Friday 13 July 2018

A Mouse Guard and Torchbearer Primer

Friday, July 13, 2018

Share it Please

Mouse Guard playing Mouse Guard

Recently I've been listening to the Reckless Dice podcast as they have played a few sessions of Mouse Guard and it reminded me again of how difficult some of the concepts of the game can be. Especially for players used to a more traditional roleplaying format. My immediate thought was to offer some advice about certain things to think about and what stumbling blocks to avoid and share them with the Reckless Dice crew, but I realized that writing something like a primer and share here would probably be more useful for more people (including my own players).

In the following text I will mainly talk about Mouse Guard (or MG), as it is the basis for Torchbearer as well and they are similar in most core aspects. They do differ in some key points though, but instead of inserting those differences in the running text I'll try to collect them at the end in a Torchbearer section. I won't explain the game, as in how the rules work, I'll simply try to give advice on how to interact with those rules and how to play to make the most of them.

I am also aiming this text at players new to the system and who are not really used to these kind of character and narrative focused games. Of course, I hope the advice might be helpful for the rest of you as well. Of course, these are just my personal opinions on the game and how to make it run well, don't take it as Luke's gospel. :)

General Advice

Depending on the system and the players a Session Zero isn't always necessary, but in this case I really think you should try to start off with one. Use it to talk about the setting, the system and to make characters. There's going to be a lot of questions about the unfamiliar parts of the game but since you are all new I don't think it's productive to get bogged down trying to explain all of it in detail. Try to focus on the core of the game.

Do talk about how MG is tighly character focused and although there are quite a bit of rules it is also very narrativistic. In my experience this is the biggest stumbling block for players coming from a traditional rpg background. While we call it ROLEplaying I think many, perhaps most, players tend to end up playing a fantasy version of themselves. I don't mean this in an elitist way where I think this is a bad way of playing - it's not - but it usually doesn't gel with how Mouse Guard was designed.

So let's talk about this. The core of MG are the Beliefs, Instincts, Traits (aka BITs) and Goals. The entire game revolves around these concepts and if they don't click it can grind to a halt (how are you liking those... wheel metaphors, eh?). In traditional games we're used to having rules for physical actions in the game such as swinging a sword or climbing a cliff. Rules for things like persuasion and deceit is very common as well, although such things can also be governed purely through roleplay and GM fiat. What we almost never see are rules for how you should play your character - as in how she would act in certain situations.

In Mouse Guard there are rules for how you should play your character and the system of rewards hinges on you following those rules. This can feel very alien to some players, and paradoxically make it hard for them to know how to act. In the traditional sense of "playing yourself" there's virtually no filter between the players thoughts and actions and the characters thoughts and actions - you often react to what the GM describes the same way you, the player, would react. Having to reroute that process through the BITs of your character can feel cumbersome and be a barrier to what some call "immersion".

What I have found can help players kind of reframe this in their minds is using the director metaphor. Instead of thinking about your character as you, think of her as a character in a tv series you're directing, or a book you're writing. It is still very much your character, but it's easier to get into the habit of thinking about how would she react in this situation, rather than how would react. Once you've shifted to this perspective you'll find yourself looking to your character's Belief and Traits more often to help you decide on how you should proceed.

With this new habit you are ready to really let the characters free. The game sings when you start to discover the story through the characters actions, which are based on their BITs. You should never feel constrained by "the story" or what you think you (the players) should be doing, or what you think the GM has in store for you. Just act on your Belief and the story will burst forth!

This includes not being afraid to go against the other players. If your characters Belief or Goal clashes with another characters, then some PvP might be in order. A passionate argument among friends can be the highlight of the session and the system is built to make this both possible and fun.

Alright, so we've talked about the importance of character and assuming a kind of director stance. What's another great stumbling block? Fear of failure. Through traditional rpgs we've been conditioned to think of failures as the worst possible outcome. We do everything in our might to stack the odds in our favour since failing usually means a null result or a negative result. Sometimes it can even mean the end of the adventure! Mouse Guard flips this all on its head and embraces failure as the catalyst of change and character growth!

When a character fails a roll the GM can either let her succeed anyway, but give her a negative condition, like Angry or Injured, or he can invoke a twist. A twist changes the fiction in some way that propells the story forward. If you're trying to find the path to Sprucetuck but fail, the GM could either let you succeed but say that you are now Thirsty and Hungry from the trek, or he could say that you've actually wandered too far and find yourself in weasel territory. Or it could be something completely unrelated to the actual pathfinding roll, like a sudden thunderstorm or a couple of crows taking interest in the shiny swords of the guardmice.

Twists can often lead to other twists that become adventures in their own right and it is this in combination with the characters' BITs that create the larger story. So failures are fun! They make unexpected things happen and they test the mettle of your character! Additionally they are required to advance your character's skills and abilities - yes, without failing a bunch of rolls you will never get better. Here's an important part where Traits come in, but I'll cover that below.

Stumbling block number three is the GM and Players turn structure and earning Checks. This sounds weirder than it is, but it's pretty much just the regular cycle of most roleplaying games as you move from action scenes to downtime and then back to the action again. The big difference here is Checks, which you must try to collect during the GM's turn to be able to do stuff during the Players' turn. The tricky part about Checks is connected to fear of failure that I mentioned above - to get them you have to affect your character negatively through her Traits. This also ties into the fact that you have to fail to advance your skills, so you now have two big fat rewards for failing!

The Player turn usually comes naturally once the patroll is out of immediate danger and have at least a few checks between them. It might read as very structured and constrained, but I've found that it simply comes organically through the story. If the guardmice have managed to persevere through what you threw at them and find themselves in a natural lull where they're safe from harm, a player turn is probably in order. The suggested two obstacles during the GM's turn is a good benchmark, but more likely than not those will have grown in different directions thanks to twists during play.

