Wednesday, July 11, 2012

More Unknown Ponies playtest reports

Wow, I talked a lot about guns last week, didn't I?  It makes sense, seeing as how it was Independence Day and all that, but I think it's time for a break. Let's talk about ponies instead!

So, in the wake of Mike Pondsmith's previous playtest of Unknown Ponies: Failure is Awesome and his request that I revamp the game engine, I got together with math guy and fellow gunbrony The Jack to help me come up with a better dice mechanic.

Using his suggestion that sixes and threes are recurring numbers in MLP: FiM  (six mane characters,  six elements of harmony, three types of pony,  three Cutie Mark Crusaders, etc) I decided that it would be amusing if we used three six-sided dice (that's 3d6 in nerdspeak), with the picture of a pony on one of the faces. That way, there would be a pegasus die and a unicorn die and an earth pony die, and if you got your pony type on a roll it would result in critical success, and maybe friendship bonuses if you got other ponies, and a super-duper mega awesome success if you got all three types of pony on your roll.

Jack took this idea, did MATH AND SCIENCE! to it, and eventually came up with the following:

The ponies replace the 1 pip on the dice. Each die represents a separate type of pony.

Skills and abilities range from Zero to Five, with 6 being "god-like". Ponies level up in increments of 1/2 (half levels not shown):

6     "God-like"
5     World Class
4     Master Class
3     Skilled
2     Average
1     Novice
0     No skill

(There were also some dice mechanics but many of them didn't survive playtest. The improved version will be listed later in order to prevent confusion.)

I sent all of this on to Mike, who declared it a step in the right direction and easy enough to implement. He said he'd run a game with it and get back to me with the results.

Well, it took him a couple weeks, but here are the after-action reports.

Episode 1: (No name given)
I'll give you a full analysis later, but in general it worked much better. Of course, by the end of the episode, Rarity and Sparklemane had divided Ponyville into one faction while Wintermayne and Forest Moon had broken off into a rival faction, with the rest of the Six forced to choose up sides. Meanwhile, the Windigoes are swirling around and Justice Colt is getting into a froth warning everyone about the "EVIL" that is looming! DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!

Just another day in Equestria...

Episode 2: The Worst Babysitter
Winter Mane decides to go back to Stalliongrad. However, Pumpkin Cake has learned how to teleport to wherever WM is, and so teleported onto his head as the train is halfway there. So WM comes back. He decides that since he can't get rid of the Cake twins, he will train them in the proper rough Stalliongrad way, which means taking them out into the Everfree forest and watching them fend for themselves (holy Dragon Ball Z!). They are all attacked by Timberwolves, which leads to the rest of the party (and most of the Mane 6) saving them. However, Rarity, who has been feuding with both Winter Mane and Forest Moon all along (it's mutual), uses the incident as an excuse to rouse the citizens of Ponyville against them (aided by PC Jacques Sparklemane). With all Ponyville divided and fighting... harmony is destroyed—and the Windigoes arrive!

Episode 3: Thawing Hearts of Ice
Ponyville is getting buried under snow. Most of Rarity's faction are holed up on one side of town, while the Six try to reason with the other sides. Forest Moon travels into the strangely untouched Everfree to talk to Zeccora, while Winter Mane and Sure Shot (a player “photographer” character), trek back to Ponyville, picking up groups of stray ponies trapped by the sudden blizzard. With his knowledge of arctic survival, Winter Mane easily leads the freezing ponies to Ponyville, becoming a hero in the process. A showdown ensues between Winter and Rarity's supporters, ending when Princess Celestia shows up and calls them both to task. She tells them that since her hooves will be full dealing with the Windigoes they have summoned, they will have to take Twilight's balloon and travel to Stalliongrad to borrow Mayor Joseph Stallion's magic Staff of Windigo Banishment. Contrite at the mess they have caused, both Winter Mane and Rarity apologize to each other and set out on their mission.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about the fact that Mike's games of Unknown Ponies are for more awesome than my own. On the one hand, I'm happy that his players are having a good time and he's using the system to make epic adventures. On the other, I feel like I've been shown up in that someone is a better Pony GM.

