Mechanics as Storytelling: Crusader Kings 3’s Stress

Modern life may be stressful, but at least it isn’t as stressful as ruling a medieval kingdom where your scheming courtiers are as likely to stab you in the back as they are to sleep with your spouse. Crusader Kings 3 is a grand strategy game with RPG elements that puts in in charge of a ruling dynasty and sets you loose into the world. There is no endgame goal, no quest you must complete, and no warning when your son decides that he’d make a better king than you and slips a venomous snake into your bed.

It can seem an impossible task to pick out a certain mechanic that helps to tell a story when the game in question has no formal story to follow. A lot of the systems are relatively independent and don’t affect too many other aspects of the game, like domain limit and de jure claims. One mechanic that does stand out is the Stress system. This single element helps shape Crusader Kings 3 into a wonderful storytelling machine, helps fix one of the major problems that many RPGs face, and explores some themes of its own.

Don’t Stress the Small Stuff

What is Stress in Crusader Kings 3? Stress represents how well a character is coping mentally with their actions and with events in their life. Each character has their own Stress meter that can be filled over the course of their life. Certain events or actions give them Stress and other remove it. At certain Stress milestones, characters suffer mental breaks where they must either take on a coping mechanism that usually carries with it some penalties or suffer through it, with gives them even more Stress.

Having too much Stress also affects your character in and of itself as you can experience severe health penalties and a reduction of fertility. Suffice to say that it’s not a good thing to have Stress – and yet, it’s impossible to avoid. Even if you steer clear of any action or decision that would gain you Stress, you’ll still get it when close family members die and from other events outside of your control. The system is built so that Stress can only be managed and never circumvented entirely.

The Measure of a Man

Pretty much every choice you can make in Crusader Kings 3 has the potential to cause Stress. Most of the time, however, that won’t be the case as the actions that cause your character to gain Stress are determined by their traits. For example, a Just ruler will gain Stress if they plot to have someone assassinated, but a Sadistic one won’t. These traits are one of the RPG elements included in the game and the Stress system is how it bypasses the issue of players acting out of character.

Many RPGs suffer from this problem – a character is meant to act in a certain way for the sake of the story, but players make choices and decisions that contradict the narrative (such as an evil character restoring water to the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3). Crusader Kings 3 benefits from not having a specific narrative to follow, but Stress encourages players to roleplay their rulers instead of just using the same strategy for every character. By having the penalties be rather small on their own with long term consequences down the line, the game ensures that you never feel like you’re forbidden from doing something while still ensuring that you remember to stay in character whenever possible.

Rigors of Parenthood

One way to get around the Stress system is to ensure that you always educate your heirs yourself, which will let you dictate which traits they wind up with. This can be a strategic gameplay move as it ensures you’ll be able to maintain an overarching strategy across rulers, but it also plays into the story of a dynasty fostering the next generation of monarchs.

Raising kids also comes with some inherent Stresses. Each child you take on as a ward will have a number of events in their youth where they gain a trait that will dictate what actions give them Stress. As a child’s guardian, you can change that trait to one of two other options (for example, a dynasty all about charismatic diplomacy probably wouldn’t want a Shy heir). However, changing that trait will also gain you Stress. This ensures that you’re still balancing long term consequences against short term effects as guiding your heir towards a certain lifestyle may be best in the future but can cause you a crippling mental break in the present.

Dynamic Systems, Dynamic Stories

Ultimately, Crusader Kings 3 is about rolling with the punches and dealing with whatever challenges you face. The story told by its Stress system is by nature similarly dynamic as rather than following a scripted narrative where certain choices always give you Stress and others always remove it, the mechanic shifts based on what sort of character you’re playing. It allows the game’s story to move in interesting ways as you are well within your abilities to force your Just, Honest, and Compassionate ruler into murder schemes and prisoner executions, driving them to become overwhelmed by Stress.

Even these instances are just another storytelling opportunity. While some games are too lenient with out of character moments and others too strict, Crusader Kings 3 finds a middle ground that works perfectly for its gameplay and the stories it tells. Stress is part of your story, whether you like it or not, and it will play a huge role in your dynasty’s legend.

Further Reading

A Medieval Storytelling Machine: Crusader Kings 3 Review | Overthinking Games

Crusader Kings 3 is more fun when you play it like The Sims | Polygon

Crusader Kings 3 interview: Putting players in control | Shacknews

A Medieval Storytelling Machine: Crusader Kings 3 Review

I’ll preface this review by saying that I have not played any of the previous games in the Crusader Kings series. The full extent of my experience with the grand strategy genre begins and ends with Civilization V and VI. That being said, the past few weeks of playing Crusader Kings 3 have been a blast as I’ve tried and failed and tried again to establish my dynasty’s dominion over the medieval world.

For my fellow newcomers to the Crusader Kings games, the latest entry in the series feels a lot like what might happen if you put Stellaris, medieval history, and various RPG elements into a blender and set it to puree. The result is an absolutely incredible experience, one where you play not as the immortal concept of a nation as in the Civilization games, but as real people with their own motivations, traits, and beliefs. Crusader Kings 3 does a wonderful job fulfilling the fantasy of guiding your dynasty through the ages, which we’ll get into more in depth now.

