Mouse Guard is a tabletop RPG that forces you to become your character if you hope to survive
The world is a terrifying place when you’re a mouse. Snakes become something close to dragons. Birds of prey can grab you and take you away before you can react. Your young are always at risk. “When I was researching the game, I found out basically everything eats baby mice,” Luke Crane, Mouse Guard’s designer, told our group. Mouse Guard is a tabletop role-playing game where you play as brave mice, not human adventurers. The setting reeks of menace and danger; you are a tiny thing in a big, big world. Mouse Guard's mechanics are designed in such a way that you actually have to role-play your character to be successful. People enjoy losing themselves in their character when they play a system like 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, but it’s certainly not required; you can simply run the numbers all day long and min-max your way to a positive outcome. Mouse Guard forces you to become the mouse on your character sheet if you hope to survive.
You gotta believe
Putting together your character is a straightforward affair, but things become interesting when you get to the Belief, Goal, and Instinct fields. I’ve included this section from a sample character sheet to give you an idea of what the game expects from the player. The Belief is how your character sees the world, the Goal is what you must do on the mission, and Instinct determines how your gut tells you to react to each situation. Those three fields aren’t just there for fun, as they become weapons in the hands of a devious game master. What is a belief if it’s never put to the test? Your character needs to act in ways that support these three details through each session to gain fate and persona points, which can be used during the game to enhance your dice rolls. The world is a treacherous place and by using fate and persona points wisely you increase your chances of survival. The only way to replenish these points is by acting as your character as the story unfolds. You have to be active about getting into the head of your character. This can put you at odds with the other characters in your party. What if you come upon a sick mouse who will die without your aid? If a member of your party has the Belief that the strong must always help the weak, that will cause conflict with a mouse whose Instinct says never to delay on a mission. During our session my Goal was to earn the acceptance of the Mouse Guard, and that caused me to jump into danger more than once in order to gain that respect. These three ideas will guide almost every decision, and you’ll become able to be more effective in the game if you begin the see the world through the eyes of your furry avatar. There is no way around it, you have to actually role-play to get ahead. After each session your game master will go through each character's Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts to see how well they honored their own nature, and points will be doled out accordingly. The dice themselves are also interesting. A role of 1-3 is a failure, called a “coward,” 4-6 is a success, and a 6 is a special success that can be used to enhance your actions. The specialized dice in the boxed set represent failures with snakes, successes with swords, and the 6 as a black axe. The dice offer a striking way of showing how well you rolled, and the graphics are a small detail that helps the game stand out. Your character's strengths and weaknesses determine the number of dice you roll, but your party can help with that as well, using another one of the game's fun mechanics.
I need help!
Your dice pool is determined by your skills, but the other characters can help you by adding to that dice pool. The trick is they have to be able to help in a way that makes sense, and they have to call their action. If you have knowledge about snakes, you can yell tips to the mouse under attack: “Aim for the soft spot under the jaw!” The helper can then hand that player one of their dice to aid the roll. Like everything else in Mouse Guard, the social interaction is key; Crane told us that it's important that the player helping out physically hands the other player one of their dice, as opposed to taking one from a shared pool. It helps make the connection “real.” This is where the game comes to life, as you have to help in ways your character could aid in the challenge based on your character sheet, and you can earn those Fate and Persona points by helping in ways that work with your Belief, Goal, and Instinct. By having your entire party work together using their own skills and abilities you can drastically increase your dice pool, but it only works if each character is clever enough to find specific ways to help. It's just one more way the game helps you get into character and think like a mouse. There is something powerful about seeing a member of your party in trouble, and then watch others search their character sheet, equipment, and skills for ways to help. Having other characters in your party talk about ways they have your back, and then being handed extra dice to aid your roll may be a subtle thing, but it binds your party together. Touching hands when they pass you the dice is a human thing. This is a wonderful game to play with your children.
Are we not mice?
The game lasted a little over an hour, and we collectively killed a snake, grabbed some hints about our next move, and then talked about how well, or poorly, we acted on our Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts. Points were awarded. So many games rely on magic and larger than life characters in fantastical settings, but Mouse Guard succeeds because the scale is both shrunken for the human player but expanded in the eyes of your character; everything you do goes against your mouse nature to scurry and hide. Being a member of the Mouse Guard is about going into a hostile environment and facing dangerous situations, and you must act bravely in the face of a world that has no problems with killing you. The game's artwork is amazing, and the cards, maps, and character sheets all help to sell you on the unique environment. The social aspects of game play help to set it apart from other role-playing games, and make it welcoming to newer or younger players while featuring enough complexity to keep adults entertained. While the more expensive but impressive box set is linked above, many players will be just as happy with the core rulebook, especially if you're on a gaming budget. The game isn't new, but this was my first time playing it; having the game's designer walk us through the setting and mechanics was a great way to be introduced to the game. Whenever I learn a new role-playing system I always ask myself: Is this something I could use to tell a good story? Does it get my creativity flowing? The world of Mouse Guard is rife with possibilities for a clever storyteller, and the Belief, Goal, and Instinct system gives you the hooks you need to put your characters to the test at a moment's notice. When a game comes with human (rodent?) interaction built-in, complete with easily-accessible character angst, it's simple to create a story with many hooks. The game master has an interesting relationship with the players as well, but I'll leave that for you to discover when you play. I walked away from the table feeling very tall indeed.