Thursday, 13 October 2011

Review of the Mouse Guard RPG Box Set

Thursday, October 13, 2011

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The other day I finally got the recently released Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game Box Set set in the mail and I thought I would actually take the time and do a proper review of it here.

What's in the box
The meat of the review will naturally be the contents of the main rulebook, but first let's have a look at the actual components in the box. The box itself is surpsisingly sturdy, actually more so than most board games I own (including FFG's that are usually pretty good quality). It has a glossy finish both inside and out and it feels like it will stand the wear and tear of carrying it around. The original hard cover book was released in 2008 and I think the only real difference between it and the book in the box is that it's now soft cover. It seems to be of good quality so I'm not worried about it falling apart. Only time will tell though.

Then there's the new extra stuff: a Game Master's screen, a bunch of cards, 10 mouse dice, a booklet of new rules and missions, player and GM sheets, a map of the mouse territories and five mouse pawns in the style of the ones you see Gwendolyn handle in the comics. Ooh! Lots of juicy stuff!

  • The screen is well designed with things liks skill factors, weapons and animals and their nature listed on it. It is relatively flimsy though, more like how GM screens used to be rather than the heavy linen card stock that we often see today. It's very much an optional accoutrement though so I don't have a problem with that. 
  • There are two cards for each weapon (except for just one mace), three cards for each condition and three cards for each conflict action. They look great and are of a very sturdy, gloss cardstock. I will probably sleeve them although I can't imagine that you would actually need to. Just my anal nature. 
  • The booklet has some new rules for additional weapons (for all the different conflicts) and mounts. There are also a couple of new cities introduced as well as three new missions, one of which is based on the Winter series (think snow, owl and Darkheather). All in all a nice addition!
  • The map is the same you see on the inside cover of the books only it's in full colour. It's a beautiful map but I was hoping that it was going to be larger. It's actually only twice the size of the book which is not bad but... would have liked it larger. Well, hopefully I can find a high resolution image that I can print out nice and large to put in the middle of the table during play.
  • With a map you naturally need some mouse pawns to put on it! You get five of them in a variety of colours and they are very nice. They really don't serve any other function than eye candy but I'm perfectly satisfied with that. Larger than I expected.
  • The new character and GM sheets have been slightly redesigned. First off they're now square to match the books (and the box) and some of the information has been moved around or swapped. Nothing dramatically different but they look a bit nicer.
  • And finally my favourite components; the dice! They are simply fantastic and I was really sad to hear from Luke that extra sets will not be available separately. I'd buy two or three packs right off the bat! There are three ouroboros symbols, two crossed swords symbols and one axe symbol on each die, corresponding with 1-3, 4-5 and 6 respectivally. The symbols are emgraved on the dice, not simply printed on and they look spectacular. Love them!
  • Oh, one final thing that bears mentioning. The box actually comes with a transparant plastic insert that fits on top of all the books and sheets which has room for the pawns and cards as well. It seems to be designed with reusability in mind and will serve to keep all the components in place when you put the lid on the box. A nice touch!

Bottom line is that the production values and design of this box is through the roof. Sure, the book isn't hardback and the screen is kind of flimsy, but apart from that it really deserves the highest praise!

Now, onto the rulebook and the game itself.

The Game
I've been reading the PDF while waiting for the hard copy and it's one of, if not the most interesting RPG product I've read to date. I'm not saying it's necessarily the best roleplaying game but it's certainly one of the best roleplaying books.

I first came in contact with the Burning Wheel system and Luke Crane a couple of years ago when I first started looking around for alternatives to what I suppose broadly could be called "traditional roleplaying games" (incidentally that is also when I discovered Diaspora and FATE). I read through the Hub and Spokes and while the concepts therein were absolutely fascinating I was also wary how well the system would go across with my regular gaming group. So I kind of filed it among the other would-like-to-play-sometime-games and left it at that.

