Crusader Kings II: The Necessary Evils of Medieval Politics
Transcending time and reality, video games as a medium provide an utterly unique glimpse of life in historical periods and other worlds, while calling upon our unique knowledge and experiences to invoke our alter egos. But sometimes in doing so, they manage to arouse, indulge, and even encouragesome of our darkest impulses.Suchis so inCrusader Kings II(CKII),a medieval grand strategy game wherein the player guides a family of nobility through the trials and tribulations of the Dark Ages. In doing so, one quickly learns the intense dangers of the world they inhabit: war, famine, disease, intrigue, rebellion, chaos and death are the rules rather than the exceptions. Survival hinges on one using every lever of power available to them, exploiting every weakness, and eschewing every moral boundary that would hold you back. In the chaotic world of the Dark Ages,CKII urges you towards whatever is necessary to cling onto the relative safety of the throne, and in doing so, highlights how ignoble nobility truly was.
Baby Steps in the Shadows
The core gameplay element ofCKIIconsists of you – the head of a medieval noble house – expanding the power and influence of your family across the world. ‘Why do I want to?’ you may ask. The answer is brutally simple: if you don’t, others will! There are literallyhundredsof other families in the world vying for the same thing, so it’s only a matter of time before the fragmented lands of the 8thcentury start to form large kingdoms; you’d do well to be one of them. Otherwise, you will wind up a vassal of one such kingdom; forced to abide by their laws and decrees under the threat of having your lands, freedom, and/or head taken from you.
With that goal in mind, the first goal one typically works towards in a new game is to subjugate their neighbor. One needs a claim on the land to do this. There do exist legally permissible ways of acquiring one: you could marry into the ruling family with the hopes of them having a child of your dynasty with a claim on the land, you could have the head of your faith sanction a claim upon them, and the like. But by far the easiest, quickest, and most common method of getting a claim is to send your chancellor – your realm’s head diplomat – to fabricate one via “bribing, cajoling, extorting, threatening, and forging documents…” 1. To do so is as easy as clicking a few buttons, and despite its fabricated nature, the claim is just as good as any other. The ease of this action makes it the go-to option for early expansion; to forgo this method would be a severe handicap upon the player. In making this illegal, clandestine option the most accessible and rapid, the game is implicitly encouraging players to utilize it over other methods which may take longer, have more prerequisites, and may not even work in the end due to unforeseen events. It is at this moment in time, when one realizes how easy it can be to grasp for greater power, that the game starts to encourage the amoral side of its players.
Speak Softly and Carry a Small Dagger
Whilst your realm begins to take shape, you will sooner or later be forced to contend with troublesome individuals who in some way threaten your rule. These can take the form of powerful vassals who are discontent with you, foreigners who hold a claim to your throne, invasive neighbors, marauding adventurers, and the like. In all cases, there exist several options for one to contain the situation at hand. But perhaps the most straightforward method is to simply arrange an “accident” for the troublemaker in the form of a Plot. An Assassination Plot involves several individuals working in tandem to kill off a common rival of theirs. Successfully assassinating a character without being caught can instantly end several problems; a rowdy vassal may be replaced with a more content one, a troublesome contender can be put down forever, a war can be ended in a single day.
The benefits are aplenty, and the game does not shy away from this fact; indeed, it againimplicitlyencourages said behavior by making these actions especially accessible. It is possible to target almost anyone with an Assassination Plotfor any reason you wish, whereas other options may have prerequisites to enact or may simply beunavailableif the threat is a distant one. The ‘Arrange Plot’ button is also shown right on the character screen, the first window you see when selecting someone, while other diplomatic options are hidden in menus several clicks away. To top it all off, a failure to kill the target doesn’t necessarily entail a complete loss; the plotters will simply try again. Even if you are outed as a conspirator, the consequencesvary wildly depending on the circumstances.You may very well lose your head or end up in a brig, but sometimes you’ll just get a firm finger-waggling, or an order to stop by your liege lord. You may even get away with it entirely, as those responsible for reprimanding you may be otherwise busy with their own affairs. If you happen to be the lord of your own independent realm, you oftentimes sufferno consequencesat all, since foreign threats may not be in a position to challenge you and domestic ones can’t really complain to authorities that work for you!
