Role-playing games are, at their core, something you do with friends. Whether people you’ve just met, or a group that you’ve known for years, sitting down around the game table is fundamentally an activity that’s about friendship. So wouldn’t it make sense for the actual game-play to be about friendship as well? Of course, that’d require something different from the usual fare of “killing monsters and taking their stuff.” It’d need to be something like…
My Little Pony: Tails of Equestria: The Storytelling Game.
Based on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Tails of Equestria (and no, that’s not a typo; it’s “Tails”) is the official tabletop RPG adaptation of the TV show. Created by River Horse Games and distributed in the US and Canada by Shinobi 7, the main (or should I say “mane”?) rulebook is a 152-page full-color hardback. Retailing for $34.95, it’s reasonably priced for what’s being offered.
There are several things to be said about the book before we start looking at the RPG system itself. The first being that this book is COLORFUL! This isn’t so much due to the full-color interior artwork as it is just how much of it there is to be found; I believe there’s only a single page (the first page of the index) that doesn’t have a picture or illustration on it somewhere. Other than that, every single page has a screenshot, drawing, picture, or other artwork on it. More than that, there are numerous instances of one- and two-page full spreads throughout the book as well; each of the book’s twelve chapters, and the adventure and appendix, have a two-page spread opening them, which comes out to almost 20% of the book right there. That’s before looking at the rest of the book’s artwork. If you were to look at a text-only version of this product, I suspect that it would be literally half as many pages as the finished book.
The other thing that needs to be explicitly noted is that this book is meant not only for younger gamers, but those with no experience with tabletop role-playing games. That might be expected, given the target demographic of the source material, but it’s worth repeating. Indeed, the expected “what’s a ‘role-playing game’?” blurb is actually on the back cover! Moreover, the book’s writing is very simplistic, and clearly meant to be approachable by younger readers. While it never talks down to you, it also is making a clear-cut effort to be as unintimidating as it possibly can. (On that note, it flat-out states that it’s using “storytelling game” as a synonym for “role-playing game,” which are fighting words in some parts of the RPG community.)
The book also takes a moment to moment to mention other Tails of Equestria products (e.g. dice, character sheets, etc.), doing so first in the book’s introduction and then again at the end, but I can’t find it in myself to be cynical about this. That’s because the book also goes out of its way to suggest free alternatives to these. For example, it not only says that you can find dice-rolling programs online, but offers “dice charts” – full-page charts with random numbers that you can point to randomly in lieu of rolling dice – in the appendix. Similarly, there’s a blank character sheet in the back of the book as well. So the book is making an effort to be playable right out of the metaphorical box.
So with all of that said, what’s the actual RPG like?
All PCs play as one of the three main kinds of ponies: unicorns, pegasi, or earth ponies (in fact, “PC” stands for “pony character” here). Alicorns – ponies that blend all three types – are mentioned, the book flat-out says that you can’t play an alicorn character. Needless to say, I’m sure that house rules to allow for this are being implemented even now.
The central aspect of characters are traits and talents. Traits are essentially ability scores; Body, Mind, and Charm. Talents, by contrast, are skills, being things like Keen Knowledge: History or Fly (if you’re a pegasus). Each race includes one talent for free (such as the aforementioned Fly for pegasi). Each trait and talent is measured in terms of the die size associated with it. So your earth pony PC might start out with Body d8, Mind d4, and Charm d6 for your traits, with Stout Heart d6 and Special Skill: Running d6 for your talents.
These dice showcase one of the core aspects of the game rules: there are no numerical modifiers to dice rolls. To be clear, you can modify your rolls, but only with regard to the size and/or number of dice used. In the latter case, you always pick the die with the best result; the only time you add or subtract anything is with regards to your character’s other main mechanic: stamina points, which are essentially hit points by another name.
Most of the other aspects of characters are largely non-mechanical in nature. You pick which Element of Harmony (the game’s six principle virtues: Kindness, Laughter, Generosity, Loyalty, Honesty, and Magic) your character most closely aligns to, but this is purely as a role-playing guideline. Quirks, the inverse of talents, are likewise not measured with dice rolls. Instead, when a quirk comes up and you voluntarily allow it to impede your character’s efficacy, you’re rewarded with a token of friendship.
Tokens of friendship are a meta-mechanic that allow characters to affect dice rolls, or alternatively to change minor aspects of the setting. You start with a limited number of them, but can gain more in various ways (such as by role-playing quirks, as noted above). The game lays out the basic manner by which tokens can be used, and how many tokens are required for certain actions, but makes sure to leave this open to GM adjudication. Wisely, this is framed in reference to the GM being encouraged to lower the total cost of tokens for certain effects if multiple PCs contribute them, serving to incentivize the cooperative aspect that this book is predicated upon.
