Friday, May 22, 2009

The Pedagogy of Playing Mouse Guard

Edit May 23, 3:18 PM: Made some tweaks to improve the flow. You fill in your cloak color after your Accomplishment, and your Guard Rank as part of your Experience. Also, added some bits of flavor text at the appropriate times in a mouse's life from the book.

Willem started writing about the Pedagogy of Play (parts 1, 2, 3 & 4), proposing a principle that we should teach games in play, and providing an example with Polaris. We both experimented with this, me at home and on Skype, and him at Gamestorm. Apparently, Willem has a mutual friend with Sean Nittner and Justin Evans, the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts, Narrative Control. Unfortunately, in this particular game of telephone, by the time they got the story, the idea had gotten watered down to simply "icebreakers." Here I enter the story again, because I think I mentioned this episode to Willem first, with my suspicion that the unnamed GM from GameStorm in question meant him. Willem commented on the podcast thread, which led Sean to Willem's articles in the "Pedagogy of Play" series on the College of Mythic Cartography, where Sean commented that he wanted to do this for Mouse Guard. So this convoluted tale in which I played my bit part has worked out very nicely for me; I've mentioned here before how excited I've gotten to play Mouse Guard, and naturally, I'd planned to give it the "Pedagogy of Play" treatment on my own. But thanks to all this, Sean has already done a really good job of it.

Mouse Guard presents an interesting case. In some ways, it already has mechanics with respect to the storyjammer's journey, particularly with the Prologue and Mission Assignment at the beginning, and assigning rewards at the end of the game. As great a framework as that already provides, in between, the GM has a turn, and the players have a turn. In Polaris, we could use rounds of scenes to incrementally increase the complexity of the rules we had in play. With two turns per session, a lot of the pedagogy for Mouse Guard would have to come down to just planning a gradually-escalating session as a GM.

That said, with a little elbow grease and cleverness, we can still find a way to teach a game—even a game as complex as Burning Wheel—in play.

Character Creation

Rather than use the Mouse Territories in David Petersen's comics, I've decided to put things a little closer to home. As an ardent bioregionalist, I value the stories that bind us to a particular land most of all. I want the stories I tell to increase my kinship with my home, and a game like Mouse Guard can really hit that target—you get to tell the secret, heroic epics that go on in your land, just beyond our sight and appreciation. So instead, I've named our campaign, "Tales of the Black Forest." That name, "the Black Forest," summons up images of the Black Forest in Germany and all the fairy tales that come from there (at least it does for me). But it also refers to the old name for Cook Forest, one of the last remaining old growth forests in the eastern United States. Instead of Lockhaven, this Mouse Guard comes from "the Cathedral," in Cook Forest's Forest Cathedral, hidden in a rock curled into the roots of one of the towering, ancient white pines of the forest—which just happens to evoke the image of another white pine, the "Tree of Peace" of the Haudenosaunee who once lived in this land.

But I haven't defined anything else. For the most part, I've left this Black Forest—as far as the mice there care—an empty canvas. I want to kick off our campaign with a session where we'll fill in some of the Black Forest and create characters. Here, a lot of Sean's suggestions fit in really well, which I have blatantly pilfered below.

