Picking up from the last post, where I described the RPG’s premise, let’s get into the game’s mechanical aspects.
The design challenge of this game was that I needed a system that would let every player conceal the fact that they couldn’t do magic. It wasn’t as simple as a rolling dice to decide the outcome of a bluff skill to decide if a character knows something. Players actually had to be able to hide things from the other players. They needed to be able to use skills without even revealing what the skills were.
Luckily, the Flash programmer on Prequel, Risp, obsessively reads reviews of pen-and-paper RPG systems or something. He suggested an obscure Swedish superhero RPG called The Supercrew.
Supercrew is a simple little rule system designed for short, one-shot superhero games. The iconic element of it, though, is that all the abilities are defined by what they are rather than what they do. “Super strength”, for example, is going to include punches, super jumps, and anything else strength-related the player can come up with. The focus is on taking abilities with vague. broad descriptions and using them in creative ways - in other words, perfect for a game where you know more about your limits than the other players do.
The whole rules system is sort of inspired by silver-age superhero comics where it was completely acceptable for, say, the Flash to conjure a tornado by running in circles really fast. And that’s the sort of thing that does happen in My Little Pony - it’s a setting where someone can swoop enemies up in a tornado by flying in circles with super speed, or intimidate a dragon using animal communication skill, or pacify a rampaging bear by rocking it to sleep with telekinesis. Supercrew fit the setting and gameplay premise really well, so I worked on morphing it into something I could use.
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The basic idea behind Supercrew characters is that every player has three abilities: a 1-die ability, a 2-die ability, and a 3-die ability, and the effectiveness of an ability is determined by the number of dice that roll a four or higher. However, there is a limit on how many times you can use your 3-die ability: just once for every time you use your 1-die ability.
Consider what this means in the case of Spike above. His abilities are Suave Talker, Rockjaws, and Dragonfire. Dragonfire is his strongest ability, with what I think is an 87.5% chance of success, but to get charges for it he has to use his Suave Talker ability - which, with one die, has only a 50% chance of success. Meanwhile, Rockjaws is his reliable fallback, with a nice 66.6% chance of success yet no additional benefits from using it.
The mathematical metagame behind this is pretty simple: players are going to choose abilities based on the perceived direness of the situation. Spike’s player will use Suave Talker (his 1-die ability) if he feels there is nothing to lose, since failure is acceptable and it will help him get charges for Dragonfire. He will use Rockjaws if he needs immediate success more than he needs Dragonfire charges, and he will use Dragonfire if he needs success so badly he is willing to use his long-term resources. However, the actual challenge in the system is a narrative one: how do you fight an earthquake with “Suave Talker”? After you roll a 5 and discover that your attempt is successful, the player needs to narrate what happens. That, it turns out, leads to a lot of fun and creative situations.
Also, it remains very fitting with the source material. What happens when you need to catch a falling ally and your best ability is Javelin Throw? You throw your wife at him.
Let’s be honest here for a minute: a lot of RPG mechanics basically exist solely to encourage players to act human. Like, when Bethesda was designing Skyrim, you can imagine them asking “how do we get players to sleep?” The solution: give them an experience bonus if they rested recently. How do you get them to visit taverns? Let them cook food that gives stat bonuses. How do you get them to return to their home and family every once in a while? You give them a larger experience bonus if they sleep with their spouse. This is all well and good, and you have the players basically acting like actual humans until they invariably find the loophole that lets them game the system (in Skyrim’s case, you marry Derkeethus, make him follow you everywhere while cooking you apple pies, and have sex every time you pass something that looks roughly like bed).
What I like about Supercrew is that it foregoes any humanizing mechanics like this in favor of ones that enforce narrative structure. There is no realism/roleplaying reason Spike has to use Suave Talker to charge his Dragonfire, but it makes him save Dragonfire for climactic situations while encouraging him to crack out his hilariously ineffective Suave Talker ability as much as possible. The mechanics are geared less toward believable roleplaying and more toward constructing an entertaining story with quirky characters who have to constantly find ways to apply their bizarre skills to entirely inappropriate situations. How do you fight an earthquake using Suave Talking?
I made a few adjustments to the mechanics to fit my needs. One of them was the store.
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As I mentioned in the last post, at the beginning of each in-game day the characters went their separate ways for lunch and were each handed a secret sheet saying where they went. In addition to giving them some personalized information, they could secretly purchase some items to help them fake magic. Originally, I wanted to have a common store everyone could buy from, but Risp suggested I might want to break it into secret, personalized stores, so that no players could pick up on what sort of items the others had access to in order to hide their lack of magic ability.