Ok, I think that covers the big concepts and themes that are unfamiliar. Let's talk about more concrete actual play advice, bullet point style.

Player Advice

  • Belief, Instinct, Traits, Goal. Keep going back to those and you shouldn't have much trouble.
  • Your Belief might be the most important part of your Character, so give it some thought.
  • Also, don't be afraid to change your Belief it you find that it doesn't come into play, or your character has changed.
  • Is the test practically impossible? Use a Trait against you and throw the test! That's like a free Check and a fail for advancement all in one.
  • Think of the GM's turn as your character being on the job, and the Players' turn as leisure time to recover or tie up loose ends.
  • Embrace failure! There's very little that will actually kill you. Twists are how the story evolves. If you never fail it would make for a pretty flat session.
  • Describe to live! Visualising your characters actions as if you were directing a movie can be a great way to really breath life into the scene. Describe what it looks like!
  • Don't fish for "irrelevant" rolls. During the GM's turn, focus on the task at hand. You can roll for Cartography or Smithing in the Players' turn (if you have the checks).
  • Do make Checks a priority! Always keep your Traits in mind for when they could trip you up and earn you Checks.

Game Master Advice

  • Have a sheet with the characters' BITs in front of you. Try to challenge all of them, but Beliefs and Goals in particular. 
  • Keep harping about how they can (and should!) use Traits against themselves to earn Checks. This is such a crucial mechanic to grasp, but very unintuitive for traditional players. If you know you're playing several sessions you can simply not remind them about it during the first GM turn and then talk about it in the Players' turn as they're experiencing a distinct lack of Checks.
  • Only roll when it matters. In traditional games you tend to reach for the dice at pretty much every turn. In MG you can let a lot of things slide by simply saying yes and moving on. Rule of thumb: if you can't think of a good potential twist, it's probably better not to make it a test.
  • Keep the pressure on the characters. Don't make it easy for them, make sure to beat them down so they have the opportunity to persevere through hardship, which will let them grow. 
  • Feel free to prep a bit beforehand, but don't get constrained by it. MG can be an almost zero prepp game, with just a bare bones adventure outline. You could map out the adventure as well, with a pass/fail branching structure, but even if you do you'll more than likely find yourself off-path sooner rather than later.
  • Just be sure to have the story go where the characers take it rather than the other way around.
  • Don't house rule. This can be tempting when you're first learning the game and are struggling with the unfamiliar mechanics. Try to resist the urge to house rule stuff.
  • Twists and imposing conditions are great tools for managing the flow of the story. Being able to simply allow a character to succeed (but with a Condition) and move on creates a great deal of flexibility.
  • If you're unsure about what Ob to set, lean towards making it harder for the characters. Don't coddle them and remember that twists are when the game comes alive! A patrol with only successfull rolls is a pretty boring one. 

Let's wrap up before this becomes too long winded. I think most of the really important advice is here, although I haven't mentioned Conflicts. They can also be a stumbling block and are probably the most "gamey" part of Mouse Guard, but at the same time are often incredibly tense and can make for great cinematic moments! I don't cover Conflicts here as I've already written an article on my thoughs on the system: Conflicts in Torchbearer and Mouse Guard. Please have a look at it. And before we say goodbye completely, some words on what has been called Advanced Mouse Guard.


Many of the systems are the same in Torchbearer as in Mouse Guard, however the emphasis change. BITs are still a core component but they get to share the spotlight with sheer survival. While death is fairly rare in Mouse Guard it is a constant companion in Torchbearer. Beliefs, Goals and Traits work pretty much the same, but usually won't drive the narrative quite as strongly as in Mouse Guard - probably because there's this overarching goal/belief of all characters to simply survive and dig enough gold out of the much to make ends meat when back in civilization.

This does not mean BITs aren't important. In some ways they're even more important! In Torchbearer you can't make camp (ie take a player turn) without having earned at least one Check first. Instincts also change to become a kind of automatic action that doesn't take up precious time, which is very powerful and need to be utilised fully to survive.

There's also The Grind where the characters slowly become weaker unless they take time to eat and drink properly. This together with dwindling resources of light and rations makes Torchbearer a game about pressure and hard choices. There's a constant threath of physical debilitation combined with a thread of encroaching doom as the torches start to run out. Yet you can't give in to the pressure until you have enough loot to at least re-equip in the next town you come across. So to that end, is it worth it to ditch two torches to make room for a gold necklace? As you can imagine choices underground in Torchbearer usually hits the first principle of survival first and then filters through the character's BITs and Goal. 

To really drive this feeling of muddy despair home the GM needs to be merciless when it comes to The Grind and sticking it to the characters. While Mouse Guard should have the characters persevere and grow through moral choices the murder hobos of Torchbearer grow as they emerge from a crevace in the ground, covered in mud and blood, with a rusty knife still sticking poking into the back but with a bag of coins in a death grip in one hand!

Is that it? I think that might be it. For now anyway. Naturally all this thinking about Mouse Guard has made me decide to run a few sessions with a new group. We're aiming for 3-5 sessions and my goal is to be able to make time for a winter phase as well. First session in a couple of weeks. Please feel free to add your own advice, or point out where you disagree with me, in the comments.

2 kommentarer :

  1. Nice touch. I felt that a couple of time playing as player and as GM of MG. It is very different than most RPGs out there.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, it certainly is different. Which isn't a problem if you come to the game fresh and with no prior rpg experience, but for us veterans it can be a tricky transition.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...