advance. Combat is not altered by your own choices, but a very scripted affair - you need that certain spell/weapon/clothing to defeat the enemy. Without any warning, the structure of the game must have been very frustrating.

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  2. Yikes - sounds like this one turned out to be a struggle. I love the visuals and the theme, but I'm glad I never came across it as a kid; the more "adventure"y qualities of it would have suckered me in, but I'm sure I would have been driven completely crazy by how much it seems you have to fight the game itself in order to accomplish the things you're trying to do.

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  3. Sorry for the pedantry here, but I'm studying to be a pastor, so I can't help myself... :^)

    RE: Lancelot's purity
    "Lancelot had a longstanding affair with Arthur's wife and caused the Round Table to go to war. Sure, he was repentant, but that still doesn't grant him 'purity.'"

    While Lancelot's integrity was certainly destroyed, his status before God would have been totally restored upon his repentance. 1 John 1:8-9 -- " If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."

    RE: Joseph of Arimathea
    "the Ring of Joseph is an allusion to Joseph of Arimathea, the Roman soldier-turned-priest"

    I don't know all (or really any) of the legends built up around Joseph of Arimathea, but according to the Bible, he was a rich man and a member of "the council" (pretty sure this means the Jewish Sanhedrin). He was a follower of Jesus who lent his tomb for Jesus' burial and was the one who approached Pontius Pilate to recover Jesus' body from the cross (Cf. Matthew 27:57ff, Mark 15:43, John 19:38). As a member of the Jewish council, he certainly wasn't a Roman soldier. But again, who knows what facts about his life got garbled in the whole Grail legend.

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    1. Whatever the case in Christian mythology, the idea that repentance=purity doesn't really work in the game, as it's explicitly stated that only LANCELOT is pure enough to wield the sword. Presumably, at least one other knight has attended confession recently.

      Yes, I was quoting from Arthurian history exclusively on JoA. In the Vulgate Estoire del Sait Grail, he's stated to have been a soldier in Pontius Pilate's army.

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    2. "Presumably, at least one other knight has attended confession recently."

      Good point. :^)

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    3. Wasn't Sir Galahad the Chaste available?

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    4. I didn't think that Excalibur had anything to do with purity anyway.

      In some variants, it's the sword which was pulled from the stone by the rightful king of England, hence only the son of Uther could retrieve it.

      Galahad also retrieved a sword in this manner, proving he was the perfect knight. In this case, purity was a determining factor, so it sounds like there is a bit of sword conflation going on :)

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    5. This is a family blog, you take your dirty "sword conflation" talk elsewhere

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    6. Now that UbAh mentioned it, the double entendre here is so damn dirty, I'd need a couple cartloads of brain bleach to help me recover from the trauma.

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  4. Just repeat this mantra over and over: "Ultima VI is coming up...Ultima VI is coming up...". Dr.Cat's weirdness aside, I am certain you will have a blast with the game.

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  5. The graphics look very nice, and the dialogue seems pretty good for a game of that era. (Sure, it may often be just trash-talking by villains, but they trash-talk with a certain amount of style.)

    Pity the game design seems to be so unforgiving. It seems like a game that could at least have done with an easy and hard mode.

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    1. Or an 'Adventure' and 'Strategic' mode, making it two separate games out of each design element.

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  6. ...if Jesus Christ was an NPC who could join your party and shoot enemies with a crossbow.

    Shades of the late Paul Panks' MUD-like text adventure Jesus of Nazareth!

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    1. I'm sure a Jesus Christ NPC would have phenomenal saving throws.

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    2. This whole list of comments is so full of wins, it makes Monty Python and the Holy Grail 2nd rated.

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    3. Damn, there are two games like this? The other is of course, The You Testament, one of the worst modern PC games ever made by most accounts.

      Ok, so first of all the developer is a terrible programmer, so he uses the same engine for all his games. The engine was originally made for a wrestling game. Yes, let that sink in for a bit.

      There is a great article on it at http://www.pcgamer.com/2010/12/04/crap-shoot-the-you-testament/ with the opening line of "Everything went wrong when I accidentally kicked Jesus in the balls."

      You play an unknown disciple who follows Jesus around learning how to meditate, which allows you to use magic, including the ability to duplicate any object and shoot it at enemies, the ability to float and the ability to change your appearance. Oh and if you listen to Satan he teaches you how to shoot fireballs.

