Eclipsing the Shows – World versus Marketing and My Little Pony

For today it’s some general discussion on setting games in media universes – and then a few specific answers to the question that brought it up. To start with the general theory…

There’s a subtle roadblock in the way of converting shows – whether we’re talking about Star Trek, Survivor, or My Little Pony (which this question was originally about) – into role-playing game settings. It’s simple enough that it’s often missed.

The shows are driven by marketing toys and advertising and details don’t matter, while in RPG settings the details matter a lot – and so they generally strive for internal consistency.

Why is that? Well, consider this situation.

The characters are pursuing a deadly assassin. An hour ago he slipped aboard a train that (the last few times the characters rode it) took ten hours to reach the city where the assassin’s targets live. The party frantically finds the evidence they need to identify him and readies a rocket plane that can make the trip in an hour. By dint of many heroic efforts, the party launches after seven hours. They will beat the assassin there by two hours and can get ready to capture him and/or defend the targets!

And then the game master informs the players that the train trip only took two hours. That might be because he forgot, or because his plot demands that the assassin take out at least some of his or her targets, or “because the train accidentally skipped several hundred miles of the trip thanks to quantum fluctuations”. The targets were all dead hours before the characters got their plane launched, and by the time the characters arrived the assassin had made good his escape.

Does that really sound like fun?

On a show it doesn’t matter if the setting is inconsistent because the writers are in control and things only matter when they want them to. That train travels at the speed of plot and will arrive just when it needs to to make the story work.

In a game where the players make most of the decisions consistency matters a great deal. Even games like Toon are internally consistent; the rules of cartoons may be a bit silly, but they are still rules. Otherwise… players rarely want to invest much time in a setting that they can’t make sense out of.

This can get quite awkward when you find yourself trying to come up with an in-setting reason for elements of the show that were driven by external factors. Since it was what the original question was about, I’ll take my examples from My Little Pony.

Looking at that show from an objective external point of view… major characters generally have:

  • Distinctive Features. They’ve all got easily recognized color schemes and clearly symbolic cutie marks. They inhabit a familiar-looking world full of easily recognizable stand-alone items that can be readily reproduced in bright plastic. A pony family can include almost any subtype of pony, since you want your collectable sets to include as many varieties of plastic models as can be managed. After all, toy sales are a big thing for the My Little Pony franchise.

Fortunately, this one is relatively easily “explained”. We can make noises about recessive genes, about how – in a world of special talents – quick identification of the right pony to handle a threat mattered a lot more than camouflage, about the effects of personal magic on appearance and how every pony has their own specific “frequency” and color, and how cutie marks are expressions of pure personal magic (although this fails to explain why so many of them are of human symbols that shouldn’t mean anything to ponies… Trixies wand? Unicorns use horns! A Judge with a gavel? Shouldn’t that be a hoofstomp? A garden sprayer with a looped pump handle (for hands) and a sprayer wand with a thumb-switch (made for hands and thumbs)? Wouldn’t a foot-pump and a pressure-operated jaw handle make a lot more sense? A gumball machine with a twist knob instead of a button? Scissors with finger-loops?

We can probably get away with not explaining the cutie marks and the horrible ergonomics of various pony tools though. Hardly anyone pays much attention to the “why” of various symbols and tools. Similarly, unless someone is REALLY big on creating artwork for the game details like “color intensity” will never come up – and even if someone is an artist, details can just be dismissed as “artistic license” by anyone who worries about them.

  • Strong – and Straightforward – Personalities. Allied characters like Big Macintosh and Shining Armor (somewhat idealized older brothers) have good and noble traits. Opponents, such as Sombra, Chrysalis, Discord, Starlight Glimmer, Trixie, and Sunset Shimmer, have ignoble traits and/or redeemable flaws (usually the opposite of the elements) – or are just big monsters, like Tirek or the Hydra. Minor characters, like the Flower Trio, tend to be defined by one or two basic reactive traits – in ponies, most often a tendency to overreact, panic, and either faint or run away (thus forcing the focus characters to fix things on their own).

