Actual Play Table Top

Mouse Guard Risus with Sean and Kaylee (and Zoe!)

Last night, I swapped out normal bedtime activities for a little RPG fun with Sean and Kaylee, as I have been known to do.

For some reason, I always seem to ‘find the time’ to do this sort of thing on a night when I have a hard stop looming (in this case, a Star Wars game at 8pm), but we did manage to get the evening sorted out pretty quickly, giving us close to an hour to play.

Since we’d last played Mouse Guard (using a variant of the Risus rules set), I’d done a little shopping, and picked up a couple cool, custom Mouse Guard lego figs from crazy bricks – mix them together with a some weapons from Brick Arms, and we had pretty good minis for Conner and Laurel.

Do I need minis for this game? I do not. Not at all.

Did I want them for the kids to play with anyway, so they can gave Mouse adventures whenever they want? Yes I do.

So we grabbed our dice-rolling frisbee (hot tip: have smaller kids roll their dice in a frisbee or something similar – it really keeps the dice-chasing down to a minimum), the index cards on which we’d scribbled character sheets last time and, with Zoe tucked in and Momma running some evening errands, sat down to play.

“So, in case you don’t remember…” I began.

“We really need to figure out what happened to that postmaster mouse from last time,” said Sean, fiddling with his minifig. “If we can’t find him, there’s no way for Elmoss to get mail.”

I blinked.

I mean, seriously: the kid is five, and we haven’t played in two weeks. He can’t remember where he left the socks he had on five minutes ago, but this… this he remembered.

“I’m impressed, Seanie,” Kaylee said. She looked at me. “All I remember from last time was talking to those robins.”

“Right?” I said. “Okay, let’s investigate that house where the postmaster was attacked.”

Our Heroes

Laurel (redfur, purple cloak)
Experienced scout guard mouse (4)
Animal spirit-talker (4)
((Falcon, my monarch butterfly companion (3))
Lucky shots: 0 0 0

Laurel travels light, with a narrow-bladed sword, a few daggers, and small pack of supplies.

Conner (brownfur, red cloak)
Sneaky guard mouse (4)
Heavily armed fighter (4)
(Buzzer, my dragonfly buddy (3))
Lucky Shots: 0 0 0

The two guardmice, with the assistant post-mouse in tow, went to the head postmouse’s home and started investigating. Windows were damaged. The front door was torn off the hinges, and the inside was in worse shape.

“I think I know what it is,” intoned Sean, as Conner. He looked at me, face serious. “Blood-eyed owl!”

“Please no,” Kaylee whispered.

I'm with Kaylee on this one.

“Well, I said,” something like an owl couldn’t get into Elmoss without people seeing it, and probably couldn’t get inside the house. It was definitely something bigger than a mouse, but not huge. What do you want to check out?“

The mice did some digging, and discovered some footprints in the flour scattered around the kitchen. Laurel (Kaylee) was able to identify the prints as weasel tracks, and Conner (Sean) realized they led down into the cellar.

Right about here, Zoe (two and a half) decided she wasn’t ready for bedtime, and showed up at the edge of the table, staring wide-eyed at the dice.

“Can I play? Pleaaase?”

Yeah, I’m not going to say no to that.

“Zoe, do you want to play a butterfly?” Kaylee asked, pointing out her sidekick to me.


“It’s okay,” I said, pulling my youngest onto my lap, “I’ve got an idea. Zoe, what do you want your mouse to be named?”

Emilie (brownfur, blue cloak)
Jumpy tenderfoot (4)
Assistant Postmouse (3)
(Stinkystripey, my bumblebee friend (3))
Lucky Shots: 0 0 0 0 0 0

“I- I’m c-coming with you,” said the assistant postmouse as the two guards headed down into the cellar.

The three mice got into the basement (some confusion here, as Zoe thought we were supposed to pick up all our things and go down into our real basement), and found a tunnel dug through the side of the cellar, behind a big shelf.

“What would a weasel want with a postmouse?” Laurel wondered. “It’s just strange.”

They followed the winding tunnel (hand-dug, but seemingly not that new) until the air began to change, becoming dustier and more mildewy… then it opened into a much broader space: the many-pillared spaces of Darkheather!

Laurel was astonished – she had no idea Darkheather extended so far under the Territories.

The mice looked for more tracks and, while they found none, spotted a light in the distance and crept toward it as quietly as possible (something Conner excelled at and the other two… well…)

As soon as they could make out voices and the sound of flowing water, they stopped. The weasel and the mouse where talking, and they didn’t sound like enemies.

“This bag is full of nothing but papers!” the weasel hissed.

“Those ‘papers’ are every message Lockhaven’s sent through my offices in the past year,” the postmouse explained. “With that, you’ll know everything they’re planning.”

“RRRRrrrgg,” the weasel growled. “I’ll take this to my masters, but if it isn’t as you say, I’ll be back here for our gold, and the next attack won’t be false.”

“Fine,” said the mouse. “I’ll be gone, in any case. I’m dead here – off to a new town and a new name. I’ll be in touch once I’ve settled in.”

“Can we grab that mouse?” asked Kaylee.

“Sure,” I said, “but the weasel’s in a kind of canoe in the waterway, and he’s already got the letters, so…”

Her eyes went wide. She turned to Sean. “Get. That. Weasel.”

Laurel moved to pin down the postmouse (working with her companion), while Conner charged straight at the weasel.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m going to jump right at him and chop his nose into pieces!” announced Sean, and he did… something with his mouse figure that snapped the blade right off his little plastic sword. Oops.

Kaylee rolled enough successes (we’re counting 4, 5, 6 as successes – part of the Risus Guard rules I’m using) to pin down the postmouse, and Zoe had her bumblebee buzz right at the weasel’s head to distract him.

Sean came in, rolling his four dice, and got two sixes and a five.

Now, in this system, sixes explode, so he can roll two more dice and count them.

Two more sixes.

Roll again.

Six and a two. The kids are howling with glee.

Roll again.


“So… that’s… seven success… on four dice.”

“Daddy,” said my wife, who’d been listening in from the next room. “I think he got him.”


Taking Sean’s minifig mishap as inspiration, I described Conner leaping out at the weasel and chopping the sword down into the weasel’s nose so hard it went right into his head and stuck, breaking the blade off before the weasel tumbled into the water. It was a real “Lieam versus the snake” moment.

Flawless victory. The mice retrieved the letter satchel, turned the traitor postmaster over to the locals, and prepared to head back to Lockhaven to report to Gwendolyn.


Zoe did great! She loved rolling however many dice I asked her to roll, and could even sort the successes from failures easily by focusing on pulling out the 1s, 2s, and 3s. Time to order a third mouse guard minifig…

Sean’s ability to keep track of everything from session to session impresses me, especially because he never seems to be paying attention until right when he needs to roll dice (don’t know where he gets that from…)

Kaylee, at 10, is much more interested in the larger mystery, and she’s so supportive of her siblings, even though it slows things down a lot and means we don’t get as much covered. She said something like “all I did was pin a mouse down in the fight, but… Sean’s roll was so awesome, it made up for it.”

And, just to reiterate: Roll dice in a frisbee or something similar – it really keeps the dice-chasing down to a minimum.

So: good game, good fight, good night!

Emilie, Emilie, jump up and down. Original art by Drexilwatcher.

Actual Play Table Top

Mouse Guard Risus with Sean and Kaylee

Last night, I swapped out normal bedtime activities for a little RPG fun with Sean and Kaylee. I’ve done this in the past, and I’ve even done stuff with Kaylee and Sean before, but it’s been quite a while since we’ve been able to find time (blame moving, swim practice damn near every night, too much homework, and a two year old who’s neither ready to play, go to bed, or leave the big kids alone).

I didn’t have much time, but I’d kind of promised a game of some kind to Sean, Kaylee allegedly had her homework done, and dammit I wanted to do something.

That something, somewhat unexpectedly, turned out to be Mouse Guard.

Last week, Kaylee was poking around my gaming shelves. She pulled out a copy of the Mouse Guard RPG, asked what it was, and basically lost her mind when I told her it was a roleplaying game based on Mouse Guard. This reaction was unexpected; we’d been pitching game ideas for the last couple months and hadn’t really hit on anything that totally thrilled both of us, and I knew she and Sean both liked the comics, but Mouse Guard simply hadn’t occured to me.

So: setting and story solved — all I needed was a system.

