Grandexperiment Review Mouse Guard

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So, I have read through Mouse Guard RPG (MG) and decided to do a review. Like Burning Empires before it, MG looks set to dominant my RPG thinking for a wee while. It has been something of a stealth epiphany, overtaking Reign as the RPG that most embodies what I am looking for.

Before I get to the review, I will do two things. The first is a bold statement that I hope may capture your attention. The second is to review some of my key motivations and discoveries for the Grand Experiment (GE). I have discussed my goal in detail but never really why I have that goal.

Bold Statement

So, first:

MG is the first “indie” RPG I feel comfortable with running.”

I have read, played and run quite a few indie RPGs. Generally, I find the experience to be stressful for a variety of reasons. Even those indie RPGs that I rate most highly (Dogs in the Vineyard, Spirit of the Century and Agon) don’t come naturally to me. I find the combination of new concepts, the greater need for GM reactivity, and mechanical exactitude to make them a real challenge.

MG is the first that I have no such qualms. Most of this is because it seems to be doing exactly what I want it to do (which is a rare thing in RPGing especially those that are so specific as to the designer’s goals as with many indie RPGs). However, it is also because its new concepts, level of GM reactivity and mechanics are all well balanced to a level that I like and against stuff I like too.

In fact, I think MG would rank first in RPGs that I most want to run after reading them from the perspective of the game elements themselves.

The GE (again!)

The Grand Experiment is an attempt to empower players with the ability to communicate intentions and ideas about their PCs to the GM. This is to allow the GM to create relevant PC focused stories over a long period of time and increase the fun, drama and intensity of the experience.

The primary reasons for wanting to do this are relatively obvious. However, there are other reasons, particular in problems that I have with the role of a GM of a traditional RPG, that deserve some discussion.

Most GMs would like their players to take a more proactive role. However, this often fails with a traditional RPG, even with explicit communication. I think one reason for this is that in traditional RPGs the power and authority clearly lies with the GM. Increasing and sustaining proactivity requires more than just communication. To some extent the GM’s power and authority must be shifted in a real way to support it. Mere encouragement is often not enough and many players will remain passive despite such encouragement.

Related to this sharing of power and authority is the fact that it also reduces the GM’s workload and ensures that even the GM is surprised every now and then.

I think prep for a game is important. Limiting the input that can go into a game to the “playing time” alone eats into time I want to spend playing and doesn’t take advantage of the nature of the hobby. It is one reason why I find fully shared authority games to be frustrating, as they naturally necessitate reduced prep to ensure that everyone has equal say into what goes on.

However, prep when taken to extremes can choke a game. The experience becomes predictable for the GM whose efforts become focused on befuddling the players into a restricted set of actions rather than riffing great stories. Though this kind of game is suitable for some occasions and can be very enjoyable for all involved (many of my Con scenarios are pretty much along these lines), I find that it can be quite frustrating over time especially in a more relaxed environment such as a long term campaign which was what the GE was originally focused on.

So, from these problems the GE was born and has evolved. I started with the simple goal of wanting to encourage my players to be more proactive. I wanted this to improve the relevancy of the stories told and to allow myself to loosen my grip over the game, reducing my prep and providing me with a more enjoyable GM experience. I tried direct communication but found that some level of power/authority sharing supporting this change proved to be more successful. However, I found full shared authority to be undesirable.

I have been fine tuning the balance and the tools used to achieved that balance ever since. MG seems to be hit most of what I am looking for and this is the reason behind why I thing I am completely comfortable with running it.

On to the meat (or is that cheese) of the RPG.

This won’t be a chapter by chapter review. It will instead distractedly jump from point to point.

First up, a quick comment regarding the physical product. It is beautiful. It would sit well next to the graphic novel. The interior is fabulous with a visual appeal and style that shows real talent that one cannot get from just having loads of cool artwork and lots of money.

Upon opening MG the first thing that became obvious to me was the odd order of the chapters. Having read the book now, the order is perfectly logical for the material. It just isn’t the order that we see in most RPGs. The order focuses on what’s best for someone reading the book for the first time.

The rest of the book really reflects an earnest look at revisiting how best to present an RPG to a newbie. Though, I am in two minds about whether the mechanics, no matter how intuitive, would be easy to pick up for a complete newbie, it certainly makes a good case for it. Luke Crane has boasted that it can be picked up, read and played all within one session. I have to agree that for a game of this complexity it probably does the best job of getting people playing as quickly as possible. Not only are there 12 PCs and 3 missions to get started on, but the PC generation and mission creation processes are very easy to understand and start using quickly.

The system of MG comes from Burning Wheel. Though it has been stripped down to its basics and made more intuitive, this is a game where you engage with the system. The system isn’t just there to determine whether you succeed or fail at a given task or to define your PC’s limitations. The system will drive the game. More accurately, the players’ playing of the “game” will drive the drama. Everything is connected to other concepts in a way that strongly encourages certain things. If you don’t like these things then it may irk you but as I said previously, the system is encouraging exactly those things that I want to achieve.

Looking at the following concepts more closely:

1. Sharing of power/authority 2. Increase player communication 3. Low GM prep

MG grants to its players more power, especially over their PCs, by also granting them equivalent levels of responsibility. The whole system is built around the idea that the players are responsible for defining their PCs. If the player then plays the PC he defined then they are rewarded.

As a result, the GM is given some certainty as to what PCs he is running the game with and the players’ expectations and desires behind the PCs are. The GM still has an active role in providing antagonism and stories for the PCs but the underlying assumption is that he does so by listening to what the players say about there PCs. If the players say one thing but actually mean another, the player should notice it immediately and can adjust his definition accordingly.

