Mouse Guard Chronicles, Session 2, GM’s Turn: Scented Storms

Prologue:

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

The Prologue

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.

It’s Science!

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!

Swept Away!

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…

Freezing up.

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:

  1. Shut Your Pie Hole.
  2. A Little Patience Won’t Kill You.
  3. Back Their Play.
  4. 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!

Comments

  1. Wow – I really need to write my recap of that session – just so you see how different it was from my perspective! 🙂

    But, basically, yeah – most of the interactions played on my weaknesses and less played on my strengths… and I didn’t know how to handle that very well.

    Basically, I’ll never do a game recap again (except if I prepare it upfront), and I am learning to embrace in-game failure are related paths of creativity.

    Pressure from my own expectations for success & performance mixed with my perceived expectations from the rest of the group proved to be too much.

  2. wow, your players get a reward for summarizing the last session? Mine just get a polite thankyou, and consider themselves lucky!

  3. @Faustunotes: It’s a mechanic of Mouseguard not something out of the generosity of Phil.

    Although he could have fail to mention it and we would not have known… 😉

  4. @Eric: I read recently that recollection and memories don’t synch up between people who witness the same events because our own brain chemistry rebuild memories each time we recollect them. You perceived the game with your own set of emotions and that molded your perception of the whole experience.

    I’m convinced that you will achieve that point. Also don’t forget that while I know you enjoyed it… by the end of the session, I thought you didn’t like the game and I wrote the game post with that impression. (Hell I wrote all my Mouse Guard posts on the day following the game).

    Anyway, don’t fret. As I told Yan… As soon as we’re done mastering the game, we’ll move to another one. =)

  5. @Faustusnotes: As Yan says, the game has rewards attached with player participation in tasks often associated with the DM. You also get rewards (in the form of special points that you can spend to increase successes) by playing up your instincs, your beliefs and going after your goals. Finally, the whole party votes for the group’s MVP, workhorse and most “in character” PC at the end of each session. All of this grants extra rewards.

    A very interesting system.

  6. @ChattyDM: Yeah – in other words (mine) : “reality and truth is relative and subjective”. I’m not complaining, mind you (I’m too a good french-Canadian for that), I’m mostly amazed by how different our perceptions were. (As you already know :P) )

  7. Like I’ve said on Eric’s blog, this is a FASCINATING read. It’s also proving to be invaluable insight.

  8. Very interesting, It’s nice to see how things are developing and how the group is adapting, learning, and even conflicting with the system (cool to see where those conflicts happen) as they learn it.

    On a side note, I might start offering Action Points or some other reward to my party if they can summarize the last adventure in my 4E game. 😀

  9. chatty, maybe it’s my Rolemaster background, but I have been casting a lot of these responsibilities onto players for a long time. I typically have players describe their attacks (for no extra damage dice, mind you!), describe the small details of the setting, and sometimes the large details (like how a town is run, what the main industry is, etc.), describe what happened last week, and vote on decisions about PCs whose player isn’t present. I have always assumed most DMs do this – is the inclusion of a special mechanism for it in Mouseguard a sign that this is not the case?

  10. @Fautusnotes: You’d be surprise how varied gaming group can be.

    Each GM as his own style add to this a group of player that each have their own motivations. Of course a system will impose a set of common rules but that still leaves a lot of space for your group to be unique in its own way. In my mind no two groups are the same which in turn means that there is no one size fit all approach to RPG.

  11. @Andy: I’m glad you like the series. The conclusion will be up tomorrow.

    @Bartoneus: You know what kind of very cool action/fate points we could in 4e? Some that ‘explode dice of damage’ Makes you re roll maxed out damage dice (or add to critical hits). And what I’d really like as a player: Points that we spend at the beginning of our turns to roll a saving throw. I’d LOVE that!

    @Faustusnote: I never ran Rolemaster, but I have a feeling that the GM had to juggle so many mechanics that he had to farm out stuff to players just to keep the game alive. I recall an article by Monte Cook saying that Rolemaster made his gaming group into roleplaying storytellers because no one wanted to get involved in a fight. So maybe your habits were also shaped by the system you played the most.

    Heaven knows my Gurps habits still show up when I design adventures.. 🙂

  12. Isn’t rerolling maxed damage dice what the vorpal weapon property does? 😉

  13. @Andy: To prevent further derailment of the thread, let’s put a caveat that any changes to 4e automatically implies a revision of downstream mechanical effects when needed. In the case named here, I wouldn’t mind so much as I’d make everything stack. But I haven’t looked at the impact, I’m just going “”Hey, that could be fun!” =)

  14. Oh, yeah. It most definitely could be.

  15. A long time ago, that is also how we started with motivation for game summaries. With a bonus for the player doing the summary.

    About 4 years ago however, we starting with a campaign with quite a bit of political intrigue and quickly found we needed to have the notes of the sessions. So we made a wiki-page (courtesy of PBwiki) and quicklt started a steady rotation where everyone would just take turns on taking notes, putting them on the wiki and then giving a recap the next session.

    We’ve since incorperated the same system for 3 other campaigns. Great system to keep track of everything, and at the end of the campaign we also made compilations where we gathered our character backgrounds and private in-character conversations, for everyone else to read.

    We even had some friends not playing in the game that would periodically check in on the wiki and see how the game was progressing. Quite funny. Of course Chatty, you already do quite a bit of the recapping of the sessions on the blog, but for us, this system still works very well.

  16. @Conlaen: I’m my group’s writer and doing the session reports became (and still remains) a writing exercise for me. It’s quite a challenge to make them entertaining to people who weren’t there. Otherwise, I’d long have moved to Obsidian Portal with my whole campaign!

    Thanks for your comment, I love getting them on older posts, makes the blog feel alive!

  17. @Chatty: Yeh sorry about that. I’ve been in the middle of moving and been too busy to keep up with all my RSS feeds. Working through the backtrack a little and your posts are always a must read anyway 🙂

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