Update For "The Old Gods," "The Republic," "Legacy of Rome," and "Sword of Islam"
Centralization and Solidification of Power
Another factor to consider besides stability, is centralization and what I call solidification of power. Centralization involves the focused redistribution of a kingdom's economic and military might. This redistribution of power, when focused onto a single ruler, leads to solidification of power. To solidify is to make solid, and when applied to kingship, refers to a solid state of control that is very difficult to supplant via civil war and rebellion. While achieving stability allows a ruler to maintain control, it does not necessarily lead to solidification of power.
On the opposite end of the power spectrum, is decentralization, which involves the diffusion of economic and military power throughout a kingdom. People who are new or inexperienced with CKII will unwittingly decentralize, and as a result, fail to solidify their power. Ruler's that don't solidify their power are easy to overthrow.
Centralization and the resulting solidification is essentially, a strategy for maintaining control which is complementary to achieving realm stability. It also provides the economic and military leverage for those wanting to role play as a tyrant king. In essence, it involves:
(1) The use of feudal taxation in addition to city and church taxation (small taxation should be used initially).
(2) Primogeniture inheritance, with a large demesne (this requires high stewardship skills and legalism technology).
(3) A strong economic, technological, and military infrastructure within your demesne.
(4) Minimal existence of duchies and/or kingdoms.
(5) A sizable retinue army.
(6) Military tradition.
Feudal taxation should be pursued as soon as possible (to offset the opinion penalty, one could lower crown authority and feudal levies). Feudal taxation will boost your monthly income, which should be used to improve the economy within your demesne. With your boosted income, focus on upgrading castle towns, universities, and monastic schools. The universities and schools will allow your technology to spread faster, which will in turn, allow you to upgrade more castle towns within your demesne.
Once you are economically and technologically strong, you should then focus on the military buildings. Hiring mercenaries should be considered as an interim solution to war while your military infrastructure is weak.
Having a few duchies is actually beneficial, as it allows you to pacify chunks of your kingdom. As long as you boost relations using your chancellor and other means discussed later in this guide, having duchies can work largely in your favor.
Your retinues represent professional soldiers, and will form the backbone of your personal army. Don't rely solely on levies. Mercenaries should be an interim choice until you are capable of fielding a standing retinue army.
Military tradition is not an actual mechanic in the game. What I mean by military tradition is to keep and maintain an ancestral line of military experts. These military experts, whether in your immediate line of succession or a distant part of your dynasty, will ensure military domination. Having weak generals during times of war will put your armies at a significant disadvantage.
Prelude, Vanilla CKII
I have experienced many failed kingdoms do to succession crises and/or consecutive rebellions, and I have also observed others on these forums who have experienced the same. Since there is no comprehensive strategy guide, I have decided to take the initiative by studying the game mechanics. I would like to share my insights, and so I have decided to write a preliminary guide and post it on the forums. Please note that this is a work in progress. I would appreciate any feedback if possible.
Overall, the author believes that achieving realm stability is more about striking a balance between expansion and stabilization. The more quickly one rushes through the game and tries to rapidly expand (like in EU3), the more likely rudimentary decisions will be made. It is the opinion of the author that consecutive rebellions and poor successions can sometimes be the result of years of carelessness, extending back to the start point of a campaign. Handing out land titles to the wrong courtier for example, can sow the seeds of rebellion many years later. Inherent to achieving realm stability is the understanding of the game mechanics, conscientious management, and tight control over your realm.
Raising Your Heir
"...no prince is ever benefited by making himself hated..." - Machiavelli
As you may intuitively understand by playing a few hours of Crusader Kings II, your current ruler and future heir are primary components of realm stability. Every player has probably experienced what happens when a cruel imbecile or clubfooted inbred arises to the throne. Grooming one's heir to be likable is part of the solution to having a smooth succession. But, in order to properly groom an heir, one should acquire a thorough understanding of the general traits that are inherited or acquired, and the opinion modifiers that are associated with these traits.
