On Hacking Nature


Many of you enjoy hacking the Mouse Guard system. And most of you who do rightly intuit that hacking Nature is the most difficult aspect of such an endeavor. Why is this?

Nature is the soul of Mouse Guard. It quantifies and qualifies the character as a mouse—as an animal apart from all others in the setting. It does so by describing a series of mouselike behaviors for the character that are useful but generally counter to the entire purpose of the game. To wit: the goal of Mouse Guard is not to play a mouse. When you sit down to play, you are playing a hero. Your game describes that hero’s journey and adventures. Rarely in the tales of heroics do we exalt in running away, foraging for seeds or scampering up trees. While those are useful, perhaps essential, aspects of mousehood.

You see, Nature creates a tension. It is a useful game resource for the players, but using it encourages behaviors counter to the heroic thrust of the game. When you use Nature, you’re almost always making a decision about what’s important to you; you’re almost always sacrificing or risking something. Especially when you play the game long term. What may seem like a series of easy of decisions—use Nature, get benefit!—takes on a different tenor once your Nature is either taxed or advances close to 7.

When you are hacking Nature, you must take this tension into account. Nature must be unsavory, difficult or downright contentious. It cannot be beneficial. It cannot be occupational. It must be something you are struggling against in the heat of the moment. Are you a mouse or a hero?

If you make Nature easy or occupational (like Nature: Hero) then you not only drain the tension from the game, but deflate the skill mechanics, too. Since you can use an occupational Nature to do all of the things are important to the character, there’s no reason to have skills. There’s no reason not to advance your Nature to 7 and pile dice onto every roll. And once you have an optimal strategy like that, all characters become the same and the game quickly becomes boring.

For good examples of Nature hacks check out Realm Guard and Paul Beakley’s upcoming SF hack.

Thank you for enjoying and playing our games. I hope this helps you squeeze more from them in the future.

If you have a moment Luke, I’m curious to know what you think of my Pirate Nature for my potential Sky Pirates Hack. It is as follows.

Sky Pirates have four aspects to their Nature: Pilfering, Murdering, Lieing, and Backstabbing. The higher your Nature rank, the more pirate-like you are. The lower your rank, the more “honest” you are.

Situations against Nature would be: providing aid, learning, developing relationships, self defense combat, etc.

Your nature is important to what type of a pirate you are. Are you a sky pirate who wishes to be honest and true, fighting the evil leagues-men and doing business with Undertowners? Or are you a sky pirate who is in it for himself? If Nature drops to 0 due to tax, the individual is strongly affected. He becomes unlike other pirates. Perhaps he has lofty ideals of purity and honor. Perhaps he’s become to soft to live the life of a sky pirate. Whatever’s happened, he’s become distinctly unpiratelike. If your current Nature rating drops to 0 due to tax, one of the character’s traits is immediately changed to a trait like Noble, Weak, Inept, or something else appropriate to the test that taxed him.

If your maximum Nature rating drops to 0, your character begins to back off from the life of a pirate or challenge the others’ ways. He starts to see the world differently and doesn’t want to be a sky pirate anymore. At the end of this mission, your character must retire until the captain (the GM) hires you back onto the crew.

If maximum Nature advances to 7 and remains at that rating at the end of your current session, the character has become too much of a pirate. He’s too cutthroat and untrustworthy. To represent this, one of his traits is changed to something like Ruthless, Killer or Cheat.

If you have enough passes and fails to advance to 8, you are festooned by your crew. Festooning is being tied to the top of the nearest tree. Because a player with high nature can really upset some of the other players, an unanimous vote is required if the festooned character is ever to be allowed back on the ship. If the players all vote yes, than the character is reintroduced in a later session. If a vote is made and it is not unanimous, the character is considered dead.

What do you think?

Just hafta say Thanks Luke. This is something I’ve been mulling over… And it seems I completely have to rework what I was doing for my hack. Oh well.

Still, thanks!!

Super helpful, Luke.

Is it OK to discuss different attempts at hacking Nature here? If so, here’s mine for my police hack, that’s been underway for quite some time now:

Human Nature

Human Nature 0 means the character has lost the remains of her humanity, her interest in doing good and helping. She might also have become obsessive, too focused on details to get the big picture. Perhaps she has become a psychopath, or an animal-like creature. Nature 7 means the character has become too human and self-preserving to care about catching criminals.

I’m not an expert (quite the opposite, in fact) but as I understand Nature in MG, it works to describe what a mouse essentially is and also allows certain super-abilities to exist, on account of how many freakin’ dice you can get by double tapping your nature. So I wonder how self-preservation, gratification, and empathizing would actually function in a game play situation: I mean, how do you define which behaviors are gratifying? Because if it’s within my nature to do something, it’s less risky… but almost anything a character might want to do could potentially be seen as gratifying, e.g. I’d like to defeat this criminal because it would be gratifying to see his look of shame and repentance; I’d like a shiny new squad car because it would be gratifying to run red lights in style.

Also, empathizing seems a bit out of place there. Why would I cheat someone who I could empathize with? I’d know that I was going to cause them to suffer. Ditto for empathizing and self-preservation. For instance, my empathy would lead me to intervene in a domestic violence incident, but my instinct for self-preservation would pull me the opposite direction. Humans are more complicated than mice, sure, but from a mechanical perspective it seems preferable to have a simple nature at odds with many of the desirable actions that characters then have to fight against. So maybe have a core concept of commitment to duty with a dash of self-preservation that underlies everything, and then you could have something like intimidating, delegating (why don’t you kick down that door, buddy?), pursuing, and stonewalling as actions that are in your nature. Easy to understand and play.

The thin blue line has a nasty job that often puts them at odds with a lot of folks, so empathizing with protesters requires an extraordinary effort because your own personal safety is at risk sometimes. Want to storm into that drug cartel’s mansion? Well, there’s glory in that, but also quite a bit of risk. The question would be: do you want to stall out at Sargent and maybe get stuck behind a desk someday, or do you want to help people, change the world, take on the baddies single-handed? Kinda sounds fun actually.

Thx, Stinkyc,

I think you give some excellent examples of why Human Nature is what it is in my hack!

I don’t want this thread to be about me vetting your Nature hacks. So I’ll answer the two queries so far in the interest of providing examples. But otherwise, start a new thread about your hack.

Twice Born: I don’t think your Nature set up is well-reasoned or compelling. I see what you’re trying to do, but based on my experience with gamers at the table and my experience with MG hacks, I don’t think you’re going to produce strong decisions. For one, your Nature is occupational – Pirate – and it’s FUN. We love to get our hands dirty in RP. I have a hard time imagining a player compelled to make meaningful decision to tap his Nature to learn something. Also, the more you tax your Nature in MG, the faster you learn. So that relationship is weird at best.

Per: While your descriptors are a bit squishy (as Stinky pointed out), your Human Nature is closer to my heart. You’re presenting a Nature that’s hard to be, not so fun but still potentially useful. I’d try to think about Stink’s suggestions. How do you break it down into actions? If you can do that, you’ll have a winner.

Thanks all. I hope this helps!

I kind of understand your critiques. I will comment further on my hack thread here: http://www.burningwheel.org/forum/showthread.php?11533-Sky-Pirates-An-Edge-Chronicles-Hack

We went through six different iterations of Nature in MGSF. Probably the single most powerful insight we had was: make the Nature effects game-useful, motive-neutral verbs.

Look at OG MG and you see this: hiding, climbing, foraging, and so on. There are times when any of those things will be useful! But the Nature itself doesn’t judge say “hiding” as per se bad. It’s on the GM to frame situations where hiding is the easy choice but not-hiding is the right choice.

Early iterations of Nature (Human) were far too mired in motives. We had stuff like “acting selfishly,” right? What a clusterfuck in actual play. Nearly everything every character does can be characterized as “selfish”. So the action stops and everyone gets into a lengthy argument. Blah. Boring. That was true all over the place. Or we came up with lengthy scenarios and not simple,direct and very game-useful verbs.

