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I first heard about the Mouse Guard RPG at GenCon 2007, when I stopped by the Archaia Studios Press booth to buy a couple of Artesia T-shirts. On the table was a small placard announcing that a Mouse Guard game, designed by Luke Crane, was “coming soon.”

I perked up for four reasons. One, I like Mouse Guard, the comic by David Petersen upon which the RPG is based. The art is gorgeous, and the story, while simple, is engaging. Two, Luke Crane designed Burning Wheel, one of my favorite RPGs, as well as Burning Empires, a sci-fi RPG that I find fascinating.

Three, each time I get a chance to game with Luke at GenCon, he delivers an event that is the highlight of my con nearly every time; he’s the best GM I know, and if anyone could turn Mouse Guard into a killer RPG, it would be him. And four, Archaia produces some damned fine stuff. While I’ve never played it, their Artesia RPG is beautiful; the Artesia comic is fucking awesome — and, of course, there’s the Mouse Guard comic itself.

The Mouse Guard RPG came recently, and I’ve spent the past two years (give or take) eagerly awaiting its release. That kind of anticipation could have been a perfect recipe for disappointment; happily, with Mouse Guard this wasn’t the case.

Here’s the short version: The Mouse Guard RPG is an absolute gem, with a system that’s meatier than it looks, a fun, simple concept, and beautiful artwork and design — and if you want an RPG to play with your kids, or to run as a first-time GM, this is it. But this gem won’t be for everyone; the scope and the structure of play may turn some folks off.

Ready to get down to brass tacks? Read on for an in-depth 5,000-word review of Mouse Guard.

The Mouse Guard RPG

(Want to see larger versions of the photos in this review? Clicking on any image will emibiggen it.)

Right from the outset, Mouse Guard grabs you. I don’t quite know why, but I love square gaming books — and like Star Wars Saga Edition, Mouse Guard is a cute square hardcover. At 320 pages (for $34.95), it’s not light on content, though.

The art on the cover is by David Petersen, who created Mouse Guard. Art is always a personal thing, but I love his artwork. Like the cover art (which wraps all the way around to the back), he drew a lot of new material for the game.

It has a dust jacket. This is unusual for an RPG, but I like it. Not only does it tie the RPG to the comic visually (the hardcover collections of the comic are the same size, and also have dust jackets), it’s also functional: the inside is a copy of the map of the Territories, the lands where Mouse Guard takes place. (That map is reproduced on the inside of the front and back covers, too.)

Under the dust jacket, the cover is thick and durable, with a matte finish. You can always take the dust jacket off if it bugs you.

Here’s a quick comparison shot of the first comic collection, Fall 1152, stacked underneath the RPG:

It looks just as good inside as out. This is a gorgeous book. The pages have a weathered parchment look — which, unlike in some RPGs, is not distracting and doesn’t make it hard to read the text — with several border styles that alternate by section.

David Petersen’s artwork is the highlight, of course, and it’s used liberally: There’s at least one piece of full-color art on every two-page spread. Some of the art is taken from the comic, and matches the section it appears in; a good amount of it is new, created just for the RPG.

And not only is the art fantastic, it’s perfect for the game: David’s art is Mouse Guard, and it evokes the tone and feel of the world. The illustrations will also give you and your players a very clear idea of what the game is all about — something not all RPG artwork does well.

Conversational tone. If you’ve read Burning Wheel, you’ll recognize Luke’s conversational tone immediately. There’s an informal vibe to the way Mouse Guard is written that I really enjoy; it might not be for everyone.

Clear and useful layout. Graphic design is one of the strong suits of every Archaia Studios book I’ve read, and Mouse Guard is no exception. The font choices are solid, the text flows well, and it’s easy to find what you need.

The clean layout is enhanced by little callouts that appear throughout the text: graphics to draw your eye to sections specifically for players (which show Celanawe from the comic), text for the GM (with an image of Gwendolyn), and rules of particular importance (a wheel and swords). This is also a Burning Wheel concept, and it works well.

There’s an index. …and it’s great. I’m an index whore — especially as a GM, I get whiny when books, particularly core rulebooks, have no index. Mouse guard has an excellent index that utilizes both black and red text to make information even simpler to find.

Section-by-section. Mouse Guard is broken into 12 chapters, plus a foreword, the index, and a bibliography. The chapters are:

  • It Revolves on This, which introduces the concept of roleplaying games, the basic rules, and the structure of play.
  • The Mouse Guard, which describes the Guard as an organization and looks at sample characters from the comic.
  • It’s What We Fight For, a short chapter that nonetheless reveals a lot of the meat of the game: Beliefs, Goals, Instincts, and Rewards.
  • The Mission, which is all about gaming sessions and game structure, including the Players’ Turn and the GM’s Turn.
  • Resolution — the game mechanics, which are based on the Burning Wheel system.
  • Seasons, which are hugely important to Mouse Guard in a couple of different ways.
  • The Territories, which talks about the lands, settlements, and history of the world of Mouse Guard.
  • Denizens of the Territories, featuring statted-out mice of all varieties, weasels (and their allies), and oodles of non-intelligent animals.
  • Abilities and Skills, covering skills and rules for advancing them.
  • Traits, which describes traits you can use to boost your rolls; they’re also roleplaying hooks.
  • Sample Missions, with three complete adventures, including four sample PCs for each.
  • Recruitment, which covers character generation (if you want to start from scratch rather than using a sample mouse).

