[Montsegur 1244] Beautiful and Terrible

edited February 2009 in Actual Play
I had talked to Frederik Jensen about his “end of the Cathar heresy” game, and it sounded pretty good. I encouraged him to translate it. I did an editing pass on his English text, and was blown away by the format, structure, and potential. I read John Aagard’s AP report from GPNW and knew that I wasn’t off base in my excitement. I played Montsegur 1244 at Dreamation and it was my best convention gaming experience ever.

The game is structured around the siege of Montsegur castle in 1244 as part of the Albegensian crusade. It’s played in acts that progress from before the siege until it is broken. You play Cathars, and the crux of the game is a choice you make at the conclusion of play – will you renounce everything you believe in as heresy, or will you burn at the stake? Building to this one moment is what the entire game is about, and every moment is colored by the awful, looming decision.

Mechanically it’s a very clever structured freeform game, tightly designed to be played in three or four hours. A dozen characters are pre-set, and each has questions you are expected to answer in play. I played Arsende, a woman of lesser nobility turned harlot, and her questions were compelling – who raped her at age 15? How will she protect her young niece and nephew (also playable characters)? How does she feel about Pierre Roger, the man leading Montsegur’s defenses, when she lays with him? The characters form a tight web of relationships along kinship, sexual, and religious axes. None of them are weak. Normally you choose one as a primary character and one or more as secondary characters, essentially NPCs you control. There is no game master, and the game does a superb job of facilitating for you.

Frederik has primed the pump for people unfamiliar with the setting in three very cool ways. First, new information is revealed by specific characters at specified junctions in play. Before the first act, for example, the lord of Montsegur describes the fortress, explaining why it makes such a formidable last stand location. Later you learn about the faith and its rituals, revealing why a person might choose to be a Cathar against such terrible odds. There are also cards that provide sense memories appropriate to a castle under siege (the stench of a rotting animal, fog-shrouded vista, etc). These are chosen by players as scene-framing components, and also serve a mechanical function – each becomes a token that can be used to interrupt and effectively steal narration. It works brilliantly. Third, there are also cards that inject new situation elements into the game – the arrival of the Knights Hospitaller, or signs of the Devil at work within Montsegur, that sort of thing – and these can be used to apply additional thematic pressure in a very elegant, controlled way. It all fits together very, very well to evoke the time and place and drive the action forward relentlessly.

So you’ve got these characters in an impossible situation, getting hammered by the Catholic armies, everything is falling apart, and they have obligations and desires that are completely incompatible. There’s a satisfying degree of player authorship – Filippa’s pregnant, but you aren’t told by who, for example. Every character has built in “fishing” going on, as do the emerging situations. No two games will be remotely alike, I suspect. In my game, Daniel Levine’s Pierre Roger was a complete zealot and all around prick, but in others (Frederik ran it three times!) he was completely different – a doubter, a straight-up warrior, and so forth. Also, the mix of primary characters will certainly vary, and a game top-heavy with religiously oriented characters will play totally different than one built from Montsegur’s ruling family, or one focusing on the warriors.

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.


  • Thanks for writing all these kind words - I'm so very happy that it lived up to all your expectations. And once again, thanks for pushing for a translation.

    You portraied a magnificient Corbario - and Daniel completely took us by surprise when he took what might have been the grail and gave it to Corbario and asked him to go fight with the French! Just one of the many examples on how we collaboratively created the story by playing on of each other's ideas.

    Who would you like to play next? Can you make Phillipa burn? Raimond escape? Bertrand repent?
  • Oh man, that was the best move ever. Daniel, as Pierre Roger the towering lunatic zealot, gives our precious treasure to a Castilian mercenary, and urges him to join the Catholics fighting against us. To prove a point.

    I like all the characters. I think the Perfects would be most subtle and challenging to play so I might want to try one of them. Since they've already taken consolamentum, discovering the cracks in their faith would drive the game and add some uncertainty in the end.
  • Finally ordered this today. I'm really exited both about the game and about this design style in general. It's surely going to affect the next draft of Geiger Counter in some interesting ways, that's for sure, since it does some fascinating things with single-session play that I don't think we've seen in tabletop before (in larps, though, definitely). Hopefully our local group can get a session in once we finish this arc of Mouse Guard.

    P.S. Structured freeform 4ever! We need a gang sign or something.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarI think the Perfects would be most subtle and challenging to play so I might want to try one of them. Since they've already taken consolamentum, discovering the cracks in their faith would drive the game and add some uncertainty in the end.
    The inheritance feature of the consolamentum certainly has some interesting consequences.

    Jonathan, totally get working on Geiger Counter. Let me know when you want me to take it for another play test or bounce off some ideas.
  • It's very straightforward and all the procedural cues are built in - "do this now". You'll be able to run it the day you get it. The only potentially complex piece, from my POV, is the scene interruption mechanic. This caused a little confusion in our game, when after multiple interruptions we wondered about whether we should be returning to resolve the original scene. It's essential, though. Maybe Frederik can speak to this - I'd be interested to know if it is a common confusion.
  • As written, it is entirely up to the new narrator whether to return and finish the original scene. However, it is quite common that people suggest to add a scene, return to a scene, or that an interrupt be put on hold until the purpose of a scene has been resolved (as happened in the third game where I asked Arturos interrupt to wait until I have had introduced Bertrand's crisis of faith). I also frequently myself put forward suggestions to scene twists (like the introduction of one of my characters) rather than spend a scene card. The narrator is the final authority, though.

