The curious case of stories in Crusader Kings 2

When a player of Crusader Kings 2 recommends the game to a friend, what do you think he’ll rather talk about – game mechanics or that one time he crushed the balls of that Irish Duke after executing his entire family, but he had it coming for him because he gained carnal knowledge of the player’s wife while they were off crusading in Jerusalem? Yeah, didn’t think so. But what is it that makes Crusader Kings 2 so suited for this playstyle?

People, it seems, just like to make up stories. And facts be damned, even if they know they’re just facing brutal statistics, they’ll still try to shoehorn in their own narrative. Which is good, because it is precisely how video game stories work.

A game is supposed to be an interactive experience. If all your gameplay is for is to provide a series of hoops to jump through in order to unlock the next cutscene, then congratulations – you designed a game and you made a movie, and for some reason decide to market the two together. What makes Crusader Kings work is that the gameplay provides the story. Whatever, it grumbles, here are your toys, go and play. Oh, and the toys have a good paint job: Look, it’s the seven virtues!

But the fact that nothing is pre-scripted also makes it necessary to have another factor decide what happens. And in Crusader Kings, that factor is the random number generator.

Randomness rules the Realms

As you probably know, every single of the kings and duchesses and barons in a Crusader Kings game is nothing but a bundle of random numbers. All event chances are predetermined, and the game simply throws the dice to see what the AI is going to choose. Throw my warden of the roof or let him live? Build a church or a wine cellar? Retake Jerusalem or tolerate the heretics? The random number generator decides.

But we still gobble it up. We see the fat count of Urbino, who loves nothing over his son, apart from crusading. And the game obviously tries its best to make that possible: First off,we’re not going against some abstract concept of a country, but against characters. Characters with sins, virtues, and portraits. And what could possibly give a bundle of random decisions more character than a third chin?

However, the player needs to be able to actually see these things to make sense of them – and to form their own story around it.

Henrik Fåhraeus, the Project Lead behind Crusader Kings 2, acknowledged as much when talking about Opinions in a Gamasutra interview a few years ago. “All these numbers are visible and easy to access via tooltips. As a player, your goal would be to placate that duke, perhaps by granting him more land or sending money, or perhaps to isolate him from his allies by befriending them instead.”

Character traits and sins and virtues would mean nothing if you would only be able to check them for your own character. In order to form a narrative, you need the same information for your allies and enemies.

“I always hoped that players would grow attached to the characters and engage in their unfolding, open ended, stories. For me, that is really what Crusader Kings is all about, and what separates it from our other games.” – Henrik Fåhraeus

There’s also the matter of jumpstarting stories. “The goal is to give players access to everything they need to know to keep their realm in order, but still make it vulnerable to accidents and tiny mistakes that can quickly escalate out of control. For example, if you give a title to an ambitious, deceitful courtier with no land, he will be grateful for a while, but then he’ll want more; it’s just in his nature.” There need to be things happening without player initiative, there need to be things out of a player’s control, in order to make surprises and stories possible.

In other words, even more randomness! Which leads to another game mechanic that every Paradox game has, but which I find is especially suited for Crusader Kings: Events.

Eventful Empires of Earth

Events are always nearly the same in Paradox games. They’re really just Sid Meier’s philosophy of “a game is a series of meaningful choices” broken down to the very core. The rest of the game is paused, you’re presented with a clear situation at hand and some clearly outlined options to approach that situation.

They can be Chandler’s Law applied – damn, ruling Burgundy is pretty boring – OwO what’s this, the exiled claimant Prince of France? Let me just give my spymaster a quick call – to to self-contained vignettes that serve only the purpose of getting to know your character a bit better. But still – they have a title, they have a picture, they have a description, they have options, and that’s it.

That’s pretty basic – I imagine Konrad Zuse would be pretty disappointed that we’re using incredibly advanced computers to play fancy choose-your-own-adventure books. However, the whole genius of events lies in that they are so basic, because it also means they’re incredibly adaptable. It’s a bunch of text and a picture; quite a few stories have been told using these tools.

This also means they’re adaptable by someone who knows jack all about coding, which probably contributes a fair bit to the massive modding scene of Grand Strategy Games – the fact that everyone can learn the Paradox scripting languages in about five minutes simply by messing around with it is probably also somewhat important. But the Game of Thrones or After the End mods are interesting in their own regard and deserve to be talked about separately.

But these mods still build on the framework provided by Crusader Kings 2: Characters with faces, virtues and sins. Events that give the player the opportunity to see their rulers as humans. Gameplay mechanics to conquer medieval Europe. The stories come along the way. Which is probably why the Chronicle is so chronically unneeded: Why read about the stories you played out yourself?

Now, of course, all of the above depends on whether you’re actually playing these games with stories in mind. There are enough Ryukyu world conquests or restored Roman Empires by the year 900 out there to prove that sometimes, even Grand Strategy Games are just games. Good game mechanics can be fun without stories (What? People have fun playing video games? I thought they were serious business!).

And sometimes, you can’t have both, and your flavour needs to be cut back a little for streamlined gameplay. Sometimes.

But I’m glad that Paradox went the other way with Crusader Kings 2.