This is the mental equivalent of the bright colors and distinctive features; the show doesn’t have a lot of time when it introduces characters to start with and it is primarily targeting youngsters. Ergo no complex motivations, unsolvable moral dilemmas, or really gray characters. Instead you get relatively simple, immediately apparent, and easy to distinguish motives and personality traits.

This tends to affect any production that has a limited amount of time to introduce characters in, but a twenty-two minute cartoon format tends to exaggerate things. It often passes without notice in actual play of course. After all, GM’s are rarely expert actors and also usually lack game time in which to introduce and extensively develop NPC’s since the focus is always on the PC’s – so most of the world is painted with very broad strokes indeed and the players are left to fill in the details. Still, we actually do have something more to work with in Equestria – where a set of six personality traits have been promoted to the status of cosmic forces. We actually have a good reason why a very limited, broadly defined, and easily portrayed set of personality traits will underlie all sorts of things – including a blatant link to special powers. Lets not waste it.

  • Special Powers. As befits a world full of minor superpowers, all adult major characters are going to have at least minor special abilities (if only so that they can get into trouble that the rest of the cast can’t just wave a hoof and fix). Kids usually get an incredible ability to get out of potentially lethal situations essentially unscathed, the ability to pop up out of nowhere whenever a plot complication or target for some exposition is needed, and the ability to create incredible messes or assemble massive projects the moment they get offscreen – although these will not usually be counted as “powers” since they exist to complicate the focus characters lives. The same goes for “Magic Surges” in infants; they need SOME way to make trouble beyond dirty diapers or they won’t be of much interest. In any case, good guy allies mostly just get powers because they are good guys – but opponents will usually either be tapping into “dark magic” (what I labeled the Discordant Powers), by stealing power like Tirek, or will have achieved their power through self-development over lengthy periods (neatly establishing that they really worked at being evil without actually having to show very much actual evil).

In RPG’s special powers are a large part of what makes the player characters interesting, so we need not account for their presence in a setting; the game system should handle that detail – but an in-universe justification for how they work and why some characters are more powerful than others is always welcome.

In this case we can simply reverse causation. Marketing gives special powers to major, recurring, characters to help keep them interesting and make their problems dramatic. We can just turn that around, stating that individual NPC’s become major, recurring, characters because they have special powers and dramatic problems.

  • Relationships. A lot of the allies – and likely some of the opponents – will either be a part of a focus characters family or at least strongly connected thereto. This makes it simple to introduce new characters, is a shorthand route to establishing connections with the focus characters, and provides a way to add some easily related to gratuitous complications (and opponents whom they won’t want to actually hurt) to the focus characters lives.

Here we’re fortunate; RPG’s usually have more time available to introduce characters – and all we really need to explain most of the existing relationships between high-powered types from the source material is to make some noises about “powerful bloodlines” or “secret rituals”, or some such. In Equestria, thanks to the Elements of Harmony, we can throw in family traits and traditions as well. Who is to say that Granny Smith’s weird rituals for growing Zap Apples don’t have effects beyond (or instead of?) growing the things? Maybe she’s actually six hundred years old and the Apple families enormous size, unity, and apparent general prosperity is the result of centuries of patient, matriarchal, earth pony rituals and witchery. Who knows?

Hm… now there’s another interesting character concept that I may or may not ever find the time to write up. I’ll see if it’s still sticking with me in the next week or so.

  • Unreasonably Tight Focus: The writers don’t want risk the viewers losing track of the characters – and want to focus on the best-developed and best-known characters because that’s what much of the audience wants to see. Ergo you get ineffectual guards, politicians and nobles who are either useless or obstructive, bystanders who never do anything but panic, get in the way, and need to be rescued, powerful elder mentors who do nothing but provide obscure advice and get readily defeated to establish various threats as genuine, and many similar tropes. You wind up with a small cast of very effective characters, a few specialized allies with potent abilities in very limited fields so they can be called in without overshadowing the focus characters, a bunch of near-helpless responsibilities, and some opposition – which can be slice-of-life and pretty much ineffectual as long as it really annoys people. That’s why Diamond Tiara and Prince Blueblood – an obnoxious child and a narcissistic snob – often outrank King Sombra (the local version of Sauron) and Starlight Glimmer (a grossly overpowered “dark wizard”) on fan villain lists.

Fortunately for our purposes, this one often gets by without explanation because RPG’s tend to assume an unreasonably tight focus on a set of player characters anyway – and if you really need an explanation, you can always fall back on various versions of “you’re just on the high end of the bell curve”, “destiny”, “the chosen ones”, mentor manipulation, or even “you just happened to be the ones in the area who fit the role enough to use the plot coupons”.

  • No Controversies. Shows shy away from anything that might hurt sales – especially in a series, where repeat viewers are are all-important to ratings (and thus advertising revenue) and merchandising. You aren’t, for example, going to find out much of anything about the characters sex lives, or see an episode about severe child abuse, or a school shooting, on a children’s show.

Finally, this one you really don’t have to bother with. A lack of data just means that you can fill in anything that fits the setting reasonably well in your head – and if a group doesn’t want to discuss something you just don’t spend any time on it. You can run a game set in the roman empire without going into detail on just what hideous fates Caligula is inflicting on his enemies families, or how decadent the parties get, or – for that matter – the mechanics underlying flooding the coliseum (and yes, they did that) for a “naval” event.

The writers don’t really bother with in-universe rationales for these decisions of course. Why should they? They’re focused on writing salable material and setting up for future episodes. A bit of world-building may come into that, but it’s generally not going to be the primary objective. Still, while “toy sales”, “targeting kids”, “because they’d bore the audience otherwise”, a double dose of “it makes it easy for the writers”, and “we’d lose money!” may be the actual truth, those reasons really won’t work as an “in the setting” explanation.

Ergo role playing gamers who want a consistent setting must resort to speculative theories – such as the theory from the prior article which prompted this – that, in the My Little Pony universe, strong virtues (and anti-virtues) provide characters with extra power. Of course, none of those theories will ever be explicitly stated, or even firmly supported, by the show that they’re about since they’re trying to map external marketing decisions to internal theories about the setting – but you can often come up with something that will match closely enough to pass.

Now as for the questions about this article that brought this up…

I’m not sure that I agree with regards to Cheese Sandwich. It’s true that he only got his “Cheesy Sense” after he started to emulate Pinkie, but there appears to be a key difference there: Pinkie’s “Pinkie Sense” (and, for that matter, Maud’s “Maud Sense”) is unrelated to her special talent, unlike with Cheese Sandwich.

As a party pony, Pinkie shouldn’t have any particular ability to sense incoming danger (nor Maud, with her fixation on rocks, be able to find things that have gone missing). That’s why Twilight is obsessed with explaining Pinkie’s ability in Feeling Pinkie Keen. (To my eyes, it looks like having a psionic wild talent runs in the Pie family.)

Cheese Sandwich, by contrast, is a party pony himself (even if his cutie mark is a little odd), and his Cheesy Sense lets him sense the direction of imminent parties. That seems like it’s just a (admittedly rather strong) aspect of his special talent. It may also be precognitive the way Pinkie’s Pinkie Sense is, but it’s precognitive in a way that fits with the magic of his cutie mark, and so seems like a different thing that just happens to resemble what Pinkie can do (the same way a lot of psionic powers have magical equivalents).

Also, this article references changelings as possibly being between dragons and ponies, but I have to wonder how Discord’s being a “draconequus” fits in there, even if he does seem like he’s a living inversion of Harmony (perhaps the Discordant Powers should be called the “Elements of Disharmony”?).

