Mouse Guard Chronicles, Session 1, Part 4: The Players’ Turn

See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Here’s the plot, have fun with it.

Mouse Guard has a very peculiar play structure I have not seen in any other games yet.  The game is divided in 2 “turns” that each last 1 or 2 hours depending on how things go.  The first one, the GM’s turn is what classic RPGs call the adventure and I covered it in detail in parts 2 and 3.  Once the mission is completed (or failed), the GM’s turn ends and the Player turn starts.

Each player then get to do either of 2 things: 1) Attempt to recuperate from a condition (like Injured, Angry, etc) or 2) Set a scene to accomplish a goal, push the plot forward and/or create new plot/setting elements. Of course, there’s a trick.  In order for players to get more than one ‘turn’ during that period, they need to earn them by playing against themselves during the GM’s turn.  There are, of course,  mechanics where you can impede/hurt your character’s chances to give yourself extra turns in the Players’ turn.

Convincing your players to gain such additional turns (called checks), especially those focusing on success/fearing failure, can be a challenge. But it’s a self-rewarding process that players usually grok after a few sessions. Since all PCs are likely to have at least one negative condition by the end of the adventure, they need to get themselves more turns if they want do something beyond recuperating.

Slummin’ it in Port Sumac

In this, our first session of what was to become a campaign, the players poked with their turns, not quite sure what to do with them.  Malcolm healed his injuries while Finn found himself an artisan for some new skill he didn’t have (Armorer IIRC) and asked him to show him the basics.  The NPC, somewhat annoyed to be interrupted by a Guard gave Finn a task that no newbies could achieve. Finn (helped by veteran armorer Edgar)  managed it (using the “Beginner’s Luck” rule) and got closer toward learning a new skill.

Finn also tapped into Malcolm’s underworld contacts to secure enough Scent to reseal the breach, setting up the next mission nicely and opening a meta-plot element: “How come criminals have access to a supply of Scent?”.

Edgar roused the city’s population and gave a well-felt speech to calm the local population, promising that the guard was on top of the predator issue but that the Territories should still be ready to mobilize should it become necessary. Malcolm used his deceiver skill to disguise himself and act as a member of the crowd and shouted “It’s true! I believe in the guard, we’ll be safe” over and over again.

It worked… I blame the writers.

Finally, Jasper, wanting to impress his mentor (Malcolm), crafted a good luck charm with a tuft of Fox hair. All other PCs chipped in to help, but none of their “dice” helped… yet he succeeded in spite of that! Which made for a funny anecdote that all the advice Jasper got was wrong.

Thus was our first session concluded.  A great success.  As the next session will show, we all got much better with the game itself and the players literally drove the campaign in a new direction.

Thanks for reading!

P.S.: Next posts will be shorter. Likely 2 parts per session, outlining the highlights of the GM and Players turns respectively and the main GMing calls that I made in each.


  1. Mistrlittlejeans says:

    Great stuff! I just started running Mouse Guard too, with two Dnd newbs and one first time RPG-er. I myself come from a Dnd background, so Mouse Guard is a very different game for all of us. It is so much fun! I’ve always enjoyed the fluff and story of Dnd and other RPG’s over crunch, and Mouse Guard is totally story driven. How cool is it that as a player you decide where the story goes?

    I agree with your observation that it is tough to get players to “hinder” their tests with traits in order to gain more checks. I’ve run two sessions and only one player has broken a tie in my (the GM’s) favor to get more checks. The second session the players passed all the tests I threw at them in my turn (not fair!), but rather than use my magical GM omnipotence to throw more and harder obstacles at them to incur conditions (so they could use their checks to recover), I let them use their free checks in the Player’s turn to drive the story. It worked pretty well. One player fixed a breach in the Scent Border, but was it too late? Another used his scientist friend to develop a vaccine for an epidemic in Sprucetuck.

    The third (a tenderpaw) used their check to spread the gossip about how his patrol saved Sprucetuck from the epidemic, thereby building his reputation in the Guard. Side note – the test was a failure but I let the player succeed for the Thirsty condition. He was running his mouth off.

  2. @mrlittlejeans: This is a great story that touches one of the many lessons that D&D players need to learn to truly enjoy MG. You HAVE to fail during the GM’s turn… That’s how you get your beliefs and instincts tested. That’s how you get more checks to “level up” that’s how you create enough setting elements and that’s how you obtain the freedom to drive the story out of the master’s plans.

