Ken Hite Reviews Mouse Guard

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Burning Down the Mouse

Luke Crane’s Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game (full-color 8″x8″ hardback, 320 pages, $34.95) is a work of staggering genius. Actually, it’s the work of two staggering geniuses, as it’s based on (and has lots and lots and lots of lush art from) David Petersen’s Mouse Guard comic. (Of course it’s gorgeous to boot: it’s by Luke, based on a gorgeous comic, and published by Archaia Studios.) Said comic pits talking, metal-working, valiant mice against the predators and dangers of … well, of everything larger than a mouse. Which is everything. Said roleplaying game pits the GM against the player characters, the titular guardmice: This is not a game of hand-holding and collaboration, any more than Nature is. Each bout of play starts with the GM’s Turn, in which active, harsh confrontation is the order of the day: the book urges the GM to “beat the crap” out of the guardmice. Test their Beliefs, prey upon their Instincts, force hard choices, and throw obstacles in their way. During the Players’ Turn, after all that stress, the players spend checks to pursue their guardmice’s goals or relationships, re-equip themselves, and get some individual spotlight time.

The game uses a focused, robust version of Crane’s excellent Burning Wheel engine, streamlined for quicker play and more brightly-colored characters. It keeps BW’s scripted combat, which can encompass everything from a desperate fight with talking weasels to a debate about how to ration grain during a hard winter. There is a particularly nice balance between a mouse’s Nature (you know, skittering around finding grain) and his Persona (his store of experience), and another poised on your Traits (from Longtail to Open-Minded): use them favorably and get extra dice; use them to trip yourself up and get more checks during the Players’ Turn.

The game is admirably complete in one book. It’s structured very much as “the only book you’ll ever need,” not just to play Mouse Guard, but for any roleplaying game, leading the reader from an introduction of the RPG concept, through a summary of the comic background, through setting up a Mouse Guard mission, and only at the very end creating a character. It’s gamebook as storybook, driving game as story, while keeping the fierce adversarial edge that makes such fun from old-school D&D to Agon. This edge suits the story: bravery when the whole world is against you. (Special kudos for recognizing that “the whole world” definitely includes the weather; the natural world is foregrounded amazingly well in art, rules, and flavor throughout. I would use this game to play in Middle-Earth, it’s so good at this.) The result is an optimistic, bold, metal-working game that talks clearly and knows what it wants — just like the Mouse Guard itself.