The late 2000-oughts were a bit of a sad time in my tabletop roleplaying saga. Part of the reason was that the main “new” game for me in those days was the Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Saga Edition (Wizards of the Coast, 2007). The game was basically the Star Wars universe version of Dungeons & Dragons 4.0. Which made it a d20 game…and I had long disliked (and still to this day dislike) the d20 System. Nonetheless, I made it my mission to collect every splat book that came out, probably in the vain hope that I would get my boys interested in playing. They were interested, but only for a bit.
One aspect of Star Wars: Saga Edition that I really disliked is that it basically played like a tabletop skirmish wargame. Yeah, there were some roleplaying elements in there but at heart it was what today I would call an ‘Adventure Wargame.’ Elsewhere in the tabletop roleplaying game hobby the emphasis was turning hard towards narrative play.
I’m not sure who recommended the Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game to me. I think it was the good folks at Petrie’s Games in Colorado Springs. What I do know is that I read the core rule book before I read the comic books (which may have been the first I ever purchased on DriveThru Comics). While Mouse Guard is a roleplaying game, it was much different than the rest of my collection. Not only was Mouse Guard a departure from my usual science-fiction RPG (anthropomorphic mice, really?), it also used a very different rules system based on the Burning Wheel Game Engine.
Mice Turning Burning Wheels
The core mechanic in Mouse Guard is extremely simple; roll a number of d6 against an Obstacle (difficulty, measured in nd6). Every d6 that rolls four or better is a success. You need to roll enough successes to match or overcome the Obstacle. While that sounds simple, its getting to the roll that is the real adventure.
Interlude – Burning Wheel
Here is how the Burning Wheel Game Engine is described on RPGGeek:
“The Burning Wheel is an award winning fantasy roleplaying game written by Luke Crane, in which players take on the roles of vibrant, dynamic characters whose very beliefs drive the story forward.
Starting with a simple d6 die pool mechanic, this game intuitively builds on its core concepts, evoking a pitch and tenor in play uncommon in roleplaying games. It details solid, dramatic systems for task resolution, advancement, trials of belief, tests of nerve, searing social conflict, dangerous sorcery, miraculous faith, and brutal, gut-wrenching martial combat. Behind the dice, player decisions drive the game’s systems. The choices tangibly affect every outcome, from glorious victory to ignominious defeat.
The mechanics are presented in an easy-to-read writing style, with plenty of insight and advice from the designer. If you’re not careful, Burning Wheel will change the way you play roleplaying games.”
The parts of character creation in Mouse Guard that many may recognize is Abilities and Skills. A mouse has five Abilities: Nature, Will, Health, Resources, and Circles. Player characters call on these Abilities when following natural tendencies (Nature), testing mental resiliency (Will), using or testing physical strength or well-being (Health), accessing material resources (Resources), and using connections (Circles). Skills are training and experience, with specialized knowledge called Wises. The rank in each of the Abilities or Skills is the number of dice thrown in a Test. A mouse also has Traits which describe something about the mouse and can be called upon (as a die bonus) to help—or hinder—the player character in play.
The parts of a player character in Mouse Guard that are very narrative are Belief, Goal, and Instinct. “A Belief is an ethical or moral statement that encompasses how the character views his world” (p. 29). A Goal is written for every session. An Instinct is, “a habit or reaction, it’s something that the character always does” (p.30). Here are the samples from the book:
- Belief – “A guardmouse needs to be able to think with her head and act with her heart.”
- Goal – “I will discover why Conrad’s communications from Calogero have stopped.”
- Instinct – “Never delay when on a mission.”
There is much more to the Burning Wheel Game Engine that I won’t go into here. Like Player Turns and GM Turns (huh?). For the rest of this TTRPG Roll I’m going to focus on character creation, or what Mouse Guard calls ‘Recruitment.’
Interestingly, the character creation chapter in Mouse Guard is the last section of the book. The process calls for “21 easy steps” (p. 297) where the player, “…makes choices and answers questions about his character’s concept, rank, age, Nature, hometown, life expereince, Resources, Circles, traits, name, fur color, parents, senior artisan, mentor, friend, enemy, cloak color, Belief, Goal, Instinct and gear.” I like to term this process “facilitated character creation” because it guides you yet has many player-dependent decision points. Let’s step though it and see how it works, shall we?
Chester, the Not-Quite Church Mouse
All Together Now – Technically, the core rule book calls for creating a party together with other players. “We do this for two reasons: It’s faster, and it creates a full-fledge patrol rather than a collection of oddballs” (p. 298). Since I doing this solo I’m going to be creating—by the designer’s definition—an “oddball” anyway so why not lean into that concept?
Concept – ‘I am a crusader for the Great Lord Mouse’ [Interestingly, religion is almost totally absent in the Mouse Guard setting, though I think there is a bit of some paganism in there. So I rebel from the outset using my Concept to challenge not only threats to the Territories but also the establishment.]
Guard Rank – Patrol Guard. “Patrol Guard are veteran guardmice responsible for complicated or independent missions.”
Mouse Age & Ability – Age: 30 / Will 4 / Health 4. “Your starting Will and Health scores are determined by your Guard rank.”
Mouse Nature – Nature 3. “All characters have a base Nature of 3. Answer the following three questions to determine your final starting Nature score.”
Where Were You Born? – Copperwood. “One of the oldest cities and home to one of the two mines in the Territories. Skills: Smith, Haggler; Traits: Independent.”
Life Experience – This is a guided set of questions with the end results determining starting skill ratings and Wises.
- Archivist (from Apprenticeship) – 2
- Carpenter (from Parent, Mentor) – 3
- Fighter (from Mentor Emphasis, Experience, Specialty) – 4
- Loremouse (from Talented) – 2
- Haggler (from Hometown) – 2
- Persuader (how to convince others) – 2
- Smith (from Hometown) – 2
- Wises (based on rank; Guardmouse gets two)
Guard Resources – 4 . Based on rank (Guardmouse=2) modified by answering six questions. Chester practices a trade (carpentry) in winter and is thrifty so he adds two.
Guard Circles – 1. Based on rank (Guardmouse=2) modified by answering questions. Chester is a bit of a loner so loses a Circle.
Mouse Traits – Driven, Independent.
Name – Chester
Fur Color – Brown
Parents – Josef and Mary
Senior Artisan – Johnn the Master Carpenter
Mentor – Issac, a long-dead Guardmouse that died in Tenderpaw Chester’s arms crying for salvation
Friend – Thom, an Archivist in Lockhaven who specializes in ‘lost Lore.”
Enemy – Judas, a Patrol Leader who doesn’t approve of Chester’s zealotry.
Cloak Color – Khaki made of simple thread and coarse weave to show his spendthrift ways
First Mission – To be determined
Belief – ‘We serve a higher calling.’ The Guard serves the mousepeople.
Goal – (To be determined in session).
Instinct – ‘When others disbelieve I am stronger.’
Gear – Sword, Knife, Carpenter’s toolkit