Crusader Kings 3, the auspicious heir to Paradox's breakout hit medieval ruler simulator, was announced this past weekend at PDXCon. From cadet branches to knights to dynamic religions, it's bringing a lot of new stuff to the council table.
There's definitely a challenge in following up on a game that has seven years of expansions and new features added. Paradox knew it wouldn't be able to bring everything over. So overall, it made its goal with Crusader Kings 3 to emphasize what worked best and was most popular with players of Crusader Kings 2, adding depth to those areas wherever possible.
With that in mind, we recently got a chance to chat with Game Director Henrik Fåhreus about what's changed and what hasn't. Here are 12 of the biggest highlights.
1. Merchant Republics and Nomads are among the features that won't be available at launch
"The thing with CK2 is it's lived a very long time, and we've learned a lot of stuff over the years," Fåhreus says. "You know, which features were good, and that we're proud of, and were received well—which are usually the same thing. Pagan stuff and Christian stuff have been the best received, so our players are probably a bit Western-centric, to be honest. Whenever we stray and do India or China in some form, it's not that popular.
He continues, "There won't be nomad gameplay, for example. But of course, we also want to release a game that's a lot bigger than CK2 was on release. So we spent our efforts on depth rather than width, evolving and improving the core features of the game while still retaining focus on the most popular areas of gameplay. So it's improving what's already good rather than trying to improve the things that didn't work out so well."
Merchant Republics, which were part of Crusader Kings 2's The Republic expansion, have been left out of Crusader Kings 3 for launch. Fåhreus acknowledges they were "fairly popular, but kinda tricky because it's an entirely separate layer of gameplay. It doesn't really interact all that much with the feudal heart of the game."
Unlike the vanilla version of Crusader Kings 2, however, all feudal, tribal, and clan leaders (which is basically everyone except republics and theocracies) will be playable at launch regardless of their religion. Historically nomadic realms like the Cumans and Magyars will be playable, but will use tribal mechanics and not feature any nomad-specific mechanics. Paradox has no plans to make us buy "the Muslim expansion" or "the Pagan expansion" to unlock most of the map again.
"Whatever DLC we make, we're not gonna retread things we've already done," Fåhreus says. "That's the idea, anyway. We'll see."
2. The map is about four times larger than the one in Crusader Kings 2
In Crusader Kings 2, the county is the smallest unit of space represented on the map. They are divided into smaller baronies that only appear as pictures on the county screen. In Crusader Kings 3, each barony is a physical place you can see and march armies through on the map, adding a lot of tactical depth.
"It's basically the same number of counties, but fewer holdings," Fåhreus says. "The average is around three holdings per county. Obviously places like Byzantium and Île-de-France have a lot more. In some rich counties, there are six at least."
Some holdings can start the game empty, allowing you to build a castle, city, or temple there. But even empty holdings will always have an owner, so there will be no "up for grabs" areas to colonize like in Europa Universalis and Imperator: Rome.
In terms of overall size, the map is about four times as large as Crusader Kings 2's. It stretches from Ireland to India, including all of Tibet and Mongolia (but not China), and as far south as the Gold Coast in West Africa.
3. Year 867 will be there for viking fans
1066 will still be the main start date, and the game will still end in 1453. There will be a game rule to allow you to play beyond 1453, though. The year 867, added in Crusader Kings 2's The Old Gods DLC, will also be available for viking fans, but 769 from the Charlemagne expansion will not be. Paradox also wants to leave out the very late start dates.
"We're looking into exactly which other [start dates to include]," Fåhreus says, "but we don't want to do the later ones, at least, because it gives you such a short timeframe and they're not popular."
You will also not be able to pick specific dates after 1066 like you could in Crusader Kings 2, as Paradox has found this is very difficult to support and almost no one uses the feature.
4. You won't be able to play as a Baron, but you can be a Witch
Playing as the lowly lord of some small fort on a hillside is something Crusader Kings fans have asked about in the past, but Paradox doesn't feel like that would be very fun.
"You don't have to pay much attention to these barons and mayors and so on," Fåhreus explains. " We've tried to reduce their import, because they are frankly a little annoying and useless in [Crusader Kings 2]. So for example [when playing as a Christian], all temple holdings are now held by your Archbishop. They are sort of just 'church territory' to make all of that a little less unwieldy and more interesting as well. Your Archbishop is now a turbulent priest sometimes, and he's a very powerful character in your realm.
"You always have a revoke reason on minor baronies. Of course, if it's a church, the church is still there and will not be pleased, but if it's just a baron that you've assigned to some castle there's no real negative consequence for revoking. The idea with barons—the feudal barons—is basically to be a refrigerator for interesting characters."
Crusader Kings 3 does, however, have a Witch trait, and different religions have different views on Witchcraft. This is meant to represent more historical practices that were seen as Witchcraft, such as herbalism and fortune-telling. There will be some events related to it, but it isn't meant to imply that your character has actual, supernatural powers like some of the crazier events in Crusader Kings 2 did.
