Actual Play – Into the Wild (6/24/1152)

GM: Sean Nittner
System: Mouse Guard

I play-tested my Mouse Guard game “Into the Wild” last night. Overall the game was fun, but I found some significant holes. I’m very happy that I tested it out.

What Rocked

Warm up and learning the game exercises:

  • Mouse Ball – Fun, easy, and got people in the mood.
  • I see – Not only define the characters but also the relationship dynamics. Very similar to “backstory” in effect.
  • Accomplishments – Created solid beliefs and exposed the players to the core mechanics.
  • Having the character sheets “half baked” with a few things filed out helped to complete the rest.
  • It was fun to play the mentors. It created a connection for the characters and acted as foreshadowing.


  • The Obstacle – Twist – Condition worked very well.
  • Teamwork was excellent, both because of the mechanical advantage and because of the sense that mice would naturally work together.
  • The oddball skills like “bone head-wise and incectrist” were lots of fun.


  • Character tents and trait labels made it really easy for everyone to remember who was who and what traits they had.
  • The map was just awesome. People got really excited when it came out.
  • The cards used to represent the mentors was great.


  • We had some great narratives and descriptions, mostly thanks to very creative players.
  • The Tenderpaw enjoyed having an in game mentor.
  • Pacing was good. From the first obstacle on the game flowed really well.

What could have been improved

This discussion was long and I realized mid way through that it had turned into a critique of the Mouseguard game rather than of my adventure. Since my goal is to present the game more or less as is, I am separating out the criticisms of the game. They are valid but won’t apply to changes I make.

Warm up and learning the game exercises:

  • The Mentor fight was too long. Several suggestions were made but the two that stood out was starting the fight en media res with each side knocked down to half their disposition. The other idea was to script out only two rounds of the fight and then narrate the rest. After some thought I’m going to go with the first because I want players to see how compromises work.
  • The Mentor fight included mentors for three of the four characters (not the Tenderpaw who was mentored by one of the PCs), leaving the character playing the Tenderpaw less excited about the fight.
  • If I have players with more knowledge about the system, I will try to team them up with players who are new to it.
  • During the warm up I should review the character sheet and tell everyone what everything means or at least where to find things.
  • The ice breakers individually were fun but collectively were too long. I had five (Mouseball, the Epic Journey, I See, Accomplishments and the Group Challenge). I’m going to cut out the Epic Journey as it took a while and didn’t teach any of the mechanics. I wish I could figure out a way to introduce the traits/checks into one of these.


  • Using the dry erase pens looked nice but it rubbed off on people’s fingers. Since I’m ditching the Epic Journey that will be eliminated.


  • One player felt the obstacles seemed too tough and they were contrived to make the players fail. This may be true. I find that I often engineer twists to be much more interesting that the original obstacles so I hope the mice will fail on the first roll so I can bring out the twist. It isn’t a punishment, it’s a cool story … uh… twist (durh) but I can see how it feels like the odds are stacked against the players.


  • Some of the skills like Archivist, Loremaster, and insectrist needed explaining. I will create a skill list for those characters.
  • I really dropped the ball on explaining the interaction between traits and checks. I mentioned it but did not draw enough attention to it and didn’t remind people often enough that they could use them to gain checks.
  • Since the game has two GMs turns and a Player turn, it’s worth mentioning advancement. As is we had one player who’s raised a skill from 2 to 3 and everyone else was like “you can do that?”
  • I need to make sure everyone knows that each obstacle will be overcome regardless of success or fail. Failure just leads to either a twist or a condition. I need to encourage people to fail.
  • After the discussion of checks (see below) a player suggested starting off the character with two free checks just in case they don’t get a chance to gather any.


  • Beliefs weren’t challenged in game. This came from one of my Burning Wheel players who is used to me hammering on his beliefs and making the come to the forefront all the time. I don’t’ think I’m going to hammer on them more (MG is less confrontational in that regard) but I will encourage players to use broad beliefs and save things they want to accomplish for their goals.
  • I had a frog come out in winter and one player noted that they are cold blooded and would be hibernating. My response was “yeah, funny that, he must be really hungry”. I’m going to look for another animal that would be out in winter and would care about crashing into the water.

