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Mouse Guard RPG Review: Want to Play a Mouse with a Sword?
Posted By Martin Ralya On May 26, 2009 @ 2:27 am In Reviews | 41 Comments
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.
(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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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