Now, I’ve run the official version of the game in the past, and it’s fine – parts of it are brilliant – but it’s not something I’m going to play, these days. I wanted something lighter, something five year old friendly, and aside from all that something I personally wanted to run.

I got pretty excited when I found Mouse World – the author mentions the documents aren’t quite done, and he’s totally right; but while they may need an editing and reorganization pass, they are absolutely playable, and Kaylee and I took a few minutes this weekend to make up a guard mouse scout named Laurel. I love the PtbA mechanics, and I already know Sean can handle adding a couple d6s and a stat. The fact the MW hack uses checkbox conditions rather than hitpoints is another pro-kid vote in favor.

I’m looking forward to running the game at some point, but that didn’t end up being what I ran last night.

When push came to shove and I was moments away from the forty minute window we had to play, I decided on Risus, with a few optional rules added.

Risus has been around quite awhile, with a very dedicated fan base, and has a deserved reputation for being light and easy. It also has a rep for being a silly, comedy RPG (partly due to the author’s undeniable humor in presentation), and while it can certainly do comedy, I’m quite sure it could do lots of other stuff as well. I’d already been thinking about it for Star Wars, and had refreshed myself on some of my favorite optional rules, so I grabbed three six-packs of d6s for me, Kaylee, and Sean, some index cards, pencils, and headed downstairs.

Risus characters are pretty straightforward. You get ten dice to allocate to character-defining cliches (and a few other things), and when you want to do something, you pick the cliche you want to use, roll as many dice as the cliche has for its rating and, in the basic rules, add them up and see if the total is high enough. Here’s what we came up with:

tmp_808-Laurel - purple-redfur-1053912813
Laurel (redfur, purple cloak)
Experienced scout guard mouse (4)
Animal spirit-talker (4)
((Falcon, my monarch butterfly companion (3))
Lucky shots: 0 0 0

Laurel travels light, with a narrow-bladed sword, a few daggers, and small pack of supplies.


tmp_808-Mouse Guard Conner-771518943
Conner (brownfur, red cloak)
Sneaky guard mouse (4)
Heavily armed fighter (4)
(Buzzer, my dragonfly buddy (3))
Lucky Shots: 0 0 0

Any Risus-heads will recognize the optional rules we’re using so far: Sidekicks (trade in one die for a three-dice rated companion who can help you out sometimes), and Lucky Shots (trade in one dice for a pool of three renewable dice that can be added to any roll (one per roll) as a boost).

The only other optional rule I decided to use that’s pretty close to the rules for Simpler Risus. (I don’t know if that name is accurate, to be honest, but it’s something I wanted to try out.) Basically, instead of rolling your dice and adding them together, you count the dice that come up >3 as Successes. There were two main reasons for this:

  1. I generally like success-counting combined with ‘success at cost’ for failed rolls.
  2. Sean can certainly add up a bunch of dice (he started rolling and doing exactly that as soon as I handed him his set), but I knew from playing Hero Kids that at his age it’s much faster to have him separate the dice into high and low piles after a roll. Whenever we play, time is the big limiting factor to play, so this was a no-brainer.

Also, at his reading level, a *World character sheet isn’t going to fly. I needed something he could read.

(I may do something like Mouse World conditions, rather than the Risus diminishing dice pools, but it didn’t come up in play this time, so who knows?)

Why didn’t you just run Hero Kids, with mice, like you’ve talked about doing before?

I couldn’t find the books. 🙁

I think they’re still in book boxes until our basement is finished. (Just a few more weeks!)

Blah blah blah, rules-nerd: What happened in the GAME?

Right. Time to play. We now have 30 minutes.

The spring thaw has come, and with it, Gwendolyn’s first missions of the season. Laurel and Conner are dispatched to Elmoss with a satchel of mail. (Normally, she’d send at least three guard mice, but as Laurel is an experienced scout and grew up in Elmoss, it’s just two of them.)

I started off by asking Laurel to check the weather and plan their route. I told her she’d need a lot of successes to do a perfect job (4), because success-at-cost at that point in a mission is fun, but she shut me down with a perfect roll of four successes on four dice. Nevermind, then.

Basic route charted, I let the kids decide who was going to be the trailblazer (finding the best route forward, on the ground), and who would be the lookout. Laurel was the trailblazer, since she’s a scout, and we figured Conner was good for roaming lookout, since he’s sneaker. In this, both kids rolled, and came up with a few successes each. Laurel guided them along well enough, and things are going smoothly until they hit a wide, fast-moving stream that isn’t supposed to be there – spring runoff has cuz them off and left Laurel scratching her head on a muddy riverbank.

Meanwhile, Conner catches the sound of some birds approaching. He can’t find them in the overgrowth, but sneaks back to Laurel without alerting them. The mice hear them coming, and not knowing what kind of birds they might be, take cover.

Turns out it’s a couple ruffled looking robins, who drop in next to the stream, drink a bit of water, and start pecking around, looking for worms in the muddy bank.

Laurel decides this might be just the help they need to get past the stream and steps out to hail the birds in their own language.

(Once success, needed two.)

Unfortunately, it’s been quite awhile since she’s spoken Robin, and she’s rusty. Adding to that, the robins are grumpy, rattled (they were just chased by a falcon!), and hungry. When Laurel asks if she can trouble them for a lift over the stream, they say they’ll do it for food: about about those two big bugs the mice have with them?


“Well don’t be greedy, little mouse… you can’t eat both of them yourself…”

Laurel calms down and suggests the two guard mice can help the robins find more appropriate food and, once the birds have their fill, they can carry the guards over the stream.

What this means is the mice do a lot of digging and mucking around in the muddy river bank, hauling out nightcrawlers for the ravenous robins. By the time they’re done, they are muddy, grumpy, and tired, but the robins are happy and carry them over the rushing water with no more problems.

The mice continue to Elmoss, are hailed and recognized by the local militia, and enter the town. Laurel knows the way to the post office, but (very low roll) once they get there, they find only a weepy assistant, and no master postmouse.

Apparently, just the night before, something terrible happened at the postmaster’s home; the whole place has been wrecked, with doors and windows broken and off their hinges, and no one seems to know what to do.

Can the guard mice help?

Tune in next time to find out!

All in all, a fun little session, and this morning, Sean said the nicest thing I’d ever want to hear about one of our games:

“Can we play it again tonight?”

Absolutely, little man. Absolutely.

Musing Table Top

“I bleed and take another action.”

There is a kind of magic in sacrifice.

No, I don’t mean literal magical sacrifices with babies and goats and stuff like that.[1] I’m talking about taking one for the team to bring said team that much closer to victory. That kind of thing earns mad respect, right?

You see this in all kinds of media — the guy who grimly deals with all the horrible stuff happening to him and voluntarily takes on more pain because it’s the only way to win — in film, Harrison Ford basically made a career out of it; Bruce Willis too, for that matter. In fiction, you’ve got your Frodos and Sams, your Celanawes.[2] In gaming, you’ve the Grey Wardens (Dragon Age), the Mouse Guard (Mouse Guard), or the game I stole this post title from, Shadows Over Camelot.

I’ve talked about Shadows Over Camelot before, so I’m not going to rehash the gameplay, and really this isn’t about the gameplay except for one small part of it.

SOC is a game where you work with the other players cooperatively against the game itself (yes, there’s a chance that there’s a traitor in your midst, but that doesn’t change the basic framework). During each person’s turn, something bad happens, and then you do something good. Something heroic. Just one thing.

However, if you choose to, you can take an additional action on your turn.

All you gotta do is bleed.

You’ve got a few life points (default is 4) and if you take a hit to that score (which, at our table, is referred to as “bleeding”), you can take another action.

We played this game this weekend, and I observed something during play that I’ve seen every single other time we’ve played — a grunt of acknowledgement and appreciation when someone chooses to do this. A respectful primate chest-thumping, if you will.

Strategically, there are good and bad times to do this — it’s pointless just to get around the board more quickly, but if you can join a quest and then ‘bleed’ to save said quest from failure (good) or complete it (better), well… you’re awesome. That particular game is, to me, very much about those kinds of sacrifices and hard choices — where do I fight when there are seven fronts in the assault on Camelot? Whom do I help? What should I save?

And you know what? Something else I’ve noticed is that some people really don’t like that game.

Now, I like games where I can lose. It would be really easy to make a cooperative game like Shadows Over Camelot that is, once you grok the rules, easy to win — I’ve heard there are games like that on the market. I wouldn’t consider that a good investment of either time or money, frankly, because in the time it takes to play a game like that, I could play something else where the outcome isn’t a foregone conclusion.

