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Sons of Abraham expansion takes Crusader Kings 2 into fraught territory

Crusader Kings 2 Sons of Abraham header

Every time you think you’ve reached rock-bottom as a medieval lord in Crusader Kings 2, Paradox come along and hand you a shovel.

WIth the history of medieval Europe to draw from, perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. But the upcoming expansion to Crusader Kings 2, Sons of Abraham, moves us out of the comfortable realm of dynastic slaughter and into slightly more fraught territory as it brings religion and its adherents into sharper focus. Sons of Abraham tackles the religious order, persecution, and widespread heresies that helped shape the medieval world.

Lead designer Henrik Fåhraeus knows Sons of Abraham pushes Crusader Kings 2 into more uncomfortable territory, but it’s consistent with CK2’s overall tone. “Crusader Kings 2 is already fairly dark, in many ways; we let you do some things that you can’t do in other games, so we felt that it could be done. But we’ve been really careful on how this is portrayed.”

One particularly fraught area is the role Judaism now plays in Sons of Abraham. While there is now a Jewish power, the Khazars, most players’ interactions with Judaism will likely be a little more historically loaded. In the Middle Ages, there weren’t a lot of ways for rulers to raise funds once their treasuries ran dry. Sons of Abraham focuses on the various ways rulers could handle that dilemma, from borrowing money from holy orders like the Knights Templar … or getting the cash from Jewish lenders.

“You can borrow money from the Jews, but then you can expel the Jews from your country as well, which is what the Spanish monarchs did, for example,” Fåhraeus explained. “The English also did this from time to time, and then they let them back. So what they usually did was they would borrow money from the Jews, then they would expel them from the country, defaulting on their debt, essentially.”

Paradox have tweaked the economy in CK2 so that nobles go broke more often than they did in the past, meaning more action will center around the problem of paying for your extravagant medieval lifestyle… and then finding ways to avoid paying anyone back.

It’s also a fine line Paradox have tasked themselves with walking. How do you model some of the Middle Ages’ most complicated issues without also trafficking in some of the very stereotypes and prejudices that promoted so much persecution and strife? And for the player, does exploiting and then persecuting Jewish communities feel as safely distanced from reality as poisoning a pesky Capetian or Plantagenet?

Historical strategy gaming tends to sidestep issues like these, but Paradox don’t always have that luxury. EU4 and Victoria 2 both involve the subjugation of indigenous populations to European colonial powers, and Crusader Kings takes place in a period where religious persecution and sanctioned bigotry were part of the fabric of life.

“It is a fine line, and expelling all Jews from your country is obviously a shameful measure to take, but, unfortunately, there are plenty of tragic historical precedents,” Fåhraeus says. “Ferdinand and Isabella’s Alhambra Decree is perhaps the best known, but French kings alone did it at least five times in the medieval period. However, Jews are always portrayed in a neutral-to-positive light in the game …and there is a very real downside to expelling them from your realm in that you stop getting the benefits of their valuable skills as councillors. Moreover, you and your descendants lose the option of borrowing money from their community. In real history, when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, the Ottoman sultan Bayezid II actually wrote them a letter of thanks for all the extraordinary new citizens they had sent him, and that’s the feeling we want to give players; failure. They played badly, got into debt and then had to do something that will hurt them in the long run.”

Fractured faith

Sons of Abraham also takes a look at another of the religious struggles that shaped the Middle Ages: the battle over religious doctrine. Now you don’t just have other lords to worry about, but the possibility of religious strife and finding yourself on the wrong side of a schism.

“[Heresies] are quite different from the norm now, they have certain other powers and behave differently. So many of them have gotten a religious head of their own – the Muslim Ibadis, for example, have their own caliph, and the Cathars, who are famous for the Albegensian Crusade and the many conspiracy theories surrounding them as well – they were a kind of peculiar Christian Heresy – they actually allowed female priests and they were odd in many other ways. So if you play as a Cathar, you can give bishoprics to your female courtiers and so on.

“The other cool thing is that if a hersey should become more powerful than the old orthodoxy, then it’ll take over and be regarded as the new Orthodoxy,” Fåhraeus explained.

This means that you could have scenarios like Catholicism being overtaken by a Christian heretical faction, meaning that if those Cathar heretics actually win their struggle against the Pope, they become the dominant form of Christianity in Europe and Catholics will become the heretics. Holy orders formed to defend and promote Christanity will flip to the new doctrine, which means these struggles for religious unity could have huge political ramifications.

The holy orders themselves occupy another interesting niche. They are military in nature, but some of them (like the Templars) grew to become major political forces in their own right and major moneylenders. If you wind up in hock to bands like the Templars, it’s possible you’ll have to start giving away more and more of your lands for them to build castles, increasing their power in your territory. On the other hand, finance is as risky for a Templar knight as it is for a Jewish courtier.

“There comes a time when you probably want to get rid of them,” Fåhraeus said. “Or you can maybe have your eyes on these juicy castles that they’ve built everywhere if you want to take them over, essentially. But they’re not super-belligerent or anything like that, it’s more like they’re a juicy target for the player, usually when they tire of them.” Still, Holy Orders can get strong enough to claim sovereign territory, as the Teutonic Order eventually did, so they can function as interesting wildcards in all sorts of ways.

Perhaps more than anything else, Fåhraeus emphasized that Paradox want to strengthen CK2’s role-playing elements. There are more places for personal narratives: sending sons and daughters off to take vows with nuns or monks, seeing favored generals suddenly quit your service to go serve God with one of the holy orders, taking your own character on a dangerous but prestigious pilgrimage to a holy site in a distant land.

It all adds texture to what should seem like a slightly alien world, where rational governance and politics stand in tension with faith. He admitted, “If you play the game rationally, you’ll probably win! But if you were driven by religious fervour, you wouldn’t play the same way, and obviously the Crusades – they weren’t even called the Crusades at the time, they were like… ‘pilgrimages in force’, they were referred to as ‘pilgrimages’ and so on. The lords went on the Crusades, they were actually fired by religious fervour more than anything, and it’s kind of hard to understand that these days.

“With modern eyes, we tend to give other explanations, like ‘Oh they were really after land and they really wanted riches’ – and there’s certainly…that’s part of the truth, but there was also genuine religious fervour at play.”

It’s an interesting set of problems Paradox are tackling with Sons of Abraham, and they are important ones for understanding the political order and disorder of the Middle Ages. Whether Paradox can handle them in a way that manages to be both respectful, interesting, and fun will be for us to judge when Sons of Abraham comes out tomorrow.