You take your duties as an impromptu educator very seriously. Princess Celestia has tasked you with determining whether these three unicorns have what it takes to be a part of her School for Gifted Unicorns. To draw a proper judgment, you will have to encourage them to use their magical abilities as much as possible.
Of course, the Princess is also expecting you to keep these students safe. Magic can be dangerous, and you know it may fall upon you to protect the students.
Even as such, you are still planning to enjoy this excursion. According to your pre-trip research, Trottingham has the six highest-rated taverns in all of Equestria. You’ve constructed a travel itinerary to visit a different one for lunch each day, continuing for as long as it takes you to find the source of the magical disturbances.
Continuing from the previous few posts about the pony RPG, above text was the “secret” card given to Twilight Sparkle’s player at the beginning of the game. It’s not much of an actual secret, of course; the other players already understood that Twilight was an authority they had to impress to stay in magic school. However, giving Twilight a secret did serve one important purpose: contributing to the idea that the other players got shitty secrets too. After all, for everyone else the game revolved around keeping Twilight’s player in the dark.
I want to talk about that more, but first I have a few remarks on Twilight’s abilities. I didn’t think about it when going into the project, but translating existing characters into the Supercrew mechanics is actually a lot of fun. Since the abilities are already defined on a mechanical level, you are basically just skinning them in a way that leads to the right roleplaying. You’re giving the character one thing that is rarely effective but they keep doing anyway, one thing they use to solve most of their problems, and one thing they do in difficult or climactic situations. The choices for Twilight seemed pretty obvious, though I’m sure in a less combat-oriented campaign a different 2-die power would’ve been better.
In practice, I found that the characters in this system are pretty much defined by their 1-die ability. Players are going to whip out their magic blasts and telekinesis when a life-or-death situation arises, but in just casual low-stake encounters they are going to be using their 1-die ability as much as possible to charge up. It was a really fun way to turn roleplaying itself into a full-on game mechanic, and in Twilight’s case meant she was dragging books and prior knowledge into every little thing she did.
In my mind, I felt like this made perfect sense not only as a game mechanic, but also when taking Twilight’s personality into consideration. How would a suspicious Twilight attempt to gauge whether somepony may have been lying to her? Simple: she’s read a ton of stories that describe what sort of tells or nervous habits a liar might exhibit, so she’d just try to compare what was in front of her with what she’d read about.
It didn’t really work out for her, and that also made perfect sense to me. I mean, come on, Twilight, geez.
As an aside, while I think Kazerad already said as much in one of his previous posts, the whole basis of the Supercrew mechanics in general functioned really, really well in terms of allowing the students to keep up their facade of being Unicorns. When I asked them to cast a simple light spell and instead they came up with an elaborate collective plan of suspending a fireball in the air using wind control, I didn’t even question it. They were working within the constraints of the ability system. In retrospect, I wish I had thought outside the mechanics more often, from Twilight Sparkle’s point of view. I feel like she should’ve questioned things a lot more than I did.
Like I mentioned above, though, most of the design on Twilight’s materials involved keeping her away from any suspicion that the other players might not be unicorns. Her between-days store full of completely useless items was the best example of this: while the other players needed their store’s items to fake unicorn magic, Twilight’s items served no mechanical purpose in any way. They looked useful, though, and that was what was important for this. Her player had to accept that items were a thing without fully believing the items were meaningful enough for anyone to use, since he rarely saw other players using them.
It was a gamble, but I think I ended up hitting that difficult middleground fairly well. If her actual player has any thoughts on that, though, he could totally reply to this and I would reblog it here!
I don’t know if my thoughts here are quite what you had in mind, but here goes!
I’d say you nailed it, honestly. From the get-go, Twilight (and I) knew something was a bit off about the students accompanying her on this mission, what with their, uh, “unique” application of magic when asked for a demonstration on the train. Comparatively, the store seemed so innocuous and its items a relative mix of what was probably useless and what may be useful in the right situation that it genuinely did not dawn on me that the items in the other players’ stores could be any more critical. The one time someone really obviously used one of their “items”, it resulted in a flying raccoon emerging from an explosion of glitter, which was honestly just too impressive to even question.
