This diary first run in PC Gamer magazine issues 351 and 352. We do one every month, taking on new challenges and approaching our favourite games from entirely new angles—and letting you know how we got on.
Yes, yes, I know, I know. Crusader Kings 3 is a game that practically begs you to be cruel, self-serving and just generally evil. But I’m going to lean hard into the alternate history angle, and try to avoid falling over. What if, unlike the real medieval leaders, I really was a king that had everybody else’s best interests at heart? Was all that aggression and backstabbing really necessary in the grand scheme of things? Can’t we all just get along?
I decide to jump into the Anglo-Saxon shoes of King Harold II. Taking stock of my situation, I realise that I haven’t exactly made things easy for myself. I’m already at war with both King Harald IV, and Duke William II 'the Bastard'. In terms of family, my parents had eight children including me, because Netflix hasn’t been invented yet. My brother Tostig hates me so much that he’s my nemesis. He’s clearly far beyond my powers of persuasion, which makes me very sad.
My mother, I’m shocked to find, has a slightly negative opinion of me. I don’t have this problem with my dad although this is, admittedly, because he’s dead. What to do? I turn to the church’s teachings, something that I’ll be doing a lot of in my mission to be pious and just. It’s right there in the ten commandments, innit? Honour thy father and thy mother. So I honour her with some cash, and thankfully, she’s shallow enough for this to make her (very slightly) love me again.
I’m under attack from powerful armies, I’m living in a world of greedy, violent monarchs, and I want to be sure that I always make noble decisions. I need God on my side. Therefore, I go for a Learning lifestyle, and start building up the Theology tree straight away. Next, I check out my relationship with the pope, Robin to God’s Batman. He has a very slightly negative opinion of me. That won’t do at all! I start a scheme to sway him, hoping to help him appreciate my many lovely qualities.
God morning Britain
I hope my plan to get God fighting in my corner works out, because things start to go downhill. You know, even more than they already were. I discover that half my council hates me, and four enemy allies jump into the war in quick succession. Worse than all of that—much, much worse—I discover that I am cheating on my wife. I have become that which I hate the most, an unchivalrous cad! The first I hear of my unfaithfulness is when one of my vassals tries to blackmail me over it.
I decide to make the best of a bad situation, refuse the blackmail, and come clean. I’ll be best mates with the pope soon anyway, loads of forgiveness points in the bank for that. Therefore, my affair is exposed, my wife’s opinion of me plummets an understandable amount, and my devotion level drops because I gain the trait ‘adulterer’. Wait, I didn’t already have that? It’s only adultery if you get caught? I do manage to scrape together the shards of my reputation by immediately leaving my lover for my wife, who seems to forgive me instantly. I love that woman.
More bad news, as I am informed that my primary heir is not of my dynasty. Before I can try to make sense of this, Aeldgyth (I congratulate myself on finally remembering the name of my wife) announces that she is pregnant. I guess she really did forgive me. Nine months or so later, our son Eustace pops out. We add him to the pile of children, now numbering six.
There’s little time for celebration though, as the invading armies—vastly superior to my own—are making huge gains. But wait! The pope is finally swayed, and now has a healthily positive opinion of me. Huzzah! Now I can relax, as being in God’s good graces will save me and my realm. I’m free to concentrate on making good decisions, looking after my subjects with love and care.
At least, I would have been, had I not been presented with a Game Over screen shortly afterwards. Perhaps God’s not all he’s cracked up to be. It’s 1069, and although I don’t die, I am landless due to the total annihilation of my armies, ruining me and my entire family. On one hand, King Harold II cheated death by my playing the good guy, as the real one died in 1066. On the other hand, I managed to run the entire kingdom of England into the ground in less than three years. This is why, in the real world, my wife bids a tearful goodbye to our children each and every time she is forced to leave them in my care.
Oh well. Second time lucky? While I’m initially distraught to find that I’m not allowed to play as the pope, I come to accept that this would break the game, as I’d literally be playing in God mode. Instead, I look north—far north—and settle on medieval Iceland (ie, the functionally, but accurately, named ‘island’). Not currently at war, and too out of the way to be invaded unless I really annoy somebody. This will go much better... surely?