I had heard about Mouse Guard at this time but the subject matter didn't appeal to me (mice with swords? What?) and I hadn't really made the connection with Burning Wheel. Nonetheless I had of course noticed that it was very popular. Then a couple of months ago something made me  want to read more about Mouse Guard, and I'm glad I did!

I got the PDF and as I started reading I simply could not put it down. For a grizzled old roleplayer like myself reading about radically different concepts and ideas like this is a novel experience! Sure, there are buttloads of RPGs out there with all manners of neat mechanics and interesting rules, but very few of them put half as much thought in how to actually create the story, play the characters and how it all ties into the mechanics as Mouse Guard does. This kind of nonconformity are almost immediately apparent just from the layout of the book.

Pretty much all RPGs I've read so far have started with talking about what an RPG is, then they describe character creation, then probably skills and abilities followed by weapons and equipment and finally a world section and a GM's section. You know how they all look, right? In Mouse Guard the chapter for character creation is the last in the book! Skills and Traits are just ahead of it and the book starts with what is actually the core of Mouse Guard: how to truly play your character - not from a numbers standpoint but from a roleplaying one. There aren't many equipment rules so they're covered in the Resolution chapter and the information about the world is sprinkled throughout the book (although you could argue that the Seasons and The Territories chapters are the "world chapters"). So what about the GM's section? Well, there is a chapter for it (The Mission) but to be perfectly honest the entire book is like a guide to Game Masters everywhere!

I will try to make a short summary of the essential concepts of Mouse Guard (the spokes!) for those of you out there who have no idea what I'm on about.

I think the core idea is to more closely integrate roleplaying with the actual mechanics of the game and to try and make the story more "alive". In traditional RPGs the mechanics are pretty much disassociated from any actual roleplaying that might or might not be going on. The mechanics are the gamey bits provided by the book and the roleplay bits are supposed to be provided by the players. In Mouse Guard these two are very much integrated and to be able to play the game you will have to actually roleplay your character.

To create this integration each character has a Belief (a snapshot view of how the characters thinks and reasons), an Instinct (something your character does without really thinking) and several Traits (one word descriptions) that further helps fleshing out your character.

Your Belief is the main guide on how your character should be played. If, during play, you're not quite sure what to do in a certain situation you can simply read over your belief and think about how your character would act. It also serves as a reminder for the rest of the group what kind of character you play. This is not to say that your Belief is some kind of rule that you have to follow. While you do get rewarded with Fate points when acting according to your belief you also get rewarded with Persona points for acting against it (since it shows the difficult decision your character faced and potential character development). Instincts also net you bonus points if you use them at the right time, mind you the right time does not necessarily mean the best time. Having an instinct like "I always draw my sword at first sign of trouble" can be just as much a detriment as a boon.

And finally we have Traits. If Beliefs are the overarching concept of the character, the Traits are the meat and bone of it. Traits are simple statements like Tall, Stoic, Inquisitive, Sceptical etc and is yet another way to develop your character's thoughts and habits. Traits can be used to receive bonus dice to your tests ("I'm Sceptic, don't you think I should get a bonus die for resisting that Deceive attempt?") which is all well and good but the real punch comes from how you can use the Traits against yourself during play ("I'm Sceptic so I probably don't believe that a weasel army is marching against Lockhaven"). Purposefully tripping yourself up like this helps to further develop your character and also earns you Checks that can be spent later. For those of you familiar with FATE this mechanic is rather similar to how Aspects work in that game.

Now, Fate and Persona points can be used at any time to allow you to add extra dice or re-roll bad ones, but Checks (that you earn from traits) can only be used during the players turn. "What the hell is the players turn? I thought this was a roleplaying game!" I hear you say. Yes, this is another very different concept that you'll find in Mouse Guard. Each session is made up of the GM's turn, in which the guardmice are sent on a mission and need to overcome a number of obstacles set before them by the GM. However, once they accomplish the mission (or this leg of the mission at least) the reins are handed over to the players and they get to take the initiative instead. However, to be able to take actions and roll dice during the players turn you need to use the Checks that you earned in the GM's turn from using your Traits against you. 

