Imagine a world where a spring rain is torrential, pea-sized hail destroys crops, removing felled limbs from roads is Herculean, boulders are mountains, snakes are dragons and every day is a struggle to survive. Welcome to the Mouse Territories – where the mundane, simple affairs that you and I take for granted are a constant challenge to existence for those at the bottom of the food chain. However, there is hope. A group of dedicated and courageous mice have devoted their lives to serve their fellow species in this harsh and unforgiving world. Welcome to the Mouse Guard.
How it Plays
Mouse Guard is a pen-and-paper role-playing game created by veteran designer Luke Crane and based on the graphic novels of David Petersen. Players create mice characters who serve in the Mouse Guard, a quasi-military order which aids and protects fellow mice throughout the Territories in a Middle Ages-style world setting. Guided by the game master (GM) – a separate participant who keeps events structured and within the rules – players assume the identities of their mice through one or more sessions as a patrol performing Guard duties, embarking on journeys and overcoming challenges. In essence, each session becomes an adventure within a developing chronicle where everyone at the table is a storyteller.
The Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game book tackles not just the system’s rules, but Petersen’s imaginative world, as well as general descriptions and philosophies about role-playing as a genre. It is cleanly organized, immaculately beautiful and structured into chapters covering distinctive aspects of the game with handy cross-references where appropriate. It is written in a casual, narrative tone that assumes its reader has no previous role-playing experience. With a very useful index this volume will be both players’ and game master’s bible during every session, because everyone at the table will need frequent reminders, clarifications and ideas.
The 2nd edition boxed set includes the revised rules, unfortunately in paperback, but offers other goodies. There is a bi-fold map of the Territories for handy orientation. It includes pads of character and GM sheets, both for recording information about characters, missions and the story – as well as brief rules summaries. A tri-fold GM screen also provides tables and rules synopses. The edition adds a small booklet with new rules concepts and extra pre-generated missions. The best new components, however, are twenty custom dice and four decks of player cards. The dice are solid and heavy with ouroboroi on three sides representing 1-3, crossed swords on two signifying 4-5 and a black axe on the sixth face. The sturdy, linen-finished cards are used during play. Each pack has an assortment of weapons and armor the mice can carry and lists their benefits and attributes. Other cards assign physical conditions the characters might suffer and then penalties under them. Finally, there are copies of action cards you will play during certain conflicts.
Players create their mouse characters through interviews, essentially writing miniature autobiographies. During the process you’ll choose and assign rules-necessary values to common abilities, special skills and unique traits and wises. You’ll also have narrative material to build stories by identifying name, rank and previous experience under the Guard. You’ll establish important biographical knowledge like your hometown and parents, as well as naming your staunchest friends and vilest enemies. You even pick the color of your cloak and explain why that hue symbolizes your character. Most important of all you write a belief and instinct which anchor your character and guide your actions, whether through everyday life or trying ordeals. You earn rewards successfully playing those ideals, so choose them carefully keeping in mind both drama and practicality.
When playing Mouse Guard sessions are divided into two turns: the game master’s turn and the players’ turn. This structure is pretty unique and has been known to trip up veteran role-players familiar with less defined formats. During the GM’s turn, the GM primarily runs the story by setting up a mission for the patrol and then throwing obstacles and challenges in their path as they navigate the scenario. It will be rough, it will be hard – it’s supposed to be. When the patrol has completed their mission, or otherwise reached a natural break as determined by the GM, the players take over the story. At that point, they may recover from their ordeal, delve deeper into their quests, and/or embark on whatever other tasks they wish (and generally makes sense within the narrative).
Challenges that the patrol must overcome can range from the mundane to the heroic and are resolved through tests – or dice rolls. Tests can be independent, versus another character or a full-blown conflict involving several tests strung together.
