Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mouse Guard

In The Way of the Human Being, Calvin Luther Martin writes about the experience of "the skin of the earth," and uses moving, poetic description to tie together traditional stories, the first-hand experiences of American Indians, folk tales and myths, to reveal a common understanding that so much of what we call our "humanity" has to do simply with the experience of the world in our own bodies. That, far from a simple exercise in anthropomorphism, every animal experiences the world in a way that we might call "human." Yes, differences stand out. But so do the similarities.

For Rane Willerslev, those differences matter as much as the similarities. In his ethnography of the Siberian Yukaghirs, he also writes about the Yukaghir experience with other animals, and strange encounters where hunters go, as Martin might put it, past "the skin of the earth," to a world where elk experience themselves as humans. Willerslev makes his case with phenomenology and philosophy, but comes to much the same conclusion: the relativity of the human experience as less a unique feature of our species, and more the experience of any animal in its own body.

I plan to write a long article on anthropomorphism and animism later this year for a new web magazine called Toby's People, so I don't plan to write it all out here, but suffice to say that, with certain key caveats observed, stories of anthropomorphic animals may mean more than a simple flight of fancy: they mean what an anthropologist might recognize as the difference between an etic perspective and an emic perspective, between the view of an outsider looking in, and someone on the inside describing what he takes part in, lives in, and participates in. Biology excels at the etic perspective; so-called anthropomorphic animal stories try to deal with the emic perspective.

"Somewhere within its borders we unveil the very deepest powers of this aboriginal land, of possessing it in one's blood and brain, as Scott Momaday knew we must. Somewhere we must cross over—to where it possesses us." (Martin, 1999:46)

I enjoy a good RPG. But even more than that, I see in them the potential to regenerate oral tradition, to find stories rather than "make them up," the really important stories that create kinship and tell us something about the land we live in, stories that, once we learn them, give us a new appreciation and a deeper sense of belonging for the land we live in, that help make us more native to our home. Let's face it, a good RPG takes time, not just to play, but to learn, plan and prepare. If I can get that from it, I consider that time quite well spent. And if I don't, I don't know what I've spent that time for.

Which gets me to this: I love Mouse Guard! I haven't gotten to play any Burning Wheel games yet, but this game has a lot of powerful stuff going on: the mouse-world, the prominence of the seasons and the weather, and grand, medieval epics that unfold not in some imaginary fantasy world, but right here, in this land, just out of sight. Most importantly of all, it re-enchants the land we live in, lets us see the magic and adventure of where we live, here and now.

I've started getting together a Mouse Guard game, but it won't happen in the same Mouse Territories as the comics. No, we'll have "The Tales of the Black Forest." Besides the medieval references to Germany's "Black Forest," long ago, people called Cook Forest—one of the few remaining old-growth forests in the eastern United States, and a place that means a lot to me, personally—"the Black Forest."

As it happens, it seems I have a few things to learn from Burning Wheel, too. It turns out that it already beat me to the punch of "cool-down games," including using them to hand out rewards. I can see a really good, three-step process, like the storyjammer's journey, already nascent in the rules.

I haven't even finished reading the book yet, so I may have more to say about all this, but for now, I'll just end by saying that I haven't felt this excited about a game in quite some time. Thank you, Luke Crane!

1 comment:

Jason Godesky said...

I just finished reading Mouse Guard: Fall 1152. I have to agree with some of the reviews on Amazon: it has very little with regards to story or even character development. What it does have comes from the art. It doesn't tell a story nearly so much as evoke a world, and that sucks you in quickly. The characters feel so vivid and authentic, that it almost doesn't matter that the plot seems stilted and forced, or that the characters themselves have so little exposition or change.

In the back of the book, illustrations that looked just like those in Gnomes give you a guide to the mouseholds and mouse professions.

It's made me even more eager to play the game, because it supplies so much of what we've talked about wanting to see in games, but fails on precisely those points that a good RPG excels at coloring in.