Criticism of Mouse Guard

  • The GM’s turn felt like the characters were steamrolled out of Gwendolyn’s chambers and onto the road without any chance to prepare. The player suggested adding a Player’s turn before the GM’s turn. While I see the merit in allowing the mice to prepare, I’d much rather get rolling sooner rather than later. Another player suggested starting the mice out in the snow and having them flashback to the mission given to them by Gwendolyn. A third option would be to stop talking after the mission is given and give the players a little flexibility in how it starts. If one player says he wants to get maps, etc.,  just let him do it without a roll or any scenes involved.
  • Another player did not like that the only way to gain checks was to set yourself up for failure and would have preferred a flat number of checks. For me this breaks the entire trait system but it’s also indicative that I didn’t explain well enough that the mission will always proceed, regardless of success or failure. The game essentially rewards failure, which I love.

Notes I took during game.

  • Remember to bring in the Mentors during the Players Turn. They should offer encouragement and or help.
  • Make Robin pick a gender. I had two male characters, one female character and one named Robin who could be either male or female. My assumption was that the player would pick when the character was chosen. Instead the player opted for the gender to be uncertain (see Vaarsuvius from Order of the Stick, Chris from SNL, or other Shim jokes for reference). This caused some consternation in the group.
  • I forgot a skill on Dain’s sheet and  missed putting Resources and Circles on Brynn. Overall I think I need to look at the skills more and make sure that there is some niche protection as well as health overlap. I’ll probably do this by creating some skills at 4 on one character and 2 on another character.
  • I need to write out a list of what Attack, Defend, Feint and Maneuver represent in conflicts other than fights.


  1. Honestly, with Robin, part of my not picking a gender was cause Robin wasn’t gendered in my head. Robin was, first and foremost, a mouse. A crazy mouse that wanted to ride things and beat them about the head, sure, but a mouse none-the-less. 🙂

  2. Not sure genderless Robin caused consternation so much as amusement. But then I’m finding that I’m a fan of gender fluidity in general, and enjoy watching it get played with in games (caveat…played respectfully. The guys who get stuck with a female character at a con and play it like the worst Barbie stereotype lead to me doodling scenes of their death and dismemberment on my character sheet.)

    And to be fair, my critiques of the system are largely a matter of fit. This system fits me no better than Burning Wheel. I enjoy seeing the experiments of things like checks and figuring out what it was intended to accomplish, but find that they drive me nuts to consider playing with long-term.

    • Yeah, I thought they were fair critiques but I clumped them in a separate section as here are areas where the game mechanics might frustrate players, rather than my adventure.

      Well maybe gender isn’t so important after all 🙂 (See comment to buffaloraven above)

  3. Pedagogy process

    Sounds like a neat game–I like that twist of the mice finishing what their mentors started. For the tenderpaw, you might’ve let the tenderpaw’s mentor in the fight alongside the other mentors–but as a tenderpaw himself.

    When I ran our Pedagogy of Play process, we had a whole session where we just did that. In fact, my Skype group needed two sessions to finish it. For a one-shot, I think you’re right, you’ve got to be careful not to spend too much time on them.

    Here’s my discussion with Giuli & Willem on how ours went:

    • Downloading now, I’ll check it out.

      Yeah, that is a great idea. I’ll have a young version of the PC that is the mentor. Sweet! That leaves me with a tiny bit of discontinuity, however, maybe you can help:

      I’d like to teach obstacles before conflicts (to build up), so the way I’m doing that is to have the player characters first do their accomplishments, then play their mentors. The problem is that means a lot of switching characters back and forth. What I’d rather do is start with the mentors (which have very simplified character sheets), run a scene with them, and then move to the characters they are playing.

      Currently the “accomplishment” is what generates the character’s belief, but I could cut that out and have the beliefs be preset. Any thoughts on how to finagle this?

      • Hmmm, that poses an interesting question. I like how you separated out the conflict so it wouldn’t have too much of a negative impact on the PC’s if they failed (that happened to me in some of my games). But the escalation does require the Accomplishment first. Maybe a flashback? It keeps the escalation of the story intact, but I wonder if the tale your mentors told you of their battle, a few years back, might help fix that feeling of jumping around in the story’s time line? I don’t know if that would entirely fix the problem, but it seems worth trying.

        • Heya Jason, I’d like to email you my thoughts for Pedagogy of Play, revision 2. Will you shoot me an email: sean AT sadric DOT com

  4. Playing to Fail
    Yo Sean! A few thoughts on your AP. Good stuff, btw!

    “One player felt the obstacles seemed too tough and they were contrived to make the players fail.”

