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