I’ve been kicking around an idea to run a West Marches Mouse Guard game for a while. I haven’t had a chance to run it yet, but maybe my ideas will help someone:
Rather than doing a literal hexcrawl, I was going to do a mission-based structure around towns. A bit like the pointcrawl idea, but my prep as GM would revolve less around places-in-space and more around communities and characters.
Since the characters are all a part of the Mouse Guard, that gives an excuse for why they’re together this week: this is the patrol that was pulled together to cover whatever problems the Guard needs to deal with. I think, to give position on the map some weight, I’d say that the party can start a session at either Lockhaven or at one of the places where a character finished a previous session. (So if last week’s group finished the session at, say, Barkstone, players could jump in even if their characters were elsewhere-in-fiction, because we’ll handwave their travel to that point for the sake of the group. But if the group wanted to get to, say, Birchflow, and no one’s last-known-position was there, they’d have to travel there in-game.)
On the other side of the GM screen, I’d prep some situations for several towns. There’s a number of evergreen tasks to start off with: clearing roads in the Spring, delivering mail, and so on. You can do quite well improvising off the lists in the book. Mark down which areas have which terrain, roll on a random table for obstacles encountered in that area (or just pick a logical one). So there’s a bedrock of stories to fall back on.
But we want interesting, localized stories, so that the player’s choices about where to go or what mission to take have some meaning. So I planned to also prep a set of Dungeon World/Apocalypse World-style threats. There’s plenty of ideas for hooks in the book. I’d just sketch out a very basic note for each town they’re likely to reach. The Guard gets rumors and news about what’s happening in the world, and the players (either in-character or out of character) pick which mission to go on. (You can assume that other patrols are addressing the other missions…or not.)
The towns are, in effect, the dungeons of Mouse Guard. Not in the sense that you explore them, but because the mission of the Mouse Guard is to protect the communities. Therefore, we can describe the threats in relation to the towns that they endanger. The four hazards model of creating a mission can be borrowed to create these threats.
Start with, say, a Great Horned Owl. We’ll say: “An Owl has taken up residence near the road leading out of Copperwood, where it has been eating travellers.” That’s the threat description. You might also have a second Hazard noted down, something that they’re likely to encounter if something goes wrong, so you have a twist handy. Perhaps the Owl’s nest is at the top of a difficult-to-climb dead tree, with little cover, or maybe one of the mice from a caravan it attacked is alive but lost in the woods.
We might also write down Stakes: a question or two about what will happen because of it. “Will the Owl scare mice away from traveling to Copperwood?” These should be concrete and important, irrevocable changes. If no one figures out that the Owl is causing the disappearances, will the mice regard the road as haunted?
Now, we don’t have to tell the players about the Owl up-front. The mission can be something like “Find out why a traveller didn’t make it back”. Running the mission is fairly straightforward: The first Obstacle is whatever difficulty they have figuring out why the traveller is missing, the second Obstacle is the Owl. That should be enough for you to run a Mission.
(If you want to prep a whole mission in advance, I advise doing what the original West Marches did and have the players who schedule the session also indicate which mission they want to pursue, or which town they want to visit next.)
After the mission, you’ll have an answer to your questions. If the Guardmice fail, or if they don’t deal with it in time, then you also have an answer to your question. (I’m not sure what schedule to put the time pressure on, though my instinct is to make it the end of the season. “If this isn’t resolved by the end of the season, then the answer to the question is…” Countdown tracks might also be useful. You could even go with DW-style Grim Portents, which make for handy news items.)
Answered questions from your Stakes will naturally lead to further threats, with their own questions. “The lack of travel to Copperwood has lead to food shortages. Hazard - Mice: Brynn has been stealing from the grain store to feed her sick mother. Mission: The governor of Copperwood has asked the Guard for help investigating the missing grain.”
You should also note down things on your map: Say the Guardmice drive the Owl off: now there’s an abandoned owl’s nest established there, for future use.
So, rather than looking at a map of hexes to explore, your players will be looking at a map of things that mice need help with, or that threaten them, or that are causing disputes between them. They’ll be exploring social relationships and protecting them from internal and external threats.
If you need even more drama, situations in towns can be built a bit like Dogs in the Vineyard does it. I haven’t sketched out the details of that, since the DitV Faith has a specific progression we’d need to alter, but your players’ characters’ beliefs should give you some suggestions in that direction. Absent that, there’s some basic themes in the game (survival, the-whole-territory vs. a single community, the Guard vs. those they protect, etc.) that could be the basis for a situation.
One way to structure an escalation might be to start with a personal problem and gradually go outwards: Start with a personal-scale problem, then extend it to their friends and enemies, the community, the region, and the entire Territories. Or, if you’ve got an idea for a larger problem, work backwards and present the first mission on the personal scale.
Another way to come up with a Mouse-hazard mission: pick a skill from the skill list. Now imagine how there could be a problem related to that: a shortage of beer, a Brewer who is in debt, a problem with the water supply. (You can do this with all of the setting chapters: they’re dense with opportunities to create missions and hooks.)
I think just about any approach will work if you come up with something that gets you “some NPCs with a claim to the PCs’ time, some NPCs who can’t ignore the PCs’ arrival, and some NPCs who’ve done harm, but for reasons anybody could understand.” Since the player characters have ties to characters out in the world, this is a perfect place to use those NPC characters.
We can also include longer-term threats that play out as a series of smaller threats, mix in the seasonal threats, and watch the effect of one mission ripple out to the other towns.
We can, in fact, treat each Threat-Mission as a kind of super-Obstacle: only instead of rolling, the mice go on the mission and try to resolve the problem. In which case I’d be tempted to borrow from Burning Wheel and say that you should define-the-outcomes-before-you-do-the-mission. Though it’s really a bit more like a Conflict, which will likely have a compromise of some sort. All of which you might want to take into consideration when you’re writing the questions/stakes.
We can also say Threats have Goals: not the Goal of the Owl, per se, but the Goal of the personified Owl-Threat, similar to how Seasons have goals in journey Conflicts. “Goal: To cut off trade to Copperwood” maybe. Might use that instead of Stake-Questions.
Other notes: Lockhaven acts as the Town in the West Marches sense. Which it naturally does in most Mouse Guard games anyway. Though one major function of the West Marches Safe Town is to have someplace to park unplayed characters without the place burning down on their heads. The Mouse Guard gives you excuses that make that less necessary: there are any number of assignments Guardmice could be doing offscreen.
So you can threaten Lockhaven, but sparingly. I’d start with personal-scale problems and work my way up. All the other Mouse towns? Go wild! If players come back to find out that Copperwood burned down while they were gone, there’s probably an epic tale attached, not to mention all kinds of Beliefs for the Guardmice to fight for. (Refugees! Attempts to rebuild! Tool shortages! Disputes between survivors!)
You should probably have some way for players to keep track of news and rumors, so they know what their options are. The role of the players here (out of character) is something like that of senior patrol leaders who are choosing which missions to send patrols on and advising Gwendolyn. They might want to draw their own map of problems, or use markers like on Gwendolyn’s map in Lockhaven.
I should note that this approach is less exploration-oriented than a vanilla West Marches game would be. It is, to use Max Kreminski’s terminology, more of a gardening game. In fact, you might have a relationship map in addition to a map of the Territories, or a threat map like in Apocalypse World 2nd edition.
Now, the big caveat: this is all untested. I haven’t had a chance to run it yet. I think it sounds like a solid foundation for running a multiple-party campaign of Mouse Guard that shares an evolving map and situation between more players than fit in one party. But I can’t guarantee that the hack will work.
(If there was only one-party worth of players I’d still use some of this stuff to structure my campaign, particularly the offer-multiple-missions bit but would also tailor it more closely to the Beliefs of the PCs. But Mouse Guard already has a strong framework for running a player-directed campaigns. Let them use their player turns, give them some leeway in selecting missions, and you’re halfway there. The main benefit of all this stuff in this situation is to help with persistence, to give a greater weight to what the Guard accomplished. Which you can do with a purely narrative approach with vanilla Mouse Guard, so all of this is mostly for GMs & players who want a little more structure/systems to keep track.)
If any of this helps someone run a West Marches Mouse Guard campaign I’d love to hear about it.
(Side note: the original West Marches wasn’t, as is popularly assumed, a hexcrawl. It was a vector-travel mapcrawl. Which still is a mismatch for Mouse Guard in my mind: the game is designed to abstract away those details of travel and I think it’s far stronger if we go along with that rather than fighting against it with some kind of elaborate map movement rules.)