Design Masterclass: Tails of Equestria

Yes, you are reading that right, Tails of Equestria, that horse game. I am indeed talking about that game following the adventures of Pinky Pie, Twilight Sparkle and their friends in the magical land of Equestria where 'My Little Pony' is set. What is so great about it I'm adding it to a series that has previously featured Pendragon? Well, not only is it actually a great game (and I say that not as a 'brony') but I'd happily use its system for something more 'adult', and in this article I'll tell you why.

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Aside from rules, I would like to offer some kudos to Tails of Equestria as a game that gets children role playing. Thankfully, there isn't anything special about that these days. We have plenty of great games to get kids gaming, from 'No Thank You, Evil', to 'Warhammer Kids' and 'Pilgrims of the Flying Temple'. This new generation of games are doing exceptionally well at making RPGs work for kids rather than trying to force kids to fit the games. While everyone loves rolling dice, children are a very different sort of player. They are more instinctive, sometimes more intuitive, and usually more interested in telling the story that adding up numbers and consulting tables. They also have a tendency to think of things adults won't, like making friends with enemies rather than killing them!

As a side note, I also love the convention support I've seen for some of these games. River Horse bring low tables and chairs for the players to game around (regardless of how uncomfortable they may be for the adult GM) and they are always full of children playing or coloring in their character sheets. Monty Cook Games have a special area of bean bags for the kids to sit around and game at. Such spaces aren't just logistically useful for smaller players who can't get to the table but say 'this space is for you, these games are for you'.

But anyway, back to system design. What is so special about Tails of Equestria? For me, it masters an age old problem we often find with a simple game system. The problem of game mechanic complexity runs like this. Make the game full of rules and you can probably cope with every eventuality. Make it simple and the broad strokes you are forced to use may not be right for every situation. However, the more rules something has, the more clunky it gets, until you spend more time flipping through the rulebook than playing the game.

When you try and fix the simple system, you generally start creating contingencies. "Combat usually works in this simple way, except grappling, which uses the following extra rules". Do this too often and what was a simple basic system is now a maze of addendums that need to be consulted before any dice roll. While complex systems are complicated by their very nature, they are built that way from the ground up, so they usually remain very consistent. A simple system weighed down under new exceptions gets very clunky very quickly.

So, what I'm getting to here in Tails of Equestria is that it manages to do a simple system that stays simple. To be fair it is a little easier in this setting. You won't need to know the damage values of a semi automatic pistol versus a grenade launcher when helping Fluttershy take care of her pets. But even in a children's setting, the same player initiated madness can occur and the system needs to cope with it.

Tails of Equestria does this by making each skill roll determined by a different dice depending on the character's skill level. If your skill is low you roll a D4, if it's really high you roll a D20, beat the difficulty number and you succeed. But, how do you offer a difficulty number for a skill that can be rolled 1-4 or 1-20 and still make sense? Here is where Tails of Equestria is very clever. Firstly, if you roll the highest number the dice can roll, you can roll again on the next dice up and see if you can do better. Roll a 4 on the D4 you can roll a D6. If that rolls a 6 you can roll a D8 etc. But if the D8 rolls a 1, you can still keep the 6 that was your best roll. In this way you can give someone with only a D4 a difficulty of 10 and they might be lucky. Luck is also on your side as the fewer sides the dice has, the more chance it will roll its maximum and give you a reroll.

The other clever thing Tails of Equestria does is that it doesn't use a linear curve for difficulty numbers. Usually you would find a system like this offers a difficulty from 1 to 20, with 10 being an average test. That might sound fair but even with the rerolls the lower skills are not going to do well. So in Tails of Equestria, while 1 is easy and 20 is impossible, 4 is average and 6 is hard, 8 is really hard etc. This means that if you roll a D20, you probably have it in the bag, but you can always roll a 1. When it comes to opposed tests, the highest result is the winner. Most likely this is the person with the best die, but not always.

All this means that regardless of how low a character's skill, they can potentially achieve very difficult test with a bit of luck. It also isn't too unbalancing if you have high skills as anything up to a D10 is on much the same scale and anyone with a D12 or D20 is the sort of masters who should succeed pretty much all the time. So instead of offering a Novice to Master skill gradient, Tails of Equestria offers a Novice to Grand Mega Master scale. All this means that the GM just needs to hand a difficulty number out and see what happens. No contingencies or extra rules, just roll.

While Tails of Equestria isn't unique in maintaining its simple system, it does it especially well. There are plenty of examples of systems that are still quite simple, but have added odd tweaks because probability mechanics are complicated. Call of Cthulhu uses simple D100 percentages, but you have to calculate the half and quarter score for different levels of success. Buffy/Angel was a simple roll of 1D10 adding a bonus, but adds an array of combat maneuvers with special rules as fighting vampires needs something more to not get boring. There is nothing wrong with either system, they are both personal favorites. But it illustrates the point about how easy it is to stray away from the path of simplicity to fully realize your game world. So, when creating designs of your own, if you think you have a simple system, make sure you have kept it that way.
 
Andrew Peregrine

Comments

DMMike

Game Masticator
Good point. A simple resolution system can (should?) still be versatile. I don't come from the school of "Any Character Should Have a Chance at Anything," though. I'll let players add a d6 if their characters are feeling lucky.

