This week, we’re going to be a bit silly and talk about the recently released Royal Court, a DLC expansion for Paradox’s medieval grand strategy game Crusader Kings III, because I think it is attempting something fairly interesting that relatively few strategy games do. This isn’t going to be a review – there are a lot of those out there and as they mostly say, if you enjoy CKIII, then Royal Court is probably worth your time, particularly if you like to play large realms (if you prefer to play very small realms or tribal polities, there is less here for you).
What I think is interesting here is the way that the expansion attempts, and to a significant degree succeeds, to direct the player’s attention much more to the typical job of being king (or indeed, lesser nobles as well, but only kings and above have courts in Royal Court). The main new feature is the aforementioned royal courts: kings and emperors establish courts which play host to new events. Based on how grand your realm is, your vassals will expect your court to be relatively fancy; you can achieve this ‘grandeur’ through fancy stuff (artifacts, displayed in the court) or fancy amenities, or both. Amenities cost money and so rulers have to put meaningful financial power behind keeping up appearances. Vassals and subjects may then come and hang out as guests in your court, creating events and interactions. All of these things – your court’s grandeur (or lack thereof) and your court activities – have opinion impacts with your subjects and vassals.
I think this is actually a great set of mechanics and systems that do in fact express a lot of the tasks of what doing kingship actually looked like, frankly in a much better way than a lot of medieval and medieval fantasy popular culture tends to do. I saw one player review complaining that all they had done was add a lot of busywork and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Yes! That’s the point (but I actually think the busy work is pretty well crafted, all told).
Kingship and Legitimacy
All of this goes to the nature of kingship. As I hammer home to my students, no one rules alone and no ruler can hold a kingdom by force of arms alone. Kings and emperors need what Hannah Arendt terms power – the ability to coordinate voluntary collective action – because they cannot coerce everyone all at once. Indeed, modern states have far, far more coercive power than pre-modern rulers had – standing police forces, modern surveillance systems, powerful administrative states – and of course even then rulers must cultivate power if only to organize the people who run those systems of coercion.
How does one cultivate power? The key factor is legitimacy. To the degree that people regard someone (or some institution) as the legitimate authority, the legitimate ruler, they will follow their orders mostly just for the asking. After all, if a firefighter were to run into the room you are in right now and say “everybody out!” chance are you would not ask a lot of questions – you would leave the room and quickly! You’re assuming that they have expertise you don’t, a responsibility to fight fires, may know something you don’t and most importantly that their position of authority as the Person That Makes Sure Everything Doesn’t Burn Down is valid. So you comply and everyone else complies as a group which is, again, the voluntary coordination of collective action (the firefighter is not going to beat all of you if you refuse so this isn’t violence or force), which is power.
At the same time, getting that compliance, for the firefighter, is going to be dependent on looking the part. A firefighter who is a fit-looking person in full firefighting gear who you’ve all seen regularly at the fire station is going to have an easier time getting you all to follow directions than a not-particularly-fit fellow who claims to be a firefighter but isn’t in uniform and you aren’t quite sure who they are or why they’d be qualified. The trappings contribute to legitimacy which build power. Likewise, if your local firefighters are all out of shape and haven’t bothered to keep their fire truck in decent shape, you – as a community – might decide they’ve lost your trust (they’ve lost legitimacy, in fact) and so you might replace them with someone else who you think could do the job better.
Royal power works in similar ways. Kings aren’t obeyed for the heck of it, but because they are viewed as legitimate and acting within that legitimate authority (which typically means they act as the chief judge, chief general and chief priest of a society; those are the three standard roles of kingship which tend to appear, in some form, in nearly all societies with the institution). The situation for monarchs is actually more acute than for other forms of government. Democracies and tribal councils and other forms of consensual governments have vast pools of inherent legitimacy that derives from their government form – of course that can be squandered, but they start ahead on the legitimacy game. Monarchs, by contrast, have to work a lot harder to establish their legitimacy and doing so is a fairly central occupation of most monarchies, whatever their form. That means to be rule effectively and (perhaps more importantly) stay king, rulers need to look the part, to appear to be good monarchs, by whatever standard of ‘good monarch’ the society has.
In most societies that has traditionally meant that they need not only to carry out those core functions (chief general, chief judge, chief priest), but they need to do so in public in a way that can be observed by their most important supporters. In the case of a vassalage-based political order, that’s going to be key vassals (some of whom may be mayors or clerics rather than fellow military aristocrats). We’ve talked about how this expresses itself in the ‘chief general’ role already.
I’m reminded of a passage from the Kadesh Inscription, an Egyptian inscription from around 1270 BC which I often use with students; it recounts (in a self-glorifying and propagandistic manner) the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC). The inscription is, of course, a piece of royal legitimacy building itself, designed to convince the reader that the Pharaoh did the ‘chief general’ job well (he did not, in the event, but the inscription says he did). What is relevant here is that at one point he calls his troops to him by reminding them of the good job he did in peace time as a judge and civil administrator (the ‘chief judge’ role)(trans. from M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol 2 (1976)):
Did I not rise as lord when you were lowly,
and made you into chiefs [read: nobles, elites] by my will every day?
I have placed a son on his father’s portion,
I have banished all evil from the land.
I released your servants to you,
Gave you things that were taken from you.
Whosoever made a petition,
“I will do it,” said I to him daily.
No lord has done for his soldiers
What my majesty did for your sakes.
This is a side of kingship that few games address in any real depth. Most strategy games focus almost exclusively on the military responsibilities of the king to the exclusion of most everything else, while RPGs that put the player in a position as ruler (Neverwinter Nights 2, Pillars of Eternity, Pathfinder: Kingmaker and Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous all come to mind) usually only have a handful of disputes for you to resolve, most of which typically tie back into the main story and your wandering adventures. There typically isn’t a point where you have to just sit down and spend a whole day judging cases or working through the intricacies of the contractual obligations of your land tenants, even off-screen (credit-for-the-exception to the amazing and underappreciated Tyranny, where the character represents the king as a sort of itinerant judge and absolutely gets asked to resolve these kind of disputes).
Disputes in Royal Court
What Royal Court does well, I think, is in introducing the performance of non-military elements of kingship more fully into the game. And I do mean performance because, remember, you have to be seen to do these things. Which is where the court in royal court comes in, because this is precisely the sort of activity (fitting under that ‘chief judge’ role) that kings had to be doing all the time in order to be acting out the role of ‘good king’ in a visible way which would encourage legitimacy among their key supporters (mostly other military aristocrats).
In the game, this takes the form of the ‘Hold Court’ button, which you can do every five years (which sounds like an absurdly long interval but the way the game is played actually feels fairly frequent) which triggers three ‘petitions’ – dilemmas that you have to choose a response to. The court itself can also generate dilemmas outside of these formal sessions, usually once every other year or so (again, that ends up being fairly frequent in the scheme of the game where a normal playthrough covers centuries. For reference, I am about 30 hours of game time into my current game, and 200 years into the playthrough, so that’s ‘holding court’ more than once an hour).
Most of these are disputes that the player, as ruler, has to resolve in some way. A number of them (especially the ones that occur randomly between formal court petitions) are personal issues – petty disputes between courtiers, family members, etc. But a lot of them are exactly the sort of disputes that kings (and other high nobles) are forever dealing with in our sources: land disputes between vassals, vassals seeking redress of crimes committed by other vassals (or their subjects), petitions by common subjects for tax relief or protection and endless disputes about who got what castle and did they deserve it.
Kings were deeply involved in these sorts of legal matters because as kings they both set the law and were expected to at least oversee its enforcement. For common crimes, that might mean the king acting as the head of a larger legal system but of course for disputes (and vassals) that occurred above the purview of those judges, the king would have to involve themselves personally. Moreover, of course, for the king to get personally involved and to hear the cases and disputes himself, provided an opportunity for the king to be seen doing so, which was important to establishing legitimacy, to look kingly.
When I’ve taught vassalage-based political systems (it has been a while) one of the readings I use is exactly this sort of dispute, a letter from Hugh IV of Lusignan, detailing his seemingly endless land disputes with his neighbors and demanding that his liege (in this case, Duke William V of Aquitaine) do something about them.1 A brief set of excerpts from the letter can give a sense of these sort of disputes (jumping around a bit because Hugh does a lot of whining and I want to stress all of the dispute-resolving William has to do) (trans. T. Greene and B.H. Rosenwein):
When Ralph [viscount of Thouars] died, Hugh asked the count [William of Acquitaine] to restore him the land which Ralph had seized from him […] after the death of both men [a bishop and Hugh’s uncle Joscelin], the count made an agreement between Hugh and Bishop Isembert that Hugh would get half of the castle and half of the demesne and two shares of the vassals’ fiefs
After the death of Aimery a great dispute began between his son Aimery and Hugh. At the same time, Hugh went to the count and said to him, “Things are going badly for me now, my Lord, because I have none of the property which you acquired for me.” The Count answered him, “I am going to hold a public hearing so that if they act well, good; if not, I will turn over to you the castle which I started.”
When Hugh heard this [that William wasn’t going to help him] he went to the court of the count and made the case for his rights, but it did him no good. This saddened Hugh, and in the hearing of all he renounced his fealty to the count, except what he owed for the city and his own person
Hugh demanded [of the counter] that he return the honor [read: fief] of his father and the other things which belonged to his relatives and to which he had right, and he would surrender the tower [he just took from a third party by force] and all the things that he had taken within it…the count thought this over and they arranged for a hearing. And the count said to Hugh, “I will not give you those honors which you ask of me, but I will give you that honor which was your uncle’s – the castle, the tower and the entire honor – on the condition that you no longer demand of me that honor which was your father’s, or others of your relatives, nor anything which you claim as your right.”
As noted, many of the disputes you resolve in Royal Court are these sorts of disputes. The resolutions are invariably less complex in order to make them more legible to a player, of course; typically some mix of: favor party A but anger party B, favor party B but anger party A, make both parties happy by expending your resources instead, or anger both parties by seizing the disputed thing for yourself. The simplification is understandable in the context of a game where players probably do not want to actually spend an hour of game time piling through a town charter to try to figure out exactly who does own that field (though several dilemma options allude to having your steward – the financial advisor on your council – do exactly this).
The stress system interacts with this in interesting ways too, as acting against your current ruler’s personality causes stress – taking a bunch of stress in three rapid-fire dilemmas can have significant negative consequences (a ‘mental break’ in the game), so a ‘Just’ character is going to have to try to find just and lawful solutions, even when those are disadvantageous for him, while a ‘Greedy’ character is probably not going to be able to choose the ‘make everyone happy by spending my own money’ option, even when it is politically (or morally) the correct call.
But in the broad outlines, holding court works the way it ought: you resolve disputes and if you are resolving those disputes in line with cultural expectations (which often means using your resources to handle things for your vassals and subjects), that tends to improve your legitimacy, represented in game by improving your vassals opinion of you, which in turn makes your realm more stable: high opinion both reduces the risk of dangerous factions forming among your vassals, but also makes tax collection and raising levies easier and more effective…which is to say that vassal opinion functions exactly like Arendtian power ought.
The way the new grandeur statistic works in the expansion also goes towards working forms of legitimacy into the game. The cultural expectation the societies the game focuses on was that kings were supposed to be lavish and generous, forever giving out gifts to their supporters and spending in conspicuous and grand ways.
And so along these lines, in Royal Court, as a king or emperor you are expected to maintain your actual court, which takes the form of both funding the basic amenities of the place (rooms, servants, food, etc.) but also showing off cool and impressive artwork and artifacts in your throne room (artifacts you are likely to have commissioned at great expense). All of that contributes to the ‘grandeur’ of your court. Based on the size and wealth of your realm, your vassals expect a certain level of grandeur; exceed it and you get an opinion bonus, fall short and there is an opinion malus.
And that makes sense! In essence, your vassals have a sense of what kind of extravagance is necessary to look kingly in their social context, and they will judge you for the degree to which you match up to that expectation. Our sources tend to read financially responsible rulers as ‘miserly.’ The easy example of this is how you all likely know King John ‘Lackland’ of England as the miserly ‘Prince John’ of Robin Hood infamy; in part that was because the foolish (but very kingly) military adventurism of his elder brother Richard I (the Lionheart) had practically bankrupted the kingdom and John, as his successor, was left little room for magnanimity. But of course legitimacy does not care for financial constraints and a king that fails to act appriorpiately kingly, even for good reasons, tends to suffer in the sources (and at the time, since John’s efforts to raise funds triggered a revolt by his barons in 1215). I am also reminded of the Roman emperors Tiberius and Vespasian, both of whom for solid financial reasons could be as profligate as their predecessors, but are treated as misers in the sources for it (Vespasian gets away with it because unlike Tiberius, he had a sense of humor). This mechanic is a neat extension of that issue, forcing players to choose between spending money to build legitimacy and spending it on other things (since the upper-tier court amenities can get very expensive).
(Court)Room For Improvement
All of that said, I think there are some ways this system could be tweaked to better represent the actual way these systems functioned.
So far I’ve been describing the system as I tend to engage with it, holding court as frequently as possibly basically like clockwork. But you don’t have to do that. The game is currently set up so that holding court is treated as an opportunity (since the dilemmas can have positive effects) and the player ‘pays’ a small amount of prestige to do it. I understand why they wanted to set it up this way, to create a mechanic that players had the option to engage in, but could ignore if they were more focused on other elements of the game or simply didn’t like it very much.
