Montsegur 1244

Paul B is more fun when he’s talking about fun things! So let’s talk about being burned at the stake.

Had a chance to read through the rulebook last night, and as Adam Day mentioned, there’s definitely some Durance like stuff happening. Or rather, Montsegur 1244 sets up an early template that games like Durance fit into as well. 

You’ve got a dozen little character sheets (plus four ‘optional’ characters, more exotic characters for when you’ve already experienced your baseline sads) with some leading questions you should try to answer before the siege is over, and a little historical context about who they are and who they relate to. No matter how many players you have (never outright stated, but it’s between 3 and 6), every character gets dealt. Players then choose one “main” character, but will also be playing their backup characters when called upon.

There’s no resolution system; it really is a freeform in the most general sense (that is, you don’t need to subscribe to any particular definition). So as story-gaming goes, great, the tension definitely lies in watching creative people improvise around their questions and and other scene-framing details the game provides. The unknown outcomes lie in what comes out of each player’s mouth rather than what comes out of dice.

There is some randomization happening, though, and I think it’s a really interesting way to ensure the game is replayable — which I was concerned about. There are always three Scene cards on display; they have little scene-setting elements to be worked into each Act’s scenes. A player sets a scene within an Act — there’s an intro, three Acts, then a wrapup where you decide who lives, dies or escapes. They use one of the Scene cards and then hold the card for when they’re done. Then I think they also pull a Story card, which is another fictional element that’ll be dropped in (second and third Acts only, since you don’t start with any and need to run a scene to get one).

So you’ve got the Act (background provided by the siege timeline), a scene card and probably a Story card to work with. That’s practically a pretty good bit of framing, as long as you’ve done this kind of game. It’s more than you get in Durance and I’ve had no problems, personally, running that one either. I’m sure it works great, and I love that there’s so much variability in setup. Kind of boardgame-y that way truth be told.

By the end of the game you’ve had a slow introduction to the history and situation (certain key characters are attached to background sheets, which those players are responsible for conveying at certain points), everyone’s had a chance to invest in their characters’ situation, and I’m sure after 3-4 hours of watching events unfold, the “do you live or die” moment is pretty tasty.

There’s an admonition to “make the choice as painful and difficult as possible,” which made me chuckle because man, right there is the Great Dividing Line, isn’t it? Adventurous Escapism | Misery Tourism and/or Human Drama | Infantile Empowerment Fantasy. Either you buy the notion or you don’t.

48 thoughts on “Montsegur 1244”

  1. 1. “Experienced your baseline sads” is fantastic. I feel like someone should call a game that. Sounds like something Brand Robins might write.

    2. When I played, the main character/supporting character divide felt a little artificial. You don’t get very many scenes of your own, so it can help you focus on making sure you present your main with enough depth that their ultimate decision is an important one, but I fully recommend diving in with both feet in playing all your characters. My friend Delbert Saunders had a main (the lady of the castle), but everyone else wanted scenes with his secondary (the little girl), so the fate of that character ended up being much more interesting than his main, who we only saw in her own scenes.

    3. Related to that, there’s no formal structure in place for replacing a secondary character if they die. We just did it. My secondary died in Act II, so I just grabbed one of the unplayed characters and adopted her. (This allowed me to swear and scream at a total stranger, which is a really important part of a good convention experience, I think.)

    4. The capacity of the narrator to cut a scene and leave things dangling or only partly resolved is powerful in a lot of ways. Often we would let a scene build to its maximum tension, and then cut away, leaving everyone angst-ridden and uncomfortable. This is a technique that I think some people will find very natural, and others less so. It only led to confusion once, when I (as Pierre-Roger) handed a dagger to a small boy (played by Kimberley Lam) and said “cut” and several people at the table seemed to think that I was cutting someone with the dagger.

    5. Scene cards are great for kicking off a scene. They are largely sensory: it wasn’t uncommon for all three of our cards to be smells. Using them for their secondary purpose (taking over narrative control) was a strange mechanic, and felt a little… unfair? I don’t know. Anyway, I think it only happened once in the entire game I played in.

