Should we add more failure points to our adventures?

I’m currently trying Play-by-Post (on the site RPG Crossing), a system in which you play D&D and other RPGs by posting on a message board. I’m running a solo adventure to introduce me to the system and, well, I’m about to die. The likelihood of me failing this made me think about how rare this sort of experience is in modern RPGs. Maybe it’s something we should bring back?

What do I mean? Well, I have a few examples.

In a homebrew D&D 5e adventure I ran a year or so ago, “A Shadow in the Woods,” the group ended up in a castle sunk halfway into a swamp. After they defeated the boss, the castle started sinking all the way in, twisting as it went. The group had to navigate the swirling passageways, and–when they reached the entry–jump through a rotating window to get to the surface. One of the characters nobly waited till last, and failed his acrobatics check.  I felt bad letting him die, however, so I had him jump into mud, and be pulled out by the rest of the party.

Similarly, in a homebrew Star Wars: EOTE adventure, the party needed to gain information from an old lady about a lost Jedi temple. They had not been nice to her in a previous encounter, and didn’t try that hard this time, so she wasn’t cooperative. I realized that the adventure would end right there, so I had her give them directions, just bad ones.

And way back when, my old D&D group was playing Horde of the Dragon Queen (the first campaign for 5e) at our FLGS, Labyrinth Games. At the end of chapter 1, a half-dragon challenges the group to single combat. We were all level 1 at that point, and we knew there was no way we would succeed. But one player, running a halfling ranger, rushed forward (he later said he wanted to re-roll his character). The half-dragon only knocked him unconscious, however, and we later revived him.

What do these have in common? There was (or appeared to be) a clear failure point, beyond which either the adventure wouldn’t progress or the characters would die. And I worried about enforcing that failure point. It’s not just me; after the Star Wars adventure, the other players counseled me to avoid putting such failure points into my adventures (we did a constructive post-mortem after each session, no matter who GM’d).

This makes sense. It’s no fun if an adventure ends early, or if players have no chance of escaping a horrible fate. And since death is handled gently in the latest edition of D&D, players come to expect their characters will survive no matter what. Moreover, some failure points can feel arbitrary, like old choose-your-own-adventure books in which half of the options led to a horrible ending even though it wasn’t clear why that choice was bad.

But are failure points necessarily bad?

Failure points can make you try harder. Knowing my character may die in my play-by-post adventure makes me think over what I could have done differently to survive. Similarly, if my Star Wars party knew there was a chance they’d really need the old lady on their side, they would have put extra effort into developing a rapport with her.

Failure points can also make games more fun. I like to tell my players that RPGs aren’t about “winning,” they’re about fun, and sometime failing is fun. Now, by “failing,” I mean having an encounter not go the exact way it was planned. But more dramatic failure can be fun too. As my readers know, I play Crusader Kings 2 on my PC; some of the better games on this involve my characters losing their throne. Always winning gets boring.

This is apparent even in my almost-failure points above. In my homebrew adventure, the player later said he would have been fine with that character dying, and it would have made for a good ending. Likewise, seeing one of our party die bravely (but foolishly) in Horde of the Dragon Queen could have solidified camaraderie in my newly-formed group.

And D&D used to be like this (while some games still are). Veteran players tell stories about how horrendously hard certain dungeons were. My very first D&D adventure–the dungeon in the Basic Set’s rulebook–ended in a total party kill, after my dad and two little brothers rushed into combat with some giant rats (I was DM). And the point of RPGs like Call of Cthulhu is to see how long you survive, not to “win.”

But I think modern GMs are afraid to put failure points into their dungeons for a few reasons. One is that players may get mad. Another is that they’re kind of tricky to pull off. This isn’t just a tough boss battle leading to the death of the party. It’s an encounter or puzzle that will result in the adventure ending if players can’t solve or get past it.

There are a few ways to add them in without upsetting players, however:

  • One would be to just chat it over with the players. Asking people if they’re OK with their characters dying might seem strange, but it can get everyone on the same page about the stakes of the adventure.
  • Another is to avoid failure points that rely on dice rolls rather than player creativity or ingenuity. It can be frustrating if your best laid plans lead to the party being stuck in a locked room because someone rolled a 1. But if players failed to work together to find their way through a maze, well…
  • Finally, “post-victory failure points” can be effective. If, after the players defeat the evil forces and save the village there is still a chance they can die heroically, it makes their adventure seem more important.