General traits can be organized into categories. The first trait to be recognized under your ruler's profile is the education trait. It appears as an icon resembling a book. This trait is determined by the type of mentor he or she had as a child. The second type of trait(s), as you may recognize, are congenital traits that are passed on from parent to child. These traits are heart-shaped. The third type of trait(s) are statuses, such as being homosexual or a veteran crusader. They resemble shields. The fourth type of trait(s) are lifestyles, such as hedonist or falconer. These are also represented as shields, and are always cyan in color. The fifth type of trait(s) are personality traits, which are represented by circular icons. Most of these are acquired as a child. The last type of trait(s) are related to health, which are seen as heart-shaped icons (a side note: syphilitic can be passed on from parent to child).
Your education trait is a major constituent in your character's profile. Ideally, your heir should be groomed to become a grey eminence, as his diplomacy skills affect state diplomacy and personal diplomacy. A high state diplomacy will positively alter your subjects' opinion of you. A low state diplomacy will negatively affect their opinion. Personal diplomacy affects the opinion of those who are in your court, whether courtier or Duke. It is also important for your heir and/or daughter-in-law to have a high degree of stewardship, as this will increase demesne size. Exceptional stewardship means that you are less likely to acquire a demesne penalty upon succession.
Congenital traits cannot be controlled and are inherited at random. Most inheritable traits are negative traits that will negatively affect your vassal’s opinion of you. Avoid introducing these traits into your dynasty at all costs. Pursue marriages with courtiers with positive congenital traits, as they not only affect your vassal’s opinion of you, but there may be hidden modifiers that influence their behavior when controlled by the AI.
Statuses are sometimes controllable, but most of them are not. They are not major influences upon vassal opinion, except homosexuality which may sway some to dislike your heir somewhat.
Lifestyles are also a minor influence upon vassal opinion. They may only affect vassal opinion when your vassal shares the same lifestyle as your ruler or heir.
Among the general traits, Personality traits have the most significant influence over vassal opinion. Thankfully you have some control over your heir’s personality development when you make her or him your ward. It is essential that you teach your heir positive traits, such as kindness, charitable, brave, just, and gregarious. If you raise your child to be a greedy, arrogant, and ambitious little bastard, there are potential drawbacks. Negative traits will not only affect vassal opinion, but there are hidden modifiers which may influence your heir’s behavior when under AI control.
Health traits are hardly an influence on vassal opinion, except when you have traits such as leper, syphilitic, or lunacy for obvious reasons.
Below are the opinion modifiers associated with general traits. Same opinion modifiers arise when a vassal has the same trait as you. Opposite opinion modifiers arise when a vassal has the opposite trait as you (this kind of antagonism primarily exists between the seven deadly sins and virtues). Sex appeal are the affects that certain traits have on the opposite sex which affect overall opinion.
Handing Out Landed Titles
One of the biggest mistakes I have made since I have started playing Crusader Kings 2 was handing out titles indiscriminately to anyone (preferably my dynasty members) which would create a pool of ambitious pretenders ready to claim my titles and throne. What I have learned from experience and from studying game mechanics, is that handing out your titles should be a painstaking and discriminatory process. Being discriminative first involves acquiring knowledge about what type of courtier makes a good vassal, and what type of courtier makes a poor one. Like raising an heir to be likable, much of this falls back on your understanding of general traits and their associated modifiers.
Ambition is a personality trait to avoid like the bubonic plague. It comes with a -50 liege opinion modifier if you have something your vassal wants. Not only that, but it comes with a hidden +40 AI ambition modifier. Envy is a personality trait that comes with a -15 liege opinion modifier. Greed and pride may also be something to be cautious about, since both slightly increase AI ambition. In general, it all seems to come down to common sense. The traits that make courtiers excellent vassals are content, as this gives a +50 liege opinion modifier, charitable with its -15 AI ambition modifier, humble with its -10 AI ambition modifier, and possibly slothful since this slightly lowers AI ambition. Overall, it appears that you should aim for traits that reflect passivity, submission, and lack of initiative. This game is actually quite immersive, as these traits aren't simply icons decorating your courtier's profile, but they consist of realistic mechanics that make the AI interact more believably.
