Gaming Brouhaha Reviews Mouse Guard

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The Mouse Guard RPG is by Luke Crane & David Petersen, and is based upon the award-winning comic book and graphic novel series of the same name. It is produced by Archaia Studios Press. I have the hard cover version (along with the complementary pdf version you get when you purchase the HC through IPR), which sells for $34.95 and weighs in at a very hefty 320 pages. Luke Crane is a very well-known, award-wining RPG designer himself and is responsible for some very cool, and rather complex, RPGs including Burning Wheel and Burning Empires. Let’s see how the authors describe their game first:

Join the Mouse Guard and defend the Mouse Territories against predators and dangers, in this roleplaying game for the acclaimed Mouse Guard comic book series! Players form their own Mouse Guard patrol and attempt to complete missions while the Game Master takes on the roles of the weather, animals and the wilderness all trying to thwart the fearless mice. Designed by Origins Award-winning game designer Luke Crane for beginners and veterans alike, the game comes complete with three sample patrols and three sample missions, so you and your friends can get started playing right now. Includes art and extensive background material on the Mouse Territories specially prepared by Mouse Guard creator David Petersen.

So how does the book measure up? Let me start with the book itself: It is easily the most beautiful RPG I have ever laid eyes on. I own a variety of very high quality RPG books, but MG blows them away. Really. It’s on be heavy, glossy paper and filled from start to finish with lavish, full-color illustrations. The layout, the fonts, and the cover all scream “AWESOME!” Even the book jacket is great – the inside contains a complete map of the Mouse Territories! Oh and the book’s dimensions are square which means it matches the comic and graphic novels’ dimensions.

Okay, so the book is beautiful. How is the game? I hate sounding like a fanboi but, wow, is the game good. The book is very well-written and manages to explain how to play the game, in very simple terms so that a new RPer can understand and yet, as someone who owns dozens of RPGs, I never felt that things were being dumbed down – it was an easy and enjoyable read from start to finish. The book starts with a basic explanation of what roleplaying is and the basic mechanics of the game before jumping right into character creation and the resolution system. Next is an explanation of the structure of sessions, followed by a description of the Territories and their Denizens. The book then finishes up by detailing abilities, skills, traits, and how to create missions and your own characters.

So what makes this game special? Let’s start with the basic mechanics. Mouse Guard (MG) is built on the same basic, well-tested mechanics as those used in Burning Wheel and Burning Empires, but is a much more refined and streamlined system. Some would call it a “lite” version of Burning Wheel (BW) but I would take exception to that term since it suggests that MG is somehow a cheaper or dumber version of BW which it is not. Instead MG trims away the unnecessary parts of BW and hones other mechanics to much more tightly capture the feel and style of the MG comics. Whereas BW is meant to be a workman’s fantasy RPG which the group uses to “burn up” their setting, MG is instead designed to do one particular setting really well.

The basic mechanics of MG are based around dice pools (typically ranging in size from 3 to 6 dice) using D6’s. A 4+ is considered a success on a die and all that’s required is to roll your dice and count the number of successes. The system also differentiates between two levels of resolution: Tests and Conflicts. Tests are simple, single roll task resolution in which the number of successes is compared either to a target number based on the difficult of the task Ob (in MG terms, the obstacle’s difficulty or “Ob” of the task), or to an opposing character’s number of successes. The number of success beyond the Ob, or over your opponent’s number, determines the margin of success. It’s a very intuitive and elegant system that handles situations like untrained skills and teamwork in a very satisfying way.

