I hate to give away the hook in the first sentence, however, in Mouse Guard, you play as mice. Honestly, it seems silly, but I was looking for something different and the art caught my eye. With a combination of cuteness and heart, mice guardsmen are depicted overcoming incredible odds. For those of us who love an underdog, can there be anything better than an adorable mouse with a sword? It’s no wonder the art is so striking, because the Mouse Guard RPG was created based on a comic series of the same name. The comic was written and illustrated by David Peterson, it will please fans of the series to know that he also contributed an amazing amount of art for this rule-book as well. It feels like every page has an original piece, which is a huge selling point in my book. That being said, I think it’s important to let everyone know that I haven’t read any of the Mouse Guard comics. So, I’m coming at this review as a fan of tabletop RPGs. Just a guy who wanted to stab something, but this time, as a mouse.
The world plays a major role in Mouse Guard. Obviously, there’s the part where mice are the intelligent species in the land, but with the technology of medieval Europe. This gives the setting a feel more akin to classic fantasy RPGs. Though there are no humans, mice appear to be the only animals with human-like attributes. Except of course for their enemies: the weasels. During this time, mice have begun to relay on each other in order to make their community safer. A central city of Lockheaven was established with a number of satellite towns in the surrounding area. It’s from Lockheaven that the Mouse Guard, a force of brave heroes, are dispatched to maintain safety across the land. Now, the Mouse Guard RPG provides the players with a very specific role in this world. You, if you haven’t guessed already, are part of the Mouse Guard. Responsible for driving off snakes, settling disputes, and anything else that’s required. This creates a very episodic approach, with new missions being handed out at each session. Of course, over arching story threads can still be used, but I get the sense that Mouse Guard works best in a shorter format. So, the only thing you need is to roll up your Guard Mouse to get started!
The Mouse Guard RPG impressed me the most in its character creation process. Some players don’t like to write long, drawn-out backstories, however, Mouse Guard asks you a few simple questions that makes the player dwell on their mouse’s past. Things like, where is their home? Who are their friends and enemies? These questions provide the GM a few simple hooks in order to bring the character’s past into the story. We also get questions around the mouse’s goals, beliefs, and, my favorite, their instincts. An instinct is your characters gut reaction to a situation. Do they get hot-headed when conflict arises? Or, perhaps they distrust easily? These instincts don’t mean the character has to act this way in a given situation, but simply that these are their base impulses. Character background information has been making its way on to character sheets across a number of games, but what I like about Mouse Guard is the simplicity of it. You don’t need to write every last detail of your enemy, and it may just be a name at first. It just gives the GM a narrative purpose to bring your mouse into the story. This makes the character creation process much more about the personality and relationships rather than a simple block of ability scores.
When I first sat down with the Mouse Guard RPG, I didn’t expect much complexity in a game about mice. I took it more as a game for kids. Perhaps acting as a great intro to tabletop RPGs for younger audiences. I was very wrong. It’s hard out there for a mouse. This is a game about working together to survive. The world is literally full of peril from a mouse’s perspective, and only by working together can the Mouse Guard keep their community safe. In order to do so, your mouse will come across many obstacles that can be overcome by using skill checks. To do this, Mouse Guard uses a dice pool system. The game uses custom dice, but this isn’t a huge issue and a simple hand full of d6s can be used as substitutes. When rolling, a 1-3 is a failure, and 4-6 being a success. There are special rules for rolling 6s, but that’s the basics. The GM provides you a difficulty for a given task, and the player needs to roll equal to or more successes in order to pass the skill check. At first, these rules seemed pretty straight forward, however, then I read the conflict system. That’s when things got furry.
Conflicts are more intense than an obstacle. Combat constitutes a conflict, but that’s not the only type. Arguments, negotiations, and full blown war all fall into the conflict system. Now, this mechanic steps away from more traditional RPG systems. Here, the party acts as one and chooses three actions to be performed in a row. There are four actions for the players to choose from: attack, defend, maneuver, and feint. The GM also chooses three actions from this list that act in opposition to the players. Once the players and GM play their first action, they consult a chart to find the resolution. For example, if both the players and GM select the attack action, then damage goes through to both sides. However, if the GM attacks, but the players defend, then the attack is negated and no damage is dealt. There are many combinations and the book provides a table that indicates the outcome for each. Now, I greatly oversimplified this mechanic for the purpose of this review, but it took me a few read-thoughs to get the gist. Part of me feels this system is overly complicated, and requires additional action cards. The idea being, both sides would flip the cards at the same time, playing out almost like rock, paper, scissors. The cards aren’t necessary as you can simply write the actions down on paper, however, the problem for me stems from the conflict system feeling more like a mini-game that’s separate from the core system. The writers of Mouse Guard admit in the chapter that this conflict system is harder to explain, but, once experienced, becomes more natural once players get the hang of it. There’s something neat about the party acting as one. I also found it interesting that the conflict mechanic not only works for combat, but social engagements as well. The system remains the same regardless of the type of conflict, and the only thing that changes will be the explanation. You don’t attack in an argument, but you can make a point that supports your side. On the flip side, to defend would be offering a rebuttal to your opponents claims. This social interaction sounds more interesting to me, and, since Mouse Guard isn’t a combat focused game, I will give the designers the benefit of the doubt on this one. So, if you do give Mouse Guard a try, I would recommend checking out a few YouTube videos that cover the conflict system, and, once you get a handle on the basics, then read through the rules chapter. I think it’s just one of those things that’s easier to understand once you’ve seen it. The Mouse Guard system is interesting, but probably not as new player friendly as they wished. The setting maybe great for younger players, but they may still require an adult to explain the rules.
I have to credit Mouse Guard for its innovation. The rules attempt to feed into a more narrative style of play. Many tabletop RPGs can become rather numbers focused, and many loose the larger picture of characters shaping a larger narrative. Even ranking up skills in Mouse Guard has a lovely twist about it. In Mouse Guard, if you want to rank up a skill, than you need to both succeed and fail in using that skill. For example, if you have rank 1 stealth, than you need to succeed once and fail once in order to get to rank two. From there, you need to both succeed and fail two times. So on and so forth. I love the idea of using your skills to get better at them. It just feels right from an RPG perspective. Rather than simply putting a point on a sheet, this system provides a story reason experienced by the player for why they’re well-versed in a particular skill. It’s this outside the box thinking that made Mouse Guard a treat to read through. Whenever a game takes chances, there are bound to be rules that hit the mark, as well as, those that fall short. Overall, I love the passion and character focus that Mouse Guard brings to the tabletop RPG genre.
So, if you’re looking for a tabletop RPG that’s a little outside your wheelhouse, then I recommend checking out Mouse Guard. There’s a depth to this game that one wouldn’t expect. Full of character and narrative focused rules, Mouse Guard would be an excellent addition to any gaming library, Also, as I said earlier, the art makes this book worth the purchase for that alone. So, take up your tiny sword and fend off snakes to keep the mouse kingdom safe!
While your here, if you want to learn more about different RPGs outside of D&D, then you can read more reviews here!