So part of the dislike is the fact that the game can be lost by everyone at the table – that no one might win? Maybe.

However, more than games I can lose, I like games where I have to bleed to win – where I have to weaken myself to strengthen The Cause. In the most recent SoC game, I was the traitor, and I still found myself bleeding (ostensibly) for the cause, simply because I find that compelling as a player.

I wonder if that’s part of the thing people don’t like about such games, because there ARE people who don’t like such games. Or movies. Or stories. Mouse Guard is a very heroic game to me, but it’s not heroic in a “super” sense where you’re all shiny and victorious and never really get touched by the dirt of the world; it’s heroic because the characters suffer — get hurt, get tired, get angry, get pneumonia — and keep struggling toward their goal anyway — they are little mice in a Great Big World That Will Eat Them, and still they battle on.

"This ends in death."

Just writing that gives me goosebumps — that’s how much I like it. When you can play a game like that and win? Oh man, the grin on my face (while my character cradles his broken arm and hobbles along on a crutch).

But I’ve played with no small number of people who find the whole Mouse Guard-like experience terribly frustrating — that you might win the day and be worse off, personally, than if you’d just stayed out of it? Grrrrrrr.

For me, it’s magical, that they struggle on in the face of such adversity.

That the knights continue to strive for Camelot even though Camelot is (we know) ultimately doomed (and, sometimes, doomed within the scope of the game we’re playing).

That the Wardens do what they do, knowing the price they pay.

That kind of stuff is pure magic. For me. It’s something I’m always pleased to find in a story, or movie, or game.

So much so that I have a hard time seeing when it’s not fun for someone else.

Or even, after the fact, figuring out why.

[1] Seriously, though: why goats? Who cares? Why not sacrifice a finger? If I were a blood-craving deity, I’d give mad props to the priest that needed my attention so badly he voluntarily went Frodo Of The Nine Fingers for me.

[2] You know, I was trying to think of an example of this kind of behavior in the most recent book I read – Until They are Hanged – and it’s not there to be found. The series is kind of noir fantasy, and that kind of self-sacrificing behavior just… wouldn’t quite fit. Which isn’t to say that people don’t bleed for a cause – they totally do – but they don’t manfully say “I’ll take this hit to save the lot of you,” because, well, it’s noir. People don’t want to get hit if they can help it, and in that setting there’s no guarantee that such a noble sacrifice would mean victory — it might just be a meaningless death, and who wants that?  People who act like that in the story (and there are a few) usually die. Quickly. And unmourned.

Actual Play Musing Nobilis Scheduling Table Top

Mouse Guard: The River at Elmoss, and making players cry

Got a chance to go back and play some Mouse Guard this weekend with Dave and Margie and Kate and Ka(y/therine).

This session was a continuation of action that took place in “Not much Use as a Postmouse” and “A New Route to Ivydale”.  Margie’s character Lucia was still Angry from the last session, so she took the “Summary of previous events” intro to the session, which lets her get rid of a condition on her sheet.

As the patrol was getting ready to set out to their next delivery point (Elmoss), they were met by a traveler/messenger from Elmoss who was looking… well, not for them, exactly, but for a Patrol that was supposed to have arrived in Elmoss several days ago, escorting a much-needed grain shipment from Ivydale.  The messenger hadn’t spotted them on his trip here, so he asked Our Heroes to see if they could find them as they traveled what SHOULD have been the same route.

Asking around Ivydale, the patrol learned that the other group of Guardmice was led by Warwick, a patrol leader with a good reputation and Rosamund’s (Kate) mentor back in her tenderpaw days.  Also, the last Aelwyn (Dave) heard, a female guardmouse of his acquaintance (“Brynn.” sigh) was a member of that patrol.

The group set out their goals for this mission;

  • Rosamund: Locate my old mentor, Warwick.
  • Aelwyn: Rescue Brynn’s patrol!
  • Lucia: Make sure the grain shipment makes it to Elmoss.
  • Graystripe (we haven’t met her yet): Impress her mentor enough to be made a full Guardmouse.

Scouting rolls were made as the patrol tracked the grain cart across quite rocky terrain, well away from the usual path (necessary, since from the tracks they could tell that the wagon was overburdened and very bad off in muddy areas).  This led to a ‘twist’ in which the patrol caught up to the wagon not far from Elmoss.  Warwick’s patrol had tried to ford a stream that had surged with Spring runoff at exactly the wrong moment… leaving the grain wagon almost tipped over next to the ford, and Warwick’s patrol clinging to a hummock of grass and detritus downstream a ways.

Dice were rolled, and the situation became further complicated: Lucia struggled to lever the grain wagon’s wheel out of the mud, Aelwyn struggled with tying off a rope from the shore while Roz swam out to the other mice, midstream. (Where she was pulled up by Graystripe.)

This complicated situation took us into a full-on Conflict with the river.  The river’s “Goal” was “wash the wagon, the grain, and both patrols down river”; the player’s goal was “save the mice, save the grain.”

This was a very challenging conflict to do, initially, and as I had quickly scripted my actions for the river, I should have stayed with the players and helped them ‘translate’ their actions into scripting… because it’s hard to see what an ‘attack’ looks like versus a river, or what skill to use… or what a maneuver looked like.  It just took awhile to get going.

Anyway, after two full exchanges (involving a lot of rope slinging and hauling mice up to the branches of a tree overhanging the river), the patrol managed to get almost everyone to relative safety, but they’d been pretty badly beat up in the process. (They only had two Disposition left from a starting 8).  Everyone was Tired.  In addition – Lucia (who was still basically in the River when it threw its final big surge) had to made a health check to see if she got sick from being, basically, half-drowned as she clung to the grain wagon (which got its wheels snapped off and was basically grounded out at the ford).  She failed that check, so in addition to being Tired, she was also Sick.

Once the water level had died down again, the patrol made its way up to Elmoss to get the town to send people out to help unload and transport the grain (and get medical treatment for the injured).  They ran into the useless, hampering, feudal-style bureaucracy of Elmoss, and got in a show-down with a nasal-voiced administrator who didn’t want to open the gate after dark, OR send anyone out after the food the town ACTUALLY NEEDED.

Aelwyn headed this showdown up with a stirring call to action, but everyone helped out, from Roz and Lucia’s persuasion, to Gray’s deceptive story about dangerous, hungry, grain-stealing weasels in the area. The administrator was unmoved (we got a tie), and Aelwyn tried to outstubborned him (Will vs. Will tiebreaker), mentioning that the ruling family who had paid for this shipment to be delivered would surely be curious who had prevented it from arriving.  When Lucia added “good point… what was your name again?” the adminstrator folded.

Their duty done, the patrol limped into town. Aelwyn acquired lodging for everyone (Resources check, also taking care of the “Tired” condition for everyone), and Roz tried to tend Warwick’s injuries, but the older mouse was pretty badly hurt, and all the water and his cracked ribs means he’ll probably always have a cough (missed Healer check lowered Warwick’s health by 1).  Lucia was also feeling a little drowned, and continues to have a nagging cough (failed Will check means she’s still sick, but with no lasting stat-damage — she’s hoping to get some medicinal help in her home town of Sprucetuck).

Gray tried to convince Warwick to make her a full Guardmouse – an argument Roz supported – but War was having none of that. Instead, he put Roz in charge of her training, since he’d be sick in bed for several weeks at least, and “the girl needs to get back out on the road”.  Roz accepted the job, and the next morning put Graystripe through the first of likely many hard swordmouseship workouts. (An instructor check for Roz, which in turn gave Graystripe a “failed” check on her Fighter skill.) There’s a new sheriff in town.

Meanwhile, Aelwyn went window shopping for Brynn and ended up spending way way way too much on a gift for her (a nice gift, but the failed Resource check resulted in Ael’s Resource score dropping by one – which in turn clears all his accumulated checks to advance that stat).

So: a bit bruised, a little waterlogged, but victorious, the Patrol prepares for the next leg of their journey – across the spring-snow-covered open meadows to Sprucetuck.