Independent tests are obstacles where one quick roll will suffice to move the story along. Things like short trips, building a shelter, looking up a friend, tending to the injured, etc. When confronted by these, the GM assigns an obstacle number, or difficulty level, plus a requisite skill to face the challenge according to the rules and any currently extenuating circumstances. Any character can then roll a number of dice equal to his/her rating in that skill, maybe even aiding their effort with a special trait that gives an edge. Plus they can receive a helping die from each of their patrol mates, as long as they can plausibly role-play how they are lending a hand – or paw. Every result of 4, 5 and 6 is a success (crossed swords or the black ax if using the custom dice). If the number of successes equals or exceeds the obstacle’s difficulty, the challenge is passed.
Versus tests are also quick affairs to keep the story moving, but used when directly interacting with another player or a non-playing character introduced by the GM. Things like hiding from something, trying to pry some minor information from another mouse, haggling with, arguing against, deceiving or distracting another denizen of the Mouse Territories. As in an independent test each versus test is categorized by a skill. However, instead of an obstacle difficulty, you simply grab an amount of dice equal to your skill rating plus any helping dice and roll against your opposing character. Whoever rolls the most number of successes wins the test and narrates the action.
Some plot events, though, are too significant and momentous to quickly roll past. You want to act through them and relish in the details. Things like climactic fights, desperate chases, intricate building projects, elaborate debates or complex operations. Such episodes are worth spending time on because they’re that important to your story and to your players’ development. Testing abilities or skills relevant to the type of conflict, these usually arise only once per session and require several tests – a mixture of independent and versus rolls – to really flesh out the drama.
Typically, conflicts are team-oriented whenever possible, with the GM controlling the non-player team. Both teams first declare what their goals are for the conflict, what they’d like to achieve. Then they calculate their “dispositions” (hit points, essentially) also based on the situation and its applicable abilities/skills, which are provided in the rules. The conflict is divided into rounds. Each team receives three actions per round, planning their moves simultaneously in secret. For the players’ team, teammates alternate choosing which action to take and then subsequently testing for it. No matter what type of conflict it is, the actions are Attack, Defend, Maneuver and Feint. These abstract concepts are then resolved in an intricate rock-paper-scissors fashion. Players compare the two actions that each team chose in a given round and consult a table to determine whether to roll independent or versus tests and how they will affect the conflict.
When one team’s disposition falls to zero, the other side achieves their goal. However, if the victors also lost disposition – which is almost a certainty – then they must concede certain consequences. The system calls this concept compromises. So maybe the patrol is able to track and capture a band of outlaws, but in the process lost half their disposition. In that case, likely some or more suffer conditions, or maybe the fight damaged some private property which upsets the local community or perhaps even one or two bandits escape to cause mischief and embarrassment for the Guard later on. If you barely survive a conflict, the resulting major compromise may prove just as disastrous as losing it outright!
While the emphasis, exact structure and rules might differ from other systems, most everything I’ve described thus far is fairly standard – at least conceptually – to other role-playing games. Build a character, undertake quests, write a story. What really sets Mouse Guard apart are Beliefs, Instincts and Goals and how those approaches influence game play. These three notions can also easily trip up players, both novice and veteran alike.
Every character is guided by these principles – or should be – and you decide what uniquely shapes your guardsmouse. A belief is a core value that informs how your mouse views the world and acts within it. For example, an outlook such as, “Reason is the best guide to right action,” wouldn’t lead one to rashness or bluster. An instinct is more particular, a natural reaction that your character exhibits when confronted with many situations. Perhaps you immediately rush to the aid of those in need of protection. Goals are objectives you set out to achieve or work towards apart from simply just wanting to successfully complete the mission. These can be rather fluid and change from session to session. But working towards finding something or someone, or proving your worth to others, or other personal tasks means there’s always more going on than just the assignment.
After every session the GM and players debrief – out of character – to discuss the game and each character’s progress. Players decide who best utilized their beliefs, instincts and goals and in what ways and reward that play with persona and fate points. These are benefits you can use the following session. Persona points allow you to add dice to your dice pool when resolving tests or perhaps to tap your nature – a mechanic allowing you to add your mouse’s nature rating to any skill test for a potentially large pool of dice (more about nature later). Fate points allow you to reroll black ax results (6’s on generic dice) in tests, and keep rerolling additional axes, to add more successes when facing obstacles.
