Why the Thirty Years War would make a good setting for a role-playing game

While on vacation in Maine, staying in our usual rental cabin in Wells, we strolled 100 yards along Rt. 1 to Harding’s Books, a popular local used bookstore. Blissfully burdened with an armload of second-hand Gore Vidal books, I stumbled across Richard Berleth’s The Twilight Lords: The Fierce, Doomed Struggle of the Last Great Feudal Lords of Ireland Against the England of Elizabeth I. Quite the title. I usually buy books about medieval Irish history without blinking, and this, even though it detailed a period of the later Middle Ages Ireland rather than the earlier of which I was more familiar, proved no exception. It sat unread on my shelf for several months, until a rain day in the study found me idling among the “to read” books. Picking it up, I discovered a detailed tale about a truly horrible period of Irish history, well crafted by an author who obviously loved his material. Centering mostly on the Second Desmond Rebellion (1578 – 1583), the book continues on with the Tyrone Rebellion, or the Nine Years War (1594 – 1603). It mentions the other armed conflicts of the time, especially those that bogged England’s efforts in Ireland: the wars with Spain and the Low Countries. As he concludes, Berleth casually mentions the Flight of the Earls, the abandonment of Ireland for Europe of 99 of the leading Northern Irish nobles, including Tyrone and his family. It also mentions the Wild Geese, squads of armed Irish with no more war to fight at home, who fled their homeland to enlist in armies abroad. Several of these mercenary contingents found work from the paymasters of the Thirty Years War.

A war of which I knew nothing. I had an inking that it was one of Europe’s religious wars, which it is and isn’t. Thumbing through the university library catalog – clicking through the library links is more accurate – I found C. V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War. The book is a monumental work of scholarship. Ms. Wedgwood read an incredible amount of German, Czech , Spanish and French sources to synthesize a detailed, comprehensive summary of the conflict, starting before the war to explain its outbreak, and ending after the Peace of Westphalia, the peace agreement that solved nothing but eventually stopped the fighting. Rather, paused the fighting until it erupted again.

It is not an easy conflict to understand, because there were many parties involved. First there were the kings, the Hapsburg Emperor of Austria, the Hapsburg King of Spain, the Bourbon King of France, the King of Denmark, The King of Sweden, The King of Poland, and reluctantly the King of England. Added to these authorities were the German princes, kings of their own smaller territories, semi-loyal lieges to the Emperor, and each empowered to wage war and make peace on their own terms. These potentates were split by race (language), geography, and religion. The Dutch United Provinces participated, as did the Swiss Cantons, the duchy of Milan, the kingdom of Venice, and the pope. In the field, each ruler had his generals, near-independent political entities that often but not always followed their leader’s orders. The more famous generals, Tilly, and Wallenstein, Bernard of Saxe-Weimar were lesser nobility that thought to improve their station and carve personal kingdoms from their territorial victories. Each belligerent thus had a personal stake in the outcome of the war, both in its aggression and its eventual settlement.

Coupled with these many political differences are the religious differences of the time. Central Europe was split between Catholics and Protestants, each of whom took property and privilege away from the other. Both groups were further split; the Protestants were divided  into Lutherans and Calvinists (who hate each other) and French Huguenots, while the Church was divided between Jesuits (tasked with leading the Counter-Reformation) and the more passive Capuchins, who focused on a policy-changing approach over the Jesuits more militant approach. Initially these factions did not cooperate, but as the war slogged on, some Catholic groups would ally with other Protestant forces, usually as a counter to a more powerful third party.

Muddy alliances,  multiple factions, and the possibility of personal gain through military achievement make the war an exciting backdrop for a role-playing game. Conflict exists on many levels, from the lowly peasant evading hostile troops, to the captain trying to maintain regiment loyalty, to the cavalry general trying to outmaneuver his enemy, to the prince trying to protect his province, and finally to the king trying to retain or increase his kingdom. Characters who exist in any of these social strata could find adequate challenges for an evening’s session of play. It is not inconceivable, although historically highly unlikely, for a character to rise through the ranks of society, from footman to captain to general to prince, risen up through military victories, crafty alliances, shrewd diplomacy, and blind luck.

Plenty of room to move for the group’s warrior-types, what about spell-casters, or those interested in a more fantastical approach to history? Happily – for modern gamers, it must have been horrific for those involved – the witch craze of early modern Europe was in full swing in the early seventeenth century. For a game, I’d throw in spell-casting witches, both good and evil, demons, and a horde of other infernal minions. I’d also give Catholic and Protestant priests different spell casting options, probably not like the D&D cleric, but something more like the subtle influence spell-casters find in HeroQuest. Arcane magic, religious magic, demons . . . everything you need.

