Mouse Guard is a wonderful game that is in turns adorable, heroic, moving and exciting. It’s a fantasy world based on a series of comics by David Petersen. The RPG is based on the Burning Wheel system by Luke Crane.
It reminds me a great deal of the Redwall series where animals are the heroes. I adore it, not just for the world, but for the mechanics which are beginner-friendly, participative and non-threatening. I also love the comics. There are strong, capable, skilled female mice characters and they are led by a line of matriarchs, the current one being Gwendolyn.
But to be honest, I’m not a fantasy player. I’m a horror gamer, if I can call myself that. So what does one do when a game is not in the horror genre? Simple. You find elements of the game that tailor themselves to horror and use your imagination to go from there.
So, how in the world can you do that with Mouse Guard?
First of all, the horror lies in almost everything these little characters do. They don’t have special powers like in so many games. There are so many dangers that just getting through daily life is a struggle. In the game itself, one can only really kill characters that are either right below, at, or above your natural order level. Everybody else you have to either capture, injure or run off (unless you’re really brave, lucky and ingenious in killing them without your own hands.) You can’t just unleash some special power. I like that. It seems real instead of super-hero fantasy. You are small and you are vulnerable. And it’s scary.
The denizens of the forest are frightening in and of themselves, but there are particular marvels of nature that especially strike fear. Badgers will destroy mouse settlements and devour everything inside. We’ve all seen images of snakes swallowing mice….gruesome. Imagine a mouse encountering a bear or being carried off by a hawk. While crows, bats and frogs may not pose direct threats, they are great ambience because of their cultural history and the creepiness we associate with them.
My favorite candidate for horror by far is the shrike. According to the Rule Book’s description, it looks like a small gray songbird, but when it sees prey, it can swoop down and capture the prey in its claws. It can then fly the victim to a nearby thorn bush or a sharp branch and impale it. Once impaled, the shrike can use its beak to kill and eat its prey or leave it to die a slow death for a later dinner. Ugh.
And then there is the weasel, the arch enemy of the mice. The weasels in Mouse Guard are brutal, shifty and shrewd. Needless to say, they will kill and eat mice. Dark Heather was the underground network of tunnels they lived in within the Mouse Territories. According to the rule book, they had to abandon these tunnels after the war of 1149. While they were there, the weasels decorated the tunnels with stone carvings, tile work, and the skins of their slain prey. Weasels stockpiled mice, slew, cured and stored them. Other mice were kept as prisoners for breeding and as bait for possible rescuers.
Then there’s the Wild Country! According to HP Lovecraft, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” There are many unknown places outside the Mouse Territories and the scent border. Most especially the Wild Country where the really big wildlife live. There are also villages left in the game that are identified but not described, which allows the GM to create whatever kind of creepy inhabitants it chooses. Not every village has regular traffic with Lockwood!
Finally, weather and seasons plays an important role in the game. Have scary lightning and thunder storms. Set your game in the fall or the winter. There are many obstacles to overcome, but also many things that can be mysteriously found frozen in the ground.