There are long-term rewards, too. As you pass and fail the many struggles its world throws at you, service in the guard hones, prunes and purifies you. You’ll advance skills, learn new ones and change your philosophy on life and service. While overcoming tremendous challenges may provide glorious material for bards to write epic songs about your feats, more often simply surviving proves just as heroic. Because if anything, a mouse guard who can’t adapt will soon succumb to the harsh environment he has devoted his life to enriching for his brethren species.
Should You Join the Ranks?
While for some it may be a difficult stigma to overlook, don’t let the little, furry, anthropomorphic mice fool you. This is not a childish game. The system here – a simpler adaptation of Luke Crane’s heftier Burning Wheel engine – is indeed kid-friendly and will attract younger players. But don’t let that mislead you. Mouse Guard is neither overly-simplistic nor weak on substance. The design forces players to emphasize dialogue and communal storytelling – a.k.a., role playing – instead of relying on tons of detailed stats, rules and dice to move the action along – a.k.a., roll playing. It’s not some frivolous Redwall knock-off or cutesy cartoon. It is a fleshed-out world full of pathos and gravitas, ready to explore and mold, rife with everyday challenges.
Exactly what is the Mouse Guard world, then? Unique, imaginative and surprisingly complex. One of the game’s high points is how well it captures Peterson’s world in the graphic novels.
The territories are a loose confederation of independent settlements set in vague, medieval-like times. They have intricate communities and governments, extract and work with the land’s resources, till the soil, domesticate even smaller organisms, study the natural world and philosophize about life and morality. While mice are intelligent with a language and culture, other creatures act as we would perceive them – except for weasels and their genus kin. Weasels have a distinct society and are the Territories’ mortal enemies, even to the extent of war.
The Guard itself is centrally located at its stronghold Lockhaven. From there, the organization’s matriarch dispatches patrols throughout the reach and to its far borders, which are protected by a scientifically brewed scent laid down to keep out most dangerous predators. Patrols can take the form of delivering mail, clearing trails, escorting citizens, confronting nuisance animals, lending aid wherever needed, repairing the scent border, fending off predators and enemies and much more! Guardsmice dedicate their lives to serve the territories and their fellow mice. It’s a hard service and often a thankless one as the guard has no political or legal jurisdiction in towns or cities. In short, all of these elements create a world where common morals are bedrock principles, surmounting simple obstacles is heroic, surviving every day is a challenge. This is the world you’ll adventure into and overcome, while allowing it to shape and mold you in order to better serve all mice.
The three foundations central to the Mouse Guard system are beliefs, instincts and goals. Thematically, they provide rich material that flesh out characters, make them dynamic and create interesting stories. After all, as the Guard says, “It’s not what you fight, but what you fight for!” They literally define your guardmouse. Beyond that these principles effectively serve as mechanical props for both player and GM.
Players are encouraged to role-play their beliefs and instincts as they decide on a course of action and narrate results. Working these concepts into your game develops strong characters, generates natural plot lines and also rewards players for effectively implementing them into the story. They can also be a guide. Don’t know how to proceed or what to say in a certain situation? Review your beliefs and instincts. They’re likely to provide a clue as to how you’re character would proceed! You can even earn rewards and create more complex characterization by purposefully going against your natural tendencies and better judgment. These all aid in playing the game, as well as developing your personality.
Likewise the GM is encouraged to build missions that challenge a patrol’s beliefs, instill scenarios that test instincts and throw in obstacles to individual goals. The GM may not succeed at tailoring every session to perfectly align with them, but those ideas will always serve as good guidelines when crafting missions. Want to know where to take the players or what to confront them with? Review their collective beliefs and instincts. They’re sure to provide some material that will make sessions relevant and poignant for the team – while making the GM’s job easier!