Not only do you want to look for these traits and avoid the others mentioned, but another issue is one of compatibility. Finding like-minded individuals with the same lifestyles, statuses, and sins/virtues as you will help ensure that the two of you get along.
Being able to hand out titles in a conscientious manner also involves the understanding of what causes the vassal AI to want something. Generally from gameplay experience, I have noticed that if a count owns a county within your duchy, they may desire that duchy. Or conversely, if you own a province that is within their duchy, they may desire your county. One way to counteract this problem is to keep your rightful jurisdictions from intermingling with each other. Another way to minimize this problem, is to keep the amount of duchies within your kingdom at a minimum. This of course, comes at the cost of expansion rate, since this involves neglecting the creation and usurping of duchies. Creating additional kingdoms may also give additional reasons for your vassals to hate and rise up against you. However, others have proposed an opposite strategy. Instead of neglecting duchies and kingdoms, it might be beneficial to create duchies and kingdoms, since this increases monthly prestige. The more prestige you have, the more positive your vassal opinion will be.
Another thing I have learned, is that handing out counties and duchies to close family members is practically a guarantee for civil war (especially if the succession goes badly). Being a pretender automatically gives a -50 opinion modifier. If they have a claim to any titles you own, that is an additional -20. Handing out baronies, bishoprics, and cities to your dynasty members should not lead to a major issue, since they will have less money and manpower to lead a revolt.
If you do hand out counties and duchies to dynasty members, hand them to distant family members. They are far less likely to revolt or claim a title to the throne.
Keep Things at a Minimum
My personal preference is to hand out one title only, though other players prefer a different strategy. From my perspective, you don't want any of your vassals to own a demesne that rivals yours. This shifts the balance of power within your realm. Being surrounded by numerous powerful dukes and duchesses is especially a cause of concern. If a certain vassal holds too many titles, it might be reasonable to revoke his or her title(s) when the opportunity arises (e.ge., after quashing a rebellion). You can also use fabricate claim to forge an entitlement to their lands, and revoke their claim without retaliation from the majority of your vassals. Click here for a more in-depth guide to the subject [GUIDE] In-Depth Guide to CKII
Having at least medium crown authority might be necessary, since this prevents your vassals from waging war against each other, and thus acquiring too much territory. In addition, you also need to keep their jurisdictions from intermingling.
Children are the Future of Tomorrow
"To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill..." Sun Tzu
In addition to grooming your own heir, you can groom the heir of your dukes and counts (provided that they already like you somewhat). This first and foremost, increases their opinion of you by +25. More importantly, you can raise them to be "good" little vassals instead of "bad" ones. If you are not educating your own heirs, or don't have an heir near the ripe old age of 6, educating the heirs of others offers an advantage that should not be neglected. Another neat little trick (although this is a somewhat gamey tactic) is to educate them when they turn 15 for the +25 opinion boost. This allows you to create a "revolving door".
In addition ,allowing your vassals to educate your close family members (preferably daughters, as their education matters less) for an additional +25 opinion bonus might be another viable way to influence vassal opinion.
As a ruler, you have complete access to the children in your realm. When certain conditions are met, you can request a guardianship contract between a guardian and a mentor. AI mentors have an influence over the personality development of a child. The child has a slightly increased chance of developing personality traits similar to that of its mentor, and a slightly decreased chance of developing personality traits opposite to that of its mentor. It is imperative that you guide the education of your next generation dukes and counts. Select mentors who have the most positive traits, to include kindness and contentment. End AI-formed contracts with mentors who are cruel, greedy, and ambitious. The emergence of a rebellious vassal may to some degree, be prevented early on.
Growing a tree not only requires careful nourishment, but also pruning. The same applies to the family tree. If a child's education for some reason fails (e.g., if he somehow turned into an ambitious and envious little snot), you can always do some pruning and have an assassination ordered (if you're not running short on heirs). It is best to kill them while they are still young, before they have acquired any significant power or influence.
As you expand your kingdom, you may notice that taking personal responsibility for the education of your next generation rulers can be tedious and time consuming. My advice is to focus only on those who are heirs. Assassinate bad candidates, and educate or make contracts for those who make good candidates.
