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. Continue reading Reading the signs, Part 1: Montsegur

Weave richly the dream…

A couple of experiences from Go Play NW last weekend: first, I played my game The Dreaming Crucible with Joe McDaldno and Jackson Tegu. Jackson has a little Crucible experience, so for once I was able to turn the role of Dark Faerie over to another and just play the Hero. This meant that the other players were in charge of bringing the world of Faerie to life. And we had the most descriptively rich game of The Dreaming Crucible that I’ve every played.

A Well-Dressed Man who commanded the inanimate whisked young Aaron on a flying carpet to a vast clockwork plain and commanded him to repair it. A Stickboy borne on a raven persuaded the boy to flee the place, and secured a dog for him to ride through a forest pulsing with life. Aaron met an apple tree who was delighted for company but sad to think he might rob her of her apples. Then he lost his companions and the forest path turned to tile and walls rose up to hem him in and he almost spent forever in a bare room with a vanity and a chair. He came to a cottage where an old witch became an alluring girl and traded him the lives of his companions for passage to the Well Dressed Man’s black spire. The girl skinned the dog and Aaron wore him, still living, as a cloak as he and the Stickboy climbed the spire to confront his suave enslaver. Continue reading Weave richly the dream…

Beyond mere misery: playing Nicotine Girls

A couple of weeks ago I played a little game called Nicotine Girls, by Paul Czege. I was terrified. The game is modest enough in scope, but the subject matter is incredibly vulnerable: you play low-income young women aged 16-19, in desperate or dismal circumstances, trying to make their dreams come true.

I first found Nicotine Girls a couple of years ago, on Paul’s website. It appealed to me a great deal, but I shied away from actually playing it, especially since the one other gameplaying person I showed it to seemed to think it impossible to play seriously. So it just filed away in the back of my brain, because I was afraid.

I was afraid that I as a thirtysomething white guy would make some horrible sexist and classist blunder in play. I was afraid the game would degenerate into pure misery tourism under the guise of something deep. I was afraid it would take a more glib turn and degenerate into a disrespectful laugh-fest. In short, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the subject of the truly disempowered.

But some other recent play put it back to the front of my mind, and I began to gather the courage to try. At Go Play NW I polayed it with Michael, Ogre and Johnstone. I had a pang of guilt as we started, as I realized that I, as the Gamemaster, was not in as vulnerable a position as my cohorts. They would be putting a lot of emotional investment on the line with these impoverished and desperate characters, while I would be primarily piling on the adversity. It seemed unfair of me to ask of them what I would not do myself. but we began with a frank conversation of the emotionally vulnerable core of the game, and proceeded on a foundation of intimate trust.

The thing with Nicotine Girls, is that your actions are extremely constrained both by the situation–low-income girls trapped in their circumstances–and by the rules framework–you must act out of Hope or Fear, and you can only use Sex, Cry or Money to get what you want. And there’s a hope roll at the end of the game to attain your Dream that’s heavily stacked against the players. It seemed like a dismal setup that could only end in tragedy–Misery Tourism indeed.

But an amazing thing happened: there was a wonderful array of texture and nuance to the fiction we created. There were moments of misery, but also humor, of tragedy, but also hope. The characters were drawn as vividly and realistically as in a movie like Trainspotting or SLC Punk. And three girls’ fates ran across a whole spectrum, from the senselessly tragic to the deservedly dismal to the brutal but hopeful. What the nigh-impossible Dream roll did was ground the story–this ain’t no Disney movie, there isn’t a fairy godmother in sight,  but your life is what you make it.

I was moved. We all were. I was so gratified to put my trust in these guys and have it returned. Together we transcended the shallow or pretentious and moved beyond it to true beauty and unflinching truth.

Peace,

-Joel