Lately I've been reading David Petersen's Mouse Guard comics to my son Cooper during our bedtime routine. In particular, these comics are a reward for when we can get him to cooperate with a bedtime earlier than 11:30pm. It's the summer and we're terrible parents when it comes to bedtimes. Heck, Monday night we were up almost until midnight playing our family game of Diablo 3.
Anyway, re-reading Mouse Guard piqued my mouse-interest, so this past weekend I purchased eight Reaper Bones mouseling miniatures, intent on turning them into my first "from scratch" Frostgrave warband. I started painting them on Sunday, and hope to have at least the first four finished by week's end. If I could get Evie to cooperate, I'd love to see these things face off against my Fairy Meat warband.
After holding the first two completed miniatures in my hand, the inevitable happened: I started dreaming about playing a Mouse Guard role-playing game.
Burning Brain Hurt
I have a strained relationship with the original Mouse Guard Role-Playing Game. Based on the Burning Wheel system, I first picked it up after discovering the Mouse Guard comics back in 2010. I quickly read through the rules, couldn't seem to make heads or mouse tails of them, and shelved the book for a later date when I'd have more time to devote to learning the chunky system. A couple years later, when Carrie was eight years old, I thought I'd introduce Mouse Guard as a "family game" that we could all play together.
Again I tried learning the rules, and again the game didn't seem to make any sense.
I was so frustrated! I loved the look and feel of the book, and all of the setting details that so lovingly fleshed out one of my favorite fantasy settings. But I just couldn't figure out how to game master the system, or at least how to do so effectively.
The basic die mechanic seemed simple enough: roll a bunch of six-sided dice equal to the skill or ability your mouse, and count any 4's, 5's, or 6's as "successes." If you roll a number of successes equal to or greater than the Obstacle rating of the challenge, you succeed in the task. There are a few more quirks to the basic dice rolling mechanism, and different ways that the dice pool can be increased, whether through aid from teammates or drawing from other character aspects.
I'd have the chance to play Mouse Guard a few times online with a fantastic game master who really knew the system, between 2013 and 2014. I experienced a few bumps along the way with the rules, but I seemed to get the hang of the basics by the end of the first session. But as much as I enjoyed "playing" the game, I couldn't wrap my head around all of the game mechanics controlling the back of the house, game mastery stuff. For instance, I had a real hard time explaining the two distinct segments of the game session.
For the first half of a session the game master is in control of the story, setting up conflicts. I'm not the biggest fan of this "conflict" system, so Mouse Guard, Torchbearer, and Burning Wheel fans are free to correct me on this description. Each conflict has a disposition (essentially hit points) determined by a few dice rolls prior to the engagement, and the PC's must work to reduce this pool while protecting their own. In combat the disposition is quite literally the health of the party. Out of combat it, it could represent the strength of an adversary's will or the expectations of a greedy merchant during haggling.
This was one of the places where I had trouble from the player's perspective. Example: I was trying to roleplay my guardmouse stealing a rival's blue jay mount. I made some kind of roll, I think I was trying to be stealthy, but only reduced the opponent's disposition by a point or two. I was then asked to describe what happened.
"Uh... so I only stealthily made it half way to the blue jay?" I could easily have described sneaking past the rival, or failing to do so. But trying to come up with an example as to how I worked towards being stealthy, but didn't complete the task was a challenge for me. I guess I prefer simpler dice outcomes: you succeed or you die.
For the second half of the session, called the Player's Turn, the players take control and narrate as they regroup, gather resources, or improve their characters. I'm pretty sure that this is supposed to take up around half of the game. Sure, the PC's can go off and do some role-playing during this time, but they are limited in what they can do based on earning "checks" in the GM's portion of the game. More checks mean more chances for a PC to perform during the Player's Turn.
This may come across as me being negative, and I want to assure those of my readers who are Mouse Guard or Burning Wheel fans that I'm not trying to beat up the system. Clearly, Mouse Guard is more of a narrative story telling system, with mechanics designed to weave grand, cooperative yarns. There's also a ton of player agency in the game, which a lot of folks really enjoy and I can totally appreciate that kind of gaming, even if it's not my style.
