The Fanatasy Role-Playing Game of Medieval Germany
A Land of Myth and Legend
Germany is a land rich in folk stories and fairy tales. Some can be traced to the pre-Christian age where barbarian Franks worshipped northern gods like Odin and Loki. The Dark Ages spawned the Siegfried myth: an invincible dragon-slaying hero doomed by an ancient curse he carelessly ignored. Many of the fairy tales collected by the 19th Century brothers Grimm come from the Middle Ages. Their random violence, capricious events, and conflicts between material wealth and proper social station echo popular concerns of the late medieval and early modern eras (1400 to 1700).
GEOGRAPHY: The Greater Germany of Darklands has a wide variety of geography. Except for the geest (heath) along the North Sea coast, the entire area was originally dense forest. Open land only exists because man cleared the forest for farming. Typically, the lowlands and flatlands were cleared first, while the hills and mountains remained tree-covered, a darkly ominous presence that overlooks fertile valleys.
In Germany skies are overcast more than clear, with frequent storms from the North Sea The colder air causes ground fogs that cloak valleys and lowlands with a white blanket. Winters are cold and snowy. Steep roofs are preferred, so heavy snow slides off, rather than collapsing the building.
The geest of Friesland, peopled by the Wends, is much like the heath and moors of Scotland or Nova Scotia. The land is very flat, tabling slowly into the North Sea. The coastline is a huge wetland with large tidal marshes that disappear beneath the sea during high tide. Cold, biting winds off the North Sea discourage trees, so the ground cover is mostly grass and brush.
Conversely, along the Baltic coast and to the east of the Oder, the land is flat but heavily forested. The original Slavic peoples, now heavily mixed with German colonists, are still sparse. Many future centuries will pass before this region becomes known as "the North German plain." In this age the brooding Eastern forests evoke visions of barbaric savages raiding Christian farmsteads, even if the reality is more likely to be a troop of Polish lancers charging battered, doomed, but still defiant Teutonic Knights.
Central Germany, between the Rhine and the Elbe, south of the geest and north of the Danube, is a fertile land dominated by the Thuringian Wald (forest) and the Harz. Both are low mountains covered with dense forest. The Harz is more rugged, with precipitous ravines and various places of evil repute, including Brocken, a high, frequently clouded, lightning-blasted mountaintop, and the Hexentanzplatz ("the place where the witches dance"). The Harz is also a fine mining site. However, some of the richest mines in Central Germany are along the slopes of the Erzgebirge (literally "the ore mountains") near Freiburg and Dresden.
The Rhine River originates in Switzerland, in the southwest corner of Greater Germany. As it flows northward to the sea, most of its length passes through heavily forested mountains and ridges. Eventually, between Duisberg and Wesel, its delta to the North Sea becomes a welter of waterways through Holland and Belgium. Although the Rhinelands are frequently rugged, there are more than enough fertile valleys and small plains to sustain a large population, including its many ancient cities.
The Danube originates in the Black Forest, near the start of the Rhine, but flows eastward toward Hungary and the Balkans. The south bank is a great watershed of plains and marshes, formed by rivers flowing from the Alps north into the Danube. This fertile plain is the heartland of Bavaria, with the trading cities of Ulm and Regensburg, the banking center of Augsburg, and somewhat to the north the famous craftsmen of Nürnberg.
South of this, the Alps themselves form a mighty rampart guarding the heartland of Switzerland and the northern Italian plains. Its passes are only open in summer. The jutting, ice-covered spires still inspire awe today. Medieval man imagined all manner of places and things among the inaccessible heights.
North of the middle Danube is the great basin of Bohemia, formed ages ago by a giant meteor. Its capital is Prag (Prague), but in this century it is most famous for silver mines and religious fanaticism: the Hussites, followers of Huss and Ziska. Although Germanic in this age, the common people have Slavic roots; many speak Czech. To Germans, Bohemia is a slightly strange, uncertain place where one must expect the unexpected.
