Some years back I wrote about how bizarrely, buggily horrible it was to try and play a non-Virgin Queen woman in Crusader Kings. A lot changed between the original Crusader Kings and its sequel, so I figured it was time for an update. (It took longer than I expected, largely because CK2 updates faster than I can play it.)
Much of the appeal of Crusader Kings is that its treatment of the medieval period hews much closer to real history than is normal in videogames. In very loose, fantastic treatments like (say) Skyrim, there’s no very good reason for women not to have roles in governance and war that are more in line with modern values; after all, these interpretations are perfectly happy to soft-pedal serfdom, vagrancy laws and smallpox for the comfort and fun of its players. If you want full plate and roads that work, aren’t too worried if all the horses are the same size, and don’t consider fleas and open sewers an essential part of your fantasy world, you have zero business crying historical accuracy when a girl gets a sword.
But Crusader Kings plays Connie Willis to the Tolkien of fantasy-medieval games. It has done its homework, and it wants you to know that history was really nasty, and certainly never fair, and definitely didn’t match up with what you need it to be. You are going to be oppressing peasants, fighting religious wars by choice, picking on weak and vulnerable nations, forcibly converting people to your creed and culture, and waging war purely to become rich, powerful and respected. You can brutally drive the Jews from your country in order to get out of an inconvenient debt. CK2 is very committed to the idea that history is interesting in large part because it was fucking terrible.
And, lest we forget, the medieval period was – to varying degrees, because we’re talking hundreds of years and a big, culturally varied region here – really fucking sexist. To be clear: we are talking about an era in which it was considered morally instructive to put on a play in which a pubescent girl seduces her helpless father, instigates a succession of murders to cover it up, then is dragged off to hell while the father repents and is saved. Sexism wasn’t incidental to the medieval mindset: it was deeply embedded in its core values of faith and honour. (But nor does the medieval era fit neatly into the narratives of the various flavours of modern misogynist, really.) It’s worthy to reframe a historical era into a playground that’s comfortable for everyone, sometimes. But – unless games are just a place where we go to feel comfortable and reassured – it’s equally important to have games which remind us how uncomfortable history is.
(This was going to become an excessively sprawly post, because CK2 is a sprawly game. In this first one I’m just going to consider the base game, in which you can only play as a Christian monarch; the wonderful worlds of DLC and mods will come later.)
First of all, the howdah-bearing elephant in the room: becoming a landed noble, which is a huge deal in CK. Landed nobles are the only characters with real agency; you can’t play as an unlanded character.
In the original CK, women could almost never inherit landed titles: they had to be granted by their liege. In CK2, this is reversed: it is no longer possible to grant lands to an unlanded woman, but women can inherit more easily, and do so fairly often.
The succession rules have changed a good deal. It’s possible, in fact, to switch to a succession mode that ignores gender entirely – but only if you’re of the Basque culture or the Cathar faith, both difficult-to-play minorities. Or you could die with daughters but no sons – rare, but possible. More likely as a source of female rulers is Elective succession, under which the heir is chosen by a vote amongst higher-ranked vassals. This isn’t as chaotic as it sounds, because the reigning monarch also gets a vote, and loyal vassals will usually fall in line: if you have a super-awesome female relative and want her to inherit, and you’re a reasonably popular monarch, you can probably get her the job.
The fact that women can’t be granted lands by royal award does make them less competitive in succession struggles, though. It means they have far fewer ways to acquire Honour, which affects how people regard you. Assassination is also a bigger risk for female heirs-apparent: it’s more expensive and difficult to kill a landed lord than even a high-born courtier.
Nonetheless, you see a lot more female rulers in the typical game of CK2 than there were in CK1. I’ve played a game in which, at one point, the monarchs of Ireland, Scotland, England and Brittany were all women. In any normal playthrough, you may or may not play female characters (depending on your succession laws), but you will certainly have prominent female vassals and neighbours.
Marrying as a female ruler is infinitely less horrible than it was in CK1. First, it doesn’t relocate you to your husband’s court and take away your ability to control anything. Secondly, the new option of matrilineal marriage means it’s now possible to stipulate that the children of a marriage will inherit on the female side, taking the mother’s surname (and thus, crucially, keeping them within your own dynasty, so that you can keep playing as your own children). The trick is that noblemen are reluctant to enter into this kind of marriage, so the pool of available spouses tends to get restricted – sometimes dramatically.
Biology makes rule different, too. Every time you get pregnant you take a small risk of an early death. And you’re likely to have fewer children. A male ruler can potentially stay fertile from earliest adulthood into extreme old age, and it’s not impractical to go all Henry VIII, assassinating or divorcing wives who are getting to the end of their childbearing years and haven’t been polite enough to die in childbirth. A king can also sire bastards, and legitimise them if needs be, without monopolising his uterus for the better part of a year. So a male ruler with a dozen kids is not exceptional. There’s no equivalent for women.
Now, it’s not always super-important to have lots and lots of children. But if you’re going with Elective succession – a highly useful method which, coincidentally, is also the easiest way to get female rulers – you’ll definitely want to breed like crazy, so that the talent pool in your dynasty is deep.
The fundamental thing about Crusader Kings – that you’re making arranged marriages for political power, fitter offspring and rulership bonuses – has not changed much. Your spouse’s stats matter somewhat more when it comes to bonuses. There are much better search functions, making it considerably easier to hunt down spouses with really valuable traits like Genius. This changes the perspective of the marriage-hunt a lot: rather than ‘Tell me about the ladies of the French court,’ you’re more likely to ask things like ‘Who are the most learned single women in Christendom?’ then pick through the ranked list by hand for someone of an appropriate age. There’s still a sense of active searching, but it feels less courtly-romance and more OKCupid.
