The Vatican City, 1146 AD, and 90 years into a game of Crusader Kings III. As the doors of the conclave chamber are sealed, a ring of hangdog cardinals stare miserably at each other in the sudden gloom. It is time, once again, to choose a new Pope. Once, this would have been a gathering seething with the ambitions of powerful men. Now, it is a ritual of pure misery, attended by yokels who have barely even heard of Christ. They are all that is left.
Without a word, each of the defeated clerics step forwards to rummage in a velvet sack. Tokens rattle beneath their hands. When the sack is empty, the cardinals open their fists, and the chapel fills with murmured prayers of relief. Most of these men will live another year. But after the prayers subside, a lone sob continues to echo in the chamber. These are the tears of Pope Leo XXXVI, who has drawn the black token. And he weeps, for he will soon meet his God.
Eight hundred miles away, beneath a sky made black by burning vineyards, an army of one hundred thousand men marches east. The wasteland of ash and bones beneath their boots was called France, once. But is England now. Everywhere becomes England, in the end. At the head of the swarm, trailed by lovesick courtiers like tick-birds behind a bull mastodon, a titan walks. His shoulders rise like sea-cliffs from the mass of soldiery around him. His eyes, set deep in a head like a mason’s block, stare mirthlessly at things no other man can see.
He raises a hand. Fingers like the truncheons of serjeants flick together with a snap that is more like a thud. Back in the Vatican, the sobs of Pope Leo turn to howls of anguish, and then shrieks of horror, as the shadows of the chamber begin to move. With appalling speed, a tide of wolves, assassins and venomous spiders rushes in from the darkness, and the Pope is dead before he hits the ground. He is the latest victim of Gigaknight Excelsior, the most powerful entity ever to draw breath.
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve had a lot of fun with Crusader Kings 3’s custom ruler design tool.
I’ve enjoyed the Northern Lords DLC, certainly. But for my money (or for no money, indeed), the design tool - released for free along with the 1.2 patch in November last year - is CK3’s undisputed crown jewel, feature-wise. Very simply, it lets you customise everything about a ruler’s appearance, skills and personality, and then plop them into a standard game.
If you want to play with achievements enabled, you’ll need to keep all your modifications to a character within a points ceiling, as per most RPG character creation rules. But if you’re happy to cede your ‘chieves, the game will happily let you do whatever the crikey you want to do.
There are, of course, many creative and interesting things to do with the character creator: It’s a great way to see how particular rare traits play out in practise, or to set up themed playthroughs, and would be perfect for something like my Estonian Giant Farm, for example.
But this weekend, I did not feel like doing something creative and interesting. I felt like seeing what happened if you set every single slider in the creation process to maximum, and unleashed the outcome on medieval Europe. The result was Gigaknight Excelsior, the Maximum King, and he was everything I dreamed he might be.
Given that every single bodily and facial variable was cranked up to 11, Gigaknight’s appearance was no surprise - he looked as if Rowan Atkinson’s DNA had been injected into the developing zygote of a polar bear, which had then been raised entirely on a diet of coins and wine. He was so big he barely fit in the game’s event windows, and had a physique that made Into The Spider-verse’s Kingpin look like Smeagol.
Character-wise, Gigaknight had a perfect 100 in each of the game’s six main skills, as well as every possible positive character trait. At age 16, when he materialised on the throne of England with a crash of thunder, he had a deeper base of skills and experiences than an entire playthrough’s worth of rulers could possibly hope to accumulate. He was also, for a laugh, a staunch worshipper of the Hellenic Greek pantheon, since that felt like an appropriate interpretation of “maximum” when it came to choosing his religion.
In most games, creating a character like this would lead to a fairly underwhelming play experience: clicking your mouse with an increasing sense of regret, while challenges melted before you like snowflakes before a tsunami of piss. But the joy of unleashing Gigaknight into CK3, was in watching the finely tuned simulation of the world around him attempt to respond to the presence of a living god.
Gigaknight could imprison a man and torture him, before burning his homeland to the ground, and then immediately go for pints with them afterwards.
Such was Gigaknight’s staggering beauty in the eyes of everyone who beheld him, and such was his charisma, that he could almost do no wrong. He could imprison a man and torture him, before burning his homeland to the ground, and then immediately go for pints with him afterwards, ending the night as besties and converting him to the worship of Zeus in the process.
Of course, you’d think said torturing would be a problem, given that in CK3, characters suffer huge stress penalties for doing things that go against their character. And indeed, the torturing was a problem - since Gigaknight was virtually creaking under the weight of the virtues I had stacked upon his Herculean shoulders, each sin he committed drove him to the edge of madness.
But that’s when the feasting came in. You see, Gigaknight Excelsior was a reveller of such Bacchanalian prowess, that his feast-hall became sort of like the coolant system for a nuclear reactor: he could expunge the extermination of entire empires from his conscience, with just a single night of partying his absolute balls off. Armed, then, with this staggering propensity for relaxation, the man was free to inflict the full extent of his power upon the earth.
Largely, this meant bursting Popes.
In CK3, anyone is free to start a plot to assassinate anyone else. The bigger a plot’s target is, however, the smaller the chances of success. The slaying of a really high-profile figure can be a years-long endeavour, involving a vast network of co-conspirators and multiple failed attempts. Not for Gigaknight. If Gigaknight wanted anyone dead, they died. And whatever his method - poison, concealed snake, mob of hollering ruffians - there was no hiding from it. Even if Gigaknight’s plans were revealed, he did not care. Nothing could save his victims, once he had willed their end.
And so, being the world’s only worshipper of the Olympian pantheon, Gigaknight decided to set his sights on the Papacy. Every time a new Pope was elected, he would offer them a chance to worship Zeus, and then assassinate them when they refused. Just to be clear, too, this wasn't me being edgily anti-Christian. It's just that assassinating a Pope is one of the hardest things you can do in CK3, so it seemed a good way to demonstrate Gigaknight's prowess.
Anyway - let me tell you, Rome has gotten through a lot of Popes, in the 90 or so years of Gigaknight’s reign. The chimney of the Sistine Chapel* has been ripping fat clouds non-stop, like Thomas the Tank Engine’s bonce.
*Yes, I know, it was the Quinquiral Palace at the time.
And all the while, Gigaknight has been slowly conquering his way across Europe, starting wars on the Cassus Belli of “Because I Am Gigaknight”, and mowing down all opposition like banks of mist. Eventually, he will reach Italy, and he will dismantle the Vatican altogether, before building a shrine to the Olympians in its place.
What then? I don’t know, because I’ve not got that far yet. I suspect Gigaknight will live some way into his second century, but even he must die eventually. And what will happen then will be fascinating. Because Gigaknight has somewhere in the region of fifty living children, most of whom have inherited at least some of his implausible suite of talents, and a truly nightmarish tangle of titles, vassals and succession laws.
And that’s the beauty of Crusader Kings 3, yet again - that delicious, horrid soup of cause and effect. I started this game to see what would happen if I played as one ludicrous character, but I suspect the real fun’s only going to start once he's dead.