  1. Mouse Ball. (Derived in part from "Sound Ball"). The real spirit of the game lies in seeing the world from a mouse's perspective, where crabs seem like overwhelming monsters, and moose walk the earth like gods. So, I'll start by saying something that would threaten a mouse—say, "Owls." Then I'll throw the ball. The person who catches it has to repeat what I said, and add something else that would threaten a mouse, like, "Yes, owls, and storms." Then that person throws the ball to someone else, who has to repeat the last threat that person said, and add a new one, like, "Yes, storms, and snakes," and so on. This gets us into the present moment, building on each other's ideas, throws out ideas, and gets us in sync with the spirit of the game.
  2. The Epic Journey. (Taken from Justin Evans' example from the aforementioned episode of Narrative Control). "Send any mouse to the job and it may or may not be done. Ask the Guard to do the task, even death cannot prevent it from completion." The current player picks one of those dangers that we named in Mouse Ball. Each of the other players throw out problems that a guardmouse might encounter on the way to solve that problem. Then, the original player tells the shortest story he can, using all of the problems thrown out, about a guardmouse who solves that problem. Here, the players start getting into the mindset of the Mouse Guard, while working on how to hold the spotlight for a short amount of time, and incorporate the ideas of others.
  3. Forming the Patrol. (Based on "Yes, and"). I'll start this game as the GM, saying, "You'll need to form a patrol." After that, the players will take over, describing what that patrol should include, bit by bit, beginning each statement with "Yes, and." For example, "Yes, and we'll have a surly, bitter patrol leader." "Yes, and we'll have an eager young tenderfoot." Simply repeating "Yes, and" often changes the way people listen, from waiting for their turn to speak, to a mode where they listen for what to incorporate. At the same time, we start building up some ideas of what our patrol will look like.
  4. See Me. At this point, the players get to write something on their character sheets: Name, Age, Home and Fur Color. They get to state those things, and I ask the "Mouse Nature" questions from the book (p. 299). Then we begin a round of "See Me." Each player throws out details of the character they see in their mind from that name, age and fur color. It continues until the original player vetoes a statement by saying, "I don't see it." We do this for each character.
  5. Growing Up. This one could use some more ideas, but I've pulled a lot of this from the "Recruitment" chapter in the book.
    1. Hometown. The player describes his character's hometown and parents, and his early life. Check off skills for natural talent and parents' trade, and how they convince people (p. 301), and add two traits (p. 308).
    2. The Cathedral. I begin this round by telling them that the Guard recruited them as children, and they went to the Cathedral to train. Tell them: "The paths between our settlements are where the Guard live. They find the open space, the freedom and the danger to be more of a home than the secure doors and stone walls of any town or village." Each player describes the Senior Artisan underjavascript:void(0) whom they apprenticed, and the mentor who trained them. They get to place checks for these skills now (p. 302).
  6. Accomplishment (Taken from Dogs in the Vineyard). Based on the mentor they described, I come up with a 4 ob they need to face with a single, independent test. The player to that player's right describes how he helps, and gives one helping die. Regardless of whether they succeed or fail, they should now write down a Belief and an Instinct. The mentor then presents his apprentice with a cloak. The player needs to tell us the color, and why the mentor chose that color.
  7. Experience. Now, the mice join the Guard. They swear the oath: "We as Guard offer all that we are to protect the sanctity of our species, the freedom of our kin, and the honor of our ancestors. With knowledge, sword, and shield, we do these deeds, never putting a lone mouse above the needs of all, or the desire of self above another. We strive for no less than to serve the greatest good." The player tells us a little about the character's experience in the Guard. The player puts down his Guard Rank, and adds checkmarks for experience, specialty and wises (pp. 302-303). Patrol leaders and guard captains get another trait (p. 308).
  8. Friends. Each player tells about a friend they have (pp. 310-311). I ask a series of questions to establish their Resources and Circles (pp. 306-307).
  9. Enemies. Each player tells me about an enemy they have. I set up a versus test with their enemy.
  10. Suit Up. Characters get gear, one fate point and one persona point.
  11. Group Challenge. (I take this from Sean Nittner credits this to Judd Karlman, Justin Evans, Ken Hite and Ryan Macklin). We play through one full conflict that happens during the patrol's first mission. Each of the players has, by now, gone through an independent test and a versus test, so this just involves choosing actions and playing out the right tests as a consequence.

The Game

Evan Gardner's "Where Are Your Keys?" language fluency game establishes an important principle. If I might sully my lily-white E-Prime for a moment, performance is the only practice. We want games that fulfill prescriptive and diagnostic functions at the same time. We can figure out what level of skill you have by playing, and by playing, we increase your skill level, too. The "Where Are Your Keys?" game works like this, and so does a good Pedagogy of Play for storyjamming. It means you don't use this iterative complexity just for the first time you play; you use it every time you play. As you get better, you spend less time on the less complex levels, and proceed more quickly to the more complex levels. But your skill level doesn't stay at one level or another statically. Skills atrophy, or you might just have an off day.

  1. Introductions. Every player introduces the character of the player on his left as eloquently as he can. As GM, I describe the season and the weather.
  2. Prologue. One player delivers the prologue. If everyone feels satisfied with it, that player can alleviate a condition or recover a point of taxed Nature.
  3. Assignment. I frame a scene where the patrol gets their mission assignment. The players write their goals for the mission.
  4. The GM's Turn. For the first hazard, pick something that the patrol could potentially overcome with a single test; if I want to include a conflict, I should save it for the second hazard, and perhaps even leave it until after the first mission.
  5. The Player's Turn. Hopefully, by this point, the players have seen pretty much what they can do, so they don't have much to learn before they can make their decisions about what they want to accomplish on their turn.
  6. Ending the Session. Now we assign awards as a group; as the rules explicitly state, "Don't vote, decide." We don't use democracy for this, we use consensus.
  7. Questions. Before we break, each player has to give an unanswered question about their character that they want to explore more.


Like Ryan Macklin, I like tangibles gaming. I also have some skill as a graphic designer, and David Petersen makes so much of his art available online through his website, that I plan to really go to town with the idea of conflict cards that some people brought up on the Burning Wheel forums. I've heard complaints before about the complexity of conflicts in Burning Wheel, so I plan to focus my creative energy on that problem, at least for now.

Trying it Out

Now that I've read the book and figured out a "Pedagogy of Play," I hope to make characters sometime soon. Camp Nerdly puts a hole in my schedule, but with luck, I'll have a follow-up report on whether this works out or not in a few weeks.


Jason Godesky said...

I hope to come up with some creative uses for Obsidian Portal with my campaign. Example 1: "Table Chatter: Goal, Belief, Instinct."

Doyce said...

This is really a quite excellent introduction to play and to the group. I adore it, and fully intend to use it in my MG games.

Jason Godesky said...

Thanks! I haven't tried it out yet, so if you try it first, let me know how it goes. I'm hoping to have a follow-up on how it goes at my table in a few weeks.

Anonymous said...

Jason. This looks awesome. I think you've really put out a clean process (much more refined than mine for sure) that will gently create a killer band of Mouse Guards as well and getting everyone into it. Good Job.

mack said...
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