After having a good go with it over the weekend, I can safely say that the Northern Lords DLC for Crusader Kings 3 is entirely what I had hoped it would be. That is to say, an utterly reasonable sell at just over £5, which does little to reinvent the game. That’s A-OK, in my book, because CK3 needs very little reinventing in the first place. It's ace. What Northern Lords does do, however, true to its branding as a "flavour pack", is offer a lot more mill-grist for those coming to the game with roleplay in mind.
The corner of the map revamped by Northern Lords is, as the expansion’s name suggests, the bit inhabited by the Norse cultures - aka the Vikings, for people like me who take perverse pleasure in insisting that Frankenstein was the name of the monster. It has been released alongside the free 1.3 “Corvus” patch, which also bears a few new Norse-centric features, but also applies a broader coat of small spruce-ups across the game.
Being completely honest, I feel like the old Norsoes have been culturally done to death over the last decade. They certainly wouldn’t have been my first pick as a focus for CK3’s first meaty DLC. Nonetheless, I’ve had a lot of fun with them here, and I’d stress that my recommendation stands wholeheartedly, no matter how lukewarm you are on blokes with comedy eyeholes in their helms, ravens, and braided moustaches.
There’s a lot of new stuff you can do in Northern Lords. If you want a list, you can find a wealth of information in Paradox's CK3 dev diaries. But the thing I want to frame my opinion with, since it’s the single thing that most attracted me to the DLC, is the Varangian Adventure. This decision allows any Norse ruler - in theory - to declare a war with a special cassus belli, and comes free with a special army of howling beardsman, to help you get the job done. Upon the successful prosecution of such a war, your player nation moves to the site of the conquered foe, and your former lands are abandoned to a bunch of rando brute nobodies, cooked up by the game.
I had a couple of goes with this, most notably in my playthrough with custom character Horaszdottir, who spent the first 30 years of her reign consolidating a unified Iceland, before pressing the big button and trading up for most of Scotland. It made for one of those really juicy Crusader Kings moments, where a sense of faint stagnation gets wiped away by a sudden change, and leaves you buzzing with a whole new set of threats and opportunities.
Still, it’s worth noting that like all events capable of generating such a moment, it’s not something you should count on being able to do as often as you’d like. Both the blessing and the curse of interesting events in Crusader Kings, is the rigid list of prerequisite conditions required to trigger them. It’s a blessing, because it ensures that special decisions don’t become commonplace, and it’s a curse, because it sometimes feels like you’re being kept from having fun on a technicality.
As Horaszdottir, I’d set out to play with the intention of Varangian-hopping all the way across the map to India, during the course of my dynasty’s history. Unfortunately, when Horaszdottir’s son succeeded her and chugged enough of Scotland to declare himself its king, one of the prerequisites for the Varangian Adventure decision dried up, and I was left stranded in Scotland for the long haul. And that was that. It’s fair enough, I suppose: if there was one motto the viking raiders lived by, it was “terms and conditions apply”.
The other thing worth noting about the Varangian Adventure is that, in many circumstances (such as mine), making the jump won’t actually leave you much better off in your new lands than you were before. In my opinion, though, this is absolutely a point in favour of it.
Although a lot of people do play Crusader Kings 3 with the sole intention of painting the map a particular colour, Paradox have bent over backwards with this game to reward an approach based more on roleplaying. And by “reward”, I should be clear I don’t mean “make it easier to paint the map a particular colour” - I mean that the game makes interesting things happen if you throw yourself into your character’s in-game motives, regardless of whether they lend themselves to optimal territory growth or not. In this sense, Varangian Adventure is a brilliant feature.
In fact, pretty much all of Northern Lords’ content is there to facilitate deeper roleplaying. The Grand Blot, for example, is mechanically very similar to a regular feast with a ritual strangling thrown in for good measure. When you’re fully Norsing it up, however, with Northern Lords’ package of doleful, Scandinavian murder dirges playing in the background, it's the perfect finisher to the conquering of a hated enemy.
A ritual strangling, set to doleful Scandinavian murder dirges, is the perfect finisher to conquering a hated enemy.
The same goes for the god dedications attached to the revamped Norse religion (technically just minor character buffs), and the Runestones you can build to commemorate dead family members, victories and the like. Really, they’re just buildings with fairly tame territory bonuses, but in the story that a good playthrough can build, they feel much more than that.
Maybe the greatest example of all of this is the addition of the “berserker” character trait. In all honesty, I have no idea what it actually does. But what I do know is that, during the blood-drenched conquest of Scotland that brought Horaszdottir’s Varangian Adventure to a close, I saw a message appear in the information panel of a battle informing me that one of the big lass’s grimmer sons had torn off an enemy’s head and become a berserker.
Whatever change to his stats might have occurred then is, frankly, irrelevant to me. Once I knew that he’d twisted a bloke’s head off like he was opening a bottle of Fanta, I considered him very differently in all my interactions thereafter.
Come to think of it, perhaps I am a little bit more enthused about Norse stuff again, after that. So there you go. If a weekend of Northern Lords managed to undo even a fraction of the irritation caused by Travis Fimmel’s hypermasculine TV smirking, it’s not a bad bit of DLC by any means.