Montsegur 1244 is a freeform story-game that came out about a decade ago. I read through it once in 2012, but gave it another, closer look earlier this week, and thought I’d say a few things about it now.
I’ve been interested in Occitania since I was a teenager, and not because of the troubadours. (That came later, during my undergraduate studies of music and literature.) No, it was because I was—if I may be dramatic for a moment—entrapped within the prison-house of Catholicism and looking to understand the nature of the jailkeepers.
My studies led me, not too indirectly, to the Cathars, a group of “heretics” who, instead of being loved by the Church, were slaughtered by them. That’s an interesting thing about imperialism: the most recent instances are “international” and often inter-ethnic, so we tend to think of imperialist oppression as being inherently so… but if you look far enough back into history, you see that the modern nation-states that carried it out were themselves the result of the same process at first being imposed on people much closer to home, and much more like the people conquering them. (So, of course, were the worlds that those imperialist nation states shattered the process of smaller-scale imperialisms.)
This is not to excuse any of it, obviously; it’s just that we’ve lost that bit of perspective about how this urge to conquer others and push them to be like us—or at least to give us their stuff and their land—has been a part of the human palette (ugly as it is) for much, much longer than usually is acknowledged.
So: Occitania, Languedoc, Pays d’Oc… it was not France. Not until sometime after 1244, when the Albigensian Crusade came to its tumultuous end with the conclusion of the siege of Montsegur.
What was Montsegur? The last stronghold of the Cathars, that “heretical” group I mentioned above. Heretical how? Well, on one level, it doesn’t matter: they weren’t Church, so they were seen as an evil to be stamped out. On another level, we don’t know that much, because they were wiped out and in part we have to rely on the testimony of the people who threatened them with a burning at the stake if they didn’t recant their faith and “return” to the Church. (Some texts apparently do survive, but not enough for us to be sure the Cathars weren’t just an anti-clerical revival movement within Catholicism that was labeled heretical.
That said, the doctrines usually ascribed to the Cathars—well, you can read more over at Wikipedia if you need a basic overview, but: supposedly they were dualists who thought the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were literally different gods (the former being evil and, possibly, Satan); they were vegetarians who apparently believed in (and abhored) reincarnation; they were gnostics of some stripe, and felt procreation was an evil act. They also—at least until late in their movement—were unusually egalitarian when it came to sex/gender: women and men alike could attain the one official position of authority in the church—called “bonhomme” by the believers and “Perfect” by outsiders. It wasn’t a priestly role, but rather a sort of deacon-like position in a movement, and women were very much allowed to participate in this role (especially, for various reasons, widowed women). The Cathars, in a Medieval Europe awash with misogyny, not immune to it, but something of an oasis for women—and whether it’s because of the influence of the Cathars on the region, or of the regional culture on the Cathars, I’m not sure, but it’s worth noting that Meg Bogin’s The Women Troubadours, an account of female poets from around the time the Cathar movement appeared and began to become formalized, observed a similar (and similarly unusual) openness to women participating in the region’s poetical culture. The Cathars weren’t perfect, of course, but many of their non-Cathar neighbours observed that they were mostly quite faithful and decent by the standards of the time.
And they were brutally wiped out by the church, at first militarily and then, over a century more as they languished in Southern France and Italy, via the extended attention of the Inquisition.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that doesn’t scream RPG material to you, so here’s one more thing: at the last major military crusade against the Cathars—which happened at Montsegur in 1244—the believers were given a simple choice by the Church: recant their “heretical” beliefs, or burn at the stake…
… and many chose the second option. Why? Did they believe it would free them from the cycle of death and rebirth? Did they fear abandoning their beliefs? Was the sight of their fellow believers refusing to recant sufficient to create the social pressure necessary?
That’s, at base, what Frederik J. Jensen’s Montsegur 1244 is about: interrogating how individuals might react to this situation, and why. Not how Cathars—abstracted people in some distant past, who believe weird things—might react, but individuals. People with names, with faces and stories, with lives led up to that point. Among the game’s simple rules is one that creates at least some pressure: at most, one major character can flee into the night; at least one major character must burn at the stake. That means most players must face the dilemma head on: recant, or burn… or attempt to flee and abandon others to likely death?
The game is pretty simple, and has a recognizable form as a “story game”: players take the roles of handful of preset characters, one of whom is that player’s “main” character. Each character has a card with a portrait and some questions that the player is encouraged to “answer” about the character while role-playing. Players take turns establishing scenes, and resolution of actions is the responsibility of the player who established the scene… or of any player who “takes” over by playing a Scene card. There’s no GM, just some basic rules about how the story is to unfold, a clear story structure proceeding from before the siege begins until the day, a few weeks after the end of the siege, when the inhabitants of Montsegur were given the choice of recanting or burning.