They may not be for everyone, but failure points can really increase the stakes of our adventures. And they can generate great “remember that time…” stories. That’s what RPGs are all about, right?


Crusader Kings walkthrough: William the Conqueror, part 2

In a previous post, I presented a walkthrough of my Crusader Kings 2 game in which I played William the Conqueror. I set out to ensure the de Normandie dynasty lasted longer than the historical one. Unfortunately, a series of inept and/or tyrannical kings and some bad luck (repeated deaths in Viking raids) left the dynasty on the edge of disaster by 1131. The Kingdom was powerful, having expanded into Scandinavia, but its rulers were incompetent and disliked. Then Odo ascended to the throne.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Odo had both excellent diplomatic skills and significant martial prowess. Relief at having a stable, charismatic king spread among England’s lords, and the country experienced the first period of peace since William’s invasion. Odo invested his tax money into developing his demesne, and the peace afforded his Dukes to do likewise. England rose to new heights of prosperity.

All was not well, however. Duke Armand–Odo’s uncle who ruled in the Scandinavian territory of Uppland–kept maneuvering to have himself made king. He formed several factions to place himself on the throne, but received little support thanks to Odo’s popularity. At the same time, Odo continued to nurse a grudge against the Scandinavian pagans who killed his father. Eager to test his mettle in battle, Odo invaded the pagan lands, seizing more territory for England.

Returning home, Odo organized a massive victory feast. Unfortunately, he drank too much at the feast and developed a taste for liquor. He soon became a drunkard, and found less time to devote to his family and Kingdom. After a few years, however, his councilors and wife convinced him to spend more time in prayer; this led him to adopt a more pious lifestyle, and he soon abstained from alcohol. [This was some fun role-playing thanks to the Way of Life DLC; he developed the drunkard trait as a random event, and I switched his lifestyle to theology, which has a chance of removing that trait]

Tragedy soon struck his family, however. His beloved sister had married the Christian King of Norway. This man proved to be a cruel husband, and he executed his wife on suspicion of adultery [the actual reason was unclear, but this is usually what happened]. This enraged Odo, and he swore revenge. His spymaster located a claimant to the Norwegian throne, and invited him to meet the King. The two soon became close friends. Odo gathered England’s now impressive armies and invaded Norway. The Norwegian armies crumbled–possibly due to their cruel king–and Odo had his revenge. Unfortunately, the deposed King fled to Orkney, the lesser title he was allowed to keep. He went into hiding, and Odo’s agents were unable to find him.

Following this war, England experienced another glorious period of stability. Odo developed the country further, and all were happy. One day, a claimant to the Welsh duchy of Gwynedd appeared in Odo’s court, and asked for the King’s help. Odo offered to seize the land for him if he would swear fealty to Odo. Having little to lose, the pretender agreed. England invaded Gwynedd and easily conquered it. The new Duke swore fealty to England, and England’s power grew.

A few years later, the pagans of Kola invaded Norway (still ruled by Odo’s close friend). Responding to his calls for help, Odo mustered England’s armies once again and sailed across the North Sea. They broke the pagans’ siege of his friend’s cities, but the pagans fled across the northern Scandinavian wastes before Odo could destroy them. Still nursing a grudge from the death of his father, Odo pursued them. The English armies were ill-equipped to deal with the extreme north, and Odo lost much of his army while crossing the ice. He still managed to defeat the pagans, however, saving his friend.

Another period of peace ensued. England, and Odo, became richer. Odo seemed invincible. He was severely injured in a hunting accident one year, but soon recovered. A few years later, he came down with smallpox, but miraculously survived.

As Odo neared old age the Pope called a Crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. Odo, of course, joined it, and left with his eldest son–Richard–and England’s armies. After a long sea voyage, the English came ashore near Tyre, and marched south to join the rest of the Crusading armies. Unfortunately, the Muslims were better organized and ambushed the English army. In a disastrous battle, the English were routed and Odo was captured.

As his son was re-gathering his armies, word arrived that the Duke of Normandy had launched a revolt to seize the throne for himself. Richard, perhaps in reaction to his father’s powerful personality, favored pragmatism over Odo’s romantic streak. He decided it would be best for England to abandon the Crusade. The English armies set sail.

