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Renaissance: 1520

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I was surprised to see no mention here. I ordered the hardcover on impulse, so waiting with bated breath for that. Skimmed the .pdf and it looks like a very serviceable sourcebook for playing in the HRE in the early 16th Century. No fantasy elements, which is good - I'd rather add them in than have to take them out, personally!

But good to see 3rd party support coming through.

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Posted (edited)


This review is based on the pdf version. I purchased the colour hardcover (in the post at the date of writing) + pdf option, and the pdfs included are:

·         the full colour version

·         the B&W version

·         4 colour plates for insertion into your GM screen of choice – public domain period pieces, but good art.

·         a period map of the city of Lüneburg

·         a map of the Holy Roman Empire

·         a map of the administrative circles of the HRE

There are a couple of issues here. The B&W version (which most of us would turn to as the “printer friendly” version contains ink-guzzling background images on the page. If there’s a way to print without these, I can’t find it. Secondly, when I try to download the map of the Holy Roman Empire what actually downloads are the GM screen inserts in black and white. I haven’t yet reported this to the publisher, but shall shortly. Fortunately, there is a map in the colour version of the book itself, though this is split over two pages, making printing a map a bit of a problem.

The book itself is 128 pages including the cover and the OGL. It’s published under the Open Game License version 1.0a. Enough has been written about the OGL over the last few months, so I won’t add my opinion here.

There is a three-page introduction to the period and to historical gaming in general. The introduction speaks more about the appeal of a game grounded in history than in fantasy, but does point out that by definition historical gaming is historical fiction and not historical fact, but that very few characters will do anything which significantly changes history.

The author has clearly never met my players…

It reminds the reader that there are laws and social norms in place which will render the character’s mindset very different to that of the modern player, and that random acts of murder will be punished by the powers that be. A short section on myths and superstitions, that even if the campaign contains no magic or monsters the characters may well believe in their existence, followed by an invitation to throw them in if you want to. Finally a list of commonly used German terms, which is a list of social titles.

Chapter One proper is on character history. This contains tables for height and weight, based on the SIZ attribute, complexion, hair and eye colour, physical traits and so on. It mentions two appendices which allow random generation of name and birthplace, which can be a godsend for the harassed GM needing an NPC in a hurry. No need for every peasant to be called Hans! There are tables to generate a character’s family which can give lots of playing hooks – how does the widower with three children manage their adventuring career? – and what varying levels of education (Lore skill) actually mean, as well as a list of noble titles and suggests that no PC be ranked higher than a count, which is sensible.

The social class of Knacker is introduced (to much sniggering from British readers) which are those on the very bottom rung of society – here’s your ratcatcher, all you need is that Small But Vicious Dog! – but points out they may not be suitable characters for many campaigns.

I’ll digress slightly here. It’s kind of inevitable that there will be echoes of Warhammer FRP in a game supplement set in the HRE in the early 16th century – WFRP wore its influences on its puffy sleeves after all. Lots of background tables are reminiscent of the old Character Pack in 1e which contained similar tables for a character’s background. This may be a good or bad thing in your eyes. Personally, I enjoy their inclusion, more for generating NPCs on the fly.

Of course, one of the most popular features of WFRP was those random starting career tables, and R:1520 incorporates a version here too – easily ignored if you like, but again, a welcome option to have (or ignore, as you see fit). These are split by social group, so no vagabonds from the gentry and no peasant alchemists.

The next 9 pages are welcome indeed. These have notes on the various professions in the context of the region and time period. No changes to skill bonuses, but telling you what, say, a scholar’s life would be like in the period. What do they study, and where? All very useful information!

Conspicuous by their absence, however, are entries for the witch and the alchemist, for those who wish to include an element of fantasy. Beliefs about witchcraft can be found later in the section on religion, and one can say that an alchemist is a very specialised scholar, but their absence reinforces the preferred campaign style – this is historical fiction, and not historical fantasy, which personally I’m fine with. If you wanted fantasy elements in your game it’s easy enough to add them from the main rulebook, or from a plethora of Lovecraft-inspired games.

There follows some information on common crafts of the day and a note on languages. Whilst good general information, it’s a well-thought-out entry applicable to gaming in the period, which is what I find throughout. It’s not just a book of general information on the HRE in the 16th century, it’s a guide to gaming there.

Chapter 3 is factions. We all love a faction, don’t we?? For me, factions are what differentiate Renaissance from all other games, and inter-faction conflict should be the meat-and-potatoes of a campaign.

Some are repeated from the main rulebook, but as with professions they are given additional background information specific to the milieu. From family clans, through settlements, trading companies, criminal gangs, a plethora of religious factions, military factions (yes, Landsknechte!!!!), ships companies, guilds, a duelling society, noble houses and my favourite – rebellions!!! Many of these list members of note, which again is useful, gameable information. And there are LOTS of factions – 18 pages! Short shrift for the historical fantasist, mind. You have the Rosicrucians for the alchemists and for the witches…well, they have Satanism in the main rulebook. If you wanted pagans in the deep dark woods who cling to the old faith, you’re on your own, but in fairness, this is 1520. Europe’s been Christian for a loooooong time!!

The next chapter is on campaigning, and is rather short. Not a criticism, but there’s not a lot required, to be fair. Most of the salient rules are in the core rulebook, so here we have the “tweaks” required to make your campaign feel like the HRE in the 16th century. There is a section on currency, one on firearms and a really interesting one on antidotes (which I guess means that poisons and infections are a major part of the author’s campaign??). Most of this section deals with the antidotes which don’t work, but a short rule covers creating the ones which do. The section is wrapped up with a random encounter table (in which it is possible to encounter Black Sabbath. I doubt it’s an early European tour from the Birmingham heavy rock combo…)

The next section is a brief and incomplete history of the Holy Roman Empire (the author’s own words), which contains a reasonably succinct essay on the region’s history, followed by a timeline of important events (always useful in a RPG campaign), taking you through to 1555 and the Peace of Augsberg. The nominal campaign start is 1520, prior to the coronation of Karl V and after the publication of Luther’s 95 theses.

An 8 page section on Laws and Government follows, containing information on the Electoral system – which can be baffling at first encounter, but is explained well here – crime and punishment, executioners, sumptuary laws (not just dress, but who has the right to bear arms. It seems there are more people allowed to arm bears than bear arms…). There are also sections on ranks of nobility, administrative circles in the Empire and city alliances, which are ripe for conflict and roleplaying opportunities.

Section 7 runs to 11 pages and covers religion and the church. Lutheranism is in its infancy – Luther’s 95 theses are printed and disseminated, but there is no major schism at this point – and so the chapter concentrates on Catholicism – it’s history, hierarchy, fundamentals of the faith and so on. The Holy Inquisition is covered, witchcraft and paganism mentioned and the Hexensabbat receives a text box before a lengthy section on holidays and saints. More than comprehensive enough to run a Church-centred campaign, although the section concentrates on presenting facts than giving roleplaying hooks. Unless I’ve missed it, there is no mention of benefit of clergy which I was almost sure applied in the HRE, but enough sources exist online for this if it’s an issue. A section on religion which was completely comprehensive would dominate the book entirely!

The Military is an 8-page section on the organisation of the fighting forces in the Empire and the wars they fought in. More than enough information here to run a Landsknechte campaign (and who doesn’t want to play in a campaign where the characters dress like they’re headed to a Pride march straight after work?!) or any other military or mercenary campaign for that matter. Again, not a lot of roleplaying hooks, but enough background to provide verisimilitude.

Chapter 9 covers the city of Lüneburg. Covering history, geography, NPCs and factions, this is a big chunk of the book (18 pages, as long as the chapter on factions) and here is where the gaming lies – plenty of hooks, plots and conflict to keep a campaign going for a good long while, and this is where the book really shines. No specific scenarios, but every page drips with opportunities for PCs to get involved in all sorts of shenanigans in and around the city. It comes with a rather nice period map, cunningly annotated with locations covered earlier.

There is a page of further reading, followed by birthplace generation tables and a table for generating German-sounding placenames (because not every hamlet is on the map). The second appendix covers naming conventions for German, Venetian and Slavic names with accompanying tables to create them randomly.

To wrap up, we have a nice colour map of the Empire, another covering the administrative circles, a Julian calendar for the year 1520 and a serviceable index.

My overall impression is overwhelmingly positive, and to be honest I thought we’d have seen a good few third-party books like this for the Renaissance system since its publication, concentrating on various eras and locales. There’s enough here to get a good handle on the HRE in the 1520s even if you knew nothing about the period before you picked up the book, and aside from a few details I can’t think of any glaring omissions. The only things I would really add are a handful of adventure seeds for a Church campaign, a mercenary campaign, a noble campaign and so on, but that’s a relatively minor niggle. This is a sandbox campaign set in an interesting period full of various conflicts which is ripe for any variety of adventures, and the author should be congratulated.

I’m still probably gonna add Skaven though…

Edited by StevenGEmsley
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Thanks for the very full and helpful review. The HRE and Central/Eastern Europe in the Early Modern period seem to be getting more attention in gaming these days, though most of the recent-ish material I know for them is not D100-based: things like some of the LotFP adventures, or Codex Integrum's Medieval Baltic sourcebooks and Road to Monsterberg adventures.

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2 hours ago, Lofgeornost said:

Codex Integrum's Medieval Baltic sourcebooks

I found those volumes very useful and add lots of detail for even the pernickety GM..

Having spent the afternoon in the market buying food and being dragooned into a Bach recital in the Lutheran Church.. I made my mind up to buy it... and keep it for my Hansa campaign 

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Posted (edited)

And the hardcover has arrived today.  It's a handsome book and sits well with the Renaissance rulebook on the shelf. The colour maps look really nice, but I haven't has a response as yet on DriveThru as to being able to print a map - the download link still links to the wrong files.

I am extremely happy with my purchase!

As an aside, last week I received a book that I'd kickstarted (not a RPG book) on German mythology. I predict a fabulously-dressed-Landsknechte-versus-German-folk-monsters game in my players' imminent future!

Edited by StevenGEmsley
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  • 1 month later...

I acquired the PDF and I'm pleased. I'm a fan of the Codex books and I've dallied with Zweihander and trying to get a Mythras-y solution to the problem of a good HRE/Early-Modern setting. Switching back and forth between the main book and this one for chargen and what-not is a bit annoying but so it goes. I would have liked something like a better list of Lore skills. I've been trying to convert, or rather generate, Codex characters using these rules and I'm missing some elements of Codex, but happy to handwave other aspects. Also I'm always happy to see good maps in a book. I'm very happy that our friend went to the trouble.

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