The Setting

“Siamo al tempo delle compagnie di ventura composte in gran parte da gente spregiudicata, rampolli di feudatari spiantati, insofferenti alle nuove leggi borghesi, irrequieti, buoni a maneggiar la spada, prepotenti e feroci.”

The Ancient and Modern Eras: Past and Present

This “Uchronic” setting divides History into two large containers, namely the Past and the Present. 

The Past encompasses antiquity, more or less everything that happened “before” until the time of Matilde of Canossa, and includes such figures as Anselm of Nonantola or Gundeberga (the “Bonissima” of Modena). It is the epoch in which the origins of ancient monuments, the poets of the Classical Age, the roads of the Ancient Romans, the last Byzantine dominions, and the Longobard and Frankish ancestors who founded many of the major lineages of the Present are placed. It is the time of the dynasties of the Holy Roman Empire and the Early Middle Ages, of the “barbarian” Celts, Etruscans, and Friniati Ligurians. All that is Past can be indiscriminately thrown into this catch-all category.

Matilde, moreover, is still alive in a state of undeath, and through the relic of her ancestor Sigifriedo‘s skull she still controls what happens in the lands of Badia through the buildings she erected during her lifetime, but we will discuss this in the chapter devoted to Matilde of Canossa.

The Present is given by the amalgamation of characters and events dating from the time between 1000 and the 1600s (with abundant freedom to foray into the centuries before and after), assuming that they are all taking place at the same time. In this present temporal context occurs the First Crusade, the Battle of Zapppolino, the Battle of Fossalta, and the Castro Wars to name a few.

The Four Eras

The Sacrum Imperium and the Papacy

Emperor Frederick I of House Hohenstaufen rules the powerful Sacrum Imperium, delighted with his newborn heir, his grandson Frederick II, the one who would be known as the Antichrist. At the birth of the young scion, in Rome’s cathedral, St. Peter opened his eyes and emitted a hiss of agony that was heard by all the Primarchs. Templar guards raised defenses in all the churches of the imperium, and a papal legate was sent to the emperor’s court to demand the sacrifice of his nephew. At this demand, Frederick had the legate flayed, returning the human skin to the pope in a casket. The skin bore the Emperor’s reply: an inscription accusing the pope of being in the service of Astarotte demon of temptation and as such the legate suffered the fate of the apostle Bartholomew.

Modena and the Comitatus Mutinae

Formerly a Roman castrum during the conquest of the Gaul, Modena became a firm outpost of Este power coordinated from the Palace of Ferrara. From here the Estes administer the city and neighboring territories thanks to the cruel mad scion Niccolò III, delegating command to the south in the difficult mountains of the Province of Frignano to the powerful House Montecuccoli, generals of the Emperor, and to the northern march comprising the Duchy of Mirandola of House Pico, a wealthy and influential family in a perpetual struggle with the diabolically cruel Bonacolsi of Mantua and their rivals the Gonzaga (not to be overlooked is the Este’s enormous debt to the Gonzaga for the construction of the Ferrara Castle). In Carpi, the House Pio lineage ran a border brand, the Principality of Carpi.

The Comitatus Mutinae, or direct dominion of the city, also included the Garfagnana area (portion of the Apennines that touches Lucchese territory), while several independent lands remained entrenched in their own territories under noble families of uncertain allegiance. Among the Estense and independent domains, and churches loyal to the pope, mercenary commanders of fortune offered their swords to the highest bidder enriching themselves with blood and steel.

Topics covered

You will notice that the setting is suffocatingly and deeply unfair. There are no good guys in this world, only those who stay alive. Social injustices of all kinds overlap in everyday life, and yet humanity, with its superstitions and distortions allows shelter from the threats that loom everywhere. It is a poor world pervaded by hunger and cold, hard work, rigid social classes, and fear of God. We will not say you can play any kind of character any more than we will say you have the option of playing a left-handed character: of course, you can play the character you want, or give any slant to your campaign. Any narrative option you can think of can be applied in a game that is intended here only to introduce the setting for the stories that you will be creating.

Do you want to change the world? All you have to do is want to, and take up with the Game Master. What you will find in these pages remains a harsh world, of social classes brutally imposed by a feudal system where, by the way, the Salic law is in force, and being a woman is anything but an easy thing, even in court, where sodomy is concealed or punished by death, and anything resembling a deformity is seen as a devilish sign leading in the direction of burning.

Of Iron and Thorns does not stand as a historical reality in any way, but visualizes stereotypical imagery of a zealot in the 1300s, with devilish signs hidden in the crops and hideous monsters created by pagan heresies. But it is precisely because it is an unjust and harsh world that those with the makings of heroes can prove their worth, and change things.

Expanding the world

Here again, we are forced to confirm the obvious. This supplement is just a starting point that gives you the tools to delve into other parts of Italy in the same way that will be done for Emilia and Romagna. In all likelihood within a radius of 100 kilometers, you have enough elements for a campaign that will last for years. Saints, churches, rural shrines, kings, warlords, baronies, ancient ruins, and unparalleled works of art are everywhere, as are legends and millennia of history.

Use this handbook as a starting point and dig out data from local texts, plaques outside buildings, and the tales of the elders.