So about two months ago, I became a brony.
If you’re still reading after the above sentence, let me expound a little bit further. Back at the beginning of April, I was very sick, and had to spend a week in bed. Unable to do much besides rest, I spent most of the time just watching Netflix, and eventually stumbled across My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
I’d already heard about the show’s unexpected popularity among adult males, and had even seen the first episode a few years back when a friend’s younger siblings sat me down to watch it (I remember finding it mildly interesting even then). Wanting something light and positive to take my mind off of how miserable I felt, I decided to give the show a chance, and to my surprise I didn’t dislike it. (The fact that I’d just heard that the Ponyfinder Campaign Setting had just come out also helped to pique my interest.)
I eventually ended up watching the first three seasons and the movie, as well as the documentary on bronies. I even went online and hunted down the fourth season episodes after I’d exhausted what Netflix had to offer. While I feel no particular compulsion to attend any of the MLP conventions, buy any of the merchandise, or frequent any of the fansites (though the wikis do help with some information), I do consider myself a fan of the show.
Of course, since I’m posting about this on my Pathfinder/D&D blog, you should be able to see where this is heading.
A Pony of a Different Color
I’ve already written a review of Ponyfinder, which you can find on its storefront via the link above, so I won’t go over it again here, save for saying this: I think it’s a very good product in terms of bringing aspects of MLP:FiM into a Pathfinder world, but not vice versa.
Ponyfinder recognizes that (at least for the d20 System) the rules are the physics of the game world. That means that trying to make a d20 game that recreates the world as seen in Friendship is Magic would require a radical retooling of the rules. Instead, it moves the compromise in the other direction, keeping the rules – and by extension, what they suggest about any world that operates under such rules – and porting in concepts from the show, such as the various pony races. The end result is a game world that has recognizable similarities to Friendship is Magic, but still feels different.
Of course, my favorite d20 supplement – Eclipse: the Codex Persona – is a little more flexible than the standard d20 rules. As such, it’s somewhat easier to come up with Pathfinder-compatible rules for various aspects of Friendship is Magic. Given that, I’ve decided to start off with an item, since new magical gear can be brought into a game far easier than new races or NPCs.
And since it’s really the only significant magical artifact in the entire series, we’ll take a look at the Elements of Harmony.
The Sixth Element
The six Elements of Harmony – magical gemstones that represent Kindness, Generosity, Laughter, Loyalty, Honesty, and Magic – are a combination of mcguffin and deus ex machina for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, at least for the first few seasons. As with most fiction, the “how” and “why” of the way magic works in FiM is ignored in favor of narrative convenience; as major magical artifacts, the Elements of Harmony do whatever it is the story needs them to do.
Now, that makes for easy (if somewhat lazy) writing, but it doesn’t help much when trying to define something using the objective terms of role-playing game mechanics. As such, we’re going to need to take a closer look at what it is the Elements of Harmony actually do over the course of the show, as well as how they’re used.
The two major times we see the Elements in use are at the beginning of the first and second seasons by Twilight Sparkle and her friends. Respectively, they’re used to change the malevolent Nightmare Moon back into her gentler alter ego of Princess Luna, which strikes me as being an instance of break enchantment (Luna later mentions that this “stripped her of her dark powers”), and to turn the anarchy-loving Discord into stone (a straightforward flesh to stone spell). We also see this latter spell reversed in the third season.
That’s…surprisingly consistent in terms of power. Break enchantment is a fifth-level spell, and flesh to stone/stone to flesh are sixth-level.
There’s one other effect that we know the Elements were used for. We’re told in the pilot episode that Princess Celestia used the Elements to banish Nightmare Moon within the moon (for a thousand years!), and we actually get to see it happen in the fourth season premiere. That’s the equivalent of an imprisonment spell, which is much higher at ninth-level.
This is notable, because we’re told directly that Celestia can’t reach anywhere near that same level of power without the Elements. When Discord is released in the beginning of the second season, Celestia flat-out states that she and Luna can’t defeat him, since they’re no longer connected to the Elements. Since defeating Discord means using flesh to stone on him, the message is clear – without the Elements, Celestia can’t use magic anywhere near as strong as she could with them.
Throw in the fact that we never see Twilight using notably powerful magic on her own, and it suddenly becomes clear exactly what the Elements of Harmony actually do: they allow their bearer(s) to cast spells of a level far higher than they’d normally be able to.
Now that we’ve established that, we can look at some of the other characteristics of the Elements:
The Elements can only be used as a set. This is the major plot point that drives the Equestria Girls movie. With one Element taken to another dimension, the remaining five are stated to be useless.