-Alzrius

Well, the point there was simply that Cheese Sandwich has abilities well beyond those of a normal earth pony – and apparently acquired many of those talents after working hard to become a paragon of laughter. After all, even if you discount most of the stuff from his musical numbers (wherein he warps reality with even less restraint than Discord does – well beyond the far more common “montage scenes” you get with most equestrian musical numbers), he still produced various things (including a giant cheese wheel, a seal (although it might just be Fluttershys), a hippo, a parade float, and a huge party tank) during the actual party, animated a rubber chicken, and more. It’s not that association with an element necessarily boosts your primary talents (thus the bit about Rarity’s rather exceptional strength). It just seems to let you do more things.

As for “Cheesy Sense”… I really don’t know what it does. Cheese Sandwich stated that his Cheesy Sense told him that his next party would be in Ponyville and told him about Pinkie’s Pinkie Sense – but two one-sentence examples aren’t much to go on.

Maud is another victim of insufficient data. Perhaps she can find rocks, metals, and things in contact with the earth? Or do the equivalent of “Locate Object?”. She also shows enough (reactionless!) strength to toss large rocks over the horizon and kick up mushroom clouds much bigger than hills.

But we didn’t see any of the royal guard tossing changelings over the horizon.

Of course, Maud is… extremely loyal to her friend and relatives, tactless and blunt (the socially awkward form of honesty) and is pretty generous with her time and effort. She’s not especially exemplary when it comes to kindness and laughter, and she’s not really a paragon of any single virtue – but under this (speculative) theory she’d be getting a reasonably balanced boost.

Is there anyone else around who fits that theory?

How about Big Macintosh? He shows pretty much that same package of traits (an “idealized big brother” set) – and he can effortlessly bounce along while towing a house by flexing his ankles.

We see one more pony (a filly with a hedgehog cutie mark) with freakishly supernormal strength (as explicitly called out by Diamond Tiara on the playground) – but I can’t recall any other information about her at all. Just going by the hedgehog… perhaps another prickly introvert like Maud Pie?

And strength is a basic earth pony talent.

Then we have Shining Armor – a loyal captain of the guard who is willing to generously expend every bit of his strength on shielding others, is probably pretty honest (if only because trying to deceive Celestia is probably an even worse idea than trying to deceive the usual superior officer). He probably isn’t all that strong on kindness and laughter though. After all, you can’t afford to be unconditionally kind as a guard – and guard work is often pretty serious.

And he has an absurdly hyped up ability to generate shields that can protect entire cities. True, that’s his particular special talent, but we don’t see that unicorn with a talent for puppetry sending a swarm of giant puppets out to build roads or battle monsters.

Now in reality those talents are the result of marketing and scriptwriter decisions – which means that any in-setting theory is going to be a bit contrived in places – but it fits in well enough since it relates to several of the writers motives. (I must admit that “wild talents” also work perfectly well – especially in d20 systems – but I have a personal fondness for elaborate, generalized, theories with extensive implications. They’re such fun to come up with).

As for Discord… well, he seems to be the principle focus of chaos – or change – magic, and was the major reason for labeling the inverse elements the DISCORD-ant powers. In terms of that theory… he shows a fair chunk of the draconic powers – and the Lord of Chaos template I set up earlier is a +2 ECL template and so falls within the limits of a dragon channeling the “Discordant Powers” if he either purchased an upgrade similar to the epic level upgrade for a Bokor or found a way to dump a level of growth in favor of more power. Discord does look even stranger than the adolescent dragons do – but his basic body layout is the same and the changes are probably within the limits of draconic shapeshifting.

Who knows? Maybe Celestia hatched her own dragon as a youngster, tried to meddle with the draconic ability to channel the Discordant Powers, and wound up with Discord. After all… she kept him around and seems inclined to argue with him rather than starting in blasting – and later took the risk of him running amuck again (and possibly hiding the elements effectively first) in hopes of reforming him. That’s not exactly what I’d expect from a reasonably wise ruler who is abruptly confronting a newly-returned satanic figure. It’s a great deal closer to the parable of the prodigal son…

Now that doesn’t fit in with the “he’s Starswirl the Bearded after a badly-bungled attempt at Alicorn Ascension” theory from his writeup – but it’s not like it needs to; both theories are pure speculation. Still, speculation is what the Changeling and Dragon articles were all about.

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