      Then McDix went on to make a game based on, and I use the term based on in the loosest possible sense, the life of Mohammed. Using the same engine and graphics, and most of the same powers.

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    4. Do I have to add this to my list? Because I almost want to.

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    5. That would be a hilarious series of blog posts, but I don't think it meets your criteria. However, there is one game by him that might, Hard Time. I think you get inventory items, and you can work out and such to raise your stats. http://www.mdickie.com/prev_hardtime.htm

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    6. If we're not going to be pedantic about it, it can be! Kicking the Lord in the gonads! What else could you ask for?!

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  7. Whosoever Jesus should impale with a crossbow will be made holey.

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  8. The asterisk by this post's title reminds me of when you hex-edited a roguelike in order to win it. Do you regard a walkthrough-guided victory to be as substandard as a hex-edited victory? I don't, especially since this game reminds me of the old, brutally obnoxious Sierra adventure games.

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    1. I'd think hex-edit is a lower level of difficulty than walkthrough. With a walkthrough, you still have to deal with the raw mechanics of the game. It can still take some time and effort, although of a different type. If you're save-editing, unless you have a very light touch, it's generally possible to just make yourself invincible and have all the plot coupons and just barge through everything.

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    2. No, I don't regard using a walkthrough to be as bad as hex-editing. But I try to use the asterisk to annotate any time I've won a game in a way that violates my rules on cheating.

      As I explained in my longer "Cheats and Liars" post, I don't really regard it as cheating if you simply use a walkthrough to get past an obstacle that you've honestly tried to solve on your own. In this case, once I saw that my failure to complete Scenario Four was due to decisions I had made in Scenario Two, I said "screw it" and basically just went through the walkthrough from beginning to end to get the final screen. I regard this as enough of a cheat to deserve the asterisk.

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  9. Far be it from me to split hairs with a literature major, but I don't think that 'fey' ever means ''effeminate'.

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    1. At the very least in gay slang it does ;)

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    2. It means exaggeratedly campy in a stereotypically gay way. I was trying to come up with a single-word synonym, and "effeminate" doesn't quite encapsulate it.

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    3. And I'm not a literature major; the Arthurian legends were just a hobby.

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  10. Wow, what a clunky game. It's especially unfortunate since it initially seemed quite strong and faithful to the source material.

    The kinds of mechanics seen here have definitely left a legacy of their own in gamers of a certain age, however, explaining why, for instance, Skyrim is a packrat simulator because WHAT IF I NEED THOSE FOUR HUNDRED FORKS TO BEAT ALDUIN??

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    1. You need only the True Fork: The Fork of Horripilation

      (Yes, I know it doesn't appear in Skyrim)

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    2. While I don't agree with most of Penny Arcade's politics, they do still know how to drive a gaming related point home: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2011/11/14

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  11. I have some fond memories of its sequel, mostly because it was one of the few times where my country (Portugal) was part of the setting of a game

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  12. I was going to ask if you'd read Peter David's "Knight Life" series of novels, but given what he does with the Grail in those, perhaps I don't want to.

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  13. "Jesus saves...he fakes to Moses...he shoots - he scores!"

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    1. "Jesus saves. The rest of you take 10d6 fire damage."

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  14. Re: "...if Jesus Christ was an NPC who could join your party and shoot enemies with a crossbow"
    Maybe a crosbow wouldn´t be aproppiate but a sword would:

    "I came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword", Matthew 10:34

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    1. Matthew should have used "crossbow" instead. It would have sounded cooler.

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    2. Crossbows hadn't been invented yet, so that would have been difficult.

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    3. What compels you to be like that?

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    4. Probably being excessively nerdy? The fact that while I assumed you knew that fact, a lot of other people wouldn't?

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    5. Well, "nerd".

      It totally was invented already. In China. And it's a REPEATING crossbow to boot.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repeating_crossbow#History

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    6. Ok, ok, good point. I should have said "Had not entered use in Europe"

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    7. Crossbows were probably (there's a good deal of confusion in the ancient texts) used in the Grecian city states in the 400s BC, and remained in use, principally by civilians for hunting (due to the general decline in military archery during the Republican period as well as the rapider fire of the bow and the superb anti-armor ability of the sling) throughout the Roman period, not to mention the areas of Gaul and Brittany prior to the Roman conquest.

      In other words, not only was the crossbow in use in Rome, it made it to Europe before Christianity did.

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