Mouse Guard Chronicles, Session 1, Part 3: The Unarmed Hero

After character creation and playing through the first (failed) obstacle of the evening, we started our first Mouse Guard conflict.

The conflicts mechanic is the game’s most complex, involved element.  It brings together everything the game can do and is, at time, very counter intuitive.  For example, in a chase conflict, if you are the team trying to get away from the chaser, you need to use the “Attack” action to go after your goal (escape) instead of “Maneuver”  which would be used to set your team up for a better escape route on later rounds.

Add the necessity of splitting the party in teams, the helping out rules, bonuses from “conflict tools”and Fate/Persona points… Things become about as complex as your favorite fantasy crunchy game.  The hardest part of that combat remained how to establish the interrelation of multiple teams playing simultaneously.  I won’t go into the details of it, but you have to follow a certain set of rules if 2 teams choose actions that would lead each team to play opposed dice checks vs their common enemy.

Fortunately, the rules are VERY well written and within minutes, Yan and I found rulings and agreed on interpretations. So after spending a good 30-40 minutes of false starts and going over the combat rules we finally settled in for a fight.

Foxy moves from the kid.

Combat involved 3 teams, Edgar/Finn committed to chasing the fox away, Malcolm/Jasper played defense and opted to protect the party and the fox sent out to eat one last morsel before moving on deeper in the territories.

The details are a bit fuzzy since the game was more than 2 weeks ago, but I recall the fight was over really fast.  The fox and the Edgar/Finn team fenced a bit to no major effect while the fox disarmed Jasper’s bow, leaving the poor tenderpaw weaponless.

As luck would have it, the next round saw Jasper needing to attack without weapons.  Maze was really flustered and out of his comfort one at this point.  He was playing a non combative PC (designed a little to close to his own personality he later told me) and he had a very hard time “getting” that the game encouraged making stuff up on the spot beyond rules.

Maze: But I don’t have a bow?  I can’t attack?

Phil: Dude, you are a Guard, a freakin’ ranger! Pick a piece of wood and fight man!

Maze settled on picking up a sharp stick and had his PC stand his ground, helped by his other buddies. Thus, Jasper took his improvised spear and set himself for the fox’s charge. Maze rolled amazingly well and racked up enough successes to seriously tap into the fox’s disposition (Mouse Guard’s hit points)  Just as the crafty predator thought he was pouncing a defenseless, scared-to-death mouse, it realized that it got things only half right and had a nice punctured palate to show for it!

The combat’s last round was a classic Burning Wheel/Mouse Guard conflict moment I’m sure.  All 3 teams chose actions that were a perfect triple “Rock/Paper/Scissors”. Edgar/Finn chose “Attack”, the fox chose “Feint” and Jasper/Malcolm chose “Defense”.

This meant that Edgar/Finn tore directly into the Fox’s remaining hit points (with an awesome “jump from a shield into the fox’s face” move) without any chance of the fox defending.  Unfortunately, the fox’s feint also negated Jasper/Malcolm’s action as it tore into their own disposition.

After the dust settled, the fox was driven away, yelping in pain and Jasper/Malcolm’s starting disposition was more than halfway gone.  That meant that the fox and the Jasper/Malcolm team had to reach a compromise.  Edgar/Finn got what they wanted: The Fox was driven away.  Jasper/Malcolm wanted the “party to be unhurt” which I had to honor to a certain extent.  Since the Fox’s goal was to kill one mice and run away, I ruled that Malcolm would be injured in the fight (instead of both team members as required by the rules when you impose a condition to a team).  Thus the fox and the defending team’s goals met halfway.

Finishing the job

After chasing the predator away, the party discovered the source of the unexpected river: a beaver dam.  The PCs managed (i.e. succeeded ) to inspire an implicit trust in mice from the otherwise semi-sentient aquatic rodents and persuade them to allow the patrol to create a new mice path over the dam to finish the lost patrol’s job.

