On one of those rainy weekends when there's nothing to do, I got drawn into a role-playing project by a young neighbor. A medieval investigation story, with a gallery of characters.
I protested, citing my advanced age. "On the contrary, we need an old enchanter, and you will be the most credible!" he replied. I walked up the few flights of stairs, and joined the group.
The Middle Ages provide a framework with ill-defined contours, which allows for invention, and sparks the imagination. Fiction seizes on it or is inspired by it. Game of Throne, but also Eragon, Hunger Games,... "You don't know anything about the Middle Ages? my neighbor asks me. It's not a big deal... With the game, we don't pretend to be faithful to history, but just recreate an atmosphere and an environment."
The most concrete aspects such as craftsmanship, rustic architecture or domestic animals rub shoulders with magic, witchcraft, and a whole supernatural bestiary. The codes of realism are constantly shaken up by the appearance of the fantastic or references to the present. Thus, Hunger Games mixes an archaic, artisanal society, organized around villages and surveillance and combat equipment far superior to those of the 2010s. "Anything goes!" summarizes my neighbor.
And I'm tempted to believe him. To create the atmosphere, he came partly disguised. A cap hides his forehead and ears. It is stuffed with a "raw shearing" wool. With two cardboard rolls, he made himself horns that fall on each side.
From the smell, and the green hue of the whole thing, it's obvious that the cap has waited a long time in a damp place before becoming a game accessory...the player is very red. It's 50 degrees under his beanie.
The bestiary is an essential component of some role-playing games. Fantasy monsters sit alongside pets, and the designer can invent some from scratch or create variants of existing creatures.
Enthusiastically, my neighbor patiently explains to me how to decipher the character and monster sheet. There are many abbreviations, each action has several possible effects, and the die often decides their magnitude. An animal will be defined by its power, its strengths and weaknesses, its defenses, its mode and speed of movement. All this is not fixed. Thus, for the speed, it can vary according to the ground and according to the result of a throw of dice... I'm having trouble keeping up. But what possessed me to think that this would be more challenging than watching the rain fall out my window!
Whether common, mythological, or made-up animals are used, the game will only be richer if the players know them and can describe them, and bring them to life through speech.
I quickly grasp the mechanics, and the little miniatures, cards, and documentation are valuable memory aids. I am now introduced to the characters.
In our literature, the Middle Ages are often an opportunity to create "trognes," individuals with ominous appearances and manners. Role-playing games also allow for the invention of contrasting and strange characters: merchants, storytellers, monks, balladeers, knights errant, artisans, knights, lords, fairies and witches.
Having a picture of the economic and social balance that exists among the village's inhabitants gives the game consistency. And the characters should be sufficiently contrasting to provide uncertainty and allow for elaborate strategies.
In life-size games, which sometimes bring together hundreds of people in rural landscapes, it is preferable to be able to physically embody one's role... But in a board game, there's nothing to stop you from choosing a character that's far removed from who you really are.
"My hosts sense that my attention is waning. To get in the mood, one of them suggests music that evokes the Middle Ages. Minstrels playing the trumpet, harp, chalumeau or organ? Uh, no, more like a metal band with a five-syllable Germanic name, I am told."
I decline the musical proposal. In silence, I will understand the rules better. And I allow myself to explain the spatial organization of the game.
Rural landscapes, forests, fields, wells and mills are all spaces in which to deploy a scenario. One can hide there, flee, or on the contrary remain ambushed and watch for the arrival of a victim. Some places will allow you to search for food or resources, while others contain traps. Role-playing games create landscapes, often complex. Invention has an important part.
To get us a little more in the mood, one player opened a bottle of cider. The drink makes him lyrical: "You see, Maylis de Kerangal tells us that writing is like setting up a landscape, but a landscape that would be reconstructed by memory... Wait, I'll find the text for you:
To understand what I kept from what I saw, we must return to the idea that writing is like establishing a landscape. In the sense that the landscape architect Gilles Clément tells us that a landscape is under our gaze, that is to say that the real landscape is what we keep in ourselves once we have closed our eyes. It is a relationship to memory.
Well, game designers invent landscapes. Their maps look like travelers' memories. "Places whose representation is filtered through memory."
Yellowed and battered paper, brown ink, lines drawn with a pen. i see that the code has not changed since The Lord of the Rings!!
Dé roulant tells us on his blog how he drew his own map in 2009 with Gimp. If you're interested in the theme, you can visit a veritable treasure trove of images and inspiration, as well as a space for exchanges between enthusiasts. The Cartographers' Guild can take you on a journey for hours! Like a role-playing landscape, it travels in many directions, you get lost, you find treasures, sometimes also dead ends that you get out of very quickly.
It seems that ancient weapons have a stronger power of fascination than the current technical monsters. They have names as evocative as their owners. There is no question of using a simple knife to stun your fellow man. The heavy Gork axe, the dagger or sword, the scimitar, the targe... It still looks better !
The encyclopedias devoted to the theme of the Middle Ages published in the mid-1990s by the mythical magazine Casus Belli can only encourage to go further. The magazine having temporarily ceased publication, the publisher has been generous enough to make them available on Calameo: Volume 1 is mainly intended to extend famous games. Volume 2 goes into more detail about certain aspects of role-playing. The illustrations, cards, characters and animals are of great quality and deserve a click by themselves!
But it's already late, too late to start a game. No matter. Roleplayers love to share, and my guests feel they've had a rich afternoon, reminiscing about the principles and classics of games.
They're not the only ones.
One of them has overindulged in cider, another has itchy hair under his custom cap. We have to say goodbye. But I promise, next time we attack a game, and I'll be the old enchanter.
Illustrations: Frédéric Duriez
Casus Belli Medieval Fantasy Encyclopedia - Volume II
Devolution Mapping: let it guide you accessed November 5, 2015
Cartographer's Guild accessed November 5, 2015
Passion Roleplaying Game Bestiary Directory
French Federation of Role Playing Games - documentary fund: some theses on role playing, players, and learning. accessed November 6, 2015
Bastien Charbouillot Role-playing, a reality in fiction IEP de Lyon 2008
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