This is the third part of a four part series (I, IIa, IIb) examining the historical assumptions behind the popular medieval grand strategy game Crusader Kings III, made by Paradox Interactive. In the last part (in two sections), we discussed how CKIII attempts to model decentralized political power in the fragmented polities of the medieval Mediterranean, with different mechanics to reflect the pressures that led to fragmentation both in the post-Carolingian West and the post-Rashidun East.
This week, we’re going to look at how CKIII understands power to be wielded and maintained within the system of fragmented, personalistic rule we’ve established in the previous weeks. In a sense this is the third leg of a the three-legged stool that is CKIII‘s understanding of power in a medieval polity: if power is personal, rather than institutional (leg one) and highly fragmented between many people (leg two), then how is power gained and kept within such systems. As historians, we tend to approach this question through the concept of legitimacy, the degree to which a ruling authority (in this case a person) is perceived to be the rightful authority and thus obeyed not out of the fear of force but out of tradition and social pressure. Legitimacy, for reasons we’ll get into, is the fundamental lifeblood of any ruling authority.
Legitimacy in traditional monarchies – of the sort the player is running in this game – are in turn founded on social norms, collective standards of behavior (often unwritten). In this case, we’re interested specifically in the social norms about kingship, since norms often differ based on one’s position in society (age, sex, social rank, etc.). There is a degree of circularity here: subjects want their king to act like a ‘good king’ and so they are more ready to support a king that acts out (or performs) their understanding of what a good king looks like, which in turn confers legitimacy on the monarchy, which in turn defines for subsequent kings what being a good king looks like.
What is fascinating about CKIII is that one could easily argue that legitimacy is the central theme of the game, that most of the player’s efforts within a realm are focused on building their own legitimacy or undermining the legitimacy of others and yet ‘legitimacy’ is not a a single system or currency within the game. No character has a ‘legitimacy’ score, instead what CKIII has to say about systems of generating legitimacy emerges from its systems, especially modifiers which interact with either vassal opinion. So that is where we will start: how do you keep all of those scheming vassals happy?
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Factions and Kingdoms
Before we dive into the game systems which influence vassals and holdings, we need to understand what makes vassals compliant and stable in the game. Vassals have three main ways they can work against their liege: they can scheme (using intrigue to launch hostile schemes), they can withhold levies in some government forms and they can form factions. Of these factions are generally the most dangerous and the most common way for a liege to lose control over their polity (either by actively being dethroned or by having key decisions taken against their will).
Of these systems, factions are the most immediately relevant. Factions are coalitions of power centers within a realm which pool together their military power in order to make a demand of their liege, threatening civil war if refused. These in turn divide into two groups, vassal factions and popular factions; we’ll deal with the latter later and focus on vassal factions for now. There are currently four types of vassal factions. Vassals can demand either that crown authority is lowered, that a different claimant be enthroned as liege, that they alone be made independent or that the kingdom itself be dissolved making everyone independent.
A faction’s power is computed as a comparison of the military forces available to the liege (both your own holding’s armies and also the liege’s slice of the levies of every non-faction member) as compared to the military forces available to the faction (the full army of each participating faction member), so that a vassal who joins a faction both subtracts their contribution from their liege’s power and adds their entire army to the faction’s power. Factions under 80% of the liege’s power are effectively inert; factions with more than 80% of the liege’s power gain ‘discontent’ rapidly and when this reaches 100%, the faction will deliver an ultimatum; if refused they will rebel, triggering a civil war. Vassal contributions to their liege are generally fairly small (typically around c. 25%), meaning that it generally takes only a sizable minority of vassals to be in a faction before they have sufficient strength to make demands.
And in case it isn’t clear, civil wars resulting from vassal factions are very bad. For one, the way the discontent threshold works, factions will only make demands if they have a good chance of winning. It is possible to trigger vassal factions early by unjustly imprisoning a faction member, but the knock-on-effects of the sudden burst of ‘tyranny’ modifiers can easy leave a ruler who does that with bigger problems. At the same time, of course a civil war means a situation in which the kingdom’s military strength is cannibalizing itself, which can leave the kingdom extremely vulnerable to external powers, while all of the fighting and besieging can cause medium-term economic problems through the ‘control’ mechanic (which we’ll come back to in a moment).
