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Preparing a No Magick Scenario in the Thirty Years War


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Btw, for anyone who understands German,

there was a documentary on TV this week about the Thirty Years War, which featured my diary writing soldier prominently in the second half (about 44 minutes in) It is still available in the tv station's video library. They misrepresented two things about him.

1. He couldn't see his dying wife and bury her, because he had been captured and conscripted by the Swedish.

2. His second wife had not died by the end of the war, in fact, he n ot only had her and the son he also mentions in the film, but also a 1 year old daughter.

Other than that I enjoyed the documentary. Especially the way they sort of interviewed the main figures and how they spoke to the audience by actually quoting from their diaries.

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First game session over.

Overall it went pretty well, I think.

3.5 hours to create charactes and clarify rules, then about 3.5  hours of playtime. So the introduction was had, not much more. But still, I think we all got a feeling for waht roleplaying in this scenario will be like. In 10-12 hours I 'll write up a more thorough after action report.

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Lets meet the characters:

Gottfried Balthasar Pflumer - 38 - Townsman - former Weaponsmith - Faction: Catholic - accompanied by his 2nd wife and 3 children
Wilhelm Hastdenteufel - early 20s - Townsman - paracelsian physician - Self (Personal honor): parents were being accused of witchcraft and burned. wants to restore the good family name.
Eric Fleischhauer - 26 - Townsman - Soldier- Faction: Military Unit - Veteran of wars of Italian city states. Parents were butchers.
Alfons Konrad Röders - early 20s - Peasant - Woodsman - Self (Greed -> career) pretends to be a Bavarian patriot.

The story starts on May 10th, 1627 in Rheinbischofsheim on the river Rhine, not far away from Strasbourg, close to today's German-French border.

This is the place, where the new catholic league regiment, payed for by count Pappenheim, is being mustered. Gottfried, Eric and Alfons arrive together, they come from the same town in Bavaria and had been recruited a few days ago. They meet an old friend of veteran Eric, Wilhelm, the Physician. Those two know each other from former military campaigns in northern Italy. After a battle, Eric had been cared for and healed by Wilhelm.

They stand in line to be registered categorized in ranks based on previous experience. Here they meet the diary writing Peter Hagendorf, as well as a future Antagonist and their future Sergeant Hans Nothaff.

Gottfried and Alfons will receive normal pay, Eric being a veteran will receive double and the Physician will receive almost 4 times as much because most medics in those days were actually barbers without medical training. They receive 1st week's pay and they are being told that the Muster ceremony will be held tomorrow.

They spend the evening on the field where the muster will take place. which is full of soldiers, merchants, baggage train folks and so on. army life. Btw, all characters have only half their hitpoints and basically except the pay they just received because I wanted them to be desperate when joining the army.

While having a soup and some beers, an argument breaks out on the neighboring table between future Sergeant Hans Nothaff and another soldier. Nothaff is clearly drunk and the aggressor. For some reason, Gottfried and Eric want to break this up by punching the aggressor, so we have our first combat. :)

Gottfried is first to act and misses, NPC Hans is next to act and also sees the incoming Eric, so he decides to even the odds by drawing his dagger. Eric also misses, the other soldier is already unconscious under the table.

Next combat round Gottfried hits, but Hans dodges, and then Hans scores a crit with his dagger. Since he is a rather large specimen with a 1d6 damage modifier, the damage is enough for a grave wound (ribs). Gottfried has to use a hero point to downgrade it to a serious wound.

The look on my players' faces was priceless because of how deadly the Renaissance system is :)  (granted, he would have had 4 hp left, if I had allowed them to start with full health, but still.)

This escalated quickly and eventually Nothaff received a serious wound on his weapon arm which ended the confrontation.

The Profoß (military judge) allowed Wilhelm to apply some first aid before taking everybody in custody over night.

The next morning, everybody was released again because witnesses had pointed out that Nothaff had only drawn the dagger because of being outnumbered, and on the other hand the player characters were just responding to a brawl against an aggressor. So basically, nothing to see, noone died, let's get on with business. We need every man.

Next I described in detail the Muster ceremony during which the new recruits including the player characters ceremonially walk through an improvised gate flanked by all the other soldiers. This is symbolic for leaving civilian life and entering military society.