The Promised Land of Gold
The implicit endorsement of amoral behavior and thought inCKIIis so thorough, it even manages to rear its head in the game’s titular feature: Crusades, Jihads, and Great Holy Wars. These massive events trigger on a regular basis every few decades, pitting entire faiths against one another in what quickly become the largest conflicts of any given game. Only the head of a given faith – the Catholic Pope, the Caliph of Islam, theKohenGadolof Judaism,etc. – may declare these wars, calling upon all their faithful to fight in the name ofGod! Butoften times,this motive hits a set of familiar snags: these wars aretypicallyfought over hotly contested regions that – depending on your location – may be thousands of miles away, involve tens of thousands of soldiers, and can drag on for years without end.
With this in mind, ‘fight in the name of God!’ may not be a strong incentive for the player, who must still contend with threats much closer to home. In fact, there once was a time wherein it was more advantageousnotto embark on Crusades,as this made it easier to assail rivals who did decide to participate; now helpless with theirtroopsmonths away from home. This recently became apparent to the game’s developers – Paradox Interactive – who then decided to patch in a baser, yet much more powerful alternative motive: ‘fight for theriches’.
As of the most recent version of the game, Crusades and their equivalents feature amassivecache of resources assembled some years before the war begins. If the Crusade is won, that cache is distributed to the victorson the basis ofparticipation in the war. If the Crusade is lost,allof it is wasted. Thus, the player is incentivized to fight for victory as hard as they can, not in the name of God, but for the chance at a treasure trove that could set their family above all others for several generations. You also face little retribution for hostile actions against religious enemies during Crusades; letting your soldiers rob merchants of their wares is usually considered atrocious, but it is forgiven when on a Crusade against that merchant’s faith. All these factors compound to make these ‘holy wars’ holy in name and name alone, as the real motives of such are typically far from holy and firmly rooted in personal gain.
The Demons Wear the Crowns
Withall this being said, letus take a moment to consider what history has said of kings:
The state of monarchy is thesupremestthing upon earth, for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called gods… In the Scriptures, kings are called gods, and so their power, after a certain relation, compared to the Divine power. Kings are also compared to fathers of families; for a king is trulyparenspatriae [parent of the country], the politic father of his people. And lastly, kings are compared to the head of this microcosm of the body of man…– James I of England 2
I am born in a rank which recognizes no superior but God, to whom alone I am responsible for my actions; but they are so pure and honorable that I voluntarily and cheerfully render an account of them to the whole world.–Richard I of England 3
Such lofty language is indeed consistent with the theory of the divine right of kings, which declares that a king is chosen by God or may even be divine himself. As being such, he is validated at the highest level as being ‘pure’, ‘honorable’, and ‘the politic father of his people’. He is the beacon of light on Earth that all men should aspire to be. Never has this theory met a mangling more savage than the one given to it byCKII. This game utterly shatters the notion that a king – or any aristocrat for that matter – is inherently righteous, honorable, or good. To be a noble in this game means to forsake whatever notions of morality you have in a day-to-day battle for survival. Murder, bribery, blackmail, theft, warmongering, and more are what define a medieval ruler’s reign. The pretense to nobility is exactly that; a pretense and nothing more.CKIIillustrates this by taking its players and dropping them headfirst into the hellish quagmire of the Dark Ages and asks them to tame it the best way they see fit. But what it stays silent on is that thebestways are almost always thebadones, and in doing so, itdemonstrates tous what it really meant to sit upon a throne with a goldencrown rested on your brow. 4
- Crusader Kings II, 3.3.0(XDS W), PC, 2012 (original release), Paradox Interactive ↩
- Prothero, G.W. “James I.” Then Again, 2005, www.thenagain.info/Classes/Sources/JamesI.html. ↩
- Duncan, Jonathan. “The Dukes of Normandy, from the Times of Rolls to the Expulsion of King John.” The Dukes of Normandy, from the Times of Rolls to the Expulsion of King John, edited by Joseph Rickerby, pp. 290–291. ↩
- SPECIAL MENTIONS: I would like to personally thank Professor Edward Wesp of Western New England University for helping me in the initial formulation of this piece and his tutelage in gaming narrative, and my friend Laurie Messer for her help in editing and proofreading. ↩
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