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.


  1. Hi Bob. It was fun having you in the game and I appreciate your comments. MG may not be your game, but I am glad you had some fun in the session. Just to clarify something in the above post, the choice to follow or go against the Beliefs or Goals you create as a player is not tied to the reward mechanic. All MG asks is that you make your beliefs, goals and instincts important in the roleplay and you get the reward.
    With Skills and Traits, Mouseguard never asks you not to use an optimal skill, ever. It does ask if the Trait (like "determined" or "tall")you selected as a player might hinder you in this situation and rewards you if you bring your trait in in a negative way. It rewards you in a different manner if you bring your trait in to help you. Just some comments.

  2. An hour to "roll-play" freeing a cart from mud? I think I'll stick to the rules-light/old school games, thank you very much.

    The three 'scenes' you mentioned would have taken no more than about 20 minutes in total in one of our games, then we would have gotten on with the adventure.

    Thank you for this detailed, and well argued, critique. Made for very interesting reading.

  3. Yeah. Freeing the cart didn't take an hour. There was a lot of things that happened before the cart scene. There was futzing around and making introductions. Picking characters and writing Mission Goals. There was too much rules discussion (my fault. I blame lack of sleep!). Then there was an initial scene with the head of the Mouse Guard where they learned of the mission. After that, there was a weather watching test to set the starting weather. Then there was a series of tests involving figuring out the path to the town of Appleloft, including a fun little argument between the Patrol Leader and the most junior member of the team about whether he should scout ahead alone. After that, came the moment where their three cart convoy was haulted by the mud along the banks of a rising river. The three carts were each pulled by a 20-beetle team, so that's a lot of beetles for one of the characters to corral with his Insectrist skill. There was a Carpenter roll to shore up the wheels and give them purchase and the Patrol leader rolled his Persuasion to organize the rest of the convoy into a force to help them move the cart while another player threw his muscle in to help. It was a fun obstacle and didn't take an hour, but it isn't something I would have glossed over. Here's the tweet from one of the other players, "Who knew freeing a cart from the mud could be such fun!"

  4. Hi.

    Just one thing. It's curious, but I don't think Mouse Guard is a slow game. No slower than the comic that inspired it, at least. In fact, I think it's a fast game. You can play an entire session in an hour and a half or maybe two hours. That is time enough to face two obstacles, maybe one or two complications and one big Conflict, and, in the Player's Turn, do whatever you want, with at least one roll/scene or one Conflict for Player. There's a lot of stuff there.

    But when you are in your first session, you can't wait see all the virtues of the game at once. Maybe it's not your game, sure, but remember you played just one session.

    - Alejandro

  5. BW is sort of an required taste, but I very much like the philosophy behind it. I've been tinkering with the game mechanics in a way to make it compatible with my own homebrew D&D rules so I can generate backstories in my campaign.

  6. So, a few years ago, in my first real foray into DM'ing, I ran a one shot session for my brother and his fiancee and my father. My soon-to-be sister had read the comics and wanted to try role playing. I found out far too late that 1) I had no inkling of how the burning wheel system worked, and 2), the MG variant of said system only nominally followed the BW structure, IMO. The game went off very well, they thought. The sad truth is, I played it pretty much like an old school game (now knowing what that is, of course), in that I pretty much gave them a situation and said, "Okay, sweet, where ya goin' from here?"

    They dithered, argued, lied, and came up with an extremely novel way of crossing a stream. They learned about things like character consequences for game play decisions, and perhaps more frighteningly, that my dad was pretty good at solving puzzles.

    Ultimately, I very much enjoyed the setting, who wouldn't? My conclusion was much like yours: I felt it was far too micromanagerial for a game that should be quick and squeaky. Though I never did have enough interest to purchase the rule book, the extremely complex rules (compromises? huh?) for things like resolving the weather to fighting a gang felt just too laborious.

  7. You can play an entire session in an hour and a half or maybe two hours. That is time enough to face two obstacles, maybe one or two complications and one big Conflict, and, in the Player's Turn, do whatever you want, with at least one roll/scene or one Conflict for Player.

