Mouse Guard Dispositions
Okay, it took us a while to wrap our heads around what a disposition is and how they work in Mouse Guard. Combat, and any other conflict like a negotiation or a race, is abstracted. When your mouse swings his sword he doesn’t do direct damage measured in hit points like in D&D. He reduces his enemies “disposition”.
Huh? Yeah, that what we said.
So, when a conflict is about to start, both sides pick goals. In the example below, the players’ mice were walking along a path and came across a crow. They set the goal of getting past the crow without conflict if possible. The crow set the goal of snatching Jasper’s shiny halberd (crows like shiny things after all).
As Paul Beakley explains, the two sides should have set higher goals: the mice to drive the crow off the road, never to return again; the crow to steal everything shiny that the mice were carrying.
The reason, which eluded us to begin with, but which Paul graciously explained, is that at the start of combat both sides calculate their disposition number. These look deceptively like hit points but they’re not. Then both sides take turns making moves (attack, defense, feint, and maneuver), trying to reduce their opponent’s disposition to zero. First one to zero loses, then the GM decides what they lose. The reason for picking a lofty goal to begin with is that you will only get part of it. If you reduce your opponent’s disposition to zero but yours is also reduced by say half, you only get about half of what you set out to achieve. The crow gets half the party’s gear, the party drives the crow off but he’ll be back, etc. Neither side needs to take damage in a Dungeons and Dragons sense.
Read the series of posts below, which Paul was kind enough to let me repost here, and you’ll see what I mean.
I played Mouse Guard with my kids the other day and we hit a dead end. I’m pretty sure we resolved it properly but I’m not sure so I’m throwing it out for discussion and hopefully someone can set me straight.
Three mice, Jasper, Ivy, and Kyla, are walking from one town to another and come across a crow. The crow spies Jasper’s halberd and tries to snatch it away. We calculate dispositions and begin the confrontation. The crow starts with a Maneuver and in the first round manages to disarm Jasper, taking his halberd.
This is where we got confused. In the RPGs we’ve played to date, the crow would immediately try to take off and fly back up to his branch. The players might try to pick him off with ranged weapons and that would be the end of the encounter.
But in Mouse Guard each side has to determine three actions beforehand and none of these is “run away with the halberd” or anything like it.
In the end we finished the confrontation. The crow got knocked down to zero disposition and dropped the halberd then flew away. I think that the bird could not fly off until the mice were at zero disposition, at which point he could leave without further rolls.
Wait…was the crow’s conflict goal to steal the halberd? Then making that the result of a Maneuver is not cool — you’ve just invalidated the goal.
What was the guards’ goal? “Keep the halberd” isn’t a valid intent.
Right, so here’s what happened. The mice are just traveling along the road. The crow swoops in and wants the halberd but the mice don’t know that. The crow lunges at the mouse with the halberd and the mice fight back.
The crow wants the halberd so I have him try to disarm the mouse holding it, which made sense at the time but now seems to have been my mistake. He wins the maneuver and disarms the mouse, taking the halberd in the process. Neither side has lost any disposition but the bird has what he wants and should at this point fly away. I’m thinking now, though, that he doesn’t actually get the halberd until he drops the mice’s disposition to zero.
The guards’ goal was to get past the crow without incident if possible. It quickly became about protecting themselves and hanging onto the halberd.
You’re on the right track. Here’s my thinking: In traditional RPGs, the mechanics exist to act like an intermediary, a likely-outcomes generator each time the player characters interact with the world. Roll to jump across the chasm, roll to see who wins a fight, roll to convince that guard of something.
Mouse Guard comes at the whole thing from a much more new-school POV. Scripting, hazards, pretty much everything about the game is about framing up whole situations, rather than specific acts without context.
Scripted conflicts are great for two reasons: Both sides can stake out what they want, and the loser can earn a compromise. Because compromise is part of why we script, you can aim high with your goal!
So like…why would a raven care about taking the halberd? If I were framing up the situation, I’d say ravens want all manner of shiny objects: his goal would be to “take all your gear.” All of it! Aim high! On the flip side, just saying “you don’t do that” is lame. What could the guard aim for instead? Maybe “scare the raven so bad that he and his buddies never bug us again” or even “capture the raven so we can fly him.”
