Another demographics thread (with a very different take)

So, I believe that the Mouse Guard and their civilization might be much larger than is commonly realized.

First, I believe examining the map that the Mouse territories are in an alternate universe in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Everything lines up about this, from the general topography, to the fauna and flora observed, to the unusual presence of both iron and copper ore in a relatively small geographic area of North American forest.

There are only a few differences between the real upper peninsula of Michigan, and the mouse territories and I believe all are sufficiently explained by the assumption of an alternate world sufficiently different that mice and weasels first appeared as the main sentient beings of the world, rather than humans.

  1. Lake Michigan is somewhat smaller and differently located compared to where we’d expect to find it on a map.
  2. No known freshwater crabs exist as far north as Lake Superior, however, salt water crabs tolerant of such cold exist and land crabs are abundant in the neo-tropical Americas. So this is only a minor difference in evolutionary history, compared to say sentient mice.

This suggests to me that the mouse territories encompass some 15,000 square miles, or nearly 10,000,000 acres of land. While the mouse cities may only be points of light in such a vast territory, which is otherwise howling wilderness, even if only a fraction of this land is in use by civilized mice, the potential population of the mouse territories could be enormous.

The largest single under taking by the Mouse Guard is the maintenance of the scent barrier. Other estimates of the size of the Mouse Guard do not put the number of mice large enough to maintain a scent barrier along even a limited front several miles across and still accomplish any of the gaurds other duties. If in fact as the map suggests, the scent barrier has a perimeter over 100 miles, hundreds of mice would need to be involved full time in its maintenance.

I suggest that larger cities may well contain several tens of thousands of mice and there may be thousands of Guard Mice.

It’s also worth noting that while this size may seem enormous, if we apply this scale to the map 15000 square miles means that settlements are still only a few miles from each other, and while wild mice rarely venture more than a dozen yards from their home, a mouse is fully capable of traversing a dozen miles in a day. Thus, while this estimate may seem like a lot of territory, only a territory this large can explain the scale of mouse journeys implied by wilderness travel. If the mouse territories encompass say only 15 or even 150 square miles, then major settlements are only couple hundred yards from the nearest settlement, a distance a mouse could traverse in only a few minutes. Even a mile or two wouldn’t require a mouse much more time to travel than it would a human in the same circumstance. So, only at this scale do we really have the need for multi-day journeys between cities, rather than the equivalent of a quick dash to some nearby neighborhood.

Further, while this scale seems large, it’s the only scale that I think lines up with a civilization with over a 1000 year history. It’s seems highly improbable, and a bit pathetic, that mouse society has only expanded over an area of a few square miles in 1000 years. It also gives room for the epic scale of the recent mouse/weasel war, and I think sufficient explanation for why the weasels were daunted by their mouse prey. There are a lot of mice, collectively with enormous economic power. I think the idea that the mouse territories have perhaps 100,000’s of citizens also better explains the level of complexity we see in their society. They don’t collectively act like a society with just a few thousand members, but have developed the sort of complicated infrastructure of society like universities and factories that we’d associate with high populations.

In any event, one of the things I like about this interpretation is that probably 80% of the settlements in the territories aren’t even on the map. While many of these might be small villages of just a few score mice, it leaves a huge amount of room for developing your own content and incorporating whatever you like from other GM’s imaginations as well.


I’ve just purchased the Mouse Guard RPG and barely skimmed through it, but I think you are spot on. The section on the Order (of Might equivalent in Torchbearer) discusses War. It indicates 20,000 mice would be needed to make War on a bear or moose. While mustering such a force is indicated as highly improbable, the text doesn’t rule it out as impossible. If it is possible to muster 20,000 armed mice, however unlikely, in the proximity of a single bear, then I think a population in the hundreds of thousands if not millions for the entire territories is a must.

Maintenance of the scent barrier does seem to be a problem though. Perhaps the science behind it results in particularly long-lasting barriers and the need to repour twice a year regards the amount of work the guard must do in order to make the circuit in a decade or so. Eh, that seems pretty unlikely as well. Do we ever see this activity in books? Is the border a line of poured compound on the bare earth or is there more to it?

