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Reading the signs, Part 1: Montsegur

At Go Play Northwest I played Frederick J. Jensen’s Montsegur 1244, facilitated by John Aegard. The game is about a French castle that has taken in a band of heretical Cathar refugees and is besieged by the Inquisistion, with the bitter end predetermined but each character’s physical and spiritual fate still very much at stake.

It was an intense, personal game experience, with rich storytelling and painful human tragedy. It affected me deeply in many ways, but I didn’t at first realize that it was trying to tell me something important about my own life.

You see, in the game I played the landless knight Pierre Roger, captain of the defense of Montsegur. He’s married to Philippa, eldest daughter to the Lord of Montsegur, but also dallies with Arsende the Harlot (all this is part of the pregenerated situation of the game, not created by players, but it’s up to the players to interpret and flesh out). And there was a theme that kept emerging, partly from my portrayal of Pierre (he was ruthless and decisive in martial matters, but bewildered and hesitant in family affairs), and partly fellow player Susan’s portrayal of Philippa (she spent a lot of time arguing with her parents and sister, and barely addressed her husband), and partly the way scenes were framed (many crucial scenes for Philippa were framed with Pierre absent, or else his presence a mere afterthought). The result was, Philippa was in crisis but estranged from Pierre; he felt for her but knew not what to say or do on her behalf, and she in turn shut him out of all major decision-making in her life.

And so it made sense that Pierre turned to comfort in the arms of Arsende. He obviously cared for her deeply, but was unwilling to forsake even his bitterly cold family ties for her. Meanwhile Philippa found comfort in the arms of knight Bernard. She had a husband suffering for her, willing to die for her, but did not have him by her side either at the birth of her child (secretly Bernard’s), or at her death in the long, starving winter. And in the end, it was Arsende, whose belly swelled with child herself (possibly Pierre’s), who was given Philippa’s baby to suckle.

And thus, on the eve of the last, desperate battle in defense of Montsegur, Pierre Roger came to see the woman who nurtured two children he believed were his.

As I described Pierre taking his daughter in his arms for the last (and perhaps the first) time, a lot of real emotion welled up. I thought at the time that I was feeling a simple “what if” sympathy for the character, as a new father myself—feeling what I would feel if I were leaving my own daughter in another’s arms, to ride off and possibly make her an orphan. And to be sure, that imagery resonated heartbreakingly for me in that moment.

But as I learned days later, there was more.

I came home from GPNW, all warmed and excited but also missing my wife and daughter, eager to reconnect. I was all sunshine and flowers and glibness, until a minor issue arose between us, and grew into a bitter fight. I won’t share the details here, but it was the kind related to a deep hurt that can’t heal overnight, that can make you wonder how to make a relationship work at all.

I had no idea this issue was festering in her or in me. I felt positive and optimistic and ready to enjoy her company. If only I had known that this hurt was looming, so I could give it due attention and compassionate care!

And then I realized that the game was telling me this, and I didn’t listen.

The fictional circumstances were different, of course, but the theme of estranged marriage where the husband feels devoted but helpless, and the wife is pained by his presence and prefers to face hard decisions and ordeals without him? Chillingly parallel to what we were facing in our family. And though my brain didn’t know it, I felt it in my soul. But I dismissed the twinge of foreboding and left it unexamined.

So what good does it do me, then, if I don’t know what an omen means until after it’s been fulfilled? Well, the purpose of reading portents (runes, Tarot, astrology, or whatever else) isn’t to predict events, but to understand situations. The game event was drawing my attention to a problem that already existed, not warning me to look out for a marital spat. And the signs don’t tell me what to do, either. I’m certainly not taking up with a harlot because communication with my wife is strained. Rather, they illuminate aspects of the situation to increase understanding, and allow me to proceed with care and caution. I still have to make my own way, and reconcile with my wife on my own wisdom and initiative. The oracle won’t do it for me. And that is exactly what Annie and I have done. But had I paid attention sooner, I could perhaps have saved some grief and pain along the way.

Next week: Reading the Signs continues with an instance of oracular living where I DID pay due attention and avoid ugliness!

Peace,

—Joel

7 thoughts on “Reading the signs, Part 1: Montsegur”

  1. I recently had a very similar experience, playing Misspent Youth with Rob Bohl at DexCon. It didn’t presage any event in my life, it just helped me play through my own conflicted, ambivalent emotions. I think we need myths and stories–and the games that can guide us through them–precisely because some things we just can’t approach directly or say out loud.

  2. Right on, Jason. I am obviously all about that. Though this particular storytelling moment presaged an event in my personal life, I definitely think the core of the experience is the processing of emotions, personal wounds, and so on. Storytelling is indeed a survival skill.

    And it sounds like that Misspent Youth game of yours was hot! I’m looking forward to listening to the related podcast.

  3. “I think we need myths and stories–and the games that can guide us through them–precisely because some things we just can’t approach directly or say out loud.”

    This. Yeah.

    Joel,
    beautifully put. I like that this story doesn’t end in some neat package, like so many of its type do. You lead us not to the promised land, but to the contemplative path. Thanks for that!

  4. Thank you, Joe. I’m always tempted to wrap up a story with a nice little hopeful bow, but it’s important to me to be real. It does get hopeful in part 2, but still nothing like neat or resolved. The journey never ends, you know?

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