There were no good videogames this month, so I put my gaming budget towards a copy of the Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game Boxed Set. It was an interesting purchase. I love the setting of Mouse Guard and hope it sticks around long enough to take up a whole shelf in my house. And I loved the idea of a roleplaying game in this setting, because it’s got a unique feel that betrays the traditional “swords’n'sorcery, kill’n'loot” gameplay agenda. The heroes would be brave and strong, sure, but they would be mice. Mice do not slay monsters and amass gold. They do not blaze trails and explore dungeons. They scamper and retreat, climb and hide and trick. They scratch what life they can at the very bottom of the food chain. That’s the angle the comics have portrayed very well, and that’s a kind of roleplaying game I really think would be worth playing.
Having just finished reading the rulebook, I’ve concluded it’s a pretty simple and well-designed game. I bet it plays really well. I know, though, that it will never go over with my gaming group, or with any group that is at all similar to ours. It’s very clearly aimed towards novice groups who are new to roleplaying, or veteran groups who have only played one type of game. There is a lot of structure here, and not enough of the bolts and crossbeams are covered up. It’s too game-y. There are lots of spots in the rules, as written, where I can envision players being frustrated by too much “you can’t do that, just because.” There are a lot of really good roleplaying tools built into the system, but most of the mechanics require the players to approach the system as a game and not necessarily as a world their characters can interact with. What’s worse, the system doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room to chock those restrictive mechanics aside.
My goal is to try and tweak the Mouse Guard rules so they will work for a veteran group that doesn’t need the kinds of rule-game-check restrictions that are built so solidly into its framework.
I’ll talk about the good stuff first, because the good stuff is really good and, more to the point, is the kind of good stuff that was noticably absent from 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. First, character creation is excellent. Every other game in the world seems to work under the assumption that every player has a copy of the book and therefore it’s okay to spend twenty minutes picking skills and spending points and notating abilities. If everyone does have a copy of the book, yeah, that process takes twenty minutes. This only happens if you’re playing a really old game that a lot of group members are familiar with, though. We have about six copies of the 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook. But for a new game that one guy wants to introduce everyone else to? You usually just have his copy, and every player has to spend twenty minutes with it. An hour and a half later you can start playing. (Forty-five minutes if you print out a pirated .pdf of the rules.)
In Mouse Guard, character creation is structured as a series of questions. The GM goes down the list and the entire group (called a “patrol”) answers at once. The lists of skills and traits are broken down into sections that make logical sense: what skills were you born with? What skills did you get from your parents? Each group only has a subset of the whole skill list. Instead of poring over every available option and trying to balance them against each other, you’re instead just sharing your character’s backstory and letting the book fill in the dots for you. I bet it flows really well and gets a whole group up and running in just a few minutes. Gear is abstracted down to a Resources stat plus whatever the mouse can actually carry, which, being a mouse, isn’t much. I like games where characters are defined by who they are rather than what they can do, and that’s the kind of game Mouse Guard is.
Once you have your skills and such, you level them up by actually using them. Each skill has checkboxes next door to notate passes and failures. Passing a skill test represents getting better with practice; failure imparts important lessons. Both are required to get to the next level. This system is elegant and it rewards players for coming up with creative ways to use their skills. In point-based games you often reach a level where you have enough dots in a skill to pass almost every test you’ll ever make with it, but not enough to do anything really exceptional with it. In World of Darkness this is about four dots. Buying that fifth dot is almost prohibitively expensive; it takes something like three full sessions’ worth of XP. So you want to buy it, but you also don’t want to buy it, and argh frustrating. In Mouse Guard you get out of that boring middle range by seeking out riskier and more difficult applications of the skill. You’ll rack up your passes just by using it naturally, and rack up failures by purposely trying cool new things. And eventually you’ll skill it up.
(World of Darkness, in particular, is pretty bad about ever rewarding really risky behavior. Or maybe our GM’s just a total cocknose.)