Needless to say, as a liege, the player wants their vassals kept out of factions. There are a few ‘strong’ bars to vassals joining factions (that is they absolutely prohibit it rather than discouraging it): vassals cannot join a faction against their liege if they are their friend, lover or military ally, if the liege has a ‘strong hook’ on them (that is, they owe him a big factor or he has big blackmail on them, that kind of thing), or if they have at least 80 positive opinion of the liege (we’ll cover opinion more in a moment). Vassals that are afraid of the liege (a product of ‘dread’) cannot join a faction unless it is over the 80% threshold to generate discontent; which makes dread a useful but dangerous tool that is entirely effective until you desperately need it at which point it is entirely ineffective.
For a small realm with just a handful of vassals, controlling factions through personal relationships (friend, lover, ally) is possible. Alliances, as noted previously, require a close family connection (siblings, parents, or -in-law versions of the same), so the number of available allies is likely to be fairly limited, though a canny ruler is going to use strategic marriages to ‘lock in’ key vassals. Nevertheless, the larger the realm gets the less these strategies matter: with ten vassals, being besties with two and father-in-law to another two makes the realm stable; in a realm with fifty vassals, that’s a rounding error on faction formation.
Which leaves opinion (and dread) as a key tool in controlling vassals: by and large the player wants their vassals to have a positive opinion of them, even if (as feudal or tribal vassals), their opinion does not effect their troop contributions. High opinion discourages hostile anti-liege scheming and faction formation, the latter in a sliding scale up to that positive-80 opinion where vassals cannot join a faction against you. Of course the reverse is true for negative opinion (character opinion ranges from +100 to -100): characters with massively negative opinion of their liege are almost guaranteed to form or join factions. For rulers with clan-type vassals whose taxes and levies vary based on opinion, the relationship between opinion and realm stability is intensified since this creates a sliding scale rather than a binary in terms of vassal contribution to realm stability (not in faction and supplying troops) or instability (in faction, supply troops to that faction). And finally, vassals with high opinion tend to have events and interactions with you (like swearing fealty, giving gifts, inviting you to feasts, etc.) which are beneficial, whereas vassals that hate your guts will do things like try to assassinate you.
Fundamentally then, the stability of a kingdom is substantially dependent on the liege keeping positive opinion (as much as possible) of their vassals while also potentially maintaining some dread (to scare the malcontents).
A Brief Aside on Realm Structure
As a brief aside before we move on – the above statement is key for what comes next but is not the end of large-realm-maintenance strategy. I tend to most enjoy being the liege of fairly large realms, so this is a part of the game that gets a lot of my attention. The player as a king or emperor can improve their margin of error with factions also by building up the royal demesne – their personal holdings – to maximize revenue and levy generation, since you get 100% of your own levies in a civil war. In essence you then are reinvesting the taxes on your vassals to build up your ability to leverage your personal army against them (this is why, as you can see in my screenshots, I take so much care to avoid fragmenting my ‘core’ royal holdings even with partition – those are the most heavily improved counties in the kingdom and thus give my ruler a lot of power to play with). In addition, the player wants to avoid the emergence of jumbo-vassals with vast territory, because those fellows if they get out of control can easily become the core of a dangerous faction.
The ideal stable kingdom then would be each duke with only one duchy, holding only the capital county of that duchy personally, with a single count on every other county, perfectly mapping the de jure boundaries. The limit to that strategy is that it reduces the kingdom’s effective offensive power: by adding the maximum number of vassal layers between the king and the lowest rulers (the barons), a lot of military potential ends up trapped locally. Let’s assume a duchy with 5 counties, each county has 3 holdings and each holding generates 100 levies; so the whole thing has 1,500 levies. If the duke holds all five county titles directly, he has 500 personal levies and his barons (all direct vassals) have 1,000 of which he gets a quarter (250), so he has 750 total levies which means you (the king) get 187 men from him in war time. But if his duchy is fragmented as intended here he has just 100 personal levies, plus 6 direct vassals (4 counts, 2 barons); each baron gives him 25 men, each count 37 (they have 100 personal, plus 50 indirect from their two barons), so his total is just 300 levy troops (100+(2*25)+(4*37.5)), of which you the king only get 75 in war time. But at the same time, that means should that duke join a faction, he only removes 75 levies from the king’s strength and adds only 300 to the faction’s strength, which is a lot less dangerous than 187 and 750 respectively. This becomes substantially more important once a realm is large enough to require vassal kings to stay under the vassal limit (a factor for those looking to rebuild the Roman Empire, for instance).
