Collections: Teaching Paradox, Crusader Kings III, Part I: Making It Personal

This is the first post in a four-part (I, IIa, IIb, III, IV) series examining the historical assumptions of Crusader Kings III, a historical grand strategy game by Paradox Interactive set during the Middle Ages and covering Europe, North Africa and both West and Central Asia. This is also the continuation of a larger series on Paradox’s historical grand strategy games, where we have already discussed Europa Universalis IV and Victoria II.

This first part is going to focus on the way that Crusader Kings understands rule and rulers. This in particular is a fascinating place to start because unlike all of the other Paradox grand strategy titles, Crusader Kings III doesn’t actually feature any states in the narrow sense of the word; none of these rulers have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. This is an enormous difference between CK3 and its sibling games and well worth diving into.

I should note ahead of time for the purposes of disclosure that I made a paid appearance at Paradox’s annual convention (PDXCON), met quite a few of Paradox’s developers and so have something of a formal relationship with the folks that work on this title. I also did not yet have the Friends & Foes DLC when PDXCON attendees (including me) were given Paradox’s entire back catalog as conference swag. That is not to say I am going to shy away from criticism here (although most of that will be in the third part of the series), but I thought disclosure here would be appropriate.

Since these games tend to feature continuous development, it is also worth noting that I am writing this as Friends & Foes has just dropped and I have played that and all the DLC through its launch, so this discussion is going to reflect the game as it exists in September, 2022. Finally, the Crusader Kings map stretches all the way through central and southern Asia, but my comments here will mostly be focused on the broader Mediterranean because that is where my knowledge of the history is best and also where I tend to choose to play in the game.

But first, as always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

As with the EUIV post where we also followed a playthrough in the screen-grabs, we’re doing that again. We’re starting as this fellow, Emir Abd al-Rahman ibn Marwan, the Emir of Batalyaws, in central Spain (or al-Andalus, if you prefer). I put up a Twitter poll as to where I should play and ‘Iberian Muslim’ won overwhelmingly, so this is our fellow.
I picked him in particular because he starts with the Andalusian culture (already a hybrid Bedouin/Visigothic culture) and the Muwalladi branch of Islam, which in game is more broadly tolerant of other faiths. My goal here is to resolve the Iberian struggle via the détente struggle-ending as a prelude to the creation of a single, multi-ethnic, multi-faith polity over the peninsula; that seemed like it would be more difficult and complex than simple conquest.

Unrealistic Realism

In our last two series looking at Paradox games, we discussed how the way those games approached diplomacy and conflict between states expressed a theory of history. Europa Universalis IV, in particular, I argued, adopted a ‘Neo-realist’ international relations framework. In that game, as in much neo-realist IR analysis, states function as unitary actors with consistent interests. States aim to make themselves more secure by amassing power, but since the most viable way of amassing power is by seizing territory (and its resources, including people) from their neighbors, everything a state does to make itself more secure makes everyone else less secure, leading to a devil-take-the-hindmost beggar-thy-neighbor race for military power. That in turn leads to a theory of history: history is the story of states competing for power.

Victoria II complicated that narrative in two ways. First, it made states less unitary, more pressured by internal actors who might want to direct resources to things other than military activity. Second, it reflected a period of history where the ‘returns to warfare’ were falling while the ‘returns to investment’ were rising, meaning that by the end of the game returns to successful warfare might be negative making peace rather than war the best strategy. Nevertheless the game’s international relations were still fundamentally predicated on a neo-realist framework; it never quite crosses over into liberal institutionalism (sometimes termed ‘neo-liberalism’ though that word has other meanings and uses) because the player is never given the option to actually set up effective international institutions. Instead it shows how changing material realities produce changing strategies in a neo-realist framework (or in game terms, how tweaking balance factors can change player strategies).

I want to unpack some of the assumptions that inform this neo-realist model in a bit more detail so that we can see more clearly how Crusader Kings III deviates from them. In it simplest form, neo-realist international relations theory treats states as both unitary (that is, they act with a single will and a single set of interests) and rational (that is, they identify their interests and pursue them strategically). Of course more sophisticated Neo-realist thinkers will be quick to caveat that often neither of these things are true and that the broader theory recognizes this (at least in principle), but the foundations of the theory and much of its typical application assume they are true enough and often enough to be useful frameworks.1 Moreover, neo-realist theory generally assumes that states are relatively unconstrained by outside factors; most states are sovereign in that there is no authority above them which can restrain or judge their actions, just other peer states with whom they compete.

Now when I discussed EUIV, I noted that if Paradox only presented its vision of history – that history is the story of states competing in a neo-realist framework of interstate anarchy – if that was all Paradox did, it would be terribly incomplete. But the neat thing about the whole collection of Paradox games is that they challenge and complicate each other. And so Crusader Kings III rejects both Europa Universalis’ neo-realist framework and its vision for history. Where that framework prefers to think of states as mostly unitary, polities in Crusader Kings are fragmented; where it wants states to be rational, CKIII makes them personalistic; where it sees them as unconstrained, CKIII shackles them with religious and cultural norms. The end result, to spoil my conclusion, is that Crusader Kings III embraces a vision of history-as-biography, with a particular emphasis on the cultural conditions that inform those biographies.

So in this series we’re going to explore those differences and the different vision of history this lead to. In this post, we’re going to look at the way that CKIII presents governance and leadership as fundamentally personalistic, rather than either institutional or rational and we’ll look at the fragmented nature of the polities that creates. Next week we’ll look at the fragmented nature of polities in CKIII and then after that at the way that rulers and their polities are constrained by religious and cultural norms.

In the immediate term, I’m faced with several problems as Emir Abd al-Rahman. The most obvious is that I’m not independent, but rather a vassal of the kingdom of Al-Andalus. But the larger problem is generational: I have four sons and will absolutely, unavoidably have ‘confederate partition’ as my succession law when this character dies. To have a shot at gaining independence and seizing control of a kingdom, I need to avoid fractionalizing my initial core holding and that means I have to find lands to give to the younger sons in order to preserve as many holdings (and the power they grant) to the eldest son. And that is going to mean quite a lot of fighting, as you see here.

Polities Are People Too

First we need to sketch out the way that CK3 imagines a large polity.2 The map itself is broken into ‘holdings,’ which represent a territory and its population; the population isn’t simulated but rather each holding produces a set amount of revenue and levies, along with some other minor bonuses. Each holding has a title (these are all ‘baron’ tier titles, though their names vary by type and culture), held by its direct ruler. A group of holdings (anywhere from 1 to 7) is then grouped together into a county, which has its own title (the ‘count’ tier titles). A group of counties is (anywhere from 1 to 10) is then grouped into a duchy, which has its attached title. Duchies are then grouped into kingdoms and kingdoms into empires.

Now here is where things get exciting: the higher tier titles don’t actually come with any land or power; barons always hold their holding and the count always holds the capital holding of their county but titles higher than that do not. Instead the game distinguishes at the ducal, royal and imperial levels between de jure control of territory (which is very limited in its utility except as an excuse to go to war) and de facto control; the two may have little or no relation to each other and indeed at any point in the game few kingdoms are likely to fully control their de jure customary borders. It is in fact entirely possible for a ‘king’ to hold no part of his de jure customary kingdom and yet remain a king over what lands he does hold. We’ll actually come back to that notion of customary borders in the future, but right now I just want to focus on how titles above the count-tier are actually disconnected from any territorial rule.

And so that’s what we do. You can see I am expanding here aggressively in all directions, using a mix of ‘struggle wars’ and claims. The goal is to place each son in his own ducal level title; the way that partition succession works, being in a position to inherit a duchy bars that son from inheriting lands in a different duchy the title of which is going to a different son. That in turn removes that son from the inheritance line of the counties in my core duchy, thus reducing the number of ‘splits’ there.

Instead the base unit of governance in Crusader Kings III is counts; not counties, counts. These rulers are the lowest level that are playable and fully simulated. But because of the distinction between de facto and de jure control, it is not the county title or some abstract entity which governs, but the count who does so and it is possible (though usually rare) to end up with counts not effectively holding baronies within their county.3 Meanwhile titles above the count-tier don’t even exist except in as much as they are held by a person; such ‘uncreated’ titles can be seen on the map but do functionally nothing unless ‘created’ (which is the act of assigning them to a person). Whereas situations where counts lack control over baronies in their county are rare, situations where dukes lack control over counties in their duchy are very common; yet more common still kingdoms which do not control all duchies in their kingdom and so on.

(As an aside, you may ask if counts are the base unit of politics in CKIII, why have barons? I think the answer here is that a fundamental part of CKIII gameplay is managing vassals. The baron-tier ensures that during normal play the player will always have vassals to manage, even when starting as a count. We’ll talk more about vassals next week.)

Instead the game understands a polity – the thing you can do diplomacy with and declare war on – to consist of a person, whose area of control is defined by the baronies they control directly (including the capital barony of a county which automatically comes with the county title) and their collection of de facto vassals who may or may not be de jure vassals. Crucially those vassals are also not vassals to a title but to a person; a duke with two ducal titles who is deprived of one loses no vassals because they do not belong to the title, but rather to the duke.4 This is such an enormous, fundamental difference between the way CK3 works compared to other strategy games that I really want to spell it out again: CK3‘s political world consists of rulers not of kingdoms or lands or countries.

After a frenzy of war-fighting from 867 (the game start) to 885, Emir Abd dies, leaving his core lands to his second son, Emir Muntasir. You can see here that the resulting partition radically remade my emirate – lands on the west side of the Guadiana River ended up with different sons with their own ducal-level titles and thus independent of me. Nevertheless I kept four counties directly in the line of succession along with a few extra vassals. But wait…there’s more, because only a few years after Emir Abd died in 885, the king of Al-Andalus died and…

That in turn means that in actual gameplay the structure of a polity is not consistent generation to generation; one could even argue that every time a ruler dies their polity dies with them and a new one is created for their heir – or heirs. That process is most visible early in the game with partitive succession (especially confederate partition) where the physical shape of a polity on the map can change radically upon succession as its constituent elements break apart. The early-game pictures here in my House al-Yiliqi playthrough actually illustrate this well – both the radical reconfiguration of ‘my’ territory (for different generations of ‘my character’) but also the sudden radical reconfiguration of the whole kingdom on succession because the kingdom was never really the polity, the king was and he died. His sons then became the new polity (polities, in this case); the kingdom isn’t real, only the king is.

As those of you who have read the other Teaching Paradox series can no doubt tell, this is a radical departure in design for a Paradox grand strategy game. Those games were about the states and states were the primary actors in their vision of history. But for all intents and purposes Crusader Kings doesn’t have states at all, in the sense of an institution that reaches beyond an individual and exercises a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Instead it has a web of individual rulers whose power is fundamentally personal in nature and whose governing institutions, including the polity itself, do not exist beyond them. Not states pursuing their interests but individuals acting out their personalities.

