I’ve written about Mouse Guard’s qualities before. It’s one of my favorite systems, from its core dice mechanic to its setting and flavor. But some things are better appreciated with a bit of perspective, and so it is with Mouse Guard’s failure rules. After years of trying other games, I came to realize that none of them handle failure as well as Mouse Guard, and it isn’t for lack of trying. What to do when the dice thwart players has been a subject of intense debate ever since the first roleplaying games appeared, but no other system has done as well as this little game about mice.
How Mouse Guard’s Failure System Works
The core dice mechanic for Mouse Guard and its younger sibling Torchbearer look pretty simple on paper. PCs roll a number of d6s determined by what ability they’re using, plus or minus bonuses and penalties, and any die that comes up four or higher is a pass. Each roll needs a certain number of passes to be considered a success. If a PC doesn’t get enough passes, the roll is considered a failure. At this point, one of two things can happen.
First, the GM can impose a twist. With a twist, the PC’s goal does not occur. Instead, something else interesting happens. If the PC was trying to gain access to the villain’s office by picking the lock, they aren’t able to get the lock open because they hear guards approaching. Now the PC has to deal with the guards, and the game continues.
Alternatively, the GM can impose a condition. Conditions are mental or physical states that penalize the character in some way. Mouse Guard and Torchbearer have six: Hungry, Angry, Afraid, Exhausted, Injured, and Sick.* Being Injured makes most rolls harder; being Afraid reduces the PC’s ability to help their friends, etc. Each condition also has its own requirements for recovery. Sometimes a character can recover by rolling their own attributes; sometimes they need an ally to use a healing skill.
When the GM imposes a condition, the PC still achieves their goal. In the lockpicking example, the GM might describe how the character backs into a dark corner as the guards walk past, joking about the prisoner they executed that morning. The PC is able to finish picking the lock afterward, but they have gained the Afraid condition. This approach is often known as a “fail forward” system, because while there is a penalty for failure, it doesn’t stop a character from getting what they want.
Now that you’ve got a good idea of how the system works, let’s talk about why it’s the best failure system out there.
The Twist Keeps Things Moving
The worst-case scenario of a failed roll is the GM saying, “It doesn’t work.” Everyone is silent for a moment, and then the player either asks to try again or awkwardly tries to formulate a new plan. It slows the game down and makes players dread the dice not going their way. Rolling again is repetitive, and trying a different approach isn’t much better. The problem is the same, and the player already tried their best idea for resolving it, so trying to come up with an alternative strategy feels doomed from the start.
The twist heads this problem off at the pass. A failed roll never results in head-scratching over what to do next, because if the GM denies the PC’s goal, it’s only to take the story in a different direction. The PC in our previous example isn’t trying to pick the lock anymore; now they’re trying to evade the guards. The situation has changed, and so it feels natural that the character should employ a different strategy.
To a lot of RPG veterans, this dynamic seems obvious. The internet is full of articles and videos about how a failure shouldn’t mean the players just have to roll again. And yet, many systems are still being published with the old assumption that failure means the PC’s goal wasn’t accomplished and that’s it. Of course, a good GM can always create twists on their own, but if someone is new to the medium and then picks up a game that follows the old methodology for failures, they won’t know there’s a better way.
A lot of games that stick with the “retry” approach to failures are part of a legacy series, which is to be expected. Systems like Call of Cthulhu and D&D have been doing their own thing for decades. If they tried to switch paradigms now, they might explode. But a lot of retry systems are brand new. Edge of the Empire came out five years after Mouse Guard, and it still assumes a failure means the PC simply didn’t get what they wanted. Even otherwise forward-thinking games make this mistake. Despite their advanced design and storytelling-focused approach, both Blades in the Dark and Scum and Villainy often leave players in a position where they simply have to roll again after a failed roll.
So while the twist may seem obvious to some of us, it’s not something we can take for granted. Of course, the twist is only the tip of Mouse Guard’s iceberg when it comes to handling failure, so let’s see what’s lurking beneath the surface.
GM Burden Is Low
The problem with the twist and similar mechanics is that on their own, they create a real burden for the GM. It’s hard to come up with interesting consequences for every failure, especially in systems where the players make a lot of rolls. This burden is so high that I often find myself going out of my way to make sure players never fail rolls, because I just don’t have the energy to think of a cool twist every time.
That’s obviously not ideal, but how does Mouse Guard solve the problem? With conditions, of course! If a player fails their roll and the GM doesn’t have anything interesting in mind for failure, they can hand out a condition and move on. The player still feels a consequence for the failure, and the game doesn’t have to stop while the GM struggles to think of something interesting.
This dynamic was made startlingly clear to me a few months ago after I wrapped up a year-long Torchbearer campaign.* I’d gotten so used to assigning a condition and moving on that when I played systems without that option, it was exhausting. I was indignant. Did the game really expect me to come up with an interesting twist after every failure? Didn’t it know I had better things to do?
That’s not a joke; I did have better things to do, as do all GMs: crafting the story. Mouse Guard’s conditions handle a particularly onerous task so the GM can devote their energy where it belongs. If there’s a cool twist to be had, then great, the GM can implement it. If not, then they can get on with telling their story unburdened.