Temporarily swerving the beliefs of my Catholic faith (lucky I had all those banked pope points), I possess the body of 63-year-old Jarl Isleifur. His ready-baked traits mean he’s a fellow Catholic and, while wrathful, is also diligent and just generally does his own thing. Seems like a good starting point to me.
Time to take stock again. The pope has an even more negative view of me now than when I first played as Harold II, so I start a new sway scheme. I continue trying to woo God by sending a gift to my bishop, who promptly endorses me as a result. Great!
Given my advanced (certainly for the time) age, I need to ensure my legacy is preserved, so I swiftly marry off my only child Teitur to my spymaster, Rögnhildr. Unmarried myself, I decide that I want to live out my final days with a companion, so I marry the lowborn—but good natured—Caisséne. I do not collect gold from my subjects for the wedding, diving straight into the 'be a lovely chap' vibe.
My wife becomes pregnant almost immediately, and then, a traveller named Yosi arrives. I ask him to join my court on condition that he accepts our lord God into his heart. He gladly accepts. I’ve barely begun, but I’ve already brought my son and I into wedded bliss (with other people), I’ve had a chance to publicly demonstrate how nice I am, I’ve got a baby on the way, and I’ve made a new friend. It’s much better here than in England!
Jarl be mine
We hold a wrestling tournament, and I find my mate Yosi there bored out of his mind. Working on the assumption that “spend some time with Yosi under the pavilion” isn’t a euphemism for impure activities, I select this option to have a chat with him, because I want to be a good friend. I want to be a good man generally, of course, so when the game informs me that I’m able to ask the pope for gold, I choose not to do so. I’m not going to bother the best friend of The Man Upstairs for money.
In October 1070, my son is born. I name him Isleifur, after me, as a living reminder to my wife not to remarry after my death. I then receive my first piece of bad news: my bishop has died of old age. This is terrible! I sent him that money for nothing! His replacement refuses to endorse me, but I’m not bashing my bishop with money again, just in case. The pope is not yet swayed, so I continue this scheme rather than trying to befriend my bishop. Papal approval didn’t help me in my previous life, but perhaps that was just because I received it too late.
Bandits are now running rampant in my realm thanks to the crappy skills of my marshal, who I promptly fire and replace with my pal Yosi. Make me proud, good buddy! Speaking of friends, I have an opportunity to advance my scheme on the pope when a commoner of Italian descent is accosted for some minor offence. I agonise for a while over this. Bad deeds must be punished, but then, I could do with getting the pope onside sooner rather than later. I’m now 65 years old, and I don’t look a day over 80. I decide to speak out in favour of the commoner to try and gain favour with the pope’s friend King-Bishop Alexander. On balance, I can bring much more good into the world if I’m still alive.
Another child is born to me, which comes as a surprise, as I wasn’t aware that my wife was pregnant again. A daughter this time, who I dub Patricia. A good Catholic name, just in case—you never know what might earn you more pope points.
Suddenly, awful news! I receive word that Duke Halfdan of Mercia and his vassals have abandoned Catholicism for Iconoclasm. Naturally, I resist the temptation of this heresy, and consider how best to address it. The most sensible thing seems to be to begin an eight year plot to abduct Halfdan, so that I can teach him the error of his ways and save his soul. So that’s what I do.
The pope now likes me! Not much, but a win’s a win. I find that my vassal Count Sigfus doesn’t like me very much, though, so I start a new scheme to sway him too. I start to win him over, but not before I’m informed that I have bandits running throughout my realm once again. Oh Yosi, you silly medieval sausage! Can’t you do anything right? I decide to find him a wife with high martial (and, hopefully, marital) skill, perhaps she can teach him a thing or two. I am, I would hope, invited to the wedding and made best man.
