With another chapter in our Dresden Files game come to a close, my group and I have plunged ourselves into Mouseguard. Based on the grand graphic novels by David Peterson, it promises a heavily narrative-based game (it uses a version of the Burning Wheel system). We’ve played a half-dozen or so sessions, and we’ve progressively been getting into the swing of things. There are a quite number of intricacies to the system that took us a while to remember and get a handle on; more than we were anticipating, but as we play more and more we can see how they interconnect and what they make available. However, there was one aspect of the game that kept seeming to elude us, something that despite our growing familiarity of the system still seemed to be robbing our game of what we felt should be a certain flow and involvement.
Last weekend, though, in one of those hilarious moments of non-sequitur insights while randomly walking through my house, I got just what had been eluding us: Compared to the resolution structure in most RPGs, Mouseguard’s is reversed.
In all the RPGs I’m familiar with (indeed, this has been the “normal” way of playing since I started playing 30 odd years ago), scenes* are played out in “real-time”, with players/characters acting and reacting to events as they unfold in the scene, and die rolls are made whenever the GM thinks one of these (re)actions has a chance of failure. This continues with further (re)actions and further die rolls until the scene ends. Many different skills or abilities may be tested during a scene, and the players are usually trying to angle themselves and their actions towards “victory.”
Here is where Mouseguard flips things on its (mouse) ear: there is only one test, and it happens at the start of a scene.
Things begin with the GM describing the basics of the obstacle to be overcome in very broad, 1000 metre view, terms. The scene is also set in those broad terms: it could be the forest, an entire city, underground caverns, or the sea. With the obstacle set, the GM can present what skill needs to be tested to bring the party to a desired outcome, and the players can also suggest more. Then one character makes the test, with potential (and game-rules-directed) assistance from the other characters. After a rather involved series of steps and ways to have the test be successful (and it makes much more sense why there are so many steps once we got how few influential the few test rolls are), the party either succeeds or fails.
And then you narrate the heck out of how the party gets to that conclusion.
That there is the biggest shift to make to get Mouseguard… Setting the scene also includes setting how the scene will end. Everyone around the table knows this outcome. Armed with that knowledge, you all work to tell the most interesting story you can come up with for how it all plays out.
I think this is quite cool. And I’d say definitively the most narrative angle of the narrative-RPGs I’ve played. There’s a certain liberation in starting the scene knowing you will fail (or succeed, for that matter) – you can set up your failure much more intricately, much more delicately, and much more satisfyingly than wondering how you’ll do on that next skill test (and knowing there could be several more skill tests). And since everyone knows, the whole group gets in on the act. Maybe they all act in concert to foul things up, maybe one of them botches things, maybe they try valiantly but the environment gets them, maybe they lose big, maybe they just miss it by milimetres. Interpersonal interactions can play a role, friends and enemies could be involved, it’s all open to play with.
Overall, I think this creates the potential for much richer stories. Maybe it lends itself more towards mostly third-party narration versus acting things out, but I don’t know yet. I’m excited to see how we play it out in our group. Now that we’ve got the sequence down right, I’m sure we’ll begin to further grok the various intricacies between all the different inputs (persona points, fate points, beliefs, etc) and also use them in a much more rich manner.
For sure I’m still a big fan of the real-time and extemporaneous style of play, but this reverse-o way of playing has got me really eager to see what comes out of it. I’ll let you all know how it turns out.
* While there’s usually no hard and game-rules enforced start to a scene, there is a certain point where the GM begins to describe things in more detail or with more urgency, often accompanied by the description of a new location.