Just from that overview, you can see that this is a different kind of RPG. For example: In the majority of RPGs, character generation would be right up front; there’d be a chapter called Combat; skills would be at the beginning; and so forth. Mouse Guard is a decidedly indie-style game that sets out to do something different than most RPGs, and the structure of the book reflects that.

In terms of reviewing Mouse Guard, some chapters are much more important than others; I won’t cover all 12 of them, just the critical ones (after all, you don’t need to know more about what a chapter full of mouse stats looks like, right?).

The concept. Like many indie RPGs, Mouse Guard sets out to do one fairly specific thing very well, and it succeeds.

The game is built around one core concept: The players take on the roles of mice in the Mouse Guard, the military and humanitarian force that patrols the Territories — an animals-only realm with medieval-level technology — and go on adventures that test their beliefs and ideals.

There are no humans anywhere in Mouse Guard; just mice and other animals. Most of those other animals are no more intelligent than their real-world counterparts. Mice, weasels, and weasel allies (ferrets, martens, minks, and sables) are the only exceptions: they all have human-level intelligence, build and wield tools and weapons, and have developed complex societies.

In their duties, Mouse Guard characters will face many animal enemies, weather the seasons, rescue other mice, assist mouse towns in surviving natural disasters, and generally roam the Territories doing good deeds. If this concept doesn’t grab you, you won’t like Mouse Guard. That’s why I titled this review the way I did: either playing a mouse with a sword speaks to you on some level, or it doesn’t.

Personally, I love Bunnies & Burrows (a much sillier game than Mouse Guard, which takes its premise entirely seriously), Watership Down, and, as a kid, loads of books that featured intelligent animals as the protagonists. There’s something about cute, smart animals that appeals to a lot of folks, myself included.

What Mouse Guard is all about: fighting for — and challenging — the characters’ Beliefs. Beliefs are a stat in Mouse Guard, and with good reason: they’re at the heart of the game.

Beliefs do several things. They give you an easy roleplaying hook — Mouse Guard mice have a code, and upholding that code in each mouse’s own personal way is a core element of the game. Your character’s Belief also signals to the other players — and the GM — what you’re interesting in exploring during play. For the GM, challenging Beliefs is a great way to get a player involved (and part of your job). And Beliefs are one way to earn rewards (XP, essentially), in the form of Fate and Persona Points.

Beliefs need to be general without being too general, and strongly expressed — they’re about getting you to make interesting decisions. Here’s a sample belief from p. 43 (for Saxon, a character from the comic):

“The best solution is always found at the point of my sword.”

That’s excellent roleplaying shorthand — even if that’s the only thing you know about Saxon, it tells you a lot. As the player, you can and should fall back on your Belief when deciding what to do in-game; you’ll be rewarded for playing it, as well as for playing against it when the circumstances warrant. As the GM, you should challenge the PCs’ Beliefs in play.

Goals and Instincts. The two other elements that make up the chapter “It’s What We Fight For” are Goals and Instincts. Goals change every mission, and should never just be “Complete the mission” — it’s assumed every guardmouse wants to do that.

In a standard patrol of four, each guardmouse will have a different Goal, and each Goal will add an element to the mission that all of your players will enjoy. They can be side missions, added mission objectives, etc.

Instincts are things your character does without having to think. The sample Instinct is “Always draw my sword at the first sign of trouble.” If you roleplay that, you earn rewards; if you fight that instinct, you’re also rewarded; if you use it as a hook to deepen your characterization in play, so much the better.

And like Beliefs and Goals, Instincts give you, the GM, another tool for getting your players involved: A player whose PC has the sample Instinct above (as the book points out) wrote that down because she wants to draw her sword often, not stay on the sidelines.

Dude, enough about Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts! So why focus so much on these three elements of the Mouse Guard system? Because they’re emblematic of the elegance of the game as a whole.

They’re simple concepts, but they give both the players and the GM lots of hooks to make the game more interesting for everyone at the table, and they do it without adding complexity. At the same time, though, they’re not just story hooks — they’re tied into the game mechanics, so that using them in play earns mechanical rewards for your PC.

Contrast that with D&D 4th Edition, which (as written) rewards you with XP for two main things — killing monsters and overcoming skill challenges — and you can see part of what sets Mouse Guard apart from most RPGs.

The part you’ll either love or hate: the structure of play. Mouse Guard is a very structured game. I have some mixed reactions to that aspect of the game.

So what exactly makes this a “structured game”? Two main things: the Players’ Turn/GM’s turn aspect of missions, and the seasons. The fact that the PCs are all members of the Mouse Guard represents a structure of a different kind — I have no mixed feelings about that: it’s a great way to ensure a unified party with common goals.

Let’s start delving into the structural aspect of Mouse Guard through an overview of how to design and play a Mouse Guard mission:

  • Pick two hazards for the guardmice to face: weather, wilderness, animals, or mice. The two you pick form the core action of the mission; the other two can be invoked during play.
  • Flesh those hazards out into a mission. The aim is to give your players a clear goal, and to use their Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts to challenge them as they try to accomplish it.
  • Assign the mission to the PCs. Have each player write their character’s mission Goal.
  • A typical Mouse Guard session is four hours long, and divided into two parts of roughly equal length: the GM’s Turn, when you place obstacles in the way of the patrol completing the mission, and the PCs try to overcome those challenges; and the Players’ Turn, when the PCs recover from the mission, tie up loose ends, and improve their resources.
  • After the Players’ Turn, give out rewards for Goals, Beliefs, and Instincts.

The names “GM’s Turn” and “Players’ Turn” are a bit misleading. It’s not like the first two hours of the game is the GM talking, and the second two hours is when the players get to do stuff. Nor is there a hard limit of four hours — it’s just a suggestion.

It’s more that the first two hours are mostly reactive for your players, whereas in the second two hours they can be more proactive (and the game is more reactive for you, the GM). Everyone has plenty to do in both halves of the session.

The GM’s Turn and the Players’ Turn In the GMs’ Turn, you (the GM) start with two obstacles to put in the way of the patrol: the two hazards you chose when designing the mission. Each can require multiple tests to overcome, and you can introduce additional obstacles either as twists (consequences of failing to overcome an obstacle) or as needed, until the mission has been completed.

When the mission ends, the Players’ Turn begins. During the Players’ Turn, each PC starts with one free test — one roll that character can make during this part of the session. Yes, this means that if a player doesn’t earn any additional tests, they can only initiate one action during the Players’ Turn.

Players earn additional tests during the GM’s Turn by deliberately impeding themselves and making things harder than they otherwise would have been. This is done by using traits to hinder your character in the GM’s Turn.

For example: Having the Compassionate trait might make it hard for you to kill a foe, so you could invoke the negative aspect of this trait to subtract one die from your pool in a fight. You can also use traits to add to your opponent’s dice pool, and to break a tie in your opponent’s favor.

All of these things earn “checks,” and each check buys you one more test you can make in the Players’ Turn. (You can also spend them in the GM’s Turn under certain circumstances.)

On the one hand, I love this structure. It’s incredibly simple, and especially for me — I’ve struggled with designing structured adventures for 20+ years — it’s great to have clear, black-and-white adventure design rules to follow. This is one of the game’s strengths for new GMs, too: If you’ve never written an adventure before, following this template will get you started off nicely.

It also looks like it will tend to create tight, action-packed sessions — much like a good convention event, where you also have a four-hour block (though at a con there’s a hard stop at the four-hour mark). Some of the best gaming sessions I’ve ever had have revolved around accomplishing just a handful of things, or being presented with one simple obstacle, and roleplaying the shit out of every minute. That’s exactly the kind of game Mouse Guard is designed to create.

But on the other hand, the Players’ Turn/GM’s Turn split is precisely why I will never get to run Mouse Guard for my group — it will remind them of Burning Empires, which they loathed because of its strong, overt structure of play. Mouse Guard’s structure isn’t for everyone.

Even though the GM’s Turn will resemble most of what your players do during the course of a typical D&D game (for example), and the Players’ Turn will include the rest of what they might normally do in play, my guys would feel constrained because they would know in advance that for the first half of the session (roughly), they’d mostly be reacting to stuff — and in the second half, that they could only do a certain number of things.

I’m not picking on my group: they’re my friends, they’re excellent roleplayers, they like trying new systems, and they’re generally open to new gaming experiences — but they didn’t give Burning Empires a fair shake, or enjoy the one session we played, and both were in large part because of its structured approach to play.

Is my group your group? Of course not — but based on that experience, I think this aspect of Mouse Guard could be a problem for groups other than mine. Even had I never played Burning Empires, I would have expected some players — and GMs — to balk at the structure of Mouse Guard.

At the end of the day, it boils down to the fact that unlike a traditional RPG, where part of the appeal is that “you can do anything,” in Mouse Guard that’s not the case — you can do anything within some pretty serious constraints. Most RPGs limit their scope in some way (in a spy game, you’re all spies), but most leave the actual structure of the game pretty open-ended.

Mouse Guard tightens up both the scope and the structure, and while I believe the end result wouldn’t look all that different from an action-packed convention event, or a particularly good home game session, how you get there will be different.

The other structural element: the seasons. Season are a major element of Mouse Guard. As mice, all weather is a big deal — which makes sense: When a hailstone is the size of your head, a winter storm isn’t just a storm.

The rules suggest playing Mouse Guard for six to eight sessions, with one or two sessions (i.e., missions) per season. (The book points out that this is only a suggestion.) In my experience, the average RPG campaign with adult players tends to run for a dozen sessions or so; more if you play more often, less if real-world obligations get in the way. I think this is good advice on Mouse Guard’s part.

Each season can also be used to structure the arc of your campaign. The game suggests two approaches: just pick how many sessions/season you want to play, or use the Seasons Scale to progress the in-game timeline during play. Here’s the Seasons Scale:

The dots below each season represent how many weather-based twists the GM can introduce before the season changes; the numbers are the strength of the hazards presented by each season (the season’s dice pool, basically).

Twists are a cool concept. Remember the two hazards you didn’t use to design your mission? You can use those as twists during the mission. Twists enter play when the PCs fail to overcome an obstacle.