In my own experience, the benefits to realm stability in breaking up (when you can do so without tyranny) vassals who have begun ‘consolidating’ their own de jure areas (that is, their duchies) generally outweigh the lost military power for most large realms if the player has also been diligent in building up the main royal core, because that royal core (and the mercenaries and men-at-arms units it supports) will provide the necessary military core. At the same time, as crown authority increases, the problem implied here reduces because each layer’s contribution of levies and taxes upward increases, which reduces the difference between a duke with a bunch of count vassals and a duke that holds his entire duchy personally.
On the flipside, avoiding ‘double dukes’ (or dukes that end up having lots of non-de jure vassals) is a much more clear-cut priority. A duke that consolidates two whole duchies is likely to be approaching the personal realm holdings of the king or emperor and is thus a substantial threat. When I run large realms I am generally on the lookout for opportunities to break up such situations, by a variety of means. If the ruler in question is caught committing a crime, that can be used to break up the titles via revocation, as can enforced partition as part of the feudal contract in realms that have adopted single-heir succession systems. It can even make sense to take some tyranny to ‘clean up’ titles if your ruler is well ensconced on the throne, to make things easier for a future heir who lacks that advantage; my own pet name for this slow-motion ‘rolling revocation’ strategy is ‘revoke-a-palooza.’
The reason you, as the player, may need all of these strategies is that while your current ruler may be a charismatic diplomat with great skills and a robust opinion bonus from having a long reign, his heir may be none of these things. Succession is always the moment of maximum peril for large realms, precisely because a new ruler is weak and succession creates lots of potential claimants for unhappy vassals to rally around. Building up the ‘margin of safety’ thus keeps the realm stable through generations by centralizing power around the monarch. Of course a player can carry out this kind of state-building to a degree that isn’t very historical, focusing relentlessly on it over multiple generations.
That digression out of the way, on with the show.
Opinion and Prestige
In CKIII, every character has an opinion of every other character within their diplomatic range, which represents how much they like or dislike that character, in a range from positive 100 to negative 100. Opinion calculation is simple: a character’s opinion of you is simple sum of all of the modifiers. What is complex is that there are a lot of possible modifiers, but we can group them into just a few ‘buckets’ to understand how the game system processes them. The key thing is positive opinion modifiers reward the player for acting within the expectations of medieval rulership while breaking with those expectations will generally anger vassals and lower their opinion. So let’s walk through the major categories of opinion modifiers.
First off there are a set of ‘relations’ modifiers (friend, soulmate, rival, etc.); generally characters will only have a few of these over their lifetime. In addition to this there are a bunch of personal modifiers based on actions you have taken: giving someone a gift makes them happy, trying to have them assassinated makes them quite upset. These individual modifiers matter in the game because all rulership is personal but when we are thinking about realm stability with lots of vassals, it is really the modifiers that impact the most characters that matter the most (though absolutely infuriating a powerful vassal or two can absolutely wreck a kingdom). So we’re going to focus on global modifiers to vassals (be they vassal specific or general for everyone).
Then there is a ruler’s personality and skills. The Diplomacy skill provides a flat bonus or penalty to character opinion, reflecting your ruler’s ability to actually do the work of court interactions (high diplomacy skill also frequently gives ‘outs’ in difficult events to avoid offending people). On top of this, personality matters; while most characters like characters with the same trait as them and dislike characters with the opposite trait, certain traits are liked or disliked by vassals generally. Brave, Just, and Patient all give general vassal opinion bonuses, while Craven, Stubborn, Arbitrary, Impatient, Paranoid and Sadistic all give penalties. The bonuses and penalties of these traits tend to be small, ranging from +5 to -10; they stack but characters generally only have three traits, limiting how high they can be stacked.
More pervasive is the fame modifier, ranging from negative 10 to positive 30 for all secular rulers; every character has a fame level. The way fame works is that various prestigious actions (holding hunts, having or creating titles, being lauded, winning battles, etc.) give a character prestige and fame in equal amounts; prestige is a resource that is then spent to do things, while fame accumulates. Fame can be lost, but only rarely so; in practice fame is the sort of lifetime value of all of the prestige your character has earned. Splendor, a sort of dynasty-wide fame rating, starts characters off at birth with prestige (they benefit from a famous name), so building dynasty splendor is a strategy to give all of your rulers a leg up in terms of holding together a kingdom.
