Archive for March, 2011


Mouse Guard: Sadie’s Bridge

March 27, 2011

(crossposted to the Forge. A little bit of overlap with my previous post on MG, but some more interesting system notes as well)

We just finished our second session of Mouse Guard, which has been a ton of fun. We initially planned on doing a one-shot, but we’re going to extend for a 3-5 session run.

The group is myself, Jono, & Sushu (we’ve been playing for about a year now, through 2 Primetime Adventures campaigns) and my friend Ken, who has never roleplayed before. Jono wanted to do some GMing, and Mouse Guard got him excited. None of us have played MG before, but everyone got a chance to read the comics before the game.

Getting Started

Provided you have one or two people who know the rules, MG is really quick and easy to get started. We were up and running in 10 minutes with the pregen characters. (I’m coming more to the idea that roleplaying, as a hobby, might do better if pregens were the norm for play…).

We picked Kenzie, Sadie, and Lieam. The default assumption seems to be Kenzie-Saxon-Lieam, so we had to adjust a couple of Instincts on the character sheets that tied into Saxon, specifically. This was effortless and worked fine.

Having a clear mission structure, and the simplicity of the Belief, Instinct, and Goals for the game meant we were never at a loss as to what we were trying to do next (HOW to do it, but not in goals or direction).


Our patrol was tasked with getting to Shaleburrow, helping build a bridge and deliver mail. We were warned that relations there were strained, from a previous failed Guard mission. We managed to get to the stream where a team of mice were trying to build a bridge and discovered some hostility and managed to help them out and earn their respect – including an inspired water rescue by Lieam for one of the workers being washed away.

Before the bridge could be finished, we ended up rescuing an injured mouse and his son, and then the rains just wouldn’t stop, threatening to cause the stream to flood. It was a desperate scramble into a tree, and fending off a “playful” fox cub.

By the second session, the cub’s mother had come around to find out who injured her child. It was a mad dash to try to cross the stream in makeshift boats before she found us, and it turned into a brutal losing fight before one of the Guard, Sadie, sacrificed herself to save the rest. The fox, happy with her meal, trotted off with Sadie’s little leg still dangling from her mouth.

It was a grim trip back to Shaleburrow, and a lot of shady politicking between the mice there. Kenzie cut a lot of backroom deals to try to get things to move along, while the Council of Shaleburrow is divided into the rationing of food for the year… with Kenzie backing a rationing plan that later, turns out, might not be necessary for survival, but rather keeping a surplus for trade…

The big concern being brought up for next time is the fact that the scent border wasn’t holding and that it needed to be restored ASAP.

Strengths and Speedbumps

A small speedbump in the game is that there’s a lot of skills which overlap and aren’t clear by the title which one applies- “Is this a Survivalist, Pathfinder, or Scout roll?” came up a couple of times. I expect with more familiarity, it’ll be easier to figure these out, and, basically minor things.

One of the strengths of the skills is that they become somewhat of a toolbox the player uses to think about how the character can solve problems. You’re stuck, you look down the list, and you get ideas of how to use it to your advantage.

I made sure to help nudge folks to declare exactly what they were doing in the fiction, to help or aid or use their skill. This wasn’t any effort at all, but it was an important step that really made a lot of fun for play.

The Conflict system feels “just right”. We’ve gotten into a fight once a session, and it’s been just right in terms of tension, entertainment and challenge. Splitting up the actions across the team sets up a neat turn-taking system that works well. It’s also interesting to note despite the simple combat options (Attack, Defend, Maneuver, Feint), we managed to build up a lot of fiction between Helping each other and the results of each roll.

Rewards and Hard Choices

There’s an elegant trick to the Belief, Instinct and Goal system- you can only get rewarded once for each of these, a given session, so you find that you’re pushed to show off each of these once a session, but not go overboard in hammering them over and over. Because of that, you also can have two players with opposing BIGs, and instead of it taking up the whole game, it becomes a back and forth- one character shows off their Belief, Instinct or Goal, and then the other one does as well.

It pushes you to play with all sides of your character AND also pass the spotlight when you’re done.

We didn’t fully click with the “Checks” system until this second session. It’s pretty interesting because you end up picking which conflicts you can live with failing and which ones you absolutely do not want to risk. We built up a surplus pretty easily this time, and the option to share Checks between the team is pretty brilliant and a smart bit of spotlight sharing.

Skills and stats seem to grow really slowly in this game. I expect we might see a skill or two jump a single point by the end of 4-5 sessions. Whether this is about the pacing of our group, or us spreading out the stat rolls, I’m not sure.

The big thing which hit us hard this session was paying closer attention to the Nature stat. When you spend a Persona point, you have two choices- you can get a single die added to your roll, OR you can get as many dice as your Nature (3-5). When you use your Nature, if it’s the kind of stuff that’s in a mouse’s nature (hiding, foraging, etc.) then you just get the dice, no problem. If it’s the kind of stuff that’s against a mouse’s nature (like, fighting a fox) then it gets temporarily reduced.