The Elements can only be used by those they bond to. The reason that Celestia and Luna can’t use the Elements to defeat Discord at the beginning of the second season is, as mentioned above, that they’re no longer connected to them. That makes it pretty clear that the Elements bond to specific individual(s), and said individuals are the only ones able to utilize them. Interestingly, this doesn’t need to be spread out on 1:1 basis for the six Elements; we see Celestia and Luna use all six collectively when they originally defeated Discord, and even see Celestia use all six by herself when she defeated Nightmare Moon.
Only virtuous characters can use the Elements: While they act as mcguffins in the show, it’s notable that no villains have any particular desire to possess the Elements of Harmony for themselves. Indeed, Nightmare Moon reaches the Elements long before the Mane Six do in the series premiere, but she never tries to use them, instead electing to destroy them before the heroines can put them to use (though this ultimately fails; see below).
Destroyed Elements can be reconstructed by their wielders: When Nightmare Moon was freed, she wisely destroyed the Elements before they could be used against her again. This didn’t help her in the end however, as Twilight and her friends – who at that point were confirmed to each represent a particular Element – were able to reconstitute them almost immediately.
It’s worth mentioning that the first three points listed above are flagrantly violated in the Equestria Girls movie.
After stealing the Element that corresponds to Magic, Sunset Shimmer flees with it to another dimension, leaving the remaining five behind. She then uses it to assume a powerful (and demonic-looking) new form, hypnotize the entire student body of a local high school, and attack Twilight. How is that possible?
While Sunset hints that it’s due to the Element being in another dimension, this is a weak explanation, largely by virtue of the fact that there’s no way she could possibly have known that (she’s been in another dimension for over two years, while the entire show up to that point – including the rediscovery of the Elements – has all taken place within one year).
Rather ironically, in translating the Elements to d20 terms, we have a much simpler explanation for how someone’s able to use a magic item they shouldn’t be able to – the Use Magic Device skill.
So what does all of that boil down to, in terms of game mechanics? Let’s go over each point and use Eclipse to define what the Elements of Harmony actually do.
- Mana, using the generic spell levels option (we’ll take the average and say 5 spell levels), with Spell Enhancement (6 CP).
- Double Enthusiast, specialized for one-half cost/may only be used for new spells (3 CP; since this counts as buying spells for spontaneous casting, this only allows for one spell at a time, changeable every three days).
- Immunity to minimum caster level and ability score requirements for casting spells, as well as the limit on spell enhacement with mana (very common/major/epic), specialized and corrupted for one-third cost/only for spells cast from the Elements (15 CP).
- Luck, specialized and corrupted for one-third cost/only for caster level checks, only when using a spell granted by the Elements (2 CP).
- Ability Focus, specific to the spells granted by the Elements (3 CP).
- Returning. So long as they’re bonded to someone, their user(s) can restore the Elements as a full-round action (6 CP).
Given that the Elements are an item that presumably anyone can use, we’ll call them a relic. 35 CP worth of powers is fairly expensive, but the entire thing is specialized and corrupted down to 11 CP (rounding the fraction down), making them a 2 CP relic, due to the following:
- A character must invest 2 CP of their own to be able to use it. Once this is done, only they can use the Elements unless they die, voluntarily give them away, or another possessor makes a DC 20 Use Magic Device check.
- A potential user must also have a Charisma modifier equal or higher to the total number of Elements they want to use (e.g. +6 or more to use all of them yourself). Less than this, and someone else must bond with the remaining Elements. If multiple character bond with the Elements, each of them has to pay the full relic cost to do so. (This explains why Twilight and her friends – whom I see as having Charisma scores of 12 or 13 – have to work together to use the Elements, whereas Celestia certainly had a high enough Charisma to use them on her own).
- All six Elements must be wielded together at the same time to use their powers. If held by multiple bearers, each of them must spend a full-round action empowering the casting character. This limitation can also be overcome with a Use Magic Device check, DC 25.
- Only good-aligned characters can use the Elements, though this can be bypassed with Use Magic Device as well (DC 30).
This not only models what we see in the show extremely well, but is surprisingly balanced. Roughly once per day, a character – or, more likely at the lower levels, a group of characters – can bust out a single high-level spell of their choice (though once made, that choice can’t be altered for three days) that will, thanks to the +2 DC from Ability Focus and using Luck on a caster level check, almost certainly succeed. It’s the very model of a deus ex machina, without being totally game-breaking.
Now that’s what I call harmony.