Working out the right Nature is extraordinarily tough when you take this into account. Now you are providing a tool to help the GM frame up duty-versus-self situations. And coming up with the right verbs is tricky.

Another trick: you can preload the expectations of how to use your selected verbs simply by having a clear premise so players and GM are on the same page.

I wrote that last thing in bed, on my tablet, like 2 minutes away from going to sleep. So let me revisit some of this in a more alert state. :slight_smile:

The game-useful verb thing is huge, mostly as a way to restrict the universe of possible verbs to choose from. Like I said, one of my first Nature (Human) ideas in MGSF was “acting selfishly.” That’s all about the motive but where’s the verb? When am I “acting”? Always? Terrible choice. Then I moved it to “gaining benefit at someone’s expense” as a way to address a lengthy discussion/argument at the table about the nature of selfisness (as opposed to self-interest). That, too, was a terrible choice for similar reasons: what’s a benefit? What’s “gaining”? Is it an expense if the other guy doesn’t miss it?

So I had to totally revisit my approach. I had several ideas that were complex, vague verbs + motives. You know what that equals? A scene. I was basically tying rough scenes to Nature, which totally sucked balls. The players wanted a more flexible tool, and as GM I felt handcuffed to that scene: “Oh so here’s this place where I need to make the player decide if gaining a benefit at his crewmate’s expense is more important than carrying out his mission.” Man…I’ve pretty much just preplayed the whole scene for the guy.

It doesn’t work. Don’t do that.

At least for MGSF, I went back to the drawing board with this mindset: What is the shittiest, most useful thing I want my players to do under stress? And by “do” I had to drill down to literal, active verbs. “Throw someone under the bus” was yet another ill-conceived Nature (Human) idea. Once again it’s open to interpretation and, therefore, argument at the table(1). I took “throw someone under the bus” and backed it up a bit: Under what circumstances would one want/need to make a crewmate take the blame for something? I figured it was when the character had been caught doing something wrong, or when the character fucked up and feared retribution from someone in authority. The short version is, I had to think: how do you throw someone under the bus?

You lie.

So “lying” is my short, punchy, active verb. It’s a pathway toward doing something shitty and useful. It is also redundant with “Deceiver” (the skill), which I think is totally grand because you can get way more points in Deceiver and continue to be an outstanding liar even as your Nature (Human) plummets.

Make your Nature actions active verbs that are pathways toward doing something shitty(2) and useful. That’s my takeaway.


i NB some of this interpretation/argument stuff is, I confess, totally cultural, a mix of my own table’s play approach as well as the play aesthetic of BW/Crane games: the system is there so that both sides can resort to an impartial outside authority rather than relying on GM discretion, so when you go back to requiring GM discretion the game stops working.[/i]

i “Shitty” being entirely dependent on what kind of story you want to shape with your hack. What is it that your want your guys to want that is contradictory to what’s expected/needed of them?[/i]

i’m curious why Nature (other) is described with verbs. I can see how it was done in MG; I can understand how that appears to be the standard. Yet, I don’t think that a verb is required. Luke, can you speak to why the active verb makes such a difference?

In my experience having experimented extensively with non-verb constructs: it’s purely a practical matter. In play it is really hard to suss out when you’re fulfilling your Nature when you do something. If you try to build Nature around motives (greediness, anger etc) then it becomes a sales pitch to the GM, which sucks and is slow to argue through.

There’s also a fruitful void component to the whole thing. If you just say “you get this fat stat when you act out of anger,” then you don’t really get to explore the space that leads a character to feel angry. You just declare that state and score your fat pool of dice. But if you provide actions (verbs) that facilitate your target emotional endstate – hiding when you’re scared for example – then the players can find their own way there. It is much more rewarding IME.

As Paul noted, it’s important to be as specific as possible. The more squishy the application of your descriptors, the more the game bogs down.