Failure can have two outcomes: You can either allow the PCs to succeed, but impose a condition — Hungry, Angry, Tired, or Sick — as the price of success; or you can throw a twist into the story in the form of a new obstacle. Either way, the story progresses somehow, but differently than it would have had the patrol simply succeeded.

Using the Seasons Scale, each time you introduce a weather-based twist as an aspect of the patrol’s failure to overcome an obstacle, you fill in one bubble under the current season. When the bubbles for that season are full, the season changes at the end of that session.

Much like splitting sessions into the GM’s and Players’ Turns, this sounds more limiting than I think it would actually be during play. I look at the Seasons Scale more as a tool for you, the GM, than a limiting factor on how your game actually plays out.

But while you could easily ignore the Seasons Scale, using it presents one more structural element that your players may not enjoy (I’m 99% certain mine wouldn’t like it), or that might bug you as a GM.

The world of Mouse Guard. The Territories are actually fairly lightly covered in Mouse Guard — this is not a setting-focused RPG. And based on the one Mouse Guard trade I’ve read (Fall 1152), that’s true in the comic, too: The guardmice are the center of attention, not the setting.

That’s not to say the setting isn’t covered; I know a lot more about the various sections of the Territories, as well as the individual settlements, than I did after reading the comic. There’s enough info about the major settlements to give you, the GM, a foundation for further development.

Personally, I think the lack of emphasis on the setting suits the nature of of the game. It’s more about the PC mice and the obstacles they have to overcome than anything else. I would have liked a bit more detail — like maps of the big settlements, particularly Lockhaven (the headquarters of the Mouse Guard) — but I approve of the decision to favor rules and guidance about play over setting material.

Burning Wheel Lite. Mouse Guard is Burning Wheel Lite, and that’s a very good thing. The Burning Wheel system is well-suited to Mouse Guard — it’s not an arbitrary choice in any way. The kind of game this system fosters matches up perfectly with the stories, tone, flavor, and heart of the Mouse Guard comic.

The core of the system is the same: You roll a pool of six-sided dice (no other types of dice are used), and each result of 4+ is a success; the number of successes is compared to the obstacle (difficulty) of whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

One area where the system really shines is in the ways you get and use bonus dice. Other players can assist whoever is making the roll by roleplaying out how an ability of theirs would be helpful, and granting a bonus die for their trouble; and your traits can come into play.

Traits have three levels; a level 1 trait lets you roll an extra die once per session; a level 2 trait gives you a bonus die for every applicable roll; and a level 3 trait allows you to reroll failures once per session.

I’ve played quite a bit of Burning Wheel over the years, and in actual play these elements of the system lead to a lot of roleplaying — and because most key rolls are stakes- or objective-based, rather than task-based, every roll really matters. That gets the whole table involved.

This is part of why the structure of a standard mission — which may not involve all that many rolls, at least during the Players’ Turn — is less limiting than it might look: you don’t make many rolls, but every roll means a lot, and every roll will have interesting consequences whether it succeeds or fails.

Conflicts are nifty. Mouse Guard includes rules for seven kinds of conflict (which can be extended or combined to handle any conflict): arguments, chases, fights, negotiations, journeys, speeches, and war.

In a conflict, you break down into teams — most often, players vs. GM. Then the teams pick a goal, which is what they’re trying to accomplish in the conflict (in a fight, it’s usually — though not always — “Kill the other guy”); that tells everyone what’s at stake.

Next, each team determines its starting disposition; reducing a team’s disposition to zero ends the conflict, and they lose. Then you choose three broad actions in advance (and can choose the same one more than once): Attack, Defend, Feint, Maneuver. They apply in different ways to different types of conflicts, but conceptually they’re always the same.

The conflict is played out by revealing each team’s actions one at a time, so you compare Team A’s first action to Team B’s first action, resolve it, and repeat that process twice more. Rolling and roleplaying are involved at each step, and at the end you have a winner and a loser, or things end in a compromise (where each side gets some of what they want).

Compared to Burning Wheel, conflicts are a bit simpler in Mouse Guard — but no less meaty. This is just a fantastic mechanic, and rightly so: Conflicts are the bread and butter of every Mouse Guard session, and you’ll spend the bulk of your game time building up to or fighting them.

Based on having played out lots of Burning Wheel conflicts, conflicts in Mouse Guard will rock.

Conditions and checks. Conditions are also quite neat. There are six of them: Healthy, Hungry and Thirsty, Angry, Tired, Injured, and Sick. They all penalize characters affected by them in some way, as well as providing roleplaying cues in the process (when your PC is Angry, and that has a mechanical consequence, it should also affect how you play your character).

Conditions can be imposed when the patrol fails to overcome an obstacle or test, but absolutely has to succeed: instead of failing, they do succeed — but at a price. Being submerged in icy water during winter, for example, could make a guardmouse Sick; for a Persuader test (failing an argument, let’s say), the Angry condition could be applied as the price of success.

Conditions are also tied to another structural element of Mouse Guard: the Players’ Turn. During the Players’ Turn (one-half of each session), players only have a limited number of tests that they’re allowed to make. If a guardmouse wants to heal his buddy, that costs a test. This means that mice can run out of tests during the Players’ Turn in one session, and wind up starting the next session still affected by conditions.

