This diary first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 353 in January 2021. We do one every month, taking on new challenges and approaching our favourite games from entirely new angles – and letting you know how we got on.
Part Two of this diary is now available.
The Darklands. A war-scarred waste where everything preys upon the people: orcs, goblins, bandits, corpse-eaters, barbarians, giants, great beasts from direwolf to lindwurm, hell, even the dead come back for us. But the worst monster? The predator that kills more of the peasants than any other? It's a vast parasite, a swollen tick growing fatter off the backsweat of the common man: the nobility.
They raised us up for one of their wars, their endless wars, and they said it was to protect our town. Thirty of us volunteered, but they fed us into the maw of battle and only twelve came out alive. The worst part? There were just as many scared, unhappy peasants on the other side. The only people who wanted to be there killing each other were the nobles.
Fuck the nobles. Me and these 12 men aren't living by their rules anymore. We're bloody northerners, people of the town of Bokenberg. A speck on the rolling tundra. Our forefathers laboured in the salt pits before the nobles were here and we'll be here long after the entire House of Rumholt is mouldering in their, admittedly expensive, tombs.
We're a peasant militia now, but we'll soon be mercenaries. Eventually the Darklands Peoples' Front will put terror in the hearts of the nobility. Common people fighting for the common people. We'll have no more trade with the nobles, and no nobles among us. And if we get strong enough to take from the nobles, hell, we'll do that too. We may be uneducated, we might not have tomes of lore about the world and how it works, but that won't hinder us. Actually, that probably will hinder us a lot.
I draw up our charter and we agree on everything in Bokenberg. I'm in charge because I'm smartest, and I do everything that isn't fighting. There are 12 others. The farmhands Thilmann, who rarely speaks, and Wolfgang, who is very good with his war fork. Leonhard, the local poacher, armed with a sling-staff for throwing stones. Walram the Lucky, a gambler forced to fight. Niels and Ruthard, both day labourers. Sorrel the miller, who we all know was a shit miller, but he brought his own weapon so we're not kicking him out. Alfred, a fisherman from god knows where—the nobles press-ganged him and brought him north to fight. Fritz the butcher, who we let in for obvious reasons. Then there's the last two members of the old town militia: Alwin the axeman, strong as a horse, and Gebhard, a good spearman. Oh, and Reinhold, the town minstrel. We all thought he was a coward, but he didn't run away in the war. Good enough for us.
The labourers and the minstrel and the fisherman don't even have weapons, so we spend some of what little money we have on a few bludgeons at the market. We make Reinhold sling a bow across his back along with his lute. Bjarne, the town's elected steward, asks us to do our first job, protecting the trade caravan heading a day's travel south. I ask for a bit of extra money in advance so we can make payroll on the trip down.
After a long, uneventful march we make it to Waidtal, a town across mountains from the northern tundra, between the temple forest and the brittle branch woods. It's in the territory of other nobles, House Rosenving. Their soldiers wear shiny armour and colourful uniforms, but there are beggars in the streets.
We ask one of them, a maimed unfortunate called Leif, if he'd like 30 coins and a wage to become a mercenary. Leif has two lazy eyes and about half his teeth and the worst white-guy dreadlocks I've ever seen, but he says his mother was a barbarian so he should be a natural. We give him a metal-shod club and stick him on the flank.
The next job is retrieving a stolen lockbox from some petty thieves. Leonhard the poacher tracks them into the woods, northeast, for a half-day before catching up. There are seven of them spread out among some pretty thick woods. I forget to keep a real battle line together. Reinhold fires off arrows and Leonhard tosses stones but they somehow miss every shot.
Neils, Leif and Fritz are wounded pretty quickly—but not before Fritz takes an arm off a thief with his butcher's cleaver. One of the bandits—who has a real sword, shield, armour—steps up to Alwin the axeman and takes his head off in a stroke. Ruthard tries to help and another bandit disembowels him. Alwin's friend Gehbard, roaring, puts both bandits down one after the other with some deft spear-thrusts to the neck and chest.
After the fight we realise that we could have taken weapons and shields off the enemy dead mid- battle. Probably would have helped those of us fighting with farm implements and naught much else. We trek back to Waidtal and collect our reward. None of us can read, but a few can count to a thousand. We count every coin twice.
A trader is headed back north, stopping at the big city of Bolasted, just a half-day from home in Bokenberg. We'd like to see family again. We sign up to guard him. It's a suspicious job though. He's self-assured and offering too little money. He wants to leave town before dawn.
Before we leave, we tell Leif he's a real blooded mercenary now. We give him Alwin's two-handed axe and make him shave his godawful head. We hire an impoverished tailor named Reimar to join the company. He has soft hands, but brought his own dagger. He's still the butt of most of the jokes at the night's campfire.
