Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another. The rest of the series can be found here.
A game decades ahead of its time.
Published in the second quarter of 1995 by the French publisher Sans Peur et Sans Reproche (also known as SPSR) and written by Benoit Clerc, Thibaud Beghin and Arnaud Bailly, Miles Christi is without a doubt the most beautiful and evocative RPG ever made. However, I admit that (given the times in which we live and the way that crowd-funding is serving to continuously raise both prices and production values) this claim may require some justification.
In fairness to contemporary RPG design aesthetics, RPG books used to look like absolute shit. Printed on cheap paper and filled with artwork that would often compare poorly to the obscene graffiti found on men’s room walls, contemporary RPG design tends to favour an aesthetic of opulence. Regardless of how well this aesthetic gels with the themes and imagery of the game, RPG books need to look expensive and so your typical ‘beautiful’ RPG book is usually a glossy hardback filled with glossy pages adorned with full-colour art and full-colour underlays. Sure, today’s books may look more professional but usually that’s more a result of advances in the field of desk-top publishing and the economics of crowdfunding than improved artistic sensibilities.
The Miles Christi core book is beautiful in an entirely different way to most contemporary RPG books. For starters, the cover is both soft and matte in finish. The cover art apes the imagery of stained-glass windows complete with strange beasts and mysterious figures. The image draws the eye, but the soft textured cover makes the book feel old and weathered. Like something exhumed from a tomb or rescues from an abandoned medieval library. The colours are vivid and primary, the writing is not only in script but golden in colour making it hard to read against the blood red backdrop. This is a book that feels precious and looks mysterious.
The book’s tactile delights are also apparent in the slightly over-sized format as well as the thick, textured, somewhat yellowed pages all with dappled edges. The inside of the book continues the aesthetic rapprochement with medieval manuscripts by making frequent use of illuminated letters and a font that looks like it could have been produced with a quill. The internal art is mostly black-and-white and its style recalls medieval bestiaries except where the book breaks out into these gorgeous charcoal and chalk renderings of medieval battles and figures. This is such a beautiful book that the game elements feel almost like an afterthought.
Miles Christi is a game inviting you to play members of the Knights Templar. This thematic focus owes a major debt to Greg Stafford’s Pendragon in that, much like Chaosium’s Arthurian classic, characters are not so much defined by their class as by their personality. In this game, everyone’s a knight and everyone is defined by their unique relationship to that social group.
Like many games from the 1990s, Miles Christi opens with fluff rather than crunch. Indeed, the first thing you encounter upon opening a book is the list of rules governing membership in the Knights Templar. Then you are instructed on the hierarchical structure governing the order, your duties as a member, and the punishments for breaking the rule of the order. You are then told about what the Templars do and how they are equipped. This may seem like a lot of very dry information at once but the point of the structure is to drive home the idea that the players are Templars first are foremost. Their commitment to the order must come before their ties to family, nation, and even Church.
Students of history will be aware that the Knights Templar were eventually brought down by charges of heresy and it’s lovely to have that little seed of doubt and conflict slip in under the collective radar. The point is not to suggest that the Templars were always heretics, rather it is to suggest that there was something about being a Templar that set people apart from other Christians.
This sense of alterity is then expanded in a chapter devoted to the nation of the Francs. This being a French game, it is assumed that anyone playing Miles Christi will be playing a Franc but the description of the Francs as a people seems to have been written by an outsider. Separated from the Church by their membership in the order, Templars are also separated from their country and cultures of origin.
This sense of separation is also present in the book’s treatment of Muslims as the game makes it quite clear that, far from viewing the locals as evil infidels, Templars saw Muslims as frequently more noble, moral, and sympathetic than your average Christian. When Christians and Muslims are in conflict, the order demands that Templars side with the righteous rather than the faithful.
I refer to Muslims as ‘locals’ as the entire game is set in Crusader-occupied Palestine. The game’s depiction of the setting owes a lot less to the supposed realism of films like Kingdom of God than it does to the slightly weird and trippy way in which far-off lands were depicted in the Bible and later Medieval manuscripts. This is a version where the PCs are as likely to run into an Oliphant as they are an Angel or creatures inspired by the weird-and-wonderful beasts and peoples that turn up in books like the Histories of Herodotus.
