Renaissance Mentality

December 21st, 2008

rpgblogcarnivallogoBack to the Renaissance.  My previous post in this series dealt mainly with England during the Renaissance and how similar changes might apply to a game world.  Of course, not all areas experienced the same changes.  Today I’ll look at the birthplace of the Renaissance and an intriguing setting in its own right:  Italy.

The Renaissance began in Italy in the later half of the 14th century, spurred by a reawakening interest in the art and culture — and the ideas — of the ancient Greeks and Romans that began earlier in that century.  But although I say “Italy” for the sake of convenience, it’s important to understand that this is purely a geographic designation.  There was no Italy as a political body, at the time; instead, there was an array of city-states, duchies, and republics of various characters.  These city-states did not get along — war was common during the period, with the city-states employing armies of mercenaries.  Almost all of the war was internal, however, aside from a few incursions by Holy Roman emperors.

Map of Renaissance-era Italy

Map of Renaissance-era Italy

The map to the right shows the city-states.  There were some shifts during the period, but it gives a basic idea of the political landscape.

The north part of Italy was much richer than the south at the onset of the period, and the most powerful states — Venice, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Ferrara — were in the north.  By contrast, the southern states were poorer and weaker; the Papal States were practically lawless, partly due to the Pope’s relocation to Avignon, France.  Venice, Florence, and Genoa in particular had established banking and trade empires.  Guilds became very powerful in Florence, and its florin became an international trading standard.

During this period, society urbanized — cities expanded, and greater proportions of the population began to live in the cities, rather than in rural areas.  This helped to weaken the feudal system; the increasing wealth of the merchant class, and the relative poverty of the lesser nobility, led to a further decline.  (And northern Italy’s feudal system wasn’t very deeply rooted to begin with.)  Merchants eventually held most of the true power in the city-states.  Under their influence, many laws that interfered with commerce were repealed.  Trade reached across the continent in a way that hadn’t seen since the days of the Roman Empire.

Then the Black Plague struck; the Ottoman Empire began to expand in the east, harming trade; and several large banks in Florence collapsed after the King of England refused to acknowledge his debts.  The Plague, and the inability of the church to do anything about it, led to a lessening of church power; meanwhile, the declining economy incited further chaos.  With the collapse of the large banks, the Medici family rose to power in Florence.  In Milan, the Visconti family, essentially a monarchy, launched a series of wars and began building an empire.  Coalitions led by Florence attempted, and failed, to halt him, casting the conflict as one of the republican ideals of the Greeks and the Roman Republic against the despotism of the medieval era.  Florence itself was beseiged in 1402, and was saved only when the head of the Visconti family suddenly died, and his empire collapsed.

By about that time, Venice ruled the sea, having defeated the Genoan fleets (who had themselves earlier defeated the Pisans).  This naval dominance, and the Peace of Lodi signed between Florence and Milan in 1454, led to decades of peace and stability throughout the region, and the artists and authors, who had begun to receive patronage a half-century earlier, flourished, their work spreading and ultimately inspiring the Renaissance of northern Europe.

There’s lots of potential here for a game.  The main difference between early Renaissance Italy and the rest of Europe was the power of merchants and artisans; on most of the continent, artisans were lower-class, but because merchants had gained so much power in Italy, they became a new aristocratic class.  Guilds in many games already reflect this state — they’re large, politically powerful, their members well-off if not filthy rich.  Most games, however, also feature a strong feudal-style system, though perhaps one more urbanized than the norm.  Replace that with the collection of squabbling city-states that was Italy, and you change the dynamic considerably.

One of the interesting things about the period is the nature of war.  While the wars were constant, they were also relatively slow and nonlethal — there were few pitched battles, and many sieges and efforts to outmaneuver the enemy.  Wars were fought mostly by mercenaries, often bands of German and Swiss soldiers under Italian commanders, and it suited their purposes to prolong the conflicts in order to be paid more (and also to avoid putting their lives on the line when possible, naturally).  It was also a double-edged sword — an army of mercenaries who weren’t paid might turn on their employers, and a state that depended entirely on mercenaries for defense might find the mercenaries taking over the state.

