The title of Crusader Kings 3's first proper expansion, Royal Court, suggests a singular focus on a specific area of rulership, but the grand strategy RPG's interconnected web of complex systems means that it manages to infiltrate all parts of the game. It has a lot of new toys to play with, and their impact is significant, but the one that's lodged in my brain is mostly aesthetic: you can now see your ruler sitting on their throne, their wee legs dangling off the big chair, surrounded by family and courtiers.
It seems like Paradox learned a valuable lesson when it swapped CK2's creepy character portraits for CK3's evocative character models, full of life and finally able to reflect the soapy dramas they're involved in. CK3 might be fat with great roleplaying systems, but simply being able to admire your character has just as big an effect. Seeing them in their natural habitat, passing judgement and hearing petitions, adds even more flavour and roleplaying fun.
Click on the royal court and you'll see a snapshot of the realm and the people inside it, chatting and whispering and trying to get the attention of their monarch. You'll see your kids off to the side, your spouse sitting next to you, and petitioners gathering around. Even the objects displayed in your court tell you something—an old crown that speaks to your family's long and distinguished history, a banner stolen from a conquered enemy, a shield you commissioned at great personal expense.
The royal court itself is more than just something to gawk at, and from it you can hold court, listen to opportunities your guests bring, or do a spot of decorating. It's the heart of your realm.
Holding court is an activity you can only select once every five years, making you listen to petitioners who need your help. Maybe you'll be approached by a pair of nobles who want you to solve a dispute, or a genealogist might offer to trace your family's lineage to show everyone how very important you are. While there's some overlap with events you might already be used to, they are still specific to the royal court. From these petitions, you might make new friends and rivals, earn yourself a nice chunk of cash, or piss off the head of your religion. Contained as they are within the royal court itself, and with the five-year gap between them, you're not going to be bombarded with event pop-ups, so these new decisions never feel like interruptions.
Even when you can't hold court, there's a good chance that there will be people hanging around who want to have a word—there's usually something interesting going on. As a gluttonous ruler, I was quite happy to meet a shifty individual who was willing to design a secret shaft that would let me hoist up cake from the kitchen to my bedroom. I also had to deal with my depressed mum, who was sick of having nothing to do—I put her to work teaching me German. Language has been given greater prominence in Royal Court, and it turns out this has some pretty big implications.
All royal courts have a court language and a native language, and you'll want both of them to be the same to get more grandeur, a new resource that's crucial to developing your court. The more grandeur you have, the more bonuses you get, their specifics determined by what you've decided your court should focus on. You might choose intrigue, so you'll get lots of sneaky, manipulative bonuses. The grandest courts are considered leaders of their language and get even more grandeur based on how many other courts speak it, encouraging you to spread your chosen tongue all over the medieval world.
There are some good reasons to adopt a foreign language as your court language if you're not the head honcho, however, and more than one way to use language to build up your grandeur stockpile. Language also plays a role in diplomacy and influencing the rest of the world, so it's an important tool in your royal arsenal.
Unfortunately, I failed to learn German, and because I was playing a lazy ruler, a second attempt would have stressed me out far too much. Thanks for being a shit teacher, Mum. I should have just left her to wallow.
It belongs in a museum
I had a bit more success when it came to interior design. While decorating your court might seem like a purely cosmetic activity, it's vitally important. All the tapestries, shields and artifacts you display give you tangible benefits, from increasing your grandeur to inspiring the troops. Starting as the Byzantine Empire in 1066, I already had a bunch of them, but getting new ones is pretty easy, especially if you're rich and famous. Tailors, metallurgists, adventurers and all sorts of folk will approach you looking for sponsorship to create or look for new items, kicking off event chains that will let you have some input. You might ask them to put your dynasty's motto in there somewhere, dedicate it to a special someone, or give them another artifact to combine into a super-artifact. Or you can just go to war with someone and steal their artifacts. What's a war without looting?
Some of these artifacts will be carried on your person instead of being displayed at court. Swords, crowns, shields and trinkets give you all sorts of personal advantages, and the artisans you sponsor can craft these, too. So you're gearing up both yourself and your court, choosing to enhance strengths you already have or shore up any weaknesses. Paying an eccentric blacksmith to craft a magical sword that makes everyone scared of you? There's no doubt that CK3 is a proper RPG.