The rest of your rewards all come through good roleplaying. Over the course of the game you stack up Fate and Persona points, which can be cashed in to improve rolls. You gain these points by staying true to several aspects of your mouse’s personality: his Belief, Goal and Instinct. I won’t go into detail about what these actually are, but understand there is almost no mechanical application for them. They are strictly defined by what’s in your head. These are not things you pick out of a list in a book, they are statements you make about what your character believes and how he acts. “I believe there is good in everymouse,” or “I never give up the high ground.” At the end of each session the group discusses everyone’s roleplaying and, if you’ve done well, you get points.
The game is also divided into seasons, with maybe one or two missions in each season. The Mouse Guard retires for the winter, and there are very nice rules set aside for how to conduct a Winter Session. This is essentially sped-up downtime where the players get some free points and acknowledge changes in how their mice have grown over the previous year. If a patrol can forego the downtime and volunteer for extremely deadly winter missions, if they really want, but otherwise winter is a great way to decompress and have the characters grow. I think every game needs something like this, and I liked that Mouse Guard specifically set rules aside for it.
So that’s what I liked. Now on to what I hated.
The game is broken up into alternating phases called “GM’s Turn” and “Players Turn”. I made sure to read this section twice through, very carefully, and I cannot for the life of me figure out how this distinction helps the game. The idea is that the GM’s Turn is the mission proper, where the patrol encounters obstacles, gets into fights, works towards their goals, etc. The Players Turn takes up the in-between spots where there is downtime; it’s used to rest and recuperate, obtain supplies, tie up dangling sidequests, etc. In theory it sounds like a good setup for novice players: the GM controls the first half of the session, then you Do Something Cool and then the players take over for a while. However, I anticipate a lot of problems with the system in practice. I am positive my group would reject it outright, and even if I were simply playing the game with another group I would feel unfairly restricted by it.
The major burning question is, why can’t the players just do whatever they want, wherever they happen to be? Sure there is an implicit agreement that the players are a patrol of guardsmice who are working on orders, but why can’t they decide to abandon their mission partway through and go do something else? The book is very clear that once the GM sets an obstacle before them, the players must attempt to clear it. I tried to find an alternate reading of this, something that didn’t sound quite so much like “the players must do what the GM wants them to do”, but there doesn’t seem to be one. After all, it’s the GM’s Turn, isn’t it? You make his checks and then jump through his hoops and dance when he says dance.
I realize a lot of groups play all their games this way. Particularly D&D groups that run on modules. “You can’t do that because it’s not allowed” is an acceptable statement in such groups. But try it with my group and you would be crucified. Our games still have structure, but we feel it’s the GM’s job to make us want to do the things he wants us to do, and to not penalize us when we want to do other things that are reasonable. In fact, we actively mock our GM when the plot threads are too blatant: “Hey look! A sign! It says, ‘plot, this way’! I guess I go that way.”
Mouse Guard is eerily silent on how to handle these situations; it simply assumes if the patrol faces a challenge, they will attempt to overcome it. If the GM gives them a fire to put out, the players will dutifully come together to douse it. And while there’s nothing really wrong with that, there’s also nothing wrong (in my opinion) with the players deciding to wait until the fire burns out. Or to try and go around it. Or to throw their Mouse Guard cloaks into it and form a den of bandits. Or to start the fire in the first place.
Okay, so the patrol puts out the fire or whatever, and now the tables are turned; they’re allowed to do whatever they feel like, and the GM can’t spring new plotlines or challenges on them. But ah, there’s a catch! The players still aren’t in total control, because they can only take a certain amount of actions during the Players Turn! During the GM’s Turn they amass “checks”, and taking an action in the Players Turn requires one check. If you’re thirsty and need to hit a tavern? That’s a check. If your shield needs repaired, that’s a check. You get one free check per Players Turn, and you earn more by purposely harming yourself during the GM’s Turn. You get one check for reducing your dice pool on a skill test by one. You get two for letting your opponent win a tie. If you don’t do any of those things, and only have one check by the time you hit town? Too bad. You only get to do one thing.