Conditions Have Story Implications
Beyond making life easier for the GM, Mouse Guard’s conditions have another benefit: they act as a roleplaying guide for players. When a character gets the Afraid condition, the player knows what that means. They can use that prompt to inform their roleplaying in whatever way makes the most sense for the character.
Players feel increased tension as their characters gain more conditions. They know that if their characters are Injured, Sick, and Hungry, things aren’t going well. Gaining conditions simulates the natural buildup that happens in any good story and is a strong support for the GM’s own efforts.
While the mechanical penalties imposed by conditions are important, it’s the condition’s specific flavor that’s most helpful in this case. Players know what it means for their characters to be Injured, even if they sometimes forget the -1 die penalty on skill rolls. That’s why Mouse Guard’s system works better than the more generic conditions found in other systems. Knowing exactly what’s wrong with your character is more impactful than a simple penalty.
There’s also plenty of story material to be mined in getting rid of conditions. For one thing, PCs must have a safe place to recover, which necessitates a break in the action. Mouse Guard and Torchbearer both have special game phases for this. These low-tension moments give players a chance to catch their breath, the same way a prose story will add dips in the action to avoid exhausting readers.
If the characters have more conditions than they can recover from on their own, that creates additional story opportunities. Finding a skilled healer of mind and body can be a small adventure in its own right.
There’s Less Sting in Failure
While there are no absolute truths in roleplaying, the closest thing I’ve found is that players don’t like failing rolls. This fact persists no matter how many RPG books include a section about how the players shouldn’t mind failing rolls. It is so prevalent that if I knew a way to make roleplaying work without having failures of any kind, I would do it.
Unfortunately, no one knows how to do away with failures entirely, so the best we can do is make them a less bitter pill to swallow. Some of this just comes down to GMs: players will respond much better if their failure is caused by an outside element rather than their character’s incompetence. That’s why our lockpicking example has the character failing because guards have arrived, rather than jamming the lock shut through ineptitude.
Mechanics also have an important part to play in soothing failure’s sting, and that’s where Mouse Guard’s rules come in. When players fail a roll in this system, they know they’ll either get what they wanted at the cost of a condition or not get what they wanted and not be penalized. That means there’s only ever one negative consequence. The mechanics create a social contract where players have at least some assurance that failures are being used to keep the game interesting rather than punish them for rolling badly.
This social contract is notably lacking in other games. By default, it’s almost expected that if a PC fails their roll, they’ll lose their goal and receive some kind of penalty – physical damage or otherwise. At first glance, this double loss seems to make sense. If you’re climbing a tree and you fall, you would both take damage from the fall and fail to reach the top, right? But in the abstract world of roleplaying games, players are more concerned with how well their character does than playing with precise realism. Having only one consequence for failure keeps people from getting discouraged when the dice don’t go their way.
Occasionally, situations will arise where a single consequence just doesn’t fit with the narrative. If a PC draws steel to stop the ultimate badass villain from escaping, it’s reasonable to expect both physical damage and an unachieved goal. Mouse Guard uses its extended conflict system to handle these situations. The extended conflict rules are more complex than a standard roll and allow for a more nuanced approach when necessary.
New Mechanical Options Are Created
One of RPGs great design conundrums is how to create character abilities that are mechanically relevant without overburdening the system. If a new ability relies entirely on flavor, then it isn’t very useful. If it mimics what other abilities already do, like Fate’s endless ways to get +2 on a roll, then the ability is boring. But adding the rules needed to support mechanically relevant abilities can seriously increase a system’s complexity, making it harder to learn.
Enter Mouse Guard’s conditions. The conditions themselves are simple, and it’s easy to understand how characters acquire them. Conditions are also a core part of the game since they appear when someone fails a roll. These two factors make conditions a perfect stepping stone to other abilities.
For example, let’s say you’re running a Mouse Guard campaign and you design a special ability called Meditative Mind. This ability would grant an extra die on rolls to recover from the Angry and Afraid conditions. Or you might craft a Glutton for Punishment ability that cancels the first Injured condition a character receives each session.
Both of those abilities are mechanically distinct. They serve clearly different purposes, and no one will ever get them confused. They’re also certain to be useful because these conditions come up all the time. They’re great ways to customize a character, which is always popular. For all that benefit, these abilities and others like them add very little burden to the game. They’re working off the existing failure system, which requires little effort to learn.
Ironically, Mouse Guard doesn’t make much use of this option, but Torchbearer does. Many of Torchbearer’s class-dependent abilities alter conditions in some way, and it works great. A fighter who takes the Cool Headed ability feels mechanically distinct from a fighter who takes the Endurance ability. One doesn’t get Angry, whereas the other is better at recovering from Exhausted. This is the kind of depth many players crave, and it barely increases the game’s complexity.
It’s been over a decade since Mouse Guard first hit shelves, and a lot of great games have come out since then. But as great as these other games are, none that I’ve played can hold a candle to the way Mouse Guard handles failure. That could change of course; roleplaying is a medium of constant innovation after all. But until then, Mouse Guard’s system is proven to work, and designers could do a lot worse than simply emulating it.
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