In some ways the inverse of fame’s effect is tyranny, a negative modifier with effectively no limit that a character gains every time they take what are perceived as unjust actions (imprisonment without cause, that sort of thing). It decays slowly and lowers the opinion of all vassals and all courtiers, which can obviously be quite bad since the former make factions and the latter are effective agents in schemes against you. Individual tyrannical acts range from -5 to -20 opinion, but they stack so that repeatedly acting tyrannically can compile much larger negative modifiers. Unlike in previous games where characters remembered specific acts of tyranny, in CKIII, tyranny is more of a general reputation.
Already we can make some observations about how this system functions. First, vassals care about a ruler’s character, though not as much as they care about a ruler’s actions. A brave, just, patient ruler’s opinion bonus will be entirely swamped by unjustly imprisoning just one vassal (and they’ll also pick up a bunch of stress for it, because they’re just). At the same time, while vassals react very negatively to sources of tyranny, they aren’t looking for a ‘nice guy’ ruler either. Instead, they value prestige, and so it is worth looking at how prestige is acquired.
The main sources of passive prestige (and thus fame) are the titles a ruler holds personally, with a percentage bonus from diplomacy skill added on top. Added to this are prestige bonuses from personal and court artifacts which can add up quickly to a substantial bonus; being the head of a large dynasty is also a major prestige bonus. But what I want to note is the sort of ‘outer edge of the possible’ for this, for which let me introduce you to Emperor Konstantinos VII, ruler of the re-established Roman Empire, Emperor, King (3x), Duke (2x), Count (11x), with a maxxed out court, a diplomacy of 16, both Joyeuse and Curtana and effectively infinite wealth:
He has 23.9 monthly prestige, which is a ton. Needless to say even most independent kings will only have a fraction of this. But getting to the maximum fame level requires earning 25,000 prestige which at this rate will take 87 years. Clearly there must be other ways of getting prestige to get those sweet, sweet secular opinion bonuses. And there are! Both feasts and hunts can provide prestige, especially if you have a lavish royal court with lots of servants and good food, but those decisions are expensive and can only be fired once every five years.
But I’ll cut to the chase: successful warfare is the main driver of massive fame. Declaring war itself requires an investment of either prestige or its religious equivalent, piety (but not fame or its religious equivalent, devotion); you have to spend some political capital to bring all of your vassals to war and this reflects that expenditure. But most war types also reward prestige to the winner of the war, and they tend to reward quite a lot of it. For instance, it costs 100 prestige to declare a war to recover de jure territory from another ruler, but if you win you receive the land and 300 prestige (split between all of your allies, but if you attacked alone, you get all of it). Now that means if successful you ‘net’ 200 prestige, but 300 fame (because prestige but not fame were spent declaring war) and now you have the ‘seed’ prestige to immediately declare war again (on someone else). This is why, for instance, when I needed to hit a high fame level in my House al-Yiliqi playthrough, my kingdom embarked on a sudden conquest spree in the Maghreb – that was the necessary process of building the political capital to do what I wanted.
That’s actually not even the limit of this. Battles provide fame or devotion if you win them (sieges reward gold instead), so a war with lots of big battles (that you win) will reward even more fame than just the prestige for winning. Moreover, big conquests may also mean situations in which ducal or royal titles can be either created or usurped from their old holders (because you now have all of that territory), which rewards another 300 prestige for ducal titles and 400 for kingdom titles. For comparison again, the passive prestige of ruling 3/4ths of the Roman World was just 23.9 per month, just under 300 per year. At almost any stage of the game there is far more prestige to be earned by successful warfare than through any other source, often an order of magnitude more. And the high fame bonus is really big; it is a 40-point swing in vassal opinion from no fame to the highest fame.
In short then, the games mechanics drive the player – even a player who merely wants an internally secure realm – towards external warfare. Why?
Which brings us back to international relations theory! We’ve already met IR realism, which contends that states pursue their material interests and tries to understand state action through that lens, as well as emotional choice theory which contends that apart from these material concerns, the emotional states and incentives of individual decision-makers matter. But this sort of game model, which encourages the player to take certain actions (and we’ll look at actions-not-war in a moment because they fit here too) not necessarily because of the territorial results but because of how they would be perceived by peers and vassals because of the way those choices fit how those peers and vassals understand the role of a ruler, that sits largely outside of these concerns. Emotional-choice leaders are guided largely by the desire to produce or avoid specific feelings, while IR realist states are essentially amoral actors looking to maximize security and power, considering the opinions of other states only in as much as they might interfere with those goals. This is something quite different. Here the monarch’s actions are guided by cultural expectations and institutional structures (vassalage itself being the key institution here) as much as practical utility.