Anyway. What did your players think of the new rules, faithful student?
1) Players liked the new “three pony system.” But actual play in Episode 1 showed that there was a flaw in the dice spread; exceptions happened far too often. So in Episode 3, we tried using D10s instead of D6's. Game play evened out. Much better results.

I asked Mike to explain this in detail, because math and I don't get along. He clarified:

With a D6 spread, you had two out of 6 values that could drive a "pony" special. So a 3rd of the time, something massive and unpredictable had to happen. With a D10 spread, it's down to 2 out of 10. That means only 20% of the time weird things happen. Pony specials should BE special. That's what makes them fun. Players need predictability. 80% of the time, they would get it. 20% of the time, it's wacky.

Okay, I get it. Kind of. I sent this off to mathbrony and he replied
The frequency of specials was a worry of mine. Glad that the fix was easy. It's hard to gauge how often you want to have special events go. That's why playtesting's so handy. The resolution setup is nicely streamlined too. Give Mike kudos on that, he got a much faster and simpler way that got the mechanisms I was aiming for.

Speaking of resolution (that's a segue if I've ever heard one),
2) We also reduced the number of resolution steps in the process in Episode 3. You now just roll your 3 dice and have to get enough successes to match the level of difficulty set by the PM (there's a table now). A success is any number equal or greater than your Attribute+Skill. Any “pony” dice you roll are added/subtracted to your success pool, with the number of total successes over the PM's requirement equaling how well you do. In PVP situations, both sides roll their 3 dice and the pony with the MOST successes wins. This system was fast and very easy to use.
3) Added a “damage table” for fighting. Your Pony has Physical HP equal to 5x Body and “Spirit” HP equal to 5x Soul. Physical attacks obviously are taken from Physical-- Magical and Emotional attacks come from your Spirit. Going to 0 on either one means you “faint” until your friends revive you.

If you're confused -- and I imagine that you are -- you can see what he's talking about by looking at a PDF he kindly sent me. I think the charts explain a lot better than words would. Moving on...
4) One of the players pointed out that the Earth Ponies get extra Skills rule was similar to the Human bonus in D&D 4th, , then proceeded to show me how to game it. Eventually balanced all classes by giving each THREE special skills:
1. Unicorns: Unicorn Magic, Ponykinesis & Ponyport
2. Pegasi: Flight, Weather Control and Zephyr (the ability to manipulate small objects with directed wind currents)
3. Earth Pony: Pony Tail (ability to pick up small objects with your tail, demonstrated in series by Applejack), Crafter (ability to make simple items, build things, grow plants, cook, as demonstrated by the fact that Earth Ponies tend to be the “makers” in the society) and Earth Sense (ability to perceive things about weather, animals and general environment, as demonstrated in show by Pinkie's “Pinky Sense” and Applejack's danger perception at the cliff during the Element Quest.
Notice that each pony now has a way to manipulate small objects, which players really wanted.
Now this, dear reader, is where I had what is politely called a "shit fit." To say that I vehemently oppose this patching of rules is to strongly understate my passion, which is akin to the intensity of a thousand blazing suns. Basically, my rebuttal was this:
  1. I have only ever seen one unicorn teleport and that is Twilight Sparkle. While I am certain other unicorns could teleport, it is not an across-the-board ability or we'd have seen Rarity do it. 
  2. I have never ever seen anything like Zephyr in the cartoon. Ever. 
  3. After much back and forth, I finally conceded that Earth Ponies needed to be looked at, and that their ability of skill bonuses wasn't the simple and easy fix I thought it would be. However, "Pony Tail" is not an exclusively earth pony ability, because we saw Rarity do it in Party of One.  That said...
  4. ... this fascination with making sure everypony has an ability to pick up and manipulate things is going overboard, as it is never an issue in the cartoon. It's over-analysis of the variety that MST3K* addressed and so unless it's really, really fine or especially dexterous work, just assume all ponies can do it. Okay?

5) Players liked the Attribute System, but wanted it simplified a bit. Now you get one Poor (1) Attribute, one Good (4) Attribute and the rest are Average (3). If you want to get another Good, you have to take an extra Poor. If you want to get an Exceptional, you have to take two extra Poors. The Class Bonuses worked fine with this system.
I'm cool with this, especially since I hadn't worked out a decent conversion from UA to UP anyway.
I need to ask him if he stacked pony-type bonuses (pegasi getting a boost to their Speed attribute, etc) or if this was used in place of. Based on his last sentence I'd say it sounds like you do your stats and then pick your pony type (calling it "race" or "breed" just sounds wrong) but I want to make sure. It's how I would do it.