Given the kind of person I am, you’d think this wouldn’t interest me, but quite the opposite: I can’t help but be fascinated by religious characters whose beliefs get put to the test, especially
I haven’t had a chance to play it, though Jason Morningstar’s review from almost a decade ago makes me feel like it would be an amazing time… with the right group of people. The wrong group of people would probably mostly be saying, “This isn’t D&D!”, but that’s easy to suss out. What catches my attention in Morningstar’s writeup is this:
In the end, for me, Arsende had no choice but to recant. She’d tried and failed to smuggle her wards to safety, and they were too young to understand the awful choice they were to make (to cathars, children are at best holding vessels for souls and at worst demons). So she stood before the Inquisition, cataloged her sins, and admitted she was a heretic and a whore. I have seldom been so moved in play, and never at a convention table. I really felt for her and wanted something better, and Montsegur 1244 very methodically closed off choices until I was left with only one. It was extraordinarily satisfying and fun to experience.
What Morningstar’s marveling at here is the way the game system slowly, methodically, and mercilessly pushes the player to make a decision… but given that most of the characters either will be recanting their faith before the Inquisition, or being burned at the stake, I imagine some people will inevitably cry foul, citing feelings of being “railroaded” into doing one or the other. That is, if they could even be talked into a game where this kind of painful, downbeat conclusion is the foregone conclusion of the game in the first place.
The other objection I imagine people would come up with is that this is a game that’s designed around that one question, a single dilemma. I think a lot of story game people are content to have a wonderfully-designed game built around that inevitable dilemma, of course, but people who’re more comfortable in a traditional RPG framework will inevitably be wondering, “Why can’t things go differently?” They may wonder why all the characters can’t sneak away, or, indeed, what use a game is if it can only tell a single story. Not a single type of story, I don’t think: I haven’t heard anyone complain about how Fiasco does that, for example… but a single story? I can see trad gamers complaining about that. Hell, Timothy Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch does something similar, and in his Kickstarter writeup for the 2nd edition, he explicitly addresses this concern.1 One of the questions in the FAQ raises it, and here’s his response:
Yes, “The Mountain Witch” is a one scenario campaign. I know that can sound limiting, but the game really does have good re-playability—and that’s not just me being a salesman.
The core of the story emerges out of the dark fates, and the fates are much broader and open than they first appear. This means that play is not bound to some sort of preset formula, but rather flows from the creativity of the players. As such, the game shows a surprising level of variety, despite the setup being the same.
That said, you can change up the setting if you want increased variety, and that’s what the “alternate setting supplement” stretch goal—which we’ve reached already! — is all about.
I have a feeling that—except for maybe the last part—Jensen would probably say something similar. Hell, he might even say the last part. After all, “the same story” isn’t even the same story in retellings by the same individual, much of the time: once you let a group of creative, imaginative roleplayers loose on it, you’re sure to get something relatively new and different each time you play… I think.
So why haven’t I played it yet? Well… I don’t live in a place crawling with people who’re game to try something like this, and I’m pretty busy these days. I’d love a chance, and I’m contemplating getting the cards and sheets and everything printed up and organizing a game the next time the opportunity to pitch it arises, maybe at a mini-con in Seoul or something. So… for now I can’t speak of any firsthand experience of the game, but the text I’ve just read is very promising, and indeed I feel inspired to consider what kind of an alternate setting and dilemma would be possible with Jensen’s the original engine. Can it be used to run games centered on other similarly-shaped dilemmas? (How about the crew of a spaceship working out down their own, slightly-less-contrived, multi-character version of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”, for example?)
For now, though, I must only imagine. Here’s hoping I can get some kind of group going soon. Unfortunately, I feel like this is one of those games that would work better face to face, rather than online. I could be wrong, but something about the intensity and the claustrophobia of the setting makes me think this… so I’m going to be patient and try make a face-to-face game happen at some point, when the time is right.
For those whose interest is piqued by this post, or who missed the game when it came out a decade ago, like I did: unfortunately, neither the print edition of the book nor the lovely box edition is available anymore—I managed to get one of the last print copies of the book direct from Jensen sometime last year—but you can still get a PDF at Lulu. From the Thoughtful Games website, you can also download PDFs of the printable “components” needed for the game—links for color and black & white versions are available in the sidebar on that page—as well as a game expansion with more characters and other cards, and additional optional rules.
And yes, I am a backer eagerly awaiting The Mountain Witch 2e, even though I’ve never played 1e.↩