5. Dynamic Religions are one of the biggest changes in Crusader Kings 3
How religions are modeled is one of the biggest changes in Crusader Kings 3. While Crusader Kings 2 had a list of historical religions, each with a few variants called heresies that could appear to shake things up, the new system is entirely dynamic. Historical heresies like Catharism and Iconoclasm will still appear, but you can also design new religions and heresies to suit your needs from the ground up.
Every religion in Crusader Kings 3 is made up of Tenets, which are mechanical bonuses that apply to everyone following the religion, and Doctrines, which represent church views on things like homosexuality and women becoming priests. Should you choose to found a heresy, you can customize the Tenets and Doctrines of your new religion freely. It will cost a lot of Piety to do so, and the cost is higher the more you are departing from your former religion's beliefs.
"Although it's challenging to change, give it a century and you can create your religion just the way you want to play the game," Fåhreus says. "So if you want to have cannibal Christians or whatever..."
6. You can rule by fear, but still can't declare unjust wars
Crusader Kings 3 will let you rule with an iron fist, Fåhreus says.
"Characters actually have a Dread value, so you can sort of keep your vassals in line by fear," he explains. "And that's actually an alternative to being a benevolent ruler. You gain Dread by torturing important people, executing them, and so on. Fear is viable while you're alive, but when your heir takes over, he will inherit your bad opinion to some degree. But he will not be feared, so he will be in a pretty bad situation. That's the idea."
Your tyranny can only extend so far, though. Crusader Kings 3 brings forward the casus belli system from Paradox's other games: the idea that you need a valid reason to go to war and can't just attack anyone you want at any time. If you are a Christian who wants to fight another Christian, this will still require you to have a legal claim on their lands through blood, marriage, or fabrication—which basically means you had someone make up some fake papers saying their land is yours. Or when all else fails, you can try to ask the Pope.
In Crusader Kings 2, claim fabrication was largely random and could take ages. In Crusader Kings 3, fabricating a claim will actually fill up a progress bar—but you're not guaranteed to get a claim when it fills up. Fåhreus is only willing to say that it will present you with some kind of choice that gives you a bit more agency over your claims.
Crusader Kings 2's Jade Dragon expansion added some ways to ignore this system and declare unjust wars if you were willing to live with the consequences. Currently, Crusader Kings 3 does not feature such a mechanic. "We are aware that [fabricating claims] is a bit of a pace-breaker for new players, and sort of strange how it works," Fåhreus says. "On the other hand, the thing we want with especially Christian realms is that they can't just attack each other any which way."
7. Crusader Kings 3 greatly expands on the previous game's excellent roleplaying mechanics
Lifestyles, a popular feature from Crusader Kings 2's excellent Way of Life expansion, are being folded into the base game of Crusader Kings 3 and greatly expanded. Each character will pick a lifestyle (War, Religion, Intrigue, etc), and each will have three RPG-like talent trees full of perks and unlockable traits you can progress down. For example, a religious character might become a Prophet, making it cheaper for them to start a new religion.
Crusader Kings 3 won't only feature new tools for roleplayers, but new incentives as well.
"Stress is a new system that encourages you to roleplay," Fåhreus says. "In [Crusader Kings 2] you didn't have to care about your own personality traits. So the idea in CK3 is that when you act against your character's personality, which you're still free to do, you gain Stress. So there's no 'Stressed' trait; it's a percentage, essentially. When you go up a Stress level, some negative things happen, so you have a little mental break. When it reaches the max, you probably go insane or something like that... your character will have serious problems."
So for example, if your character has the trait 'Cruel', but you try to be nice to everyone, you might have a little bit of an existential crisis.
8. Cadet Houses will add more depth to dynasties
In history, noble houses often broke up into multiple branches that didn't always work together. A notable example is the Yorks and the Lancasters who fought for control of England in the Wars of the Roses—both were branches of the House Plantagenet. This has been one of the most requested features for Crusader Kings fans for years, and Crusader Kings 3 is finally making it happen.
"We call them houses," Fåhresus says. "So you can have House Dunkeld of the dynasty Dunkeld, because it's the original house. Each house has words, which is just flavor. It also has a house head. There is one character per house who has certain powers over everybody in that house, [like] for example, legitimizing bastards. That kind of stuff. And I have that power even if they are not in my realm. There is also the dynasty head who has other types of powers over the entire dynasty."
So you can kind of think of Houses as vassals of the larger Dynasty. To use another Game of Thrones example, House Baratheon would be a House of the Targaryen dynasty, as distant relations of Aegon the Conqueror. Stop me if I'm getting too nerdy here.
Unless you start the game as one, playing as a cadet house will be "pretty rare", according to Fåhreus. It's mainly a feature meant for the AI to use, though a cadet house that gets more powerful than the original house can become the new leader of the dynasty. Dynastic civil wars will, sadly, not be in at launch.
9. You'll be able to turn your best fighters into Knights
'Knight' is now a minor title you can bestow on characters in your realm with high enough combat prowess. These characters will join your armies on the battlefield, and the number you can have at a time is based on things like your rank and how much Prestige you have accumulated.
"And they will be, as in history... they are killing machines," Fåhreus says. "Like, levies are nothing compared to them. So they actually do tremendous damage. If you have 20 knights fighting in an army, that's worth like 200 levies or something."
As for the rank and file, levies are now all one troop type of basic infantry, while men-at-arms are better-trained soldiers that fill out your armies.
"[Levies] are basically armed peasants," Fåhreus explains. "So they're the basic military unit. And then you hire men-at-arms, like your specific regiments of cavalry and crossbowmen and so on. And with them you have agency over the composition of your army. They give you various bonuses on certain types of terrain and even against the other types of troops."
Men-at-arms won't stand around on the map like Crusader Kings 2's retinues, but will appear ready to fight when you call your levies. All of your armies will also now appear at designated rally points after a certain amount of time rather than having to march from their home counties. It still takes about the same amount of time to assemble an army, but you won't have to micromanage dozens of tiny stacks.
10. Muslim Rulers in Crusader Kings 3 won't have to worry about Decadence anymore
In Crusader Kings 2, Muslim rulers always had to keep an eye on their Decadence—a measure of how far they had strayed from the teachings of Allah and into indulging worldly desires. This mechanic is not returning for Crusader Kings 3, but they will have some differences in how they play aside from the fact that their religious Tenets and Doctrines are different.
"So, feudal rulers, when you raise your levies, you get your levies, period. There's a number of troops they have to give you. It's a feudal contract," Fåhreus explains. "So Muslims have Clan government, not feudal. So it's like how it used to be for feudals in Crusader Kings 2: [the number of troops you get] is based on vassal opinion. They don't have Decadence, but they do have certain expectations. For example, your vassals expect to marry into your family, and we still have the concept of powerful vassals that want to be on the council. So it's all about vassal opinions for them."
To balance this, feudals should generally be weaker than Muslims with high vassal opinion but stronger than those with low vassal opinions across the board. Feudal rulers also have to manage vassal contracts (so for instance, a powerful vassal might demand a new contract to pay lower taxes), while Muslims and other clan-based societies do not.
11. You can now blackmail your enemies with their worst secrets
Intrigue in Crusader Kings 3 is greatly expanded from Crusader Kings 2, using a system of secrets, favors, and 'Hooks' to craft schemes. Basically, getting dirt on your enemies, vassals, and even liege can give you leverage over them that can shield you from their aggressions and force them to do your bidding.
"There's now blackmail in the game," Fåhreus explains. "Characters have secrets. If you murdered someone, that might become a secret I can find out. And there are also secret traits. So if someone is a sexual deviant, and I know that, I can blackmail that person. So we call things like favors and blackmail and other things, like mental manipulation—other flavorful things—we're calling them 'Hooks' right now. And Hooks are something I can spend to get my way. And just by sitting on a Hook, they know that I know their secret. It means they won't attack me. So it's good to have these Hooks. And you want to spy on other characters to keep them in line, which is all about the intrigue gameplay we want to foster."
12. Almost all of the scripted events in Crusader Kings 3 are totally new
Almost all of the scripted events in Crusader Kings 3 are totally new. The content designers assured me not to worry, though, calling it "huge on release" and "the most massive game [Paradox Development Studio] has ever made" in terms of launch content. They are also focused on dynamic events being far more personalized to the culture, religion, location, and circumstances the player is in, as well as ongoing stories that can last for years.
Events will also no longer run on randomized timers, a concept that was called "mean time to happen" in Crusader Kings 2. Rather, almost all events should be triggered by something in the game happening, such as a neighboring county getting conquered or a child being born.
Overall, what we've seen is very familiar. If I wanted to be very harsh, I could call it conservative. It looks like a spruced-up version of Crusader Kings 2 with better graphics and deeper core mechanics. Part of me was hoping to see them take it in a more radical direction with more RPG elements—maybe something like Mount & Blade: Warband, in which you control a single character at eye level, moving around the map with your armies. Crusader Kings 2 became famous for being a strategy game that many people ended up playing like an RPG, so it would have been interesting to see the RPG side embraced more.
But I can't say I'm highly disappointed with what we're getting. Map games are what Paradox Development Studio is best at, and Crusader Kings 2 is its best work to date. I'll take more of that any day. And it's difficult to say how much it will or will not feel like an RPG—or just how new it will feel, in a general sense—until we've gotten a chance to play it ourselves. These systems-driven games are often very different beasts in motion than they are on paper. We look forward to getting our gauntlets on Crusader Kings 3 some time soon.