[Split From Aramis' Thread] Continuing Mouse Guard

I’ve just re-read this thread again. Sorry if I’m beating a dead horse, but it just bothers me that a group’s experience with the system would suddenly “fail” after reading through so many of Aramis’ anecdotes where the group and the system seemed to work so well.

So I’m wondering … is this particular player group simply used to having more “play time” spent on their own agenda rather than on the “GM’s agenda”? As a GM, I can understand how well this can work and I’d actually want to encourage it.

Is there a simple way that would lead to increasing the number of checks, despite the number of regular opportunities to earn them? Is it possible to allow for earning checks when you succeed at obstacles (instead of only earning them when you make it harder)?

Maybe something along the lines of “if you hit Blackjack, you win a lot more than what you would regularly gamble for”.

Yes. I tend to be a bit of a “Sandbox” GM…

as in “Here’s the sandbox, go play in it and do what you find interesting”… which is part of my own issue with running for 1 or 2 players; at 4, there is a synergy that tends to give me directions and hooks. At three, with the right three, that synergy can and does work. At 2, however, it’s seldom present, and at 1, it isn’t.

My core players (Steve, Steph, Jerry) also all want more face time spent on things that interest them, more than on things that interest me.

I’ve been gaming with Steve for 20 years, more on than off, and steph for 14, and Jerry for 12. My extended group (Eric, Mark, Dave, Peter, Kat, Crystal, Dale plus the core) have been gaming with me off and on for 9 (Crystal) to 25 (Mark, Peter) years.

Of the lot, only Steph isn’t an experienced GM. But she, more than the rest, felt disconnected by MG mechanics; I suspect it has a lot to do with playing a lot of “Rules-light” or “Non-mechanical” RP on line. Like the approved Pern Weyrs. Collaborative authoring.

Sandboxes I’ve run: Traveller (2 editions; the marches as a playground), D&D Cyclopedia + Gazeteers, M&M (Let players suggest plots and big-bads, and randomize whom with which plot, so they don’t know what to expect, but it’s something they sugggested…), Judge Dredd (GW version; give them a few blurb hooks, and let them pick one of those or a 59(d) search…), Ars Magica.
Semi-sandboxes (I present a big bad, and have a planned meet-up at the end; nothing in between is in any way scripted): BTVS*, L5R
Non-sandbox (Here’s the mission, go do it): BTVS*, D-Trek, Prime Direvtive, KAP*, T&T dungeon crawls.

Even when I run non-sandbox games, there are often sections where it’s a “Montessori Game”… a constrained environment, but your choices determine which things happen in what order… (Much like a Montessori method classroom, or a classic dungeon crawl.)

So my players are used to a lot of contol over the direction the story takes, since I tend to “react” to players actions. When they give me hooks, I give them hooks. MG, they didn’t have enough to do that, and didn’t feel like they had much control.

Heck, for comparison, In D&D (CR, in Darokin on Mystara), they, as a level 1 party, had a random encounter with a Green Dragon while fleeing a dungeon. I was going to have it ignore them by fiat, just give them a scare, but the Fairy Magic Missiled it… and then fled for the dungeon… just to have it and the locals get into it. Of course, the reaction roll was thus hostile, and yes, it pursued, and yes, the locals reacted to the dragon… A very successful “Let’s You and Him Fight” using an 8hd juvie dragon (54hp) to take care of a dozen angry kobolds (10x 1/2hd, 3hp ea, plus a 2nd level kobold of 1hd, with 9 hp, and a 3rd level with 1.5hd and 16 hp).

But, of late, they also want more and more in-character and less wargame. They also want more sandbox than MG is set up for. I could adapt it, but it isn’t worth it when BE is mechanically what they are asking for (even as they shy from it for setting issues); more chances to play in character, to give voice, and more impact on the setting.

Perhaps I don’t understand your terms, but I don’t understand how Burning Empires is less constrained than Mouse Guard. The opposite seems true to me.


Aramis – thank you for providing such a detailed answer! I am honored to learn about your group’s experience and how it reacted to MG.

At this point, I have to agree with the general consensus; although I was truthfully hoping there was a MG-wise solution to making it work with the group you have. It truly does seem that your group won’t be completely comfortable with the semi-sandbox, semi-railed structure that MG has.

(I mean, I haven’t even played an MG game yet, and I can already see how it won’t fit your group’s playstyle!)

I’ll leave to let you and Luke talk about BE.

@ Stormtower:

Yeah, it’s that “Lead by the nose” sensation that is part of the problem. I could mitigate it with more baseline checks, or by letting each player submit a chosen obstacle or two from which to build up a deck… but they see the rails.

@ Luke:
The terms are derived from (EEK! no, EGG!) Gygax’s discourses in the 1980’s, and from various designers notes, mostly GDW and F.B.,I… For Forge-terminology comparison, it’s a separate dimension from the GSN plane. (I’m not a Forge-head, but Ron’s System Matters essay in the back of Sorcerer resonated and made me realize what it was I was and wasn’t liking in various games. It made me start thinking in terms of designed mode vs desired mode. And made my GMing better.)