The idea that the scent border is that long makes me think there would likely be mice who are dedicated solely to that, perhaps like the Night’s Watch in Westeros. The border seems enormous and impenetrable, but requires patching. That’d be fun.

Mouse as ‘night watch’ I think is quite appropriate. While the standard interpretation is that all mice hole up for the winter in Lockhaven, this seems to me highly impractical (and I note the rule book only says ‘most’ guard mice return to Lockhaven). I suspect that as a practical matter 10-20% of guard mice are stationed outside of Lockhaven in the Winter, either as border scouts in small outposts to detect signs of invasion, or in small groups in major cities to act as essentially embassies of the guard and emergency response teams. If all the guard mice are in Lockhaven over the winter, and something happens, who is going to get word to the guard? The rest of the mice would be on their own, and if someone is capable of getting word to the guard in Winter from distant settlements - and they are not a member of the guard - it certainly implies that they have equivalent skill and could be in the guard. But that itself would be a contradiction of the standard interpretation.

Generally speaking, a civilized society is unable to levy much more than 1% of its population into a war, because of the demands of equipping and supplying such an army become excessive while you are simultaneously reducing the labor pool. Anything much more than 8-9% will cause economic collapse in the long term and can only be done for short periods unless you get outside economic aid (not a possibility with the mice). So an army of 20,000 mice to me implies a total population of between 220,000 and 2,000,000 mice. I’m inclined toward the low end, but the scale of the map implies the potential for a much larger population.

It’s possible that the population is still recovering from the aftermath of the weasel war.


just in respect to the comments of the scent border. I treat the scent border as total propaganda on the part of the Guard and Sprucetuck. In this I mean, yes, some Guard patrols are assigned each year to head out, take large barrels of the scent fluid, process it into smaller casks, and create markings in some critical spots along a picketed fence line (which needs repairs some too), and tell settlement mice that they’ve done their due diligence. Yet, NO it doesn’t do anything! well, maybe it does deter some wolves, but what really matters is the existing wolf packs deter other wolves from intruding. And, it doesn’t deter any sort of deer, elk, moose, nor bear, wolverine, fox, lynx, cougar, or any sort of raptor, serpent, or shorebird. In short, the scent border is practically useless.

Now, I also have never used it is a mission objective, and I don’t consider it particularly valuable fodder for Guard duties. But, in general, some patrols are assigned each year. Sprucetuck has a massive economy of scale dedicated to the formulation and manufacture of the scent fluid–political platforms of the city surround the economic value it brings toward other research and pursuits. Multiple cities nearest the scent border take huge interests in hosting the storage of barrels and casks, of hosting the patrols assigned, and in gathering the resources needed as exports to support Sprucetuck in the formulation and manufacture.

In addition, the Sprucetuckers know that it’s mostly useless. The Guard know it’s mostly useless. Lots of settlement mice FEEL / THINK it’s mostly useless. Yet, politicians know it’s a huge topic related to the fears of mice, so it makes a good source of propaganda and becomes a fairly influential part of the economy.

I mentioned the wolf packs of the Territories. Here is the secret that Lockhaven knows–healthy packs don’t hunt mice! Healthy, developed packs of wolves need large meals, and hunt as a pack; they hunt deer, elk, moose, and they compete with bears, wolverines. They’ll even compete with weasels to certain measure in that wolves will hunt hares and rabbits which are a critical prey for weasels and weasel cousins. So, Lockhaven has a secretive duty to track the health of wolf packs inside the Territories (which they could never never expel), and make minute efforts to support the health of the packs (yes, multiple packs, not just one). Ultimately, it leads to more stability for mouse settlements. But, there’s not a economic or political link to this duty.

However, lone wolves are a danger to mice, and all Guard are within rights to harass lone wolves. A lone wolf can subsist on hunting hares, rabbits, and mice. So, the danger is far greater when a lone wolf is away from the pack and looking for a new pack to be accepted.

Likewise, the less pack-centric coyotes are a fierce danger; they don’t care about the scent border; it means nothing to them.