FELLOW TRAVELLERS: When travelling the roads and countryside of Germany, there are many common sights. Travelling merchants with wagons and guards are commonplace. Due to the bandits and tolls, many of these merchants take uncommon or unexpected routes, preferring natural hazards to human ones. Merchants are naturally nervous about the intentions of anyone they meet.
Another common sight is the travelling friar. Such encounters are to be dreaded, since some friars use religious sentiment and the hint of eternal damnation to virtually extort almost anything from anybody, especially drink, money and food (roughly in that order!).
In war-torn lands, military scouts or entire armies are a constant danger. Even worse is the risk of travelling into lands under feud, where each side regards all others as potential enemies. During a feud ambushes, raids, and simple murder are commonplace.
A variety of other people also risk the rigors and danger of travel, from simple vagabonds and refugees to boldly bedecked noble parties going to or from some tournament.
HUNTING: Germany is covered with dense forests, some of them untouched by human habitation, while others grow on farmland left vacant after the Black Death. Unlike other realms, nobles have few legal claims on the forests, which allows more hunting by commoners. However, nobles sometimes claim any and all accessible land, regardless of their legal rights, and might take umbrage at "poachers." The best way to avoid such entanglements is to camp in remote areas.
BANDITS & RAUBRITTER: An extremely common danger to travellers is bandits. The hills, mountains and forests of Germany provide innumerable lurking places for human scum. Bandits are frequently criminals banished or exiled from more lawful cities and manors. Whenever a judge decided to banish a criminal (rather than mutilate or kill him), that criminal became a problem elsewhere. Local jails and dungeons are short-term "holding pens" until trials. Only prisoners held for ransom or political purposes might languish in dungeons for years.
There are no long-term prisons for criminals in this era. One is punished as necessary, then freed (if still living). Of course, some bandits have good reasons for their occupation. They might be dispossessed, struggling to live however they can. Many were unemployed or defeated mercenaries.
The worst of these bandits are the "raubritter," or robber knights. A raubritter usually claims a small piece of territory, based on his possession of a fortress. Supported by his band of thugs, he extorts tolls of all sorts from anyone passing near. A famous Austrian raubritter on the Danube didn't just stop at extorting river tolls. He preferred to toss his victims from his clifftop overlooking the river, enjoying the screams as they plunged to the rocks below. In fact, in 15th Century Germany river tolls were so common and so costly that most merchants preferred overland travel, despite its slower speed and greater difficulty.
THUGS AND THIEVES: Within cities life is more peaceful. Many cities are self-governing, with citizens forming a council and/or serving in an urban militia that drilled each weekend on a square or green. In times of danger, the militia might be supplemented by a hired mercenary company. These two sources provide the troops at the gates and walls, as well as the nightwatch. Almost every city has a late-night curfew, after which it is illegal to be on the streets until dawn.
Most German cities are well-regulated, with clean streets and a peaceful population. However, many have slums, run-down areas inhabited by the poor and/or a criminal element. This is the most dangerous part of any city. The next most dangerous activity is trying to stay outdoors or in a ruined building, rather than spending money for a room at the inn. Thieves usually prey on the weak and defenseless; only rarely will they risk capture in the "better" parts of town.
Sometimes travellers find a city in the midst of upheaval. The citizens may be unhappy with the government, or vice versa. Political stresses often require a certain amount of violence, or threatened violence, before they are resolved. To this end, "thugs" hired by each party prowl the streets, looking for suspicious activity and punishing it. Urban politics is a dangerous and stressful occupation in such circumstances!
Beasts and Monsters
In the 1400s Europeans had a fanciful and mythological view of the creatures inhabiting the world. Even the great naturalistic studies of the 1500s (Ambroise Pare and Konrad Gesner) still included human hermaphrodites, fur-covered women, children with dog's legs, demons created by sorcerers, Arabian unicorns, etc. Only some of the more common possibilities and dangers are listed below. Always expect the unexpected.
