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…

Thoughts on the role of D&D in Firewatch

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for Firewatch. While I don’t give away any major plot points, I do discuss elements of the story. If you have not played it yet, and want to go in knowing as little as possible, come back to this post after you’re finished.]

D&D plays a minor but significant role in the excellent PC game Firewatch. It adds depth to a former inhabitant of the game’s environment and provides some emotional heft. Below are some thoughts on what this means and why I first reacted negatively to this aspect of the game, but later came to appreciate its insights.

I’ve been interested in playing Firewatch since it first came out, and finally set aside some time on a business trip to run through it. The game is what some call (often in a pejorative manner) a “walking sim;” the player is basically experiencing a story, with much of the action narrative in nature so there is little in terms of combat, skill tests or risk of failure. Firewatch, though does include some exploration—with the amount of narrative you encounter changing based on how much you explore—and features an incredibly engrossing storyline that had me on the edge of my seat the entire time I was playing.

As the game progresses, the protagonist (Henry) finds several D&D-themed clues—although the game is called “Wizards & Wyverns” in Firewatch—such as a 20-sided die and an adventure map. These belong to a 12-year old boy who had previously resided in the firewatch tower you use as a home base. There is a rather sad story surrounding this, and Delilah—a firewatch supervisor Henry converses with throughout the game—has some sentimental memories of the boy.

The characters’ attitudes towards “Wizards&Wyverns” is rather negative. Henry frequently refers to it as nerdy, with the voice actor nearly scoffing as he discusses what he’s finding. Delilah is less overtly negative, but adopts a patronizing, pitying tone towards the boy’s interest in the game.

This gave me flashbacks to high school, which was less than accepting of people who were interested in things like D&D. The combination of mocking from “cool kids” and patronizing calls to be nice from slightly more gentle “cool kids” were what convinced me to hide my love for D&D (as well as Star Trek and many other “nerdy” pursuits”). I didn’t get back into them until well after college, when I was more comfortable socially.

So at first the depiction of D&D in Firewatch made me mad. It seemed like the game’s creators were using D&D as a signal for someone being lonely and unhappy. All the progress made in the mainstream acceptance of “nerd culture” in the past few years seemed to be undone. Compare this to the treatment of D&D in Netflix’s Stranger Things series; there, it is also a sign of difference, albeit one that indicates the resourcefulness and creativeness of the characters that allows them to succeed.

But that didn’t seem right. Firewatch is entertaining. It is also a game that many would consider art. People who put so much care into these characters and the gorgeous world they inhabit couldn’t have such regressive and dismissive views of creative pursuits like D&D, could they? So, over an hours-long layover at an airport on my trip home, I thought more about Firewatch and came to a different interpretation.

One of the better responses to Firewatch I’ve seen is an excellent piece by Olivia White on Polygon entitled “Firewatch took away our ability to be good people.” The series of events that place Henry in the firewatch tower are driven by his ultimate selfishness, and Delilah’s interactions with Henry and the world are similarly both self-centered and destructive. Unlike many games, the player can’t escape this; no matter what dialogue options you choose, you end up with less than heroic characters.

Much of the little self-awareness the characters—particularly Delilah—have surrounds the 12-year old D&D-loving boy. She regrets not doing more for him, or being unable to properly respond to new information about him that arises during gameplay. While Henry shares less responsibility for the boy’s fate, he too develops a sentimental attachment to his memory.

The things about the boy they mock—particularly his love for D&D—come to take on a touching, innocent quality. We realize the boy was a force for good in the brutal wilderness. Those surrounding the boy realize his goodness, but are unwilling to move beyond themselves enough to support and sustain it. So the things he left behind—like his D20—haunt everyone who encounters them.

This, then, is the true meaning of D&D in Firewatch. It’s not a marker of “nerdiness” meant to elicit sympathy. It’s a symbol of purity and innocence in the midst of darkness—the expression of our creative impulse—that, by its presence, reveals the flaws of the game’s characters.

In Colin Campbell’s review of the game, he said that, while not perfect, it is definitely something people will “want to argue about.” And while I had some issues with the game, the fact that it inspired this meditation on another game I love so much suggests it is definitely worth experiencing.

I’d love to hear what other players of Firewatch think. Am I giving the game designers too much credit? Is there something I missed?

NOTE: This is a different sort of post than I planned for this blog, as it’s more of a think piece based on the use of D&D in a PC game. I’ll be back to more conventional RPG discussions next week, so if this isn’t your thing, bear with me.