It gets worse. A player cannot spend two checks back to back, so if you have five and I have three you just don’t get to use one of yours. Oh, you can give me the extra one so I can take an action I didn’t earn, I’m sure that won’t cause any sour feelings in the patrol. (I’m also sure it won’t bog down gameplay during the GM’s Turn: “Dude! Lower your dice so you get a check! I gave you two last time!” “What? No! Fuck off.” “Fine, then I’m not giving you any more checks!” “Fine, then I’m not spending any more of mine on plot stuff!”)
The whole checks system is totally arbitrary and stupid. There is no in-world reason explaining why difficult rolls translate into more downtime, and absolutely no explanation for why guardsmice can’t simply use their downtime as they see fit. If there are more than two players you can run into ridiculous situations where two players have lots of checks and one only has a few. The player with a few has to sit there and watch the other two guys take turns for a while. “So we were in town for three days. During that time they were able to eat, get drunk, hire a cartographer and restock their ammo. But you’re telling me I had so little time I had to choose between getting a good night’s sleep and getting my spear repaired?” Obviously in these situations it’s better for one player to give another player a few spare checks. In fact, it’s probably best to just make sure all the players distribute their checks so they’re equal as soon as they hit town. And if you’re going that far you might as well just say “Do what you need to do in town, let me know when you’re ready for the next adventure,” and do away with checks completely.
Checks do have another function: you can use them to boost dice rolls during the GM’s Turn. This is actually quite powerful; with a certain ability you can cash in four checks to reroll all the failed dice on any test. That’s pretty nice, but if you’ve ditched the Players Turn system and this is the only thing to spend checks on players are simply going to accumulate them on the easy rolls to bypass the hard ones later. That sort of equals out, and players already have points to spend on boosting their rolls, so you might as well do away with this system too.
There’s another hidden snake in this whole GM/Player Turn system: since challenges and obstacles can only be presented during the GM’s Turn, you lose an all-important element of surprise. When I’m playing, I like the feeling that the next adventure or plotline can erupt at any moment, from any direction. If you’ve agreed to this whole Players Turn conceit, though, the GM is agreeing to not do that. In a game where the players can do whatever they want, it’s okay to spring weasels on them while they’re shopping because they can always shop later. In a game where players have to spend a resource to go shopping, springing weasels is mean and unfair. Not only do they not get to do their shopping, but the don’t get another chance to shop until after the weasels and whatever adventure they’re linked to are dealt with. And only if they’ve accumulated more checks along the way.
I have reservations with the combat system, too. Or maybe I should say the “combat” system, as Mouse Guard is one of those games that tries to downplay combat in favor of other sorts of conflicts. D&D 4e tried this too, with its skill challenges, and the result was somewhat clumsy. The secret to “combat” in games like this, though, is that as long as it flows quickly and gets the job done it sort of doesn’t matter how well it works. Mouse guard does away with time-consuming things like initiative rolls, hit points, magic spells and attacks of opportunity. That sounds insane at first, and maybe it is. I might have to just write up another post about it once I’ve seen the system in action.
In any event, having the roleplaying game handy has inspired me to go back and re-read Peanut’s copies of the Mouse Guard hardbacks. These books are not great writing, but the artwork is exquisite and the author is clearly very passionate about the little world he’s created. It’s the type of setting that inspires you to look for reasons to love it. When I passed my copy of the roleplaying game over to our group’s chief cynical cocknose, his first reaction was, “I already love this picture.” So maybe there’s hope for us yet.
If nothing else, Mouse Guard would make a great stand-in for one-shot adventures as part of a less-filling game night. We have a need for those once in a while. Maybe we can piggyback a two hour session into an evening of Mansions of Madness or Castle Ravenloft sometime.