Lastly, the most prolific large predators who cause fear for mice are the mousers: Foxes and Lynxes. No other predator takes so great an interest in hunting mice (aside from weasels and weasel allies). After that comes the fear of raptors, then serpents, then scavengers-with-predatory-behavior.

That the scent border is useless is not a perspective and a possibility I’ve never really considered. It’s a very interesting take and it’s going to take me some time to process that, so here is a bunch of random stream of consciousness type thoughts:

  1. If the length of the scent border implies a very large number of guard mice and a correspondingly high population, then an ineffective scent border implies an even larger number of guard mice. If the predator population in the territories is roughly equivalent to the one outside the territories, then the mouse guard is a very busy indeed.
  2. While it is true that the bulk of wolf calories comes from taking large ungulates like Elk, and that wolves basically make no effort to eat mice and other small prey most of the year, in the Summer when you have no snow, no young calves, and few sick animals wolves make up 25% of their diet from small prey. That’s roughly 30 mice sized snacks a day per wolf. Granted, not all of their small prey would be mice and mice wouldn’t even be preferred small prey owing to the number of mouthfuls to hunt down, but it’s still a major problem. If those snacks were all civilized mice and not lemmings, voles, field mice, wood rats, grey squirrels, and so forth you’re talking three quarters of a million mouse snacks eaten per summer just from the wolves. That’s the end of mouse civilization right there. In a normal ecology this wouldn’t really matter, but the assumption in Mouse Guard is that civilized mice have lifespans and breeding patterns somewhat similar to humans. The assumption is not that you have (or have had before they were wolf snacks) 400 brothers and sisters and if female started producing pups practically as soon as you were born for example. So I guess my biggest potential problem with the scent border not reducing ground predators by a large percentage is that kind of implies that mouse society is much more mouse-like than is presented. I mean, given the Kaiju horror of the game, it’s already hard to believe mice - even less so guard mice - living 60 years. If they are in a normal ecology with normal predation levels… well, it’s a really different world psychologically.
  3. The large scale I’m suggesting for the size of the Mouse Territories definitely implies multiple packs of wolves if the scent border is ineffectual. In fact, with 15,000 square miles of prime timber wolf territory, it implies a wolf population within the territories of > 300 wolves divided into dozens of packs.
  4. A lesser concern with the scent border being fake and everyone knows it is that it paints the Mouse Guard is a much less flattering light. The world gets to be much more morally gray in a hurry if the scent border is a highly corrupt scam draining a huge percentage of the economic resources of the community into a project that doesn’t have an economic return on investment. It does complicate up the politics in some potentially interesting ways, but on the other hand its hardly essential for that and I tend to prefer political conflicts to have a strongly sympathetic ideological basis on both sides. One side is just crooked doesn’t make for interesting exploration.
  5. I think it’s always been obvious that the scent border did basically nothing to protect against predatory birds and several other classes of mouse predator. It’s just a lot easier to imagine the guard doing something about that than it is doing something about foxes, bobcats, and coyotes - much less wolves and bears. Granted, wolves will keep those generalist populations somewhat in check, but then you have made a deal with the devil, and I agree that without some sort of asymmetry there is nothing the mouse guard can realistically do about a wolf pack. Also, other than owls and shrikes, most predatory birds don’t have mouse high up on their list of preferred prey. Hawks prefer squirrels, for example. Eagles prefer fish and rabbits. Falcons prefer other birds.
  6. I think that it’s increasingly obvious that the wild mouse population is vastly larger than the civilized mouse population just to keep the ecology going, and this most especially has to be true if you have a perfectly normal density of foxes, bobcats, coyotes, wolves and so forth. While none of those prefers mice, there are only so many woodchucks and rabbits to go around, and unlike a small snake or a small owl, when they do hunt mice they aren’t happy with one or even just two or three or five per day.
  7. I feel like if you have 300 active wolves in the mouse territories to say nothing of the rest of the panorama of predators, you are going to have standing armies of the scale required to deter creatures that large.

