Welcome to the beginner's guide for Crusader Kings III, a grand strategy game where you lead your medieval dynasty through warfare, diplomacy and intrigue on a path to glory. Whether you're a returning player from a previous Crusader Kings title or a first time player of the franchise, this guide will give you a head-start in playing and succeeding ingame.
At the time of writing there are no expansions for Crusader Kings III, and thus this guide assumes you have none enabled.
Selecting a character
In CKIII you follow the lives of a dynasty of rulers, rather than a country itself. To begin, click New Game to choose from a selection of interesting characters in either 867 or 1066. Different interesting characters from the two time periods can be selected from the bookmarks along the top of the screen. Alternatively, click the "play as any ruler" in the bottom left corner of the screen to be allowed to select from any eligible ruler on the map in your chosen year.
Choosing from the vast number of characters on the map can be overwhelming when trying to find a good ruler to begin with. Consider selecting from one of the recommended rulers in the 1066 "Rags to Riches" bookmark when getting started. These include:
- Petty King Murchad of Munster, who rules a small but strong realm in southern Ireland in which you can learn the rules of conquest as you restore your grandfather's kingdom. This start is easier because you are mostly left to yourself on Ireland, with your own autonomous Irish church and little interference from outside the island. If you choose to play the tutorial, you will be assigned this character.
- Duke Vratislav of Bohemia, who rules the Czech people as a vassal of the Holy Roman Empire; once he has accumulated enough wealth, he is ready to crown himself King of Bohemia. Bohemia uses the seniority succession method, which lowers the risk of your realm being divided amongst squabbling brothers on a ruler's death. As a vassal of the Holy Roman Empire, you are protected from invasion, and can learn how to succeed and advance as the servant of a strong liege lord.
- Duke Robert of Apuila, a Norman conqueror who has established himself in southern Italy. As an independent ruler seeking to establish a kingdom, you have room to expand and grow with the chance to establish strong alliances with your neighbours.
Starting as the head of a large kingdom may be tempting, but often comes with the great responsibility of pleasing and managing dozens of potentially disloyal vassals. You will often find a strong vassal scheming against you early on, leaving you vulnerable to rebellion or attack if you cannot placate them. Whilst powerful, much of a king's power is drawn from his own personal land holdings, and disloyal vassals teaming up can quickly overwhelm you in a direct conflict.
Playing as a vassal of a larger realm provides you with the protection of your liege, at the cost of paying taxes and providing some of your levies. You are however still vulnerable from attack from other members of the same realm, and an angry liege may take actions against you if he sees you as a threat to his power. As all potential choices place you at some risk from scheming and warfare, you should always be alert for potential threats when playing the game, and plan ahead.
Before beginning a game, you may choose to modify some mechanics of the game in the game rules menu to suit your personal preference. This can be found at the bottom of the screen if playing from the bookmark menu. You may choose to play the game on a lower (or higher) difficulty, change the rates of disease, religious heresy, cultural shifts, or alter mechanics like the removal of territorial exclaves or diplomatic range. As many of these mechanics are complex, it is better to leave them untouched during your first ruler.
On loadup you will have automatically zoomed in to see your own realm. In the case of independent rulers you will see independent realms around you, whereas a vassal will see other vassals in their realm as well as their liege's direct holdings.
Before you unpause the game, there are critical tasks that you should take care of. The most crucial tasks are indicated by diamond icons along the top of the screen, the most crucial of which exist on their own, and less crucial ones grouped into a cloverleaf shaped icon with a number inside it.
Most rulers will need to attend to the following tasks on day one:
Taking stock of your situation
- Understand the advantages and disadvantages of your government type
- Inspect the innovations of your culture. If you are your culture's head, you can choose a cultural fascination to research
- Inspect the tenets, doctrines and Holy Sites of your religion
- Identify and pin your player heir, as well as your realm's heir (if they are different) as well as any pretenders or claimants to your titles. By doing this you can tell when one of your heirs or claimants die, which may change your political situation
- Inspect the Terrain view (click on the plus sign above the Realm view in the lower right of your screen to find the Terrain view) in order to see which Men-At-Arms would have the most advantages and disadvantages in your region
For example, Rurik Rurikid in 867 begins at a cultural and religious crossroads and has several important decisions to make that will shape if and how his dynasty will be able to found the empire of Russia:
- Upon creating a Kingdom title, Rurik is given the special option of adding the Scandinavian Elective law without paying the usual prestige cost for it. Adopting this law would prevent the kingdom from splitting upon the moment of the King's death, but that risks the possibility of your player heir losing the election, and there is no guarantee that the Kingdom will not split up shortly afterwards anyways due to factions.
- Keeping the curiously bloodthirsty yet tolerant (Pluralist) Asatru religion would make it easy to gain Piety and Dread through Raiding for Captives and Human Sacrifice as well as reduce opinion penalties and decrease the likelihood of revolts by practitioners of other religions, but adopting the local Slovianska Pravda, Ukonusko or Vidilism religions would allow much faster conversion speed, give bonuses to fighting in the Taiga and Forest terrains the dominate the region, provide access to nearby Holy Sites that provide bonuses and enable the building of Special Buildings, as well as giving a head start to establishing your religion within your realm if you expand to the south, north and east, or west, respectively.
- Staying with the Norse culture will give Rurik access to innovations that will help with warfare and raiding, such as Barracks, Mustering Grounds, Longships and Quilted Armor, but adopting the local Russian culture would give him the Ledger innovation with its +1 Domain Limit and would make it easier for him to control the mostly already Russian populace if he chooses to create the Russian empire. It is possible to even game the system a bit by creating all 5 types of Men-At-Arms regiments available to the Rurikid Dynasty while it is still Norse, and then switch to Russian culture, thereby keeping some of the benefits of both cultures without needing to rediscover the Mustering Grounds and Quilted Armor innovations.
- The taiga terrain of Novgorod will make it easier to defend your Realm Capital due to reduced combat width and a bonus to defensive advantage, but relocating your realm capital to the farmlands of Kiev, which start at a development level of 4 versus Novgorod's 1 and have a 20% development bonus compared to the 5% penalty from Novgorod's taiga would enable a quicker adoption of Feudal Ways. Also, different buildings become available for different terrain upon adopting feudal ways.
Danger can come from any direction for a medieval noble.
Personal threats to your dynasty include:
- Lack of dynasty heirs, which can be solved by:
- marrying a spouse or a secondary spouse or taking a concubine, especially if they have high fertility
- romancing, seducing or otherwise agreeing to lay with another character
- choosing lifestyle perks that increase your own character's fertility
- divorcing, murdering or executing a spouse who is from the wrong type of marriage (patrilineal vs. matrilineal) or no longer fertile, in order to marry a different spouse
- Hiring a competent physician or otherwise taking steps to improve your character's health and/or prowess if they are male, so they can keep fathering children into old age
- Murder, which can be protected against by:
- increasing a character's opinion of you (most importantly your spymaster if their opinion of you is negative, as an unhappy spymaster will not warn you of hostile plots) by decreasing crown authority (if many nobles in your court dislike you), modifying contracts to benefit a vassal, gifting, swaying, inviting to court, hiring, offering to join their war, befriending, romancing, seducing them (watch out for an unhappy spouse, and depending on your religion's taboos, unhappy worshippers of the same religion if caught committing adultery) or choosing actions that improve their opinion of you during events
- removing a character that dislikes you (especially ones with high intrigue skills or bonuses to hostile plots) by:
- asking useless courtiers who dislike you to leave your court
- forcing useless vassals and courtiers who dislike you to become knights in hopes that they will die in battle
- imprisoning them or revoking the titles of vassals who dislike you (excommunicating them or exposing a crime they committed can allow you to do so without tyranny penalties)
- murdering characters that dislike you (but don't get caught)
Military threats to your realm include:
- Neighbors with strong militaries, powerful alliances, and/or enough gold to hire mercenaries, that have or can afford to create a Casus Belli against your realm, which can be protected against by:
- making alliances with rulers that have a strong military
- divorcing or breaking the betrothal of an inferior spouse in order to marry a spouse with a stronger alliance
- saving gold for hiring mercenaries
- investing in fortifications and military buildings
- creating Men-At-Arms regiments that have bonuses on your home terrain and/or counter units that your enemies use
- swearing fealty to a neighbor with a strong military
- making alliances with rulers that have a strong military
- Fellow vassals
- A liege who is under their Domain Limit and is more powerful than you
Choosing a lifestyle
During the course of their lives, rulers will focus on many different aspects of governance and personal development that will determine how effective their rule is. In the choose a lifestyle menu, shown in a red diamond with three gold arrows pointing upwards, you will be prompted to choose from 5 different categories of lifestyles, each with three subcategories. If your ruler is a child, you will not be able to unlock a lifestyle until you reach the age of 16, but you will be able to choose which type of Education Trait to pursue.