And once the players tire of war, the peace process is just as challenging. Each individual political entity needs a treaty, and will join with some and not with others. Historically the peace process took almost two years, and was the second attempted. As one group of characters blazes it on defending an independent city, another rushes to save a friend accused of witchcraft, and a third negotiate a delicate introduction at a formal dinner that may lead them into a necessary political intrigue.

The history is there. The setting is ready. The internet drips with detailed maps. The only thing lacking so far is a system. Which role-playing mechanic fits the situation?

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9 Responses to Why the Thirty Years War would make a good setting for a role-playing game

  1. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    I read Wedgewood’s Thirty Years War at school.back in 1985 and has exactly the same reaction. I did run an RQ3 game based on a mercernary troupe in the conflict but yes great setting. And the reason most of my friends know what the Defenestration of Prague was…

    • Matt Ryan says:

      It’s good to know great minds think alike, although it sounds like I’m 30 years behind your mental clinkings! Up next I fancy a good summary of the Crimean War. Any suggestions?

      • Chris Jensen Romer says:

        Actually on the 30YW Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay draws on it strongly, but the most direct use is AEG rpg 7th Sea. Both worth picking up!

        The best book on Crimea is a volume of photos and reports from The Times war correspondent who was there. I forget his name but it is excellent.

  2. gonzohistory says:

    I was also going to say that the Germany of the Thirty Years War is clearly one of the inspirations for the Empire in WHFRP, with Ulric and Sigmar standing in for Catholics and Protestants.

    • Matt Ryan says:

      I’ve only a passing familiarity with WHFRP, despite owning several of the second edition volumes, but I too noticed the connection. I don’t know much about the Empire, other than someone named Sigmar is an important figure. I’ve contemplated buying the “Sigmar’s Heirs: A Guide to the Empire”.

      • gonzohistory says:

        For more grimy 30YW flavour, check out 1st ed materials — although they’re still less based on history and more sort of The Last Valley and so on.

        Someone once called the Warhammer world “Terry Gilliam’s Thirty Years War.”

        Partly, I think it’s just because they have landsknechts and pistol cavalry and cannons and so on, which I think was an intentional move by GW to make their setting less interchangeable with conventional medieval fantasy, perhaps?

  3. Peter "Denmark" Bavngaard Thrane says:

    I am running a campaign set in the 30YW. I picked 1631 just after the decisive victory of the protestant union under the Swedes at Breitenfeld as a starting point. My PCs are mercenaries in the regiment of a catholic general. I have used historical figures and not tweaked them much – you can find some pretty crazy stories about these generals if you take a look. I find German sources to be better than English ones – also true for Wikipedia articles, but there is a wealth of information, reenactors etc in other places on the web.
    I am steering my PCs towards a rehashing of a less famous battle in Bohemia (modern-day Czech Rep) that really took place in 1647, but which i am rewriting based on historical and archeological accounts to be set in the fall in 1631 as a protestant attempt of establishing a bridgehead in Bohemia after the victory at Breitenfeld.
    30YW is a great, free setting. Armies acted very much on their own and most battles were skirmishes between smaller groups of raiding parties.
    I’m thinking, if my PCs endure, that they can choose to go into any other conflict in Europe after (if) Wallenstein dies in 1634. The world is full of conflict – 80 years war in the Netherlands, Spanish inquistion, the New World, English Civil War, France, Poland-Lithuania versus Russia or Cossacks, Danish-Swedish wars, Italian city states and the Vatican, the Ottoman Empire…

    And I’m finding it very much easier to use Google maps and historical maps to plan environment, weather, countryside, travel distances etc.

    • Matt Ryan says:

      Fantastic reply, thanks.
      Couple questions: what system are you using? What rpg? What is your main source? I’m limited to English accounts and am using Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War. If you’ve made a google map for your campaign, I’d love to see it. I’ve used google maps for many of the Ars Magica tribunal books I’ve participated in writing.

  4. dante says:

    I would love to see a fantasy seting based on 30 year war, with spanish, holly roman empire, french, english, swedish, danish etc factions (or fantasy counterparts). You have a lot of posibilities. So many fronts to fight, so many factions to choose….. and, as you said, you can give diferent kinds of magic resources to any group. Maybe, the danish could reutilice ancient norse pagan magic, or the transilvanian principate could have real vampires in its army. Or the Turks could have arab nights style magic (traping and sumonin dijinn)

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