The Mouse Guard Role Playing Game system isn't for everyone, and for someone who's brain is now hard wired into Dungeon Crawl Classics, it can feel restrictive, as if the game gets in the way of itself.
But given that I've gained some interest recently in enjoying the Mouse Guard universe from an RPG perspective, I went on a quest to find my perfect game system for exploring the Mouse Territories...
... it was a short quest...
... literally all I did was put down the Mouse Guard RPG book and pick up the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG book.
So forget about all those obstacles and starting dispositions, and prepare yourself for weird dice and critical hits.
It's time to FURBURN!
Dead Mice: DCCRPG Mouse Guard
First off, to get the full experience of the Dead Mice conversion, you're going to need the following:
- Dungeon Crawl Classics Role-Playing Game: This one is pretty obvious. Seriously, if you don't have this book yet you need to reconsider your life choices.
- Mouse Guard Role Playing Game: Granted, if you are a big fan of the series and don't have this book you can probably pull something off just from the comics. But I'm making the assumption that you have either a 1st or 2nd edition printing of the Mouse Guard RPG. I have the 1st Ed hardback and box set, so that's what I'll be using. Even if you have a preference for other rulesets, there's a lot to love in this book, and I still believe it to be a necessary purchase for anyone trying to run this game. I'll be making references later in this post, even to some of the mechanics.
- Crawl! Fanzine No. 6: I like the idea of a Ranger class for this campaign, and this is where you can find them hiding in shadows. Do you need it? Well... no. But I need it. Okay, the Bard can come too.
Full disclosure: the Mouse Guard experience showcased here veers a bit off-course from the original works of David Petersen. The enchantingly original Mouse Guard comic books featured heroic mouse adventurers struggling to survive against all odds of a natural world. While some creatures, most notably the mice themselves, were civilized, natural wildlife were purely animalistic. Predators were brutal, but only from a mouse's perspective. The owl just wants to eat, but unfortunately, it wants to eat mouse.
The main fantasy element was just that the mice had achieved medieval/renaissance level technology. Magic, sorcery, undead, fey creatures had no place in these stories.
That said, Dead Mice turns the Mouse Guard universe upside-down by throwing all that arcane stuff back into the game, along with the undead, and evil, twisted fairies. Perhaps I just want an excuse to pit my Mouseling miniatures against my Fairy Meat miniatures in an RPG setting?
When it comes down to it, I love my Dungeon Crawl Classics, and I want to find an excuse to use all of it in Dead Mice. Does that mean that you need to do the same? Obviously not. You can have a lot of fun using this as just a 0-level funnel, or limiting advanced characters to just Rangers, Thieves, and Warriors.
But that's not a game I want to Judge.
So what I offer is a few ways to adapt and reskin the Bard, Cleric, and Wizard so that they have a place too.
How to Handle Magic
The original Mouse Guard stories do not include any kind of "real magic". There's no wizards running around slinging Magic Missiles, nor priests summoning incarnations of Set to consume their foes. Since I'm doing a quick reskin, and not some full-length conversion, I'm offering three simple sources for magic: Arcane Science, Fairy Magic, and Ancestral Spirits.
Arcane Science: There are some Mice out there who are so learned and well versed in the very nature of the elements, that they can warp them to their will. They may call themselves mages or sorcerers, but truly they are the Mad Scientists of the Mouse Territories. Whether they are crafting brilliant bolts of energy or attempting to detect Fairy Magic, it is assumed that any Wizard power is sourced by the scientific brilliance of a Mad Mouse mind.
Dead Mice assumes that all Wizards use Arcane Science.
Fairy Magic: The introduction of Magic into the Mouse Territories is relatively recent. Fairykind, long held as creatures of myth and mystery, found their way into the Mouse Territories after being pushed out of their own lands by some unknown threat. They brought with them all sorts of enchantments, spells, and illusionary arts. But while these powers come easily for the fairies and pixies that are born with them, Mice must learn by being taught.