Which at last brings us to the next big international relations theory field: constructivism. The central idea of constructivist thinking in international relations is to regard decision-making as fundamentally shaped by institutional and cultural factors (which are ‘socially constructed’ – a fancy way of saying ‘made by humans’ – thus the term constructivism). Rulers and leaders under a constructivist framework do not so much make rational, Machiavellian calculations to maximize strategic benefit as they aim to perform rulership or leadership, in whatever form that takes in their culture: they make decisions within a cultural script provided for them. That form, in turn, in constructivist thought, is shaped by social and historical factors (which is just a fancy way of saying, ‘it comes about culturally over time as a consequence of that culture’s history’).
Leaders and rulers, in this framework are thus not so much dune buggies ranging over the wide open desert with an infinite number of choices as they are cars navigating a culturally determined highway system with a limited number of lanes, roads and turns, their choices constricted by the need or desire to ‘perform rulership.’ I should note that while ‘perform’ and ‘performativity’ are the standard academic language, especially in the humanities, for these kinds of interactions, that does not mean the performance is insincere (the strong implication from the word ‘perform’ that the performance is insincere is one of the reasons I find ‘performativity’ an unsatisfying framework in which to understand historical actors. Academics who use the term will insist it does not have this meaning and then go and use it exactly in this way in common speech. People in the past generally believed their own religion and ideology and were generally invested in the values of their culture!). Indeed, a ruler growing up within a culture is very likely to have internalized that model of how rulers ought to behave and when decisions come up be guided as much by the idea of ‘I want to be a good ruler and good rulers do X’ than ‘doing X will convince the people I am a good ruler.’
In CKIII, this the constructivist vision is expressed in two ways: the game both blocks and nudges. For the blocks, some actions are simply unavailable if they sit well outside a character’s accepted cultural milieu. The clearest example of this is the inability to declare unjustified wars (something that can be done in EUIV); though the culturally relevant excuses to go to war differ from one culture to the next and differ based on the target, such an excuse is required. But most of the impacts are nudges: tyranny penalties for some things, vassal opinion bonuses for others, showing the player the culturally preferred path of rulership, which they can take or deviate from as they wish.
In history, the idea that rulership is strongly shaped by cultural and historic factors in this way is so strongly embedded and pervasive in our approaches that it doesn’t have its own ‘school’ the way that it does in political science and international relations theory. It does, however, lead to, I’d argue, two broad approaches to studying what kings do and how they are understood, though of course most historians mix these methods. The most materialistic approach is what I’m going to call – for lack of a more theorized term – studying ‘kinging.’ This approach assumes that kings are what they do, that the best way to chart the social assumptions that inform kingship are to chart the actions of kings, the structure of their administrations and so on. In the ancient world, this approach is very strongly associated with Fergus Millar’s magisterial The Emperor in the Roman World (1977), but the same method has been employed for the various monarchies of the medieval Mediterranean world. As we’ll see, the nature of the many fragmented states of Europe has tended to mean that each polity has to be studied as its own sui generis creature; not one model of medieval kingship but many.
The other approach, far more common in medieval studies in my experience, is to study kingship, which is to say the ideological and literary constructs that medieval people – mostly authors, most of whom were members of the clergy, but also medieval people more broadly – built around the institution, as a means of understanding how the institution was understood. This is a subset of the Annales school’s emphasis on mentalités and it is no shock that it is pervasive in medieval studies, given that Marc Bloch, an enormously influential scholar of medieval Europe, was also one of the most important figures in the development of the Annales school. Mentalités here are the ways in which people in the past understood and thought about their world; often, as it turns out, quite differently than we do today. While the study of mentalités is most often associated with a ‘history from below’ approach (also part of the Annales school), the study of kingship is more often a question of what are effectively elite mentalités, expressed through writings on kingship.
Fortunately for historians, the literate elite of the Middle Ages wrote a lot about kingship and its place in elite values. Sometimes they did so explicitly in that frame in the form of ‘mirrors for princes‘ – guides on how to rule well. But just as often this is taking place in the chronicles and histories they are producing as well. Scholars of kingship (and indeed, of polity-formation more broadly) will thus point out that the authors writing these chronicles are often engaged not merely in recording events and facts but in constructing (that word again) kingship as an institution an ideological construct as they do so, building a framework for future kings and future vassals to understand their role. As with research on the mechanics of kingship itself, the programs of literary legitimacy building for kings tend not to fit a single ideological pattern but vary by author, monarch and dynasty.
As an aside, one of the most wonderful things added in DLC so far for me was realizing that you, as a king or emperor, can commission or sponsor such works, exactly as a historical ruler might, encouraging (with money and a spot at court) an author in your kingdom to write about your grand lineage and deeds. Moreover, once written such a book can be displayed in your court, where it grants prestige and sometimes a small boost to vassal opinion, which is, it seems to me, exactly what the kings who commissioned or encouraged such works thought they were getting out of them (and often, by the by, the circulation of such works was similarly limited; the point wasn’t that everyone always read them but that the existence of a grand chronicle of your house testified itself to your legitimacy and right to rule). It immediately put me in mind of works like the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (written by Guillaume de Jumièges, later expanded and revised by Orderic Vitalis), a laudatory history of the Normans up to (and eventually beyond) the conquest of England which is also engaged in constructing legitimacy for William I and his descendants. I legitimately giggled for for a few minutes when I saw that you could do this because it is such a medieval-kingship thing to do.
The fundamental idea here is legitimacy; the king cannot rule by force alone and so must convince his most important supporters (those key vassals with their own private armies) that his rule is legitimate. This kind of ‘legitimacy building’ often seems strange to students coming from modern liberal democracies because those modern government forms rely on the deep well of legitimacy inherent in a democratic process (‘our decision’ being more legitimate by nature than ‘my decision’), but such legitimacy-building was and remains a crucial tool for monarchies of all kinds.
The valuable distinction here is between two kinds of methods to get people to do what you want, the dichotomy, as Hannah Arendt presents it in “On Violence” (1972), between violence and power. A king’s options for direct coercion – for the use of violence to make other people obey – was always limited (and reliant on getting the men doing the violence to obey without themselves being violenced against), but it was extremely limited for medieval kings whose key subjects also had armies and castles. Instead they had to rely on power – on the ability to coordinate voluntary collective action – in order to get things done or at least in order to get enough of their armed subordinates on board to coerce the rest. Legitimacy – the sense that the king’s rule is rightful and his orders are, in general, to be obeyed – is the tool by which that power is supported.
Fundamental to these notions of legitimacy was the idea of the kingship as a customary institution. As moderns, we are enamored with the idea of progress and change, but by and large pre-modern thinking was that things should continue to be done the way they have always been done, which makes a lot of sense in a world where technological and social change moved quite slowly. Kingship fits neatly into this mold: a good king was a king who practiced kingship in the way that kingship had always been practiced, fulfilling traditional models of how kings were supposed to behave and act. By doing that, or at least appearing to do that, kings could build the necessary legitimacy, lasting over generations, which enabled them to impel their collective subordinates to action.
In particular, the king’s traditional roles generally fit under three large headers: chief priest, chief judge, and chief general – that is the religious, legal and military head of a society. But the military role is peculiar of the three; the first two roles are judged based on how they conform to past practice and cultural ideals, but military performance is judged against results. Consequently, military performance becomes the ‘proof in the pudding,’ as it were, for the other two: a king that is successful on the battlefield must be so because they rule well in peacetime (and thus have a well-run kingdom with a good army) and because whatever Higher Powers may be interested were on their side. That then feeds back into the model of kingship: because the ideal king is successful on the battlefield, the actual king must seek battlefields on which to be successful. The performance of kingship by the socially constructed models present in these societies demands military performance and so conflicts must be found to do that performance.
The balance of CKIII‘s prestige system pushes the player in exactly this direction, since the secular opinion bonuses of fame are so high and the best way to get fame is to spend prestige declaring wars you then win. That allows vassal opinion to be kept high (and some high opinion rolls over to your ruler’s heir for a few years after succession), because the king is doing kingship (here, military activity) well.
The game then mirrors this same structure for the ‘chief judge’ role as well with the Royal Court DLC. I’ve discussed this DLC already but here I want to briefly note how it adopts the same prestige/fame economy: it costs prestige to hold court (you can do so every five years). Doing so gives your character three dilemmas to resolve; getting favorable resolutions either by leveraging the treasury (vassals like generous kings!) or by being wise and skilled rewards further prestige and all gains of prestige are gains in fame, so the player spends political capital (the prestige investment) for the chance to win legitimacy (fame if you perform well). The effects aren’t nearly as strong as warfare and that makes a lot of sense: these are military aristocrats, after all. But it fits in the same mold.
