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Sampling Mouse Guard

NerdNYC held one of its Recess game conventions this weekend. (“Convention” is an overstatement for a one-day, two-slot event with maybe eighty to a hundred participants, but it’ll have to do.) I value Recess for its high incidence of new, experimental, and/or indie RPGs. D&D is still the biggest boy on the block, but even the D&D games only use D&D rules, while portraying an entirely different sort of narrative than killing monsters and taking their stuff—gothic horror, wild west, Pokemon… it’s a crowd very open to ideas.

I used the opportunity to sample two games I’ve been curious about: Mouse Guard and Fiasco, with mixed results. Or perhaps I should say “to sample two rule sets,” because the Mouse Guard game was a mash-up of Fallout, Lost, and Deadwood, with nary a mouse in sight.

Can’t say I cared for Mouse Guard, though I can appreciate where the designer was trying to go. Characters are defined in part by their abilities, drawn from a short, broad list, but perhaps even more by three or four powerful motivators: their goals, their beliefs, their instinctive reactions to certain stimuli. Characters advance and improve through failure and denying their motives as much as through success and displaying motives in what is traditionally called “good roleplaying.” I get a strong impression that the mechanic is not meant to reward inconsistent play; rather, the GM is expected to set up situations that force players to decide between motives, and the character is rewarded for advancing the plot by resolving these dilemmas, one way or another. A promising idea that would get far better mileage in a campaign than in it could in our convention one-shot.

Less promising is the conflict system, which seeks to resolve gunfights, debates, and job interviews by the same head-to-head mechanic. Both sides, usually but not necessarily players vs. GM, define what they want to gain from the conflict. They then establish “disposition,” a sort of generic measure of their physical, mental, and spiritual capacity to continue the conflict before breaking in some fashion—when one side runs out of disposition, the other wins. Each side secretly commits to three sequential tactical actions at a time, rather than acting turn by turn, for reasons that escape me. Their choices are attack (attempt to reduce the opponents’ disposition), defend (attempt to restore lost disposition), feint (um, I’m not entirely sure what this is supposed to achieve), or maneuver (attempt to gain a bonus to their next action). So the GM may secretly decide the goons will attack-attack-defend, and the players may collectively decide to feint-maneuver-attack, and the gunfight, argument, or what-have-you will be resolved over the next three rounds as an attack/feint conflict, an attack/maneuver conflict, and a defend/attack conflict, in turn. Confused? You aren’t alone. Adding to the confusion for our inexperienced pick-up group was a need to disengage what we were actually doing from the game-mechanical label for that round. A flurry of insults might be an attack, or a maneuver, or even a feint, depending.

In combat, this system produced a highly abstracted synopsis of a fight rather than a thrilling blow-by-blow account. In social conflict, it was even worse, again producing an abstract synopsis of an argument in place of actually hearing the argument and reaching a conclusion organically. I generally felt more like we were talking about roleplaying than actually roleplaying. With a little practice, players could easily become familiar enough with the tactics to use them meaningfully; the system may be difficult for old-school gamers to grasp, but the elements are simple enough to use. With a lot of practice, they could begin using the system more as intended, communicating their tactics naturally, and knowing how to frame their behavior as attack, feint, etc. as appropriate. But I doubt even devoted, veteran players would ever really get past that high-level abstraction of the story and consequent loss of immersion, which I very much disliked, even as a gamer who is generally comfortable with elegant, generic rules.

I’m told that Mouse Guard is closely related to the more ambitious Burning Wheel. Though fans are quick to insist that it is definitely NOT Burning Wheel lite, or the kids’ version of Burning Wheel, or any other diminutive, it is nevertheless a simpler and more concrete application of similar mechanics from the same author. The latter game is said to be even more high-level, even more abstract, and even more a product of negotiating a story’s outcome ahead of time instead of simply seeing where it goes. If that’s so…whoof!

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