WOLF: Packs of wild wolves are among the most common dangers to travellers in Germany. In fact, in times of famine, wolves were known to invade towns and villages, pulling down their victims in the middle of a street! The likelihood and determination of a wolf attack depends on their hunger. Since wolves attack for food, they only bring down what they need -- frequently one person, rather than the entire party.
BOAR: Boars are common in medieval forests. If threatened, they will fight to the death, and their method of fighting is to make ferocious charges. Sometimes the only warning of an attack is the rustling of thickets as the boar hurtles toward you.
Once committed to a fight, boars continue to their dying breath. For example, impaling a boar with a normal spear doesn't stop it; the boar continues charging as the spear slides through its body, undeterred by an eventually mortal wound. This is why "boar spears" have a crossbar near the point. Furthermore, boars continue to attack until all their opponents are dead or have fled.
BEAR: Like boars, bears are unpredictably dangerous animals. When hungry, they will scavenge human camps or settlements, and become angry if disturbed. Threatening a bear's cubs is a sure way to provoke a fight.
Bears are among the strongest of wild animals, formidable opponents in hand-to-hand fighting. However, they are also fairly intelligent. Painful wounds may demoralize them, and unlike boars they do not always fight to the death.
Bearskins have some modest value in most marketplaces.
GIANT SPIDER: There are spiders as large as big dogs that hunt for prey, including humans. Any prey they cannot immediately eat is killed, then bundled for later use. Giant spiders are fast and have poisonous fangs, but can be driven away unless starving. These creatures are frequently reported in forests, but there are tales of spiders found in mines, ruined buildings, and (once) inside a cathedral.
TATZELWURM: This large, vicious lizard has two legs and a long, whip-like tail. It is very agile, and is rumored to have a poisonous bite. It fights tenaciously for its territory, which is usually in high alpine lands. The tatzelwurm easily climbs trees, and has been reported in the deep forests.
The tail of the tatzelwurm is reputed to have magical properties. Alchemists have not yet found a use for it, but the very rumors help enhance its value in the marketplace.
WEREWOLF: These are men who have given themselves to a devil, who gives them the power to transform from man to wolf, and back again, as they desire. Werewolves usually trick humans by appearing in human form, then transforming and killing their victim in an unguarded moment. The goals of a werewolf depend on the hungers and lusts that drive their human souls. Predictably, a person who gives his soul to a devil can have quite unpleasant desires!
In a famous case of the late 1500s "Stubbe Peter" terrorized the area around Cperadt and Bedbur in Germany. Peter was driven by unnatural lechery and lust for females, from small girls to attractive women. He would chase down a victim as a wolf, transform to a man and ravish her, then transform back to a wolf and kill her. He disliked most men, and killed his own son.
SCHRAT: This large, hairy, hulking creature of the woods is also known as the "wodewose." Roughly human-shaped, schrats are simple-minded, unable to speak, and frequently either angry or lustful (so much so that another nickname is "wild man"). Many have greenish hair, and are mistaken for small trees by some travellers. Others consider them deformed ogres. Little good can be expected from a schrat; if it cannot be avoided, it usually must be fought. Women should be especially careful around them, as they could be captured and defiled. However, the schrat's companion, the holzfrau, is very different.
HOLZFRAU: This large, hair-covered but humanoid female is also known as the "waldmannlein," "woodwife" or "faun." It is the normal mate to a schrat. Holzfraus are intelligent, beautiful in their own peculiar way, and generally friendly, especially if regularly given offerings of food and tools. There are many cases of holzfrau kindness to lonely, lost humans in the woods.
OGRE: These semi-human, large, misshapen, but powerful creatures are a continual danger to mankind. They hide in the deepest forests and most remote mountains, to avoid capture and death. Ogres are hunters. Their great favorite is the taste of human flesh. Falling into their power is almost invariably fatal. Fortunately, ogres are also stupid. More than one potential victim has literally talked his or her way out of the pot!
KOBOLD: These small, dark creatures live underground, usually within small cracks in the rock. Their thin bodies and spindly limbs let them move through apparently impassable areas. They are hostile to all who invade their realm, but are not especially brave or intelligent. They hate human miners, and frequently set traps, ruin ore veins, cause fires, and generally do their best to kill the human invaders. Fortunately, individual kobolds are weak fighters, with poor weapons and no armor beyond their leathery skin.