Cruel and wrothful mentors will birch their wards. Punishment leads to the chance that the negative trait will be removed. The authoritarian style of parenting does not foster the development of positive traits, and is slightly less effective at removing negative ones. Kind mentors do not birch whatsoever. Having a kind mentor with a high degree of positive traits overall means that the mentor will have lectures with the child, which decreases the chance that the negative trait will continue and increases the chances that positive ones will develop. Avoid zealous mentors, as they are passive and tend to pray instead of taking the initiative to teach the child (this is like birching but with half of the effectiveness). Avoid prideful mentors, as their pride can get into the way. Avoid any negative traits, as the mentor may encourage the development of negative traits that are reflective of their own personality. Kind and diligent mentors will alter the culture of the child if they are of a different culture.
The learning attribute may affect the competence of the mentor. I have yet to see this myself in the coding, but many on the forums have mentioned this.
[Tip: If you don't have a particularly good mentor within your court, one way to find a better mentor is to use the search tool, find a single female with excellent traits and a high learning attribute, and arrange a marriage with one of your courtiers. Make sure that this female is of the same culture, unless you don't mind a culture change.]
Genes Make a Difference
Having the genius (or quick) trait modifies the child's ability to learn. A genius will understand things faster than a normal child. Attempt to bread this trait into your heirs. Having two geniuses mate significantly increases the chances that the offspring will have the trait. Genius not only makes the child easier to mold, but the child will become a much more competent ruler in all aspects. Establishing a good genetic line early on is important. Especially due to patch 1.04, intelligence has become very significant.
[Edit: I have attempted breeding various traits into my dynasty. This more often than not, does not work reliably. It took me over 200 years of selective breeding to breed attractiveness and genius into my direct line. Once you do have good traits established, it can just as easily be lost. It is definitely not worth the investment or effort, since you could be using marriages to expand your kingdom instead.]
Keep a Close Eye on Your Dynasty
It may be best to keep most of your dynasty members within your personal court as much as possible. This gives you full control over who they will marry, and allows them to propagate effectively. Granting them titles to holdings within your personal counties may not be such a bad idea, since they will still remain under most of your personal control. Matrilineal marriages bring in courtiers, which helps preserve your dynasty. Although it will help you expand, be wary of inviting title claiming son-in-laws into your court. Often times this creates potential pretenders down the road. A better way of expanding is to find a wealthy count or duke with sons and daughters. Use intrigue to assassinate his sons. Then, when his daughter is next in line, set up a betrothal between your son and his daughter. This works best if the couple in question are too old or ill to have any more children. Using intrigue to set up a patrilineal marriage allows you to expand while eliminating the possibility of a dynastic fued.
[Note: keeping most of your dynasty members within your personal court will potentially stagnate the growth of your dynasty. When there are 30 courtiers or more within your court, the fertility rate significantly declines. Granting titles outside of your demesne is therefore essential to keeping your dynasty strong. At some point, handing out more robust titles to your dynasty members is a necessity, and rebellions can certainly be manageable as long as you properly groom your dynasty for rulership].
Study your dynasty. Study the personalities of all your family members. Study the dynasties of your vassals, or even your enemies. What you will notice is that these dynasties tell a story unto themselves and make for good role play. No rebellion or odd streak of deaths will come as a surprise. Upon searching, I had found a title claimant for the Duchy of Brittany. I assassinated his wife, and then proceeded by arranging a matrilineal marriage. Years later I invaded Brittany, and then installed the claimant as the Duke of Brittany. Eventually, the duke and my daughter gave birth to a baby girl. At the age of one however, she suddenly died without explanation. Within the next few months, there was a flurry of assassinations across Brittany. One by one, a single count had been assassinating counts in Brittany. This was followed by a small war over a succession dispute. He eventually assassinated the Duke I had installed, and inherited my son-in-law's county. In the aftermath, he had gained control of four counties. I decided to take revenge by assassinating his three sons. Afterwards, I betrothed my son to his daughter, the eventual heir to his newly gained assets. It worked out perfectly in the end.