This concept of the GM's turn and the Players' turn is probably what had me most perplexed when reading Mouse Guard, and I know I'm not alone. However you need to remember that the entire structure of Mouse Guard is completely different from traditional RPGs. Someone somewhere likened the turns with playing Grand Theft Auto. When you go on a mission in Mouse Guard it's like when you go on a mission in GTA - you have some specific instructions on what to do and certain obstacles are set before you. And all the other time where you just ride around and do whatever you want, be it robbing people or buying new guns, is the players turn in Mouse Guard. It's not a perfect allegory but it's close enough I think. During their turn the players can try to heal up if needed, tie up loose ends, visit friends or relatives or even start a conflict of their own choosing if they want. It's worth mentioning that this kind of balance exists in pretty much all RPG's, only not to such a formal extent. In actual play I think it will feel more natural and I'm very interested to see the Checks economy in work.

So that's a little bit about the character part of Mouse Guard. And if you haven't noticed by now it is the main part -  the characters are the game. It's not about the mission it's about how your characters act during the mission. This really can't be stressed enough and it's what has me so excited about Mouse Guard; 100% character driven! The mission is simply a framework and there are no guaranties it will go as initially envisioned, as a matter of fact it probably won't...

And this leads into the other big thing with Mouse Guard: there's no failure. Yes, you can fail a test and not make it over that river, or not find the path to that village or get defeated by that badger but that isn't a failure from a story standpoint it simply leads it into a different direction. When a player fails a test the GM can either allow him to succeed anyway, but with a condition (like Hungry, Tired or Angry) or he could introduce a Twist! When using a Twist the character does fail to accomplish what he set out to do, but something is added to the mix. Perhaps you get swept downstream straight into a weasel patrol! Or maybe you get lost on your way to the village and the cold spring rain turns into snow forcing you to seek shelter. Or the badger chase you into a hole leading into the Darkheather. Basically your "failure" drives the story forward creating new events and opportunities. At times the story can take a completely different turn from what the GM had in mind from the beginning, going from Twist to Twist to Twist!

This kind of organically growing roleplaying again helps to put the character in the center as there's no wrong way of playing. As long as you simply play your character the story will unfold naturally. In fact when GMing Mouse Guard what should be first in your mind is not the nitty gritty of the mission but the Beliefs, Instincts and Traits of the characters. As long as you challenge them you will have a solid play experience. Or as Luke puts it in the text:
"There’s an easy trick to it: Lean on the players’ Beliefs; interfere with their Goals, trigger their Instincts and stomp on their traits!"
As a player you should actively try to put yourself at risk by using your Belief, Instincts and Traits not only when it's beneficial but also when they get in your way. It's very liberating not to have to worry about failing an important roll, or failing to do the right thing during a mission - it will just drive the story into new unexplored territory!

In summary, this is a book that I think every roleplayer should read. It doesn't matter if you don't like the subject matter (mice with swords!) or if you will ever actually play the game or not, but just reading it will change the way you think about roleplaying games in general. When I first read Diaspora/FATE it had a similar effect on me but with Mouse Guard (or Burning Wheel) it was much more pronounced.

Speaking of the subject matter, as I said in the beginning of this review my initial thought was that I would read Mouse Guard and if I liked the system transplant it into another setting (Warhammer Fantasy to be precise). But as I was reading the book the world of Mouse Guard really came alive and I became more and more interested in it. I read the many examples in the text featuring Lieam, Kenzie, Saxon and Sadie and my curiosity kept growing. In the end I ordered the three Mouse Guard books released so far and they are spectacular!