    Actually, they kind of are. I just interviewed Luke and brought this up (the interview isn’t going up for a little while, sorry!). Since you *have* to get failures in order to progress skills, and since the plot does not stop due to a failure, and since this is a game about the harsh and forgiving world vs. tiny mice, yes, failure is a big part of the game. Basically, one way you can play this game is the players actually compete for the opportunity to fail in the GM’s turn, thus getting themselves failed tests and extra checks. Then, on the players turn, get your passed tests out of the way with all your checks you’ve earned. This method makes the rule of “the first person to step up to a test gets it” work much better. It makes players rush forward, first person to say so gets the chance to get that failed test they need to progress.

    On the second note, if players really, really don’t want to fail something, they have a LOT of options available to them. Base Skill + Tap Nature (1 Persona) + 3 extra dice (3 more Persona) + Helping Dice + Trait + Equipment bonus (spend a check before this to circles/resources up said bonus if in the Players turn or just good planning in the GM’s turn) + 1 Fate to roll up 6’s = A lot of dice right there. No, you can’t do this for every roll, but who’d want to? Twists and conditions are awesome and fun, plus, like I said, you need those failures.

    “The GM’s turn felt like the characters were steamrolled out of Gwendolyn’s chambers and onto the road without any chance to prepare.”

    I ran into this problem too, but after a quick post on the MG forums the answer became clear to me: As the GM, it’s your job to set the pace during the GM’s turn, which is *not* the same as railroading. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask the players if there’s any preparation they want to make before setting out, as long as the game doesn’t bog down in doing so. I usually let everyone have 1 roll each, or if time is an issue, 1 or 2 rolls for the whole group. If they can’t think of anything, just move on. You could look at this as a “mini players turn”, but the important thing for players to remember is that you can hose yourself with traits on these prep rolls too, so it’s actually an opportunity to get more checks! Also, they should remember that asking for these rolls carries the same danger as any other roll: Twists and conditions can apply to failed tests, so they could actually make things worse for themselves!

    “Another player did not like that the only way to gain checks was to set yourself up for failure and would have preferred a flat number of checks.”

    You’re right, that would break the entire dynamic. And plus, you *do* get a flat # of checks to start with: one. To be perfectly honest, it really comes down to this: using traits to screw you is a skill, one that many players simply have never learned. It takes practice. In our AP games, a couple people struggled with this, while one player excelled. He’d usually have 3-4 checks (and based on the rules, even that’s a bit low compared to what you COULD have) and everyone else would have one or maybe two. Practice makes perfect!

    Kevin Weiser

    • Hey Kevin, thanks for the great post and your insights.

      Teaching players that failing is cool seems be more of changing their mindset than explain the rules. I found that my two burning wheel players, who were in the game totally embraced failure from the beginning. They leapt into things regardless of their skill and often impeded themselves looking to see what would happen when they fail. This had a lot to do with their previous experience watching consequences in BW be totally awesome.

      I’m going to make a real effort to reinforce that failing should be common and is a good thing.

      • I think my only real problem is the language. Anytime I hear the word “Fail” I cringe. Nobody wants to fail. And it doesn’t matter that in the context of the setting it improves the overall story. Most people just don’t respond positively to the idea that failure is inevitable. Particularly gamers who are trying to escape from reality for a bit.

        I know it seems fiddley, but language really does have an impact. If I were running the game I’d use language like thus:

        “If you achieve a number of successes equal to your target number, you get a perfect success. If you don’t, then you stumble. Your goal will still be accomplished, but not perfectly. You may become tired, or angry, or a new problem will arise that you will have to overcome.”

        My 2 cents.

        • I agree. Our usual mindset is that Fail = Lose and nobody wants to lose. I think your suggestion is a really good one and I’m going to try it. I’m going to describe it as a foil rather than a stumble.

          This is for two reasons, one it redirects complication to some external source (“You made it but that damn frog foiled your plans” our “You made it but you’re foiled by a gnawing hunger in your belly”) and because it starts with the letter F, which is important because it is all over the character sheet.

    • Wow, excellent points. I emailed your comment to both the patrols I run. We’ve had some questions about why you’d want to fail; I think this answers that perfectly!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *