Tails of Equestria: Dungeon Crawls are Magic

Back in the late 70s, the Muppet Show took a property made famous in children's television and created a show enjoyed by both kids and their parents.  The blend of simple comedy beats and bright colors with sly pop culture references and the occasional "slide one by the censors" moment helped the show appeal to all ages.  While not the first time this had happened, it does stand out as a successful case of "All Ages" meaning something other than "kids will like it and parents will be kinda bored but at least not offended."
I still think Maud Pie is a direct reference to
Maude Lebowski.

A generation later, Lauren Faust led a revamp of another property for little kids and managed the same feat.  My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic had all the requisite morality play for little kids attracted to pastel ponies, as well as clever writing, background and even foreground references aimed at older audiences, and an honest-to-goodness "golden age of movie musicals" approach to the musical set pieces.

Thus, when I heard about an officially licensed MLP tabletop RPG called Tails of Equestria (by Alessio Cavatore, Dylan Owe, and Jack Caesar for River Horse Games, U.S. publisher is Shinobi 7), I felt a mix of anticipation and dread.  I'd read several "RPGs for kids" before, I've even tried my hand at writing one or two.  They often feel condescending, and a big problem with licensed properties in general is that you may have to keep lawyers happy rather than the creative types, often leading to watered-down crap.

Not how it happened, but that would
have been a cool way to go bankrupt.
But I ordered the core rulebook from my FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store) and settled in to wait.  And wait.  And a few months after release, my FLGS couldn't get Alliance to cough up a copy, so I went to Amazon.  (In the interim I also got a copy of Roan, a Kickstarter-funded pony RPG, but I was quite disappointed by the low quality of editing...many good ideas, very hard to get at most of them.)

Oddly, despite the general ease of finding MLP merchandise these days, I have yet to see copies of any of the game books in brick and mortar stores...although to be fair, Hastings Entertainment dominated that market locally, and they died a year and a half ago, leaving Amarillo with a rather small selection of bookstores for a city its size.  River Horse Games and Shinobi 7 just aren't big enough operators to get onto Toys R Us or Walmart shelves, and apparently Diamond/Alliance wasn't interested...or maybe it was just their usual monopoly-driven (monopony-driven?) incompetence.

As of now, here's the product list (all prices MSRP, generally cheaper on Amazon):

  • Core Rulebook: $35 hardcover, $25 softcover.  152 pages.
  • The Curse of the Statuettes: $25 box set, containing a 48 page scenario book, a board stock trifold GM screen, a pad of character sheets, and a set of opaque polyhedral dice.  The box has extra space, with enough room for the core rules, the Festival of Lights, and one or two other books.  It's taller than the book size, the extra room being for dice and tokens.
  • Tokens of Friendship: $10 or so for a drawstring bag with a dozen gem tokens.  I didn't get this, I have plenty of tokens.
  • The Festival of Lights: $16 softcover scenario book, 56 pages.

The core book also promises themed dice sets for each pony race and a Bestiary of Equestria, but so far they're not available in the U.S.  River Horse appears to be a European company, and the products appear to already exist, they just haven't been imported yet (Amazon has some copies of the German version of the core rules if you really want 'em).  The HasCon exclusive MLP D&D dice were not sold as a tie-in to this game, they were used to promote D&D, which Hasbro owns directly.
The Deadlands stuff could probably be adapted
easily to the Badlands scenarios for ToE....

The first thing that struck me as I read through the core rulebook was that the game engine felt really familiar, like something I'd played a pre-release copy of back when I was doing my postdoctoral work at Michigan State.  After some searching, I figured out what the system had been: Savage Worlds, a moderately successful generic engine.  Savage Worlds is big enough to have a few recognizable properties such as Deadlands and Lankhmar, but is nowhere as big as things like OGL/D20 or FATE.

Tails of Equestria isn't exactly Savage Worlds, and there's enough differences I doubt anyone's going to try to kick up a legal fuss over it.  But I'd be surprised if the creators of ToE never encountered Savage Worlds.

Before I go into the mechanics, I want to briefly discuss the appearance and production values of the product.  As you'd expect from something that has to pass licensor muster, it looks professional, with full color reasonably heavy stock pages and extensive use of official assets such as fonts and illustrations.  The covers are all original art (Amy Mebberson does the core book and The Curse of the Statuettes, Tony Fleecs does The Festival of Lights, both are veterans of the MLP comics) featuring a trio of pony characters made up for the game.  The core book has almost no other original art, making use of images selected from the cartoon or official licensing stock.  The original art levels go up over time, with Curse being about half original, and Festival mostly using stock background assets rather than character art and having new art for all the characters.  (This is reasonable considering that the scenario books take the characters away from the familiar elements of the cartoon, so there's more need for original art.)  Suffice to say, it looks good and professional, the only questionable art in any of the books is a sample of what's supposed to be a player-made drawing of their character. The density of content is a little low, what with all the splash pages and the larger text, but that's appropriate for something aimed at younger gamers.

And now back to the systems stuff.  The basic mechanic is "roll one or more dice and hope at least one of them meets or beats a target number, and the better you are at something the bigger your die."  You get to roll one die based on your core attributes (Body, Mind, Charisma), and one based on any applicable talent (sometimes there will be no relevant talent so you're stuck with just the one die).  So a pegasus pony trying to fly very fast would roll their Body die and their Flight skill die, but if they wanted to wow a crowd they might roll Charisma instead of Body.  As with many modern systems, players have a selection of tokens (Friendship Tokens, in this case) that let them do re-rolls and otherwise mitigate failure, and they're earned for behaving in-character (obeying your character's chosen Element of Harmony, willingly suffering as the result of any negative Quirks you've taken) or they're payoffs when the gamemaster decides to hose the players as in FATE.  There is no third "Wild Die" as in Savage Worlds.  There is an "exploding die" mechanic as in Savage Worlds, but it's far more restricted.

No, not that kind of exploding dice.  Also, I'm pretty
sure this die is cheating.  (Image linked from
The way exploding dice work is that if a die rolls its maximum number, you keep that and roll again, adding the new result.  With regular six-sided dice, that means one in six rolls will end up giving 7 or higher (a six plus 1-6 more), one in 36 rolls will be 13 or higher, and so forth.  In Savage Worlds, any of your dice can explode on any roll (making the four-sided Wild Die wilder...it's more likely to explode).  In Tails, you have to declare you want to try for exploding, and can only roll one of your dice if you do so.  So, what SW used to simulate how its chosen genres are awash in "how did that happen" events, Tails uses it as a pure desperation move, for when the target number is above your highest die size.

In addition to regular rolls, there's opposed rolls, extended tasks, bad luck effects, and so forth.  While it's not a super crunchy system with lots of numbers, it covers pretty much everything you'd want to use dice to resolve. The GM advice boxes address a reasonable number of concerns, including things like "Don't worry about the whole no-hands thing, everyone manages somehow."

Starting Level 1 ponies have mainly 4 and 6 sided dice at their disposal, while the "Mane Six" are chock full of 20-siders.  They represent "epic" level characters that the players can only aspire to, at least until later supplements raise the cap further.

The system is pretty flexible, and very forgiving to players who don't want to worry too much about the mechanics, appropriate for a game intended for kids.  However, this means that the person running the game is responsible for a lot more interpretation, so this is a game that should be run for kids by adults, at least initially.  Trust me, even little kids grasp powergaming, and will want to try to justify all of their actions as being performed using their highest dice every time.  "I want to pick the lock by flying around really fast and making a breeze that shakes the lock open!"  (Player has put all their advances into Body and Flying, of course.)
"Okay, I'll sell you one, but never
feed it after midnight...."

If there's one part of the system I didn't much care for, it was the money system.  While money is a thing in MLP:FiM, it's almost never quantified, and attempts to figure out the economy (yes, people have tried) tend to end in everyone storming off in search of a drink.  The section on money is probably the most aggressively "Retro AD&D" in tone for the core book, which is probably why they included it, but I'd have preferred a more qualitative resource system using the task resolution system: you have a resources trait represented by a die, and various purchases have challenge numbers.  Anything with a difficulty of 1 or lower you can always buy unless the GM says you have no money on you (i.e. got shipwrecked), that sort of thing.

While there's a robust combat system, the emphasis of the game is on cooperative problem solving, and using friendship and kindness to overcome challenges rather than just bucking everything in the head.  This means that even low-level PCs can be thrown up against incredibly strong monsters, since there should always be a way to avoid a fight.  The PCs are not the Mane Six (unless you decide to let the players use those character writeups), so care must be taken to avoid requiring too many plot devices to bail them out, but the book is full of advice on how to run games for kids.  When the scenarios do make combat inevitable, the opposition is either pretty pathetic or the point of the encounter is to have the PCs captured.

"The PCs are not the Mane Six" brings up one of the other core problems of any licensed game: how can the players feel like they matter when they're not in the center of the story?  In an unlicensed story you can choose whether or not the PCs will be Big Damn Heroes or just adventurers getting by in their small corner of the world, but in a licensed property the Big Damn Hero roles are already taken.  Some deal with this by setting the game as a prequel or a sequel, such as how the West End Games Ghostbusters game had the PCs as franchisees after the movie quartet had mostly shifted to management, or how a lot of the Star Wars computer games mine the Old Republic era.

Your mission, should you choose
to accept it, will be to explore that
ugly brown splotch in the southern
part of the map.
Tails of Equestria chooses to use a geographical separation instead, via its scenarios, taking the PCs into the Badlands region, which is vast and unexplored to the point that the theatrical movie had an entire empire hiding on the other side of it that nopony had heard of before.  The tutorial adventure in the core rules has the PCs taking care of the pets of the Mane Six while those worthies are off on an adventure (this is not as easy as it may sound to those unfamiliar with the show), but ends with finding that the Mane Six got in trouble...and only the PCs can save them!  The Curse of the Statuettes, the first scenario book, has the PCs find and rescue the Mane Six, and along they way they uncover the Underdark...er, the Umberfoal, and have an excuse to hang out and explore that after the Mane Six go home.  It's in Festival of Light that the Muppet Show Effect really kicks in hard, with AD&D injokes all over the place (including game stats for the Flumph), as they explore a lost underground community of Ponies no one has heard from in over a thousand years, along with all the stuff that moved in during that time, such as Flumphs, oozes, Mimics, giant spiders, and Rarity's nemesis: a giant crab.  It's also full of dungeon maps, random "why the heck is that there?" treasure that rewards thorough looting in the AD&D tradition (i.e. brave a room full of shrieking fungi and dive into a well to find a potion and some gems), and plenty of ticking clocks that suggest maybe you shouldn't be looting so thoroughly.

Sadly, I haven't really done any tabletop gaming in ages other than occasional wargames...and asking strangers if I can run a game for their kids might not go over well, I guess I need to make more friends with kids or something.  But based on just reading the books, I really only have two complaints, and they're the same sort of problem: lack of resources.

1) There's no real "pregen characters" or even a single full walkthrough of character generation.  There's stats for generic background ponies of the same talent level as a starting PC, and then at the other extreme stats for the Mane 6, but nothing for "pick up and play" resources.  Given the otherwise high level of advice and hand-holding, that's a fairly salient omission.  If nothing else, write-ups for the three signature characters from the cover art (same trio on every book) would have been nice.

2) The NPC/monster stats are limited to what's needed for each adventure.  While these can certainly act as a guide for monster creation, your options for off-the-shelf opponents are fairly limited.  With each scenario pack, the total number of critters increases, of course, but hopefully the promised Bestiary of Equestria book comes out soon.

The core rules use several pages for "in case you don't have dice close your eyes and point at this page for d4, this page for d6, etc," and those probably could have been ditched in favor of character examples or more bestiary.  This isn't the late 70s Blue Box D&D, just tell people to find a dice app for their phone.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), long time online reviewer of comics, has a "ponysona" but has not statted it up for the RPG, is an occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.
Tails of Equestria: Dungeon Crawls are Magic Tails of Equestria: Dungeon Crawls are Magic Reviewed by Dvandom on Monday, January 29, 2018 Rating: 5
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