Part of me wants to object to blank flanks having Average stats, because I do want stallions and mares to have a definite mechanical advantage over fillies and colts, but perhaps I am worrying too much over perceived balance at the risk of making the game less fun. I'm not sure. If you're still reading this, I welcome your feedback on this issue. (Especially you, mathbrony.)

The next big step, if we're going to keep using this system, is to determine how skills improve. Stats can still be bought up by spending Magic points (though I may need to increase the amount of Magic used to bump a stat) but I'm not immediately sure how best to implement the Failure is Awesome mechanic with the current skill setup.

Although it looks like we changed a lot, we actually didn't—mainly filled in some holes here and there (like a damage system, which came up when Winter Mane and Ariel Hooves fought the Timberwolves in the Forest.) Also, in general I've found it is much cleaner to even out the number of Class bonuses than to allow the players to get extra points that they can use to game the system. I hope that this letter will be useful to you and that your games will be as fun as ours have been, thanks to YOU, Princess Erin, and all your hard work!
You know,  I could get used to being called "Princess Erin" on a regular basis. ;)

Anyway, the upshot of all this is
  1. I haven't been neglecting Unknown Ponies;
  2. Try these rules and see how you like them;
  3. If you have any questions or house-rules or suggestions for improvement, please chime in.
Thanks! Everyone (everypony?) who contributes is helping make a better game!

* Then repeat to yourself, "It's just a show, I should really just relax."


  1. Glad to have been a help. And I do like how the mechanisms are streamlined.  It's much simpler and faster to just have one "target" value that your dice pool is being rolled against.  As fast play through is key.

    There's a typo on the dropbox link.  The Three failures column still has the legacy of 6 being the top value.

    Could do a simple strength advantage that goes with adult ponies versus fillies and colts.    Really that seems hand in hand with level advancement.

    Hmm...  guess one needs to figure out how XP is rewarded and then how those XP points/tokens/friendship is converted into attribute and stat boosts

    Given that attributes and stats range from 0-5 and go up by half steps the growth would need to be slow.

  2. Don't feel glum at Mike's GMing skills, (a) he has a wicked-sharp imagination, and (b) I'm pretty sure he's been GMing longer than you've been alive. Practice does make a difference, with any skill.

  3.  There's a typo on the dropbox link.  The Three failures column still has the legacy of 6 being the top value.

    Well, that goes nicely with the typo in the line above, where Princess Success is still considered a failure...  ;)

    I dunno, JUST a strength advantage seems insufficient. Just look at how the Cutie Mark Crusaders compare to the adults and you will see there is a definite immaturity of both mind and body.

    The "Failure is Awesome" mechanic stated that any time a pony failed a skill check, that skill improved by 1%. Since there are no percentages any more, I don't know what the closest approximation would be.

  4. Could have some sort of skill counter based on XP or failed skill checks.  Sort of like filling up a gauge.  And when it's full the skill can be boosted by half a point.

    Good point,  the older ponies do have an advantage in strength and mental points.

  5. The problem with that is it would require a skill counter for EVERY SINGLE SKILL your pony uses. That's an awful lot of bookkeeping for not a lot of fun.

    Unfortunately, I don't have anything better to suggest.

  6. Oooh yeah ick.
    Well simplest is to use two "XP" buckets.  One for skills and one for stats.  And when the bucket is full the player can add half a level to a skill/stat of their choice.

    Though that ignores the question of increased difficulty.  Going from a 1.5 to a 2 in Lockpicking should be easier than going from 3.5 to 4 for example.

  7. Maybe a "fate point" mechanic, where every failure adds a point, and these points can be spent to add bonus dice to the 3dP pool? And the pool cab be capped by one of the stats (older ponies can carry more points around).

    Just a thought...

