Review: Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game

Hello all!  I’ve been a bit off-grid for the pony CCG lately, as I’ve returned to my pastoral homeland to open my own game store, which leaves me both separated from the herd, and with little time to play or test regardless.  I did just get a copy of Tales of Equestria – The Storytelling Game, which is a new tabletop RPG based on the MLP franchise.  I did a quick review for it in the RPG reviewing thread over in another forum I post on.  Then I realized, hey, I have my own site that’s pony related.  And I’m still paying the bills, so even though it’s not really about the CCG, no one can stop me from posting!  If you’re potentially interested in a My Little Pony storytelling game designed for all ages, you can check out my overview and review below.

Note to regular readers: this review was originally published on a general gaming forum, so doesn’t assume you’re a giant pony nerd like other things on this site might.

Production, Overview, etc

Tails comes in a single full-color letter-size hardcover at a $34.99 MSRP, 152 pages. It’s a reasonably nice looking book, though the art is all from the show or in similar style, so good or bad depending on your feelings about that. But it’s mostly well deployed; my only substantive complaint is that some of the two-page chapter opener spreads are pretty clearly blown up. The overall layout is straightforward one-column and easy to read. It’s many years since I was a beginning reader but the language is notably simpler than usual for RPGs. They immediately get points with me for not ignoring the show’s younger fans in favor of grown-up nerds. (This is a major complaint I have about the CCG, which readers of this site know is pretty complicated.)

The layout is pretty standard character generation followed by mechanics, but it works better here than it does in many games because character generation is transparent, and they explain the basic ramifications of all the choices when they come up. I found the order in the book to be pretty logical, especially for a new or younger player. It’d be both reasonable and possible to stop right after the character generation chapter if you aren’t running things, except for equipment, which they honestly probably should have just not bothered with (as with many games).

Character Creation

The sheet’s nice and simple. Your stats are all expressed solely in die size (d4, d6, d8, etc), the larger the better. Everyone starts out on the tiny side even relative to being tiny horses – “level 1” means you just discovered your special talent and are now considered an adult in the eyes of horse law, since spontaneous magical tattoos are a great way of determining legal majority.

The first thing you do is pick what kind of pony you’d like to be – earth pony (strong horse), unicorn (wizard horse), or pegasus (flying horse).

You have three core stats: Body, Mind, and Charm. All ponies are cute, so everyone gets a d6 in Charm. You then choose which of the other two gets a d4, and which gets a d6. If you’re an earth pony, you upgrade your Body die to the next highest one. Your Stamina (HP equivalent) is 10, or 12 if you’re an Earth Pony. This last stat is an example of the rulebook doing something I quite like – in the character creation chapter, it just tells you what your Stamina is, even though it’s technically derived. Later on, it tells you it’s the sum of the “die numbers” for your Mind and Body – that is to say, the number following the “d”. This is a neat way of getting fixed numbers from growing dice that I’ve never seen before despite being simple, so kudos on that one, and again, I like that they aren’t afraid to tell you to fill in a number here and then explain it fully later, when it won’t be confusing.

Next you have Talents, which are a combination of skills and spells. There’s a list of options in the back, but it explicitly tells you that you can pick others if everyone agrees. This is easy to do, since with a few exceptions they don’t have much mechanical baggage and serve as things to add to checks when they make sense. Everyone gets one at d6 level based on their pony type. Earth ponies get Stout Heart, unicorns get Telekinesis, and pegasi get Fly. This is obviously a bit biased in favor of the unicorns and pegasi, but getting a free Body upgrade is pretty sweet so it’s probably mostly fine. (For my money, Fly seems like the best of them, since d6 Telekinesis is functionally just “you have hands despite being a horse”.) You also get to pick your special talent, revealed in a likely musical epiphany just before the game started. You also get that at d6 level, or you can choose your racial one and upgrade it to d8 level if you like.

The last major mechanical thing is that you pick a quirk, which is basically a disadvantage, like a negative aspect in FATE. Like in FATE, there are little tokens you get when your quirk disrupts your life, called Tokens of Friendship, and everyone starts with some. Like the Talents, there’s a list of example Quirks, mostly inspired by the show, but it encourages you to make up your own.

You also pick an Element of Harmony, but it has little mechanical weight and is mostly a roleplaying guide like alignment. Options are the ones from the show: Kindness, Laughter, Loyalty, Generosity, Honesty, and Magic (ie Nerd). There’s probably no avoiding picking that list if you’re going to do that since it is a My Little Pony game, after all, but it’d be easily omitted if you had experienced players or were porting the game over to another setting. That said, it’s a good way to indicate “I want my horse to be like Rarity” or whatever, which would help newer or younger players get a feel for playing characters instead of just themselves.

There’s also a big portrait box you can draw your pony in, and a smaller one you can draw their cutie mark (magical tattoo) in, both of which are nice touches, plus some advice on naming your horse.