While awaiting news of his son’s effort to save his throne, Odo–who saved the de Normandie dynasty, made England one of the most powerful states in Europe, and was widely beloved by his people–died, alone, in a Muslim prison.

In the next post in this walkthrough, we will see if Richard was able to continue to good work his father started.

Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: William the Conqueror!

My group finished the D&D 5e Sunless Citadel dungeon crawl this weekend. While I write up the walk-through I thought I’d start another walk-through from Crusader Kings 2. This excellent game lets you pick a medieval dynasty and play it through 1453. I previously wrote about my efforts to restore Charlemagne’s Empire, beginning with the last Karling count in 1066.

This time, I’m going to be playing as William the Conqueror. After playing several games as obscure (to me) leaders, I thought it would be fun to play as someone I knew well. As you’ll see, a rather humorous pattern emerged from the Norman rulers of England…

I started just after William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066. William was now King of England, and the holder of significant land in both England and Normandy. William divided up Normany between his sons, and set about securing his Kingdom.

His first action was to reach out to the Duke of York, the most powerful remaining Anglo-Saxon ruler who held much of northern England. Surprisingly, the two got along well. William made him his Marshal, and they became close friends. William spent the next decade building up his Kingdom and defending against a failed attempt by France to retake Normandy. Unfortunately, he fell in 1079, fighting off a Viking raid.

William’s oldest son, William, died mysteriously (likely by one of his siblings) so the crown passed to Richard I. Unlike his father, Richard was cruel and despised, focusing his energies on intrigue rather than martial prowess. He appointed his brother—with whom he had always been close—as his spymaster, and set about subjugating England.

Unfortunately, several of his vassals rose up in rebellion, in an attempt to decrease the King’s power. Richard won, and executed all the rebels. The rebels did not include the Duke of York, who continued to maintain close ties to the Norman rulers. But unrest continued, and the king’s brother was assassinated by a Norman count. Richard arrested the man behind the assasination, and planned for a broader campaign against dissidents…but he died, in 1097, fighting a Viking raid.

He was succeeded by his young son, Richard II. Another rebellion broke out against Normal rule, but Richard II—who was more martially inclined than his father—easily defeated the traitors. Flush with success, he launched a holy war against Scandinavian pagans. He successfully seized some Swedish land for England, but…died in battle in 1109.

The King died with no heir, so the throne passed to William II, Richard II’s cousin. William II went insane shortly after becoming King and died by 1112.

Roger, brother of William II, then became King. He was proud man, who enjoyed showing off his martial talents. He decided to expand Richard II’s efforts against the pagans in Scandinavia. He succeeded in another holy war, taking more land for England, but…died in battle in 1124.

His son, William, ascended to the throne as William III (the Cruel). William was completely lacking in diplomatic skills, but was an able administrator. He set about developing the Kingdom, but faced a revolt by the new Duke of York to put the last Godwin back on the English throne. The old Duke of York had managed to maintain his power with close ties to the hated Norman invaders, but his son had no desire to continue this pattern.

William III tried to put down the revolt by arresting the claimant—a child of 8—but this angered the southern lords, who also launched a rebellion. William III defeated his challengers, but the Kingdom was bankrupt and he was exhausted. He organized a grand tournament to try and unify the Kingdom, but died from an illness before it could be held, in 1131.

So that’s the first few Norman kings of England. This year—1131—was about the time the historical dynasty descended into chaos due to succession issues, with the Plantagenet dynasty eventually emerging. Will the same fate befall the Normans in my Crusader Kings game? Tune in next time

Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Charlemagne’s Empire restored.

I am busy with Christmas, so I thought I’d post the rest of my walkthrough for Crusader Kings 2. I ran a game in which I played as the last descendant of Charlemagne and attempted to restore his empire. It proved difficult, but in this post I achieve it, kind of.

Last time, Denise–one of the most effective leaders to come out of the Karling line–died after joining the Holy Roman Empire. She passed down the French crown, and a wealthy realm, to her dissolute son Jaspert. Jaspert had ruled Flanders and Franconia beginning as a young man (when his father, Denise’s husband, died). He was a capable ruler, but had several…moral failings.

