On Crusader Kings 3, and Goutish Rule
(originally posted April 28, 2021)
Check me out. I walk the route to my second favorite concubine’s tower tracing out a scalloped pattern on one side. Wooden leg, 3rd Crusade.
Now, if you’re standing in front of me and move about 60 degrees peripheral, I lose you completely behind my silver faceplate. I look like Gerry Cheevers, the ’70s goalie who used to decorate his mask with stitches wherever a puck hit him. Botched surgery, leprosy.
So with all apologies to Roger Angell,  yes, I’ve been doing a lot of vicarious living through Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings 3, this pandemic. I originally started work on this piece right in that mid-2020 haze, when playing CK3 seemed to have all sorts of preternatural resonance. I had baronial European maps up on one monitor and the Times’ coronavirus hotspot maps on the other. The president, infected and unmasked, was billowing miasma across the rose garden; #resistance pundits had taken to reading tea leaves in his variegating rosacea. And I’d gaze over at the scrunched-up, pouty face of whichever inbred heir I happened to be playing as and think to myself: hey, look at us.
I hadn’t ever taken to Crusader Kings 2 this way. And I don’t chalk that all up to the third game’s much-touted UX/UI improvements, which honestly I’d be hard-pressed to quantify. More that I was finally in the right state to receive it (and that state is quarantine-induced depression). I happened to have also watched Peter Brook’s 1953 King Lear in the same period and was struck by the foreword that the show’s host delivered. Forgive me for quoting so much of it here, but reading it, maybe you can imagine how this whole bit might feel apropos to someone playing Crusader Kings, specifically, in the year that was 2020:
“We do know that he [Shakespeare] lost an 11 year old son. And that in the preceding years—when he was writing Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello—he seems to have been obsessed with public vices, like ambition and treason, and private agonies, like jealously and lust. And now here he came to take an old Celtic myth about an aging king who divided his kingdom between three daughters, in the hope of ensuring their devotion to him. A hope that you’ll see was doomed to defeat.
Now for two centuries, this play was baffling, and it was unpopular. The 18th century didn’t like it because they believed…they wanted to believe, that Providence was a very reasonable being who ran the universe in a very orderly fashion, according to the new rules laid down by Sir Isaac Newton. So they called it disorderly, barbaric. The 19th Century, an optimistic age, felt that its pessimism ran counter to the prosperity of the British Empire, and the blessings of the steam engine and the export trade. So they said it was very morbid.
And now we. At least those of us that have been lucky to survive the violence and the barbarities of the 20th century. Maybe we are a little better qualified to look at this work with a little more humility.”
Not to suggest that Crusader Kings 3 is Lear. But I probably do look at these games with a little more humility, now that I’ve watched my country hit every rock on the tumble all the way down from 9/10/2001 to the doorstep of Donald Trump. And certainly, CK3 is also pessimistic, barbaric, and morbid—as any “4x” game must be, and then some—and obsessed with public vices. It’s a game in which lords and ladies lie, cheat, and steal from each other, when they’re not putting down “peasant rabble” by force or effecting cultural and religious hegemony.
I suppose that might make Crusader Kings 3 seem like a weird choice for the newly class-conscious. The game is formally uninterested in the plight of the working man: he appears only as the aforementioned rabble, or when he’s mustered into a levy. Its perspective is a horizontal slice through the feudal order—CK3 is so keyed-in on estate ownership that it won’t allow you to play as anyone who doesn’t own at least one castle. Just about everyone who’s empowered to do anything in the game is landed, but just about everyone they’d want to do anything to is landed as well, and so schadenfreude runs rampant. It’s as though all those barons and sheiks are stuck in a purgatorial game of Risk, cursed to scheme and be schemed against for the rest of their natural born lives.
CK3 is the opposite of an “empathy game.” Over the course of a playthrough the player inevitably churns through so many dead dukes that it’s hard to remember their names, let alone feel like you ever really embody any of them. There are so many lavish ways that they can come to death and disgrace, and comparatively few lasting glories. A duchy conquered is just a change in color on the board (forum-goers often derisively refer to this as “map-painting”). A trophy your character wins during a hunt is ultimately just a little green icon, and maybe a small stat bonus. A great feast is just a regularly recurring paragraph of text and a 10% chance of gaining the trait “Alcoholic.” That also makes it the opposite of something like Netflix’s The Crown, another piece of royal portraiture which, though also interested in scandal, has for much of its run taken pains to highlight the quiet dignity of privileged people making mostly inconsequential principled gestures. Image rehabilitation for anyone who might currently be, say, presiding over an empire in decline, I have to imagine.
Crusader Kings is not interested in image, unless it can be tarnished. It places a sort of aesthetic cap on grandeur, because there are no resplendent thrones that characters can be shown atop, no lavishly rendered palaces. There is only the portrait, and the devs have made that a devil’s bargain, too:
“Before 1.2 ugliness worked by changing skin texture and making all facial features more extreme. This is still the case, but in 1.2 we also pick a single or a small set of features to make especially extreme. This can result in a character for instance having a particularly messed up nose, a face that’s too small for their head, or the tiniest mouth. Focusing on small feature sets like this helps ensure that ugly people are varied in their ugliness, and more readily identifiable as “ugly”.”