I kept trying to guess which items would be most useful based on the location that day’s lead suggested we would be visiting. On the second day, when we were slated to visit the mines, the presumed useless Souvenir Cutlery Set was replaced with a 5-Pack of Flashlights, which turned out to be significant for two reasons.
One, it was the first item in my store that I knew was important. Not only did it obviously match up with the location we were going to be investigating, but it had knocked something that had been there the previous day that I knew was NOT important off the list. Ironically, although I could tell the flashlights were significant, I didn’t buy them. Part of the description of the Flashlights read something like: “You will be so, so disappointed if your students end up using these instead of a basic light spell.” As a player, I knew this was a targeted statement trying to dissuade me from buying the flashlights, but seriously, that was all it took to solidify my decision not to buy them. I’d already been roleplaying very seriously as Twilight Sparkle, but even if I hadn’t, this statement was designed specifically to get me to consider the situation from her POV. Why would these students ever need flashlights? Even if their previous displays of “magic” had seemed a bit inept, surely they wouldn’t have been able to gain entry into Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns without at LEAST being able to perform a simple light spell!
The second reason why the Cutlery->Flashlights replacement ended up being important is that it also had the (intended? unintended?) side effect of leading me to believe that the Dowsing Rods, which WERE still present in the list, may have been more important than I’d initially considered. I passed on those Flashlights in a breeze, and yet I agonized over whether to buy these dumb Dowsing Rods, all because the Flashlights had bumped the Souvenir Cutlery Set off the menu.
The other three (nearly) omnipresent items in the shop’s list - the Very Heavy Pile of Books, the Extremely Alcoholic Drink, and the Gemstone - I “knew” had to have been at least somewhat important. Kazerad had already stated that clever use of items could potentially replenish our one-shot “Tricks”. I figured the Gemstone could potentially be used to coerce Spike into performing certain actions if necessary (although the one time I bought it, I ended up just giving it to him outright as a gift and he ate it right then and there). The booze noted that it could be used to “torch a building”, a specific callout I’m guessing was placed so that I might believe it to be more useful/important than it really was. I figured the pile of books might be most useful on the day we were to visit the Archives, but come on, when is Twilight Sparkle EVER going to turn down the opportunity to procure more dusty ol’ books?
The one other time there was a significant change to the store list was on the final day, when things were clearly leading up to a boss battle with whatever we were going to find behind that door. The cutlery set was replaced with a Rapier, two of the other items were swapped out in favor of a Pneumatic Jackhammer and a bunch of Dynamite, and instead of a mere Gemstone, now there was an entire Diamond Necklace. The funny thing was, once again, even the items that seemed like they’d be useful ended up being… not. The sword, though incredibly stylish, became just as useless as the cutlery set it replaced upon the revelation that the creature could only be harmed by Unicorn magic. The jackhammer could’ve been useful in our escape from the rockslide-blocked room, but Twilight specifically withheld its use until she got some answers about why no one’s “magic” had any effect on the creature. For some reason, the students were more concerned about escaping with their lives, and plowed headlong through the rubble on their own.
Beyond that, Twilight’s private between-day updates served another important design purpose: establishing her as the leader. I wanted her to be the head of the group and the driving force behind the investigation, so I made sure every day ended on a “dead end”, and every one of Twilight’s between-day updates involved her finding a lead on her own. The result was that every in-game day opened with Twilight and her students sitting around a table as she explained the day’s agenda, which played up both her position as a leader and as a teacher.
The idea of using uneven information to encourage players to explain things to eachother is something I’ve wanted to try for a long time, ever since I saw it used brilliantly in a Neverwinter Nights module years ago. In this module, one of the players was declared the “main character” and would get things like prophetic dream cutscenes when resting, whereas the other players would just see them mumbling and turning in their sleep. It meant you had the actual players saying “you were mumbling in your sleep, what happened?”, or explaining that they saw a vision. It was amazing! It turns out it is a lot of fun to create for, too.