After his mother’s death, he finally reunited the Karling lands (separated since the time of Clotaire in in the 11th century). He proceeded to seize the remaining de jure lands of France, now held by various independent Counts and Dukes after the dissolution of France/Aquitaine/Brittany. He thus greatly expanded his realm, but also had a series of affairs and became a drunkard. Eventually, he developed Great Pox (syphilis), and went insane, thinking he heard Jesus talking to him. In his middle age he was assassinated, probably by his wife.

Jaspert had many daughters, but no legitimate sons. The oldest daughter with a male son would win the succession contest (it was a little complicated). Jockeying for position began well before Jaspert’s death, and two his daughters died at the result of shadowy plots. The crown passed to a younger daugther, Mathilda (who had a male son, Geraud) on Jaspert’s death. Unfortunately, Mathilda was assassinated soon after taking the throne, and Geraud became King.

Geraud was sickly and weak, but was a brilliant administrator who was married to the Emperor’s daughter. Soon after he came to power, his uncle–one of Jaspert’s illegitimate sons–rose up in rebellion. Despite his infirmities, Geraud rode to battle against his treacherous kin and…was hit in the head. He died shortly thereafter.

The crown then passed to his three year old daughter, Denise II. Her brother was born shortly after she became Queen (her mother was pregnant when Geraud died), complicating the succession a bit. But all of the French vassals supported her, and she grew up in a peaceful and stable realm. [this seemed a little too easy, but whatever]

Upon adulthood, she consolidated her lands and developed France, turning it into the wealthiest part of the Empire. Her first son died young, so she took up a lover, causing considerable tensions with her husband.

As she got older, Denise II realized that the King of Lotharingia was part of a minor branch of the Karling family (the family tree got complicated). Her kinsman also had a claim to the Empire through some marriage ties. She decided to finally fulfill her ancestor Clotaire’s wishs (even if it did not benefit her directly). She launched a rebellion to make the King of Lotharingia the Holy Roman Empire. She succeeeded, and at long last, a Karling was once again Emperor.

[And that’s where I stopped. There was more to do in the game, but I had basically achieved my goal. Hope you found this saga enjoyable.]



Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Restoring Charlemagne’s Empire, part 3

I have been interspersing my RPG discussions with a walkthrough of the excellent Crusader Kings 2, in which players choose a dynasty and see it through from 1066 to 1453. In this game, I was playing as the last Karlings–Charlemagne’s descendants–confined to one county in France. Over time, they have schemed and conquered in an attempt to return the Karling family to greatness.

Last time, Clotaire II abandoned his family’s long feud with the foreign French monarchy, and died peacefully, mourned by all.

Clotaire II was succeeded by his eldest son, Lothaire. Where his father was noble and beloved, Lothaire was devious and feared. A great schemer, he immediately set to work bringing down the hated foreign king. Lothaire formed a faction to push for gavelkind succession; as the King had two young daughters this would lead to a division of the realm. Lothaire used his spies to gather dirt on other lords and blackmail them into joining his cause, then launched his rebellion. He easily won, and the King changed the succession rules.

Lothaire then moved into phase 2 of his plan. He had his spies abduct the King while he was travelling through the Karling lands. Lothaire then executed the King in prison. This led Lothaire to be widely despised, even by those who were not fond of the King. But it worked. The realm was divided between the two daughters. Brittany, Aquitaine and Aragon went to the eldest, and France to the younger.

[all of this was accomplished through the Intrigue actions available in the Way of Life expansion. I got a little lucky it all worked out, but when you have a high enough intrigue in a character, it can be a useful way to rule your realm through underhanded means.]

Lothaire then began plotting to overthrow his new Queen. He did not get very far in this latest scheme, however, as he was assassinated by bowmen while travelling on the roads. His list of enemies was too long for anyone to know for sure who was the killer.

Lothaire’s eldest son, Francois, inherited the Karling lands. He was a genius, and immediately set about developing and strengthening the administration of the realm. But he worked a bit too hard, and died of stress after only three years.

His brother, Lothaire II then became Duke. Lothaire II saw the repeated failures and frustration of his family, which he attributed to personal egos getting in the way of the cause. So he came up with a plan with his sister, Denise. She would marry their German cousin, now the Duke of Franconia and Flanders. Lothaire II would make her his heir. The two would then work to break their land free of what remained of France and join the Holy Roman Empire.

