Mouse Guard: Final Thoughts

Now that I’ve played a season’s worth of Mouse Guard with my gaming gruop, I figured I’d revisit this blog post about the rulebook and see whether those old comments still held water. A quick summary: my group tends to go really heavy on the roleplay, and I didn’t think a really nuts-and-bolts game like Mouse Guard would go over well with them. I felt a lot of the structure of the game was arbitrary or nonsensical; the kind of stuff that causes players to ask, “Why can’t I do this?” and GMs to answer, “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.

This ended up being exactly true, although not the dealbreaker I was expecting. There was some rolling of eyes as the game mechanics were laid out, but the players were mostly willing to accept the rules for what they were and displayed decent aptitude for sticking to them… even the stuff that didn’t make logical sense.

My biggest issue with this aspect of the game is how utterly contrasty it is. Mouse Guard has all these roleplaying concepts cooked right into the broth, but so much of the game forces you to abandon motive and abide cards and dice instead. I’ve known and loved games that lean to one extreme or the other, but Mouse Guard tries to tear itself in half. One moment it’s “ignore the story, what do the cards say?” and the next it’s “ignore the cards, what fits your character?” My players never really got the hang of shifting gears so abruptly, and I can’t say I blame them.

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.

This was a mixed blessing. On one hand, character creation is really speedy and organic — think in terms of what your character is, and record that on the sheet, yeah? On the other, the process doesn’t leave a lot of space for fine-tuning. Example: the first thing you do is pick your mouse’s hometown. You are told to select one Skill and one Trait associated with your hometown. This is fine, but most towns only have a single Trait to “choose” from. That’s pretty unfairly restrictive. Several of my players wanted their mouse to be from a town that matched his or her backstory, but didn’t want to be saddled with the Trait the book gave them.

Mulling this around a bit, and comparing it to more standard point-buy systems, I honestly don’t see any real benefit. I’ve rolled up dozens of White Wolf characters over the years and I have never had any trouble arranging my points to fit a particular character concept. And when it comes right down to it, Mouse Guard is still a point-buy system. Every step of the process boils down to, “What did your mouse’s mentor in the guard stress during training? Choose three of the below skills.” Things would have been smoother if the invisible barriers had been removed and players were free to spend where they wanted.

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.

I feel like this worked really well, although the bookkeeping took some getting used to. I was running with a larger-than-average group, and there was no way I was going to be keeping track in my notes. This led to situations where players forgot to notate a pass or fail until long after it was relevant. Some of the players got into it, though, and by the end of the third session they seemed to be policing themselves.

One benefit of this system I didn’t consider at first was the psychological impact of small, constant rewards. Lots of skill checks per session means lots of little boxes to fill in, pass or fail. Each little bell and whistle is fun and exciting. Many RPGs don’t grant rewards of any kind during a game session, so this was a win.

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. … At the end of each session the group discusses everyone’s roleplaying and, if you’ve done well, you get points.

This is one of those things that sounds great on paper, but gets really messy if you have players at different levels of roleplaying aptitude. It’s a strange paradox: a skilled roleplayer will pick an exciting Belief that is challenging to play, and thus won’t get rewarded every session. A less-skilled roleplayer will pick a broader Belief that is much easier to play, and thus gets the reward more consistently. As a GM, this is a sticky fucking wicket. If your Belief is “It is good to do good things,” and you do some good things, should I reward you? Even if the guy sitting next to you went with “The pursuit of knowledge is the highest virtue of mousekind”? If he spends the whole session striving to uphold that Belief, and fails, which of you really deserves the gold star?

Goals were equally challenging. Some players picked the most straightforward Goal imaginable; something that was almost guaranteed to happen by the end of the session. The players who created more thoughtful Goals requiring more effort to complete really didn’t accomplish anything except risk failure. Player 1 writes, “I will help the patrol deliver the message to the town.” Player 2 writes, “I will learn something new and exciting about the nature of the scent border.” Player 1 can sleepwalk to the reward. Player 2 has to go out of his way, and might fail. Both players are adhering to the rules, though, so I can’t call attention to the disparity without hurting someone’s feelings.

Compounding the problem is that there is a strong correlation between a player’s ability and willingness to roleplay, and a player’s ability to accept failure as a natural consequence. Creative players who didn’t quite hit their stated targets were fine when they didn’t get their shinies. Players with less creative targets got defensive when I challenged them to explain why they deserved theirs, and got upset in the rare cases when they were denied.

This problem creeps into any game that expects a level of imagination from its players. The only cure I know of is to remove the imagination requirement entirely. In Mouse Guard this might mean actually supplying a list of Beliefs, Instincts and Goals to choose from, with a blue box inviting players to come up with their own.

And, of course, since half of the game is strictly mechanical anyway, it stands to reason there should be strictly mechanical rewards as well. That is, something players can plug into an equation. “I helped kill x weasels, I get y gold pieces.” Mouse Guard doesn’t track that sort of reward, though. This creates a weird gap when players who excel at the roleplaying challenges get bonuses but players who excel at dice-and-cards do not.

