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Designer Diary: A Game Designer’s Peculiar Pilgrimage along The Road to Canterbury

Alf Seegert
United States
Salt Lake City
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Board Game Designer
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Board Game: The Road to Canterbury
I have always been fascinated by religious history, theology, and heresy. And for some reason I seem to enjoy taking the side of the heretic (even if I don't agree). I still think that Pelagius had a good point about free will despite anything Augustine might have insisted. In my view Marcion is underrated. And the legend that Saint Nicholas smacked Bishop Arius full-on in the face makes me pity the poor heretic. (Bad Santa!) I'm still surprised that Saint Francis' lavish expression of kinship with nature only resulted in stigmata and not, say, a literal crucifixion for charges of pantheism – for which I'm happy. The Cathars were not so fortunate.

As a college professor (literature, not theology), I often find myself discovering intriguing things like these which often end up not only in the classroom or in an article, but also in a board game design – or at least in an attempted board game design.

So, for instance, consider the weird theoretical and game-like dilemmas that emerge from the following mix of history and theology: the Roman Emperor Constantine, who issued the revolutionary "Edict of Milan" that finally tolerated Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313, was himself only baptized at the very end of his life. As I understand it, even though he was (ostensibly?) a true believer, his theological interpretation of baptism was that it washed away one's past sins only. It thus stood to reason that to get as much bang for the buck as possible (so to speak) you would wait as long as possible before "taking the plunge" (or the sprinkle? I'm not sure whether immersion was en vogue in Constantine's day or not).

As an aspiring game designer I encountered such facts as an intriguing dilemma, much like the mechanism in a board game. The idea of someone's seeking to fool God through the calculatedly deferred timing of a holy sacrament screamed "press your luck" as a basic mechanism. Thematically, it also invited satiric humor in a Monty Pythonesque vein. Imagine a game where the goal would be to play an early Christian who secretly wishes to indulge in the most sin and debauchery as possible before being finally baptized – and then dying in the good graces of God and the Church, thereby winning the game!

To quote Homer (Simpson, not the blind Greek poet): "Sacrilicious!"

The risk, of course, would be that while performing such perfidies you might get carried away and actually DIE before your baptism and last rites could be performed. Hmm....this combination of theme and mechanisms seemed like a fascinating potential game design.

From gallery of alfseegert
But of course, it didn't work. Not for me, anyway. I'm no fan of player elimination, so the notion of having each player BE one of these debauched Roman faux Christian elites created too many problems. I then tried to have players each represent an entire family, and thus have multiple personas to douse in sin before having them doused in the waters of baptism and then safely buried. But it just didn't quite come together for me in figuring out how to kill everybody off without reprising 13 Dead End Drive in 4th century Italy. So I tried to think of logically similar circumstances, and before long, it came: the figure of the medieval Pardoner shone forth in a deranged epiphany, a naughty Virgil guiding me through the dark forest of game design into a Hell of fictive corruption....

Oh, wait, that's Dante. We're supposed to be doing Chaucer! And besides that, I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I tell you anything about my friend the Pardoner, I first need to say a little something about Chaucer's fourteenth-century literary masterpiece The Canterbury Tales.

As you might already know, in The Canterbury Tales, a company of medieval pilgrims journeys together from the Tabard Inn at the outskirts of London to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, entertaining each other with stories along the way. Some of these tales are incredibly bawdy (and very funny). Many challenge existing social hierarchies and expose the hypocrisy of those who supposedly represent God and the church.

Chaucer makes his Pardoner into an especially striking figure of such religious hypocrisy. In the Prologue to "The Pardoner's Tale," the Pardoner's motto is "Radix malorum est cupiditas," or "Greed is the root of all evil." But he is himself the greediest member of the entire company! He brings with him a vast supply of false relics and an array of counterfeit indulgences or pardons (certificates that reduce the amount of time suffered in Purgatory as a consequence of one's sins). The Pardoner goes on to tell a tale about the deadly consequences of greed. In doing so, he hopes that the company of pilgrims will seek him afterwards and offer coins in exchange for the forgiveness he falsely promises through his relics and indulgences!

