A New Mouse Guard GM Report #1

I had the pleasure of running two adventures from Mouse Guard’s New Rules and New Missions at a local convention (AnCon) outside of Cleveland, OH a few weekends ago – “Dam Beaver” and “Danger on the Scent Border.” Each mission has an unique flavor to them, which allowed me to really stretch my GMing wings. Both missions ran with a different group of four players playing a different set of pre-generated characters, so I also got to see some different play styles and a wider variety of character builds. Because I’ve only previously run Mouse Guard three times with my home group, just to kick the tires so to speak, I knew there were a few elements of the game that I had avoided because I just did not fully understand them. So, in preparation for the convention, I spent time reading up on some of these facets of the game here on this forum, which I found very useful. So, first of all, thanks to you all.

Overall, as a relatively new GM (about four years now) in a D&D Fourth Edition home campaign and in organized D&D Living Forgotten Realms play (both at a local game store and at conventions), I am in awe of just how little is required of a GM in terms of preparation for a Mouse Guard mission. The primary content in both adventures is 4 pages each (and small pages at that) plus a couple of pages of “what if” ideas. And yet, within these pages was everything I needed to run a full mission, including advise and ideas for dealing with the unexpected that goes along with roleplaying. In a word, wow!

Now on to some of the nuts and bolts of what I learned about the Mouse Guard mechanics… In particular, I experienced first hand the wisdom and flexibility inherent in the official recommendation that the GM phase be restricted to two challenges and leaving the rest for the Player phase or future missions. I also properly ran extended conflicts by including the goal oriented “compromise negotiation” element at the end between the winners and losers (rather than just applying conditions and moving on). Putting this aspect of conflicts into my own words, end of conflict negotiations are based on the written goals of each team at the beginning of the conflict, who ultimately won, and how much “damage” the winners took during the conflict, all of which will more than likely require some measure of compromise. In running things properly, I discovered just how rich and wildly fun this “negotiation” mechanic can be, especially in terms of roleplaying and story narrative.

For example, in “Dam Beaver” (where the patrol is called in to deal with a beaver dam that threatens to flood a town), after the patrol attempted to shore up the situation in town with mixed results, they moved quickly to engage in the science/engineering conflict against the beavers to destroy the dam. The patrol of four broke into two teams of two each verses a single beaver, and both wrote goals that read similarly, “Get the beavers to help us destroy the dam.” I made sure they understood that this was not a social challenge, because communication with other species is limited at best, but they were insistent. I, in all honestly, had no idea what they had in mind, but my players did, and that is what was important. GMs trust your players. You will be richly rewarded when you do.

Because this was a one-off at a convention, I generously gave my players two fate and persona points each to start with so they could see how these mechanics worked, rather than the standard one of each. They were ultimately successful in the conflict, though it forced them to stress their expendable resources (fate and persona points) to the max. This was fun to watch in of itself. My beavers’ goal for the conflict had been simple, “Save the dam.” The beavers lost, so they would not achieve their goal, but both patrol teams took “damage” during the conflict and one team took a significant pounding. As a consequence, one team had to offer a minor compromise to the losers (the beavers), and the other team had to offer a major compromise. So began the negotiations. Team 1 (with the minor compromise) offered to help the beaver’s find a suitable location to relocate if the beaver’s assisted in tarrying down their current dam. Team 2 (with the major compromise) offered the assistance of not only the entire patrol but the entire town in rebuilding the new beaver dam as long as the beavers also offered to help clean up the town. These were both rational arguments in which they were willing to give at least as much as they received. I simply would never have predicted the outcome, but wow, what joy in discovery! Suddenly, I not only understood how this whole negotiation thing is supposed to work but how much fun it can end up being for everyone (GM and player).

I immediately came to the following three conclusions about the outcome of these negotiations:
1.) would the patrol be able to communicate effectively with the beavers (mice and beavers both being rodents meant that it should be possible even if they don’t speak the same language);
2.) could the patrol find a suitable location for the beaver’s to relocate, and
3.) would the townmice agree to lend their aid per the patrol’s compromise?

However, following the official advise, my GM’s turn should end. We had played through two sets of challenges – some obstacle checks in town concerning the immediate issue of the flooding and the extended beaver dam conflict. As I alluded to above, the initial checks in town were a mixed bag for the patrol. The patrol leader dismally failed a social check to calm the citizens of the town so that they could be organized into a coordinated response, which left the patrol leader smoking hot “angry” with the irrational townmice. Another player immediately launched into a description of just how his guardmouse was going to turn the situation around. I let him proceed. Everyone (including our angry patrol leader) chipped in to assist this time and player had a great roll. The town was seeing reason and willing to work together. Then the science mouse of the patrol made a check to get the town to build a temporary dike to hold back the rising water. Every patrol mouse creatively and effectively described how they would use a critical skill or wise to assist with the check. This alone was roleplaying bliss. However, it was not a successful check, leaving the science mouse angry at the townmice and his patrolmates for their inability to listen to his “simple” instructions and the rest of the patrol tired for the effort. A dike was built, but it would not hold long.

As this was convention, in addition to applying the conditions for the two failed checks, I also liberally introduced both story twists suggested in the adventure: 1.) the dike would be temporary at best and the town would experience at least some flooding even if the patrol moved quickly and effectively to deal with the beaver dam, and 2.) one of the patrol’s rivals (a thief and leader of a band of brigands) was briefly witnessed skulking about in town. What he was up to was unknown, but it could not be good for the townmice. While I realize that I should have only used one of the three (conditions, flooding twist, or thieves twist), for the sake of new players, I wanted them to fully understand what was at stake during the player’s turn. So in addition to the conditions everyone picked up, there were at least 5 major plot threads left unaddressed for the players during their turn.

They all immediately agreed that they would place condition removal as their lowest priority (awesomely self sacrificial), and chose to take on communication with the beavers as the first player check. Everyone was again extremely creative in explaining how a given skill or wise made sense in this very roleplaying centric obstacle, with everyone finding a way to assist the first player. In fact, I ended up given them both points one and two in my conflict summary based on some mighty creative roleplaying/explanations (someone had a map, etc.). I set the Obstacle difficulty at 3, and the player rolled 5 successes. Given that this was a convention and things always take a little longer with new players, we called the player phase here. I wanted to make sure there was enough time for the award phase. Even if they had all made their individual player checks, there was still a virtual gold mine of possible plot threads for later missions, should this have been an ongoing campaign.

In a word, awesome.