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.

This aspect of the game was a total failure. As much as the book wants to pretend that the players are ever in control, they never really are. Even in the Player’s Turn, a player is limited by the amount of checks s/he has, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the gamestate and “solve” the Player’s Turn. I very purposely left loose ends at the end of every GM’s Turn, hoping the players would pick up where I left off. This is how the book describes it, and this is what other Mouse Guard players told me to do. It didn’t work. It always devolved into, “Okay, we have this many checks. We need to do this many things. We have to cure this many conditions. We do this and this and this and this, in this and this and this order.”

It’s another symptom of the game tearing itself apart. From a roleplaying standpoint, going around the table spending checks should be a really fun process that helps to grow the story outward from where the GM left it. Mechanically, though, when your mouse has two conditions and you have exactly three checks, “organically growing the adventure” no longer looks like a viable option. Even less so when the guy sitting next to you failed the test to cure his Injured, and you’re hurting the party if you don’t give him your spare.

“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?”

Yeah, speaking of those Conditions. Since Mouse Guard doesn’t have a traditional health system, wear and tear is represented by the effective equivalent of status ailments. These are doled out as consequences for failed roles or lost conflicts, and the book goes to great lengths to explain how important and effective they are. I think at one point it literally states, “Conditions are awesome.”

Conditions are not awesome. I gave out lots and lots of conditions over the course of the game, and no player was ever glad to get one. Getting rid of them is just a chore you do on the Player’s Turn, and they don’t even make narrative sense. One of my players was stuck with Tired for three sessions. I kept telling him, “You just can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep,” but what he kept hearing was, “You have a bad card and there is not much you can do about it right now.”

Just another example of a roleplaying game trying to play by board game rules. They helped balance the dice out but they never added to the story.

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. … I might have to just write up another post about it once I’ve seen the system in action.

The conflict rules (which incorporate combat, negotiations, long journeys through the wilderness, and so-forth) are the most choice examples of Mouse Guard shedding all vestiges of being a roleplaying game. They involve splitting the players and NPC opponents into teams, and having each team select three Action Cards each round. The cards resolve against each other in a quasi-RPS manner, numbers go up or down on either side, and then the whole thing starts over. Once everyone understands the rules it works really, really well; a bit like resolving a hand of Magic: The Gathering or a war in Risk. It is, after all, a game.

That’s my big problem with it, though. The conflict system works equally well whether you roleplay with it or not. “We try to negotiate with the bad guy.” “Okay, play three cards then roll these dice. You lose two Disposition. Now play three more cards.” You can resolve entire combat scenes or weeks of travel that way.

In fact, attempting to inject roleplaying into the scene just muddies up the issue. Say you play an Attack card and then roll really well. Awesome! You therefore declare that you’ve swept your sword in a wide arc, stunning your opponent with the flat of your blade and sending him reeling to the floor! Exciting!

…except the opponent’s next card reads Attack, and you say, “Wait a minute, why should he be able to attack me after I just knocked him down? Isn’t he equipped with a knife? I should be out of range! That doesn’t make any sense.”

Of course it doesn’t, but cards is cards. You have to do what they say. My players didn’t like hearing that.

That’s the biggest difference between combat in Mouse Guard and combat in, well, anything else, really. In other games you declare your action, then use the dice to determine the result. Succeed or fail, the action itself is all you. Your imagination. Your idea. Your response, in fact, to the current state of the game world. The dice are the medium, but you are the message. In Mouse Guard, the cards are the action, and the description only comes afterwards. An afterthought. And since each three-card play occurs in a vacuum, there’s not even really a game state to consider.

I can’t say there is no strategy; my players were combining their three actions in novel ways by the end of the last session, so that each mouse played up to his or her strengths. That’s commendable, but it’s not the same thing as considering a real-world scene and then imagining what sorts of things would work within that scene.

In the end, I think my group had a reasonable amount of fun with Mouse Guard, but everyone had to put up with a lot of hassle to eke that fun out. They (and I) enjoyed the roleplaying bits, and also enjoyed the game-y bits, but the system is just not designed for the two halves to blend together very well. Sad to say, but I don’t know that we’ll be revisiting it anytime soon.

2 comments to Mouse Guard: Final Thoughts

  • Merus

    Interesting to hear your thoughts on Mouse Guard, as I think a lot of your criticisms also apply to Burning Wheel, the game that made Mouse Guard’s designer famous.

    My group is fairly role-player heavy, so we’ve adopted the transhuman sci-fi system Eclipse Phase. Combat is pretty clunky, as is character creation, but it’s very supportive of player creativity and I’m a fan of the dice-rolling mechanic. (You have a percentage stat, and roll d% on any stat to use it; rolling under your stat is a success, and rolling the same number on both dice is a criticial. For opposed checks, if both checks pass whoever rolls highest wins.) We’re having a lot of fun with it

  • Grant

    Despite it’s complications, I did have a good time playing Mouseguard. If you ever get another group together for a game, count me in.

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