A few observations:

  • We hadn’t played in several months, and it took us a long time to remember all the nuances of the game we’d learned the last time. I forgot to encourage the players to earn ‘checks’ by using their Traits in ‘negative’ ways for one, and that hampered folks during the Player’s Turn in Elmoss.
  • The Conflict with the River was cool, in that it really showed what the system can do with weird conflicts, but that conflict totally took the system off the map in terms of “what skills do we roll” and “what does this kind of action look like in this context?”  Cool, but it slowed us down and caused a little frustration (see the title of the post).
  • The players still struggle with the idea that failure doesn’t mean “I don’t get X”, but instead means “I get X, but at a higher than anticipated cost… or with a twist.”  (And I struggle with remembering to POINT THIS OUT. :P) This led to folks pushing harder than they needed to in order to win conflicts, when “losing ” would have still gotten them what they want, but with interesting consequences.
    • Related to that, the Conflict with the River was temporarily frustrating, because it felt like “We won, but it didn’t FEEL like we won, cuz we’re still sick, tired, and the Grain is still stuck in the River.”
    • Once I pointed out that “you won, but I won a lot of rolls too”, and used a kind of “hit points – you lost a lot of em” analogy, then getting beat up and hurt while “winning” stopped being a problem for folks.
  • We worry a lot about getting the rules right.  This leads us to saying things like “Okay, on my Check, I want to use Healer on Warwick’s Injury…” instead of “I want to go see Warwick and have a scene with him.”  I think that’s just a matter of familiarity.  Right now, we’re Playing the System a bit more than just playing a game… I think that’ll come.
    • Lucky for us, while we’re perhaps “playing the system” overmuch right now, it’s a pretty GOOD system.

Mouse Guard is definitely a game where you get beat up and really struggle to pull out a victory.  It’s both heroic and not-heroic.  In once sense, it’s not-heroic cuz EVERYTHING is bigger and badder than you.  On the other, it’s very heroic, because in that face of all that, you soldier on ANYWAY, to protect the Territories.  That last point is a big one — it just may not be a game for everyone — but I hope we get a few more sessions to find out.

Actual Play Scheduling Table Top

“This ends in Mud.”

david-petersen-mouse-guard-4((The title of this session is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the finest, most awesome line in the new Mouse Guard collection, Winter 1152.))

A player couldn’t make our ongoing PTA season this week, so the remaining players and I opted to do a one-shot with Mouse Guard.

Since chargen takes quite a bit of time for new folks, I ran the whole thing as a series of questions in a (55 reply!) email thread. Here’s what they came up with:

  • Chris: Jerrick is a 33 year old patrol leader originally from Dawnrock. He had a natural talent as a survivalist and leader that led him to the Guard. As a tenderpaw and later a patrol mouse, he specialized in pathfinding, and has a reputation for never losing a mouse in any of his patrols. He is wise in the ways of mice, wilderness, motivation, and tracks. He believes “there’s always another way”, and his Instinct is to protect the mice of his Patrol at any cost.
  • Randy: Faolan is a 20 year old patrol mouse originally from Shaleburrow. He had a natural talent as a fighter; and he is extremely Bold — the guard seemed a natural fit for him… once he could be convinced not to attack everything at first blush. In Lockhaven, he was assigned to Rand (who was on his final wilderness patrol). Rand focused on his training as a scout, but his specialty (and first love) has always been fighting. He is wise in the ways of scrounging and predators. He believes “success comes through victory”, and his Instinct is to always keep a sharp blade.
  • Meera: Yarrow is a 25 year old tenderpaw — unusually old to join the guard, she applied to the guard several years after her home, Walnutpeck, was lost in the Weasel War — an event that left her and all the other survivors of the wonderful, wood-carved town Bitter. She grew up with her parents (Brand and Ivy) and learned the ways of the apiary from them – a common trade in Walnutpeck, whose apiaries were second to none, prior to the War. Her generous nature made her many friends — most of whom are now gone. She deceived the guard about her age and was eventually found out, but was allowed to stay anyway. In Lockhaven, she was assigned to Jerrick, who focused on her training as a healer and survivalist; her training thus far has been… eclectic. She is tough (all those bee-stings) and wise in the ways of weasels. She believes you must “think with your head and act with your heart”, and her Instinct is to always have a second exit available.

Prep was pretty simple: I used the Mission Burner method that someone posted on Story Games, and came up with the following:

– Pick a settlement one or more of the patrol members are from or have history with: DAWNROCK

(Jerrick is from there, and Yarrow had a friend there – a loremouse named Siaran.)

– Weather messed something up there.

(Specifically, Spring snowmelt and rain caused a mudslide that snapped the wheel off the town’s only Mill.)

– Important mice or supplies must be accompanied to the settlement.

(Carpentry tools and a Carpenter (Faolan’s old Carpentry artisan to whom he was apprenticed: Sable.))

– Wild animals are creating difficulties for the settlement.

(The possibility exists that creatures emerging from winter hibernation might pose a problem to repairing the Mill — I’m thinking, since we’re on a “mud” theme: Bullfrog.)

– The difficulties will experience an unexpected twist

(See: Bullfrog.)

The Mission: “This ends in Mud”

Escort Sable (carpenter who once apprenticed Faolan) to Dawnrock with supplies, then help that settlement repair their mudslide-damaged Mill.


1. Get to Dawnrock. Pathfinder Test: Ob6 (Spring).
— ((Conditions Failure: Main person is Tired, helpers are Hungry and Thirsty.)) *OR*
— ((Twist Failure: Mice are on the wrong side of a broad, swampy area that’s become nigh impassable in the Spring Thaw. Ob5 Boatcrafter or Ob8 Survivalist — Failure conditions on this are Tired (lead mouse) or Hungry & Thirsty))

2. Repair the Mill (Complex test – must perform 3)
Scientist Ob5 (Design new wheel); Laborer and/or Health Ob3 (clearing mud and damaged bits – hauling supplies); Carpenter Ob 6; Healer (to help Sable recover from the wet and muddy trip – he’s Sick).
— ((Twist Failure: A bullfrog emerges from his muddy winter hibernation where the Laborer mice are clearing, and decides to have one of them as a snack. Bullfrog Nature 5: Leaping, Croaking, Camouflage, Predator))


How it Played Out

((None of the players have played MG before. Jerrick has read Burning Wheel. The other two players have read Fall 1152. That’s it. Avante!))

After a brief overview of how the system basically worked, we jumped in.

The scene opened with mud. Snow melt, last night’s rain… whatever the reason, the courtyard in Lockhaven was muddy.

Standing in that mud, staring at a cart (like the one the grain merchant was hauling in Fall 1152) loaded to the brim with carpentry supplies and tools, are Faolan and Yarrow.

Cut to: Jerrick, in Gwendolyn’s study. The matriarch is explaining that, while this isn’t a particularly glamorous assignment, it’s very important; the water wheel on Dawnrock’s only mill was snapped off in a mudslide — although they have many skilled stone masons, the town has no carpenter to speak of; Lockhaven has arranged to provide both carpentry supplies and a skilled carpenter — in exchange, Dawnrock will send down several wagonloads of milled grain in the fall.

Gwen’s captains suggested Jerrick be sent, as he’s from Dawnrock and knows the area.

Jerrick nods, then asks the more pertinent question. “Who’s the carpenter?”

Cut back to the courtyard, where a stooped oldfur toddles up to the guardmouse and tenderpaw.

“Oy! Give an old mouse a hand up onta that cart!”

Faolan peers. “S-Sable?”

“Aye! I be a deputy guard mouse, now, boy! Time to test alla that training I wasted on you!”

“You’re… going with us?”

“Aye! Now… get me up on that wagon! I’ll be able to see for miles!”

“Get. Down.” Jerrick was not in the mood to humor the oldfur when he reached the courtyard. There were younger carpenters in Lockehaven, and he was at a loss as to way this old fool was being sent into the wilderness.

Much cussing ensued, and moaning about having to walk, but eventually Sable got down.

((Thing I forgot: both Jerrick and Faolan have Patrol Captain Harrow as an Enemy — Harrow is the guy behind assigning them to glorified carpentry duty, and the one who arranged for a crotchety oldfur to be sent along. I was GOING to have him show up just before they left to make sure they knew that, but I got so wrapped up messing around playing Sable, I forgot. 😛 ))

Jerrick, well-known as an expert pathfinder, turned to his newest patrol member. “All right, Yarrow — how about you find us a way to Dawnrock?”

Yarrow seriously considered scurrying away.

((Pathfinder test. Ob6. Yarrow doesn’t HAVE Pathfinder. Beginner’s luck rules, with help from Faolan (scouting) and Jerrick (wilderness-wise), left her rolling 3 dice… needing six successes. Sure. Failure. GM opts for a twist.))

