James Nostack asked some questions on the Discord about Mouse Guard. I ran a fairly lengthy campaign about 5 years back, I figured I would share my insights. The questions are copied from the discord, and reformatted for ease of reading.
James_Nostack: Mouse Guard is loosely based on Burning Wheel. In that game, there’s a tension between events of play and a faction’s “spiritual attribute” or whatever—Dwarven greed, Elven grief, etc. In Mouse Guard there’s a similar attribute, Mouse Nature or something. Did that ever come up in play? What happened with it? I don’t ever recall it being an issue in the relatively short games I played.
Nature came up in play quite a bit – especially with one character, Millicent. She was the Patrol Leader and eldest mouse in the patrol. She relied heavily on her nature for hiding and climbing, as well as escaping from danger – all very mouse-like actions. As the game progressed conflicts escalated (more on that down below) and despite her years in the guard, she found herself less capable. Having a high nature meant it was harder for her to learn new skills. Her mouse was always one who urged caution and wisdom, but when it came for decisive action faltered. During the last session, she died being swallowed by a toad – however, she did mortally wound the toad while being eaten (a wonderful conflict compromise). Her lack of learning “the ways of war” is what did her in.
James_Nostack: There’s a pretty strict economy in the game between “adventure time” and “downtime. (It had different names [Player’s Turn and GM’s Turn – JC].) Like, you had to invoke negative traits against yourself during the adventure phase to get more downtime. How did that shake out once players got the hang of it?
At first the player’s were hesitant to invoke the downside of their traits, seeing as the obstacles and challenges were already tuned to be difficult. This *hurt* the patrol early on as the conflict compromises and consequences piled up quickly. The patrol was on their backfoot, mice were dying because of it.
The players soon began to understand their characters and brought the traits into their characterizations. By bringing the traits into play, the context for invoking the traits (positively or negatively) was established, and the player’s began invoking their traits without prompting by me.
Additionally, the player’s learned that Conflicts were an excellent time to invoke those downsides – especially Clove who had the Brave, Extravagant and Tough traits. Clove was always in the thick of fighting, and getting thrown around a lot. She’d use her Tough against herself when choosing a Defense action in combat by describing how she’d position herself recklessly.
With this lesson learned, the player’s started to be proactive against the bandit threat (the premise became Seven Samurai with mice with a more explicit political bent). Remember, The Player Turn is not downtime but the chance for the player’s to drive the game forward on their terms!
James_Nostack: Character creation had spots for little relationship details, like parents and mentors and enemies. In a short game, those didn’t come up reliably—once in a while, maybe, but not often. Was that more of a factor in a longer game?
Oh yes! These people were everywhere. Honestly, the relationships should be the focus on the GM’s prep. In a longer game, you can work them in a few at a time. If you’re playing a shorter game, grab a handful of the relationships and put them at the center of a mission. The personal stakes add *oomph* to the stated premise of the Guard – “It’s not what you fight, but what you fight for”. Relationships are the best way to cut to the heart of the matter. Put their friends in danger, make them question The Guard by the actions of their mentors, put the enemy right out in front, don’t hide anything! Mouse Guard is not a light touch GM game, you need solid preparation before play.
James_Nostack: Was there, for lack of a better term, a narrative arc visible in hindsight?
Yes! I’ll elaborate on the final question.
James_Nostack: I vaguely recall the possibility of promotion or maybe getting too old to continue adventure—did either of those things happen?
I believe the Tender Paw, Cale, was promoted to a Guardmouse during the first Winter Phase.
James_Nostack: I guess the other question is: did anything seriously unexpected happen? My recollection of Mouse Guard prep is that I had a pretty good idea of what was gonna happen during a session…. and even across 3-4 sessions, I wasn’t too far off. Did anything in play really surprise you?
At first the game felt very “here is the scenario, go forth Mice and achieve the objective”. I quickly discovered as I started bringing in relationships into the missions, the game took a sharp turn. The character’s began to take matters into their own hands.
The game kicked into gear with handling a “small group” of bandits at a far flung village, one of the character’s was from. The situation was far worse than reported, as the bandits were raiding the village for food and supplies, also demanding a sizable amount of the harvest (yes, I proudly ripped off Seven Samurai – if you’re going to steal, steal from Kurosawa).
The Patrol began to ignore messages from Lockhaven, who urged caution and *even compromise* as the village was too far away and unimportant. The Patrol focused their efforts on arming the village, training the villagers and rallying nearby villages in defense. However, this did lead to conflict within the patrol as their leader, Millicent, needed convincing in this regard. It never was fully resolved either, as the situation demanded action or else many would die. Defenses were made, ambushes were launched, plots of murder/assassination attempted, the game became mired in a personal vendetta with Cale’s enemy appeared on the side of the bandits too! A young mouse losing their innonace and begin to indulge themselves in seeking revenge.
Clove had an arc of the hot-headed arrogant warrior learning discipline, and some humility as faced with the brutality of guerilla warfare. War wasn’t glorious like the tales.
Millicent had the classic “I am two winters from retirement and have lost my edge” arc to her character which ended heroically saving other mice. DANG! This is a lot more like Seven Samurai than I realized.
I couldn’t have foreseen the game being so laser focused on this situation before play. The player’s chose to resolve this on their terms, directly and without the authority of Lockhaven or the Guard.
Sadly, we never saw a conclusion as one player moved away, and no one wanted to continue without everyone there together.
4 responses to “Insight from Play”
Player/GM Turns and bounce
I have little to contribute since I haven't played Mouse Guard. I have a few questions related to this idea that there is a GM turn and a Player turn, and that in the first one the GM is responsible for driving the story, while players are reactive, and the opposite in the Players' turn.
This is an idea I'm a bit skeptical about — in most play where I've had a lot of fun everyone is reacting to something someone else said, and immediately bouncing back with something someone else needs to react to. The idea that a section of the table might have to be reactive, while another section of the table is propositional, for an entire interval of play that might last more than a session, doesn't sound like fun to me. The fact that they swap doesn't really address the issue.
Could you expand a little bit on how this works and how it is functional, if so, in your opinion?
I am going to explain how I
I am going to explain how I used these phases, and these aren’t drifts from the book either (at least the second edition wording, I don’t remember if these sections are different).
The GM's Turn is bringing troubles to bear. This can build on the current situation; bandits show up at the gates, a family member has gone missing, your enemy confronts you OR introduce a new situation; a plague ridden mouse stumbles into town, a herd of moose are seen near the scent border. You aren’t determining any outcomes, just dropping a heap of trouble on their laps. The players have a lot of means at their disposal to tackle the obstacles. The GM doesn't present a test until the player’s describe how their mouse engages with it.
The Player's turn is when there is a break in the action. The bandits are sent away, a family member is found and returned, your enemy leaves you for dead – the trouble isn’t coming at the players *for now*. Sometimes it's a chance for the mice to recover, other times it’s an opportunity to be proactive and often it is a choice between both.
If this looks like the implicit rhythm of adventure games, well it is. The game just calls it out, and designs rules around these modes. These phases reflect what is happening within the fiction, however – it gives player’s more resources when those phases switch over AND what conflicts are tackled within a Player’s Turn. Remember, a player can spend a check to launch into a conflict. I’ve had the players’ use a Turn to launch an ambush and capture a bandit leader (two checks, one to find the bandits and another to launch into a conflict). As a GM, I had to sit back and let the players drive the action UNTIL it was my time to bring forth trouble.
JC, that's exactly what I wanted! Thank you so much for that detailed description! I'm sure I'll have a bunch of follow-up questions, but two come to mind immediately:
(1) were you guys doing the "one season per session" model, in which there were roughly 3 missions a year, or the "several sessions per season" approach, which runs around 12 sessions per year? I've never done the latter but it always looked appealing.
(2) What did prep look like on the GM's side once it became clear that the Guard Mice weren't leaving the village? My recollection is that the text has a formal, "you guys go talk to the Mouse President who gives you a special mission" phase, but I can't recall whether that's only the very first session, or if there's an equivalent quest-giver at the start of every GM Turn. How much, if at all, did you have to shift the formal prep rules in that respect?
Oh, bonus third question:
(3) How did the Guard feel about the fact that they effectively lost an entire patrol to doing something kind of unimportant? Did they send out a second patrol to force them back into line?
(1) were you guys doing the
It really depends. Sometimes it took a few sessions for a season, other times we went through half-a-year with a bunch of short GM/Player Turns that covered a lot of time.
That is only the first mission, after that it develops out of play. Check out page 57 of the Second Edition, it's the section Further Missions. Prep was just day-dreaming/reading about animals, writing a bit about the npcs, writing out any stat blocks, and reading over mechanics that *may* come up.
Oh, bonus third question:
The Mouse Guard wasn’t going to be happy with what was an essentially independent alliance that was forming between those settlements, with the Player's being the center of it. We never got that far, so I’ll never know.