It also contributed to the sort of “rhythm” I like in stories. Just like every day in Prequel starts with Katia sitting in the exact same pose, every day in the pony RPG opened with the party sitting around a table (usually with the unicorn filly rolling around on top of it to listen to what the Big Unicorns were doing) as Twilight explained what she had found. It was a fun bit of character interaction and development in the place of what would’ve otherwise just been narration on my part.
In the end, I feel like I was pretty successful in using these mechanics both to establish Twilight as the group’s leader and keep her player in the dark about the group’s secrets until the very end. I’m pretty sure the only player he (and by proxy, Twilight) had figured out beforehand was the changeling, and the interactions between them over it were mostly just funny. They both knew, but neither of them ever openly acknowledged it, even after the final boss fight.
You have no idea how happy it makes me that you decided to illustrate this conversation.
At the very end of the game, the other players encouraged Twilight’s player to narrate a letter to Princess Celestia summarizing her findings, conclusions, and whether or not they were all getting expelled. The letter opened with a long, touching, awkward-pause-filled retrospective on the hornless unicorn’s plight and how maybe, one day, Equestrian medical science would advance to the point that they could regrow a lost unicorn horn and she could be properly accepted into a school for gifted magic users.
It then segued into “Now, let’s talk about the fact that a griffon was able to pass the Magic School’s entrance exam.”
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.
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.
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.
I was very intent on attempting to charge my tiny spoon with the same enchantment that charged the final key, though. You know. For research purposes.
My first strip this month, sorry for the wait. I have a new schedule for the day job and it’s been taking a bit of work to get used to it.
This one kind of explains itself. I always felt like the biggest ass whole after opening up to someone, and I could never convince myself that it was ever the right thing to do. I almost always regret doing so, and an often incredibly weary of the person I opened up to as a result.
I might draw comics, but first and foremost I still consider myself a game designer. This weekend I had the rather interesting opportunity to create a game that - by design - could only be played once.
See, a few months back, a friend asked me to run a one-session tabletop game for her boyfriend's birthday. Her only stipulation I was that I should “make a My Little Pony campaign where he can be Twilight Sparkle”. I had never run a formal tabletop RPG before, but after hearing her description I immediately got a pretty good idea for it. Though I ended up getting sick before the party and had to bail, I hung onto the campaign idea. This weekend they asked me again if I'd like to run a game, so I jumped at the opportunity.
So yeah, that’s why my webcomic didn’t update this week. Let’s delve into an essay about game design!
When Kim made the request, I knew I could come up with a decent My Little Pony RPG. I don’t talk about it here very much, but I do watch the show and I am one of those people who constantly thinks “could I make that a game?” when watching absolutely anything. However, I knew I wanted to do something more original than a straight-up conventional “work together to fight badguys” RPG campaign. If I was doing ponies, I also wanted to put more of a thematic focus on interpersonal conflict between allies.
The idea I came up with was this: Twilight Sparkle is asked to investigate a series of magical earthquakes in the city of Trottingham. However, Celestia also asks her to take along the some failing magic students from the School For Gifted Unicorns in an attempt to assess their magical abilities and determine whether they truly belong in a magic school for gifted unicorns.
From the perspective of Twilight’s player, she and some students from the Celestia’s School For Gifted Unicorns are going on a simple investigative adventure. However, unbeknownst to Twilight, none of the students are actually unicorns.
This idea immediately appealed to me. It combined two of my favorite game design concepts: uneven multiplayer and uneven information. Uneven multiplayer is present because, rather than working toward a single common goal like most RPG parties, the students are all trying to impress Twilight and prove their magical ability while Twilight is trying to judge the students and determine whether they belong in a prestigious magic school. Uneven information is present because Twilight thinks all the students are unicorns who can use magic, and each student thinks they are the only one who is not a unicorn.
However, like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it also meant this was a game that could only ever be played once. Once the “twist” was out, that none of the students were unicorns, the gameplay could never be the same. Twilight’s player would instantly know the answer to whether or not the players belong in Celestia’s school, and the students’ players would have no inclination to spend time and resources on faking magical ability.
It also meant the idea was incredibly prone to failure. I wanted the group to make it to the final encounter - something that could only be defeated with unicorn magic, before the secret came out. I wanted them to all look among eachother, waiting for someone to cast a spell, as the realization slowly dons on them that they have all been faking magic. If one of the players slipped up and the big secret got out ahead of time, that idea would be invalidated. It was very chancy.
