Although we’ll be waiting a short while for the release of The Old Gods, the upcoming DLC for Crusader Kings II that will allow players to “officially” control Pagan characters in the game, there’s still a little trick that lets you do so anyway. Essentially, despite the world map giving players the option to select Catholics, or Muslims (with the Sword of Islam DLC), or Doges (with The Republic DLC), they can only hover over Pagan characters’ land impotently, while a tooltip reads: “Can’t play Pagan characters!”
Is this tooltip lying? Well, only sort of. You can’t start as a Pagan, but if you start the game as a Catholic or Islamic character, you can later become a Pagan and carry on playing. It’s not easy to do without modding or cheating, but I decided to give it a shot to find out exactly what it’s like to play as a Pagan without any mods, cheats, or the Pagan expansion. Consider this article a mix of an “After Action Report” (a write-up of what happened in your game) and a tutorial for playing faux-Pagan. I chose to start out as the Catholic King of Scotland, and then began to put my clever plan into action. While there are a few flavours of Paganism in mediaeval Europe from which to choose, I decided to go with Norse, because there are only a couple of tiny Norse states at the start of the game in 1066, and I wanted to try to make a giant one.
It took me over a generation to finally coax a Norse person into my court; branding me an infidel, nobody was prepared to accept an invitation. Fortunately, I lucked out and convinced a Norse woman to come over and marry a random male courtier of mine. Next, I had to actually line up a Norse heir. I already had a couple of older kids, but I didn’t have to worry about knocking them off; a faction had already insisted I implement elective monarchy, so I basically only needed to convert one of my kinsmen into a Pagan, and then ensure that he was the most popular choice for king. I had my Norse courtier educate a roughly fifteen-year old son of mine for the last year of his childhood. No dice; he was too old, and obviously quite set in his Catholicism. I gave her a few more of my kids, infrequently checked their religion, until suddenly – the Norse woman died. Mid-swear, I checked the youngest of her former wards, and there I had it: a sole Scottish Norse pretender to the throne.
Little did I realise that curious socio-political events were taking place not only in Scotland, but in France. Somehow, the French king had become Lollard – a Catholic heretic. Most surprisingly, France remained relatively stable despite this; from the look of it, most of the French populace was rapidly converting to the heresy. These events, barely forty years into the game, brought on a fairly ahistorical response: the declaration of war by the Pope, who prompted all good Catholic nations to join him in a crusade for the Kingdom of Aquitaine, which makes up most of the southern end of France (especially with England holding the Duchy of Normandy). Meanwhile, my young Norse son became married.
I figured I may as well throw myself into this war while I was Catholic, so I did. Keep in mind, Scotland is no major player early in the game. The introduction of factions in a previous patch made the country much less stable than it was before, and the House of Dunkeld is usually displaced from the throne relatively early on if you let the AI take the helm. Nevertheless, I managed to rally a few thousand soldiers, put them on fleets, and sent them to Aquitaine. I assaulted the first holding I came across, losing a few hundred men in the process, and picked up that lovely “Crusader” trait for showing up in person, but Venice was rapidly outstripping me in the contribution leaderboard. Therefore, I deployed a cunning tactic: suicide.
Sending three thousand men to fight ten thousand is a really bad idea if you’re not King Leonidas. This particular battle, which took place on unfavourable ground, with poor leaders, and a poor distribution of soldier types, was brutal. Most of the Scots were killed, and my decimated, demoralised army ran away from the victorious Lollard force. And I cheered. One of the most appreciated contributions in these crusades are human lives; sending thousands of my men to die tipped the scales in my favour, putting me far ahead of the other Catholic nations in having contributed the most to the fight. With the warscore looking increasingly bad for France, and increasingly good for the Catholic collective, it seemed fairly certain we’d win without Scotland needing to throw another punch. A year or so passes, and the King of France concedes the war. I divide my new holdings between my Norse grandsons: two one-year old twins. Moments later, I die, and my throne is inherited by my Norse heir.
In one swift move, the Kingdoms of Scotland and Aquitaine switch from de jure Catholicism to Norsedom. If this had happened in real life, I could only imagine the sectarian conflict that would probably have echoed down the years from Aquitaine’s Lollardism, Catholic liberation, then Norse occupation – but, nevertheless, I was pleased. Now began the slightly more daunting task of stabilising these kingdoms. Aquitaine wasn’t so much of a concern, as it was now ruled entirely by Norse vassals, who would surely begin the process of converting the population on their own initiative. Scotland was a bigger problem, but one I tackled by showering my vassals with gifts of gold I’d collected during the crusade, and then demanding their conversion. Only a few of them obliged, but certainly enough that a violent uprising against me could not succeed.
Playing as a Norse nation is ultimately not yet that different from playing a Catholic nation. The gameplay will diverge significantly once we finally see The Old Gods released, since that’ll add unique religious gameplay a bit more significant than the Court Chaplain simply becoming a “Chief Diviner”. Interestingly, Norse nations in the current version of the game can’t declare holy wars, but have an arguably more useful tool: the “Conquest” cassus belli, which will be familiar to players of Muslim characters. With this, you can declare war for any county that borders your own land (sometimes even across water). Given that Scotland is a short strait away from the island of Ireland, I set my sights across the water and conquered it, one county at a time. Although each declaration of war carries a small piety hit, I managed to conquer the entire island in only a few years without much resistance. My dream of creating a vast Norse nation was almost realised with the combined kingdoms of Scotland, Ireland, and Aquitaine.
I’ve reached the conclusion that even in an unpatched, unmodded, cheat-free version of Crusader Kings II, it’s not impossible to create a formidable Norse nation. I’d argue that the current version of the game is even imbalanced in Norse players’ favour, given how easy it was for me to conquer Ireland without opposition; none of my neighbours, not even England or the Holy Roman Empire, dared declare holy war on me during my reign, except on rebelling vassals which were technically outwith my protection. I played nothing close to a a whole game (1066 — 1453) as a Pagan character, and it was fairly uninteresting given the lack of expansion through DLC, but there’s something oddly pleasing about seeing “Norse” spread out across the religious map. Hopefully, I’ll have another shot at achieving a huge Norse empire after The Old Gods launches.