The caravan gets ambushed the second we leave sight of town. Like I said, suspicious deal. It's a night attack and we've got no idea who's coming or how many. Reinhold steps forward to get a good look at the enemy's disposition and is rapidly engaged. It's at this point that we realise Reinhold isn't carrying anything but his bow, his quiver, and his lute. He's got no way to defend himself. He manages to slip out of melee and Niels rushes between him and two bandits. It's the last thing Niels ever does.
In the centre Sorrel the miller, freshly armed with an axe we took off the other bandits, manages to cut down two enemies in quick succession with strikes to the head. Lop, lop, two dead bandits. The tailor jumps on another, and like threading a needle, slips his dagger right into the bandit's heart. We will not laugh at the Reimar the Tailor anymore, he's earned our respect.
Meanwhile, Gebhard and Wolfgang manage to peel a bandit off of Reinhold. That leaves just one bandit with a shield and club. In the dark we can't tell if he's wearing a helmet or is just a mass of beard and filthy hair. Desperate, Reinhold pulls his lute and takes a swing: he brains the bandit, stunning him. There's a snap and crack. The stunned bandit drops dead with a fractured skull. Leonhard has hit something for the first time anyone can remember. He seems just as surprised as everyone else.
We make it back north without further incident, but it's starting to feel like the peasants have so many problems that we'll never get around to solving them all. An odd man who makes maps hires us to go scout the temple forest for a place called ‘The Grim Tombs'. We find them, observe from a safe distance, and move on. It's a bad looking place, an ancient ruin and a tomb to boot. Leonhard says he's seen places like it before. His father said they're ruins from the old empire 500 years ago. Anyway, easiest 500 crowns we've ever made. We put it behind us. If only we'd known not to go back there. But I get far, far ahead of myself.
Flush with wealth we make Fritz the Butcher give up his cleaver for a proper heavy falchion. He says it's lucky and pouts, but gives in. Later he gets drunk and ‘loses' the new sword and we give him a month of latrine duty for it.
Making our way back home to Bokenberg we spot smoke in the distance. Some barbarian reavers burned a goat farm and the headman offers us coin to go burn down their camp in return. East across the tundra we find their camp, guarded by their thralls. They look absurd charging at us, hats made from bear heads, club-cleavers made of sharpened antler. It's not funny when one takes Sorrel the miller's head clean off his shoulders, or when another puts a spear straight through Reimar. So much for the promising tailor, we'd just started liking him!
Leonhard does manage to land a few stones during the battle, which we later joke makes sense since he's used to shooting at animals. For all that the barbarians looked absurd they do have a good bit of worthwhile loot. Leonhard trades in his sling for a bundle of javelins. After these last few fights a lot of the men have gotten experience and new skills, and the income means nobody has an improvised weapon anymore. No more bucklers, no more pitchforks. Real spears, real shields. Gods, this stuff is expensive. Who can pay for these weapons? Oh, right. Those sodding nobles.
By the time we're back Bokenberg has another problem: monsters. Something grabbed all the sheep and one of the shepherds. Could be bandits, could be a mountain giant—an unhold. We don't know. But we hire some new kids before we leave town. Farmhands, all. They look so young.
After a day's trek into the mountains, the monsters turn out to be direwolves. They're huge, but there are only four of them. How bad could it be? Really bad, it turns out. Leif goes down immediately, his long axe-shaft proving to be little protection against 400 pounds of muscle, fur and razor-sharp claws. One of the new kids, Gero, takes a look at that and runs. Leonhard the poacher, in his element fighting beasts, hits every javelin shot, taking down two wolves while the others distract them. Thilmann, stolid and quiet in his broad-brimmed farmhand's hat, keeps his shield up as a wolf slams into it again and again. Leonhard flanks around and puts two javelins into first one wolf, then another.
As the new kids are stripping the hides from the wolf corpses we realise that Leif is still alive under a wolf carcass. The beast ripped his nose clean off. His gut is punctured with a neat arc of claw-holes. He's uglier now, but he's alive. We have just enough medicine to keep there until we get ourselves back to Bokenberg.
We collect our coins, though it's not enough to make up for what we spent. Seems obvious now, but when you only work for the lowborn you get paid lowborn wages.
We decide to head back south before winter sets in. The further we get from our home turf the better chance we have of finding nobles to loot who can't burn Bokenberg in return. We barter the wolf meat for a sack of grain, buy a couple sacks of salt for trading, and hit the tavern before we leave. Rumour has it that Waidtal has a giant spider problem. We'll stop there on our way to sunnier climes...