Ever wonder what enables some rpgs to keep their novelty and excitement even after years of play, while others are wicked fun the first few sessions, but then slowly-but-surely lose their luster? I sure do.
Montsegur 1244 is a role-playing collaborative story game that I first heard reviewed on Paul Tevis' excellent podcast, Have Games Will Travel. My interest was so piqued that I broke a personal rule and purchased it straightaway without even playing.
Turns out I got lucky with this one. Vivid history and vivid personal drama packed into one 5-hour punch, this game is based on the events surrounding the Cathar heresy, dramatizing the fate of the Cathars during the siege of Montsegur Castle in 1244, ending with their subsequent burning en masse at the hands of Church inquisitors. It's a mysterious story that is also touched on in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. (As an aside, I believe this game captures the evocative atmosphere of Eco's novel much better than the board game actually named for NotR.) The players' main characters are Cathars holed up in Montsegur Castle during the nine months of siege up until reaching their historical fate.
The game is diceless and GM-less. It progresses via card-selection using a simple mechanic whereby each player frames and develops scenes for their 2-3 characters. Though collaborative in nature, the story is fraught with tension and potential conflict. Accordingly, players may tactically deploy a few special cards that enable them to do things such as trump another scene (and, thus take control of the narrative) or force a follow-up to a scene previously played.
In my experience playing M1244, which is admittedly limited, I have found that the game unfolds in strange and unexpected ways, despite its highly structured backbone. To this effect, M1244 truly works as a collaborative game. At its worst, the narrative sometimes wanders into uninspired territory; but, luckily as a player you have mechanics at your disposal to curb, for example, what you may perceive as purple excess, just as the other players may curb your own imaginings. Since there is no GM, each player takes turns adjudicating scenes. At its best, the game creates a remarkable sense of co-immersion, which in large part develops as a natural consequence of the game's progress toward its slow-boiling finale. Somehow, the inevitability of the final choices that the players (as characters) will have to make seems to ratchet up both the tension and intimacy between the leads, who, after all, are part of a besieged community made up of only 200 souls. It is a predicament that is ripe for intrigue, petty squabbles, and ecstatic visions. But also consolation. And when the fire finally comes for them, or rather they for it, you might find out that you really do care about these fictional lives and the microcosm you have helped shape.
Ultimately, the story's resolution follows but two available tracks, both rooted in the actual history of the event. First, out of all the PCs, only one main character can escape into the night. Second, all other characters must decide to either kiss the ring and convert, or perish by burning. I love this game. I love that it is simple enough to generate such complexity! I appreciate the questions it raises and the peculiar emotional charge of playing characters who, because of the purity of belief, find themselves in the tightest dirtiest of spots.
But will the love last?
The most common problem people seem to have with story rpgs is that they worry whether or not the story itself will get old. While it is easy to recognize the elaboration of novelty as an important feature in games we love, game designers and players alike have different theories as to what features (e.g., mechanics vs. narrative) contribute comparatively to a game's ability to capture and keep players' interests. I can't vouch yet for the long-term staying power of M1244, but I can say that having played it only a few times, the plot has played out remarkably differently with each session--and this is precisely because the character-development has played out remarkably differently. So, even though the end of the story is indeed always the same (i.e. you'll either burn at the stake or renounce your faith and community), there seems to be no immediate limit to the games' ability to conjure novel pathways to that final decision. This, I believe for Montsegur 1244, may bode for a long life.
Last edited by Tamburlain; 06-06-2009 at 12:08 PM.
Reason: fixed links
There is no path, traveler; the path is made by walking.