This whole POV means the players and the GM need to get out of the blow-by-blow immersion-y play of traditional games: we aren’t our characters, we’re our characters’ authors. This situation comes up — raven wants your stuff! — and everyone has to stop, get out of their characters’ cockpits so to speak, and take on the whole situation at once.
Once you’ve gotten away from the blow-by-blow, scripting makes a ton more sense. Now a “disarm” option during a maneuver is just about taking away a mechanical bonus, not resolving the whole situation before you’ve concluded the conflict. After all, the mice may yet win the fight! It ain’t over ’til it’s over.
Hope this helps!
Thanks. That makes sense. It’s quite abstract and while I see huge upsides to that approach, I’m not sure it will work all that well with my kids. They don’t want the combat to be abstract, they want it to be immediate and tangible. I will have to think about how to do that for them. Lots of color and description I guess, which is pretty standard for our table.
Can one party bail before reaching a disposition of zero, or is zero the point at which they decide to bail? If the crow takes off before zero I’m guessing he gets nothing.
Also, how do you decide how much of the grand goal one party will get? If the crow ends at disposition 5 and the mice are at zero, does the crow get all their stuff? Half? Are they dead?
How old are your kids?
I ask because, depending on the age and of course the kids, it might not be as jarring as you think. They don’t have the same years/decades of prior experience we have, right?
Color is definitely vital, and in fact is even required by the rules! Every time you describe your move and its effects, you have to color it. This also gives the fight some context. If the guardmouse successfully Maneuvers against the raven and chooses to “disarm” it, and you say something like “it lands on the ground and starts pecking at you, so it can’t use its talons any more,” it’s now on the ground inside the fiction. And future descriptions will grow from that and be limited by that.
Nobody bails once the conflict starts. If they could, there’d really be no reason for dispositions at all. There’s a decision point where both sides have to agree to see it through to the end — it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
There are guidelines in the book as to how much compromise you get. IIRC — and this might just be a BW thing, I can’t remember — there’s “minor” if the other side only lost a couple, “compromise” if the other side lost at least half, and “major compromise” if the other side is down to 1 or 2.
So in your thing, let’s say the mice win (run the raven off and ravens will never bug them again) and the raven loses (grab all the gear). Ideas:
Minor compromise for the raven (mice lost 1 or 2): The raven grabs something but it’s not vital — some food, some camping gear. Sounds petty but I’ll bet your kids would be bugged by this anyway.
Compromise for the raven (mice lost at least half): Raven got something vital, like a halberd (remember, the goal was to get EVERYTHING).
Major compromise for the raven (mice down to 1 or 2): raven gets it all but leaves behind one vital thing, like the tent.
Then you can flip it over: Raven wins and the mice lose.
Minor compromise for the mice (raven lost 1 or 2): raven gets everything but but leaves them alone (this would require that the threat of constant raven harrassment is made clear earlier).
Compromise for the mice (raven lost more than half): raven takes all the gear but tells all ravens to leave them alone (same as above).
Major compromise (raven down to 1 or 2): raven leaves them alone and maybe drops some gear on the way out — it’s scattered and now the mice have to deal with a wilderness hazard to retrieve it all.
The mouse side of this compromise stuff sort of sucks, and that’s because they still have a negative-oriented goal rather than a positive-oriented goal: they want something to NOT happen, not something TO happen.
I suggest that if you run into a situation where both sides don’t explicitly want something, you just resolve it with a versus test rather than a script. Script really only works when everyone has skin in the game.
Thanks Paul that makes a lot of sense and I see the value of the system much more clearly now.
My kids are around ten and have been playing RPGs since the oldest was five so they will have no problem adjusting to this method once I explain it to them.
It is a real departure from DnD style fighting but I see huge advantages too. It seems this is the method used to resolve all conflicts in the game, from debating and persuading to fighting and fleeing. One mechanic to rule them all. Very elegant.
It is! I think as long as everyone stays aware of the “about-ness” surrounding a die roll, it works great. It falls apart if you default back to treating the rules like a physics emulator. Think of it more like a … movie director emulator.