West Marches Mouse Guard?

So it seems this weet marches, hexcrawl kind of sandbox is a bit in vogue at the moment. Most of the time though people are sticking to d&d with it.

I feel with its focus on wilderness exploration and dealing with it, Mouse Guard would actually be a better fit mechanically at least. Philosophy wise it might need a bit of hacking so I wanted to see what we would need.

First of all I don’t think Hexcrawl is quite right with the how Mouse Guard rules make you roll only if it counts. Pointcrawls sound perfect expespecially this idea: http://hillcantons.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/crawling-without-hexes-pointcrawl.html?m=1

If you look at his map you can already see how pathfinder and scouting could easily fit in.

So the major thing is default goal, in regular Mouse Guard you have a mission and you do it. Sandbox is all about finding your mission.

So in d&d what is the default goal and mission? Well its obvious, find a dungeon an loot it, maybe kill some monsters. Easy way to get exploration in a game.

Mouse Guard will be trickier and I think this is where Im getting stuck a lot, what is the default goal away from the mission structure? Or should it just be the structure of the year where you have to travel the lands to do the missions and on the way get into trouble. Not as simple or guiding a light as the D&D one unfortunately.

So yeah that second point needs an answer because everything else would easily fall in place. Like adding more to the Pathfinder so failure where you meet something is not the more interesting answer.

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.

An example:

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.)

Reply here to include whole audience:
I like the material on the blog about West Marches. I used the post about making your own to offer my replies. So, I’m not exactly replaying to your immediate thoughts, but I hope this can inform.

Building MG Campaign Compared with West Marches:
Make Town Safe: I suggest making the towns semi-safe. I’ve nearly always treated Lockhaven and small settlements safe havnes, but larger settlements are a mixture of safe zones ans danger zones, and more importantly, there are many ways to participate in the duties inside settlements whether safe or dangerous. I like to have Mic issues happen in a town, so they can see there are limits on the jurisdiction. Nonethless, if you use the advice from West Marches, I think MG will align fairly well.

Make Wilderness Wild: I agree. This is a fantastic way to highlight the skills which Guard members have, and the vast space of danger between settlemetns. This could depend on the campaign impression you have in mind, but I think this is an area in which MG and West Marches would align well.

Keep NPC Adventurers Rare: This may be difficult to align, but here is the take: the relationship NPCs should be placed in precarious situations in which the Guard are called upon to help or rescue. That might include having non-adventurous mice attempting to brave travel in the wilderness. I tend to admit that other mice attempt to be Guard-like in their skills, knowledge, and services, but the cost of service and required provisions go far above and beyond the (spartan-like) Guard services and provisions. So, each settlement has some measure of safety beyond the gates, but not nearly as skilled, dedicated, and capable as the Guard members. Another factor here is that you need those relationships to be tied to the PCs, so it might be easy to say that the adventurous NPCs are rare, yet there are still plenty of mice trying to get by in a less adventurous manner.

Treasure rooms, locked rooms, pockets of danger: I don’t think this will be easy to align with MG from West Marches. The idea of treasure is not really present in MG. The idea of clearing a dungeon is similarly unfit for MG. In fact, I tend to stay far from the appearance of dungeons. Now, pockets of danger will occur due to the design of the missions. Every mission must have hazards and obstacles which lead to tests and conflicts, so those are easily points of danger and risk.

Running MG Campaign Compared with West Marches:
Appear Passive: I think this aligns well, but I would at least keep in mind that the role of GM is to challenge the BIGs of PCs. So, don’t ignore that the GM must, must, must offer proactive, active, reactive challenges to the Beliefs, Instincts, and Goals of player characters. If the GM remains passive in this respect, they are not playing a fair game in which players can earn rewards. It isn’t fair, I say, because it’s in the rules that the GM has this role–it’s part of the rules of the game that the GM takes action to place PCs into threat, relationships into threat, and that those threats reflect an opportunity for players to highlight or showcase BIGs. A GM behaving too passively is ignoring the rules. Also, the players need to create some threats and highlight or showcase BIGs, but that’s not quite this advice point.

Provide an Easy Lead: I think this somewhat aligns, but not perfectly. As GM, you’ll have to design a mission; this entails not just decisions about season, weather, hazards, obstacles, but also making a decisive statement of what the mission is to accomplish. This is also part of rewards for players, so don’t stand back from that role as GM. It may be, 'complete this routine Guard duty," or it might be, ‘carry-out this clandestine plot (outside of normal duties),’ yet in all cases, the GM needs to make a statement that there is a mission to accomplish. The hazards/obstacles are interruptions or interference in the mission; else, sometimes just getting the mission done illustrates the hazard/obstacle. Without giving a solid mission statement, it is more difficult to determine MVP reward. I actulaly don’t call that as Most Valuable Player; I call it Making Victory Possible or Making Victory Paramount.

