Crusader Kings is full of women. In the course of a normal game, the player will take the part of dozens of characters in turn, and they will all be male. You will, on the other hand, control and use a lot of women – mostly by arranging their marriages.
Women are not forbidden from being rulers – they just can’t inherit, and the game’s choice of player-character is usually made through inheritance. But you can make your own choices by saving and restoring as another character, so it’s technically possible to play women.
I wondered whether it’d be possible to game the system enough to set up a female dynasty.
Women have one education option forbidden (martial education) and two permitted (ecclesiastical and court education). Of the five advisor positions, they are allowed to fill three (chancellor, spymaster and steward) and forbidden two (marshal and diocese bishop). Women cannot lead armies, but they can hold titles and own territory in their own right.
Marriage, breeding and succession form a massive element of the game. A standard marriage works like this: a ruling lord (count, duke or king) requests the hand of an eligible woman (the AI will almost never propose to women over 25) for himself or one of his male-line relatives (that is, someone with the same surname as him.) You can’t make requests on behalf of absent relatives – once a son has his own title, lands and court his marital affairs are his own. The request is made of the woman’sliege-lord – the ruler of the court she attends. If the request is granted, everybody involved gets a bit of Prestige and the new bride trundles off to her new husband’s court to start making babies.
Succession works according to any number of systems, from straightforward Salic primogeniture to splitting the kingdom up between your sons. Under every system, it’s crucial to make sure that someone inherits with the same surname as his predecessor, because otherwise it’s game over. It doesn’t have to be a son – it could be great-great-uncle Hector thrice removed. And Hector doesn’t need to directly inherit anything from you – he could have a scrap of land in darkest Karelia granted to his line three hundred years ago, which won’t be very much fun to play with but it’s not Game Over.
So, the metagame creates an emphasis on the male bloodline distinct from the actual mechanisms of inheritance; but all the inheritance methods require male heirs anyway. The only way that a woman can get her foot in the door is to be granted titles by her liege-lord. This actually happens fairly often, although (since most titles are held by right of inheritance or conquest) male rulers always greatly outnumber female.
If I want to play an independent all-female dynasty, then, I have to first play a male bloodline for long enough to gain a second kingdom. I should find the most talented woman in my court and sign over a few choice provinces to her, then split the kingdom by granting her a crown. Then save, reload as the new queen and repeat the process whenever it looks as if the old queen is getting a bit long in the tooth. It’s a lot more awkward than normal gameplay, but it can be done. I loaded up one of my more ridiculously oversized empires – a Catalan/Arab empire extending from Mauritania to Georgia – and split it up between various daughters, and set up as the Queen of Aragon.
The main problem I was anticipating was mandatory exceptionalism. Normally, you spend quite a lot of time with mediocre or unlucky rulers, but this is usually survivable – you can play conservatively until your luck turns or someone talented inherits. The strategy I was planning required every queen to be abundantly successful.
Problem number one. Marriage is a very powerful tool for recruiting those essential highly-skilled courtiers – both by breeding them in your own court, and by snagging them from other people. You’re conducting an amateur eugenics program, more or less – or sometimes you don’t even care if kids result, just so long as you get a few decades’ use out of that Stewardship 18. (I’ve married talented women to obviously infertile husbands before – it binds them to your court without the risk of losing them in childbirth.) But as a female ruler, all your children will have a different surname to you – and thus you can’t arrange marriages for them. A massively powerful game tool, gone.
(In theory, you could overcome this by having a parallel line of brothers and cousins, with every queen passing her crown down to her niece. The trick here would be to get the first brother to come to your court in the first place.)
Problem number two. Normally, when you grant a new title, the title-holder goes off to form his new court and takes his wife and children (unless they hold positions at court). This doesn’t seem to happen with titled women, further reducing the pool of courtier talent that they can draw on. Also, when a new court gets generated for a titled woman, it seems to always be entirely composed of women, which means that you are initially without a marshal or, indeed, anyone who can lead an army.
I tried again, this time with an unmarried woman – at least I’d be able to quickly recruit one man to my court, plus eventually my own offspring. I had a Bohemia -> Lithuania game going; I picked Gundega of Memel, daughter of a Bohemian princess and an overtalented Lettigalish convert, twenty-five, chancellor. Granted her some rich provinces and then made her Queen of Lithuania. Saved, reloaded as Gundega. Offered marriage to Guy de Vermandois, steward to the King of France.