    6. Story cards are really fun. Two of our early story cards (a captured enemy knight… Robard something? and the Holy Grail) ended up defining a lot of what happened in our story as we progressed. The prisoner ended up becoming a regular-enough fixture in scenes that I guess he was an honourary secondary character. He was even present at the epilogue, to hear Pierre-Roger’s last words.

    7. Resolution mechanics in a traditional sense aren’t really necessary at all. Because all of these characters know each other and nobody can leave, most of the scenes are just talking and trying to get some kind of emotional reward. Because their physical capabilities are all pretty distinct, chances are that any violence or other physical conflict between them will have an obvious outcome, so the scene framer just has to decide whether to go the obvious route or not, and if not, why not.

    Ultimately, as long as people take that maxim of “make the choice as painful and difficult as possible” to heart all the way through, frame and cut effectively, and do their best to care about these people and inhabit their heads, I would expect good results.

  2. So, one thing from personal experience. The first time I played, I didn’t know whether the questions were “find out in play” or “determine beforehand and play accordingly.” So for the longest time during play, I didn’t know who the father of the child in my belly was. That proved frustrating. I should have determined that in the very first scene and played it up to the hilt.

  3. Oh yeah, I have no idea what the purpose of taking over narration is. I can’t eyeball it but I don’t have enough experience with this flavor of game, either, to really get why it should be there. Feels vestigal.

  4. Christian Griffen I did a combination of both, and it was fun, because sometimes things don’t match up… I was Pierre-Roger, as I said, and the player of my wife had decided that the baby was mine… but I was certain that it was not. That question was never answered definitively, but the ambiguity drove some great moments in the game.

  5. Paul Beakley Huh. I was wondering about that at the table, but I figured it wasn’t that important. Our version worked pretty well. Maybe even better, actually, since it probably allowed the late-assigned character to get more spotlight than she may have otherwise.

  6. So I’ve played this game a couple of times (or four, or seven) and I’ve got some thoughts about it, as its one of the places where a couple of my different worlds (Danish Scenarios, Indie games, historical games, drama larp) overlap, and as a result I’ve played it with different folks and seen some different elements come out of play.
    There’s a few things in this thread that really stood out for me, in terms of how play cultures and expectations shape and inform what we do. And, as part of that, how much of what we do are things that are informed as much or more by previous play as by the rules, mechanics, and procedures we so often attribute play generation to.
    First up: the “do you know or do you play to find out” issue – as seen with Christian Griffen and the baby. There’s a critical conjunction of play culture, skill, and expectation that goes into answering that question. Folks used to directed play will often say, as Christian did (a man who knows how to make a plot come together in a game) that you make a decision early and then play it hard. Whereas other folks will say the opposite, that being keyed to the moment and the developing intricacies of character interaction will reveal the answer to you. And here’s the thing, I’ve seen both work, and I’ve seen both fail. (Soft fails, the kind of thing where you still have a good game, but are like “yea, that was good but I wish I’d decided who the dad was and run with it hard.”)
    Part of this, I think, has to do with how different players, and the gestalt of a play group, deal with pattern and pattern disruption. If you need pattern to play to, or if you’re used to pattern emerging out of play, will change how you approach your inputs and how you feel about them. And this game can, honestly, support either, but gives strong support to neither. It does, however, have a propensity to pattern disrupt in fruitful ways.
    One of those ways is the “play to find out, always be looking for scenes that could challenge your character’s direction towards recanting or burning.” When you do this honestly it disrupts simple patterns of “my dude is a martyr” and makes you confront humanity in interesting ways. For example, I’ve often played the older male perfect as an evil man. Just a fucking piece of human trash, who is hiding behind the faith. But the worst version of him I ever played, who I totally thought would bolt and run, stayed and burned. Even quoted Paul (“I have finished my course, I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith”) as he went. And he went because who says martyrs are good or right? Sometimes they’re just fanatical and trapped. He was trapped by his own expectations of himself as a man, and burned for ego, not faith. And at the beginning of the game I would not have seen that coming.
    Part of the pattern disruption is also about the scene framing and being able to take it over. That lets you disrupt other people’s patterns, and (most of the time that I’ve seen) does so in a way that does so in a fruitful way that leads to new patterns emerging, rather than simple disruption for its own sake. For example, I played a game with James Stuart where he interrupted one of my scenes. I was Garnier and was on my way to climb into the Princess’s window at night and make with the wooing. James (playing the princess but not in the scene) interrupted to have some of my mercenary friends reveal that they had found a way into the treasure vault. They had a simple plan, we’d steal lots of money and Garnier, who had already been established as able to get out of the fortress and into the woods to hunt almost at will, would lead them out and we’d all run off rich. Garnier helped them steal the money, then stayed in the castle to fight. This totally changed the whole character. He was still an asshole and a rogue, but he was an asshole and a rogue who loved this place and these people. (And no, he didn’t burn. Because burning is stupid, eating rabbits is better.)
    At Sandcon when I played with Mo Jave and Rachel E.S. Walton I used all of my cards to interrupt, almost always to end scenes before the participants were quite ready for them to end. It was a bit aggressive, but I tried to do it mindfully and with a point: in these types of situations we don’t always get to say everything we want to say, and the things unsaid often stay with us like ghosts. So over and over, just as there was a pause, and you could see how something more might just come if we gave it a moment, I’d have something set on fire, an attack, an alarm, a dad walking into the room – and things left unsaid. I would have done it more often, but the limitation of the number of cards you gets limits the number of times you can do it. Which is pattern forming itself, I guess. (Though notably, I’ve also played games where no one used a card that way at all.)