This ended up serving a nice dual purpose: in addition to letting me vary what each student had available, it also let me reinforce their secrets. Since the players were posing as magic-using unicorns through the whole game, I didn’t want them to lose sight of the fact that they were a griffon, a changeling, and a hornless unicorn. The store let me give each of them a supporting character who knew their secret and would give them information and advice. Each one had a different relationship with their “store character”, which developed over the course of the five lunch periods.
Of course, it’s worth noting that because of Supercrew’s mechanics, the items had no actual gameplay mechanics outside of narration. The other players couldn’t tell when someone was using an item - they didn’t know the character “teleporting” was using magnesium flashes, or the character using “telekinesis” was lifting things with fishing line, though the players tried to drop enough information so that I knew. I tried saying I would restore Tricks to anyone who used items in a very creative way, to encourage item use, but that ended up not coming into play much - most item use was very subtle and barely noticeable, and it would have given things away if I had called it out.
And another ramification of this was that Twilight’s store was completely useless. With no secret to hide, Twilight’s store only existed to reduce suspicion and make her player think everyone’s items were useless. I considered giving her some healing equipment, but I didn’t want to make the characters too survivable.
The one change I did make to their survivabiltiy ended up being a bit too much. Since I wanted to use permanent death rather than the battle-long knockouts Supercrew was tested for, I gave everyone an additional one-time use Trick: “negate an incoming attack”. This ended up being a bit too much; in practice, it was pretty much a straight upgrade over the three other Tricks that were laid out in the rulebook. I think if I had to do this again, I would’ve just given Twilight a bunch of “negate an incoming attack” charges, reinforcing her role as their chaperone, and left everyone else with only the other three Tricks. The one extra health point I gave Twilight (you know, for being an adult in a group of adolescents) was probably okay, though.
The one thing the Supercrew rulebook severely lacked is some good advice on how to make encounters. I was kind of shooting in the dark, though Risp helped me come up with a decent list of them.
One of the nice aspects to Supercrew’s system is that you can make anything an enemy encounter. The “boss” of the library day, for example, was just an extremely large pile of books the players had to find useful information in. It was a nice change of pace to have them repurpose their combat skills into sorting, skimming, and clearing cobwebs. Similarly, stuff like earthquakes, fires, and getting past the library’s elderly archivist were enemy encounters too, each of which was “attacked” in an appropriate way using the abilities each player had (e.g. the griffon’s player used her Berserker Strength ability to intimidate the elderly archivist. He countered with his crippling deafness and poor eyesight Trick).
Though I would’ve gotten better data if some characters had died, in general I felt like I aimed a bit too low on the enemy power. I think the bookpile was one of the better encounters, just because it was a big, tough enemy the players had to whittle down, as were most of the two-enemy encounters, since they had twice as much ability to cause harm. I tried having generic earthquakes I could introduce mid-battle to add more difficulty to things that were going easy, but with two hitpoints they ended up being little more than a nuisance.
For the final encounter (escaping the monster and getting back to the filly in Trottingham, the game’s one actual unicorn) I went with a battle where the players just had to survive for six rounds against an invincible enemy, which ended up not being much of a challenge in these combat rules. Being unable to attack him meant they could use all their rolls for defenses, and he could only attack one at a time. In retrospect, I should have gone with Risp’s original suggestion and abstracted the long escape tunnel itself into the final boss, which the players would have to “defeat” by using their abilities on it. The encounter was still fun enough, since it happened right after the big “nobody is a unicorn” reveal, but I could’ve made it more intense if I’d had prior experience with the system and its nuances.
I think if I ever ran this system again, I would want to test (or make a program to test) the encounters more beforehand. Like, their difficulty is going to depend heavily on how many players there are, how much health the enemies have, how strong their attacks are, and so on, and I still don’t have good estimates for what is appropriate. At the very least, though, I can vouch that it is still pretty fun even when you are shooting in the dark; the narrative-based gameplay can make even a non-threatening encounter pretty funny.
Anyway, next post I’ll start getting into the individual characters. I’ll get into Twilight Sparkle, her private between-day updates, and the general approaches I took to make a statistically-equal character play like the group’s leader.
Twilight’s “useless” store was fantastic. While the other players were taking opportunities to sneak off to their various compatriots who knew of their secrets and provided them with the materials to keep up the ruse, Twilight was literally just going to lunch at various taverns and buying commemorative cutlery sets and piles of books as souvenirs.