Problem is, “Temporary” is a very long time. Basically, one player can get back one point of Nature a session.

We had 2 players who had reduced our Natures down to 3 each, which made life very, very hard when it came time to defending and avoiding a hungry fox.

Needless to say, we’re going to be pretty damn careful about when and where we spend Persona points for future rolls.

Overall, we’re having a good time.


Seven Types of Antagonists

March 26, 2011

This tool assumes you’re playing a game where a) there’s some form of political factions and b) play is strongly directed by the clash of PC and NPC motivations and goals. You should be using at least 2-3 of these at the same time, though I could easily see many games having 4-5…

As a GM, you can use this to initially create antagonists, but during play, they may change positions or even turn into allies, as things happen.

“You” & “Your” refers to it from the PCs point of view. “Bonus” are possible events to up the ante and bring more drama.

Your Side

The Hater
Helps your side, hurts you

This guy is totally on the side of your faction, but thinks you’re useless, or even, dangerous. They’ve got nothing good to say about you, attempt to shut down your ideas left and right. If they’re worse than that, they’re looking to get you demoted, exiled, or imprisoned. Worse than that? They’re lying and trying to frame you.

Maybe they believe something that’s just not true, maybe they saw you screw up once, or maybe they’re just assholes.

This character is great to have as simple opposition to any plan or request for assistance, and is totally on your ass if there’s any mistakes, failures, or worse yet… inconsistencies with the rules or expectations of the group.

Bonus: Show them to be totally useless, which makes it even more infuriating when they get in the PCs’ way. Or, show them to be totally necessary and useful, which makes it even harder to argue against them.

The Crazy Friend
Hurts your side, helps you

So, this character either takes the ideals of the group and pushes it too far, twisting them eventually into fanaticism, or else they don’t care about rules at all, and are willing to let anyone else burn to help you out or complete their goals.

The Crazy Friend starts off helpful, until the costs and collateral damage from their short sighted “solutions” starts piling up. How many folks do they leave in the lurch or how much do they go overboard, leaving wreckage behind?

Bonus: They help the PCs get promoted beyond their capability. They “get the job done” in a way that seems initially great, but has great costs- then they give the credit to the PCs. They ride their way up to authority and power on the coattails of the PCs. When it comes crumbling down, the PCs are blamed or at least implicated. If the PCs try to say anything, either they start lying and keep going further, or they snap and go off about how much the PCs “owe them”.

The Idealist
Your side, right or wrong

The Idealist believes in both the methods and the ideals of the faction. This makes them a pretty stand-up, honest sort. If you’re doing stuff they approve of, they’re right there with you and have your back.

But if you start breaking the rules, or twisting the morals of the group, they’re going to be there to stop you, too – either calling in greater authority, or, at worst, physically stopping you. They don’t do well with people who cut corners and go for expedience over the way things are supposed to be done.

Bonus: The Idealist has your back…until you disappoint them. Maybe The Hater or the Crazy Friend get you blamed for something you didn’t do and the Idealist sides with them. The Idealist suspects you’re working for another group…

Their Side

The Tempter
Helps their side, helps you

The Tempter sees you’ve got potential – you should be working for them. They fully believe in their side, but they know it’d be a waste to just kill you. They’ll oppose you, but they’re not trying to kill you – they think you’re just misguided or haven’t seen how things work yet.

The spectrum of the Tempter depends on whether they’re trying to bring you over to benefit themselves (“Join the Dark Side!”) or whether they’re actually trying to help you out for you (“Look, you’re already escaping, at least take some food with you.”).

The Tempter is a fun character, especially if they keep showing up. They not only help the PCs and give some kind of nuance to the opposition, they also set up a voice for the ideals of the opposition- and can start bringing up those points that maybe the other side is right…

Bonus: The Tempter is family. The Tempter takes the blame for your mistake or crime. They help protect you against their own side. They help protect you against YOUR own side. Allies see them helping you, and start doubting your loyalty… They’re in love with you.

The Turncoat
Hurts their side, helps you

The Turncoat is an antagonist only superficially – they’re actually an ally in disguise, or a potential ally. They are working against their side- perhaps they’ve seen the error of their ways, or maybe they’ve seen how far the faction has fallen from it’s ideals.

Either way, they’re helping you – to help you, or because you cause enough damage to their side that it helps them.

Bonus: They helped invent the superweapon/summon the demon that’s been kicking your butt. They helped kill your family years ago, they need your forgiveness. They want you to stop their friends/family from going too far, but they’ll oppose you if you hurt them too much.

The Antagonist’s Idealist
Their Side, right or wrong

Much like your Idealist, they’re all about their group and it’s methods. They’re dedicated, determined, and competent. And they’re after you. They’ll only give you a break if ordered to, or under exceptional circumstances meeting their ideals.

Bonus: They’ve been ordered to protect you as a prisoner. They hold back other members of their faction from going too far. They’re trying to defuse the situation and keep getting orders contrary. They’d rather die than accept your help.

The Sociopath
Hurts their side, hurts you

The Sociopath mirrors The Crazy Friend- they start off efficient and calculating, but they go further and further in the pursuit of their goals caring less and less about the cost along the way.

Eventually, they destroy the faction they work for, and nearly everything else as well. They whip their people into a frenzy and drive their force with megalomaniacal intent – often demanding revenge for petty slights, real or imagined.

The Sociopath is not a particularly interesting NPC to start as opposition- they work much better when you’ve removed some antagonists and left a power vacuum (oops) or pushed one of the NPCs too far (also, oops). You thought you knew evil? Oh no, that was all reasonable compared to this.

Bonus: Unthinkable atrocity. One of the enemies comes asking, begging the PCs for help. The rules crumble and the other folks in the faction who were being held back also go all out. The demoralized become fanatics. Neutral parties ally with them rather than get steamrolled.

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David Sirlin on Game Balance

March 24, 2011

I had seen David Sirlin’s stuff on Street Fighter a bit back, and it was good, but I didn’t realize he had whole articles on overall game design, which a friend linked me today.

He says everything I’ve tried to say about gamist design in general, for the last few years, except he does so 1000 times more clearly than I’ve ever managed to articulate it.

Definitions (check out his thing on asymmetric games and consider that in light of character creation for rpgs)
Viable Options (Consider all the “bad choice feats” deliberately put into D&D 3.X design)
Fairness (all the stuff on Self Balancing Forces? Stuff that we see a lot in modern boardgames that hasn’t seen a lot of use in rpgs, yet.)
Slippery Slope & Perpetual Comeback (Feedback cycles, stuff like magic items which “break” the game, death spirals, etc.)
Rock, Paper, Scissors (Few rpgs put this as a play element, rather than loading it into character design)

While he’s mostly talking about videogames (with nods to boardgames and cards), there’s a lot to take into tabletop rpgs. And not just gamist designs, either- the issues of Rock, Paper, Scissors and Slippery Slopes apply to good reward systems in simulationist and narrativist design as well


Mouse Guard: Initial thoughts!

March 13, 2011

We finally got around to playing Mouse Guard! None of us had played MG before, I’m the only one familiar with BW games, 3 of us had read the comics, and 1 person had neither read the comics nor ever roleplayed before- but we had an awesome game over the course of 2 hours.

Here’s some initial thoughts:

Pregens make a world of difference

I’m coming more and more to the idea that roleplaying makes a huge hurdle by making character generation a standard requirement, instead of simply giving pre-gens. We were up and playing in 10 minutes.

The nice thing about good pregens is they allow people to focus on the rules and get into the fun of play rather than have to try to figure out system mastery before actually playing.

We made minor adjustments- such as changing Goals since Jono had his own adventure prepared, and I was playing Kenzie and changed my Instinct since no one played Saxon. Just the same, everyone took the characters and made them their own, which was cool.

Mouse Guard vs. Burning Wheel

Having just one Belief, one Instinct, and one Goal is great. One of the big hurdles to BW is that 3 Beliefs and 3 Instincts is a lot to juggle, and I think for a lot of new players, getting used to actually pursuing and playing with 1 of each is hard enough.

The other interesting thing is that since you only get rewarded once for pursuing each of these, as a player, you don’t end up hammering all day on one or the other- you do something, then you move on to the next one.

It encourages you to show off more aspects of your character AND also if you have conflicting BIGs with other players, it means you back off and give them a chance to pursue theirs after you’ve made your point. It’s a subtle trick that encourages teamwork (on a player level) even when you have conflict amongst the characters.

And, extended conflicts! MG’s 4 options (Attack, Defend, Feint, Maneuver) is a great set of rock-paper-scissors choices that works well. The two non-crunch players were able to script and have a great time with it. I like how it splits up the actual actions amongst the team, so everyone is doing something, and it flows quickly and easily.

Although it’s easy to see how MG links to BW as the same philosophy of design, BW is the deep end of tactical player choice in extended conflicts while MG is the shallower end of the pool, which I think is enough for many gamers.;

Because it’s mice…

There’s certain things that work only because it’s a game about mice. Like the fact that it’s really easy to walk down the street and imagine threats, or how small things could become tools or hidey-holes for mice.

In our game, some mice were trying to build a bridge across a stream- humans would need days or weeks to get a bridge across a river, but since everything is small and light, mice could do it in a day or two. Building a makeshift mouse-boat takes a few hours at most.

Likewise, you don’t spent a lot of time thinking about gear or equipment- how much can the mice carry? Not much!

Overall, we’re having a great time, and we’re pushing it from a one-shot for another session or maybe more.