Mouse Guard is a primer on how to have a blast roleplaying. This is hands-down the best RPG I’ve ever read for:

  • Introducing non-gamers to roleplaying for the first time: Mouse Guard doesn’t harp on about what roleplaying is, then provide a lame example of play (like so many other games) — it gives you a quick rundown, then throws you into a structured environment where roleplaying will happen naturally. If I was going to teach a group of first-time gamers how to game, I’d use Mouse Guard.
  • Teaching GMs how to GM: This game walks you through adventure design, provides a foolproof formula for building adventures, and teaches you how to fairly challenge your players in ways that will make the game more fun for everyone at the table. There is no GMing section per se — the whole damned book is one big GMing section.
  • Setting up a basic social contract. Both overtly and indirectly, Mouse Guard offers up a ton of advice on how to be a good player, how to be a good GM, how to make sure your fun is tied to everyone else’s fun, and how to observe basic gaming etiquette (wait your turn, give others their time in the spotlight, etc.).
  • Introducing kids to gaming. Nowhere does Mouse Guard say “This is a game for kids” — and it isn’t. It’s not childish, or dumbed down in any way; it’s crunchier than a rules-light RPG, but less crunchy than, say, Hero System; and it’s built around the concept that challenging your character’s Beliefs and ideals makes for fun, intense roleplaying. But there’s also a simple elegance to the game that I believe makes it especially well-suited to playing with kids. Put it this way: When our baby daughter, Lark, is old enough to try gaming, I’ll be breaking out Mouse Guard.

From the core concept of mice patrolling the Territories and doing good deeds, to the clever conflict rules, the way Beliefs and Goals tie into gameplay, and the structured nature of individual game sessions (through the GM’s/Players’ Turn split) as well as the entire campaign (through the Seasons Scale), Mouse Guard is a unified, tightly integrated engine for making interesting decisions.

Sure, you’re playing a mouse with a sword — but man is that mouse going to have a killer time in each and every session. For all these reasons — and more — this is a fucking fantastic RPG.

From a GM’s Perspective

As a GM, I love this game. Running it would limit my options during play in some ways, but that would provide me with an interesting challenge — one I haven’t often faced before. Mouse Guard’s emphasis on packing the most excitement possible into short, focused sessions would also be highly useful to me, as I tend to let sessions wander — often a bad habit.

Having experience the Burning Wheel system as a player, I know that as a GM I would also learn from — and have fun with — the focus the mechanics put on each character’s Beliefs, Goal, and Instincts, on building up to intense conflicts, and on fostering roleplaying in general. I’ve been running games for over 20 years, and I still have a lot to learn.

Mouse Guard will also challenge your players in interesting ways, especially if they’re less familiar with indie-style RPGs. Having only a limited number of tests they can make during the Players’ Turn, for example, will force them to stay focused and play out only what interests them most.

And if you’ve struggled with getting your players into character, or had trouble getting them to create backgrounds you can actually draw on during play (rather than, say, “I’m a dark, brooding orphan with amnesia”), Mouse Guard builds the whole player investment equation — “players create cool stuff, the GM uses it in play” — right into its mechanics.

Should You Buy It?

Yes.

I have seen few RPGs as elegantly designed, thoughtfully put-together, and focused on teaching players and GMs alike to make the most of every moment during play as Mouse Guard. The spin on the Burning Wheel system featured in Mouse Guard is an excellent one; the end product is accessible to players and GMs of all ages and experience levels — a rare balance to strike.

Beautiful artwork and graphic design, as well as a compelling core concept (play a mouse with a sword!) round out one of the most satisfying gaming purchases I’ve made in a long time. I highly recommend this book.

If you have a group of inexperienced players, a group that’s never tried an indie RPG (which I would characterize — in the broadest terms — as having a focused concept, a different structure of play, an emphasis on roleplaying, and conflict resolution that is stakes-based, rather than task-based) before, want to introduce your kids to gaming, or are a first-time GM, Mouse Guard is especially well-suited to your situation. The fact that it’s also likely to be fun for gamers that don’t fall into any of those categories is impressive.

And even if (like me) you don’t think your group will go for the structured play model that’s at the heart of Mouse Guard, or if you think you yourself won’t dig it — in other words, even if you never get to play it — the wealth of practical advice on GMing, roleplaying, adventure design, gaming etiquette, focusing on the fun parts, and making interesting decisions is well worth the price of admission.

Want to Know More?

I’ve got Mouse Guard right next to me on my desk, and I’d be happy to answer questions about the book. If you’ve got ‘em, fire away!

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.



41 Responses to Mouse Guard RPG Review: Want to Play a Mouse with a Sword?

  1. Lovely little review – I’ll be coming back to read it more thoroughly later.

    Quick question for now: How portable are the concepts in this game? In particular, are Beliefs or Seasons something you might introduce into other games you run?

  2. Would you recommend buying Mouse Guard over buying Burning Wheel?

  3. Very nice review (except for the unneccesary slam of furries). Unlike you, my experiences with Burning Wheel have been less than ideal but I would certainly be willing to give Mouse Guard a try.

    • Yes, it’s almost five years after you commented on this article, but I happened to be thinking about things I’ve said that could have hurt someone and this post came to mind. I’ve deleted the comment I made in the article (“(let’s leave furries out of this — there’s no yiffing in Mouse Guard)“), which you’re right was unnecessary — not to mention mean. Thank you for calling me on that.