With my friend Yosi in loving hands, and my wife having a break from giving birth, I decide to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I hoped that this would make me more wise, just, pious and enlightened, but things start to get a bit weird. I visit Sigfus, and notice a few things I might be able to help him with in order to endear myself to him. Which is fine... but I’m simultaneously halfway around the world on my pilgrimage. Have I mastered the art of astral projection? This seems like kind of a frivolous use of my supernatural powers.
Nevertheless, desperate to be the wise, loving and loved ruler of island, I try my best to help Sigfus secure and tidy his place. However, like a Middle Ages Mr Bean, I just manage make things worse, and lower his opinion of me even further. I somehow return from my lengthy pilgrimage after this, presumably in God’s good books but now deeply in debt.
The money situation is swiftly and easily dealt with when I reluctantly ask the pope for some gold. We're on very good terms, me and Alex, so he totally understands and retains a very positive view of me. It's not all good news, though, as Count Sigfus—a vassal I've been trying to win round for a few years now—still doesn't think much of me. Then I remember that he thought I was planning to nick his gold when I warned him it wasn't very well guarded, and I messed up his library when I tried to help him organise it. I was only trying to help! No good deed goes unpunished, etc.
But wait! The perfect opportunity to ingratiate myself to Sigfus arises when I loudly, if unsubtly, praise his forgiving nature at court. It works. Huzzah! I'll get everybody to recognise me as the kind and pious ruler that I am if it's the last thing I do. And, considering the fact that I'm now 70 years old and it's the 11th century, maybe it will be the last thing I do. I return home, chuffed that I've added Sigfus to my list of friends. My wife Caisséne further brightens my mood by announcing that she is pregnant! Again! That'll be child number three within a few short years. The more the merrier, I say. After all, the good book doth say go forth and multiply, and at this rate I'll be a multiplication pro.
Once the standard nine-month cooking time has passed, my daughter is born. I name her after Caisséne, so that she may serve as a living reminder to my wife not to remarry after my death. I took a similar approach with the naming of my other two children, and I'm really starting to run out of ideas.
I've barely had time to think of my first excuse to avoid changing the nappies when I'm visited by my spies. Ah yes; several years ago, I started a scheme to abduct Duke Halfdan of Mercia because he converted to Iconoclasm, and I'm desperate to save his soul. The trap is ready to be sprung! There's a 95 percent chance of failure, but the lord God is on my side, so I order my agents to bring him to me.
My plot is exposed, and Halfdan remains a heretic. I'm having a particularly bad day, because I then receive word that my good friend Yosi—who I assigned to the position of marshal—has yet again let bandits run wild for another five years. Hmm, perhaps I should consider giving this position to somebody qualified instead of trying to keep my mate happy.
With impeccable timing, noted expert in marshalling, Gausberto (he just has one name, like Madonna), visits. I recruit him to my court, and swap him out for Yosi. I'm sorry, Yosi! I'll find you something else to do, my friend. But first, I must start a murder plot against Halfdan. This is fine to do because a) he's a heretic, and b) as I'm such a good Catholic now, I'll just pray for him and save his soul that way. That, at least, was the plan. On October 6 1078, Jarl Isleifur dies of old age at 72, and the murder plot dies with him. It seems that he was such a good Catholic, God simply couldn't wait any longer to meet him. I now play as his son Teitur, who has lurked in the background without doing very much (the lazy sod) but is keen to follow his father's example.
After (presumably) mourning the death of my father, I sit back and consider the land that I've inherited. Dad was a good man, but is prioritising courtesy, friendliness and piousness above all else really the best way to go? We lost no land during his reign, nor did we gain any. It was nice to see him make a friend in his twilight years, but putting that friend in the council to keep him close led to bandits running all over the place. Repeatedly. And now, I find that Yosi has a low opinion of me! It was probably my fault for doubting my father. I promise myself I will continue to walk in his well-meaning footsteps.
Yosi meant a lot to my dad, so I put him back on the council as steward. I don't want to undo all that hard work to get Sigfus on-side, either, so I make him chancellor. He's greedy, but calm and honest, which is a good combination for the position, maybe...?