However fame, while a major component of how the game models legitimacy, is not the only system for doing so. Remember that there are a lot of either general opinion or vassal opinion modifiers. Fame is one of the largest, but a character’s traits (like Brave or Just, but as we’ll see these can be culture and religion specific too!) matter. A number of lifestyle traits also boost opinion either directly (like ‘Administrator,’ +5 vassal opinion) or indirectly through a diplomacy bonus (like the ‘Eager reveler’ trait from doing lots of feasting, but beware because a character that does that can also pick up the ‘drunkard’ trait which is sharply disapproved of by some but not all religions/cultures!). On the other hand, holding personally more territory than you can inherit upsets vassals, as does acts of tyranny, but also acts a culture disapproves of (which can vary, culture to culture, see below).
Consequently, the way CKIII models legitimacy is through a multitude of bonuses and penalties which bear on vassal opinion. Collectively the things that provide bonuses to vassal opinion – high fame (from military success), good diplomacy, holding feasts, giving fair judgement, commissioning histories of your house and displaying them – all together form the game’s model of building legitimacy through performing a sort of ideal kingship in line with cultural expectations. By contrast, doing the things which provide penalties to vassal opinion – tanking fame by declaring wars without ‘just cause’ (the prestige to pay for it), committing crimes, having culturally or religiously disapproved of traits or lifestyles and so – do the inverse, undermining a character’s legitimacy and promoting the formation of dangerous factions that undermine the unity of the kingdom. Legitimacy is very present in CKIII, not as a single system, but as an interaction of many systems which in turn influence vassal behavior.
That said, we’ve been talking a lot about general features – every ruler is using prestige and fame (and the religious equivalents, piety and devotion, which naturally speak to the ‘chief priest’ kingship role). But of course as implied by the constructivist framing here, these roles are socially constructed (which again, just means ‘a thing that humans made rather than a thing that occurs in nature without humans.’ ‘Socially constructed’ does not mean ‘fake.’) which in turn implies that while there many be some common, cross-cultural features (like king-as-warleader), there also ought to be a lot of cultural particularity. What a ‘good king’ looks like in one society isn’t going to be precisely what a ‘good king’ looks like in another, and so the job of building legitimacy is going to change from one to the other.
Which brings us to…
Legitimacy, Culture and Religion
The way that CKIII deals with both culture and religion represents a significant shift from CKII. In the earlier game there were a set number of cultures and religions, some with bespoke mechanics (most religions and a few cultures) but the whole system was fairly inflexible and yet at the same time often had minimal impact on gameplay. The main impact of the system was merely to make multicultural realms less stable and efficient than monocultural realms.
By contrast, culture and religion are much more complexly modeled in CKIII and – important for this post – have an impact on the game’s understanding of legitimacy. Both culture and religion are, in the first place, modular. Each culture consists of an ethos (one of seven core values), four ‘pillars’ (language, but also an aesthetic which determines how characters of the culture dress, etc.), and then a series of traditions. Traditions are modular quirks of individual cultures, such as a preference for certain kinds of soldiers (heavy infantry, archers, etc.), familiarity with certain kinds of terrain, a tradition of monasticism, or traditions around activities like feasting or dueling. There are a lot of these and they can have a modest but noticable impact on gameplay, especially where they allow certain activites to occur more often or be taken without gateway perks (e.g. ‘Tabletop Warriors’ for cultures that place a high value on board games like chess, which in turn makes being challenged to friendly (or not so friendly) board games a regular occurrence). This modular structure also allows the game to simulate cultural blending and drift more easily (and giving the player some agency in it).
Religion is similarly modular in how it is modeled. Characters each have a faith which is then part of a religion which is then part of a religious family, which allows the game to distinguish between different religions, branches of religions, heterodoxies and heresies within those branches and so on. Like culture, each faith has a set of tenets which inform its function in game, both a set of modular bonuses much like culture traditions but also a set of doctrines on the role of the clergy, marriage and what acts are considered criminal or shunned. Each religion (so a bundle of faiths) also has its own list of ‘virtues’ (preferred traits) and ‘sins’ (disfavored traits).
The combined effect of all of these little factors is to change, sometimes in subtle ways but often in quite pronounced ones, what traits and actions improve or damage a liege’s standing among their vassals, which is to say what traits and actions build or damage legitimacy. The differences are generally fairly small – no in-game religion prefers cowards or murderers to brave or just people, for instance – but then the range of human moral codes is not infinite either. Nevertheless, a vengeful hard-feasting (and hard-drinking) Norse-religion ruler with a high martial education and the ‘poet’ trait in a culture with the ‘Chanson de Geste’ cultural tradition is going to be highly regarded: vengeful and poet are both favored by the religion and martial education by the cultural trait. But take that same ruler traits but put them in a Muslim context and suddenly the hard-drinking damages the character’s appeal to others; put the character in a Byzantine context and vengeful is now a serious character flaw (global opinion malus) while that character’s martial prowess, while not disapproved of, provides no general opinion bonus.
