Thursday, 14 January 2016

Conquests of the Longbow – Dreams of Maid Marian

Written by Alex


As I booted up Conquests of the Longbow, I knew I was in for a treat. Not only due to the pretty graphics and excellent music, but because of the game’s writing and presentation. Right away, Longbow frames the background story in a clear, efficient, and creative way.




Alan-a-Dale, the troubadour and one of Robin’s Merry Men, sings the tale of King Richard the Lionheart. In the year 1193 on his way back from the Third Crusade, the King, disguised as a merchant, was waylaid in the Kingdom of Austria. Captured, he is taken and held by King Leopold for a ransom of 100,000 golden marks.


Meanwhile back in England, the King’s brother Prince John, seems pretty excited about the King’s capture and vows to do nothing to rescue him and instead rules with his lackeys in his brother’s stead, enriching himself at the people’s expense. Luckily, Robin Hood is on the scene!

Alan describes Robin as living the outlaw life in Sherwood Forest due to false allegations against him. As a wanted man, though, he’s not totally defenseless. He has his Band of Merry Men, leading them from their hideout in Sherwood Forest to strike back at the corrupt government officials, hoping to raise enough money to save the King and clear his name while he’s at it!

Clockwise from the top right: Little John, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller’s Son, Alan-a-Dale, Friar Tuck, and Robin Hood.

Although the game does not have voice acting, Alan’s dialogue is written a meter that matches the music’s main melody, and the dialogue boxes change when each musical stanza is complete. It gives the illusion that Alan is singing this story, and the illusion really works.

“What about me, bro? Aren’t I a Merry Man?”

Uh, sorry Robin Bro. Christy must’ve forgotten to add you.

“Whatever, bro. Seems like a sausage party anyway. I’m gonna go lift.”

For the tech geeks out there, I am using the Soundblaster for music instead of the Roland. While some of the instrumentation is better with the Roland, the sound effects, in particular the background woodland sounds in Sherwood Forest, are overly loud, constant, and very obnoxious.

So the Story Begins . . .


Robin begins his adventure in his cave. The interface is standard Sierra point-and-click-era fare, with an added “Bow” icon. In the status bar on top of the screen I see “Ransom,” “Outlaws,” and “Score.” According to the manual, “Ransom” is how much money Robin and his men have raised towards freeing the King, “Outlaws” is the size of the Merry Men, currently at 31, and “Score” is Robin’s current point total out of an oddly-specific 7,325. If there is any significance to this number, it is lost on me.

In the cave there is a bed, a fire, a horn on the wall and a small iron chest on a shelf to the left. I take the horn (50 points) and check the treasure chest. Robin informs us that, while Friar Tuck handles most of the money, Robin keeps some set aside for his own personal use. Taking the money in the chest (50) I see that Robin has 5 pennies, 19 ha’pennies, and 26 farthings. As the manual helpfully explains, a penny is a silver coin, a ha’penny is a half-penny, and a farthing is a quarter penny.

Speaking of the manual, it is of the typical high quality of Sierra games of this era. Included is such interesting and useful stuff like:
  • A short overview of the Robin Hood legend; 
  • A digression by Christy Marx about the evils of software piracy; 
  • A drawing of a hand with letters of the alphabet written on it; 
  • A discussion of various gemstones and their meanings, with pictures; 
  • An explanation, with pictures, of sacred druid trees and their English and druid (i.e., Welsh) names; 
  • A primer on various coats of arms of the era; 
  • A brief history and the rules of the world’s purported oldest board game, Nine Men’s Morris; 
  • A control guide for quarterstaff battles; 
  • A brief guide to the interface; and 
  • A short walkthrough, which I don’t use because I’m an OUTLAW!!!! 
With nothing else to do in Robin’s cozy, albeit empty, cave, I head out to the main encampment where Little John, Alan, Friar Tuck, and Will Scarlett are having a post-breakfast gab session.


