Archive for October, 2017

How Magic Works in My Little Pony: Equestria Girls

October 1, 2017

A few days ago, Thoth posted an updated index of My Little Pony gaming material. Naturally, this reminded me that I’ve had another article on that subject in the works for some time.

Creating an RPG adaptation of a media that wasn’t specifically written with RPGs in mind has a tendency to be difficult at best. Most media is created with a particular narrative structure in mind, and the setting is typically constructed in order to abet that. In RPGs, however, the opposite is usually true: the world – and how it functions – are created first, and the narrative is extrapolated from the adventures that the PCs have.

Still, if the world that’s presented in a given media – be it books, TV shows and/or movies, comics, video games, etc. – showcases the principles that it operates under, as well as various other salient details such as its geography and history, then constructing an RPG around it isn’t usually too tall of an order. (And of course, the scope and mechanics of the RPG system in question play a large role in this as well; rules-light systems, for example, have less that needs to be codified in the first place.) While some inconsistencies may not be avoidable, typically in the form of certain actions seen in the show not being replicable under the RPG rules (these are typically explained as being the province of special individuals, unique circumstances, or some combination thereof), most of what’s there can usually be translated into game mechanics.

That’s been the case so far for the world of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, as seen in the above link. However, the world of its spin-off series, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic: Equestria Girls, is something else again.

The reason for this is due to the Equestria Girls franchise being comparatively thin. Four movies, three TV episode-length specials, and a large number of animated shorts and music videos represent the totality of the series canon (since, as I’ve discussed previously, secondary materials aren’t very reliable). By contrast, its parent series has well over one hundred fifty episodes and a theatrical film. While the forthcoming Equestria Girls Youtube series might add more to what’s here, so far there’s simply a paucity of material to draw upon.

These girls make Harry Potter look like Elminster.

That’s a problem because, like the series it spun off from, Equestria Girls is neither overly concerned nor particularly forthcoming with the underlying details of how its setting works. While a lot of this can be explained as “it’s Earth (mostly)” that doesn’t help with issues like magic. To date, the magic that the protagonists use in the first four movies is different every single time. And that’s just one of the ways that the magic in Equestria Girls is so consistently inconsistent.

Or is it?

Magical Methodologies

Despite how the magic in Equestria Girls seems to be utterly lacking in any coherent principles, it actually operates under certain rules. While never directly articulated, we can see them demonstrated with surprising uniformity across the series so far. These are as follows:

1) There is no native magic. All of the magic that we see across the series comes from Equestria, rather than the basically-Earth dimension that Equestria Girls takes place in. Other than Twilight invoking Clarke’s Third Law when she sees the Internet in the first movie, all that world apparently has are stories and myths, such as Timber Spruce’s (fake) story about Gaia Everfree in the fourth movie. This is important, because it provides a foundation for why some of the other principles listed here work the way they do.

2) Foreign beings with magic can still use it (subject to local conditions). It’s self-evident that the lack of magic in that world is not due to it being some sort of dead-magic zone, since beings from Equestria who possess magic are still able to use it there. However, their ability to use magic is affected by the circumstances imposed on them by that dimension. Unicorns, for example, rely on their horns to cast magic; since Star-Swirl’s mirror portal conveniently changes people who pass through it into dimensionally-appropriate shapes (clothes included!), that means that unicorns that pass through it become human, and so are unable to utilize their horns to cast spells. Likewise, the Sirens could still feed off of negative energy to power their magic, but since the negative energy of magic-less humans had no magical energy itself, their own magic was sharply curtailed.

3) That world, and its people, can only safely handle so much magic… There’s an apparent limit to what the fabric of the Equestria Girls’ dimension can take, with regards to foreign magic. While relatively small amounts of magic can be absorbed and utilized by the native people and objects of that world, too much of it causes a strain that starts to have deleterious effects on the user, or even the fabric of the universe itself!

