What the hell's so appealing about playing with a bunch of mice? Well, you won't know til you play, right? I mean, I rolled my eyes at first, I'll admit. Then I played a session, and stopped rolling my eyes, and realized this is possibly the best game Luke Crane has ever made. It's simple, but has all those crunchy bits that make a player like me jump up and down in happiness. It's strategic, but not convoluted. And, in a day where people try to make epics and fail, this game intends to be on the shorter side of things, allowing you to put as much as you possibly can into each Year of game time.
Mouse Guard is based upon the comic series by David Petersen. I've read Fall 1152, and am eagerly looking forward to reading the rest of Petersen's volumes. Basically the mice decided to band together into a loose confederation of city-states so they won't get eaten anymore. The Mouse Guard are made up of mice who go around and make sure everything works. They're outside of all jurisdictions, can travel where they will, and sacrifice all they have for the sake of their brethren. It's a story about facing a world that doesn't love you and coming out on top. It's a tale of survival against all odds. That's pretty heroic.
Mouse Guard, while based upon the RPG Burning Wheel, really is it's own machine. I'll do a little bit of comparison, but only because there will be some people who have played Burning Wheel and will need some serious guidance on playing this right. I know I did.
Oh, the length of time spent making characters is amazing. Go through the questions provided, and your whole group will have a character in an hour if they're n00bs. That's a feat a lot of RPGs can't boast of, especially Mouse Guard's crunchier cousins Burning Wheel and Burning Empires which can take quite a long time for people who are new. You come up with where your mouse was born, his parents, a friend, an enemy, and other details like that. You then figure out how old your mouse is and at what point he's in the Guard rank-wise, his skills and stats, his traits, his Belief and Instinct, and then finally his Goal for the session.
Each character has what I call G-BITS: a Belief, a Goal, an Instinct, and several traits. These help define who your character is underneath all the numbers and stats, allowing you to know who you're playing. The G-BITs are the heart of MouseGuard, plain and simple.
A character's Belief is a simple ethical statement. An Instinct is a specific reaction to a specific circumstance. And a Goal is, well, a goal that can be accomplished inside a single session of play. It changes every session.
Traits are a little more complicated, and are actually more important than any of the other G-BITs. Traits are your chatracter's distinguishing characteristics. Does your character have a bad temper? That's a trait. A long tail? That's a trait too. Sharper teeth, honorable, cowardly, impulsive, or thoughtful? Those are all traits. Your characters use the Traits in-session to help guide the direction of the mission, for good and for ill. There are three levels of Traits, and each level gives you a different, but more powerful, advantage. We'll get more into Traits when I talk about the way the session works.
Basic Dice Mechanics
Mouse Guard is a d6 dice-pool game: roll a number of d6's equal to the number of the stat or skill. 4's, 5's, and 6's are successes. You want to equal or beat the Obstacle, or Ob that the GM set up. Fail? The GM can either hit you with a Condition and let you get what you want, or he can twist it to something new and worse. Fail that Pathfinding test? You find a path alright... right into the den of a snake. Roll for combat, the snake's going to try and kill all of you! Let It Ride is a rule that means that the results of your one roll are applicable for the same test in the same condition. No more trying to re-roll your Scout over and over again to get a better stealth result, you're stuck with the first one. Same with successes and whatnot.
Mouseguard has what are called extended mechanics, meaning that it has a section of gameplay where you do the basic mechanics a little more spread out. You and your opponent plot out three moves ahead, and play them, one at a time, rock-paper-scissors style. Both actions resolve at once, you don't have to worry about initiative. The system might sound a little weird to RPG vets, but if you do it enough it'll become second nature. There are four types of actions you can choose: Attack, Defense, Maneuver, and Feint. The four abstracted actions can be used for any type of conflict (and there are many, such as argument, speech, fight, etc). It might seem a bit abstract at first but, again, once you get used to the system it's incredibly flexible and tense. You have to make your plans, and hope they work.
The Way a Session Works
At the beginning of every session the GM picks from four different types of threats: animals, mice, weather, and wilderness. He chooses two, and those are the major threats of that session. The players are supposed to know about these two threats. For instance, they can be told by the GM that a flashflood has wiped out a town, and that a wolf has come to feast upon the wreckage. What a set up, get over there guys! The other two threats left are then reserved as twists, to be sprung upon the players when they fail rolls. The GM can also, if a player fails a check, let him succeed and hit him with a Condition, which are Tired, Hungry/Thirsty, Angry, Injured, and Sick. Each of these Conditions have a set of penalties for the character, and may only be recovered from during the Players' Turn (more on that in a minute).
The session officially starts with the GM's Turn, where the players beat the crap out of the mice. Notice I said players, not just the GM. The GM's turn is the beginning and the rising action of that session, where the mice struggle to make it against the harsh world. Players may join in by using their Traits to hinder their characters, earning a resource called checks. Once the GM runs out of Twists, he is supposed to end the GM's turn, leaving the players to end the mission in the Players' Turn. The Players' Turn is where the players become proactive, allowing them to finish the mission however they want. To do this, they must spend the checks they had earned by giving their characters trouble. It is vital to understand this: the players must put their characters through trouble in order for them to succeed! Otherwise there aren't enough checks to go around, and the players will fail the mission, and probably not get as many rewards as they'd like.
Rewards are given at the end of every session, when all the players' checks run out. There are two types of rewards: Fate points and Persona points. Fate points allow you to reroll all 6's in a single roll. You get Fate points for acting on your Belief and attempting to fulfill your Goal but failing to do so. Persona points do two things: they allow you to tap your Nature stat and add those dice to a roll (at the risk of harming your Nature, a stat that really shouldn't be too low or too high), or just add one dice per point spent (to a maximum of three). You get Persona points for achieving your Goal, role-playing well, contravening a Belief in play, for being the most useful character all-around in the session, or making that one roll that was absolutely vital to the quest.
The game plays very smoothly, and is so well designed it will definitely trip up any RPG vets. To the vets I have this advice: throw out all preconceptions of all your previous games, including Burning Wheel, because they won't help you here. In fact, assuming that this game works like anything else will hurt your experience. Read the rulebook (shocking, I know) and play the game exactly as written! You will not be disappointed. Mouse Guard is a wonderful game, possibly the best Luke Crane and co. have ever written. The text is clear, the rules are amazing, and the artwork is gorgeous. You can't get a better deal. You just can't.