The five categories are connected to the five main skill point groups in-game, being diplomacy, martial, stewardship, intrigue and learning. Depending on what kind of education your character received, you will receive a bonus in experience gain in the relevant category. It can sometimes be advisable to choose a lifestyle that does not match your character's Education Trait if another lifestyle would benefit them more, especially if your character's Lifestyle experience bonus is small.
Choosing a focus will immediately give you a bonus to skills or attributes and will begin to unlock further bonuses as you progress in-game. Your choice of focus should reflect the priorities in your realm, which could include earning money, fighting in wars or murdering your enemies. Choosing a focus does not stop you from taking actions connected to other focuses, but you may miss out on benefits from other choices.
Many rulers in-game will start unmarried, although others may already have a spouse and children. If you have no other eligible family members of your dynasty to inherit, getting married will be a crucial early step to avoid a sudden game over. Finding a spouse before you unpause is crucial because many of the best choices will be married off to other rulers very quickly.
Marriages and betrothals (an arrangement to become married after both of the betrothed come of age at 16) can be used to secure alliances (which can help you to survive early on with support in wars), or to gain claims on titles, which under specific circumstances can be passed on to children. Marriages have an impact on the prestige of the spouses as well, based on their house and the relative title ranks of their highest ranking close relative.
Congenital traits (which can potentially be passed on to children, or even augmented if both parents have the trait, and can be either beneficial or detrimental) and fertility, (which is influenced by age, especially for females, who become completely infertile after the age of 45) are important considerations when selecting a spouse. Keep in mind that marrying close relatives (inbreeding) can also result in undesirable congenital traits.
Spouses can also help manage your court, based on their own skills (you can direct your spouse to focus on helping with a particular skill by clicking Choose Task under their portrait on the Council screen, or leave them on the default task of Assist Ruler, which adds a small degree of each of their skills to yours). An especially important skill for the spouse of a ruler is stewardship, as every five points of stewardship increases a character's domain by 1.
A matrilineal marriage will cause any offspring of the marriage to be of the wife's instead of the husband's dynasty. This is important for multiple reasons, including determining which court the couple resides at and the inheritance of titles and claims. The potential spouse's liege (which may be themselves) may prefer a patrilineal or matrilineal marriage, depending on the balance of power between the potential spouses. Note: as of version 1.0.3, female AI rulers won't enter matrilineal marriages. This will inevitably move titles held by independent female rulers out of your dynasty. Until this is patched, female preferred/dominated games or equal gender rights are much harder.
To find a spouse for an unmarried character in your court, click on the silhouette with wedding rings to the right of their character in the character screen, or right click on the character and under the Diplomacy heading, choose Find Spouse. To find a spouse for a character from among your own court, right click on that character's portrait and under the Diplomacy menu, click Arrange Marriage. To select a potential spouse, click on the rectangle that contains the potential spouses' attributes (not the prospective spouse's portrait). A hook or a gift may be used to help persuade the character's liege to allow the marriage. You can narrow down the list of potential spouses by clicking the magnifying glass icon to Toggle Filters, or click the arrow icon, drop-down list or a skill icon to sort the list in ascending or descending order.