Speaking of the GM’s job, crafting sessions and the fluid nature of missions are two other prominent aspects of the system. It’s simple. Preparation is certainly required, but not to the extent necessary in many other RPG titles. The GM primarily sets the scene as to what the patrol needs to accomplish. Then he prepares two hazards that can jeopardize the mission. The rule book says these threats should come in the form of weather, wilderness, animals, or mice. The GM reserves the other two options as possible additions to play. It’s helpful to make notes on towns, non-player characters and ways players might tackle problems, but Mouse Guard’s true beauty is how play evolves organically. As the mission unfolds, it invariably takes off in unexpected directions because failure means progress, too!
That’s right…failure is good. This is likely one of the biggest mental hurdles players must overcome. In other titles failure represents a roadblock, a setback, an outcome you direly wish to avoid. In Mouse Guard it continues to advance the story and develop character. In order to increase your skills, you have to both pass and fail a number of obstacles testing that skill. Quite frankly, this is brilliant. And thematically wonderful – after all, we learn from our mistakes, too, right? Additionally, players are rewarded for using their skills and traits to impede themselves during tests, thus making tough situations even more difficult to overcome. This delightful aspect generates great role-playing while also garnering players extra checks to spend doing things they want to do during the players’ turn.
To be sure players and the patrol will pass many tests over their careers. In those cases everyone rejoices, the mission continues, life moves on. But what happens when a test goes poorly and a mouse’s gallant effort falls short? Death is rare. It can always be part of the mix, but generally in only major circumstances like conflicts – and then it’s an expressed goal of a patrol’s opposition, so that it’s never a surprise. Typically, though, a GM has two options in the face of failure.
One, he can allow the player or patrol to succeed anyway, but with a condition. There are five: hungry and thirsty, tired, angry, injured and sick. Each affect play differently and require separate tests to recover. All players helping out in the situation get a condition if things go badly, however the mouse making the roll is always assigned a more severe one. Saddled with a single ailment isn’t a terrible problem, but if they pile up it can make a guardmouse’s life miserable, indeed. Players are not solely left to their own devices to relieve these conditions, but generally may only attend to them during the players’ turn.
Instead of letting the patrol continue on with these impediments, the GM may instead invoke a twist when one or more fail a test. Here he can inject one of those reserved hazard elements to take the mission, characters and story in a slightly or totally new direction! The mission never stalls, it just takes a detour. All the while he continues to push the struggling band to the limits of their endurance. I believe the rule book literally says the GM’s job is to beat the crap out of the mice! Again though, it’s not just giving them things to fight against, but also moments to analyze why they fight at all.
After all, it’s not in a mouse’s nature to fight. Nature is another concept critical to Mouse Guard, both narratively and mechanically. Essentially it represents what comes natural to the denizens of the territories be they mice, weasels or other animals. For mice it’s in their nature to escape, hide, climb and forage. The higher your nature the more mouse-like you are. The lower it goes the more you risk disconnecting with society as you become totally unlike other mice. In any test involving these ideas, a player can always test Nature instead of another applicable skill.
However, and more interestingly, since service in the Guard is about as un-mouse like a work as anything, you can utilize your nature differently. You can tap your nature by spending a persona point and add your nature’s ability rating to that of another ability or skill you’re testing. This increases your dice pool and maybe your chance of passing. The tradeoff is your nature will be taxed, or temporarily reduced until you can recover it under special circumstances – or decide to keep it permanently depleted. If you succeed a roll after tapping your nature in an action which doesn’t come natural to mice, the ability is taxed by one. If you fail, though, it can be taxed greater. So the more you attempt un-mouse-like things, the more distant you may become with your fellow kind.
Other elements that we generally take for granted that afflict mice every day are weather and the seasons. Weather plays a critical role in Mouse Guard. It’s one of the hazard types you can throw at the patrol during missions. It also affects play in significant ways. It can make tests easier or harder, depending on conditions. Seasonal weather can frame the general objectives of missions. Spring is about emerging from Winter and involves tasks such as delivering mail, clearing trails and reestablishing contact with settlements isolated during the cold and snow. Summer means taking care of a variety of jobs while the conditions are ideal, but also fending off increased activity from predators. Fall involves harvesting and preparing for the next Winter when little activity is undertaken, even in the Guard.