    Notably, in all of these games I, myself, played a little bit differently. I worked to try to get a feel for the group, and where this game was going. In the Sandcon game we were all tired, so I ended up doing lots of scene framing — maybe too much? — just to try and help move things. In other games I’ve done almost no framing. I often would just start by saying something like “I want a scene where we see Raymond being an asshole, anyone want to be abused?” and then let the others fill it in for me.

    All of which is to say, it’s a game that works by taking the urge to tell stories and portray people, and then supports it with prompts, seed material, and a regular structure and forces it to react and change by disrupting patterns, encouraging exploration, and giving people shifting authority that makes us adapt and react to what we’re saying together.

  7. Brand Robins​ what you said about interrupting to end scenes before the players were ready: when I considered using cards, it was for exactly that purpose, but at that table in that specific game, it ended up not being necessary. That’s a really effective point, though: it might often be the right move to interrupt to keep people away from their common instinct to reach resolution.

  8. Can you explain what that feels like at the table?

    The book says it and you’re both saying it, and I’m having a hard time understanding what makes that interruption effective. Emotionally or narratively or whatever.

  9. Just as interruption, or as pattern disruption? 

    For the first, it’s all about timing. And what makes it work (when it does, it doesn’t always) is the observer sense. What folks watching a scene being played see and know and what folks inside the scene know isn’t 1:1. And sometimes, just as when you’re watching a movie and know the scene is about to end, as an observer in this game you’ll think “this is where it should end, but they’re going to keep talking.” So you end it. 

    As pattern disruption, its like that, but on a larger scale. One of the things that dice get used for in a normal game is to keep you from having control over everything, or knowing where everything will go. In this game, even when its your scene and you have narrative control, that can go bye bye in the flash of a card. So you a) have to conceive of if differently and hold it differently and b) everyone can keep things from being too pat. When you get to that point in the game where, like DeVotchKa you already know how this will end, you can disrupt that shit.