Their plans came together sooner than expected when the Queen of France faced a rebellion in the southern part of her realm. Lothaire II declared independence and easily won, although he was severely wounded in battle. He died less than a year after gaining independence, and his lands passed to Denise.

Denise was a brilliant and shrewd leader, who should have been the greatest of the Karlings but she repeatedly faced suspicion due to her gender.

Shortly after coming to power, she swore fealty to the Holy Roman Empire. After joining the Empire, her intelligence and charisma earned her the respect of the previously suspicious German Dukes. She also became very close to the Emperor, although he refused to appoint her as a counselor position because she was a woman. She also used her managerial skills to develop her families lands further, making them some of the wealthiest of the Empire.

But she faced repeated intrigue to remove her from power. Her various nephews continued to conspire against her. Some tried to kill her, others tried to organize factions to overthrow her. She managed to undermine all of these plots, throwing her nephews in jail, one by one.

Turmoil on the Empire’s eastern border soon called her attention. The Mongol horde out of the east had been gradually conquering Christian lands. They had seized Hungary a few years before, and now turned their sights on the Holy Roman Empire. In a massive invasion, they conquered Bohemia and the Empire’s lands in Italy. After a short respite, the Mongols attempted to conquer the Papacy itself. Christian leaders all over Europe rallied to defend the Pope, including  Denise. She raised her troops, and spent some of her own money on mercenaries to supplement them. The Christian armies turned back the Mongols, ending their advance into Europe.

Denise spent the rest of her life in peace, dying peacefully at 66.

Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Reclaiming Charlemagne’s Empire, part 2

Sorry for the delay in this post–I was busy with 4th of July celebrations. My group ran its third session of Out of the Abyss, and I’m working on the walkthrough, but here’s a post in the meantime. I made it a little longer than usual to make up for the delay.

In a previous post I presented part 1 of a walkthrough for Crusader Kings 2, an excellent PC historical strategy game. This is the second part, as Raymond-the son of Clotaire, Duke of Valois, the last descendant of Charlemagne-continued his father’s efforts to restore the Karling family to glory.

Raymond returned to the Duchy of Valois from Germany with high expectations. His father had tripled his family’s lands, and Raymond was a skilled diplomat ready to further increase the Karling prestige. He followed his father at first, consolidating the family lands; specifically, he revoked the County of Orleans from his half-brother—as the land had been divided after his father’s death—and gave him a barony in compensation. He also maintained the trade route his father had started and built new cities and a bishopric in his lands.

But then Raymond became distracted. As he had been among the Germans during the religious strife in France, he had not absorbed his father’s cautious approach to the conflict. A pious Catholic, Raymond decided he would return France to the true Church. This seemed to come to fruition when a Crusade was called shortly after Raymond became Duke; France fell to the Catholic armies, and the Pope installed Hugh Capet—the brother of Philippe who had remained loyal to the Pope—as King.

This success was short-lived as the former Bourges King was returned to power shortly after the Crusading armies left [there was a faction that organized and the King gave in]. Raymond then became even more devoted to his cause. He first tried to gain support among the lords to become the next King, as Philippe had instituted an electoral succession rule in response to his subjects’ pressure. This went nowhere, as—despite his great diplomatic skill— Raymond was seen as an outsider.

Raymond then began to organize behind Hugh. He supported him as heir and tried to gather support for his claim. He also tried to assassinate the King’s son, thinking this would open up the election. This failed, but earned him the enmity of the Prince, which became problematic when he ascended to the throne. Raymond persisted in his attempt to get rid of Fratricelli rulers in France, a struggle that ended suddenly when he was assassinated at age 50. The list of enemies he had made was long, but most suspected his half-brother, who never forgave Raymond for revoking his county.

The inheritance process grew complicated on his death. His eldest son inherited Franconia, and thus could not inherit lands outside of the Holy Roman Empire. This left his second son, who became very skilled in intrigue. He was actually in line to become the next spymaster of Valois after the retirement of the Duke’s close confidante currently in that position. But Raymond’s eldest son had two sons of his own, and because neither were landed (the oldest being 4), they could inherit Valois.