I find this idea to be refreshing. As a player, I get to define exactly what I think my PC is about and know that it will see time in play. I am granted greater power over the PC, but equally I have greater responsibility. This is further reinforced in several ways by encouraging players to use this definition in play to find difficult and dramatic moments in the game. Unlike a traditional RPG, you are not awarded by success alone resulting in a weird meta-game where a PC becomes risk averse just because the player is risk averse. Instead, the advancement system is based on the player playing the PC that they defined, effectively bringing the OOC tension of sticking with what you have written down for your PC into the game. The result is that the GM and Player are both working towards providing appropriate challenges, making for greater dramatic and appropriate scenes.

As a GM, I get the knowledge that what my players have communicated to me is relevant and reasonably up to date and can proceed to present stories and challenges utilizing that information. Also, as a GM I can (and have to) relax my control over the game. The GM presents the overall context and then looks for ways to present appropriate PC moments to play out. If too much prep is done, then flexibility is lost. Explicitly, the story is 25% the GM selected overall mission, 25% player time, and about 50% player and GM working through in depth character and various dramatic moments.

Those who have ventured into indie RPGs before will note that these ideas aren’t new to MG. Dogs in the Vineyard and Spirit of the Century both utilize player driven drama to create a game where the GM may be a little less proactive and more reactive. I find MG to be the most complete and playable example of this kind of play yet.

I guess I should at least give some details of the above in action:

1. In order to advance skills, you must get X successes and Y failures. As such, a player who pushes his PC into difficult situations will see the PC advance faster.

2. If a player uses a PC’s trait against them, they gain checks. Checks are essentially used later by the player to create scenes of their own choosing. As such, a PC’s defining traits are not just things that aid the PC or make them look good. Instead, what’s important is that theTraits define the PC, whether it be negative or positive (which is determined by the player).

3. Persona and Fate points are granted at the end of each session as a group. It isn’t awarded by the GM but by the group as a whole based on specific criteria.

There are a lot of other good things in MG that also deal with the kind of issues that I raised, but the above concept is at the core. Part 3 will look at some of these other ideas.

Nature The addition of the Nature stat to Mouse Guard is a good one. Essentially, it is a stat that you can rely upon to do anything that you are not otherwise skilled at. If you use it to reinforce your “mousey” nature you can use it often. If you don’t, the uses are limited and eventually it will become unavailable to you. It sort of reminds me a humanity system but one integrated into the rest of the system much better to encourage but not restrict certain actions.

It is a great mechanic for establishing a defining feature shared by the PCs. I have already pondered using it for The Force for a Jedi game or Honour for a Samurai game. One idea I heard that sounds great would be to replace Nature with various D&D classes. In that way, Class wouldn’t be a method of restricting ability, rather encouraging certain actions.

Conflicts Burning Wheel is famous for its tactical conflict system, using three phases of actions. MG uses this system too but it has been simplified to just 4 broad actions and it is used for all kinds of conflicts from combat, debate, chases, journeys to full scale war.

There is no doubt that MG is a tactical game, in that game decisions matter. However, I find that by giving any major conflict the same tactical weight, the ability of different PC abilities to shine increases. Also, any conflict should take around the same time i.e. 20 minutes (even a castle siege).

There are other highlights in the conflict system. The first is the focus on teamwork, something that came from Burning Empires. Though each PC can act individually like a normal RPG, the conflict system also easily incorporates more than 1 PC into a team. Though they still act individually, they act as a part of a unit on a mechanical level. This ensures that conflicts don’t take too much time, and that every PC contributes.

Finally, one thing I like about MG conflicts (which is common with many other Indie RPGs) is that the stakes set are rarely about whether you die or not. You set conflict goals which you win or loose or compromise depending on the outcome of combat. The goal can be to kill your opponent but it needn’t be. This makes having PC loose conflicts much easier to facilitate, something I find traditional RPGs struggle with, despite its common usage in movies and books as a way to twist the plot.

Success and Failure In MG, you succeed, succeed with some consequence or fail and forced to deal with a plot twist. The underlying system discourages straight failure and presents the GM with tools for using failure as a way to increase the stakes and make the story more interesting.

This concept applies to Conflict Goals, but also other mechanics like a PCs attempt to locate people or resources to help them.

Mission Creation Luke Crane does an exceptional job at laying out the basics needed to be done before each session and how to structure a “Mission”. I have managed to create 2 missions so far in roughly 30 minute a piece and they were varied and full of potential. The ease of creating sessions has really sold me on MG.

Player’s Turns In MG, the players’ get a turn where they spend checks to introduce their own scenes. This is treated much like downtime. It also alternates the narrative authority without sharing it directly. The result is that the players’ get the opportunity to direct pursue their PCs’ goals, showcase important scenes, and normally help develop the overall story by either creating or pursuing story ideas.

Completeness This is a difficult concept for me to express so I saved it for last. MG is one of the most complete gaming experiences I think I have come across that I also like. Sort of like a board game, every aspect of the MG experience is explicitly dealt with in a very concrete way. There remains a lot of flexibility in how the game is played but there is nothing that is handwaved. This includes everything from pacing campaigns, creating adventures to NPC mice and animals.

As someone who loves playing with rules in RPGs, this is surprisingly comforting and makes running MG a real breeze. I could see that those who do not like the structures and ideas that MG puts in place would see this as unnecessary, but I would hope that they would still see how well the game is designed despite those preferences.

Anyway, enough ramblings from me for today. MG has a load of good stuff in it. More than I have gone over here. I recommend tracking it down and reading it.

Oh and anyone interested in playing, let me know ;)