  10. It’s also really rewarding in Montsegur, because the structure of the game might jump forward on you by months, which means that whatever emotional conflict was just left unresolved had to remain unresolved for some long period of in-fiction time. Players who are good at switching to “audience” or who like to think about all the subsurface elements of their characters will also be asking themselves “what has been happening that kept them from resolving that over the entire winter?”

  11. Ah, okay, the time break element is interesting. I’d forgotten the Acts jump so much.

    The pattern breaking thing is interesting, really interesting. I assume by pattern we’re talking like…so Paul likes flashy action, and we’ve been doing flashy action for a little while in this scene but Brand’s got this idea for something trademark Brandish, some cultural misunderstanding that sends the action in a different direction or whatever. So that’d be a good use? Basically when you’ve got an idea but it doesn’t fit into what the current narrator’s obviously going for?

    Man…that’s really interesting. Disruptive is a good word for it. I’m surprised that hasn’t been picked up elsewhere. 

    For the readers who don’t really follow this kind of game: Montsegur came out seven years ago.

  12. Paul Beakley that kind of thing is an old standard for Jeep, Danish Freeform, etc. games. 

    It’s why (in another thread?) I was saying its funny to me when storygamer/indie folks say this is a classic indie game. Because, sure, yes. But it’s also very much a classic of another scene too. 

    Further, it occurs to me, we should play this at Dreamation. Maybe get some of the rest of the goon squad in on it too.

  13. I’m coming to this thread to fangirl it up because everyone is doing a fine job, but there’s not enough excited squeeing. ;P I love love LOVE this game. It has been my favorite one-shot tabletop game for years and has yet to be unseated despite some stiff competition. It’s just an absolute joy to see these relatively simple elements produce a consistently solid experience and meaningful story every time. That is good game design. I’m sure people have had bad games of it, but I’d say the least exciting run of it for me was still better than the average con game and was still really meaningful for some.

    It…ahhh. It’s not one thing. It’s about how the structure does such a good job of moving the story through a changing time. How evocative some of the moments are. How nuance can be added to a seemingly set character or moment or how something unexpected can change everything. It’s that it brings to light this awful time in history and actually educates a little without drowning players in cold facts. And that it brings to light this little known group of seemingly religious weirdos and shows them in glorious variation. Selfless, vain, kind, hard, questioning, defiant, zealous, predatory, damned, not religious but allied, and so on. 

    And the scenes. So good. One of the best things you can do is use your scenes to answer or explore the questions you’re supposed to be wondering about and only bring in story cards if you need a twist or something fresh. The scenes are often really well varied without much effort at all. They are often driven by characters who are reacting to loose confinement and a dark future, so those difficult conversations are had, love is explored, beliefs are questioned, secrets are revealed, and so on. Tender moments and some really brutal ones as well.

    It has never felt like misery tourism to me because you’re not standing from afar going, “Wow how awful for those people, how deliciously sad.” You’re digging in and telling stories of individuals caught up in this shitty thing and seeing all of this beautiful and ugly humanity between the individuals. I find it does more to make you consider other points of view than most games. Like, I’ve seen Raimond played a bunch on times, and often he’s this standard hardass, proud patriarch. Not a Cathar, yet he protects them. When I had a chance to play him at Dreamation earlier this year, I thought about why someone like that would choose to burn. And I thought about the Catholic army bearing down, wanting their more convenient salvation in the blood of close-to-home heretics and spoils of war and how this guy built Montsegur with his own hands and he knows exactly what’s going on and fuck if they were going take his pride too. He ended up being the only main character of that run to chose to burn and it wasn’t for being a Cathar. That is the kind of nuance that exists in the true stories of our world but that don’t always show up in our history texts that declare the numbers and the winners.

    It can’t make players play nuanced characters though. In all the runs I’ve seen, there are occasional plays on characters that make me roll my eyes a little because come on a zealot is still a complex person. An asshole doesn’t always have to be an asshole, etc. But even with weaker plays, we still get to see that character developed through different types of scenes and interactions and there are enough characters in play that less interesting ones fade back a little. And that’s another thing! There truly is a lot of variation. Some games tend to focus more heavily on the fighter dudes, some on the kids, some on the Perfects, some on the women, and some on the core family. And that changes a little every time based on what different players want to explore.

