Aug 6 2009 5:20pm

Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game

Last year, Eisner award-winner David Petersen teamed up with Luke Crane, award-winning designer of the Burning Wheel roleplaying game system, to create an RPG based on Petersen’s comic Mouse Guard, about a medieval(ish) order of mouse rangers who protect their territory from the dangers of weather, predators, and other mice. Last month, the Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game won the 2009 Origins Award for best Role Playing Game and is nominated for three ENnie awards at this year’s Gen Con. With such high bona fides, I got the game book and four friends to give the game a test drive.

Like Petersen’s comic, Mouse Guard RPG seems simple at first but holds surprising depth. It is the first roleplaying game I’ve encountered (in my very limited experience) that really rewards its players for role playing rather than gaming. Mouse Guard is not a game of craps with a Lord of the Rings flavor.  Mouse Guard is a storytelling experience that happens to involve a dice game.

The game encourages players to create three-dimensional characters with complicated internal lives. Each character has an overriding Belief that guides his or her life, an immediate Goal the character wants to achieve during the play session, and a natural Instinct based on their gut reactions to their environment (basically, Super-ego, Ego, and Id), and characters are advanced by the player acting on (or occasionally acting against) these guides. Game Masters are encouraged to create quests that create conflicts internal conflicts, so that the characters’ instincts would get in the way of their goals, and the goal can only be achieved by violating the character’s overriding belief.

Players themselves are active participants in the storytelling, being rewarded for using an accent when speaking in character and encouraged to create wholecloth the NPCs they are searching for. Players even control the game in the second half of any session, using rewards they earned by handicapping themselves (with in-character traits) in the first half of a session. This allows players to move the story in whatever direction they feel necessary, but in a fashion limited enough that no one player can dominate the players’ turn.

The game also emphasizes that the characters you are playing as are small mice. Mice are very good at running away and hiding—not so much at picking up swords and running into battle. A sample combat before the session taught my test players that the solution to a rampaging snake is rarely going to be “hit it until it dies.” When they encountered a giant snapping turtle with a bad attitude in the actual session, they came up with a much cleverer, less violent solution which still involved an intense chase sequence.

Which brings us to the major drawback of Mouse Guard: the dice game. While the rest of is intuitive and extremely new-player friendly, the conflict resolution system is a byzantine combination of the usual dice-rolling vs. stats antics and Rock-Paper-Scissors-Glue. The two rookie players at the table felt completely lost, and even the vets were left scratching their heads (this probably wasn’t helped by their inexperienced GM screwing up the rules explanation). And the conflict system is inescapable, as it is used for every complicated encounter from battling deadly weasels to debating the local politician.

Click to enlarge!

(Click to enlarge!)

The game book itself is (unsurprisingly) gorgeous. Full of Petersen’s lush and detailed illustrations, the book resembles an illuminated manuscript and brings the medieval feel of the setting to full life. Crane writes in a casual, conversational tone that reads less like a rule book and more like someone patiently telling you about this awesome game they made up for you to play. For example, there’s Crane’s description of character death: “Losing a character sucks. First, you’re out of the game until the end of the session. Second, it just sucks!” Or his clear definition of being a GM: “it’s the GM’s job to beat the crap out of the players’ guardmice characters.”

In a similar vein, the book starts with the setting and general play structure of the game, then the specifics of skills and enemies, and ends with sample missions and character creation. As a first time GM, I found it much easier getting a good understanding of the basics before delving into the specifics. The downside of this layout is that the game book makes a lousy reference book, and during play I found myself furiously flipping through pages looking for the details I needed.

Overall, this is a fantastic game that challenges players imagination and creativity. The setting is endearing and surprisingly rich in play potential, and the kinds of missions and campaigns possible using this system are incredibly diverse. All my test players had a good time, and I can’t wait to run the game again.

Jesús Couto Fandiño
1. Breogan
Mouse Guard uses an version of the Burning Wheel system, which I have not the opportunity to test yet but has several interesting concepts - and lot of people that find it excellent and lot of others who dont like it at all.

But the point is that I dont think it is precisely a simple system if you are a neophyte without experience with other systems (as it is... what generation are we on RPG systems?)

Which kind of make me afraid of the game - it looks kick ass to use to play with kids as a first RPG .. in setting and material. Not sure in system
2. greyjoy
The Burning Wheel is a really great system. Although I can't speak for Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel has given me the type of play I have been searching years for in a role playing game. One of the great things about Burning Wheel is the community and support forums ( There is also a whole section devoted to Mouse Guard. The people are friendly, and the designers will answer your questions personally. Although I agree that perhaps the system might be complex, pen and paper role playing games are by nature complicated things that require sophisticated thinking, when compared to something like video games. With a whole community of people available to answer your questions on line, I'm not sure the concern about the dice system is one that people should be overly concerned about. The hobby is in and of itself something that requires a lot of thought and interest.
3. Dacole
The id ego super ego stuff sounds like what Vampire the Masquerade tried to do but in the games I played most people ignored it which I found depressing. May have to check out burning wheel, don't care much for the setting here but the system I find very interesting I especially like the idea of the players getting a chance to move the story in different directions that sounds intriguing.
4. James S.
Hey Steven, it's definitely a pretty sweet piece of work, both in terms of its design and its production values. Are you familiar with some of the other "indie" games like Primetime Adventures, My Life with Master, and Lacuna? They're not as lavish as Mouse Guard, but they're all very interesting, very different experiences. (They're also cheaper and generally less complicated.)

PS. I've been trying to get Cindy to try Primetime Adventures--I think it'd be the kind of thing she and Kinney would really get into--but it's been a hard sell.
5. JoshB
Whilst MG imports some aspects of the Burning Wheel Engine, it is not Burning Wheel, a point laboured by Luke in forums. This is the first RPG I've ever read, and I picked it up intuitively. I disagree with the point Steven made about first time reading: The book isn't written chronologically from a players or GMs point of view, meaning that you won't compltely understand how to play until near the end of the book, however, the focused nature of each chapter means that finding rules is easy - if flicking won't work then that's what the index is for. Even so, I spent 20 minutes sticking 19 colour coded Post-It tabs onto my copy of the book with subjects written on them, just in case ;) . As for conflicts, yes they are conplicated, but if you create enough tension in the narative as you come to them, they shouldn't seem out of place, and should compliment, rather than hinder the story. That said, I would have just given them the rulebook to read before the session ; it seems easier than having the GM explain each actions nuances. Regardless, theres a chart on the character sheet that should help.

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