The trouble is without the scent border, even if you can account for the numbers of mice eaten by predators in other ways (wild mice, etc), civilized mice are relatively vulnerable, hanging out in tiny buildings and castles and such. Hunting wild mice becomes frustratingly difficult compared to padding up to a town or city and feasting. A bear could simply uproot entire castles with more impunity than they could with bee hives, which the rulebook acknowledges in their entry. Civilized mouse science is really the only advantage mice have that makes civilization (towns, cities, castles) possible. With no scent border and normal predator quantities you’d quickly have a mousepocalypse, since civilized mice are much more exposed than any other prey, even if they are vastly outnumbered by wilds ones.

I suppose they could rely on other aspects of mouse science such as mega construction projects like traps and defenses.

I certainly never want to use a role-play game as an emulator for reality. I never think of MG as a model for wild nature, and I honestly found that emulation the most irritating factor of D&D. It feels far too restrictive to use our senses about the wild natural world as the dictatorial mindset for story.

If we really want to get into the niggling details, it would be important to assess the nature of metallurgy at micro-scale, ceramics, textiles, glass, etc. And among three of those I just mentioned, there are operations of excessive heat with poisonous gases involved.

So, I never want a purely emulation role-play game.

In pursuit of that story-game experience, I don’t spend time emphasizing a background machine that is ensuring there are enough prey animals or appropriately sized and spaced predatory animals–in as much as it distracts from properly telling the characters’ story.

  1. having the full-length poured is not a natural presentation of mammal scent marking, so it’s fine if the Guard are marking some key accessible points in hopes of some deterrence. if it is wholly ineffective, there is no need for more Guard members to be doing it if it’s focused on critical points of entry.

  2. in respect to the story of wolves, I have never wanted to induce the level of terror which might connect with a pack of 8-12 wolves using a mouse settlement to sate their hunger. I’ve only ever used a lone wolf as a threat, and wolf packs as uneasy neighbors. And, among the settlement mice, some maintain massive families, some give birth to multiples at once, and some don’t. I treat the settlement mice as mostly giving birth to three and four whelps at once, and having a new litter of whelps about each year; but also, they experience loss at a high rate, and death and loss are typical of all settlement mice. Civilized doesn’t mean domesticated, nor does it mean safe.

  3. I make the presumption around 8-10 healthy wolf packs which output about 1-3 lone wolves each year who are looking for a new pack to join and mix up the lineage a bit. Just in respect to all the animals of the Territories, I make the presumption they all have fewer births than what might be seen in the real natural world.

  4. i make everything about the Territories morally gray. I make a strong effort to ensure nothing is ever clearly black/white. Never. There is one kinda exception: I do make every effort for Lockhaven to be a safe, secure, stable, welcoming, warm, inviting space. I do not like betrayal stories when applied to Lockhaven and the Guard order; I’ll use it some, but I want players to really feel that Lockhaven is a safe haven at any moment they step through the gates.

  5. well, here’s a bit of solid commonality: they make a deal with the devil. I see that happening with every nearby animal. The mice simply cannot eradicate all the threatening wild animals, whether a predatory species or not. Everything could be an unwelcome neighbor, so the mice have NO control over the natural world beyond the extent of their own hands, and even that is fairly short term. So, everything they deal with is an exchange of some sort. In a past session, the patrol hunted and dramatically injured a male fox–with a variety of objectives in mind–and in the closing scene of the Fight Animal Conflict, a female fox showed up to see them land the maiming blow against her potential mate. The exchange was, 'yes, this male fox is so badly injured, he’ll lose his territory and lair; he’ll lose it to another male, younger, fitter, and ready to take over the range; however, there will be a period of reprieve until the new male attempts to intrude, and this female will not have a mate this year–so, no kits next Spring." It wasn’t, ‘yes, you’ve hurt this fox so badly no fox will ever come close to this settlement out of fear.’ That would be ludicrous! I happen to hate using shrikes and I’ve always hated when someone else uses them in a one-shot. I hate that bird. But I do like the raptors, and I recently published a sample pack of raptors with some ideas of how they have interacted with mice.

  6. I don’t use a wild population vs civilized population. I just say, there are mice (no rats), and weasels. No other animals are ‘civilized’ despite that some other animals have language, culture, and some use of tools. Some civilized mice are just really great at wilderness living and are called wildemice. They live among settled mice, but often at the fringes and living older ways. The wildemice could rival cloakmice for skills in wilderness living.