Finally, you get a starting budget and an equipment list to sort through, sigh. Unfortunately the game does fall down here, in my opinion. It’s got the usual big long list of things you can buy, some of which have mechanical effects and some of which don’t, and my eyes glazed over looking at it. I can’t imagine a first-time player who just wants to be a colorful pony doing any better. Those with mechanical effects feel like they should be Talents or Talent effects, and the rest are just silly, including the 10′ pole, which makes very little sense in a world where everyone who can hold it is telekinetic and basically seems like a gamer in-joke. I feel like this could have been easily left out, especially since there’s like one adventurer pony in canon and you’re far more likely to start with civilians having friendship adventures than the kind of battle-eager nomadic murderers and thieves that need an extensive equipment list. Why it is that so many otherwise forward-thinking games cling to this nonsense I’ll never know, but I blame consumer capitalism’s pernicious grip on our minds.

Checks and Scuffles

Checks are the basic resolution mechanic and are usually made by rolling the die for one of your core stats, aiming to beat a number set by the GM. If you roll max on the die, you get to roll the next biggest die up, and this can chain all the way to d20’s, but you don’t add them together, you take the best single roll. So if I roll a 4 on my d4, I get to roll a d6. If I roll a 6 on that, I get to add a d8. If I roll a 5 on that, I get a 6 on the check, since that’s the single highest roll, off the d6. There aren’t any of the plethora of +1 or -1 bonuses you can get in d20 and so forth on the player side, the GM is just expected to set DCs with the overall circumstances in mind.

If one of your Talents is relevant to a check, you roll that die too. (In a few cases you’ll do a check against just a talent, like pegasi flying about.) As with the exploding dice, if you get multiple dice here, you take the best number rather than totaling things up. Teamwork lets everyone roll and use the best of all the options, and might reduce the difficulty of the check too, if it’s something where you can all contribute at once rather than taking turns. The guideline for this is -1 per helper.

I like the check system overall. I like that it’s very easy to resolve, since no one has to crunch numbers or anything, just pick the highest one on some number of dice. I do wish it weren’t binary success or failure, though. They’ve got some good storytelling influences elsewhere, and if I were running this, I’d absolutely go to “plot twist” over “you can’t” for basically any failed roll, or just lift the GM moves from PBTA. Both are easy to do, of course, but I wish they suggested them.

Scuffles are the game’s combat system. It’s also quick and simple, which is nice. Everyone picks an opponent to pick on, and you all roll your Body plus relevant Talent(s). The combatant with the highest number gets to deal out damage to the other side equal to that number, distributed as they choose. Ties damage everyone. Starting characters have 10-12 Stamina, and tend to be in the d4/d6 range, so you can take a couple of solid hits, but combat won’t ever drag on, since whiff rounds aren’t possible. Not surprisingly, ponies don’t die from running out of Stamina, and character death simply isn’t a possibility in the rules. If you run out of Stamina you need to have a lie-down, and might get captured or face other unpleasant plot twists if your friends go down too. While this is clearly a genre concession to being a kids show, I am increasingly not happy with mechanical character deaths anyway, so I’m down.

I really like this combat system for the genre. It’s great that every round progresses you towards resolving the fight, and it’s obviously very far on the story game side, so I’m glad they didn’t try to put tons of tactical stuff in. (I loved 4E D&D, but I’m also a firm believer in genre/mechanics agreement.) They also added a nice little note that if everyone’s still up after a round, that’s a good time to think about talking things out, another nice nod to the genre, where you’ll end up making up halfway through a fair number of fights.

Friendship Tokens

These are the game’s equivalent of Fate Points, and I like the way they treat them. You can burn them to reroll dice (1 token), reroll but on a d20 (2 tokens), or auto-pass (3+ tokens, depending). You can also use them for narrative interjections in the “luck” or “rewards of being a good friend” type domain, with more tokens generating a more powerful effect. For example, you could use them to decide retroactively that you brought some useful item with you, that a friendly NPC happens to be in the area, that you have a friendly connection to a neutral NPC, or the like. So they’re pretty broadly powerful, and explicitly allow player control over the narrative. They do require GM approval, but given the tendency of kids to overreach with narrative stuff, that’s probably a better plan than writing really formal mechanical scopes for them.

There are a couple of nice touches in the details, but my favorite reflects their flavor as being explicitly tied to friendship: you can spend them on behalf of your friends, and tokens spent for a friend are explicitly more powerful than those spent for yourself. There’s no strict mechanical rule for this since many of their uses are just “I want to do this, how many do we think it should cost”, but it’s still a nice nod to the game’s themes.

In terms of gaining them, you get some at chargen and level-up. You also get them when you are a good friend, or when your quirk works against you.

Leveling Up

When you level up, you increase Body, Mind, or Charm by one die size. If you pick Body or Mind, your Stamina goes up so that it stays the sum of the die numbers. You also get more Tokens of Friendship (one per player total including the GM), and you upgrade all the talents you used, plus you can upgrade one unused one or add a new one.

I like that leveling up is simple, but I do have two concerns here. First, it sucks that Charm is a worse choice to level up than either of the other two, since it doesn’t boost your Stamina. It’d mess with the math to make it the sum of all three, and it’d be more complicated to do lowest + highest, but I think I’d do the latter if I were playing with experienced or grown-up people, since it feels like an annoying oversight to have the game with a heavy focus on being friends disadvantage the social stat. Second, I’m leery of the “auto-level the Talents you used” thing, since it’s just going to make the poor person who decided to be a hairdresser or whatever feel doubly discouraged if it doesn’t happen to come up, vs one that they’re just always going to use, like Fly or Telekinesis, both of which are daily activities for the appropriate pony types. Still, pretty good overall, and again, nice and simple.

Talents

Since this is a shorter review, I’m not going to go over the suggested Talents and Quirks. They’re basically all inspired by stuff from the show, and seem broadly fine. The Talents do vary a fair bit in scope. Many of them are effectively Skills or Backgrounds, just serving to add dice to appropriate checks, while some, mostly the unicorn spells, are more mechanically complicated, often offering a once-per-session or die-number-times-per-session special effect. It doesn’t look like a major balance issue to me as, in a pleasant reverse of the 3.5 D&D problem, the spells are all explicitly quite narrow, while you’ll be able to justify your skill die pretty broadly for most of the skill-like ones. Telekinesis is the exception, but it’s pretty directly inspired by the show and at the d4/d6 level is effectively hands and a flashlight. Since there’s a (quite reasonable) sidebar elsewhere saying not to worry too much about the “no digits” issue, unicorns might be the least powerful of the pony types. Obviously this changes if you’re playing with the kind of group that’s interested in making the ponies more alien and so makes the hooves less versatile than cartoon logic does.

The Rest

The book is rounded out with GM advice, a sample adventure and some NPC reference stats.

The GM advice is brief, but it’s good, including stuff about the primacy of fun, being a fan of the players and celebrating their successes, and how to deal with mistakes (including the solid advice of handing out a Token of Friendship if you made a mistake that hindered a player). I would say that it’s short on advice for making your own stories, though, and basically assumes you’ll be running a pre-written adventure. A few paragraphs about structuring stories like episodes of the show, or the like, wouldn’t be amiss.

The sample adventure is about pet-sitting for the show’s main characters while they go off on an adventure. It does have the problems that entails in terms of doing a favor for more powerful NPCs, so it’s probably better for kids who will appreciate the cameos from their favorite characters, but I have trouble viewing this as a complaint since one of the things I like about the game is that it is actually aimed at kids. Also, grown-ups playing My Little Pony games really should know what they’re getting in to in terms of scope, so this one feels fundamentally different to me than say Faerun’s NPC infestation. It’d be problematic if you’re doing a variant where the players take the Big Damn Heroes role, but if you’re doing that, presumably a book adventure about pet-sitting is not a good starting point no matter whose pets they are.

Anyway, the plot is basically that the pets get out of control and escape into the Everfree Forest, one of the show’s go-to adventuring zones. There’s a separate challenge to find each pet, and it feels like it could be a filler episode for the show, for better or worse. There’s some good advice sprinkled in, and each pet you rescue is helpful or disruptive to your future efforts, so listening to their owners about which are friendly or difficult makes life easier. In keeping with the theme, combat is not the focus of the adventure, or even necessary. (In fact several of the NPCs that get in the way are combat monsters and will shred PCs that attack them, for better or worse.) I give the adventure a B; it looks like a fine intro, but doesn’t seem inspired or anything.

The reference stats, sadly, are minimally useful. Other than a generic earth pony, pegasus, and unicorn, they’re just the stats for all the NPCs involved in the sample adventure, many of which aren’t adversaries or are super strong in one area (usually Body) but very weak in another, so more like puzzles than flexible rivals. They also have no levels or challenge ratings or the like, so if you were to use them for your own adventures, there’s no guidance for how to do so. With such simple characters, of course, it’s pretty easy to make your own, but for all the book is excellent at being newbie friendly on the player side, it feels like a new GM would have an awful lot of trouble finding her feet with just this book, especially when it came time to go off-script.

Overall, I give Tails of Equestria a B+. It’s certainly the best all-ages RPG I’ve seen. While the system doesn’t feel revolutionary in any particular aspect, it feels satisfyingly straightforward, and captures the feel of the show well. I especially like the way it pushes helping each other out mechanically as well as just flavorfully. There’s enough of the shared narrative and write-your-own stuff to support creativity, and I like that resolving a thing is nice and quick. It’s a game I’d gladly run or play, especially with younger or less experienced players, and I’m looking forward to stocking it.

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