Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mouse Guard the RPG

Recently, I had the privilege to play a game of Mouse Guard, the RPG. My current gaming group, which normally plays Dark Heresy once a month, decided to set up an alternate gaming day once a month. This month we tried out the Mouse Guard RPG, which is based on the Mouse Guard comics.

Mouse Guard has a premise similar to the popular Redwall novel series. In this world, humans don't exist. Instead, mice and several other creatures are sentient. As I'm sure you can imagine, this makes for a plethora of cuteness that is beautifully charming without being toothache inducing. The RPG sets the player characters as the warriors of the mice world, the Mouse Guard, who are in charge of protecting other mice from predators and the enemy weasel army.

No one in my group had played this RPG before, so it was an adventure for all of us. We rolled up characters the day of - though I use "roll" in a very loose sense since no dice were involved in character creation. The rules allowed for a vast array of choices in background, age, and experience which all affected the type of abilities you were able to bring to bear. Characters would be fairly balanced no matter what rank the mouse is in the guard, but our GM decided to limit us to the first or second year rank simply called "Guard Mouse". Most of the party went with this, though I chose "Tenderpaw", a new recruit, which gave me less combat based abilities but more general life experience as well as natural talents.

Though the first session had all the expected snags of learning a new system, it was an incredibly enjoyable undertaking. Some of the rules seemed a little convoluted, but for the most part they really encouraged a specific type of gameplay, and I believe this is what RPG rules should do. It's become my main beef with Dungeons and Dragons - while it can be argued that role-playing and non-combat interaction is perfectly possible with D&D, when the rules do not encourage and cover these interactions, it really pushes players and DMs to combat even if that is not the intention. I found a bit more of what I was searching for in the Dark Heresy games - all skills are treated equally so investigation and other skill based activities are far more likely to be used.

With Mouse Guard, this is taken a step further. There are two types of checks - those against obstacles, which are unopposed, and combats. Both operate very similarly. Both are extremely story based. For each type of check, the player rolls dice and uses a skill either against a set difficulty or against the GM's roll. If the player wins, they get to describe what happens based on the agreed degree of success. If the GM wins, they get to introduce a complication or impose a status condition on the mice who participated, but in general the goal is still accomplished. However, "combat" encompasses all types of opposed interactions, not just fights. Even in a physical fight, the combatants may specify the types of actions they are taking to be non-lethal or even non-threatening (just trying to escape). Regardless, the same system is used. This puts equal weight on ALL types of interactions, encouraging gameplay that follows. Another interesting twist is that even if the players win the combat, if they didn't win perfectly, the GM can specify a concession the players must make - they achieve their goal, but something else goes wrong.

Example: Catching Caterpillars

During our session, we needed to catch some special caterpillars to use as payment for a guide. Wrangling the caterpillars was a real challenge, and we had almost our entire party working on the challenge. This meant that those helping could add one extra die roll to the main mouse's test. However, we weren't quite able to meet the number of successes imposed by the skill test. The GM imposed a status ailment as a result: we all became angry, a status affecting Will-based interactions. So if later on we needed to have a discussion with someone and convince them to do something, we would have been at a disadvantage. The GM got to describe what happened to us - the caterpillars refused to cooperate, we had to waste a lot of time, and maybe they even bit one of us. The frustration set in and couldn't be shaken for the rest of the adventure.

Example: Fighting a Rat

Though not canon to the Mouse Guard setting, our GM chose to have us encounter a rat. During the encounter, the rat tried to take the object of our quest from us, a bag of special components we were set to fetch by the Mouse Guard. What ensued was a "fight" type of conflict, but we chose to keep it non-lethal since the rat had not tried to hurt us, but was simply being a bully. We pushed and shoved and grabbed at the bag, and eventually were able to cause him to drop it. However, the rat managed to reduce our team's "disposition" (somewhat like hit points that regenerate each combat), so we had to make a concession. The GM decided the rat would drop the bag but grab one of the mice and try to drag him into the rat warren. This started a new combat, this one where live steel was drawn and used. We managed to free the mouse from the rat and escape, and the players got to describe the rat being shoved down the ramp into his own warren.

Threat Level

In Dungeons and Dragons, threat level is something easily abstracted into numbers, but they don't really mean much. Especially in 4.0, threat level is just a way to balance encounters. You can create a huge dragon that is an even match for even entry level characters. Consequently, there's not much fear on the players part. You don't get the feeling of scale even though that dragon's toe is as big as your entire body.

In Mouse Guard, the feeling of threat is everywhere. A mouse is smaller than almost everything. Seeing a snake, an owl, a fox - these are truly terrifying things for a mouse. A black widow, though smaller than a mouse, is a truly deadly obstacle, whereas giant spiders are a common monster in most fantasy games yet seldom feel scary. Admittedly, part of this increased feeling of threat is due to the lack of magic in the game, but a good portion of it is due, I believe, to our instinctual understanding that a mouse is prey and the enemies are predators. The courage it takes for a mouse to deny his nature (actually a mechanic in the game) and stand against his natural predators is far more inspiring and poignant than a warrior fighting a dragon.

The game was a huge success, and I absolutely loved the way the conflict and obstacles were handled. The emphasis on storytelling and the increased threat level were refreshing. Though initially intended to be a one-off session, I think our group had such a great time that we'll be playing this again soon. The experience makes me want to try reading the comics, and I've even been inspired to do a little watercolor painting of my character. I also hope to post a short story of our adventure later on. Look forward to it!


  1. I'm in a similar situation, planning to use Mouse Guard to introduce a newcomer to roleplaying. Thanks for the encouraging report!

  2. The books really do an excellent job of introducing the idea of RPGs, moreso than any other RPG book I've seen.