Review: Mouse Guard RPG

(Cross-posted to RPG.net and Emerald City Gamefest.)

The Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game is based on the on-going comic book series Mouse Guard and a streamlined, simplified version of the Burning Wheel system, in which you play the protectors and warriors of a medieval society of sentient mice.

Style

Presentation. The Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game, by Luke Crane and David Petersen, is one of the prettiest RPGs I own.  It’s a 320-page hardcover 8.5 in. x 8.5 in. (210 mm x 210 mm) book printed in full colour on quality glossy paper.  The inside of the jacket cover unfolds into a colour map of the Mouse Territories, which is also printed in monochrome version on the endsheets and available in colour for download from the official wiki.

There are many, many illustrations taken from the comic book which the game is based on, and lovely art it is.  The colours, fonts, and layout are pleasing and clear, making it easy to distinguish various elements at a glance.  Each section uses a different border, which also helps with quick orientation when you’re looking for a reference in play.

Organization. The setting and rules sections are somewhat intermixed in several places.  However, it is relatively easy to find what one is looking for; the table of contents is minimal, but the index is extensive.  I found it very helpful to have ordered the bundle that comes with a companion PDF version of the book, as the majority of my Mouse Gaming was done online via Skype.  However, the PDF came without bookmarks and I had to add all these myself.

There are a few topics that are covered under more than one entry, or that are not immediately obvious to find.  For example, a common question in RPGs is whether a character can attempt an action for which s/he doesn’t have the skill, and if so, how.  In the middle of a game, you might have trouble remembering that the two places this is discussed are “Beginner’s Luck” (main entry) and “Learning a New Skill” (very briefly, and referring you to the main entry).  But overall, the book is well organized and it’s fairly easy to get quick answers in play.

Writing Style and Tone. The tone is serious (these mice are not funny furry toons) and matter-of-fact, in direct, declarative sentences.  The explanations of various rules are generally clear and concise.

Vocabulary. The vocabulary is simpler than in the Burning Wheel original and its family of books.  There is little use of jargon and redefined or invented words.  The few examples of game-specific terminology, such as referring to dice results of 1, 2, or 3 as “cowards” (they represent failures), are perhaps a bit silly but at least readily understood (and as readily omitted).

There are a couple of instances of words that can mean different things in different contexts, reminescent of the different ways the word “level” is used in some games.  A “success” can represent a roll of 4, 5, or 6 on a single die, or it may represent a rolling enough 4s, 5s, and 6s in the dice pool used for a skill roll to meet or overcome the difficulty rating (i.e., rolling enough “successes”).  A “check” can be a a tick mark you put next to a skill, trait or characteristic once you’ve used it in game, or it may be a specific use of a Trait that will earn the PC an additional action in the Players’ Turn.  None of this is egregious, though it may cause occasional confusion.

Rating

The book is gorgeous and easy to read and to use in play.  A lot of thought was given to functionality of the book as well as its aesthetics.  It has few equals and therefore I give it one of my rare scores of 5, which I reserve for the truly exceptional.

Substance

Setting

The Mouse Territories. This game is based on the Eisner Award-winning graphic novel series of the same name, written and illustrated by David Petersen and published by Archaia Studios Press (the same people who publish Artesia, for comic book fans out there).  I’ve been a reader of the comic since its start in 2006 so I was very interested in the RPG.

The premise is one where mice are intelligent and have a medieval technology level and culture.  Their archenemies are the weasels who live to the west in the Darkheather, as well as all the forces of Nature arrayed against small mice: predators, storms, droughts, winter, etc.  As far as we know, the only truly sentient creatures are mice, weasels, and the weasel relatives including martens, ferrets, sables, and minks (though there is some indication that hares probably have an advanced society as well).

Mice and weasels use swords, shields and some armour, write, brew medicines and chemicals, build houses and ships, etc.  Every mouse has training as an artisan.  The Mouse Territories’ political system is far less authoritarian than typically found in our historical medieval era, forming a loose associations of somewhat fortified towns each with its own governing body.  The Mouse Guard is an organized, trained group of mice who provide armed escorts for travellers and harvesters, patrol and repair paths between towns, deliver mail, etc.  There’s a good bit of the Knights Templars in the concept.