The banter between the group is well-written and full of “guy”-type humor, that is to say they spend most of their time busting each other’s balls. They’ve all eaten, but Friar Tuck is cooking a fish and intends to chow down on it himself. Will off to the glade to practice his archery by exiting the screen to the right, while Little John heads left to the Overlook to see if anyone interesting comes along Watling Street. It seems that the Merry Men’s cash supply is running low and Little John would like to do some good old-fashioned outlawing to replenish it. Alan and Friar Tuck stick around, but don’t have much to say: Alan is writing a song, and Friar Tuck gives the player a subtle hint that, if Robin wants to raise money, he should hang out at the Overlook. Point taken! I click hand on Friar Tuck just because and he says this:

Translation: “A bit higher and to the right.”

Wow! They really are a bunch of Merry Men!

“Like, totally glad they left me out of this after all, bro.”

Robin’s course of action is clear—go to the Overlook and see what comes down Watling Street, but I decide to find the glade first and map Sherwood Forest.

Exploring Sherwood Forest


Damn! This place is huge! You can see from the screenshot above that certain plants and trees can be looked at with the “Eye” icon, showing a close-up of its leaves and attendant nuts or berries. These can be identified by using the manual. I am not sure about the significance of this beyond helping the player navigate, as certain types of plants and trees tend to cluster together. For example, the screenshot shows blackberry bushes, which are used as borders of the Sherwood Forest area. Certain other trees prompt Robin to give the direction of the sacred willow grove.

To give you an idea of the size of this place, here’s my low-budget hand-drawn map:

I do it by hand because Excel ain’t for OUTLAWS!!!!!

Watling Street runs diagonally through the middle of the forest and is configured in a way that made mapping kind of difficult, but I think I’ve got it.

Points of interest include:
  • Robin’s camp 
  • The archery glade 
  • The sacred willow grove 
  • An ancient oak tree 
  • The home of the Widow 
There are three points where walking off-screen brings up the game’s map, allowing Robin to quick-travel to certain places in Nottinghamshire.


In addition to the camp, the Widow’s house, the sacred willow grove and the ancient oak, Robin can also go to the town of Sherwood and the Monastery in the Fens. I appreciate the game’s attention to detail, as nearly everything can be clicked on. The shield on the left bears King Richard’s crest, while the shield on the right is the raven of the Sheriff of Nottingham. The River Trent flows from east to west, while the River Leene goes off to the North. Watling Street goes south to Nottingham and north to York.

Enough with the maps! What’s in Sherwood Forest?

Not much, actually. The forest itself reminds me of Spielburg from Quest for Glory I, but without random battles or as many memorable encounters. However, I can’t shake the feeling that there aren’t many memorable encounters yet. Here’s what I did find.

The Glade


Two screens north of the camp is the glade where the Merry Men practice archery. Will is here with a young man named Simon who fled to the Merry Men for safety. It turns out that Simon shot a rabbit and was skinning it for his family’s supper and was drying the skin to make a pouch when a Forester found him. The Forester demanded a bribe in exchange for not turning Simon in, but Simon, in a panic, knocked the Forester down and ran away. Simon was declared an outlaw—he did break the law, after all—and wanted to join Robin’s band, but feared for his family. He didn’t leave until his father ordered him to. And now he is the newest Merry Man. I don’t see Robin’s “Outlaws” meter increase, though. Perhaps Simon is number 31?

In any event, Robin is cool with all of this and checks with Will if they have men watching Simon’s parents. Will assures Robin that they do. I get it in my head to click my money on Simon. An interface appears, similar to that in Conquests of Camelot, where Robin can decide how much of each denomination to fork over. I give Simon four farthings because I’m soft-hearted like that, and get 10 points for it. I then decide to show off Robin’s rougher side by engaging in some archery practice.



This interface is simple enough: Use the black tip of Robin’s arrow as your guide, try to hit the center of the green garlands, and watch out for the wind indicated by the piece of cloth tied to the sapling on the left. I haven’t adjusted the arcade difficulty, but it still takes me a few tries to orient myself and hit the center of each target. Clicking Robin’s hand makes him reload his bow. If you miss Will heckles Robin (totally deserved, by the way; Robin is supposed to be this legendary archer, so he should never miss). You don’t get anything aside from learning the interface, which I assume will come up again, though Robin tells Simon the importance of practice.


