RPG Review Reviews Mouse Guard
MOUSE GUARD REVIEW
by Lev Lafayette
Hail to all those who are able, any mouse can, any mouse will, but the Guard prevail.
Introduction Mouse Guard is an RPG based on the highly successful comic series written and drawn by David Petersen; as he explains in the book, the comics themselves came from their own roleplaying games, so now the product has taken a full circle. The core game system is a simplified version of Burning Wheel by Les Crane who coauthors the book.
The book itself is an item beauty to behold and great credit is due in that regard. The A5 publication is a strongly stitched hardback with dustjacket with maps of the Mouse Guard world on the inside cover pages. There are 320 fullcolour gloss pages with two column layout and is easy on the eyes, with good use of white space and different markers to highly important parts of the text. As one can expect, the competent and often thoroughly charming rough artwork of Mr. Petersen.
The book is well written and takes some effort to distance itself from the writing of Burning Wheel (a game I like, but find difficult to read) even to the point of being a little bit on the simple side. Nevertheless, this is a welcome change which could certainly see readers of the comic who are not gamers receiving a gentle introduction to the world of roleplaying. The first chapter starts with some very sensible GM and player advice on story construction, the nature of a character, control, IC and OOC conversations and the core mechanic (roll a pool of d6s, 4+ is a success, modifiers provide automatic successes or failures, or extra or less dice to the pool).
A similar approach is taken to the rest of the organisation of the text. Character creation, the staple of most roleplaying games, is actually the last chapter of the book, with examples throughout the book referring to characters in the comic series itself and the events of the "find the grain merchant" mission. The book comes with a table of contents, a good index and somewhat strangely (although it is referenced in the text) no character sheet. Contents jumps, sometimes disconcertingly, between setting and system. Nevertheless the book as a whole is balanced in this regard giving a very good impression on the first read. A GM must however take system notes as they are reading through (they probably should in any game, but more so in this) see the end of this review. This also applies to experienced GMs as there are a few quirks that one will have to familiarise themselves with.
Background, Play and Setting The actual background, independent of the substantial qualities, also is worthy of stylistic note. This is a very heavily thematic game, based on tales of exceptional bravery countering one's own internal (mouse) nature against often overwhelming odds. Their physical stature is augmented manifold by the moral strength and their commitment to the group ("the Guard") and the higher ideals of protecting the mouse havens from outside incursions and internal treachery. More to the point these are systematically included; each Guardmouse has a Belief, a worldview that they must adhere to, a Goal, a temporary objective, and an Instinct, an inherent reaction. Whilst these can be changed between sessions, during the actual game the character must roleplay them. Characters earn Fate and Persona points for using their Belief, Goal and Instincts during play; the former allow openended conflict resolution rolls and the latter add dice to the pool. On that note, it is also worthy pointing out that the game gives strong emphasis on challenging narration within conflict resolution, but also places the GM in a strong oppositional role ("It's the GM's job to beat the crap out of the players' guardmice characters") but also with the emphasis on making the characters heroes. The GM is actively encouraged to arrange conflicts between and within the characters Beliefs, Goals and Instincts in addition to setting up physical and social obstacles typical in roleplaying scenarios.
Actual play is slightly different to a standard RPG session as well. For each mission, the GM assigns a Season when it occurs, which strongly influences the environmental obstacles, the sort of beasts the Guard is likely to encounter and their disposition, the activities within the towns and villages of the Mouse Territories, and as a result, the expected duties that the Guard needs to perform. Once the mission is assigned, the characters write their goal for the mission which should include the individual mouse's perspective in the general mission goal. In every mission the GM chooses two out of four potential obstacles for the Guardmice to overcome in their mission, weather, wilderness, animals and mice. The other two obstacles can be kept in reserve for surprise plot twists etc.
Once all this is done the GM has their turn. This means the GM describes where the mission begins, what they have to do and describes the events that follow. The GM decides which abilities and skills are tested and to narrative the resolution of these tests. The players, as part of "table chatter", can try to persuade the GM how they can get around obstacles by using different ability skills. When the mission is complete and the mice are in a place of relative safety, it is the player's turn. At this stage of the game the players get a free test (recover, find an old friend, fashion armour etc), plus make additional checks based on their activities in the GMs turn. At the end of the session, rewards are given for use of Goals, Beliefs and Instincts, including the competitive "Most Valued Player" award.