Meanwhile some of these tenets and traditions open up entirely new interactions or substantially change existing ones. Several traditions, like Druzhina and Futuwaa open up the option to have either serious to-the-death duels or sparring duels. Different faiths have different understandings of religious war and pilgrimage, even within a single religion, leading to different activities and bonuses for doing them. Thus a Muslim ruler can earn some legitimacy (general opinion bonus) by performing the Hajj; most Christian rulers can do something similar with a Christian pilgrimage, whereas for the Tengri with the ‘ancestor worship’ tenet, doing so only grants a close family opinion modifier.
If anything, as a historian I wish these impacts were much stronger, encouraging very different forms of royal display and action. One difference that jumps out to me as not being modeled as fully are cultural assumptions about the king’s role in the army. My sense is that most players keep their ruler out of army leadership because that is a high risk profession and surprise successions are bad, but in a lot of cultures that choice for an adult male ruler should be effectively impossible or at least badly politically damaging. Attitudes in different cultures here shifted over time, which makes a good fit for the culture system’s traditions, which can also change over time.
I suspect this is the direction the game is trending in any event. The ‘Tabletop Warriors’ and ‘Malleable Subjects’ traditions added with the Iberia DLC are both relatively more impactful on gameplay, the former leading to a different form of culturally important activity (lots of chess), while the latter changes the shape your kingdom takes culturally, making multicultural realms more stable. Looking at what the developers are talking about in terms of what kind of content they intend to make, it seems safe to bet that future cultural flavor packs are likely to come with more impactful culture traditions or religious tenets, especially using new traditions as the ‘wrappers’ to contain a whole bunch of new event lines. I hope this is the direction they go; the system here seems to provide a good foundation to express the many different models of rulership at work in this period, but as of now that foundation isn’t fully utilized.
Nevertheless, I think the overall focus on rulership (which, when the developers discuss the game tends to be discussed under the heading of ‘roleplay’ but since the only role you play is some form of ruler, the overlap is considerable) is broadly successful and also quite innovative for a strategy title. Getting that to work in CKIII requires all three of the design elements that we’ve discussed so far. Fragmentation is necessary so that the player has subordinates whose opinions matter, rather than merely opponents to be defeated, while the personalistic system of rule encourages the player to think about how their actions will impact the views and behaviors of peers, vassals and their liege (should they have one).
With those pillars in place, the game doesn’t have to pull the player out for a lecture on constructivism or kingship: instead players are going to rapidly note, especially when running a large realm that anything with a general opinion or vassal opinion bonus is very valuable to realm stability and that staying king or emperor over multiple generations is going to require racking up as many of those things as possible. And off the player goes, performing kingship (or failing to do so and finding their realm cracks up under the pressure of faction wars). In the process it provides a striking example of how often foreign policy is domestic policy by other means, as players routinely will use foreign policy (especially warfare) as a potential solution for domestic policy problems, which works in societies where military success is the ultimate marker of successful kingship.
And I can’t stress how unusual this approach, trying to get the player to play like a historical figure and to understand the concerns that shaped their behavior, is in this genre. Short of ultra-niche titles like King of Dragon Pass, most strategy games never put the player in a situation where the cultural and institutional constraints on their actions are so extensively modeled. Instead, most historical strategy games put the player in charge of a unitary state with near absolute power. To the degree that culture or religion are modeled, they more often exist the way that they do in the Civilization games, as beliefs for other people which are putty to be molded into the desired form by the player’s will, rather than as long-lasting structures which shape and constrain actors.
But in CKIII, religion and culture are not ‘for other people,’ but rather are fundamental shaping constraints on the possibility space for the player; culture is the sandbox they must play in. There are other sandboxes they could move to, but in all cases there will be a box and they will be in it. CKIII‘s design, built around personal rule, allow it to consider systems that are larger than any one ruler, and that is fantastic.
Now I should note that we’ve ignored the other component of how the game simulates legitimacy, the ‘popular opinion’ modifier, which we’ll get to next week as we take a look at how CKIII handles armies, unconventional polities and the other half of the vassalage-manorialism pair that makes up feudalism.