The Widow’s House


The Widow and her three sons are friends of the Merry Men, though the Widow seems to have a bit of history with Friar Tuck. Seems he likes her wool. And then they, like Alan earlier, make fun of him for being fat. Not much else goes on here except for introducing the Widow’s sons, from eldest to youngest Hal, Hob, and Dicken. They tell Robin they are going into town and ask if he needs anything. What a swell bunch of kids! Robin does not need anything, but he tells them that, if he ever needs spies, he knows who to ask. There is also talk of the Saturday Fair, which is going to be huge. Foreshadowing, perhaps? I like it! Well done, Christy and company!

Nothing else to do. Robin cannot go into the Widow’s cottage, but he can talk to the ewe.






Oh brother. Let’s just move along.

The Sacred Willow Grove


Nothing to do here, but it sure is pretty. Before stepping into the center, Robin disarms. I’m sure I’ll come back here later.

The only other interesting thing that happened here is that, one screen prior, a little elf ran by. It was too fast for me to click on, and I could not get a screenshot or replicate the occurrence. But this does tell me that there will be some supernatural elements to this game. After the GRITTY REALISM of Police Quest III, I am ready for a fun, fantastical, paperwork-free adventure.

The Ancient Oak


Again, there is nothing to do here yet. Just for fun, I shoot it with an arrow. It does not go well.





The Watling Street Overlook


If Robin walks due west of his camp, he finds Little John standing on a secluded hill overlooking Watling Street. From there, they can spy on passersby in the hopes of finding something interesting, in this case, interesting enough to fill their coffers. Little John warns Robin that he recently saw one of the Sheriff’s men head up the road, and that Robin may want to keep an eye out for his return in case he’s “up to mischief.” You know what that means?

Mischief.

I click “Walk” on the road, and Robin confronts the fiend. I like how Robin’s portrait changes depending on the situation.


This Sheriff’s man is harassing a peasant woman. Her crime? She didn’t pay her taxes! But she claims that she has paid them three times this week. I could make a crack about government overreach, but it’s an election year and I don’t want to let Robin Hood unfairly influence things from beyond the grave. In any event, this proto-IRS agent has the woman at knifepoint, orders Robin to leave, and suggests that the woman can repay him in “other” ways.

“I’m listening bro!”

Robin has other ideas. There are a few ways to proceed, all of which I try:
  • Robin can blow his horn, calling the Merry Men to his aid. The Sheriff’s man is bewildered, but calls Robin a coward for needing help and threatens to kill the woman anyway. Robin orders his men to stand down. 
  • Robin can offer a bribe to the goon. They bicker about whether the woman is released or the money is handed over first. They are unable to come to an agreement and so the stalemate ensues. 
  • Robin can try to parlay with the Sheriff’s man, but no good comes of it. 
  • If Robin walks forward to many times, the Sheriff’s man kills the woman (-100). Robin then takes out his bow and shoots the man dead, commenting on how hollow a victory it is. 
  • Or, Robin can just shoot the bastard, saving the grateful woman (100). 
Awesome.

I really appreciate the multiple responses that the game’s designers thought of in response to actions that the player may take, although the only real solution is to kill the Sheriff’s man. The main variable is whether the woman lives or dies. You can also skip this entire scene, but, being the sweet, caring person I am, I save the woman’s life. The Merry Men then come and, the day over, they all return to the camp for drink, song, and a recapitulation of the day’s events.

Nighttime

Does this guy know how to party or what?

“Bro, total amateur.”

Instead of reveling in his drink, though, Robin is drowning his sorrows. He laments the outlaw life, wishing for the freedom to live . . . to love . . . yes, Robin needs a woman, a fact pointed out by his friends. Sad and bringing the party down, he nearly keels over and is carried to bed by Little John, where he sleeps and dreams . . .


He dreams of a beautiful woman dancing in the sacred willow grove. He is smitten, and eventually appears in his own dream. She turns towards Robin and disappears, though the willows whisper her name: Marian. In her place is a shining emerald. Robin picks it up, and awakens.

But what’s this?


The glowing object Robin picked up in his dream! He has it, here in the waking world! It’s one-half of an emerald heart! Oh boy! A quest! Robin needs to find Marian so they can complete their “BFF” locket! How sweet!