  4. Thanks for the review, and the “slam of furries” was totally necessary in my book :)

    Thanks to the review, I just put first volume of the comic on hold at my local library, which I’m sure will lead to putting the second volume on hold, which I’m sure will lead to buying the RPG with cash that I don’t have right now.

  5. Great review, Martin! You really nailed it. I’d say that’s quite a testament to the layout and writing: Without having played it, you got the concepts bang on.

    When I first got MG, I ran it that day for my girlfriend (who’d never gamed before) and her friend (who’d never gamed… and has ADHD) and they had a blast. It’s a great intro system, and has a lot of meat for longer games. I’m a player in a game now (5 sessions in) that’s become a wonderful mess of intrigue and politicking, which is a blast because the Mouse Guard is supposed to stay out of regional politics and security.

    Beliefs and Instincts can get a player into fantastic trouble (“Never suffer an insult” had my character killing a traitorous and insulting Guardmouse, resulting in a regional trial… FUN!). Meanwhile, our patrol leader’s Belief is “All Guardmice are deserving of respect.” which kind of put him on the fence. I’m in his patrol, and we’re friends, but I killed another Guardmouse which goes against his Belief. Weee!

    Lesink: They’re two separate games, and the approach to them is quite different (despite MG feeling a little like “BW Lite”).

  6. I’ve purchased Mouse Guard already, and have read through it once (and I think it deserves a re-read), but the one thing I can’t quite wrap my head around is the Players’ Turn. It seems like during this time the players get a fairly limited amount of checks, but with those checks are expected to drive the story forward for 50% of the session with these meager resources. Have I misunderstood the way the Players’ Turn works?

  7. Players have to earn more checks during the GM’s turn by using their traits against themselves, which is fairly easy to do; there are (or should be) lots of opportunities to do so. “A little hurt now for lots of reward later” kind of idea. However, it’s definitely tough for first-time players to wrap their heads around it and it takes a few sessions. If the GM pounds them enough (especially via conditions), they’ll be very motivated to use the system. In some ways, the GM has to be a bit adversarial to get the idea across. Once players “get it,” things flow really well from GM’s Turn to Players’ Turn.

  8. Martin, thanks for the review! You need to go easier on your group in your reviews, though. You make them sound like a pack of nervous geriatrics.

    And I recommend buying Mouse Guard over Burning Wheel.

    Thanks again!
    -Luke

  9. Thanks for a very thorough review, Martin. A few months ago, a friend of mine asked me for a recommendation for a roleplaying game that would be suitable for his elementary school age daughter. Mouse Guard sounds like it would be perfect. I’m definitely going to point him toward your review for reference.

  10. I know that I’ve enjoyed reading Burning Wheel, but don’t think I’ll convince either of my groups to go for it anytime soon. From the reviews I’ve read (the one above and many others), it sounds like this might be a lot less intimidating to start with.

    I know one of my groups would also have trouble with the structure– do you think it could be “concealed” with some GM effort, or do the players need to know it?

  11. I saw the comic and RPG for this a few months back and had to decide if I should pick up the collected comic or the RPG to share with my 8 year old daughter. I picked the RPG because you can read only the adventures that are in a comic in a comic, but with an RPG you can have an infinite amount of adventures.

    I totally made the WRONG call on this one. This RPG is NOT for introducing kids to RPGs and here’s a few reasons why:

    1- Dependance on a lore-heavy conceptual world, and straight-jacketed character creation penalize children for their natural creativity. My wife and I had to tell my daughter “no” repeatedly during character concept/creation.
    “My mouse lives by stealing what she needs from a nearby human farmhouse.”
    “Sorry sweetheart. No Humans in this world.”
    “My mouse is such an awesome swordswoman that she killed 1000 cats in a single stroke!”
    “Sorry. That’s beyond the power scope of this game kiddo…”
    The world is awesome, and character creation creates characters with real meat to their bones, but are inherantly limiting vs a child’s imagination.

    2- Rules that I had to look help to figure out. I got so confused by the rules from time to time, that I had to go to the official site and read the forums to figure out how they worked, and that’s not being dense, the rules actually contradict themselves from time to time. (For example, how do you get/what do you pay for, a new skill? The rulebook clearly states two different ways to do it.) I found answers on the forums to MOST of the questions, but the gameplay is still very rigid and codified, playing almost more like a CCG than a traditional RPG. That may be GREAT for what it’s trying to do, but it sucks pretty hard for you and your child who have to figure out either how to cram their declared actions into a very esoteric system, or how to adjucate the results of just throwing parts of the system out the window on other parts of the system.

    3- Designed for medium-large team play. There’s a bunch of official sub-systems for things like getting lost and predicting the weather, and dire consequences for failing at them. Character creation holds your hand very tightly on what skills you can choose, how many you can choose, and how competant you can be. Especially if you want a group of mice that can hold their own if they get into a fight, your best bet is to start with a team of 3-4 mice. That means that you either have to herd a group of 3-4 young children, coordinate a group of adults to game WITH your child, rely heavily on NPCs, trim down required subsystems, or find some other way to make the game viable with your group size.