While Miles Christi owes an obvious debt to Pendragon, it is interesting to note that this game’s designers have an altogether more sophisticated view of imperialist colonialism than that displayed by Greg Stafford or any of his heirs. Despite being celebrated as an expert in mythology, Stafford never took so much as a single critical step back from the colonialist ideas embedded in the Arthurian texts. Thus, Pendragon never really doubts the morality of raging racial holy war on Saxon immigrants, forcibly imposing Christianity on the British Isles, or Arthur’s decision to extending his Imperial power over the entirety of Western Europe. Though ultimately concerned with the doings of a Western colonialist project, Miles Christi never buys into the belief that Christians should be ruling Palestine. There are frequent references to atrocities carried out by so-called Christian knights and the game is really not that interested in Christianity conquering the middle-east.
Miles Christi is first and foremost a game about Strangers in a Strange Land. Its PCs may be Francish knights but they are alienated from pretty much every institution other than their monastic order: They are Francs, but they have no solidarity with Francish people. They are knights, but they have profound doubts about the morality of Knighthood. They are Christians, but they have doubts about the morals of the Catholic Church. The point of the game is to explore the character’s relationships with these institutions and how they help and hinder the pursuit of a just and holy life.
The game places the focus on interiority during the character-creation process. You start the process with your character a 7 year-old page. All characters start with the same basic stats and skills, but they depart from the baseline by having players adopt a series of archetypes that describe their relationship with the institution of the Templar. For example, as 7 year-olds, the characters can drift into a variety of roles described by the names of animals. These determine the characters’ skills and physicality as well as their character traits. At the age of 13, the character becomes a squire and is invited to choose between archetypes inspired by different mythological heroes. At 20, the characters select the Arthurian archetype that inspired the early years of their knighthood. Players then select personal miracles and begin play as a 22-year old Knight Templar.
The game’s system makes its first appearance about thirty pages from the end of the book. Simple to the point of being simplistic, conflict is resolved through the use of a set of playing cards that are dealt to the players at the start of each session, leaving them to choose when to play which card as different suits and face-values play out differently in different kinds of conflicts.
The book itself is very short on advice as to how the game is to be played. There are no experience rules, or mechanics for progressing within the order, the closest we have to an acknowledgement of campaign play is a worksheet allowing the GM to keep track of the players’ various sins and trespasses. The tone and shape of play is thus determined by the example adventure, which is short on combat and long on exploration with moments of moral conflict. The artwork, subject matter, and writing style combine to give the game a weirdly trippy and introspective feel. Like the weirder bits of the Bible, this is all about Christians having their faith tested again and again by a universe that is both incomprehensible and deeply invested in the health of their soul.
In truth, I suspect that Miles Christi was a game more admired than played. I played a session at a convention and then struggled to make sense of it when I got the book home but despite it not being abundantly clear how to use the book, it did produce a handful of supplements including one allowing you to play an Assassin. While this is most emphatically not the kind of game that would get published in today’s market, it’s worth bearing in mind that Nephilim was a huge success in the mid-1990s French RPG scene and so French gamers were somewhat at home with weird, trippy, inaccessible and mystical nonsense.
One of the great systemic problems with the RPG hobby is that it is a lot easier to learn by playing than it is by sitting down and working your way through a (often not very well-written) rulebook. By now, most seasoned gamers have a pretty good grasp on how to ‘do’ games that are either like Call of Cthulhu or D&D but once you move beyond those modes of play, you start to run into the problem of how to get players to run games the way they were intended. Non-traditional story-games generally get around this problem by keeping the themes and mechanics quite simple and producing rulebooks that emphasise practice and procedure. These games are so different to either D&D or CoC that you learn to play them in a similar way to board-games; you internalise a workflow that tells you when to role dice, how to take turns, and how to track points or conditions. The idea being that if you get the mechanics right, the themes of the game will just naturally manifest themselves.
Miles Christi is an interesting document in that it exists halfway between Vampire the Masquerade and the emergence of a non-traditional RPG scene. Vampire is an interesting historical document in that the GM advice talks a lot about story and role-playing but the rules are so complex and crunchy that the story stuff never really comes up. For all its pretensions to art, Vampire is a Goth Supers game and that is 100% borne out by the types of supplements that White Wolf produced.
Miles Christi differs from Vampire in that the designers clearly realised that you couldn’t just tell people to run a game differently, you actually had to provide rules that shifted the emphasis. The problem is that the writers of Miles Christi took the approach of making the rules so simple that you can’t approach them with a tactical mind-set and while there are rules for moral questioning, they are mostly ad hoc and are in no way backed up by the requisite amount of GM advice. Had Miles Christi been written 15 years later, I suspect it would have looked and felt a lot like Dogs in the Vineyard but the designers had no idea as to how you might support that style of play either through mechanics or through top-down advice. The result is a game that leans towards a non-traditional play style but the instructions are more implied than manifest.
A beautiful book, an inspired game, and a fascinating historical document but definitely one of those games you struggle to know what to do with once you get it home.