Sandbox: big open environment for the players to go explore in. All the encounters are derived from players choosing to go to X or to do Y.
Semi-Sandbox: I kick them in the pants with a plot hook, and then let them respond to it in time… or not. Everything stems from PC’s and the actions of a Big-Bad.
Montessori-Game: Drop them into a fully prepared environment. Their choices are limited by the environment, but most of the “obvious” choices lead to various prepared encounters, many of which will differ slightly based upon previous choices.
Non-Sandbox, aka Linear: You are at X. You need to get to Y. Along the way you will encounter a, b, and c in order. a has no extra-character effect on b, etc.

Mouseguard GM phase is VERY linear; the Player Phase is Semi-sandbox…
BE is a player-constructed sandbox… more over, it’s one that the GM gets to play in as a player. So while mechanically, the two are very close, the openness of the style of play is very different.

A good D&D module is usually montessori, while many are linear, especially the demo and convention modules from the late 2E period.

THe very best D&D modules (including Ravenloft, Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits, and X1 Isle of Dread) are small semi-sandbox. There is a big bad, a motivation and a time limit, and a series of encounter types and trigger/responses, but the module provides an environment to explore, and a big bad to motivate the Players and to kick start things into motion… and they may or may not deal with the Big Bad.

While I have to concur that this game is probably just not for your group, I still do think the perspective of how hard adapting MG to run in the classic D&D format is way harder then it actually would be…

Just plan and run the session exactly how you would a traditional game: Skip the GM/Player turn breakdown. Describe what the players see, and they tell you what they want to do. You tell them the results. Repeat. If the players try to do something that requires a skill or attribute check, they make a skill or attribute check. If a conflict breaks out, use the conflict rules. Having a trait hinder you provides an extra Persona point for later rather then a Check. That’s it, good to go, and the vast majority of the book is still fully applicable. Every traditional game system has its own take on resolution, damage, advancement, teamwork, merits/flaws, skills, setting, etc. Other then the turn system and checks, the systems from MG can plug right in.

Wether its an affront to the spirit of the system is a different argument altogether, of course. But its your game, and it always comes down to Rule 0(however you choose to say it): Fun trumps rules.

It’s not that it would be hard; it’s that it’s not worth the effort when BE is designed for a wide-open sandbox, and they will be setting the stage. They do seem to like the narrative function of Wises. They like the use of the Artha cycle. They have complained about helpers getting no benefit in MG. (Which, in BE & BWR, Helpers DO get experience… and often, it’s the cheezy way to get those Challenging tests…)

Aramis, do you think your problems were exacerbated by the size of your play group? Tonight, I’ll be running Mouse Guard for five other players and I’m starting to feel things close in on me.

I was reading some of the rpg.net Actual Play posts. And there was definitely some concern there that when you have 5 or more players, it starts getting “crowded”.

Essentially, there’s less opportunity for each player to perform a test on the GM’s turn … which means that there’s also less opportunity for each player to earn checks they can use in the Player’s Turn.

The common solution I’ve been reading depends on the awareness of the GM to the problem … becuase the GM would have to adjust the scenario to add more opportunities (more obstacles and twists) for the players to make tests; or the GM would have to actively remind players to take creative approaches to the obstacles so they can “create” more tests.

For example.

Obstacle: the bridge over the river is broken.

Normal-quick-solution: One mouse rolls for carpentry, others add their helping die.

More Creative solution … add multiple tests.

  1. First one mouse scouts the river to find out why the bridge broke (and finds loose foundation).
  2. Another mouse looks for good rocks to fix the foundation.
  3. And finally, the regular carpentry roll.

Yeah, the “linked checks” system idea would help alleviate the problem, as you described above.

Group Size: no, not a major issue. MG does start to bog a bit at 5, but not enough to make a difference. (All that help, and they still wouldn’t buy checks by knocking off a die.)

They literally refused to invoke their traits against themselves except to break ties unless they felt they were going to win already.

Well, I’m sure you’re aware that the emergent property of Mouse Guard is that after the initial session, the game becomes largely player driven. The after the players start generating checks and then twists in the players turn, the GMs turn incorporates these narratives. The GM doesn’t generate his ideas whole cloth. He builds on the players’ reactions – Beliefs, Instincts, Goals, etc. – and incorporates and resolves the twists in an evolving quid pro quo of play that, seems to me, is very similar to the natural rhythms of RPGs.


Ah. That pretty much explains what you said earlier (paraphrasing: “the players didn’t like the mechanism of gaining Player-Turn-checks by doing things that can make them fail”)

I really wish more time was spent expanding on this concept in the book. Its sort of obvious common sense wise, but its really cool to see it spelled out in this manner, and sometimes a little difficult to see past the actual mechanical structures of the turn breakdowns and mission patterns in the actual pages. Thanks for saying it here in any case.

I have a theory about game design, especially roleplaying game design: If you spell out every single avenue of play, it becomes mechanical.

My games are meant to be played according to their instructions. I’m confident that if they are played accordingly, then the emergent properties develop and the group has a series of “Ah hah!” moments.

I have confidence in roleplaying gamers being intelligent, creative and insightful. Intelligent enough to parse the system, creative enough to develop unique content in the course of interpreting the system and insightful enough to follow the spirit of the game and use it to mold their experiences.