    As for your Thirst condition, good call. I used it when the whole group went tavern hopping last week to chase contacts and the main player failed his Circles test. They whole party was hungover and woke up the next day Thirsty!

  3. Mistrlittlejeans says:

    @chattydm: I completely agree. Failure is tough to swallow in Dnd, but oh so important in MG. That’s why I plan to bring plenty of Mouse Guard-ian ideas to my upcoming Dark Sun 4e campaign, including beliefs, instincts, and when appropriate goals. I’m even contemplating a “player’s turn” where I give them free reign. It could spell disaster, but I bet it would be a lot of fun anyways.

  4. I really enjoy reading your posts on Mouse Guard, Chatty. I stumbled across the game a few weeks back and have read the comics and the rulebook, but haven’t had a chance to play. It looks really fun, if completely different than what I’m used to!

  5. WOW! That is so cool. I really wanna run MG for at least a few sessions, now. Reading through the Player’s Turn, that’s spectacular. I’m very, very impressed by how MG sets up storytelling.

  6. Mistrlittlejeans says:

    @Andy: After my game last night I had a player actually tell me they were disappointed there wasn’t more roleplaying! This was from a guy who just couldn’t break out of his shell playing Dnd; he was always uncomfortable and really struggled with skill challenges or even basic roleplaying. That’s when I got to say, “If you want more roleplaying you need to earn more checks!”. How do you earn checks? By roleplaying.

  7. @Jake: Thanks! Mouse Guard is completely different in that it is completely devoid of some play elements we have come to expect from RPGs. For example, there is no exploration, you want to find something? Roll for it and describe to the GM what it is you seek and in what context you expect to find it. The GM tells you “all right, that’s going to be a difficulty X obstacle using skill Y, you got anything that could help?” You succeed, it’s there. You don’t, the GM can do what he wants with the idea.

    I love it. But it is a strain on the mind of many classic gamers. Just ask my friend Maze 🙂

    @Mistrlittlejeans: That sounds suspiciously like a circular argument friend. He he he. I once asked the game’s designer how Introverts reacted with such a game that required players to constantly build and rebuild the world around them (and have conflicts when worldviews clashed). He told me that intros LOVED it. First they retreated in their shell to analyze the game’s play and then they “exploded” as they grasped narrative control, secure in their understanding of the rules and went for broke.

  8. @Misrtlittlejeans: Ah, yeah. It seems to me that there’s ways in which this game is a polar opposite to 4th Edition. 4th Edition gives you the rules, and then lets you build roleplay around them. Mouse Guard (and Burning Wheel) requires roleplay as something integrated into the rules. It’s a very, very interesting dynamic, and I like both approaches.

  9. mistrlittlejeans says:


    RE: “I ran a whole adventure arc based on player-set goal and it worked very well.

    Have a look here:

    and explore later posts in the same series.”

    This is brilliant. I have lots of questions, but I will keep them few for now. What do you mean by “prepare the floor?” Do you mean plan out specific locations that you ‘plant’ during your narration of the city? Or do you simply mean “have some encounters ready to go”? Second, you made the players make 5 checks to reach the first goal. I’m assuming each player made a check, not one player making 5 checks. Were you planning a “twist”, to use the MG term, for any and every failed roll?

  10. Brian P says:

    Thanks for posting this. It inspired me to download the game, which I never would have bought and get some friends together to try it out! Please keep posting more of your campaign.

  11. Wow, the more I read about Mouse Guard the more I want to run/play it – I got hooked on the interesting mechanics over at WrathOfZombie’s blog, and it’s great to read about how it actually plays out.

    I think this may be the “break” my group’s been looking for – we could use a fresh start. How well do players adapt to the idea of being “small” in the world, as opposed to “large” in D&D etc.?

  12. @mistrlittlejeans: “Setting the floor” meant I had 5-6 pre-made encounters that I could drop at a moment’s notice.

    Also, the 5 skill checks were initially for the whole adventure… but I later realized that I could not pre-plan the whole adventure and the relevant skill checks up front. So I ended up going from obstacle to obstacle and roll one skill per scene. So in the 1st scene, only one stealth check was needed.

    Now, were I to redo that, I’d use group-skill checks (introduced in the DMG II) for scenes where all players do the same thing and I would not preset the adventure as I planned there. Then again, I now have more experience with Mouse Guard than I did back then.

    And yeah, I was planning a twist for wach failed roll and I did… in later posts I did an awesome one with a failed streetwise check to purchase a Magic Item.

    @Brian P: It’s always a pleasure to see that I get more people to share in this game. This campaign will be a feature of my blog as long as I play it.

    @Tom: It’s strange to see how different group react to having to play mice. I’m beggining to suspect that people who resist/object to the concept aren’t open minded enough to truly enjoy the game in the first place. It’s like calling a game bad before having tried it.

    To answer your question more directly, the Guard are not so much “small” as they are the ultimate elite living in a very dangerous world.

    So in that essence, I consider all guard to be heroic rangers and it can be easily argued that the Mouse Territories is a perfect example of a Points of Light setting as the guard must constantly travel between cities to create safe paths and help less capable mice.

  13. You’re still important in the mouse community but “monsters” aka Wild Life are huge and some of them you cannot kill nor injure at all.

    I think that this is not the part that your d&d player will have a hard time to get. The hardest part is that you need to fail! Setting yourself up for failure is often the proper thing to do. Since you need this for more player turn and for skill progression.

    This is the part where the mindset is totally alien for a D&D player or most other RPG I’ve played in the past.

  14. As Yan says, getting rid of this “success focus” allows for truly interesting roleplaying moments. A trustworthy GM (a capital element of this game) won’t screw them in a failure and it is impossible to die in Mouseguard unless the GM calls for a conflict and puts death on the line, so typical obstacles will, at worse, injure or sicken you.

    So when players realize that failure is expected and never results in the adventure hitting a dead end, they can start playing characters in ways that are not optimal vs meeting goals. So if you are Pig headed, you can decide to ignore help in a crucial obstacle and purposely send the whole party in trouble… setting up an unplanned twist where you may have to convince your mates that you want to redeem yourself to gain their trust back.

    Or maybe have a huge argument conflict between you and the Patrol Leader later to explain your actions in front of NPCs you absolutely want to keep on your side.

    Possibilities: Endless.

  15. Something else that can be difficult to adapt to is that min-maxing a character will get you nowhere. It’s a corollary to having to fail in Order to enjoy the game.

    (Chatty DM: PM typed that with his iPhone while near-dying of an ear infection at a walk-in clinic, I took the liberty to correct his phone’s zealous spelling-helper)

  16. Very cool recap Chatty!

    I have really enjoyed using Mouse Guarding Elements in my Pathfinder game (as you’ve seen on my blog^_^).

    I think that MG’s way of taking failures and making them intergral and cool is something so new and unique that, as pretty much everyone else who has commented has stated, players tend to get nervous about it, stand-offish, or just have a blank stare like a deer in headlights.

    I have a session this Sunday and we are going to incorporate Beliefs and Instincts into our game. I will do an analysis post on that. I’m REALLY looking forward to see what the players made of it after having such success with the goals and failures mechanics 🙂

  17. Mistrlittlejeans says:

    @wrathofzombie: Could you post a link to your game recaps? I’m interesting in reading how you have incorporated MG into Pathfinder, and subsequent posts regarding Beliefs and Instincts. I plan to incorporate those, and goals where appropriate, into my upcoming campaign.


    @ChattyDM: RE: “And yeah, I was planning a twist for wach failed roll and I did… in later posts I did an awesome one with a failed streetwise check to purchase a Magic Item.”

    Could you post a link for that session? I’m at work and I can’t (even though I really want to) read over all the Primal/Within recaps 😉


  18. So am I so I can’t quite spare the time right now. It will be there for your perusal later 🙂

    As for wrath of Zombies… just click on his name and you’ll find his blog. His Pathfinding Mouseguard posts are among the most recent ones.

  19. @Mistrlittlejeans- What Chatty Says, but since I compiled the links already, here you be 🙂

    If you have any questions feel free to comment on the blog and I’ll get back to you. The last link is the Obsidian Portal recaps (those have helped some peeps reading get the jist of what was going on.)

  20. Mistrlittlejeans says:

    @wrathofzombie: I read the first session, at least up to the fight with infected goblins in the cave. Out of curiosity, would you break down the session in MG mechanics? What skill test did you ask for to find the wagon? I’m assuming they failed and the goblin cave was your “twist”. What would you have done if they party had succeeded on the skill check?

    Very cool – ala The Grain Peddler 🙂 Very nice.

  21. Mistrlittlejeans says:

    @ChattyDM and wrathofzombie: sorry for the double post. I didn’t see the second link. Great stuff! I can’t wait to read more.

  22. Heads up, here are the beliefs and insticts that my players came up with on Sunday 🙂