This, in other words, is why that world’s “Mane Six” will often be seen to “pony up” without any problem; the transformation by itself is largely cosmetic, and on their own only allows them to utilize low-level effects. Rainbow Dash can fly on her own (an example of the personal flight spell; a level 2 spell from The Practical Enchanter), but can’t cast fly on Scootaloo. The “attack” magic they used against the Sirens at the end of Rainbow Rocks likewise didn’t seem to be very powerful at all, causing the Sirens consternation more than actual damage.

Beyond that point, “magic saturation” will start to have serious side-effects. Native characters that use too much magic will not only be physically warped, but will experience some sort of pronounced psychosis (e.g. Gloriosa Daisy, Juniper Montage, and “Midnight Sparkle”), and even native items that try to contain too much magic will start to fail, causing unpredictable side effects as the magic escapes (e.g. what happened with “sci-Twi’s” magic-draining locket during the Friendship Games, or Juniper’s mirror after absorbing the Mane Seven). Fortunately, most of these effects seem to be temporary, but it’s not unimaginable that prolonged use could cause permanent alterations.

To reiterate, this isn’t something that foreign characters in that dimension need to worry about (unless magic saturation was a problem for them in their native dimension), as per rule 2. That’s why, for example, Sunset Shimmer can absorb the same large amounts of siphoned magic from the aforementioned locket and not go crazy, whereas the native Twilight Sparkle lost control of herself.

4) …unless they share the burden. The exception to rule 3, of course, is if native characters cooperatively work to control stronger magic. In that case, the power is spread thin enough that they don’t suffer from any negative side-effects. Hence why the native versions of Rarity, Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash can help Sunset Shimmer and the Equestrian Twilight Sparkle to create an astral construct far stronger than the ones created by the Sirens, for example. Even if any of them had been able to use that much magic alone (which they don’t seem to possess anyway), doing so would have taken a serious toll on them if they hadn’t shouldered the effort together.

5) Native characters with foreign magic will see it change over time to acclimate to them. This is the “iffiest” rule, but does serve to explain what we see over the course of the series. In the first movie, the girls are simply imbued with magic that they use reflexively, due to the crisis they found themselves in. In the second movie, they’ve found out that they can invoke that power again via music, with Sunset Shimmer trying and failing to figure out why that’s what activates their powers. By the time the Friendship Games roll around, the activation method has changed to them acting in accordance with their (Equestrian counterpart’s) Element of Harmony. Since the girls later use their “ponied up” forms in their music video without undo difficulty, they may have learned how to invoke them at will.

The RPG Connection

So how does this translate into something that you can use in an RPG game? Consider each rule in the following context:

Rules #1 and #2 contextualize what characters are capable of in the setting, at least at their outset. This helps to shape character creation within the scope of an Equestria Girls campaign. So if the GM wants the players to create native characters only, you’re going to need a very good backstory to justify having any sort of magical abilities. If you really want to be from Equestria (or some other mystic realm), then be prepared to potentially lose a lot of your power in this world.

Rules #3 and #4 set a soft limit on the degree to which magic (once it’s acquired) can be used. You want to throw around up to 2nd-level spells? Go for it. For anything higher than that, expect to start taking Charisma damage, leading to a temporary alignment change, and ending with your character at least temporarily becoming an NPC under the GM’s control. Want to use stronger magic without that happening? You better hope that everyone in your party is on board with what you’re trying to do.

Rule #5 is very nice bit of characterization for why rebuilds happen. Since low-level, continuous-use magic – which doesn’t really change once it’s fixed – is going to be a large part of what defines your character, it makes sense that players might want to alter something if they feel like they made a bad decision. And just like that, the foreign magic has “acclimated” to being used in this dimension.

Overall, these are a fairly nice set of world laws for a low-level superhero game. They create a basis for allowing low-level powers, create a plausible background for having villains with stronger abilities (either as foreign antagonists or natives who’ve gone literally power-mad), and allow the PCs a loophole for throwing around some huge effects of their own when they act as a team.

That’s how you make friendship be magic.