Sometimes kobolds are ruled by the far craftier dwarfs. Then the situation depends on the attitude of their dwarf ruler. When directed by dwarf cunning, kobolds can become very dangerous opponents.
DWARF: These semi-human creatures prefer to live underground, in mountains and/or caves. They are small, dark, and slightly twisted. Cunning and dangerous, they frequently rule a clan of kobolds and/or gnomes. Dwarfs consider humans a numerous but inferior race, mostly pests, but sometimes useful. Their gifts to humans are frequently double-edged, with both advantages and disadvantages. For example, the famous Ring of the Niebelungen, made by Albrecht the Dwarf from the cursed Rhinegold, caused the death of all who owned it, including the hero Siegfried.
Some dwarfs are reputed to be great sorcerers and magicians, which suggest they are in league with Satan. Presumably, therefore, they can command some of the same powers as witches and other satanic cults.
GNOME: These are creatures of the rock itself, elementals that embody the living spirit of the earth. Gnomes are not easily aroused, but some dwarfs and kobolds know the secret. Certainly humans do not, and do not really understand what motivates them. Many believe that gnomes are disturbed if humans tunnel into their homes.
Gnomes can cause tremors, cracks and quakes. They can also leave their home in the rock and fashion a body from loose rock and dirt. These incarnations are very dangerous but usually brief. Miners believe that unnatural cave-ins are actually gnomes briefly aroused by a kobold, dwarf or perhaps some human transgression.
VULCAN: This is a creature of the deep underground, of the fiery depths where rock itself burns. Sometimes they are called "fire elementals," but this implies too great a universality. Vulcans avoid the surface or air, preferring the depths of the earth. They may have existed before the fall of Satan; it is unclear whether they just happen to inhabit hell, or they actually are controlled by its ruler.
Few humans have ever seen a vulcan, fewer still have survived the encounter. Nobody has any real understanding of them. The only consistent information is that they are very active in some mountains, sometimes leaping from mountaintops or migrating down a mountainside. Fortunately, these events are brief, after which the vulcans once again disappear underground.
DRAGON: The dragon is not a natural or living creature. Instead, the dragon is an embodiment of evil, waiting for the final battle of Armageddon (as predicted in Revelations). Then it will fight with the forces of the Antichrist. Dragons do not eat normally: the more they eat, the hungrier they become, until they eat the entire world. A dragon cannot be satisfied. The more treasure it has the more it desires, until it has the entire treasure of the world and goes mad with the desire for more. The very existence of a living dragon, with its unnatural hungers, causes all types of sickness in the land, spreading pestilence and evil.
Dragons are rumored to be intelligent, but their motivations are unknowable and certainly unnatural. As a foe, a dragon is formidable: well armored, with powerful jaws and tail, it can spit fire and flame. Dragons have been killed in combat, but usually with divine and/or magical weaponry. Fortunately, the premature awakening of a dragon (i.e., before the final battle in the apocalypse) is quite rare.
Heretics and Devil Worshippers
In this era the greatest threat to mankind is Satan himself. Satan tempted man into sin, encouraging all evils small and large. Satan could and did appear to people in virtually any form, offering any number of temptations. With the aid of Christ, man fights a constant battle not only to hold off evil, but to recover those under Satan's sway.
DEMONS: These creatures are spawned by Satan, then transported to or materialized upon the earth. In their natural form, all are grotesque, with beaks, flippers, fish-eyes, rat-tails, and worse. Some are great wizards and magicians, while others are not better than stupid thugs, armed with clubs. A few might be strong warriors, but Satan-worshipping humans usually serve this role better.
Demons can be killed on earth, although many die quite slowly. However, an earthly death simply sends their spirit back to hell, where their existence continues. Therefore, demons are almost never afraid of injury or death.