    Some little tips ff you take a crack at it:
    1. The Prologue is a bit of a cold start. And there’s a confusing name typo that’s a carry-over from the early version. (It asks if Bernard tastes the blood of revenge – it should read: Guillame.) It’s basically just a freely narrated action scene so we can get excited and see the particular moment that draws the notice and ire of the Catholic church.

    2. The background sheets should really be read aloud early on if not before play begins. I don’t like throwing info at people, but it’s really hard to play a game about Cathars if you don’t know anything about what they believe until several scenes in.

    3. Make sure Arsende’s player discusses who her rapist was with the player of the character she says did it (if it’s a PC). Because finding out that your character committed rape (even long ago) is not something everyone can deal with well.

    4. Do not feel pressured to incorporate the stuff on the Story cards. They can offer an interesting twist or give you a cool idea, but if there’s drama and interest aplenty, just enjoy it. Some of the ideas on the Story cards seem badly disruptive, though it depends a lot on what’s going on in an individual game. In the last game we played, no Story cards got used, but one or two is pretty normal.

    5. When time is more constrained, avoid incorporating Story cards unless they help resolve something. Play cards to interrupt the narrative only if it helps things come to a point or ends the scene (because they can be used to cut to an entirely new scene or to add more elements which is fine if you aren’t crunched for time). Have half of the players do their scenes in Act 3 and the other half in Act 4 so it’s not a full round each time.

    Finally, you HAVE to come to Dreamation so Brand Robins and I can drag you into a private room with a couple of other souls and play the shit out of this.

  14. Talking about Montsegur basically triggers my Darkest Self until I talk ALL ABOUT IT and then I go back to my normal state of being cynical at all the games. So whatever. Games suck. Except this one. 😉

  15. Rachel E.S. Walton​ I meant to talk to you about this. Arsende wasn’t necessarily raped, according to the card, but framing it that way from the beginning ensures that it will go there.

  16. Mo Jave that’s true! Talking about Arsende is a new and unrefined addition to my evolving spiel. I’ll be more careful in how I frame it and to mention to Arsende’s player that they can interpret that line how they wish (“taken by force” could imply kidnapping too, and maybe other things). But I’ve never see anyone interpret it other than rape though the details around it and how she copes or looks back on it varies. It’s interesting…I haven’t seen anyone back out of playing her, but I have seen a couple of people be pretty rattled by getting chosen as her rapist. And I think…it’s always been a PC chosen for that though there’s nothing that says it has to be.

  17. Rachel E.S. Walton​ A tour de force! Fwiw, I think the Bernard/Guillaume typo is corrected in the newer printings. At least it is in the PDF I got with my order. 

    Edit: Nope! Corrected in the PDF, but not the print.

  18. Late to the party! I think 3-6 is excessively broad; my preference would be 4-5. I have played with 4,5 and 6 and think 5 is the best personally. 

    This is the only game that has ever made me cry right there at the table!

  19. Painful as it is, I agree with Morningstar. 5 is best. 6 is second. I would not play with less than 4.

    (And this is from a dude who plays Fiasco 2 player and is always like haha numbers wut)

  20. I love this game, for all the reasons expressed above. I wanted to give a call-out to Witch: Road to Lindesfarne, which follows the Montsegur form very closely and is also surprisingly convention-friendly.

    I found it to provide more space for full-fledged comedy to erupt (in the earlier scenes at least), whereas in Montsegur humour was rare and grimly ironic when present. I’m curious if this fits people’s experiences.

  21. Alex Fradera yes, definitely. If you like Montsegur you’ll like Witch, which is much more tightly focused and a little safer. I don’t think you are asked to invest as much if that makes sense, the premise is more cinematic. But it is nicely paced for convention play and much easier to present to strangers.