A child tends to develop traits that belong to their guardian, especially their education trait, which gives a bonus to experience gained toward a specific lifestyle. When your own character educates a child, you can make choices that direct what traits the child develops, but some of these choices may produce stress if they are contrary to your character's personality.
Managing your titles
As a general rule, always fully control at least the duchy where your Realm Capital is located; doing so helps consolidate your power and avoids offending your vassals who might desire your titles. Conversely, if you have domain counties who are de jure part of your vassals' titles, you might want to make a mental note to eventually dispose of these counties. If you are playing as a count-level ruler and hold multiple titles, its important to note that early game succession for the majority of rulers is limited to a form of partition, which will see the titles divided and made independent upon death. To avoid this, you will want to get to a duchy level title, or higher, as soon as possible, or in rare instances, adopt a different form of succession.
Look around the neighbourhood and the foreign rulers nearby. Check if they have any claims on your (or your vassals') titles. Also, see if any marriages (and thus alliances) can be made. If playing as a vassal, should your Liege becomes weakened or distracted by other adventures, you should be prepared to join your Liege as an ally to defend your titles. If you are playing as a vassal of a stronger liege lord, check the status of factions in your realm and make sure you are not inadvertently part of a faction that might draw you into an early war (i.e. Duke Vratislav of Bohemia in the 1066 start is a member of the Independence faction in the HRE.)
Status of innovations
In 867, many cultures are missing innovations, such as Casus Belli (for De Jure County Claims) and Plenary Assemblies (for Limited Crown Authority, vital for Feudal and Clan rulers as this allows them to revoke titles). Before unpausing, you'll have to decide if you want to pursue the goal of becoming your Culture's Head and thus be able to pick the Innovation for your culture to be Fascinated by. If not, a possible way to hasten Innovation discovery is by increasing the Development of counties of your culture.
After unpausing the game (␣ Space), you can adjust the speed (+/-), as the default speed of 1 is very slow. Faster speeds allow things to go by quickly in peacetime while slower speeds make managing wars easier. Speed 5 causes game time to pass as quickly as your computer can run the simulation and should only be used to pass a large amount of time quickly. Be warned that running the game on Speed 5 can make it difficult to micromanage the different aspects of your realm.
In addition to foreign affairs, there are often many small domestic affairs that need handling in the first few days. It is important to ensure that your Court Chaplain endorses you, which provides a boost to levies. This can be as simple as appointing them to the position of court physician, or might require you to win their approval with gifts or a sway scheme. You might also want to adjust the composition of your council and ensure that powerful vassals are represented to avoid them creating or joining factions against you, and also assign them tasks to perform throughout the realm. Finally, check the status of your laws and succession.
Preparing for succession
Inheriting your realm after your character's death can be one of the most perilous moments in the game, so it is important to prepare a smooth transition.
- Make sure that your player heir is also your primary heir. Take note of your realm's succession laws and any active elections, and change them if necessary. Ensure that your heir gets the lion's share of your inheritance by selecting the most favorable succession laws available.
- Prevent your realm from fragmenting upon succession if you have both multiple heirs and multiple titles of your highest rank (if above count-equivalent) by creating a higher-tier title or destroying extra titles that are equivalent to your highest rank title.
- Characters' opinions of your character modify their opinions of your heir upon succession. Dread is useful while your character is alive, but is not inherited by your heir. Either make amends with your domestic enemies or neutralize them when your character becomes old, has health penalties or you suspect that murder plots are underway against your character.
- Don't panic if your realm fragments or powerful factions are created against your character upon succession. You will get claims to any titles that you lose. Plot to take your former realm, even if it takes more than a generation to do so. Remember that unpressed claims are only inherited by your children if you fight a war for those claims while your character is alive.
- Marrying your heir to the relative of a powerful vassal can help protect your heir against factions.