Robin slept until noon, prompting more ribbing from Alan, Little John, and Friar Tuck. He explains his dream and shows them the emerald, telling his friends that he is sure he will meet Marian today.

Will interrupts to tell Robin that a friend of theirs, an informant named Lobb, has an urgent message for Robin involving the King. Lobb is a cobbler in town. He refuses to come to Sherwood Forest. The men muse that Robin will need a disguise to slip in and out of Nottingham unnoticed. Will also informs Robin that Lobb requires he bring a lady’s slipper to prove his identity. I can understand how, in the year 1193, it would be highly likely that even someone who helps a famous outlaw has never seen the outlaw’s face, but I think if Lobb wishes to fulfill his particular fetish he should find someone else to retrieve women’s footwear other than Robin freakin’ Hood.

And on that note, I’ll end this session.

Session Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Total Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Inventory: Horn, money
Ransom: 300
Outlaws: 31
Score: 210 out of 7325

Corrections and Omissions: A new feature where you all tell me what a bonehead I am and I give you CAPs for it.
*5 CAPs to Lupus Yonderboy for pointing out that Leopold was actually the Duke of Austria, which would not become a kingdom until about a century later.
*5 CAPS to Charles for pointing out how to reload Robin’s bow in the archery interface; It was in the manual, which I did read (honest!) but totally forgot about. Instead, I was leaving that screen after each shot. Another 5 CAPs for correcting my spelling of “Spielburg.”
*5 CAPs to Reiko for clarifying that there are multiple responses to the day’s Watling Street encounter, but only one real solution.
*5 CAPs to Ilmari for pointing out that you can skip the Watling Street encounter entirely.

31 comments:

  1. I'm a bit ahead of you, so I could safely read the whole post and can offer a few comments. :-P

    I have to say the beginning of the game was a bit vague in terms of what to do and I found myself walking about directionless for a while until it clicked that I had to actually *wait a bit* standing on the outlook until the "mischievous" tax collector waltzed in from the north (I shot him straight away and then felt remorse, btw-- good to know that it was the only worthy option. Didn't want to restore a previous save because, you know, OUTLAW. Besides, the animation of the whole sequence is great and Robin looks like a real badass).

    Also, THANK YOU for revealing that Watling St. actually runs *diagonally* through the forest, I thought I had messed up my map or that it was one of those dreaded "magic forests". I'm just no good at mapping featureless terrain in Sierra games...

    Two nitpicks: the town from QfG is Spielburg, and the consensus is that the oldest known boardgame is Senet, dating back to Egyptian times.

    Oh and Robin has more than one arrow at his disposal, you just have to click on his hand to reload from the quiver (not too intuitive, but at least it's in the manual!)

    The one thing you did and I did not was giving money to the new recruit. I guess I should act more generously from now on...

    What I'm loving so far: the writing, the included lore (more on this later on), the graphics, and the fact that a few situations offer more than one solution.
    What I'm not so fond of: the fact that we can see all the different plants from the manual but still not do anything with them is distracting and feels too gamey. Also I think it would be better if you could only fast travel only to a location you've already visited or that has some relevance to the current state of the plot.

    PS. Embarrassingly, I admit to having sung along the bard's intro song. It's just that good (did the same when I played Freddy Pharkas)

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    1. Thanks for the tip about the arrow! The funny thing is, I DID read the manual. I guess my reading comprehension skills have deteriorated over the years. Sad.

      And also, I thought I spelled "Spielburg" properly. Damn, this post just wasn't my finest moment.

      The manual calls Nine Men's Morris the oldest game, hence the "purported."

      And don't be embarrassed about singing. No one is judging here (*snickersnortlaughguffaw*) No, really.

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    2. Here's a video of somebody singing it on YouTube: https://youtu.be/pSKqAJUMfDQ

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  2. This post just make me think about Ridley Scotts Robin Hood, and dear god, that is Police Quest 3 of Robin Hood movies. Good film if you look into that, but damn such a boring Robin Hood movie. Just this intro feels like Robin Hood and the hinted supernatural things actually sets this apart from every other movie I can think of... maybe not Kevin Costners with the witch and all that.

    Also what did prince John ever do be to so hated by everyone? Looking into it he can at least claim the signing of the magna charta while Richard emptied the coffers for wars outside Europe. He wasn't even in England for more than 6 months of a 10 year rule so how come he's always the good king?

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    1. Yikes! The Police Quest III of Robin Hood movies. Remind me never to watch it again.

      From an entirely accurate and eerily intelligent, purely historical perspective, I conclude that Prince John's biggest problem was that, unlike his brother, he did not have a sweet nickname like "The Lionheart." In fact, Prince John's commonly used nickname was "The Turkeyneck." No wonder the people hated him.

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    2. Richard had better PR men behind him, that is, chroniclers, who made him an über-macho hero, fighting over Saracens, tearing heart out of a lion (hence, the nickname), etc. In all truth, England would have been taxed less, if Lionheart wouldn't just have loved spending money on totally useless military campaigns, but who remembers that, when you got the glory of battle to speak for you.

      Prince/King John wasn't that good ruler, either, and managed to get in conflict with pope, France and his barons (even Magna Charta was kind of forced on him). Still, he probably was more of an incompetent fool than the epitome of evil he was later turned into.

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    3. @Alex: Don't get me wrong I had real fun watching the movie... together with 3 other fantasy nerds and one even a film enthusiast and we dissected the movie with tropes and comparisons to other Robin Hood moves. But as a Robin Hood movie nothing you wants is there and somewhere Robin Hood is not just an outlaw, he is the founding father of the modern democratic state and rule of law. And don't get me started on D-Day at the White cliffs of Dover.

      @Ilmari: The Chronicler, we got them in Sweden as well, they made Gustav Vasa (ca 1500) almost a superhero against the "evil" danes Christian the Tyrant (in Sweden that is, and I was gonna say he was known as the Good in Denmark, but that was apparently a Swedish myth).

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    4. @Niklas: Oh yes, the chroniclers of Vasa age were the best! I especially liked that they made up a wholly non-realistic ancient history of Sweden, including six completely fictional kings named Charles, just so they could make Charles III into Charles IX.

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    5. @Ilmari: Not only that, the royal family were supposedly decedents of Noah while the Swedish people were descendants of Atlantis. All this reminds me of the first episode of Black Adder which base its idea on Henry VII Tudor rewriting "the actual history" with what we know today.

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    6. In semi-Robin Hood news, my favourite Sheriff of Nottingham and everyone's favourite Hans Gruber has died.

      R.I.P Alan Rickman

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    7. History is for NERDS!

      Just kidding. This discussion of Scandinavian history is very interesting, and goes to prove how history is altered to manipulate the present. Excuse me while I polish my tin-foil hat.

      @TBD Yes, a shame about Mr. Rickman. Lots of dead celebs so far: Scott Weiland, Lemmy, David Bowie, and now Alan Rickman. I thought these came in threes and not fours.

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    8. Ref the fantasy elements, there was a terrific BBC TV series, "Robin of Sherwood", that ran from 1984 - 1986 and featured strong supernatural elements. Christy might have been influenced by that show as well as her own (and Peter Ledger's) fantasy interests.

      See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_of_Sherwood

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    9. "Robin of Sherwood" was a classic that I just loved to watch as a little kid! Supernatural elements might have been inspired by the show, but the amount of Merry Men (30) sounds more like its from some more "traditional" Robin Hood -movie, since in Robin of Sherwood they had always more like six to eight members. And King Richard wasn't idolized, but was ultimately revealed to be rather arrogant and self-loving person.

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    10. I'll have to check out "Robin of Sherwood."

      And the more I learn about King Richard, the less I want to raise the ransom to save him. . .

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  3. Leopold was actually just Duke of Austria, not King, as he held Richard the Lionheart prisoner. Austria only would become a kingdom nearly 100 years later. In Austria this story is very well known, and one can visit the ruins of the castle, where Richard was allegedly imprisoned and then freed by the minstrel "Blondel".

    R.I.P. Alan Rickman, a sad loss

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    1. Thanks for the clarification Lupus. The game calls Leopold "King," and I am (a) not very familiar with Austrian history, and (b) too lazy to check it out online. I'm going to keep it in as King only because that's how the game has it.

      It's interesting that this detail got past the writers, who seem to be very big on history overall. But it doesn't affect the gameplay, so points will not be deducted.

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  4. I kinda think something needs to be said about how the only effective solution to that first encounter is to shoot the sheriff's man. The game can be commended for multiple *responses* but it can't be commended for multiple *solutions*. And it's not a great adventure to have the most violent action be the effective answer right off the bat.

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    1. One thing that must be said is that you can continue playing even without killing the guard and rescuing the woman - the story will run somewhat differently, if you do so, and your actions will have consequences in the end. I'd say it's more of a multiple-choice moment than a puzzle with alternative solutions.

      As for the violent answer being the best choice, I think it works with the outlaw -trope of the game. Robin Hood is there to help the weak and innocent, even with his arms.

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    2. I think I need to rephrase the last paragraph of my previous statement. This game – like the whole Robin Hood –genre has usually been – is very black and white. There are the good, innocent people, and the game encourages you to protect and help them. And then there are the bad oppressors, and the game encourages you to fight and even kill them. In the perspective of the game world, this is what you are supposed to do.

      Of course, this has nothing to do with real world, which is not so black and white and where you just cannot go on killing people you think are bad. I wouldn’t use the game for the purposes of educating anyone for ethically responsible behaviour.

      Then again, I don’t know, if we can in all fairness condemn the game for its black-and-whiteness, when most of the games of its time played with the exact same rules (not to mention, again, the whole Robin Hood –genre with all the book, play and movie adaptations of the story) – you don’t question the evilness of the orcs in Ultima IV, you just bash them, because it increases your courage points. True, there had been notable exceptions in adventure games (King’s Quest is a good example), but I am pretty sure even most of the adventure games of the times still often opted for the violent route (case in point: Space Quest 2, where you can just outwit a guard, but you get the best points by slingshotting him).

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    3. @Ilmari Good points about the nature of the Robin Hood stories. I myself have no problem with good guys killing bad guys as long as (a) there was no other way out of the situation, (b) the bad guys truly deserve it and (c) doing so would prevent harm that not doing so would allow to continue. Here, this guy was going to kill the woman, likely raping her first. And he kept stealing her money by force. So good riddance, I say.

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    4. I'm not sure about having the "correct" action be the most violent one makes for a not-great adventure per se. I did find it a bit odd-- I clicked on the guard thinking the game would prevent me from shooting him outright with some "nay, that would be dishonorable" or something of the sort, and was surprised to see there was no penalty for my extreme prejudice.

      I also found it a bit jarring considering the generally light tone of the game so far (running pixies and talking trees included) and the very nature of the main character, but then again there are other areas where the game doesn't shy away from heavier stuff and makes it clear that these are *tough* times where life depends on split-second decisions.

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    5. Right, Ultima IV is an RPG (albeit an unconventional one and more nuanced than most), so of course you kill the orcs. I agree that Conquests here is showing this kind of RPG-like black and white morality. I guess I'm reacting to the way that adventure games usually have you defeating bad guys by clever use of situations or items, not by straight-out shooting them.

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    6. A few points we've been glossing over are that this game takes place in the year 1197 and that Robin Hood is a wanted man whom elsewhere the Sheriff's men will kill on sight.

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  5. @Reiko You are absolutely right. I was remiss in calling them "multiple solutions" when they are clearly just different responses that the game's programmers and writers thought to include. They add richness to the game, but as you said, the only SOLUTION is to shoot the goon. Or, as Ilmari said in his comment, skip that scene entirely.

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    1. I've always looked on games with 'scores' as telling you the actual right way of doing something. For instance, in King's Quest 1, it's possible to use the ring of invisibility (or a touch of creativity in hiding) to take from the giant above the clouds. Use the pebble and stone and you can also do so - at a cost to your points. It was always an active way of actually stopping (well, me at least) from indulging in said little bit of violence. Inversely, giving points for killing the poor guard who was just doing his job? Yup, that's a point earner.

      At least in QFG, the only enemies you need to kill (brigands, etc) are ones that actually strike first. This game, I feel, is more trying to stage its 'this game is serious' card early in this way, maybe? Nothing like encouraging your protagonist to kill with the allure of cheap points to make a game serious!

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    2. You get cheap points for giving money to the poor, too, which I guess is pretty Robin Hoody. But not really "cheap," now that I think about it.

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  6. I always wonder why King Richard gets such a good rap in English history. He spent pretty much his entire reign in France and he probably did not speak English. And for all that the Robin Hood story ends with Richard coming back and punishing his evil brother John, it fails to mention that KING John would be back around quite soon and drive the country into ruin. Well, ruin except for the Magna Carta. I heard that worked out pretty well, so far.

    And I believe that King Leopold in this game was never really a king, he was a Duke. But that might be just a nit-pick detail.

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    1. You're right about Leopold, but the game calls him "King." Keep the nitpicks coming, though. I love them.

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  7. Brief history discussion:

    It's very difficult to know exactly how and when our modern view of ancient kings was formed. One way is to look at it from the perspective of the time - let's say, the year 1200 - where Richard was the model of the early medieval king: tall, broad, brave, strong in word and deed, direct, aggressive, pious. He was also the negative sides of those things: cruel, greedy, coarse, crude, violent, wanton, and righteous.

    It's interesting to read about Richard encountering Salah ad-Din (Saladin) during the Crusades - Richard was basically an aggressive, violent pig who frequently slaughtered innocents and prisoners of war, while Saladin was a cultured, subtle man who treated Christian prisoners surprisingly well and very rarely executed if he could avoid it.

    John, on the other hands, was someone who embodied most of the undesirable traits of the age: totally impious, cynical, perpetually intriguing, kept his own counsel, was spiteful and vengeful, trusted few and was trusted by none, betrayed nobles by carrying on affairs with their wives, betrayed his own family, didn't possess a particularly strong military mind, took money from the church, etc. He was the youngest brother and essentially assumed the throne by simply outsurviving the other four.

    Richard's treatment of England - as essentially a tax base to fund his wars for his French possessions and then his Crusades - was remarked upon during his lifetime, but excused away mostly in that (a) he was winning victories against the hated French, and (b) had experienced some measure of glory fighting under the banner of Christiandom.

    Plus, by staying away from England almost his entire reign Richard allowed the nobles to do what they pleased - and they certainly made full advantage of this. John, by contrast, attempted to clamp down on what he saw as the threatening, ever-expanding rights of his richest subjects, who then rebelled and forced him to acquiesce to the Magna Carta.

    To the mind of a citizen of the year ~1200, John deserved the scorn heaped on him not just by his personality flaws but by losing his campaigns in France, failing to hold on to the holdings and prestige of the crown, losing everything his brother and father had fought for, and worst of all starting a civil war that destabilized England.

    Even their deaths are emblematic - Richard was shot near the neck by a bolt or arrow while sieging a castle in France. Shot by a mere boy who was pardoned by a dying Richard, who held on long enough to die in the arms of his beloved mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. The chronicle described it "the lion by the ant was slain."

    John, by contrast, was at a stalemate in his civil war with his barons, then lost the Crown Jewels to quicksand when crossing The Wash by King's Lynn, then died almost immediately after of dysentery. My favorite rendition says he contracted the disease from eating a "surfeit of peaches."

    There's also the factor that many of our sources from that period were monks, and they were obviously heavily biased in favor of the church. The king who took the cross and journeyed hundreds of miles to save the Holy Land? A fair, brave king. The king who left church positions empty so he could take their salaries, routinely mocked church doctrine, and was excommunicated? Clearly an immoral, terrible king.

    The portrayal of both kings has been revised and edited repeatedly over the last few centuries. From what I remember, our current "Bad King John" perception comes from the romantic Victorian historians who liked to mythologize fairly heavily. But John has been rehabilitated somewhat in recent years, while Richard has been criticized particularly heavily - like in the book I mentioned above that compares and contrasts him to Saladin. It all depends on the standards of the age that is looking back. Both were fully rounded human beings who had the misfortune to live in a time that is poorly documented.

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    1. Nice writeup, JC! Where's the "Like" button? :-)

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    2. Thank you! I really appreciate that.

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