Artifacts debuted back in Crusader Kings 2: Monks & Mystics, but Paradox opted not to include them in Crusader Kings 3 at launch because it felt the system contributed to feature bloat and needed reconsideration. I actually liked the system, but this new version is absolutely an improvement. That I get to have more input into what I've commissioned is obviously beneficial, and each acquisition is more meaningful because the items are now unique. How they were made or what region they were discovered in determines their features, giving them a lot more flavour but also distinct characteristics.
Equally as important are the limitations introduced by this new version of the system. Every artifact, whether you're holding it or displaying it in your court, must be placed in a specific type of slot to work, and it won't take long before you have more artifacts than room for them. This forces you to consider what artifacts to use, building the most effective loadouts. And you can change this depending on the situation. In one battle, you might benefit more from a sword that makes your knights more effective, while another might inspire you to carry a spear that improves the morale of your regular troops.
Antiquarians can also help find artifacts and take care of those you have, which degrade over time. It's one of a multitude of new court positions that you'll be able to fill, giving you yet more ways to improve your realm. With 21 positions, that's a lot of people you'll be looking to recruit, though not all at once. Most of these positions are situational, so you won't always need them filled. They can be immensely handy, though, like the food taster who not only makes it more likely that you'll survive a murder scheme involving poison but can also help you lose weight, potentially saving your life in more ways than one. Recruitment can happen through events, too, which is how I got myself a court jester.
A goofy guest was making a fool of herself, which a less easygoing monarch might have punished her for, but I saw an opportunity to give everyone a good laugh. From then on, she was always near my throne, waiting with some bad jokes and her horrible costume. Passively, my new jester improved the grandeur of my court, but her presence also kicked off events that helped me shake off some stress. This being Crusader Kings 3, however, there's always a tragedy around the corner, and one of her jokes had me laughing so hard that letting her continue would literally put my life at risk. Death by laughter isn't a bad way to go, mind you, especially when CK3 offers so many nastier alternatives.
All of this—the artifacts, the jesters, the petitioners begging for help—is a serious drain on your royal coffers. It ain't cheap trying to have the grandest court in all the land, especially when you're decking yourself out in finery and going into battle with only the fanciest weapons. Rather than creating a situation where only the wealthiest and most powerful realms can benefit from royal courts, it creates friction that every kind of kingdom and empire is going to experience. The grandest courts also have the biggest bills. Planning and tweaking becomes a necessity, elevating the economic side of CK3.
Royal Court has also fleshes out the culture system. The culture of your dynasty has always provided unique bonuses, but it was also primarily a hands-off system, with the main interaction being the ability to select innovations for your culture to explore, and only if you're the dominant ruler in that culture. With Royal Court, it's a lot more like the highly customisable religion system. Find yourself wishing for peace while your culture mostly just gives you military advantages? Reform it!
When you reform a culture, you can add or remove traditions, selecting bonuses that are more appropriate for your ambitions—though many traditions also come with penalties. An agrarian culture is more content and is better at developing farmlands, but all characters belonging to that culture will have less battlefield prowess and cost more to recruit into your armies. Cultural pillars, which determine things like language and aesthetics, are generally immutable, but you can make the dramatic decision to diverge your culture, effectively making a new one. Should you have other prominent cultures in your realm, you might want to make a hybrid, taking the best bits of each to create something that influences more of your population.
There are a lot of things to consider when fiddling around with your culture, and it's not something you're likely to do until you've put in your time. The prestige cost is extremely high, and there are ramifications that go beyond your territory, changing your relationships with other characters and realms. It's worth the price, finally giving you a way to customise every aspect of your dynasty. There's nowhere you can't leave your mark. It's wild how much flexibility is here, especially when you consider all the ways you can shape society with religion already.
One of CK3's greatest strengths is how well everything fits together, and there's always the risk that DLC will upset that balance. There will undoubtedly be some tweaks between now and its February 8 launch, and a couple of smaller features were not available in this preview build. Yet Royal Court already feels like a perfect fit. When Paradox first introduced CK3, it said it wanted to make the game even more of an RPG, and it succeeded, and I'm glad to see the work is continuing. Other RPGs should blush at the amount of freedom it offers when it comes to developing your rulers and their realms—and the great stories that spawn from these decisions.