Conflicts introduce another level of complexity and depth to the system in which the characters involved script their actions, consult a simple table to see how those actions interact, and then make an action test. It’s a simplified version of the Fight! and Duel of Wits mechanics from Burning Wheel and I have to say, it’s a big improvement for the average gamer. I really love the depth that BW offers (there are a large # of actions that interact in interesting ways) but it’s very intimidating to new players. MG captures that same feel and concept in a much more streamlined way. What kinds of conflicts does the system handle? The short answer is anything. The more detailed answer is that it can handle situations like arguments, chases, fights, negotiations, journeys, speeches, or even all-out war, all with the same basic mechanic and just a few rolls. Perhaps the most innovative part of the whole system compared to Burning Wheel is the way team work factors in to a fight: Patrol members divide actions between the various team members in each turn, which means that conflicts involving 2 or more mice have a really cool team vibe to them where each member contributes to the action of each exchange. This approach also captures the style of the comic very well: One patrol member might act to distract an enemy while another strikes from a flank, with the two actions working together in a synergistic way that allows the small, physically limited mice to deal with a much larger foe. The only trick is that players need to learn to actively work as a team, something that may take a couple of conflicts to get the hang of.

Similarly, damage in the setting is handled by assigning Conditions to a guardmouse: Healthy, Hungry & Thirsty, Angry, Tired, Injured, or Sick. Each of these conditions comes with a very tangible game effect and multiple conditions stack so over the course of a mission a mouse may take quite a beating. Conditions create a very simple, descriptive system for modeling damage and stress that characters can use to easily gauge and roleplay their character’s physical and mental status. I really like the system and find it very easy to work with. Of course it’s not highly lethal but the game isn’t really about representing grievous, bleeding, head wounds but that’s fine with me since it fits the genre and style of the comic well. Death is still possible; it’s just that the system doesn’t model seven levels of wounding.

I really love the mechanics because they are simple but very flexible. They also create play sessions that match the pacing, feel, and style of the comic book which inspired the game. That’s pretty cool. In addition, the way characters are defined also help to create very clear, evocative characters whose past, present, and future (in terms of goals) are laid out during character creation. Part of this process includes defining three core pieces of every character:

Beliefs – a personal code, ethical stance, or guiding principle Instincts – gut reaction, ingrained training, or automatic behaviors of the character Traits – the personality quirks and special qualities of the character These three pieces of information, coupled with the rest of the character generation (in which a character’s important relationships, past training, and skills are defined) really help to create unique and very flavorful characters. The character generation system, which is formally detailed in the last chapter of the book, is very intuitive, so much so that even brand new roleplayers I’ve introduced to the game have been able to create very interesting, evocative personalities. The character generation process is laid in a very clear, step-by-step manner which is incredibly easy to follow and actually fun to complete since the game explicitly states that character generation should be a group process. This approach guarantees the group forms a coherent and balanced patrol, and also helps flesh out the intra-group relationships right from the start. In one of my games, the three players created the group’s dynamics during character creation and were able to jump right into their characters from minute one of actual play.

Like other of Luke Crane’s games (e.g., Burning Empires), game sessions have a specific structure to them during which certain things need to happen. Each session typically covers one Mission in which the patrol (the group) are assigned a specific task to accomplish. For example, a mission might be Find out what happened to the merchant that went missing on the road to Sprucetuck. The mission is short and to the point, even if the twists and turns of the events that actually take place don’t turn out to be. Once the mission is assigned, each player chooses a unique, personal Goal. This helps to define a specific accomplishment or deed the character needs to complete. As a GM, these goals are pure gold since they tell you exactly what the player wants to experience in the session. Thus, if someone writes Prove myself as a tracker to the Patrol Leader a GM knows the session should include a situation where that guardmouse’s tracking skill is called upon. A crafy GM will even take these and use them as inspiration for the session. For example, I might decide that the merchant that disappeared, wandered off the path and thus the patrol will need to use their tracking skills to find him. The Mission chapter contains a ton of valuable advice for the GM on how to construct a mission, what kinds of obstacles are appropriate, and how the seasons impact the mission.

Once the mission has been assigned, the GM’s Turn begins. Essentially, this is structured much like any other traditional RPG where the GM defines scenes and obstacles to challenge the patrol. Challenges typically come in the form of weather, nature (as in the wilderness), animals, or other mice. Here is where the meat of the roleplaying and active conflicts take place. Once the GM’s Turn is over, the Players’ Turn begins. Here is where the game becomes a bit more “indie” in that players now get the opportunity to contribute to the narrative development of the story by defining specific events, scenes, or checks they want to see to wrap up the story. Typically the Players’ Turn will involve the recovery from stress, re-equiping themselves, building relationships with NPCs, etc.