The appearance of demons is a sure sign that either Satan or his henchmen/worshippers are near. Demons almost never appear randomly or on their own.
HELLHOUNDS: These dogs of hell are demonic creatures that serve Satanic masters. Larger than normal dogs, they are skeletal, with rat-like tails and large mouths full of ferocious fangs.
Properly speaking, hellhounds are a specific species of demon. They are something like ever-hungry, ferocious, mad wolves.
GARGOYLES: These winged creatures are also denizens of judgment and hell. They appear on churches as reminders of the evil in the world. Nobody really understands how living gargoyles are brought into the world, but once "alive" on Earth they cause desolation and destruction. They can be killed like animals, but it is unclear whether they die, or simply return to hell, like a demon.
UNDEAD: Witches and satanic priests, using methods unknown, are able to recreate a semblance of life in bodies otherwise long dead. These corpses may contain various amounts of flesh, or may be purely skeletal, depending on their age. Communication with the undead is supposedly possible, suggesting that when reanimated, the bodies retain some of their former knowledge and abilities.
WITCHES: Frequently female, these are people who have made a pact with a devil. They give themselves entirely into the power of Satan, and in return receive various unholy and evil gifts or powers. Some witches are solitary. Others organize "sabbats" where they lead a small congregation in the unholy rites of devil-worship.
Witches are known to have powerful curses, which can cause sickness or death. Witches can summon spirits that influence the minds of the unwary, causing illusions, unnatural emotions, and evil acts. This includes summoning Incubi or Succubi to lead astray the unwary. Witches can summon demons for various specific, short purposes. Witches, using various invocations or ointments, can fly on ordinary objects. Witches can have their bodies temporarily inhabited by a devil. This occupation can transform their body into another form and shape. Witches sometimes can change others from human into beast form. Finally, witches have some command over evil weather, and can sometimes call hail or lightening.
HERETICAL CULTS: The unhappy condition of the Church inspired various splinter groups throughout the Middle Ages. For example, the Cathars (sometimes termed "Albigensians") created a splinter cult in the 1140s that was eventually declared heresy, resulting in a series of bloody "crusades" in the early 1200s within France that exterminated them.
Another splinter group, now active in Bohemia, are the Hussites. Jan Huss originally sought Church reform, and debated theological issues within Church guidelines. When guaranteed safety, he presented his views at the great Council of Constance in 1415. There he was betrayed, condemned as a heretic, and killed.
This inspired a great rebellion in Bohemia, rallying around a new Hussite religion, and led by the military genius Jan Ziska. The Emperor was unwilling to lose such a rich and important province, so nobles from the rest of Germany formed armies, year after year, for campaigning into Bohemia, to stamp out rebellion and recapture rebel strongholds.
Historically the rebels eventually fell to bickering among themselves on religious issues. Disunited and without external allies, they ultimately were defeated by Imperial forces.
THE TEMPLARS: The most famous heretical cult of the Middle Ages was the Knights of the Temple. Originally formed during the Crusades to help provide military manpower and officially recognized in 1128, they became a rich and successful order, despite military reverses in Palestine. Unfortunately, unlike their brother order, the Hospitallers, they ended up with an extremely large, rich headquarters in the heartland of Europe, outside of Paris.
In the early 1300s, King Philip IV ("the Fair") of France, inspired by the dispossessed nobleman Esquiu de Floyran, decided to pursue accusations of heresy against the Templars. The Pope, recently "relocated" to Avignon in France, agreed. In a few years the order was destroyed. Its leaders and devil-worshipping rites, including keeping the Head of Baphomet, a demon, on the wall of their council chamber, where they could receive information, advice, and instruction from Satan. The great wealth of the Templars was declared forfeit to the King of France, who thereby managed to escape virtual bankruptcy.
The Templars were soon crushed in France and England. Their disgrace insured the quick demise of the remaining fortresses and possessions in the eastern Mediterranean. However, in Germany and eastern Europe the fate of the Templars varied widely, depending on the attitude of the local prince. Unlike France, no great extermination befell them within the Holy Roman Empire.
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