About 10 years ago, I sat down in a San Francisco coffee shop across from Henrik "Doomdark" Fåhraeus, then game director for Crusader Kings 2, and asked him about the possibility of playing landless characters in Paradox's rich medieval sandbox. Normally, you take the role of a count, duke, king, or emperor permanently tied to their estates and collecting taxes, and I've often dreamed about how cool it would be to wander that big map as an adventurer or a mercenary.
Fåhraeus seemed skeptical about the idea at the time, but a decade later, I'm finally getting my wish. Crusader Kings 3: Chapter 3, announced today, is a slate of DLCs coming over the course of 2024 that all feel like pure wish fulfillment for me as a longtime fan of the series.
The banner feature, though it's hard to pick, is the landless adventurer playstyle, coming in Q3's beefy Roads to Power expansion. This will at last allow us to wander the world, completing quests for established rulers and building a legacy that isn't tied to a particular stretch of turnip fields. This builds on the travel mechanics introduced in last year's Tours and Tournaments expansion, and is a major step forward in making Crusader Kings less of a map-painting grand strategy game and more of a true strategy RPG, fulfilling what I see as its ultimate destiny.
Starting as a landless adventurer who has to carve out a place for themselves in the world fulfills my early-game fantasies, but CK3 has been lacking so far on the opposite end of that story as well: going from a feudal lord to a proper emperor. In Crusader Kings 2, the Legacy of Rome DLC added some… kind of janky ways to model administrative realms like the Byzantine Empire that had appointed governors rather than hereditary vassals. CK3 launched without even that. But Roads to Power seems to be setting up to do this a lot better.
CK3's version of the Eastern Roman state was so disappointing at launch that I simply avoided it. We don't go to Greece. 'Tis a silly place. The refinements to Clan realms in last year's Legacy of Persia made me optimistic though, as their system of tax collectors and viziers seemed to be building toward more interesting non-feudal mechanics.
In Road to Power, we'll be able to own a family estate, earn influence, and scheme against other powerful families to be granted governorships and even be elected Emperor. This will also, I hope, add a compelling endgame goal for other realms. The arc of Crusader Kings 2 I found most enjoyable was starting as a tribal lord, slowly adopting feudalism, and then transitioning into an Imperial government once I became sufficiently powerful. I hope that option is also open to CK3's feudal and clan realms with this DLC.
The other huge win coming even earlier in the year is the Legends of the Dead expansion bringing back a dynamic Black Death that spreads across the map and takes no prisoners. I mean, it's a little weird to call a plague that killed a third of Europe a "win," but as I detailed in my love letter to the Bubonic menace, too many strategy games overlook the role disease has had on shaping human history. CK2 eventually rectified this with the Reaper's Due expansion. But when CK3 released, it was back to a rather unimpressive and intermittent version of the disease that didn't strike fear into my heart. Frankly, a major step backwards.
This also contributed to CK3's late game feeling a bit anemic. I see the story of the European Middle Ages as having two, if you will, "final bosses": the Mongol Invasion in the 1200s, and the Black Death in the 1300s. These should be the apocalyptic closing chapters that keep things interesting once you've done a lot of conquering and think you're pretty hot stuff. Without them, the last couple centuries just feel like you're waiting around and watching your giant pile of gold get bigger.
I think we're right on the cusp of Crusader Kings 3 letting its hair down and showing us what kind of game it really is.
That certainly doesn't cover everything coming in Chapter 3. We're also getting a Legitimacy mechanic that might make you think twice about revoking titles, a new Travel lifestyle—the first time Crusader Kings 3 has added a full new lifestyle in four years, and tied to one of my favorite new gameplay features—a bunch of new travel events, and the ability to spread legends of your dynasty using court propaganda.
I think every Paradox grand strategy game has a point where it feels like it has reached maturity. The moment it becomes the game it was meant to be. In the words of one Anakin Skywalker, "Now this is pod racing!" For Crusader Kings 2, that was The Old Gods expansion and the 867 start date. For Europa Universalis 4, it was the Art of War expansion, the fort rework, and dynamic revolutions. Hearts of Iron 4 was a bit of a late bloomer, hitting that point with the No Step Back expansion and the supply system rework.
I think we're right on the cusp of Crusader Kings 3 letting its hair down and showing us what kind of game it really is. The first two chapters of its expansion cycle were… fine. They sort of felt like the designers' pet projects though, and none of them would have been close to the top of my wishlist. Chapter 3, however, feels like they let me personally pick what they were going to do next. And as someone whose sense of self-importance has been inflated by years of conquering the world beneath my armored boot in this game, I approve.