Then the character's were assigned a unit (Kompanie headed by Hauptman Kelman [Hauptmann=Major]). Nothaff and Hagendorf are also in the same unit.

The players were also assigned quarters at a nearby farm, inhabited by Kräuter-Else (41) and her son Herman (11). She is a widow and also a wise woman. (Kräuter means herbs)

During day 2 there was also some camp life happening, shopping, socializing, also a trip to the whore tent. but eventually the characters settle into their quarters.

I also forgot to mention that Gottfried's wife and child are not in quarters with the soldiers right now but still left in tents at the muster place. And I will have to read up on this because I am not sure how that was handled during long stays like winter quarters. I am pretty sure that on the move, families slept together so the soldiers were mixed into the baggage train. Also, when they swore their oath, THe terms of the deal were read to the characters, including how much meat, beer and bread they are promised per day. Gottfried quickly found out that while that is plenty for the soldier itself, it is hard to provide for a family of 5 from that.

Last but not least, Alfons wanted to buy new boots, and was pretty dissapointed to hear, how many weeks pay they would cost him. My comment: you can always try to get some money from those peasants and farmers. Sad but true.

This was it.

Plans for next time:

With the characters in their quarters is also a brute (Langer Emil), who is going to start exploiting their hosts, beating the boy for information about a possibly hidden herd of sheep, trying to rape the widow. Pretty sure, that the characters will step in. This will not necessarily make them well liked in their unit, which will hopefully create interesting confrontations in the future.

On a broader note, we will witness a soldier's wedding, and eventually there will be enough soldiers so that the regiment will start going north (towards the remaining Danish troops in Germany). The unit will be transported on ships down the river Rhine. There will be an accident, wrecking the characters' boat, then they will march towards Wolfenbüttel, where the main action will happen during the siege of the town.

We will probably not going to get the siege itself next time. Two more sessions, I think, for the story.

I am pretty happy with it so far.

Edited by Xorgrim
added the grey text
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There is an interesting novel about the Thirty Years War, "The Last Valley" by J. B. Pick, which might provide you with some good non-combat scenario ideas and some useful background colour descriptions. There is also a movie based on the novel - I liked it, but most critics did not, so I do not recommend it.


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"Mind like parachute, function only when open."

(Charlie Chan)

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  • 8 months later...

I realise posting to an old thread may be necromancy, but with military campaigns it's always worth reading Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels. Oh, I know they're clichéd and melodramatic,   but Cornwall is brilliant at spotting gameable scenarios in military campaigns, and is great at villains too - it's years since I read them and I still loathe Sergeant Hakeswill!!

Edited by StevenGEmsley
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  • 1 year later...
On 3/30/2019 at 9:52 PM, StevenGEmsley said:

I realise posting to an old thread may be necromancy, but with military campaigns it's always worth reading Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels. Oh, I know they're clichéd and melodramatic,   but Cornwall is brilliant at spotting gameable scenarios in military campaigns, and is great at villains too - it's years since I read them and I still loathe Sergeant Hakeswill!!

Necromancy as well, but I must just say that I agree with this. Also, iirc, Cornwell solved the problem of military hierarchy (soldiers not able to do much other than follow orders unless sent on missions where they have more self-governance) by separating Sharpe's men from the rifleman regiment - in effect having them act in detached duty throughout the early novels.

My wife an I are writing a novel series set in the 30 years war (in our native language, so this is not an advertisement) and we picked a mercenary dragoon company as our central unit to follow. As the company is not part of a regiment (dragoon companies worked independently in the Swedish army until Gustavus Adolphus began to combine them into regiments in 1630-1631), it gives them a lot of room for adventure - message quests, infiltration, spy missions etc. etc. For an RPG, you might have one of the characters be one of the three main officers in a company (captain, lieutenant, ensign) and have the other characters be under his command. You just have to be careful not to pick the bully as the one playing the captain...

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  • 2 years later...

Years have past since we played this. We did have our second session but never finished the adventure. Recently, one of my players approached me about revisiting the story. I am kinda curious to try it one more time. I willl report if it amounts to anything.

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 12/21/2017 at 1:43 AM, Xorgrim said:

As the title suggests, I would like to run a Thirty Years War campaign. No magick, or very subtle low magick. I have a history degree in Early Modern History and actually specialized in the Thirty Years War.

This is a great idea Xorgrim and a fascinatingly awful period of European history.  I am a great fan of the Thirty Years War as it is one of those "grimdark" eras that lend themselves to RPGs, like the Late Roman Empire and present day West Virginia (I'm not even joking).

On 12/21/2017 at 1:43 AM, Xorgrim said:

However, while having been playing RPGs since 1991, I have hardly ever been a GM. And never in my own scenario. I have played CoC over the years, so the Renaissance rules don't bother me, but I have not seen them in practice yet. I was looking for some game on youtube and in other places on the internet, mainly for inspiration but I have not been successful. Even on this forum, all I can find, are magick infused settings.

My advice then is to brush up on doing a few different accents to lend your NPCs a measure of authenticity.  It is a really good idea to have a stable of persistent NPCs with whom the players interact and build relationships.  Friendly NPCs are very important, even if it is just a camp follower cobbler who has an ear for gossip.  Also, make sure you have some sort of realistic price lists from the period, because you will need them.

On 12/21/2017 at 1:43 AM, Xorgrim said:

Player Characters should be part of or affiliated to an infantry regiment in the Catholic League Army. They could be soldiers, they could even have a small commanding role or they are part of the baggage train. I have a strong set of NPCs and a lot of plot points already from my studies. (based on a real diary of a soldier from the Thirty Years War). I know that diary very well.

That is great.  I personally enjoyed Bertold Brecht's play "Mother Courage", more for the evocation of the free wheeling and somewhat desperate camp follower market economy of the war that the moralistic Marxism implicit in the narrative.  Knowing your source material well is crucial, so take some confidence from that. 

Remember also that Europe is ablaze before and after the Thirty Years War (lol did the Thirty Years War really end?).  The Swedish invasion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth really serves as a continuation of the Thirty Years war, coming only 7 years after the end of hostilities.  Spain is fighting the Ottomans and the Dutch before and after the Thirty Years War.  The Three Musketeers is set prior to the Thirty Years war.  Also French Philosopher Renee Descartes served in the Battle of White Mountain and is at large in Europe at the time, as are his contemporaries.

On 12/21/2017 at 1:43 AM, Xorgrim said:

I am a bit concerned about railroading my players too much, but I do want them to experience some of the more gripping parts of the diary as companions of the author. I would be very happy to receive some advice from people about potential pitfalls, especially if they have GMed in the Thirty Years War.

Okay.  Your players CANNOT, WILL NOT, AND CAN NEVER be controlled.  They are there to tell their own stories, not your NPC diarist's.  You would do well to even allow your players to alter history.  The first thing to remember is that RPGs are about allowing the players to tell their own stories.  You are not there to retell history, you are there to entertain the players, just as they are going to entertain you with their antics and poor life choices.

Players WILL be agreeable about being somewhat railroaded during a massed battle as they need to follow orders.  You will need to have a really clear idea of how you want to stage this sort of event to maximize the impact and immersion on players.  Handled well, massed battles are gripping RPG experiences.  Handled badly, they become a boring combat chore of dice roll+ consulting sheets ad nauseum.  Building the threat and tension of a massed battle, the insecurity of not knowing what is happening vs the horror of witnessing too much, the press, the sweat, the blood and entrails.  It is often more stressful before the fighting than during the actual combat if you run it well.

On 12/21/2017 at 1:43 AM, Xorgrim said:

For instance, how to apply the faction system, will be interesting. It does not have to be religion, in my view, because lots of Protestants were part of the Catholic League Army. There are strong indications that the author of the diary also was Protestant, although he never states this out-right.

One of the great ironies of the Thirty Years War is that most mercenaries didn't care about what they were fighting for.  They were fighting for a wage and personal advancement and had no religious ideological "dog in the fight".

On 12/21/2017 at 1:43 AM, Xorgrim said:

Of course, there are many superstitions in that world, so some Wise Women/Alchemy/Subtle Witchcraft would probably be ok. But I don't want a strong deviation from historical realism.

Don't neglect the possibilities of Rosicrucianism and Hermeticism which were the New Age movement of the day amongst the Intellectuals (including Descartes).

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