    This is hard to imagine, but I'll take your word for it. The game would be much more to my taste at this kind of pace. After 3.5 hours our session never even got the the Player's Turn, so I have no idea what that's like.

    Maybe it's not your game, sure, but remember you played just one session.

    True true! I openly offer the disclaimer that I played one session with one GM, although, as I pointed out, the GM and other players felt it was a good game.

  8. My conclusion was much like yours: I felt it was far too micromanagerial for a game that should be quick and squeaky.

    Yeah, I just don't know if I have the patience for this level of micromanagement in an RPG. Noclue and root@zero'z comments above perfectly crystallize how every little action is broken down, categorized, and rolled on. An interesting approach, but quite ponderous. I can see the appeal for numbers-oriented gamers, though.

    I'd love to play in a Mouse Guard setting with a more fast-paced rule system.

  9. Hm, perhaps I could run it at the next con: Mouseguard setting with OD&D rules set?


  10. Hi Bob! I also played in the game in question, so here's my two cents. This was my first time playing MG and I had never even heard of Burning Wheel before this session. I normally enjoy vast swaths of adventure, kicking ass and chewing bubble gum. However, I really liked the pacing of this game as well as some of the “micromanagement” aspects the game mechanics provided. Then again, I like listening to baseball games on the radio, so take that for what it's worth.

    Without having read much of the comic I'd say that the system fits the setting well. MG doesn't strike me a hack & slash, kick in the door style of setting. My impression is that MG is more character driven and slower paced with occasional punctuations of action. Did we need to spend time getting a cart unstuck? Was it a high adventuring, swashbuckling, action-packing, two-fisting scene? Not in the least. Did I just say two-fisting? Scratch that part. Anyway, I would argue that this type of scene is ideal to get the flavor of MG. I think the GM wanted to impart that the everyday struggles of the mice are part of the adventure in MG.

    I enjoyed seeing how a social interaction was broken down into game mechanics. What would normally be handled with a quick role playing conversation between the player and the GM became something more tactical (like Bob said). I liked it. When you are normally role playing an interaction between your character and an NPC, you are only as good as your improvisational skills allow. Being somewhat socially inept, it has always bothered me that, even though my character may have an amazingly high charisma, my character would still be limited by my own inadequacies. Having the interaction broken down into game mechanics gave me time to craft responses and create something that was, perhaps, more narrative than the first thing that popped into my head. Being able to tie this all together with my character's given motivations felt satisfying.

    On the flip side, I didn't like how the game seems engineered to create “failures.” 8 out of 10 times we tried to do something that seemed simple enough we “failed.” Fail is in quotes because you never actually fail your attempted task but are instead given complications by the GM. These complications added a lot of extra time to do a simple task (that damn cart). Maybe the dice mechanic is off or the difficulty levels of simple tasks are wonky? Anyway, it bothered me to have to arbitrarily roll the dice, knowing that I will probably fail, just so the GM could introduce an element to the game he could have introduced anyway.

    My other beef would be that it felt less like role playing game to me and more like a collaborative story telling session. I guess the game system and setting are not really my bag, but I kind of figured that would be the case going into the game. I will always prefer high adventure over high drama.

    Nit-picky complaints aside, thanks again to the GM for a great game!

  11. Thanks Fleabomber. It was my pleasure. Your comments about failure got me thinking. Here's a stripped down view of the game, since the game doesn't really have failure I'll use the terms "twist" and "condition" to denote when a plot twist occured or when someone got success with a cost:

    Weatherwatching test - Success!
    PvP argument - simple versus test (one winner/one loser)
    Pathfinder test - Twist: cart stuck - complex hazard.
    -Insectrist test - Condition: tired.
    -Carpenter test - Success!
    -Persuader test - Success!
    Circles test - Twist: emnity (mayor shows up instead)
    Scout test - Success! - finds raccoon tracks.
    Argument Conflict! - extended versus tests - Ultimately the PCs win, with some concessions.

  12. True true! I openly offer the disclaimer that I played one session with one GM, although, as I pointed out, the GM and other players felt it was a good game.

    Bob, I demand a rematch! :)

  13. Bob, I demand a rematch! :)

    Sure! I owe you one for being such a good sport about my blog posts! :)