The Mouse Guard setting is basically medieveal in terms of technology and northern European in terms of climate, flora and fauna. As mentioned previously, the climate is highly seasonal. The bipedal, sapient, mice are basically the humans of the story, living in small towns and villages with pathways protected by the noble Guard who are assigned the task of ensuring the grain gets through, that messages are sent and received, that borders are patrolled and so forth. Apart from the use of mice as metaphors for people it is a magicfree environment. The medieval feel is quite genuine; nobody is a particularly rich mouse, items are few but finely crafted, and skills are based on artisan professions. An entire chapter is dedicated to both The Territories where the mice live and to Denizens (mice, weasels and their allies and wild animals) of the Mouse Territories. Finally, there are three sample missions; Find The Grain Peddler, Deliver The Mail, and Trouble in Grasslake. The first scenario is, of course, very well known by now and standard sample characters are provided as examples. Despite this familiarity the plot is insufficiently developed; as written it could be a very short session indeed! The second sample mission was somewhat more detailed in terms of possible plot trajectories, but again insufficient. The third mission, although even simpler in terms of plot, offers a challenge that will require some real thinking on the player's behalf and thus the possibility of filling an evening's play. Overall, it probably would have been preferable if one detailed mission was provided, rather than three unsatisfying sketches.
Character Creation and Conflict Resolution Character creation follows a lifepath, a series of questions and choices that take the character from the childhood to their membership to the guard, even if only an adolescent "tenderpaw" setting out to prove themselves. Starting decisions include Rank and Age (in order tenderpaw, guardmouse, patrol guard, patrol leader, guard captain). Older mice have more willpower, younger mice are healthier. All mice have a (mouse) Nature inherent ability along with Health and Will. Mice also have 'Circles' (a rating of contacts) and 'Resources' (a rating of wealth) .
Following this players select their birthplace which also establishes skills and traits that the mice of each location are famous for (e.g,. mice from Elmoss have the Trait 'Alert' and the Skills 'Carpenter', 'Harvester'). Additional skills are gained from natural talents, parents occupation, and leadership status. Mice also have an apprentice trade (and thus a senior artisan as a contact), plus a mentor who assisted them in joining the Guard. Guardmice also pick up skills from background experience and a speciality. There is a special subset of skills called wises, where are specific knowledges a mouse might have about places, subjects etc. Other background characteristics include fur colour, parents, an enemy, cloak colour (every Guardmouse gets one), a unchanging moral belief, a changeable goal, an instinctual behaviour and a short listing for carried gear (not much).
It matters not what you fight, but what you fight for. The core mechanic in the game is based on a pool of d6s based an appropriate ability with each value of 4 or more counting as a success. Obstacles require a number of successes and difficulty values can vary by adding extra dice or by having automatic successes etc. Characters also have additional resources in the form of Fate points and Persona points, the former used after a roll that contains sixes making those dice openended, and the latter before a roll, giving bonus dice. There are two types of tests, independent and versus. The former is against an inanimate obstacle, the latter is a competition between animate opponents where the obstacle is accord to what is being tested against. Traits and Fate points can be used to create or break ties. A Trait can be called to break a tie in the opponent's favour, which seems counterintuitive, or a second tiebreaker test is used based on the raw abilities of the character; Will for mental or social tests, Health for physical tests. Animals always test Nature. If a character succeeds in a test, the player narrates what happened; they fail the GM narrates the failure.
There are a number of modifiers to tests. Wises and appropriate gear can add a +1D advantage to overcoming an obstacle. Having an additional mouse helping out can provide another +1D. The Nature ability can be used to substitute for any skill or ability that a character does not have, but nothing is learned from it. Half of the total dice (ability, gear etc) can also be used with tests against Will or Health.
Longer term, detailed, tests are called Conflicts. In this case, a type of conflict is established (Argument, Chase, Fight, Negotiation etc), and teams are established. Teams have a starting disposition, a total strength of the conflict based on the sum of a raw Ability and test skill. The resolution of conflict is based on secret recording of three actions (from attack, defend, feint and maneuver) with results, a versus or independent test, based on crossreferencing. It is possible for both teams to be reduced to zero disposition at the same time, and thus both sides lose the conflict. Conflicts are not an allornothing affair; the winner too suffers, based on how much disposition they lost in the conflict.
Overall Mouse Guard is a very good piece of work. The setting is rich in detail and metaphor and the integration of these facets in the game system is strong. The game will server well for beginners as well as experienced gamers. This is not to say however that it is not without its flaws. In particular, the resolution mechanics leave a little to be desired, with too many levers to pull and buttons to press without sufficient justification of the choice of particular mechanics in use. This aside however, Mouse Guard is an excellent game and setting and heartily recommended for many sessions of play.