  7. yeah, I don’t imagine 300 active wolves, more like 80-90. I presume just about every settlement has a standing armed force, if not a few armed forces, there are numerous bands of militants, dissidents, bandits, and thugs or outlaws that maintain armed groups, there are Guard members, and there are kinda fewer overall natural wild creatures to threaten mice than might be expected according to our known real natural statistics. The objective is abstraction for the purpose of telling a story, and never to spend time carefully detailing the emulation required for a civilization to fit among the wilderness.

With respect to bears, I’ve used a bear only one time in a session, and the cave was empty at the time the patrol came across it; I didn’t want a confrontation, just the shadow of worry about how such a beast influences the forest surrounding its den.

nah, the only reason the setting exists is to tell a story within. So, I don’t have to consider the exposure, and I don’t have to have animals consistently pursuing resources stolen from mice or to consistently hunt mice just at the edge of the settlement or in the fields and gardens, or where ever they are gathering resources.

so, mice will have plenty of tools for deterring animals, but they don’t simply control the natural world, and have to live within the constraints of the natural forces that threaten their settlements and lifestyles.

so, no mousepocalypse; because, that’s not a story I’m interested in telling for players. I just won’t do it; because, I won’t use the game system as an emulation; it is only a tool for abstracting the story telling–particularity for abstracting the successes and conditions of success, the twists and resolutions, the confrontations and compromising outcomes.

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Well of course you are right when it comes to playing a role-playing game and telling a story. I absolutely agree with you, no caveats. I didn’t interpret this thread as being about that at all, though.

Well, no real intent to get into an argument, as I both can see where you are coming from and at the same time not completely agree with it. I do agree that realism can be a needless restriction on imaginative story telling, and that there is little point in bringing demographics to the forefront of any sort of game play. That “background machine” as you call it is always necessarily incomplete anyway, and you could pour a ton of time into it and produce something interesting yet never actually tell any stories. On all that I think we can agree.

It’s in the “niggling details” I think we differ. I don’t see MG as a model for wild nature, but I do see wild nature as a hugely inspiring resource for MG. I don’t need the natural world to dictate to me but I do think the natural world is an amazingly detailed resource filled with wonder and beauty and danger and that as far as the game MG goes to advance “mouse vs. nature” as a story trope and source of conflict, that it would be strange to not listen to nature as an adviser if not a dictator.

Where you find emulation the most irritating factor of D&D, many others find fault with D&D’s severe lack of emulation. The standard trope of D&D is you are down in a dungeon and you open a 5’ wide door to find a red dragon and its treasure in a room with no exits big enough for it to leave. For many groups, it’s enough to kick down the doors, kill the monster, and take its stuff. Why there is a red dragon in a room with no exits waiting for a party of ‘adventurers’ to come slay it, is not a question worth dwelling on for many groups.

I tend to find realism on the other hand a source of inspiration for the imagination. Yes, you can take it too far, but asking questions about “How it works?” tends to inspire me to follow lines of thought I might not otherwise have wandered down, and leads me at least to create denser, richer stories. And, it doesn’t hurt in my experience if everything sort of hangs together and helps the players believe in the world.

It may help understand where I’m coming from to know my wife has a PhD in biology and I myself have some background in biological research. So when someone says “mice” for most people that’s probably good enough. For me though, when someone says “mice”, it’s not a term that really means any more than “small rodent”, and there is in that space a huge variety of types of animals with different diets, lifestyles, and social structures.

Finally, for me at least, “everything is a moral grey” is the most overused trope in storytelling. I don’t really want to explore things from the perspective of the weasels. I don’t really want mouse society to be a deeply compromised thing which has at its basis tremendous lies, deceit, and corruption. I want a Mouse Guard that’s truly heroic, and not one that cynical. Mouse society has a enough things to overcome without making them thoroughly corrupt, and indeed it’s hard for me to imagine mouse society surviving if it is morally compromised. However they have to survive, by necessity that is how they are surviving, and if it doesn’t contribute to their survival by necessity they would be doing something else or they would be dead.

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