Raymond thus left the Karling name at best the same as when he received it, and at worst in an uncertain situation. Karlings now ruled two Duchies in two realms, and Valois had developed into a thriving commercial center. But the family lands remained divided, and Valois was in for some tension as a 4 year old German became the Duke, pushing aside his bitter and scheming uncle. Raymond turned away from his father’s single-minded focus on expanding the Karling name in an attempt to shape France’s political stage, and, to be blunt, failed.

Clotaire II: Clotaire II became the Duke of Valois at the age of 4 during a time of stability for France. The realm was still divided among Roman Catholic and Fraticelli Dukes, but the King ruled peacefully and focused on rebuilding the land. Clotaire II grew up surrounded by his grandfather’s loyal councilors, who trained him well, and also made sure he knew of his grandfather’s struggle to retake France for the true Church.

Clotaire II came of age shortly after the old King passed away [I was a little disappointed his uncle with high intrigue did nothing to take power- scheming uncles are rarer in this game than they should be]. He began following in the steps of his namesake, focusing on expanding his lands. Clotaire II had his chancellor fabricate claims to the counties in the Duchy of Orleans—which had been split between several Dukes—and, seizing them, named himself Duke of Orleans in addition to Valois. He also followed his namesake in another way, having a series of affairs, including, shamefully, the wife of his eldest son and heir [this was an event that fired randomly, I didn’t initiate it]

The new king, nearly as young as Clotaire II, then appointed him his spymaster, in an attempt to avoid the trouble his father ran into. This proved to be a mistake.

Almost as soon as he arrived in the Bourges capital of Rennes, Clotaire II began plotting against the King. He proved successful, having the King assassinated—but word spread quickly that Clotaire was the culprit. This led to an escalating series of plots and rivalries between the Karlings and the Bourges, although Clotaire II had the upper hand as many of the Bourges were scattered throughout Europe in strategic marriages.

Several Kings later, the throne passed to the young prince of Gwynedd, son of the Duke of Gwynedd and the eldest Bourges sister. The thought of an underage, Welsh King—who would likely absorb France into his father’s lands once he inherited them—did not sit well with the French Dukes, and series of rebellions broke out. Clotaire II saw this as his chance. He launched a rebellion in favor of the last Capet—now Duke of Burgundy.

This did not succeed. In a disastrous battle, Clotaire II’s troops were routed and he was arrested. He spent the next several years in jail while the remaining rebels were defeated. The young Welsh King did not enjoy any peace, however, as he died from a wound suffered in one of the battles shortly after coming of age.

Now released from jail, Clotaire II reevaluated his plans. The throne passed to another underage Bourges nephew, this time the son of the prince of Scotland. Clotaire II realized his family’s scheming was doing more harm than good; indeed, much of the chaos engulfing France in the last 100 years was because of the Karlings. And Clotaire II felt guilty about the late King, who was taken from his home as a child to a land he did not want, and spent his entire life fighting rebellions.

Clotaire II thus swore loyalty to the new King, and was soon appointed his steward and regent. Clotaire II raised his armies to fight alongside the throne’s when the inevitable rebellion broke out, helping to defeat it. He raised the King well, betrothed his eldest granddaughter to him, and excitedly awaited his entry into office.

Shortly after the King came of age, however, he was converted to the Fraticelli faith by a courtier [this happened way more than it should, and I think it was a bug in the new patch in the game]. He also renamed France Brittany—in solidarity with his Celtic culture; the King’s grandfather had incorporated Brittany into France, but maintained the title as a separate administrative unit.

Clotaire II was devastated, seeing it as a personal rejection; he broke off the betrothal, even though he remained the King’s Steward. This paid off when the King retook Toulouse from the Holy Roman Empire and Clotaire II maneuvered to have his son and grandson gain some of the conquered lands.

Clotaire II died at 70, well-loved by all, including the King he had raised. He learned from the mistakes of his youth, helping to bring stability and prosperity to his family lands and all of France. But the outlook of his line was still uncertain; he was no closer to regaining Charlemagne’s glory, and France was still ruled by a heretic, foreign King. [this is another issue—it really should be harder for a foreigner to rule France]

Will the Karling family’s newfound peace continue after Clotaire II’s death? Read the next post in the series to find out…

Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Restoring Charlemagne’s Empire, part 1

I ran my first session for the D&D 5e campaign “Out of the Abyss” this weekend. I’m working on a write-up, so while that’s in progress I thought I’d try something new. This is a walkthrough of a long computer game campaign I’m playing. If this isn’t your thing, bear with me, and I’ll be back with RPG discussions next week.