Gameplay: 4/5

Crusader Kings 3 has a mixture of gameplay, seemingly drawn from a variety of genres. Most apparent are the events that occur on the game’s map, where you can see the borders of your territory grow and fluctuate. This is also where battles happen as you direct troops to fight other armies and lay siege to enemy holdings. Beyond the map, there are dozens of menus linking together the complexities of medieval society, allowing you to interact with members of your court, grant titles to vassals, manage your council of advisors, and deal with matters of succession.

On top of all that, the game heavily features RPG elements, which manifest in a few different ways. Most obviously are the skill trees that each character possesses where you can spend skill points to unlock new abilities and effects. Certain events will also often crop up, either organically from the interactions between characters or just at random. These events will shift the way the game is played as they can provide new information for you to work with or give you free skill points, should you pass a few ability checks.

The disparate parts of the gameplay do work very well together, though not always in the most transparent of ways. I had some difficulty figuring out the finer details of warfare beyond “the bigger army wins” and was very confused when my massive force was routed by a company half its size. It doesn’t make the game unenjoyable, but it does mean that newcomers especially will often find themselves in unexpected situations with no idea how they got there.

Originality: 4/5

I’m given to understand from what I’ve heard on the internet that Crusader Kings 2 did a lot of work paving the way for Crusader Kings 3’s hybrid grand strategy/RPG formula. Still, Crusader Kings 3’s execution is absolutely splendid as the various systems feed into each other in wonderfully unexpected ways.

Compared to other strategy games of its ilk where players often act as omnipotent gods, directing their forces for centuries with singular vision, Crusader Kings 3 has you play as real people, continuing on as your heir after death. This means that your strategy may have to change dramatically at a moment’s notice. One such instance from my game saw a silver-tongued diplomat get replaced by his shy son. With the realm descending into chaos since my new character couldn’t bring himself to talk to anyone without getting stressed about it, I elected to start waging some wars, executing prisoners, and investing heavily in the Dread mechanic, which let my socially awkward king intimidate his rebellious vassals into submission. This one course of action involved everything from war declarations to the intrigue system to the skill trees, combining all the elements of the game to create a wholly unique experience.

Accessibility: 4/5

I’d heard of the Crusader Kings series before buying this installment, and while I’d considered buying it before, the thing that always turned me away was the perceived complexity inherent to the games. These are dense titles, difficult to parse for newbies and unforgiving to beginner mistakes. Crusader Kings 3 is arguably just as complex, but it circumvents this by employing a variety of useful features, such as its tutorial and an ingenious tooltip system.

The tutorial takes place on the island of Ireland, and walks new players through most of the mechanics and features needed to understand how to play a game. Even after the tutorial proper has finished and you’re into the main game, windows will pop up every time you encounter a new system that may need some explanation. It does make for a lot of reading, but it also does a very good job of explaining the basics of the game. For deeper complexity, the tooltip system is a great help, as hovering over a highlighted concept brings up a window explaining it. You can then hover over any terms inside that tooltip, which will bring up another window, potentially building a tower of tooltips onscreen. It’s an excellent way to dispel confusion and answer questions, as it is completely determined by the player’s own inquisitiveness.

One area that the game does fall short in is accessibility for disabled players. While not requiring the same twitch reflexes that many other games do given its generous pausing mechanic, I couldn’t find any options for things like a colorblind mode or control remapping. It does let you scale the size of the menus, which could benefit players with poor vision, but it is largely devoid of these accessibility options.

Look: 3/5

Crusader Kings 3 looks fine. It’s better than previous games in the series, which featured static portraits and cruder graphics, but it also won’t be winning any awards for its visuals or breaking any video cards. The animated character models are nice and they allow for a stronger connection to the events happening onscreen as you can see the expressions of the characters as they react to all manner of things, from stillborn children to hosting a feast.

The map also looks quite good and does fine job of scaling its detail depending on how close you zoom into it. Zooming in close gives you a detailed look at your holding, including all the castles, cities, farmlands, and forests contained within. Zooming all the way out turns it into a paper map without much detail save for the names of the nations. All told, the games is visually pleasing – just not in any particularly noteworthy way.

Story: 4/5

This category is a little trickier than the rest. Crusader Kings 3 doesn’t really have a story, per se, but rather exists to help you tell your own story. The game sets up the stage, then sets you loose to forge your own path. Will you reign as a tyrant king who seizes land from all his vassals? Will you employ diplomacy and kind words to mask the dagger held behind your back? Will your dynasty prosper and spread across the world, or will you tumble into obscurity and be forgotten?

The story of Crusader Kings 3 is, ultimately, unique to every player. All of the systems and events and characters in the game work to help you tell that story, be it one of triumph or defeat. While it may not be as affecting as a written story that’s been plotted out and designed to evoke certain feelings, it’s still a special sort of experience, and it’s one that I personally can’t get enough of.

In Conclusion

Crusader Kings 3 is a good game. It effectively combines the grand strategy and RPG genres to create a unique experience, is more accessible than previous games in the series, and lets you tell your own individual story. While it does stumble in a few places, it’s never bad enough to distract you from the absolutely incredible game you’re playing. I whole-heartedly recommend this game to anyone looking for an interesting new twist on some classic video game genres.

Final Tally: 19/25

Gameplay: 4/5, Originality: 4/5, Accessibility: 4/5, Look: 3/5, Story: 4/5