That’s quite nearly “All handsome people are alike, but every ugly person is ugly in their own way.” While a few traits can boost a character’s “Attraction,” there is only a single trait for “Beauty.” But a character can lose Attraction by being “Scaly,” or “Club-footed,” or “Hunchbacked,” or “Spindly.” Or a “Leper,” or “Hideous,” or “Feeble” (or “Weak,” on top of that). Or “Disfigured,” or “One-Legged” or “One-Eyed.”
CK3 has a character creator now, and sure: I could take the time to mold some flattering Adonis version of myself, but why bother when medieval entropy or the bubonic plague can sweep my creation off the table in a couple seasons? Before that update, CK3 had already taught me not to be too precious with my characters—even in “Ironman” mode, where the player can only “live on” through a single heir. By then I’d already learned from the rookie mistake of overinvesting in a character that won’t inherit: I’d seen favored heirs cut down because they were too talented not to be the ones leading my army into battle. I’d awarded huge swathes of empire to AI-controlled 2nd sons only to see them basically lose it in a card game. On such occasions I could only watch and languish as my countries came to ruin, trapped in my capital and the body of my incompetent de facto heir, cuckolded by my own NPCs. Lear would sympathize.
That’s now two different kinds of body horror, if you’re playing the home game. Three if you count reddit user Zak7062, who famously cannibalized the Pope in one of his playthroughs. “The conquering of every holy site…the defeat of 3 crusades…the executions of hundreds of Christians so I could reform the faith to become a cannibal…all for this moment,” reads his post bragging of the feat. Comments below agree that this surely represents some kind of victory in Crusader Kings 3, if not one formally recognized by the ruleset. By the Transitive Property of Transubstantiation, at least, you’ve probably gotta call it a win.
New Games Journalism, of which I am a late disciple, is all about storytelling, and thus highly amenable to these kinds of easy anecdotes that a Crusader Kings 3 (or Dwarf Fortress, or Caves of Qud) readily spawns. Take for example that time I, the Caliph of Córdoba, raised the call to jihad, and Bavaria answered it. Or when another player’s elderly male king was impregnated by his gay lover. One never wants for a lede. CK3 renders such events with an aesthetic sensibility I most associate lately with creepy mobile game ads: a character frozen in theatrical surprise at another’s swollen belly, or seething at the back of another one who’s sporting a look of smug contentment.
These events are sometimes awkwardly reflexive, betraying the matrix tables that underpin a procedural game. It’s not unusual to be informed, say, that a character has conspired against themself. And yet this almost feels like an apt eccentricity—the complication of titles and hierarchies being what it is, I bet it isn’t so strange for a royal to be notified that, owing to the death of some second cousin, they’ve suddenly become the earl of themselves.
Not very relatable, though. One of New Games Journalism’s other [somewhat infamous] affections is placing yourself in the game, like I did back there when I called myself a caliph. When someone does that with CK3, it’s hard not to inflect it with heavy irony—the situations are just too absurd for someone making a journalist’s salary. It’s more natural to first-person yourself into Doomguy, and talk earnestly about that one time you chainsawed a Cacodemon in half.
…Except for one thing. CK3 characters incur (potentially fatal) levels of Stress when they act against their predilections, and lose Stress when they indulge. Inherit a “Greedy” character, for example, and they’ll gain great amounts of Stress when made to perform acts of charity. You eventually learn to chase their moral medicine with a spoonful of their preferred vice, like a drinking binge, or a trip to the brothel. They stress eat, and stress drink, and suffer the repercussions.
And that, I get. I’m up 15 lbs, since March 2020, and it’s mostly fudge brownies and Flying Dog Double IPAs. I feel it whenever I pull myself out of my home office desk chair, and swing my stiff legs out in a Vitruvian arc, to go on one of my shambling, flagellant runs. Yours truly recently panic-cancelled a scheduled physical so he could be “better prepared for it,” like an outlier blip on my blood pressure chart should be omitted on account of extraneous circumstances. Like there won’t be more stress right around the corner, in 2022, in 2024. Q-fucking-Anon has already gone from the pages of Reddit to congress for a two year term.
Kings, it was once said, had two bodies (the lucky shmucks): “one physical, which was destined to perish, the other institutional, which is perpetuated in the kingdom.” The “body natural,” and the “body politic.” It was meant as an explication of the notion of divine right, but in CK3, the relationship between the two feels less flattering.
It’s the physical bodies that take pride of place when you boot the game up—your lunatic king, looking mildly bewildered, and his whiskey-nosed queen, a toddler heiress at their feet grimacing through one of those disconcertingly adult faces from dark age paintings.
I’ve restarted the game enough times now to start noticing the correlation between their mien and the stability of their realms. What you’ve got here is your classic Bizarro Dorian Gray scenario: bad things happen to your kingdom, and your portrait develops a corresponding ugliness (also you exist only as the portrait). Maybe the kingdom’s sickness is inherited down to your progeny, too. There’s your “body natural” and “body politic:” both subject to bloat, misuse, injury, illness, and the whims of bored Redditors.