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!)
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.