But I gotta say, that starter kit for a "simple system" bears an uncanny resemblance to the Invisible Sun layout... :geek:
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I am indeed talking about that game following the adventures of Pinky Pie, Twilight Sparkle and their friends in the magical land of Equestria where 'My Little Pony' is set.
The correct spelling of her name is Pinkie Pie, you philistine. :p

This article talks up the way Tails of Equestria uses exploding die rolls (the game calls it the "exploding hoof" technique) and relatively low target numbers along with the possibility of upgrading your dice in relevant areas to make an intuitive system where success ranges from unlikely-but-possible to all-but-guaranteed. However, it neglects to mention that the system also uses an action point mechanic ("tokens of friendship") to allow for re-rolls or even simply automatically succeeding at the task in question.

I don't come from the school of "Any Character Should Have a Chance at Anything," though.
There's an interesting synergy that comes up when it comes to My Little Pony and RPGs. Or maybe with that show and genre fiction altogether. The thing is that, while the show looks like a fantasy setting, it presents itself more in the vein of comic book superheroes. That might sound odd at first, but beyond superficial things like the bright colors of the heroes and the names that sound like titles (e.g. "Rainbow Dash"), there are deeper parallels.

One of the big ones is how the characters don't really gain new powers or abilities over time. The same way that most superheroes stay the same over their careers (with what power-ups they do get largely being temporary), the ponies don't really change what they can do either. They might get better at using what abilities they have, but major changes are notably rare (such as Twilight Sparkle ascending from unicorn to alicorn).

One of the best games to mimic this was the old FASERIP system for TSR's Marvel Superheroes RPG. In that game, buying up existing powers was notably expensive, and buying new powers was prohibitively so. In that regard, Tails of Equestria is actually a bit more permissive than I'd like, but that's not really a big deal.

There's another way that the ponies and comic superheroes dovetail though, even more than the constancy of their abilities. It's in how the good guys don't lose. Obviously, there's more nuance for that in the comics, but the overall result is the same: the bad guys are beaten and bystanders are saved. To that end, both systems allowed for resource expenditure to make that a given (i.e. spending karma in FASERIP and spending tokens of friendship in ToE). So "letting the characters (have a chance to) win at anything" is kind of a necessary underpinning for this sort of RPG. Failures can happen, of course - they do in the show - but they're inevitably meant to make the characters learn something and ultimately succeed.

Anyway, as this long post has probably made clear, I'm a brony, and a fan of this game in particular. I've got everything that's been released for it so far, including listing the various web-only creatures the publisher has been releasing over on my blog. If anyone wants to know more about the game, please feel free to ask away!
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
These mechanics are pretty interesting.

Wish my daughter liked the show too... they model pretty good interactions while maintaining real conflict. Rescue Robots Academy doesn't quite measure up. And forget Peppa Pig (bacon time for that show). The show is a perfect template for creating adventures since it has so many excellent examples to draw from (how many episodes look like literal D&D sessions with 6 year old girls?)
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
Not just social skills, but the shows are master-classes in using skills of all sorts. Lots of problems that can't be solved by force and require lateral thinking and, at times, social skills.

Many of challenges in the show are great introductory course material in ensemble cast drama generation: interpersonal conflict stemming from characterization. I'd say the show is a great resource for DM's to baby-step into more complex NPCs and the sort of drama you can pull from them. Other shows are too simplistic (Carnival Row) or too complex (Young Justice) to cleanly teach the basics of this.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
There's an interesting synergy that comes up when it comes to My Little Pony and RPGs. Or maybe with that show and genre fiction altogether. The thing is that, while the show looks like a fantasy setting, it presents itself more in the vein of comic book superheroes. <...> One of the big ones is how the characters don't really gain new powers or abilities over time. The same way that most superheroes stay the same over their careers (with what power-ups they do get largely being temporary), the ponies don't really change what they can do either.
I think that's a really key insight. Two friends and I were talking about this point regarding very simple game systems. I think Fate came up in this regard, but I can't recall and have never played it myself. One noted that a very rules-light game system tends not to support growth of character power all that well. You're right, though, a genre like supers doesn't tend to see much character ability growth and thus can work quite well with a very simple system. This is not to say growth requires a complex system, but I think it does benefit from there being more game mechanical hooks to choose from.
 

Undrave

Adventurer
These mechanics are pretty interesting.

Wish my daughter liked the show too... they model pretty good interactions while maintaining real conflict. Rescue Robots Academy doesn't quite measure up. And forget Peppa Pig (bacon time for that show). The show is a perfect template for creating adventures since it has so many excellent examples to draw from (how many episodes look like literal D&D sessions with 6 year old girls?)
I place the original Rescue Bots among the BEST animated incarnations of the Transformers franchise. It was a downright underrated gem and the only Transformers cartoon to reach season 4. It was also the first one since G1 to drop the masquerade angle and have more and more humans get in on the secret until the whole of Griffin Rock was let in!

I haven't gotten a chance to check out Rescue Bots Academy and I was looking forward to what they were going to interprety this new female Whirl (Whirl was one of my fav in MTMTE!) but hearing it doesn't mesure up is a bit dissapointing :/
 

aramis erak

Explorer
The system also has a couple nifty bits for making the game more playable...

1) the dice tables in the back - in case of lack of dice, there's a random number table for each type of die in the core. (Note that the bestiary does NOT give us a table for Discord's d21... but that entry is intentionally bizarre.)
2) the language is kept simple.
3) The adventures are presented for "read once and run" with direct advice.
4) The adventures are NOT simplistic, despite the low-level word choices and the simplicity of the mechanics.

I've run it for teens and 20-somethings... a good time was had.

Bestiary even gives the option for zombie ponies.
 

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