The kingdom splintered into three. The way confederate partition works, not only are the deceased’s current titles split between his heirs, but also any titles it was possible to create are created and then split. This is meant to simulate the break-up of things like the Carolingian state or the fragmentation of the Mongol empire. Here each of the three sons inherited one kingdom (Xenxir, al-Andalus and Al-Sarq) and split the vassals between them; the mess I made of with Emir Abd complicated that process since he and his heirs held land in both Xenxir and al-Andalus. The resulting split was a catastrophe for the new king of Xenxir, Abdallah – whereas I had been one vassal of many in a united al-Andalus, as part of Xenxir, I am one of only three major vassals…and the other two are my brothers.
We quickly depose Abdallah in the war you see here and Emir Muntasir becomes Malik (king) Muntasir, independent at last.

Personal Rule

The personal nature of rule in CKIII is further driven home by the way the AI is structured: while the AI is still programmed to expand its land and titles and generally achieve some security, how it goes about doing that is heavily influenced by the character and personality of each specific character, governing both what they attempt and their likelihood of success. This isn’t entirely new, EUIV has some modifications to state strategy based on ruler personality but it is all quite abstract and the player has little influence over those systems.

By contrast, CKIII doesn’t have eternal polities making long-term multi-generational strategic plans, it has individuals who make choices largely according to their personalities. All other things being equal characters still seek to hold or gain lands and titles, expanding their power, but what is different is that things in CKIII are almost never equal. Instead each non-player character has an AI personality made up of ratings in nine attributes, which not only encourage specific kinds of behaviors but also the rate at which characters themselves act (that is, characters with low ‘energy’ and sociability will move forward their plans an actions slower, with much longer intervals between actions; they will not presumably start weekly history blogs). These attributes are in turn determined by the sum of each character’s traits, which reflect the dominant elements of those character’s…well, character. These traits (three per character) form during childhood in the game (if the player is either the child or their educator they have some limited influence on this process) and then remain mostly (but not entirely) static for the rest of a character’s life.

Becoming the Malik, I get my own swanky court. I discussed the Royal Court DLC a while back, but it really is one of the best Paradox DLCs; the court functions are a great addition. We’ll talk about them a bit more next week.

And the player is going to notice this almost immediately; having a powerful vassal who was calm, just and humble (or just lazy) be replaced by his ambitious, diligent and brave son knows they are in for trouble. Even though it might have been in the interest of the former to undermine the player’s rule (through factions and other interactions discussed below), the AI personality they have is going to mean that they never really act on that interest and indeed may end up taking actions (because of their personality) that strengthen the player’s rule. By contrast the son, the new vassal, is a potential terror; his traits will push him to act very often and take relatively large risks, like claiming and seizing other vassal’s lands or fomenting rebellious factions (and the chunky skill benefits of those skills means he’s likely to succeed at a lot of these things, more on that in a moment). That will be true of course not just for your vassals, but your liege and equal neighbors; it may be in the interest of your neighbor to attack you when you are weak, but if they have the content and just traits the AI will often let the opportunity slide.


To which must be added one more mechanical layer: the stress system. Every character, including the player’s character, has a ‘stress‘ statistic ranging from 0 (perfectly unstressed) to 400 (very stressed). So long as the character is above 100 stress, they’ll suffer a ‘mental break’ every five years; the higher their stress the more severe the break with the more negative consequences. The most common outcome of a ‘mental break’ is the character adopting a ‘coping mechanism,’ most of which have net-negative side effects (sometimes dramatically so) and the options the player is given on the mental break get worse as the stress level increases. Even outside of these breaks, high stress lowers a character’s fertility and health. Consequently players quickly realize that stress is generally to be avoided where possible; the consequences aren’t so negative to make it ‘avoid at all costs,’ but negative enough to weight decisions away from stressful options.

And our good Malik Muntasir is a good place to talk about stress. The main issue is that Muntasir, as you can see here, is content (the bowl icon there on his traits), which means that power-grabbing goes against his nature. But of course right now with the fragmentation of the kingdom of al-Andalus is the moment for House al-Yiliqi to seize its destiny. Doing so, however, means taking a lot of decisions (mostly wars and claim fabrications) which cause poor Muntasir a lot of stress. The player is free to imagine why he would choose to push so hard against his nature – perhaps he remembers how hard his father pushed to land each of his sons and noticing that he too has many sons, feels obligated to do the same.
In either case, he achieves a lot, seizing royal power, but the stress leads to health penalties and Muntasir dies in 894, after nine years of rule and at the age of just 39. Poor fellow.

Now a number of stress-sources are fairly standard life events: the death of a close family member or friend causes stress (the death of a rival or nemesis relieves it). These have mechanical purposes we’ll come back to, but the main source of stress is actually not personal tragedy, but instead that a character gains stress when they act – or are forced to act – against their character traits. Just characters gain stress from breaking the laws and customs of their society (by, say, revoking titles without cause), ambitious characters by suppressing their ambition (by, say, granting titles), forgiving characters by holding a grudge (executing someone whose wronged them) and vengeful characters by forgiving a grudge (releasing a character whose wronged them).

Meanwhile, characters mostly lose stress through the standard elite recreational activities of the period: feasting and hunting, which in turn cost money. Beyond this, each of the ‘coping mechanisms’ introduces a decision allowing the character to indulge in it, which also relieves stress but usually at some additional cost. It is a little strange that turning to religion for stress relief is mostly expressed through negative coping mechanisms: flagellant, contrite, inappetetic, reclusive and improvident all open the opportunity to relieve stress through acts which were at the time viewed as expressions of religious devotion. Unlike feasting and hunting, which are expensive but generally positive stress relievers, there is no matching ‘turn to God’ action (perhaps ‘commission prayers from the local monastery’ might fit the bill for an expensive but personally touching spiritual activity?). Feasting is also particularly valuable as an activity for rulers for reasons we’ll come back to next time.

Muntasir’s son, Ajannas ibn Muntasir, is thus thrust into power at just the age of nine. Normally this would be a very awkward time for this, but it actually worked out for me. Expecting Muntasir to…not die…I had constructed a set of alliances (mostly with Al-Sarq) and then launched an opportunistic struggle war against al-Andalus which could net me a LOT of territory. Muntasir died midway through that war, but the alliances and the fragmented, weakened nature of al-Andalus was enough to see me to victory.

The goal of this system overall is to get the player to inhabit each individual character in their dynasty and to encourage players to ‘roleplay’ – to enjoy the things this character enjoys and dislike the things this character dislikes. The importance of the random and unexpected stressors (like the deaths of family members) is that it prevents players from carefully gaming the system, ‘budgeting’ stress to always stay below 100. In practice, most stress events cause between 30 and 60 stress (so two-to-three stressers to produce a break), so a player that chooses to play it ‘chill’ can ensure they’re almost never at risk of a break except as the result of some tremendous family catastrophe; by contrast a player can opt to be a bit ‘high strung’ and take some stress-inducing decisions (for the benefits they give) but now risks unexpectedly getting pushed over the stress line by family events. The system seems calibrated so that the ‘drains’ (hunting and feasting) are expensive enough to not want to be doing constantly but also regular enough that a player who generally avoids acting against their nature (with a few exceptions here or there) can avoid mental breaks for an entire reign…but of course that comes with some severe limits on what actions can be taken. All of which reinforces the notion that a person’s character defines their rule even more than the trans-generational strategies the player might be enacting.

But for the whole thing to come together we need just one more system: skills.

Mad Skills

While character traits influence the actions a character will take (via the AI-coding for AI-controlled characters and via the stress-system for player-controlled characters) they are also a substantial determinant of a character’s skills. The game gives each character a numerical skill rating in six skills: diplomacy, martial, stewardship, intrigue, learning and prowess.5 High skills are good, low skills are bad. The impact of these skills is pervasive, as they both have constant passive effects but also impact the success chance of various actions. Diplomacy, for instance, acts as a global opinion modifier, which can enormously helpful in dealing with a realm that has a lot of vassals. Martial directly modifies the size of levies a character can raise (reflecting a better military organizer being able to get more men into an army), while stewardship does the same for domain taxes (the core of just about every character’s revenue).

The impact of these skills can be substantial; the difference between a terrible commander (skill 0) and an excellent one (skill 18) is a stunning 36% levy-size and reinforcement rate, which can absolutely shift the balance of strength in a war, for instance. High intrigue likewise opens up opportunities for plots and underhanded scheming that simply aren’t available to low intrigue characters (whose success chance would be too low), while also defending against intrigue efforts by other characters. The player has some control over skills, both in the raising of their children (and thus future characters) but also using the ‘lifestyle‘ system to boost one skill (or modifiers related to it) at a time, which can also result (if kept long enough) in getting permanent new traits to raise that skill by virtue of long practice.

And here we have the result of Ajannas’ early victory. A massive gain of territory and importantly much of that territory taken personally rather than vassalized (because it was held by either the Malik of al-Andalus who remains independent or by vassals who retained land in his borders. The great prize here is Qurtubah (Cordoba), which is a very valuable holding. I promptly move my capital there and begin planning to re-establish the royal demesne there instead of in Batalyaws, which will in turn go to Ajannas’ second son, when he has one. Which may not be for a while because, again, he’s nine.

At the same time this dovetails with the stress system because the traits that give broad positives to skills are, unsurprisingly, the sort of traits we associate with good leaders: being just, temperate, generous, forgiving and so on. These traits often come both with strong positive skills but also with built-in opinion bonuses for vassals or your liege which are also extremely helpful, but they also tend to be the very traits which impose stress-penalties for taking self-serving, power-consolidating actions like, say, murdering your brothers out of the line of succession or tyrannically revoking your vassal’s titles in order to consolidate royal power. That said a lot of these traits are tradeoffs: a craven, paranoid and deceitful character won’t be well thought of and has severe penalties to diplomacy, but will be very good at intrigue. From my own experience, when running a large realm (which is how I tend to play) the traditionally positive traits are generally beneficial even as they limit your freedom of action because they help keep vassals in line. When trying to obtain a large realm, on the other hand, intrigue is often more useful than diplomacy and an amoral schemer can get quite a bit done.

Consequently the whole system together, stress and skills derived from traits and education, encourages players to reevaluate their strategy in every generation, trying to find a good ‘fit’ in terms of approach for the skills and predilection of the character they have. Pushing against each character’s traits not only will leave them terribly stressed, but they’re also not likely to be particularly good at the sort of strategies the player is directing them to employ. And the game leans into this narratively as well; I tend to focus in these discussions on mechanics because Paradox games are broadly mechanics driven but the sound and visual design of CKIII from the ominous music that plays when your stress gets high to the character interaction text that invites you to participate in your character’s emotional response all encourage players to ‘roleplay’ as their character.

Rulers are People Too

Alright, that was a lot of game mechanics, but you may now be asking if this approach suggests a theory of history. And I think it does! Indeed, one of the oldest branches of history is what we might call history-as-biography, historical narratives focused on the impact and experiences of particular individuals.

In its older forms, this is sometimes expressed as the ‘Great Man’ theory of history: that history is really just the biography of great figures (almost always elite males) who move events through their personality and virtues. And indeed this sort of history is one of the oldest forms. A great deal of early historical writing was intended to have a didactic (that is, teaching) purpose, to instruct elites on the sort of values and character they were supposed to have (and the vices to avoid) by using ‘great’ figures as examples. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (early second century AD) is perhaps the purest form of this approach, with 23 matching pairs of biographies each focused on how the character of ‘great men’ (Plutarch’s subjects are all men) influenced their careers, for better or for worse.

Ajannas comes of age and gets a really cool hat. By this point, I have two major problems, one pressing and the other distant and they both relate to succession. The first problem is avoiding the fate al-Andalus suffered before me: confederate partition creating royal titles to break up the kingdom. In the immediate future, the good news is that all of the royal titles in Spain (yes, all of them) currently exist and are held by someone. If they exist that means they can’t be created and that buys me some time to get to the solution here, which is unlocking standard partition, which no longer creates uncreated titles – then I can destroy royal titles as I get them, enforcing realm unity.
The second problem is that Ajannas, now being an adult is going to begin having children, and so once again I am in a race to get and give land to his sons in order to maintain a large inheritance for the eldest. Much of the easy expansion is done now, so I turn inward, rushing the ‘Assembly’ innovation to get limited crown authority so that I can revoke titles from vassals (fabricating claims first to avoid tyranny). It’s a sneaky system, but necessary to centralize control and enable a strong monarchy which can in turn direct – by force if necessary – the destiny of the peninsula. In practice one of the advantages of picking House al-Yiliqi is that becoming the ‘culture head’ for the Andalusians was fairly easy, which let me focus innovations on the ones that unlock crown authority and succession, which is precisely what I did.

Historians today tend to be very skeptical about this kind of history, because it is tremendously reductive. In its worst forms, great man history presents the individual virtue of elites as the sole cause for important events, crowding out the influence of deeper structures like culture, climate or economics and at the same time papering over the agency of all of the non-elites in the story also making their own decisions and trying to direct their own lives. Indeed, a close investigation of the lives of the greatest of the ‘great men’ – figures like Alexander or Chinggis Khan – reveals a whole web of causes leading to their exceptional lives; often these figures were exceptional people but perhaps more important ones that happened to arrive at the right place in the right moment (a moment created by all sorts of other factors).

But that doesn’t mean historians have abandoned a biographical approach to history or refuse to see its value. For one, biographical history can help us understand not merely what happened historically and why but the equally important question of what it was like to live through those events. And questions about the experience of the past are important too; asking “how did it feel to live through X?” both encourages us to develop a useful measure of empathy and common humanity but also to think about what it would feel like for us to live through similar developments, which can often be a valuable and sobering enterprise. Historical events which may seem ‘cool’ in the telling often become terrifying when one asks that important question, “what was it like to live through this?”

And CKIII makes an effort to tackle that question too. More than any of Paradox’s games, CKIII is interested in the quotidian elements of daily life, with the additional content since launch often heavily focused on these sorts of activities. I don’t want to get too far into this because vassals, diplomacy and elite interaction is next week‘s topic but I do want to flag the emphasis the game puts on the actual lived experience of these characters.

Meanwhile the idea that individuals (elite or otherwise) can shape history by their choices is hardly gone from historical thinking. Instead modern historians tend to discuss this kind of personal contingency – where the event depends on the people involved – through the key concept of agency, the control that individuals exert over their own lives and decisions. The advantage of agency as a framework over ‘great man’ history is that, of course, everyone has agency. But we still grapple with the questions of ‘do you get this outcome without this person motivating it?” CKIII embraces this view, as we’ll see later in the series: not merely the player-character (as hero ruler) but all of the other simulated elites have agency and indeed while not directly simulated even the common folks can (through events) initiate their own actions to which the player must respond; the peasantry and the burghers in CKIII are not merely clay ready to be molded, but rather have their own interests and desires (albeit ones that the player-character, by virtue of their position as a high noble, rarely has to care about).

In that sense, CKIII‘s focus on personal rule makes it a game about historical agency: the player’s plans are a product of their character’s individual decision-making. As we’ll see next week, these elites operate with only very limited bureaucracy or institutions, so the decisions being made here are expressions of personal agency. And the player’s neighbors and indeed the members of their own kingdom do not merely react to those choices but initiate their own plans and have their own goals shaped not only by their interests but also by their own needs and character.

This history-as-biography approach focused on the historical agency of individuals is also really quite fitting for the period. On the one hand this was a period where rule was very personalistic, where the temperament and decisions of individual elites mattered a lot in the absence of many institutional structures for collective decision-making. At the same time it is striking for CKIII that this kind of history-as-elite-biography was the most common sort in the Middle Ages, where chroniclers tended to represent royal success as a consequence of personal virtue (or divine intervention as a result of the presence or lack of personal piety). In turn this also produced a robust genre of ‘mirrors for princes’ (like Dhuoda’s Liber Manualis, but also including works like the Secretum Secretorum which likely had its origins in the Muslim world in the 10th century but was influential in Europe in the Middle Ages), which tended generally to stress the importance of personal character in a ruler’s effectiveness.6 An emphasis on personal rulership thus doesn’t merely fit the Middle Ages as an era, but also fits the literature and culture of the period which tended to take this view.

Political science (the home of international relations theories like neo-realism) have been slower to embrace personalistic factors of causation, in part because much of the promise of political science as a field is the discovery of general rules of politics that are applicable across a broad array of circumstances. A large space for individual agency cuts against this very goal because it threatens to make every political event sui generis to the particular actors involved (indeed, this is a common argument historians make in response – that the particular contingency of who can overwhelm structural factors). Of course the world is not all of one or all of the other; actual events are moved both by impersonal and personal causes and so both approaches have value in understanding why events take the course they do.

Nevertheless, political scientists don’t fully ignore individual agency either and indeed in more recent scholarship the notion that an individual’s emotional response (and thus potentially their individual character) might matter as much or more than a rational calculation of interests has gained recognition. Robin Markwica’s Emotional Choices: How the Logic of Affect Shapes Coercive Diplomacy (2018) is particularly interesting in this context, presenting a model of ’emotional choice theory’ where the leaders of states, rather than always rationally pursuing their interests respond to incentives based on how those decisions make them feel, which can lead to unpredictable or difficult to understand responses. In particular, Markwica works to understand why leaders refused to yield to coercion by much stronger states when that was the rational response and concludes that what is at work here is the ‘logic of affect’ whereby emotions (and the ability or inability of leaders to control them) heavily influence decision-making. That in turn can lead leaders to make decisions apparently against their interest because the emotional cost of capitulating is too high. And I will be honest, this is an emerging area of political science work I hope to see grow; humans are not calculators and we mostly make our decisions based on how they make us feel more than on a rational cost-benefit analysis.

CKIII‘s stress system maps so well on to Markwica’s model for how leaders respond to emotional stimuli, including both the impact of the emotions but also the ability of (some) leaders to control that impact, that I find myself wondering if the folks over at Paradox were aware of her work. That said, while Markwica’s formulation is new (and particularly new in the physiological approach Markwica takes to try to understand the affective effect7 of strong emotions in decision-making is new and very exciting), the general idea that emotion contests with reason in political decision-making is an old one.

Indeed, I wouldn’t be a good historian if I didn’t note the long history of the idea, going back all the way to (arguably) the first historian, Thucydides and the Melian Dialogue (5.84-116). In that exchange, as the Athenians prepare to attack tiny and weak Melos, they try to convince the Melians to surrender. The Athenians argue from rational self-interest (“a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you”) while the Melians argue from a sense of outraged justice and moral sentiment (“it would surely be great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke”).8 In the end the Melians refused to submit and Athens destroyed the city, effectively the worst-case outcome for everyone, both for the Melians who were killed but also for the Melians who warned quite rightly that transgressing norms of violence was dangerous for the Athenians “as your fall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world to meditate on.”

Ajannas reigns for 54 years, effectively consolidating about half of the peninsula into the expanded kingdom of Xenxir. He also, late in life, decides to break with Baghdad and declares himself Caliph as well as Malik; that causes some religious divisions among the Muslims in Spain, but that’s actually fine – religious diversity is part of my desired end-state after all and by this point the kingdom has Muslim subjects (both Muwalladi and Ash’ari) and Christian subjects (both Catholic and Mozarabitic), though the number of Christian rulers is few (but non-zero) within the kingdom – it would be more but the system makes it functionally impossible to diplomatically vassalize outside of your religion, even when promising religious protection.
Given the role Ajannas played laying the foundation for Xenxir under House al-Yiliqi, I begin taking it as a frequent name for eldest sons, and so Ajannas I is followed by his son, Ajannas II.

And so if Europa Universalis IV was a game about states, dominated by the impersonal rational calculations states make in the name of their security, and Victoria II was a game about the impersonal impact of technology and mass movements, Crusader Kings III is at its heart a game about agency and the way that history is shaped by individual decisions and individual character.

Of course just as no one truly lives as an island, so too the rulers both great and petty in Crusader Kings III neither rule alone nor live alone. Rather the game is filled with relationships, both political and personal and it is to that we will turn next.

  1. You can actually see these assumptions expressed in phrases like “Washington pursues its interest in X” which not only imply that rational, strategic approach motivated by interests but also by synecdoche compresses the complex government of a large country with all of its competing interests to a single agent (here ‘Washington’ for ‘the government of the United States with three competing branches and two competing parties representing an unruly mass of a few hundred million voters’ cf. the reduction of the Ottoman government to ‘the Porte’). Again, I am not rubbishing neo-realism as a framework – I think it has a lot of explanatory power – but we should also recognize its limits.
  2. I am going to keep using the word ‘polity’ here because I do not think these are ‘states’ (as below) and that’s actually really interesting. A ‘polity’ is a broader category than state which can include large non-state political organizations like tribes, chiefdoms and ‘feudal’ kingdoms.
  3. Again, these instances are kept fairly rare at this level, but you can end up with ‘leased holdings’ in your countries which while technically part of your realm in practice do not contribute levies or taxes to you. The most common example of these are church holdings in some religions, but also the bases of holy orders.
  4. The exception here is that rulers cannot have vassals of the same or higher tier than their own highest tier title; consequently if that same duke lost his last ducal title and thus became a count, all of his count-level vassals would stop being his vassals.
  5. For those wondering how ‘martial’ and ‘prowess’ differ, the former is a character’s skill at organizing and leading armies, the latter their skill at personally fighting.
  6. Whereas one may usefully contrast, I think, the ancient historians who waver between favoring personal causation (Plutarch being the extreme example) and impersonal causes (Polybius perhaps occupying the opposite pole). Polybian-style histories are, I am led to understand, particularly rare in the medieval corpus of the Latin West, but more common in the Islamic world in the works of figures like Ibn Khaldun.
  7. Why yes, I did just use both of those words right in a sentence. Truly an achievement worthy of an entry on my Twitter-bio.
  8. Trans. R. Crawley with minor modifications.

112 thoughts on “Collections: Teaching Paradox, Crusader Kings III, Part I: Making It Personal

  1. I also did not yet have the Friends & Foes DLC when PDXCON attendees (including me) were given Paradox’s entire back catalog as conference swag.

    On one hand: Dang, that’s a lot of conference swag.
    On the other hand: You were only missing one DLC?!?

    Finally, the Crusader Kings map stretches all the way through central and southern Asia, but my comments here will mostly be focused on the broader Mediterranean because that is where my knowledge of the history is best and also where I tend to choose to play in the game.

    I think it’s fair to say that players are both likely and directed to play in that general area. More “Europe” than “broader Mediterranean,” but there’s obviously a lot of overlap between the two. (Less North Africa, more Tutorial Island.)

    Crucially those vassals are also not vassals to a title but to a person; a duke with two ducal titles who is deprived of one loses no vassals because they do not belong to the title, but rather to the duke.

    (with the obvious caveat of things that take both a title and all its de jure vassals, such as certain casus belli)

    It is a little strange that turning to religion for stress relief is mostly expressed through negative coping mechanisms: flagellant, contrite, inappetetic, reclusive and improvident all open the opportunity to relieve stress through acts which were at the time viewed as expressions of religious devotion. Unlike feasting and hunting, which are expensive but generally positive stress relievers, there is no matching ‘turn to God’ action (perhaps ‘commission prayers from the local monastery’ might fit the bill for an expensive but personally touching spiritual activity?).

    I guess most rulers are assumed to do a normal level of religious stuff, and mechanical-purposes religious stress relief is only available to people who go weird with it? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Historical events which may seem ‘cool’ in the telling often become terrifying when one asks that important question, “what was it like to live through this?”

    I wonder what future generations will think about the current era. Would they think dealing with…(gestures vaguely)…was cool, the way we think of Caesar’s conquests or Chinggis Khan’s conquests or American colonization as cool?

    1. I think it’s fair to say that players are both likely and directed to play in that general area. More “Europe” than “broader Mediterranean,” but there’s obviously a lot of overlap between the two. (Less North Africa, more Tutorial Island.)

      I think it’s also fair to say the game as of September 2022 is about Europe and the greater Mediterranean. IIRC there’s only one bookmark character outside those areas, and the mechanics are mainly designed around feudalism, with Islamic governance a secondary focus. The only other playable nonfeudalism is agraian tribes and those are meant to become feudal. The map stretches to the edge of China, and there’s playable content there, but it’s mostly focused on the titular Crusader Kings and their immediate Islamic and Norse foes to date.

      1. Yup, IMO, it’s fair to say that the game was designed around europe (specifically western/northern europe), and the game mechanics get less and less reasonable as you move away from there. Muslims do get some unique mechanics of their own, but byzantines and everything west of jerusalem or south of egypt are stuck with mechanics that are really designed for other parts of the world.

        1. I think they felt obligated to keep the entire final CK2 map, but didn’t have the dev resources to reproduce the entire CK2 DLC avalanche.

          1. On the bright side, compared to CK2 at launch (or even years into it) CK3 is already on a better track.

            At this point I think the main things that 3 lacks that 2 had outside of Europe is the nomads and the Silk Road (along with the dedicated content for Africa).

          2. Speaking of which, until this very enlightening blogpost, I’ve mostly heard of CK2… what are the main changes with CK3 ?

            (PDS development being what it is, for all the 3 timestamps : on release of CK2, on the release of CK3, and today ?)

          3. I’d say the two standout changes from final CK2 to CK3 are the aforementioned stress system (plus accompanying personality trait rework) and the religion changes. The religions have been systemized in a way that allows you to create new ones midgame, potentially altering nearly every aspect.

            One other big change I really don’t like is a major rework of how armies work. It used to be that you’d have a variety of different troops levied from holdings based on their buildings, getting a percentage of them from vassals, plus a retinue that acted as a standing army that was originally introduced to represent Byzantium’s standing armies, which will slowly become a more prominent part of your military. In CK3, all troops from buildings are a single unit type called levies, and you have a personal men-at-arms force of specific unit types like heavy infantry, archers, skirmishers, etc. that’s tied to the title.

            Problem is, your vassals only contribute levies full stop. They have men at arms, they just don’t give them to you. So from a historical perspective, you specifically do not get the “retinue of retinues” Bret talks about whenever feudal armies come up. Nobles can fight in your army as knights and there’s flavor text that they bring their retinue but mechanically all their combat performance comes from their prowress stat.

            Mechanically, it means military power scales oddly. The size of your men at arms is modified by various factors including title rank and culture, but not by vassal count or any derivative thereof. They cost money to create and field, but large realms can easily hit the cap before it becomes economically infeasible to add more. It tends to mean alliances of realms are more relatively powerful.

          4. @guy, counting the number of troops that each vassal provides is a more modern way of thinking about how to raise an army and how successful it will be. For CK, a game about personalities and more medieval values, it is appropriate for the value of a vassal to be their military reputation. Medieval European rulers really did place value on recruiting people such as William the Marshal or Bayard the Chevalier Sans Reproche to their side. Their enemies also recognised the value of certain individuals as being unrelated to their holdings, eg the English placing huge ransom values on Bertrand de Guesclin during the hundred years war.

            It’s a game with a theme / subject designed to encourage particular ways of thinking, not a simulation.

          5. @Peak Singularity
            Relative to launch CK2, even launch CK3 is hugely expanded. Launch CK2, you played a Crusader King. All non-Christians were straight-up unplayable and didn’t have any mechanical differences from Christian feudalism. In CK3, almost any character who was playable at the end of CK2 is playable and has some degree of mechanical distinction. Their religions have different effects and constraints and virtues and sins (CK2 had the Seven Heavenly Virtues and the Seven Deadly Sins for every religion) and a lot of the world is running the tribal government type representing agrarian tribes without feudal contracts.

            One change that disappoints me a bit between late CK2 and CK3 is a regression in government types. Specifically you lose nomadic and merchant republic. Nomadic obviously represents the Mongols and company, and you get power from empty holding slots and have to do complicated clan management of semi-independant subclans and want to turn your personal territories into grazing lands.

            Merchant Republics represent the Italian republics and are created when any coastal Republican vassal (city-holding) gets a ducal title. There’s five houses (always five, if one is destroyed a new one forms) who have their own palace and trade network and are scheming to get elected doge, who controls the main title and its associated stuff in between doing shenanigans to try to steal the best trade posts from each other and those jerks in Pisa.

            There are still lesser republics in CK3, but they’re unplayable, for the fairly straightforward reason that CK3 is about dynastic succession. The Merchant Republics were a way to have a dynasty continue despite losing an election.

            Another big deal: No antipopes, no Investiture Controversy. CK2 had the ability to claim the right to appoint bishops in your own realm and potentially proclaim one was the rightful Pope, maybe even installing him in Rome. You can technically do that in CK3 by founding a new branch of Christianity, but that requires splitting off from Catholicism entirely.

    2. “On the other hand: You were only missing one DLC?!?”

      CK3 is a fairly new title, so the endless Paradox DLC train has only just started rolling (and the pandemic slowed it down a bit, too). F&F is only the fourth big DLC, and the first that couldn’t be pre-ordered at launch.

      1. Let me rephrase.

        Out of Paradox’s whole back catalog, you were only missing one DLC?!?

        Even assuming this just means their grand strategy games, that means buying a lot of strategy games and DLCs (or at least bundles) over a couple of decades. (Not much point in buying EU2 after 2007, for instance, or CK1 after 2012.)

  2. I would say that one major failing in the roleplaying aspect of CK3 is that confederate partition is pretty much just bad; the main upside to splitting your realm up between multiple heirs is that you can get more renown that way, but that isn’t a huge benefit. You’re only encouraged to ensure your player heir winds up well off; you want all the choicest counties to go to them and may engage in machinations to disinherit or eliminate secondary heirs, and I usually am trying to contrive having no secondary titles of my top rank avaliable for succession.

    Plus spreading out my dynasty introduces the dangerous possibility I will unexpectedly become Holy Roman Emperor. I was once 95% of the way to forming Outremer when that happened and I am still mad.

    1. Confederate partition is more difficult to play with, but I don’t see how it fails as a roleplaying aspect. I think it strengthens the roleplaying aspect, because it emphasizes the fact that ‘you’, as the entity playing the game, is a person and not a title, and that the children of your former avatar may become your fiercest rivals in your next iteration.

      1. To me, it’s where I am most broken away from playing a single particular person to playing not a dynasty but a specific line of succession, Player Heir to Player Heir. Instead of trying to do well by every one of my beloved children I’m trying to screw over all but one. I’ll cloister or just outright disinherit them and I’ll work to manipulate the rules of succession to specifically screw them out of the best counties. I have spent enormous amounts of effort in several games to try to make sure my player heir gets Rome and Jerusalem or Rome and Cordoba, and I work very hard to make sure only one son gets a crown.

        1. I fully agree – in the base game, there is very little incentive (outside of roleplaying) to truly care about your other children beyond “how does this help my primary heir”. In a game whose systems are centered around heavily incentivizing players to roleplay as their character, this disconnect is quite jarring.

          There is a wonderful little mod called Inherichance that addresses this issue. All it does is randomize which of your heirs you will continue playing as. Simple, but has a dramatic effect on how you play the game. For example, my latest run started as a fairly standard Tanglehair -> Norway run. Tanglehair united Norway & had two sons. Two duchies, two sons, that one was easy After he died I continued as King as his firstborn son – who ended up having four sons. I genuinely was invested in ensuring all four had a decent powerbase & weren’t like the count of Lofoten. Went to war with both Sweden & Denmark not just to conquer them, but with the specific purpose of acquiring duchies for my sons.

          Highly recommend giving it a try. Beautiful, elegant, and adds so much to your roleplaying.

        2. It feels like this could very easily be solved by having the player heir be randomly assigned from among all of your children.

        3. Then (she says, with a copy of The Knight, the Lady & the Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France by Georges Duby in hand) one common tactic early in this era was to marry off only one son. Other sons had to content themselves with concubines of inferior rank, whose sons had fewer rights, and who could be dismissed if you decided to marry that son off after all. Meanwhile, you and everyone else were trying to marry off all your daughters, so the odds were good that your daughter-in-law was of much higher rank than you were.

    2. I know this isn’t part of the base game, and thus doesn’t really count, but I’ve found that the random heir mod helps to make playing individual characters much more fun. It really incentivizes you to keep on partition in some form since it keeps the game interesting, and since you don’t know who you’ll end up with pressures you to ensure everyone is in a solid position.

      1. It’s actually very clever for someone to have made a mod that imposes a Rawlsian veil of ignorance like that. By ensuring that you don’t know which of several heirs you will play as, you are incentivized to make sure all the heirs are in situations that give them some meaningful amount of power.

        Of course, the “downside” is that this incentivizes an approach to rulership that is incompatible with the formation of large, powerful states. Whether that’s actually bad is a matter that can legitimately be debated, of course, but it does cut against the grain of what’s normative in grand strategy games.

        Which is itself very interesting- that Crusader Kings III simulates this kind of deeply personal rule so well that with just one conceptually simple modification (the “veil of ignorance”), it can actively incentivize the player to play against the “empire-building” trend that has been an unexamined and routine assumption of nearly all grand strategy games of the past thirty-plus years, stretching back to the original Master of Orion and Civilization and so on.

        1. So I will say, since I almost never play without it, it does incentive seizing large amounts of territory (or if that’s impractical building up your demesne). However, you are exactly correct forming long-lived states is a pain sometimes I can manage it, but it requires either immense amounts of luck or a lot of civil warring. Funnily enough I actually end up having a lot of migrating especially when playing tribal.

          On the roleplay aspects I think it also helps. It complicates any attempt at a dynasty wide grand plan (ie: reform the Roman Empire) so its much easier to just focus on playing the ruler you are at any given time.

      1. It’s got to do with the dejure vs defacto titles thing, specifically when you die and your player heir loses the election. He gets your non-HRE personally held titles according to their succession laws and their dejure vassals who are your direct vassals, but he does not get your pre-HRE defacto but not dejure vassals.

        You’ll often have a lot of non-dejure vassals, especially if you’re stuck with partition and gunning for forming an empire, because I was actively avoiding getting more kingdoms so my realm wouldn’t split. I had a personal goal of taking the decision to form the empire of Outremer, which basically requires holding everything between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean while not being an Emperor. After several centuries I had almost every county I needed, and then becoming HRE torpedoed it entirely.

        That’s a particularly extreme example, but it’s handed me huge setbacks in various games where an old ruler with a lot of non-dejure vassals gets elected and soon dies without securing the election for a dynasty member.

    3. The anti-Partition sentiment show up a lot in online discussions of the game, and it’s really a case of human players universalizing their experience to derive a critique. For the overwhelming majority of named characters in the game, at all timepoints, simple primogeniture is the inheritance mechanic. Even unlanded characters inherit via primogeniture, with all of their money going to their primary heir. Similarly, all feudal Barons pass everything to a single primary heir, undivided. Nearly all Counts, likewise. Even a portion of the Dukes and Kings right from the start of the game will see their domains pass to a single heir, because they will die with only a single personal county. If you don’t want to divide your realm you never have to, it’s just that most human players aren’t willing to play that way.
      Confederate Partition is crucial to the process of getting ahead on Renown gain in the early game, as other methods of expanding your dynasty’s titles tend to run into the rule where a ruler doesn’t provide renown if they are a subject of their own dynasty. Getting to the first few Renown perks before most of the AI dynasties is a real advantage that shapes the whole rest of the game. Don’t be disappointed that the tools the game gives you to play it reward a specific playstyle, either learn to enjoy the challenge of misusing those tools or learn to enjoy the process of using those tools as intended; both options rule.

      1. The renown gain from confederate partition is admittedly a thing. I tend not to rate renown perks all that highly, certainly not compared to half my realm, and if I were going for renown I’d generally prefer to grant independence manually. So even with the renown gain I rate splitting as a net negative.

        As for running a single domain county to avoid splitting the realm, well, the game has no win condition, so there’s no wrong way to play, but having only one county is generally a big negative for national power. At least prior to the latest update the AI was horrible at developing counties and even disregarding that you’re only gonna get in the realm of 30% of a county’s value.

        I will credit the Muslim mechanics with introducing interesting cross-pressures here. You get a penalty for not having multiple wives, so you want them and therefore generally get a lot of children. Also, you want alliances with your clan vassals for a relations and therefore tax and levies boost, which means arranging marriages, which takes kids. and with Fate of Iberia Iberians can get an early renown perk which lets relatives fill court positions for free. And you’re unable to make kids into monks (though that’s unreliable for heirs) so it’s harder to prune them.

        I should probably weight alliances more highly than I do as a Christian ruler, which would introduce more of the same pressure.

      2. The main frustration with Confederate Partition is that there is no clean way to “write a will” – your inheritence gets split along rules that are often unclear and frustrating to deal with.

        What the game really needs for Partition inheritances is a way to manually set your will before you die, with some sort of mechanic included to force you to make as fair a division as the default algorithm would. Rulers tried to set up how their lands would be split on inheritance all the time – and while their heirs may have often disagreed, well that’s what claims are for.

      1. Alliances exist as formal agreements that must be between people with some form of close family relation. Marriages negotiated by a character that create a family relationship close enough to qualify automatically create the alliance, even with people who are already close enough to ask and don’t want to be allied.
        Brothers generally won’t ally because they have claims on each other, but you can ask your brother to be your ally and blackmail him into agreeing; you can’t normally ask random unrelated neighbors. You can also declare war on your brother, imprison him, get him to agree to renounce his claim(s) in exchange for his freedom, end the war without completely disenfranchising him, butter him up over several years, and then get him to agree to an alliance. There is a special trait/perq to do a non-family alliance.
        CK doesn’t have borders, in the modern sense, and consequently doesn’t really model trade controls.

  3. Awesome, I’m so excited for this!

    (Minor note: I’m not an expert on Arabic naming by any means but I think referring to your first leader as “emir Abd” is wrong – it should be “emir al-Rahman”, I think?)

    1. I know Arabic nomenclature badly, but I do know that al-Rahman is one of the Islamic names of God, based on my education in comparative religions. (I would say, “The Merciful”, but that is just a guess.) Abd-ar-Rahman means “Slave of The Merciful”, so calling a mere human al-Rahman, which is a divine epithet, would be blasphemy. So, if you want to shorten it, “Abd” it is.

      1. On the other hand, Abd, meaning “Slave of” is also not really a reasonable abbreviation of a name grammatically. Especially as so many different arabic names are of the form Abd al-Something. Generally abbreviation should probably be avoided here.

        1. “Abd” and “al-Rahman” are both wrong. His name is “Abd al-Rahman”, earlier works might Anglicize it as Abdulraman or Abdalrahmen or whatever.

  4. “CKIII‘s stress system maps so well on to Markwica’s model for how leaders respond to emotional stimuli, including both the impact of the emotions but also the ability of (some) leaders to control that impact, that I find myself wondering if the folks over at Paradox were aware of her work.”

    Quick pronoun fix; I believe Robin is male.

    Also, the smallest fundamental territorial unit is the barony, not the holding. Baronies may have holdings in them, or they may be empty land.

    Regardless, wonderful post! Can’t wait to read the rest.

  5. Yesssss, more teaching Paradox! Love these posts. I’m fairly decent at EU4 and haven’t touched Vic2, but I’m barely able to keep a realm together for a couple generations in CK3 so I’m interested in learning some gameplay tips from you along with history.

  6. So great to finally have this series start, very anticipated. I really appreciated the stress on the theory of history and presentation/experience differences for players interacting with CK3 vs EU4 vs Vicky2. Can’t wait for the rest of the series and your PDXCON talk to get published on youtube.

  7. Point of clarification for those less versed in Paradox’s games: when you say CK3 is unique among paradox titles, do you mean it’s unique among the “current” games still receiving updates and DLCs, or is it substantially changed from CK2?

    Incidentally, I don’t find the Athens/Melos example terribly persuasive as an example of the importance of emotion in international politics. Relatively weak polities actually succeed in making themselves too much trouble to conquer fairly, and boasting about their unwavering commitment to resistance would have served that goal for the Melians. Nevermind the question of whether they actually made the arguments Thucydides says, or he was just filling in what he felt they should have said (which he admitted he sometimes did).

    1. The Melian dialogue example isn’t about what actually happened in the Athens/Melos conflict (modern consensus is that the dialogue pretty much a work of fiction by Thucydides), but about the motives of the parties involved. The Melians do put forth some rational arguments for why they should fight, but the Athenians demolish them all, and in context it’s clear that the Melians are engaging in motivated reasoning. In the end, the Melians lose the debate (because the debate is fictional and the Athenians represent what Thucydides actually thinks), but stick with their original losing position out of pride and spite, which ends with their city being destroyed.

      1. The Athenians may have destroyed the Melians, but what I always took away from that exchange was that the Athenians failed to be persuasive. Rational, realist arguments failing to be persuasive in the face of more emotive counter-arguments is a recurring theme in Thucydides, from the debate over whether the Spartans should go to war on behalf of the Corinthians to the deliberation over the Athenian invasion of Sicily. So I think Thucydides’ views on realism in international relations are more complex, especially when you consider how prophetic the warnings of the Melians (as you point out, really just one of Thucydides’ two sockpuppets) end up proving, to the woe of the Athenians.

        1. Yeah. My understanding is that the Melian dialogue is fundamentally different from, say, Plato’s dialogues in this way.

          Plato was generally writing a dialogue as an indirect way of saying “and this is why my opinion, placed conveniently in the mouth of my dead teacher Socrates whose reputation I wish to burnish for the ages, is correct, and the opinions of people who disagreed with me and/or Socrates are a bunch of doodyheads.” The argument exists to be won by the character ‘Socrates’ (as distinct from the historical man Socrates).

          About the only way Plato could have been less subtle about this is if he’d done the equivalent of naming his characters things like “Simplicio.” And I suspect the only reason he didn’t do that is because he was trying to attribute many of these opinions to real philosophers, living or dead.

          By contrast, while Thucydides no doubt has Athenian sympathies when writing the Melian dialogue, my impression is that he isn’t just reducing the presentation of opposing views to “and this is why the Athenians were right and the Melians were a bunch of doodyheads.” The Melians had a point, and I suspect that an ancient Greek reading the dialogue would agree that they had a point, and that this point was worthy of respect.

          Thucydides may have had as his thesis that it was unwise for the Melians (or anyone else) to choose that as the hill they intended to die on. But he gave the Melians enough validity, enough of a leg to stand on, that the fact that the Melians are shown as losing the argument (and, more importantly, having their city destroyed) doesn’t necessarily mean we’re intended to entirely reject what the Melians were saying.

          Especially insofar as, others note, the Melians are the mouthpiece for predictions about bad things that the reader knows actually happened. You don’t present someone in a narrative losing an argument, while portraying them as prophetic within the actual text, when you think they’re stupid. No, you do that because you want to create the ambiguity of “they lost this argument, something bad happened to them, but they had a point and we would have done well to remember it.”

          1. One reason that Plato didn’t use fictitious names was that Ancient Greeks were not that sstrong on the concept of fiction. If you read Herodotus, you can see him taking up arms against poets again and again, claiming that their historical/mythological works were lies. For us, they are epic poetry, a genre known for being fiction. From Herodotus’ screeds, you can assume that his contemporaries considered epic poetry to be fact, and possibly divine revelation.

            So, a Greek writer, be he Plato or Aristophanes, would always use people who existed or had existed as his characters.

          2. Plato distilled it: Poets are liars.

            Admittedly it was defended by Aristotle soon after (fiction is more philosophical than history because it is not troubled by accidents), but it needed defending.

    2. While there have been changes from game to game, the fact that you play as a person (and more broadly a dynasty) rather than a state has always been central to CK.

    3. Crusader Kings has always been a game series about playing as a person, rather than as a nation or a state. And I believe CK2 (the previous game) had mechanics about being stressed out, etc. CK3 integrates it much more fully, however, and makes the stress mechanic visible and mechanical in a way that makes it a lot easier to understand the consequences of certain actions.

  8. This is interesting, even though I don’t play Paradox games! I am surprised that you did not mention Suetonius as an example of biographical history

  9. “It is a little strange that turning to religion for stress relief is mostly expressed through negative coping mechanisms…Unlike feasting and hunting, which are expensive but generally positive stress relievers, there is no matching ‘turn to God’ action (perhaps ‘commission prayers from the local monastery’ might fit the bill for an expensive but personally touching spiritual activity?).”

    It’s not strange at all when you look at Sweden’s religious demographics–over a third of the country identifies as “unaffiliated,” and I would be willing to bet that the percentage is even higher among the people working for Paradox. To them, religion, particularly medieval religion, is a restrictive, repressive, cloistering thing, not something that gives aid and comfort and meaning to people’s lives. That this belief is at best half-true is something that will likely never occur to them, because the overwhelming cultural consensus is that this is so.

    1. I find that a dubious reading of the way Crusader Kings presents religions, especially considering that CK2 actually did have a mechanic by which you could visit a local monastery you were a lay member of and lose the Stressed trait.

      It’s probably because there’s already a decision where you spend a lot of money to initiate an event chain and gain a resource (piety rather than prestige like with feasting and hunting) in the form of the pilgrimage decision, during which you encounter events that may let you lose stress.

    2. I’d argue that the proposed “pay money to lose stress” interaction actually reflects a modern attitude toward religion, in that it assumes the main thing religious practices have to offer is a feeling of purpose or fulfillment. The sales pitch for religion in modern secular societies is often that it will make you happier, but medieval Catholicism not so much.

      1. Yes and no. Medieval Catholicism wasn’t about saying “we offer you fulfillment,” but it was pretty strong on saying “we know you are a sinner and this is sensibly troubling you, but if you follow these steps, you’ll be right with God and things will turn out okay in the end.”

        Many other religions have a concept that making large sacrifices (in the normal sense of the word, or in less literal senses such as spending time on a pilgrimage or money on a new temple if you’re rich) can put you right with the gods and ensure that they are looking out for you. Which can indeed have a positive effect on how “stressed” a ruler who believes in the gods feels about having done a lot of difficult or harrowing things, especially things that play against the ruler’s personality type and make them feel conflicted.

        Going on a religious retreat isn’t the same as going on a vacation, but at the same time, highly religious medieval rulers might genuinely feel things that in gameplay terms cash out as “less Stress” when they do expensive things that align with their religion.

        1. That’s actually an option for a coping mechanism; one of them is to become really big on donating to charity, and it opens up a decision to donate a ton of gold to charity to reduce stress. Unfortunately it also sticks you with a trait that gives a 15% penalty to national income all the time, which is harsh even by the coping mechanism standards.

          Also, Zealous rulers do lose stress in a lot of events by doing the religious thing.

          It’s probably because hunts and feasts are Activities, which start up an event chain involving a bunch of characters in addition to reducing stress. There is a religious Activity, a Pilgrimage, which doesn’t reduce your stress but gives you a ton of piety, much more than the prestige you get from hunts. Another religious Activity would be a pretty big investment in terms of event scripting.

  10. if the game is good about modeling emotions and that’s the affective effect, does that mean strategically roleplaying to your characters traits is effective affect

  11. An excellent example of the kind of non-Great Man history as biography you talk about is Adam Goodheart’s book 1861. It’s about the experience of the beginning of the American Civil War, and it takes a handful of different individual stories as windows into that experience. These vary: you have Lincoln, but also the Wide Awakes, the 3 slaves who escaped to become “contrabands,” the commander of Fort Sumter, and other people. He describes the idea behind this in his introduction:

    “Reading those letters, across the distance of almost a century and a half, gave me a new appreciation of how history is decided not just on battlefields and cabinet meetings, but in individual hearts and minds. The Civil War had fascinated me since I was a teenager, but most of the books about it seemed to dwell on whose cavalry went charging over which hill. (One historian has described this approach as treating the war like “a great military Super Bowl contest between Blue and Gray heroes.”) Or else they treated American society as a collection of broadly defined groups- “the North,” “the South,” “the slaves”- each one mechanically obeying a set of sociological and ideological rules.

    I realized I already knew from my own experience that this isn’t the way history works. On September 11, 2001, I had observed how everyone I knew responded to the terrorist attacks in their own way. The responses didn’t derive simply from whether someone was liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. They also depended on a whole complicated set of personal convictions, fears, character traits, religious beliefs. They depended on where people came from, where they lived, and where they had traveled. On how and where people had experienced the day of the attacks itself. And all these complications influenced not just ordinary people but also those I knew who worked in the media and in government. Presumably they influenced the nation’s leaders, as well.

    In fact, the startling events in New York and Washington hadn’t simply changed the course of future history, they had shaken up old categories and assumptions. In a way, they had changed the past just as much as the future; rewritten not only out expectation of what was to come but also our sense of what had gone before. For a brief moment, in a most terrifying and thrilling way, anything seemed possible. The only certainty was the one expressed by a family member of mine phoning an hour or so after the first plane hit, one that no doubt occurred to countless others: “The world is never going to be the same again.”

    When, seven years later, I came across that bundle of old letters, I realized that this very sense was what was missing from my understanding of the Civil War. I wanted to learn more about how Americans- both ordinary citizens and national leaders- experienced and responded to a moment of sudden crisis and change as it unfolded. I especially wanted to understand how that moment ended up giving birth to a new and better nation. I wanted to know about the people who responded to that moment not just with anger and panic but with hope and determination, people who, amid the ruins of the country they had grown up in, saw an opportunity to change history. Perhaps what I learned would even teach me things about our own time, too.”

    1. For a fictional treatment of this theme, Cela’s ‘San Camilio, 1936’ (set on the outbreak of the Spanish civil war) is brilliant.

  12. I wasn’t originally going to be that invested in this line of posts. But as part of the contingent nature of events on a small scale, about a week ago, my wife got CK3. And then started playing it. And then hooked me into it. Now I can sort of follow what’s going along, so I’m probably going to be much more invested.

    Funny how that worked out.

  13. When all your history books are written for great men, they will concentrate on things of use and interest to them.

    1. Yes. Plutarch and his ilk had a definite didactic purpose, showing aspiring Great Men what worked, what didn’t and role models to imitate.

  14. I haven’t played Crusader Kings 3, but I loved Crusader Kings 2 for the same history-as-biography approach and none of the other Paradox games could win me over because none of them had that approach. (The posts on Victoria 2 may have managed to convince me to give Victoria 3 a shot though.)

    But still, I felt that the happenings on the games map don’t do the character centric approach justice. Only armies and fleets moved on the map, characters in most cases basically teleported to their destination. Or if the game described a journey (for example a pilgrimage), that journey was largely disconnected from what was happening on the map, with generic villages as places one came across and generic bandits as obstacles. Within their realm, the player had the same level control over vassals close to them and vassels far away, the same level of control over armies they were leading personally and armies assigned to other commanders.

    But what I know about the middle ages tells me that where you are and where you go was incredibly important for rulership. Holding court in different places to give vassels to opportunity to meet you in person was necessary to keep them loyal. Pilgrimage routes becoming insecure due to political events was one of the reasons for the crusades. Information travelled at the speed at which people could move.

    In my ideal version of Crusader Kings every character moves on the map and only has direct control/real time interaction within the area directly surrounding them. This would make so many additional mechanics possible (nomads could move around with their flocks, envoys would actively participate in diplomatic negotiations, landless characters could be made playable and be actually interesting).

    As far as I know in this regard things in Crusader Kings 3 are pretty similar to Crusader Kings 2. And I think this is the area in which it is most noticable that Crusader Kings is a game about people running on an engine about states.

    1. Medieval writers divided the lands of the Empire into 1. ‘king’s lands (their personal power base – Franconia for the Ottos, Saxony for Henry the Fowler, Luxembourg and so on); 2. Lands near to the king – those held by loyal allies and subjects 3. Lands open to the king – those places where the king could make a progress, but neutral in their loyalty and 4. Lands closed to the king – those held by his enemies. These of course changed by reign.

    2. As a fan of the Extra History series on Youtube I’ve been learning a bit about Eleanor of Aquitaine lately. This comment reminds me of how there were a couple of times when Eleanor had to be very careful about making her arrangements to travel from Point A to Point B. Because as an (at the time) single noblewoman with vast estates to her name, she was in real danger from kidnapping attempts aimed at trying to coerce her into a forced marriage to take control of of her estates.

      Then her son, Richard the Lionheart, had all sorts of misadventures trying to get home after the Third Crusade, again because traveling from Point C to Point D required passing through the territory of hostile nobles who saw his presence as an opportunity to secure a very literal king’s ransom.

      The physicality of who can and cannot go where, and what might happen to them along the way, played a huge role in historical politics.

      Unfortunately, modeling this within the game would be quite challenging because of the sheer number of characters moving around on the map.

      Maybe we’ll see it in the fourth or fifth edition of Crusader Kings…

      1. There also the first Baldwin of Flanders. Minor noble, heard of a Carolingian widow not to far away, raced over, kidnapped and married her, immediately went to Rome and had the union sanctioned by the Pope, then pointed out to the Emperor how embarrassing it would be to have a mere lordling as an in-law. The Emperor gritted his teeth and made him a count, and he set about building one of the richest principalities in Europe.

        1. The widow in question, Judith of France, seems to have been an enthusiastic participant in the entire venture.
          Judith was married at fourteen to the much older Saxon King and when he kicked the bucket married his heir who unluckily for her died just a few years afterward. This put her back under her father’s control as an experienced widow and politician of eighteen with defined goals of her own including rulership of an independent polity.

          1. Vindicating Herodotus’ statement that women are not abducted unless they wish to be. Ack! Seriously, though, as Eleanor Janega pointed out in a piece that Bret linked to a while back, many pre-modern grievances about abductions of women involve “abducting” the victim not against her will, but against that of her father or lord.

          2. Abduction against her will was definitely a thing but it was called abduction even when the lady was an enthusiastic participant. Marriage to Baldwin and promotion of his advancement was definitely to Judith’s advantage.

          3. Raptus.

            When you run across laws that punish rape by execution or marriage to the rape victim, remember that many laws did not have “she consented” as a defense.

    3. Tbh I think that sort of local control/interaction thing is probably somewhat unworkable short of a massive improvement in videogame AIs. Like, the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople couldn’t remotely attempt to exercise realtime control over Antioch, but he could send a letter to his guy in Antioch giving him some vague directives and, if he had arranged to have the appropriate guy in Antioch, expect him to intelligently act on those directives and carry out the plan or modify it in response to local events.

      I guess Stellaris kinda did a space-age version of this with its original sectors, and it was a disaster. For those unfamiliar with early Stellaris, you had a (somewhat flexible) cap on the number of planets you could directly control and build things on, and past that cap you’d take increasing penalties unless you organized them into sectors that were run by the AI, had their own resource pools you could contribute to, and could have a focus set. Problem? The AI was terrible. Like, it had a tile system at the time where you put buildings and pops on tiles and some tiles had bonuses and there were adjacency rules, and then the AI would go build its energy structures on mineral bonuses and mineral structures on food bonuses. And it’d build itselt into an energy deficit and run out of energy. So they removed that and there was much rejoicing that we’d get to personally micromanage like forty planets that needed constant tending.

      Though I would recommend the game Stellar Monarch for a game where you play the ruler of an interstellar state rather than the state itself. You’re not the admiral; you assign planets as targets for a fleet, or you set fleets to full autonomy and they attack and defend planets in their galactic quadrant. Your only tactical control is authorizing weapons of mass destruction. You’re not the shipbuilder; you declare the number and composition of squadrons a fleet will have and ships will be produced and allocated as resources and manufacturing capacity allow. You loosely control the budget but you don’t order mines and factories to be built; you declare priorities and your governors respond accordingly.

      Most interestingly, you have governors, courtiers, admirals and possibly assigned political officers, and a cabinet, but your control over them is limited. You periodically hold court and are presented with various dilemmas about resource allocations, diplomatic policy, long-range preparations for distant doomsdays, the most recent murder attempt on you personally, etc. Then you get political points, which you can spend to rearrange your cabinet, and you’ll get opportunities to purge incompetent or corrupt admirals and governors and assign political officers. The latter tend to drag down the combat effectiveness of the fleet but counteract rebellion progress from disloyal admirals.

      It ends up being a pretty simple game to play, with complex mechanics under the hood you aren’t directly interacting with, and it feels like you’re just one person, with your hand on the wheel of the ship of state that’s being stubborn about making a turn. There’s a sequel in early access but it’s not in a complete state.

      1. I’ve been a bit baffled that PDS would borrow the sector concept from Sword of the Stars 2 (also a space empire 4X) where it didn’t particularly work well already (though maybe for different reasons), and would make it even more extreme in Stellaris…

        Sounds like Shadow Empire (post-apocalyptic 4X/wargame) might have borrowed the political points concept from Stellar Monarch ? But also seems to have extended it, since political points are required for almost every action (aside from things like moving units), not just dealing with your cabinet (another concept and specifically – word – not particularly common in 4Xes !)… and also there are lots of extremely varied ways (aside from things like trading them on the market) to get more political points.

        1. To be fair nothing in SoTS 2 worked particularly well, though I expect the sector idea was more inspired by CK vassals translated to administrative divisions of a unitary state. I think they went for the sectors idea to try to avoid crushing micromanagement. In the days of the tile system there was a lot to do managing just one planet, so it’d get impractical running dozens. A lot of games had optional automanagement systems, but the way that tends to work out is that you never turn them on so they made them non-optional.

          1. Well, there’s also Distant Worlds (1 at least) that *really* commits to the “automanage ANY part of the gameplay” bit.

    4. Games are not simulations, and usually the designers have a clear idea of what the theme / subject is, what the interesting decisions / actions the players can take, and what is unimportant or boring and best left out. In Crusader Kings the player is playing as a series of individual rulers, collectively something like the Bene Gesserit in Dune trying to manipulate the future of particular lineages over decades and centuries.

      I really doubt that Crusader Travel Itinerary Planner would actually be more interesting or play differently, because detailed map geography is something that can be left out _from this game_. Which is not the same as saying it never matters in the real world.

      So for pilgrimages the important decision for a ruler is “I’m going on pilgrimage”, not exactly how you get there. Modern rich and influential people dump travel arrangements onto their flunkies, the rest of us are happy to follow a map on a phone. I don’t see why medieval barons and counts and kings would be any different.

      Holding court in different places was important, but the game already has the “feasting” mechanic for spending time and money keeping your subjects happy. Again what matters is how much awareness and resources you spend on internal politics, not figuring out the optimal route.

      While the game allows unrealistically easy long range diplomacy, what actually happens to a player who spends all their time on diplomacy with remote corners of the world? Most likely they get mugged by the neighbours they haven’t been paying attention to. The game doesn’t have an explicit mechanism to force local interactions, but it will emerge from game behaviour anyway.

      As for perfect information without delay, that’s just something just about every tabletop and computer game has to accept. This is a game played over years, decades, centuries; any mechanism for information delay would almost certainly be annoying and not actually change the outcome.

      1. >So for pilgrimages the important
        >decision for a ruler is “I’m going on
        >pilgrimage”, not exactly how you get
        >there. Modern rich and influential
        >people dump travel arrangements
        >onto their flunkies, the rest of us are
        >happy to follow a map on a phone.
        >I don’t see why medieval barons
        >and counts and kings would be
        >any different.

        Tongue in cheek-wise, any medieval noble would be delighted to be able to “follow a map on a phone;” wars were sometimes lost because an army got lost following bad or nonexistent and twisting roads in the countryside. 😉

        More seriously, the main difference was that today, rich and influential people can fly from place to place in a high speed jet, free of fear that something bad might happen along the way. In medieval times, a nobleman had to hop on a horse and get saddle-burns the same as anyone else. And they did this in a society where travel was hard, delaying a traveler or forcing them to risk their lives pushing through bad conditions was easy, and kidnapping people you didn’t like for ransom was something of a way of life and a routine wartime tactic everyone had experience with.

        The realist angle does at least provide for some interesting minigame opportunities in theory.

      2. > So for pilgrimages the important decision for a ruler is “I’m going on pilgrimage”, not exactly how you get there.

        I’m not sure I’d agree with that. This isn’t “I’m going to the grocery store, I don’t care which street I take,” this is a profoundly moving (and potentially once-in-a-lifetime) religious experience with many less widely famous but still highly desirable stops along the way. If I’m a Catholic nobleman going on pilgrimage from western Europe to Jerusalem (just for example), then it matters very much whether I go through Rome or not, but also which of the many cities, villages, and monasteries I visit along the way with their various locally/regionally-famous relics, cathedrals, hermits etc. all competing for my attention. It’s hard to imagine people wouldn’t have been deeply invested in the route they took for all kinds of reasons: traveling through friendly/enemy territory, cost, natural dangers, locations to see along the way. (We have various travel diaries from people throughout history which show that – just like modern tourists – they were really eager to see and experience as much as they could every place they visited.) This also wasn’t a quick day-and-back trip, these trips might take weeks or months or even years. I’m happy to follow Google Maps when I’m driving a few hours, but if I’m going to be traveling for months you can bet I’m going to plan ahead extensively and frequently reconsider along the way.

        Whether this would make Crusader Kings a better game I’m more ambivalent about – there’s a balance to be struck between abstraction and realism, and I wouldn’t actually want to have to stop at each point along the trip and pump the locals for the latest news (arriving at the speed of Man On Horse) in order to adjust my traveling plans, for similar reasons to why I hate traveling more than half a day away in real life.

    5. This would also require the player to delegate military commands. Sure, you could lead the army yourself. But who will administer your “state” while you’re gone? You could hand control over to your brother, but how much does he want your throne? The way they’re treating the military sphere in Victoria 3 seems like it could guide CK3’s development as well.

      1. In general the answer to who runs the state while the king was waging war is the Queen. Or Baroness, or Countess, or whatever the consorts’ title was.

  15. Interesting reading, thank you! I’d be very interested in you some day going through this exercise in exploring the historical perspective of what is arguably the most popular, broadly experienced historical computer game – Civilization.

    Another blogger who is coming at it from the other direction, writing a history of computer games, had an attempt at reading the very first Civilization as a text – – and I’d be interested to compare and contrast with your thoughts, or see if a historian’s analyst of more recent entrants in the series are different.

    1. Oh wow, this is as amazing as the blogposts that we get here, thanks !

      (Well, at least the first one in the series, detailing the development of Civilization was, others will have to wait, like here, they are quite long !)

  16. I’ve never played Paradox games but was wondering something about the pops in the Victoria series. Do populations have an institutional or cultural memory, so experiences in the past affect the way the behave in the future?

    Some examples:

    Caribbean piracy started with buccaneers who did a lot of large-scale town raiding. This was possible because there had been a lot of wars in Europe, leaving a high number of experienced infantrymen. The next generation didn’t have those skills, so went more towards taking ships at sea – requiring more of the skills of sailors.

    The German veterans of the 1848 Revolution emigrated to America and remained such notorious militants they were known as the Red 48s.

    In the US some slaveowners regarded their slaves as some kind of social experiment and some wanted to see how highly they could be educated (Jefferson Davis was one of them). After the Civil War these extremely capable former slaves became some of the driving intellectual, political, and religious leaders of the Reconstruction period.

    Also some traits can stay dormant for decades then pop up again – like the culture of strikebreaking among Nottinghamshire miners, or sectarianism in Yugoslavia.

    1. Pops don’t have memory (they only exist in their current state and are unaffected by previous states) but their various properties are largely independent of each other, so some of the examples you mention are still possible. A radical German pop that migrates to the US won’t “remember” that it was a radical in Germany, but it also won’t change its political beliefs, and so will remain a radical in the US.

  17. “affective effect” is weak imo. I’m going to need to see a sentence with both the verb and noun forms of both words before I’ll concede your mastery to you. Get me some “He effected an affect to affect the effect of his words.” or something.

  18. If you increase your Crown Authority to Level 3 as the ruler of a feudal or clan realm, your vassals can no longer declare war without your “acquiescence” (i.e. they have a hook on you). At this point, you have a monopoly on legitimate violence and you are ruling a state.

    Also, why did Ajannas “break with Baghdad”? Didn’t the Umayyads do that already when they set up a separate emirate in Al Andalus?

    1. Game mechanically, they have the Caliph in Baghdad as their head of faith, nominally recognizing his authority, but you’re politically independent. As of Fate of Iberia, multiple religions can share a head, and for Islam specifically if you found a new branch you must start out recognizing an existing Caliph.

      What Ajannas did was create a separate Caliphate in Al Andalus, declaring he’s the rightful ruler of all Muslims. Mechanically this really pisses off the Caliph you stopped recognizing, and it gives you whatever powers your religion assigns to the head of faith. Like declaring Jihads.

      1. Ah, I haven’t played a Mutawalli ruler in Iberia since Fate of Iberia was released, so I wasn’t sure of the mechanics. I keep trying to follow my standard Viking -> Norman -> English strategy, crusading into Iberia. The fact that a Crusader King/Queen is an interloper is a bit of a drag, though. Waiting to form an Anglolusian culture is a drag.

  19. One thing that keeps bothering me is the shortcut of calling the Paradox Development Studio games “Paradox games”, even though a good half of games published by Paradox Interactive (the publisher) are NOT from PDS (the developer) (with an heavier than average share of strategy games) :

    Surely, someone that has just been to a Paradox *Interactive* convention would have noticed that ? (After a quick search, I don’t seem to find any information about any announced games, whether from PDS or not… is there still a binding non-disclosure agreement about that or something ?)

    The most notable (for me, YMMV) Paradox non-PDS games would be :
    Age of Wonders: Planetfall (planetary sci-fi 4X) – but NOT the other Age of Wonders games
    BattleTech (mecha turn-based strategy, listed here mostly because of the 1984 franchise)
    Cities : Skylines and Cities in Motion series (city builders)
    the Magicka series (humorous fantasy-medieval action-adventure)
    Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny (RPG)
    the Supreme Ruler series (wargame)
    Mount & Blade series (medieval strategy action RPG)
    the Sword of the Stars series (space empire 4X, aka “Total War in space”) – though the first one was only picked up by Paradox once their former (also Canadian) publisher went under due to the Great Recession

    P.S.: Though I’ve only just learned that the situation is even more complicated than that : Paradox now owns 8 (EIGHT !) other studios aside from PDS, and notably, Paradox had actually acquired Triumph Studios that created the Age of Wonders series prior to Planetfall, as well as Harebrained Schemes of the BattleTech video game, though maybe *after* it was released ?
    (Also, Paradox recently acquired the Prison Architect IP.)

    Anyway, sometimes I get the impression that Paradox is trying to “have their branding cake and eat the publishing profits too”…

    (Would it be like someone talking about the Roman Empire, but never about its Eastern part ?)

    1. Unfortunate it may be, but it’s a widely established shortcut for years now. From what I’ve seen “Paradox games” always refers specifically to “games developed by Paradox Development Studio*”, not “games published by Paradox Interactive.” Like, I’ve never seen Magicka or Cities: Skylines called a “Paradox game”. I suppose if Runemaster hadn’t been cancelled it would have complicated the terminology slightly, but basically “Paradox game” means “one of Paradox Development Studios’s grand strategy games”.

      *With the wrinkle that there now exist four additional “sister” studios: Paradox Arctic (2014), Paradox Thalassic (2017), Paradox Tectonic (2019), and Paradox Tinto (2020). I believe these studios also work on Paradox’s grand-strategy games (and thus saying a game is developed by “Paradox Development Studios” may be synecdoche to varying amounts), though I don’t know the exact details.

  20. To what extent is the unitary, “rational” neo-realist model of state behaviour specific to the modern period, versus being applicable in more centralized (institution-heavy) systems in general? Of course societies always consist of individuals acting with agency, so I suppose the real question is: what are the circumstances that lead to a neo-realist model becoming a reasonable approximation, or ceasing to be one?

    You’ve mentioned that Crusader Kings is the only Paradox franchise which emphasises the personal aspects of polities’ behaviour, but also that you would have liked to see more in Imperator as well. But Rome was fairly centralized and institution-heavy by the standards of its time. So, is this something that only becomes less relevant with modern states? Is it just that these are far more centralized and institution-heavy than anything which came before them, and in some sense states like Rome lived on a spectrum between modern states and more decentralized polities?

  21. While responding to a comment above about Baldwin of Flanders and Judith of France it occurred to me that a game variant played as a consort exercising influence through her husband and sons could be very interesting. Medieval noblewomen had ambitions and agency of their own and often started out with the advantages of a landed dowry and powerful relatives that could be used as leverage over her consort and to build independent support.

  22. I only recently became a CK2 player (the base game being free being a great attraction and their strategy worked as I’ve now purchased a lot of dlc). I appreciate the large Mod community for the game. There is a complete Game of Thrones conversion for example, though I hear it has bugs.
    Anyway I was curious if there was a coping mechanism Mod as yet for CK3. So far no except one that lets a player get rid of the stresses easily. Perhaps this article will inspire such a Mod.

  23. “while Markwica’s formulation is new (and particularly new in the physiological approach ”

    Did you mean ‘psychological’ here?

  24. I wonder what the extent of a theory of history’s influence on history itself is. For instance, I’m sure diplomats have been influenced in their approach to diplomacy by the theories they were trained on. Napoleon, it seems, was heavily influenced by classical historians and arguably attempted to model his life off them as much as he could.

  25. Oooh Markwica looks like fascinating work that well post-dates my formal exposure to the field.

    Also, as a CK2 playe, hearing that CK3 tries harder to distinguish characters’ actions from each other makes me really want to try it out. How does it handle regencies?

  26. I think CKIII does a much better job of representing medieval politics accurately than say Medieval 2 Total War does, which basically copied most of its mechanics from Rome: Total War and Barbarian Invasion. I think a lot of Strategy Games do create the misconception that states in any period were unitary actors with consistently rational interests, and that is an assumption that becomes very hard to unlearn when you’re studying history, especially medieval history as I have done. And I do think CKIII is broadly right to emphasise the importance of personal loyalties, familial ties and land to medieval politics.

    At the same time, I do think its approach to medieval politics is a little reductive and quite anachronistic for most of the period it covers – ninth century Carolingian Francia having feudal structures resembling those of thirteenth century Capetian France, where do we begin with that? I think it ignores one of the most key distinctions between medieval states/ polities – namely between those who could tax (like the Byzantine Empire, Fatimid Egypt and to a lesser extent Anglo-Saxon and Norman England) and those for which land really was the only fiscal resource like Capetian France and the Holy Roman Empire, as that did make big differences over to what extent rulers could translate their authority into real power over their subjects. Ideology should play more of a role in it too i.e. the Ottonian and Salian king-emperors of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire were pretty powerful until the Gregorian Reform movement shattered their claims to theocratic rule. And horizontal political structures should play more of a role as well – royal assemblies of kings and magnates in the early period and parliaments after about 1200 or so.

  27. Refusing to yield to coercion by much stronger states is not necessarily irrational. First, chance and fate rule human affairs, not just in war (consider romance, markets, etc.), so defeat is never assured. Second, most human interactions involve repeat encounters. So unless the cost of defeat is total, ground sowed with salt destruction, being known as a counterparty who doesn’t back down readily is an advantage for future encounters. Surely the current inhabitants of Finland and Poland are better off because of the hopeless resistance put up by their ancestors.

    Human emotions may be finely-tuned evolutionary devices to enable us to make what history will record as the right decisions when a narrow focus on immediate costs and benefits would lead us to act contrary to our true long-term interests.

    1. There’s also that humans are such strongly social creatures that what often counts for them is not personal survival but the continuance of the group, or even just the idea of the group as embodied in some ideal (“Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.”)

  28. As a big CK3 fan, I’m very excited for this series. I would argue that although the game doesn’t involve playing as a state, it is designed to simulate the emergence of at least the early modern state via 5 trends in the technology tree:
    1. Increases to the Domain cap allow more power to be held directly by the central government. (Though in large realms you’ll still control only a fraction of the total holdings)
    2. Expansion of the number and quality of men-at-arms available allows for professional armies makes you less reliant on feudal levies.
    3. Permanent bonuses to vassal opinion reduce the likelihood of revolts.
    4. Access to higher levels of Crown Authority allows you to limit civil wars and gain a greater monopoly on violence within your realm.
    5. The more advanced succession types, especially Primogeniture, create a more permanent tie between the dynasty and a particular set of holdings.
    Taken together, what you rule over by 1400 looks a lot more like a state than what you rule over in 900. (Though it’s not there fully)

  29. Well, there are absolutely mechanics for having standout vassals you want for their personal qualities. A really quality high-prowess knight can be stronger than a hundred heavy infantry, and a good commander is worth quite a bit, though you only need a couple of those. To be honest I don’t get much into personally managing that because, uh, I am totally incapable of remembering basic facts about procedurally generated characters. I could not tell you the name of my character even while mid-game; there’s no way I’m remembering vassals.

    The MaA thing annoys me on a mechanical and a narrative level. Mechanically, it’s one of many things that stops scaling past a certain size, and I habitually play large realms* so I can actually max out these things. So there’s serious diminishing returns as the witch Empress-Pope of Rome to launching invasions into France separate from the fact that I’m gonna have to install a ton of new vassals in French territory who think our thing about binding demons into the service of God is a bit off.

    Narratively, it, well, kind of messes with the whole concept of the feudal system. Like, you specifically do not get the sort of troops a vassal contract would tend to require. I mean, technically the flavor text says the knights on the battlefield represent a noble and his personal retinue, but it’s based purely off personal combat ability, not modified by any of the things you’d think a retinue would be modified by. A contract generally obligates providing well-equipped troops, but your vassals have those and don’t give them to you, instead providing joe random peasant with a spear.

    What makes it even worse is my response to this fact. For logistical reasons I’d rather have fewer more elite troops, and the only way to get that is directly with money. So I’ll trade off vassal levies for vassal monies, because I need them to fund my national standing army. In 1066.

    CK2’s retinue system did have the same problem with not getting your vassal’s retinues, but your retinue cap (which scales with holdings and certain buildings) is initially heavily constrained by tech, so you have to get pretty far in the game before they’re a major part of your strategy, which fits with increasing centralization. And they were the same type of troops you’d get from your vassals, just with a moderate bonus. Also some modders got creative with the fact that retinues would participate if you called vassals to war.

    *strangely I find them easier to manage because of my trouble with remembering characters. When you’re Emperor and have enough vassals, no individual vassal or three can stir up serious trouble. You just have to do the things that broadly raise vassal opinion and you’re set; you can do things like appoint the most qualified person to a council position and ignore the angry red fists.

    1. The fyrd system produced something like a standing army, with professional or semi-professional infantry being supported by multiple farming families. It’s not a modern, deracinated and extensively drilled and trained fighting force but it’s also a far cry from “a peasant with a spear.” And the fyrd system was in use in England well into the 11th Century.

      An Italian monarch having a standing army is ahistorical in the sense that it wasn’t the actual historical situation in Italy in the 11th Century, but it’s not too impossible to imagine an Italian monarch hearing about how effective the fyrd is and organizing something like that in their lands, possibly building off what remnants of the Roman system still existed. I’m not a historian so I don’t know all the details of how this would be done but it doesn’t seem impossible to have a professional or semi-professional army in that period.

    2. A vassal “contract” may state that the vassal is supposed to provide so many troops, but many vassals could and did have much stronger forces, and whether they met the minimum obligation by sending Joe the random peasant or really helped their superior by sending their own household knights was very much determined by politics and interpersonal relationships, not contracts.

      And since this isn’t a modern system, there’s no real external arbitration to appeal to if a vassal doesn’t meet their obligation. Charlemagne and many other medieval kings weren’t dumb, and if they could have imposed tighter controls on their vassals, they would have. Actual medieval kings who tried to order their vassals to do something were sometimes told “Yeah? You and what army?” and if so the king better be able to point at their other vassals who had responded.

      And trading off vassal levies for vassal monies is absolutely the right medieval response, even as early as 1066. English kings such as Stephen and John recruited mercenaries not for a national standing army, but for a small military force that they could rely on to do what it was told (or at least be more likely to). Moslem rulers likewise recruited paid ghulams (later “Mamluks”) in place of troublesome vassal-equivalents. I think congratulations are due to Paradox for making you rediscover this historical problem and solution.

  30. I just noticed footnotes have hypertext now! This is fantastic, love reading them without scrolling down.

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