Adventure in Wilderness not Town: I think this aligns, but I kinda stated earlier this is subjective. I think there is room for some real missions and/or obstacles within settlements. Yet, I agree that sometimes players can feel too safe and get too bogged in the talky-talky bits. I also agree that the settlement mice ought to know less about the wilds than Guard (mostly).

Let Players Take Over: Yes, during the Player Turn and during GM Turn, the players must step forward and take action. Now, the counterbalance here is that a GM needs to design a mission, not simply design an environment to have playtime. If the players have no mission, the GM is abdicating the role. In addition, having players offer the Prologue and manage other notation of maps or campaign lore is a worthy choice.

Competition: I kinda see this, but I also kinda don’t see this aligning with MG. I can imagine that players in a large, sporadic group may need to hear about the prestige earned by fellow Guard mates in case they miss out. Yet, the rewards of MG are not stuff, its the Fate and Persona and passes/fails, and growth of the BIGs. That’s something a bit more intrinsic in the player motivation than in the aquisition of goods.

Require Scheduling: Yes, the players and GM must coordinate; that’s true of nearly any agme. I see this aligning perfectly.

Fear the Social Monster: Not sure I can say something about this. It kinda aligns, and kinda makes sense for any game.

(Also copying over my comments from the G+ group)

That’s a good breakdown. Now I want to sit down and write up a contrast between the existing Mouse Guard campaign tools and this approach, to see where they complement each other and where the friction comes from. (Or play an experimental campaign, but it’ll be a while before I can do that. If someone does try these ideas, please let me know!)

I agree with most of what you’ve said. For a couple the individual points, I think it might be worth looking beyond the surface definition:

Keep NPC Adventurers Rare - This was originally in the context of PC adventurers dungeon crawling, so you didn’t want to have the NPC adventurers looting the dungeons instead of the players. I think for Mouse Guard I’d phrase it as Don’t Have NPCs Solve Threats/Missions for the Player Characters. Absolutely have other members of the Mouse Guard (and other mice) around doing stuff, getting into trouble, and so on, but if we define the central action of the players as “dealing with the Threats to Mouse civilization” rather than “exploration” then I think the intent of this advice can be summed up as “Don’t do the player’s main activity for them.”

Treasure rooms, locked rooms, pockets of danger - I agree with what you said here, and I might even take it further. Since I think the “dungeons” of Mouse Guard are the missions (or groups of missions/threats), I think we can cover this by being able to partially solve the threats.

For example, say that Grasslake has been dealing with floods every spring. When a flood happens, there’s a lot of related missions the guard can do: sandbags to redirect the flow, saving mice stranded by the flood, rebuilding the town afterward. The big goal would be to keep this year’s flood at bay. (The even bigger goal would be to flood-proof Grasslake permanently. Build a dam? Put houses on posts? That’s for the players to maybe figure out.)

So we’ve got our basic missions (fixing the immediate problems is like exploring a dungeon) plus the harder, more structural problems (solving the underlying problem is like clearing a dungeon completely and finding the secret treasure room).

The neat thing is that many of the Animal hazards are already structured this way, due to the Natural Order. Killing a fox is much harder than driving it out of its den, which is in turn harder than saving a particular caravan from the fox. The Fox is our dungeon, removing it as a Threat is our secret treasure.

Appear passive - I agree with you that this is tricky because Mouse Guard is not the objective-game-mechanics-sandbox of D&D that the West Marches originally referred to. The narrative drive of the game means that the GM is going to be much more involved. This is the point where I think the most friction is possible, though there’s some ways to mitigate that.

Sketching out multiple possible missions ahead of time, for example. (My view on this may underestimate the difficulty, since the last time I ran a Mouse Guard campaign I developed a system to quickly outline missions. It was based on the four hazards model, so I hope that it isn’t too difficult for people to pick up. Maybe I should write-up my approach to designing missions?)

Provide an easy lead - I think you’re right, here, but I think the fix is relatively easy: Our “leads” can be either outright missions or rumors of threats, which can be missions themselves. So if the threat is “A fox has a den in the territories” I can present that to the players as “Mice have gone missing near Sprucetuck, find out what happened to them” and watch it snowball from there.

adventures in towns - Since I’m defining the “dungeons” of Mouse Guard as the Threats to mice, I’m perfectly fine with town adventures. (And Mouse Guard is built to deal with social challenges. Persuasion has saved the day many times.)

Let the players take over - As you said, Mouse Guard already has lots of great tools for this built in.

Competition - My sense, without running it, is that a shared-world Mouse Guard game would be more about cooperation. Though there very well might be some push to be the party that solved a particular problem. I’d have to see the game in action to know whether the shared goal of protecting the mice against outside threats gives you the same kind of unifying drive that competition for treasure does.