The patrol heads… well, mostly north. Jerrick is stoically silent as Yarrow leads them, refraining from any comment more helpful than “are you sure?”

A long day ends with the group staring at the murky morass of a spring-swollen swamp. Dawnrock lies somewhere on the other side. Doubling back will add another day to the trip; possibly two. Continuing forward will require some kind of boat. Or… raft. or… something.

They decide to sleep on it.

The next morning, Faolan starts scrounging up bits of wood and vine to contruct a viable raft. Yarrow helps out by hauling the stuff (laborer), Jerrick ‘supervised’ with motivation-wise, and even Sable “helped”… by criticizing Faolan’s clearly atrophied carpentry skills.

((Boatcrafting. Ob5. Faolan has a 2. 3 helping dice from others, plus Scrounge-wise gave him six dice to roll. 3 success. GM uses a Conditions Twist.))

While the raft that Faolan finally got strapped together was enough to keep the cart (mostly) out of the water, the whole thing was terribly top-heavy and nowhere near big enough for the mice to ride (except for Sable, some of the time). Yarrow and Jerrick waded along on either side of the raft, chest-deep in the water, while Faolan pushed on the thing from the back.

The raft got hung up on tufts of grass repeatedly, and was generally a nightmare to move, but by late afternoon, they had cleared the swamp. Soaked to the bone, they’d had no time to eat — Yarrow and Jerrick were Hungry, but Faolan was too Angry to be hungry.

Oh, and old Sable is sneezing and sniffling and clearly Sick.

Back on “dry” land, they set out for Dawnrock and got there well after dark. It took some talking, but the town guard finally let them in, and let them stay in the guard house — no wandering around town for the strange guardmice, not without the See’s say-so, so Jerrick couldn’t even go stay at his family’s home — nor could Yarrow visit her friend.

The next morning, the guard were greeted by the leaders of the town and enthusiastically led out to the mill site to start on repairs. There was much to do.

First, they decided that Sable needed to be seen to. Jerrick went back into town to find a shop selling medicinal herbs and such.

((Resource test: Ob 4. Player was rolling about 7 or 8 dice, thanks to some help and being in his home town. Easy success, giving +1D to Yarrow’s next roll.))

With the supplies in hand, Yarrow set about making an eye-watering, head-clearing poultice for Sable.

((Healer test: Ob 3. Yarrow’s Healer is 2, plus the +1d for supplies, plus help from Faolan. She got two successes, spent a Fate point to blow up a 6, and got another success. Victory! Healthy old carpenter coot!))

With a revitalized (and aromatic) master carpenter dealing with building a new wheel, Yarrow started leading the laborers as they cleared mud and detritus from the wheel’s final location, and Faolan started cutting down a new axle for the wheel (something Sable figured Faolan could handle).

((Laborer, Ob3. Yarrow has 2. Helping from everyone, including ‘supervision’ from Jerricks motivation-wise (best trait EVER). Success.))

((Carpenter, Ob… 4? Something like that. Helping dice abound. Player gets 3 successes, two of which are sixes, but opts not to go for the win, wanting to see what will happen.))

Yarrow is covered pretty much head to toe in mud, ears drooping, when she hears “Y-Yarrow? is that… you?”

Her ears droop further.

It’s her friend, the loremouse Siaran, native of Dawnrock, whom she was hoping to impress with her guard mouseliness (her Goal for this session).

He’s unfailingly impressed and enthusiastic about seeing her, however, and even volunteers to jump in and help with the clearing of mud. He rolls up his pant legs and sleeves, hops in, and starts shoveling with a passion only seen in over-enthusiastic scholars trying to show off.

His shovel bites into the mud and pokes a just-waking Bullfrog right on the nose.

The bullfrog is not amused. It croaks. Siaran croaks desperately back. It doesn’t seem to have much affect.

((CONFLICT! Bullfrog, Nature 5, vs. the patrol. Bullfrog Goal is “Eat Siaran.” Patrol goal is “drive off bullfrog, and keep it from ever coming back.”))

Disposition is rolled. I get 7. Players get 13! (Faolan spent a Fate point to blow up a bunch of sixes.)

Action 1: I script Attack. Players (Yarrow) script Defend (they’re new to scripting, but it worked out in their favor this time). Yarrow rolls her Nature to defend, and throws herself and Siaran down and out of the way of the whipping tongue (taxing her Nature).

I get four successes on five dice. Yarrow gets two, but they’re both sixes. She spends a Fate point, rolls the two new dice, and gets two more successes. Tie!

Action 2: I script Maneuver. Players (Jerrick, with a bow) scripts Maneuver. I get two success, and so do the players (which is a shame, cuz they were rolling a LOT of dice). We both get +2D to our next action…

Action 3: … which doesn’t matter for me, because I scripted Feint, and the Players (Faolan) scripted an all-out attack. I don’t get to roll at all, and Faolan got six success, then spent his last Fate point to blow up some sixes and finish off my last point of Disposition.

The bullfrog, shovel-smacked, bruised, and cut along its flank, flees the area. Awestruck locals cheer.

Jerrick and Yarrow are Hungry and Thirsty, but this is Jerrick’s home town, so mom and pop fix them a nice meal, and that’s all taken care off with no Checks.

Jerrick, introduced to Yarrow’s friend, is very interested in the young mouse’s ability (unhelpful as it was) to speak Bullfrog, and spends a few days speaking of all things Loremouse. (Skill check on Loremouse. Two Success.)

Yarrow, chastised at her terrible pathfinding, gets up on the very highest parts of Dawnrock (which is atop a tall hill along the coast to boot) and takes many notes on the lay off the land she can see for miles and miles.
(Pathfinder beginner’s luck check: Success.)

Faolan’s time is spent more simply — at a pub, regaling the locals with retellings of the fight with the bullfrog, tossing back free (“medicinal”) beer, with cute young (“medicinal”) she-mice perched on his knee.
(Will check to recover from Angry: Success!)

A pretty fun time, even though we kind of forgot to set GOALS for the mission until very near the end. Bah. GM-failure.

Still, a good night, fun had by all (I think). Call it a win.

Love this game.

Links & Resources

More Mouse Guard, part 2

Right, so… where was I?

We had most the skills and wises nailed down for the characters, and we knew what skill each character’s mentor had emphasized in their training, so once again I went back to an idea from that article on teaching Mouse Guard through character generation and decided to show everyone how Independent tests worked.

6. The first test. I introduced the basics of the game system to everyone by doing an Independent test with each player. Based on the mentor they described and the focus each mentor took in their training, I would come up with a Ob 4 test (pretty difficult within the system) that they needed to face with a single Independent test. Getting a bonus to the roll from one of the player’s Wises are okay, plus the player to that player’s right could also describes how they help with the roll, and gives one helping die to the player.

Once that was done, they got to check either a success or failure for that skill, and we proceeded on to the next thing.

The thing was, due to the nature of the tests, this turned into a bit of a challenge.


I started with Kate, playing Rosamund, and asked for a reminder about what her Mentor had emphasized in her training.

“Fighter”, she replied.

“Fighter? I thought that was your natural talent.”

“That too.” She looked at her sheet. “It’s also my specialty.” She looked at me. “What?”

“Nothing.” I tried to figure out how to frame a scene involving a Fight test that was logically an Independent Test (rather than a versus test, which was the next thing I was going to do) and… yeah.  Also, in such a way that Dave could help her in  some way.

“Okay, so…” I looked at the map of the Territories. “You’re in Pebblebrook. Your patrol is.  Your mentor has been on you about how all your fancy moves and dueling rules are fine, but don’t carry much weight when you’re out in the wild.  To drive the point home, he… umm…”  I glance at Dave.  “He sends you out to recon a farm where the Pebblebrook mice have reported… well, they’re not sure — some say a big animal, some say weasel raiders.  Dave, your patrol’s out in this area too, because this has turned into kind of a big mess, and your leader sends you along with Kate — Rosamund.”


“And Aelwyn is scouting and doing his thing, and Rosamund, you’re like… poking around the outbuildings, a big granary… and you come around the building and come up face to face with a bobcat.”

They both blink. “Holy Crap.”

“Yeah… so…” I struggle to frame this up. “The thing is way too big to seriously threaten — you’d need a couple dozen guards to have a chance at this thing, maybe more — so you just need to get away.  Luckily, this thing can’t seem to decide if you’re food or a toy or something to ignore, so you’re not rolling against it, and not having to beat its full Nature.  You’re sword’s out and you’re just trying to hold it off and get it away.”