The end of the session then involves a ritualized procedure in which rewards are given out for characters who met their Goal, as well as involved their Beliefs and/or Insticts in the session’s play. This reward procedure actively involves the whole table, players and the GM, in determining who deserves rewards and who doesn’t. This is one of my favorite parts of the Burning Wheel approach since it involves the whole group in determining who deserves recognition – as a GM, often events or play that I thought was pretty run-of-the-mill turn out to be really powerful or significant in the eyes of the other players and thus involving them in making these decisions is only natural.

The types of missions, as well as the obstacles experienced during them, are shaped by the Season, and the rule book spends a considerable # of pages (31 total) explaining how the seasons shape the lives and duties of the guardmice, as well as the mouse territories in general. Aside from providing interesting facts and details about the setting, the chapter also helps provide guidance to the GM about what types of missions and weather-related obstacles are appropriate for the chose season.

The Seasons chapter is followed by chapters that provide an overview of the mouse Territories, including the major settlements, along with the inhabitants found in the territories. Only two sentient races exist in the game: Mice and Weasels (and related species like ferrets and martens). Weasels are much more physically impressive and powerful than mice, although the way the game defines characters means that a patrol stands a decent chance of defeating one if they work together. Wild animals represent most of the “monsters” within the game and these range from bears to snakes. Perhaps the most interesting bit about mice fighting larger animals is that the game explicitly defines what a patrol can and cannot actually kill – mice, being small and frail, can take on animals that are a little bigger than themselves (e.g., a snake or weasel) but there’s no way a mouse can seriously threaten a badger or a wolf, at least in normal combat. Instead mice must resort to science or large scale, militar action to take on a big foe. This to me is a nice touch because it creates a situation where PCs can’t simply take anything on head-to-head but instead must find alternative methods, creating tons of situations for interesting roleplaying and conflict situations.

The book is rounded out by extensive descriptions of the skills and traits available to characters, as well as a set of sample missions which illustrate different types of missions. Each of these missions is accompanied by 4 pregenerated characters so that players can jump right into the action. In fact the first sample mission is a recreation of the events that take place during the Fall 1152 in which three guardmice set out to find a missing grain peddler. I’ve run a couple of the sample missions and would recommend anyone new to the game do the same since they provide a good overview of how to structure a mission and how the characters’ abilities interact with the mission’s obstacles. The last chapter, as mentioned earlier, is a detailed explanation of character generation and is perhaps the best written chapter in the entire book.

Whew, this review has already gotten seriously long and I haven’t even really analyzed all the ins and outs of the system. I think I’ll go into those sometime in the future, but the analysis can be summed up this way: The mechanics of the game, once you get the hang of them, lend themselves to roleplaying, creating situtations where the dice help determine how your character cts and how your character acts helps determine the results of the dice (e.g., by giving you bonus dice). Thus, the two go hand-in-hand and those are the kinds of RPGs that I love.

Mouse Guard would make a cool game for gaming with kids (in fact I have plans next year to run a couple of “introduction to RPGs” at my son’s elementary school using it), but it’s not a game that’s designed explicitly for children. I’ve played the game with a half dozen adults and all loved the system and setting – while it sounds kind of goofy to play anthropomorphic mice, all it takes is a look at the illustrations and most people lose those fears. If you’re a fan of the Mouse Guard comics, or liked the Redwall books, the Mouse Guard RPG is a for you. However, I would go out on a limb and say that most people will like this game if the theme and subject is of any interest to them. If you do decide to bite the bullet and buy the game, you really need to spend the extra money for the hard cover version though since it’s a beautiful book that a pdf just doesn’t do justice.

Heroes can pass into legends,

Legends into myths,

myths fuel new heroes.

Now go out and make some new heroes.