This is the eightieth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
I’m back after a short vacation, brushing the dust off of the random number generators and spinning them up to grab another random pick from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. This time it’s Mausritter, by Losing Games, and its tagline in the bundle reads:
I feel the sword would be way more effective than the whiskers.
Like many of the games covered in this series, Mausritter is a tabletop role-playing game, and, like most of those, I can’t actually play it since it requires 3-6 Actual Humans. I can, however, read through the book and tell you what I think. Which is exactly what I have done. And the first thing I can tell you is that Mausritter differs from other tabletop role-playing games I’ve covered so far in a particularly pleasing way: it is designed to be welcoming to new players who have never played a tabletop role-playing game before.
These games often fall into two broad categories. The first category holds games that are light on rules and often on detail as well, aiming for a collaborative storytelling experience where players assume roles and act out scenes together. Some examples that have popped up in Scratching That Itch so far include As the World Ends… and Ships That Pass. These games are heavily dependent on having a good group of players, who are comfortable acting together and can guide the collective story to interesting places without needing to rely heavily on dice rolls or rules. The second category contains games inspired by the tabletop classics like Dungeons & Dragons, typically with more rules and lots of dice, and often casting players as a party of adventurers facing danger and fighting off adversaries. I have recently learned that these are referred to as “Old School Renaissance” or “OSR” games. Examples of these that have come up in Scratching That Itch so far include Slayers and Troika! And now Mausritter, a game in which players control anthropomorphized mice wielding discarded shirt buttons as shields and needles as spears, going on adventures and facing off against rats, owls, centipedes and snakes. The bravest might even venture into human settlements.
Losing Games cite many other works as inspirations. For the mousey theme, they list some books I’m familiar with, such as the Tales books by Beatrix Potter and The Rescuers by Margery Sharp, and also some I’m not familiar with, like the Brambly Hedge series by Jill Barklem, the Church Mice series by Graham Oakley, and even the Mice and Mystics board game by Jerry Hawthorne (although I’ve at least heard of that one). Regarding rules and game systems, Mausritter expands upon core rules from Into the Odd, borrows magic rules and item usage ideas from the Goblin Punch blog, the idea for defining characters by their inventories rather than set “classes” from Knave, densely-packed layouts from Mothership, and more general inspiration from Moonhop, the Last Gasp Grimoire blog, and the Coins and Scrolls blog. I have no experience with any of these, so I cannot judge how much of Mausritter’s design is its own. I can say that I found the design exciting, and was left itching to actually play it.
One big strength of Mausritter is that it seems to be very easy to get started. Character creation is simple (that much, I’m certain, is from Into the Odd) and doesn’t give players a ton of decisions to mull over. Roll dice to determine three main character attributes, roll more to determine health, and to determine starting profession and equipment. When I played Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, everyone had to pick their character’s species and class, and then each class had a bunch of other decisions such as which god a paladin worships or what weapons a fighter specializes in. That done, we all had to write brief histories for our characters to give them context in the world. Since many of us had never played a tabletop role-playing game before, it was a bit much. Not so in Mausritter: roll a few dice and you already know that your mouse is a beetleherd, with a loyal beetle pet and a 6-inch pole, more dextrous than strong and of average intelligence. Go!
Speaking of dice, Mausritter uses the same set of polyhedral dice as Dungeons & Dragons, namely four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, ten-sided, twelve-sided, and twenty-sided dice (with the standard abbrevations of d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20). In my limited experience, actually rolling physical dice at the table adds a lot of excitement, but players who don’t own a set of these unusual dice can easily use online dice rollers instead (for example, the one at rolz.org, which I use when selecting entries for Scratching That Itch). But there are fewer rolls involved than in Dungeons & Dragons. Conspicuously absent are rolls for skill checks, because there are no skills in Mausritter. Generally, if a mouse attempts to do something, they either automatically succeed, or roll a “save” against one of their attributes to see if they succeed. There’s no need for specific climbing skill, or lockpicking skill, or skill at spotting traps. Traps are intended to be obvious and dangerous, a risk/reward scenario rather than a “you take damage if you fail to see the trap” scenario.
A bigger surprise is that players do not roll to determine whether they hit in combat. Attacks automatically hit, with dice rolls determining damage. That’s a big change from something like Dungeons & Dragons (and most other role-playing games), but I suspect it would actually work really well. It means combat is very dangerous, and the rulebook actively encourages players to seek solutions that do not require rolling any dice at all. Evading or incapacitating enemies without fighting is usually the safer solution, but when fights do happen they’re fast and deadly. In many role-playing games “HP” stands for “hit points” or “health points”, but in Mausritter it stands for “Hit Protection” and indicates the amount of damage that a mouse (or other creature) can sustain before suffering harm. Characters start with single-digit HP, and once it’s depleted, they take damage to their strength attribute and must start making saves or suffer incapacitating injury. After that, if others can’t tend to them in a few turns, they die, and it’s time to roll a new character. Good thing character creation is fast! There’s an example of combat given in the book, which makes it sound tense and fun, and more dynamic than the battles my party had in Dungeons & Dragons, which often had us missing with our attacks or spells constantly, slowly chipping away at our enemies in a battle of attrition.