So we tally up dice, and Kate has some kind of sick number of dice — her Fighting is a 6, for pete’s sake, which is as high as it can go in the game — and Dave gives her a hand using his Predator-wise by shouting “poke it in the nose, it should back off!”  Kate wins the challenge handily and the two mice beat paws back to their respective patrols to report that yes… there APPEARS to be something amiss in Pebblebrook.


Next up is Aelwyn, and I ask Dave what his mentor’s training focus had been on, and he tells me it’s Scout.  Okay. That’s a bit easier, although it’s supposed to always be a versus test, but whatever. So is Fighter as far as I can imagine. C’est la gaming.

“So… same basic thing, Dave,” I say. “You’re in Pebblebrook, still, and it’s a bit later in this mission we’re flashing back to, and you’ve been sent out to scout around and see if you can find the lair of the bobcat or any weasels, because some people swear they’ve seen weasels around.  It’s weird, and it’s raising a panic in the western territories, which is why, Margie, you’re Patrol is out there too.  You two tenderfeet have been paired up on this scouting thing while your leaders confer.  This is going to be and Obstacle 4 Scouting test, and Margie…”

“… can help with Pathfinder.”

“Perfect. You’re pointing out on your map which roads and paths in the area are probably too well-traveled to use, and Aelwyn’s weaving through the countryside, looking anything weird, and… roll.”

Dave does, but he only comes up with three winning dice, and he needs four.

“So, you’re up on a bank, like a low rise that drops off sharply into this hollow, where there’s a small fire and a handful of weasels around it.  They’re talking about how they need more meat to lure the bobcat and keep the thing in area and scaring the locals so they don’t notice the weasels and whatever they’re doing.  Right about then, the bank gives way and you tumble down in amongst them.  There’s a lot of mud and rocks falling too, so you’re not immediately screwed, but you have to scramble and run like hell to escape them.”

I explain that, when you fail a roll, you can still succeed, but I also hit them with a Twist (something unexpected complicates things) or Consequences (they are saddled with some penalizing conditions).  In this case, it doesn’t matter, because this is all flashback, but I explain that I’d probably give them consequences – Dave would get the worst of it, cuz he was the ‘lead’ on the roll, and Margie would get a lesser penalty.  For example, I might give Dave the conditions of Tired and Angry after they escape, which Margie might get away with just “Hungry and Thirsty”.  If they’d really blow the roll, I might have Injured Dave instead, and giving Margie Tired.

We cover all that, and there’s quite a little narrative going on to this flashback thing that I like.


Lucia’s skill-to-test is Pathfinder, which she’s quite good at, and I flash back just a bit further, explaining that the three patrols had met up in Barkstone and wanted to find a way to get to Pebblebrook without using the main routes, which was a Pathfinder roll, with Kate helping out via her Weather Watcher skill.  Margie nails it, and we play through how the three patrols sneak into the area around Pebblebrook and start their recon that we’d already played with the other two.

Once we finished describing these scenes, we went around the circle again, with each player describing their mentor presenting their tenderpaw with a cloak and inviting them to stay with the Guard at the end of their first major Patrol. The player tells us the color of the cloak, and why the mentor chose that color.


  • Rosamund’s cloak is green, the color of life and vitality.
  • Lucia’s cloak is buff, the same shade as her fur, to remind her that her own goals and those of the Guard are one.
  • Aelwyn’s cloak is rust colored, “because it won’t show the blood-stains much, kid.”

7. The players then write down a Belief and an Instinct, maybe influenced by those scenes we’d just played. We took quite a bit of time hammering on these, but in the end I think everyone was pretty happy with them, though the Instincts might need to be a little more “triggery” for Margie.

  • Rosamund’s belief is “You can find glory by yourself, but only the Guard can achieve victory.” (which can, no coincidence, be summarized as “All for one, and one for all.”
    Her instinct is “always keep my equipment in fighting repair.”
  • Aelwyn’s belief is “The Guard prevails so long as it has heroes.”
    His instinct is “Always take the most Heroic action.”
  • Lucia’s belief is “Truth and Knowledge are their own reward.” (We’ll see about that.)
    Her instinct is “Discover and Document.” and… “Endure?” Maybe.

8. Friends. Each player tells about a friend they have.

  • Rosamund’s friend is Saxon, who is a good platonic friend and a sparring partner during the long Winter seasons in Lockhaven.
  • Aelwyn’s friend is Brynn, a fellow guard mouse who was recruited at the same time as him.
  • Lucia’s friend is Aunt Moira, a cartographer in Barkstone.

9. Enemies. Each player tells me about an enemy they have. I set up a Versus Test (my roll against theirs) with their enemy.

  • Rosamund’s enemy is Miranda, a potter in Copperwood.  Once a childhood friend, she dislikes Rosamund for “stealing” Saxon.
  • Aelwyn’s enemy is his brother Darwyn, a senior harvester in Ivydale who resent Ael for leaving the ‘family calling’ for fortune and glory in the Guard.
  • Lucia’s enemy is Thom, a patrol leader in the Guard.

The versus tests go like so:

  • Rosamund returns to Copperwood after being admitted officially into the Guard for some R&R. She’s spending the evening at a local pub near her family’s home with her old friends when Miranda shows up.  Eventually, Miranda starts in on Rosa, insinuating that our short little fighter only joined the guard to ‘get’ Saxon or, possibly, just seduce every male Guard in sight.  It’s a Persuasion versus Deception test, with the opinions and beliefs of their mutual friends on the line.  Kate brings in Copperwood-wise on the roll because “I know these mice, and they know me.”

    We tie the roll, I explain the various options when that happens, and Kate opts for a Will-vs.-Will tiebreaker roll, which I win pretty handily.  Margie comments that Miranda just “out-stubborned” the argument, and I go along with that, narrating how Miranda keeps harping and harping on the topic, while Rosamund loses interest fairly quickly and finally just blurts out “Yes! Fine, yes! That’s exACTly why I did it. Are you happy?” And stalks out.  Kate wasn’t loving having lost this conflict, but the final narration seemed to satisfy her pretty well.

  • Aewyn’s versus conflict had to do with a mission in Ivydale to track down some predators, with Aelwyn scouting for his patrol and his brother, scoffing, leading a group of locals on his own.  Aelwyn handily schooled his brother in this contest, proving without a doubt that he knew what he was about in this Guard work.
  • Lucia’s contest was against Thom, in which her patrol and Thom’s were both in one of the northern shore towns, and they fell into a debate about whether or not the weather was going to get worse the next day and interfere with local harvests.  Despite bringing in her widget-wise and a very scientific-looking pinecone barometer, Thom showed that experience and… you know… looking into the sky would always beat an over-clever youngling with some gadgets.

10. Suit Up. Everyone writes down some gear.  Mouse Guard has a lovely, elegant ‘encumbrance’ system: you can’t have more stuff than what fits in the (small) Gear area on the character sheet.  We probably still overgeared, when compared to the simple lists of ‘only the important stuff’ you see with the examples in the book, but whatever.

11. Group Challenge. We then played through one full conflict that happened sometime in the past.  Conflicts in Mouse Guard are a series of double-blind scripted actions, and can be pretty interesting. We’d already gone through an independent and versus test, so this just involves choosing actions and playing out the right tests as a consequence.

The setup for this went back to our Pebblebrook flashback situation.  I told the group that the three of them had discovered a group of Weasel Spies, and it was going to come down to a fight.

  • The Weasels goal was to capture the mice and prevent them from warning anyone else about the weasel plan (I decided this was all happening in the weeks leading up to the big war in 1149 that cost the Territories three towns to the weasels).
  • The player’s goal was to capture the weasels if possible, kill them if not, drive them off at the very least, and destroy their map of the area. (I told them to aim for a lot of stuff on their goal, so that they could still get some of it if they needed to compromise at the end of the Conflict.)

Dave ended up the designated leader for the Conflict, we rolled to determine group dispositions, then they asked me to leave the room so they could script their first three actions.

When I came back, they were ready, and we got to it.