Source Material About half the book’s content is setting material.  It provides ample fodder for people who hope to know more about the Mouse Territories, including a lot of material that was, at least at the time of publication, not yet revealed in the comic book.  There is a good deal of detail and a framework to tie the tidbits into a coherent society.

Fiction There is very little that one might call game fiction in this book.  It is limited to little quotes from various characters as chapter headers and strewn throught, and examples of play.  Rather, the text refers to scenes in the comics that inspired the game and interpret them as they would have unfolded under the game rules.

Scenarios. Three sample missions, with four ready-made player characters each, are provided to get the GM started.  The first of those is the mission that constitutes the first few episodes of the original comic, and the characters provided are those from the original story.  This allows easy insertion for people who came at this game from the comic book angle.  In addition, the text provides story hooks throughout the entire book.

Rules

What the PCs do. Player characters are members of the Guard, from raw recruit to seasoned officer, and are given missions each game.  The mission strongly shapes the direction of the story and provides hooks for the characters to gain mechanical advantages in play.

System. As others before me have already given excellent overviews of the game mechanics1, I will not repeat the detail here.  I simply want to discuss some unique features, and differences with the Burning Wheel system.

Some key differences with the Burning Wheel and Burning Empires game which came before are in the paring down of redundancies and a more uniform application of the game’s basic principles.  Examples of paring include:

  • reducing the types of reward points (“Artha” in BW) from three to two flavours, Persona Points and Fate Points;
  • combining all the forms of scripted combats — fights, chases, negotiations, etc.— to a single system;
  • reducing the number of characteristics;
  • simplifying the character creation steps.

On the improved unformity front, Traits are now mechanically consistent, all using the same approach: they provide a small bonus in certain limited cercumstances, and offer an opportunity for the character to get in trouble at other times in order to earn additional actions during the Players’ Turn.

Speaking of which, the pacing system is quite interesting.  First, the tempo of the game is dictated by seasons, each with its own hazards and weather-related plot twists; the story moves on to the next season once the GM has thrown in a certain number of these weather twists.  The authors provide guidelines for how often these weather-related events should occur and how challenging they should be.  Examples of twists include snow storms, flash floods, heat waves, etc.; for each season different missions and encounters are suggested.

Another interesting aspect of pacing is the alternance of GM’s Turns and Players’ Turns.  The GM’s Turn is where the mission is assigned, everyone selects their current Beliefs, Instincts and Goals, and the mission-related plot unfolds.  The Players’ Turn is used to recover from various conditions (Hungry, Angry, Tired, Injured, and Sick), and for players to pursue their characters’ individual interests.

Character creation and mission mechanics encourage players to solidly root their characters into the common story.  There are also some nice, simple mechanics to handle a frequent occurence in RPGs: players (and their characters) missing a game session.

Leaving aside the issue of personal preference (see the next section), the rules are reasonably robust though not unbreakable, more consistent and simpler than in previous BW incarnations.  The streamlining makes this version of the system easy enough for a group to try as a one-off without requiring extravagant effort from everyone.  This allows people to form an opinion without necessitating a huge commitment to the game.

Rating

The system is reasonably playable and consistent, and the source material easily reusable in a different system.  Moreover, a GM who decides to port the game over to her favourite system would be well served by examining some of the elements from the MG system and adapting some of them.  Using the system with a different setting would require more work, but is doable as well.  Very reusable even if you don’t play as-is, earns a rating of 4.

Actual Play

I played Mouse Guard in a series that stretched across four seasons in game time (six months in real time) as well as a shorter-lived campaign and a few convention one-off games.

Convention Games

I played in convention games run by both Shosuro Kando and Ogre.  These gave me a sense of the differences between tabletop play and online play (not that important, except for the frustration of occasional technical difficulties), and between short-run and on-going adventures (quite noticeable).

While one-off games are a great opportunity to introduce players to the game, bear in mind that the economy of this game is built for multi-session play.  The rate at which players earn and spend checks (both kinds), Fate Points, and Persona Points, the recovery from various Conditions, and the rate of spending and replenishing Nature and Resources are balanced against the helping dice among PCs and the difficulty of challenges.

The game is based around the rhythm of a GM’s Turn where the PCs are pummeled, and a Players’ Turn where they partly recover from their hardships.  But in the first GM’s Turn, the PCs are starting fresh and are not yet feeling the pain; it can be easy to breeze through the first mission if you don’t have to worry about staying in good enough shape to run through the next one.  As a result, one-off scenarios have all felt a lot easier than the missions in on-going series.