    In short, this game may well be an awesome game set in a wonderful rich game world, but it’s NOT a game for kids.

    If you’re looking for a game for kids, I’d suggest something along the lines of PDQ where you child can create whatever they want in whatever imaginary world they want, and you can adjucate it quickly and easily.
    http://atomicsockmonkey.com/freebies/di/pdq-core.pdf

  12. Nice review!

    I haven’t played Burning Wheel yet, so I didn’t get the conflict example. The three rolls, were those one person each? What about that fourth player? Anyone want to give an example of a simple conflict, and what the GM and Players are doing during it?

    I don’t care if a game is Indie or not. The Indie good, popular bad, vibe sets off alarms.

    It sounds like you don’t have to have read the comics to enjoy this game. I’ve read a few Redwall books when my son was young, I think that’s enough.

    I’d have to play the game to be sure, but knowing my group, they would forget to rack up a lot of extra actions during the GM turn. “What? Make myself less effective?” However, this could even itself out over a campaign, after a few Player turns w/o actions to spend.

    Anyway, I’m looking for a mini campaign to clean my groups palettes after we finish Dark Heresy and before we start Rogue Trader. I think this might just be the one.

  13. I participated in the MG playtest, and ran most of our games, and LOVED it. My favourite part of the system -bar none- is using the environment as a hazard. By the end of a year, my Patrol were more canny at building rafts and weaving rope than they were at swinging swords or punching badgers. I ran an entire session where the PCs sought shelter from a rainstorm in a rotten log and then having to figure out how to escape it when the log itself started to flood, and the system handled it all very smoothly.

    I’ve played BW and I quite enjoy it, but I prefer MG for its streamlined conflict resolution system.

    Matthew Neagly above makes a good point, though, which is that MG -as written- is fairly dependent on knowing the MG world. This totally isn’t necessary, however. If your kids want to steal from humans, then go right ahead, add humans. MG isn’t Secret of NIMH, but there’s stories there that would work just as well, and the perils are the same, so the system works just as well. On the other hand, you could just buy the MG comic and read it to your kids before you run the game. I’m sure they’ll love it. One of my fellow playtesters read it to his son, and it quickly became his favourite bedtime story (And Peterson was kind enough to do a sketch for the kid at the Calgary Comic Expo). I’ll ask him if he’s ever run the game for the little guy.

  14. @Nojo – I can give you an anecdotal example. In the first session of the MG ‘campaign’ I play in, one of the players made a Pathfinder test to get us from point A to point B. … and failed it utterly. The GM has two options, as Martin laid out: Apply a condition(s), or use a twist. Our GM had a twist planned, so…

    … our patrol found ourselves by the sea, out on the sand. We’d strayed pretty far off-course. We suddenly realized the tide was coming in fast. The GM announced it was a chase conflict, so we set it up.

    Each side has a disposition, which is like situational “HP.” The tide was basically part of the Spring season, so it had 7 dice (its Nature) to roll and the successes were added to its Nature. I think it had a disposition of 12 (5 successes + Nature 7). We were running away, something mice do very well, so one of us (the patrol leader who said “Let’s get off this beach!”) rolled his Mouse Nature, with 1d from myself and from the other player. We ended up with a disposition of 5, I think. Pretty grim!

    Tide Goal: Sweep these mice out to sea!
    Mice Goal: Escape to higher ground, with our gear and especially the mail (the focus of our mission) undamaged!

    Now the conflict. Since the tide is one entity, the tide would act three times in a row whereas we, being three players, would each take one action. (Each team gets 3 actions per exchange, regardless of how many people are on it.) The GM picked and placed three conflict actions, hidden face-down from us. (You can write them, but I whipped up cards for quick and tactile reference.) We did the same. We chose our order: the intrepid recruit, the grizzled vet, then the valourous patrol leader.

    Action 1 vs Action 1: Each team flips their first action card/reveals their first action. Our Maneuver vs the tide’s Attack. In rolling, we won by 2, so we would roll +2d on our next action (as dictated by the Maneuver action).

    Action 2 vs Action 2: Our Defend vs the tide’s Feint. Crap! We couldn’t even roll! (Feint is a risky move: Attack negates it, but it negates Defend.) 5 unopposed successes and the conflict ended, because our disposition was reduced to 0.

    Ouch! We didn’t even get a compromise because we didn’t touch the tide’s disposition. The tide accomplished its goal unimpeded and…

    … we got washed out a bit to sea, but managed to grab hold of a rock and pull ourselves out of the water. We were all Tired (a condition) from the ordeal.

    Then a sea gull spotted us……. (another twist, which was awesome. It also resulted in a player twist; ie, we lost and chose to force another twist and somewhat nullify the sea gull’s goal, which was to make a tasty snack out of one of us.)

    Hope that helps some, though it may just confuse things if you don’t have the RPG.

  15. Thanks for the kind words on this review, and for reading it and commenting, all! And welcome to the Stew, Boing Boing readers! :-)

    @Rosti – The Burning Wheel system in general is eminently driftable. I’ve written about that on the Stew.

    Beliefs would be easy, as would Goals and Instincts; just tie them to a type of reward that works in your game. In D&D 4e, that might be Action Points.

    The Seasons Scale would require a bit more work, as you’d have to use the twist mechanics as well. You could do it, though.