Seasons also logically mark the passage of time. New campaigns typically begin with the onset of Spring. Each season is assigned a unique number, an equivalent of its nature. To get through each season requires a certain number of weather changes, each time of year with a unique threshold. Weather can change when a player successfully passes a weather-watcher test or if the GM introduces the scenario with a twist. When the requisite number of changes occur the game moves into the next season which affects play in new and evolving ways. When the game reaches Winter the patrol can opt to continue on with a mission, but only when absolutely necessary and then with tremendous stakes at hand.
Instead, the Winter session is typically about reflecting on the game and its guardmice. There are personal decisions to make, as well as judgments from your patrol mates and the GM that can develop your character. You might advance some skills, nix a trait or two, adopt new ones and even change your beliefs and instincts. Your character ages, maybe even earning a promotion, and then the game begins anew with the coming of next Spring. This respite of contemplation may sound boring after sessions full of action, heroic exploits and fantastic story building, but it’s actually cathartic. It allows you to evaluate your game in light of your beliefs, instincts and general goals to see if you’re successfully incorporating them into your role-playing. If not, this is your stress-free opportunity to modify and/or change them. In a system where effectively playing those concepts is one of the more challenging and important aspects, this wind-down session is welcome and rewarding. And it still manages to develop characters and add layers to the ongoing narrative in the process.
The system’s turn structure might trip up players at first, though ironically more so for veteran players accustomed to the free-flowing form pervasive in most other titles. Players have severely restricted leeway during the GM’s turn, and vice versa. That’s not to say they’re handcuffed in their irrespective phases, nor that decisions and actions in one never affect the other. Indeed, players are encouraged to act in ways that hamper their efforts in the GM’s phase in order to undertake more productive tasks during their own turn. And conditions amassed in the former must be ameliorated in the later. So the outcome in one aspect will generally have consequences impacting the next.
The GM’s turn is typically the crux of the mission, where important acts resolve towards achieving the Guard’s goals. The system allows for a great mixture of simple independent tests, tension-filled versus rolls and a full-blown conflict as the play’s final climax. It’s enough to make stats important and relevant, without weighing you down. The emphasis is on narrative, instead of non-stop dice rolling, allowing for rich story-building. And since rolls are less frequent then in many crunch-heavy titles, it even tends to lend more significance to every test, more drama in every pass and fail.
Meanwhile the players’ turn gives them opportunity to break free from the GM’s mission parameters – remaining within the story’s logical bounds, of course. It’s meant to expand upon the story without completely tangenting it. When incorporated properly, it’s a lot of fun and provides rabbit trails for players to individually explore, yet can still influence the game overall.
Alas, this element is probably the second hardest of Mouse Guard to implement successfully. If you don’t remember – or refuse – to impede yourself in the GM’s turn, then you only have one thing to do during this phase. When having only one or two checks, they’re invariably spent on recovering conditions or gearing up for the next leg of the journey. With multiple checks players can do more interesting things, get lost in greater role-playing and generally revel in the previous mission’s success – or wallow in despondent failure. Either way, characters develop, storylines advance and maybe even new elements appear that will pop up again later to dramatic effect!
Mouse Guard has many merits inherent to introductory role-playing games, but with a lot of substance typically reserved for heavier systems. It’s perfect as a design to bring new and experienced role-players together. There is a learning curve, even for genre veterans, yet that’s because it’s unique and offers some very different elements. However, once you’re familiar with its mechanics, grok the turn structure and grasp the principle of beliefs, instincts and goals, this system is smooth and highly adaptable.
But more than its mechanics, Mouse Guard provides a beautifully rendered sandbox ripe for creating rich characters and deep stories. As the tiniest of protagonists, your sworn duty is not just to survive in the harsh world like other mice, but take it head on to better the lives of your fellow kind. Together you’ll forge chronicles of sacrificial heroism and tragic shortcomings against obstacles that larger creatures simply take for granted. Don’t let the diminutively furry subject matter fool you. The struggle is real and daring.