My gaming group is switching gears tomorrow, moving from WFRPe3 to Mouse Guard. It’s a bit of a hard transition for me, although that’s part of why I’m looking forward to it; I think I’ll really learn about good GMing from this game. The hardest part may be adjusting my expectations about preparation. When I prepared for WFRP, I had tons of stuff to anchor me: notes, maps, cardstock buildings, miniatures, colored dice, cards, tracking tokens, and huge official scenarios written in large full-color books. It was the players’ responsibility to respond to the rich world presented to them (and presented to me by those who have been Warhammer fans for years before I came on the scene.) While the players could leave the path, a whole vast universe of Warhammer Stuff Out There tended to give a GM a fairly good idea of what you could give them to see. Ultimately, they were given a very highly developed world and they responded to it. They could create possibilities within it, but ultimately, they were responding to existing material.
MG is much more ephemeral. Sure, you start with David Petersen’s fairly fleshed-out world, but you don’t begin a campaign with a ridiculously intricate narrative–you begin with a few key obstacles. The MGRPG rule book suggests that you start with a couple of overt hazards and keep a couple in reserve; the sample missions at the end of the guide are simple outlines. It’s not just up to the players to respond to the world–it’s up to the players to help create the world as they adventure. The GM’s main job is to push them to explore inherent tensions within their characters in whatever ways they find meaningful. The rules allow and encourage the scenario and the world to shape themselves in whatever ways best suit the characters’ self-exploration. That tends to leave a prep-crazy GM Iike me feeling a bit adrift. I can’t create an intricate townscape out of minis and card stock if I play truly within the spirit of the rules, because I should leave a certain amount of that townscape building up to the players, and I should focus more on them and their own goals than on the town, anyway.
I’ve played a few MG games with its original playtesters, talented GMs who knew the rules well and managed the games elegantly, so I have the general idea of what to do, and I know it works beautifully when it works. Not too long ago, I ran a breif test game with a couple of players not in our regular group just to see if I knew how the rules worked. What struck me most was that while other RPGs I have played were very much about having the players listen to the GM and the scenario, MG was very much about listening to the players. I had to sit and wait a lot while they worked out what to do. I had to rest (impatiently, warily) in the knowledge that they’d create some interesting twist to the story rather than rely on me to make it. That was incredibly difficult, since most of the games I’ve played have been scenario/adventure-centric, so a GM looks to herself or a scenario author to have created intricate twists and turns to which the players respond. Here, though, I found myself having to wait and trust–them, that they’d come up with satisfying plot twists of their own, and me, that I could honor them by coming up with a response that sent their imaginative work in a meaningful new direction. I couldn’t have control of the storyline ahead of time because I really couldn’t have any preconceived notions about what they were going to do. I also just had to let go of the idea that I was the central entertainer; in MG, it’s very much up to the players to entertain one another.
I’m both excited and apprehensive about playing tomorrow. My current gaming group are the smartest gamers with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing, and all of them are good at creating and developing narrative. When GMing WFRP, I always felt the need to honor that by presenting a thoroughly-prepared, multi-dimensional interpretation of the Wahammer world. Now, though, I’ll have to wing it, see where they take it, and hope we can all fly as a team.
So if you hear a “thud” sound tomorrow night, that’s us. As mice.
Worry not, though–I’m still indulging in my inner “stuff hoarder” by taking an iPad full of images that will evoke the setting. It’s sort of like stuff. It’s like a little mouse-sized security blanket.
Okay. I’m up for this challenge. Let’s do this. After all, I’m good enough. I’m strong enough. And gosh darn it, mice like me…although the mice we once bought as pets died within a day of my bringing them home, come to think of it.