Somehow, and I'm not quite sure how, my "naughty Constantine game" underwent its own baptism and ultimately emerged sparkling in fresh guise as The Road to Canterbury. It might be just because I love Chaucer so much. In any case, in this new game, the same "press your luck" mechanism was in play, but instead of having players play the ones seeking sin and salvation, I instead let players play the ones providing the very means of temptation – and its forgiveness! (I should mention that before I ever got to this point, I had simply worked with the Pardoner as a free agent who would pardon a bunch of sinful old Italian men in my proto-design The Pardoners of Padua – and I do like the alliteration with the "P" – but the call to literary pilgrimage proved too tempting to resist.)

The premise of my new game became this: As you travel together with pilgrims along the road to Canterbury, you sell indulgences delivering pilgrims from the eternal penalties brought on by the Seven Deadly Sins. But to succeed as a pardoner, you will need to do more than just sell forged pardons for quick cash. To keep your services in demand, you will actually need to lead these pilgrims into temptation yourself! Perhaps some phony relics might help? There is one big catch. The Seven Deadly Sins live up to their name: each sin that a pilgrim commits brings Death one step nearer, and a dead pilgrim pays no pardoners!*

To help you get a better sense of what an unpleasant – but fascinating – character the Pardoner is, read this selection from Chaucer's "Pardoner's Prologue" in The Canterbury Tales (which is a modern translation of the Middle English by J.U. Nicolson):

From gallery of alfseegert
"Masters," quoth he, "in churches, when I preach,
I am at pains that all shall hear my speech,
And ring it out as roundly as a bell,
For I know all by heart the thing I tell.
My theme is always one, and ever was:
Radix malorum est cupiditas.'
First I announce the place whence I have come,
And then I show my pardons, all and some.
Our liege-lord's seal on my patent perfect,
I show that first, my safety to protect,
And then no man's so bold, no priest nor clerk,
As to disturb me in Christ's holy work;
And after that my tales I marshal all.
Indulgences of pope and cardinal,
Of patriarch and bishop, these I do
Show, and in Latin speak some words, a few,
To spice therewith a bit my sermoning
And stir men to devotion, marvelling.
Then show I forth my hollow crystal-stones,
Which are crammed full of rags, aye, and of bones...
By this fraud have I won me, year by year,
A hundred marks, since I've been pardoner...
Of avarice and of all such wickedness
Is all my preaching, thus to make them free
With offered pence, the which pence come to me.
For my intent is only pence to win,
And not at all for punishment of sin."

Using such an irreverent character as the premise for a board game made me happy. As you can probably tell from the descriptions above and my sympathy for heretics, I enjoy making games where players get to play the "bad guys." In my prior two published game designs – Bridge Troll and Trollhalla, both from Z-Man Games – the players take on the role of hideous, nasty trolls who either guard bridges waiting to extort (and eat) passersby, or who plunder and pillage helpless islanders and livestock, Viking-style.

I suppose that the motivating allure I find in designing such games is much the same that I find as a film lover, reader, and in teaching film and literature. As I see it, one of the great powers of storytelling – or more generally, of play – is being able to fictively experience the world or perform as someone or something very much unlike oneself in "actual life." I really like how C.S. Lewis expresses this power of the virtual in An Experiment in Criticism:

Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own. They may be beautiful, terrible or inspiring, exhilarating, pathetic, comic or merely piquant. Literature gives the entrée to them all. [...] My own eyes are not enough for me. The man who is contented to be only himself and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books, very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee. More gladly still would I perceive the olfactory worlds charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog...

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do.
Yes, C.S. Lewis is of course praising the powers of literature here, high literature at that – not board games. And I suppose that my sense of playful deviancy-via-virtuality is more Oscar Wilde than C.S. Lewis. But I understand games and stories as both inhabiting the same continuum of fictional play. Some are more rules-based, others more story-based. Like many designers, I like mixing both. I guess I see the trolls and pardoners in my games much like the characters in online role playing games, except that instead of pixels the players get to use cardboard avatars – and hopefully as a result they find a way to play as something quite UNLIKE the person they encounter in the mirror every day.