  22. I confess the background sheets seem intimidating. I liked that they’re paced out throughout the game but it sounds like you’re better off maybe circulating then around before play?

    I can imagine this game being really strong a) the second time through and b) with a different mix of players.

  23. Paul Beakley I found it almost totally impossible to play without reading the background sheets beforehand, because how am I supposed to start formulating an opinion on whether or not my character is going to die to preserve his beliefs when I don’t even know what they are? Maybe I could stake out some emotional position, but I felt compelled to discuss dramatic positioning with respect to Cathar doctrine pretty early on.

    We basically held off on reading them until someone asked about some information that would be contained on one, and then read them aloud immediately.

  24. Funnily enough the staggering of the background sheets worked really well for me (though obviously on later run-throughs I’m in a more privileged position). I like the fact that earlier scenes are a bit more general about some aspects of reality (like the faith). You start off just with the fortress description, right? So it’s really grounded in the tangible, the practical, the ‘we are here right now, regardless of what we think or believe’, and scenes flow based around that. Allegiance or opinions on the faith still made their early way, but were necessarily more tangential. It also led to the possibility of making a commitment (such as unswerving devotion to the faith) which then looks very different in the light of fuller information, shifting sands which can be fruitful foreshadows of the final choices.

    It definitely can introduce some bumps, but I think for myself I wouldn’t want all the info at once.

  25. My experience is its good for people playing perfects to either read the sheets first, or already have some basic Cathar knowledge. They are the IC experts, and really the only people making fully doctrinely informed choices. So for players who like transparency on their own characters, it’s good to know fairly early on.

    For everyone else it matters much less. Frankly most folks were not experts on religion and their beliefs are based more on community and authority and localization than on formal doctrine.

    So, like Pierre doesn’t really need to know about the dualistic philosophy of the demiurge. He needs to know that those fuckers following that foreign asshole and the asshat king of shitty France murdered his family and fuck them and their fucking demands.

    … But then, I’ve been told that playing the game with me goes differently in that I’m all realpolitik about religion. So, YMMV. 

    Also, I have played it once or twice where I was the only main character perfect, and we just dealt with it by people asking questions IC, and me answering IC about how my character interpreted doctrine. It shifts things around, putting a lot of emphasis on how we build meaning together instead of how we jointly interpret independent external knowledge.

  26. Brand Robins Pierre needed to know about the Cathar position on children pretty early in the game I played, because he wanted to have a baby, but didn’t want to bring a demon into the world, and so I decided he was celibate, and then found out that his wife was pregnant. All that in Act I.

  27. Ah yea, I can see that.

    Of course it does lead to the question of how Cathar communities actually dealt with sex and pregnancy. Which is… Considerably more complicated than the text has time to present.

    So it’s an odd place of different levels of knowing, timing, and opacity.

  28. Brand Robins indeed! Not to mention that, of course, any isolated community is going to develop its own culture around those sorts of things, and as I understand it, we have precious little information about what happened in Montsegur except what the besiegers wrote, which has some bias.

    And, of course, it’s a game where the players are encouraged to bend history to make the fiction more interesting,

  29. I could see that spending too much energy on historical correctness, or fear about getting it wrong, could really interfere with the experience.

    I mean, heck, I have that problem with make believe canon. I don’t know that I’d really connect with the human content with someone well actually-ing me.

  30. There’s an art to balancing history and make it upness. 

    But, when in doubt, my usual advice is to get a couple quick facts down and then go with what your gut tells you humans do as humans do it.

    You’ll get it wrong, but you’ll get it wrong in ways that speak interestingly about how you feel about humans doing human stuff. Which is much more interesting than nerd-history-fuck-wankers like me getting it wrong in ways that are just fucking dull as 10,000 year old dirt. 

    (10,000 year old dirt is fascinating btw. Tells us a lot about why early agriculture had such a big hicup in its startup. But, I’m pretty sure no one in a game, ever, has given even the tiniest shit about that.)

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