I recently picked up a copy of the Mouse Guard RPG. I first became interested in the Mouse Guard RPG after reading this review at Gnome Stew. Then ChattyDM did this series on Mouse Guard which pushed me from interested to buying it from Amazon. I read through the rule book in a few days. It was hard to put down. I haven’t played it, yet, but hope to soon. Here are my impressions.
I want to reiterate that I’ve only been gaming for less than a year. So, these impressions come from the standpoint of a novice gamer. Also, I’ve only played various editions of D&D and one session of the D20 Star Wars RPG (not profoundly different from D&D). Mouse Guard is my first exposure to a game vastly different from D&D.
I wanted to talk about the setting first because it really captured my imagination. When it comes to D&D, I’m generally uninterested in published settings. For medieval fantasy, I already know all that is needed: there is magic and there are monsters that need killin’. Everything else should be made up by the DM and players. Whereas in Mouse Guard, the setting plays a central role in the game even in the mechanics.
Strangely, I think the setting is simultaneously one of the game’s biggest strengths and one of the game’s biggest weaknesses. It’s a weakness because on the surface, playing as “mice with swords” doesn’t sound all that cool. The concept can and probably does turn people away. It’s a strength because once you learn more about the setting it becomes quite compelling.
The game is set in the Mouse Territories: a network of cities and villages populated by sentient mice with medieval level technology (the why or how is irrelevant). The mice struggle to survive against the dangers that animals, the weather, nature, and their own kind present. This sets up two elements thatI fell help make an RPG compelling and easily accessible to a newcomer: 1) a fantastical world because who wants to play an RPG without some element of the fantastic and 2) a shared frame of reference because RPGs are an exercise in collaborative imagination and storytelling. When everyone has a similar understanding and mental picture or the world, that collaboration is easier. With little explanation or back story, anyone coming to the table is going to instantly understand how the dangerous the world is to mouse, even one with a sword. A rivulet formed by a heavy rain is a raging river to a mouse. A moose is the size of an AT-AT walker from the Empire Strikes Back and could eat your entire harvest in an afternoon. Hail the size of boulders, owls the size of airplanes, not to mention the danger of the weasels (who also have technology and culture). This provides a low bar of entry for someone new to RPGs.
The Mouse Guard itself is an order of honorable mice sworn to protect and serve the Mouse Territories. Think the Knights of the Round Table or Jedi. All PCs must be members of the Mouse Guard. It provides an easy motivation for the PCs since adventures almost always start as missions given to you by the head of the Guard. Mouse Guard originated as comic book which is still ongoing. This lends the setting some further weight since the world has been well thought out and explored by the comic book.
Character Creation & Role Playing
I’ve found as a new gamer that role playing is one of the harder things to master. Combat, tactics, and mechanics come pretty easily to me since I have long history with video games. Role playing is a different beast. I feel like I’m floundering around sometimes to create and bring a character to life. It can be awkward at times. In all the editions of D&D I’ve played, RP is pretty free form. When it comes to character generation in D&D, there is little outside of alignment that helps guide you to role play that character in different situations.
Mouse Guard is different. From the outset, character creation is focused on story and role play rather than stats, skills, classes, or powers. Three of the most prominent elements on the character sheet are Belief, Goal, & Instinct. Much of the first part of the rule book revolve around these three elements. Belief is a one line code or ethical stance that embodies the character and is written at character creation. For example, “A guardmouse never gives up no matter the danger.” Goal is written at the beginning of each session after the mission orders have been given. It can relate to the current mission or not. For example, “I must find evidence that will determine if the grain peddler is a traitor or not.” Instinct is something that is ingrained in the character that do without thinking. An example, “Always draw my sword at the first sign of trouble.” I find these concepts extraordinarily useful. They provide an easy shorthand for the player to create and then roleplay a character. It also clearly communicates who that character is to the other players and especially the GM. There are also spots on the character sheet for other juicy bits of character development like parents, hometown, mentor, and even enemy!
The more mechanical parts of character creation such as stats, skills, and traits flow from character development and provide numerous adventure hooks. They mainly come from a series of questions about your PCs background and disposition. When confronted, do you stand your ground and fight or do you run and hide? This affects your Nature stat. What was your parents’ trade? That’s one of your skills. How do you convince people that you’re right? Choose the skill Deceiver, Orator or Persuader. It really gets you thinking about who this character is and what makes him tick rather than how much damage he can do with this weapon or that spell.
The rule book, especially the first few chapters, was like a text book for role playing a character. Much of it could be used in any game system. It provides sort of a scaffolding on which to build a great character to role play. I plan to think about and maybe even explicitly write the belief and instinct of the next character I create. It’s great for the novice role player like me who sometimes struggles with this whole role playing thing.
Next up I conclude my Mouse Guard Impressions by exploring session structure, play mechanics, and conflict resolution.