  • The first action was Aelwyn’s – he’s scripted an Attack action with his bow. I had also scripted an Attack, and normally that would mean that, because of Dave’s bow, whoever rolled better would ‘win’, but I was attacking with a thrown knife, so it ended up being two independent Attacks, unblocked by the other side.  Dave rolled better, but their side had less Disposition to start with, so I was still better off then them.
  • The next action turned out to be Lucia, who was doing a “Manuever” (improving the group’s situation), using a bow.  I was also doing a Maneuver action (more thrown knives), which in this case meant that once again, we were just rolling Independently, rather than Versus.   Margie rolled very well, and I didn’t — the end result was that her maneuvering and bow shots left a huge opening for Rosamund. (And extra dice for Rosamund to roll, and one less dice for me to roll in the next action.)
  • Rosamund, with her Fighter 6, scripted an Attack. Surprise Surprise.  I had ALSO scripted an attack.  This was pretty dangerous, because the two of us were both close enough to defeat that we could both be defeated in the same simultaneous action, which would mean that both sides would get everything they wanted from the fight.  Needless to say, that was a pretty dangerous result.  It’s also exactly what happened: Kate rolled a huge pile of dice and wiped me out, but I didn’t need to do much take out the player’s side of the conflict either.

So what happened?  Well, I couldn’t capture them, but I could do the rest — the fight was bloody, brutal, and short; the weasel spies were dead, their map destroyed, but though the mice struggled valiantly to get back and worn the others about what was about to happen, they were too Tired, too Injured, and they simply didn’t get there in time to do any good… maybe things were already too late long before that, but the fact of it is, they blamed themselves.

And that’s where we left off.

Personally, I was very happy with the session – I felt like we got the characters sketched out pretty well, but more than that, I think the skill tests throughout really helped give some color and depth and a shared history to the group that I really enjoy.  I’m definitely looking forward to playing this weekend.

Also, the final wiki’d sheets for Aelwyn, Rosamund, and Lucia.

Actual Play

More Mouse Guard

I’ve already talked about my current enjoyment of the Mouse Guard RPG, or at least the game-in-concept, as I hadn’t a chance to play it yet. I thought that might change last week, thanks to Skype and a nascent game forming up on the Burning Wheel forums, but unfortunately I just couldn’t pull it off.

Then I got an email from Dave, mentioning in more-than-passing that… hey… he and Margie were at loose ends and Katherine-free for the coming couple weekends… and how are things? How’s the wife? How’s that gaming table?

Whattaya know, that gave me an idea.

So on Saturday, Dave and Margie came around and, with Kate, we set about making up characters for a Mouse Guard game.

Now, the book has a perfectly fine character creation process, but since neither Margie or Kate had read much or any of the comics that the game is based on, I wanted to get everyone into the same basic headspace, which lead to a few introduction exercises borrowed from an article I read a few weeks ago on the pedagogy of playing Mouse Guard, but with a bit of the high-energy fluff discarded, because we had a sick player involved. Here’s how that went.

1. Mouse Ball. The idea of this little game is to start seeing the world from a mouse’s perspective. I started by saying something that would threaten a mouse, and maybe a little color around it, like “Racoons will destroy a town just to get to the winter stores.” Then I’ll throw the ball. The person who catches it has to repeat what I said, and add something else that would threaten a mouse, like, “… and the towns must be built high to avoid floods.” Then that person throws the ball to someone else, who has to repeat the last threat that person said, and add a new one.
2. So how does the Mouse Guard manage it? I pick one of the dangers we named in Mouse Ball, and talk briefly about how the Mouse Guard deals with that problem. Then someone else picks another problem and talks about how it might be handled.
3. Forming the Patrol. I started this off by simply saying “We need to form a patrol, what should that patrol include?” The others took over while I messed with getting dinner ready to cook. I had envisioned this as everyone coming up with many ideas, then cherry-picking the most appealing for their actual characters, but in practice everyone just proposed a single character and tweaked the concepts a bit until everyone basically meshed.
4. See Me. We finally got started on the character Worksheet: Name, Age, Home and Fur Color. Once those things were done, I asked the “Mouse Nature” questions from the book (p. 299), to determine what each individual character’s Nature score was. Then we went around, with each player telling us about their character (Name, Age, et cetera) and how they answered the Nature questions. We got:

  • Kate: Rosamund is a 26 year old from the city of Copperwood. Her fur is a sleek gray, and her Nature was a fairly un-mouselike 3, because she doesn’t suffer privations to save up for later, doesn’t fear weasels or other predators, and doesn’t run from a fight. (In fact, she rather enjoys fights, though as an urban mouse, she grew up far more used to dueling without consequences than battles for her life.)
  • Margie: Lucia Singleton is a 25 year old mouse from Sprucetuck. Her fur is a buff color, and her Nature is a slightly more mouse-like 4 – she has a (quite reasonable) fear of weasels and such. She’s an almost archetypical resident of Sprucetuck: shy, bookish, with a thirst for knowledge that leads her into adventures she might otherwise avoid.
  • Dave: Aelwyn is a 28 year old mouse from Ivydale. His fur is a lustrous blonde and, although he comes from a long line of Harvester mice, he is meant for different things: His Nature, like Rosamund’s, is 3. In fact at first glance he and Rosamund have quite a bit in common, but their motivations are subtlely but significantly different — Aelwyn believes wholeheartedly in the power of Heroes.

Now, somewhere around here, I almost burned down the house and/or killed us all, thanks to a Grill Malfunction, but we got that settled down and decided to finish up supper prep inside. Once we got that cooked and eaten, we returned to the characters and proceeded pretty much in the order presented in the book.

5. Skills and Life experience. This was fairly straightforward – everyone made up Patrol Guards, so they all had the same number of skill.  They can be summarized like so.

  • Rosamund (whose longer character concept was later summarized by Kate simply as “D’Artagnan”) grew up with her parents (Benedict and Portia) and learned the smithing trade – very common in that city.  She had a natural talent as a fighter, however, and although she is quite short, she was also very independent, and persuaded her parents to let her apply to the Guard.  In Lockhaven, she was apprenticed to Richard the armorer for two seasons, and was then assigned to Warwick, a senior patrol leader who chose to focus on Rosa’s abilities as a fighter, and how they applied to the real world, as opposed to duels.  As a tenderpaw and later a guard mouse, she trained as a fighter, healer, weather watcher and, given her natural gifts with a blade, as an instructor — though her specialty (and first love) was always fighting.  She is wise in the ways of armor, Copperwood, and dueling.
  • Lucia grew up with her parents (Gwen and Cadfil) and, always inquisitive and clever, learned about Science as a young mouse, for which she has a natural talent as well.  Her Instinct to “Discover and Document” led her to the Guard – one of the best ways to see and learn new things.  In Lockhaven, she was apprenticed to Mariell the Archivist for two seasons, and was then assigned to Mary the Older, a senior patrol leader who chose to focus on her natural inquisitiveness toward work as a pathfinder.  As a tenderpaw and later a guard mouse, she specialized as a pathfinder, but assembled a truly eclectic set skills as a healer, fighter, hunter, cook, and weather watcher.  She is wise in the ways of medicine, paths, and widgets.
  • Aelwyn grew up in Ivydale with his harvester parents (Liam and Elana) and although he was a hard worker, his brave nature and natural talent as a hunter called him to greater things.  Though it left him quits with his brother, he set out for Lockhaven, where he was apprenticed to Gailyn the Brewer (disappointingly unheroic, but still very popular with his peers). Following his apprenticeship, he was assigned to the patrol of Captain Dunlevy, who chose to ‘sell’ his heroic young hunter on the value of good scouting. As a tenderpaw and later a guard mouse, he specialized as a scout, and eagerly focused his training on precisely the sorts of things he thought any good adventurer should know: fighting, hunting, and surviving.  He is wise in the ways of predators, tall grass, and bards. (He is, in fact, a skilled orator.)

… that’s the first part — tomorrow, I’ll talk about running some independent and versus tests with each player as part of character generation, and wrapping up with a quick Conflict.

Game Design Musing Table Top

My thoughts on the Mouse Guard RPG

I’m very excited about the first play session of our new Primetime Adventures game this Wednesday, and while I’m putting a lot of mental effort into it, another game is on my radar, and I really had to share.

There are a few games that I think of as the touchstones in independently published roleplaying ‘story’ games. Sorcerer. Inspectres. Dogs in the Vineyard. Primetime Adventures. The Shadow of Yesterday. The Burning Wheel. My heart wants to add Spirit of the Century to the list, or Don’t Rest Your Head, but while they’re some of my favorite games, they also came along later, and they were built with a somewhat different priority in mind than that first list.

Those who know my gaming habits know that I’ve played or run (or both) most of the games on that list — usually a number of times (usually not as much as I’d have liked) — with good reason. Each one brings something special to the table that either isn’t available elsewhere, or which became an element copied numerous times in other games. They’re seminal, as well as being fun.