This means there are great opportunities for PCs, either as soldiers in a war plot or as diplomats in a spin on the court intrigue.  Imagine a setting where everyone is scheming — the merchants, the mercenaries, the rulers of the city-states (who are often more merchants).  There is no greater authority to exert control — no powerful king or church to rein in the various parties.  And they’re all out for their own, often mutually-exclusive, interests.  Even within a single city, there might be feuding families.  The law is probably weak, except where it relates to commerce.

Consider Romeo and Juliet, for that matter.  Shakespeare knew a compelling setting.

In a fantasy world, you don’t actually have to change that much.  Scientific innovation didn’t really come around until later; this was the early period, the time of art, architecture, music, and philosophy.  Wizardry might be one of those arts.  Most game worlds don’t feature a single strong religion, but the increase in secularism during this period might weaken some of the churches in your game world.  On the other hand, the interest in the philosophy of antiquity might strengthen others.

You might feature a flowering of a republican state, either a corrupt one or an ideal.  One of the more interesting possibilities here is to make that particular city-state a “monstrous” one.  Remember those rifle-wielding kobolds?  What if they administer the territory they’ve claimed for themselves as a republic?  Imagine them in the position of Venice — a relatively democratic state (the “Duke” or Doge of Venice was one member of an elected council, who served as a ceremonial head of state) with a relatively strong military (a fleet, in Venice’s case), sitting on top of and positioned to control a major trade artery (the Mediterranean).

Then imagine that the state that opposes them is similar to Milan — more regimented and feudal, with a powerful noble, perhaps a king, in authority.  A fairly despotic sort of king, inclined to make war on his weaker neighbors and add their territory to his own.  Perhaps a just, but harsh, ruler, who believes order must be imposed on the chaotic region, and that his end justifies his means.  And he wants those kobolds out of power.  And he’s turning to the PCs to accomplish that.

Hopefully this poses a bit of a moral dilemma for the PCs — the kobolds’ state is actually less repressive and more “modern” in nature than the king’s, not to mention less aggressive now that it’s established itself.  But is that a temporary state while they’re consolidating their power?  Are their policies a destabilizing influence on the greater region?  Or are they a lesser evil than a would-be emperor, no matter how benign his intent?  (Then again, is his intent really that benign?  Macchiavelli lived during the Renaissance too…)

And perhaps there’s a third state which has orchestrated the conflict, a state which even now lurks in the wings, waiting and watching until its rivals are vulnerable.  Will it intervene by sending mercenaries to gobble up a portion of the weaker party’s land?  Is it waiting to snatch control of a certain trade from its rival city?  Perhaps it’s a personal vendetta, and its leader simply wants the king deposed by whatever means necessary…

It’s a setting in which you can play intrigue, war, romance, diplomacy, even a bit of swashbuckling — all at once.  If you like to change up your sub-genres and offer a wide variety of different types of adventures, Renaissance Italy may be the setting for you.

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Related posts:

  1. Renaissance Mandate
  2. Renaissance Unfair
  3. My Elves are… Odd

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2 Comments

  1. Sven, Dec. 22, 2008, 3:53 am:

    Actually one shouldn’t confuse being part of the 3rd estate with being powerless. In most of Europe (France, Germany, Italy) only free peasants and the burghers constituted the 3rd estates, while serfs weren’t part of it, until they were set free by her master.

    How rich or how power one could become wasn’t of any concern of the estates. The rich merchant families that lead the Hansa were all nominally part of the 3rd estate. While at the same time there were also starving priests in the 1st estate and destitute nobles in the 2nd estate.

    Estate is a functional organisation of society, not one on wealth and power (like the modern class system).

    Sven´s last blog post: Schiffsnamen, -bilder, -maße? — Kein Problem

  2. Scott, Dec. 22, 2008, 6:49 pm:

    That’s only true to an extent, though. Where the feudal system was strong, a rich commoner risked having his assets seized by the crown or the nobility under some pretext. The French merchant Jacques Couer was one well-known example. (Although he and his family were ennobled for a brief time.)

    Poor nobles who owed debts to rich commoners didn’t always suffer the indigity in silence…

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