    @LesInk – It depends what you want out of the game you choose to buy. They’re both great, but MG does one specific thing, whereas BW delves a bit deeper across the board, and can do many things. MG is also a bit more polished overall.

    @Knight of Roses – What’s been less than ideal about your BW experiences?

    @Aquatopia – Yep, that’s how it works — it’s very much intentional. Like Rafe said, in play it should cause your players to be very proactive about earning checks in the GM’s Turn.

    @burning.luke – Dude, they gave me grief for two years over my running two abortive campaigns in a row. They’ve earned it. ;-)

    @Scott Martin – You COULD conceal it, but I suspect that would backfire. The moment you chose (during the GM’s Turn) to explain why your players should be impeding their own efforts to earn checks, you’d have shocked players wondering why the hell you didn’t tell them that before. I vote for full disclosure.

    @Matthew J. Neagley – Wow — that’s a totally different impression than the one I came away with! I see what you’re getting at in every case, though, and obviously I defer to your experience over my speculation.

    I hadn’t considered the effect MG’s structured approach would have on kidlets’ natural creativity. Hrm. At the same time, I stand by my impression: I’d try MG with my daughter when she gets old enough. Maybe I’d run into the same issues, maybe not.

    Anyone else tried using MG this way and run into the same kinds of problems? Anyone played RPGs with their kids and have different suggestions for how to approach MG?

    @Nojo – Each “round” in a conflict would involve one roll on each side, but multiple players could contribute to that roll.

    I don’t have any skin in the indie vs. traditional game — MG isn’t better or worse because it’s indie, but the fact that it’s indie is important (at least, I think so).

    @deadlytoque – I haven’t played MG, but I don’t see why it’d be so tied to knowing the MG world. It seems like you could describe the Territories in just a couple of sentences and do just fine — the lore is pretty thin in the comic, too.

    For example: “Your mice are intelligent, and live in a land called the Territories. There are other intelligent mice there, as well as weasels — the enemies of the mice. Lots of other animals live there, too, but they’re not smarter than normal. There are no humans, but the mice build cities inside trees, forge weapons, and live in a medieval society. You’re in the Mouse Guard, a military organization that patrols and protects the Territories.”

    What else would you need to know?

  16. @Matthew J. Neagley – With respect, Matthew, did you take five minutes, or even two, to explain to your daughter about what the Guard is and what they do? That alone would have headed off the bulk of your character creation problems, or would at least have made your nos make more sense to her.

    Creative constraints don’t have to be a bad thing, even with kids.

  17. Thanks for the review. I like what I’ve read of the Mouse Guard comics and will have to give the RPG a look. I am guessing my friends will not be up for the type of game you describe, but it never hurts to ask (at worst the answer is no).

    As a side note, possibly it’s because I have the original printing, but I never particularly got the impression that Bunnies and Burrows was silly, quite the opposite in fact. Despite being more of a _fantasy_ medieval setting, I got much more of a gritty vibe off of it.

  18. Great review Martin. It actually convinced me to buy the game, and it’s firmly in my “I want to play this but even if I never get round to it, it’s worth me having it just to read” gaming pile (along with, for example, Spirit of the Century). Incidentally, I’d put BW in that pile, too, independently of MG.

  19. @Millsy – I own SotC, and while I’d love to play it my group’s not wild about pulp in general — but like you, I think it’s worth having read just for the GMing advice, which is awesome.

    Ditto BW, though that one I’ve played — but never run. That would be quite an experience.

  20. Just ran this with a group of D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder players for the first time, and what a blast! Here’s my thoughts:

    The GM’s Turn / Player’s Turn is not a hindrance, or even much of a factor other than it structures the game for the GM’s notes. I didn’t even mention the concept to my players, it just sort of occurred naturally – “you’ve accomplished your mission, and have some time for R&R in Lockhaven… remember those checks you’ve been collecting?” If your players are wary of losing the freedom of open-ended RPGs, it’s really easy to skip the rule without losing anything.

    Combats were fun and furious – my biggest problem with running D20 is how long high-level fights take to complete a single turn, how long low-level fights take to get a hit, how long it takes to get from one action scene to the next, etc etc – but in this system my party was able to gang up on a snake, chase down a fleeing NPC, have an inter-party argument, and fight the ravages of hunger on the road without any long pauses for bookkeeping or looking up obscure starvation / extreme weather rules.

    I also noticed normally silent players chime in with memorable RP – like somebody flipped a light switch in their head, and suddenly they were The Thespian. I noticed a similar effect with other systems that quantify your character’s personality, but the simplicity if MG’s Beliefs / Goals / Instincts is a lot more inviting than most because of the focus on short-term actions.

    The mission structure? Just like the GM’s turn / Player’s turn, can more-or-less be skipped. Maybe it’s my own fast-and-loose GM style, but the adaptable mechanics of conflicts and the ease of the skill system makes it easy to run the game fast and furious. If we didn’t spend half of the session goofing around (it happens) we could have easily completed two more missions, or a larger plot. Point is, there’s more to do once you run one or two by-the-book missions to learn how it works.

    Simple version: if you’re worried about the game’s apparent structure, don’t be. Like any good system, Mouse Guard is as flexible as the GM running it.

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