    I've seen one group completely drift off from the scene setting rules and just add scenes as fitted the story - which can totally be well functioning. However, I prefer limiting the number of scenes as stated in the rules rather than playing out every detail as the game can otherwise be too long and energy levels too low for the epilogue to really work its magic.

    I have considered using a token to mark who sets the original scene, though, as especially in a six player game this is a bit tricky to remember after several interrupts.
  • Posted By: Frederik J. JensenI have considered using a token to mark who sets the original scene, though, as especially in a six player game this is a bit tricky to remember after several interrupts.
    I remember actually looking for this - "there's the token to indicate who began the Act, where's the token for the current narrator?" Despite this, I think it might be more trouble than it is worth.
  • One thing I forgot: This game has a mandated fifteen minute break written right in. This is something blindingly obvious that I have already stolen.
  • I wish I had something to add to Jason's description, but I think he summed it up. Though, actually *my* favorite moment with Jason was between our secondary characters - with Raimond begging Corba to take the *consolamentum* and confirm her faith.

    Though, to my mind, it's a testament to the power of the game experience that I see Pierre Robert getting portrayed as a total zealot and *want to stand up for him.*
  • Jason, can you elaborate on the fifteen minute break? Like, every fifteen minutes of real-time, the current scene is over and everybody takes a few minutes to cool down?
  • Oh no, after Act 2 (IIRC) you stop playing for 15 minutes and go do something else. It's a natural break point but you're so engaged that without a nudge you won't take it. And, interestingly, it colors the atmosphere of the second half - you return having broken the intensity and it has a different feel (he says, having played once).
  • I am literally salivating to play this!
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarAnd, interestingly, it colors the atmosphere of the second half - you return having broken the intensity and it has a different feel (he says, having played once).
    It did the exact same thing for us when we played at GPNW last year.

    With the intensity of the game, you really do need to take a break and walk away from the table. And when you come back, you have gained a bit of perspective before connecting with the characters again.

    Nice writeup, Jason.
  • edited February 2009
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarOh no, after Act 2 (IIRC) you stop playing for 15 minutes and go do something else. It's a natural break point but you're so engaged that without a nudge you won't take it. And, interestingly, it colors the atmosphere of the second half - you return having broken the intensity and it has a different feel (he says, having played once).
    I had exactly the same feeling. I remember I commented it to Frederik after our game. The atmosphere on the second part is different, it is more sad and tense, and the break boosts it.
  • A. I've been fascinated by the Albigensian Crusade for years now. I have maybe half a dozen books about it on my shelves. It has always hit me in the gut emotionally.

    B. I love, love emotionally powerful games.

    C. My friend Willem is quoted on the back cover and can't stop telling me how awesome this game is.

    A + B + C = I must play this. I tried to sign up for it at Dreamation, but it was already full. I considered buying it from the IPR booth, but that might've endangered my ability to get back home (yeah, money's a little tight right now). I kept coming back to the display, and read the book in one especially long break.

    Bottom line, pretty much as soon as I get paid, I'll be buying this. Once it arrives, I'll be combing Pittsburgh for people willing to play.
  • I'm just going to add to the chorus that the break really changed the feel of play in the second half. I played very aggressively with Pierre Roger and Amiel in the first half, in the second they receded a bit and other characters were brought to the forefront.

    I sort of felt like it was perfect the first time around, and didn't really want to play it again for fear of diminishing returns. Upon reflection that was hasty and dumb. I feel like I'll really be able to play the corners and subtleties of whatever characters I get next time, which is exciting. I'm looking forward to that opportunity.
  • It's awesome to see Montsegur getting the enthusiasm it deserves.

    Congratulations to the lucky players and thanks to Frederik for such a great game!
  • Jason, how's the text? This sounds a great experience, but if I buy the book, will I be able to replicate how you played?

  • Graham, yes. I have the book and it's very strightforward. I played in the same game that Jason did. (I was Philippa). We might possibly play it tonight, as we are down a player in our Apocalypse World game.)
  • I think you can play it out of the box without any problem. The text is clear and it was well translated for the most part. The guys at GPNW had a nearly identical experience and they only had a draft of the game with no Frederik in sight.

    There is a bit of an opportunity cost, in that you need to download and cut out a bunch of cards and sheets, preferably laminating them as well.
  • I have already printed, laminated, and cut the components (cards, information sheets, board,...) They look really nice. I like the board-game feeling they are producing. I think it lowers the access barrier for people not used to play strange role-playing games.

    I think I will have the opportunity to play with some friends during the weekend. I'm curious to see the differences with my Dreamation experience.
  • We're going to play it next week. I'm looking forward to seeing how it handles four players.
  • I bet it'll be fine - you'll each have a primary and two secondary (or really a secondary and a tertiary), so some characters will seriously fade into the background. I'd be more concerned with an uneven division of 12, like 5 players.
  • So...how many players did you have at your table, 6?
  • edited February 2009
    We were six people counting Frederik. I think every Montsegur session played at Dreamation had six players.

