Review – Montsegur 1244

Montsegur 1244 is a story-telling roleplaying game inspired by the historical events that surrounded the siege of a castle located in southwestern France. In it, each player adopts the role of one of the castle’s inhabitants, with the group exploring the time period of the siege in a series of acts that span a single session of 3-6 hours. It is a GM-less game and prep-free as well.

Here’s how the author describes the game:

Do you renounce your heretic beliefs and do you wish to receive the forgiveness of the merciful Father?

In March 1244 this question was posed to several hundred Cathars. They had surrendered to the army that had besieged the castle of Montsegur for more than nine months. More than two hundred answered no, and thereby chose death by fire. Who were these people that chose to die for their belief?

In Montsegur 1244 the players collaborate to create a story about who these people were. Each player takes on the role of one of the besieged Cathars who will face the choice between life and faith.

Montsegur 1244 is a story game about burning for your belief for 3-6 players, duration 3-6 hours.

The Physical Product

The game’s book is a 64-page, saddle-stitched, digest-sized book. It’s interior is in gray-scale printing (black text on a textured gray/white background) and is on good stock paper. The color cover features an attractive illustration that captures the feel and time period of the game extremely well.

The book is written in a very clear and easy follow manner that explains how to play the game, with several detailed examples. The book also serves as a “guide” for the session, with specific paragraphs that are read to set the scene for each act and to provide the background details necessary to give the scenes that follow a sense of time and place.

The book also includes all of the cards (character, story, and scene cards) needed for play, which can be cut out of the book, although the author also provides the necessary materials as a free PDF on his website so you’re not forced to ruin your book.

The Game

The rules of the game are very simple and don’t involve dice or any sort of conflict resolution. Instead, players take turn setting and playing out scenes, with whoever has narration rights for the scene ultimately deciding the outcome of the that particular scene.

Here’s how the game plays out in a nutshell:

At the beginning of the session, the sets of scene and story cards are shuffled and placed in separate piles on the table. 3 of the scene cards are placed face up for players to choose from at the start of each scene.

Players than choose a character from the set of 12 that are included with the game: Each player will in fact play 2-4 of the Cathars (depending on how many players there are at the table) and then from them choose one as their main character whose fate they will ultimately decide at the end of the story. The other characters are background characters whom the players use to fill in scenes, interact with main characters, and drive certain events forward.

Once all of this is taken care of, play begins, with the session being broken in to 6 sections: A prologue, followed by four acts, and then finally an epilogue. The prologue consists of a single scene which establishes what sets off the siege by playing out the events of the assassination in Avignonet; it also acts as a “teaching scene” so that players new to the game can learn the rules. After the prologue, play proceeds through the rest of the acts, with each player getting one scene for their character (thus each act will have 3-6 scenes total). Each player sets and directs their scene, selecting what other characters will be present and what the primary goals are for the scene – the other players are encouraged to suggest ideas, but the player with the narration rights gets the final word regarding the scene’s details and outcome.

Play proceeds through the acts, with the opening texts for each act providing guidance about the nature of the scenes based on the time period of the act. When the Epilogue is reached, each player in turn narrates a personal epilogue for their main character, revealing the fate of their character. Ultimately this comes down to one of three possibilities: To burn at the stake for their faith, to repent before the inquisition, or to escape in to the night. However, things aren’t quite that simple since this game and story is about tragedy and that’s accomplished through a very simple set of rules: At least one main character must burn at the stake, and at most one main character can escape. In other words, the majority of characters are either going to burn or recant their faith.

Reading through my brief summary, those used to traditional RPGs may be scratching their head regarding how all this translates in to real play? After all, there are no conflict resolution mechanics, or even dice. Similarly, what makes it a tragedy and what exactly do you do in play? Having played the game a few times, the game consistently delivers a powerful, tragic story with a great deal of internal consistency. How is a credit to the design: Each character has just enough ambiguous background information and a couple of guiding questions (which the player is encouraged to discover the answer to through play) that provide a ton of story potential – the small, insular community mixed with some really story-rich questions (e.g., “Who is in your mind when you lie with Arsende?” and “Whose child do you carry in your womb?”) virtually guarantee lots of drama. In addition, the story cards, which offer plot elements and twists that both serve as inspiration and lend a degree of unpredictability to the story.

The Verdict

I was skeptical about Montsegur 1244 before playing it for the first time – it simply did not sound like a game that I would enjoy. However, by a certain twist of fate I had the chance to play the game with the designer and was floored by how very cool and heartbreaking the story was – in my personal story, my main character, a 10-year-old boy named Amiel, sacrificed himself so that his sister could escape and ended up burning at the stake simply because the community’s religious leader told him that it was the right thing to do. In the end, a character I started off playing as a happy-go-lucky kid with aspirations of becoming a knight, turned in to a very confused, desperate boy who went hesitantly to his own death.

That doesn’t mean game play is nothing but self-flagellation and depressing outcomes. There are points of light and even humor in sessions (e.g., in the game mentioned above, another PC had a very funny scene in which he tried to get permission to marry the lord’s daughter and totally botched the whole thing). However, ultimately the game delivers on its promise of a tragedy, which makes those earlier scenes all the more bitter sweet and, at least for me, ultimately satisfying.

I can’t recommend Montsegur 1244 enough if your group likes drama and tragedy, isn’t scared by games without dice, and is willing to spend an evening playing a great game and then days afterwards talking about it.

Inspiration from The History Channel

The History Channel has some really great programs that you can watch online and mine for inspiration.  Amongst my favorites is Cities of the Underworld which is a program exploring everything from ancient lost cities to decommissioned Cold War era Soviet bunkers.   Aside from the videos of the program itself, you can find an image gallery and a web videocast (Naked Underground) which are simply great for coming up with ideas for adventures, getting a feel for what things looked like, or doing some background research for a historical game.