I see The Road to Canterbury as the third title in my "trilogy of villainy." (Heh, collect all three!) It works both as a continuation and as a departure from my earlier games Bridge Troll and Trollhalla. With Bridge Troll I was aiming to do as a game (in a "lite" homage) what John Gardner did as a novel with Grendel (a novel that takes the narrative point of view of the monster in Beowulf). Both Neil Gaiman's and Terry Pratchett's independently crafted "Troll Bridge" stories likewise do brilliant work making you see things from the troll's point of view. (What ARE your opportunities, really, if your big choices in life are whether to eat or extort a passing traveler who wants to cross your bridge?) And remember the vicious Cave Troll in Moria in Tolkien's (or Jackson's) The Fellowship of the Ring? Director Peter Jackson actually felt bad for him, and imagined this poor troll was always mistreated by the Orcs and that his Troll-mum was waiting for him at home, cookies and milk awaiting, but after a very nasty encounter with terrible elves, dwarves, and men, he somehow never makes it back....

I likewise felt kind of bad for my bridge trolls' limited options for upward mobility, and thus decided to send them to Trollhalla, where these trolls could happily abandon their bridges for the promise of plunder. (From what I've heard in response so far, players really enjoy the trollish "value system" involved, and express snorts of displeasure at nasty Billy Goats and grunts of glee over the pillaging of pigs and peasants.)

In The Road to Canterbury, however, my goal was not so much to actually see things from the Pardoner's perspective – for he IS a despicable hypocrite and victimizer for whom I feel little sympathy – but to instead just have fun in playing somebody so UTTERLY corrupt that few of us could imagine being like that in real life. Or so I hope, anyway....

Okay, I've spent A LOT of time explaining the development of my theme here. But I've taken enough of your time already. Instead of now diving into a discussion of the actual game play and mechanisms, let me urge you instead to watch the Road to Canterbury promotional video which debuted on Kickstarter on April 15, 2011. It does a wonderful job of SHOWING such things instead of my TELLING them!

But do let me wrap up by saying that Gryphon Games has been wonderful to work with on this game. I'm grateful that Rick Soued and everyone else at Gryphon really seems to enjoy the quirkiness and fun of The Road to Canterbury, and I'm happy that their vision for the game only made it better. The game's production follows the high standards set by Gryphon's recent game Pastiche, by Sean MacDonald, my compatriot in the Board Game Designer's Guild of Utah. (Let me take a moment to thank the BGDG at large for their helpful feedback during this game's development!)

Board Game: The Road to Canterbury

All the art and components contribute to the theme and atmosphere: the game board is taken directly from Hieronymus Bosch's tabletop painting The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (when I first encountered this painting a few years ago I said to myself, "I MUST make a game to play on this tabletop!"). The art for the Pilgrims and the Pardoner are from the earliest illustrated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. Oh, and I shouldn't forget to mention that players get little cloth bags in which to store their ill-gotten gains. In short, I'm delighted at where The Road to Canterbury will finally take those who play it!

Gryphon Games is using Kickstarter for its launch of The Road to Canterbury and needs Pardoners – I mean, partners! – to ensure that this quirky title will actually be published and to give an idea of just how many copies to print. Tempting collectible incentives are available! (*Cackle*) I hope you can join in. Thanks for all your support!

Alf Seegert

*If you're having trouble imagining what my conception of Chaucer's Pardoner looks and acts like, close your eyes and brew up a really strong cup of tea. Collaborate: hold a séance and summon the genius of the late great Douglas Adams for company (or you might also contact writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, who still dwell in the land of the living). In any case: together, envision a brilliant new British comedy series: Black Adder Begs your Pardon. Or somesuch. Notify Rowan Atkinson! If you know Black Adder at all, then you are already aware that in the British-televised world of corruption, smarm, and deceit there is no more delightful figure than the craven and opportunistic, cackle-happy Edmund Blackadder. It's for these reasons that I would "get medieval" – in rather more the BBC's than Quentin Tarantino's sense – and cast Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder as the deliciously wicked figure of the Pardoner from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales...
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