  8. LOL. It's not that I've been GMing forever. It's that I've actually taught game design, so I'm kind of used to destroying the hopes and dreams of aspiring young designers (insert evil laugh here).  Truth is, Erin's done pretty well so far for someone who thinks she can't do systems--and there isn't a game design on earth that doesn't get clobbered in playtest (mine included). I also pointed out to Erin that my suggestions are just that--especially if they're going to raise her blood pressure! Every designer has to deal with house rules, and she should consider the skill system to be my group's equivalent of just that (do you wanna even guess how many house rule variants for Cyberpunk there are?!) That's why you playtest. Over and over and over and over and over...

  9.  I also have a wicked group of players, several of whom are game designers themselves. At this point, I just start off with, "The sun rises over Ponyville..." and they take it from there. You think I could dream up stuff this weird?

  10. Speaking of house rules, would you be pleased or horrified to know that in the mid-90s I converted Cyberpunk to use the World of Darkness rules?

  11. Easy enough with a 1-10 spread--it's 1/10th the percentage base. So 1 failure= .1 points. Think of it this way: 10 failures used to raise a skill by 10%. Now 10 failures raises a skill by 1 point (which in a 1-10 spread is still 10%)

  12. Oh derp. I should have seen that.

    But at least I have the benefit of being a math tard. Mathbrony The Jack doesn't have such an excuse!

    The next questions are, Is this fun? Is this too much bookkeeping for a player? And does it still provide enough of an immediate gratification that players will keep playing and enjoy failure as improvement?

  13. *coughs*   Er yes.  I shoulda seen that.

    The book keeping question could be solved by designing the character sheets so that there's a tick box next to your stats so you can count the failures.

    One question is how do you apply your failures. To stats or to skills?  Given failures are measured against the combined stat and skill count.

    I can see it just going to skills.  Which means that leveling on stats is another issue.

    And such a system does have the way of learning through failing.

  14.  Why bother? It's much simpler to just let the player add up the points gained and then apply them to whatever skills are desired. Remember who was saying that micromanaging was against the MST2K ethos?

    Erin, petard. Petard, Erin. Commence hoisting (LOL)

  15.  Advice from an Old Game Designer. Never, EVER apply improvement to Stats. A single stat can be applied to several skills--improving that stat then automatically improves ALL associated skills.

  16.  Oh. My. God. Say it's not true.

    I guess Rein-Hagen will never let me hear the end of it now.

  17.  Why not make stat improvements friendship trackboost exclusive?

  18. As far as object manipulation goes, I don't think skills would really be necessary for it.
    There has been a pony magiphysics theory pointing out that hooves and horns are made of the same stuff (keratin, I believe), and as such hooves can be used as a focus for magic (or in this case, touch range telekinesis).

  19. I hate to nitpick, but isn't this backwards:

    A success is any number equal or greater than your Attribute+Skill.

    If you get better as numbers go up then don't you want to roll under?  Otherwise someone with no attribute or skill has a 100% chance of success while someone with Godlike abilities always fails.

    Plus, the 1 is replaced by the pony so you get +2 success for a failing roll?

  20.  Plus, we've seen pegasus wings being used like weird hands sometimes.
    I'd generally agree with the use of the MST3K principle here, but I think as a GM I'd encourage players to think of a pony's structure when describing their actions, and smile upon them when they come up with ways to do things with hooves, tails, and mouths. (Although that might not be fair to unicorns, who can manipulate stuff with their telekinesis, but then again, they can do magic spells, they don't need any favors.)

  21. Oh, good catch. Yes, that section is rife with errors (you've just found #3) and I imagine it should read "equal or less than".

    Fortunately, I didn't write that PDF, so it's not my fault!  :D

  22. It's absolutely true, and it worked really, really well. Not sure if I still have the notes for it or not, but it was pretty easy to convert.

  23. GURPS does OK with it, but stats are far more expensive.

  24.  Unfortunately, I wrote that PDF about ten minutes before the game, and never got the chance to proof it. I'll fix it ASAP.

  25.  If the GM is stringent enough about it, they'll have players saying "everypony" or "hoof me another slice of pizza" even when they're not in character. >:)

  26. They gave non-arcanes mage hand?  But how will the arcane casters let everyone know how terrible and mighty they are if they're not the only ones who can pick things up with their minds?


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