OSR: Mercenary Pointcrawl in 14th Century Italy, Preliminary Notes

Italian history is... complicated.
They can't keep getting away with it!
The War of the League of Cambrai took place a century after the time period I'll be examining, but the story still works:
  1. To curb the power of Venice, the Pope creates the anti-Venice League of Cambrai.
  2. The League is initially successful. Venice is in full retreat.
  3. The Pope concludes peace with the Venice. Venice privately decides to break the terms as soon as possible.
  4. France, invited into Italy by the Pope, is gaining power rapidly, and threatens the Papal States. The Pope allies with Venice against France.
  5.  The Pope creates the Holy League to combat French influence. Holy Roman Empire, Spain, etc. join.
  6. France negotiates peace with Venice. They agree to split northern Italy in half.
  7. The Pope, The Holy Roman Empire, etc. are aghast. Scotland, encouraged by France, declares war on England.
  8. The war quietly decays into a tangle of treaties. A new war starts up four years later.

The 14th century isn't much better. Most popular historians just give up and give some variant of "everyone fought everyone else". Academic historians focus on one city or a brief period. Records are poor. Some wars happened on paper; some treaties were signed by one side only and later used to justify another conflict. Factionalism in the cities made rulers disarm their citizens and turn to mercenaries; fickle and untrustworthy mercenaries switched sides, refused to fight, and extorted enormous concessions from their masters.
The interrelationships of Venice, Genoa, Milan, Piedmont, Florence, and assorted despots and communes of northern Italy were constantly shifting. As soon as one power joined another against a third for that season’s advantage, all alliances and feuds changed partners as if in a trecento square dance. Venice feuded with Genoa, Milan played off one against the other and feuded with Florence and the several principalities of Piedmont, Florence feuded with its neighbors, Siena, Pisa, and Lucca, and formed various leagues against Milan; papal politics kept the whole mass quivering.

-A Distant Mirror, Tuchman
The hills are full of brigands and wild dogs. The roads are lined with ruins. Villages burn, towns are surrounded by mutinous troops, and mercenary armies arrive and depart with the seasons. Ambitious kings starve. Antipopes appear. Exiled nobles plot and write endless letters. The sons of peasants become the rulers of cities. The settled order of the world is overturned.

The Plan

I'm still waiting on a few books to arrive before I start putting together full historical posts. Unfortunately, real life moves faster than writing. I need something for Monday. The distant war has finally lured a foolish group of PCs into its all-consuming maw. Time to think fast and write faster.


Step 1: Map

  • Take Italy in ~1360. File off the serial numbers.
  • Hexcrawl? Nah. Instead, points (fortified towns or cities), with random encounter tables that include villages, factions, etc. Let the encounter tables do the heavy lifting.
  • Luckily, I've already got a decent pointcrawl map of Italy from 1100
The black square is 10 mile x 10 miles. Travel times are for individuals or merchants on horseback, not armies. Historical accuracy is extremely dubious. I'm trying to create a framework that can survive editing as I get my notes in order, not something that's perfect from day 1.

I anticipate the campaign will mostly take place in the north, with the not-Papal States intriguing from below and not-France from above. Genoa, Pisa, Milan, Bologna, Venice, Siena, and Florence.

Step 2: the PCS

  • The standard GLOG hack I'm using works fine without any major changes, but there are lots of updates I'd like to make.
  • How can a group of PCs form a lance? I've noted before that soldier, archer, page => fighter, wizard, thief. Are there alternate structures, especially if the group has few fighters but many spellcasters or thieves? Who will act as the captain?
  • Camp followers and loathsome peasants abound. 
  • Mission generator? "Fix this, scout that, deal with this wizard business, kidnap this person, etc." 
  • Rather than paying taxes to a feudal lord, the PCs will (probably) end up working for a mercenary leader or a city. Turning over a percentage of their loot is inevitable, but getting the most out of their "taxes" is the fun part.

Step 3: Tabulate

I'll need to go through some relevant books and make some useful tables, like the Byzantine Table of Rulers.

Step 4: Consolidate

Put it all into a free PDF.
Osprey #155

Film References

Flesh+Blood (1985). One of the OSR-est films out there. Mercenaries rape, murder, and pillage their way through an unspecified fictional war. It's definitely got, err, HBO sensibilities, but it's got a lot of character. The greasy unnamed "Cardinal", the statue of St. Martin, the recurring characters and cunning schemes; it's full of useful content.

The Decameron (1971). A selection of stories from the Decameron, lightly edited and portrayed with untrained but enthusiastic actors. It's light, cheerful, bardy, colourful, and charming.

L'armata Brancaleone (1966). Another classic OSR film. The dialogue is straight out of a D&D session. The costumes are ludicrous.

Hard to Be a God (2013). The swirling chaos of this beautiful film covers the darker side of human existence. It's a difficult film. I might do a full Film Notes on it.

The Last Valley (1971). Wrong time period and region. Right attitude.

Final Notes

Don't worry. Magical Murder Mansion is done and waiting on print proofs. Magical Industrial Revolution is ticking along steadily.


  1. One of the best movies about the Italian Wars is "The Profession of Arms" about the great merceneary leader Giovanni dei Medici, I really recommend it. Also, as Italian, i would advise to add a road from Pisa to Parma: the franks road was a very important strategic chokepoint, controlled most of the time by the powerful Malaspina (evilthorn in italian) family.
    Keep up the good work, your blog is great!

    1. Fair points. Road added, film located.

  2. That's great! But how could you even understand Brancaleone if dont are more then proficent in Italian? Manu italian cant!

    1. Subtitles. Subtitles and lots of pausing to rewatch scenes.

    2. One of the best things about the film is the language spoken by he characters. It's actually a fictional language based on Vulgar Latin. It's a sort of a mix between Latin and Italian that sounds quite funny.

    3. Well huh! I didn't pick up on that on the first watch.

  3. I am *very* looking forward to this!

    I had dome some research in this area somewhat (well, more Dubrovnic, what was sandwiched between the greater powers of the Ottomans and Venise, so a bit later as well) and then Guy Gavriel Kay released a novel about the topic essentially, and I backed off.

    1. Well a blog post full of assorted notes and fragments would still be handy. :D

  4. This is relevant to my interests, as for years I've been toying with running a mercenary/revenge campaign inspired by Abercrombie's Best Served Cold and set in Warhammer's Tilea, because it's like Italy, but with ratmen.

    1. Excellent. Hopefully this will be useful.

  5. Oh, /awesome/. Please make this happen! More political manoeuvring than you can shake a stick at, alliances shifting while the ink on the treaty is still wet, hairbrained schemes for the players to get involved in, what's not to like?

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  7. Sounds good but what happened to the Kingdom of Sicily?

    1. It got cut / rolled into the kingdom of Naples.
      That's very unfair, I know, but I have to focus on something, and that something is everything north of Rome and south of the Alps.

  8. Always a pleasure to see a non-pseudo-England environment.

  9. What will you use for mass combat rules? While I assume that the focus will be on the individual PCs, half the fun of roleplaying in a chaotic, roiling conflict like the Italian Wars and suchlike are the battles! Sneaky tactics galore, units changing sides throughout the battle, and the never-ending fear that maybe you haven't paid your mercenaries recently and they're marching on your city?