Mouse-Guarding your 4e

Did that title confuse you?

Mouse Guard is one of the best RPGs out there, hands down. The unique method of combat, the Player vs. GM turns; all of it works together to create a unique and enjoyable experience.

One of my favorite aspects is the idea that you can find interesting story in your failure. A lot of players have trouble wrapping their heads around that, but it’s a core concept to the game. The way a session is set up is that with 100% success by all players during a session, the game will last all of 15 minutes. No one wants that, so the most fun is found in failure. When the players fail their Pathfinding, they stumble upon a snake’s nest. It’s time for combat!

Or alterately, they fail a Weatherwatcher check, and arrive in the town they were on their way to, just cold, wet and sick.

The game doesn’t grind to a halt due to failure, it makes things interesting.

I’m in the middle of a 4e campaign right now. In 4e, the general idea is that a failure is just that. A failure. “You want to pick that lock? Roll a d20. Oh, you got a 1? Well, you didn’t pick it. The door’s still locked.”


What if, instead, everything the players ever did was successful in some way, but introduced more complications. You use Wall of Iron against a monster, pushing it back over a cliff, but miss the roll? “Sure, you push the monster off the cliff, but he’s grabbed onto the shield as he’s pushed back. Make an Athletics check to grab onto the root attached to the side of the cliff.” Now you’ve got an orc hanging from one arm, and you’re hanging onto the cliffside with the other.

As you may recall,  I have a complete list of travel times around the Nentir Vale. If you want your players to travel from Winterhaven to Fallcrest, but don’t want to spend a lot of time, why not have the Ranger of the party make a Nature check? On a failure, he failed to navigate the path very well, and the players find themselves arriving in Fallcrest cold, wet, and missing a few Healing Surges. Ouch.

This has endless possibilities. Dragonborn breathes fire on the enemy, but rolls badly? Well, he lit part of the building on fire. Rogue performs a Sly Flourish and misses? He deals half damage and falls prone, tripping up on his boots. Note how the character still deals damage there? If you’re going to add additional screw-over-the-player moments, you really should give them a little something for their trouble.

And that’s how my games are going to go from here on out, I think. Failure is so much more fun than success, don’t you think?

2 thoughts on “Mouse-Guarding your 4e

  1. Absolutely! Failure can drive the plot forward more quickly than success ever can. We see that time and again in movies, books and comics – the villain captures the Good Guys (a failure!) and they end up in his prison. They escape, but are too late (another failure!) to stop the Countdown to Destroy the Moon. Cue climactic battle, last minute solution, roll credits.

    In superhero rpgs, there is often a mechanic to explicitly reward challenges and setbacks by giving the heroes Action Points (Hero Points, Determination Points, etc) which they can use to push themselves or come up with creative uses for their superpowers. For example, the Villain could get away, but the GM gives the Heroes an Action Point which they can use to redress the karmic balance later. It’s easy enough to use 4e D&D’s Action Point mechanics in the same way.

  2. It’s called conflict resolution and what d20 usually does is called task resolution.

    Sometimes it might be hard to differentiate those two (mostly timescale and/or complexity?) but usually if your task resolution is boring, it means you have nothing at stake. No use rolling the dice unless there’s some drama.

    You could set up lock picking differently using the same guidelines. Instead of “roll or the lock won’t open”, try “roll or the guards will hear you (but you open the door)” or “roll or you break your tools but jam the door and the guards can’t get at you” or “roll or you can’t escape that way and you have to confront your ex-wife”.

    Use a mix of conflict and task resolution and setting the stakes ftw.

    P.S. A good podcast episode:

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