Mouse Guard: Lessons for 4E

March 7, 2009

We’re four sessions into our Mouse Guard game and I’ve begun pondering what I want to play next. I’ve been thinking about running 4E in a GM-less (or DM-less, I guess) fashion, set in the Nine Suns Must Fall setting that I’ve been fiddling with, which is a mythic fantasy version of primordial (barely historic) China.

One thing I’ve realized playing Mouse Guard is that it’s much better designed and more clearly written than 4E, in the sense that the 4E material I’ve seen doesn’t really give you a sense of how to easily switch gears between the four different levels of challenges: free play, single rolls, skill challenges, and combat. Neither does it really have guidelines for taking one of these things and ramping it up or down, allowing a single roll to become a fight if need be. Mouse Guard, on the other hand, is really, really good at scaling up or down, and switches pretty seamlessly between different challenge types and different challenge scopes. To put it simple, Mouse Guard seems much easier to GM than 4E, not just in prep and structure, but during play itself, when all GMs make dynamic adjustments in reaction to player choices. The different types of challenges in 4E don’t flow seemlessly into each other the way they do in Mouse Guard.

However, while Mouse Guard is really great and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s been on the fence about it, it’s not quite the right fit for Nine Suns Must Fall, so I want to take what I’ve learned from indie games like Mouse Guard, Agon, Dogs in the Vineyard, and The Shadow of Yesterday and see if I can get 4E to do what I want. Here are some initial thoughts:

Bringing Down the Skill Challenge / Combat Pain

I would very much like both skill challenges and combats to be things invoked by either the characters or their opposition when a single opposed or unopposed roll doesn’t go their way. Because, if nobody’s interested in having a skill challenge or a fight, why the fuck are you having one? Roll a d20 and move on with your lives. In Mouse Guard, this is handled by the GM basically deciding when to Bring Down The Pain and invoke the Conflict mechanics, but in GM-less play, it needs to be more player-determined, as in TSOY.

Skirmish-Sized Fights

I’m really excited by fights that are about the size of Agon battles or the encounters recently released in the Dungeon Delve supplement for 4E. They’re the size of a room or two, with enough space to maneuver without them being those huge maps that the Keep on the Shadowfell encounters were. There’s only so many monsters and PCs that you can fit in a space that size, so positioning is important and, also, the fights are over relatively quickly. Even better, the Dungeon Delve encounters can be built quickly from sets of tiles and could probably be improvised with some clearer guidelines on how to quickly whip one up that was reasonably challenging.

Skill Challenges Currently Blow

I really want them to be more like the give-and-take of conflicts in Dogs in the Vineyard, since they often take the form of negotiations, arguments, or a series of exchanges with traps or other obstacles. The Conflict mechanics in Mouse Guard (a distant descendant of Burning Wheel’s combat/battle of wits) are interesting and operate in a similar space, so there are things to be learned there as well. In fact, the X successes before X failures in 4E is not too dissimilar from subtracting hits from Disposition in Mouse Guard.

4 Responses to “Mouse Guard: Lessons for 4E”

  1. Judd Says:

    We are getting set to start a 4e game this Monday with some chargen.

    I am seriously considering starting every session with a Skill Challenge. Hopefully, I will have some things to say about them as we get some table-time with them and play with our D&D toys.

    Is there a single Nine Suns post I could read to get a basic gist of it all in one place?

  2. devp Says:

    About BDTP: I always had this problem with it (and this risk carries over for other instances of a player invoking a subsystem):

    There is some reason for a player to call for BDTP whenever a roll doesn’t go their way. This sets up a weird tension where a player has to walk away from more optimal play in order to keep things running smoothly. (There are definitely rolls where the player cares that they succeed, but that no one cares enough to engage in a more in-depth subsystem.) Some players are okay with just playing sub-optimally to keep things running smoothly, but it is some dissonance.

    If engaging the subsystem adds significant risks or consequences, or engages a different set of goals/consequences, then that might escape this problem.

    Dunno, does this problem seem like a non-issue for the MG group?


  3. Judd: I’ll be very interested to hear how it goes for you. The best post to read for a Nine Suns overview is probably this one. Basically, it started coming together when I realized that Dogs’ heirarchy of sin was very much like the classical Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven, where disastrous things occur when people are wicked.

    Dev: I hear you about BDTP. Perhaps it could be governed by some limited resource that’s accumulated by the group? Spend 1 point to BDTP? Or maybe it could be rationed out differently or in a more arbitrary fashion, as in Mouse Guard (and as-written 4E, actually). MG doesn’t have this problem because the GM just decides when to invoke the Conflict rules.

  4. devp Says:

    I was just thinking, maybe it’s like with Screen Presence (and you could even script it as such), so in different sessions people can invoke BDTP only so many times. I would be a little more liberal and allow a little deficit spending and a little saving-for-the-future, just because you don’t know when it’s really going to be needed in the flow of the story.

    So perhaps: if BDTP-tokens range between 1 and 3 during the arc, I’d allow spending down to -1 (this is obviously not allowed in the last session), and conversely if you have any such tokens left over after a session, you have +1 token for the next (but they obviously do not roll over).

    On the other hand, BDTP can involve multiple players, so it may make more sense as a commual resource. Perhaps it’s similar tied to a screen-presence-like calculation: pool up the collected presence of people into a communal pile. You can carry up to 3 tokens to the next session, where N is the number of players; in this case, no deficit spending.


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