My son Dag is only six years old, but he's already a gambler, so I officially make him my ward in order to bring him up right. I'll make dad proud. Significantly, underage gambling isn't the biggest family revelation, though. I learn (remember?) that I have no mother. I don't mean that she's dead; I mean that, according to the family tree, I have no mother. It all comes back to me now, that day I tried to have The Talk with my father. "Dad, where do babies come from?", I asked. "I don't know," he replied, before bursting into tears. I think my step-mother Caisséne must have taught him eventually though.
To my dismay, I find that Caisséne has a very low opinion of me. Come on, Caiss! You know dad would want us to get along! I give her a job as spymaster, and start a scheme to sway her. Fortunately, this doesn't take long to work, and I like to think that she lets me call her ‘mother'. I imagine dad looking down on us and smiling, as he shares another flagon of mead with his best mate God. I am in fact constantly aware of dear old dad looking down on everything that I do, and vow to impress him from here on out.
I'm minding my own business, praying in between saying kind words to people that pass by, when little Dag comes up to have a word. He's heard of a thief that's been sentenced to death, and doubts that God would approve. Naturally, I set him right, and inform him that God would very much approve. Thou shalt not steal, my boy, it's right there in The Ten Commandments! And if you think God wouldn't approve of the death sentence, you wait until I teach you about what he did to Job just to win a bet with Satan.
Uneventful weeks pass by, with the people poor but content, and me complimenting people on their shoes and whatnot, when suddenly, alas! A peasant rabble gathers, and I receive word that they are targeting me. I give Yosi some side-eye—all those years of bandits running amok can't have helped—but I keep my counsel on the matter. See, dad? I am temperate and respectful of your friend.
In the midst of my preparations for a potential civil war, there is scandal at the court. Sigfus has been caught cheating on his wife! Cad! Villain! Unchivalrous rogue! This will not stand. I immediately place him under arrest. That'll teach him for putting his soldier in another woman's regiment. I look up at the sky, and give my dad a hearty thumbs up.
I've only just finished patting myself on my chivalrous back when things take a rather unexpected turn. You would think, perhaps, that Sigfus' wife would call me many unkind names for placing her husband under arrest. Instead, she takes the first available opportunity to flirt heavily with me, making it clear that she wishes me to... ah... enter her court. Shameless strumpet! I would never cheat on my wife, least of all with the unprincipled likes of her!
I make sure to shame her as publicly as possible. I don't imprison her, as this reaction to her husband's arrest suggests that she has a thing for handcuffs, and I don't want to give her the satisfaction. I see a long line of middle-aged men asking for this woman of loose morals' name and address so that they can be sure to avoid her. Then, as if I didn't have enough to deal with, Yosi challenges my authority in front of the court. I'm sorry dad, but I've put up with enough from this guy! I shout him down, which is stressful, but I don't get any more trouble from him. I feel guilty for treating him unkindly, but did not Jesus Christ himself show anger against the money changers? And anyway, he started it.
The peasant rabble are still unhappy, and deliver an ultimatum: the oiks aren't happy about taxes. I'm in a bad mood thanks to Yosi, so quickly refuse their demands. As a result, I almost immediately die in a siege. A sudden and undignified death for a man who was just trying to make the world a better place.
So now I'm Dag, and my world is a dark place. At just 13, I shouldn't have much more to worry about than my bed hovering a few feet above the floor thanks to all the issues of Uncannily Fair Maidens Weekly shoved underneath it. Instead, I'm in charge of a land under siege. It's not long before my mum, nanny Caisséne, and one of my brothers are all killed. So I do the only reasonable thing and retreat to a corner to weep in peace.
When the peasants directly threaten me, I cave in to their demands—I saw how not doing so worked out for dad—and, thankfully, they disband. My land stagnates somewhat through following the family tradition of unambitious chivalry until, at the age of 18, I die at the paws and jaw of a wolf. It's probably for the best, to be honest, as I'd grown some facial hair that looked absolutely ridiculous.
So, what did I learn? Strict adherence to a moral code is great for making friends, and meting out righteous justice is fun; but it turns out you have to be a bit of a bastard sometimes if you want to... well... continue being alive. Heaven better be good after all I've been through.