Upon marriage, things got weird. I was still listed as Queen of Lithuania and Count of various provinces, with the royal icon-border and everything, but I was also a member of the King of France’s court, and he was listed as my liege. All my vassals were now his vassals. My desmene – the provinces directly ruled by the player – were listed as his property but controlled by me – that is, held by conquest but not by right. The game didn’t declare defeat, as it usually does when you have no provinces, but I couldn’t see my own lands or do anything with them.
Thinking that this might have something to do with his steward position, or the fact that his liege was my social equal, I reloaded a save and tried again, this time wedding one Dungal O’Brien, nth son of the Count of Tir Eoghain. Same thing – although, oddly enough, I remained responsible for my old courtiers, and able to make decisions on their behalf. Though nobody else’s. I had a pile of money left over from before the marriage, and I tried to assassinate my husband and father-in-law to see if that’d get me out of this mess. No such luck. All this was a weirdly scary, Yellow Wallpaperish experience; here I am in this backwater little Irish castle, with everyone calling me Queen of Lithuania, Countess of Venetia and Praha while my father-in-law is actually ruling said lands. In fact, I know nothing about my former home except for the trivial, almost gossipy dilemmas about which my courtiers back in Venice occasionally consult me – “My personality is in conflict – should I concentrate on lustfulness or zealousness?” and the like. I have a big sack of gold that nobody tries to take from me, but I’m not allowed to spend it on anything.
All right, so the only way to be a female ruler is to do the Virgin Queen bit and pass down the line to unrelated female courtiers. Let’s restore Gundega and try doing that.
I started a little bit of conquest, laid claim to the throne of Burgundy, grabbed a couple of counties in Veneto. Then I ran into a problem.
For various reasons, it’s often a good idea in CK to wage war against the heathen. War against Christians takes place within a risky social context that can make you lose even if you win; against Muslims or pagans, you can just kill everyone and will gain hearty applause for it. An expansionist player will want to fight heathens at least as often as Christians.
But there’s one advantage to that annoying social contract; you get to define the terms. When you conquer a province with a Christian ruler, you have to negotiate with its rightful owner for the title before you can do anything with it. This is a pain in the ass, but it at least means that when titles are ceded they’re ceded to you, to do with as you please. An infidel-ruled province, immediately upon conquest, is turned over to the commander of the conquering army. This might be a useful courtier whose talents you’d prefer to retain, or it might be a treacherous rat who will secede the first chance he gets, (which might mean ‘immediately’). The usual solution is to oversee conquests personally, after which you can dispose of the land as you please. This is not an option for boy-rulers, but at least they eventually grow up to lead armies; women never can, and thus are likely to derive little benefit from hammering the infidel.
As I’ve stated before, one of the grand successes of CK is how it explains what appeal the Crusades had for the Catholic European nobility; a big part of this is just that it’s more fun. What the game is basically for (similarly, the nobility) is waging war. War against Christians isn’t just war, though; it’s a big stressful manouvre through the social contract, with lengthy, tedious periods of waiting for the moral community to forgive you for your crimes. Against Muslims, no social contract, no time-out, and the moral community claps and cheers no matter what you do. It’s a libertarian paradise; in the broader context of the game, it’s a holiday, somewhere you can escape pressures and blow off steam before getting back to one’s difficult job. Morality tourism. And women don’t get to go.
I should really emphasise how crushing this whole experiment was, how dispiriting the feeling of constantly having one’s hands tied, of being denied access to basic functions, of having no kind of assured future beyond what one can painfully wrangle from a society fundamentally hostile to one’s interests. I suppose I should continue the experiment, see if I can manage to pass Gundega’s crown down to another woman, but I really don’t want to.
A while back I opined that the marriage system in CK was fundamentally really creepy to play, and that any simulation of medieval noble marriage that didn’t do this was getting it wrong. I think the same principle is true here. The visceral reaction, the faint shadow of how profoundly hard and nasty it was to be an ambitious medieval noblewoman, was a lot stronger than I anticipated.