Send People that Don't Like You to War
As an alternate form of "assassination," you can send certain people off to a crusade to (hopefully) die in the holy lands. Simply make them the leader of an army. The chances that they will die are somewhat slim, though its better to take these chances. They can't revolt when leading troops in a far away land.
Direct Ways of Influencing Vassal Opinion
Another way to influence vassal opinion not previously mentioned, is to send both you (or your heir) and the target vassal on an official crusade together. Sharing the crusader status adds a nice +30 opinion bonus.
Releasing prisoners adds a slight overall increase in vassal opinion. Building a reserve of prisoners and releasing them during turbulent moments in your realm's history can be of slight help.
Changing tax laws so that vassals have no tax or a small tax may be more beneficial than requiring large taxes. The higher your vassal's opinion of you, the larger their levies are, and the more they will give in terms of taxes. See the following guide for a in depth explanation on tax laws and their effects: [GUIDE] In-depth Guide to CKII
Hold your honorary titles in reserve so that you can appoint them to a disgruntled vassal who may revolt at any moment.
Assigning council positions to your most powerful vassals may be another way to influence their opinion of you. The downside to this is that other courtiers or vassals will attempt to supplant the other council members, which will have a negative effect on your vassal opinion and prestige. This is something that should only be considered if you are willing to take the negative hit (particularly with a landless courtier). Keep in mind that firing someone from your council causes their opinion of you to suffer by -20.
Granting landed titles to your vassals can certainly increase opinion. Be careful however, as they can end up wanting more which will destroy the benefit of handing them a title in the first place. Remember, when you give landed titles (especially to those who already own one), you are causing a shift in the balance of power.
Noble customs, majesty, cultural flexibility, religious flexibility, and legalism, are all cultural technologies that help enhance realm stability. It is important to focus on the ones that would provide the most impact for your realm.
Relying on Mercenaries and Personal Levies
During times of instability, it might be a good idea to hire mercenaries and to rely on your personal levies, than to use vassal levies. Raising vassal levies for extended periods of time will slowly erode your relations with your vassals. Be selective and do not raise the levies of vassals that hate you. Build up your demesne to increase the size of your personal levies. Store some gold aside so you can hire mercenaries during bad successions and times of rebellion.
Avoid Having Too Many Held Duchies
Plan what provinces you want for your demesne ahead of time and make sure that these provinces are void of duchies. Having a demesne with duchies, despite adding to your prestige, unnecessarily adds to your overall amount of duchies. This can turn into an issue once you start accumulating more.
In addition to understanding the general traits and their associated modifiers, one should understand how culture plays a major role in realm stability. In Crusader Kings 2, there are varying degrees of resistance to foreigners, especially between vassals. The effects of having an heir from another culture can be devastating, depending upon how foreign they are. Avoid this at all costs unless if you want to shift your kingdom to a culture that you find more preferable. Having a heterogenous realm full of vassals of differing cultures can be a general source of instability. One way to resolve this issue is to have a homogenous realm of vassals who all belong to the same culture as you do. If every ruler is of the same culture, no negative modifiers will arise. If having a homogenous society is not possible, since expansion into foreign territory may be inevitable, another way to counteract the issue is to focus on cultural flexibility technology. Click here for a more in-depth guide to culture: [GUIDE] In-depth Guide to CKII
Religion is also a significant factor when it comes to vassal opinion. A vassal who is of another religion will have a negative opinion of you, especially if they are zealous. It is therefore integral that you control the religion of your vassals, especially to keep them from spreading different religions. Keep your heretic bishops in prison, and demand religious conversion from bishops who are highly beneficial to your council. Click here for an in-depth guide on religion: [GUIDE] In-depth Guide to CKII
Miscellaneous Opinion Modifiers:
Again, keep in mind that this is a guide for achieving realm stability. Overall, achieving stability is really about striking a balance between expansion and stabilization. There are no set of rules that one should follow without question. Ultimately the player must decide what his preferred playing style is, and what is best for his realm given the unique, current situation. Remember, the final score of the game is not based on how how tight of a control you have over your dynasty. It is about expanding your dynasty and accumulating prestige.