As the patrol pushed further toward the edges of the mice territories, they learned that many beaver families had moved in the areas.  One such family had diverted a stream over the Scent Border, a mice-applied chemical barrier that prevents predators from entering the Territories, wiping it out and letting in the more adventurous predators in.  They finally ended up in Port Sumac, a northern port city, ending “The GM’s turn” (i.e. the GM-controlled adventure).

GM’s thoughts, Session 1 GM’s turn

This game saw me get a better grasp of the Mouse Guard mechanics and trusting Yan with them to help me find relevant rulings when needed. I was amazed at how easy it was to move around adventure elements (i.e. obstacles) based on twists and player input during their actions.  Mouse Guard adventures, while based on an otherwise flimsy mechanical frame, can grow rapidly into fully fleshed epic adventures…

… provided your players make the efforts required. Efforts that many other RPGs don’t require.

Getting into the conflict was a headache, but I’m happy to see how it went once all players had goals they were comfortable with and once everyone started to “get” how the system worked.  I hope to get rid of that “dead time” that comes from setting up conflicts, I trust that with experience, it will be significantly reduced.

I remain worried that some players won’t be able to go beyond the “get introduced to a situation, inspect the tools available, find solution” model of classic RPGs.  I noticed that Eric and Alex often looked on their character sheets to find things to do instead of finding an idea and trying to fit it to their characters and bullshitting me to get a bonus dice or set an awesome scene.

Based on comments from the players after the game, my fears could be set aside for the time being.

Up next: Players timidly explore their own turn.


  1. nichols83 says:

    Great posts. Getting ready to run my own game and your giving good insight. I also think that mouse guard would be a great game for PbP or play by email!

  2. @ChattyDM: Ye ole wooden stick in the mouth trick! I don’t remember you outright giving me that solution… but I could be entirely delusional 🙂

    Y’know what re-reading this reminds me? When I first started playing AD&D. Sure the books (and the rules) were billion-times more cryptic, but everyone around the table was struggling to understand the rules – how the game worked.

    I think that once we get the hang of it, introducing a new player will be much more easy. That, and using a long stick to slap players back into the proper mind set.

  3. I’m pretty sure if I read the rules book beforehand (or at all), it would have smoothed things out 🙂

  4. @nichols: I’m happy the posts are helping you out. I must say however that I don’t think the game is the best choice for PbP/email because it thrives on rapid back and forth between players to achieve each skill roll and scenes. Then again, I think all remote games need to compromise to work. It’s just that a game with such complex social mechanics may not make the jump so well.

    @Eric: I’m not so sure the remaining issues are rules related. Nothing in the rules explain clearly how to address obstacles and such. In fact, the rules pretty much say “pick up dice for required skill, ask for help (described by players) and describe what you want to achieve, add traits and wises and roll”

    The skill description are very general and written more for the GM than the players… although you would better understand how I generate the difficulty numbers, that I grant you.

    The game play can be alien. Pretty much everyone I know who’s read MG/Burning Wheel have had the same “how the hell do you play this game” reaction. It’s only normal that the WTF factor remains for some players over a certain period of time.

  5. @Chatty: Well, I would’ve caught on a few elements faster had I taken the time to read the specs first 😉

    I’m thinking mostly of conflicts and conflict actions – the terminology used in the game is counter-intuitive enough that I couldn’t just absorb it on-the-spot. In truth, its rather simple and elegant, even while twisting analogies (combat) into alien venues (argument).

    But yeah, the main hurdle isn’t there… But it might not be entirely in the game as well. (Social! Performance! Pressure! Win! Win! Win!)

  6. @Eric: I’ll bring back a shiny new book from Gen Con as promised. Until then, you can borrow mine if we lunch before I leave for Indianapolis.

  7. This is fantastic. I LOVE hearing about how you guys are learning the system, and it’s providing a lot of insights for me, when I’ll run MG in the future. Keep it up!

  8. Thanks for sharing your struggles with Mouseguard– it’s highest on my “want to play list” from last year. I have had the same struggle with Burning Wheel; I’m really looking forward to getting a chance to play a game with someone experienced and see how it all falls out.