Dead Mice assumes that all Bards use Fairy Magic.
Ancestral Spirits: Some souls of departed mice possess strong wills, ever capable of asserting themselves into the Mouse Territories. This is why we're calling this conversion Dead Mice! Why these spirits have such a strong connection, and how they have such power is ever a mystery. What is known is that paying ritualistic respect to this spirit world can grant mice great power. Lawful spirits, those that served the Mouse Guard with honor and dignity, guide the paws of a new generation of guardsmice. Chaotic spirits, those that died in search of selfish glory or cursing their own kind, offer a darker path, with a goal of "re-entering" the realm of the living in some way.
Dead Mice assumes that all Clerics gain their power through Ancestral Spirits.
Let's begin with 0-level, or as they would be referred to in the Mouse Guard RPG, Tenderpaws. As I mentioned previously, this blog post assumes that you will have access to both the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game rules as well as the Mouse Guard Role Playing Game rules. I'll be referencing both.
Generating a 0-level Tenderpaw should feel similar to creating any other DCCRPG character:
- Step One: Generate Ability Scores rolling 3d6 in order.
- Step Two: Determine the Mouse's Birth Augur.
Okay, let's stop for a brief second... when I go back and read through some of the Birth Augurs, they don't make a lot of sense for a Mouse. But we're just going to roll with the results.
Raised by wolves? That just sounds more epic!
Conceived on horseback? You must've had some adventurous parents, given the size disparity between a mouse and a horse.
I think you should roll with the base Birth Augurs. No need to change anything. Okay, where were we?
- Step Three: Determine Saving Throws.
- Step Four: Languages. All Mouse characters start with the Mouse Language. They also can roll 1D30 for additional languages on this chart:
Since most of these creatures aren't intelligent, these aren't exactly all languages. But for the purpose of Mouse Guard, and more importantly Dead Mice, characters that have one of these languages can understand the mood and disposition (not the MGRPG mechanic!) of an animal. Maybe I missed a few, so feel free to add some more.
*It should be noted that Weasels are intelligent creatures, just like Mice, but definitely villainous.
Back to the Steps!
- Step Five: 0-Level Basics. All Mice begin the game with starting hit points, copper, XP (0), base attack rolls, saving throws, d4 crit die on Table I, and one (1) piece of random equipment (Table 3-4 of the DCCRPG corebook).
- Step Six: Occupation. It's now time to refer to page 242 of the Mouse Guard 1st Edition rulebook, as we're going to use the occupations listed there for our starting Mice. Roll 1d33 for this chart (that's 1d3 and 1d10, and read them the same way you'd read a 1d100):
It's important to note that none of the occupations have any starting equipment. We're going to roll for weapons separately, but when it comes to other kinds of gear, there really isn't any. I think we're being pretty faithful to the original Mouse Guard RPG in this instance. None of the starting PC's seem to have anything more than a single piece of gear (already rolled on Table 3-4 for your Mouse), and a weapon.
- Step Seven: Starting Weapon. Each Mouse begins with one starting weapon, determined at random (roll 1d10). Ranged weapons come with 2d12 arrows or sling stones.
|3||Hook and Line*|
*Hook and Line: 1d3 damage, counts as ranged attack, can be used to trip or grapple with successful attack roll and opposed Strength roll. Success knocks the target prone. Cost 5 sp. Range 10/20/30.
- Step Eight: Home Town. Each Mouse naturally has a home town. The Mouse Guard RPG (1st Edition) lists these starting on page 299. For the purposes of Dead Mice all you need to to know is the name. Don't worry about starting Skills or Traits. Roll 1d8.
Why is this important? Because Mice from the same home town gain an additional +1 when helping each other out on a roll. New rule. Write that down somewhere on your character sheet.
- Step Nine: Alignment, as in Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic.
- Step Ten Determine Fur Color, Parents, Senior Artisan, Mentor, Friend, Enemy, Cloak Color. All of this is totally up to you. Frankly, if you are running this as a 0-level funnel, you should probably skip most of this, because chances are that your Mouse is going to get eaten by an owl.
- Step Twelve: Skipping Traits, Belief, Goal, and Instinct. Because we're not playing Burning Wheel. If you think these could be incorporated into your game somehow, you can go find them in the Mouse Guard Role Playing Game, and include them for role-playing aids and background story. Again, I suggest skipping this stuff as a 0-level character.
At some point you may want to take your Dead Mice experience beyond the 0-leve funnel... and why not? The Mouse Territories are large and what lies beyond the scent barrier offers great adventure! So let's see what you need to do to add a little class to your game.
For the purposes of this quick conversion/reskin, we're just going to be dealing with six classes. The first three are suitable no matter what kind of Mouse Guard experience you prefer (original or the Dead Mice.) The second set of three require magical sources.
Ranger: Rangers function as described in Crawl! No. 6.
Thief: Thieves function as described in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game corebook.
Warrior: Warriors function as described in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game corebook.
Bard: As stated previously, Bards dabble in Fairy Magic. Otherwise, they function as described in Crawl! No. 6.
Cleric: The world of Mouse Guard lacks any sort of deity, but the Clerics are well attuned to the Spirit World, and all that lurks therein. Clerics pay homage to the Mice of old, and gain power through these Ancestral Spirits in return for doing their will in the realm of mortal mice.
- Clerics must be either Lawful or Chaotic. Only those spirits with a purpose choose to cross beyond the Spirit World.
- Clerics have no weapon limitations.
- Cleric Disapproval comes from angered Ancestor Spirits. Any rolls or complications should be reskinned to fit this tone. There are no "churches", and no need to "convert" followers in the Mouse Territories.
- Clerics may only turn undead.
Wizard: Wizards are nothing more than Mad Mouse Scientists, and all of their spell trapping should be considered as such.
- Wizard familiars are enthralled by strong potions.
- Patron Bond and Invoke Patron allow the Wizard to tap into Fairy Magic, by summoning the power of a crazed, fey creature.
- Spellburning allows the Wizard to inject their own natural vitality into their spellcasting. Some may call this Blood Magic, but truly it's just the science of unlocking the vital nutrients inherent in all Mouse blood, and pouring them into the casting.
The heroes of Dead Mice, through the mystical powers that first allowed mice to gain knowledge, can temporarily destroy their Intelligence and revert back to a more primal, mouse state. This is called Furburning.
The original Mouse Guard RPG has a "Raw Ability" called Nature. The higher the PC's "Nature (Mouse)", the more feral and actually mouselike they appear. They I wanted to capture this element, allowing PC's to embrace their animalistic nature when it can help them survive. But it comes with great cost!
At any time a Mouse PC can elect to temporarily "burn" their Intelligence ability to gain a positive modifier to the following:
- Reflex Saving Throws
These spent points are regained at a rate of 1d3 per day. During the time that the Mouse's Intelligence is reduced, they can be seen acting in a much more primitive state, perhaps even forgetting some of their actual self.
We've covered a lot so far, and really when it comes to adversaries, I tend to do things on the fly. For Dead Mice, any adversary should fall under one of five categories:
- Mouse NPC
- Weasel NPC
- Natural foe (such as an Owl or Snake)
- Fairy-kind (all arcane foes)
Any kind of magical beast would could be warped by fairy magic, while any undead could be the influx of poisoned or malicious Ancestor Spirits interacting with the world.
For Weasels, they are considerably larger than Mice so maybe use rules for Ogres to govern them in play.
Depending on the Natural foes, some may just be large monsters (like an Owl), while you could consider a Wolf or larger as a Kaiju. No Mouse PC is going to defeat a rampaging bear.
* * *
I'm sure I could've gone into more detail here or there regarding this quick conversion, but if you're serious about exploring the Mouse Guard universe with the Dungeon Crawl Classics rules, this should get you started. I'll be running an adventure using these light rules next Friday for our Norwin Game Knights event here in Pittsburgh, and am excited to see how it goes.
If you happen to try out these rules, let me know how it goes. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts!