Guards Malcolm, Finn, Edgar and Tenderpaw Jasper are sent to find the whereabouts of a lost patrol. Failing to reach them on time, the patrol made the gruesome discovery that a predator ate most wayward guards while they were trying to trace a path through a new stream. Before our heroes could react, a fox jumped them but was fortunately chased away.
The guard then found the source of the stream, a newly built beaver dam over which they negotiated safe passage for all mice of the territory. Noticing the increased numbers of beaver families nearby, the patrol surmised that another dam had likely caused a stream to deviate and wash away part of the Scent Border to the Wild Country.
The patrol travelled to Port Sumac where Finn tapped Malcolm’s criminal contacts and secured some additional Scent chemicals…
Mouse Guard Canon Caveat
I accidentally and purposefully changed aspects of the Mouse Guard universe, particularly that pertaining to the Scent Border actual physical form in the comic books. My stance on Canon is very loose (pun intended) and echos my friend Chris’ so bear with me.
GM’s Turn Summary (for those who’d rather read about the story, not the whole game)
The Patrol left port Sumac with a shipping of Scent chemical with the firm intention of locating the breach in the northern border and sealing it up before more predators entered the territory. Before they could find it, they were waylaid by a group of thuggish mice who wanted to get their paws on their shipment of powder and learn the whereabout of other Scent-laying patrols.
After a heated but peaceful argument, the patrol, hyper focused on its mission, left with their precious cargo but informed the thugs where to find other patrols, letting the ruffians learn the hard way that not all guards were as sociable as they were.
The patrol managed to discover the spot where the border had been washed away and proceeded to spread the concoction while the weather turned nasty. Sadly, when they finally managed to complete their task, the whole patrol was caught in a flash flood sweeping two of them away. They were recovered by their comrades but were badly hurt in the process.
Fortunately, the newly applied scent, spread over high ground, held perfectly. Mission accomplished.
Table Chatter and GMing highlights
As we started the game, I knew something was wrong with my friend Maze. He offered to prologue the last session, a game mechanic where a player summaries what happened in the last session in exchange for a tangible reward (in his case, recover lost points of his Nature ability).
However, he froze up (here and later during the game) and delivered what I must sadly describe as a half-assed summary of what happened in the game 3 weeks before. Mark my words, I don’t expect a Toastmaster’s performance from the exercise, but I couldn’t help but think (wrongly so, I know) that Maze didn’t feel like making the effort or that it wasn’t relevant enough for him to do so.
Mouse Guard requires a lot more effort from players than D&D and it’s spiritual offshoots. I’m beginning to think that it is a strong factor in establishing the game’s learning curve depending on any given gamer’s background tackling the game. Fortunately, the exercise alternates from game to game, so I’ll see how others go at it. I suspect it’s a classic case of Chatty’s inhuman expectations again.
The mission and goals
This time around, the mission was dead simple: Re-establish the broken Scent Border
The players chose the following goals:
- Malcolm (Alex): Don’t let the patrol get caught by predators
- Finn (Yan): Re-establish Scent Border
- Edgar (PM): Send word back home that scent chemical is being traded by the underworld
- Jasper (Maze): Help at least one mouse in distress near Scent Border
All great goals including one that would end up leading the game in a direction set by the players during their turn.
The Argument Conflict
As planned, the PCs were supposed to track the beavers’ dam and deal with its effect on the environment. When the PCs failed to find the disrupted Scent Border (I ruled that it was invisible/subtle to find precisely, contrary to the comic) I went with one of my planned twists and had “scent pirates” waylay the party.
While Yan was ready to fight the band of mice thugs, Alex pipped in to address the situation diplomatically. I made the conflict into an argument, which is one of the hardest conflicts to run for everyone because you have to roleplay, usually in character, based on the actions you chose.
I divided the teams in 4: Two teams of guards (Finn/Edgar, Malcolm/Jasper) and 2 of thugs (Merchant/Bandit, Muscle/Bandit) and everyone chose different goals:
- Finn vs Muscle: Who keeps the powder?
- Malcolm vs Merchant: “Tell us where the border is” vs “Tell us where the nearest patrols are”
The conflict went better than last session but introducing the “Roleplay arguments as a fight” mechanics gave my players a few headaches. Working out the difference between a feint and a manuever were in the context of an argument was already hard enough… having to find roleplaying descriptions for each action was quite exhausting for many.
I had the time of my life! At one point I even delivered a good enough line that some players looked at each other and said “huh, I’d agree with that”.
In the end, Finn’s team won instantly (My feint killed by their attack) while the Merchant nearly completely beat Malcolm’s team.
I think that the scene that broke my player’s mind the most, but also opened the way to what the game is really about, was when I described the last obstacle: laying down the scent chemical. I announced that it would be a Science obstacle.
At that point Maze dejectedly said “but what does science have to do with pouring powder on the ground” and Yan, engineer that he is, explained that the way he saw it, the job should be about working the soil to prepare a proper binding matrix for the powder and then working out how much powder to pour and fixing it to the matrix and so on…
(Or something engineer-sounding like that, don’t ask me, I’m a Microbiologist-Project Manager)
That’s when I smiled.
Chatty: That’s EXACTLY what I meant about a science roll!
Yan: (Cough) asshole (cough)
See, the game is all about the players telling the GM how things are going to be done. Succeeding means that’s what happens and the game world grows a little bit. The greatest thing though is that failing doesn’t automatically mean it doesn’t grow… it just means it doesn’t grow as the players planned.
As simple as that!
The science roll was failed, but by then, I wanted to finish the GM’s turn soon so I introduced the game’s last twist and described how the Mice made sure to finish the job properly, even though a huge Spring storm struck (a weather-based twist). The storm triggered a flash flood and everyone had to roll to resist being swept away. That’s when both Yan and PM decided to go all out for failure to score extra checks on the player turn. Both ended washed away, crashing into trees and rocks.
Since all PCs shared help in the challenge that sent two of them in the soup, I called for Edgar and Finn to become Injured and Tired while I made the other 2 Hungry/Thirsty and Angry. I’m still at the level of establishing how much pressure you need to apply on PCs and I clearly recalled Luke gleefully telling me how broke, hurt and exhausted he left his players’ PCs after Burning Wheel games… this is echoed, to a lesser extent in the Mouse Guard rules.
Turns out that was a bit too much… stay tuned…
As mentioned earlier, Maze, usually a very creative and social person, froze up several times during the game, at loss with how to interact with the game’s mechanics and how to grab narrative control and yield it effectively. The game ground to complete stops a few times while he became more and more flustered about how to play a given action or how to describe helping out with a given skill check.
I noticed that we didn’t help much because some of us soon swooped in with advice and pressured him to “unfreeze”. Luckily, it just so happens that Rob Donaghue posted a blog article about dealing with player freeze which basically boils down to telling other players and GMs to:
- Shut Your Pie Hole.
- A Little Patience Won’t Kill You.
- Back Their Play.
- Don’t Assume. Ask.
This one is a must read, go NOW! Heaven knows I’m making it my session’s Lessons Learned and shared it with all players.
Up next: The Player’s take ownership of the game!