For those unfamiliar with the game, Crusader Kings II is a grand strategy title in which the player controls an individual within a medieval dynasty and attempts to navigate the intricate political landscape of the middle ages. The game is known for its absurdly minute mechanics, wherein every emperor, king, duke, count, baron, mayor, bishop, and an enormous other assortment of important and-non important political players all exist and act independently within the game’s word. I recently booted up a saved file of CKII I hadn’t played in six months, and the following events occurred over the next two or three hours:
I played as Kaiser Julianus I of the Dormin dynasty, the 18-year-old current Kaiser (ie. emperor) of the Carpathian Empire. My lands covered much of modern-day Eastern Europe, southeastern Germany, the northern half of Italy, and the northern half of the Balkans. Though my dynasty began in Bavaria, it eventually ruled enough lands to form an empire and become one of the most powerful states in Europe. The Dormin dynasty had also managed to spread to southern Iberia during the crusades, where it ruled the state of Andalusia (which was an independent kingdom, not directly under the rule of the Carpathian Empire). The only rival to Carpathia in terms of military might and economic size was the Byzantine Empire, which still retained the southern half of the Balkans, Anatolia, and Syria. Fortunately, prior to my recent re-booting of this save file, I had conducted some careful political maneuverings, got a member of the Dormin dynasty (my mother, as it so happened) a claim to the Byzantine throne, successfully invaded the Byzantines, and installed the Dormins as their rulers. At some point, the Kingdom of Serbia, a vassal of the Byzantine Empire, had also been taken over by Dormins.
Shortly after reloading my file, the Abbasid Sultanate, the most powerful Islamic state on the map, declared a Sunni Jihad for Jerusalem, which was currently under the control of France, a long-standing ally of mine. Like a good Christian, I declared my support for France, and my Byzantine allies followed suit. I raised my enormous military, loaded them on ships, and sent them to the holy land to find glory and god.
My expedition was a disaster. The Abbasid state surrounded Jerusalem geographically, and the Islamic forces were quickly able to secure a defensive advantage. I controlled the bulk of allied Christian forces, but after two mid-sized battle victories, we were dealt a series of devastating defeats. My 40,000 man army shrunk to just under 10,000, so I sent my men back on the ships and brought them home. I assumed that the Abbasids would quickly dispose of the remnants of the Christian forces and retake the holy land.
While my soldiers were en route back to Italy, a group of Byzantine nobles confronted my mother, the Empress, with a letter demanding she step down, and cede the throne to a Byzantine noble. If she refused, the nobles would rise up and start a civil war. The Dormin dynasty was culturally German and Roman Catholic, as opposed to the culturally Greek and Eastern Orthodox Christians which made up the majority of the Byzantine Empire. Therefore, my mother was seen as a foreign despot rather than a legitimate ruler by both most of the Byzantine nobility and the masses.
This demand would never be made during ordinary times. Though the Byzantine nobility would take most of the Empire in a civil war, the Empress would have the full support of the Carpathian military, and would easily crush dissenters. But this was no ordinary time. The Carpathian military had been trounced by the Abbasids, both manpower and morale was low, and thus the Byzantine nobility would probably beat the Dormins in a protracted war. My mother accepted the letter’s terms and fled with her four children to the Carpathian capital in Bavaria.
I was, of course, outraged by this turn of events. I vowed that once my military strength had returned, I would invade the Byzantine Empire and put my mother back on the throne. The Dormin dynasty would once more rule that barbaric land.
At full-strength, the Carpathian and Byzantine Empires were equally matched militarily, so any war between us would be decided by careful military strategy, which was always a black box. Unfortunately, we were not presently evenly matched, and the longer I waited to rebuild my forces, the longer the new Byzantine regime had to bolster its manpower and defenses with nationally concerted effort. My best chance for victory was to call in the Dormin forces of Andalusia for assistance in the future war effort. Together, we should be able to muster the manpower advantage to defeat the Byzantines…
But the Dormins had more bad fortune to come. Five years after the fall of the Dormin dynasty in the Byzantine Empire, trouble brewed in the Kingdom of Andalusia. The popular Andalusian king died of old age and had no sons to whom the kingdom could be easily passed. Instead, Andalusia was inherited by the king’s cousin, who happened to be the Dormin king of Serbia, a Byzantine vassal.
Suddenly, this placed all of southern Iberia in the hands of the Byzantine Empire. Under some circumstances, this would be an enormous stroke of luck, but for the Byzantines the situation presented a conundrum for two reasons:
First, the Byzantine nobility which had so resented foreign rule at home, were now the foreign rulers of Andalusia, a culturally Spanish and religiously Roman Catholic land. Ruling such a land would probably not be possible, but would be undoubtedly difficult. The Andalusian nobles and religious commoners would rise up and attempt to break from Byzantine rule, especially since the new king was not of the local Dormin bloodline which had ruled Andalusia for a century, but of a distant German bloodline which was nearly as foreign as the Greek Byzantines. To quash future rebellions, the Byzantines would have to send troops all the way across the Mediterranean Sea, which would not only be logistically difficult, but would also stunt the empire’s domestic military fortification against the Carpathians.
Second, the inheritance of Andalusia meant that a Dormin king within the Byzantine Empire suddenly had vastly more military manpower and income than ever before. If he could tame Andalusia, he would be by far the strongest vassal of the Emperor and potentially act as a mighty ally of the Carpathians to help them restore a Dormin to the Byzantine throne.
It didn’t take long for a group of Andalusian nobles to organize and send a similar letter to the Dormin king of Serbia and Andalusia demanding his replacement by a local. Most notably, the proposed replacement king was not another Dormin, but a Spaniard. The Byzantine Emperor and his nobles considered their options, and decided not to offer their military support to the Dormin king. Thus the king of Serbia ceded his claim to Andalusia and the Dormins lost yet another throne.
I was in despair. The Dormin dynasty had lost two of its three power centers, and the Byzantine Empire was stable and thriving under local control, with reports indicating that their manpower exceeded mine by 10,000 men, even after I had fully recovered from the disastrous military expedition in Jerusalem. I considered that this may well be the beginning of the end of the Dormins. What if the Byzantines rallied my stronger neighbors, like the Germans, the weakened French, and the Pomeranians, for an invasion of Carpathia. They could very well defeat me and chop up my glorious empire into pieces, a la the Polish Partition in 1793. My player-character, Julianus I, even gained the “Depressed” trait, resulting in lower skill attributes, lower fertility, and worse health. It seemed like only divine intervention could save the Dormins…
And then god came to save the Dormin dynasty.
Many years before the fall of the Dormins in the Byzantine Empire and Andalusia, the Andalusian king’s third son, Frederick Dormin, had decided to give up his life of petty politics and join the Knights of Calatrava, a military order based out of Iberia dedicated to helping Christians fight the Muslims in Northern Africa. Frederick had done well in the Knights and had risen through the ranks until he was one of its top members.
For years Frederick was content to protect pilgrims travelling to the holy land and assist crusaders, until he witnessed his beloved brother’s death and subsequent forfeiture of the Andalusian kingdom by his cowardly cousin. Rather than stand by idly and watch his family’s sigil become buried under Iberian mud, Frederick asked the Grandmaster of the Knights of Calatrava for an extraordinary request: raise the Knights’ forces, invade Andalusia, and put Frederick Dormin on the throne of Andalusia.
Unlike the Byzantine nobles, the Andalusian nobles did not have decades to prepare for an overthrow of the Dormins and therefore didn’t have a plan in place for how to share power in their new kingdom. As a result, the Andalusian nobles devolved into petty squabbles, and while the state was not quite in civil war, it could surely be said to be in disarray. During normal times, a matchup between the Knights and Andalusia would be a close fight, with the former having the quality advantage and the latter having the quantity edge. But at this time, Andalusia was weak, and the Knights had a good chance of quickly striking at the capital.
A Christian military order interfering in domestic political affairs was rare. A Christian military order overthrowing one king and installing one of its own was unheard of. Yet, the persuasion of Frederick Dormin, combined with the Grandmaster’s respect for the Dormin dynasty’s historical role in ejecting the Muslims out of Iberia caused him to embark on the unheard of and start a war. From two solitary Castles in northern Iberia, the Knights of Calatrava set out to conquer the Kingdom of Andalusia.
The war was remarkably swift. The Knights of Calatrava defeated the bulk of Andalusian forces and laid siege to the state’s capital at Corduba within three months. Three months later, the Andalusian king surrendered and Frederick restored the Dormins to the Andalusian throne. It was a tremendous victory for the dynasty, and the tide seemed to turn in the Dormin’s favor once more, except for one thing…
Frederick was 52 years old and had no heirs. Worse yet, he was unmarried. Even worse yet, like all of the Knights of Calatrava, he had made a vow of celibacy upon entering the order. In accordance with the succession laws of Andalusia, the kingdom would revert back to the previous dynasty upon Frederick’s death.
This is where I am currently in my game. I am pretty sure that the combined might of the Carpathian Empire and the Kingdom of Andalusia can defeat the Byzantine Empire, but Andalusia is basically a time bomb. Most individuals in Crusader Kings don’t make it far into their 60s, so I have to rush into and win a war between two massive empires as quickly as possible before a significant portion of my forces revert to neutrality. What a fascinating political/military situation.
Everything I just described happened over the course of a few hours of gameplay. But not everything I described technically happened in the game. All of the player, character, and state actions occurred; I did have a disastrous military campaign in Jerusalem, the Dormins were deposed in the Byzantine Empire and Andalusia, the Knights of Calatrava did invade Andalusia, etc. However, nearly all of the motivations of the characters (besides the one I directly controlled) were largely, or entirely made up by me. And that is incredible.
This is the genius of procedurally generated gameplay. With the right narrative contexts, seemingly randomly created mechanical events can imply extraordinary narratives with compelling characters, arcs, twists, turns, dramatic moments, and every other aspect of a good story which ordinarily has to be crafted every step of the way by a conscious author.
For instance, CKII has an algorithm which establishes how likely the vassal lords of a particular title (ie. emperor, king, duke, etc.) are to write a letter demanding abdication, or else face civil war. This algorithm has dozens of potential modifiers which increase or decrease the odds. For instance, if the vassals like the lord more, they are less likely to revolt, and vice versa. How much the vassals like the lord is in turn determined by hundreds of other potential modifiers, among which are cultural and religious differences.
Though these modifiers may only exist within the game’s code as numerical functions which push up and down percentages, when viewed by the player from afar, they create a narrative filed with characters and relationships. In my game, I had an empress ruling an empire consisting of a different culture and religion. In the game code, this resulted in a modifier which altered figures in an algorithm to increase the odds of a particular outcome of said algorithm. But to me as a player, this mechanical process could be described as: “The Dormin dynasty was culturally German and Roman Catholic, as opposed to the culturally Greek and Eastern Orthodox Christians which made up the majority of the Byzantine Empire. Therefore, my mother was seen as a foreign despot rather than a legitimate ruler by both most of the Byzantine nobility and the masses.”
This is why my Steam account says I’ve played CKII for 753 hours, as well as Paradox’s other games, Europa Universalis IV for 328 hours, and Victoria II for 291 hours. The mechanics in all of these games are a blast and definitely worth a great deal of time to enjoy, but the reason I haven’t gone more than two months without playing a Paradox game since I got Europa Universalis III in 2011 is because of the stories. These games, especially CKII, create an endless stream of remarkably unique stories, not unlike those of the dozens of history books I had to read in college or the beloved intrigues of Game of Thrones.
These narratives created by procedurally generated gameplay are yet another unique aspect of video games as an aesthetic medium.