I may only be about ten years behind many of you, but a few weeks ago I borrowed some Mouse Guard books (Fall and Winter 1152) from my local library. For those you who don’t know, Mouse Guard is a comic series about mice with swords, written and illustrated by the talented David Petersen. More specifically it is about the mice of the Mouse Guard, those brave mice who have sworn to protect their fellow mice, and the towns and villages in which they live, from hungry predators and the other hardships associated with being a mouse. If that idea sounds interesting to you then you’d probably like Mouse Guard; the artwork alone will make it worth your while.
This isn’t a review of Mouse Guard though. Rather, it is a look at some of the things that the series does that makes the world of Mouse Guard feel alive, and how you can do some of the same things in your campaign world. Each of the two Mouse Guard books that I read were originally released as a six comic book story arc. There isn’t enough space to deliver a ton of exposition and still tell a story in six comic books, and yet the world of Mouse Guard manages to feel like a real place, with a real history. Likewise, there often isn’t – and probably shouldn’t be – enough space in your roleplaying game to deliver mountains of exposition at the table. So how can you bring the people, places, and institutions of your world to life without boring your players to tears or requiring them to read a history primer?
You can provide details that hint at a history without going into exhaustive detail. Mouse Guard does this early on, in the above panel from the comic book (used without permission). The phrase itself carries weight, and tells the reader a lot about the Mouse Guard without wasting words, while the detail of how this saying is “carved into the wall” at Lockhaven speaks to a history and tradition without relying on boring exposition. Try to use this technique in your campaign world whenever possible to convey a sense of history or culture or motivation. Show the history of your world by describing the cyclopean architecture, the culture through dress and customs, and motivation through powerful phrases, mottos, and creeds. Minor details imply that larger, richer details exist, and often say more than a thousand words of exposition ever could. Mouse Guard does this remarkably well, and in just twelve short comic books manages to present a world that feels like it could have volumes and volumes of history written about it. The plots of the two story-arcs in the books that I read are simple, but it feels like they exist in a rich world that you want to explore and be a part of. In fact, there is even a Mouse Guard role-playing game, which is a testament to how strong this desire for immersion in the world of Mouse Guard is, and if I’m lucky I’ll have a chance to play it someday.
Even if mice with swords isn’t your thimble full of tea, you could do worse than perusing these beautiful books for world-building ideas.
One final thing I want to say about world building and Mouse Guard has to do with the use of maps. Pretty much all fantasy literature includes a map, and Mouse Guard is no different. Now, I realize that most game masters are great lovers of maps, so “use maps” is a bit of advice that probably goes without saying, but I have one thing I’d like to say anyway. David Petersen is a remarkably talented artists, and yet the map of the mouse territories is quite simple while still doing exactly what it intends to do. What I’m saying is that even if you are a talented artist or cartographer, your maps don’t have to be works of art. Every detail of your world doesn’t need to be apparent on your map; as long as it provides a sense of where important places that are relevant to your game are in relation to one another then it’s probably fine. In fact I think the simplicity of the map works to it’s advantage, so don’t worry if you think your maps are simple; they don’t have to be complex.
This last bit has less to do with Mouse Guard, which includes beautiful illustrations of some of the cities and towns of the mouse territories, but just like your world maps the map of a big city doesn’t have to show every detail. Rather than showing the location of every building in the city, your map could be little more than an outline of the walls with the names of the various wards written inside. Let your descriptions do the heavy lifting when it comes to what your cities look like.
That’s all for now!