Campaigns

You can read about the two campaigns in our actual play thread.  To make a long story short: my husband (a.k.a. Shosuro Kando) was the GM, and we started with eight players in two groups (I played in both so we had a group of five and one of four.)  All the players were experienced role-players who know one another and enjoy a variety of systems including story games and portray vivid characters; the gender mix was 50-50.

The two groups were pursuing parallel plots during the same period, and the results of each were going to influence the setting for both.  One group, Sayble’s patrol, ended up disbanding after 7 episodes.  The other, Thurston’s patrol, eventually lost a player to Real LifeTM interference but continued on for a full four-season cycle, 21 episodes.  So what was the difference between the two groups?

In Sayble’s patrol, the players really didn’t take to the system.  Some of their feedback is discussed on posts #52 and #55 of the AP thread.  Briefly, they felt that even in its streamlined form compared to Burning Wheel and Burning Empires, the game was still too rigid and encumbered with rules for their tastes, and that it interfered with their role-playing or immersive experience.

In Thurston’s patrol, three of the four players were probably feeling fairly similar thoughts at the beginning; none of them was a big fan of BW.  But the fourth player, Ogre, was in fact a fan of the BW and Mouse Guard RPG systems, and really loved the intricacies of the mechanics.  His enthusiasm and willingness to really charge head first into the game, bite its throat, and wrestle it to the ground was a strong force in helping the group achieve momentum.  You can hear his discussion of the game in general and the campaign in specific in the June 10 episode of his podcast, Stabbing Contest, where he interviews Luke Crane.

The Mouse That Roared

The comparison between the two groups gave me good insight into what works and what doesn’t.  You will read, in any description of the BW-derived systems, that it is necessary to really tackle both the system and the story energetically, to throw yourself at it; this is indubitably true.  You need to play this game thinking, “Fuck it, I’m gonna make this thing happen.”  You need to beat the game with a big stick, to skewer it with a sword.  It’s not a system you can just dip your toes in; you need to dive and swim.  Thankfully, this is much easier to do in the streamlined MG version than in the more complex BW/BE2.

Stake-Setting. A good example of the balls-to-the-wall attitude you want to have in this game is the setting of stakes for challenges, and particularly for scripted conflicts.  Although the system offers not only a pass/fail resolution but a range of quality of success or failure, probabilities will tend to produce a middling result where one side may win by a hair but also has to make a big concession to the other side.  If your character or your side starts with “reasonable”, compromise-style goals, they will get creamed every time because the final result will be a mid-point somewhere between their centrist goal and the other side’s more extreme one.  So you want to start with very strong stakes that you can afford to compromise on.

Beliefs, Instincts, and Goals. Not only should you line up your BIGs with the story and mission; you should also line them up closely with the system.  No matter how appropriate to your character, there are lots of BIGs that are not going to come into play often compared to, say, “I always draw my sword at the first sign of trouble,” and therefore are not going to earn you any Fate or Persona checks.

Conditions and the Players’ Turn. The conditions — Hungry, Angry, Tired, Injured, and Sick — can be burdensome to track and to recover from.  These conditions are usually inflicted by the GM as a result from a failed roll on the player’s part; however, it is generally more interesting to have failed rolls result in a plot consequence or a future dice penalty.

The downside of plot consequences is that they take more time to resolve and can throw the story into a completely new, sometimes unwanted direction; the downside of Conditions as consequences is that they eat up the Players’ Turn and usually provide less opportunities for role-playing and story development.  When Conditions are overused, pretty much all the Players’ Turn boils down to is fixing conditions.  It really doesn’t feel particularly like “our turn”, it feels like token participation.

Checks. The only way to get Checks (i.e., additional actions that will be used in the Players’ Turn) is to take the lead on a roll and convince everyone to lend you assistance on an easy obstacle so you can downgrade your roll.  That means you have to find a chance to take point during the GM’s Turn even if you don’t have the highest or the most appropriate skills.  It also means that once you start getting Conditions, you are less able to earn additional checks (i.e., actions in the Players’ Turn) and therefore are more likely to have to spend your checks strictly on recovery.

Scripted Conflicts. Scripted conflicts are not to everyone’s taste and tend to provoke sharper love-or-hate reactions than most of the other rule elements.  In addition, it can be boring to wait for someone else’s scripted conflict to be done when you’re not participating at all.  Some character designs really don’t lend themselves to leading in scripted conflicts.  Scripted conflicts form the sub-system I least enjoy in the game, but I have seen some players get a lot of enjoyment out of them; it’s a matter of personal style.  The streamlined version found in Mouse Guard is certainly the most elegant take to date and the easiest for newcomers to understand and use.

Character Niche. The morale of the last two points: make sure to tweak your character at creation to have at least one frequently used skill you will be best at; do this by coordinating with other players as they create their own characters.

The Hidden Rule

Here is my greatest difficulty with MG and similar systems: they are based on the concept that a system’s rules should support, promote, and even force the kind of behaviour that forwards the game’s agenda.  In general, proponents of this approach refuse to rely on the Golden Rule (sometimes called Rule Zero), or on the Don’t Be A Dick rule, i.e., on social compacts that may be arbitrary or poorly shared among the group.  (I speak in general; I have not read or heard Mr. Crane’s opinion of these.)

The BW/MG system aims to incorporate dramatic stories and good role-playing, as well as force both active participation (the only way players can earn skill and attribute checks) and cooperation (the only way they can earn Fate and Persona points/Artha) among players.  It adds many rules to enforce things that I am used to see (and prefer to see) enforced through the cooperative attitudes among the group.  For example, colourful role-playing, sticking to character, cooperation with the story, and dramatic choices are mechanically rewarded; if you don’t do these things, you will not get any Fate and Persona points (Artha in BW/BE).  Compromise in resolving conflicts when the two opponents are closely matched, rather than all-or-nothing victories, is enforced through the mechanics for scripted conflict; in Mouse Guard, assistance from other characters is almost always needed in order to succeed at rolls; etc.

Yet because of its peculiar approach, the system also discourages cooperation and supporting other players even as it tries to encourage cooperation.  How so?  A good illustration in Mouse Guard is that while mice almost always need to get support dice from the rest of the group in order to succeed at tests (which encourages players to come up with cooperative actions where they help one another), taking the lead in a roll is the only way you can ever earn the checks that will allow you to improve a skill or attribute.

As a result, every player has a strong incentive to push others aside and take the lead in a test, counting on other players’ cooperative attitude to help her through by supplying helping dice (FoRK dice in BW/BE).  And what regulates whether the players are going to be nice (or do I mean mice?) and take turns at the spotlight?  Nothing but the Don’t Be A Dick rule, the social contract of the group — the very thing the rules didn’t trust to enforce cooperation and good role-playing in the first place.

I’ve played RPGs long enough that there is no way now I ever play with people I don’t like and can’t be friends with (except maybe by mistake at a convention, and even that is rare).  So I can trust the Don’t Be A Dick rule and the group’s cooperation, and sure enough, it seems I have to anyway, no matter how hard the rules try to force the same behaviours.  I find that trying to enforce it mechanically doesn’t suit my play style.

Summary

Although I have outlined some of the points that were tricky or problematic in play, I played in a successful Mouse Guard RPG campaign which provided many moments of great role-playing.  As I have said elsewhere, I’m unlikely to ever say “I feel like playing the Mouse Guard system!” but I am quite likely to say “Sure!” if someone else decides to run a game.

If you are already a fan of the Burning Wheel family of games, if you have been intrigued and tempted by it but were until now daunted by the up-front effort needed in order to give the system a whirl, or if you are interested in the Mouse Territories setting and don’t object to a bit of crunch in your game, then you are likely to enjoy the occasional game of Mouse Guard and perhaps a long-running campaign.

If you are a fan of the comic or are interested in the setting but don’t like the system, you will find enough background material in the book, including much that is not available from simply reading the comics, that you can convert to your favourite system.  I invite you to look at some of the system elements you might want to port over, such as the use of seasons to pace the game and the use of Beliefs, Instincts and Goals (in part or in whole) to tie characters into the mission.

However, if you already know you hate the BW system and are only modestly interested in the setting, do yourself a favour and go find another game more to your tastes.

Links of interest:


1 See the reviews by Chris Richeson, Phil Winters, Lev Lafayette, and Jon Harmon on RPG.net.

2 See my previous review of Burning Empires for a sense of the complexity.

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