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.