While the stories are fairly straight forward the characters and the art really puts them a level above the competition. Mouse Guard are no childrens stories (although they could be read by kids) and are certainly not light or "whimsical" as The D6 Generation's Craig put it. In fact, to me at least, they have a kind of weight to them that I feel are comparable to... dun-dun-DUN, the Lord of the Rings. Yes, also very different naturally, but the way that they are similar is that when you read Mouse Guard, just as when you read LotR, you simply accept the story fully and at no time does it become anything less than serious. Especially Winter 1152 which is both so dark and so epic. The owl could easily be compared to the Balrog of Moria and their respective battles are equally epic. Ooh, getting chills just thinking about it!

So not only has Mouse Guard provided me with a fantastic new system to try but it has also introduced me to a completely new world. So now I'm doubly excited to play the game - partly to use the system and partly to begin exploring the Territories!

There are of course still many things I haven't even mentioned, like the conflict system, the importance of weather and the seasons or the large part the guardmice's Nature play in the game. But I still hope that I have managed to give you an inkling about what's between the covers of Mouse Guard. It's completely different to what most of us are used to, at the same time being more structured and more free.

Ironically I think that Mouse Guard is probably more accessible to people who are not experienced roleplayers. We simply have too much baggage and too many notions about how a roleplaying game "should" be that we simply have a hard time grasping this radical new concept. I listened to the Minions of the Monster Master's playthrough of Mouse Guard and I could tell that they were struggling with wrapping their heads around this new system. They definitely seemed to enjoy themselves (right?) but the phrase "I just don't get why ..." was uttered on more than one occasion. And I don't blame them! I imagine my first venture into Mouse Guard/Burning Wheel territory will be a similar experience. However, this is part of what makes Mouse Guard great!

Even if you never intend to actually play the game the book is worth reading simply for all the new thoughts and ideas it will put in your head and I think it will make you a better roleplayer in general. Be it as a Game Master or a player. So, if you are a roleplayer, buy this book (or PDF. It's only $20) and read it. It's that simple. For those of you out there who are looking for a numerical rating this is clearly a 5 out of 5.

Tomorrow I'm heading over to my sisters house to see my eight year old niece and I will bring Fall 1152 with me to read to her. But before I go, I just might head to town and treat myself to Burning Wheel Gold...

6 kommentarer :

  1. Nice review!

    I picked up the hardcover Mouse Guard RPG book when I was down in Phoenix a few months ago. I read through the entire book on the flight home and I'm quite excited to try it out. I agree that it is quite different than the standard DnD type RPG, which will take some getting used to.

    They had the boxed game at the same store, but I wasn't quite willing to spend that much on a game I wasn't 100% sure I'd love. Now, though, I wish I had gone the extra mile (though the hardcover book is lovely). The dice sound like the best part, and I am disappointed to hear that they won't be available separately.

  2. Thanks Rkik! And wow you're quick! :)

    I can absolutely understand not going for the box at first. I probably wouldn't have either if I hadn't read the PDF first (although I just realized that I wrote the opposite in the review. Haha!). I'm on the other side of the fence though as I'm considering getting the hard cover just to "complete the set".

    The news about the dice are sad indeed, and frankly a bit puzzling as I think they would have been able to make good money on extra sets. I think I might look into the possibility of having similar dice made. Say from EM4 Miniatures.

  3. This review is amazingly thorough. Kind of makes me wish I had more than the hardback book, not that it would get any airtime right now anyway, but still...

  4. Airtime... I like it. :D

    Well, you guys seem pretty heavily invested in Deathwatch at the moment but I for one would gladly listen to the continued adventures of Gurney and Faulker further down the line.

  5. What a review, at the beginning I was thinking mice!!!!WTF? but after your review I'm thinking this is interesting and now I'm saying stop it as I've got too much on my plate already.

  6. That is awesome Francis! I know exactly what you mean about that initial reaction, I felt the same way. Hehe!

    Glad to have inspired someone! :)


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