Published on September 27th, 2013 | by Across the Board Games Staff
Legends of the Guard
Summary: Rewarding RPG that honors honest roleplaying and character challenge in the medieval wilds of a mouse society. What's not to love?
By Richard Phoenix
The long fought war has ravaged the once prosperous Territories. Your people have emerged victorious, but at a terrible price. And just as before the bloody battles, it falls to you, a member of the Guard to restore order to the wilds, the Territories, and the many forces that work unseen. Oh, plus you’re a mouse. In the role-playing game Mouse Guard you don the cloak of one of the honor-bound protectors of the Mouse Territories. Based on the excellently crafted and illustrated graphic novel by the same name, conflicts are the heart and soul of the game. Every aspect of your Mouse will be tested; their abilities in battle, leadership skills, guile in conversation, moral code, and even their nature as a wild creature. And challenges won’t just be presented by the GM, but must be self-imposed by the players themselves if they want to be successful. Every step will have you fighting against yourself as much as the dangers of the world. The game uses a D6 dice pool system with 4’s, 5’s, and 6’s being successes in a variety of different tests and conflicts through a story collaboratively built by the players and game master.
Simple and Rewarding
Mouse Guard is a simplified version of the RPG system The Burning Wheel that heavily rewards earnest and creative role playing and epic storytelling. The book itself is well organized, easy to understand and reference, and not too heavy on rules and complications. You obviously don’t need it, but I am a big fan of the box set which comes with a map of the territories, markers for squad positions, custom dice, weapon and condition cards, a very helpful GM screen, comprehensive character and GM sheets, and an expansion to the game to include new weapons, rules for mounts and some other sweet additions. The pieces included are all very high quality and downright pleasant to look at. The artwork from the book and supplementary material is also taken directly from the graphic novel and serves to immerse players in the world of the game as well as giving reference for places, NPC’s, items, etc. While not required to play the game, the extras make for a fun aesthetic experience that is more welcoming to beginners.
True Growth and Challenge comes from Within
Of course to play the game you’ll need a character. The game comes with several pre-made characters and missions to run, but making your own mouse is fun and simple and will make immersion into the game and character mindset much easier and more enjoyable. Creating a character takes place in the form of your recruitment. This is a survey of 21 choices and questions that will shape your Guard. All of the choices will change how your character will play and what his/her strengths and weaknesses will be.
Even details like hometown, fur and cloak color will reflect your character’s personality. Other factors like skills, wises, nature, and traits will not only further describe your character, but will also give them more capabilities in the game. Skills are determined by your life experience: where your mouse grew up, what their parents did, how they are naturally talented, and what their experience in the guard has taught them. The points that you put into these scores will determine how many dice you roll against obstacles in tests and conflicts of varying difficulty. My favorite mechanic about the skills is their ranking system. So if you are a Fighter 2 you will need to be successful in 2 tests, but also fail in 1 to advance to Fighter 3. Failures can often be harder than successes as it fights our gaming nature to see failure as anything but bad. The challenge both of getting these rolls and combating my drive to succeed made for a one of a kind experience in my game.
Nature is how much like a mouse you character will be and how good they are at either following or defying this nature to give them bonus dice to roll. Traits are physical and personal qualities of your mouse that can be used both to help in times of need or to trip them up along them way. And wises are areas in which your mouse has special insight or knowledge and can use it to their advantage in a number of ways. Your mouse will also have overarching goals and instincts that will be brought into question and challenged every game. All together though they serve to paint a picture for the the type of character you will play as well as laying out their capabilities and ability scores.
The game itself is broken up into two sections, the GM Phase and the Player Phase. In the GM Phase, the GM will set up the story, have the mouse squad receive their mission orders and carry out the first part of the mission. Various obstacles can be introduced here; animal attacks, debates between mice, chases, drastic weather changes, and many more. These challenges pose opportunities for the players to not only advance the story and earn points into skills, but also to build their characters and earn actions later in the game. In the second half of the game, the Player Phase, each of the players will get one free check to make a test of their choice in the game. This can be to continue the story to it’s finish, recover from conditions and injuries, restock gear, or follow personal missions and goals. One is very rarely enough though with so much to do, so there is a way for players to earn more. During the GM Phase, players may use their traits to hinder themselves to make tests harder and earn checks by doing so. A player with their character in a fight may want to earn a check for their mouse, so during the fight they say that their mouse trips over their own especially long tail or because of their anger issues reckless charges in. This will make the player roll one less dice, but will also earn them a check regardless of failure or success. Larger hindrances lead to bigger check rewards. This is also an ideal chance for the mouse to earn the last failure they may need to rank up.
The transition between these phases and just the actions of the GM and players takes some getting used to. Until then, a little patience with each other goes a long way while the mechanics are solidified. It tends to be a very different roleplaying experience to what people are accustomed to, and there is no need to rush a good story.
After the checks are spent and the game has come to a close, there is still the matter of rewards. While standard RPG’s give out experience, Mouse Guard rewards the player for playing their characters well. Points to re-roll or add dice are given on a semi democratic basis with the GM having the final say for which character completed their goals, got deepest into character, who fought or complied with their mouse’s instincts, and who the group thinks carried the team or stepped up in times of need. Caring about your character is far and away more beneficial than simply gunning for skill points and better gear items. The story its players always come first.
Challenging and Uniting
While you and your mouse may be confronted with many seemingly impossible obstacles in front of you, the game helps you remember that neither your character or your mouse is alone. Teamwork and table discourse is encouraged by the game not only in the form of strategic planning, but also solving conflicts between your mice and/or players. Help can even be given to other mice in tests in the form of extra dice. Each player mouse accompanying you on a mission may add a relevant skill dice to a check. If you are trying to build something, your squad mates could help with their Laborer or Scientist skill as long as they appropriately story their method of help in. The narrative can’t and shouldn’t be broken up.
What all of this gives us is a roleplaying experience that, in my experience, gets players involved and reactive to their characters and the events surrounding them. “Honesty” is not a word that I would often attach to a game, but this game has rung true with me in it’s ability to reward empathizing and engaging with the mind of an imaginary figure. It’s too rare a thing to let the mechanics and rules of a system fall away in favor of being a character with built in flaws and dreams and habits.
Worth your time and commitment
The initial read of the book (and yes you should read every last word) and getting used to the unconventional rules is the biggest hurdle to be made here. I guarantee that after a couple games, your friends will be coming back for more. I would almost consider this to be a different genre of game than that of what we call role playing games. I get very different things from both. My Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons games satisfied my craving for leveling more than anything, building a great adventurer up from nothing. The story was almost entirely in the hands of the GM, but was sating nonetheless. This will of course rely heavily on the kind of person running your game. But Mouse Guard was rewarding in an entirely different way. I felt like I was building a character into a better, if not just more interesting addition to a great and far spreading story. Any RPG can be made to be enjoyable in it’s own way, but Mouse Guard showed me a side of gaming that others most assuredly knew about, but was completely foreign to me. It’s worth the play even if you plan on going back to, or trying another game, because you will walk away a richer gamer for the experience.