Mouse Guard: Setting and Conflict
I studied literature in school, in both French and English. It may not be apparent to an English speaker who didn’t study French literature, but to do any reasonable criticism you need to change mental gears and come at the book as a French speaker would. Language is more than just a code for ideas. History and worldview are part of language, and if you don’t understand that you won’t understand the book. You might pick up the basic plot, but so much of it will make so little sense that you’ll come away with just a hazy concept of what it was about.
I have had a similar experience with Mouse Guard. Coming, as many do, from a D&D background (I acquired the Red Box circa 1983), making the transition to Luke Crane’s take on RPGs is like making the transition to literature in another language. For reasons that are hard to elucidate, it took me a number of times reading through the rulebook to feel confident enough to run it. And even while running it, I still didn’t fully grasp how it worked. The gaming philosophy at the bottom of it was alien, and I kept trying to make it conform to my expectations. At length I “broke through” and the system started to make sense. I’m glad I stuck with it — it’s very rewarding.
A game’s setting might seem like a somewhat inconsequential part of getting to know the system, and for many games this is true. For Mouse Guard it’s important. It isn’t a cutesy game. It’s absolutely grim. While it doesn’t quite get up to Warhammer 40,000 levels of dystopian darkness, Mouse Guard shares many of WH40K’s characteristics. The Territories (the mouse-controlled area of the world) are beset on all sides by implacable enemies of enormous power. The weather is devastating. Discontented mice threaten stability from within. Amid all this is the Guard, standing against chaos and destruction, sacrificing themselves for the sake of mousedom.
The game supports the grimness. The GM afflicts the guardmice with awful challenges, no-win dilemmas, and devastating ailments. Even in success there is the bitter tang of loss. As if all that is not enough, the ultimate dark irony is that the players join in the punishment and stack the odds against their own characters even more. The point is that guardmice, these unsung protectors, persevere. They will not give up the Territories to ruin, cost them what it may.
However, this means that the GM and players alike have to recognize that the game severely punishes the characters. Your mouse is going to get brutalized. You’re going to face despair. Expect it.
The more important aspect of all the grimdark from a system acquisition point of view is that each session is broken into the “GM’s Turn” and the “Players’ Turn” for a very good reason. The GM has to respect this division. The mission that the GM sends the players on has to be discrete. It should be based on approximately two challenges. Just two. Even if the mission has the mice crossing half the Territories, there’s only going to be two main rolls. For instance, a mission to drive off a badger with a special stinky concoction could involve one challenge to get to the scene speedily and one challenge to drive it off. That’s it!
From a D&D perspective I know this sounds bland. The session will be over in a few minutes! Except it won’t be. Don’t worry about it. Plan for two rolls. If you refuse this advice and design a mission with, say, six challenges, the mice will be ground to dust by the time you get to the end. Your players will throw their pencils across the table and go play Xbox or something. More than two is simply too punishing.
Pacing a mission to two challenges also frees up the characters to throw everything they have at overcoming adversity while hobbling themselves in the process. If they think they have to save up their Fate and Persona for a future roll, you’re doing it wrong. Burn those points. Tap Nature. Better yet, let your Bitter trait confound your efforts to inspire the villagers to action, and then tap Nature and use Fate to pull it off anyway.
The outcome is that the guardmice win against the odds and gain checks at the same time. The checks are important, because after the two challenges are done it’s the Players’ Turn and they get to control the action. Not merely a nice feature, the Players’ Turn is the principal way of allowing the players to adjust the level of grimdark. If they want more challenges, they can create them. If they’ve been challenged enough, they can steer the game toward rest, recovery, and whatever else. They could say the rest of the season is spent peacefully harvesting moss, and that would be fine, because it means the players need to dial down the grittiness. The GM should follow the rules here and let the players make these kinds of choices.
This seems to be a common complaint about Mouse Guard, and about its parent system Burning Wheel. “Scripted combat does not work for our group,” is what I hear. I confess it was a jagged pill. The first thing I did when I read the Mouse Guard rules was try to come up with a replacement combat system. (I came up with a good one, too! I might yet give it a try.) I thought this “pick three and reveal” business was incomprehensibly random. After having played it, and listened to it played on The Walking Eye, I think it works just fine and has the potential for incredibly dramatic outcomes.
The strategy of it goes something like this:
- If your disposition is higher than your opponent’s, and you’re not desperately low on disposition yourself, you should press the attack.
- When your disposition gets low, especially when your opponent’s disposition remains relatively high, you should take a defensive stance.
- Feint is for breaking defenses.
- Use maneuver when you’re good at it (such as bow-users and knife-wielders), or when role-playing a change of position. Don’t maneuver twice in a row either. Capitalize on your maneuver with an attack or defend action. (Following a maneuver with a feint is even dicier than using a feint by itself.)
- Script your actions as if each one will go exactly as planned.
- Early in a conflict, play to your strengths.
- Always consider your goal.
This goes for GM-controlled mice and animals as well, except that an animal may very well not change tactics late in a conflict. What I found extremely helpful is for the GM to provide information to the players about the likely strengths of their opponents, and for the GM to follow that through with scripting that plays to those strengths. That way the players can make good choices that aren’t “betrayed.”
From time to time there will be an action match-up that puts the characters in a bad spot. That’s fine, too. Role-play it out, and keep in mind that losing a conflict is only a way to advance the story in an unexpected direction. Or else remind the players that this is their chance to use up Fate and to tap Nature.
Here is an example of scripting a combat between two guardmice (one with a sword and one with a bow) and a crow. The crow is good at maneuver (+1D), so the players can expect to it to open with that. Early in the conflict, the follow-up move after a maneuver should be an attack. So the players can guess what the crow’s first two moves are going to be and script countermoves. Letting the crow get an independent maneuver test would be devestating. A bow attack, a sword maneuver, or a feint from either of them are all poor choices. Either a sword attack or a bow maneuver make sensible first actions. Neither side is likely to win big, although the crow is still probably going to have a slight advantage and impede the mice’s second action.
So which mouse is going to do better against the crow’s attack action? Defending doesn’t help at this stage — better to maneuver or attack. If the sword-mouse attacks, he might do some damage, but the crow is likely to do more. If the bow-mouse attacks, she will be trying to limit the crow’s effectiveness without hoping to inflict any damage in return. In that case she might as well maneuver, which she’s better at, and maybe has a chance of turning the tide for the third action.
Thinking forward to the third action, the crow is probably going to attack or maneuver again. An early feint is suicide, so it won’t do that, and it doesn’t expect to be worn down enough to need to defend. Either way, a strong attack from the sword-mouse would be a good reply. So the mice decide to attack (sword), maneuver (bow), and attack (sword). Good use of Fate and Persona should allow the bow-mouse to really set up the sword-mouse for a powerful attack on the third action.
Far from being a random rock-paper-scissors game, there is a lot of strategy that goes into it. In many ways it’s shockingly similar to how D&D 4e combat plays out, because 4e has become so very tactical. In 4e, effectiveness means thinking a few moves ahead, especially if you’re a leader. In Mouse Guard, you do the same thing, thinking a few moves ahead, only instead of dropping encounter or daily powers you’re planning where to tap Nature or blow Fate and Persona points.