When I’m not playing D&D (or working, or spending time with my family) I play Crusader Kings 2, an excellent historical strategy computer game. In this game, you take control of a dynasty in 1066 (this is the default setting, it can change) and play them through 1453. For a certain type of person (like me) this is an incredibly engaging and exciting game.

After awhile, just trying to conquer land becomes boring, so players come up with harder challenges. One popular one is starting as the Count of Vermandois in 1066, who is the last descendant of Charlemagne, and attempting to restore the family’s empire. Here’s my attempt. I’ll be discussing the gameplay in narrative form, although I will include some interesting (or frustrating) mechanics that came up [in brackets].

Clotaire was a completely average man in every respect. No discernible skills, a steady church-goer…who also had a series of affairs. Ruler of a respectable but small piece of land, the County of Vermandois, in France. Married to the daughter of another weak count. But he had two things going for him—his great ambition, and his name- Karling, the last descendant of Charlemagne.

As soon as he gained his father’s lands in 1066, Clotaire got to work restoring his family to greatness. He attracted skilled councilors from around Christendom to begin developing the country. Under the direction of his steward, he established a trade route to bring the riches of the east to his territory. And thanks to the work of his chancellor he developed close ties with the young King Philippe.

Clotaire tried to increase his power and prestige through two means. First, he tried to get close to those who already had power and prestige. Using his good relations with the King, he married his eldest son to one of the King’s sisters and managed to become the King’s Marshal (despite having no discernible military skills). He also developed a close friendship with the Duke of Berry while serving on the council. And when the King found himself with extra territory thanks to his holy wars (more on that below), he granted Clotaire the county of Orleans.

Clotaire also tried to expand his power more directly, primarily through his wife’s family lands. He first attempted to convince his wife and father-in-law to have the lands pass to her (instead of her elder brother), to no avail. Clotaire then dispatched his chancellor to fabricate a claim to the land. It was rather convoluted, and no one really believed it, but it was enough. Clotaire declared war, and—in an early sign of the continued power of his name—soldiers rallied to his side to support Charlemagne’s heir. Clotaire seized the land, dispossessed his wife’s family (ending any lingering good feelings between the two) and now ruled a significant portion of the Duchy of Valois.

Things became more complicated, however. This partly had to do with succession. Clotaire’s eldest son was a brilliant administrator, who soon became his steward. And his eldest grandson was a brilliant diplomat, who became his chancellor when the old chancellor died. Clotaire was reassured his line would continue strongly for several generations. But his son was killed by an angry mob of peasants while collecting taxes, and his grandson died mysteriously shortly after being sent on his first mission as chancellor (likely an assassination plot).

His second son became the heir. Raymond was a capable diplomat, and likely would be a good ruler, but he had married the daughter of the Holy Roman Empire (who inherited the Duchy of Franconia on his death), and had thus been absent for some time. Additionally, both France and the Empire had complicated inheritance rules, portending some troubles when Raymond’s son inherited Franconia from his mother.

The troubles also had to do with France itself. As mentioned, King Philippe launched a series of holy wars against the Muslims in Spain, seizing a good portion of Aragon. The acclaim he received for this went to his head and he soon turned against the Pope, adopting the Fratricelli heresy. This divided France, and a series of Catholic lords launched rebellions against the King as Muslim states to the south attempted to retake Aragon. The King succeeded in defeating the rebellious lords, although he lost some of his Spanish territory and, most disastrously, lost Flanders after the Holy Roman Empire invaded. By the end of these conflicts, Philippe was so weakened he was easily overthrown by the Duke of Berry, the son of Clotaire’s old friend, who started the Bourges dynasty.

Clotaire stayed out of these fights. While he remained a Roman Catholic he did not join any of the rebels, and tried to remain on good relations with the Fratricelli rulers. After the new King came to the throne, he granted Clotaire the Duchy of Valois and county of Paris—seized from Philippe—possibly out of respect for his father’s good friend.

Clotaire died at 72, after living a long and successful life. He managed to put the Karling family on the path towards regaining some of its glory, and his son, Raymond, ascended to his titles expectantly.

Will Raymond continues the family’s upwards trajectory? Read the next post to find out…