Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Further Thoughts on Mouse Guard

In my Orccon 2011 recap a few days ago I mentioned that I played in a Mouse Guard game, and that I found the game to be frustratingly slow and I would not be inclined to play again. Somehow, within hours, my post found itself relayed on the Mouse Guard discussion forum, and the GM of the session chimed in on my comments. Out of respect for the GM, I thought I’d take a minute to better describe my impression of the session and of The Burning Wheel rule system on which Mouse Guard is based.

Facts about the game:
1. I did enjoy the game in several ways (see below).
2. The GM was skilled, experienced, and confident.
3. The GM was pleased with how the session went.
4. The players were all experienced gamers and were also satisfied with how the session went.
5. We played for 3-4 hours.
6. In this time we roleplayed three distinct situations: (1) freed a cart from mud, (2) unsuccessfully searched for a person in a town, (3) had an argument with a group of NPCs..

Soo... basically each situation in this game took, on average, over an hour to get through. Given that this was in line with the expectations of the GM and the players - i.e. the session wasn’t a dud, it was a good game - I think the root of my problem came down to the fact that Mouse Guard’s hyper-micro-management approach to roleplaying was not my personal cup of tea. I constantly work to speed up my games so players feel like they are stepping into exciting, fast-moving stories. I like old school and rules-light RPGs because they facilitate narrative speed, and, at their best, produce an imagination-fueled feeling of entrainment, momentum, and immersion that is unique to RPGs.

The Burning Wheel rule system takes a very different approach to roleplaying. It makes players deconstruct trivial tasks into long series of dice pool roles constructed by combinations of players’ Traits, Abilities, Skills, and various modifiers – all translated in the context of a list of Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts unique to each player. I admit that there was some fun in juggling numbers around to justify every few sentences of roleplaying. The feeling was a lot like playing a strategy eurogame – you have to choose from a small set of available actions (i.e. what Trait or Skill are you going to use and possibly burn) and then act on the outcome of the scaled dicepool and possibly accrue some future modifiers (Fate, Persona, Checks, etc.). Based on the dicepool outcome (failures ~80% of the time) the narrative changes direction for a few sentences from the GM, then you repeat. I like eurogames, so I did derive some enjoyment from this odd rpg/eurogame hybrid experience.

But the simple fact remains… It took well over an hour and ~20 dice pool roles to have a first-person roleplay argument with an opponent NPC. It was a weird microscopic dissection of a game moment that would be 5-10 minutes of free-form first-person roleplaying in a traditional RPG. While The Burning Wheel rule system is clever and novel, I think this snail-paced roleplaying would get old very quickly. Playing a “campaign” like this would be absolutely excruciating, in my opinion.

Another impression I was left with was that this rule system disrespects players in a strange kind of way. Instead of allowing players to roleplay their characters’ personalities however they feel is appropriate, players constantly strive to take actions that align with (or in some numerically optimal situations, contradict) their Beliefs, Goals, Instincts, and Nature as outlined on the characters sheet. The better one plays this game, the more Fate and Persona points are collected from the GM to modify dice pool roles. A major downside to this is that in most situations it is glaringly obvious what Ability or Skill (or whatever) is most optimal to use, so the game mechanic kind of plays the characters in an almost puppet-like way.

In sum, Mouse Guard is indeed a slow moving roleplaying game. It magnifies normally trivial roleplaying situations into long series of statistical number-crunching dicepools that determine the direction of the narrative and push PCs through situations like number-optimized puppets. I think of this game as a novel hybrid between eurogames and RPGs, and it has some entertaining merits in this respect. If I wanted to run an exciting adventure based on the Mouse Guard comic book, however, there is no way I would use these rules.

NOTE: I just want to thank the GM again for an excellent introduction to Mouse Guard and emphasize that this post is about game mechanics, not his GMing skills. As I said before, he's a skilled and confident GM.