But kings didn’t have the option to ignore this part of their ‘job.’ Instead a prestige cost for holding court, I’d probably have designed the system for an escalating vassal opinion penalty the longer court hasn’t been held, reflecting the lost legitimacy from the failure to do this basic royal function. At the same time, there should probably be more dilemmas which put the ruler in a tough spot and create opportunities for vassals to try to corner their ruler into giving them something, leading a player to want to try to balance not holding court formally to avoid giving vassals the opportunity to extract promises against the cost in legitimacy in the long run. That said, from a game design perspective, I can see why they didn’t go this way: making your exciting new feature a chore you try to avoid rather than an option you look forward to is a great way to not sell many copies of your DLC.
The other thing I’d like to see tied into this system is a greater sense of cultural differences in how these courts function, which goes back to my original thoughts about the game: that it represented a really interesting foundation but would benefit greatly in the long run from culturally-specific or region-specific expansions of the sort that Crusader Kings II got over the years.
Right now, the court system does a decent job of modeling how courts worked in the more centralized kingdoms of the later European Middle Ages (or in the East), where there was an established capital where the king had his permanent court. But for much of the Middle Ages, many courts were itinerant, proceeding through the kingdom from region to region, with no permanent center of government. Ever after kings established obvious capitals, they might still progress around the kingdom (a ‘King’s Progress‘). In both cases, the court went with the king and that meant dispute-resolving where the court went. As a mechanic, it might be interesting to give players a choice between an itinerant court and a centralized one. At a very basic level, the former might give the player the option each time court is held to pick the vassal who plays host (for a big opinion bonus with them, but perhaps also enhancing their ability to scheme against you) and perhaps a modest bonus to realm cohesion (maybe in the form of discouraging vassals joining factions if their region has had the court in it in the last 20 or 30 years). Meanwhile, a centralized court built around a permanent capital might offer the ruler a bonus to demense-size (reflecting the permanent administration they have around their own holdings) at the cost of foregoing those other bonuses and probably both a higher expected grandeur but also a higher possible grandeur.
The other opportunity here, I think, is for a lot more culture-specific events and I hope that as we get those ‘culture pack’ DLCs which I assume are probably in the development plan for the game, that they build on this foundation. After all, the disputes coming to an Islamic court or a Byzantine court won’t be the same as those coming to a French court, both due to cultural differences but also different political situations (there is an event, for instance, where the clergy demands control over a ‘holy city’ in exchange for giving you a relic; this makes sense as say, the Pope demanding Rome back from a Catholic ruler, but as the Byzantine Emperor working under a system of Caesaropapism wherein the emperor essentially rules over the Church, it makes little sense).
Getting those events ‘right’ without stereotyping would be tricky; my hope here is that Paradox’s developers, as they look to develop region-specific flavor-packs, might sit down with historians with expertise in those regions and talk through their ideas. I suspect a question like “what sort of wild stuff happened in the Abbasid court and what kind of disputes were common there?” is one that the right specialist could answer from memory or at least look up fairly quickly.2 But the cultural-specificity will matter because, as I hope I’ve made clear, the tasks that confer legitimacy were culturally specific! It is all about the ruler fitting their culture’s idea of what a good ruler looks like – just think about the degree to which ‘looking presidential/prime-ministerial’ varies from modern country to country.
Likewise, right now there are four visual court styles: western-European, Mediterranean (essentially Byzantine), Middle-Eastern and Indian. I can’t speak to their visual accuracy, but there are obviously some areas missing there, most obviously West-African and Eastern-European styles and also a bespoke court-style for the Steppe. And there’s also clearly room for variation within those larger types; one hopes that as we get region-specific flavor-packs, they may include options that tie into the distinct architectural and artwork styles of those regions and sub-regions.
But overall, this addition, pushing players at the upper-reaches of the nobility to effectively spend money and time building legitimacy through performing royal judgement and spending extravagantly on their elite subjects is a fairly good expression of how one part of monarchy works, albeit in a fairly gamified form.
Next week, time permitting, we’re going to look at the ‘runner-up’ topic from the ACOUP Senate vote, examining the Roman office of Dictator – how it worked, and if it worked – both because it was the runner-up but also because I think it’ll be useful to set up a longer discussion I want to write about Expeditions: Rome (which may be some distance down the road yet).
- You can find an extract of the letter in the excellent primary-source reader B.H. Rosenwein, Reading the Middle Ages (2010). The Rosenwein reader, intended as a companion book for a medieval history course (one that presumably also uses Rosenwein’s A Short History of the Middle Ages) is probably the best reader of its type I’ve taught from.
- Certainly if you asked that question of me for the Romans, even though I work mostly on the Roman Republic, I could give you an answer pretty clearly, beginning with, “grab a copy of Fergus Millar’s The Emperor in the Roman World (1997). ‘How do political institutions function in my period’ is one of those questions that pretty much any sort of historian has to grapple with.