Ruling as female is a minor impediment – male vassals will have a small penalty to their relation with you, at about the same strength as a personality-trait incompatability. Similarly, claimants to your titles can declare war with weaker justifications. For the most part, this is only an issue when your ruler is weak: for a stronger, more secure character, it makes no visible difference whatsoever.
A bigger difference is that a female ruler cannot usually command armies in person, which is a mixed bag. On the one hand, if you have a high Martial stat then you won’t be able to get the full advantage out of it, and you can’t gain the various perks that come from winning battles personally. (For instance, the Crusader trait gives you +2 Martial, and a whole bunch of diplomatic bonuses, particularly with the Pope. You can only get it by personally leading an army on a crusade.) On the other, you don’t run the risk of having your reign cut short prematurely by a battlefield death.
Homosexuality is also now a possibility for characters of either gender. It has relatively little effect: other characters disapprove of it, but at a similarly mild trait-conflict level that’s easily compensated for. It also reduces your fertility slightly, which can certainly be a problem; of course, high fertility can be as troublesome as low, as your twenty-three children all assert their claim to the throne. Playing a gay character might take a little more work, but it isn’t exactly Impossible Mode.
Character events are still somewhat balanced towards male rulers, but have been expanded somewhat – it’s now possible, for instance, for female rulers to conduct extramarital affairs with their courtiers, using the same event as their male counterparts.
Considered as a romance game, CK2 is not much of one; marriage is mostly important to produce heirs, create alliances between rulers, and draw in talent to manage the realm, and finding a spouse is mostly akin to hiring. You can also have lovers, but the simulation here is – as with most character stuff in CK2 – the view from fifty thousand feet. If two characters have high enough opinion of one another, they might receive an event that offers a chance to hook up. (NPCs do not always accept your advances, and are not always subtle about rejection.) In the base game, you cannot do much to affect which NPCs your character falls for; you might even fall in love with your spouse. Once you have lovers, there are occasional events tied to them; a lover might affect your relations with your spouse, or you might gain the Stressed trait from juggling relationships, and then there’s all that complication with bastard children.
So broadly speaking, relationships in CK, including love, are reduced to functional elements – but with this comes a loss of control over the details. You don’t really see much of the inside of relationships. If your ten-year marriage produces no children, you don’t know why not – the fertility mechanic rolls biological and behavioral reasons for infertility into one stat, which it then hides. Much of the time you have the view from outside the castle walls: you can make up informed rumours, but you don’t really know.
Female advisors have become significantly more limited. (Advisors in general have changed a bit from CK1 – they can now be drawn from vassals as well as members of your court.) Formerly, women could be chancellors, spymasters or stewards, but not court chaplains or generals. Now the only advisor role available to them is spymaster, and then only if they are the ruler’s wife or mother.
I’m not wild about this. I think I’d have, at least, allowed close female relatives to take on the Steward role – it was very common for medieval noblewomen to take over management of estates, particularly when husbands and sons were busy with war.
Regardless, this has a similar frustration-effect as the original CK. In an expanding realm, you’ll probably be granting fiefs to your male courtiers and children, so your court will end up with a disproportionate number of women. You’ll often have chosen talented wives for your male relatives, and arranged matrilineal marriages for your more talented daughters in order to keep their offspring in your dynasty, and they’ll all be hanging around court – the men will have gone off to the fiefs you’ve granted them. Often you’ll have a woman who would make a substantially better general or chancellor than the strongest male candidate, but that’s not an option. So Crusader Kings remains a game that is good at depicting an anti-feminist society as a frustrating waste of ability.
You can get more female-friendly cultures, but your options are limited. As a Christian, your options are the Basque culture or the Cathar heresy, both of which allow inheritance and advisor appointment on a gender-neutral footing. The trouble is that they’re both vulnerable minorities themselves. Just surviving as a Cathar would be very difficult. (Interestingly, one of the better ways of getting lots of female Christian marshals, monarchs and bishops in the game is to play as a non-Christian, build up an empire, then belt the everliving shit out of the Catholic faithful. As Catholic moral legitimacy collapses and Catholic crusades become less capable of protecting orthodoxy, the remaining Catholic kingdoms are much more likely to switch to and sustain heretical faiths. More on that later, since you can’t do that without DLC.)
I suppose my central complaint about the way gender is treated in CK2 is that, aside from the relatively minor distinction between agnatic and agnatic-cognatic inheritance, it’s just flat across the whole period. And… no, it wasn’t. The Cathars are a good start, but it’s not as though mainline traditions were a homogenous block of unchanging tradition. You can’t read Chaucer or Boccaccio or Rabelais without realising that gender politics were an active topic – indeed, the late medieval saw a marked shift away from female equality. (Yes, history is not a steady upwards march of progress.) The Orthodox tradition was very much Not the Same as the Catholic.
And the great thing about CK2 is, part of its baseline assumptions mean that it doesn’t need to just give people what they expect – it is a game that makes you learn about history, even if much of it is simplified and smoothed over for gameplay purposes. One of the joys of CK is finding out things like – what the hell, southern Italy is controlled by a Norman dynasty? How the hell did they get there? Let me go look that up. Sure, you can’t do this with everything in a game, but gender is so close to the heart of what makes CK distinctive and engaging that it feels as though it’d have been nice to make it a tiny bit more flexible, to acknowledge that this, at the grand scale, wasn’t a social given – it represented a strategy.
Next time around I’ll talk about how the giant heaps of DLC available for the game affects all this.