The one exception on that list  of seminal, inventive games is The Burning Wheel — I’ve never played Burning Wheel.

Now, that isn’t to say I didn’t OWN the game — I had the very first edition of the game, hand-numbered, in pencil, with a little thank-you note from Luke Crane.

But play it? No, I did not.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good game – many many people will say a great game – but it’s very very crunchy.

And I don’t mean it’s “Crunchy for a Story Game,” the way Agon is; I mean it makes games like DnD, Warhammer, and GURPS look like diceless freeform.

Those other games reward players with better ‘performance’ once the players have achieved a degree of system familiarity. Burning Wheel goes a bit other other direction: it punishes the absence of system familiarity – it is through system knowledge that one achieves nominal – rather than exceptional – performance from one’s character.

At the time that I got Burning Wheel, I was already doing a very long-running DnD game, and frankly I didn’t *want* to run another crunchy, high-GM-prep system; I just didn’t feel as though people wanted to dive in and learn a whole new system with that much detail. Hell, *I* didn’t; the game sat on my shelves for several years – skimmed, but unread. If it came up in conversation, I mentioned that I really wanted to play the game with some people that understood it before I tried to run it myself. In the meantime, I ran other games — with DnD handling our/my need for crunchy tactical games, our indie gaming was taken up with other things — with limited gaming time and ever-shrinking schedules, the folks I play with are just more likely to choose games with a lower level of required investment than BW.

But I never quite abandoned my interest in the game. Everything I heard about the game sounded – to my tactical-loving side – quite cool, and the raves and praise heaped on the “Story” elements of the game (character Beliefs, Instincts, Traits, and Goals) were just as effusive. When the Revised version of the game came out, I picked it up; when Burning Empires came out, I read and re-read information on the game and its setting. But it was still a game that took too much time to learn, too much time to prep.

Then came Mouse Guard.


Mouse Guard is a roleplaying game where players assume the role of the titular Guard from the comic books by David Petersen: bipedal, intelligent mice who protect their communities from a variety of threats in a semi-medieval setting. There is no magic in the setting, nor are there any humans; the threats to those precarious communities are the seasons, the weather, the wild animals, and (sadly) the very mice the Guard are sworn to protect. Their goal is simple: to keep the roads open within the Territories – to keep from becoming prisoners in their own cities – mice in gilded cages, if you like.

To me, the idea that the creators behind Mouse Guard (who were also RP gamers of a more classic sort) wanted to have an RPG for their product didn’t surprise me – nor did the fact that they wanted a more story-driven game. What surprised me was that they were going to get the Burning Wheel crew to do the game. What surprised me the most was what I started to hear about the Mouse Guard RPG:

  • A streamlined version of the game. The sparest, most elegant iteration of the rules, to date.
  • Accessible to new players – not just new-to-BW, but new to Roleplaying.
  • Still a true and excellent representation of the Good Things That Are Burning Wheel.
  • Strong player-centered focus of play that’s built directly into the rules in numerous ways.
  • Lots of situation-generating hooks built right into the characters, making running the game easy.
  • Several procedural innovations that make elements of play that are problematic in other games (high crunch = high prep time) very fast and easy.
  • There are already a number of ‘hacks’ to port the game to settings that I find very interesting. (Such as “Realm Guard”, which involves playing Dunedain in the 4th Age of Middle Earth. Mmmm good.)

Also, it didn’t hurt that the book itself — 8″x8″, hardbound, 300+ pages, but with a ruleset that can be completely summarized on the backside of the official character sheet, and thus chock full of setting material, advice, and artwork rather than charts — is f’in gorgeous.

So I got it.

I read it. Cover to cover, like a good book. I annoyed Kate by reading sections out loud, explaining rules she didn’t care about, and recounting examples from the source material she’d never read. Hell, I’m still doing it.

Here are some of my thoughts.


In short:

  • The player defines the character via their Beliefs, Goals, Instincts, and Traits, and it is ONLY through bringing those elements to light during roleplay, in the game, that you are rewarded with Fate and Persona points (which probably do pretty much what you expect).
  • Skills improve through active use. Period. Through play. Period.

The Mechanics of Success and Failure

Basic tests in Mouse Guard are simple RPG fare: either unopposed or “versus” checks – in either case, the player needs X number of successes to achieve Unmitigated success. Your skills are numerically rated (usually from 1 to 6), and when tested, you roll a number of d6s equal to the skill rating, count those rolling 4 or higher as successes and discarding the “cowards” that came up 3 or less. If you’ve played Shadowrun or Vampire, you’ll recognize this.

The innovation here is that there is no failure result in the game. What’s that? A crunchy-tactical game where you can’t lose?

Kinda. If you fail to get success outright, success is achieved at the cost of “Conditions” or a “Twist.” With conditions, you win, but you acquire (or more) conditions, such as Tired, Sick, Hungry, Angry, Injured, and so forth.

So you can save your wounded companion, even if you blew the roll, but now you’re Tired.

You can escape from the Owl, but you’re Injured… and Hungry… and Tired. Ouch.

Sometimes, you're not trying to escape...
Sometimes, you're not trying to escape...

Twists work similarly, but instead of taking a condition, your conflict is interrupted by (or leads to) a twist that takes the story in a new direction… and which very likely leads to ANOTHER conflict.

In other words, that bedrock concept of Indie Gaming GMing – “Failure should make things more interesting.” – is hardwired into the game.


Scripting is a core concept of extended Burning Wheel conflicts — the “big” conflicts in BW use this kind of conflict, where opposing sides pick a short series of actions without knowing what the other side is going to do — potentially leaving themselves wide open at the worst possible moment, or tactically outguessing the other side at the perfect time.

I love the concept of scripting – it has that kind of immersive realism I sometimes enjoy – but in practice, I know the BW implementation leaves some people cold.

In Mouse Guard, the scripting is a far more streamlined version of the basic BW scripting… simpler, but with powerful choices — perhaps the best implementationof the mechanic. Far from being just a guessing game, you have to weigh which actions your character is good at, which your partners are good at, which your “weapons” are helpful for (scripting works in any kind of conflict, from weapons to survival to chases to oration debates), compare each of them to the actions the opponent might do taking into account what he and his weapons are good at… and then realize your opponent is doing all that too, at which point it becomes very much like a strategic board game mechanic, in terms of the mental gymnastics required to use limited information to outwit the other guy.

And, like the basic skill tests, Failure and Success has many many shades — it’s only by utterly defeating your opponent without letting them get a paw on you that you get exactly what you wanted, exactly how you wanted it.

Even if he wins, things will probably not go perfectly.
Even if he wins, things will probably not go perfectly.

Teamwork is vital. That’s one of the fundamentals of this game. You are little mice in a great big world, and quite frankly you will be ultimately unable to complete your missions if you don’t work together – eventually, even with the skill system having “outs” for failed rolls, you’ll hit a Full Conflict with scripting that simply blows you away, with no way out but death. The prey are bigger than you (hell, the herbivores are bigger than you, and they’re eating all the food!) the seasons are bigger than you, the weather is bigger than you… you need to help each other.


“Call it what you like, but I’m still failing”
Now yes: failure isn’t “failure” in Mouse Guard, but it stings to play a game and lose the first conflict – maybe the first several – but the way the game is set up, all that means is that a new, unexpected situation crops up. (And in other way, reminiscent of With Great Power, such struggles feed you the resources you need to Kick Ass later.)

There are a lot of games out there that are basically mission completion games. The point of those games is to use your resources well in order to successfully complete a mission. In those games failing the mission is failing; it isn’t game-destroying, but it is a failure. You had a chance to step on up, and you didn’t step, as it were.

Mouse Guard looks a lot like a mission-completion games. Mouse Guard feels a lot like a mission-completion game. But I don’t think Mouse Guard actually is a mission-completion game.
Mouse Guard is a game where you tell a story about heroes who go on a mission (little heroes, but still). That’s a close thing, but its also a sharp and important divide.

One of the most excellent things about that difference is that it might teach everyone at the table to let go a little bit and try something heroic rather than spend ten minutes figuring out a safer plan.

To act, rather than deliberate.
To act, rather than deliberate.

I don’t care if it’s mice (though I like the other settings people are porting the system into) — the simple fact of the matter is that I think this is one of the best tactical, crunchy, story-driven games out there — maybe the only one that’s all three.

I can’t wait to play.