At the end of each adventure, characters gain a level. This isn’t tracked by any sort of point mechanic; completing an adventure is worth one level, period. Leveling allows you to buy larger dice for some of your traits and talents, though the game implies – but doesn’t outrightly state – that this tops out at a d20 (given that some of the example creatures have multiple dice for certain traits, there’s an obvious house rule of allowing you to buy a second die at a d4 after your first one hits a d20). You can also purchase new talents (or new quirks, if you’re so inclined), which always come in at a d4.
Your trait and talent dice are put into play for one of two different types of rolls: tests (where you’re rolling to try and equal or exceed a static number) and challenges (where making an opposed roll; this is where you’ll find the combat rules). The thing to note is that you can usually – but not always – roll your dice for the most-relevant trait AND roll the die for an applicable talent, keeping the better result. More notably, there are several sub-rules given for these rolls as well. For example, rolling double or more versus a target number (or an opponent’s score) allows for a critical hi-, er, amazing success, or what happens if several characters work together (which, in a friendship-focused game, naturally provides notable advantages).
I should note that the combat rules – called “scuffles” here – are set up in such a way that most fights probably won’t last long. Basically, each opponent makes a Body challenge (with a combat-relevant talent, if any) and the one with the higher roll subtracts the TOTAL value of that roll from their opponent’s stamina points. Given that your total stamina points are the maximum value of your Body and Mind dice, that means that characters will only be able to take a couple of hits before being defeated (though characters who run out of stamina don’t die; rather, they lose consciousness, run away, admit defeat, etc.). That certainly fits the theme of the show, where combat is only rarely used, but if you want fights to last longer, consider having the loser’s die roll subtracted from the winner’s die roll to determine how many stamina points are lost.
There’s a basic equipment list in the book, and some quick rules for how much money characters have/earn. This section felt odd, if for no other reason than equipping for their adventures isn’t something that’s done very often by the characters in the TV show. Given that having the proper equipment can bump up the die used on a relevant roll to the next-larger one, PCs will almost certainly be looking to purchase goods that they think might be useful in the near future. Though I have to note that, for fans of the show, the list of prices for various goods is a godsend; finally something hard-and-fast with regards to how much things cost!
The book’s introductory adventure is entitled “The Pet Predicament.” It sees the PCs being called up by the Mane Six to look after their pets while they go investigate a new threat to Equestria. Naturally, the pets don’t take very well to their new keepers, and a search-and-rescue mission ensues when they all wander off and get into trouble. Despite the low-stakes nature of the adventure, it does a fairly good job laying out the game rules, and has several call-outs to aspects of the show built into it (e.g. a meeting with Zecora). Of course, it ends with a sudden cliffhanger that just so happens to lead into the next adventure (sold separately).
More noteworthy is that this is where we get stats for creatures and NPCs. While all of the creatures used in the adventure are given game mechanics, it’s more noteworthy that this is where we get stats for the Mane Six, and even Zecora to boot! Of course, there’s a bit of an irony in that Spike (and the pets) remain without stats, given that Spike and co. are typically overlooked to the point of it being a minor trope in the series anyway. A few generic stat blocks for background ponies wrap this section up.
Overall, I only noticed a few production issues with the book, such as two instances where there wasn’t a space between words. More hilariously, the table of contents listed chapter five as being “Traits & Shamans” when the chapter itself correctly listed it as being about “Traits & Stamina.” So it looks like we’ll need to wait until a future book to have more shaman characters besides our resident zebra! (I’m also convinced that Twilight not having the Stout Heart is an error as well, since it’s the racial talent for earth ponies, which as an alicorn she should have.) But overall, there aren’t really any errors here.
I’d say that the book’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t have very much in the way of help for GMs. While there’s plenty of advice as to how to be a good role-player, coming up with adventures is an area that it doesn’t really cover. This is somewhat understandable, as adventures are likely to focus around social, puzzle, and even athletic challenges, rather than combat per se. Moreover, they’re going to need to be at least somewhat tailored for each group, depending on the talents that the PCs are bringing to the table. A group of all pegasi is going to be very different from a mixed group. Although these are areas that the book can’t readily address, I still feel like it should have said something about them, even if only to acknowledge them in overview.
Despite this, Tails of Equestria is a great game for bringing young people into the hobby, though this is predicated on them already being fans of the show. The mechanics are light and easy to grasp, and the book’s presentation means that it’s actually not that difficult for younger gamers to pick up and start using on their own. Likewise, older members of the RPG community will likely have reason to appreciate the RPG engine that the game runs on, though the book’s focus on introductory presentation will be somewhat wasted on them.
If you’re a fan of ponies and slinging dice, I definitely recommend checking out Tails of Equestria.