So, naturally, I ran with it.
The premise alone wasn’t enough to run a game, of course. When it became clear I was actually going to get a chance to run this, I had to work it into an actual playable game.
The first big concern was that I needed a game system that would let players run a large-scale deception like this. Something as simple as “roll for bluff” to determine success wouldn’t work; it needed to be a system that let the player determine their success without chance - as well as hide information from the actual player, not just his character.
The second was that I needed to keep the players focused on their deception. I didn’t want them to lose sight of what they were doing, or forget they were supposed to be actively hiding their inability to use magic. I wanted to keep the deception the focus of the plot for the students’ players.
The third concern was that I would need to communicate privately with the players a lot. Since I didn’t have time to pull everyone into a room alone and talk to them, and didn’t want them to wait around while I wrote out long things, I knew I would have to have some content pre-written.
To address the last two, I decided to have the game be divided into “days”. At the end of each day of adventures/investigation in Trottingham, the players would reconvene at their hotel. The next morning they would go their separate ways to get lunch, and each get a private card updating them on their situation. Since the cards were pre-written, this meant the game had to be sort of railroaded, but only insofar as it would end at the right location each day. The way things panned out during the days didn’t matter so much.
With some more planning, I ended up deciding the plot would follow a six-day structure:
Day 1: Twilight meets the students and they arrive in Trottingham. They ask around about the earthquakes, and meet a young unicorn filly who lives in town.
Day 2: Twilight and the students investigate some old unicorn ruins north of town. Culminates in the first real boss battle, against a Timberwolf.
Day 3: Twilight and the students investigate an old iron mine south of town. They find a big locked door.
Day 4: Twilight and the students look for answers in an old library. They end up finding a key to the big door, but it needs to be charged with magic from the ruins.
Day 5: They charge the key at the ruins. Before they can get back to the big door, the most serious earthquake yet strikes Trottingham.
Day 6: Twilight and any remaining students make it to the big door, go through, and discover the source of the disturbances. They discover the creature can only be harmed by unicorn magic, they realize for the first time that none of them are unicorns, and the group has to make it back to the unicorn filly in Trottingham with the creature chasing them.
I also needed suitable characters for this. When I first came up with the idea back before the birthday party, I made a list of eight possible ponies. With less people showing up this time - and the knowledge I’d have to write five between-day updates for each of them - I culled it down to five. Twilight Sparkle was a necessity, and I decided to throw in her assistant Spike as well, since he would just follow her around and could share her between-day updates. For the students, I picked the three that gave the most variety: a griffon, a changeling, and a unicorn who lost her horn.
The campaign went excellently.
Like, most of the game design stuff I write about here is a detailed explanation of why it failed horrifically, presented so that others can avoid my mistakes. This actually worked out pretty well, though. The theories were sound, the between-day updates were relevant and fun, the controls I instituted to corral player behavior worked effectively, and everyone ended up enjoying it.
Part of that might have also been due to the dorky LEGO miniatures I made. Credit goes to fred67 for the horse design.
Over the next couple days I want to talk about the campaign’s design and characters in some more detail, since a lot of stuff I tried ended up working pretty well in practice and I want my experiences to be available for anyone who wants to try something similar. In particular, the rules system I chose to use for this ended up being a very good one, though I do have some thoughts on what makes a good/bad encounter for it. At the end of this series, I’ll also provide some blank character sheets in case anyone wants to run with this system or a modification of it.
Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about the system itself and the math/psychology behind its gameplay mechanisms, as well as my additions. I hope you brought your nerd pants, nerds.
GUESS WHAT I DID LAST WEEKEND
Incredible Ghost Trick music video ⊟
Wow! This music video by sue composites pretty much every Ghost Trick character into a series of vignettes, united by Inspector Cabanela’s smoothest moves. I just, just replayed Ghost Trick over the holidays, and loved it again, and now I want to re-replay it. What a game that is. And yeah, there’s a lot of dancing in it. Credit to Hatsuu for the link!
Three Apples is my favorite My Little Pony webcomic