    If we manage to play this weekend we will be also four players.
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarI'd be more concerned with an uneven division of 12, like 5 players.
    I don't think it is affecting so much. Some players will have only one secondary, and a couple of them a secondary and a tertiary. But you are still focusing on the main characters. Having players controlling one or two supporters should not change things so much.
  • I was very disappointed that I was delayed in traffic and missed my session on Friday night. Luckily some one got my place and I did get a copy. Anyone have a link to the board online yet?

    Jason Lorenzetti
  • You're right, Arturo, it's probably not a big deal at all.

    Rachel, we played with six which felt perfect to me. I'd suggest that as the sweet spot.
  • That's really terrific. A lot of indie games have a smaller sweet spot (like 4), so it's good to know about another game that deals really well with a slightly higher number of people.
  • khelek, resources can be found here: Montsegur 1244.

    Rachel, the game Thursday night had three players. The two games Friday had both 6 players. The game Thursday night suffered initially from being played in the big room, but we moved in the break to a more quiet place which helped a lot.

    Montsegur 1244 works with 3, 4, 5, and 6 players, I've tried all. Can't really say what I prefer, though perhaps more is better. However with fewer players you get additional scenes each, so you will have opportunity to explore your main character more directly.

    (actually, a teacher at Østerskov Efterskole told me he played the game in a class room - I guess he was setting scenes and moderating while the students took turns playing the characters)

    I guess one thing to watch out for in a 5 or 6 player game is that everyone jumps into the same scene - there is nothing that prevents that other than group agreement. Most scenes should be with 2 or 3 characters at a time.
  • Good to know! Thanks, Frederik!
  • Posted By: Frederik J. Jensena teacher at Østerskov Efterskole told me he played the game in a class room
    I'd love to hear that teacher talk about the experience.
  • Got my copy of the game today and, while I haven't been able to read it in full yet, I wanted to throw out a few comments on it as a product.

    Compared to the other Lulu products I have seen, the print quality of this one is on another level. The interior has a glossy finish of the type you would normally only expect to see on full-color booklets, an unquestionably good thing, considering the greyscale interiors would probably appear much less sharp on uncoated paper. I'm not sure if this kind of paper is only available at certain sizes or if Lulu has upgraded their printing across the board, but Montsegur benefits either way.

    The layout of the book is nothing less than superb. Brian Rasmussen is extremely talented and I'm am curious to see what other work he's done.

    My only concern, and honestly the reason I'm posting, is that I was strongly disappointed to discover that I could not simply cut the components (cards, characters, background sheets) out of the booklet and be prepared to play. While the pictures of the cards and such have a scissors icon beside them, the way they are laid out, back to back on sequential pages, means you cannot cut them out at all, actually, but have to photocopy or print them in order to use them. This is unfortunate, because the high quality glossy paper of the booklet (which I previously praised) would be a much better material for play components than the computer paper normally used for printing and photocopying. Additionally, surely the cards could have been printed on alternating pages, such that the backs of those pages could have been printed with a striking design to go on the backs of the cards (rather than being blank, as they will be if I photocopy and print them out), which would also make it possible to easily distinguish between scene cards and story cards (which are difficult to tell apart if they all have blank backs).

    While I'm still very excited to play the game and this disappointment does not reflect on the design of the game, I do think this was a missed opportunity as far as product design goes. Unfortunately, I think the booklet may already be near the maximum page count for a saddle stitched book (which may have led to this layout decision, I don't know), but I hope that, if it is at all feasible, Frederik will strongly consider altering the Lulu file such that the play components can actually be cut out of the booklet. While that may not seem like much, it would go a long way towards removing an additional obstacle to play.
  • Jonathan, rather than cut up the otherwise beautiful book, you can download, print and cut out the components.

    Downloads here.

    I have Frederik's Convention pack, and it's beautiful. I can't wait to play this game at JiffyCon.
  • We've talked a lot about ways to offer the game as a ready-to-play package for a reasonable price and I know Frederik has some good ideas going forward. It seemed like a common comment among players when they saw his very nice hand-made convention kit - "Does all this stuff come with the game?" Making your own kit from the pdf files isn't a huge deal but it is an inconvenience.

    I asked Brian if he's interested in other RPG-related design and layout work and, generally speaking, he is.
  • Julia, Jason: Ready-to-play hand-made convention packs are nice and all, but I just want to be able to cut up the book, y'know? I think that would be a simple and functional solution that is already implied by the diagrams in the book. Honestly, I suspect some folks will go ahead and cut out the cards and then be frustrated that they don't actually work (since some of them are on the backs of others, etc.).
  • Brian Rasmussen is an old sure hand on the Danish rpg scene, and pretty much representative of the state-of-the-art design there. He did some stuff for Ptoleus as well a couple of years ago.

    His blog is brianrasmussen.dk - it's in Danish, I'm afraid, but have a look at the graphics/designs. They are that good.
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