If a character gets injured in Mausritter but survives, they get an injury condition, which is actually a square paper cutout that must be placed on one of the inventory squares on the character sheet. Items and magic spells are similar paper squares that must be arranged on these sheets, with some larger items (like heavy armor) taking up two slots. Conditions like injuries can have negative effects, but some — like hunger or exhaustion — simply take up space, preventing the mouse from carrying more stuff. Since bringing back loot is how characters gain experience and become more powerful, that can be a serious setback. Physically arranging items and conditions on players’ character sheets sounds like a fun and tactile way to manage things, especially for new players.
In fact, Mausritter’s 48-page book is remarkably friendly towards new players in general. There are sections explaining what tabletop role-playing games are and how they work, many examples for game situations and rules, and lots of random tables to help players and the GM come up with everything from character appearance to town names to treasure piles. The book is also well laid out, and full of wonderful illustrations that I was able to grab for this post so I don’t have to just show bits of text and rule descriptions. I especially appreciated the second half of the book which is aimed at whoever is serving as GM, and offers a ton of advice and resources to help out someone assuming the role for the first time. Running the whole adventure for the other players can be daunting, but there’s a ton of guidance here, including systematic ways to design locations and situations complete with random tables or other features. Rather than being prescriptive, these guidelines offer options for new GMs to create interesting adventures and seem like a great way to learn how to run a tabletop role-playing game.
One interesting detail I noticed is that world exploration in Mausritter takes the form of a “hexcrawl“, a term I learned when reading the Fronds of Benevolence adventure module for Troika! as part of this series. Fronds of Benevolence is pointedly not a hexcrawl, eschewing hex maps for its wilderness areas in favor of various points of interest connected by paths or other travel routes. This design is known as a “pointcrawl” and is designed to avoid situations where players are faced with a huge map that’s mostly empty wilderness and feel pressured to explore it all just in case there’s something interesting hidden somewhere. Mausritter solves this issue by making its hexcrawls small: a starting map is just 5 by 5 hexes, with each encompassing a large area that takes player mice a full watch (6 hours) to cross. I believe these are the “densely packed layouts” for which Losing Games cite inspiration from Mothership. This design means that each hex on the map has something interesting, with plenty of reasons to explore it or at least travel through it.
One reason might be an adventure site, the equivalent of the titular dungeons from Dungeons & Dragons. These places, however, do not use a hex map, and are instead designed room by room with connections between them; in other words, they look more like a pointcrawl design. In Mausritter there’s no need for detailed positioning during fights or other encounters, which means full maps aren’t required. The example given is a drawing more than anything else, showing a few houses built into the side of a hollow tree stump, and some underground chambers connected by passages. It’s a simple enough layout that players likely need only the simplest sketch, if any, to understand the space. Mausritter offers systematic guidelines for designing both the outdoor hex maps and the interior spaces of adventure sites, ensuring they make thematic sense and have the right balance of danger and reward for players. It therefore should be a great way for new GMs to hone their skills at building hexcrawls and pointcrawls alike.
Even the theme seems fitting for an introductory game. I was impressed with how well fantasy archetypes naturally translated into these tales of tiny critters, while removing the need to explain a bunch of weird monsters. Who needs orcs and ogres when you have rats and moles, who tower over the player mice? Mausritter does fall into the trap of assuming behavior based on species, with rats tending to form gangs of thugs, owls playing the role of knowledge-seeking wizards, and crows acting as witches with their magical songs. It’s a common problem with literature involving anthropomorphized animals too (I’m looking at you, Redwall — although that’s not listed as inspiration for Mausritter), and is particularly egregious given that this is a bundle for racial justice. But I found many of the ideas for these creatures interesting. Frogs are cast as knights errant, out to complete their noble quest, which is an amusing riff on the fairytale conceit of the prince turned into a frog. Centipedes, spiders and snakes make for varied and challenging foes, and pleasingly may not be automatically hostile. There’s even some supernatural elements added in the form of faeries and lilliputians, for players who want something more fantastical. But my favorite thing is the way cats naturally fill the role of dragons in a traditional fantasy game: powerful creatures that like to toy with the players and can only be fought off by a full warband.
As I said at the start, reading through Mausritter left me excited to actually try it. It seems like a simple and fun design that would work great with inexperienced players like myself. So this is an easy recommendation. If you have the bundle, you already have Masuritter and also a separate adventure module for it called Honey in the Rafters (otherwise sold for a minimum of $3). But if you missed the bundle, Mausritter is sold for whatever you wish to pay, including nothing. So there’s nothing stopping you from checking it out. If you like it, there is also an upcoming physical edition on Kickstarter that literally just got funded today. I swear that this was a coincidence and I only just discovered it as I wrote these sentences. So keep an eye out for that in the future.
That’s 80 down, and only 1661 to go!