In the 400-something hours I’ve clocked in the Mount and Blade games, I’ve rarely bumped the difficulty above easy. It only provides a handful of bonuses: reduced damage, decreased troop upkeep, a speed boost on the overworld map. But as those bonuses interact with all of Mount and Blade’s systems, they cascade until your character has a gravity that pulls the game off its axis and into chaos. It’s a rare image of protagonism, with you playing the monster.
It would be terrifying to share a world with a player character. You’d be coexisting with someone who literally operates under a different set of rules, casually warping reality as easily as they breathe. They act in ways that you can’t, and the world reacts in ways it won’t for you. For no discernible reason, the universe has chosen them as its sole fascination.
In plenty of cases, there’s in-universe justification to paint over the existential horror: the main character’s the chosen one of some divine entity, went to the best secret agent school, or has a dragon’s soul in there somewhere. But games where your character’s theoretically just as mundane as anyone else can turn into a kind of morbid spectacle.
Imagine you’re the Vlandian noble from my recent Bannerlord campaign. For the last month, you’ve heard rumours of a stranger who appeared as if from nowhere. With only a dozen gathered peasants, they’ve stamped out the region’s banditry, carting in apprehended highwaymen for the city ransom brokers twice a day. Now they stand before you, offering their services as a mercenary in your king’s war effort. You can’t be blamed for what follows. You see only a probably-filthy vigilante; how could you know they’re just one cavalry lance’s worth of mercenary wages away from being a regicidal apex predator?
Within a month of sealing their contract, you have cause for concern. The first time you fight alongside the stranger, you watch bewildered as they wade into the fray, shrugging off blows that should be fatal. Death casually overlooks those who fight under their command—in weeks, their pitchfork-wielding companions become an elite fighting force, leaping through upgrade tiers and hundreds of weapon skill points.
Your peers share strange stories: how even merchants in enemy holdings seem incapable of refusing every blunted axe the stranger offers to barter for fresh provisions. Another lord swears he watched them leave their own horse midbattle to leap into the saddle of the Imperial cavalryman they’d just skewered, only to see “how much higher its handling rating was”.
When the king grants the stranger vassalage and the realm’s poorest fief as a token for their wartime contributions, your fellows among the nobility reassure themselves, insisting he’ll have no further cause to entertain the upstart’s ambition.
Within weeks, you watch with horror as the stranger conquers the coastal city of Ortysia with only 200 soldiers, besting a fortified garrison four times their number. As the city’s new lord, they linger only long enough to appoint someone to tend its affairs in their absence.
Years pass. You can’t remember how many wars have followed the Western Empire’s fall. Some of its lords sit beside you at Vlandia’s court, while your closest countrymen kneel to other crowns—fealty is a fickle thing, when the only thing between you and the cost of rebuilding your holdings and armies is a certain warrior’s attention span.
Meanwhile, despite the newly declared war against Battania, they’ve ridden off to the far side of the Calradian continent. Their warband followed, robbing Vlandia of its most capable defenders just so they could see how they look with one of those cool helmets the Khuzaits sell.
On their return journey, they happen across the Battanian king’s party in the field, prompting the stranger’s realisation that they’ve never seen what happens when they behead a monarch. It’s just the latest terror in a world where the stranger’s victories are an inevitability. You take solace, at least, in the fact that it hasn’t occurred to them to declare their own kingdom. You have no way of knowing they need just a few more battles’ worth of renown to do so.